“You would prate, sir? This is a true-love knot / Sent from the Duke of Florence.”
[Brachiano is strangled]
JOHN WEBSTER, The White Devil
What use is my intricate accounting of that week of Hell, in which Judge Complin slowly drew me ever and ever deeper into the coils of his convoluted will – in which I heard my character and name abused, my reputation turned to filth, my very life treated as a jest that had long worn out its welcome. When I looked into the eyes of the onlookers – those who I had once called my countrymen – I saw only hatred and curiosity. When I cast my gaze upon the jury, I perceived that ignorance and caution had already caused them to resolve against my life long ago. Only Complin’s look when he met my eyes from time to time betrayed that peculiar esteem that I knew he held for me – but it was an esteem that could only gratify itself in my destruction, that could only find its expression in this formal ritual of humiliation and cruelty. I wondered at times if he felt himself as helpless as I did – if, like a man who strokes a butterfly’s wing only to crush it, his caresses were doomed to utterly undo their object, whether he willed it or not. And how could I find comfort in an affection so awful that it demanded my sacrifice as its only satisfaction? Alas, his looks – at turns ruthless and pitying – filled me with more desolation than all of the insults and jeers that the coarse onlookers hurled at me.
During the first day of the trial, I sought to speak in my own defense – but I only damned myself still further. I could not match the Judge’s eloquence, his ability to suggest motives and intentions that I had never felt or acted upon, his talent for possessing his listeners with whatever emotion he wished them to feel. My own attempts to contradict him were faltering and hesitant; my inability to speak seemed to confirm my guilt, while the Judge’s forthright appeals seemed to echo the voice of Justice herself. The next day, when I was asked to give an account of myself, I could only answer with a pale, speechless, imploring look in the Judge’s direction.
For a moment, I fancied that I saw a look of unconsenting pity touch his eyes – I even fancied that I saw his lips part as though he meant to betray his own will and to say some relenting remark to ease my distress. But then, of a sudden, his gaze turned to iron and, recovering himself, he returned my wordless appeal with nothing more than a wintry glance, completing my misery.
The dreams that prevailed upon me during that week were of the most vile and wretched sort, as though my body sought to rehearse its own dissolution. I dreamt most often of my march to the scaffold – I heard with clarity the fanfare of trumpets, the awful drumroll as I was led to the noose, the shouts of the mob, all lusting for my death. In my vision, I was led to the hooded executioner who invariably found that something was at fault with me – either my guard had forgotten to fetter my wrists securely, or my legs had not been strapped together, or some other stupid formality. I was dealt with accordingly and after I had been improved upon in whatever fashion my executioner desired, he would then take the noose and fit it snugly about my throat, at which point a great dizziness would overcome me and my executioner would hasten to catch me before I could fall and prematurely strangle myself.
At this point in each dream, the hood of his habit would fall back – sometimes I would see my mistress, her eyes filled with remorseful pity at my helpless state; sometimes the face would be Complin’s, his fingers stroking my hair as though to rouse me to consciousness again, his eyes burning with a gloating triumph; but still more often, the face would be an awful death’s head – a rotting, bleached, fleshless skull that smelled of lilies and frankincense, that leant over my face and covered my lips with its lipless mouth, that gripped my cheeks in its pincer-like fingers so that I was forced to part my lips, so that I might feel the blind maggots that lived in its brain and that began to softly creep past my lips to caress my tongue. God help me, sometimes those loathsome caresses were so refined that my horror would turn to madness and I would labor to freely return the brutal kisses that were already stolen from me.
After finishing with me, my executioner would let fall the trapdoor and I would fall into that deadly open air – but before I heard the snap of bone or felt my body begin to spasm and suffocate, I would hear Complin’s voice demand softly: “O, did I not promise that I would raise you up?” And I would come awake, covered in a fresh dew of terror and indefinable anticipation.
The last day of the trial arrived. I knew that my sentence would be delivered at last, but as I was dragged from my cell and as my wrists were fettered, I felt a peculiar calm descend upon me. I felt, perhaps, as those martyrs during Nero or Caligula’s reign must have felt as they gave themselves over entirely to their doom – something seemed to sustain me from within, some inner sense of blameless hope that could not be extinguished by that bloodthirsty mob, with their loud calls for my blood. The change in me must have been striking, for Complin gave me a long look as I entered the courtroom and was led unresistingly to the dock. I was asked whether I had any last words to say in my defense.
“I do,” I said. Pausing, I looked every jury member in the eye – I even cast my gaze upon the sea of villagers beneath me. “I have neither the eloquence of Lord Complin’s appeals nor, I freely admit, his unblemished record. It is true – I sought to steal silver from my mistress. But I – I implore you to believe me when I say that my crime was not motivated by selfish spite, but rather selfish love. My mistress’s generosity has already been justly extolled by Lord Complin. No other mistress could have been more magnanimous to a young orphaned servant as my Lady Rebecca Claremont was to me. She tutored me in history and poetry and taught me all that I know of religion and goodness. In her service, I never knew a moment’s distress, never an hour’s want.” I did not presume to bore my audience with a rehearsal of her peculiar taste for chastising me, nor the thousand amiable cruelties with which she would torment me for her own amusement, whether I merited such chastisement or not.
Clearing my throat, I continued, “I tell you this because, although I know that this praise renders my crime all the more monstrous, I also wish to impress upon you the degree of affection that I owed Lady Claremont. My crime was motivated not by an ungrateful hatred of what I owed her, but rather a jealous wish to regain her good favor. When her son returned home, I felt that my place in her heart was lost forever and I acted rashly as a result. But I beg you to consider that my action was motivated not by a disgusting impudence, but rather by a thwarted loyalty. I was a fool – yes, a fool! But not, I pray Heaven, a wicked fool. That is all, my lords.”
A murmur ran through the jury and spectators. I perceived that my words had deeply affected them, for the looks that they now cast upon me were cautiously sympathetic. Complin’s own expression was veiled, impassive, unreadable; I had expected him to react with one of his swift, irresistible speeches, drawing the jury back to his own damning account of my actions. Instead, he remained silent and watchful, observing the jury’s surprised deliberation, and when I glanced curiously in his direction, he offered me a slight nod as though to indicate a certain unwilling approval of my unexpected rallying.
At last, the time came for the jury to deliver their verdict. I waited – torn between the fresh agony of anticipation and that peculiar tranquility that had accompanied me into the courtroom.
“The jury has decided that Mr. Alan Williams, though guilty within the domestic circle of his mistress’s home, shall be considered innocent of any civil crime. We presume that his imprisonment has already served as punishment enough and thereby acquit him of any and all further formal charges made against him.”
As my mouth went dry with a joyous amazement, I saw my jailer offer to Complin a manuscript which the Judge began to peruse. After a long moment, he said, “I pray that the jury consider this testimonial before arriving at a final verdict.”
The paper was handed to the jury, whereupon they began perusing it, their expressions darkening as they read its contents. Filled with consternation, I demanded to know what it said. One of the older jurors answered, speaking not only to me but to the rest of those within that courtroom:
“This paper is a testimonial from someone very close to the prisoner – it attests that, while imprisoned, young Mr. Williams gloated that had he not been caught, it would have been his intention not only to make away with the silver, but to return on a later date to the mansion and enact his vengeance upon his mistress by – ” the elderly juror coughed and reddened before forcing himself to continue “—by brutally ravishing and then murdering her. The writer of the paper said that he was much shocked by these boasts and thought that the jury should be acquainted with these facts as they make their decision regarding the fate of the accused.”
I stood motionless as though struck. “It is not true,” I whispered, but the hush in that courtroom was so great that every soul heard. “It is not true.”
“How can you say it is not true? What could motivate this man, a mere stranger, to lie?”
“Who then is my accuser? Who?”
“Lord Glanville – your cellmate.”
I knew now what Complin had meant when he had said long ago that he required Glanville’s obedience – I knew now the reason behind Glanville’s sudden reticence after his mysterious meeting with the Judge. This had been the promise extracted from him – my damnation in return for Glanville’s freedom. Of course, the Judge was too cruel, too jealous of his prey, to keep his word and so he ultimately intended Glanville’s destruction as well. But this was the hellish bargain that they had made – and my dissolution was its end.
The jury altered their verdict accordingly. Judge Complin took up his hammer and gave the podium a harsh rap that caused me to start dreadfully, the very sweat pouring from my flesh, the blood retreating from my veins, my body convulsing as though I were enveloped in ice. And when he spoke, he said those awful words that I had dreamt upon that night after I first crossed his path:
“Mr. Alan Williams,” he said, fixing me with a gaze that I could not have withdrawn from, were my very soul to depend upon it. “You have, by the grace of Heaven, been securely placed within my hands, and I swear by my eyes that I shall see you raised up like – but also not quite like – Our Lord, though for all our purposes, in as efficacious and gratifying a fashion. I trust,” he continued amidst the laughter inspired by this morbid jest. “I trust that it is not presumptuous for me to hope that, like the thief upon the cross, you will have your moment of grace – but if, alas, that pleasure is denied you, then be assured at least that it will be our pleasure to see you exalted before our eyes.”
I think I tried to speak, but all that issued forth was a trembling, wordless breath as though my soul already sought to escape my devoted flesh. Then the world about me darkened and I fell gracelessly to the floor of the dock.
TO BE CONTINUED…