“Thou dost tremble: methinks, fear should dissolve thee into air.”
— WEBSTER, The White Devil
I awoke to find myself lying in a downy bed, covered in the warm folds of a blanket, the morning sun streaming across my pillow. For a moment, my senses were so muddled by this unexpected comfort that I forgot the awful events of the day before, and luxuriated in my new surroundings, half-fancying myself lost in some wonderful dream. How long had it been since I had awoken to sunlight? Since I had felt any warmth other than what my coat could provide me as I huddled on a prison cot?
The door to my new cell opened and I saw the usual guard enter, carefully shutting and locking the door behind him.
“Your breakfast will arrive shortly,” he informed me. “In the meantime, I am required to ask whether your new accommodations suit you?”
“They do,” I replied. “But what is the meaning of all this? The bed, the window, the books – ” For there was also a shelf filled with enough volumes to occupy an inmate for a good month.
My guard laughed, a little grimly. “Consider it a means of easing your passage from this world to the next.”
“Then this is all the Judge’s doing?”
“Has anything occurred to you since your arrest that has not been the Judge’s doing?”
I strove to conceal the pang of despair that I felt at these words and continued, “Can you not tell him that I wish his presence as soon as may be?”
“Oh, there’s no need for that,” my jailer replied. “He wished me to inform you that he would be calling on you later this evening himself.”
“For what purpose?”
“Oh, to gloat I imagine. To see his bird in a gilded cage.”
“Sir, can you put a good word in for me when you return to the Judge with your account of me?”
“What do you wish me to say? That you are terror-stricken? That you are penitent? He has assumed it already. That you would perform any service for him if it would save your life? He already knows this as well and is assuredly weighing this knowledge in order to discern what more he can torture from you before finishing you off.”
At that moment, another guard entered, carrying in a tray bearing tea, sugared breads, and crimson jams. The sweet smells, ordinarily so pleasing, only turned my stomach as I thought of whose hand had chosen them for my delectation. There was a little card left by the teacup which I lifted to read. Upon one side was written the following inscription, a stanza from Blake:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
Beneath this inscription, I found the following note:
My dear Alan:–
Do you feel all of Heaven and Hell shudder to see you so trammelled by my hand?
The date of your hanging is set. It will be this coming Thursday, only two days hence.
Exhausted with dull despair, I spent most of that afternoon asleep. When evening drew nigh, I was awakened by the sound of footsteps and started up to see Judge Complin enter, shadowed by the guard. His eyes alighted upon me with a look of deep interest, as though he sought to draw from my gaze a full report of my mental agony. I lowered my eyes, not wishing to betray my suffering for him to gloat upon so easily, instead studying the case that he carried and wondering what it contained.
“I see that you are curious to know what I have brought you,” he said, noting my look. “Rest assured, you will learn soon enough. Now,” he turned to the guard. “Will you bring us a table and two chairs?”
“Why?” I asked, dazed.
“Don’t you wish for supper? Surely you must be hungry at this hour.” Complin was removing his gloves of leather and dabbing at his brow with a silk kerchief. “What a warm evening it is. Are you comfortable in here, Alan?”
“I suppose so, my lord.”
“It is well. I would wish your last hours to be spent in absolute comfort. I wish nothing to distract you from your imminent fate.”
Once the table and chairs had been brought, Complin removed his coat and gestured for me to sit before seating himself as well. He nodded to the guard, who poured out two goblets of wine, before departing to fetch the rest of our repast.
“Well, Alan,” the Judge said. “You were betrayed by Lord Glanville, the very man whose life you saved. He would have willingly sold your body for his own freedom and yet you, with the full knowledge that you would incur my wrath by doing so, advised him on how best to woo the jury. Yet he is now free – a man who more than likely was guilty of murdering his wife – and you are my devoted victim. Is Lady Fortune not a harlot?”
“My lord, you speak of Lady Fortune as though she were made of flesh and blood, and yet you alone can still avert my doom.”
Complin drank of his wine. “Then you think me the equal of Fate?”
“Respecting the world at large? No. Respecting me? I fear that Heaven has given you that power.”
“You speak truly.” He fell into a deep, meditative silence as though wishing to drink in this thought. I watched him, recalling once again my impression of him during our first fateful encounter: the pale, lean features that had an almost Roman cast to them, the lips that were as thin as a cleric’s and yet as discerning as a voluptuary’s, and the eyes that could regard a subject with the melting sympathy of an angel or with a flash of lapping cruelty such as I had never seen upon any face outside of a nightmare. What, I wondered, could such a man be were he to lose his appetite for destruction and allow himself to succumb to gentler and more charitable impulses? That moving voice that could compel a crowd to thirst for a man’s blood – what would it be were it to speak on behalf of the oppressed, of the downtrodden?
I was interrupted in my train of thought by the return of the guard, who placed before both of us a plate of spiced pheasant and lamb. Complin glanced up at me and perhaps caught a trace of my reminiscences in some peculiar look or gesture of mine, for he said, “You seem lost in thought, Alan. Would you care to tell me what it is that occupies you so deeply?”
“You would only laugh, my lord.”
“All the more reason to share your thoughts, then. I cannot abide a morose supper.”
“I only thought of how it would be if your eloquence revived rather than destroyed a spirit, for once.”
Complin was dissecting the bird, its gleaming juices running over his knife and fork. “You astonish me, Alan. I have snared you for my own pleasure and all you can think of now is what I would be were I a saint. Think of yourself, boy.”
“Oh, I am, sir. But you said yourself that I would come to realize that my fate and your will were one, so in thinking of you I am also thinking of what my fate might have been.”
“Then contemplate this: that were I the saint that you imagine I might have been, your fate would yet be the same: for the moment that I clapped eyes upon you, I would instantly have become the hanging voluptuary that I am now, regardless of how pious and charitable my former actions might have been.” He looked me full in the eye, his own gaze transfixing, his expression remote and implacable. “Did I not tell you when I first laid eyes upon you that you were a perfect sacrifice?” His hand reached out to catch hold of my own, his dry fingers caressing my wrist, feeling for my startled, quickening pulse. “Cease these useless speculations, Alan. You could never escape me – not while your eyes plead so eloquently with me to put you to the test.”
He gave my fingers one last endearing clasp before resuming his dinner. Noticing my pale reticence, he said, “Come, young man, I would advise you to eat. You will need strength for what you are about to endure.” Ignoring my bewildered look, he turned to the guard who stood by watching the two of us and remarked, “You see, Mr. Fell, how I keep this creature a prey to anxiety, comforting him with one hand and depriving him with the other? You, however, live in perfect security, knowing that as long as you serve me faithfully, you shall never have reason to fear.”
“And I am most grateful for that, my lord,” the guard Mr. Fell said, offering a slight bow.
“You do not mind the price that you pay for that security?”
“Sir, I have performed your will upon the innocent and the guilty for longer than a decade. Do you not think that by now my conscience has been crushed out?”
“And what about this boy?” Complin leaned back in his chair, surveying both of us with a keen, cold eye. “Oh, do not imagine that I have been blind to the looks of sympathy and commiseration that have passed occasionally between you two.”
“Am I denied humanity as well, my lord?”
“Of course not. I only hope that your pity does not turn to action. You would regret the consequences of such imprudence, I assure you.”
Complin rose then, his shadow falling athwart the table. “Alan, finish your wine,” he said, his expression suddenly humorless, the tone of his voice suggesting that he would brook no subordination.
With their eyes upon me, I did as I was commanded. For a moment I felt nothing, save the usual warming sensation that accompanies a draught of wine. Suddenly, however, I felt an awful pang and then a gradual heat spread throughout my limbs. “Oh God,” I murmured. “You have poisoned me.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy,” the Judge said. “Do you think I would poison you when my fondest thought is to have you hung? Mr. Fell, hold him for me, will you?”
The guard hauled me to my feet, holding me fast by the arms. All the while, as he held me securely against him, I noticed that the sensitivity of my nerves seemed unusually heightened, as though something had drawn them taut so that the slightest touch was enough to set them trembling. While Mr. Fell’s grip upon my arms would have customarily felt merely uncomfortable, it now seemed like the crushing embrace of a wolf’s jaws.
Complin smiled as he noted my sudden, frightened awareness of this peculiar change and said, “I did not poison you, Alan – I only gave you a little medicine to help you feel more keenly what I am about to do to you.” He stroked my face; the pressure of his fingers felt rough and bruising to my confused senses, though I knew that it must have been the lightest of touches. “You will have to trust in my prudence and knowledge of what mortal flesh can withstand, for your senses will tell you that I am killing you.”
“Sir, I feel stifled,” I said, gasping for breath.
“You are not dying, Alan,” he said, his voice horribly gentle. “Your flesh is trying to force you into a swoon because you can neither fight me nor escape me. I would try to comfort you, but I fear that my embrace would feel like a stranglehold to you in your present state. You must accept the punishment that your resistance to me has made necessary.”
“Only let me catch my breath,” I begged.
Complin hesitated and then nodded for the guard to release me. I sank to my knees before my persecutor and, as I tried to collect my thoughts, I recalled my mistress’s advice in her last epistle sent to me so long ago: “Are you doing all within your power to save yourself? I have spoken to this judge on several occasions since your last letter and he confessed to me that the only thing that could move his heart was a certain kind of imploring look that moved him sensibly with feelings of pity too great to suppress.”
As I thought of this, I looked up at Complin with a look of such helpless supplication that I thought that even the eye of a marble demon might have wept to see it. The Judge’s own eye as he gazed down upon me seemed to melt for a moment as though flooded against its will with a supernatural grace.
“Oh, Alan,” he said, and his smile was the more chilling because of that look of grace in his eye. “How you damn yourself still further.” He nodded then to the guard who raised me to my feet again and held me fast, while the Judge unclasped that terrible satchel that he had brought with him and produced from it a peculiar silver object, shaped something like a closed flower-bud.
“Are you holding him securely, Mr. Fell?” he asked of my guard.
“Of course, sir.”
I struggled violently, but Fell struck me across the face – a blow that, under the influence of that awful drug, overpowered me with such pain that I could not breathe for several seconds. As I struggled to regain my composure, Complin murmured in my ear: “Alan, I wrote those letters to you. It was I. Never your mistress.”
As I felt myself grow cold with despairing horror, he continued, “Those looks of supplication – they do not suffocate my will, they only harden it. You did not wear away my resolve – nay, you only made it the more sure.”
Somehow in the midst of my despair, a wild courage began to blossom. I gathered myself up and looked the Judge in the eye, saying, “My lord, perhaps you have won a brute right over me, but you have not overpowered my spirit. I swear by my life that I will meet whatever trial you have prepared for me with as much fortitude as I can, and if I cannot sway you with my supplications, then perhaps I can with my courage.”
Complin’s eyes flashed with a look of pleasure and – or did I only imagine it? –admiration. “The night grows old,” he said. “And you have much to suffer. I would that neither one of us should separate from the other without some eternal impression left indelibly upon both our hearts.”