I do love thee so,
That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven,
If heaven will take the present at our hands.
— SHAKESPEARE, Richard III
There was a change in the atmosphere of that shadowed cell, as though our peculiar exchange of mutual regard had altered the air in that chamber. No longer did I feel that suffocating fear that had gripped me only moments ago. Instead, I felt a kind of despairing calm; perhaps it was the kind that the victims of the Inquisition feel after the long nights spent in either solitude or torture, when they are finally released into the open air and marched to the stake. As Complin again held forth that terrible silver object which, though mysterious to me, I knew could only be an instrument of torment, I gave him a pale smile as though bidding him do his worst. My lady and the Judge had, like knights of old, crossed blades for my sake and the Judge had proven himself the victor. There was an ancient logic to it that, though I might flinch from it, I could not escape.
“In the age of chivalry, this was called the Pear of Agony,” Complin said. He was dipping the end of that silver, bud-shaped instrument into a basin. “How fitting, Alan, that a young man with a romantic imagination like your own should be tested with a relic from that age.”
He lifted the device, dripping, from the basin and held it to my lips. “Open your mouth.”
I did as I was commanded and he slipped the cold metal past my lips, its shape filling my mouth and touching the back of my throat so that I almost gagged upon it. At the same time, the taste of melting honey and almonds sweetened my mouth and, enhanced by the effects of that medicine that the Judge had administered to me, I felt myself bewildered by the soft sweetness of the honey and the cold, brutal object that filled and choked me.
“What is peculiarly awful about this device is its deceptive strength. It is such a small and delicate object and yet,” here he began to twist a beautiful, filigreed screw at the end of the mechanism, “as I am sure you are feeling now, as this screw is twisted, the petals of the pear begin to expand, filling and stretching the mouth more and more ambitiously. Of course, when it has unfolded and blossomed, the jaw is utterly broken.”
The pain that I felt as he continued to stretch the device wider was such that I think I would have wept aloud if I could have – but no sound could escape my lips in such a state. The Judge at last paused to pour himself a glass of claret, studying my suffering with a thoughtful eye, occasionally wiping a tear from my cheek with a silk cloth.
“What do you make of him, Mr. Fell? Does he not bear himself up well?”
“Oh, assuredly, my lord,” the guard replied.
Complin loosened the screws enough to ease my pain somewhat, though not enough to disengage that horrible device from my mouth. He then began to explore the pockets of my clothing, not relenting in his search until he had at last discovered those false letters that I had once thought my mistress’s and that I kept ever upon my person. Taking those sheets that I had kissed and that had pillowed my head during the dreary nights of my imprisonment, he smilingly let the crumpled pages fall to the ground at his feet, and said, “They have been your companions long enough, have they not, Alan?”
I returned his look, my gaze remote and unmoved. He took me by the chin, turning my face upwards and forcing me to look still more directly into his eyes. It took my utmost will, but I forced myself to meet him unwaveringly. At last, he nodded to Mr. Fell: “Tie him to the bed.”
“Would you leave him muzzled or not, my lord?”
Complin hesitated, taking the end of the silver device and turning my face roughly to the side so that he could better contemplate my suffering aspect. “Alan, you are so well-throttled that I believe I could lead you like a dog by the end of this pretty little mechanism. Oh, have I finally touched you?” For a betraying tear ran down my cheek. “Or would you prefer to remain as you are?”
I knew that he wished me to somehow intercede for myself, but I had resolved in my despair to meet his every persecution with the stony dignity of a martyr. So again, in spite of my tears, I made no effort to plead for release.
The Judge touched a spring at the base of the device and instantly it collapsed to its former diminutive size. He slipped it from my mouth and, as he wiped it clean with a cloth that he restored to his coat pocket, he remarked to me, “You are made of something stronger than Lord Glanville, Alan. Do you know that I had only to hint at what I was capable of, and he was already begging that you take his place?”
“What can I beg of you? Who could intercede for me? Nothing will move you.”
He took me by the shoulders and led me to the bed. “Alan, would you have acted as he did, even if you had known of some intercessor? Search your heart frankly and ask yourself – is it not your own courage and virtue that has brought you to this awful moment?”
“Oh, sir – ” I began, but he put his finger to my lips, saying:
“I have already read your heart.”
He took the cord of leather that Mr. Fell was holding and tucked it under his arm. Then, with a brutal expertise, he forced me down upon the bed and, setting his knee upon my back so that I could not resist, tethered my wrists tightly together with the coil of leather before binding them to the grating of the bedpost. My heart all the while was beating with a frantic tremor: it was happening at last – the long-awaited punishment that I had known would come. The Judge at last eased his pressure on my back and settled into a sitting position beside me, arranging and propping the pillows beneath my head with a care that bewildered me, until I caught sight of the tall mirror that leaned against the wall, reflecting my prone, helpless form and the Judge’s terrible ministrations. I tried to turn my head away to the wall, but Complin forced me to turn again towards that ghastly reflected view, saying, “I would have you witness as well as experience your fate. Mr. Fell, will you tie his feet to the other end of the bed?”
As the guard obeyed, Complin withdrew a dagger from the folds of his coat and cut through the cloth of my shirt, pulling it free from my body. I started at the touch of his hand upon my back, as he felt my flesh for some scar or imperfection.
“Your Lady Claremont told me of her fondness for chastising you,” he said. “And yet I see no trace of the whip here, save for a few pallid marks here and there. You have never had a true thrashing in your life, Alan.”
I gave a shuddering sigh beneath his hand. “My lord, believe me, I have suffered.”
“Oh, you have suffered, Alan,” he said softly. “And you shall suffer still more tonight – more than you ever have in all your young life.”
My tears were not formed of frailty, or of some groveling attempt to solicit the Judge’s mercy. They were the distilled drops of the terror that I felt as, against my will, my despair melted again to dread – the kind of dread that is usually felt only during the infant years of life in which every shadow and every darkness is a lurking wickedness. Complin observed me in silence and I wondered what thoughts passed through that subtle mind as he regarded the spirit that lay bound and prostrated before him, utterly crushed beneath his irresistible power and inexorable will.
He poured himself another glass of wine and, after draining it to its dregs, he put his hand into that mysterious satchel and withdrew a coiled horsewhip. It unraveled, its length falling to the floor heavily; yet at the lightest flick of his wrist, it leapt to life like a beast at the sound of its master’s voice, falling again to the floor with a brutal, hissing crack that made me flinch dreadfully. The whip seemed a separate creature in his hand, its sudden, serpentine motion contrasting peculiarly with the look of exquisite, commanding restraint on the Judge’s countenance. Though in the throes of a despairing terror, I could not help but admire the grace of my persecutor as he advanced to me and I felt a pride born of madness and desperation as I wondered what it was in me that provoked such an awful passion in such a being.
“My Lord,” I whispered. “Would you have done this to Lord Glanville, had he failed to accept your offering?”
Complin, his voice full of a tense restraint, replied: “If I had, it would have been your suffering that would have remained my object as it would have been your suffering that his resistance would have thwarted.”
Without warning, he brought the whip down upon my back. What I felt was of such excruciating intensity that for a brief moment, I fainted utterly. When I came to, I could not even cry out – I could only draw in a deep gasp, as though to recall my flown spirit to my shuddering flesh. I realized in my agony that the Judge’s scourge was weighted with lead, so that its blow held far more force than an ordinary whip. Combined with the effects of the medicine with which I was drugged, the pain felt like something suffered by a soul in Hell rather than any earthly pain.
I braced myself for the second blow, but though my senses were prepared, I still could barely fathom the breath-taking anguish of what I felt. It was the kind of pain that maddens the mind as well as the body, filling the flesh with a useless excess of energy as it struggles to free itself and fly from the lacerating presence, and poisons the mind to a pitch of hysteria in which all dignity and resolution is lost in the obsessive will to escape.
After suffering three more such blows, I at last gasped out: “Oh, God – how long?”
“How long must I suffer?”
“Until I have received satisfaction.”
As he raised his hand again, I managed to stammer deliriously: “And when will you be satisfied?”
“When I have felt you utterly broken. Recall the reason for your chastisement. You chose to spurn my command.” He let the whip fall, watched as I convulsed in helpless agony. “I desire to feel that will of yours shatter to pieces beneath my hand.”
“It is already shattered,” I managed.
“Not yet, Alan – but before the night is out, it will be.”
I could not tell how many minutes – hours? – passed in suffering. Obscure snatches of songs moved through my dazed mind and occasionally I would murmur their verses but more often I would simply lie there, gasping in each labored breath, continually astonished at the endlessness of my anguish. At length, I cried out, “I know – I know now what you want from me.”
The Judge paused, staying his torturing hand. “And what is it that I want?”
For a moment, I was so bewildered by this momentary respite from pain that I could not speak. Complin came closer, laid a cool hand upon my brow, and repeated his question in a tone so gentle that it made my tortured soul ache.
“You want me to – to say something false against the Lady Claremont. To perjure my faithfulness to her. To blaspheme her name.”
“It would amuse me, though hardly satisfy me.”
“Why not? Is she not the last mooring that ties me to hope?”
“Alan, you would say anything to me at this moment. Your words would be as meaningless as your sighs.”
“Then there is nothing that I can do.”
He must have seen the growing madness of despair in my eyes, for he knelt beside me, holding me with his gaze until I felt my frenzied horror subside. Then, like a nurse comforting a sick child, he set a long kiss upon my brow and said, “You will be broken soon.”
His eyes were full of a fanatic’s fire as he looked down upon me. There was some ideal that I had yet to achieve in order to satisfy him, but I had no inkling what it was that he longed for. I knew too that he would never divulge the secret of his happiness. Only my suffering could somehow expose it – or continue relentlessly until madness overtook me.
Time passed as it had passed before. The Judge occasionally paused to refresh himself with wine or to smoke a long, paper-rolled cigarillo, filling my cell with a choking fragrance. I did not sleep, but faded into unconsciousness during these periods, only to awaken to a fresh session of agony.
The candles burned low in their sockets and the single shaft of moonlight that shone through my cell window moved like a silver lantern from one end of the chamber to the other. I do not know what hour it was, nor how much time had passed when, at some point, I found myself gazing intently into the mirror, my fettered hands no longer straining against their bonds, my flesh glowing with an agony that was no longer maddening but radiant, my despairing eyes fixed upon the Judge’s form, as I convulsed in the throes of a helpless, surging anguish. In the narrow space of that moment, the only word I knew or understood, the only word I could utter, was the name of my persecutor whose awful power I solicited, with the feverish fervor of an idolater. I felt myself harrowed up, gone astray: a martyr who – broken upon the wheel – gaspingly repeats, like a prayer, the name of his tyrant rather than his god.
Instantly the torturing whip ceased. Mr. Fell, at a gesture from the Judge, blew the candles out and a gentle darkness filled the chamber. I was untied; I fell to the floor, fell to my knees at the feet of Complin. He lifted me up, enveloped me in his embrace, let me rest my cheek against the rough cloth of his coat as I caught my breath, as I grew accustomed to a sense of comfort rather than pain. As he caressed my hair with the indulgent hand of a guardian, I whispered, “I understand you now, my lord.”
“What do you imagine that you understand, Alan?” he asked.
“I understand how you came to attain such power. You are not merely some corrupt official, some grasping courtier who dissembled and cheated to gain ascension. No, you are like an eviscerating tiger, or a beast of the sea like Leviathan. I understand now why I could never hope to find help in the ranks of my fellow countrymen. How could they ever hope to resist your tongue, the spectacle of your awful strength? They were tame housecats in the presence of a pacing, ravening lion.”
For a moment his caressing hand stilled and I knew that I had touched some truth. I continued: “It is well that you are to hang me, my lord – for were I to escape you, I who have alone seen what power you possess, it would be my duty to prevent your sating yourself on other innocents. Yes, I would make it my life’s work.”
The Judge looked me in the eye, then. “Yes, you would, Alan – you are not blind as they. In this world, you can only serve as my slave or my nemesis – there is no other route.”
Again, he kissed me upon the brow, as though some strange testament had passed between us.
“I shall see you upon the scaffold soon,” he said. “What a pity that your light shall be quenched at the very moment in which we understand one another so perfectly.”
TO BE CONTINUED…