“Deprived of voice, of motion, and of breath / The soul scarce waking in the arms of death.” – Alexander Pope, Odyssey
I was awakened by rough hands that caught me by the shoulders, dressed me while I was still half-conscious, and led me out of my cell through narrow stone-walled passages that were unfamiliar to my eye.
“Where am I being led?”
“To the scaffold, young man.”
Terror gripped me and I said, “Is it not too soon – is it not a day early?”
No reply was given to my frantic query. As I was marched on, my flesh freezing in that cold morning air, I saw Complin standing ahead of me at the end of the hallway, awaiting my arrival. My breath quickened when I met his eye – I sought for words of supplication, but could only bring forth soft unsteady gasps. At a nod from the Judge, the guards forced me to my knees and Complin spoke:
“I told you before that nothing could alter your course – that you must be guided by my desire and that nothing could alter that desire.” He paused, then continued, “But, Alan, what if I told you that you have performed a miracle? That you have refashioned that desire?”
I could hardly believe my ears. Surely he could not mean that he meant to grant me mercy? Yet when I ventured to meet his gaze again, I saw a look of guarded tenderness in his eyes.
“Yes, Alan, you have read me truly. There is a chance for you to escape hanging – a chance that I have never granted any victim of mine save you. Consider that, young man, as you weigh my words.
“I cannot deny the pleasure that it will afford me to see you hang, for I deem that if Heaven ever fashioned a creature for the sole purpose of enjoying the most exquisite torments, then you are that creature. Yet I cannot deny the pleasure that I have felt in your living presence, nor the pleasure that I would feel in prolonging our communion. Do you understand now the choice that I set before you, Alan? I would have you either as my victim or my thrall – there is no other route. You must choose to serve me upon the scaffold or upon your knees. And can you deny,” he continued, “that you would not share in my satisfaction? That there is not between us a certain respect now, a certain understanding, that draws and compels this union? Can you deny that you wish to serve me as much as I wish to possess that power over you?”
I attempted to stand, but one of the guards put his hand upon my shoulder.
“Sir, is there no other way – ”
“Propose some other way that would satisfy me equally. You do not know the secret of my soul – how can you?”
“Then what other choice do I have, but…” I hesitated and met his gaze. “…but to surrender to your demands.”
His eyes shone with a look of gratification as he lifted me to my feet so that I could lean upon his iron hand. “Live, Alan, live to serve me,” he said, his voice as soft as the creaking leather of the guards’ boots at my back.
What a maelstrom of emotions and sensations prevailed upon me at that moment, confronted as I was by the Judge’s look of exultance, my own sense of utter helplessness, the doom that I had narrowly escaped, and the fate to which I was now surrendered. In spite of my fear, some strange inner will moved me; I dared to thank him with bated breath, taking his hand and clasping it in gratitude.
“No, Alan,” said he, withdrawing his hand. “You know the old romances of tyrants and vassals too well to forget that you clasp the hand of your friend, but you kiss the hand of the lord who reigns over you.”
I held his hand to my lips and paid homage to my torturer, my cheeks burning with I know not what emotion. Complin then, under the gaze of every one of his guards, took me in his arms and murmured in my ear, “You gave me the very last little thing that I required, Alan, with that blushing kiss – now, with that final token of sweet devotion from you, my devoted victim, I shall take the utmost pleasure in your fate.”
Bewildered, I hardly comprehended what was happening, even when Complin gave a signal to the guards and they caught hold of me again, dragging me in the direction of the scaffold. I caught sight of the long shadow of the noose and finally understood that I had escaped nothing after all – and with that despairing realization, I cried out, “O, sir, what did I do wrong?”
From the shadows of the hallway that lay behind the scaffold, Complin watched silently as the noose was tightened about my throat. But as a chaplain nearby began to murmur a verse from Scripture, I heard Complin say, “On the contrary, Alan – you could not please me more thoroughly.”
I was sick unto death, my thoughts wild and unfocused. I felt alternately terror and humiliation: terror at my impending doom, humiliation at how easily I had capitulated to Complin’s demands. I tried to form a prayer to counter my inner madness – alas! I could think of none but my persecutor. I think a curse began to slip from my lips, just as the trapdoor beneath my feet fell open, and then I was falling – then stopping short in mid-air – then thrashing – then suffocating – then stillness.
I awoke with a start in my prison cell, shaken by the awfulness of my nightmare. Rising from my bed, I sought the comfort of the moonlight, but the purity of its light could not warm me. Gazing past the bars of my prison into the face of the sky, I only found myself mocked by the thought of the open, free world and myself a prisoner – alone and devoted to an inescapable doom.
Those lines of Blake’s verse from Complin’s note ran through my mind:
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.
What was it, I wondered, that formed Heaven’s rage?—And what was the passion that made Hell shudder? What was it that caused me to sit in the shadows of that chamber, sit at that table where I had dined with my tormentor hours ago, and shiver uncontrollably as though the palsy of some strange, alien sickness had overtaken me?
A subtle shadow fell athwart the table; surely something in its slant reminded me of the contours of my nightmare; but what awful instinct inspired me to respond to this intimation by seizing the gleaming kitchen knife that still lay upon the table and burying this object deep into the breast of the shadowed figure behind me? Whatever the instinct, it fled me almost as soon as it possessed me, leaving me speechless and stricken before my gasping, choking victim, whose features I still could not quite discern in the wretched darkness of my cell. He tried to speak and then stumbled to his knees before me; his bloodied hands reached out for me as he tried to steady his own agonized fall.
“Mr. Fell?” I finally managed. “Oh God – what have I done?”
“Go,” he whispered. “Alan: save yourself. This is your only chance. Another will not come.”
I tried to stem the flow of blood that gushed from his wounded side, but Mr. Fell pushed me away. “Go, damn you,” he said. “Do you wish us both to die?”
As in a dream, I stumbled unsteadily towards the open door, dazedly noting the blanket that lay by my fallen victim and realizing that he had only visited to see whether I was warm and comfortable. Pausing by the half-open door to my cell, I said softly, “I only thought that you were…him.”
From the floor, weltering in his own blood, my guard replied in a hollow voice: “Perhaps in your head you thought so, but in your heart you did not. You would have never acted as you did had you believed thus.”
Down the long corridors of the prison, I fled that awful darkness – nor did I escape that stony maze until I gained access to a low, unbarred window through which I managed to climb. Freedom at last was mine – a sweetness that I had not tasted for what seemed an age. But its blood-price still stained my hands and the eerie words of my wounded and dying jailer still lived in my ear, even as I directed my faltering steps towards the outskirts of town.
To be continued…