“If I would but go to hell for an eternal moment or so,
I could be knighted.”
— SHAKESPEARE, The Merry Wives of Windsor
As MacAlistair had predicted, Complin’s men filled the forests of Stanehyve. We could hear them above us as we sat shivering in the darkness of the caverns and we could feel the thunder of their horses’ hooves shake the earth that covered our heads. MacAlistair had ordered his men to put out all their fires so that the smoke would not attract the slightest suspicion, but some preternatural instinct seemed to possess my pursuers, for they lingered above us in the ancient ruins as though they meant to pass the entire afternoon there and perhaps the night as well.
When it became clear that Complin’s hounds would not pass over us lightly, some of MacAlistair’s men began to finger their muskets and some to eye me with threatening looks, but MacAlistair told them to hold their peace.
“We will not throw our young Jonah to the waves just yet, lads,” he said, giving me a wink. “Moreover, are ye fond enough to think that such a sacrifice would truly appease such a man as Judge Complin? Do not forget that many of us have been his prisoners as well – myself among them.”
“Then it is not only I who have been pursued so relentlessly by him?” I asked.
MacAlistair hesitated before replying, clearly choosing between a reply that he thought might comfort me and one that was closer to the truth. “You are not the first,” he said at last.
“But there have been jailhouse rumors about this one,” another man remarked with a dark laugh. “Didn’t someone overhear the Judge say to his hireling Mr. Fell that if the jury did not pronounce Alan Williams guilty, then he would throw the jury to the mob and have them hanging from the rafters of the courthouse?”
“That would be madness,” I said.
“You have heard him speak,” MacAlistair said. “Do you not think him capable and willing to use the mob to serve his turn?”
“Aye, though I suspect that he would not take it well to see you lynched,” another bandit remarked. “Our lordship likes to have a proper view of the spectacle, without being jostled by the commonfolk.”
We fell silent for a space, listening to the muffled thud of hooves and footsteps. At last, I said: “There was something that one of my captors, a man named Gottfried, hinted at that I did not understand. He said that Complin has a way of punishing those who betray or displease him – that he does not kill them, but degrades them utterly. He claimed that he had seen the effects with his own eyes. Do any of you know what he meant?”
The men looked at one another, still more uneasily.
“There are only rumors…” one began.
“More like wives’ tales, if that,” said another.
“The way I heard it,” MacAlistair said at last. “There was a jailer who kept watch over a young merchant’s daughter whom Complin longed to see hang. Well, this jailer took pity on the girl and set her free. Complin’s men, of course, caught her before she got too far and she was hanged – but not before Complin dragged the truth of her accomplice’s identity from her.
“Now the fate of the jailer is the part of our story that will interest you, Master Williams, for apparently he mysteriously vanished soon after the hanging. His family and friends sought for him as well as they could, but he was nowhere to be found. At last, they gave him up for dead and called off the search. A month later, however, a shepherd caught sight of him again on the outskirts of Stanehyve.
“Oh, he was alive – but a stark, raving lunatic. When they could finally get him to speak instead of scream, they asked him where he had been. He told them then that he had been in Hell. They asked him if he was speaking metaphorically. He said that no, he had been dead and had been trapped and tortured in Hell. There was the scent of scorched hair about him, but they could find no marks of torture, save for a few cuts and bruises. It did not take long for those with their suspicions of the Judge to connect the unfortunate guard’s disappearance with his attempted thwarting of the Judge’s will. And this tale, as you might have guessed, has led some superstitious men to go so far as to claim that Complin consorts with Satan himself and that he sent his hapless victim to that terrible realm for a season to drive him mad.”
I was mute with astonishment at what I heard. That Complin could command the demons of Hell seemed beyond credibility; yet the thought that he could produce such an effect in his victim by his own ingeniously cruel methods, was nearly as incredible. Either way, I felt a deeper horror of my persecutor than I had thought possible and felt more keenly than ever the depth of the precipice at which I stood.
“What then happened to this man?” I asked at last. “Did he ever recover?”
“Many months later they found him hanging from a tree on the grounds of Complin’s estate,” MacAlistair replied. “Whether the poor devil hung himself out of madness or was hung by Complin’s men, I cannot say. He was buried as a Christian, though, and that is the end of his tale.”
“You heard a different version of the tale, then,” said another. “In the one I heard, he downed several pints of ale and went to confront Complin with a musket, but when he pulled the trigger on the Judge, the musket backfired and took his head off, leaving behind the smell of sulphur rather than gunpowder.”
Some laughed, some exchanged fearful glances, at this alteration. It was evident that while there were many men in the camp who credited Complin with only an earthly influence, there were some who believed him vested with a more than mortal power. Perhaps, I thought, the truth lay somewhere between the two – in the hellish, yet human, imagination of my implacable pursuer.
Strangely, even as I felt a natural sense of horror in response to MacAlistair’s tale, I felt a corresponding thrill of something else – what I can only describe as a perverse pride that such a one as this Complin should wrap his energies so fully in me. I felt ashamed to admit this feeling to myself, yet I could not entirely suppress it, perhaps because it soothed and flattered my terror, or perhaps because there was something in the person of the Judge himself that I could not help but admire as well as fear. This last thought made me tremble for myself and I thought again of Complin’s mysterious letter the morning after my visit to his estate, when he had suggested that, with the inspiration of his wine, I had offered him a thousand “compliments” and “amiable courtesies.” How I wished that I remembered what the substance of these courtesies had been – what, I dreaded to think, had I praised him for? And in offering him this praise, had I irrevocably sealed my fate still further, signing the warrant for my own demise?
I felt in the pocket of my coat and my hand touched the crisp edge of parchment; while the Judge had taken the false letter that he had forged in my mistress’s writing, the letter that he had left me still remained. My cheeks burned at the realization and though I would have liked to destroy it then and there as a relic of my oppressor, I did not think it prudent to reveal to these men that Judge Complin had been in the habit of penning letters to me. They might take it as too friendly a token and begin to believe that our common enemy was not so common after all.
“Ten years,” MacAlistair murmured softly, his gaze fixed on some distant point. “Ten years since I was sentenced to the hangman’s rope. And ten years since I have set foot in Stanehyve as an unwanted man. What I would give to speak to my wife and daughter, rather than spy them from a distance.”
“I did not realize that you had a family,” I said.
He glanced at me with a wry, sorrowful smile. “Oh, many of us here do, Master Williams. In his diabolism, the Judge has succeeded in torturing us in a far subtler fashion than he could have with mere hanging – even as escaped men, we are exiled from those we love.”
“Why, then, can you not take your families and leave the country? Surely he would not chase you beyond the borders of Scotland.”
“None of us have ever dared test him,” replied another of MacAlistair’s men. “He has his creatures keep such a close watch on the townsfolk, that I cannot imagine such a plan escaping their notice. And if he felt even a breath of suspicion that such an escape was planned, do you think he would hesitate to arrest our wives and children and satisfy his vicious lust on them in our stead?”
I had to own that this was too likely a result of such an action – and though I felt that I could not have endured so long a separation from the object of my affection, I had no wife and child myself, and so perhaps could not accurately judge.
“How old is your daughter now, MacAlistair?” I asked.
He glanced at me, his steady gaze flickering slightly with a dark, hooded look as though he sought to master and conceal the depth of his emotion from me. “Ten years, Master Williams. The Judge took me when she was barely born.”
I must have fallen asleep on MacAlistair’s shoulder, for when I awoke the bandits were lighting a few low fires and MacAlistair was gently shaking me awake.
“Have Complin’s men left?” I asked drowsily.
“Aye,” he said. “And it is time for us to be about our business. Last night was a test. Tonight, you will ride with us as one of us. Are you prepared, Master Williams?”
“If such service will perhaps help you consider my own request that I be allowed a safe passage from Scotland…”
“It will.” He nodded. “If you allow us a portion of your share of the plunder, that will go handsomely to paying for our aid.”
“Then I am glad to number myself as one of you,” I said.
The truth was that my answer was born of desperation rather than fervor or trust. I could not entirely reconcile my heart to the prospect of robbing innocent strangers. Though I consoled myself with the thought that MacAlistair was hardly murderous, I could not help but think that it was a poor trick to frighten and then thieve from those who had done me no wrong. But what other choice did I have? I had avoided the commission of a second murder, but could not utterly forsake my own cause to the point of madness, no matter how unhappily it sat with my love of virtue. Once I was safe from Scotland, I could indulge again in virtuous conduct – until then, I must have the honor of a hare in flight from a pursuant hawk.
As I followed MacAlistair to the horses in their underground stable, a sudden fear possessed me and I felt in my coat pocket for the Judge’s letter – then breathed a sigh of relief. It was still there; unlike the Judge, MacAlistair had not felt the urge to search me in my sleep.
The memory of Complin’s prying discovery of my volume of Mr. Blake’s poetry reminded me, too, of that mysterious poem that he had left for me on the day of our last meeting.
“A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” I murmured. “A dove house fill’d with doves & Pigeons / Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.”
The stanza had been Blake’s – I was certain of it in my heart, for I knew the poet’s voice well – but as I leafed through my volume of Blake that I still had miraculously retained through all my travails, I could not find it. Before I had the opportunity to marvel at how Complin knew a stanza of Blake’s that had yet to see the printhouse, something caught my eye that chilled my soul.
It was the hand of my tormentor – his writing marred a corner of one of the pages, almost trailing over the first stanza of “The Fly.”
“What are you searching for, Alan? And shall I be the one to find it for you?”
Once the horses had been led into the open air, we mounted them and at MacAlistair’s signal, flew with all speed into the forest. For a time, he led us a stone’s throwaway from the highway, keeping to the narrow, winding paths that the wolves and other fierce denizens of the woodlands had cleared ahead of us. I could see no sign of horse or carriage on the distant silver band of moonlit road, but MacAlistair must have spied or heard something for presently he drew his horse up and, gesturing for silence, motioned for us to draw stealthily closer to the highway.
I felt, then, the earth tremble beneath my own horse and presently saw an approaching carriage drawn by four black stallions. A peculiar pang seized me, mingling unpleasantly with the aftershock that I still felt after discovering the Judge’s writing in my volume. It was not simply my natural terror at embarking for the first time on a consciously criminal act. No, there was something horribly familiar about the insignia upon the door of that carriage and in the very gait of those horses. But before I could fully translate my feeling into memory, MacAlistair was already loading his musket and whispering to me and two other men, “You three – take out the horses. Once the beasts are dead, we will have them at our mercy and can take what we please while doing them no further harm.”
O, how vainly did MacAlistair calculate the disposition of his victim! And with what false assurances did he comfort my trembling resolve, which would have surely shattered had I only known with whom we were fated to contend that night.