“A storm without doors is, after all, better than a storm within; without we have something to struggle with, within we have only to suffer; and the severest storm, by exciting the energy of its victim, gives at once a stimulus to action, and a solace to pride, which those must want who sit shuddering between rocking walls, and almost driven to wish they had only to suffer, not to fear.”
— CHARLES ROBERT MATURIN, Melmoth the Wanderer
With the death of my mistress, an epoch of my life had closed. The innocent idealism that had enabled me to raise to Olympian heights in my imagination so false and empty a creature had not utterly perished – but it was tortuously altered forever. I could no longer look at man or woman and, without any justification save a certain shallow magnetism, set them apart and raise them above their fellows. No, they must win my esteem, must wrest it from me, now. The childlike admiration that I had so generously felt without provocation, I now jealously guarded to my breast. I had now become a veritable miser with my love.
My false god was irrevocably dead, but my Adversary still lived to slaver after my heart. His appetite was my demise but, unlike the Lady Claremont, there had been no dissembling, ugly falseness in his conduct towards me. Had he not from the beginning prophesied to me of my suffering destruction at his hands? Had he not, again and again, assured me that my hanging was his only joy and rebuked me when I attempted to dissuade him from his loathsome object? It was not, I felt, perversity but rather pragmatism that made me believe that out of every being that I knew, he was the one most likely to keep faith with me.
If despair is an absence of faith, then my own situation was a uniquely peculiar one. What belief I had left was wrapped in the Judge – I had no counter force left to balance his malignant will, save my own resources and whatever help Heaven chose to vouchsafe me. Thus, while my false mistress’s unmasking might have otherwise tipped me into despair, the Judge’s faithful pursuit left me still with a sense of certainty, however dreadful.
Perhaps this confession is tediously intricate or even disquietingly peculiar – yet this peculiarity of my soul must serve, at least, as some explanation for the quietness of my grief in the wake of my mistress’s betrayal. Else you would wonder, as my bandit companions did, at my coldness. My dreams were occasionally disquiet; I would sometimes hear her voice or imagine her fingers against my cheek. But when I awoke to find myself asleep beside MacAlistair, I felt no pang of sorrow or disquiet. Her betrayal had been so complete that every memory of her I had now seemed false and insubstantial – every recollection of lost joy less than the memory of a dream.
Many months had passed since the death of the Lady Claremont. Spring had changed to heated summer and the forests were alive with sunlight and warmth. I rode often with MacAlistair and his men and my conscience was soothed by the knowledge that none of those whom we waylaid met the same awful fate as my mistress. After each conquest, I would be allowed a portion of their plunder; with my accumulated wealth, I hoped to gain passage on a ship to America and then to begin a new life, free from my pursuer’s power forever. The simplicity of my plan, as well as Complin’s apparent lack of interest in setting his dogs after me, made me feel some expectation that for the first time I had a chance of escaping him.
MacAlistair, however, still feared for me – not for the plan that I had concocted, but for my seeming delay in executing it.
“The longer you stay here, the sooner he will gain wind of your plan,” he remarked to me as we walked together beneath the arches of the ruined fortress. “You have enough saved for the voyage – go, Alan, before your fortune fails you.”
Since midsummer, he had expressed the wish that I make my departure with haste, but this time there was a deeper note of concern that made me feel as though I ought to make some account of myself.
“I do have enough for the voyage,” I assented. “But hardly enough yet to live decently.”
He tethered his horse to a nearby branch, shaking his head with a half-smile. “Oh, Alan. You know as well as I that your employer in America will give you bread and board for as long as you are in service to him. So tell me, what is the true reason for your delay?”
My gaze did not waver as I met his eyes, for I was not conscious of any secret compulsion. “I believe that I need another month before I have earned enough to make such a final departure.”
“Then your delay has nothing to do with those last words that you said to the Judge?”
I did feel a flush warm my cheeks, then, as I remembered that last meeting with my Adversary. I had not told MacAlistair all of the details of that night, only that I had told the Judge that I understood his nature and would not cease until I had made certain that he could harm no other innocents.
“You told him,” said MacAlistair, studying my face. “That you would make it your life’s work to prevent his cruel appetite from slaking itself.”
“At that awful moment, I did believe that,” I replied. “But I have given up all hope of revenge against him. I only barely escaped him with my life – do you think that I would risk opposing him?”
“I know that if you did, it would be the most foolish and most fatal obsession that you could develop. It would be the death of you, Alan – or worse.”
“Do you truly think me capable of something so foolish? It would be impossible to oppose him were I a barrister, let alone a prisoner fleeing the law.”
MacAlistair shook his head. “Will you prove to me that you have no such notion, then? Tomorrow, we will ride towards Aberdeen. I know smugglers who will be willing to take you as far south as London and from there you can find a ship that will take you away from this place.” He smiled a little. “I have heard that Boston is a lovely city, as lovely though not as old as Edinburgh.”
I was only half-listening to his last words, utterly stunned by the sudden resolve of his plan. Adding to my consternation was the fact that it was impossible for me to protest without seeming to prove his very point – that I was still tethered by some strange bond of vengeance or – I know not what – to Judge Complin. Taking my silence as assent, he departed, leaving me to my thoughts. But these thoughts were too mixed with hope and dread to even be properly understood as such. If I did not think, then I felt very keenly that afternoon: but even what I felt was of so peculiar a nature that I could only define it as a dull ache about my heart and about my head.
One thing I knew and this I unashamedly sorrowed for: that I would never see my native land again. To be exiled from Scotland or to be a prisoner within its borders – these alone were my choices and imprisonment I would not willingly suffer. Had the Judge never set his eyes and then his will upon me, how different might my fate have been. But by entwining his will with Scotland’s law, I could not live in Scotland without submitting to his will. Thus he had made a slave of Scotland herself, causing her ancient laws to play the whore to his desire.
That night I had a vision. I dreamt that I awoke to the smell of blood in the flickering darkness of the bandit cavern – and, as my eyes sought to focus on the low-burning fire, I saw that all the men about me who had been my friends and companions for the last few months, lay in dark, spreading pools of their own blood. MacAlistair himself had taken a bullet to the face; those kindly features had now been levelled to a crater of ruptured flesh and bone.
A sound caught my ear, like boots grinding upon shattered glass. Past the mist that rose from their steaming blood, I saw a figure approach me with a swift, yet unhurried surety. As in all dreams, my own body seemed under the influence of some oppressive force, for though I tried to rise and flee, he still came to me and set his boot against my breast, pressing me to the earth. My hands flew instinctively to the soft leather of his boot as I sought to alleviate his brutal pressure, though I knew that there was nothing that I could do. It was only by his peculiar mercy that I was allowed to breathe.
“Oh, Alan,” said Judge Complin, his face obscured in darkness but his voice too well-known to my heart. “Do you see the blood that has been spilt tonight for you? And did these save you?” As he spoke, his gaze moved over the silent corpses, before returning to me. His eyes glittered, reflecting fire, and I felt my heart burn in answer. “Answer me.” The deeper press of his boot followed this imperative.
“You cannot expect me not to fly you,” I said.
“Then you cannot expect me to cease pursuit. And to ruin all those who dare shelter you from me. You murdered them, Alan, by flying to them.”
I could not reply. And in my dream, he leaned down almost wolfishly so that his haunches rested upon my suffering body, and said, “I have offered you these bloody proofs of my devotion. What will you offer me?” And he drew closer, his breath against my ear, and just as he began to whisper something, I came awake, gasping for air.
I looked about wildly, but MacAlistair was there by my side, breathing peacefully. I had dreamt before of the Judge, of course, but this dream filled me with a new foreboding terror, one with its anchor in an immediate reality. What if he had ceased openly searching for me only so that he could wait for an opportune moment to seize not only my person but to wreak vengeance in one sudden stroke on MacAlistair and his men for daring to protect me from him? I had seen a little of his jealousy in his response to my devotion to the Lady Claremont, as well as his displeasure at his cruel guests when they had presumed to torture me without his permission. What would his response be to those who had kept me from him for months? I could only guess at the bloody answer.
The following evening, MacAlistair assembled a handful of his men and together on horseback we began the silent journey towards Aberdeen. The weather itself seemed to reflect the foreboding that sickened my heart; the twilight sky was often darkened by clouds as great as galleons, while the summer air itself possessed a preternatural chill. Every sound about us, every rustling twig or calling bird, was a torture to me. I could not resolve my mind into a state of resignation, for I could not shake the awful terror that were our journey to be interrupted, I would be responsible for the deaths of my companions, as surely as I was already responsible for the death of my former guard Mr. Fell.
“You seem afraid, Alan,” MacAlistair said, drawing his horse beside mine. His own countenance seemed drawn and haggard, but he offered me one of his familiar smiles as though to comfort me. “Is something troubling you?”
“I fear…” I drew in a shaky breath. “I fear that in helping me, you are bringing harm upon yourself and all your men.”
“Alan, a little farther and our journey shall be over. You speak truly – we shall all be safer once you are delivered, but you should not fear for us. It is a sweet soul you have to think thus. I cannot help but hope that such sweetness will preserve you from all that man’s cruelty can do to harm you.”
“I am no better than other men,” I said.
“No, Alan – if you were like other men, you would not be pursued so.” As he spoke, MacAlistair drew his horse to a halt and signaled for his men to do the same. “This is where we must part ways – I fear, more than likely, forever. Godspeed, Alan Williams.” The bandit kissed me on the brow and I thought I caught the glint of tears that stood unspilled in his eyes.
“Thank you, sir, for everything that you have done for me,” I said, my own voice hoarse with emotion.
He then gave a whistle and as I watched, the darkness of the forest was broken by the approach of the men who, I supposed, were the smugglers who would bear me to London. As they approached, MacAlistair struck a flint to light a lantern and in the glow of the fire, I saw their faces and caught my breath in unbelief. They were none other than Captain Baillie and Gottfried, my former captors.
I turned to cry a warning to MacAlistair but to my horror, he met my look with one of sorrowing unsurprise. “Please, forgive me, Alan. I had no other choice.”
I could not comprehend what was occurring; I felt as though I dreamt, or that life itself was more illusory than a dream. I hardly heard Captain Baillie’s crude jest at my expense or Gottfried’s soft suggestion that we take my horse as well as myself, as the beast appeared so handsome. I could only ask myself the same question over and again: why was I betrayed? Why?
While Gottfried pressed his musket to my breast, Captain Baillie set about binding my wrists behind my back with coarse rope. “You set us on a merry hunt,” said he. “But that is over now. Tonight, you will be safely home within our master’s walls, where you belong.”
As he spoke, I noticed that a figure on horseback watched us closely from the vantage point of a distant prominence that overlooked the meadow in which we stood; yet his face was veiled in black, so I could not discern who he was. My attention was called back to my immediate captors as Gottfried produced a silk handkerchief which he forced between my lips, gagging me, before binding a leather cord about my head to keep it cruelly fixed in place. MacAlistair watched these proceedings with a haunted look that I could not help but pity.
“And what of my reward?” he said at last. “You would not surely betray me, would you?”
“Of course not,” said Gottfried. “Our master is a man of his word.” He gave a whistle and out of the darkness, I saw a woman and a young girl-child run to MacAlistair’s horse. At sight of them, his visage melted with tears and he dismounted, embracing the two of them silently. This, then, was the Judge’s hellish bargain, the price that could turn an honest man to such a betrayal. He had given the poor man his wife and child again in exchange for my freedom. How could I blame him for making the choice that he did, though it damned me?
“You and your family will be given passage to America as you requested,” Captain Baillie said, watching the reunion with a curled lip. “Now, off with you.” He turned his attention to me, those pale eyes of his full of enmity. “Oh, if you only knew what trouble you put us to with your little adventure, and what I would do to you, if I had my way.” His fingers seemed to twitch with a cruel inspiration, but he kept them clenched. “Come, Gottfried. Make him sure and we shall be on our way.”
My horse’s saddle was removed and I was bound to the creature’s back, my face pillowed against its mane. The care that my captors seemed to take in securing me while leaving me relatively unharmed was a paradoxical source of terror to me, for I knew that whatever motive prompted them, it was not mercy that stayed their hands. Then, taking the reins, of my horse’s bridle, Gottfried and Baillie led me through the forest, towards the veiled, silent horseman.
“This is what you want, is it not?” Gottfried asked. “We have not been given a counterfeit?”
The horseman drew nearer and leaned close to me, his leather gauntleted hand taking me by the chin and raising my head, his fingers stroking my cheek as he inspected my face.
“You have done well,” he said at last to them, in a low voice, his breath touching me. And though he did not raise that veil of black cloth, I knew who it was who looked so long upon me.
“Do you wish us to loosen his gag so that he may speak?” Gottfried enquired. “We thought that you would prefer him this way.”
“You were wise,” said the Judge. “I will not suffer him to speak until he has paid at least in part for what he has done. I fear that I would be provoked to do more than he could withstand.”
My heart was beating so loudly within my breast, I felt that he must hear it. As though reading my mind, he removed his glove and laid a cool finger against my throat, feeling for my pulse. Then, having satisfied his curiosity, he struck me so savagely that I felt my own hot blood flood my mouth before I helplessly swallowed it.
“Yes,” he said, watching my expression of disgust and horror. “I will never give you a chance to spit out what I desire you to drink down ever again. And tonight, I shall give you such a draught to swallow that I fear you will have little breath left when I have done with you.”