“This man’s the property of him who best
Can feel his crimes.”
I cannot say how long the Judge amused himself with the first phase of my torture – the slow tightening of the iron manacles about my knees, throat, and chest. The suffering that I felt was exquisite and inescapable, but worse was my fear of the damage that this cruel practice could deal me. I fancied that I already felt my bones buckling beneath the pressure – a little more and a rib would crack or a soft bone in my throat would shatter. He seemed most especially preoccupied with my throat, which he would alternately loosen and tighten, listening to my choking, wordless gasps.
After an interminable length of time, something interrupted him from this hellish pastime. I heard Gottfried’s voice and then the Judge’s, sharp and unamused.
“Pay his messenger, of course,” I heard Complin at last say. “We can hardly punish him for his master’s impudence.”
“Well, we have our young Master Williams’ obduracy to thank for this,” Baillie reminded him with a short laugh.
“Yes.” They must have drawn closer to me, for I could make out their words more distinctly now over my own echoing breath. “Alan – I have just now received a missive from Lord Allerdice. He is most anxious to meet you. You see, those gentlemen whom you met not so long ago told him that you rejected my suit out of hand. Knowing that you are unattached, he has told me that he longs to put you to the test himself.”
The Judge spoke with a tone of forced levity, but I sensed his rage. He longed to have me to himself and the thought of my suffering at this Allerdice’s hands awakened in him a savage jealousy. The knowledge that it was my own decision that had brought this about, of course, must have provoked him still further.
I heard the groan of machinery and felt the glass tubing lift painfully from my throat and the black, suffocating veil drawn from my face. Complin loosened the leather buckle about my neck, giving me space to breathe.
“Do you see now what your stubbornness has done?” he said softly. “Why can you not simply resign yourself to me?”
I lay there, gasping for breath, blinded by the candlelight. “Yours,” I said. “Yours. Is that all you wish, my lord?”
I could almost feel his relief, the relaxing posture of his bearing. “Yes, Alan.”
“With that will your soul be satisfied at last?” I asked.
“Oh, marvelously so,” he said, drawing closer as though he sought to draw my surrender from my lips.
“And will you –” here I could not prevent the tears of misery and terror from falling again across my cheek “—will you put an end to my suffering tonight if I do?”
I saw a little reluctance in his eyes, but his interest in securing his hold was greater than his cruel thirst – or rather, he wished to exchange one cruelty for another. “Yes,” he said.
“Then here is my vow to you,” I said. “Persecute me at your will, but you shall never find your satisfaction in me. For if it is in my power to continue your suffering, then be assured that I will.”
And with all the venomous force that I could gather, I spat full in his face.
For a long moment, indeed for what seemed an eternity, I saw him gaze at me, transfixed with astonished hatred and sorrow, my spittle dripping down his face. For my own part, I felt for the first time in respect to him both a sense of thrilling exultance and a perverse pity. My Adversary could bleed; I had dealt him his first wound and it was an appalling one. I could not help but feel a poignant pleasure at the power that I possessed to make him suffer.
With a steady hand, he withdrew a handkerchief from his coat and wiped my spit from his lips. He raised his eyes to mine again; he seemed calmer now, almost too calm, as though the first shock of disappointed hatred had passed and had now been replaced by some other, deeper passion. I expected him to utter some threat, but he remained wordless, only nodding to Gottfried to restrain my throat again. Once I was secured, he dropped the suffocating mask again over my face and lowered the nymph’s mouth to mine, brutally forcing the glass again down my throat – so deeply that my lips actually touched the carven lips of the steel figurehead. Then I heard the sound of a shutter closing and knew that he had closed me off from the outside air.
For a blessed minute, I could breathe. Then, as my supply of air at last was exhausted, I began to labor for breath. I felt myself grow feverish and stifled, then break into a cold sweat; that awful terror that is the main torment of drowning descended in full force upon me. The fact that I was strapped tightly down and could not so much as struggle against the suffocating contraption further completed my sense of despairing terror. Though the blood in my ears seemed to ring, I heard the sound of my own inaudible choking, trapped in that steel funnel – and then I felt a cold darkness descend upon me.
Suddenly, I heard the shutter open and I felt the glass tube fill with air. I fairly sucked it in, gasp after echoing gasp of breath. Then, after what felt like only a few seconds, the shutter was closed again and the torture of drowning was repeated.
By the twentieth time, I was no longer in command of myself. My body was convulsing with terror at the slightest click of the shutter; my gasping greed for air had no pretense to dignity left; and I believe that had Complin paused in his ministrations and asked me then if I would make myself his, then I might very well have accepted his terms of slavery, if it meant a surcease from this.
From time to time, I felt him lift the mask to wipe the cold sweat and tears from my face, but other than that there was nothing to interrupt my suffering. Gottfried and Baillie had either departed or were silently watchful, not daring to either intervene or distract from the proceedings.
At last, I felt myself unable to withstand this abuse any longer. There is only so much suffering that the human frame can endure and I had endured it to the hilt. When the shutter opened for the thirtieth time and I struggled to fill my lungs again, I instead fell into a deep, breathless swoon.
A space of darkness intervened. In that space, I seemed to slip into a delirium: an angel of light, a being wholly opposite to that hellish cellar in which I was confined, seemed to descend from some realm of heaven. I felt the leather straps and crushing manacles that held me fast fall away as though by the force of some invisible miracle; felt the glass device rise from my throat as though by some divine and tender sufferance. As I felt the angel catch me and raise me up, I whispered, “I beseech you, let me perish; let me pass into Paradise! I have endured enough of earthly torment and man’s cruelty. Please preserve me for Heaven, before I fall forever into madness.” The angel pressed his lips to my mouth, stopping my speech, and I felt his breath fill my throat and lungs, forcing life into me, and in my gratitude I passionately returned that holy kiss.
“Live for me, Alan!” the angel said in the voice of my Adversary. “Oh, live!”
And I gasped for breath and at last slipped into a deeper sleep; but I obeyed his mandate and I did not die.