One jet of flame hardly makes a prick in the darkness; another sets fire to a volcano.
Some sparks are gigantic.
Gwynplaine read the letter, then he read it over again. Yes, the words were there, “I love you!”
Terrors chased each other through his mind.
The first was, that he believed himself to be mad.
He was mad; that was certain: He had just seen what had no existence. The twilight spectres were making game of him, poor wretch! The little man in scarlet was the will-o’-the-wisp of a dream. Sometimes, at night, nothings condensed into flame come and laugh at us. Having had his laugh out, the visionary being had disappeared, and left Gwynplaine behind him, mad.
Such are the freaks of darkness.
The second terror was, to find out that he was in his right senses.
A vision? Certainly not. How could that be? Had he not a letter in his hand? Did he not see an envelope, a seal, paper, and writing? Did he not know from whom that came? It was all clear enough. Some one took a pen and ink, and wrote. Some one lighted a taper, and sealed it with wax. Was not his name written on the letter — “To Gwynplaine?” The paper was scented. All was clear.
Gwynplaine knew the little man. The dwarf was a page. The gleam was a livery. The page had given him a rendezvous for the same hour on the morrow, at the corner of London Bridge.
Was London Bridge an illusion?
No, no. All was clear. There was no delirium. All was reality. Gwynplaine was perfectly clear in his intellect. It was not a phantasmagoria, suddenly dissolving above his head, and fading into nothingness. It was something which had really happened to him. No, Gwynplaine was not mad, nor was he dreaming. Again he read the letter.
Well, yes! But then?
That then was terror-striking.
There was a woman who desired him! If so, let no one ever again pronounce the word incredible! A woman desire him! A woman who had seen his face! A woman who was not blind! And who was this woman? An ugly one? No; a beauty. A gipsy? No; a duchess!
What was it all about, and what could it all mean? What peril in such a triumph! And how was he to help plunging into it headlong?
What! that woman! The siren, the apparition, the lady in the visionary box, the light in the darkness! It was she! Yes; it was she!
The crackling of the fire burst out in every part of his frame. It was the strange, unknown lady, she who had previously so troubled his thoughts; and his first tumultuous feelings about this woman returned, heated by the evil fire. Forgetfulness is nothing but a palimpsest: an incident happens unexpectedly, and all that was effaced revives in the blanks of wondering memory.
Gwynplaine thought that he had dismissed that image from his remembrance, and he found that it was still there; and she had put her mark in his brain, unconsciously guilty of a dream. Without his suspecting it, the lines of the engraving had been bitten deep by reverie. And now a certain amount of evil had been done, and this train of thought, thenceforth, perhaps, irreparable, he took up again eagerly. What! she desired him! What! the princess descend from her throne, the idol from its shrine, the statue from its pedestal, the phantom from its cloud! What! from the depths of the impossible had this chimera come! This deity of the sky! This irradiation! This nereid all glistening with jewels! This proud and unattainable beauty, from the height of her radiant throne, was bending down to Gwynplaine! What! had she drawn up her chariot of the dawn, with its yoke of turtle-doves and dragons, before Gwynplaine, and said to him, “Come!” What! this terrible glory of being the object of such abasement from the empyrean, for Gwynplaine! This woman, if he could give that name to a form so starlike and majestic, this woman proposed herself, gave herself, delivered herself up to him! Wonder of wonders! A goddess prostituting herself for him! The arms of a courtesan opening in a cloud to clasp him to the bosom of a goddess, and that without degradation! Such majestic creatures cannot be sullied. The gods bathe themselves pure in light; and this goddess who came to him knew what she was doing. She was not ignorant of the incarnate hideousness of Gwynplaine. She had seen the mask which was his face; and that mask had not caused her to draw back. Gwynplaine was loved notwithstanding it!
Here was a thing surpassing all the extravagance of dreams. He was loved in consequence of his mask. Far from repulsing the goddess, the mask attracted her. Gwynplaine was not only loved; he was desired. He was more than accepted; he was chosen. He, chosen!
What! there, where this woman dwelt, in the regal region of irresponsible splendour, and in the power of full, free will; where there were princes, and she could take a prince; nobles, and she could take a noble; where there were men handsome, charming, magnificent, and she could take an Adonis: whom did she take? Gnafron! She could choose from the midst of meteors and thunders, the mighty six-winged seraphim, and she chose the larva crawling in the slime. On one side were highnesses and peers, all grandeur, all opulence, all glory; on the other, a mountebank. The mountebank carried it! What kind of scales could there be in the heart of this woman? By what measure did she weigh her love? She took off her ducal coronet, and flung it on the platform of a clown! She took from her brow the Olympian aureola, and placed it on the bristly head of a gnome! The world had turned topsy-turvy. The insects swarmed on high, the stars were scattered below, whilst the wonder-stricken Gwynplaine, overwhelmed by a falling ruin of light, and lying in the dust, was enshrined in a glory. One all-powerful, revolting against beauty and splendour, gave herself to the damned of night; preferred Gwynplaine to Antinoüs; excited by curiosity, she entered the shadows, and descending within them, and from this abdication of goddess-ship was rising, crowned and prodigious, the royalty of the wretched. “You are hideous. I love you.” These words touched Gwynplaine in the ugly spot of pride. Pride is the heel in which all heroes are vulnerable. Gwynplaine was flattered in his vanity as a monster. He was loved for his deformity. He, too, was the exception, as much and perhaps more than the Jupiters and the Apollos. He felt superhuman, and so much a monster as to be a god. Fearful bewilderment!
Now, who was this woman? What did he know about her? Everything and nothing. She was a duchess, that he knew; he knew, also, that she was beautiful and rich; that she had liveries, lackeys, pages, and footmen running with torches by the side of her coroneted carriage. He knew that she was in love with him; at least she said so. Of everything else he was ignorant. He knew her title, but not her name. He knew her thought; he knew not her life. Was she married, widow, maiden? Was she free? Of what family was she? Were there snares, traps, dangers about her? Of the gallantry existing on the idle heights of society; the caves on those summits, in which savage charmers dream amid the scattered skeletons of the loves which they have already preyed on; of the extent of tragic cynicism to which the experiments of a woman may attain who believes herself to be beyond the reach of man — of things such as these Gwynplaine had no idea. Nor had he even in his mind materials out of which to build up a conjecture, information concerning such things being very scanty in the social depths in which he lived. Still he detected a shadow; he felt that a mist hung over all this brightness. Did he understand it? No. Could he guess at it? Still less. What was there behind that letter? One pair of folding doors opening before him, another closing on him, and causing him a vague anxiety. On the one side an avowal; on the other an enigma — avowal and enigma, which, like two mouths, one tempting, the other threatening, pronounce the same word, Dare!
Never had perfidious chance taken its measures better, nor timed more fitly the moment of temptation. Gwynplaine, stirred by spring, and by the sap rising in all things, was prompt to dream the dream of the flesh. The old man who is not to be stamped out, and over whom none of us can triumph, was awaking in that backward youth, still a boy at twenty-four.
It was just then, at the most stormy moment of the crisis, that the offer was made him, and the naked bosom of the Sphinx appeared before his dazzled eyes. Youth is an inclined plane. Gwynplaine was stooping, and something pushed him forward. What? the season, and the night. Who? the woman.
Were there no month of April, man would be a great deal more virtuous. The budding plants are a set of accomplices! Love is the thief, Spring the receiver.
Gwynplaine was shaken.
There is a kind of smoke of evil, preceding sin, in which the conscience cannot breathe. The obscure nausea of hell comes over virtue in temptation. The yawning abyss discharges an exhalation which warns the strong and turns the weak giddy. Gwynplaine was suffering its mysterious attack.
Dilemmas, transient and at the same time stubborn, were floating before him. Sin, presenting itself obstinately again and again to his mind, was taking form. The morrow, midnight? London Bridge, the page? Should he go? “Yes,” cried the flesh; “No,” cried the soul.
Nevertheless, we must remark that, strange as it may appear at first sight, he never once put himself the question, “Should he go?” quite distinctly. Reprehensible actions are like over-strong brandies — you cannot swallow them at a draught. You put down your glass; you will see to it presently; there is a strange taste even about that first drop. One thing is certain: he felt something behind him pushing him, forward towards the unknown. And he trembled. He could catch a glimpse of a crumbling precipice, and he drew back, stricken by the terror encircling him. He closed his eyes. He tried hard to deny to himself that the adventure had ever occurred, and to persuade himself into doubting his reason. This was evidently his best plan; the wisest thing he could do was to believe himself mad.
Fatal fever! Every man, surprised by the unexpected, has at times felt the throb of such tragic pulsations. The observer ever listens with anxiety to the echoes resounding from the dull strokes of the battering-ram of destiny striking against a conscience.
Alas! Gwynplaine put himself questions. Where duty is clear, to put oneself questions is to suffer defeat.
There are invasions which the mind may have to suffer. There are the Vandals of the soul — evil thoughts coming to devastate our virtue. A thousand contrary ideas rushed into Gwynplaine’s brain, now following each other singly, now crowding together. Then silence reigned again, and he would lean his head on his hands, in a kind of mournful attention, as of one who contemplates a landscape by night.
Suddenly he felt that he was no longer thinking. His reverie had reached that point of utter darkness in which all things disappear.
He remembered, too, that he had not entered the inn. It might be about two o’clock in the morning.
He placed the letter which the page had brought him in his side-pocket; but perceiving that it was next his heart, he drew it out again, crumpled it up, and placed it in a pocket of his hose. He then directed his steps towards the inn, which he entered stealthily, and without awaking little Govicum, who, while waiting up for him, had fallen asleep on the table, with his arms for a pillow. He closed the door, lighted a candle at the lamp, fastened the bolt, turned the key in the lock, taking, mechanically, all the precautions usual to a man returning home late, ascended the staircase of the Green Box, slipped into the old hovel which he used as a bedroom, looked at Ursus who was asleep, blew out his candle, and did not go to bed.
Thus an hour passed away. Weary, at length, and fancying that bed and sleep were one, he laid his head upon the pillow without undressing, making darkness the concession of closing his eyes. But the storm of emotions which assailed him had not waned for an instant. Sleeplessness is a cruelty which night inflicts on man. Gwynplaine suffered greatly. For the first time in his life, he was not pleased with himself. Ache of heart mingled with gratified vanity. What was he to do? Day broke at last; he heard Ursus get up, but did not raise his eyelids. No truce for him, however. The letter was ever in his mind. Every word of it came back to him in a kind of chaos. In certain violent storms within the soul thought becomes a liquid. It is convulsed, it heaves, and something rises from it, like the dull roaring of the waves. Flood and flow, sudden shocks and whirls, the hesitation of the wave before the rock; hail and rain clouds with the light shining through their breaks; the petty flights of useless foam; wild swell broken in an instant; great efforts lost; wreck appearing all around; darkness and universal dispersion — as these things are of the sea, so are they of man. Gwynplaine was a prey to such a storm.
At the acme of his agony, his eyes still closed, he heard an exquisite voice saying, “Are you asleep, Gwynplaine?” He opened his eyes with a start, and sat up. Dea was standing in the half-open doorway. Her ineffable smile was in her eyes and on her lips. She was standing there, charming in the unconscious serenity of her radiance. Then came, as it were, a sacred moment. Gwynplaine watched her, startled, dazzled, awakened. Awakened from what? — from sleep? no, from sleeplessness. It was she, it was Dea; and suddenly he felt in the depths of his being the indescribable wane of the storm and the sublime descent of good over evil; the miracle of the look from on high was accomplished; the blind girl, the sweet light-bearer, with no effort beyond her mere presence, dissipated all the darkness within him; the curtain of cloud was dispersed from the soul as if drawn by an invisible hand, and a sky of azure, as though by celestial enchantment, again spread over Gwynplaine’s conscience. In a moment he became by the virtue of that angel, the great and good Gwynplaine, the innocent man. Such mysterious confrontations occur to the soul as they do to creation. Both were silent — she, who was the light; he, who was the abyss; she, who was divine; he, who was appeased; and over Gwynplaine’s stormy heart Dea shone with the indescribable effect of a star shining on the sea.
How simple is a miracle! It was breakfast hour in the Green Box, and Dea had merely come to see why Gwynplaine had not joined their little breakfast table.
“It is you!” exclaimed Gwynplaine; and he had said everything. There was no other horizon, no vision for him now but the heavens where Dea was. His mind was appeased — appeased in such a manner as he alone can understand who has seen the smile spread swiftly over the sea when the hurricane had passed away. Over nothing does the calm come so quickly as over the whirlpool. This results from its power of absorption. And so it is with the human heart. Not always, however.
Dea had but to show herself, and all the light that was in Gwynplaine left him and went to her, and behind the dazzled Gwynplaine there was but a flight of phantoms. What a peacemaker is adoration! A few minutes afterwards they were sitting opposite each other, Ursus between them, Homo at their feet. The teapot, hung over a little lamp, was on the table. Fibi and Vinos were outside, waiting.
They breakfasted as they supped, in the centre compartment. From the position in which the narrow table was placed, Dea’s back was turned towards the aperture in the partition which was opposite the entrance door of the Green Box. Their knees were touching. Gwynplaine was pouring out tea for Dea. Dea blew gracefully on her cup. Suddenly she sneezed. Just at that moment a thin smoke rose above the flame of the lamp, and something like a piece of paper fell into ashes. It was the smoke which had caused Dea to sneeze.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Nothing,” replied Gwynplaine.
And he smiled. He had just burnt the duchess’s letter.
The conscience of the man who loves is the guardian angel of the woman whom he loves.
Unburdened of the letter, his relief was wondrous, and Gwynplaine felt his integrity as the eagle feels its wings.
It seemed to him as if his temptation had evaporated with the smoke, and as if the duchess had crumbled into ashes with the paper.
Taking up their cups at random, and drinking one after the other from the same one, they talked. A babble of lovers, a chattering of sparrows! Child’s talk, worthy of Mother Goose or of Homer! With two loving hearts, go no further for poetry; with two kisses for dialogue, go no further for music.
“Do you know something?”
“Gwynplaine, I dreamt that we were animals, and had wings.”
“Wings; that means birds,” murmured Gwynplaine.
“Fools! it means angels,” growled Ursus.
And their talk went on.
“If you did not exist, Gwynplaine?”
“It could only be because there was no God.”
“The tea is too hot; you will burn yourself, Dea.”
“Blow on my cup.”
“How beautiful you are this morning!”
“Do you know that I have a great many things to say to you?”
“I love you.”
“I adore you.”
And Ursus said aside, “By heaven, they are polite!”
Exquisite to lovers are their moments of silence! In them they gather, as it were, masses of love, which afterwards explode into sweet fragments.
“Do you know! In the evening, when we are playing our parts, at the moment when my hand touches your forehead — oh, what a noble head is yours, Gwynplaine! — at the moment when I feel your hair under my fingers, I shiver; a heavenly joy comes over me, and I say to myself, In all this world of darkness which encompasses me, in this universe of solitude, in this great obscurity of ruin in which I am, in this quaking fear of myself and of everything, I have one prop; and he is there. It is he — it is you.”
“Oh! you love me,” said Gwynplaine. “I, too, have but you on earth. You are all in all to me. Dea, what would you have me do? What do you desire? What do you want?”
Dea answered, —
“I do not know. I am happy.”
“Oh,” replied Gwynplaine, “we are happy.”
Ursus raised his voice severely, —
“Oh, you are happy, are you? That’s a crime. I have warned you already. You are happy! Then take care you aren’t seen. Take up as little room as you can. Happiness ought to stuff itself into a hole. Make yourselves still less than you are, if that can be. God measures the greatness of happiness by the littleness of the happy. The happy should conceal themselves like malefactors. Oh, only shine out like the wretched glowworms that you are, and you’ll be trodden on; and quite right too! What do you mean by all that love-making nonsense? I’m no duenna, whose business it is to watch lovers billing and cooing. I’m tired of it all, I tell you; and you may both go to the devil.”
And feeling that his harsh tones were melting into tenderness, he drowned his emotion in a loud grumble.
“Father,” said Dea, “how roughly you scold!”
“It’s because I don’t like to see people too happy.”
Here Homo reechoed Ursus. His growl was heard from beneath the lovers’ feet.
Ursus stooped down, and placed his hand on Homo’s head.
“That’s right; you’re in bad humour, too. You growl. The bristles are all on end on your wolf’s pate. You don’t like all this love-making. That’s because you are wise. Hold your tongue, all the same. You have had your say and given your opinion; be it so. Now be silent.”
The wolf growled again. Ursus looked under the table at him.
“Be still, Homo! Come, don’t dwell on it, you philosopher!”
But the wolf sat up, and looked towards the door, showing his teeth.
“What’s wrong with you now?” said Ursus. And he caught hold of Homo by the skin of the neck.
Heedless of the wolf’s growls, and wholly wrapped up in her own thoughts and in the sound of Gwynplaine’s voice, which left its after-taste within her, Dea was silent, and absorbed by that kind of esctasy peculiar to the blind, which seems at times to give them a song to listen to in their souls, and to make up to them for the light which they lack by some strain of ideal music. Blindness is a cavern, to which reaches the deep harmony of the Eternal.
While Ursus, addressing Homo, was looking down, Gwynplaine had raised his eyes. He was about to drink a cup of tea, but did not drink it. He placed it on the table with the slow movement of a spring drawn back; his fingers remained open, his eyes fixed. He scarcely breathed.
A man was standing in the doorway, behind Dea. He was clad in black, with a hood. He wore a wig down to his eyebrows, and held in his hand an iron staff with a crown at each end. His staff was short and massive. He was like Medusa thrusting her head between two branches in Paradise.
Ursus, who had heard some one enter and raised his head without loosing his hold of Homo, recognized the terrible personage. He shook from head to foot, and whispered to Gwynplaine, —
“It’s the wapentake.”
Gwynplaine recollected. An exclamation of surprise was about to escape him, but he restrained it. The iron staff, with the crown at each end, was called the iron weapon. It was from this iron weapon, upon which the city officers of justice took the oath when they entered on their duties, that the old wapentakes of the English police derived their qualification.
Behind the man in the wig, the frightened landlord could just be perceived in the shadow.
Without saying a word, a personification of the Muta Themis of the old charters, the man stretched his right arm over the radiant Dea, and touched Gwynplaine on the shoulder with the iron staff, at the same time pointing with his left thumb to the door of the Green Box behind him. These gestures, all the more imperious for their silence, meant, “Follow me.”
Pro signo exeundi, sursum trahe, says the old Norman record.
He who was touched by the iron weapon had no right but the right of obedience. To that mute order there was no reply. The harsh penalties of the English law threatened the refractory. Gwynplaine felt a shock under the rigid touch of the law; then he sat as though petrified.
If, instead of having been merely grazed on the shoulder, he had been struck a violent blow on the head with the iron staff, he could not have been more stunned. He knew that the police-officer summoned him to follow; but why? That he could not understand.
On his part Ursus, too, was thrown into the most painful agitation, but he saw through matters pretty distinctly. His thoughts ran on the jugglers and preachers, his competitors, on informations laid against the Green Box, on that delinquent the wolf, on his own affair with the three Bishopsgate commissioners, and who knows? — perhaps — but that would be too fearful — Gwynplaine’s unbecoming and factious speeches touching the royal authority.
He trembled violently.
Dea was smiling.
Neither Gwynplaine nor Ursus pronounced a word. They had both the same thought — not to frighten Dea. It may have struck the wolf as well, for he ceased growling. True, Ursus did not loose him.
Homo, however, was a prudent wolf when occasion required. Who is there who has not remarked a kind of intelligent anxiety in animals? It may be that to the extent to which a wolf can understand mankind he felt that he was an outlaw.
Resistance was impracticable, as Gwynplaine knew. He remembered Ursus’s words, and there was no question possible. He remained standing in front of the wapentake. The latter raised the iron staff from Gwynplaine’s shoulder, and drawing it back, held it out straight in an attitude of command — a constable’s attitude which was well understood in those days by the whole people, and which expressed the following order: “Let this man, and no other, follow me. The rest remain where they are. Silence!”
No curious followers were allowed. In all times the police have had a taste for arrests of the kind. This description of seizure was termed sequestration of the person.
The wapentake turned round in one motion, like a piece of mechanism revolving on its own pivot, and with grave and magisterial step proceeded towards the door of the Green Box.
Gwynplaine looked at Ursus. The latter went through a pantomime composed as follows: he shrugged his shoulders, placed both elbows close to his hips, with his hands out, and knitted his brows into chevrons — all which signifies, “We must submit to the unknown.”
Gwynplaine looked at Dea. She was in her dream. She was still smiling. He put the ends of his fingers to his lips, and sent her an unutterable kiss.
Ursus, relieved of some portion of his terror now that the wapentake’s back was turned, seized the moment to whisper in Gwynplaine’s ear, —
“On your life, do not speak until you are questioned.”
Gwynplaine, with the same care to make no noise as he would have taken in a sickroom, took his hat and cloak from the hook on the partition, wrapped himself up to the eyes in the cloak, and pushed his hat over his forehead. Not having been to bed, he had his working clothes still on, and his leather esclavin round his neck. Once more he looked at Dea. Having reached the door, the wapentake raised his staff and began to descend the steps; then Gwynplaine set out as if the man was dragging him by an invisible chain. Ursus watched Gwynplaine leave the Green Box. At that moment the wolf gave a low growl; but Ursus silenced him, and whispered, “He is coming back.”
In the yard, Master Nicless was stemming, with servile and imperious gestures, the cries of terror raised by Vinos and Fibi, as in great distress they watched Gwynplaine led away, and the mourning-coloured garb and the iron staff of the wapentake.
The two girls were like petrifactions: they were in the attitude of stalactites. Govicum, stunned, was looking open-mouthed out of a window.
The wapentake preceded Gwynplaine by a few steps, never turning round or looking at him, in that icy ease which is given by the knowledge that one is the law.
In death-like silence they both crossed the yard, went through the dark taproom, and reached the street. A few passers-by had collected about the inn door, and the justice of the quorum was there at the head of a squad of police. The idlers, stupefied, and without breathing a word, opened out and stood aside, with English discipline, at the sight of the constable’s staff. The wapentake moved off in the direction of the narrow street then called the Little Strand, running by the Thames; and Gwynplaine, with the justice of the quorum’s men in ranks on each side, like a double hedge, pale, without a motion except that of his steps, wrapped in his cloak as in a shroud, was leaving the inn farther and farther behind him as he followed the silent man, like a statue following a spectre.
Unexplained arrest, which would greatly astonish an Englishman nowadays, was then a very usual proceeding of the police. Recourse was had to it, notwithstanding the Habeas Corpus Act, up to George II.‘s time, especially in such delicate cases as were provided for by lettres de cachet in France; and one of the accusations against which Walpole had to defend himself was that he had caused or allowed Neuhoff to be arrested in that manner. The accusation was probably without foundation, for Neuhoff, King of Corsica, was put in prison by his creditors.
These silent captures of the person, very usual with the Holy Væhme in Germany, were admitted by German custom, which rules one half of the old English laws, and recommended in certain cases by Norman custom, which rules the other half. Justinian’s chief of the palace police was called “silentiarius imperialis.” The English magistrates who practised the captures in question relied upon numerous Norman texts:— Canes latrant, sergentes silent. Sergenter agere, id est tacere. They quoted Lundulphus Sagax, paragraph 16: Facit imperator silentium. They quoted the charter of King Philip in 1307: Multos tenebimus bastonerios qui, obmutescentes, sergentare valeant. They quoted the statutes of Henry I. of England, cap. 53: Surge signo jussus. Taciturnior esto. Hoc est esse in captione regis. They took advantage especially of the following description, held to form part of the ancient feudal franchises of England:— “Sous les viscomtes sont les serjans de l’espée, lesquels doivent justicier vertueusement à l’espée tous ceux qui suient malveses compagnies, gens diffamez d’aucuns crimes, et gens fuites et forbannis. . . . et les doivent si vigoureusement et discrètement appréhender, que la bonne gent qui sont paisibles soient gardez paisiblement et que les malfeteurs soient espoantés.” To be thus arrested was to be seized “à le glaive de l’espée.” (Vetus Consuetudo Normanniæ, MS. part I, sect. I, ch. 11.) The jurisconsults referred besides “in Charta Ludovici Hutum pro Normannis, chapter Servientes spathæ.” Servientes spathæ, in the gradual approach of base Latin to our idioms, became sergentes spadæ.
These silent arrests were the contrary of the Clameur de Haro, and gave warning that it was advisable to hold one’s tongue until such time as light should be thrown upon certain matters still in the dark. They signified questions reserved, and showed in the operation of the police a certain amount of raison d’état.
The legal term “private” was applied to arrests of this description. It was thus that Edward III., according to some chroniclers, caused Mortimer to be seized in the bed of his mother, Isabella of France. This, again, we may take leave to doubt; for Mortimer sustained a siege in his town before being captured.
Warwick, the king-maker, delighted in practising this mode of “attaching people.” Cromwell made use of it, especially in Connaught; and it was with this precaution of silence that Trailie Arcklo, a relation of the Earl of Ormond, was arrested at Kilmacaugh.
These captures of the body by the mere motion of justice represented rather the mandat de comparution than the warrant of arrest. Sometimes they were but processes of inquiry, and even argued, by the silence imposed upon all, a certain consideration for the person seized. For the mass of the people, little versed as they were in the estimate of such shades of difference, they had peculiar terrors.
It must not be forgotten that in 1705, and even much later, England was far from being what she is today. The general features of its constitution were confused and at times very oppressive. Daniel Defoe, who had himself had a taste of the pillory, characterizes the social order of England, somewhere in his writings, as the “iron hands of the law.” There was not only the law; there was its arbitrary administration. We have but to recall Steele, ejected from Parliament; Locke, driven from his chair; Hobbes and Gibbon, compelled to flight; Charles Churchill, Hume, and Priestley, persecuted; John Wilkes sent to the Tower. The task would be a long one, were we to count over the victims of the statute against seditious libel. The Inquisition had, to some extent, spread its arrangements throughout Europe, and its police practice was taken as a guide. A monstrous attempt against all rights was possible in England. We have only to recall the Gazetier Cuirassé. In the midst of the eighteenth century, Louis XV. had writers, whose works displeased him, arrested in Piccadilly. It is true that George II. laid his hands on the Pretender in France, right in the middle of the hall at the opera. Those were two long arms — that of the King of France reaching London; that of the King of England, Paris! Such was the liberty of the period.
As we have already said, according to the very severe laws of the police of those days, the summons to follow the wapentake, addressed to an individual, implied to all other persons present the command not to stir.
Some curious idlers, however, were stubborn, and followed from afar off the cortège which had taken Gwynplaine into custody.
Ursus was of them. He had been as nearly petrified as any one has a right to be. But Ursus, so often assailed by the surprises incident to a wandering life, and by the malice of chance, was, like a ship-of-war, prepared for action, and could call to the post of danger the whole crew — that is to say, the aid of all his intelligence.
He flung off his stupor and began to think. He strove not to give way to emotion, but to stand face to face with circumstances.
To look fortune in the face is the duty of every one not an idiot; to seek not to understand, but to act.
Presently he asked himself, What could he do?
Gwynplaine being taken, Ursus was placed between two terrors — a fear for Gwynplaine, which instigated him to follow; and a fear for himself, which urged him to remain where he was.
Ursus had the intrepidity of a fly and the impassibility of a sensitive plant. His agitation was not to be described. However, he took his resolution heroically, and decided to brave the law, and to follow the wapentake, so anxious was he concerning the fate of Gwynplaine.
His terror must have been great to prompt so much courage.
To what valiant acts will not fear drive a hare!
The chamois in despair jumps a precipice. To be terrified into imprudence is one of the forms of fear.
Gwynplaine had been carried off rather than arrested. The operation of the police had been executed so rapidly that the Fair field, generally little frequented at that hour of the morning, had scarcely taken cognizance of the circumstance.
Scarcely any one in the caravans had any idea that the wapentake had come to take Gwynplaine. Hence the smallness of the crowd.
Gwynplaine, thanks to his cloak and his hat, which nearly concealed his face, could not be recognized by the passers-by.
Before he went out to follow Gwynplaine, Ursus took a precaution. He spoke to Master Nicless, to the boy Govicum, and to Fibi and Vinos, and insisted on their keeping absolute silence before Dea, who was ignorant of everything. That they should not utter a syllable that could make her suspect what had occurred; that they should make her understand that the cares of the management of the Green Box necessitated the absence of Gwynplaine and Ursus; that, besides, it would soon be the time of her daily siesta, and that before she awoke he and Gwynplaine would have returned; that all that had taken place had arisen from a mistake; that it would be very easy for Gwynplaine and himself to clear themselves before the magistrate and police; that a touch of the finger would put the matter straight, after which they should both return; above all, that no one should say a word on the subject to Dea. Having given these directions he departed.
Ursus was able to follow Gwynplaine without being remarked. Though he kept at the greatest possible distance, he so managed as not to lose sight of him. Boldness in ambuscade is the bravery of the timid.
After all, notwithstanding the solemnity of the attendant circumstances, Gwynplaine might have been summoned before the magistrate for some unimportant infraction of the law.
Ursus assured himself that the question would be decided at once.
The solution of the mystery would be made under his very eyes by the direction taken by the cortège which took Gwynplaine from Tarrinzeau Field when it reached the entrance of the lanes of the Little Strand.
If it turned to the left, it would conduct Gwynplaine to the justice hall in Southwark. In that case there would be little to fear, some trifling municipal offence, an admonition from the magistrate, two or three shillings to pay, and Gwynplaine would be set at liberty, and the representation of “Chaos Vanquished” would take place in the evening as usual. In that case no one would know that anything unusual had happened.
If the cortège turned to the right, matters would be serious.
There were frightful places in that direction.
When the wapentake, leading the file of soldiers between whom Gwynplaine walked, arrived at the small streets, Ursus watched them breathlessly. There are moments in which a man’s whole being passes into his eyes.
Which way were they going to turn?
They turned to the right.
Ursus, staggering with terror, leant against a wall that he might not fall.
There is no hypocrisy so great as the words which we say to ourselves, “I wish to know the worst!” At heart we do not wish it at all. We have a dreadful fear of knowing it. Agony is mingled with a dim effort not to see the end. We do not own it to ourselves, but we would draw back if we dared; and when we have advanced, we reproach ourselves for having done so.
Thus did Ursus. He shuddered as he thought, —
“Here are things going wrong. I should have found it out soon enough. What business had I to follow Gwynplaine?”
Having made this reflection, man being but self-contradiction, he increased his pace, and, mastering his anxiety, hastened to get nearer the cortège, so as not to break, in the maze of small streets, the thread between Gwynplaine and himself.
The cortège of police could not move quickly, on account of its solemnity.
The wapentake led it.
The justice of the quorum closed it.
This order compelled a certain deliberation of movement.
All the majesty possible in an official shone in the justice of the quorum. His costume held a middle place between the splendid robe of a doctor of music of Oxford and the sober black habiliments of a doctor of divinity of Cambridge. He wore the dress of a gentleman under a long godebert, which is a mantle trimmed with the fur of the Norwegian hare. He was half Gothic and half modern, wearing a wig like Lamoignon, and sleeves like Tristan l’Hermite. His great round eye watched Gwynplaine with the fixedness of an owl’s.
He walked with a cadence. Never did honest man look fiercer.
Ursus, for a moment thrown out of his way in the tangled skein of streets, overtook, close to Saint Mary Overy, the cortège, which had fortunately been retarded in the churchyard by a fight between children and dogs — a common incident in the streets in those days. “Dogs and boys,” say the old registers of police, placing the dogs before the boys.
A man being taken before a magistrate by the police was, after all, an everyday affair, and each one having his own business to attend to, the few who had followed soon dispersed. There remained but Ursus on the track of Gwynplaine.
They passed before two chapels opposite to each other, belonging the one to the Recreative Religionists, the other to the Hallelujah League — sects which flourished then, and which exist to the present day.
Then the cortège wound from street to street, making a zigzag, choosing by preference lanes not yet built on, roads where the grass grew, and deserted alleys.
At length it stopped.
It was in a little lane with no houses except two or three hovels. This narrow alley was composed of two walls — one on the left, low; the other on the right, high. The high wall was black, and built in the Saxon style with narrow holes, scorpions, and large square gratings over narrow loopholes. There was no window on it, but here and there slits, old embrasures of pierriers and archegayes. At the foot of this high wall was seen, like the hole at the bottom of a rat-trap, a little wicket gate, very elliptical in its arch.
This small door, encased in a full, heavy girding of stone, had a grated peephole, a heavy knocker, a large lock, hinges thick and knotted, a bristling of nails, an armour of plates, and hinges, so that altogether it was more of iron than of wood.
There was no one in the lane — no shops, no passengers; but in it there was heard a continual noise, as if the lane ran parallel to a torrent. There was a tumult of voices and of carriages. It seemed as if on the other side of the black edifice there must be a great street, doubtless the principal street of Southwark, one end of which ran into the Canterbury road, and the other on to London Bridge.
All the length of the lane, except the cortège which surrounded Gwynplaine, a watcher would have seen no other human face than the pale profile of Ursus, hazarding a hall advance from the shadow of the corner of the wall — looking, yet fearing to see. He had posted himself behind the wall at a turn of the lane.
The constables grouped themselves before the wicket. Gwynplaine was in the centre, the wapentake and his baton of iron being now behind him.
The justice of the quorum raised the knocker, and struck the door three times. The loophole opened.
The justice of the quorum said, —
“By order of her Majesty.”
The heavy door of oak and iron turned on its hinges, making a chilly opening, like the mouth of a cavern. A hideous depth yawned in the shadow.
Ursus saw Gwynplaine disappear within it.
The wapentake entered behind Gwynplaine.
Then the justice of the quorum.
Then the constables.
The wicket was closed.
The heavy door swung to, closing hermetically on the stone sills, without any one seeing who had opened or shut it. It seemed as if the bolts reentered their sockets of their own act. Some of these mechanisms, the inventions of ancient intimidation, still exist in old prisons — doors of which you saw no doorkeeper. With them the entrance to a prison becomes like the entrance to a tomb.
This wicket was the lower door of Southwark Jail.
There was nothing in the harsh and worm-eaten aspect of this prison to soften its appropriate air of rigour.
Originally a pagan temple, built by the Catieuchlans for the Mogons, ancient English gods, it became a palace for Ethelwolf and a fortress for Edward the Confessor; then it was elevated to the dignity of a prison, in 1199, by John Lackland. Such was Southwark Jail. This jail, at first intersected by a street, like Chenonceaux by a river, had been for a century or two a gate — that is to say, the gate of the suburb; the passage had then been walled up. There remain in England some prisons of this nature. In London, Newgate; at Canterbury, Westgate; at Edinburgh, Canongate. In France the Bastile was originally a gate.
Almost all the jails of England present the same appearance — a high wall without and a hive of cells within. Nothing could be more funereal than the appearance of those prisons, where spiders and justice spread their webs, and where John Howard, that ray of light, had not yet penetrated. Like the old Gehenna of Brussels, they might well have been designated Treurenberg — the house of tears.
Men felt before such buildings, at once so savage and inhospitable, the same distress that the ancient navigators suffered before the hell of slaves mentioned by Plautus, islands of creaking chains, ferricrepiditæ insulæ, when they passed near enough to hear the clank of the fetters.
Southwark Jail, an old place of exorcisms and torture, was originally used solely for the imprisonment of sorcerers, as was proved by two verses engraved on a defaced stone at the foot of the wicket, —
Sunt arreptitii, vexati dæmone multo
Est energumenus, quem dæmon possidet unus.
Lines which draw a subtle delicate distinction between the demoniac and man possessed by a devil.
At the bottom of this inscription, nailed flat against the wall, was a stone ladder, which had been originally of wood, but which had been changed into stone by being buried in earth of petrifying quality at a place called Apsley Gowis, near Woburn Abbey.
The prison of Southwark, now demolished, opened on two streets, between which, as a gate, it formerly served as means of communication. It had two doors. In the large street a door, apparently used by the authorities; and in the lane the door of punishment, used by the rest of the living and by the dead also, because when a prisoner in the jail died it was by that issue that his corpse was carried out. A liberation not to be despised. Death is release into infinity.
It was by the gate of punishment that Gwynplaine had been taken into prison. The lane, as we have said, was nothing but a little passage, paved with flints, confined between two opposite walls. There is one of the same kind at Brussels called Rue d’une Personne. The walls were unequal in height. The high one was the prison; the low one, the cemetery — the enclosure for the mortuary remains of the jail — was not higher than the ordinary stature of a man. In it was a gate almost opposite the prison wicket. The dead had only to cross the street; the cemetery was but twenty paces from the jail. On the high wall was affixed a gallows; on the low one was sculptured a Death’s head. Neither of these walls made its opposite neighbour more cheerful.
Any one observing at that moment the other side of the prison — its façade — would have perceived the high street of Southwark, and might have remarked, stationed before the monumental and official entrance to the jail, a travelling carriage, recognized as such by its imperial. A few idlers surrounded the carriage. On it was a coat of arms, and a personage had been seen to descend from it and enter the prison. “Probably a magistrate,” conjectured the crowd. Many of the English magistrates were noble, and almost all had the right of bearing arms. In France blazon and robe were almost contradictory terms. The Duke Saint–Simon says, in speaking of magistrates, “people of that class.” In England a gentleman was not despised for being a judge.
There are travelling magistrates in England; they are called judges of circuit, and nothing was easier than to recognize the carriage as the vehicle of a judge on circuit. That which was less comprehensible was, that the supposed magistrate got down, not from the carriage itself, but from the box, a place which is not habitually occupied by the owner. Another unusual thing. People travelled at that period in England in two ways — by coach, at the rate of a shilling for five miles; and by post, paying three half-pence per mile, and twopence to the postillion after each stage. A private carriage, whose owner desired to travel by relays, paid as many shillings per horse per mile as the horseman paid pence. The carriage drawn up before the jail in Southwark had four horses and two postillions, which displayed princely state. Finally, that which excited and disconcerted conjectures to the utmost was the circumstance that the carriage was sedulously shut up. The blinds of the windows were closed up. The glasses in front were darkened by blinds; every opening by which the eye might have penetrated was masked. From without, nothing within could be seen, and most likely from within, nothing could be seen outside. However, it did not seem probable that there was any one in the carriage.
Southwark being in Surrey, the prison was within the jurisdiction of the sheriff of the county.
Such distinct jurisdictions were very frequent in England. Thus, for example, the Tower of London was not supposed to be situated in any county; that is to say, that legally it was considered to be in air. The Tower recognized no authority of jurisdiction except in its own constable, who was qualified as custos turris. The Tower had its jurisdiction, its church, its court of justice, and its government apart. The authority of its custos, or constable, extended, beyond London, over twenty-one hamlets. As in Great Britain legal singularities engraft one upon another the office of the master gunner of England was derived from the Tower of London. Other legal customs seem still more whimsical. Thus, the English Court of Admiralty consults and applies the laws of Rhodes and of Oleron, a French island which was once English.
The sheriff of a county was a person of high consideration. He was always an esquire, and sometimes a knight. He was called spectabilis in the old deeds, “a man to be looked at” — kind of intermediate title between illustris and clarissimus; less than the first, more than the second. Long ago the sheriffs of the counties were chosen by the people; but Edward II., and after him Henry VI., having claimed their nomination for the crown, the office of sheriff became a royal emanation.
They all received their commissions from majesty, except the sheriff of Westmoreland, whose office was hereditary, and the sheriffs of London and Middlesex, who were elected by the livery in the common hall. Sheriffs of Wales and Chester possessed certain fiscal prerogatives. These appointments are all still in existence in England, but, subjected little by little to the friction of manners and ideas, they have lost their old aspects. It was the duty of the sheriff of the county to escort and protect the judges on circuit. As we have two arms, he had two officers; his right arm the under-sheriff, his left arm the justice of the quorum. The justice of the quorum, assisted by the bailiff of the hundred, termed the wapentake, apprehended, examined, and, under the responsibility of the sheriff, imprisoned, for trial by the judges of circuit, thieves, murderers, rebels, vagabonds, and all sorts of felons.
The shade of difference between the under-sheriff and the justice of the quorum, in their hierarchical service towards the sheriff, was that the under-sheriff accompanied and the justice of the quorum assisted.
The sheriff held two courts — one fixed and central, the county court; and a movable court, the sheriff’s turn. He thus represented both unity and ubiquity. He might as judge be aided and informed on legal questions by the serjeant of the coif, called sergens coifæ, who is a serjeant-at-law, and who wears under his black skull-cap a fillet of white Cambray lawn.
The sheriff delivered the jails. When he arrived at a town in his province, he had the right of summary trial of the prisoners, of which he might cause either their release or the execution. This was called a jail delivery. The sheriff presented bills of indictment to the twenty-four members of the grand jury. If they approved, they wrote above, billa vera; if the contrary, they wrote ignoramus. In the latter case the accusation was annulled, and the sheriff had the privilege of tearing up the bill. If during the deliberation a juror died, this legally acquitted the prisoner and made him innocent, and the sheriff, who had the privilege of arresting the accused, had also that of setting him at liberty.
That which made the sheriff singularly feared and respected was that he had the charge of executing all the orders of her Majesty — a fearful latitude. An arbitrary power lodges in such commissions.
The officers termed vergers, the coroners making part of the sheriff’s cortège, and the clerks of the market as escort, with gentlemen on horseback and their servants in livery, made a handsome suite. The sheriff, says Chamberlayne, is the “life of justice, of law, and of the country.”
In England an insensible demolition constantly pulverizes and dissevers laws and customs. You must understand in our day that neither the sheriff, the wapentake, nor the justice of the quorum could exercise their functions as they did then. There was in the England of the past a certain confusion of powers, whose ill-defined attributes resulted in their overstepping their real bounds at times — a thing which would be impossible in the present day. The usurpation of power by police and justices has ceased. We believe that even the word “wapentake” has changed its meaning. It implied a magisterial function; now it signifies a territorial division: it specified the centurion; it now specifies the hundred (centum).
Moreover, in those days the sheriff of the county combined with something more and something less, and condensed in his own authority, which was at once royal and municipal, the two magistrates formerly called in France the civil lieutenant of Paris and the lieutenant of police. The civil lieutenant of Paris, Monsieur, is pretty well described in an old police note: “The civil lieutenant has no dislike to domestic quarrels, because he always has the pickings” (22nd July 1704). As to the lieutenant of police, he was a redoubtable person, multiple and vague. The best personification of him was René d’Argenson, who, as was said by Saint–Simon, displayed in his face the three judges of hell united.
The three judges of hell sat, as has already been seen, at Bishopsgate, London.
When Gwynplaine heard the wicket shut, creaking in all its bolts, he trembled. It seemed to him that the door which had just closed was the communication between light and darkness — opening on one side on the living, human crowd, and on the other on a dead world; and now that everything illumined by the sun was behind him, that he had stepped over the boundary of life and was standing without it, his heart contracted. What were they going to do with him? What did it all mean? Where was he?
He saw nothing around him; he found himself in perfect darkness. The shutting of the door had momentarily blinded him. The window in the door had been closed as well. No loophole, no lamp. Such were the precautions of old times. It was forbidden to light the entrance to the jails, so that the newcomers should take no observations.
Gwynplaine extended his arms, and touched the wall on the right side and on the left. He was in a passage. Little by little a cavernous daylight exuding, no one knows whence, and which floats about dark places, and to which the dilatation of the pupil adjusts itself slowly, enabled him to distinguish a feature here and there, and the corridor was vaguely sketched out before him.
Gwynplaine, who had never had a glimpse of penal severities, save in the exaggerations of Ursus, felt as though seized by a sort of vague gigantic hand. To be caught in the mysterious toils of the law is frightful. He who is brave in all other dangers is disconcerted in the presence of justice. Why? Is it that the justice of man works in twilight, and the judge gropes his way? Gwynplaine remembered what Ursus had told him of the necessity for silence. He wished to see Dea again; he felt some discretionary instinct, which urged him not to irritate. Sometimes to wish to be enlightened is to make matters worse; on the other hand, however, the weight of the adventure was so overwhelming that he gave way at length, and could not restrain a question.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “whither are you taking me?”
They made no answer.
It was the law of silent capture, and the Norman text is formal: A silentiariis ostio, præpositis introducti sunt.
This silence froze Gwynplaine. Up to that moment he had believed himself to be firm: he was self-sufficing. To be self-sufficing is to be powerful. He had lived isolated from the world, and imagined that being alone he was unassailable; and now all at once he felt himself under the pressure of a hideous collective force. How was he to combat that horrible anonyma, the law? He felt faint under the perplexity; a fear of an unknown character had found a fissure in his armour; besides, he had not slept, he had not eaten, he had scarcely moistened his lips with a cup of tea. The whole night had been passed in a kind of delirium, and the fever was still on him. He was thirsty; perhaps hungry. The craving of the stomach disorders everything. Since the previous evening all kinds of incidents had assailed him. The emotions which had tormented had sustained him. Without the storm a sail would be a rag. But his was the excessive feebleness of the rag, which the wind inflates till it tears it. He felt himself sinking. Was he about to fall without consciousness on the pavement? To faint is the resource of a woman, and the humiliation of a man. He hardened himself, but he trembled. He felt as one losing his footing.
They began to move forward.
They advanced through the passage.
There was no preliminary registry, no place of record. The prisons in those times were not overburdened with documents. They were content to close round you without knowing why. To be a prison, and to hold prisoners, sufficed.
The procession was obliged to lengthen itself out, taking the form of the corridor. They walked almost in single file; first the wapentake, then Gwynplaine, then the justice of the quorum, then the constables, advancing in a group, and blocking up the passage behind Gwynplaine as with a bung. The passage narrowed. Now Gwynplaine touched the walls with both his elbows. In the roof, which was made of flints, dashed with cement, was a succession of granite arches jutting out, and still more contracting the passage. He had to stoop to pass under them. No speed was possible in that corridor. Any one trying to escape through it would have been compelled to move slowly. The passage twisted. All entrails are tortuous; those of a prison as well as those of a man. Here and there, sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, spaces in the wall, square and closed by large iron gratings, gave glimpses of flights of stairs, some descending and some ascending.
They reached a closed door; it opened. They passed through, and it closed again. Then they came to a second door, which admitted them; then to a third, which also turned on its hinges. These doors seemed to open and shut of themselves. No one was to be seen. While the corridor contracted, the roof grew lower, until at length it was impossible to stand upright. Moisture exuded from the wall. Drops of water fell from the vault. The slabs that paved the corridor were clammy as an intestine. The diffused pallor that served as light became more and more a pall. Air was deficient, and, what was singularly ominous, the passage was a descent.
Close observation was necessary to perceive that there was such a descent. In darkness a gentle declivity is portentous. Nothing is more fearful than the vague evils to which we are led by imperceptible degrees.
It is awful to descend into unknown depths.
How long had they proceeded thus? Gwynplaine could not tell.
Moments passed under such crushing agony seem immeasurably prolonged.
Suddenly they halted.
The darkness was intense.
The corridor widened somewhat. Gwynplaine heard close to him a noise of which only a Chinese gong could give an idea; something like a blow struck against the diaphragm of the abyss. It was the wapentake striking his wand against a sheet of iron.
That sheet of iron was a door.
Not a door on hinges, but a door which was raised and let down.
Something like a portcullis.
There was a sound of creaking in a groove, and Gwynplaine was suddenly face to face with a bit of square light. The sheet of metal had just been raised into a slit in the vault, like the door of a mouse-trap.
An opening had appeared.
The light was not daylight, but glimmer; but on the dilated eyeballs of Gwynplaine the pale and sudden ray struck like a flash of lightning.
It was some time before he could see anything. To see with dazzled eyes is as difficult as to see in darkness.
At length, by degrees, the pupil of his eye became proportioned to the light, just as it had been proportioned to the darkness, and he was able to distinguish objects. The light, which at first had seemed too bright, settled into its proper hue and became livid. He cast a glance into the yawning space before him, and what he saw was terrible.
At his feet were about twenty steps, steep, narrow, worn, almost perpendicular, without balustrade on either side, a sort of stone ridge cut out from the side of a wall into stairs, entering and leading into a very deep cell. They reached to the bottom.
The cell was round, roofed by an ogee vault with a low arch, from the fault of level in the top stone of the frieze, a displacement common to cells under heavy edifices.
The kind of hole acting as a door, which the sheet of iron had just revealed, and on which the stairs abutted, was formed in the vault, so that the eye looked down from it as into a well.
The cell was large, and if it was the bottom of a well, it must have been a cyclopean one. The idea that the old word “cul-debasse-fosse” awakens in the mind can only be applied to it if it were a lair of wild beasts.
The cell was neither flagged nor paved. The bottom was of that cold, moist earth peculiar to deep places.
In the midst of the cell, four low and disproportioned columns sustained a porch heavily ogival, of which the four mouldings united in the interior of the porch, something like the inside of a mitre. This porch, similar to the pinnacles under which sarcophagi were formerly placed, rose nearly to the top of the vault, and made a sort of central chamber in the cavern, if that could be called a chamber which had only pillars in place of walls.
From the key of the arch hung a brass lamp, round and barred like the window of a prison. This lamp threw around it — on the pillars, on the vault, on the circular wall which was seen dimly behind the pillars — a wan light, cut by bars of shadow.
This was the light which had at first dazzled Gwynplaine; now it threw out only a confused redness.
There was no other light in the cell — neither window, nor door, nor loophole.
Between the four pillars, exactly below the lamp, in the spot where there was most light, a pale and terrible form lay on the ground.
It was lying on its back; a head was visible, of which the eyes were shut; a body, of which the chest was a shapeless mass; four limbs belonging to the body, in the position of the cross of Saint Andrew, were drawn towards the four pillars by four chains fastened to each foot and each hand.
These chains were fastened to an iron ring at the base of each column. The form was held immovable, in the horrible position of being quartered, and had the icy look of a livid corpse.
It was naked. It was a man.
Gwynplaine, as if petrified, stood at the top of the stairs, looking down. Suddenly he heard a rattle in the throat.
The corpse was alive.
Close to the spectre, in one of the ogives of the door, on each side of a great seat, which stood on a large flat stone, stood two men swathed in long black cloaks; and on the seat an old man was sitting, dressed in a red robe — wan, motionless, and ominous, holding a bunch of roses in his hand.
The bunch of roses would have enlightened any one less ignorant that Gwynplaine. The right of judging with a nosegay in his hand implied the holder to be a magistrate, at once royal and municipal. The Lord Mayor of London still keeps up the custom. To assist the deliberations of the judges was the function of the earliest roses of the season.
The old man seated on the bench was the sheriff of the county of Surrey.
His was the majestic rigidity of a Roman dignitary.
The bench was the only seat in the cell.
By the side of it was a table covered with papers and books, on which lay the long, white wand of the sheriff. The men standing by the side of the sheriff were two doctors, one of medicine, the other of law; the latter recognizable by the Serjeant’s coif over his wig. Both wore black robes — one of the shape worn by judges, the other by doctors.
Men of these kinds wear mourning for the deaths of which they are the cause.
Behind the sheriff, at the edge of the flat stone under the seat, was crouched — with a writing-table near to him, a bundle of papers on his knees, and a sheet of parchment on the bundle — a secretary, in a round wig, with a pen in his hand, in the attitude of a man ready to write.
This secretary was of the class called keeper of the bag, as was shown by a bag at his feet.
These bags, in former times employed in law processes, were termed bags of justice.
With folded arms, leaning against a pillar, was a man entirely dressed in leather, the hangman’s assistant.
These men seemed as if they had been fixed by enchantment in their funereal postures round the chained man. None of them spoke or moved.
There brooded over all a fearful calm.
What Gwynplaine saw was a torture chamber. There were many such in England.
The crypt of Beauchamp Tower long served this purpose, as did also the cell in the Lollards’ prison. A place of this nature is still to be seen in London, called “the Vaults of Lady Place.” In this last-mentioned chamber there is a grate for the purpose of heating the irons.
All the prisons of King John’s time (and Southwark Jail was one) had their chambers of torture.
The scene which is about to follow was in those days a frequent one in England, and might even, by criminal process, be carried out today, since the same laws are still unrepealed. England offers the curious sight of a barbarous code living on the best terms with liberty. We confess that they make an excellent family party.
Some distrust, however, might not be undesirable. In the case of a crisis, a return to the penal code would not be impossible. English legislation is a tamed tiger with a velvet paw, but the claws are still there. Cut the claws of the law, and you will do well. Law almost ignores right. On one side is penalty, on the other humanity. Philosophers protest; but it will take some time yet before the justice of man is assimilated to the justice of God.
Respect for the law: that is the English phrase. In England they venerate so many laws, that they never repeal any. They save themselves from the consequences of their veneration by never putting them into execution. An old law falls into disuse like an old woman, and they never think of killing either one or the other. They cease to make use of them; that is all. Both are at liberty to consider themselves still young and beautiful. They may fancy that they are as they were. This politeness is called respect.
Norman custom is very wrinkled. That does not prevent many an English judge casting sheep’s eyes at her. They stick amorously to an antiquated atrocity, so long as it is Norman. What can be more savage than the gibbet? In 1867 a man was sentenced to be cut into four quarters and offered to a woman — the Queen.18
Still, torture was never practised in England. History asserts this as a fact. The assurance of history is wonderful.
Matthew of Westminster mentions that the “Saxon law, very clement and kind,” did not punish criminals by death; and adds that “it limited itself to cutting off the nose and scooping out the eyes.” That was all!
Gwynplaine, scared and haggard, stood at the top of the steps, trembling in every limb. He shuddered from head to foot. He tried to remember what crime he had committed. To the silence of the wapentake had succeeded the vision of torture to be endured. It was a step, indeed, forward; but a tragic one. He saw the dark enigma of the law under the power of which he felt himself increasing in obscurity.
The human form lying on the earth rattled in its throat again.
Gwynplaine felt some one touching him gently on his shoulder.
It was the wapentake.
Gwynplaine knew that meant that he was to descend.
He descended the stairs step by step. They were very narrow, each eight or nine inches in height. There was no hand-rail. The descent required caution. Two steps behind Gwynplaine followed the wapentake, holding up his iron weapon; and at the same interval behind the wapentake, the justice of the quorum.
As he descended the steps, Gwynplaine felt an indescribable extinction of hope. There was death in each step. In each one that he descended there died a ray of the light within him. Growing paler and paler, he reached the bottom of the stairs.
The larva lying chained to the four pillars still rattled in its throat.
A voice in the shadow said, —
It was the sheriff addressing Gwynplaine.
Gwynplaine took a step forward.
“Closer,” said the sheriff.
The justice of the quorum murmured in the ear of Gwynplaine, so gravely that there was solemnity in the whisper, “You are before the sheriff of the county of Surrey.”
Gwynplaine advanced towards the victim extended in the centre of the cell. The wapentake and the justice of the quorum remained where they were, allowing Gwynplaine to advance alone.
When Gwynplaine reached the spot under the porch, close to that miserable thing which he had hitherto perceived only from a distance, but which was a living man, his fear rose to terror. The man who was chained there was quite naked, except for that rag so hideously modest, which might be called the vineleaf of punishment, the succingulum of the Romans, and the christipannus of the Goths, of which the old Gallic jargon made cripagne. Christ wore but that shred on the cross.
The terror-stricken sufferer whom Gwynplaine now saw seemed a man of about fifty or sixty years of age. He was bald. Grizzly hairs of beard bristled on his chin. His eyes were closed, his mouth open. Every tooth was to be seen. His thin and bony face was like a death’s-head. His arms and legs were fastened by chains to the four stone pillars in the shape of the letter X. He had on his breast and belly a plate of iron, and on this iron five or six large stones were laid. His rattle was at times a sigh, at times a roar.
The sheriff, still holding his bunch of roses, took from the table with the hand which was free his white wand, and standing up said, “Obedience to her Majesty.”
Then he replaced the wand upon the table.
Then in words long-drawn as a knell, without a gesture, and immovable as the sufferer, the sheriff, raising his voice, said, —
“Man, who liest here bound in chains, listen for the last time to the voice of justice; you have been taken from your dungeon and brought to this jail. Legally summoned in the usual forms, formaliis verbis pressus; not regarding to lectures and communications which have been made, and which will now be repeated, to you; inspired by a bad and perverse spirit of tenacity, you have preserved silence, and refused to answer the judge. This is a detestable licence, which constitutes, among deeds punishable by cashlit, the crime and misdemeanour of overseness.”
The serjeant of the coif on the right of the sheriff interrupted him, and said, with an indifference indescribably lugubrious in its effect, “Overhernessa. Laws of Alfred and of Godrun, chapter the sixth.”
The sheriff resumed.
“The law is respected by all except by scoundrels who infest the woods where the hinds bear young.”
Like one clock striking after another, the serjeant said, —
“Qui faciunt vastum in foresta ubi damoe solent founinare.”
“He who refuses to answer the magistrate,” said the sheriff, “is suspected of every vice. He is reputed capable of every evil.”
The serjeant interposed.
“Prodigus, devorator, profusus, salax, ruffianus, ebriosus, luxuriosus, simulator, consumptor patrimonii, elluo, ambro, et gluto.”
“Every vice,” said the sheriff, “means every crime. He who confesses nothing, confesses everything. He who holds his peace before the questions of the judge is in fact a liar and a parricide.”
“Mendax et parricida,” said the serjeant.
The sheriff said, —
“Man, it is not permitted to absent oneself by silence. To pretend contumaciousness is a wound given to the law. It is like Diomede wounding a goddess. Taciturnity before a judge is a form of rebellion. Treason to justice is high treason. Nothing is more hateful or rash. He who resists interrogation steals truth. The law has provided for this. For such cases, the English have always enjoyed the right of the foss, the fork, and chains.”
“Anglica Charta, year 1088,” said the serjeant. Then with the same mechanical gravity he added, “Ferrum, et fossam, et furcas cum aliis libertatibus.”
The sheriff continued, —
“Man! Forasmuch as you have not chosen to break silence, though of sound mind and having full knowledge in respect of the subject concerning which justice demands an answer, and forasmuch as you are diabolically refractory, you have necessarily been put to torture, and you have been, by the terms of the criminal statutes, tried by the ‘Peine forte et dure.’ This is what has been done to you, for the law requires that I should fully inform you. You have been brought to this dungeon. You have been stripped of your clothes. You have been laid on your back naked on the ground, your limbs have been stretched and tied to the four pillars of the law; a sheet of iron has been placed on your chest, and as many stones as you can bear have been heaped on your belly, ‘and more,’ says the law.”
“Plusque,” affirmed the serjeant.
The sheriff continued, —
“In this situation, and before prolonging the torture, a second summons to answer and to speak has been made you by me, sheriff of the county of Surrey, and you have satanically kept silent, though under torture, chains, shackles, fetters, and irons.”
“Attachiamenta legalia,” said the serjeant.
“On your refusal and contumacy,” said the sheriff, “it being right that the obstinacy of the law should equal the obstinacy of the criminal, the proof has been continued according to the edicts and texts. The first day you were given nothing to eat or drink.”
“Hoc est superjejunare,” said the serjeant.
There was silence, the awful hiss of the man’s breathing was heard from under the heap of stones.
The serjeant-at-law completed his quotation.
“Adde augmentum abstinentiæ ciborum diminutione. Consuetudo brittanica, art. 504.”
The two men, the sheriff and the serjeant, alternated. Nothing could be more dreary than their imperturbable monotony. The mournful voice responded to the ominous voice; it might be said that the priest and the deacon of punishment were celebrating the savage mass of the law.
The sheriff resumed, —
“On the first day you were given nothing to eat or drink. On the second day you were given food, but nothing to drink. Between your teeth were thrust three mouthfuls of barley bread. On the third day they gave you to drink, but nothing to eat. They poured into your mouth at three different times, and in three different glasses, a pint of water taken from the common sewer of the prison. The fourth day is come. It is today. Now, if you do not answer, you will be left here till you die. Justice wills it.”
The Serjeant, ready with his reply, appeared.
“Mors rei homagium est bonæ legi.”
“And while you feel yourself dying miserably,” resumed the sheriff, “no one will attend to you, even when the blood rushes from your throat, your chin, and your armpits, and every pore, from the mouth to the loins.”
“A throtabolla,” said the Serjeant, “et pabu et subhircis et a grugno usque ad crupponum.”
The sheriff continued, —
“Man, attend to me, because the consequences concern you. If you renounce your execrable silence, and if you confess, you will only be hanged, and you will have a right to the meldefeoh, which is a sum of money.”
“Damnum confitens,” said the Serjeant, “habeat le meldefeoh. Leges Inæ, chapter the twentieth.”
“Which sum,” insisted the sheriff, “shall be paid in doitkins, suskins, and galihalpens, the only case in which this money is to pass, according to the terms of the statute of abolition, in the third of Henry V., and you will have the right and enjoyment of scortum ante mortem, and then be hanged on the gibbet. Such are the advantages of confession. Does it please you to answer to justice?”
The sheriff ceased and waited.
The prisoner lay motionless.
The sheriff resumed, —
“Man, silence is a refuge in which there is more risk than safety. The obstinate man is damnable and vicious. He who is silent before justice is a felon to the crown. Do not persist in this unfilial disobedience. Think of her Majesty. Do not oppose our gracious queen. When I speak to you, answer her; be a loyal subject.”
The patient rattled in the throat.
The sheriff continued, —
“So, after the seventy-two hours of the proof, here we are at the fourth day. Man, this is the decisive day. The fourth day has been fixed by the law for the confrontation.”
“Quarta die, frontem ad frontem adduce,” growled the Serjeant.
“The wisdom of the law,” continued the sheriff, “has chosen this last hour to hold what our ancestors called ‘judgment by mortal cold,’ seeing that it is the moment when men are believed on their yes or their no.”
The serjeant on the right confirmed his words.
“Judicium pro frodmortell, quod homines credendi sint per suum ya et per suum no. Charter of King Adelstan, volume the first, page one hundred and sixty-three.”
There was a moment’s pause; then the sheriff bent his stern face towards the prisoner.
“Man, who art lying there on the ground — ”
“Man,” he cried, “do you hear me?”
The man did not move.
“In the name of the law,” said the sheriff, “open your eyes.”
The man’s lids remained closed.
The sheriff turned to the doctor, who was standing on his left.
“Doctor, give your diagnostic.”
“Probe, da diagnosticum,” said the serjeant.
The doctor came down with magisterial stiffness, approached the man, leant over him, put his ear close to the mouth of the sufferer, felt the pulse at the wrist, the armpit, and the thigh, then rose again.
“Well?” said the sheriff.
“He can still hear,” said the doctor.
“Can he see?” inquired the sheriff.
The doctor answered, “He can see.”
On a sign from the sheriff, the justice of the quorum and the wapentake advanced. The wapentake placed himself near the head of the patient. The justice of the quorum stood behind Gwynplaine.
The doctor retired a step behind the pillars.
Then the sheriff, raising the bunch of roses as a priest about to sprinkle holy water, called to the prisoner in a loud voice, and became awful.
“O wretched man, speak! The law supplicates before she exterminates you. You, who feign to be mute, remember how mute is the tomb. You, who appear deaf, remember that damnation is more deaf. Think of the death which is worse than your present state. Repent! You are about to be left alone in this cell. Listen! you who are my likeness; for I am a man! Listen, my brother, because I am a Christian! Listen, my son, because I am an old man! Look at me; for I am the master of your sufferings, and I am about to become terrible. The terrors of the law make up the majesty of the judge. Believe that I myself tremble before myself. My own power alarms me. Do not drive me to extremities. I am filled by the holy malice of chastisement. Feel, then, wretched man, the salutary and honest fear of justice, and obey me. The hour of confrontation is come, and you must answer. Do not harden yourself in resistance. Do not that which will be irrevocable. Think that your end belongs to me. Half man, half corpse, listen! At least, let it not be your determination to expire here, exhausted for hours, days, and weeks, by frightful agonies of hunger and foulness, under the weight of those stones, alone in this cell, deserted, forgotten, annihilated, left as food for the rats and the weasels, gnawed by creatures of darkness while the world comes and goes, buys and sells, whilst carriages roll in the streets above your head. Unless you would continue to draw painful breath without remission in the depths of this despair — grinding your teeth, weeping, blaspheming — without a doctor to appease the anguish of your wounds, without a priest to offer a divine draught of water to your soul. Oh! if only that you may not feel the frightful froth of the sepulchre ooze slowly from your lips, I adjure and conjure you to hear me. I call you to your own aid. Have pity on yourself. Do what is asked of you. Give way to justice. Open your eyes, and see if you recognize this man!”
The prisoner neither turned his head nor lifted his eyelids.
The sheriff cast a glance first at the justice of the quorum and then at the wapentake.
The justice of the quorum, taking Gwynplaine’s hat and mantle, put his hands on his shoulders and placed him in the light by the side of the chained man. The face of Gwynplaine stood out clearly from the surrounding shadow in its strange relief.
At the same time, the wapentake bent down, took the man’s temples between his hands, turned the inert head towards Gwynplaine, and with his thumbs and his first fingers lifted the closed eyelids.
The prisoner saw Gwynplaine. Then, raising his head voluntarily, and opening his eyes wide, he looked at him.
He quivered as much as a man can quiver with a mountain on his breast, and then cried out, —
“’Tis he! Yes; ’tis he!”
And he burst into a horrible laugh.
“’Tis he!” he repeated.
Then his head fell back on the ground, and he closed his eyes again.
“Registrar, take that down,” said the justice.
Gwynplaine, though terrified, had, up to that moment, preserved a calm exterior. The cry of the prisoner, “’Tis he!” overwhelmed him completely. The words, “Registrar, take that down!” froze him. It seemed to him that a scoundrel had dragged him to his fate without his being able to guess why, and that the man’s unintelligible confession was closing round him like the clasp of an iron collar. He fancied himself side by side with him in the posts of the same pillory. Gwynplaine lost his footing in his terror, and protested. He began to stammer incoherent words in the deep distress of an innocent man, and quivering, terrified, lost, uttered the first random outcries that rose to his mind, and words of agony like aimless projectiles.
“It is not true. It was not me. I do not know the man. He cannot know me, since I do not know him. I have my part to play this evening. What do you want of me? I demand my liberty. Nor is that all. Why have I been brought into this dungeon? Are there laws no longer? You may as well say at once that there are no laws. My Lord Judge, I repeat that it is not I. I am innocent of all that can be said. I know I am. I wish to go away. This is not justice. There is nothing between this man and me. You can find out. My life is not hidden up. They came and took me away like a thief. Why did they come like that? How could I know the man? I am a travelling mountebank, who plays farces at fairs and markets. I am the Laughing Man. Plenty of people have been to see me. We are staying in Tarrinzeau Field. I have been earning an honest livelihood these fifteen years. I am five-and-twenty. I lodge at the Tadcaster Inn. I am called Gwynplaine. My lord, let me out. You should not take advantage of the low estate of the unfortunate. Have compassion on a man who has done no harm, who is without protection and without defence. You have before you a poor mountebank.”
“I have before me,” said the sheriff, “Lord Fermain Clancharlie, Baron Clancharlie and Hunkerville, Marquis of Corleone in Sicily, and a peer of England.”
Rising, and offering his chair to Gwynplaine, the sheriff added, —
“My lord, will your lordship deign to seat yourself?”
18 The Fenian, Burke.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09