What a silky smooth hellion she was; and so composed and serene, when the cords all down my legs were hurting in sympathy with that man's pain. Conducted by mailed guards bearing flaring torches, we tramped along echoing corridors, and down stone stairways dank and dripping, and smelling of mould and ages of imprisoned night — a chill, uncanny journey and a long one, and not made the shorter or the cheerier by the sorceress's talk, which was about this sufferer and his crime. He had been accused by an anonymous informer, of having killed a stag in the royal preserves. I said:
"Anonymous testimony isn't just the right thing, your Highness. It were fairer to confront the accused with the accuser."
"I had not thought of that, it being but of small consequence. But an I would, I could not, for that the accuser came masked by night, and told the forester, and straightway got him hence again, and so the forester knoweth him not."
"Then is this Unknown the only person who saw the stag killed?"
"Marry, no man saw the killing, but this Unknown saw this hardy wretch near to the spot where the stag lay, and came with right loyal zeal and betrayed him to the forester."
"So the Unknown was near the dead stag, too? Isn't it just possible that he did the killing himself? His loyal zeal — in a mask — looks just a shade suspicious. But what is your highness's idea for racking the prisoner? Where is the profit?"
"He will not confess, else; and then were his soul lost. For his crime his life is forfeited by the law — and of a surety will I see that he payeth it! — but it were peril to my own soul to let him die unconfessed and unabsolved. Nay, I were a fool to fling me into hell for his accommodation."
"But, your Highness, suppose he has nothing to confess?"
"As to that, we shall see, anon. An I rack him to death and he confess not, it will peradventure show that he had indeed naught to confess — ye will grant that that is sooth? Then shall I not be damned for an unconfessed man that had naught to confess — wherefore, I shall be safe."
It was the stubborn unreasoning of the time. It was useless to argue with her. Arguments have no chance against petrified training; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff. And her training was everybody's. The brightest intellect in the land would not have been able to see that her position was defective.
As we entered the rack-cell I caught a picture that will not go from me; I wish it would. A native young giant of thirty or thereabouts lay stretched upon the frame on his back, with his wrists and ankles tied to ropes which led over windlasses at either end. There was no color in him; his features were contorted and set, and sweat-drops stood upon his forehead. A priest bent over him on each side; the executioner stood by; guards were on duty; smoking torches stood in sockets along the walls; in a corner crouched a poor young creature, her face drawn with anguish, a half-wild and hunted look in her eyes, and in her lap lay a little child asleep. Just as we stepped across the threshold the executioner gave his machine a slight turn, which wrung a cry from both the prisoner and the woman; but I shouted, and the executioner released the strain without waiting to see who spoke. I could not let this horror go on; it would have killed me to see it. I asked the queen to let me clear the place and speak to the prisoner privately; and when she was going to object I spoke in a low voice and said I did not want to make a scene before her servants, but I must have my way; for I was King Arthur's representative, and was speaking in his name. She saw she had to yield. I asked her to indorse me to these people, and then leave me. It was not pleasant for her, but she took the pill; and even went further than I was meaning to require. I only wanted the backing of her own authority; but she said:
"Ye will do in all things as this lord shall command. It is The Boss."
It was certainly a good word to conjure with: you could see it by the squirming of these rats. The queen's guards fell into line, and she and they marched away, with their torch-bearers, and woke the echoes of the cavernous tunnels with the measured beat of their retreating footfalls. I had the prisoner taken from the rack and placed upon his bed, and medicaments applied to his hurts, and wine given him to drink. The woman crept near and looked on, eagerly, lovingly, but timorously, — like one who fears a repulse; indeed, she tried furtively to touch the man's forehead, and jumped back, the picture of fright, when I turned unconsciously toward her. It was pitiful to see.
"Lord," I said, "stroke him, lass, if you want to. Do anything you're a mind to; don't mind me."
Why, her eyes were as grateful as an animal's, when you do it a kindness that it understands. The baby was out of her way and she had her cheek against the man's in a minute and her hands fondling his hair, and her happy tears running down. The man revived and caressed his wife with his eyes, which was all he could do. I judged I might clear the den, now, and I did; cleared it of all but the family and myself. Then I said:
"Now, my friend, tell me your side of this matter; I know the other side."
The man moved his head in sign of refusal. But the woman looked pleased — as it seemed to me — pleased with my suggestion. I went on —
"You know of me?"
"Yes. All do, in Arthur's realms."
"If my reputation has come to you right and straight, you should not be afraid to speak."
The woman broke in, eagerly:
"Ah, fair my lord, do thou persuade him! Thou canst an thou wilt. Ah, he suffereth so; and it is for me — for me! And how can I bear it? I would I might see him die — a sweet, swift death; oh, my Hugo, I cannot bear this one!"
And she fell to sobbing and grovelling about my feet, and still imploring. Imploring what? The man's death? I could not quite get the bearings of the thing. But Hugo interrupted her and said:
"Peace! Ye wit not what ye ask. Shall I starve whom I love, to win a gentle death? I wend thou knewest me better."
"Well," I said, "I can't quite make this out. It is a puzzle. Now — "
"Ah, dear my lord, an ye will but persuade him! Consider how these his tortures wound me! Oh, and he will not speak! — whereas, the healing, the solace that lie in a blessed swift death — "
"What are you maundering about? He's going out from here a free man and whole — he's not going to die."
The man's white face lit up, and the woman flung herself at me in a most surprising explosion of joy, and cried out:
"He is saved! — for it is the king's word by the mouth of the king's servant — Arthur, the king whose word is gold!"
"Well, then you do believe I can be trusted, after all. Why didn't you before?"
"Who doubted? Not I, indeed; and not she."
"Well, why wouldn't you tell me your story, then?"
"Ye had made no promise; else had it been otherwise."
"I see, I see . . . . And yet I believe I don't quite see, after all. You stood the torture and refused to confess; which shows plain enough to even the dullest understanding that you had nothing to confess — "
"I, my lord? How so? It was I that killed the deer!"
"You did? Oh, dear, this is the most mixed-up business that ever — "
"Dear lord, I begged him on my knees to confess, but — "
"You did! It gets thicker and thicker. What did you want him to do that for?"
"Sith it would bring him a quick death and save him all this cruel pain."
"Well — yes, there is reason in that. But he didn't want the quick death."
"He? Why, of a surety he did."
"Well, then, why in the world didn't he confess?"
"Ah, sweet sir, and leave my wife and chick without bread and shelter?"
"Oh, heart of gold, now I see it! The bitter law takes the convicted man's estate and beggars his widow and his orphans. They could torture you to death, but without conviction or confession they could not rob your wife and baby. You stood by them like a man; and you — true wife and the woman that you are — you would have bought him release from torture at cost to yourself of slow starvation and death — well, it humbles a body to think what your sex can do when it comes to self-sacrifice. I'll book you both for my colony; you'll like it there; it's a Factory where I'm going to turn groping and grubbing automata into men."