The Devil’s Pen
by Wayne C. Peake, Jr.
part 1 of 2
My name is William Hargrove. The year of our Lord 1829, October the Seventeenth, I do solemnly swear upon my honor and before almighty God that this is a true and accurate account of the events of my life.
I do freely and willingly confess to all the unspeakable acts of debauchery revealed in this written statement. These acts are largely the result of various faults in my character. You will not hear from me vain justifications for what I have done nor pleas for mercy. What I have done, I have done.
An untamed beast lives and breathes just below the surface of us all, straining against the confines imposed upon it by our polite and mannerly society. That beast waits beneath the mask, gentlemen.
Oh brothers, dear sweet sisters, let not the insatiable beast we call emotion get its claws into you. Lock the ravaging beast away that rages with carnal desire. Lock it away in a cage of adamantine will and then cast that key away forever.
Pay heed to the warning in my sad tale and hereafter build your lives on the solid rock of reason, so that you may take every advantage from that sure and sound footing.
* * *
Here I sit at my roll-top mahogany desk, writing by the warm glow of gaslight lanterns, staring at it. The pen, exquisite, long and flowing, gracefully-balanced; sharp and golden-tipped, it begs to be held. To wind and whip its way across the page, like a ballerina upon the stage and just as fluid, graceful and sure as any prima ballerina. But I shall not hold that wondrous shaft in my hand again. No, for it is the Devil’s pen.
I drift back in my mind now to happier days, when I was filled with youthful innocence and exuberance. It was less than two years ago today and yet it seems like it was another man entirely that stood on the steps of the magnificent auditorium at Baneford Academy. I was waiting there to receive my doctorate in the literary arts. In my time at the Academy I had made something of a reputation for myself as a writer.
The Headmaster, Professor Perkins, was a dear and gentle soul who was prone to emotional outbursts, just as I was. In this and in our love for the written word we were kindred spirits. The dear old gentleman was so happy it was as if he were receiving the diploma instead of conferring it upon me.
It seemed to me as if I had waited an eternity for this moment. Unlike most of the other students, my parents had not been wealthy or aristocratic. In fact, it was something of a miracle that I had been allowed to attend at all. I struggled endlessly with finances. My parents died when I was quite young and although they provided for me in their will, it was in the form of a monthly allowance that was not nearly enough for the tuition.
* * *
But my mind was not on these things. What the diploma meant to me, was that at last, I could marry my beloved, Suzette. We met at her coming-out party. I had not been invited to this affair: aristocracy only, you understand. But Charles Sterling, a dear friend from the academy, brought me along as his guest. Charles was a noble fellow. He never held it against me that I was a commoner, the way most of the other students did.
But I digress. What an unforgettable day it was! From the very first moment I saw her, I adored her. I worshipped her. I was filled with a glowing love light, my feet disdaining the coarse and crude earth beneath them. My soul enshrined an image of her. My dream of love always and forever, my sweet Suzette.
When my lips met hers for the first time, what a rapturous thrill. Sharp currents of pleasure coursed through me, overwhelming my senses. She stirred in me a wild and erotic fascination. It raged inside me like a hurricane at sea, buffeting my emotions about with waves of wild desire.
Suzette’s father had made it very clear that he disapproved of me. So we met secretly every Sunday when she was supposed to be at piano practice. Suzette explained it to me, laughing. She said her piano teacher didn’t mind; she was still being paid and she just couldn’t stand the “God-awful racket,” anyway.
* * *
With my diploma in hand, I would at last be able to face her father and legitimately ask for her hand in marriage. I rode to the Brettel Estate, a grand five-story Victorian manor. It was surrounded by a lovely eighteenth-century style hedged garden and enclosed by a tall and imposing iron-gated stone wall. One of the servants took my horse as the other led me inside. “I will tell Colonel Brettel you are here, sir.”
I stood in the grand entrance hall. A winding staircase led to the second floor and above me hung a magnificent golden multi-tiered chandelier. Set upon the freshly waxed marble floors were busts of some of the great men of British history: Wellington, Chamberlain, Cromwell, Shakespeare, all waiting there impatiently with me. I waited and I waited... and waited. I must have stood in that hallway for over an hour.
Finally, a servant appeared and said, “The colonel will see you now.”
He led me to the library. The colonel sat near the fireplace drinking brandy and smoking one of the biggest cigars that I had ever seen.
“What can I do for you Mr. Hargrove?” He asked.
“Sir, I have just received my Doctorate from Baneford Academy. Your daughter and I are very much in love. I have been assured that I have a very promising future. All of my professors recommend me highly. I have come to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
The colonel jumped from his chair his face flushed, his eyes blazing fiercely, “You little bastard! You have been sneaking around with my Suzette, haven’t you? Is she pregnant? By God, I’ll kill you with my own bare hands!” He was built like a bull with huge hands, but I was much faster. He lunged for my throat. I blocked his arms and swung around behind him in the same motion, grabbing him in a headlock.
“Calm down colonel. Suzette isn’t pregnant. I haven’t touched her,” I pleaded with him.
“You get the hell out of here. If I ever see your face again, I shall sic the dogs on you!” he bellowed.
Now I was consumed with rage myself and sorely tempted to break his neck. “Be reasonable, sir,” I said releasing him, restraining myself from further violence.
“Get out now,” he said in a low, even tone. He was deadly serious.
I turned and walked slowly out. I was filled with grief and anger. That did not go well, I thought. As I stepped out of the double doors of the entranceway, I heard the colonel yell, “Grab him!” The two doormen tackled me and held me face down in the entranceway. I could see the colonel’s black boots from my undignified position on the floor. I heard him snarl, “This will teach you to keep your damn hands off my daughter!”
I felt his hands in my hair, and then he began slamming my face into the floor. More of his men must have come, because I could feel them stomping and kicking me with their heeled riding boots. I passed out the third time my head went into the cold stone floor.
* * *
I came to in a ditch alongside the road. One of my eyes was swollen shut and my lips were thick and rubbery. I could taste the iron flavor of blood in my mouth. A couple of my teeth had been broken. Well, there go my boyish good looks, I thought, laughing at myself.
Beside the road stood my horse Uncas, whom I named after the fierce Indian in J. Fenimore Cooper’s, The Last of the Mohicans. I had a hell of a time climbing back into the saddle. My mind wouldn’t focus and I was awkward. I couldn’t get my foot into the bloody stirrup. Every movement sent sharp pains shooting through me. I think one of my ribs was broken, because it always gave me trouble after that. I don’t remember how I made it back to Baneford.
* * *
I awoke two days later, naked atop the sheets that were covered with vomit and stained in blood. I limped around trying to clean it up as best I could. I was starving, but I could not eat much because of my painfully swollen lips.
My mind went racing out to Suzette. What would her father do to her? I had to see her. I threw on a long overcoat and headed out the door. I couldn’t ride, but if I could get a message to her, perhaps we could arrange something.
As I walked out into the street, I saw a thin, taut, and lively gypsy girl. Her mouth was exquisite, ripe, plump and succulent with the most enticing little gap between her top two front teeth. She had raven-black hair falling to her waist and the most intriguing coal-black eyes. Her eyes seemed to peer into the secret depths of my soul.
“Oh you poor man! What happened?” she asked.
“Well, I got knocked around pretty good,” I replied. “It doesn’t really matter. My name is William. Would you please do a favor for me? I’ll give you whatever you ask, within reason.”
“What do you have in mind, darling?” she asked, winking at me.
“Oh no, it’s not that! I need you to get a message to someone. Will you help me?”
“Too bad,” she said, with a wicked little smile. “Sure I’ll do it, ten pounds up front.”
“Five now, five when I get a message back saying the note has been delivered.”
“All right, William, I’ll do it. My name is Myra. A pleasure.”
With Myra’s help, I was able to get a message to Elisa, one of Suzette’s old friends from finishing school. Elisa and I were able to arrange a rendezvous soon after that.
* * *
I saw Suzette standing in our secret meeting place. It was just beneath an old and distinguished gentleman of an oak, the last surviving member of the forest that once covered these rolling hills. It stood well over a hundred feet tall. The oak’s branches forked out at twenty feet above the ground. It stretched one mighty limb across a small stream that ran lazily through the manicured grounds. A dove cooed softly somewhere in the high grass of the field beyond the stream.
“Oh... William, your face! Did my father do that?” Suzette said.
“Yes, he and a couple of his men.”
“Why did you do it, William? Didn’t you realize what he would do? I am practically under house arrest now. He has men watching me night and day. Oh, I do hope I haven’t led them to this place!”
“I did it because I love you terribly. I want you to be mine, always and forever, my sweet Suzette. Come away with me tonight,” I said, putting my hands around her waist and losing myself in the bright-green orbs of delight that were her eyes. “We’ll leave the country. Let’s go to America, Suzette. We’ll start a new life together.”
“I’m so torn up inside! I can’t marry you now, William. My father means to marry me to some wealthy and powerful aristocrat. It’s all business with him,” she fumed. “If we ran off together, he’d have you killed, I just know it!” She gently brushed my hair back from my face with delicate wave of her tiny hand. “I just couldn’t bear that William. I do love you so... I can’t even see you now! He has his spies everywhere.”
“This is not the end Suzette. I shall find a way for us to be together,” I said, nearly crying.
* * *
“Well, tell!” Myra said, poking me in the ribs, which were still sore as hell. “I want to hear all about it, you romantic devil, you.”
“She won’t marry me!” I blurted out, hurt and angry. “She says her father would have me killed. After what happened last week, I think she is right. I am half out of my mind, Myra. I don’t know what to do.”
Myra cocked her head to the side, looked me in the eye and asked, “Why don’t you just kill the bastard?”
“You’re not serious,” I said, startled by the brutality of her suggestion.
“No, William,” she laughed. “I see you don’t have the stomach for that. But maybe I can help.”
* * *
I saddled up Uncas. Myra and I rode together to her camp just as the sun was setting in the sky. The sunset presented us with an amazing display of the maker’s art. The canvas of the sky was painted with broad strokes of smoky deep purple, splashed nonchalantly with a melancholy vermilion. You outdid yourself tonight, old man, I remember thinking to myself as we drew closer to the wagons of her vagabond tribe.
A violin played soft and haunting strains somewhere in the night. She made a series of hand signals as we neared. Quite obviously, she was communicating with the men set about the perimeter of the camp to guard it. The campfires were already burning in the fading sunlight. The womenfolk were cooking the evening meal in heavy iron pots, hung from tripods, over small stone-encircled fires. The men were gathered in groups talking with one another, or sitting on the steps of their circled wagons enjoying an evening smoke.
She walked up the back steps of a warm-yellow wagon, its elaborate scrollwork painted in a dark, sultry red. It was longer and taller than the rest of the wagons in the little caravan.
Myra knocked. The round-windowed door swung open slowly. An elderly woman stood there in the doorway. Her white hair contrasted sharply with the red paisley kerchief she wore about her head. Around her withered neck hung strings of gold necklaces. But what held my attention were her eyes. She had the same knowing, coal-black eyes as Myra.
“This is Esmeralda, William. Grandmother, I have brought this man, William, to you. He is in need. Will you help him?” Myra asked respectfully.
She looked me over carefully. Like an earthly incarnation of Anubis, she seemed to weigh my soul on scales in her ancient head. “Give me your hand, William,” she said in a tired, world-weary voice. “Oh you poor man,” she sighed. “Be careful of this one Myra!” she warned.
“You are a very passionate man, William. So very passionate it is eating you alive inside. Here, I shall show you what I mean.” She traced a path with her wrinkled finger over my hand as she spoke. “You are unlucky in love. Your heart line is so deep, so strong, but severed. You are torn between two paths; the lifeline diverges. Both paths you deeply desire but the paths do not intersect. You shall be offered a choice. I have never seen the like. I cannot help you my boy, but you have my sympathy.”
“Can no one help me?” I asked.
“Perhaps, but I warn you! It is very foolish, very dangerous!”
“I don’t care. I’ve got to do something. I can’t live without her!” I pleaded.
“Very well, come back tomorrow night.”
* * *
I returned to the camp the following evening. Myra ran out to greet me, her long, black hair flowing gracefully behind her. “Hello William!” she beamed. “It is all arranged. I will take you to your guide.”
“But where am I going, Myra?” I asked.
“Ha, ha, ha!” Myra laughed, slapping me on the back. “Why, to see Old Kate, of course! She knows things, William. She may be able to help you.”
I kissed Myra’s cheek and said, “Well, wish me luck.”
“Good Luck, William, and for God’s sake be respectful to Old Kate!”
* * *
Black muck clung thickly to my boots as we trudged through the foul-smelling fen. Whooping cranes were calling out in that lonely, long and mournful way of theirs somewhere out there in the dense rolling fog. Foul shapes seemed to hang and glide just out of the reach of perception on that dim and moonlit moor.
We waded through waist-high reeds, from stranded hillock to narrow ridge. Stunted and twisted, little sharp-limbed trees took on the aspect of gruesome sentinels, as if guarding some unwholesome secret known only to themselves. Every now and then, my guide would lift his lantern high and wave it slowly from side to side, reminding me of a lonely lighthouse on the shores of a fog-enshrouded sea.
Copyright © 2007 by Wayne C. Peake, Jr.