The Devil’s Pen
by Wayne C. Peake, Jr.
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
I could see no path at all. How my guide found his way through this, I shall never know. Perhaps it was merely his familiarity with the region, or perhaps this was his natural element, for I never saw anyone who looked so much like they had just stepped from the pages of a penny dreadful.
He was broad-shouldered, thick-limbed and short-legged, perhaps six and a half to seven feet tall, if he had stood upright. He was bent and twisted, one shoulder higher than the other. His back bent as if crouched to spring. His crude and roughly hewn features only added to his apelike appearance. He had thick lips, a wide-nose and a low-protruding forehead.
Add to this primitive picture of a man one baleful eye, entirely white. A scar stretched over that eye, from the middle of his forehead to just below the left cheek. His hair was a thick and wiry mop that sat unruly atop his head. He wore a horsehair tunic, bound about the middle with thick rope. It was knotted in front and from it hung a long, deadly-looking dagger.
“What the hell are those? See over there?” I asked.
“Corpse candles,” he grumbled.
“What, pray tell, are corpse candles, my good man?”
“Not your man. I be Old Kate’s man. Keep your eyes open, lips shut.”
* * *
As the night drew on, the scenery began to change. We started to encounter more clumps of trees standing on lonely hillocks. The path became rockier. Eventually, we came to a wood and after some searching, my guide located a trail.
At the head of the trail, a totem was set upon a stake in the earth. It looked as if the bones of various creatures had been cobbled together to form a scarecrow. The head of this scarecrow was a mountain goat with long, twisted horns. The torso was that of a man, but from its wrists and ankles hung the claws of what must have been a gigantic vulture. Its wings sprouted from its back rising high into the air above us.
If the purpose of this twisted scarecrow was to keep unwanted visitors away, this skeletal freak was more than equal to the task. I almost begged my primitive guide to take me back across the moors. I would have, but then I considered the deadly-looking dagger that hung from his crude belt.
We walked through this wood for what seemed like hours. I was startled several times by the sudden caw-cawing of crows and the heavy beating of their wings as they flew off. I began to notice bones scattered along the path. I could not shake the sensation that I was being watched.
Finally, I saw ahead of us in the clearing a crude, thatched hut surrounded by torches burning in the darkness. The ground was strewn with bones. Two human skulls were mounted on posts outside the door. I began to wonder seriously about the wisdom of this little excursion.
As we neared the hut, Old Kate emerged, moving with an unnatural slowness and grace. I looked into the pupils of her eyes, which were far too narrow and of a greenish-yellow cast. Her head had a peculiar v-shape to it. She wore a long black robe, decorated with curiously wrought white symbols that flowed and twisted around the neck and about the sleeves. The tail of her robe disappeared into the depths of her hut.
The interior of the hut was decorated with shrunken heads, weirdly-carved figurines and candles. Long strings of beads formed a sort of doorway before which sat a stack of ancient looking, leather-bound books. A parrot sat preening itself, high upon a perch while snakes wound and curled about the dirt floor.
“Ah, Master Hargrove, I have been expecting you,” said Old Kate. “What a passionate man you are William; just my type.” Her eye slowly winked at me. “Ha, ha, ha,” she cackled. A shudder rippled through me as she spoke, for her voice had the sibilant hiss of the crafty serpent.
“Auuugghk, passionate man,” squawked the parrot.
“Quiet Paracelsus,” she said. “He’s always sticking his nose into things that are better left alone. Ha, ha, ha,” she cackled. “Now where were we?”
“Auuugghk, bitch,” squawked the parrot.
“Why have you come to Old Kate? A love potion perhaps? No! I see you’re after much, much, more. I have something that may be of use to you, William,” she said in her hissing voice, as she lifted a pen up before my astonished eyes. “What is it you see, William?” she asked.
“It is a pen,” I said.
“Ah! It is that and much, much, more, for it is also a weapon. Perhaps it is the most powerful weapon of all. For with the pen you can sway minds, move armies and crumble empires. I thought that you, being a writer, might understand this.”
“I understand,” I said.
“No William, I don’t think you do. But never mind that. You did not come here for a philosophy lesson, now did you? You came here because you are obsessed with a woman.”
“What do you want for it?” I asked.
“Ah, all artists know the sacrifices that must be made for their craft. The power of the pen exacts its own price, William.”
She then presented me with the most exquisite instrument of the writer’s art, long and flowing, gracefully-balanced, sharp and golden-tipped.
* * *
I discovered the power of the pen soon enough. I began by writing love poetry, long essays about the wondrous beauty of the natural world and long epic poems based upon Greek mythology. My work was hailed as a triumph. I was the new darling of the literary world. Offers poured in for me to write novels and plays.
Eventually, I bought up the majority of stock in the Brettel family business. I was able to do this in part by writing glowing praises of the colonel's competitors and stinging criticism of his company — criticism the company richly deserved for labor abuses, bribery and other nefarious practices. This lowered the value of the stock, causing more people to sell. The price fell lower and lower in a dramatic downward spiral. This technique served me, quite well, in accumulating wealth and influence.
When the day finally came that I owned the majority of the colonel's company, I simply rode to the estate with a few bodyguards and gave him an ultimatum. He would either give me Suzette’s hand and I would give him back his company, or I would ruin him. The colonel made a very wise decision, I believe.
* * *
Suzette and I returned to our secret meeting place to celebrate the triumph of our love. She was more beautiful than ever. She began torturing me with kisses that flowed warm and sweet like summer wine, intoxicating me with passion.
I held her tender waist from behind, pulling her slowly against me, nuzzling my face in her soft, strawberry blonde hair. My mind enthralled by this warm, sinfully suggestive embrace, I begged, “Please, Suzette, let me. I love you more than any man has ever loved a woman. I would die a thousand agonizing deaths for you. I would sell my everlasting soul to win your love.”
My heart pumped, my loins ached and my head reeled in delirium. I could stand it no longer. I quickly hiked her gown up, revealing the white-gartered stockings beneath. I felt her long, shapely legs with my hands. As she bent to grab the oak for balance her firm bottom was before my hungry eyes. Like a juicy peach, it tempted me with its mouth-watering ripeness.
“My God, William! Stop!” I did not stop. I took her then and there. It was not until I finished that I realized what I had done. I thought she would hate me. I thought my dreams of love's sweet bliss had been shattered forever, like the sparkling glass against the jagged stone.
Suzette dropped to her knees before me and put her arms about my legs. “Oh you are a real man, you are... You do not know how long I have dreamed of this William!” She wept in joy. We were married two weeks later in a small private ceremony.
* * *
I really wanted to see my old professor. I missed him. As I entered his office, he got up from behind his desk, rushed over and began shaking my hand vigorously. “We all wondered what had happened to you, my boy,” he said, excitedly. “Locked yourself away in some dingy room somewhere writing your novel, aye?”
“Well, sort of, professor. I have come to make a donation to the academy and of course to see you.”
“Wonderful, William! He said excitedly. “I must say, I always expected great things from you. Your remarkable passion was clearly evident in all your literary works. But what you are writing now far exceeds anything you have produced in the past. It’s almost as if they were written by another person. Such tremendous style, such elegant phrasing, you have exceeded all my hopes for you. I am so proud of you, son.”
“Thank you, professor,” I said slowly. It was then that it hit me hard for the first time. I was a fraud, a charlatan. My fame, my new home, everything rested on an illusion. It was not I who had produced these works even though it was my hand that held the pen.
* * *
I began to realize to my horror that the pen had a mind and will of its own. I could no longer write dreamy love poems or about nature and the Greek gods. My thoughts turned to the dark side of life. I began writing murder mysteries, horror stories and political essays. My mind was filled with visions of crime and vice. It followed along as armies marched to carry out the brutal business of war. It wandered onto bloody battlefields and listened in horror to the screams of anguish and agony.
To my surprise these works were hailed even more highly than my previous works. The critics raved: what wonderful diversity, what comprehensive ability and insight into life! I don’t believe a single one of these critics had ever given a decent review to a horror story or murder mystery before.
I began to notice strange things happening. Several businesses that I criticized were looted and burned to the ground. My name and face were everywhere in the news. People were taking everything I said as gospel. With one word from me in the press, I could destroy a man’s life. This placed a terrible burden of responsibility squarely upon my shoulders.
* * *
That monstrous pen was always there, calling out to me. I reached for it again and again. The pen began to seriously affect my mind. I could not escape its evil seductive influence. I was becoming a drunken leech, an evil, wanton cynic. I hardly recognized myself in the mirror. I had an unquenchable thirst for the unholy acts inspired by the Devil’s pen. I tasted every vice, drinking heavily from the cup of sinful pleasure.
I shall not recount all those nights of shameful debauchery here, all those desperate back-alley couplings. Nor shall I describe the nights I spent with warm and willing, wanton ladies of the evening. Suffice it to say that I spent many a night in gambling halls, opium dens and the like. I chased every winking barmaid. I fondled every firm, round and tempting bottom. I mercilessly attempted to seduce every female: old, young, thin, round, dark or fair. I didn't care.
I began to experience blackouts. I was mortified when I learned of the things that I had done. Even the tolerant and amoral Myra began to fear me. The look on her face had changed from naughty playfulness to a watchful, uneasy caution.
I shunned my old friends like the plague. I could not bear for them to see what I had become. I feared the consequences of using the pen more every day. I never knew where its unholy power would lead me. But, try as I may, I could not keep my hands off it.
More than once I awoke in a jail cell or back alley, never knowing why I was there or what I had done. With my new position in society, the authorities always chose to look the other way.
* * *
Suzette was no longer the happy, fun-loving girl, I had known. She must have felt that I no longer loved her. She pleaded with me not to leave her alone. I would lie awake at night beside her, listening to her soft, tender sobs. Oh, how that lonely, lullaby of tears haunted me.
I could never tell Suzette what I had done to win her hand. There was absolutely no way to explain the power of the pen and the disastrous consequences of its use. Fate had led me down a lonely, lightless path and I could not find my way back in the darkness.
I loved her more than anything and yet she ended up suffering for my sins. I couldn't bear the thought of corrupting her innocence. Nothing could compel me to share my sordid world with her. She was my anchor, my rock, the only thing that kept me from being swept over the edge of the world into the waiting abyss.
* * *
Then one evening as I entered my home, I heard a low moan coming from the dining hall. As I rounded the corner, I saw Suzette lying on the end of our long formal dining table, her dress rumpled and scattered beneath her. She was balancing on one hand; the other was in the hair of the man nestled between her thighs.
“Suzette?” I asked. She jumped quickly off the table. It was Charles Sterling, who was having his way with my dear wife. He turned with a guilty, frightened look in his eyes.
My Suzette screamed, “Well, what of it? You're always out with your whores!”
“I am so sorry, William, but I love her! I have always loved her,” Charles confessed, his eyes pleading for understanding and forgiveness.
My heart pounded unmercifully in my ears. I was tempted to murderous vengeance. My mind clouded in a red haze . I saw a vision of Suzette begging upon her knees... blood spurting from her in hot crimson streams. I knew if she were in my presence another instant, I would succumb to the evil passion that tore at my sanity with ravenous claws. I would kill them both. My will was tested to its utmost. I let her go.
“Take her and get out,” I said, in a cold, even tone. Suzette was crying as Charles pulled her wrap gently over her shoulders. He put his arm about her and led her out, quietly. Charles was an intelligent man; he never said another bloody word.
* * *
I awoke this morning, my head throbbing, my throat parched from a Godawful hangover. I went to get a bottle of wine from my desk, when I noticed a stack of papers that I hadn‘t seen before. I began to read them. They were political essays about the glories of the British Empire. These essays extolled the virtues of the British Empire and the superiority of its people, claiming Britannia’s divine right to rule not only the waves, but the world itself.
I know the Devil's monstrous pen is quite capable of stirring old resentments, of preying upon every ancient prejudice, magnifying the primal fears of the common folk tenfold. It will inevitably incite a drunken mob mentality with its own brew of rotgut propaganda. The anxieties of the people will be relentlessly exploited until a tidal wave of public sentiment washes away every last bit of opposition and reason in its path.
In my imagination, I can see the horrific war. I watch the masses swarming eagerly to answer the siren call of the Devil's pen. Beneath its gory heel, civilization will be ground into ruin. I hear the Devil’s malignant laughter at the triumphant march of death and destruction. Its terrible aftermath leaves children starving, women screaming. The earth is covered in wet and crimson fields, hideously sprouting the mangled limbs and stiffening corpses of the fallen.
That bloody pen has taken everything from me: my love, my pride, and my honor. I will no longer be an unwitting tool. I feel like a puppet whose heartstrings have been cut one by one, falling to the stage, never to perform, never to rise again.
My last hope, my rock, my only anchor in this lonely sea of despair is gone forever. Oh, my sweet Suzette, you were the only good and wholesome thing left in my life and now you are gone. I should have found some other way. If only we had gone to America when I wanted!
It is only a matter of time now before the pen takes over completely and I become the personification of its evil will. I must end it. I must end it while I still may. Oh — always and forever, my sweet Suzette.
I have prepared the rope. I shall simply stand upon a parlor chair, slip it about my neck and jump. May God have mercy on my troubled soul.
If you value your life, leave the pen where it lies.
Copyright © 2007 by Wayne C. Peake, Jr.