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“Any news of Mary?” I had met Carey’s coach at the appointed location and he quizzed me as we made way to Topcliffe’s house.
Now that I cared more deep for truth I found its nature more troubling. The truth of Mary was plain enough, and I could relay it easy, and seeming in clear conscience, for I had sought that truth in Carey’s service and so did seem owe it to him in debt to that service, or to his patronage, or even as he had late saved my life. What is more, I believed Carey honorable, or at least such man who made effort to be. Yet, now knowing the truth of Mary, I felt the weight of its consequence heavy in my hands. I could share it with Carey plain and hope convince him that she seemed only a small tool in this plot, already ill-used, and that she deserved no further injury, but I did fear that he would have the matter exposed more full, and that not only Mary, but her small and secret congregation, would likely then suffer dire and to no end, but, still, at my hands. And my mind flashed quick to the baker and his wife and their happy home and shop, all at peril because I had wandered to their door, and I pictured them at Tyburn, the ropes around their necks, them then hoisted high, and I decided quick that such flag of truth as I might serve could not be woven from innocent flesh flapping at the end of a hangman’s ropes.
“What news I’ve had seems say she is but a girl, and full innocent in nature,” I said. “I fear any attention more toward her is attention away from those hands true stained with guilt.”
Carey nodded. “Though my company with her was small, that was my sense, too. But the matter of our ill-nosed fellow may have yielded more fruit.”
“If it be such fruit as we must harvest from Topcliffe, then it is not such fruit as is happy in my diet.”
Carey nodded. “Topcliffe is like unto that fierce dog that you might trust to savage any that cross unwelcome onto your estate, but a beast whose savaging is not a matter of loyal service but instead of hellish appetites. And so you employ the beast and feed the beast but never full trust it, it not being that dog that is admitted in evening to lie by your fire and keep your company in that steady and loyal affection for which dogs are full known, but instead such that is kept chained out of doors, where its dreams are as like to be of your throat as of any other.”
“And yet we make our way to his kennel,” I said.
Carey nodded. “As you suggested, I have asked of some close in congress with those players in this Somerset scheme if they have knowledge of a man similar in description to our late assailant, making particular note of his much injured nose. And while the answer each time has been no, I then received a message from Topcliffe asking that I visit him to discuss this fellow.”
“Such word being passed to him by some agent in his service?”
“It seems little happens in London to which he is not quick made privy,” Carey said.
I watched for a moment out the coach’s door, noting the city’s passing at such speed that I usually envied, making my way most often afoot, but wishing now instead to be on foot so as to slow our progress, or wishing, in truth, to be in this coach, but headed away from instead of toward our destination.
“To be true,” I said, “I much fear this meeting and could easy have lived happy had Topcliffe never made my company.”
Carey grunted. “If it makes your mind any more at ease, you should know that he is regular reviled by Puritans attempting to use the Queen’s instruments to further their religious ends about those numerous devilish ills they think put our fair kingdom at Satan’s use, theater being always included in such charges, as they constant seek his inquiry into supposed Popish or Spanish plots they believe are hatched among your kind. So your name likely is already full known to him, and at least now it will be known to him in my service.”
The coach slowed and then stopped, and I could hear the driver stepping down to come and open our doors.
“That is not the type of ease my mind imagined,” I said.
“Are you surprised to find so plain this chamber that is the subject of so much myth?” Topcliffe asked, ushering us into his lair.
On entering his home, after only quick introduction, he suggested that, as our talk would involve his art, we hold our discussions in that room where his art was practiced, and he ushered us down a narrow stairway to a cellar room. The stones of the room’s walls had been well smoothed and then whitewashed, the floor, too, being stone and smooth. There was no window, but only the door through which we entered, oak, banded with iron and of heavy construction, and with no opening or window so that, once closed, the room was sealed entire. A single chair of heavy but complex construction was fastened fast to the stone floor in the center of the room facing the far wall, along which ran one heavy table holding a series of chests. To the left were three simple chairs and a small table hosting a claret jug, three cups and a plate of cheeses. Topcliffe motioned theatrically to the chairs.
Every monster, in its imagining, exceeds its true form. I don’t know how I had pictured Topcliffe – huge and heavily muscled, perhaps, and of fearsome aspect. Or maybe lean and pale with a hawkish face. But instead he was a short, old, soft, almost feminine in his aspect, an air he seem to conscious emphasize in his foppish dress and his lisping speech so that, at first, I was some amused to credit him such evil that had haunted my thoughts since I had first learned of this meeting. And yet slow that same manner did begin to feel as a disease, as if it bore some pestilent strength that the healthy could not recognize, as if the sibilance of his talking by some charm eroded my will.
Us all seated, Topcliffe poured a measure of the wine into each of the cups and then offered a smile that slithered across his face like Eve’s snake. “I shall let you each choose your vessel, as I find those in my company too oft suspect that I will try by guile to practice on them some vile art.”
Carey reached direct for the cup closest him, took it and drank a long measure, and in doing so did some break that spell Topcliffe seemed so easy to cast on me, and I did the same, Topcliffe making his serpent’s smile, reaching toward his own cup, but then instead taking a piece of his cheese.
“We are here at your invitation, sir,” Carey said, “as your note indicated you might offer some insight into the matter of this man by whom we were late attacked.”
“In good time,” Topcliffe said. “I so rarely have chance to entertain guests save those who make use of that other chair,” he nodded toward the construction in the middle of the room, “and so I’m afraid I will impose on your good graces first to converse.” He finished his cheese and then drank from his cup, and looked at me direct. “You never answered my question.”
“Question?” I asked.
“Concerning the room. Are you surprised at its nature?”
“I am,” I answered. “I did picture it arrayed with larger engines of your art, of varied and horrible design.”
“A rack at least, I would have thought,” said Carey.
Topcliffe drew his hands together in a soft clap, and then squeezed them, beaming. “Precisely,” he said with some excitement. “And so the room seems less horrible than you imagined?”
“Much less,” said Carey.
“And so enters in hope,” Topcliffe answered. “It is hope, and not pain, that is the lever of truth.” He turned toward me. “Shakespeare, you could not know this, as I do keep my activities secret so to serve the common fears that I might be anywhere at any time, but I make pains to attend the theater, and think you and I have similar knowings in our divergent arts.”
“How so, sir?”
“When you tell a tale, does it serve your art well to tell it direct so that its object and endings are in plain but distant sight from the first, just growing more close and clear as the story progresses?”
I shook my head. “That idea suits the human mind, for it is our desire always to have clear known to us what we may, but stories must learn from nature’s way of things, the way a river will, at its start, its power being new, meander in those ways that resist it least, becoming some straighter as it gathers its waters and their force, but even so being subject to some turning. In the end, it will to the sea, as all rivers must, but I will have the audience take that full journey before the story finds its home.”
“Exactly,” Topcliffe said, seeming pleased with my answer. “And what do I do in this room but help others to tell their stories? Just as every river must to the sea, every story here must, eventually to the truth. But my authors hold jealous their truths and would have me believe other, and so I must, too, take them through such meandering journeys by which they understand the primal nature that controls the flow of their story so that the water of their truth might final be reunited with its brethren, for is not all truth of God’s sea and in his service? And so I collect for God such truths as have wandered into the use of the Papists and his other enemies.”
Topcliffe got up and walked to the elaborate chair in the room’s center. “Some men come subject to my ministrations having in their own imaginings made such horrors that I need only ask and all is revealed,” he turned back to me, “and so, Shakespeare, men such as you with minds that can ready create do usually resist my efforts the least, as they have the wit to discern the story’s inevitable end and have already in their own minds suffered such twists and turns in its as are beyond even my capacity to create. They do my work for me in advance in the nightmares of their own beds and reach my company full ripe.
“But there are others,” he turned now to Carey, “who are blessed not with a creative mind, but instead one hard in will and courage. Them I must lead on this full journey so that they can see that such truths as they think their own are not theirs to possess, but rather waters from God’s sea of truth that were theirs to carry for some time only and that they must now release into the river of my story so that these truths may again find their righteous home.”
“I had not imagined so much philosophy in your arts,” said Carey. “I had supposed it a simple thing to cause a man pain.”
Topcliffe shook his head as if a master disappointed in his pupil. “As I told you, my instrument is hope, not pain.”
Carey looked about the plain stone room. “I see no hope here.”
Topcliffe raised a finger. “But you forget your expectations. You had said you did expect a rack at least. So imagine yourself now here but not as my guest. While you do not have Shakespeare’s gift for imagining, you would of course have contemplated on such that you might expect at my hands, and so your mind would turn to those instruments common ascribed to this practice – the rack, the wheel, perhaps some boiling cauldron. And you would attach your fears to those objects and have steeled yourself to resist them. But arriving here, you would see none of them. None of those things of which you had been most afraid. And in that moment, you would have hope. And you would be strapped into this chair feeling stronger than you had been even at the door to this room.
Topcliffe pulled down on the back of the chair, and through some elaborate design of hinges and joints, the chair became instead a kind of table, now laying flat at the height of Topcliffe’s waist, the wings of the chair to which the victim’s arms would be secured having swung out so that any strapped to it would now lay supine and spread beneath him.
“This would be your first lesson,” Topcliffe said. “That which you thought a chair, in which, while bound, you might at least sit in something like dignity, is instead the table on which you will suffer, full spread, any indignity I might inflict. And you understand in even that instant, there being no pain in it, that nothing in this room is what it seems, but is instead what I will it to be. And so I do offer first the false hope that this room holds fewer terrors than my subjects imagine, and then replace that hope with the knowledge that it holds whatever I evils I might conjure.”
Carey scoffed. “Such ticks might well play hard on a mind as supple as dear Shakespeare’s, but I’m afraid you would find me little moved. Coming here, I would have steeled myself for torture, not for tricks with your furnishings.”
“Little moved to be sure,” Topcliffe said. “But little is all I need. You mentioned the rack. You know how this works, of course? The victim placed upon it, both wrists and ankles bound to its engine, and then the cranks turned to that he is stretched, first to his normal limits, and then beyond them to his pain, and in final to such degree as his joints are sundered?”
Carey nodded. “I know of it.”
“You are a soldier, yes?”
“And so have seen such horrors as might befall a man in battle?”
“And who suffers more? A man so cleaved as has no chance to live, but instead spends some such minutes as his mortal wound takes to claim him, or a man more lightly injured, perhaps pierced through but in such location as may not prove fatal, or perhaps slashed deep but not mortally?”
“The less injured man usually suffers more, for such wounds as do prove mortal do often seem shock to body into a kind of stupor. Methinks, perhaps, it is a small grace God grants to those so afflicted so that they can keep their wits sufficient to make a final prayer instead of being mad with pain.”
“And yet consider the rack,” Topcliffe said. “There are sure long moments of suffering as the victim is held in its embrace, but the pain is constant of the same nature, and the body does adjust. And when the victim is stretched final to that point there the joints give way, often he is suffused in that stupor you have seen befall those most serious injured in battle.
Topcliffe now turned back to me. “Shakespeare, you are no soldier, but I have late learned you are some schooled in the art of seduction.”
He paused, clear expecting an answer. When I did not give one, he raised his eyebrows in question, and so I nodded.
“And in such pursuits, does it profit a man to ask a woman outright to surrender her virtue immediate?”
I shook my head, not wanting to speak words on this matter in this room, which seemed more foul and more full close to evil than any I had encountered the longer I was in it. Not wanting, too, to long reflect on what similarities there might be in such wiles as I have used on women and he has used on his victims.
“Of course not,” Topcliffe said. “Carey thinks as a soldier, and wants to bludgeon his foe immediate into surrender. But even in wars, surrenders are most usual won through a series of small victories. As Shakespeare well knows, virtue is surrendered in pieces, the first seeming innocent beyond consequence, but it is through those little surrenders that he can drive a girl first to his bed and then to her grave.”
Topcliffe now scurried to the far wall and the table lined with chests, opening each. The chests opened such that their tops swung up, their fronts folded down, and then a panel on the inside tilted upward so that the various instruments secured to those panels could be easy seen by any strapped to that table. The chests held knives of varying sizes and shapes, hooks of some kinds, awls and needles and many other instruments of unknown nature that seemed almost more sinister as their purpose could not ready be discerned.
His smile at me now was most cruel and his eyes shone with a light much like lust.
“And so, with this or this or this,” Topcliffe snatching varied instruments from his chests, first a pointed awl, then a curved blade, then what looked like a bird’s talons, “I can extract through little injuries that, in their small natures do not so offend the body that it seeks stupor to still its suffering, some small surrenders, little truths the victim thinks of no matter, the first meanderings on our journey. But with each surrender, the force of the river builds until its ending in the sea is inevitable. It is hope I use. For with each change in instrument, the victim hopes the next will be less terrible. I have been long at my art, though, and know full how to build on each so that the effect is worse, always worse, the suffering growing just as Shakespeare’s plays build to a climax until hope is full extinguished.
He turned to face us, almost like an actor at a play’s end facing the audience to receive its applause. “I kill hope, gentlemen, not bodies. For in hope’s death dies every man’s last strength and leaves unguarded his truth.”
It was not our applause he received, but instead our silence.
“I could never be so sure of any cause that, in its name, I could kill so fine a thing as hope,” I said finally, “for to squash it even once in error would, I think, leave me damned.”
Topcliffe looked hard at me, that curious light burning the brighter in his eyes. “Certainty is more precious than any tool in my chests,” he said, “for stood I not certain that my work be God’s will, I would have no stomach for it. But if there be treason, then I will have it out, for I know Satan to be at the root of it, and the Pope and his minions and his allies in Spain and France to be at the heart of it. I am called Priest Hunter by some, and I relish the name as I would have every Papist in England dead, their confessions first secured at my hands and at the price of such suffering as will make them greet welcome their eternity in hell. Cruelty is not sin in God’s service, but rather his avenging fire making clean this nation that alone he has clutched to his bosom and called to his greatness.”
“If you had us here only to tutor us in your art and your theology, then we thank you for the foul lesson and will be gone,” Carey said at last. “But I had been lead to expect some assistance in the matter of our mysterious assailant.”
Topcliffe sighed like a singer who finds his song falling on deaf ears. “Yes, yes, yes. The matter of the nose.” He returned to his chair in our midst at his small table and nibbled at another piece of his cheese, took another sip of his wine. “Could you explain in detail the nature of its injury?”
Being better with words and also noting that Carey much tried Topcliffe’s spirits, I answered.
“The man’s nose had been most grevious harmed,” I said, “Such that it seemed to be made now almost entire of scars.”
“You say scars and not a scar,” said Topcliffe, “so the effect was not one of a single insult but of varied injuries?”
“Yes and no,” I said. “Many scars, yes, but when scars on a body age, they fade or whiten so that one can tell those older from those newer, while these seemed all aged the same.”
Carey nodded. “I have known men to have noses cut off, or even bitten off, but had never seen the like.”
Topcliffe smiled rose and returned to his long table, drawing an oblong object with a handle at its bottom from the chest to the far right. As he turned the crank on the bottom, the object began to open, revealing that its sides were in fact a series of four blades that, when closed, seemed a solid object, but that could flower open in these sharp petals.
“Do you know this?”
“The pear of anguish,” Carey answered.
Topcliffe nodded. “The first of its kind had dulled blades. It would be inserted in the mouth and opened sufficient to serve as a gag to keep a victim silent, or, with a sufficient lever for a handle, could even be cranked open full enough to break the teeth and separate the jaw from its hinges. Then smaller versions with the sharpened edges were made that could be inserted into, shall we say, more intimate crevices, so that men and women both might suffer the agonies of their blooming.”
He returned the device to its case and took forth another that appeared to be the same thing, but shrunk down to a small size, and the pear shape split in two, the rounded sides facing out with a flat space in its middle.
“We are vain of our faces and suffer injuries to them harder in our minds than we do those the scars of which others might never see. The human nose offering two orifices, I created this device.” He turned the crank on its bottom, and the separate, half-rounded sides opened in three sharpened blades each, small spikes protruding out into the flat space between them. “With this, I can sunder a man’s nose entire. I have used it with great effect over the years, though not on so many who have lived. For as you know, my gentle offices here frequently are only preface to those more stern ministrations that the crown does impose on those who do here first confess, for I am charged only with collecting truths, where the crown can collect heads. From Shakespeare’s description, it seems certain I have past made your assailant’s acquaintance, for such injury as you describe is exact as this would have made, and I can think of no likely cause to have made it other. To your fortune, I keep detailed records of who has enjoyed my congress, on what charge, when, those instruments used, and the truths gained. As those records are kept in my office at court and not here, I shall review them when I am next there and let you know such persons who fit your charge.”
Our session ended, Topcliffe lead us out of his cellar and to his door, taking Carey’s arm just as we would leave. “I know that revulsion in which you and your fellows hold me, sir. You nobles who first profit from such knowings as my inquiries gain you and then damn me for the methods by which they are made. But I forgive you, as I understand your revulsion to be at heart a kind of fear, as so many of your fellows have, over the years, due to their weak service, ended up subject to my ministry. God’s true service is ever lonely.”
Carey tugged his arm lose and turned on Topcliffe. “Call me coward again, sir, and I will have you answer for it, and perhaps then you will learn the nature of fear. Review your records quick and have word to me immediate as to your findings. Imagine yourself God’s servant if you will, for that imaging offends God, not me. But do not imagine that I would ever stand in fear of you, for that gives me offense, and I will have it answered.”
Topcliffe attempted his serpent’s smile, but it was weak at the corners. We left, and the door closed behind.
Carey was quiet in the coach on leaving Topcliffe’s house, looking out into the darkened streets and keeping close his own counsel. Finally he spoke. “That such man is agent to a government in which I am party grieves me,” he said finally. “Any crown most of times resort to violence, I have been enough in the world to know this true and have often held the sword that is its instrument. But there is something viler in this idea of tortures and viler still in his love of them.”
“I have had chance of late to think much on men’s sinning,” I said, “having had good cause to reflect on my own. We all on occasion in the petty service of our own appetites or in the careless exercise of our offices give offense to others, and these banal evils are grit enough in life’s workings. But we are too much surrounded by those who practice hard their work at some evil and then make its open exercise behind the name of good. Whether under blessing of cross or crown, their consciences thus unburdened, they give full reign to their vices and lay waste all civil decency. I have offended my wife in service to my lust and have in punishment lost her affections and live daily in my knowledge of her pain at my injury. But a Topcliffe in service to a Queen or a Puritan in service to a god will daily and full willing bring grievous harm to any they find who contradicts their own certainties, and they suffer for it naught, but instead call that evil good, having a fool’s sure faith drawn from their private congress with an imagined god. Our conscience is not knowledge of right and wrong alone, but also the humility to understand that we cannot full know God’s will, that our beliefs may be held in error, that what we call in others sin might be virtue, or to know at least that we are all equal in our weakness and failings and that only in our constant exercise of mercy in every direction can we make this life other than the hell that Topcliffe would have it be. Certainty is the most harmful kind of pride, and in its name man does author his greatest offenses.”