Part 4

I saw that some ten or twelve  vibrations would bring  the steel in actual  contact  with  my  robe,  and  with  this  observation there  suddenly came over my  spirit  all the  keen,  collected  calmness of despair. For the  first time  during many hours—or perhaps days—I  thought. It now  occurred to me that  the bandage, or surcingle, which enveloped me, was unique. I was  tied  by no separate cord.  The first  stroke  of the  razorlike crescent athwart any  portion of the band,  would so detach it that  it might be unwound from  my  person by means of my  left  hand. But  how  fearful,  in that  case,  the  proximity of the  steel!  The  result  of the slightest struggle how deadly! Was it likely, moreover, that the minions of the torturer had not foreseen and  provided for  this  possibility! Was  it probable that  the bandage crossed  my  bosom  in the  track  of the  pendulum? Dreading to find my faint,  and,  as it seemed, in last hope  frustrated, I so far elevated my head  as to obtain  a distinct view  of my  breast.  The surcingle enveloped  my  limbs and  body  close in all directions—save in the  path  of the destroying crescent.

Scarcely had  I dropped my  head  back  into  its original position, when there  flashed upon my  mind what  I cannot  better  describe than  as the unformed half of that  idea  of deliverance to which  I have  previously alluded, and  of which  a moiety only  floated indeterminately through my brain  when I raised food  to my  burning lips.  The  whole  thought was now present—feeble, scarcely  sane,  scarcely  definite,—but still entire.  I proceeded at  once,  with  the  nervous energy of despair, to  attempt its execution.

For many  hours the  immediate vicinity  of the  low  framework upon which  I lay, had  been literally swarming with  rats. They were  wild,  bold, ravenous; their  red  eyes  glaring upon me  as if they waited but  for  motionlessness  on  my   part   to  make   me  their   prey.   "To  what   food,"   I thought, "have they been accustomed in the well?"

They had  devoured, in spite  of all my efforts to prevent them,  all but a small  remnant of the  contents of the dish.  I had  fallen  into  an habitual see-saw, or wave  of the hand about  the platter: and, at length, the unconscious  uniformity of the movement deprived it of effect. In their  voracity the vermin frequently fastened their  sharp fangs  in my fingers.  With  the particles of the  oily and  spicy viand which  now  remained, I thoroughly rubbed the  bandage wherever I could  reach  it; then,  raising  my  hand from the floor, I lay breathlessly still.

At  first   the   ravenous  animals  were   startled  and   terrified  at  the change—at the  cessation  of  movement. They  shrank alarmedly back; many  sought the well. But this was only for a moment. I had  not counted in vain  upon their  voracity. Observing that  I remained without motion, one or two of the  boldest leaped upon the  frame-work, and  smelt  at the surcingle. This seemed the signal  for a general rush.  Forth  from  the well they  hurried in fresh  troops. They clung  to the wood—they overran it, and  leaped in hundreds upon my person. The  measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them  not at all. Avoiding its strokes they busied themselves with  the  anointed bandage. They  pressed—they swarmed upon me  in  ever  accumulating heaps. They  writhed upon my  throat; their  cold lips sought my own;  I was  half stifled by their  thronging pres- sure;  disgust, for which  the world has no name,  swelled my bosom,  and chilled,  with  a heavy  clamminess, my heart.  Yet one minute, and  I felt that  the struggle would be over.  Plainly  I perceived the loosening of the bandage. I knew  that  in more  than  one place  it must  be already severed. With a more than  human resolution I lay still.

Nor had  I erred  in my  calculations—nor had  I endured in vain.  I at length  felt that  I was  free. The surcingle hung in ribands from  my body. But the stroke  of the pendulum already pressed upon my bosom.  It had divided the serge of the robe. It had  cut through the linen beneath. Twice again  it swung, and  a sharp sense  of pain  shot  through every  nerve.  But the moment of escape  had  arrived. At a wave  of my hand my deliverers hurried tumultuously away.  With  a steady  movement—cautious, side- long,  shrinking, and  slow—I  slid  from  the  embrace of the  bandage and beyond the reach of the scimitar. For the moment, at least, I was free.

Free!—and in the grasp of the Inquisition! I had  scarcely  stepped from my  wooden bed  of horror upon the  stone  floor  of the  prison, when the motion of the hellish  machine ceased  and  I beheld it drawn up,  by some invisible force,  through the  ceiling.  This  was  a lesson  which  I took desperately to heart.  My  every  motion was  undoubtedly watched. Free!—I had  but  escaped death in one form  of agony,  to be delivered unto  worse  than  death in some  other.  With  that  thought  I rolled my  eves  nervously around on the  barriers of iron  that  hemmed me  in. Something unusual—some  change which,  at first, I could  not appreciate distinctly—it was obvious,  had   taken   place  in  the  apartment.  For  many   minutes  of  a dreamy and  trembling abstraction, I busied myself  in vain,  unconnected conjecture. During this  period, I became  aware, for the  first  time,  of the origin  of  the  sulphurous light  which  illumined the  cell.  It  proceeded from a fissure,  about  half an inch in width, extending entirely around the prison at the  base  of the  walls,  which  thus  appeared, and  were,  com- pletely  separated from  the  floor.  I endeavored, but  of course  in vain,  to look through the aperture.

As I arose  from  the attempt, the mystery of the alteration in the chamber   broke   at  once   upon   my   understanding.  I  have   observed  that, although the outlines of the figures upon the walls  were  sufficiently distinct, yet the colors seemed blurred and  indefinite. These colors had  now assumed, and  were  momentarily assuming, a startling and  most  intense brilliancy, that  gave  to the  spectral and  fiendish portraitures an aspect that might have  thrilled even  firmer  nerves than  my  own.  Demon  eyes, of a wild  and  ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none  had  been visible before, and  gleamed with  the lurid lustre  of a fire that I could  not force my imagination to regard as unreal.

Unreal!—Even while  I breathed there  came to my nostrils the breath of the  vapour of heated iron!  A suffocating odour pervaded the  prison!  A deeper glow  settled each  moment in the  eyes  that glared at my agonies!  A richer  tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood.  I panted! I gasped for breath!  There  could  be no  doubt of the  design of my  tormentors—oh! most  unrelenting! oh!  most   demoniac of  men!  I shrank  from   the  glowing  metal   to  the  centre   of  the  cell.  Amid   the thought of the  fiery  destruction that  impended, the  idea  of the  coolness  of the  well came  over  my  soul  like  balm.  I rushed to its deadly brink.  I threw my  straining vision  below.  The glare  from  the  enkindled roof  illumined its inmost recesses.  Yet, for a wild  moment, did  my spirit refuse  to  comprehend  the   meaning  of  what   I  saw.   At  length   it  forced—it  wrestled its way  into my  soul—it  burned itself  in upon my  shuddering reason.—Oh! for a voice to speak!—oh! horror!—oh! any horror but  this! With  a  shriek,  I rushed from  the  margin, and  buried my  face  in  my hands—weeping bitterly.

The heat  rapidly increased, and  once again  I looked  up, shuddering as with  a fit of the  ague. There  had  been  a second change in the  cell—and now  the change was obviously in the form. As before,  it was in vain  that I, at  first,  endeavoured to  appreciate or  understand what   was  taking place.  But not  long  was  I left in doubt. The Inquisitorial vengeance had been hurried by my two-fold escape,  and  there  was  to be no more  dallying with  the  King of Terrors.  The room  had been square. I saw  that  two of its iron  angles  were  now  acute—two, consequently, obtuse. The fear- ful difference quickly  increased with  a low rumbling or moaning sound. In an instant the apartment  had  shifted its form  into  that  of a lozenge. 

But the alteration stopped not here-I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. I could  have  clasped the  red  walls  to my  bosom  as a garment of eternal peace. "Death,"  I said,  "any death but  that  of the pit!" Fool! might I have not  known that  into  the  pit  it was the  object of the  burning iron  to urge me?  Could  I resist  its glow?  or, if even  that,  could  I withstand its pres- sure  And  now,  flatter  and  flatter  grew  the  lozenge, with  a rapidity that left me  no  time  for  contemplation. Its centre,  and  of course,  its greatest width, came  just  over  the yawning gulf.  I shrank back—but the  closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward. At length  for my seared and  writhing body  there  was  no longer  an inch of foothold on the firm floor of the prison. I struggled no more,  but  the agony  of my soul found vent  in one loud,  long,  and  final  scream  of  despair. I felt that  I tottered upon the brink—I averted my eyes—

There was  a discordant hum  of human voices! There  was  a loud  blast as of many  trumpets! There  was  a harsh grating as of a thousand thun-  ders!  The fiery  walls  rushed back! An outstretched arm  caught my  own as  I fell,  fainting, into  the  abyss.  It  was  that  of  General  Lasalle.  The French  army  had  entered Toledo.  The Inquisition was  in the hands of its enemies.