The Torture of Hope
by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
MANY years ago, as evening was closing in, the venerable
Pedro Arbuez d'Espila, sixth prior of the Dominicans of
Segovia, and third Grand Inquisitor of Spain, followed by a
fra redemptor, and preceded by two familiars of the Holy
Office, the latter carrying lanterns, made their way to a
subterranean dungeon. The bolt of a massive door creaked,
and they entered a mephitic in pace, where the dim light
revealed between rings fastened to the wall a blood-stained
rack, a brazier, and a jug. On a pile of straw, loaded with
fetters and his neck encircled by an iron carcan, sat a
haggard man, of uncertain age, clothed in rags.
This prisoner was no other than Rabbi Aser Abarbanel, a
Jew of Aragon, who--accused of usury and pitiless scorn for
the poor--had been daily subjected to torture for more than
a year. Yet "his blindness was as dense as his hide,"
he had refused to abjure his faith.
Proud of a filiation dating back thousands of years, proud
of his ancestors--for all Jews worthy of the name are vain
of their blood--he descended Talmudically from Othoniel and
consequently from Ipsiboa, the wife of the last judge of
Israel, a circumstance which had sustained his courage amid
incessant torture. With tears in his eyes at the thought of
this resolute soul rejecting salvation, the venerable Pedro
Arbuez d'Espila, approaching the shuddering rabbi, addressed
him as follows:
"My son, rejoice: your trials here below are about to end.
If in the presence of such obstinacy I was forced to permit,
with deep regret, the use of great severity, my task of
fraternal correction has its limits. You are the fig tree
which, having failed so many times to bear fruit, at last
withered, but God alone can judge your soul. Perhaps
Infinite Mercy will shine upon you at the last moment! We
must hope so. There are examples. So sleep in peace
tonight. Tomorrow you will be included in the auto da fe:
that is, you will be exposed to the quemadero, the
symbolical flames of the Everlasting Fire: it burns, as you
know, only at a distance, my son; and Death is at least two
hours (often three) in coming, on account of the wet, iced
bandages with which we protect the heads and hearts of the
condemned. There will be forty-three of you. Placed in the
last row, you will have time to invoke God and offer to
Him this baptism of fire, which is of the Holy Spirit. Hope
in the Light, and rest."
With these words, having signed to his companions to
unchain the prisoner, the prior tenderly embraced him. Then
came the turn of the fra redemptor, who, in a low tone,
entreated the Jew's forgiveness for what he had made him
suffer for the purpose of redeeming him; then the two
familiars silently kissed him. This ceremony over, the
captive was left, solitary and bewildered, in the darkness.
Rabbi Aser Abarbanel, with parched lips and visage worn by
suffering, at first gazed at the closed door with vacant
eyes. Closed? The word unconsciously roused a vague fancy
in his mind, the fancy that he had seen for an instant the
light of the lanterns through a chink between the door and
the wall. A morbid idea of hope, due to the weakness of his
brain, stirred his whole being. He dragged himself toward
the strange appearance. Then, very gently and cautiously,
slipping one finger into the crevice, he drew the door
toward him. Marvelous! By an extraordinary accident the
familiar who closed it had turned the huge key an instant
before it struck the stone casing, so that the rusty bolt
not having entered the hole, the door again rolled on its
The rabbi ventured to glance outside. By the aid of a
sort of luminous dusk he distinguished at first a semicircle
of walls indented by winding stairs; and opposite to him, at
the top of five or six stone steps, a sort of black portal,
opening into an immense corridor, whose first arches only
were visible from below.
Stretching himself flat he crept to the threshold. Yes,
it was really a corridor, but endless in length. A wan
light illumined it: lamps suspended from the vaulted ceiling
lightened at intervals the dull hue of the atmosphere--the
distance was veiled in shadow. Not a single door appeared
in the whole extent! Only on one side, the left, heavily
grated loopholes, sunk in the walls, admitted a light which
must be that of evening, for crimson bars at intervals
rested on the flags of the pavement. What a terrible
silence! Yet, yonder, at the far end of that passage there
might be a doorway of escape! The Jew's vacillating hope
was tenacious for it was the last.
Without hesitating, he ventured on the flags, keeping
close under the loopholes, trying to make himself part of
the blackness of the long walls. He advanced slowly,
dragging himself along on his breast, forcing back
the cry of pain when some raw wound sent a keen pang through
his whole body.
Suddenly the sound of a sandaled foot approaching reached
his ears. He trembled violently, fear stifled him, his
sight grew dim. Well, it was over, no doubt. He pressed
himself into a niche and, half lifeless with terror, waited.
It was a familiar hurrying along. He passed swiftly by,
holding in his clenched hand an instrument of torture--a
frightful figure--and vanished. The suspense which the
rabbi had endured seemed to have suspended the functions of
life, and he lay nearly an hour unable to move. Fearing an
increase of tortures if he were captured, he thought of
returning to his dungeon. But the old hope whispered in his
soul that divine perhaps, which comforts us in our sorest
trials. A miracle had happened. He could doubt no longer.
He began to crawl toward the chance of escape. Exhausted by
suffering and hunger, trembling with pain, he pressed
onward. The sepulchral corridor seemed to lengthen
mysteriously, while he, still advancing, gazed into the
gloom where there must be some avenue of escape.
Oh! oh! He again heard footsteps, but this time they were
slower, more heavy. The white and black forms of two
inquisitors appeared, emerging from the obscurity beyond.
They were conversing in low tones, and seemed to be
discussing some important subJect, for they were
At this spectacle Rabbi Aser Abarbanel closed his eyes;
his heart beat so violently that it almost suffocated him;
his rags were damp with the cold sweat of agony; he lay
motionless by the wall, his mouth wide open, under the rays
of a lamp, praying to the God of David.
Just opposite to him the two inquisitors paused under the
light of the lamp--doubtless owing to some accident due to
the course of their argument. One, while listening to his
companion, gazed at the rabbi! And, beneath that
look--whose absence of expression the hapless man did not at
first notice--he fancied he again felt the burning pincers
scorch his flesh, he was to be once more a living wound.
Fainting, breathless, with fluttering eyelids, he shivered
at the touch of the monk's floating robe. But--strange yet
natural fact--the inquisitor's gaze was evidently that of a
man deeply absorbed in his intended reply, engrossed by what
he was hearing; his eyes were fixed--and seemed to look at the
Jew without seeing him.
In fact, after the lapse of a few minutes, the two gloomy
figures slowly pursued their way, still conversing in low
tones, toward the place whence the prisoner had come. HE
HAD NOT BEEN SEEN! Amid the horrible confusion of the
rabbi's thoughts, the idea darted through his brain: "Can I
be already dead that they did not see me?" A hideous
impression roused him from his lethargy: in looking at the
wall against which his face was pressed, he imagined he
beheld two fierce eyes watching him! He flung his head back
in a sudden frenzy of fright, his hair fairly bristling!
Yet, no! No. His hand groped over the stones: it was the
reflection of the inquisitor's eyes, still retained in his
own, which had been reflected from two spots on the wall.
Forward! He must hasten toward that goal which he fancied
(absurdly, no doubt) to be deliverance, toward the darkness
from which he was now barely thirty paces distant. He
pressed forward faster on his knees, his hands, at full
length, dragging himself painfully along, and soon entered
the dark portion of this terrible corridor.
Suddenly the poor wretch felt a gust of cold air on the
hands resting upon the flags; it came from under the little
door to which the two walls led.
Oh, Heaven, if that door should open outward. Every nerve
in the miserable fugitive's body thrilled with hope. He
examined it from top to bottom, though scarcely able to
distinguish its outlines in the surrounding darkness. He
passed his hand over it: no bolt, no lock! A latch! He
started up, the latch yielded to the pressure of his thumb:
the door silently swung open before him.
"Halleluia!" murmured the rabbi in a transport of
gratitude as, standing on the threshold, he beheld the scene
The door had opened into the gardens, above which arched a
starlit sky, into spring, liberty, life! It revealed the
neighboring fields, stretching toward the sierras, whose
sinuous blue lines were relieved against the horizon.
Yonder lay freedom! Oh, to escape! He would journey all
night through the lemon groves, whose fragrance reached him.
Once in the mountains and he was safe! He inhaled the
delicious air; the breeze revived him, his lungs expanded!
He felt in his swelling heart the Veniforas of Lazarus! And
to thank once more the God who had bestowed this mercy upon
him, he extended his arms, raising his eyes toward Heaven.
It was an ecstasy of joy!
Then he fancied he saw the shadow of his arms approach
him--fancied that he felt these shadowy arms inclose,
embrace him--and that he was pressed tenderly to someone's
breast. A tall figure actually did stand directly before
him. He lowered his eyes--and remained motionless, gasping
for breath, dazed, with fixed eyes, fairly driveling with
Horror! He was in the clasp of the Grand Inquisitor
himself, the venerable Pedro Arbuez d'Espila, who gazed at
him with tearful eyes, like a good shepherd who had found
his stray lamb.
The dark-robed priest pressed the hapless Jew to his heart
with so fervent an outburst of love, that the edge of the
monochal haircloth rubbed the Dominican's breast. And while
Aser Abarbanel with protruding eyes gasped in agony in the
ascetic's embrace, vaguely comprehending that all the
phases of this fatal evening were only a prearranged
torture, that of HOPE, the Grand Inquisitor, with an accent
of touching reproach and a look of consternation, murmured
in his ear, his breath parched and burning from long
"What, my son! On the eve, perchance, of salvation--you
wished to leave us?"