When she reached it she was sober. So were many of the others. The assemblage rose, whiffed ceremony to the winds, and rushed for the door like a mob; overturning chairs, smashing crockery, tugging, struggling, shouldering, crowding--anything to get out before I should change my mind and puff the castle into the measureless dim vacancies of space. Well, well, well, they _were_ a superstitious lot. It is all a body can do to conceive of it.
The poor queen was so scared and humbled that she was even afraid to hang the composer without first consulting me. I was very sorry for her--indeed, any one would have been, for she was really suffering; so I was willing to do anything that was reasonable, and had no desire to carry things to wanton extremities. I therefore considered the matter thoughtfully, and ended by having the musicians ordered into our presence to play that Sweet Bye and Bye again, which they did. Then I saw that she was right, and gave her permission to hang the whole band. This little relaxation of sternness had a good effect upon the queen. A statesman gains little by the arbitrary exercise of iron-clad authority upon all occasions that offer, for this wounds the just pride of his subordinates, and thus tends to undermine his strength. A little concession, now and then, where it can do no harm, is the wiser policy.
Now that the queen was at ease in her mind once more, and measurably happy, her wine naturally began to assert itself again, and it got a little the start of her. I mean it set her music going--her silver bell of a tongue. Dear me, she was a master talker. It would not become me to suggest that it was pretty late and that I was a tired man and very sleepy. I wished I had gone off to bed when I had the chance. Now I must stick it out; there was no other way. So she tinkled along and along, in the otherwise profound and ghostly hush of the sleeping castle, until by and by there came, as if from deep down under us, a far-away sound, as of a muffled shriek-- with an expression of agony about it that made my flesh crawl. The queen stopped, and her eyes lighted with pleasure; she tilted her graceful head as a bird does when it listens. The sound bored its way up through the stillness again.
"What is it?" I said.
"It is truly a stubborn soul, and endureth long. It is many hours now."
"The rack. Come--ye shall see a blithe sight. An he yield not his secret now, ye shall see him torn asunder."
What a silky smooth hellion she was; and so composed and serene, when the cords all down my legs were hurting in sympathy with that man's pain. Conducted by mailed guards bearing flaring torches, we tramped along echoing corridors, and down stone stairways dank and dripping, and smelling of mould and ages of imprisoned night-- a chill, uncanny journey and a long one, and not made the shorter or the cheerier by the sorceress's talk, which was about this sufferer and his crime. He had been accused by an anonymous informer, of having killed a stag in the royal preserves. I said:
"Anonymous testimony isn't just the right thing, your Highness. It were fairer to confront the accused with the accuser."
"I had not thought of that, it being but of small consequence. But an I would, I could not, for that the accuser came masked by night, and told the forester, and straightway got him hence again, and so the forester knoweth him not."
"Then is this Unknown the only person who saw the stag killed?"
"Marry, _no_ man _saw_ the killing, but this Unknown saw this hardy wretch near to the spot where the stag lay, and came with right loyal zeal and betrayed him to the forester."
"So the Unknown was near the dead stag, too? Isn't it just possible that he did the killing himself? His loyal zeal--in a mask--looks just a shade suspicious. But what is your highness's idea for racking the prisoner? Where is the profit?"
"He will not confess, else; and then were his soul lost. For his crime his life is forfeited by the law--and of a surety will I see that he payeth it!--but it were peril to my own soul to let him die unconfessed and unabsolved.