The peasants trembled as they whispered of the disappearing virgins and the castle of pain.
THE house was a large one, set back and surrounded with trees and fountains in the manner of sixteenth-century Italy. Passersby had to stay some distance from the windows, lighted with flickering candles—but as they walked along the paths of the city, they could still hear, from the house beyond the trees, the terrible screams, the bubbling moans, that seemed sometimes to go on by night and day.
The more pious among them crossed themselves, muttering prayers as they went quickly by. "It is the devil lives in there," they said. "The devil himself, come to earth to torment us."
For none of them knew who might be next—who might be picked to suffer the tortures of the damned inside the house of the Count of Cenara.
During the day, for the most part, the house was quiet. But at night, when the candles began to flicker, the citizens would hear screams, pleas, and the sounds of the torture—of the whip, repeating in endless cracks the lashing of some poor innocent, or the straining of the wooden rack on which a living body was being torn slowly to pieces.
Among themselves, the braver souls muttered of rebellion. The day would come, they said, when they would band together and overthrow the Count of Cenara, put an end to his reign of blood and terror.
But all of them knew, secretly, that the day could never come.
The Count had the city in the palm of his hand. Within Villecharina, there was no force to oppose him. Like many in various Italian towns he even had his own "army," a hand-picked band of servants and helpers trained to fight. No crew of untrained citizens could stand up against such force.
AMONG the most vocal of the citizens of Villecharina was Rodolfo Teschina, a woodworker of the town. Rodolfo, a middle-aged man with long, flowing moustaches and a missing left hand, lopped off in some forgotten accident during his apprenticeship, had reason for his fear and hatred of the Count. He had known the Count in childhood, and he never tired of telling the story.
"That one," he said to his cronies, "was always a bad one. Even as a small boy, there was something wrong with him—who knows why, except that the Devil sometimes chooses a man for his own."
Rodolfo's mother had worked as laundress in the Count's household for some little while, his father was assistant to the coachman. As a child, Rodolfo himself had played in the courtyard of the place, had seen the young Count and his amusements.
"At first it was the animals," he said. "The flies, perhaps—or even the cats and dogs. He liked to make them suffer, burning the flies in a fire, beating the animals until they could resist no more, even until they died. Some say he was kind and gentle as a child and that some love-affair turned him against women, but I say he was always a man of blood, a man of anger and terror."
Rodolfo's mother had been pretty—and blonde, rare in Southern Italy. She had caught the eye of the young Count, who was then perhaps thirteen.
Ridiculous as it sounds, this young boy had come to Rodolfo's father with an offer. If the elder Teschina would "put away" his wife, some sort of divorce might be managed, and the Count himself would "marry" the woman, Violetta.
Naturally, Teschina refused.
"I was willing to offer her happiness," the Count said, in a casual tone. "You have insured that she will suffer torment instead." He bowed and turned away.
The reputation of the Count of Cenara was not yet widespread: Teschina had little fear that he would really carry out such a threat.
The next night he discovered how wrong he had been. In the dead of night, four guards broke into the chamber he shared with his wife and son and carried Violetta off, in spite of all the fight Rodolfo and his father could put up.
The two went to the main rooms of the place and asked for the Count.
The Count of Cenara received them within an hour. "You are inquiring after the Signora?" he asked.
"She has been taken away," Teschina roared, "—and by your orders!"
"You wish to see her?"
"I will take you to her," the Count said. Guards appeared; the man and the boy were escorted through the labyrinthine passages of the house until they found themselves in a small back room.
Teschina stared and screamed. His son Rodolfo tried to run to his mother, but the guards held him firmly back, and actually tied him to a chair along with his father. Trussed up, the two continued to stare at Violetta Teschina.
Her beautiful body was naked now, before the gaze of guards and the Count. Her breasts straining forward, she had been tied to a pillar near the center of the room. Her eyes were closed and her head hanging down in a faint.
The front of her body was covered with whipmarks. Blood still oozed from some of the ugly cuts the whip had made in her tender flesh. A grinning guard stood by with the long braided whip dangling from his hand, waiting until she might awaken.
Teschina was cursing, bitterly and steadily, at the Count. Rodolfo, round-eyed, could say nothing. The Count only smiled for a long second.
"I informed you of the bargain you had made," he told Teschina. "Now I am glad you have come to see it carried out."
SOON a fluttering of the eyelids, a faint stirring of the head, told the horrified watchers that Violetta Teschina had awakened.
Her staring eyes fell of the bound forms of her husband and son.
"Oh, God..." she whispered. "Save me... don't let them... don't let him hurt me any more..."
But there was nothing to be done, no way for Teschina or his son Rodolfo to escape from the bonds that held them tightly. The guard with the whip moved forward and Violetta screamed at the sight of him. Then the braided whip flashed up, and down, striking the tender body, flicking actual bits of flesh off with the force of its blow...
Again, and again, and again!
And then there were other tortures, in a shrieking carnival of agony: wooden stakes with their tips wrapped in burning cotton, jabbed into the tenderest portions of the woman's body until the blackened circles of burned flesh multiplied, became one single black mass of jerking torment...
It took her five hours to die, five hours of nearly constant torture.
When Teschina and Rodolfo were taken from the room they were numb with horror, incapable of speech or motion.
Teschina himself died two months later—after the Count had sent him from the house.
"You will not be allowed entrance again," he told the man and his son. "I merely lived up to my bargain—but who knows? You might resent even that, and attempt to harm me. You will not be allowed the opportunity."
His father dead, Rodolfo turned to woodworking as a means of scraping out a tiny living for himself. Three times he had attempted to break into the domain of the Count of Cenara. Three times he had been turned back by alert guards in the Count's pay and household.
Sooner or later, he knew, he would succeed. He had to succeed.
Buried deeply in his heart was the memory of his mother.
And, nearer the surface, there was a new fear. Rodolfo had married, and he had a daughter, an eighteen-year old girl named Donna Teschina.
Some day, the eye of the Count might fall on Donna...
And that, Rodolfo vowed, could not be allowed to happen.
It was Rodolfo who finally formed the villagers of Villecharina into something resembling an army.
Perhaps he thought of it primarily as revenge, perhaps as protection for his daughter Donna. But if it were protection he was after, he was doomed to disappointment. For the formation of even so loose and unplanned a group as his "army" was turning out to be brought his name to the attention of the Count of Cenara.
And with his name came the name of his daughter.
"Donna Teschina?" the Count asked quietly of his chief guard. "She might provide me with pleasure, Carlo. If she is anything like her mother..." he smiled. Carlo knew that smile, and he knew that during the night screams and groans would once again terrify those who were forced to pass the Count's house.
"What are my orders?" he asked.
The Count smiled again. "Why, bring her to me, Carlo," he said. "The women of this town are ugly, fat, unpleasant to a man of refined tastes. They scream obscenities, and when they surrender they are—unsatisfactory. But this Teschina girl might be a faint echo of her mother..." he paused. "Yes," he said then, in a quiet voice. "Bring her to me. And be careful, Carlo—take a force with you. Her father will not give her up without strong resistance."
That night, Carlo and six of his men went out along the twisted streets of Villecharina to the small hut where Rodolfo, his wife and his daughter lived. Their passage was marked by a lookout Rodolfo had posted, and by the time they reached the hut men were standing ready for them.
Carlo deployed his own men in a semicircle, and drove straight for the hut. They were armed with pikes and swords; the villagers had nothing but clubs to use.
They used them valiantly; by the time the pitched battle was over two of the Count's men lay unconscious on the ground, one of them to die later of a cracked skull.
But four of the villagers were dead, and among the dead was Rodolfo's wife.
Donna Teschina, Rodolfo's daughter, was not dead.
But Rodolfo was beginning to wish she were. Instead, the Count's men had taken her away—taken her to the torture chambers of the Count of Cenara, in spite of anything he could do!
While the others patched their wounds, carried off the dead, even began preparing for the burial of his wife, Rodolfo sat lost in agonized thought. The idea of Donna undergoing the terrible torments of the Count's pleasures was unbearable; there had to be a way out. But what?
Time passed: night grew slowly into dawn. And then, at last, Rodolfo had his idea, an idea borne of incredible desperation.
There wasn't a second to lose. He stood up, swaying, his eyes burning. He called out to the others. He began to outline his plan.
MEANWHILE, the Count was smiling once more. Donna, an eighteen-year-old virgin, had been dragged before him. "I wish to enjoy your favors," the Count had said, "but I will not do so without your permission." Guards held the girl by the arms. He sneered down at her face, expecting terror—but he got, instead, a look of firm resolve.
She said one word: "Never."
The Count's smile grew broader. "Well, then," he said. "I can see that you need a little persuasion. Have you heard that I am very accomplished at —persuasion? Perhaps your father has told you—"
"You are a monster!"
The guards moved in on her, but the Count waved them to stillness. "The girl has spirit," he said. "So much the better." He addressed her again. "Yes, my dear," he said, "I have always enjoyed the techniques of persuasion. The body of a woman is like a sensitive instrument, an instrument on which a hundred different sounds can be played—from a moan to a scream. I shall not at all be disappointed by your refusal. Sooner or later, you will give in to me."
Donna shook her head slowly. "Never," she said again.
The Count wasted no words. He waved to his guards, and Donna was dragged out. By himself now, the Count allowed himself the luxury of anticipating what would happen—seeing in advance every scream, every moan, every jerk of the helpless, tormented body. Seeing the final surrender—and after that the continuation of torture, the pleasures of more and more pain until, at last, death came to claim the victim.
Death, he told himself sadly, was inevitable. But perhaps this one would last for a long time...
Slowly, unhurriedly, he followed the route the guards had taken, toward the room at the front of the house where his torture-machines had been set up. In his mind he was running over the list, and wondering which to use first. The whip by itself was hardly interesting enough...
When he reached the front room, he found Donna gripped by two guards, stripped naked. He stopped at the entrance, his breath catching. The girl was breathtakingly beautiful. Her body was slim and white, the breasts full and high, the legs long and straight. She had not inherited her mother's blonde hair, but she had something which excited him even more: pride. Even now, even naked before the guards and before the Count himself, she held herself with upright dignity, her eyes blazing at him as he stood watching her.
The Count laughed. "The ceiling," he told his guards, "and the weights."
Without delay Donna's hands were brought up, her wrists tied over her head and attached to a hook in the high ceiling of the room. She attempted to kick but the guards caught her legs without effort, and tied the ankles, too, attaching to the rope a twenty-pound weight.
"Not enough," the Count said, though Donna was already gasping with the strain on her arms and shoulders.
The twenty-pound weight was removed. The new weight was fifty pounds. Donna could not restrain a moan. Her body, stretched taut, supported only by the ropes at her wrists, was pulled steadily downward by the weight at her ankles.
Now the Count hung a metal brazier before her, a deep box filled with a burning coal fire. The heat reached her faintly, since it was several inches away.
"Do you understand what will happen if you sway toward that fire?" the Count asked her. She answered him only with a curse. "Very well, then," he said. "I shall show you."
He signaled to a guard, who stepped behind the girl and lashed out suddenly with a leather whip. The crack of leather against female flesh was startlingly loud.
Donna emitted one piercing, sudden cry.
Then the leather came down again, and her body automatically convulsed with the pain.
Suspended only from the wrists, she began to sway irresistibly back and forth—each time closer to the metal brazier. For the first time she began to see the full horror of this torment.
As the whipping continued, her body jerked with pain, a motion she could not stop. And the weight kept her virtually motionless, unable to pull away from the stove as she neared it. Panic filled her mind as she realized that, as she swayed further each time, she would, at last, press against the fiery stove. And she would press against it each time she swayed forward!
The whips behind her, the fire before--her iron resolve almost cracked. With the third blow she screamed in earnest. She tried to keep herself still in spite of the pain of her whipping, but that was impossible.
The heat was now close enough to scorch.
And again the whip came down. Her body grazed the metal brazier for the first time.
Now her screams were ear-piercing, constant. As she swayed back, unable even to kick because of the weight stretching her poor legs to their fullest, the guard behind her swung his leather whip still again...
And the metal grazed her, pressed into her...
She prayed for unconsciousness now, prayed for death, incoherently babbling shrieks of torment. But there was no mercy in that room: the whip sang down, the metal glowed with heat, scorching, burning her while the whip beat its tattoo on her flesh...
Guards burst into the room with the news. Donna was unconscious by now, fainted for the second time, but the torment would go on when she awakened—the Count was angered by the interruption.
But the guards babbled out their story. A band of men had come to the gates with great homemade slings and flaming wood, they had cast the wood over the trees at the house. The guards there had fought back, one or two of the men were hurt—but enough of the brands had landed.
The place was burning!
Rodolfo, knowing that no more chance existed to save his daughter from torment, saw only mercy in a quick death for her.
And in that death the Count, too, would die. Perhaps he would be unable to escape in time...
As matters turned out, he might have made it—were it not for his eagerness to continue with Donna Teschina. But he refused to believe the story, then refused to believe its seriousness.
Three guards did manage to escape. They were stoned to death by a waiting crowd.
The Count of Cenara died in the flames—flames which were, perhaps, only a prelude to hotter and more permanent flames awaiting him—in the hell which was reserved for the man the townsfolk called the Devil himself!