“It’s awfully heavy isn’t it?”
Sir Howard sighed. “Yes, the intention was to make the wearer continuously aware of its presence.”
“It looks awfully old.”
“Not really,” Sir Howard replied. “Only about 200 years.”
He was thinking of the difference between the English and American concepts of age when Priscilla spoke again.
“It’s very pretty.”
“Yes those old craftsmen decorated all their objects. They abhorred a plain surface. Besides, this was intended to be worn by a woman. But the silver and gold decoration you see was done in an earlier style.”
Priscilla examined the fine tracery more closely and ran her fingers over it. “Is this real gold?”
“Yes, but only a thin layer.”
”It must be very valuable.”
“It is, extremely valuable. It’s unique, I don’t know of another like it.”
“Where did it come from?”
“One of my ancestors brought it back from Italy. Family tradition says it originally came from the Borgias.”
She didn’t say anything. Sir Howard felt she had passed her first test.
They were sitting in one of the private rooms of the castle, one not open to the general public. Sir Howard had intercepted her while she was on the self-guided tour. He had selected her, as he had previous candidates, because she had shown particular interest in the torture chamber and the dungeon. She had lingered there for a considerable time before moving on to the upper floor.
He was annoyed at the presence of tourists in his castle. The Government’s financial policy, particularly the crippling death duties, had reduced his once proud family to a state of poverty. The only way he could continue to live in his ancestral home was to open it to the public. He resented their intrusion, and considered them fair game.
Not that he caught many, very few in fact, perhaps one a year. He only caught the very stupid ones, and considered his practice a benefit to society as well as a personal means of gratification. Nearly all his potential victims escaped, and were unaware they had even been in danger. The average person had nothing to fear from him.
He regarded Priscilla closely. She was a young and brash American with perfect teeth. and large breasts. But her waist was thick. He wondered why women had given up the practice of wearing corsets, they looked so very much more attractive with a slender waist. It enhanced their shape and exaggerated the difference between the sexes. Apart from breasts and makeup it seemed difficult to tell the sexes apart these days. He thought that if she were ever in his power, he would put a very tight corset on her. His reverie was interrupted by Priscilla.
“How do you open it?”
“It unlocks with a key. I’ll get it for you if you like.”
“Oh that would be very kind, your Lordship.”
He smiled. She was only trying to please, so he did not correct her. He stood up and went to his study. He regretted that he had forgotten to return the key to the case. He wondered if he should have offered to get the key, it was a leading invitation, and he normally did not incite his victims by making suggestions, their downfall had to be entirely of their own doing. But he reasoned that the key was normally displayed alongside the collar, so he was now merely leveling the playing field, as the Americans would say.
He found the key in the drawer where he had left it and returned to the morning room. “Here it is.” He placed it on the table. He did not want to cheat by handing it directly to her; she had to pick it up.
“What an interesting key!”
“Yes, the Italians were consummate craftsmen.”
“Do you mind if I try it?”
“No, go ahead.”
She picked up the key and inserted it into the lock. He noted that she did not ask the obvious question, perhaps she would be the one. But he was not optimistic; he had learned that very few fell into the trap.
“How does it work?”
“Just keep turning to the right keeping the key pointing straight in. First the screw threads engage, then the lock will open.”
She turned the key, and after a few revolutions the collar fell open.
“Yes. Beautiful isn’t it?”
“How do you close it?”
“First you unscrew the key and remove it, then you can press the collar closed. The teeth are spring mounted.”
“Why are they such a funny shape?”
“That’s to prevent the wearer sliding a knife into the opening and forcing the teeth back to open the collar. The tooth guards also make the collar stronger, it can’t be twisted or bent.”
She unscrewed the key and laid it back on the table.
“These projections on the inside, they’re blunt. If I were making an instrument of torture I think I’d make them sharp. You know, to stick into the person.”
‘How unsubtle you Americans are,’ thought Sir Howard. Out loud he said, “That would certainly appear to make it a more fearsome instrument of torture. But, surprisingly, the blunt spikes are crueler. Sharp spikes would, as you must realize, penetrate the skin. They would cause immediate bleeding, and infection would soon set in. The unfortunate wearer might well be dead within a fortnight. But the blunt spikes don’t immediately do any damage. It may take weeks before they abrade the skin sufficiently to cause infection, so the wearer might live for months in agony before dying.”
“Initially the blunt spikes are not painful,” Sir Howard continued, “so if the wearer were a lady of the court she could still attend court functions. She could perform all of her normal duties for several weeks. Unless of course, she foolishly moved the collar around.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Well some victims don’t like the weight resting on their shoulders or the spikes pressing into one particular spot, so they lift it or move it around, and that abrades the skin. They would live longer if they simply left it alone.”
“Yes it is.”
Priscilla sat with the open collar resting on her jean-covered thighs. She ran her hand over the spikes on the inside.
“It doesn’t feel too bad.”
“No. Initially it’s quite comfortable I’m told. The rounded edges at the top and bottom prevent it digging into the skin. The only thing you notice is the weight, as you pointed out, but the bottom is curved to distribute the weight more evenly around the neck.”
“The top is shaped too.”
“Yes. It’s designed to hold the head in one position, but of course that depends to some extent on how long a person’s neck is.”
Priscilla closed the collar until the teeth engaged, but did not press hard enough to lock it. She moved her right hand around the inside of the collar feeling the smooth metal and the short blunt spikes.
Sir Harold held his breath. He did not want to influence her decision one way or the other, but it had been a long time, and he felt very tempted to say something.
“Do you mind if I try it on?” Priscilla asked.
“No I don’t mind, but you’ll have to put in on yourself.”
“Which way does it go on?”
“The hinge goes in the back. That way, viewed from the front, the collar looks entirely decorative with an uninterrupted design.”
Priscilla opened the collar and placed it around her neck. She pressed the two halves together, but it did not close fully.
Sir Howard wondered if he were doing the right thing. To be trapped you had to be both stupid and strong. He felt he should be doing his bit to eliminate the stupid and the weak as well.
“I can’t seem to get it closed.”
“You have to push very hard.”
Priscilla placed her palms flat on each side of the collar and grunted as she jerked her arms together. The collar closed with a click.
“Wow! What a neat feeling. You were right, it’s not uncomfortable, but it does feel heavy.”
“It’ll feel heavier with time.”
This was one of Sir Howard’s favorite parts, the delay before the full realization of the problem.
“Wow, I’ve discovered another problem. When I turn my head it moves the collar and I can feel the spikes moving on my neck.”
“Yes. You’ll have to learn to keep your head still.”
“What does it look like on? Can I see myself in a mirror?”
“Certainly. Come this way.”
Sir Howard led the way into the day room.
Priscilla examined herself in the large ornate mirror. “Oh it’s beautiful. Can I take a picture?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you mind taking one of me?”
“Not at all.”
Priscilla took a disposable camera from her pocket book and handed it to Sir Howard, who examined it as if he had never seen one before.
“You look through here, and then you press this button here.”
Sir Howard raised the camera to his eyes.
“No you’re too close. Can you step back a little?”
Sir Howard obliged, took the photo and handed the camera back to her.
“Thanks awfully. My friends will be so jealous when they see this picture.”
Sir Howard smiled but said nothing and they returned to the morning room. They sat down and Sir Howard waited for the penny to drop.
But Priscilla started on another tack. “Your torture chamber is so interesting.”
“Thank you. But it’s not a real torture chamber.”
“No, it’s just something we made as a tourist attraction. Practically all the instruments on display are fakes and reproductions.”
“Yes, and the room wasn’t even a dungeon. I think it was only ever used as a storage cellar.”
“Really? How disappointing!”
“The real dungeon is in this part of the castle. But it’s very damp, so it’s not really suitable for crowds of tourists. You can see if you like.”
“I’d love to. But perhaps I could take this collar off first.”
“Certainly, if you can figure out how.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well the keyhole is on the inside so I don’t see how you can get the key in to unlock it.”
“Oh my god! How do you get it off?”
“Well it’s far too valuable to cut off, so I usually cut off the wearer’s head. After they’re dead of course.”