QUAINT #25 Pedro Arbuez d’Espila in “The Torture of Hope” by Villiers de l’Isle Adam

Inquisition Scene by Francisco Goya

Inquisition Scene by Francisco Goya

Pedro Arbuez d’Espila was created by Villiers de l’Isle Adam and appeared in “The Torture of Hope” (Nouveaux Contes Cruels, 1888). “The Torture of Hope” is in many ways the quintessential conte cruel.

There was a real Pedro Arbuez d’Espila, Don Pedro Arbues de Epilae (1441/2-1485, one of the most notorious and vicious of the Spanish Grand Inquisitors. Arbues engaged in compulsory baptism of Jews and used judicial torture to ensure that the conversions were sincere. Arbues was killed by a group of Jews in 1485; Pope Pius IX canonized Arbues as St. Peter of Arbues in 1867.

Many years ago “the venerable Pedro Arbuez d’Espila, sixth prior of the Dominicans of Segovia, and third Grand Inquisitor of Spain,” goes to a cell deep in the dungeons of the Inquisition, accompanied by a prior and the fra redemptor. In the cell is held Rabbi Aser Abarbanel, an Aragonese “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,’ and he had refused to abjure his faith.” D’Espila, with tears in his eyes at the thought of the Rabbi rejecting salvation, informs the Rabbi that the following day he will be included in the auto-da-fé,

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.

D’Espila has the Rabbi unchained, tenderly embraces him, and then leaves. The prior embraces the Rabbi and the fra redemptor begs the Rabbi’s forgiveness “for what he had made him suffer for the purpose of redeeming him.” The Rabbi is left alone, bewildered and suffering, in the darkness. He notices, however, that the door to his cells was not completely closed. He carefully and slowly drags himself through the dungeons of the Inquisition, evading the guards and the inquisitors, and makes it outside the dungeons. The mountains are near, the night is starry, freedom is nigh, and the Rabbi’s heart swells with gratitude. Then the tall figure of Pedro Arbuez d’Espila emerges from out of the darkness and embraces the Rabbi:

And while Aser Abarbanel with protruding eyes gasped in agony in the ascetic’s embrace, vaguely comprehending that all 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 fasting: “What, my son! On the eve, perchance, of salvation–you wished to leave us?”

Modern readers should not let the predictability of the ending of “The Torture of Hope” blind them to the savagery of the story. As a statement of the cruelty of fate, “The Torture of Hope” is rarely if ever exceeded in fiction. Of course, that was the theme and the point of the contes cruel: that life makes no sense, that justice is not to be found, that fortune does not smile at you but instead frowns, that Murphy’s a right bastard who hates you. And Villiers, in “The Torture of Hope,” drives this point home as strongly as anyone ever has. “The Torture of Hope” is vicious and merciless and very effective.

The venerable Pedro Arbuez d’Espila truly hopes for the conversion of the heathen. His faith is genuine, and he goes to great lengths to be a good Christian, from mortifying his own flesh to forgiving the enemies of the True Faith to using harsh methods on them to get them to admit the errors of their ways–and, of course, setting up lengthy exercises, such as false escapes, toward that end. All this, so that the enemies of the Faith might gain God’s grace.

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