Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Chapter 14.

I was conducted to the keeper’s room for that night, and the two men sat up with me. I was accosted with many interrogatories, to which I gave little answer, but complained of the hurt in my leg. To this I could obtain no reply, except “Curse you, my lad! if that be all, we will give you some ointment for that; we will anoint it with a little cold iron.” They were indeed excessively sulky with me, for having broken their night’s rest, and given them all this trouble. In the morning they were as good as their word, fixing a pair of fetters upon both my legs, regardless of the ankle which was now swelled to a considerable size, and then fastening me, with a padlock, to a staple in the floor of my dungeon. I expostulated with warmth upon this treatment, and told them, that I was a man upon whom the law as yet had passed no censure, and who therefore, in the eye of the law, was innocent. But they bid me keep such fudge for people who knew no better; they knew what they did, and would answer it to any court in England.

The pain of the fetter was intolerable. I endeavoured in various ways to relieve it, and even privily to free my leg; but the more it was swelled, the more was this rendered impossible. I then resolved to bear it with patience: still, the longer it continued, the worse it grew. After two days and two nights, I entreated the turnkey to go and ask the surgeon, who usually attended the prison, to look at it, for, if it continued longer as it was, I was convinced it would mortify. But he glared surlily at me, and said, “Damn my blood! I should like to see that day. To die of a mortification is too good an end for such a rascal!” At the time that he thus addressed me, the whole mass of my blood was already fevered by the anguish I had undergone, my patience was wholly exhausted, and I was silly enough to be irritated beyond bearing, by his impertinence and vulgarity: “Look, you, Mr. Turnkey,” said I, “there is one thing that such fellows as you are set over us for, and another thing that you are not. You are to take care we do not escape; but it is no part of your office to call us names and abuse us. If I were not chained to the floor, you dare as well eat your fingers as use such language; and, take my word for it, you shall yet live to repent of your insolence.”

While I thus spoke, the man stared at me with astonishment. He was so little accustomed to such retorts, that, at first, he could scarcely believe his ears; and such was the firmness of my manner, that he seemed to forget for a moment that I was not at large. But, as soon as he had time to recollect himself, he did not deign to be angry. His face relaxed into a smile of contempt; he snapped his fingers at me; and, turning upon his heel, exclaimed, “Well said, my cock! crow away! Have a care you do not burst!” and, as he shut the door upon me, mimicked the voice of the animal he mentioned.

This rejoinder brought me to myself in a moment, and showed me the impotence of the resentment I was expressing. But, though he thus put an end to the violence of my speech, the torture of my body continued as great as ever. I was determined to change my mode of attack. The same turnkey returned in a few minutes; and, as he approached me, to put down some food he had brought, I slipped a shilling into his hand, saying at the same time, “My good fellow, for God’s sake, go to the surgeon; I am sure you do not wish me to perish for want of assistance.” The fellow put the shilling into his pocket, looked hard at me, and then with one nod of his head, and without uttering a single word, went away. The surgeon presently after made his appearance; and, finding the part in a high state of inflammation, ordered certain applications, and gave peremptory directions that the fetter should not be replaced upon that leg, till a cure had been effected. It was a full month before the leg was perfectly healed, and made equally strong and flexible with the other.

The condition in which I was now placed, was totally different from that which had preceded this attempt. I was chained all day in my dungeon, with no other mitigation, except that the door was regularly opened for a few hours in an afternoon, at which time some of the prisoners occasionally came and spoke to me, particularly one, who, though he could ill replace my benevolent Brightwel, was not deficient in excellent qualities. This was no other than the individual whom Mr. Falkland had, some months before, dismissed upon an accusation of murder. His courage was gone, his garb was squalid, and the comeliness and clearness of his countenance was utterly obliterated. He also was innocent, worthy, brave, and benevolent. He was, I believe, afterwards acquitted, and turned loose, to wander a desolate and perturbed spectre through the world. My manual labours were now at an end; my dungeon was searched every night, and every kind of tool carefully kept from me. The straw, which had been hitherto allowed me, was removed, under pretence that it was adapted for concealment; and the only conveniences with which I was indulged, were a chair and a blanket.

A prospect of some alleviation in no long time opened upon me; but this my usual ill fortune rendered abortive. The keeper once more made his appearance, and with his former constitutional and ambiguous humanity. He pretended to be surprised at my want of every accommodation. He reprehended in strong terms my attempt to escape, and observed, that there must be an end of civility from people in his situation, if gentlemen, after all, would not know when they were well. It was necessary, in cases the like of this, to let the law take its course; and it would be ridiculous in me to complain, if, after a regular trial, things should go hard with me. He was desirous of being in every respect my friend, if I would let him. In the midst of this circumlocution and preamble, he was called away from me, for something relating to the business of his office. In the mean time I ruminated upon his overtures; and, detesting as I did the source from which I conceived them to flow, I could not help reflecting how far it would be possible to extract from them the means of escape. But my meditations in this case were vain. The keeper returned no more during the remainder of that day, and, on the next, an incident occurred which put an end to all expectations from his kindness.

An active mind, which has once been forced into any particular train, can scarcely be persuaded to desert it as hopeless. I had studied my chains, during the extreme anguish that I endured from the pressure of the fetter upon the ankle which had been sprained; and though, from the swelling and acute sensibility of the part, I had found all attempts at relief, in that instance, impracticable, I obtained, from the coolness of my investigation, another and apparently superior advantage. During the night, my dungeon was in a complete state of darkness; but, when the door was open, the case was somewhat different. The passage indeed into which it opened, was so narrow, and the opposite dead wall so near, that it was but a glimmering and melancholy light that entered my apartment, even at full noon, and when the door was at its widest extent. But my eyes, after a practice of two or three weeks, accommodated themselves to this circumstance, and I learned to distinguish the minutest object. One day, as I was alternately meditating and examining the objects around me, I chanced to observe a nail trodden into the mud-floor at no great distance from me. I immediately conceived the desire of possessing myself of this implement; but, for fear of surprise, people passing perpetually to and fro, I contented myself, for the present, with remarking its situation so accurately, that I might easily find it again in the dark. Accordingly, as soon as my door was shut, I seized upon this new treasure, and, having contrived to fashion it to my purpose, found that I could unlock with it the padlock that fastened me to the staple in the floor. This I regarded as no inconsiderable advantage, separately from the use I might derive from it in relation to my principal object. My chain permitted me to move only about eighteen inches to the right or left; and, having borne this confinement for several weeks, my very heart leaped at the pitiful consolation of being able to range, without constraint, the miserable coop in which I was immured. This incident had occurred several days previously to the last visit of my keeper.

From this time it had been my constant practice to liberate myself every night, and not to replace things in their former situation till I awoke in the morning, and expected shortly to perceive the entrance of the turnkey. Security breeds negligence. On the morning succeeding my conference with the jailor, it so happened, whether I overslept myself, or the turnkey went his round earlier than usual, that I was roused from my sleep by the noise he made in opening the cell next to my own; and though I exerted the utmost diligence, yet having to grope for my materials in the dark, I was unable to fasten the chain to the staple, before he entered, as usual, with his lantern. He was extremely surprised to find me disengaged, and immediately summoned the principal keeper. I was questioned respecting my method of proceeding; and, as I believed concealment could lead to nothing but a severer search, and a more accurate watch, I readily acquainted them with the exact truth. The illustrious personage, whose functions it was to control the inhabitants of these walls, was, by this last instance, completely exasperated against me. Artifice and fair speaking were at an end. His eyes sparkled with fury; he exclaimed, that he was now convinced of the folly of showing kindness to rascals, the scum of the earth, such as I was; and, damn him, if any body should catch him at that again towards any one. I had cured him effectually! He was astonished that the laws had not provided some terrible retaliation for thieves that attempted to deceive their jailors. Hanging was a thousand times too good for me!

Having vented his indignation, he proceeded to give such orders as the united instigations of anger and alarm suggested to his mind. My apartment was changed. I was conducted to a room called the strong room, the door of which opened into the middle cell of the range of dungeons. It was under-ground, as they were, and had also the day-room for felons, already described, immediately over it. It was spacious and dreary. The door had not been opened for years; the air was putrid; and the walls hung round with damps and mildew. The fetters, the padlock, and the staple, were employed, as in the former case, in addition to which they put on me a pair of handcuffs. For my first provision, the keeper sent me nothing but a bit of bread, mouldy and black, and some dirty and stinking water. I know not indeed whether this is to be regarded as gratuitous tyranny on the part of the jailor; the law having providently directed, in certain cases, that the water to be administered to the prisoners shall be taken from “the next sink or puddle nearest to the jail.”[E] It was further ordered, that one of the turnkeys should sleep in the cell that formed a sort of anti-chamber to my apartment. Though every convenience was provided, to render this chamber fit for the reception of a personage of a dignity so superior to the felon he was appointed to guard, he expressed much dissatisfaction at the mandate: but there was no alternative.

[Footnote E: In the case of the peine forte et dure. See State Trials, Vol. I. anno 1615.]

The situation to which I was thus removed was, apparently, the most undesirable that could be imagined but I was not discouraged; I had for some time learned not to judge by appearances. The apartment was dark and unwholesome; but I had acquired the secret of counteracting these influences. My door was kept continually shut, and the other prisoners were debarred access to me; but if the intercourse of our fellow-men has its pleasure, solitude, on the other hand, is not without its advantages. In solitude we can pursue our own thoughts undisturbed; and I was able to call up at will the most pleasing avocations. Besides which, to one who meditated such designs as now filled my mind, solitude had peculiar recommendations. I was scarcely left to myself, before I tried an experiment, the idea of which I conceived, while they were fixing my handcuffs; and, with my teeth only, disengaged myself from this restraint. The hours at which I was visited by the keepers were regular, and I took care to be provided for them. Add to which, I had a narrow grated window near the ceiling, about nine inches in perpendicular, and a foot and a half horizontally, which, though small, admitted a much stronger light than that to which I had been accustomed for several weeks. Thus circumstanced, I scarcely ever found myself in total darkness, and was better provided against surprises than I had been in my preceding situation. Such were the sentiments which this change of abode immediately suggested.

I had been a very little time removed, when I received an unexpected visit from Thomas, Mr. Falkland’s footman, whom I have already mentioned in the course of my narrative. A servant of Mr. Forester happened to come to the town where I was imprisoned, a few weeks before, while I was confined with the hurt in my ankle, and had called in to see me. The account he gave of what he observed had been the source of many an uneasy sensation to Thomas. The former visit was a matter of mere curiosity; but Thomas was of the better order of servants. He was considerably struck at the sight of me. Though my mind was now serene, and my health sufficiently good, yet the floridness of my complexion was gone, and there was a rudeness in my physiognomy, the consequence of hardship and fortitude, extremely unlike the sleekness of my better days. Thomas looked alternately in my face, at my hands, and my feet; and then fetched a deep sigh. After a pause,

“Lord bless us!” said he, in a voice in which commiseration was sufficiently perceptible, “is this you?”

“Why not, Thomas? You knew I was sent to prison, did not you?”

“Prison! and must people in prison be shackled and bound of that fashion? — and where do you lay of nights?”


“Here? Why there is no bed!”

“No, Thomas, I am not allowed a bed. I had straw formerly, but that is taken away.”

“And do they take off them there things of nights?”

“No; I am expected to sleep just as you see.”

“Sleep! Why I thought this was a Christian country; but this usage is too bad for a dog.”

“You must not say so, Thomas; it is what the wisdom of government has thought fit to provide.”

“Zounds, how I have been deceived! They told me what a fine thing it was to be an Englishman, and about liberty and property, and all that there; and I find it is all a flam. Lord, what fools we be! Things are done under our very noses, and we know nothing of the matter; and a parcel of fellows with grave faces swear to us, that such things never happen but in France, and other countries the like of that. Why, you ha’n’t been tried, ha’ you?”


“And what signifies being tried, when they do worse than hang a man, and all beforehand? Well, master Williams, you have been very wicked to be sure, and I thought it would have done me good to see you hanged. But, I do not know how it is, one’s heart melts, and pity comes over one, if we take time to cool. I know that ought not to be; but, damn it, when I talked of your being hanged, I did not think of your suffering all this into the bargain.”

Soon after this conversation Thomas left me. The idea of the long connection of our families rushed upon his memory, and he felt more for my sufferings, at the moment, than I did for myself. In the afternoon I was surprised to see him again. He said that he could not get the thought of me out of his mind, and therefore he hoped I would not be displeased at his coming once more to take leave of me. I could perceive that he had something upon his mind, which he did not know how to discharge. One of the turnkeys had each time come into the room with him, and continued as long as he staid. Upon some avocation however — a noise, I believe, in the passage — the turnkey went as far as the door to satisfy his curiosity; and Thomas, watching the opportunity, slipped into my hand a chisel, a file, and a saw, exclaiming at the same time with a sorrowful tone, “I know I am doing wrong; but, if they hang me too, I cannot help it; I cannot do no other. For Christ’s sake, get out of this place; I cannot bear the thoughts of it!” I received the implements with great joy, and thrust them into my bosom; and, as soon as he was gone, concealed them in the rushes of my chair. For himself he had accomplished the object for which he came, and presently after bade me farewell.

The next day, the keepers, I know not for what reason, were more than usually industrious in their search, saying, though without assigning any ground for their suspicion, that they were sure I had some tool in my possession that I ought not; but the depository I had chosen escaped them.

I waited from this time the greater part of a week, that I might have the benefit of a bright moonlight. It was necessary that I should work in the night; it was necessary that my operations should be performed between the last visit of the keepers at night and their first in the morning, that is, between nine in the evening and seven. In my dungeon, as I have already said, I passed fourteen or sixteen hours of the four-and-twenty undisturbed; but since I had acquired a character for mechanical ingenuity, a particular exception with respect to me was made from the general rules of the prison.

It was ten o’clock when I entered on my undertaking. The room in which I was confined was secured with a double door. This was totally superfluous for the purpose of my detention, since there was a sentinel planted on the outside. But it was very fortunate for my plan; because these doors prevented the easy communication of sound, and afforded me tolerable satisfaction that, with a little care in my mode of proceeding, I might be secure against the danger of being overheard. I first took off my handcuffs. I then filed through my fetters; and next performed the same service to three of the iron bars that secured my window, to which I climbed, partly by the assistance of my chair, and partly by means of certain irregularities in the wall. All this was the work of more than two hours. When the bars were filed through, I easily forced them a little from the perpendicular, and then drew them, one by one, out of the wall, into which they were sunk about three inches perfectly straight, and without any precaution to prevent their being removed. But the space thus obtained was by no means wide enough to admit the passing of my body. I therefore applied myself, partly with my chisel, and partly with one of the iron bars, to the loosening the brick-work; and when I had thus disengaged four or five bricks, I got down and piled them upon the floor. This operation I repeated three or four times The space was now sufficient for my purpose: and, having crept through the opening, I stepped upon a shed on the outside.

I was now in a kind of rude area between two dead walls, that south of the felons’ day-room (the windows of which were at the east end) and the wall of the prison. But I had not, as formerly, any instruments to assist me in scaling the wall, which was of considerable height. There was, of consequence, no resource for me but that of effecting a practicable breach in the lower part of the wall, which was of no contemptible strength, being of stone on the outside, with a facing of brick within. The rooms for the debtors were at right angles with the building from which I had just escaped; and, as the night was extremely bright, I was in momentary danger, particularly in case of the least noise, of being discovered by them, several of their windows commanding this area. Thus circumstanced, I determined to make the shed answer the purpose of concealment. It was locked; but, with the broken link of my fetters, which I had had the precaution to bring with me, I found no great difficulty in opening the lock. I had now got a sufficient means of hiding my person while I proceeded in my work, attended with no other disadvantage than that of being obliged to leave the door, through which I had thus broken, a little open for the sake of light. After some time, I had removed a considerable part of the brick-work of the outer wall; but, when I came to the stone, I found the undertaking infinitely more difficult. The mortar which bound together the building was, by length of time, nearly petrified, and appeared to my first efforts one solid rock of the hardest adamant. I had now been six hours incessantly engaged in incredible labour: my chisel broke in the first attempt upon this new obstacle; and between fatigue already endured, and the seemingly invincible difficulty before me, I concluded that I must remain where I was, and gave up the idea of further effort as useless. At the same time the moon, whose light had till now been of the greatest use to me, set, and I was left in total darkness.

After a respite of ten minutes however, I returned to the attack with new vigour. It could not be less than two hours before the first stone was loosened from the edifice. In one hour more, the space was sufficient to admit of my escape. The pile of bricks I had left in the strong room was considerable. But it was a mole-hill compared with the ruins I had forced from the outer wall. I am fully assured that the work I had thus performed would have been to a common labourer, with every advantage of tools, the business of two or three days. But my difficulties, instead of being ended, seemed to be only begun. The day broke, before I had completed the opening, and in ten minutes more the keepers would probably enter my apartment, and perceive the devastation I had left. The lane, which connected the side of the prison through which I had escaped with the adjacent country, was formed chiefly by two dead walls, with here and there a stable, a few warehouses, and some mean habitations, tenanted by the lower order of people. My best security lay in clearing the town as soon as possible, and depending upon the open country for protection. My arms were intolerably swelled and bruised with my labour, and my strength seemed wholly exhausted with fatigue. Speed I was nearly unable to exert for any continuance; and, if I could, with the enemy so close at my heels, speed would too probably have been useless. It appeared as if I were now in almost the same situation as that in which I had been placed five or six weeks before, in which, after having completed my escape, I was obliged to yield myself up, without resistance, to my pursuers. I was not however disabled as then; I was capable of exertion, to what precise extent I could not ascertain; and I was well aware, that every instance in which I should fail of my purpose would contribute to enhance the difficulty of any future attempt. Such were the considerations that presented themselves in relation to my escape; and, even if that were effected, I had to reckon among my difficulties, that, at the time I quitted my prison, I was destitute of every resource, and had not a shilling remaining in the world.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37