Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Chapter 8.

Mr. Forester had left us about three weeks, when Mr. Falkland sent me upon some business to an estate he possessed in a neighbouring county, about fifty miles from his principal residence. The road led in a direction wholly wide of the habitation of our late visitor. I was upon my return from the place to which I had been sent, when I began in fancy to take a survey of the various circumstances of my condition, and by degrees lost, in the profoundness of my contemplation, all attention to the surrounding objects. The first determination of my mind was to escape from the lynx-eyed jealousy and despotism of Mr. Falkland; the second to provide, by every effort of prudence and deliberation I could devise, against the danger with which I well knew my attempt must be accompanied.

Occupied with these meditations, I rode many miles before I perceived that I had totally deviated from the right path. At length I roused myself, and surveyed the horizon round me; but I could observe nothing with which my organ was previously acquainted. On three sides, the heath stretched as far as the eye could reach; on the fourth, I discovered at some distance a wood of no ordinary dimensions. Before me, scarcely a single track could be found, to mark that any human being had ever visited the spot. As the best expedient I could devise, I bent my course towards the wood I have mentioned, and then pursued, as well as I was able, the windings of the inclosure. This led me, after some time, to the end of the heath; but I was still as much at a loss as ever respecting the road I should pursue. The sun was hid from me by a grey and cloudy atmosphere; I was induced to continue along the skirts of the wood, and surmounted with some difficulty the hedges and other obstacles that from time to time presented themselves. My thoughts were gloomy and disconsolate; the dreariness of the day, and the solitude which surrounded me, seemed to communicate a sadness to my soul. I had proceeded a considerable way, and was overcome with hunger and fatigue, when I discovered a road and a little inn at no great distance. I made up to them, and upon enquiry found that, instead of pursuing the proper direction, I had taken one that led to Mr. Forester’s rather than to my own habitation. I alighted, and was entering the house, when the appearance of that gentleman struck my eyes.

Mr. Forester accosted me with kindness, invited me into the room where he had been sitting, and enquired what accident had brought me to that place.

While he was speaking, I could not help recollecting the extraordinary manner in which we were thus once more brought together, and a train of ideas was by this means suggested to my mind. Some refreshment was, by Mr. Forester’s order, prepared for me; I sat down, and partook of it. Still this thought dwelt upon my recollection:—“Mr. Falkland will never be made acquainted with our meeting; I have an opportunity thrown in my way, which if I do not improve, I shall deserve all the consequences that may result. I can now converse with a friend, and a powerful friend, without fear of being watched and overlooked.” What wonder that I was tempted to disclose, not Mr. Falkland’s secret, but my own situation, and receive the advice of a man of worth and experience, which might perhaps be adequately done without entering into any detail injurious to my patron?

Mr. Forester, on his part, expressed a desire to learn why it was I thought myself unhappy, and why I had avoided him during the latter part of his residence under the same roof, as evidently as I had before taken pleasure in his communications. I replied, that I could give him but an imperfect satisfaction upon these points; but what I could, I would willingly explain. The fact, I proceeded, was, that there were reasons which rendered it impossible for me to have a tranquil moment under the roof of Mr. Falkland. I had revolved the matter again and again in my mind, and was finally convinced that I owed it to myself to withdraw from his service. I added, that I was sensible, by this half-confidence, I might rather seem to merit the disapprobation of Mr. Forester than his countenance; but I declared my persuasion that, if he could be acquainted with the whole affair, however strange my behaviour might at present appear, he would applaud my reserve.

He appeared to muse for a moment upon what I had said, and then asked what reason I could have to complain of Mr. Falkland? I replied, that I entertained the deepest reverence for my patron; I admired his abilities, and considered him as formed for the benefit of his species. I should in my own opinion be the vilest of miscreants, if I uttered a whisper to his disadvantage. But this did not avail: I was not fit for him; perhaps I was not good enough for him; at all events, I must be perpetually miserable so long as I continued to live with him.

I observed Mr. Forester gaze upon me eagerly with curiosity and surprise; but this circumstance I did not think proper to notice. Having recovered himself, he enquired, why then, that being the case, I did not quit his service? I answered, what he now touched upon was that which most of all contributed to my misfortune. Mr. Falkland was not ignorant of my dislike to my present situation; perhaps he thought it unreasonable, unjust; but I knew that he would never be brought to consent to my giving way to it.

Here Mr. Forester interrupted me, and, smiling, said, I magnified obstacles, and over-rated my own importance; adding, that he would undertake to remove that difficulty, as well as to provide me with a more agreeable appointment. This suggestion produced in me a serious alarm. I replied, that I must entreat him upon no account to think of applying to Mr. Falkland upon the subject. I added, that perhaps I was only betraying my imbecility; but in reality, unacquainted as I was with experience and the world, I was afraid, though disgusted with my present residence, to expose myself upon a mere project of my own, to the resentment of so considerable a man as Mr. Falkland. If he would favour me with his advice upon the subject, or if he would only give me leave to hope for his protection in case of any unforeseen accident, this was all I presumed to request; and, thus encouraged. I would venture to obey the dictates of my inclination, and fly in pursuit of my lost tranquillity.

Having thus opened myself to this generous friend, as far as I could do it with propriety and safety, he sat for some time silent, with an air of deep reflection. At length, with a countenance of unusual severity, and a characteristic fierceness of manner and voice, he thus addressed me: “Young man, perhaps you are ignorant of the nature of the conduct you at present hold. May be, you do not know that where there is mystery, there is always something at bottom that will not bear the telling. Is this the way to obtain the favour of a man of consequence and respectability? To pretend to make a confidence, and then tell him a disjointed story that has not common sense in it!”

I answered, that, whatever were the amount of that prejudice, I must submit. I placed my hope of a candid construction, in the present instance, in the rectitude of his nature.

He went on: “You do so; do you? I tell you, sir, the rectitude of my nature is an enemy to disguise. Come, boy, you must know that I understand these things better than you. Tell all, or expect nothing from me but censure and contempt.”

“Sir,” replied I, “I have spoken from deliberation; I have told you my choice, and, whatever be the result, I must abide by it. If in this misfortune you refuse me your assistance, here I must end, having gained by the communication only your ill opinion and displeasure.”

He looked hard at me, as if he would see me through. At length he relaxed his features, and softened his manner. “You are a foolish, headstrong boy,” said he, “and I shall have an eye upon you. I shall never place in you the confidence I have done. But — I will not desert you. At present, the balance between approbation and dislike is in your favour. How long it will last, I cannot tell; I engage for nothing. But it is my rule to act as I feel. I will for this time do as you require; — and, pray God, it may answer. I will receive you, either now or hereafter, under my roof, trusting that I shall have no reason to repent, and that appearances will terminate as favourably as I wish, though I scarcely know how to hope it.”

We were engaged in the earnest discussion of subjects thus interesting to my peace, when we were interrupted by an event the most earnestly to have been deprecated. Without the smallest notice, and as if he had dropped upon us from the clouds, Mr. Falkland burst into the room. I found afterwards that Mr. Forester had come thus far upon an appointment to meet Mr. Falkland, and that the place of their intended rendezvous was at the next stage. Mr. Forester was detained at the inn where we now were by our accidental rencounter, and in reality had for the moment forgotten his appointment; while Mr. Falkland, not finding him where he expected, proceeded thus far towards the house of his kinsman. To me the meeting was most unaccountable in the world.

I instantly foresaw the dreadful complication of misfortune that was included in this event. To Mr. Falkland, the meeting between me and his relation must appear not accidental, but, on my part at least, the result of design. I was totally out of the road I had been travelling by his direction; I was in a road that led directly to the house of Mr. Forester. What must he think of this? How must he suppose I came to that place? The truth, if told, that I came there without design, and purely in consequence of having lost my way, must appear to be the most palpable lie that ever was devised.

Here then I stood detected in the fact of that intercourse which had been so severely forbidden. But in this instance it was infinitely worse than in those which had already given so much disturbance to Mr. Falkland. It was then frank and unconcealed; and therefore the presumption was, that it was for purposes that required no concealment. But the present interview, if concerted, was in the most emphatical degree clandestine. Nor was it less perilous than it was clandestine: it had been forbidden with the most dreadful menaces; and Mr. Falkland was not ignorant how deep an impression those menaces had made upon my imagination. Such a meeting therefore could not have been concerted under such circumstances, for a trivial purpose, or for any purpose that his heart did not ache to think of. Such was the amount of my crime, such was the agony my appearance was calculated to inspire; and it was reasonable to suppose that the penalty I had to expect would be proportionable. The threats of Mr. Falkland still sounded in my ears, and I was in a transport of terror.

The conduct of the same man in different circumstances, is often so various as to render it very difficult to be accounted for. Mr. Falkland, in this to him, terrible crisis, did not seem to be in any degree hurried away by passion. For a moment he was dumb; his eyes glared with astonishment; and the next moment, as it were, he had the most perfect calmness and self-command. Had it been otherwise, I have no doubt that I should instantly have entered into an explanation of the manner in which I came there, the ingenuousness and consistency of which could not but have been in some degree attended with a favourable event. But, as it was, I suffered myself to be overcome; I yielded, as in a former instance, to the discomfiting influence of surprise. I dared scarcely breathe; I observed the appearances with equal anxiety and surprise. Mr. Falkland quietly ordered me to return home, and take along with me the groom he had brought with him. I obeyed in silence.

I afterwards understood, that he enquired minutely of Mr. Forester the circumstances of our meeting; and that that gentleman, perceiving that the meeting itself was discovered, and guided by habits of frankness, which, when once rooted in a character, it is difficult to counteract, told Mr. Falkland every thing that had passed, together with the remarks it had suggested to his own mind. Mr. Falkland received the communication with an ambiguous and studied silence, which by no means operated to my advantage in the already poisoned mind of Mr. Forester. His silence was partly the direct consequence of a mind watchful, inquisitive, and doubting; and partly perhaps was adopted for the sake of the effect it was calculated to produce, Mr. Falkland not being unwilling to encourage prejudices against a character which might one day come in competition with his own.

As to me, I went home indeed, for this was not a moment to resist. Mr. Falkland, with a premeditation to which he had given the appearance of accident, had taken care to send with me a guard to attend upon his prisoner. I seemed as if conducting to one of those fortresses, famed in the history of despotism, from which the wretched victim is never known to come forth alive; and when I entered my chamber, I felt as if I were entering a dungeon. I reflected that I was at the mercy of a man, exasperated at my disobedience, and who was already formed to cruelty by successive murders. My prospects were now closed; I was cut off for ever from pursuits that I had meditated with ineffable delight; my death might be the event of a few hours. I was a victim at the shrine of conscious guilt, that knew neither rest nor satiety; I should be blotted from the catalogue of the living, and my fate remain eternally a secret; the man who added my murder to his former crimes, would show himself the next morning, and be hailed with the admiration and applause of his species.

In the midst of these terrible imaginations, one idea presented itself that alleviated my feelings. This was the recollection of the strange and unaccountable tranquillity which Mr. Falkland had manifested, when he discovered me in company with Mr. Forester. I was not deceived by this. I knew that the calm was temporary, and would be succeeded by a tumult and whirlwind of the most dreadful sort. But a man under the power of such terrors as now occupied me catches at every reed. I said to myself, “This tranquillity is a period it is incumbent upon me to improve; the shorter its duration may be found, the more speedy am I obliged to be in the use of it.” In a word, I took the resolution, because I already stood in fear of the vengeance of Mr. Falkland, to risk the possibility of provoking it in a degree still more inexpiable, and terminate at once my present state of uncertainty. I had now opened my case to Mr. Forester, and he had given me positive assurances of his protection. I determined immediately to address the following letter to Mr. Falkland. The consideration that, if he meditated any thing tragical, such a letter would only tend to confirm him, did not enter into the present feelings of my mind.

“Sir,

“I have conceived the intention of quitting your service. This is a measure we ought both of us to desire. I shall then be, what it is my duty to be, master of my own actions. You will be delivered from the presence of a person, whom you cannot prevail upon yourself to behold without unpleasing emotions.

“Why should you subject me to an eternal penance? Why should you consign my youthful hopes to suffering and despair? Consult the principles of humanity that have marked the general course of your proceedings, and do not let me, I entreat you, be made the subject of a useless severity. My heart is impressed with gratitude for your favours. I sincerely ask your forgiveness for the many errors of my conduct. I consider the treatment I have received under your roof, as one almost uninterrupted scene of kindness and generosity. I shall never forget my obligations to you, and will never betray them.

“I remain, Sir,

“Your most grateful, respectful,

“and dutiful servant,

“CALEB WILLIAMS.”

Such was my employment of the evening of a day which will be ever memorable in the history of my life. Mr. Falkland not being yet returned, though expected every hour, I was induced to make use of the pretence of fatigue to avoid an interview. I went to bed. It may be imagined that my slumbers were neither deep nor refreshing.

The next morning I was informed that my patron did not come home till late; that he had enquired for me, and, being told that I was in bed, had said nothing further upon the subject. Satisfied in this respect, I went to the breakfasting parlour, and, though full of anxiety and trepidation, endeavoured to busy myself in arranging the books, and a few other little occupations, till Mr. Falkland should come down. After a short time I heard his step, which I perfectly well knew how to distinguish, in the passage. Presently he stopped, and, speaking to some one in a sort of deliberate, but smothered voice, I overheard him repeat my name as enquiring for me. In conformity to the plan I had persuaded myself to adopt, I now laid the letter I had written upon the table at which he usually sat, and made my exit at one door as Mr. Falkland entered at the other. This done, I withdrew, with flutterings and palpitation, to a private apartment, a sort of light closet at the end of the library, where I was accustomed not unfrequently to sit.

I had not been here three minutes, when I heard the voice of Mr. Falkland calling me. I went to him in the library. His manner was that of a man labouring with some dreadful thought, and endeavouring to give an air of carelessness and insensibility to his behaviour. Perhaps no carriage of any other sort could have produced a sensation of such inexplicable horror, or have excited, in the person who was its object, such anxious uncertainty about the event. —“That is your letter,” said he, throwing it.

“My lad,” continued he, “I believe now you have played all your tricks, and the farce is nearly at an end! With your apishness and absurdity however you have taught me one thing; and, whereas before I have winced at them with torture, I am now as tough as an elephant. I shall crush you in the end with the same indifference, that I would any other little insect that disturbed my serenity.

“I am unable to tell what brought about your meeting with Mr. Forester yesterday. It might be design; it might be accident. But, I shall not forget it. You write me here, that you are desirous to quit my service. To that I have a short answer: You never shall quit it with life. If you attempt it, you shall never cease to rue your folly as long as you exist. That is my will; and I will not have it resisted. The very next time you disobey me in that or any other article, there is an end of your vagaries for ever. Perhaps your situation may be a pitiable one; it is for you to look to that. I only know that it is in your power to prevent its growing worse; no time nor chance shall ever make it better.

“Do not imagine I am afraid of you! I wear an armour, against which all your weapons are impotent. I have dug a pit for you; and, whichever way you move, backward or forward, to the right or the left, it is ready to swallow you. Be still! If once you fall, call as loud as you will, no man on earth shall hear your cries; prepare a tale however plausible, or however true, the whole world shall execrate you for an impostor. Your innocence shall be of no service to you; I laugh at so feeble a defence. It is I that say it; you may believe what I tell you — Do you not know, miserable wretch!” added he, suddenly altering his tone, and stamping upon the ground with fury, “that I have sworn to preserve my reputation, whatever be the expense; that I love it more than the whole world and its inhabitants taken together? And do you think that you shall wound it? Begone, miscreant! reptile! and cease to contend with insurmountable power!”

The part of my history which I am now relating is that which I reflect upon with the least complacency. Why was it, that I was once more totally overcome by the imperious carriage of Mr. Falkland, and unable to utter a word? The reader will be presented with many occasions in the sequel, in which I wanted neither facility in the invention of expedients, nor fortitude in entering upon my justification. Persecution at length gave firmness to my character, and taught me the better part of manhood. But in the present instance I was irresolute, overawed, and abashed.

The speech I had heard was the dictate of frenzy, and it created in me a similar frenzy. It determined me to do the very thing against which I was thus solemnly warned, and fly from my patron’s house. I could not enter into parley with him; I could no longer endure the vile subjugation he imposed on me. It was in vain that my reason warned me of the rashness of a measure, to be taken without concert or preparation. I seemed to be in a state in which reason had no power. I felt as if I could coolly survey the several arguments of the case, perceive that they had prudence, truth, and common sense on their side; and then answer, I am under the guidance of a director more energetic than you.

I was not long in executing what I had thus rapidly determined. I fixed on the evening of that very day as the period of my evasion. Even in this short interval I had perhaps sufficient time for deliberation. But all opportunity was useless to me; my mind was fixed, and each succeeding moment only increased the unspeakable eagerness with which I meditated my escape. The hours usually observed by our family in this country residence were regular; and one in the morning was the time I selected for my undertaking.

In searching the apartment where I slept, I had formerly discovered a concealed door, which led to a small apartment of the most secret nature, not uncommon in houses so old as that of Mr. Falkland, and which had perhaps served as a refuge from persecution, or a security from the inveterate hostilities of a barbarous age. I believed no person was acquainted with this hiding-place but myself. I felt unaccountably impelled to remove into it the different articles of my personal property. I could not at present take them away with me. If I were never to recover them, I felt that it would be a gratification to my sentiment, that no trace of my existence should be found after my departure. Having completed their removal, and waited till the hour I had previously chosen, I stole down quietly from my chamber with a lamp in my hand. I went along a passage that led to a small door opening into the garden, and then crossed the garden, to a gate that intersected an elm-walk and a private horse-path on the outside.

I could scarcely believe my good fortune in having thus far executed my design without interruption. The terrible images Mr. Falkland’s menaces had suggested to my mind, made me expect impediment and detection at every step; though the impassioned state of my mind impelled me to advance with desperate resolution. He probably however counted too securely upon the ascendancy of his sentiments, when imperiously pronounced, to think it necessary to take precautions against a sinister event. For myself, I drew a favourable omen as to the final result of my project, from the smoothness of success that attended it in the outset.

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