Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Chapter 3.

One day, while I continued in this situation, a circumstance occurred which involuntarily attracted my attention. Two of our people had been sent to a town at some distance, for the purpose of procuring us the things of which we were in want. After having delivered these to our landlady, they retired to one corner of the room; and, one of them pulling a printed paper from his pocket, they mutually occupied themselves in examining its contents. I was sitting in an easy chair by the fire, being considerably better than I had been, though still in a weak and languid state. Having read for a considerable time, they looked at me, and then at the paper, and then at me again. They then went out of the room together, as if to consult without interruption upon something which that paper suggested to them. Some time after they returned; and my protector, who had been absent upon the former occasion, entered the room at the same instant.

“Captain!” said one of them with an air of pleasure, “look here! we have found a prize! I believe it is as good as a bank-note of a hundred guineas.”

Mr. Raymond (that was his name) took the paper, and read. He paused for a moment. He then crushed the paper in his hand; and, turning to the person from whom he had received it, said, with the tone of a man confident in the success of his reasons —

“What use have you for these hundred guineas? Are you in want? Are you in distress? Can you be contented to purchase them at the price of treachery — of violating the laws of hospitality?”

“Faith, captain, I do not very well know. After having violated other laws, I do not see why we should be frightened at an old saw. We pretend to judge for ourselves, and ought to be above shrinking from a bugbear of a proverb. Beside, this is a good deed, and I should think no more harm of being the ruin of such a thief than of getting my dinner.”

“A thief! You talk of thieves!”

“Not so fast, captain. God defend that I should say a word against thieving as a general occupation! But one man steals in one way, and another in another. For my part, I go upon the highway, and take from any stranger I meet what, it is a hundred to one, he can very well spare. I see nothing to be found fault with in that. But I have as much conscience as another man. Because I laugh at assizes, and great wigs, and the gallows, and because I will not be frightened from an innocent action when the lawyers say me nay, does it follow that I am to have a fellow-feeling for pilferers, and rascally servants, and people that have neither justice nor principle? No; I have too much respect for the trade not to be a foe to interlopers, and people that so much the more deserve my hatred, because the world calls them by my name.”

“You are wrong, Larkins! You certainly ought not to employ against people that you hate, supposing your hatred to be reasonable, the instrumentality of that law which in your practice you defy. Be consistent. Either be the friend of the law, or its adversary, Depend upon it that, wherever there are laws at all, there will be laws against such people as you and me. Either therefore we all of us deserve the vengeance of the law, or law is not the proper instrument for correcting the misdeeds of mankind. I tell you this, because I would fain have you aware, that an informer or a king’s evidence, a man who takes advantage of the confidence of another in order to betray him, who sells the life of his neighbour for money, or, coward-like, upon any pretence calls in the law to do that for him which he cannot or dares not do for himself, is the vilest of rascals. But in the present case, if your reasons were the best in the world, they do not apply.”

While Mr. Raymond was speaking, the rest of the gang came into the room. He immediately turned to them, and said —

“My friends, here is a piece of intelligence that Larkins has just brought in which, with his leave, I will lay before you.”

Then unfolding the paper he had received, he continued: “This is the description of a felon, with the offer of a hundred guineas for his apprehension. Larking picked it up at ——. By the time and other circumstances, but particularly by the minute description of his person, there can be no doubt but the object of it is our young friend, whose life I was a while ago the instrument of saving. He is charged here with having taken advantage of the confidence of his patron and benefactor to rob him of property to a large amount. Upon this charge he was committed to the county jail, from whence he made his escape about a fortnight ago, without venturing to stand his trial; a circumstance which is stated by the advertiser as tantamount to a confession of his guilt.

“My friends, I was acquainted with the particulars of this story some time before. This lad let me into his history, at a time that he could not possibly foresee that he should stand in need of that precaution as an antidote against danger. He is not guilty of what is laid to his charge. Which of you is so ignorant as to suppose, that his escape is any confirmation of his guilt? Who ever thinks, when he is apprehended for trial, of his innocence or guilt as being at all material to the issue? Who ever was fool enough to volunteer a trial, where those who are to decide think more of the horror of the thing of which he is accused, than whether he were the person that did it; and where the nature of our motives is to be collected from a set of ignorant witnesses, that no wise man would trust for a fair representation of the most indifferent action of his life?

“The poor lad’s story is a long one, and I will not trouble you with it now. But from that story it is as clear as the day, that, because he wished to leave the service of his master, because he had been perhaps a little too inquisitive in his master’s concerns, and because, as I suspect, he had been trusted with some important secrets, his master conceived an antipathy against him. The antipathy gradually proceeded to such a length, as to induce the master to forge this vile accusation. He seemed willing to hang the lad out of the way, rather than suffer him to go where he pleased, or get beyond the reach of his power. Williams has told me the story with such ingenuousness, that I am as sure that he is guiltless of what they lay to his charge, as that I am so myself. Nevertheless the man’s servants who were called in to hear the accusation, and his relation, who as justice of the peace made out the mittimus, and who had the folly to think he could be impartial, gave it on his side with one voice, and thus afforded Williams a sample of what he had to expect in the sequel.

“Larkins, who when he received this paper had no previous knowledge of particulars, was for taking advantage of it for the purpose of earning the hundred guineas. Are you of that mind now you have heard them? Will you for so paltry a consideration deliver up the lamb into the jaws of the wolf? Will you abet the purposes of this sanguinary rascal, who, not contented with driving his late dependent from house and home, depriving him of character and all the ordinary means of subsistence, and leaving him almost without a refuge, still thirsts for his blood? If no other person have the courage to set limits to the tyranny of courts of justice, shall not we? Shall we, who earn our livelihood by generous daring, be indebted for a penny to the vile artifices of the informer? Shall we, against whom the whole species is in arms, refuse our protection to an individual, more exposed to, but still less deserving of, their persecution than ourselves?”

The representation of the captain produced an instant effect upon the whole company. They all exclaimed, “Betray him! No, not for worlds! He is safe. We will protect him at the hazard of our lives. If fidelity and honour be banished from thieves, where shall they find refuge upon the face of the earth?”[F] Larkins in particular thanked the captain for his interference, and swore that he would rather part with his right hand than injure so worthy a lad or assist such an unheard-of villainy. Saying this, he took me by the hand and bade me fear nothing. Under their roof no harm should ever befal me; and, even if the understrappers of the law should discover my retreat, they would to a man die in my defence, sooner than a hair of my head should be hurt. I thanked him most sincerely for his good-will; but I was principally struck with the fervent benevolence of my benefactor. I told them, I found that my enemies were inexorable, and would never be appeased but with my blood; and I assured them with the most solemn and earnest veracity, that I had done nothing to deserve the persecution which was exercised against me.

[Footnote F: This seems to be the parody of a celebrated saying of John King of France, who was taken prisoner by the Black Prince at the battle of Poitiers.]

The spirit and energy of Mr. Raymond had been such as to leave no part for me to perform in repelling this unlooked-for danger. Nevertheless, it left a very serious impression upon my mind. I had always placed some confidence in the returning equity of Mr. Falkland. Though he persecuted me with bitterness, I could not help believing that he did it unwillingly, and I was persuaded it would not be for ever. A man, whose original principles had been so full of rectitude and honour, could not fail at some time to recollect the injustice of his conduct, and to remit his asperity. This idea had been always present to me, and had in no small degree conspired to instigate my exertions. I said, “I will convince my persecutor that I am of more value than that I should be sacrificed purely by way of precaution.” These expectations on my part had been encouraged by Mr. Falkland’s behaviour upon the question of my imprisonment, and by various particulars which had occurred since.

But this new incident gave the subject a totally different appearance. I saw him, not contented with blasting my reputation, confining me for a period in jail, and reducing me to the situation of a houseless vagabond, still continuing his pursuit under these forlorn circumstances with unmitigable cruelty. Indignation and resentment seemed now for the first time to penetrate my mind. I knew his misery so well, I was so fully acquainted with its cause, and strongly impressed with the idea of its being unmerited, that, while I suffered deeply, I still continued to pity, rather than hate my persecutor. But this incident introduced some change into my feelings. I said, “Surely he might now believe that he had sufficiently disarmed me, and might at length suffer me to be at peace. At least, ought he not to be contented to leave me to my fate, the perilous and uncertain condition of an escaped felon, instead of thus whetting the animosity and vigilance of my countrymen against me? Were his interference on my behalf in opposition to the stern severity of Mr. Forester, and his various acts of kindness since, a mere part that he played in order to lull me into patience? Was he perpetually haunted with the fear of an ample retaliation, and for that purpose did he personate remorse, at the very moment that he was secretly keeping every engine at play that could secure my destruction?” The very suspicion of such a fact filled me with inexpressible horror, and struck a sudden chill through every fibre of my frame.

My wound was by this time completely healed, and it became absolutely necessary that I should form some determination respecting the future. My habits of thinking were such as gave me an uncontrollable repugnance to the vocation of my hosts. I did not indeed feel that aversion and abhorrence to the men which are commonly entertained. I saw and respected their good qualities and their virtues. I was by no means inclined to believe them worse men, or more hostile in their dispositions to the welfare of their species, than the generality of those that look down upon them with most censure. But, though I did not cease to love them as individuals, my eyes were perfectly open to their mistakes. If I should otherwise have been in danger of being misled, it was my fortune to have studied felons in a jail before I studied them in their state of comparative prosperity; and this was an infallible antidote to the poison. I saw that in this profession were exerted uncommon energy, ingenuity, and fortitude, and I could not help recollecting how admirably beneficial such qualities might be made in the great theatre of human affairs; while, in their present direction, they were thrown away upon purposes diametrically at war with the first interests of human society. Nor were their proceedings less injurious to their own interest than incompatible with the general welfare. The man who risks or sacrifices his life for the public cause, is rewarded with the testimony of an approving conscience; but persons who wantonly defy the necessary, though atrociously exaggerated, precautions of government in the matter of property, at the same time that they commit an alarming hostility against the whole, are, as to their own concerns, scarcely less absurd and self-neglectful than the man who should set himself up as a mark for a file of musqueteers to shoot at.

Viewing the subject in this light, I not only determined that I would have no share in their occupation myself, but thought I could not do less, in return for the benefits I had received from them, than endeavour to dissuade them from an employment in which they must themselves be the greatest sufferers. My expostulation met with a various reception. All the persons to whom it was addressed had been tolerably successful in persuading themselves of the innocence of their calling; and what remained of doubt in their mind was smothered, and, so to speak, laboriously forgotten. Some of them laughed at my arguments, as a ridiculous piece of missionary quixotism. Others, and particularly our captain, repelled them with the boldness of a man that knows he has got the strongest side. But this sentiment of ease and self-satisfaction did not long remain. They had been used to arguments derived from religion and the sacredness of law. They had long ago shaken these from them as so many prejudices. But my view of the subject appealed to principles which they could not contest, and had by no means the air of that customary reproof which is for ever dinned in our ears without finding one responsive chord in our hearts. Urged, as they now were, with objections unexpected and cogent, some of those to whom I addressed them began to grow peevish and impatient of the intrusive remonstrance. But this was by no means the case with Mr. Raymond. He was possessed of a candour that I have seldom seen equalled. He was surprised to hear objections so powerful to that which, as a matter of speculation, he believed he had examined on all sides. He revolved them with impartiality and care. He admitted them slowly, but he at length fully admitted them. He had now but one rejoinder in reserve.

“Alas! Williams,” said he, “it would have been fortunate for me if these views had been presented to me, previously to my embracing my present profession. It is now too late. Those very laws which, by a perception of their iniquity, drove me to what I am, preclude my return. God, we are told, judges of men by what they are at the period of arraignment, and whatever be their crimes, if they have seen and abjured the folly of those crimes, receives them to favour. But the institutions of countries that profess to worship this God admit no such distinctions. They leave no room for amendment, and seem to have a brutal delight in confounding the demerits of offenders. It signifies not what is the character of the individual at the hour of trial. How changed, how spotless, and how useful, avails him nothing. If they discover at the distance of fourteen[G] or of forty years[H] an action for which the law ordains that his life shall be the forfeit, though the interval should have been spent with the purity of a saint and the devotedness of a patriot, they disdain to enquire into it. What then can I do? Am I not compelled to go on in folly, having once begun?”

[Footnote G: Eugene Aram. See Annual Register for 1759.]

[Footnote H: William Andrew Home. Ibid.]

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