Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Chapter 4.

I Was extremely affected by this plea. I could only answer, that Mr. Raymond must himself be the best judge of the course it became him to hold; I trusted the case was not so desperate as he imagined.

This subject was pursued no further, and was in some degree driven from my thoughts by an incident of a very extraordinary nature.

I have already mentioned the animosity that was entertained against me by the infernal portress of this solitary mansion. Gines, the expelled member of the gang, had been her particular favourite. She submitted to his exile indeed, because her genius felt subdued by the energy and inherent superiority of Mr. Raymond; but she submitted with murmuring and discontent. Not daring to resent the conduct of the principal in this affair, she collected all the bitterness of her spirit against me.

To the unpardonable offence I had thus committed in the first instance, were added the reasonings I had lately offered against the profession of robbery. Robbery was a fundamental article in the creed of this hoary veteran, and she listened to my objections with the same unaffected astonishment and horror that an old woman of other habits would listen to one who objected to the agonies and dissolution of the Creator of the world, or to the garment of imputed righteousness prepared to envelope the souls of the elect. Like the religious bigot, she was sufficiently disposed to avenge a hostility against her opinions with the weapons of sublunary warfare.

Meanwhile I had smiled at the impotence of her malice, as an object of contempt rather than alarm. She perceived, as I imagine, the slight estimation in which I held her, and this did not a little increase the perturbation of her thoughts.

One day I was left alone, with no other person in the house than this swarthy sybil. The thieves had set out upon an expedition about two hours after sunset on the preceding evening, and had not returned, as they were accustomed to do, before day-break the next morning. This was a circumstance that sometimes occurred, and therefore did not produce any extraordinary alarm. At one time the scent of prey would lead them beyond the bounds they had prescribed themselves, and at another the fear of pursuit: the life of a thief is always uncertain. The old woman had been preparing during the night for the meal to which they would expect to sit down as soon as might be after their return.

For myself, I had learned from their habits to be indifferent to the regular return of the different parts of the day, and in some degree to turn day into night, and night into day. I had been now several weeks in this residence, and the season was considerably advanced. I had passed some hours during the night in ruminating on my situation. The character and manners of the men among whom I lived were disgusting to me. Their brutal ignorance, their ferocious habits, and their coarse behaviour, instead of becoming more tolerable by custom, hourly added force to my original aversion. The uncommon vigour of their minds, and acuteness of their invention in the business they pursued, compared with the odiousness of that business and their habitual depravity, awakened in me sensations too painful to be endured. Moral disapprobation, at least in a mind unsubdued by philosophy, I found to be one of the most fertile sources of disquiet and uneasiness. From this pain the society of Mr. Raymond by no means relieved me. He was indeed eminently superior to the vices of the rest; but I did not less exquisitely feel how much he was out of his place, how disproportionably associated, or how contemptibly employed. I had attempted to counteract the errors under which he and his companions laboured; but I had found the obstacles that presented themselves greater than I had imagined.

What was I to do? Was I to wait the issue of this my missionary undertaking, or was I to withdraw myself immediately? When I withdrew, ought that to be done privately, or with an open avowal of my design, and an endeavour to supply by the force of example what was deficient in my arguments? It was certainly improper, as I declined all participation in the pursuits of these men, did not pay my contribution of hazard to the means by which they subsisted, and had no congeniality with their habits, that I should continue to reside with them longer than was absolutely necessary. There was one circumstance that rendered this deliberation particularly pressing. They intended in a few days removing from their present habitation, to a haunt to which they were accustomed, in a distant county. If I did not propose to continue with them, it would perhaps be wrong to accompany them in this removal. The state of calamity to which my inexorable prosecutor had reduced me, had made the encounter even of a den of robbers a fortunate adventure. But the time that had since elapsed, had probably been sufficient to relax the keenness of the quest that was made after me. I sighed for that solitude and obscurity, that retreat from the vexations of the world and the voice even of common fame, which I had proposed to myself when I broke my prison.

Such were the meditations which now occupied my mind. At length I grew fatigued with continual contemplation, and to relieve myself pulled out a pocket Horace, the legacy of my beloved Brightwel! I read with avidity the epistle in which he so beautifully describes to Fuscus, the grammarian, the pleasures of rural tranquillity and independence. By this time the sun rose from behind the eastern hills, and I opened my casement to contemplate it. The day commenced with peculiar brilliancy, and was accompanied with all those charms which the poets of nature, as they have been styled, have so much delighted to describe. There was something in this scene, particularly as succeeding to the active exertions of intellect, that soothed the mind to composure. Insensibly a confused reverie invaded my faculties; I withdrew from the window, threw myself upon the bed, and fell asleep.

I do not recollect the precise images which in this situation passed through my thoughts, but I know that they concluded with the idea of some person, the agent of Mr. Falkland, approaching to assassinate me. This thought had probably been suggested by the project I meditated of entering once again into the world, and throwing myself within the sphere of his possible vengeance. I imagined that the design of the murderer was to come upon me by surprise, that I was aware of his design, and yet, by some fascination, had no thought of evading it. I heard the steps of the murderer as he cautiously approached. I seemed to listen to his constrained yet audible breathings. He came up to the corner where I was placed, and then stopped.

The idea became too terrible; I started, opened my eyes, and beheld the execrable hag before mentioned standing over me with a butcher’s cleaver. I shifted my situation with a speed that seemed too swift for volition, and the blow already aimed at my skull sunk impotent upon the bed. Before she could wholly recover her posture, I sprung upon her, seized hold of the weapon, and had nearly wrested it from her. But in a moment she resumed her strength and her desperate purpose, and we had a furious struggle — she impelled by inveterate malice, and I resisting for my life. Her vigour was truly Amazonian, and at no time had I ever occasion to contend with a more formidable opponent. Her glance was rapid and exact, and the shock with which from time to time she impelled her whole frame inconceivably vehement. At length I was victorious, took from her the instrument of death, and threw her upon the ground. Till now the earnestness of her exertions had curbed her rage; but now she gnashed with her teeth, her eyes seemed as if starting from their sockets, and her body heaved with uncontrollable insanity.

“Rascal! devil!” she exclaimed, “what do you mean to do to me?”

Till now the scene had passed uninterrupted by a single word.

“Nothing,” I replied: “begone, infernal witch! and leave me to myself.”

“Leave you! No: I will thrust my fingers through your ribs, and drink your blood! — You conquer me? — Ha, ha! — Yes, yes; you shall! — I will sit upon you, and press you to hell! I will roast you with brimstone, and dash your entrails into your eyes! Ha, ha! — ha!”

Saying this, she sprung up, and prepared to attack me with redoubled fury. I seized her hands, and compelled her to sit upon the bed. Thus restrained, she continued to express the tumult of her thoughts by grinning, by certain furious motions of her head, and by occasional vehement efforts to disengage herself from my grasp. These contortions and starts were of the nature of those fits in which the patients are commonly supposed to need three or four persons to hold them. But I found by experience that, under the circumstances in which I was placed, my single strength was sufficient. The spectacle of her emotions was inconceivably frightful. Her violence at length however began to abate, and she became convinced of the hopelessness of the contest.

“Let me go!” said she. “Why do you hold me? I will not be held.”

“I wanted you gone from the first,” replied I.

“Are you contented to go now?”

“Yes, I tell you, misbegotten villain! Yes, rascal!”

I immediately loosed my hold. She flew to the door, and, holding it in her hand, said, “I will be the death of you yet: you shall not be your own man twenty-four hours longer!” With these words she shut the door, and locked it upon me. An action so totally unexpected startled me. Whither was she gone? What was it she intended? To perish by the machinations of such a hag as this was a thought not to be endured. Death in any form brought upon us by surprise, and for which the mind has had no time to prepare, is inexpressibly terrible. My thoughts wandered in breathless horror and confusion, and all within was uproar. I endeavoured to break the door, but in vain. I went round the room in search of some tool to assist me. At length I rushed against it with a desperate effort, to which it yielded, and had nearly thrown me from the top of the stairs to the bottom.

I descended with all possible caution and vigilance, I entered the room which served us for a kitchen, but it was deserted. I searched every other apartment in vain. I went out among the ruins; still I discovered nothing of my late assailant. It was extraordinaiy: what could be become of her? what was I to conclude from her disappearance! I reflected on her parting menace — “I should not be my own man twenty-four hours longer.” It was mysterious! it did not seem to be the menace of assassination. Suddenly the recollection of the hand-bill brought to us by Larkins rushed upon my memory. Was it possible that she alluded to that in her parting words? Would she set out upon such an expedition by herself? Was it not dangerous to the whole fraternity if, without the smallest precaution, she should bring the officers of justice in the midst of them? It was perhaps improbable she would engage in an undertaking thus desperate. It was not however easy to answer for the conduct of a person in her state of mind. Should I wait, and risk the preservation of my liberty upon the issue?

To this question I returned an immediate negative. I had resolved in a short time to quit my present situation, and the difference of a little sooner or a little later could not be very material. It promised to be neither agreeable nor prudent for me to remain under the same roof with a person who had manifested such a fierce and inexpiable hostility. But the consideration which had inexpressibly the most weight with me, belonged to the ideas of imprisonment, trial, and death. The longer they had formed the subject of my contemplation, the more forcibly was I impelled to avoid them. I had entered upon a system of action for that purpose; I had already made many sacrifices; and I believed that I would never miscarry in this project through any neglect of mine. The thought of what was reserved for me by my persecutors sickened my very soul; and the more intimately I was acquainted with oppression and injustice, the more deeply was I penetrated with the abhorrence to which they are entitled.

Such were the reasons that determined me instantly, abruptly, without leave-taking, or acknowledgment for the peculiar and repeated favours I had received, to quit a habitation to which, for six weeks, I had apparently been indebted for protection from trial, conviction, and an ignominious death. I had come hither pennyless; I quitted my abode with the sum of a few guineas in my possession, Mr. Raymond having insisted upon my taking a share at the time that each man received his dividend from the common stock. Though I had reason to suppose that the heat of the pursuit against me would be somewhat remitted by the time that had elapsed, the magnitude of the mischief that, in an unfavourable event, might fall on me, determined me to neglect no imaginable precaution. I recollected the hand-bill which was the source of my present alarm, and conceived that one of the principal dangers which threatened me was the recognition of my person, either by such as had previously known me, or even by strangers. It seemed prudent therefore to disguise it as effectually as I could. For this purpose I had recourse to a parcel of tattered garments, that lay in a neglected corner of our habitation. The disguise I chose was that of a beggar. Upon this plan, I threw off my shirt; I tied a handkerchief about my head, with which I took care to cover one of my eyes; over this I drew a piece of an old woollen nightcap. I selected the worst apparel I could find; and this I reduced to a still more deplorable condition, by rents that I purposely made in various places. Thus equipped, I surveyed myself in a looking-glass. I had rendered my appearance complete; nor would any one have suspected that I was not one of the fraternity to which I assumed to belong. I said, “This is the form in which tyranny and injustice oblige me to seek for refuge: but better, a thousand times better is it, thus to incur contempt with the dregs of mankind, than trust to the tender mercies of our superiors!”

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