Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Chapter 5.

The only rule that I laid down to myself in traversing the forest, was to take a direction as opposite as possible to that which led to the scene of my late imprisonment. After about two hours walking I arrived at the termination of this ruder scene, and reached that part of the country which is inclosed and cultivated. Here I sat down by the side of a brook, and, pulling out a crust of bread which I had brought away with me, rested and refreshed myself. While I continued in this place, I began to ruminate upon the plan I should lay down for my future proceedings; and my propensity now led me, as it had done in a former instance, to fix upon the capital, which I believed, besides its other recommendations, would prove the safest place for concealment. During these thoughts I saw a couple of peasants passing at a small distance, and enquired of them respecting the London road. By their description I understood that the most immediate way would be to repass a part of the forest, and that it would be necessary to approach considerably nearer to the county-town than I was at the spot which I had at present reached. I did not imagine that this could be a circumstance of considerable importance. My disguise appeared to be a sufficient security against momentary danger; and I therefore took a path, though not the most direct one, which led towards the point they suggested.

Some of the occurrences of the day are deserving to be mentioned. As I passed along a road which lay in my way for a few miles, I saw a carriage advancing in the opposite direction. I debated with myself for a moment, whether I should pass it without notice, or should take this occasion, by voice or gesture, of making an essay of my trade. This idle disquisition was however speedily driven from my mind when I perceived that the carriage was Mr. Falkland’s. The suddenness of the encounter struck me with terror, though perhaps it would have been difficult for calm reflection to have discovered any considerable danger. I withdrew from the road, and skulked behind a hedge till it should have completely gone by. I was too much occupied with my own feelings, to venture to examine whether or no the terrible adversary of my peace were in the carriage. I persuaded myself that he was. I looked after the equipage, and exclaimed, “There you may see the luxurious accommodations and appendages of guilt, and here the forlornness that awaits upon innocence!”— I was to blame to imagine that my case was singular in that respect. I only mention it to show how tile most trivial circumstance contributes to embitter the cup to the man of adversity. The thought however was a transient one. I had learned this lesson from my sufferings, not to indulge in the luxury of discontent. As my mind recovered its tranquillity, I began to enquire whether the phenomenon I had just seen could have any relation to myself. But though my mind was extremely inquisitive and versatile in this respect, I could discover no sufficient ground upon which to build a judgment.

At night I entered a little public-house at the extremity of a village, and, seating myself in a corner of the kitchen, asked for some bread and cheese. While I was sitting at my repast, three or four labourers came in for a little refreshment after their work. Ideas respecting the inequality of rank pervade every order in society; and, as my appearance was meaner and more contemptible than theirs, I found it expedient to give way to these gentry of a village alehouse, and remove to an obscurer station. I was surprised, and not a little startled, to find them fall almost immediately into conversation about my history, whom, with a slight variation of circumstances, they styled the notorious housebreaker, Kit Williams.

“Damn the fellow,” said one of them, “one never hears of any thing else. O’ my life, I think he makes talk for the whole country.”

“That is very true,” replied another. “I was at the market-town today to sell some oats for my master, and there was a hue and cry, some of them thought they had got him, but it was a false alarm.”

“That hundred guineas is a fine thing,” rejoined the first. “I should be glad if so be as how it fell in my way.”

“For the matter of that,” said his companion, “I should like a hundred guineas as well as another. But I cannot be of your mind for all that. I should never think money would do me any good that had been the means of bringing a Christian creature to the gallows.”

“Poh, that is all my granny! Some folks must be hanged, to keep the wheels of our state-folks a-going. Besides, I could forgive the fellow all his other robberies, but that he should have been so hardened as to break the house of his own master at last, that is too bad.”

“Lord! lord!” replied the other, “I see you know nothing of the matter! I will tell you how it was, as I learned it at the town. I question whether he ever robbed his master at all. But, hark you! you must know as how that squire Falkland was once tried for murder”—

“Yes, yes, we know that.”

“Well, he was as innocent as the child unborn. But I supposes as how he is a little soft or so. And so Kit Williams — Kit is a devilish cunning fellow, you may judge that from his breaking prison no less than five times — so, I say, he threatened to bring his master to trial at ‘size all over again, and so frightened him, and got money from him at divers times. Till at last one squire Forester, a relation of t’other, found it all out. And he made the hell of a rumpus, and sent away Kit to prison in a twinky; and I believe he would have been hanged: for when two squires lay their heads together, they do not much matter law, you know; or else they twist the law to their own ends, I cannot exactly say which; but it is much at one when the poor fellow’s breath is out of his body.”

Though this story was very circumstantially told, and with a sufficient detail of particulars, it did not pass unquestioned. Each man maintained the justness of his own statement, and the dispute was long and obstinately pursued. Historians and commentators at length withdrew together. The terrors with which I was seized when this conversation began, were extreme. I stole a sidelong glance to one quarter and another, to observe if any man’s attention was turned upon me. I trembled as if in an ague-fit; and, at first, felt continual impulses to quit the house, and take to my heels. I drew closer to my corner, held aside my head, and seemed from time to time to undergo a total revolution of the animal economy.

At length the tide of ideas turned. Perceiving they paid no attention to me, the recollection of the full security my disguise afforded recurred strongly to my thoughts; and I began inwardly to exult, though I did not venture to obtrude myself to examination. By degrees I began to be amused at the absurdity of their tales, and the variety of the falsehoods I heard asserted around me. My soul seemed to expand; I felt a pride in the self-possession and lightness of heart with which I could listen to the scene; and I determined to prolong and heighten the enjoyment. Accordingly, when they were withdrawn, I addressed myself to our hostess, a buxom, bluff, good-humoured widow, and asked what sort of a man this Kit Williams might be? She replied that, as she was informed, he was as handsome, likely a lad, as any in four counties round; and that she loved him for his cleverness, by which he outwitted all the keepers they could set over him, and made his way through stone walls as if they were so many cobwebs. I observed, that the country was so thoroughly alarmed, that I did not think it possible he should escape the pursuit that was set up after him. This idea excited her immediate indignation: she said, she hoped he was far enough away by this time; but if not, she wished the curse of God might light on them that betrayed so noble a fellow to an ignominious end! — Though she little thought that the person of whom she spoke was so near her, yet the sincere and generous warmth with which She interested herself in my behalf gave me considerable pleasure. With this sensation to sweeten the fatigues of the day and the calamities of my situation, I retired from the kitchen to a neighbouring barn, laid myself down upon some straw, and fell into a profound sleep.

The next day about noon, as I was pursuing my journey, I was overtaken by two men on horseback, who stopped me, to enquire respecting a person that they supposed might have passed along that road. As they proceeded in their description, I perceived, with astonishment and terror, that I was myself the person to whom their questions related. They entered into a tolerably accurate detail of the various characteristics by which my person might best be distinguished. They said, they had good reason to believe that I had been seen at a place in that county the very day before. While they were speaking a third person, who had fallen behind, came up; and my alarm was greatly increased upon seeing that this person was the servant of Mr. Forester, who had visited me in prison about a fortnight before my escape. My best resource in this crisis was composure and apparent indifference. It was fortunate for me that my disguise was so complete, that the eye of Mr. Falkland itself could scarcely have penetrated it. I had been aware for some time before that this was a refuge which events might make necessary, and had endeavoured to arrange and methodise my ideas upon the subject. From my youth I had possessed a considerable facility in the art of imitation; and when I quitted my retreat in the habitation of Mr. Raymond, I adopted, along with my beggar’s attire, a peculiar slouching and clownish gait, to be used whenever there should appear the least chance of my being observed, together with an Irish brogue which I had had an opportunity of studying in my prison. Such are the miserable expedients, and so great the studied artifice, which man, who never deserves the name of manhood but in proportion as he is erect and independent, may find it necessary to employ, for the purpose of eluding the inexorable animosity and unfeeling tyranny of his fellow man! I had made use of this brogue, though I have not thought it necessary to write it down in my narrative, in the conversation of the village alehouse. Mr. Forester’s servant, as he came up, observed that his companions were engaged in conversation with me; and, guessing at the subject, asked whether they had gained any intelligence. He added to the information at which they had already hinted, that a resolution was taken to spare neither diligence nor expense for my discovery and apprehension, and that they were satisfied, if I were above ground and in the kingdom, it would be impossible for me to escape them.

Every new incident that had occurred to me tended to impress upon my mind the extreme danger to which I was exposed. I could almost have imagined that I was the sole subject of general attention, and that the whole world was in arms to exterminate me. The very idea tingled through every fibre of my frame. But, terrible as it appeared to my imagination, it did but give new energy to my purpose; and I determined that I would not voluntarily resign the field, that is, literally speaking, my neck to the cord of the executioner, notwithstanding the greatest superiority in my assailants. But the incidents which had befallen me, though they did not change my purpose, induced me to examine over again the means by which it might be effected. The consequence of this revisal was, to determine me to bend my course to the nearest sea-port on the west side of the island, and transport myself to Ireland. I cannot now tell what it was that inclined me to prefer this scheme to that which I had originally formed. Perhaps the latter, which had been for some time present to my imagination, for that reason appeared the more obvious of the two; and I found an appearance of complexity, which the mind did not stay to explain, in substituting the other in its stead.

I arrived without further impediment at the place from which I intended to sail, enquired for a vessel, which I found ready to put to sea in a few hours, and agreed with the captain for my passage. Ireland had to me the disadvantage of being a dependency of the British government, and therefore a place of less security than most other countries which are divided from it by the ocean. To judge from the diligence with which I seemed to be pursued in England, it was not improbable that the zeal of my persecutors might follow me to the other side of the channel. It was however sufficiently agreeable to my mind, that I was upon the point of being removed one step further from the danger which was so grievous to my imagination.

Could there be any peril in the short interval that was to elapse, before the vessel was to weigh anchor and quit the English shore? Probably not. A very short time had intervened between my determination for the sea and my arrival at this place; and if any new alarm had been given to my prosecutors, it proceeded from the old woman a very few days before. I hoped I had anticipated their diligence. Meanwhile, that I might neglect no reasonable precaution, I went instantly on board, resolved that I would not unnecessarily, by walking the streets of the town, expose myself to any untoward accident. This was the first time I had, upon any occasion, taken leave of my native country.

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