Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Chapter 6.

The time was now nearly elapsed that was prescribed for our stay, and orders for weighing anchor were every moment expected, when we were hailed by a boat from the shore, with two other men in it besides those that rowed. They entered our vessel in an instant. They were officers of justice. The passengers, five persons besides myself, were ordered upon deck for examination. I was inexpressibly disturbed at the occurrence of such a circumstance in so unseasonable a moment. I took it for granted that it was of me they were in search. Was it possible that, by any unaccountable accident, they should have got an intimation of my disguise? It was infinitely more distressing to encounter them upon this narrow stage, and under these pointed circumstances, than, as I had before encountered my pursuers, under the appearance of an indifferent person. My recollection however did not forsake me. I confided in my conscious disguise and my Irish brogue, as a rock of dependence against all accidents.

No sooner did we appear upon deck than, to my great consternation, I could observe the attention of our guests principally turned upon me. They asked a few frivolous questions of such of my fellow passengers as happened to be nearest to them; and then, turning to me, enquired my name, who I was, whence I came, and what had brought me there? I had scarcely opened my mouth to reply, when, with one consent, they laid hold of me, said I was their prisoner, and declared that my accent, together with the correspondence of my person, would be sufficient to convict me before any court in England. I was hurried out of the vessel into the boat in which they came, and seated between them, as if by way of precaution, lest I should spring overboard, and by any means escape them.

I now took it for granted that I was once more in the power of Mr. Falkland; and the idea was insupportably mortifying and oppressive to my imagination. Escape from his pursuit, freedom from his tyranny, were objects upon which my whole soul was bent. Could no human ingenuity and exertion effect them? Did his power reach through all space, and his eye penetrate every concealment? Was he like that mysterious being, to protect us from whose fierce revenge mountains and hills, we are told, might fall on us in vain? No idea is more heart-sickening and tremendous than this. But, in my case, it was not a subject of reasoning or of faith; I could derive no comfort, either directly from the unbelief which, upon religious subjects, some men avow to their own minds; or secretly from the remoteness and incomprehensibility of the conception: it was an affair of sense; I felt the fangs of the tiger striking deep into my heart.

But though this impression was at first exceedingly strong, and accompanied with its usual attendants of dejection and pusillanimity, my mind soon began, as it were mechanically, to turn upon the consideration of the distance between this sea-port and my county prison, and the various opportunities of escape that might offer themselves in the interval. My first duty was to avoid betraying myself, more than it might afterwards appear I was betrayed already. It was possible that, though apprehended, my apprehension might have been determined on upon some slight score, and that, by my dexterity, I might render my dismission as sudden as my arrest had been. It was even possible that I had been seized through a mistake, and that the present measure might have no connection with Mr. Falkland’s affair. Upon every supposition, it was my business to gain information. In my passage from the ship to the town I did not utter a word. My conductors commented on my sulkiness; but remarked that it would avail me nothing — I should infallibly swing, as it was never known that any body got off who was tried for robbing his majesty’s mail. It is difficult to conceive the lightness of heart which was communicated to me by these words: I persisted however in the silence I had meditated. From the rest of their conversation, which was sufficiently voluble, I learned that the mail from Edinburgh to London had been robbed about ten days before by two Irishmen, that one of them was already secured, and that I was taken up upon suspicion of being the other. They had a description of his person, which, though, as I afterwards found, it disagreed from mine in several material articles, appeared to them to tally to the minutest tittle. The intelligence that the whole proceeding against me was founded in a mistake, took an oppressive load from my mind. I believed that I should immediately be able to establish my innocence, to the satisfaction of any magistrate in the kingdom; and though crossed in my plans, and thwarted in my design of quitting the island, even after I was already at sea, this was but a trifling inconvenience compared with what I had had but too much reason to fear.

As soon as we came ashore, I was conducted to the house of a justice of peace, a man who had formerly been the captain of a collier, but who, having been successful in the world, had quitted this wandering life, and for some years had had the honour to represent his majesty’s person. We were detained for some time in a sort of anti-room, waiting his reverence’s leisure. The persons by whom I had been taken up were experienced in their trade, and insisted upon employing this interval in searching me, in presence of two of his worship’s servants. They found upon me fifteen guineas and some silver. They required me to strip myself perfectly naked, that they might examine whether I had bank-notes concealed any where about my person. They took up the detached parcels of my miserable attire as I threw it from me, and felt them one by one, to discover whether the articles of which they were in search might by any device be sewn up in them. To all this I submitted without murmuring. It might probably come to the same thing at last; and summary justice was sufficiently coincident with my views, my principal object being to get as soon as possible out of the clutches of the respectable persons who now had me in custody.

This operation was scarcely completed, before we were directed to be ushered into his worship’s apartment. My accusers opened the charge, and told him they had been ordered to this town, upon an intimation that one of the persons who robbed the Edinburgh mail was to be found here; and that they had taken me on board a vessel which was by this time under sail for Ireland. “Well,” says his worship, “that is your story; now let us hear what account the gentleman gives of himself. What is your name — ha, sirrah? and from what part of Tipperary are you pleased to come?” I had already taken my determination upon this article; and the moment I learned the particulars of the charge against me, resolved, for the present at least, to lay aside my Irish accent, and speak my native tongue. This I had done in the very few words I had spoken to my conductors in the anti-room: they started at the metamorphosis; but they had gone too far for it to be possible they should retract, in consistence with their honour. I now told the justice that I was no Irishman, nor had ever been in that country: I was a native of England. This occasioned a consulting of the deposition in which my person was supposed to be described, and which my conductors had brought with them for their direction. To be sure, that required that the offender should be an Irishman.

Observing his worship hesitate, I thought this was the time to push the matter a little further. I referred to the paper, and showed that the description neither tallied as to height nor complexion. But then it did as to years and the colour of the hair; and it was not this gentleman’s habit, as he informed me, to squabble about trifles, or to let a man’s neck out of the halter for a pretended flaw of a few inches in his stature. “If a man were too short,” he said, “there was no remedy like a little stretching.” The miscalculation in my case happened to be the opposite way, but his reverence did not think proper to lose his jest. Upon the whole, he was somewhat at a loss how to proceed.

My conductors observed this, and began to tremble for the reward, which, two hours ago, they thought as good as in their own pocket. To retain me in custody they judged to be a safe speculation; if it turned out a mistake at last, they felt little apprehension of a suit for false imprisonment from a poor man, accoutred as I was, in rags. They therefore urged his worship to comply with their views. They told him that to be sure the evidence against me did not prove so strong as for their part they heartily wished it had, but that there were a number of suspicious circumstances respecting me. When I was brought up to them upon the deck of the vessel, I spoke as fine an Irish brogue as one shall hear in a summer’s day; and now, all at once, there was not the least particle of it left. In searching me they had found upon me fifteen guineas, how should a poor beggar lad, such as I appeared, come honestly by fifteen guineas? Besides, when they had stripped me naked, though my dress was so shabby my skin had all the sleekness of a gentleman. In fine, for what purpose could a poor beggar, who had never been in Ireland in his life, want to transport himself to that country? It was as clear as the sun that I was no better than I should be. This reasoning, together with some significant winks and gestures between the justice and the plaintiffs, brought him over to their way of thinking. He said, I must go to Warwick, where it seems the other robber was at present in custody, and be confronted with him; and if then every thing appeared fair and satisfactory, I should be discharged.

No intelligence could be more terrible than that which was contained in these words. That I, who had found the whole country in arms against me, who was exposed to a pursuit so peculiarly vigilant and penetrating, should now be dragged to the very centre of the kingdom, without power of accommodating myself to circumstances, and under the immediate custody of the officers of justice, seemed to my ears almost the same thing as if he had pronounced upon me a sentence of death! I strenuously urged the injustice of this proceeding. I observed to the magistrate, that it was impossible I should be the person at whom the description pointed. It required an Irishman; I was no Irishman. It described a person shorter than I; a circumstance of all others the least capable of being counterfeited. There was not the slightest reason for detaining me in custody. I had been already disappointed of my voyage, and lost the money I had paid, down, through the officiousness of these gentlemen in apprehending me. I assured his worship, that every delay, under my circumstances, was of the utmost importance to me. It was impossible to devise a greater injury to be inflicted on me, than the proposal that, instead of being permitted to proceed upon my voyage, I should be sent, under arrest, into the heart of the kingdom.

My remonstrances were vain. The justice was by no means inclined to digest the being expostulated with in this manner by a person in the habiliments of a beggar. In the midst of my address he would have silenced me for my impertinence, but that I spoke with an earnestness with which he was wholly unable to contend. When I had finished, he told me it was all to no purpose, and that it might have been better for me, if I had shown myself less insolent. It was clear that I was a vagabond and a suspicious person. The more earnest I showed myself to get off, the more reason there was he should keep me fast. Perhaps, after all, I should turn out to be the felon in question. But, if I was not that, he had no doubt I was worse; a poacher, or, for what he knew, a murderer. He had a kind of a notion that he had seen my face before about some such affair; out of all doubt I was an old offender. He had it in his choice to send me to hard labour as a vagrant, upon the strength of my appearance and the contradictions in my story, or to order me to Warwick; and, out of the spontaneous goodness of his disposition, he chose the milder side of the alternative. He could assure me I should not slip through his fingers. It was of more benefit to his majesty’s government to hang one such fellow as he suspected me to be, than, out of mistaken tenderness, to concern one’s self for the good of all the beggars in the nation.

Finding it was impossible to work, in the way I desired, on a man so fully impressed with his own dignity and importance and my utter insignificance, I claimed that, at least, the money taken from my person should be restored to me. This was granted. His worship perhaps suspected that he had stretched a point in what he had already done, and was therefore the less unwilling to relax in this incidental circumstance. My conductors did not oppose themselves to this indulgence, for a reason that will appear in the sequel. The justice however enlarged upon his clemency in this proceeding. He did not know whether he was not exceeding the spirit of his commission in complying with my demand. So much money in my possession could not be honestly come by. But it was his temper to soften, as far as could be done with propriety, the strict letter of the law.

There were cogent reasons why the gentlemen who had originally taken me into custody, chose that I should continue in their custody when my examination was over. Every man is, in his different mode, susceptible to a sense of honour; and they did not choose to encounter the disgrace that would accrue to them, if justice had been done. Every man is in some degree influenced by the love of power; and they were willing I should owe any benefit I received, to their sovereign grace and benignity, and not to the mere reason of the case. It was not however an unsubstantial honour and barren power that formed the objects of their pursuit: no, their views were deeper than that. In a word, though they chose that I should retire from the seat of justice, as I had come before it, a prisoner, yet the tenor of my examination had obliged them, in spite of themselves, to suspect that I was innocent of the charge alleged against me. Apprehensive therefore that the hundred guineas which had been offered as a reward for taking the robber was completely out of the question in the present business, they were contented to strike at smaller game. Having conducted me to an inn, and given directions respecting a vehicle for the journey, they took me aside, while one of them addressed me in the following manner:—

“You see, my lad, how the case stands: hey for Warwick is the word I and when we are got there, what may happen then I will not pretend for to say. Whether you are innocent or no is no business of mine; but you are not such a chicken as to suppose, if so be as you are innocent, that that will make your game altogether sure. You say your business calls you another way, and as how you are in haste: I scorns to cross any man in his concerns, if I can help it. If therefore you will give us them there fifteen shiners, why snug is the word. They are of no use to you; a beggar, you know, is always at home. For the matter of that, we could have had them in the way of business, as you saw, at the justice’s. But I am a man of principle; I loves to do things above board, and scorns to extort a shilling from any man.”

He who is tinctured with principles of moral discrimination is apt upon occasion to be run away with by his feelings in that respect, and to forget the immediate interest of the moment. I confess, that the first sentiment excited in my mind by this overture was that of indignation. I was irresistibly impelled to give utterance to this feeling, and postpone for a moment the consideration of the future. I replied with the severity which so base a proceeding appeared to deserve. My bear-leaders were considerably surprised with my firmness, but seemed to think it beneath them to contest with me the principles I delivered. He who had made the overture contented himself with replying, “Well, well, my lad, do as you will; you are not the first man that has been hanged rather than part with a few guineas.” His words did not pass unheeded by me. They were strikingly applicable to my situation, and I was determined not to suffer the occasion to escape me unimproved.

The pride of these gentlemen however was too great to admit of further parley for the present. They left me abruptly; having first ordered an old man, the father of the landlady, to stay in the room with me while they were absent. The old man they ordered, for security, to lock the door, and put the key in his pocket; at the same time mentioning below stairs the station in which they had left me, that the people of the house might have an eye upon what went forward, and not suffer me to escape. What was the intention of this manoeuvre I am unable certainly to pronounce. Probably it was a sort of compromise between their pride and their avarice; being desirous, for some reason or other, to drop me as soon as convenient, and therefore determining to wait the result of my private meditations on the proposal they had made.

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