He began: “It has been the principle of my life, never to inflict a wilful injury upon any thing that lives; I need not express my regret, when I find myself obliged to be the promulgator of a criminal charge. How gladly would I pass unnoticed the evil I have sustained; but I owe it to society to detect an offender, and prevent other men from being imposed upon, as I have been, by an appearance of integrity.”
“It would be better,” interrupted Mr. Forester “to speak directly to the point. We ought not, though unwarily, by apologising for ourselves, to create at such a time a prejudice against an individual, against whom a criminal accusation will always be prejudice enough.”
“I strongly suspect,” continued Mr. Falkland, “this young man, who has been peculiarly the object of my kindness, of having robbed me to a considerable amount.”
“What,” replied Mr. Forester, “are the grounds of your suspicion?”
“The first of them is the actual loss I have sustained, in notes, jewels, and plate. I have missed bank-notes to the amount of nine hundred pounds, three gold repeaters of considerable value, a complete set of diamonds, the property of my late mother, and several other articles.”
“And why,” continued my arbitrator, astonishment grief, and a desire to retain his self-possession, strong contending in his countenance and voice, “do you fix on this young man as the instrument of the depredation?”
“I found him, on my coming home, upon the day when every thing was in disorder from the alarm of fire, in the very act of quitting the private apartment where these articles were deposited. He was confounded at seeing me, and hastened to withdraw as soon as he possibly could.”
“Did you say nothing to him — take no notice of the confusion your sudden appearance produced?”
“I asked what was his errand in that place. He was at first so terrified and overcome, that he could not answer me. Afterwards, with a good deal of faltering, he said that, when all the servants were engaged in endeavouring to save the most valuable part of my property, he had come hither with the same view; but that he had as yet removed nothing.”
“Did you immediately examine to see that every thing was safe?”
“No. I was accustomed to Confide in his honesty, and I was suddenly called away, in the present instance, to attend to the increasing progress of the flames. I therefore only took out the key from the door of the apartment, having first locked it, and, putting it in my pocket, hastened to go where my presence seemed indispensably necessary.”
“How long was it before you missed your property?”
“The same evening. The hurry of the scene had driven the circumstance entirely out of my mind, till, going by accident near the apartment, the whole affair, together with the singular and equivocal behaviour of Williams, rushed at once upon my recollection. I immediately entered, examined the trunk in which these things were contained, and, to my astonishment, found the locks broken, and the property gone.”
“What steps did you take upon this discovery?”
“I sent for Williams, and talked to him very seriously upon the subject. But he had now perfectly recovered his self-command, and calmly and stoutly denied all knowledge of the matter. I urged him with the enormousness of the offence, but I made no impression. He did not discover either the surprise and indignation one would have expected from a person entirely innocent, or the uneasiness that generally attends upon guilt. He was rather silent and reserved. I then informed him, that I should proceed in a manner different from what he might perhaps expect. I would not, as is too frequent in such cases, make a general search; for I had rather lose my property for ever without redress, than expose a multitude of innocent persons to anxiety and injustice. My suspicion, for the present, unavoidably fixed upon him. But, in a matter of so great consequence, I was determined not to act upon suspicion. I would neither incur the possibility of ruining him, being innocent, nor be the instrument of exposing others to his depredations, if guilty. I should therefore merely insist upon his continuing in my service. He might depend upon it he should be well watched, and I trusted the whole truth would eventually appear. Since he avoided confession now, I advised him to consider how far it was likely he would come off with impunity at last. This I determined on, that the moment he attempted an escape, I would consider that as an indication of guilt, and proceed accordingly.”
“What circumstances have occurred from that time to the present?”
“None upon which I can infer a certainty of guilt; several that agree to favour a suspicion. From that time Williams was perpetually uneasy in his situation, always desirous, as it now appears, to escape, but afraid to adopt such a measure without certain precautions. It was not long after, that you, Mr. Forester, became my visitor. I observed, with dissatisfaction, the growing intercourse between you, reflecting on the equivocalness of his character, and the attempt he would probably make to render you the dupe of his hypocrisy. I accordingly threatened him severely; and I believe you observed the change that presently after occurred in his behaviour with relation to you.”
“I did, and it appeared at that time mysterious and extraordinary.”
“Some time after, as you well know, a rencounter took place between you, whether accidental or intentional on his part I am not able to say, when he confessed to you the uneasiness of his mind, without discovering the cause, and openly proposed to you to assist him in his flight, and stand, in case of necessity, between him and my resentment. You offered, it seems, to take him into your service; but nothing, as he acknowledged, would answer his purpose, that did not place his retreat wholly out of my power to discover.”
“Did it not appear extraordinary to you, that he should hope for any effectual protection from me, while it remained perpetually in your power to satisfy me of his unworthiness?”
“Perhaps he had hopes that I should not proceed to that step, at least so long as the place of his retreat should be unknown to me, and of consequence the event of my proceeding dubious. Perhaps he confided in his own powers, which are far from contemptible, to construct a plausible tale, especially as he had taken care to have the first impression in his favour. After all, this protection, on your part, was merely reserved in case all other expedients failed. He does not appear to have had any other sentiment upon the subject, than that, if he were defeated in his projects for placing himself beyond the reach of justice, it was better to have bespoken a place in your patronage than to be destitute of every resource.”
Mr. Falkland having thus finished his evidence, called upon Robert, the valet, to confirm the part of it which related to the day of the fire.
Robert stated, that he happened to be coming through the library that day, a few minutes after Mr. Falkland’s being brought home by the sight of the fire; that he had found me standing there with every mark of perturbation and fright; that he could not help stopping to notice it; that he had spoken to me two or three times before he could obtain an answer; and that all he could get from me at last was, that I was the most miserable creature alive.
He further said, that in the evening of the same day Mr. Falkland called him into the private apartment adjoining to the library, and bid him bring a hammer and some nails. He then showed him a trunk standing in the apartment with its locks and fastening broken, and ordered him to observe and remember what he saw, but not to mention it to any one. Robert did not at that time know what Mr. Falkland intended by these directions, which were given in a manner uncommonly solemn and significant; but he entertained no doubt, that the fastenings were broken and wrenched by the application of a chisel or such-like instrument, with the intention of forcibly opening the trunk.
Mr. Forester observed upon this evidence, that as much of it as related to the day of the fire seemed indeed to afford powerful reasons for suspicion; and that the circumstances that had occurred since strangely concurred to fortify that suspicion. Meantime, that nothing proper to be done might be omitted, he asked whether in my flight I had removed my boxes, to see whether by that means any trace could be discovered to confirm the imputation. Mr. Falkland treated this suggestion slightly, saying, that if I were the thief, I had no doubt taken the precaution to obviate so palpable a means of detection. To this Mr. Forester only replied, that conjecture, however skilfully formed, was not always realised in the actions and behaviour of mankind; and ordered that my boxes and trunks, if found, should be brought into the library. I listened to this suggestion with pleasure; and, uneasy and confounded as I was at the appearances combined against me, I trusted in this appeal to give a new face to my cause. I was eager to declare the place where my property was deposited; and the servants, guided by my direction, presently produced what was enquired for.
The two boxes that were first opened, contained nothing to confirm the accusation against me; in the third were found a watch and several jewels, that were immediately known to be the property of Mr. Falkland. The production of this seemingly decisive evidence excited emotions of astonishment and concern; but no person’s astonishment appeared to be greater than that of Mr. Falkland. That I should have left the stolen goods behind me, would of itself have appeared incredible; but when it was considered what a secure place of concealment I had found for them, the wonder diminished; and Mr. Forester observed, that it was by no means impossible I might conceive it easier to obtain possession of them afterwards, than to remove them at the period of my precipitate flight.
Here however I thought it necessary to interfere. I fervently urged my right to a fair and impartial construction. I asked Mr. Forester, whether it were probable, if I had stolen these things, that I should not have contrived, at least to remove them along with me? And again, whether, if I had been conscious they would he found among my property, I should myself have indicated the place where I had concealed it?
The insinuation I conveyed against Mr. Forester’s impartiality overspread his whole countenance, for an instant, with the flush of anger.
“Impartiality, young man! Yes, be sure, from me you shall experience an impartial treatment! God send that may answer your purpose! Presently you shall be heard at full in your own defence.
“You expect us to believe you innocent, because you did not remove these things along with you. The money is removed. Where, sir, is that? We cannot answer for the inconsistences and oversights of any human mind, and, least of all, if that mind should appear to be disturbed with the consciousness of guilt.
“You observe that it was by your own direction these boxes and trunks have been found: that is indeed extraordinary. It appears little less than infatuation. But to what purpose appeal to probabilities and conjecture, in the face of incontestable facts? There, sir, are the boxes: you alone knew where they were to be found; you alone had the keys: tell us then how this watch and these jewels came to be contained in them?”
I was silent.
To the rest of the persons present I seemed to be merely the subject of detection; but in reality I was, of all the spectators, that individual who was most at a loss to conceive, through every stage of the scene, what, would come next, and who listened to every word that was uttered with the most uncontrollable amazement. Amazement however alternately yielded to indignation and horror. At first I could not refrain from repeatedly attempting to interrupt; but I was checked in these attempts by Mr. Forester; and I presently felt how necessary it was to my future peace, that I should collect the whole energy of my mind to repel the charge, and assert my innocence.
Every thing being now produced that could be produced against me, Mr. Forester turned to me with a look of concern and pity, and told me that now was the time, if I chose to allege any thing in my defence. In reply to this invitation, I spoke nearly as follows:—
“I am innocent. It is in vain that circumstances are accumulated against me; there is not a person upon earth less capable than I of the things of which I am accused. I appeal to my heart — I appeal to my looks — I appeal to every sentiment my tongue ever uttered.”
I could perceive that the fervour with which I spoke made some impression upon every one that heard me. But in a moment their eyes were turned upon the property that lay before them, and their countenances changed. I proceeded:—
“One thing more I must aver; — Mr. Falkland is not deceived; he perfectly knows that I am innocent.”
I had no sooner uttered these words, than an involuntary cry of indignation burst from every person in the room. Mr. Forester turned to me with a look of extreme severity, and said —
“Young man, consider well what you are doing! It is the privilege of the party accused to say whatever he thinks proper; and I will take care that you shall enjoy that privilege in its utmost extent. But do you think it will conduce in any respect to your benefit, to throw out such insolent and intolerable insinuations?”
“I thank you most sincerely,” replied I, “for your caution; but I well know what it is I am doing. I make this declaration, not merely because it is solemnly true, but because it is inseparably connected with my vindication. I am the party accused, and I shall be told that I am not to be believed in my own defence. I can produce no other witnesses of my innocence; I therefore call upon Mr. Falkland to be my evidence. I ask him —
“Did you never boast to me in private of your power to ruin me? Did you never say that, if once I brought on myself the weight of your displeasure, my fall should be irreparable? Did you not tell me that, though I should prepare in that case a tale however plausible or however true, you would take care that the whole world should execrate me as an impostor? Were not those your very words? Did you not add, that my innocence should be of no service to me, and that you laughed at so feeble a defence? I ask you further — Did you not receive a letter from me the morning of the day on which I departed, requesting your consent to my departure? Should I have done that if my flight had been that of a thief? I challenge any man to reconcile the expressions of that letter with this accusation. Should I have begun with stating that I had conceived a desire to quit your service, if my desire and the reasons for it, had been of the nature that is now alleged? Should I have dared to ask for what reason I was thus subjected to an eternal penance?”
Saying this, I took out a copy of my letter, and laid it open upon the table.
Mr. Falkland returned no immediate answer to my interrogations. Mr. Forester turned to him, and said.
“Well, sir, what is your reply to this challenge of your servant?”
Mr. Falkland answered, “Such a mode of defence scarcely calls for a reply. But I answer, I held no such conversation; I never used such words; I received no such letter. Surely it is no sufficient refutation of a criminal charge, that the criminal repels what is alleged against him with volubility of speech, and intrepidity of manner.”
Mr. Forester then turned to me: “If,” said he, “you trust your vindication to the plausibility of your tale, you must take care to render it consistent and complete. You have not told us what was the cause of the confusion and anxiety in which Robert professes to have found you, why you were so impatient to quit the service of Mr. Falkland, or how you account for certain articles of his property being found in your possession.”
“All that, sir,” answered I, “is true. There are certain parts of my story that I have not told. If they were told, they would not conduce to my disadvantage, and they would make the present accusation appear still more astonishing. But I cannot, as yet at least, prevail upon myself to tell them. Is it necessary to give any particular and precise reasons why I should wish to change the place of my residence? You all of you know the unfortunate state of Mr. Falkland’s mind. You know the sternness, reservedness, and distance of his manners. If I had no other reasons, surely it would afford small presumption of criminality that I should wish to change his service for another.
“The question of how these articles of Mr. Falkland’s property came to be found in my possession, is more material. It is a question I am wholly unable to answer. Their being found there, was at least as unexpected to me as to any one of the persons now present. I only know that, as I have the most perfect assurance of Mr. Falkland’s being conscious of my innocence — for, observe! I do not shrink from that assertion; I reiterate it with new confidence — I therefore firmly and from my soul believe, that their being there is of Mr. Falkland’s contrivance.”
I no sooner said this, than I was again interrupted by an involuntary exclamation from every one present. They looked at me with furious glances, as if they could have torn me to pieces. I proceeded:—
“I have now answered every thing that is alleged against me.
“Mr. Forester, you are a lover of justice; I conjure you not to violate it in my person. You are a man of penetration; look at me! do you see any of the marks of guilt? Recollect all that has ever passed under your observation; is it compatible with a mind capable of what is now alleged against me? Could a real criminal have shown himself so unabashed, composed, and firm as I have now done?
“Fellow-servants! Mr. Falkland is a man of rank and fortune; he is your master. I am a poor country lad, without a friend in the world. That is a ground of real difference to a certain extent; but it is not a sufficient ground for the subversion of justice. Remember, that I am in a situation that is not to be trifled with; that a decision given against me now, in a case in which I solemnly assure you I am innocent, will for ever deprive me of reputation and peace of mind, combine the whole world in a league against me, and determine perhaps upon my liberty and my life. If you believe — if you see — if you know, that I am innocent, speak for me. Do not suffer a pusillanimous timidity to prevent you from saving a fellow-creature from destruction, who does not deserve to have a human being for his enemy. Why have we the power of speech, but to communicate our thoughts? I will never believe that a man, conscious of innocence, cannot make other men perceive that he has that thought. Do not you feel that my whole heart tells me. I am not guilty of what is imputed to me?
“To you, Mr. Falkland, I have nothing to say: I know you, and know that you are impenetrable. At the very moment that you are urging such odious charges against me, you admire my resolution and forbearance. But I have nothing to hope from you. You can look upon my ruin without pity or remorse. I am most unfortunate indeed in having to do with such an adversary. You oblige me to say ill things of you; but I appeal to your own heart, whether my language is that of exaggeration or revenge.”
Every thing that could be alleged on either side being now concluded, Mr. Forester undertook to make some remarks upon the whole.
“Williams,” said he, “the charge against you is heavy; the direct evidence strong; the corroborating circumstances numerous and striking. I grant that you have shown considerable dexterity in your answers; but you will learn, young man, to your cost, that dexterity, however powerful it may be in certain cases, will avail little against the stubbornness of truth. It is fortunate for mankind that the empire of talents has its limitations, and that it is not in the power of ingenuity to subvert the distinctions of right and wrong. Take my word for it, that the true merits of the case against you will be too strong for sophistry to overturn; that justice will prevail, and impotent malice be defeated.
“To you, Mr. Falkland, society is obliged for having placed this black affair in its true light. Do not suffer the malignant aspersions of the criminal to give you uneasiness. Depend upon it that they will be found of no weight I have no doubt that your character, in the judgment of every person that has heard them, stands higher than ever. We feel for your misfortune, in being obliged to hear such calumnies from a person who has injured you so grossly. But you must be considered in that respect as a martyr in the public cause. The purity of your motives and dispositions is beyond the reach of malice; and truth and equity will not fail to award, to your calumniator infamy, and to you the love and approbation of mankind.
“I have now told you, Williams, what I think of your case. But I have no right to assume to be your ultimate judge. Desperate as it appears to me, I will give you one piece of advice, as if I were retained as a counsel to assist you. Leave out of it whatever tends to the disadvantage of Mr. Falkland. Defend yourself as well as you can, but do not attack your master. It is your business to create in those who hear you a prepossession in your favour. But the recrimination you have been now practising, will always create indignation. Dishonesty will admit of some palliation. The deliberate malice you have now been showing is a thousand times more atrocious. It proves you to have the mind of a demon, rather than of a felon. Wherever you shall repeat it, those who hear you will pronounce you guilty upon that, even if the proper evidence against you were glaringly defective. If therefore you would consult your interest, which seems to be your only consideration, it is incumbent upon you by all means immediately to retract that. If you desire to be believed honest, you must in the first place show that you have a due sense of merit in others. You cannot better serve your cause than by begging pardon of your master, and doing homage to rectitude and worth, even when they are employed in vengeance against you.”
It is easy to conceive that my mind sustained an extreme shock from the decision of Mr. Forester; but his call upon me to retract and humble myself before my accuser penetrated my whole soul with indignation. I answered:—
“I have already told you I am innocent. I believe that I could not endure the effort of inventing a plausible defence, if it were otherwise. You have just affirmed that it is not in the power of ingenuity to subvert the distinctions of right and wrong, and in that very instant I find them subverted. This is indeed to me a very awful moment. New to the world, I know nothing of its affairs but what has reached me by rumour, or is recorded in books. I have come into it with all the ardour and confidence inseparable from my years. In every fellow-being I expected to find a friend. I am unpractised in its wiles, and have even no acquaintance with its injustice. I have done nothing to deserve the animosity of mankind; but, if I may judge from the present scene, I am henceforth to be deprived of the benefits of integrity and honour. I am to forfeit the friendship of every one I have hitherto known, and to be precluded from the power of acquiring that of others. I must therefore be reduced to derive my satisfaction from myself. Depend upon it, I will not begin that career by dishonourable concessions. If I am to despair of the good-will of other men, I will at least maintain the independence of my own mind. Mr. Falkland is my implacable enemy. Whatever may be his merits in other respects, he is acting towards me without humanity, without remorse, and without principle. Do you think I will ever make submissions to a man by whom I am thus treated, that I will fall down at the feet of one who is to me a devil, or kiss the hand that is red with my blood?”
“In that respect,” answered Mr. Forester, “do as you shall think proper. I must confess that your firmness and consistency astonish me. They add something to what I had conceived of human powers. Perhaps you have chosen the part which, all things considered, may serve your purpose best; though I think more moderation would be more conciliating. The exterior of innocence will, I grant, stagger the persons who may have the direction of your fate, but it will never be able to prevail against plain and incontrovertible facts. But I have done with you. I see in you a new instance of that abuse which is so generally made of talents, the admiration of an undiscerning public. I regard you with horror. All that remains is, that I should discharge my duty, in consigning you, as a monster of depravity, to the justice of your country.”
“No,” rejoined Mr. Falkland, “to that I can never consent. I have put a restraint upon myself thus far, because it was right that evidence and enquiry should take their course. I have suppressed all my habits and sentiments, because it seemed due to the public that hypocrisy should be unmasked. But I can suffer this violence no longer. I have through my whole life interfered to protect, not overbear, the sufferer; and I must do so now. I feel not the smallest resentment of his impotent attacks upon my character; I smile at their malice; and they make no diminution in my benevolence to their author. Let him say what he pleases; he cannot hurt me. It was proper that he should be brought to public shame, that other people might not be deceived by him as we have been. But there is no necessity for proceeding further; and I must insist upon it that he be permitted to depart wherever he pleases. I am sorry that public interest affords so gloomy a prospect for his future happiness.”
“Mr. Falkland,” answered Mr. Forester, “these sentiments do honour to your humanity; but I must not give way to them. They only serve to set in a stronger light the venom of this serpent, this monster of ingratitude, who first robs his benefactor, and then reviles him. Wretch that you are, will nothing move you? Are you inaccessible to remorse? Are you not struck to the heart with the unmerited goodness of your master? Vile calumniator! you are the abhorrence of nature, the opprobrium of the human species, and the earth can only be freed from an insupportable burthen by your being exterminated! Recollect, sir, that this monster, at the very moment that you are exercising such unexampled forbearance in his behalf, has the presumption to charge you with prosecuting a crime of which you know him to be innocent, nay, with having conveyed the pretended stolen goods among his property, for the express purpose of ruining him. By this unexampled villainy, he makes it your duty to free the world from such a pest, and your interest to admit no relaxing in your pursuit of him, lest the world should be persuaded by your clemency to credit his vile insinuations.”
“I care not for the consequences,” replied Mr. Falkland; “I will obey the dictates of my own mind. I will never lend my assistance to the reforming mankind by axes and gibbets. I am sure things will never be as they ought, till honour, and not law, be the dictator of mankind, till vice be taught to shrink before the resistless might of inborn dignity, and not before the cold formality of statutes. If my calumniator were worthy of my resentment, I would chastise him with my own sword, and not that of the magistrate; but in the present case I smile at his malice, and resolve to spare him, as the generous lord of the forest spares the insect that would disturb his repose.”
“The language you now hold,” said Mr. Forester, “is that of romance, and not of reason. Yet I cannot but be struck with the contrast exhibited before me, of the magnanimity of virtue, and the obstinate impenetrable injustice of guilt. While your mind overflows with goodness, nothing can touch the heart of this thrice-refined villain. I shall never forgive myself for having once been entrapped by his detestable arts. This is no time for us to settle the question between chivalry and law. I shall therefore simply insist as a magistrate, having taken the evidence in this felony, upon my right and duty of following the course of justice, and committing the accused to the county jail.”
After some further contest Mr. Falkland, finding Mr. Forester obstinate and impracticable, withdrew his opposition. Accordingly a proper officer was summoned from the neighbouring village, a mittimus made out, and one of Mr. Falkland’s carriages prepared to conduct me to the place of custody. It will easily be imagined that this sudden reverse was very painfully felt by me. I looked round on the servants who had been the spectators of my examination, but not one of them, either by word or gesture, expressed compassion for my calamity. The robbery of which I was accused appeared to them atrocious from its magnitude; and whatever sparks of compassion might otherwise have sprung up in their ingenuous and undisciplined minds, were totally obliterated by indignation at my supposed profligacy in recriminating upon their worthy and excellent master. My fate being already determined, and one of the servants despatched for the officer, Mr. Forester and Mr. Falkland withdrew, and left me in the custody of two others.
One of these was the son of a farmer at no great distance, who had been in habits of long-established intimacy with my late father. I was willing accurately to discover the state of mind of those who had been witnesses of this scene, and who had had some previous opportunity of observing my character and manners. I, therefore, endeavoured to open a conversation with him. “Well, my good Thomas,” said I, in a querulous tone, and with a hesitating manner, “am I not a most miserable creature?”
“Do not speak to me, Master Williams! You have given me a shock that I shall not get the better of for one while. You were hatched by a hen, as the saying is, but you came of the spawn of a cockatrice. I am glad to my heart that honest farmer Williams is dead; your villainy would else have made him curse the day that ever he was born.”
“Thomas, I am innocent’ I swear by the great God that shall judge me another day, I am innocent!”
“Pray, do not swear! for goodness’ sake, do not swear! your poor soul is damned enough without that. For your sake, lad, I will never take any body’s word, nor trust to appearances, tho’ it should be an angel. Lord bless us! how smoothly you palavered it over, for all the world, as if you had been as fair as a new-born babe! But it will not do; you will never be able to persuade people that black is white. For my own part, I have done with you. I loved you yesterday, all one as if you had been my own brother. To-day I love you so well, that I would go ten miles with all the pleasure in life to see you hanged.”
“Good God, Thomas! have you the heart? What a change! I call God to witness, I have done nothing to deserve it! What a world do we live in!”
“Hold your tongue, boy! It makes my very heart sick to hear you! I would not lie a night under the same roof with you for all the world! I should expect the house to fall and crush such wickedness! I admire that the earth does not open and swallow you alive! It is poison so much as to look at you! If you go on at this hardened rate, I believe from my soul that the people you talk to will tear you to pieces, and you will never live to come to the gallows. Oh, yes, you do well to pity yourself; poor tender thing! that spit venom all round you like a toad, and leave the very ground upon which you crawl infected with your slime.”
Finding the person with whom I talked thus impenetrable to all I could say, and considering that the advantage to be gained was small, even if I could overcome his prepossession, I took his advice, and was silent. It was not much longer before every thing was prepared for my departure, and I was conducted to the same prison which had so lately enclosed the wretched and innocent Hawkinses. They too had been the victims of Mr. Falkland. He exhibited, upon a contracted scale indeed, but in which the truth of delineation was faithfully sustained, a copy of what monarchs are, who reckon among the instruments of their power prisons of state.
Last updated Thursday, October 22, 2015 at 14:24