He had taken leave of his aunt on the eve of his intended departure; but the good lady’s affection for her nephew interrupted her sleep, and early as it was next morning when Harley came downstairs to set out, he found her in the parlour with a tear on her cheek, and her caudle-cup in her hand. She knew enough of physic to prescribe against going abroad of a morning with an empty stomach. She gave her blessing with the draught; her instructions she had delivered the night before. They consisted mostly of negatives, for London, in her idea, was so replete with temptations that it needed the whole armour of her friendly cautions to repel their attacks.
Peter stood at the door. We have mentioned this faithful fellow formerly: Harley’s father had taken him up an orphan, and saved him from being cast on the parish; and he had ever since remained in the service of him and of his son. Harley shook him by the hand as he passed, smiling, as if he had said, “I will not weep.” He sprung hastily into the chaise that waited for him; Peter folded up the step. “My dear master,” said he, shaking the solitary lock that hung on either side of his head, “I have been told as how London is a sad place.” He was choked with the thought, and his benediction could not be heard: - but it shall be heard, honest Peter! where these tears will add to its energy.
In a few hours Harley reached the inn where he proposed breakfasting, but the fulness of his heart would not suffer him to eat a morsel. He walked out on the road, and gaining a little height, stood gazing on that quarter he had left. He looked for his wonted prospect, his fields, his woods, and his hills: they were lost in the distant clouds! He pencilled them on the clouds, and bade them farewell with a sigh!
He sat down on a large stone to take out a little pebble from his shoe, when he saw, at some distance, a beggar approaching him. He had on a loose sort of coat, mended with different-coloured rags, amongst which the blue and the russet were the predominant. He had a short knotty stick in his hand, and on the top of it was stuck a ram’s horn; his knees (though he was no pilgrim) had worn the stuff of his breeches; he wore no shoes, and his stockings had entirely lost that part of them which should have covered his feet and ankles; in his face, however, was the plump appearance of good humour; he walked a good round pace, and a crook-legged dog trotted at his heels.
“Our delicacies,” said Harley to himself, “are fantastic; they are not in nature! that beggar walks over the sharpest of these stones barefooted, whilst I have lost the most delightful dream in the world, from the smallest of them happening to get into my shoe.” The beggar had by this time come up, and, pulling off a piece of hat, asked charity of Harley; the dog began to beg too: - it was impossible to resist both; and, in truth, the want of shoes and stockings had made both unnecessary, for Harley had destined sixpence for him before. The beggar, on receiving it, poured forth blessings without number; and, with a sort of smile on his countenance, said to Harley “that if he wanted to have his fortune told” - Harley turned his eye briskly on the beggar: it was an unpromising look for the subject of a prediction, and silenced the prophet immediately. “I would much rather learn,” said Harley, “what it is in your power to tell me: your trade must be an entertaining one; sit down on this stone, and let me know something of your profession; I have often thought of turning fortune-teller for a week or two myself.”
“Master,” replied the beggar, “I like your frankness much; God knows I had the humour of plain-dealing in me from a child, but there is no doing with it in this world; we must live as we can, and lying is, as you call it, my profession, but I was in some sort forced to the trade, for I dealt once in telling truth.
“I was a labourer, sir, and gained as much as to make me live: I never laid by indeed: for I was reckoned a piece of a wag, and your wags, I take it, are seldom rich, Mr. Harley.”
“So,” said Harley, “you seem to know me.”
“Ay, there are few folks in the country that I don’t know something of: how should I tell fortunes else?”
“True; but to go on with your story: you were a labourer, you say, and a wag; your industry, I suppose, you left with your old trade, but your humour you preserve to be of use to you in your new.”
“What signifies sadness, sir? a man grows lean on’t: but I was brought to my idleness by degrees; first I could not work, and it went against my stomach to work ever after. I was seized with a jail fever at the time of the assizes being in the county where I lived; for I was always curious to get acquainted with the felons, because they are commonly fellows of much mirth and little thought, qualities I had ever an esteem for. In the height of this fever, Mr. Harley, the house where I lay took fire, and burnt to the ground; I was carried out in that condition, and lay all the rest of my illness in a barn. I got the better of my disease, however, but I was so weak that I spit blood whenever I attempted to work. I had no relation living that I knew of, and I never kept a friend above a week, when I was able to joke; I seldom remained above six months in a parish, so that I might have died before I had found a settlement in any: thus I was forced to beg my bread, and a sorry trade I found it, Mr. Harley. I told all my misfortunes truly, but they were seldom believed; and the few who gave me a halfpenny as they passed did it with a shake of the head, and an injunction not to trouble them with a long story. In short, I found that people don’t care to give alms without some security for their money; a wooden leg or a withered arm is a sort of draught upon heaven for those who choose to have their money placed to account there; so I changed my plan, and, instead of telling my own misfortunes, began to prophesy happiness to others. This I found by much the better way: folks will always listen when the tale is their own, and of many who say they do not believe in fortune-telling, I have known few on whom it had not a very sensible effect. I pick up the names of their acquaintance; amours and little squabbles are easily gleaned among servants and neighbours; and indeed people themselves are the best intelligencers in the world for our purpose: they dare not puzzle us for their own sakes, for every one is anxious to hear what they wish to believe, and they who repeat it, to laugh at it when they have done, are generally more serious than their hearers are apt to imagine. With a tolerable good memory, and some share of cunning, with the help of walking a-nights over heaths and church-yards, with this, and showing the tricks of that there dog, whom I stole from the serjeant of a marching regiment (and by the way, he can steal too upon occasion), I make shift to pick up a livelihood. My trade, indeed, is none of the honestest; yet people are not much cheated neither who give a few half-pence for a prospect of happiness, which I have heard some persons say is all a man can arrive at in this world. But I must bid you good day, sir, for I have three miles to walk before noon, to inform some boarding-school young ladies whether their husbands are to be peers of the realm or captains in the army: a question which I promised to answer them by that time.”
Harley had drawn a shilling from his pocket; but Virtue bade him consider on whom he was going to bestow it. Virtue held back his arm; but a milder form, a younger sister of Virtue’s, not so severe as Virtue, nor so serious as Pity, smiled upon him; his fingers lost their compression, nor did Virtue offer to catch the money as it fell. It had no sooner reached the ground than the watchful cur (a trick he had been taught) snapped it up, and, contrary to the most approved method of stewardship, delivered it immediately into the hands of his master.