When the stage-coach arrived at the place of its destination, Harley began to consider how he should proceed the remaining part of his journey. He was very civilly accosted by the master of the inn, who offered to accommodate him either with a post-chaise or horses, to any distance he had a mind: but as he did things frequently in a way different from what other people call natural, he refused these offers, and set out immediately a-foot, having first put a spare shirt in his pocket, and given directions for the forwarding of his portmanteau. This was a method of travelling which he was accustomed to take: it saved the trouble of provision for any animal but himself, and left him at liberty to chose his quarters, either at an inn, or at the first cottage in which he saw a face he liked: nay, when he was not peculiarly attracted by the reasonable creation, he would sometimes consort with a species of inferior rank, and lay himself down to sleep by the side of a rock, or on the banks of a rivulet. He did few things without a motive, but his motives were rather eccentric: and the useful and expedient were terms which he held to be very indefinite, and which therefore he did not always apply to the sense in which they are commonly understood.
The sun was now in his decline, and the evening remarkably serene, when he entered a hollow part of the road, which winded between the surrounding banks, and seamed the sward in different lines, as the choice of travellers had directed them to tread it. It seemed to be little frequented now, for some of those had partly recovered their former verdure. The scene was such as induced Harley to stand and enjoy it; when, turning round, his notice was attracted by an object, which the fixture of his eye on the spot he walked had before prevented him from observing.
An old man, who from his dress seemed to have been a soldier, lay fast asleep on the ground; a knapsack rested on a stone at his right hand, while his staff and brass-hilted sword were crossed at his left.
Harley looked on him with the most earnest attention. He was one of those figures which Salvator would have drawn; nor was the surrounding scenery unlike the wildness of that painter’s back-grounds. The banks on each side were covered with fantastic shrub-wood, and at a little distance, on the top of one of them, stood a finger-post, to mark the directions of two roads which diverged from the point where it was placed. A rock, with some dangling wild flowers, jutted out above where the soldier lay; on which grew the stump of a large tree, white with age, and a single twisted branch shaded his face as he slept. His face had the marks of manly comeliness impaired by time; his forehead was not altogether bald, but its hairs might have been numbered; while a few white locks behind crossed the brown of his neck with a contrast the most venerable to a mind like Harley’s. “Thou art old,” said he to himself; “but age has not brought thee rest for its infirmities; I fear those silver hairs have not found shelter from thy country, though that neck has been bronzed in its service.” The stranger waked. He looked at Harley with the appearance of some confusion: it was a pain the latter knew too well to think of causing in another; he turned and went on. The old man re-adjusted his knapsack, and followed in one of the tracks on the opposite side of the road.
When Harley heard the tread of his feet behind him, he could not help stealing back a glance at his fellow-traveller. He seemed to bend under the weight of his knapsack; he halted on his walk, and one of his arms was supported by a sling, and lay motionless across his breast. He had that steady look of sorrow, which indicates that its owner has gazed upon his griefs till he has forgotten to lament them; yet not without those streaks of complacency which a good mind will sometimes throw into the countenance, through all the incumbent load of its depression.
He had now advanced nearer to Harley, and, with an uncertain sort of voice, begged to know what it was o’clock; “I fear,” said he, “sleep has beguiled me of my time, and I shall hardly have light enough left to carry me to the end of my journey.”
“Father!” said Harley (who by this time found the romantic enthusiasm rising within him) “how far do you mean to go?”
“But a little way, sir,” returned the other; “and indeed it is but a little way I can manage now: ’tis just four miles from the height to the village, thither I am going.”
“I am going there too,” said Harley; “we may make the road shorter to each other. You seem to have served your country, sir, to have served it hardly too; ’tis a character I have the highest esteem for. - I would not be impertinently inquisitive; but there is that in your appearance which excites my curiosity to know something more of you; in the meantime, suffer me to carry that knapsack.”
The old man gazed on him; a tear stood in his eye! “Young gentleman,” said he, “you are too good; may Heaven bless you for an old man’s sake, who has nothing but his blessing to give! but my knapsack is so familiar to my shoulders, that I should walk the worse for wanting it; and it would be troublesome to you, who have not been used to its weight.”
“Far from it,” answered Harley, “I should tread the lighter; it would be the most honourable badge I ever wore.”
“Sir,” said the stranger, who had looked earnestly in Harley’s face during the last part of his discourse, “is act your name Harley?”
“It is,” replied he; “I am ashamed to say I have forgotten yours.”
“You may well have forgotten my face,” said the stranger; - “’tis a long time since you saw it; but possibly you may remember something of old Edwards.”
“Edwards!” cried Harley, “oh! heavens!” and sprung to embrace him; “let me clasp those knees on which I have sat so often: Edwards! - I shall never forget that fire-side, round which I have been so happy! But where, where have you been? where is Jack? where is your daughter? How has it fared with them, when fortune, I fear, has been so unkind to you?”
“’Tis a long tale,” replied Edwards; “but I will try to tell it you as we walk.
“When you were at school in the neighbourhood, you remember me at South-hill: that farm had been possessed by my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, which last was a younger brother of that very man’s ancestor, who is now lord of the manor. I thought I managed it, as they had done, with prudence; I paid my rent regularly as it became due, and had always as much behind as gave bread to me and my children. But my last lease was out soon after you left that part of the country; and the squire, who had lately got a London-attorney for his steward, would not renew it, because, he said, he did not chuse to have any farm under £300 a year value on his estate; but offered to give me the preference on the same terms with another, if I chose to take the one he had marked out, of which mine was a part.
“What could I do, Mr. Harley? I feared the undertaking was too great for me; yet to leave, at my age, the house I had lived in from my cradle! I could not, Mr. Harley, I could not; there was not a tree about it that I did not look on as my father, my brother, or my child: so I even ran the risk, and took the squire’s offer of the whole. But had soon reason to repent of my bargain; the steward had taken care that my former farm should be the best land of the division: I was obliged to hire more servants, and I could not have my eye over them all; some unfavourable seasons followed one another, and I found my affairs entangling on my hands. To add to my distress, a considerable corn-factor turned bankrupt with a sum of mine in his possession: I failed paying my rent so punctually as I was wont to do, and the same steward had my stock taken in execution in a few days after. So, Mr. Harley, there was an end of my prosperity. However, there was as much produced from the sale of my effects as paid my debts and saved me from a jail: I thank God I wronged no man, and the world could never charge me with dishonesty.
“Had you seen us, Mr. Harley, when we were turned out of South-hill, I am sure you would have wept at the sight. You remember old Trusty, my shag house-dog; I shall never forget it while I live; the poor creature was blind with age, and could scarce crawl after us to the door; he went however as far as the gooseberry-bush that you may remember stood on the left side of the yard; he was wont to bask in the sun there; when he had reached that spot, he stopped; we went on: I called to him; he wagged his tail, but did not stir: I called again; he lay down: I whistled, and cried Trusty; he gave a short howl, and died! I could have lain down and died too; but God gave me strength to live for my children.”
The old man now paused a moment to take breath. He eyed Harley’s face; it was bathed with tears: the story was grown familiar to himself; he dropped one tear, and no more.
“Though I was poor,” continued he, “I was not altogether without credit. A gentleman in the neighbourhood, who had a small farm unoccupied at the time, offered to let me have it, on giving security for the rent; which I made shift to procure. It was a piece of ground which required management to make anything of; but it was nearly within the compass of my son’s labour and my own. We exerted all our industry to bring it into some heart. We began to succeed tolerably and lived contented on its produce, when an unlucky accident brought us under the displeasure of a neighbouring justice of the peace, and broke all our family-happiness again.
“My son was a remarkable good shooter; he-had always kept a pointer on our former farm, and thought no harm in doing so now; when one day, having sprung a covey in our own ground, the dog, of his own accord, followed them into the justice’s. My son laid down his gun, and went after his dog to bring him back: the game-keeper, who had marked the birds, came up, and seeing the pointer, shot him just as my son approached. The creature fell; my son ran up to him: he died with a complaining sort of cry at his master’s feet. Jack could bear it no longer; but, flying at the game-keeper, wrenched his gun out of his hand, and with the butt end of it, felled him to the ground.
“He had scarce got home, when a constable came with a warrant, and dragged him to prison; there he lay, for the justices would not take bail, till he was tried at the quarter-sessions for the assault and battery. His fine was hard upon us to pay: we contrived however to live the worse for it, and make up the loss by our frugality: but the justice was not content with that punishment, and soon after had an opportunity of punishing us indeed.
“An officer with press-orders came down to our county, and having met with the justices, agreed that they should pitch on a certain number, who could most easily be spared from the county, of whom he would take care to clear it: my son’s name was in the justices’ list.
“’Twas on a Christmas eve, and the birth-day too of my son’s little boy. The night was piercing cold, and it blew a storm, with showers of hail and snow. We had made up a cheering fire in an inner room; I sat before it in my wicker-chair; blessing providence, that had still left a shelter for me and my children. My son’s two little ones were holding their gambols around us; my heart warmed at the sight: I brought a bottle of my best ale, and all our misfortunes were forgotten.
“It had long been our custom to play a game at blind man’s buff on that night, and it was not omitted now; so to it we fell, I, and my son, and his wife, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, who happened to be with us at the time, the two children, and an old maid servant, who had lived with me from a child. The lot fell on my son to be blindfolded: we had continued some time in our game, when he groped his way into an outer room in pursuit of some of us, who, he imagined, had taken shelter there; we kept snug in our places, and enjoyed his mistake. He had not been long there, when he was suddenly seized from behind; ‘I shall have you now,’ said he, and turned about. ‘Shall you so, master?’ answered the ruffian, who had laid hold of him; ‘we shall make you play at another sort of game by and by.’” - At these words Harley started with a convulsive sort of motion, and grasping Edwards’s sword, drew it half out of the scabbard, with a look of the most frantic wildness. Edwards gently replaced it in its sheath, and went on with his relation.
“On hearing these words in a strange voice, we all rushed out to discover the cause; the room by this time was almost full of the gang. My daughter-in-law fainted at the sight; the maid and I ran to assist her, while my poor son remained motionless, gazing by turns on his children and their mother. We soon recovered her to life, and begged her to retire and wait the issue of the affair; but she flew to her husband, and clung round him in an agony of terror and grief.
“In the gang was one of a smoother aspect, whom, by his dress, we discovered to be a serjeant of foot: he came up to me, and told me, that my son had his choice of the sea or land service, whispering at the same time that, if he chose the land, he might get off, on procuring him another man, and paying a certain sum for his freedom. The money we could just muster up in the house, by the assistance of the maid, who produced, in a green bag, all the little savings of her service; but the man we could not expect to find. My daughter-in-law gazed upon her children with a look of the wildest despair: ‘My poor infants!’ said she, ‘your father is forced from you; who shall now labour for your bread? or must your mother beg for herself and you?’ I prayed her to be patient; but comfort I had none to give her. At last, calling the serjeant aside, I asked him, ‘If I was too old to be accepted in place of my son?’
“‘Why, I don’t know,’ said he; ‘you are rather old to be sure, but yet the money may do much.’
“I put the money in his hand, and coming back to my children, ‘Jack,’ said I, ‘you are free; live to give your wife and these little ones bread; I will go, my child, in your stead; I have but little life to lose, and if I staid, I should add one to the wretches you left behind.’
“‘No,’ replied my son, ‘I am not that coward you imagine me; heaven forbid that my father’s grey hairs should be so exposed, while I sat idle at home; I am young and able to endure much, and God will take care of you and my family.’
“‘Jack,’ said I, ‘I will put an end to this matter, you have never hitherto disobeyed me; I will not be contradicted in this; stay at home, I charge you, and, for my sake, be kind to my children.’
“Our parting, Mr. Harley, I cannot describe to you; it was the first time we ever had parted: the very press-gang could scarce keep from tears; but the serjeant, who had seemed the softest before, was now the least moved of them all. He conducted me to a party of new-raised recruits, who lay at a village in the neighbourhood; and we soon after joined the regiment. I had not been long with it when we were ordered to the East Indies, where I was soon made a serjeant, and might have picked up some money, if my heart had been as hard as some others were; but my nature was never of that kind, that could think of getting rich at the expense of my conscience.
“Amongst our prisoners was an old Indian, whom some of our officers supposed to have a treasure hidden somewhere; which is no uncommon practice in that country. They pressed him to discover it. He declared he had none, but that would not satisfy them, so they ordered him to be tied to a stake, and suffer fifty lashes every morning till he should learn to speak out, as they said. Oh! Mr. Harley, had you seen him, as I did, with his hands bound behind him, suffering in silence, while the big drops trickled down his shrivelled cheeks and wet his grey beard, which some of the inhuman soldiers plucked in scorn! I could not bear it, I could not for my soul, and one morning, when the rest of the guard were out of the way, I found means to let him escape. I was tried by a court-martial for negligence of my post, and ordered, in compassion of my age, and having got this wound in my arm and that in my leg in the service, only to suffer three hundred lashes and be turned out of the regiment; but my sentence was mitigated as to the lashes, and I had only two hundred. When I had suffered these I was turned out of the camp, and had betwixt three and four hundred miles to travel before I could reach a sea-port, without guide to conduct me, or money to buy me provisions by the way. I set out, however, resolved to walk as far as I could, and then to lay myself down and die. But I had scarce gone a mile when I was met by the Indian whom I had delivered. He pressed me in his arms, and kissed the marks of the lashes on my back a thousand times; he led me to a little hut, where some friend of his dwelt, and after I was recovered of my wounds conducted me so far on my journey himself, and sent another Indian to guide me through the rest. When we parted he pulled out a purse with two hundred pieces of gold in it. ‘Take this,’ said he, ‘my dear preserver, it is all I have been able to procure.’
“I begged him not to bring himself to poverty for my sake, who should probably have no need of it long, but he insisted on my accepting it. He embraced me. ‘You are an Englishman,’ said he, ‘but the Great Spirit has given you an Indian heart, may He bear up the weight of your old age, and blunt the arrow that brings it rest!’
“We parted, and not long after I made shift to get my passage to England. ’Tis but about a week since I landed, and I am going to end my days in the arms of my son. This sum may be of use to him and his children, ’tis all the value I put upon it. I thank Heaven I never was covetous of wealth; I never had much, but was always so happy as to be content with my little.”
When Edwards had ended his relation, Harley stood a while looking at him in silence; at last he pressed him in his arms, and when he had given vent to the fulness of his heart by a shower of tears, “Edwards,” said he, “let me hold thee to my bosom, let me imprint the virtue of thy sufferings on my soul. Come, my honoured veteran let me endeavour to soften the last days of a life, worn out in the service of humanity; call me also thy son, and let me cherish thee as a father.”’
Edwards, from whom the recollection of his own suffering had scarced forced a tear, now blubbered like a boy; he could not speak his gratitude, but by some short exclamations of blessings upon Harley.