As bear baiting was the passion of her life, so she was scrupulous in the care and training of her dogs. She gave them each a trundle-bed, wrapping them from the cold in sheets and blankets, while their food would not have dishonoured a gentleman's table. Parrots, too, gave a sense of colour and companionship to her house; and it was in this love of pets, and her devotion to cleanliness, that she showed a trace of dormant womanhood. Abroad a ribald and a scold, at home she was the neatest of housewives, and her parlour, with its mirrors and its manifold ornaments, was the envy of the neighbours. So her trade flourished, and she lived a life of comfort, of plenty even, until the Civil War threw her out of work. When an unnatural conflict set the whole country at loggerheads, what occasion was there for the honest prig? And it is not surprising that, like all the gentlemen adventurers of the age, Moll remained most stubbornly loyal to the King's cause. She made the conduit in Fleet Street run with wine when Charles came to London in 1638; and it was her amiable pleasantry to give the name of Strafford to a clever, cunning bull, and to dub the dogs that assailed him Pym, Hampden, and the rest, that right heartily she might applaud the courage of Strafford as he threw off his unwary assailants.
So long as the quarrel lasted, she was compelled to follow a profession more ancient than the fence's; for there is one passion which war itself cannot extinguish. When once the King had laid his head 'down as upon a bed,' when once the Protector had proclaimed his supremacy, the industry of the road revived; and there was not a single diver or rumpad that did not declare eternal war upon the black-hearted Regicides. With a laudable devotion to her chosen cause, Moll despatched the most experienced of her gang to rob Lady Fairfax on her way to church; and there is a tradition that the Roaring Girl, hearing that Fairfax himself would pass by Hounslow, rode forth to meet him, and with her own voice bade him stand and deliver. One would like to believe it; yet it is scarce credible. If Fairfax had spent the balance of an ignominious career in being plundered by a band of loyal brigands, he would not have had time to justify the innumerable legends of pockets emptied and pistols levelled at his head. Moreover, Moll herself was laden with years, and she had always preferred the council chamber to the battlefield. But it is certain that, with Captain Hind and Mull Sack to aid, she schemed many a clever plot against the Roundheads, and nobly she played her part in avenging the martyred King.
Thus she declined into old age, attended, like Queen Mary, by her maids, who would card, reel, spin, and beguile her leisure with sweet singing. Though her spirit was untamed, the burden of her years compelled her to a tranquil life. She, who formerly never missed a bull-baiting, must now content herself with tick-tack. Her fortune, moreover, had been wrecked in the Civil War. Though silver shells still jingled in her pocket, time was she knew the rattle of the yellow boys. But she never lost courage, and died at last of a dropsy, in placid contentment with her lot. Assuredly she was born at a time well suited to her genius. Had she lived to-day, she might have been a 'Pioneer'; she might even have discussed some paltry problem of sex in a printed obscenity.
In her own freer, wiser age, she was not man's detractor, but his rival; and if she never knew the passion of love, she was always loyal to the obligation of friendship. By her will she left twenty pounds to celebrate the Second Charles's restoration to his kingdom; and you contemplate her career with the single regret that she died a brief year before the red wine, thus generously bestowed, bubbled at the fountain.
WHEN Jonathan Wild and the Count La Ruse, in Fielding's narrative, took a hand at cards, Jonathan picked his opponent's pocket, though he knew it was empty, while the Count, from sheer force of habit, stacked the cards, though Wild had not a farthing to lose. And if in his uncultured youth the great man stooped to prig with his own hand, he was early cured of the weakness: so that Fielding's picture of the hero taking a bottle-screw from the Ordinary's pocket in the very moment of death is entirely fanciful. For 'this Machiavel of Thieves,' as a contemporary styled him, left others to accomplish what his ingenuity had planned. His was the high policy of theft. If he lived on terms of familiar intimacy with the mill-kens, the bridle-culls, the buttock-and-files of London, he was none the less the friend and minister of justice. He enjoyed the freedom of Newgate and the Old Bailey. He came and went as he liked: he packed juries, he procured bail, he manufactured evidence; and there was scarce an assize or a sessions passed but he slew his man.
The world knew him for a robber, yet could not refuse his brilliant service. At the Poultry Counter, you are told, he laid the foundations of his future greatness, and to the Poultry Counter he was committed for some trifling debt ere he had fully served his apprenticeship to the art and mystery of buckle-making. There he learned his craft, and at his enlargement he was able forthwith to commence thief-catcher. His plan was conceived with an effrontery that was nothing less than genius. On the one side he was the factor, or rather the tyrant, of the cross-coves: on the other he was the trusted agent of justice, the benefactor of the outraged and the plundered. Among his earliest exploits was the recovery of the Countess of G—d—n's chair, impudently carried off when her ladyship had but just alighted; and the courage wherewith he brought to justice the murderers of one Mrs. Knap, who had been slain for some trifling booty, established his reputation as upon a rock. He at once advertised himself in the public prints as Thief-Catcher General of Great Britain and Ireland, and proceeded to send to the gallows every scoundrel that dared dispute his position.
His opportunities of gain were infinite. Even if he did not organise the robbery which his cunning was presently to discover, he had spies in every hole and corner to set him on the felon's track. Nor did he leave a single enterprise to chance: 'He divided the city and suburbs into wards or divisions, and appointed the persons who were to attend each ward, and kept them strictly to their duty.' If a subordinate dared to disobey or to shrink from murder, Jonathan hanged him at the next assize, and happily for him he had not a single confederate whose neck he might not put in the halter when he chose. Thus he preserved the union and the fidelity of his gang, punishing by judicial murder the smallest insubordination, the faintest suspicion of rivalry. Even when he had shut his victim up in Newgate, he did not leave him so long as there was a chance of blackmail. He would make the most generous offers of evidence and defence to every thief that had a stiver left him. But whether or not he kept his bargain—that depended upon policy and inclination. On one occasion, when he had brought a friend to the Old Bailey, and relented at the last moment, he kept the prosecutor drunk from the noble motive of self-interest, until the case was over. And so esteemed was he of the officers of the law that even this interference did but procure a reprimand.
His meanest action marked him out from his fellows, but it was not until he habitually pillaged the treasures he afterwards restored to their grateful owners for a handsome consideration, that his art reached the highest point of excellence. The event was managed by him with amazing adroitness from beginning to end.
It was he who discovered the wealth and habit of the victim; it was he who posted the thief and seized the plunder, giving a paltry commission to his hirelings for the trouble; it was he who kept whatever valuables were lost in the transaction; and as he was the servant of the Court, discovery or inconvenience was impossible. Surely the Machiavel of Thieves is justified of his title. He was known to all the rich and titled folk in town; and if he was generally able to give them back their stolen valuables at something more than double their value, he treated his clients with a most proper insolence. When Lady M—n was unlucky enough to lose a silver buckle at Windsor, she asked Wild to recover it, and offered the hero twenty pounds for his trouble. 'Zounds, Madam,' says he, 'you offer nothing. It cost the gentleman who took it forty pounds for his coach, equipage, and other expenses to Windsor.' His impudence increased with success, and in the geniality of his cups he was wont to boast his amazing rogueries: 'hinting not without vanity at the poor Understandings of the Greatest Part of Mankind, and his own Superior Cunning.'
In fifteen years he claimed L10,000 for his dividend of recovered plunderings, and who shall estimate the moneys which flowed to his treasury from blackmail and the robberies of his gang? So brisk became his trade in jewels and the precious metals that he opened relations with Holland, and was master of a fleet. His splendour increased with wealth: he carried a silver-mounted sword, and a footman tramped at his heels. 'His table was very splendid,' says a biographer: 'he seldom dining under five Dishes, the Reversions whereof were generally charitably bestow'd on the Commonside felons.' At his second marriage with Mrs. Mary D—n, the hempen widow of Scull D—n, his humour was most happily expressed: he distributed white ribbons among the turnkeys, he gave the Ordinary gloves and favours, he sent the prisoners of Newgate several ankers of brandy for punch. 'Twas a fitting complaisance, since his fortune was drawn from Newgate, and since he was destined himself, a few years later, to drink punch—'a liquor nowhere spoken against in the Scriptures'—with the same Ordinary whom he thus magnificently decorated. Endowed with considerable courage, for a while he had the prudence to save his skin, and despite his bravado he was known on occasion to yield a plundered treasure to an accomplice who set a pistol to his head. But it is certain that the accomplice died at Tyburn for his pains, and on equal terms Jonathan was resolute with the best. On the trail he was savage as a wild beast. When he arrested James Wright for a robbery committed upon the persons of the Earl of B—l—n and the Lord Bruce, he held on to the victim's chin by his teeth—an exploit which reminds you of the illustrious Tiger Roche.
Even in his lifetime he was generously styled the Great. The scourge of London, he betrayed and destroyed every man that ever dared to live upon terms of friendship with him. It was Jonathan that made Blueskin a thief, and Jonathan screened his creature from justice only so long as clemency seemed profitable. At the first hint of disobedience Blueskin was committed to Newgate. When he had stood his trial, and was being taken to the Condemned Hole, he beckoned to Wild as though to a conference, and cut his throat with a penknife. The assembled rogues and turnkeys thought their Jonathan dead at last, and rejoiced exceedingly therein. Straightway the poet of Newgate's Garland leaped into verse:
Then hopeless of life, He drew his penknife, And made a sad widow of Jonathan's wife. But forty pounds paid her, her grief shall appease, And every man round me may rob, if he please.
But Jonathan recovered, and Molly, his wife, was destined a second time to win the conspicuous honour that belongs to a hempen widow.
As his career drew to its appointed close, Fortune withheld her smiles. 'People got so peery,' complained the great man, 'that ingenious men were put to dreadful shifts.' And then, highest tribute to his greatness, an Act of Parliament was passed which made it a capital offence 'for a prig to steal with the hands of other people'; and in the increase of public vigilance his undoing became certain. On the 2nd of January, 1725, a day not easy to forget, a creature of Wild's spoke with fifty yards of lace, worth L40, at his Captain's bidding, and Wild, having otherwise disposed of the plunder, was charged on the 10th of March that he 'did feloniously receive of Katharine Stetham ten guineas on account and under colour of helping the said Katharine Stetham to the said lace again, and did not then, nor any time since, discover or apprehend, or cause to be apprehended and brought to Justice, the persons that committed the said felony.' Thus runs the indictment, and, to the inexpressible relief of lesser men, Jonathan Wild was condemned to the gallows.
Thereupon he had serious thoughts of 'putting his house in order'; with an ironical smile he demanded an explanation of the text: 'Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree'; but, presently reflecting that 'his Time was but short in this World, he improved it to the best advantage in Eating, Drinking, Swearing, Cursing, and talking to his Visitants.' For all his bragging, drink alone preserved his courage: 'he was very restless in the Condemned Hole,' though 'he gave little or no attention to the condemned Sermon which the purblind Ordinary preached before him,' and which was, in Fielding's immortal phrase, 'unto the Greeks foolishness.' But in the moment of death his distinction returned to him. He tried, and failed, to kill himself; and his progress to the nubbing cheat was a triumph of execration. He reached Tyburn through a howling mob, and died to a yell of universal joy.
The Ordinary has left a record so precious and so lying, that it must needs be quoted at length. The great Thief-Catcher's confession is a masterpiece of comfort, and is so far removed from the truth as completely to justify Fielding's incomparable creation. 'Finding there was no room for mercy (and how could I expect mercy, who never showed any)'—thus does the devil dodger dishonour our Jonathan's memory!—'as soon as I came into the Condemned Hole, I began to think of making a preparation for my soul. . . . To part with my wife, my dear Molly, is so great an Affliction to me, that it touches me to the Quick, and is like Daggers entering into my Heart.' How tame the Ordinary's falsehood to the brilliant invention of Fielding, who makes Jonathan kick his Tishy in the very shadow of the Tree! And the Reverend Gentleman gains in unction as he goes: 'In the Cart they all kneeled down to prayers and seemed very penitent; the Ordinary used all the means imaginable to make them think of another World, and after singing a penitential Psalm, they cry'd Lord Jesus Christ receive our Souls, the cart drew away and they were all turned off. This is as good an account as can be given by me.' Poor Ordinary! If he was modest, he was also untruthful, and you are certain that it was not thus the hero met his death.
Even had Fielding never written his masterpiece, Jonathan Wild would still have been surnamed 'The Great.' For scarce a chap-book appeared in the year of Jonathan's death that did not expose the only right and true view of his character. 'His business,' says one hack of prison literature, 'at all times was to put a false gloss upon things, and to make fools of mankind.' Another precisely formulates the theory of greatness insisted upon by Fielding with so lavish an irony and so masterly a wit. While it is certain that The History of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild is as noble a piece of irony as literature can show, while for the qualities of wit and candour it is equal to its motive, it is likewise true that therein you meet the indubitable Jonathan Wild. It is an entertainment to compare the chap-books of the time with the reasoned, finished work of art: not in any spirit of pedantry—since accuracy in these matters is of small account, but with intent to show how doubly fortunate Fielding was in his genius and in his material. Of course the writer rejoiced in the aid of imagination and eloquence; of course he embellished his picture with such inspirations as Miss Laetitia and the Count; of course he preserves from the first page to the last the highest level of unrivalled irony. But the sketch was there before him, and a lawyer's clerk had treated Jonathan in a vein of heroism within a few weeks of his death. And since a plain statement is never so true as fiction, Fielding's romance is still more credible, still convinces with an easier effort, than the serious and pedestrian records of contemporaries. Nor can you return to its pages without realising that, so far from being 'the evolution of a purely intellectual conception,' Jonathan Wild is a magnificently idealised and ironical portrait of a great man.
(MOLL CUTPURSE AND JONATHAN WILD)
THEY plied the same trade, each with incomparable success. By her, as by him, the art of the fence was carried to its ultimate perfection. In their hands the high policy of theft wanted nor dignity nor assurance. Neither harboured a single scheme which was not straightway translated into action, and they were masters at once of Newgate and the Highway. As none might rob without the encouragement of his emperor, so none was hanged at Tyburn while intrigue or bribery might avail to drag a half-doomed neck from the halter; and not even Moll herself was more bitterly tyrannical in the control of a reckless gang than the thin-jawed, hatchet-faced Jonathan Wild.
They were statesmen rather than warriors—happy if they might direct the enterprises of others, and determined to punish the lightest disobedience by death. The mind of each was readier than his right arm, and neither would risk an easy advantage by a misunderstood or unwonted sleight of hand. But when you leave the exercise of their craft to contemplate their character with a larger eye, it is the woman who at every point has the advantage. Not only was she the peerless inventor of a new cunning; she was at home (and abroad) the better fellow. The suppression of sex was in itself an unparalleled triumph, and the most envious detractor could not but marvel at the domination of her womanhood. Moreover, she shone in a gayer, more splendid epoch. The worthy contemporary of Shakespeare, she had small difficulty in performing feats of prowess and resource which daunted the intrepid ruffians of the eighteenth century. Her period, in brief, gave her an eternal superiority; and it were as hopeless for Otway to surpass the master whom he disgraced, as for Wild to o'ershadow the brilliant example of Moll Cutpurse.
Tyrants both, they exercised their sovereignty in accordance with their varying temperament. Hers was a fine, fat, Falstaffian humour, which, while it inspired Middleton, might have suggested to Shakespeare an equal companion of the drunken knight. His was but a narrow, cynic wit, not edged like the knife, which wellnigh cut his throat, but blunt and scratching like a worn-toothed saw.
She laughed with a laugh that echoed from Ludgate to Charing Cross, and her voice drowned all the City. He grinned rarely and with malice; he piped in a voice shrill and acid as the tricks of his mischievous imagination. She knew no cruelty beyond the necessities of her life, and none regretted more than she the inevitable death of a traitor. He lusted after destruction with a fiendish temper, which was a grim anticipation of De Sade; he would even smile as he saw the noose tighten round the necks of the poor innocents he had beguiled to Tyburn. It was his boast that he had contrived robberies for the mere glory of dragging his silly victims to the gallows. But Moll, though she stood half-way between the robber and his prey, would have sacrificed a hundred well-earned commissions rather than see her friends and comrades strangled. Her temperament compelled her to the loyal support of her own order, and she would have shrunk in horror from her rival, who, for all his assumed friendship with the thief, was a staunch and subtle ally of justice.
Before all things she had the genius of success. Her public offences were trivial and condoned. She died in her bed, full of years and of honours, beloved by the light-fingered gentry, reverenced by all the judges on the bench. He, for all the sacrifices he made to a squint-eyed law, died execrated alike by populace and police. Already Blueskin had done his worst with a pen-knife; already Jack Sheppard and his comrades had warned Drury Lane against the infamous thief-catcher. And so anxious, on the other hand, was the law to be quit of their too zealous servant, that an Act of Parliament was passed with the sole object of placing Jonathan's head within the noose. His method, meagre though masterly, lulled him too soon to an impotent security. She, with her larger view of life, her plumper sense of style, was content with nothing less than an ultimate sovereignty, and manifestly did she prove her superiority.
Though born for the wimple, she was more of a man than the breeched and stockinged Jonathan, whose only deed of valiance was to hang, terrier-like, by his teeth to an evasive enemy. While he cheated at cards and cogged the dice, she trained dogs and never missed a bear-baiting. He shrank, like the coward that he was, from the exercise of manly sports; she cared not what were the weapons—quarterstaff or broadsword—so long as she vanquished her opponent. She scoured the town in search of insult; he did but exert his cunning when a quarrel was put upon him. Who, then, shall deny her manhood? Who shall whisper that his style was the braver or the better suited to his sex?
As became a hero, she kept the best of loose company: her parlour was ever packed with the friends of loyalty and adventure. Are not Hind and Mull Sack worth a thousand Blueskins? Moreover, plunder and wealth were not the only objects of her pursuit: she was not merely a fence but a patriot, and she would have accounted a thousand pounds well lost, if she did but compass the discomfiture of a Parliament-man. Indeed, if Jonathan, the thief-catcher, limped painfully after his magnificent example, Jonathan the man and the sportsman confessed a pitiful inferiority to the valiant Moll. Thus she avenged her sex by distancing the most illustrious of her rivals; and if he pleads for his credit a taste for theology, hers is the chuckle of contemptuous superiority. She died a patriot, bequeathing a fountain of wine to the champions of an exiled king; he died a casuist, setting crabbed problems to the Ordinary. Here, again, the advantage is evident: loyalty is the virtue of men; a sudden attachment to religion is the last resource of the second-rate citizen and of the trapped criminal.
A SPARE, lean frame; a small head set forward upon a pair of sloping shoulders; a thin, sharp nose, and rat-like eyes; a flat, hollow chest; shrunk shanks, modestly retreating from their snuff-coloured hose—these are the tokens which served to remind his friends of Ralph Briscoe, the Clerk of Newgate. As he left the prison in the grey air of morning upon some errand of mercy or revenge, he appeared the least fearsome of mortals, while an awkward limp upon his left toe deepened the impression of timidity. So abstract was his manner, so hesitant his gait, that he would hug the wall as he went, nervously stroking its grimy surface with his long, twittering fingers. But Ralph, as justice and the Jug knew too well, was neither fool nor coward. His character belied his outward seeming. A large soul had crept into the case of his wizened body, and if a poltroon among his ancestors had gifted him with an alien type, he had inherited from some nameless warrior both courage and resource.
He was born in easy circumstances, and gently nurtured in the distant village of Kensington. Though cast in a scholar's mould, and very apt for learning, he rebelled from the outset against a career of inaction. His lack of strength was never a check upon his high stomach; he would fight with boys of twice his size, and accept the certain defeat in a cheerful spirit of dogged pugnacity. Moreover, if his arms were weak, his cunning was as keen-edged as his tongue; and, before his stricken eye had paled, he had commonly executed an ample vengeance upon his enemy. Nor was it industry that placed him at the top of the class. A ready wit made him master of the knowledge he despised.
But he would always desert his primer to follow the hangman's lumbering cart up Tyburn Hill, and, still a mere imp of mischief, he would run the weary way from Kensington to Shoe Lane on the distant chance of a cock-fight. He was present, so he would relate in after years, when Sir Thomas Jermin's man put his famous trick upon the pit. With a hundred pounds in his pocket and under his arm a dunghill cock, neatly trimmed for the fray, the ingenious ruffian, as Briscoe would tell you, went off to Shoe Lane, persuaded an accomplice to fight the cock in Sir Thomas Jermin's name, and laid a level hundred against his own bird. So lofty was Sir Thomas's repute that backers were easily found, but the dunghill rooster instantly showed a clean pair of heels, and the cheat was justified of his cunning.
Thus Ralph Briscoe learnt the first lessons in that art of sharping wherein he was afterwards an adept; and when he left school his head was packed with many a profitable device which no book learning could impart. His father, however, still resolute that he should join an intelligent profession, sent him to Gray's Inn that he might study law. Here the elegance of his handwriting gained him a rapid repute; his skill became the envy of all the lean-souled clerks in the Inn, and he might have died a respectable attorney had not the instinct of sport forced him from the inkpot and parchment of his profession. Ill could he tolerate the monotony and restraint of this clerkly life. In his eyes law was an instrument, not of justice, but of jugglery. Men were born, said his philosophy, rather to risk their necks than ink their fingers; and if a bold adventure puts you in a difficulty, why, then, you hire some straw-splitting attorney to show his cunning. Indeed, the study of law was for him, as it was for Falstaff, an excuse for many a bout and merry-making. He loved his glass, and he loved his wench, and he loved a bull-baiting better than either. It was his boast, and Moll Cutpurse's compliment, that he never missed a match in his life, and assuredly no man was better known in Paris Garden than the intrepid Ralph Briscoe.
The cloistered seclusion of Gray's Inn grew daily more irksome. There he would sit, in mute despair, drumming the table with his fingers, and biting the quill, whose use he so bitterly contemned. Of winter afternoons he would stare through the leaded window-panes at the gaunt, leafless trees, on whose summits swayed the cawing rooks, until servitude seemed intolerable, and he prayed for the voice of the bearward that summoned him to Southwark. And when the chained bear, the familiar monkey on his back, followed the shrill bagpipe along the curious street, Briscoe felt that blood, not ink, coursed in his veins, forgot the tiresome impediment of the law, and joined the throng, hungry for this sport of kings. Nor was he the patron of an enterprise wherein he dared take no part. He was as bold and venturesome as the bravest ruffler that ever backed a dog at a baiting. When the bull, cruelly secured behind, met the onslaught of his opponents, throwing them off, now this side, now that, with his horns, Briscoe, lost in excitement, would leap into the ring that not a point of the combat should escape him.
So it was that he won the friendship of his illustrious benefactress, Moll Cutpurse. For, one day, when he had ventured too near the maddened bull, the brute made a heave at his breeches, which instantly gave way; and in another moment he would have been gored to death, had not Moll seized him by the collar and slung him out of the ring. Thus did his courage ever contradict his appearance, and at the dangerous game of whipping the blinded bear he had no rival, either for bravery or adroitness. He would rush in with uplifted whip until the breath of the infuriated beast was hot upon his cheek, let his angry lash curl for an instant across the bear's flank, and then, for all his halting foot, leap back into safety with a smiling pride in his own nimbleness.
His acquaintance with Moll Cutpurse, casually begun at a bull-baiting, speedily ripened, for her into friendship, for him into love. In this, the solitary romance of his life, Ralph Briscoe overtopped even his own achievements of courage. The Roaring Girl was no more young, and years had not refined her character unto gentleness. It was still her habit to appear publicly in jerkin and galligaskins, to smoke tobacco in contempt of her sex, and to fight her enemies with a very fury of insolence. In stature she exceeded the limping clerk by a head, and she could pick him up with one hand, like a kitten. Yet he loved her, not for any grace of person, nor beauty of feature, nor even because her temperament was undaunted as his own. He loved her for that wisest of reasons, which is no reason at all, because he loved her. In his eyes she was the Queen, not of Misrule, but of Hearts. Had a throne been his, she should have shared it, and he wooed her with a shy intensity, which ennobled him, even in her austere regard. Alas! she was unable to return his passion, and she lamented her own obduracy with characteristic humour. She made no attempt to conceal her admiration. 'A notable and famous person,' she called him, confessing that, 'he was right for her tooth, and made to her mind in every part of him.' He had been bred up in the same exercise of bull-baiting, which was her own delight; she had always praised his towardliness, and prophesied his preferment. But when he paid her court she was obliged to decline the honour, while she esteemed the compliment.
In truth, she was completely insensible to passion, or, as she exclaimed in a phrase of brilliant independence, 'I should have hired him to my embraces.'
The sole possibility that remained was a Platonic friendship, and Briscoe accepted the situation in excellent humour. 'Ever since he came to know himself,' again it is Moll that speaks, 'he always deported himself to me with an abundance of regard, calling me his Aunt.' And his aunt she remained unto the end, bound to him in a proper and natural alliance. Different as they were in aspect, they were strangely alike in taste and disposition. Nor was the Paris Garden their only meeting-ground.
His sorry sojourn in Gray's Inn had thrown him on the side of the law-breaker, and he had acquired a strange cunning in the difficult art of evading justice. Instantly Moll recognised his practical value, and, exerting all her talent for intrigue, presently secured for him the Clerkship of Newgate. Here at last he found scope not only for his learning, but for that spirit of adventure that breathed within him. His meagre acquaintance with letters placed him on a pinnacle high above his colleagues. Now and then a prisoner proved his equal in wit, but as he was manifestly superior in intelligence to the Governor, the Ordinary, and all the warders, he speedily seized and hereafter retained the real sovereignty of Newgate.
His early progress was barred by envy and contempt. Why, asked the men in possession, should this shrivelled stranger filch our privileges? And Briscoe met their malice with an easy smile, knowing that at all points he was more than their match. His alliance with Moll stood him in good stead, and in a few months the twain were the supreme arbiters of English justice. Should a highwayman seek to save his neck, he must first pay a fat indemnity to the Newgate Clerk, but, since Moll was the appointed banker of the whole family, she was quick to sanction whatever price her accomplice suggested. And Briscoe had a hundred other tricks whereby he increased his riches and repute. There was no debtor came to Newgate whom the Clerk would not aid, if he believed the kindness profitable. Suppose his inquiries gave an assurance of his victim's recovery, he would house him comfortably, feed him at his own table, lend him money, and even condescend to win back the generous loan by the dice-box.
His civility gave him a general popularity among the prisoners, and his appearance in the Yard was a signal for a subdued hilarity. He drank and gambled with the roysterers; he babbled a cheap philosophy with the erudite; and he sold the necks of all to the highest bidder. Though now and again he was convicted of mercy or revenge, he commonly held himself aloof from human passions, and pursued the one sane end of life in an easy security. The hostility of his colleagues irked him but little. A few tags of Latin, the friendship of Moll, and a casual threat of exposure frightened the Governor into acquiescence, but the Ordinary was more difficult of conciliation. The Clerk had not been long in Newgate before he saw that between the reverend gentleman and himself there could be naught save war. Hitherto the Ordinary had reserved to his own profit the right of intrigue; he it was who had received the hard-scraped money of the sorrowing relatives, and untied the noose when it seemed good to him. Briscoe insisted upon a division of labour. 'It is your business,' he said, 'to save the scoundrels in the other world. Leave to me the profit of their salvation in this.' And the Clerk triumphed after his wont: freedom jingled in his pocket; he doled out comfort, even life, to the oppressed; and he extorted a comfortable fortune in return for privileges which were never in his gift.
Without the walls of Newgate the house of his frequentation was the 'Dog Tavern.' Thither he would wander every afternoon to meet his clients and to extort blood-money. In this haunt of criminals and pettifoggers no man was better received than the Newgate Clerk, and while he assumed a manner of generous cordiality, it was a strange sight to see him wince when some sturdy ruffian slapped him too strenuously upon the back. He had a joke and a chuckle for all, and his merry quips, dry as they were, were joyously quoted to all new-comers. His legal ingenuity appeared miraculous, and it was confidently asserted in the Coffee House that he could turn black to white with so persuasive an argument that there was no Judge on the Bench to confute him. But he was not omnipotent, and his zeal encountered many a serious check. At times he failed to save the necks even of his intimates, since, when once a ruffian was notorious, Moll and the Clerk fought vainly for his release. Thus it was that Cheney, the famous wrestler, whom Ralph had often backed against all comers, died at Tyburn. He had been taken by the troopers red-handed upon the highway. Seized after a desperate resistance, he was wounded wellnigh to death, and Briscoe quoted a dozen precedents to prove that he was unfit to be tried or hanged. Argument failing, the munificent Clerk offered fifty pounds for the life of his friend. But to no purpose: the valiant wrestler was carried to the cart in a chair, and so lifted to the gallows, which cured him of his gaping wounds.
When the Commonwealth administered justice with pedantic severity, Briscoe's influence still further declined. There was no longer scope in the State for men of spirit; even the gaols were handed over to the stern mercy of crop-eared Puritans; Moll herself had fallen upon evil times; and Ralph Briscoe determined to make a last effort for wealth and retirement. At the very moment when his expulsion seemed certain, an heiress was thrown into Newgate upon a charge of murdering a too importunate suitor. The chain of evidence was complete: the dagger plunged in his heart was recognised for her own; she was seen to decoy him to the secret corner of a wood, where his raucous love-making was silenced for ever. Taken off her guard, she had even hinted confession of her crime, and nothing but intrigue could have saved her gentle neck from the gallows. Briscoe, hungry for her money-bags, promised assistance. He bribed, he threatened, he cajoled, he twisted the law as only he could twist it, he suppressed honest testimony, he procured false; in fine, he weakened the case against her with so resistless an effrontery, that not the Hanging Judge himself could convict the poor innocent.
At the outset he had agreed to accept a handsome bribe, but as the trial approached, his avarice increased, and he would be content with nothing less than the lady's hand and fortune. Not that he loved her; his heart was long since given to Moll Cutpurse; but he knew that his career of depredation was at an end, and it became him to provide for his declining years. The victim repulsed his suit, regretting a thousand times that she had stabbed her ancient lover. At last, bidden summarily to choose between Death and the Clerk, she chose the Clerk, and thus Ralph Briscoe left Newgate the richest squire in a western county. Henceforth he farmed his land like a gentleman, drank with those of his neighbours who would crack a bottle with him, and unlocked the strange stores of his memory to bumpkins who knew not the name of Newgate. Still devoted to sport, he hunted the fox, and made such a bull-ring as his youthful imagination could never have pictured. So he lived a life of country ease, and died a churchwarden. And he deserved his prosperity, for he carried the soul of Falstaff in the shrunken body of Justice Shallow.
GILDEROY AND THE SIXTEEN-STRING JACK
HE stood six feet ten in his stockinged feet, and was the tallest ruffian that ever cut a purse or held up a coach on the highway. A mass of black hair curled over a low forehead, and a glittering eye intensified his villainous aspect; nor did a deep scar, furrowing his cheek from end to end, soften the horror of his sudden apparition. Valiant men shuddered at his approach; women shrank from the distant echo of his name; for fifteen years he terrorised Scotland from Caithness to the border; and the most partial chronicler never insulted his memory with the record of a good deed.
He was born to a gentle family in the Calendar of Monteith, and was celebrated even in boyhood for his feats of strength and daring. While still at school he could hold a hundredweight at arm's-length, and crumple up a horseshoe like a wisp of hay. The fleetest runner, the most desperate fighter in the country, he was already famous before his name was besmirched with crime, and he might have been immortalised as the Hercules of the seventeenth century, had not his ambition been otherwise flattered. At the outset, though the inclination was never lacking, he knew small temptation to break the sterner laws of conduct. His pleasures were abundantly supplied by his father's generosity, and he had no need to refrain from such vices as became a gentleman. If he was no drunkard, it was because his head was equal to the severest strain, and, despite his forbidding expression, he was always a successful breaker of hearts. His very masterfulness overcame the most stubborn resistance; and more than once the pressure of his dishonourable suit converted hatred into love. At the very time that he was denounced for Scotland's disgrace, his praises were chanted in many a dejected ballad. 'Gilderoy was a bonny boy,' sang one heart-broken maiden:
Had roses till his shoon, His stockings were of silken soy, Wi' garters hanging doon.
But in truth he was admired less for his amiability than for that quality of governance which, when once he had torn the decalogue to pieces, made him a veritable emperor of crime.
His father's death was the true beginning of his career. A modest patrimony was squandered in six months, and Gilderoy had no penny left wherewith to satisfy the vices which insisted upon indulgence. He demanded money at all hazards, and money without toil. For a while his more loudly clamant needs were fulfilled by the amiable simplicity of his mother, whom he blackmailed with insolence and contempt. And when she, wearied by his shameless importunity, at last withdrew her support, he determined upon a monstrous act of vengeance. With a noble affectation of penitence he visited his home; promised reform at supper; and said good-night in the broken accent of reconciliation. No sooner was the house sunk in slumber than he crawled stealthily upstairs in order to forestall by theft a promised generosity. He opened the door of the bed-chamber in a hushed silence; but the wrenching of the cofferlid awoke the sleeper, and Gilderoy, having cut his mother's throat with an infamous levity, seized whatever money and jewels were in the house, cruelly maltreated his sister, and laughingly burnt the house to the ground, that the possibility of evidence might be destroyed.
Henceforth his method of plunder was assured. It was part of his philosophy to prevent detection by murder, and the flames from the burning walls added a pleasure to his lustful eye. His march across Scotland was marked by slaughtered families and ruined houses. Plunder was the first cause of his exploits, but there is no doubt that death and arson were a solace to his fierce spirit; and for a while this giant of cruelty knew neither check nor hindrance. Presently it became a superstition with him that death was the inevitable accompaniment of robbery, and, as he was incapable of remorse, he grew callous, and neglected the simplest precautions. At Dunkeld he razed a rifled house to the ground, and with the utmost effrontery repeated the performance at Aberdeen. But at last he had been tracked by a company of soldiers, who, that justice might not be cheated of her prey, carried him to gaol, where after the briefest trial he was condemned to death.
Gilderoy, however, was still master of himself. His immense strength not only burst his bonds, but broke prison, and this invincible Samson was once more free in Aberdeen, inspiring that respectable city with a legendary dread. The reward of one hundred pounds was offered in vain. Had he shown himself on the road in broad daylight, none would have dared to arrest him, and it was not until his plans were deliberately laid, that he crossed the sea. The more violent period of his career was at an end. Never again did he yield to his passion for burning and sudden death; and, if the world found him unconquerable, his self-control is proved by the fact that in the heyday of his strength he turned from his unredeemed brutality to a gentler method. He now deserted Scotland for France, with which, like all his countrymen, he claimed a cousinship; and so profoundly did he impose upon Paris with his immense stature, his elegant attire, his courtly manners (for he was courtesy itself, when it pleased him), that he was taken for an eminent scholar, or at least a soldier of fortune.
Prosperity might doubtless have followed a discreet profession, but Gilderoy must still be thieving, and he reaped a rich harvest among the unsuspicious courtiers of France. His most highly renowned exploit was performed at St. Denis, and the record of France's humiliation is still treasured. The great church was packed with ladies of fashion and their devout admirers. Richelieu attended in state; the king himself shone upon the assembly. The strange Scotsman, whom no man knew and all men wondered at, attracted a hundred eyes to himself and his magnificent equipment. But it was not his to be idle, and at the very moment whereat Mass was being sung, he contrived to lighten Richelieu's pocket of a purse. The king was a delighted witness of the theft; Gilderoy, assuming an air of facile intimacy, motioned him to silence; and he, deeming it a trick put upon Richelieu by a friend, hastened, at the service-end, to ask his minister if perchance he had a purse of gold upon him. Richelieu instantly discovered the loss, to the king's uncontrolled hilarity, which was mitigated when it was found that the thief, having emptied the king's pocket at the unguarded moment of his merriment, had left them both the poorer.
Such were Gilderoy's interludes of gaiety; and when you remember the cynical ferocity of his earlier performance, you cannot deny him the credit of versatility. He stayed in France until his ominous reputation was too widely spread; whereupon he crossed the Pyrenees, travelling like a gentleman, in a brilliant carriage of his own. From Spain he carried off a priceless collection of silver plate; and he returned to his own country, fatigued, yet unsoftened, by the grand tour. Meanwhile, a forgetful generation had not kept his memory green. The monster, who punished Scotland a year ago with fire and sword, had passed into oblivion, and Gilderoy was able to establish for himself a new reputation. He departed as far as possible from his ancient custom, joined the many cavaliers, who were riding up and down the country, pistol in hand, and presently proved a dauntless highwayman. He had not long ridden in the neighbourhood of Perth before he met the Earl of Linlithgow, from whom he took a gold watch, a diamond ring, and eighty guineas. Being an outlaw, he naturally espoused the King's cause, and would have given a year of his life to meet a Regicide. Once upon a time, says rumour, he found himself face to face with Oliver Cromwell, whom he dragged from his coach, set ignominiously upon an ass, and so turned adrift with his feet tied under the beast's belly. The story is incredible, not only because the loyal historians of the time caused Oliver to be robbed daily on every road in Great Britain, but because our Gilderoy, had he ever confronted the Protector, most assuredly would not have allowed him to escape with his life.
Tired of scouring the highway, Gilderoy resolved upon another enterprise. He collected a band of fearless ruffians, and placed himself at their head. With this army to aid, he harried Sutherland and the North, lifting cattle, plundering homesteads, and stopping wayfarers with a humour and adroitness worthy of Robin Hood. No longer a lawless adventurer, he made his own conditions of life, and forced the people to obey them. He who would pay Gilderoy a fair contribution ran no risk of losing his sheep or oxen. But evasion was impossible, and the smallest suspicion of falsehood was punished by death. The peaceably inclined paid their toll with regret; the more daring opposed the raider to their miserable undoing; the timid satisfied the utmost exactions of Gilderoy, and deemed themselves fortunate if they left the country with their lives.
Thus Scotland became a land of dread; the most restless man within her borders hardly dare travel beyond his byre. The law was powerless against this indomitable scourge, and the reward of a thousand marks would have been offered in vain, had not Gilderoy's cruelty estranged his mistress. This traitress—Peg Cunningham was her name—less for avarice than in revenge for many insults and infidelities, at last betrayed her master. Having decoyed him to her house, she admitted fifty armed men, and thus imagined a full atonement for her unnumbered wrongs. But Gilderoy was triumphant to the last. Instantly suspecting the treachery of his mistress, he burst into her bed-chamber, and, that she might not enjoy the price of blood, ripped her up with a hanger. Then he turned defiant upon the army arrayed against him, and killed eight men before the others captured him.
Disarmed after a desperate struggle, he was loaded with chains and carried to Edinburgh, where he was starved for three days, and then hanged without the formality of a trial on a gibbet, thirty feet high, set up in the Grassmarket. Even then Scotland's vengeance was unsatisfied. The body, cut down from its first gibbet, was hung in chains forty feet above Leith Walk, where it creaked and gibbered as a warning to evildoers for half a century, until at last the inhabitants of that respectable quarter petitioned that Gilderoy's bones should cease to rattle, and that they should enjoy the peace impossible for his jingling skeleton.
Gilderoy was no drawing-room scoundrel, no villain of schoolgirl romance. He felt remorse as little as he felt fear, and there was no crime from whose commission he shrank. Before his death he confessed to thirty-seven murders, and bragged that he had long since lost count of his robberies and rapes. Something must be abated for boastfulness. But after all deduction there remains a tale of crime that is unsurpassed. His most admirably artistic quality is his complete consistence. He was a ruffian finished and rotund; he made no concession, he betrayed no weakness. Though he never preached a sermon against the human race, he practised a brutality which might have proceeded from a gospel of hate. He spared neither friends nor relatives, and he murdered his own mother with as light a heart as he sent a strange widow of Aberdeen to her death. His skill is undoubted, and he proved by the discipline of his band that he was not without some talent of generalship. But he owed much of his success to his physical strength, and to the temperament, which never knew the scandal of hesitancy or dread.
A born marauder, he devoted his life to his trade; and, despite his travels in France and Spain, he enjoyed few intervals of merriment. Even the humour, which proved his redemption, was as dour and grim as Scotland can furnish at her grimmes: and dourest. Here is a specimen will serve as well as another: three of Gilderoy's gang had been hanged according to the sentence of a certain Lord of Session, and the Chieftain, for his own vengeance and the intimidation of justice, resolved upon an exemplary punishment. He waylaid the Lord of Session, emptied his pockets, killed his horses, broke his coach in pieces, and having bound his lackeys, drowned them in a pond. This was but the prelude of revenge, for presently (and here is the touch of humour) he made the Lord of Session ride at dead of night to the gallows, whereon the three malefactors were hanging. One arm of the crossbeams was still untenanted. 'By my soul, mon,' cried Gilderoy to the Lord of Session, 'as this gibbet is built to break people's craigs, and is not uniform without another, I must e'en hang you upon the vacant beam.' And straightway the Lord of Session swung in the moonlight, and Gilderoy had cracked his black and solemn joke.
This sense of fun is the single trait which relieves the colossal turpitude of Gilderoy. And, though even his turpitude was melodramatic in its lack of balance, it is a unity of character which is the foundation of his greatness. He was no fumbler, led away from his purpose by the first diversion; his ambition was clear before him, and he never fell below it. He defied Scotland for fifteen years, was hanged so high that he passed into a proverb, and though his handsome, sinister face might have made women his slaves, he was never betrayed by passion (or by virtue) to an amiability.
THE 'Green Pig' stood in the solitude of the North Road. Its simple front, its neatly balanced windows, curtained with white, gave it an air of comfort and tranquillity. The smoke which curled from its hospitable chimney spoke of warmth and good fare.
To pass it was to spurn the last chance of a bottle for many a weary mile, and the prudent traveller would always rest an hour by its ample fireside, or gossip with its fantastic hostess. Now, the hostess of the little inn was Ellen Roach, friend and accomplice of Sixteen-String Jack, once the most famous woman in England, and still after a weary stretch at Botany Bay the strangest of companions, the most buxom of spinsters. Her beauty was elusive even in her triumphant youth, and middle-age had neither softened her traits nor refined her expression. Her auburn hair, once the glory of Covent Garden, was fading to a withered grey; she was never tall enough to endure an encroaching stoutness with equanimity; her dumpy figure made you marvel at her past success; and hardship had furrowed her candid brow into wrinkles. But when she opened her lips she became instantly animated. With a glass before her on the table, she would prattle frankly and engagingly of the past. Strange cities had she seen; she had faced the dangers of an adventurous life with calmness and good temper. And yet Botany Bay, with its attendant horrors, was already fading from her memory. In imagination she was still with her incomparable hero, and it was her solace, after fifteen years, to sing the praise and echo the perfections of Sixteen-String Jack.
'How well I remember,' she would murmur, as though unconscious of her audience, 'the unhappy day when Jack Rann was first arrested.
It was May, and he came back travel-stained and weary in the brilliant dawn. He had stopped a one-horse shay near the nine-mile stone on the Hounslow Road—every word of his confession is burnt into my brain—and had taken a watch and a handful of guineas. I was glad enough of the money, for there was no penny in the house, and presently I sent the maid-servant to make the best bargain she could with the watch. But the silly jade, by the saddest of mishaps, took the trinket straight to the very man who made it, and he, suspecting a theft, had us both arrested. Even then Jack might have been safe, had not the devil prompted me to speak the truth. Dismayed by the magistrate, I owned, wretched woman that I was, that I had received the watch from Rann, and in two hours Jack also was under lock and key. Yet, when we were sent for trial I made what amends I could. I declared on oath that I had never seen Sixteen-String Jack in my life; his name came to my lips by accident; and, hector as they would, the lawyers could not frighten me to an acknowledgment. Meanwhile Jack's own behaviour was grand. I was the proudest woman in England as I stood by his side in the dock. When you compared him with Sir John Fielding, you did not doubt for an instant which was the finer gentleman. And what a dandy was my Jack! Though he came there to answer for his life, he was all ribbons and furbelows. His irons were tied up with the daintiest blue bows, and in the breast of his coat he carried a bundle of flowers as large as a birch-broom. His neck quivered in the noose, yet he was never cowed to civility. 'I know no more of the matter than you do,' he cried indignantly, 'nor half so much neither,' and if the magistrate had not been an ill-mannered oaf, he would not have dared to disbelieve my true-hearted Jack. That time we escaped with whole skins; and off we went, after dinner, to Vauxhall, where Jack was more noticed than the fiercest of the bloods, and where he filled the heart of George Barrington with envy. Nor was he idle, despite his recent escape: he brought away two watches and three purses from the Garden, so that our necessities were amply supplied. Ah, I should have been happy in those days if only Jack had been faithful. But he had a roving eye and a joyous temperament; and though he loved me better than any of the baggages to whom he paid court, he would not visit me so often as he should. Why, once he was hustled off to Bow Street because the watch caught him climbing in at Doll Frampton's window. And she, the shameless minx, got him off by declaring in open court that she would be proud to receive him whenever he would deign to ring at her bell. That is the penalty of loving a great man: you must needs share his affection with a set of unworthy wenches. Yet Jack was always kind to me, and I was the chosen companion of his pranks.
'Never can I forget the splendid figure he cut that day at Bagnigge Wells. We had driven down in our coach, and all the world marvelled at our magnificence. Jack was brave in a scarlet coat, a tambour waistcoat, and white silk stockings. From the knees of his breeches streamed the strings (eight at each), whence he got his name, and as he plucked off his lace-hat the dinner-table rose at him. That was a moment worth living for, and when, after his first bottle, Jack rattled the glasses, and declared himself a highwayman, the whole company shuddered. "But, my friends," quoth he, "to-day I am making holiday, so that you have naught to fear." When the wine 's in, the wit 's out, and Jack could never stay his hand from the bottle. The more he drank, the more he bragged, until, thoroughly fuddled, he lost a ring from his finger, and charged the miscreants in the room with stealing it. "However," hiccupped he, "'tis a mere nothing, worth a paltry hundred pounds—less than a lazy evening's work. So I'll let the trifling theft pass." But the cowards were not content with Jack's generosity, and seizing upon him, they thrust him neck and crop through the window. They were seventeen to one, the craven-hearted loons; and I could but leave the marks of my nails on the cheek of the foremost, and follow my hero into the yard, where we took coach, and drove sulkily back to Covent Garden.
'And yet he was not always in a mad humour; in fact, Sixteen-String Jack, for all his gaiety, was a proud, melancholy man. The shadow of the tree was always upon him, and he would make me miserable by talking of his certain doom. "I have a hundred pounds in my pocket," he would say; "I shall spend that, and then I shan't last long." And though I never thought him serious, his prophecy came true enough. Only a few months before the end we had visited Tyburn together. With his usual carelessness, he passed the line of constables who were on guard.
"It is very proper," said he, in his jauntiest tone, "that I should be a spectator on this melancholy occasion." And though none of the dullards took his jest, they instantly made way for him. For my Jack was always a gentleman, though he was bred to the stable, and his bitterest enemy could not have denied that he was handsome. His open countenance was as honest as the day, and the brown curls over his forehead were more elegant than the smartest wig. Wherever he went the world did him honour, and many a time my vanity was sorely wounded. I was a pretty girl, mind you, though my travels have not improved my beauty; and I had many admirers before ever I picked up Jack Rann at a masquerade. Why, there was a Templar, with two thousand a year, who gave me a carriage and servants while I still lived at the dressmaker's in Oxford Street, and I was not out of my teens when the old Jew in St. Mary Axe took me into keeping. But when Jack was by, I had no chance of admiration. All the eyes were glued upon him, and his poor doxy had to be content with a furtive look thrown over a stranger's shoulder. At Barnet races, the year before they sent me across the sea, we were followed by a crowd the livelong day; and truly Jack, in his blue satin waistcoat laced with silver, might have been a peer. At any rate, he had not his equal on the course, and it is small wonder that never for a moment were we left to ourselves.
'But happiness does not last for ever; only too often we were gravelled for lack of money, and Jack, finding his purse empty, could do naught else than hire a hackney and take to the road again, while I used to lie awake listening to the watchman's raucous voice, and praying God to send back my warrior rich and scatheless. So times grew more and more difficult. Jack would stay a whole night upon the heath, and come home with an empty pocket or a beggarly half crown. And there was nothing, after a shabby coat that he hated half so much as a sheriff's officer. "Learn a lesson in politeness," he said to one of the wretches who dragged him off to the Marshalsea. "When Sir John Fielding's people come after me they use me genteelly; they only hold up a finger, beckon me, and I follow as quietly as a lamb. But you bluster and insult, as though you had never dealings with gentlemen." Poor Jack, he was of a proud stomach, and could not abide interference; yet they would never let him go free. And he would have been so happy had he been allowed his own way. To pull out a rusty pistol now and again, and to take a purse from a traveller—surely these were innocent pleasures, and he never meant to hurt a fellow-creature. But for all his kindness of heart, for all his love of splendour and fine clothes, they took him at last.
'And this time, too, it was a watch which was our ruin. How often did I warn him: "Jack," I would say, "take all the money you can. Guineas tell no tale. But leave the watches in their owners' fobs." Alas! he did not heed my words, and the last man he ever stopped on the road was that pompous rascal, Dr. Bell, then chaplain to the Princess Amelia. "Give me your money," screamed Jack, "and take no notice or I'll blow your brains out." And the doctor gave him all that he had, the mean-spirited devil-dodger, and it was no more than eighteenpence. Now what should a man of courage do with eighteenpence? So poor Jack was forced to seize the parson's watch and trinkets as well, and thus it was that a second time we faced the Blind Beak.
When Jack brought home the watch, I was seized with a shuddering presentiment, and I would have given the world to throw it out of the window. But I could not bear to see him pinched with hunger, and he had already tossed the doctor's eighteenpence to a beggar woman. So I trudged off to the pawnbroker's, to get what price I could, and I bethought me that none would know me for what I was so far away as Oxford Street. But the monster behind the counter had a quick suspicion, though I swear I looked as innocent as a babe; he discovered the owner of the watch, and infamously followed me to my house.
'The next day we were both arrested, and once more we stood in the hot, stifling Court of the Old Bailey. Jack was radiant as ever, the one spot of colour and gaiety in that close, sodden atmosphere. When we were taken from Bow Street a thousand people formed our guard of honour, and for a month we were the twin wonders of London. The lightest word, the fleetest smile of the renowned highwayman, threw the world into a fit of excitement, and a glimpse of Rann was worth a king's ransom. I could look upon him all day for nothing! And I knew what a fever of fear throbbed behind his mask of happy contempt. Yet bravely he played the part unto the very end. If the toasts of London were determined to gaze at him, he assured them they should have a proper salve for their eyes. So he dressed himself as a light-hearted sportsman. His coat and waistcoat were of pea-green cloth; his buckskin breeches were spotlessly new, and all tricked out with the famous strings; his hat was bound round with silver cords; and even the ushers of the Court were touched to courtesy. He would whisper to me, as we stood in the dock, "Cheer up, my girl. I have ordered the best supper that Covent Garden can provide, and we will make merry to-night when this foolish old judge has done his duty." The supper was never eaten. Through the weary afternoon we waited for acquittal. The autumn sun sank in hopeless gloom. The wretched lamps twinkled through the jaded air of the court-house. In an hour I lived a thousand years of misery, and when the sentence was read, the words carried no sense to my withered brain. It was only in my cell I realised that I had seen Jack Rann for the last time; that his pea-green coat would prove a final and ineffaceable memory.
'Alas! I, who had never been married, was already a hempen widow; but I was too hopelessly heartbroken for my lover's fate to think of my own paltry hardship. I never saw him again. They told me that he suffered at Tyburn like a man, and that he counted upon a rescue to the very end. They told me (still bitterer news to hear) that two days before his death he entertained seven women at supper, and was in the wildest humour. This almost broke my heart; it was an infidelity committed on the other side of the grave. But, poor Jack, he was a good lad, and loved me more than them all, though he never could be faithful to me.' And thus, bidding the drawer bring fresh glasses, Ellen Roach would end her story. Though she had told it a hundred times, at the last words a tear always sparkled in her eye. She lived without friend and without lover, faithful to the memory of Sixteen-String Jack, who for her was the only reality in the world of shades. Her middle-age was as distant as her youth. The dressmaker's in Oxford Street was as vague a dream as the inhospitable shore of Botany Bay. So she waited on to a weary eld, proud of the 'Green Pig's' well-ordered comfort, prouder still that for two years she shared the glory of Jack Rann, and that she did not desert her hero, even in his punishment.
(GILDEROY AND SIXTEEN-STRING JACK)
THEIR closest parallel is the notoriety which dogged them from the very day of their death. Each, for his own exploits, was the most famous man of his time, the favourite of broadsides, the prime hero of the ballad-mongers. And each owed his fame as much to good fortune as to merit, since both were excelled in their generation by more skilful scoundrels. If Gilderoy was unsurpassed in brutality, he fell immeasurably below Hind in artistry and wit, nor may he be compared to such accomplished highwaymen as Mull Sack or the Golden Farmer. His method was not elevated by a touch of the grand style. He stamped all the rules of the road beneath his contemptuous foot, and cared not what enormity he committed in his quest for gold. Yet, though he lived in the true Augustan age, he yielded to no one of his rivals in glorious recognition. So, too, Jack Rann, of the Sixteen Strings, was a near contemporary of George Barrington. While that nimble-fingered prig was making a brilliant appearance at Vauxhall, and emptying the pockets of his intimates, Rann was riding over Hounslow Heath, and flashing his pistol in the eye of the wayfarer. The very year in which Jack danced his last jig at Tyburn, Barrington had astonished London by a fruitless attempt to steal Prince Orloff's miraculous snuff-box. And not even Ellen Roach herself would have dared to assert that Rann was Barrington's equal in sleight of hand. But Rann holds his own against the best of his craft, with an imperishable name, while a host of more distinguished cracksmen are excluded even from the Newgate Calendar.
In truth, there is one quality which has naught to do with artistic supremacy; and in this quality both Rann and Gilderoy were rich beyond their fellows. They knew (none better) how to impose upon the world. Had their deserts been even less than they were, they would still have been bravely notorious. It is a common superstition that the talent for advertisement has but a transitory effect, that time sets all men in their proper places.
Nothing can be more false; for he who has once declared himself among the great ones of the earth, not only holds his position while he lives, but forces an unreasoning admiration upon the future. Though he declines from the lofty throne, whereon his own vanity and love of praise have set him, he still stands above the modest level which contents the genuinely great. Why does Euripides still throw a shadow upon the worthier poets of his time? Because he had the faculty of displacement, because he could compel the world to profess an interest not only in his work but in himself. Why is Michael Angelo a loftier figure in the history of art than Donatello, the supreme sculptor of his time? Because Donatello had not the temper which would bully a hundred popes, and extract a magnificent advertisement from each encounter. Why does Shelley still claim a larger share of the world's admiration than Keats, his indubitable superior? Because Shelley was blessed or cursed with the trick of interesting the world by the accidents of his life.
So by a similar faculty Gilderoy and Jack Rann have kept themselves and their achievements in the light of day. Had they lived in the nineteenth century they might have been the vendors of patent pills, or the chairmen of bubble companies. Whatever trade they had followed, their names would have been on every hoarding, their wares would have been puffed in every journal. They understood the art of publicity better than any of their contemporaries, and they are remembered not because they were the best thieves of their time, but because they were determined to interest the people in their misdeeds. Gilderoy's brutality, which was always theatrical, ensured a constant remembrance, and the lofty gallows added to his repute; while the brilliant inspiration of the strings, which decorated Rann's breeches, was sufficient to conquer death. How should a hero sink to oblivion who had chosen for himself so splendid a name as Sixteen-String Jack?
So far, then, their achievement is parallel. And parallel also is their taste for melodrama. Each employed means too great or too violent for the end in view. Gilderoy burnt houses and ravished women, when his sole object was the acquisition of money. Sixteen-String Jack terrified Bagnigge Wells with the dreadful announcement that he was a highwayman, when his kindly, stupid heart would have shrunk from the shedding of a drop of blood. So they both blustered through the world, the one in deed, the other in word; and both played their parts with so little refinement that they frightened the groundlings to a timid admiration. Here the resemblance is at an end. In the essentials of their trade Gilderoy was a professional, Rann a mere amateur. They both bullied; but, while Sixteen-String Jack was content to shout threats, and pick up half-a-crown, Gilderoy breathed murder, and demanded a vast ransom. Only once in his career did the 'disgraceful Scotsman' become gay and debonair. Only once did he relax the tension of his frown, and pick pockets with the lightness and freedom of a gentleman. It was on his voyage to France that he forgot his old policy of arson and pillage, and truly the Court of the Great King was not the place for his rapacious cruelty. Jack Rann, on the other hand, would have taken life as a prolonged jest, if Sir John Fielding and the sheriffs had not checked his mirth. He was but a bungler on the road, with no more resource than he might have learned from the common chap-book, or from the dying speeches, hawked in Newgate Street. But he had a fine talent for merriment; he loved nothing so well as a smart coat and a pretty woman. Thieving was no passion with him, but a necessity. How could he dance at a masquerade or court his Ellen with an empty pocket? So he took to the road as the sole profession of an idle man, and he bullied his way from Hounslow to Epping in sheer lightness of heart. After all, to rob Dr. Bell of eighteenpence was the work of a simpleton. It was a very pretty taste which expressed itself in a pea-green coat and deathless strings; and Rann will keep posterity's respect rather for the accessories of his art than for the art itself. On the other hand, you cannot imagine Gilderoy habited otherwise than in black; you cannot imagine this monstrous matricide taking pleasure in the smaller elegancies of life. From first to last he was the stern and beetle-browed marauder, who would have despised the frippery of Sixteen-String Jack as vehemently as his sudden appearance would have frightened the foppish lover of Ellen Roach.
Their conduct with women is sufficient index of their character. Jack Rann was too general a lover for fidelity. But he was amiable, even in his unfaithfulness; he won the undying affection of his Ellen; he never stood in the dock without a nosegay tied up by fair and nimble fingers; he was attended to Tyburn by a bevy of distinguished admirers. Gilderoy, on the other hand, approached women in a spirit of violence. His Sadic temper drove him to kill those whom he affected to love. And his cruelty was amply repaid. While Ellen Roach perjured herself to save the lover, to whose memory she professed a lifelong loyalty, it was Peg Cunningham who wreaked her vengeance in the betrayal of Gilderoy. He remained true to his character, when he ripped up the belly of his betrayer. This was the closing act of his life.
Rann, also, was consistent, even to the gallows. The night before his death he entertained seven women at supper, and outlaughed them all. The contrast is not so violent as it appears. The one act is melodrama, the other farce. And what is farce, but melodrama in a happier shape?
THOMAS PURENEY, Archbishop among Ordinaries, lived and preached in the heyday of Newgate. His was the good fortune to witness Sheppard's encounter with the topsman, and to shrive the battered soul of Jonathan Wild. Nor did he fall one inch below his opportunity. Designed by Providence to administer a final consolation to the evil-doer, he permitted no false ambition to distract his talent. As some men are born for the gallows, so he was born to thump the cushion of a prison pulpit; and his peculiar aptitude was revealed to him before he had time to spend his strength in mistaken endeavour.
For thirty years his squat, stout figure was amiably familiar to all such as enjoyed the Liberties of the Jug. For thirty years his mottled nose and the rubicundity of his cheeks were the ineffaceable ensigns of his intemperance. Yet there was a grimy humour in his forbidding aspect. The fusty black coat, which sat ill upon his shambling frame, was all besmirched with spilled snuff, and the lees of a thousand quart pots. The bands of his profession were ever awry upon a tattered shirt. His ancient wig scattered dust and powder as he went, while a single buckle of some tawdry metal gave a look of oddity to his clumsy, slipshod feet. A caricature of a man, he ambled and chuckled and seized the easy pleasures within his reach. There was never a summer's day but he caught upon his brow the few faint gleams of sunlight that penetrated the gloomy yard. Hour after hour he would sit, his short fingers hardly linked across his belly, drinking his cup of ale, and puffing at a half-extinguished tobacco-pipe. Meanwhile he would reflect upon those triumphs of oratory which were his supreme delight. If it fell on a Monday that he took the air, a smile of satisfaction lit up his fat, loose features, for still he pondered the effect of yesterday's masterpiece. On Saturday the glad expectancy of to-morrow lent him a certain joyous dignity. At other times his eye lacked lustre, his gesture buoyancy, unless indeed he were called upon to follow the cart to Tyburn, or to compose the Last Dying Speech of some notorious malefactor.
Preaching was the master passion of his life. It was the pulpit that reconciled him to exile within a great city, and persuaded him to the enjoyment of roguish company. Those there were who deemed his career unfortunate; but a sense of fitness might have checked their pity, and it was only in his hours of maudlin confidence that the Reverend Thomas confessed to disappointment. Born of respectable parents in the County of Cambridgeshire, he nurtured his youth upon the exploits of James Hind and the Golden Farmer. His boyish pleasure was to lie in the ditch, which bounded his father's orchard, studying that now forgotten masterpiece, 'There's no Jest like a True Jest.' Then it was that he felt 'immortal longings in his blood.' He would take to the road, so he swore, and hold up his enemies like a gentleman. Once, indeed, he was surprised by the clergyman of the parish in act to escape from the rectory with two volumes of sermons and a silver flagon. The divine was minded to speak seriously to him concerning the dreadful sin of robbery, and having strengthened him with texts and good counsel, to send him forth unpunished. 'Thieving and covetousness,' said the parson, 'must inevitably bring you to the gallows. If you would die in your bed, repent you of your evildoing, and rob no more.' The exhortation was not lost upon Pureney, who, chastened in spirit, straightly prevailed upon his father to enter him a pensioner at Corpus Christi College in the University of Cambridge, that at the proper time he might take orders.
At Cambridge he gathered no more knowledge than was necessary for his profession, and wasted such hours as should have been given to study in drinking, dicing, and even less reputable pleasures. Yet repentance was always easy, and he accepted his first curacy, at Newmarket, with a brave heart and a good hopefulness. Fortunate was the choice of this early cure. Had he been gently guided at the outset, who knows but he might have lived out his life in respectable obscurity? But Newmarket then, as now, was a town of jollity and dissipation, and Pureney yielded without persuasion to the pleasures denied his cloth. There was ever a fire to extinguish at his throat, nor could he veil his wanton eye at the sight of a pretty wench. Again and again the lust of preaching urged him to repent, yet he slid back upon his past gaiety, until Parson Pureney became a byword. Dismissed from Newmarket in disgrace, he wandered the country up and down in search of a pulpit, but so infamous became the habit of his life that only in prison could he find an audience fit and responsive.
And, in the nick, the chaplaincy of Newgate fell vacant. Here was the occasion to temper dissipation with piety, to indulge the twofold ambition of his life. What mattered it, if within the prison walls he dipped his nose more deeply into the punch-bowl than became a divine? The rascals would but respect him the more for his prowess, and knit more closely the bond of sympathy. Besides, after preaching and punch he best loved a penitent, and where in the world could he find so rich a crop of erring souls ripe for repentance as in gaol? Henceforth he might threaten, bluster, and cajole. If amiability proved fruitless he would put cruelty to the test, and terrify his victims by a spirited reference to Hell and to that Burning Lake they were so soon to traverse. At last, thought he, I shall be sure of my effect, and the prospect flattered his vanity. In truth, he won an immediate and assured success. Like the common file or cracksman, he fell into the habit of the place, intriguing with all the cleverness of a practised diplomatist, and setting one party against the other that he might in due season decide the trumpery dispute. The trusted friend of many a distinguished prig and murderer, he so intimately mastered the slang and etiquette of the Jug, that he was appointed arbiter of all those nice questions of honour which agitated the more reputable among the cross-coves. But these were the diversions of a strenuous mind, and it was in the pulpit or in the closet that the Reverend Thomas Pureney revealed his true talent.
As the ruffian had a sense of drama, so he was determined that his words should scald and bite the penitent. When the condemned pew was full of a Sunday his happiness was complete. Now his deep chest would hurl salvo on salvo of platitudes against the sounding-board; now his voice, lowered to a whisper, would coax the hopeless prisoners to prepare their souls. In a paroxysm of feigned anger he would crush the cushion with his clenched fist, or leaning over the pulpit side as though to approach the nearer to his victims, would roll a cold and bitter eye upon them, as of a cat watching caged birds. One famous gesture was irresistible, and he never employed it but some poor ruffian fell senseless to the floor. His stumpy fingers would fix a noose of air round some imagined neck, and so devoutly was the pantomime studied that you almost heard the creak of the retreating cart as the phantom culprit was turned off. But his conduct in the pulpit was due to no ferocity of temperament. He merely exercised his legitimate craft. So long as Newgate supplied him with an enforced audience, so long would he thunder and bluster at the wrongdoer according to law and the dictates of his conscience.
Many, in truth, were his triumphs, but, as he would mutter in his garrulous old age, never was he so successful as in the last exhortation delivered to Matthias Brinsden. Now, Matthias Brinsden incontinently murdered his wife because she harboured too eager a love of the brandy-shop. A model husband, he had spared no pains in her correction. He had flogged her without mercy and without result. His one design was to make his wife obey him, which, as the Scriptures say, all wives should do. But the lust of brandy overcame wifely obedience, and Brinsden, hoping for the best, was constrained to cut a hole in her skull. The next day she was as impudent as ever, until Matthias rose yet more fiercely in his wrath, and the shrew perished. Then was Thomas Pureney's opportunity, and the Sunday following the miscreant's condemnation he delivered unto him and seventeen other malefactors the moving discourse which here follows:
'We shall take our text,' gruffed the Ordinary 'From out the Psalms: "Bloodthirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days." And firstly, we shall expound to you the heinous sin of murder, which is unlawful (1) according to the Natural Laws, (2) according to the Jewish Law, (3) according to the Christian Law, proportionably stronger. By Nature 'tis unlawful as 'tis injuring Society: as 'tis robbing God of what is His Right and Property; as 'tis depriving the Slain of the satisfaction of Eating, Drinking, Talking, and the Light of the Sun, which it is his right to enjoy. And especially 'tis unlawful, as it is sending a Soul naked and unprepared to appear before a wrathful and avenging Deity without time to make his Soul composedly or to listen to the thoughtful ministrations of one (like ourselves) soundly versed in Divinity. By the Jewish Law 'tis forbidden, for is it not written (Gen. ix. 6): "Whosoever sheddeth Man's Blood, by Man his Blood shall be shed"? And if an Eye be given for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth, how shall the Murderer escape with his dishonoured Life? 'Tis further forbidden by the Christian Law (proportionably stronger).
But on this head we would speak no word, for were not you all, O miserable Sinners, born not in the Darkness of Heathendom, but in the burning Light of Christian England?
'Secondly, we will consider the peculiar wickedness of Parricide, and especially the Murder of a Wife. What deed, in truth, is more heinous than that a man should slay the Parent of his own Children, the Wife he had once loved and chose out of all the world to be a Companion of his Days; the Wife who long had shared his good Fortune and his ill, who had brought him with Pain and Anguish several Tokens and Badges of Affection, the Olive Branches round about his Table? To embrew the hands in such blood is double Murder, as it murders not only the Person slain, but kills the Happiness of the orphaned Children, depriving them of Bread, and forcing them upon wicked Ways of getting a Maintenance, which often terminate in Newgate and an ignominious death.
'Bloodthirsty men, we have said, shall not live out half their Days. And think not that Repentance avails the Murderer. "Hell and Damnation are never full" (Prov. xxvii. 20), and the meanest Sinner shall find a place in the Lake which burns unto Eternity with Fire and Brimstone. Alas! your Punishment shall not finish with the Noose. Your "end is to be burned" (Heb. vi. 8), to be burned, for the Blood that is shed cries aloud for Vengeance.' At these words, as Pureney would relate with a smile of recollected triumph, Matthias Brinsden screamed aloud, and a shiver ran through the idle audience which came to Newgate on a Black Sunday, as to a bull-baiting. Truly, the throng of thoughtless spectators hindered the proper solace of the Ordinary's ministrations, and many a respectable murderer complained of the intruding mob. But the Ordinary, otherwise minded, loved nothing so well as a packed house, and though he would invite the criminal to his private closet, and comfort his solitude with pious ejaculations, he would neither shield him from curiosity, nor tranquillise his path to the unquenchable fire.