So he basked and smoked and drank his ale, retelling the ancient stories, and hiccuping forth the ancient sermons. So, in the fading twilight of life, he smiled the smile of contentment, as became one who had emptied more quarts, had delivered more harrowing discourses, and had lived familiarly with more scoundrels than any devil-dodger of his generation.
JACK SHEPPARD IT was midnight when Jack Sheppard reached the leads, wearied by his magical achievement, and still fearful of discovery. The `jolly pair of handcuffs,' provided by the thoughtful Governor, lay discarded in his distant cell; the chains which a few hours since had grappled him to the floor encumbered the now useless staple. No trace of the ancient slavery disgraced him save the iron anklets which clung about his legs; though many a broken wall and shattered lock must serve for evidence of his prowess on the morrow. The Stone-Jug was all be-chipped and shattered. From the castle he had forced his way through a nine-foot wall into the Red Room, whose bolts, bars, and hinges he had ruined to gain the Chapel. The road thence to the roof and to freedom was hindered by three stubborn iron doors; yet naught stood in the way of Sheppard's genius, and he was sensible, at last, of the night air chill upon his cheek.
But liberty was not yet: there was still a fall of forty feet, and he must needs repass the wreckage of his own making to filch the blankets from his cell. In terror lest he should awaken the Master-Side Debtors, he hastened back to the roof, lashed the coverlets together, and, as the city clocks clashed twelve, he dropped noiselessly upon the leads of a turner's house, built against the prison's outer wall. Behind him Newgate was cut out a black mass against the sky; at his feet glimmered the garret window of the turner's house, and behind the winking casement he could see the turner's servant going to bed. Through her chamber lay the road to glory and Clare Market, and breathlessly did Sheppard watch till the candle should be extinguished and the maid silenced in sleep. In his anxiety he must tarry--tarry; and for a weary hour he kicked his heels upon the leads, ambition still too uncertain for quietude. Yet he could not but catch a solace from his splendid craft. Said he to himself: `Am I not the most accomplished slip-string the world has known? The broken wall of every round house in town attests my bravery. Light-limbed though I be, have I not forced the impregnable Castle itself? And my enemies--are they not to-day writhing in distress ? The head of Blueskin, that pitiful thief, quivers in the noose; and Jonathan Wild bleeds at the throat from the dregs of a coward's courage. What a triumph shall be mine when the Keeper finds the stronghold tenantless!'
Now, unnumbered were the affronts he had suffered from the Keeper's impertinence, and he chuckled aloud at his own witty rejoinder. Only two days since the Gaoler had caught him tampering with his irons. `Young man,' he had said, `I see what you have been doing, but the affair betwixt us stands thus: It is your business to make your escape, and mine to take care you shall not.' Jack had answered coolly enough: `Then let's both mind our own business.' And it was to some purpose that he had minded his. The letter to his baffled guardian, already sketched in his mind, tickled him afresh, when suddenly he leaps to his feet and begins to force the garret window.
The turner's maid was a heavy sleeper, and Sheppard crept from her garret to the twisted stair in peace. Once, on a lower floor, his heart beat faster at the trumpetings of the turner's nose, but he knew no check until he reached the street door. The bolt was withdrawn in an instant, but the lock was turned, and the key nowhere to be found. However, though the risk of disturbance was greater than in Newgate, the task was light enough: and with an iron link from his fetter, and a rusty nail which had served him bravely, the box was wrenched off in a trice, and Sheppard stood unattended in the Old Bailey. At first he was minded to make for his ancient haunts, or to conceal himself within the Liberty of Westminster; but the fetter-locks were still upon his legs, and he knew that detection would be easy as long as he was thus embarrassed. Wherefore, weary and an-hungered, he turned his steps northward, and never rested until he had gained Finchley Common.
At break of day, when the world re-awoke from the fear of thieves, he feigned a limp at a cottage door, and borrowed a hammer to straighten a pinching shoe. Five minutes behind a hedge, and his anklets had dropped from him; and, thus a free man, he took to the high road. After all he was persuaded to desert London and to escape a while from the sturdy embrace of Edgworth Bess. Moreover, if Bess herself were in the lock-up, he still feared the interested affection of Mistress Maggot, that other doxy, whose avarice would surely drive him upon a dangerous enterprise; so he struck across country, and kept starvation from him by petty theft. Up and down England he wandered in solitary insolence. Once, saith rumour, his lithe apparition startled the peace of Nottingham; once, he was wellnigh caught begging wort at a brew-house in Thames Street. But he might as well have lingered in Newgate as waste his opportunity far from the delights of Town; the old lust of life still impelled him, and a week after the hue-and-cry was raised he crept at dead of night down Drury Lane. Here he found harbourage with a friendly fence, Wild's mortal enemy, who promised him a safe conduct across the seas. But the desire of work proved too strong for prudence; and in a fortnight he had planned an attack on the pawnshop of one Rawling, at the Four Balls in Drury Lane.
Sheppard, whom no house ever built with hands was strong enough to hold, was better skilled at breaking out than at breaking in, and it is remarkable that his last feat in the cracking of cribs was also his greatest. Its very conception was a masterpiece of effrontery. Drury Lane was the thief-catcher's chosen territory; yet it was the Four Balls that Jack designed for attack, and watches, tie-wigs, snuff-boxes were among his booty. Whatever he could not crowd upon his person he presented to a brace of women. Tricked out in his stolen finery, he drank and swaggered in Clare Market. He was dressed in a superb suit of black; a diamond fawney flashed upon his finger; his light tie-periwig was worth no less than seven pounds; pistols, tortoise-shell snuff-boxes, and golden guineas jostled one another in his pockets.
Thus, in brazen magnificence, he marched down Drury Lane on a certain Saturday night in November 1724. Towards midnight he visited Thomas Nicks, the butcher, and having bargained for three ribs of beef, carried Nicks with him to a chandler's hard by, that they might ratify the bargain with a dram. Unhappily, a boy from the `Rose and Crown' sounded the alarm; for coming into the chandler's for the empty ale-pots, he instantly recognised the incomparable gaol-thief, and lost no time in acquainting his master. Now, Mr. Bradford, of the `Rose and Crown,' was a head- borough, who, with the zeal of a triumphant Dogberry, summoned the watch, and in less than half an hour Jack Sheppard was screaming blasphemies in a hackney-cab on his way home to Newgate.