`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.