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.