Her entrance into a gang of thieves was beset by no difficulty. The Bear Garden, always her favourite resort, had made her acquainted with all the divers and rumpads of the town. The time, moreover, was favourable to enterprise, and once again was genius born into a golden age. The cutting of purses was an art brought to perfection, and already the more elegant practice of picking pockets was understood. The transition gave scope for endless ingenuity, and Moll was not slow in mastering the theory of either craft. It was a changing fashion of dress, as I have said, which forced a new tactic upon the thief; the pocket was invented because the hanging purse was too easy a prey for the thievish scissors. And no sooner did the world conceal its wealth in pockets than the cly-filer was born to extract the booty with his long, nimble fingers. The trick was managed with an admirable forethought, which has been a constant example to after ages. The file was always accompanied by a bull:, whose duty it was to jostle and distract the victim while his pockets were rifled. The bung, or what not, was rapidly passed on to the attendant rub, who scurried off before the cry of STOP THIEF! could be raised.
Thus was the craft of thieving practised when Moll was enrolled a humble member of the gang. Yet nature had not endowed her with the qualities which ensure an active triumph. `The best signs and marks of a happy, industrious hand,' wrote the hoyden, `is a long middle finger, equally suited with that they call the fool's or first finger.' Now, though she was never a clumsy jade, the practice of sword-play and quarterstaff had not refined the industry of her hands, which were the rather framed for strength than for delicacy. So that though she served a willing apprenticeship, and eagerly shared the risks of her chosen trade, the fear of Newgate and Tyburn weighed heavily upon her spirit, and she cast about her for a method of escape. Avoiding the danger of discovery, she was loth to forego her just profit, and hoped that intelligence might atone for her sturdy, inactive fingers. Already she had endeared herself to the gang by unnumbered acts of kindness and generosity; already her inflexible justice had made her umpire in many a difficult dispute. If a rascal could be bought off at the gallows' foot, there was Moll with an open purse; and so speedily did she penetrate all the secrets of thievish policy, that her counsel and comfort were soon indispensable.
Here, then, was her opportunity. Always a diplomatist rather than a general, she gave up the battlefield for the council chamber. She planned the robberies which defter hands achieved; and, turning herself from cly-filer to fence, she received and changed to money all the watches and trinkets stolen by the gang.
Were a citizen robbed upon the highway, he straightway betook himself to Moll, and his property was presently returned him at a handsome price. Her house, in short, became a brokery. Hither the blades and divers brought their purchases, and sought the ransom; hither came the outraged victims to buy again the jewels and rings which thievish fingers had pinched. With prosperity her method improved, until at last her statesmanship controlled the remotest details of the craft. Did one of her gang get to work overnight and carry off a wealthy swag, she had due intelligence of the affair betimes next morning, so that, furnished with an inventory of the booty, she might make a just division, or be prepared for the advent of the rightful owner.
So she gained a complete ascendency over her fellows. And when once her position was assured, she came forth a pitiless autocrat. Henceforth the gang existed for her pleasure, not she for the gang's; and she was as urgent to punish insubordination as is an empress to avenge the heinous sin of treason. The pickpocket who had claimed her protection knew no more the delight of freedom. If he dared conceal the booty that was his, he had an enemy more powerful than the law, and many a time did contumacy pay the last penalty at the gallows. But the faithful also had their reward, for Moll never deserted a comrade, and while she lived in perfect safety herself she knew well how to contrive the safety of others. Nor was she content merely to discharge those duties of the fence for which an instinct of statecraft designed her. Her restless brain seethed with plans of plunder, and if her hands were idle it was her direction that emptied half the pockets in London. Having drilled her army of divers to an unparalleled activity, she cast about for some fresh method of warfare, and so enrolled a regiment of heavers, who would lurk at the mercers' doors for an opportunity to carry off ledgers and account-books. The price of redemption was fixed by Moll herself, and until the mercers were aroused by frequent losses to a quicker vigilance, the trade was profitably secure.
Meanwhile new clients were ever seeking her aid, and, already empress of the thieves, she presently aspired to the friendship and patronage of the highwaymen. Though she did not dispose of their booty, she was appointed their banker, and vast was the treasure entrusted to the coffers of honest Moll. Now, it was her pride to keep only the best company, for she hated stupidity worse than a clumsy hand, and they were men of wit and spirit who frequented her house. Thither came the famous Captain Hind, the Regicides' inveterate enemy, whose lofty achievements Moll, with an amiable extravagance, was wont to claim for her own. Thither came the unamiably notorious Mull Sack, who once emptied Cromwell's pocket on the Mall, and whose courage was as formidable as his rough-edged tongue. Another favourite was the ingenious Crowder, whose humour it was to take the road habited like a bishop, and who surprised the victims of his greed with ghostly counsel. Thus it was a merry party that assembled in the lady's parlour, loyal to the memory of the martyred king, and quick to fling back an offending pleasantry.
But the house in Fleet Street was a refuge as well as a resort, the sanctuary of a hundred rascals, whose misdeeds were not too flagrantly discovered. For, while Moll always allowed discretion to govern her conduct, while she would risk no present security for a vague promise of advantages to come, her secret influence in Newgate made her more powerful than the hangman and the whole bench of judges. There was no turnkey who was not her devoted servitor, but it was the clerk of Newgate to whom she and her family were most deeply beholden. This was one Ralph Briscoe, as pretty a fellow as ever deserted the law for a bull- baiting. Though wizened and clerkly in appearance, he was of a lofty courage; and Moll was heard to declare that had she not been sworn to celibacy, she would have cast an eye upon the faithful Ralph, who was obedient to her behests whether at Gaol Delivery or Bear Garden. For her he would pack a jury or get a reprieve; for him she would bait a bull with the fiercest dogs in London. Why then should she fear the law, when the clerk of Newgate and Gregory the Hangman fought upon her side?
For others the arbiter of life and death, she was only thrice in an unexampled career confronted with the law. Her first occasion of arrest was so paltry that it brought discredit only on the constable. This jack-in-office, a very Dogberry, encountered Moll returning down Ludgate Hill from some merry-making, a lanthorn carried pompously before her. Startled by her attire he questioned her closely, and receiving insult for answer, promptly carried her to the Round House. The customary garnish made her free or the prison, and next morning a brief interview with the Lord Mayor restored Moll to liberty but not to forgetfulness.