Though Johnson fell immeasurably below his predecessor in talent, he manifestly excelled him in scholarship. A sojourn at the University had supplied him with a fine assortment of Latin tags, and he delighted to prove his erudition by the citation of the Chronicles. Had he possessed a sense of humour, he might have smiled at the irony of committing a theft upon the historian of thieves. But he was too vain and too pompous to smile at his own weakness, and thus he would pretend himself a venturesome highwayman, a brave writer, and a profound scholar. Indeed, so far did his pride carry him, that he would have the world believe him the same Charles Johnson, who wrote The Gentleman Cully and The Successful Pyrate. Thus with a boastful chuckle he would quote:
Johnson, who now to sense, now nonsense leaning, Means not, but blunders round about a meaning
Thus, ignoring the insult, he would plume himself after his drunken fashion that he, too, was an enemy of Pope.
Yet Johnson has remained an example. For the literature of scoundrelism is as persistent in its form as in its folk-lore. As Harman's Caveat, which first saw the light in 1566, serves as a model to an unbroken series of such books, as The London Spy, so from Johnson in due course were developed the Newgate Calendar, and those innumerable records, which the latter half of the Eighteenth Century furnished us forth. The celebrated Calendar was in its origin nothing more than a list of prisoners printed in a folio slip. But thereafter it became the Malefactor's Bloody Register, which we know. Its plan and purpose were to improve the occasion. The thief is no longer esteemed for an artist or appraised upon his merits: he is the awful warning, which shall lead the sinner to repentance. `Here,' says the preface, `the giddy thoughtless youth may see as in a mirror the fatal consequences of deviating from virtue'; here he may tremble at the discovery that `often the best talents are prostituted to the basest purposes.' But in spite of `the proper reflections of the whole affair,' the famous Calendar deserved the praise of Borrow. There is a directness in the narration, which captures all those for whom life and literature are something better than psychologic formul
Meanwhile the broadside had enjoyed an unbroken and prosperous career. Up and down London, up and down England, hurried the Patterer or Flying Stationer. There was no murder, no theft, no conspiracy, which did not tempt the Gutter Muse to doggerel. But it was not until James Catnach came up from Alnwick to London (in 1813), that the trade reached the top of its prosperity. The vast sheets, which he published with their scurvy couplets, and the admirable picture, serving in its time for a hundred executions, have not lost their power to fascinate. Theirs is the aspect of the early woodcut; the coarse type and the catchpenny headlines are a perpetual delight; as you unfold them, your care keeps pace with your admiration; and you cannot feel them crackle beneath your hand without enthusiasm and without regret. He was no pedant--Jemmy Catnach; and the image of his ruffians was commonly as far from portraiture, as his verses were remote from poetry. But he put together in a roughly artistic shape the last murder, robbery, or scandal of the day. His masterpieces were far too popular to live, and if they knew so vast a circulation as 2,500,000 they are hard indeed to come by. And now the art is wellnigh dead; though you may discover an infrequent survival in a country town. But how should Catnach, were he alive to-day, compete with the Special Edition of an evening print?
The decline of the Scoundrel, in fact, has been followed by the disappearance of chap-book and broadside. The Education Act, which made the cheap novel a necessity, destroyed at a blow the literature of the street. Since the highwayman wandered, fur- coated, into the City, the patterer has lost his occupation. Robbery and murder have degenerated into Chinese puzzles, whose solution is a pleasant irritant to the idle brain. The misunderstanding of Poe has produced a vast polyglot literature, for which one would not give in exchange a single chapter of Captain Smith. Vautrin and Bill Sykes are already discredited, and it is a false reflection of M. Dupin, which dazzles the eye of a moral and unimaginative world. Yet the wise man sighs for those fearless days, when the brilliant Macheath rode vizarded down Shooter's Hill, and presently saw his exploits set forth, with the proper accompaniment of a renowned and ancient woodcut, upon a penny broadside.
JAMES HIND, the Master Thief of England, the fearless Captain of the Highway, was born at Chipping Norton in 1618. His father, a simple saddler, had so poor an appreciation of his son's magnanimity, that he apprenticed him to a butcher; but Hind's destiny was to embrue his hands in other than the blood of oxen, and he had not long endured the restraint of this common craft when forty shillings, the gift of his mother, purchased him an escape, and carried him triumphant and ambitious to London.
Even in his negligent schooldays he had fastened upon a fitting career. A born adventurer, he sought only enterprise and command: if a commission in the army failed him, then he would risk his neck upon the road, levying his own tax and imposing his own conditions. To one of his dauntless resolution an opportunity need never have lacked; yet he owed his first preferment to a happy accident. Surprised one evening in a drunken brawl, he was hustled into the Poultry Counter, and there made acquaintance over a fresh bottle with Robert Allen, one of the chief rogues in the Park, and a ruffian, who had mastered every trick in the game of plunder. A dexterous cly-faker, an intrepid blade, Allen had also the keenest eye for untested talent, and he detected Hind's shining qualities after the first glass. No sooner had they paid the price of release, than Hind was admitted of his comrade's gang; he took the oath of fealty, and by way of winning his spurs was bid to hold up a traveller on Shooter's Hill. Granted his choice of a mount, he straightway took the finest in the stable, with that keen perception of horse-flesh which never deserted him, and he confronted his first victim in the liveliest of humours. There was no falter in his voice, no hint of inexperience in his manner, when he shouted the battle-cry: `Stand and deliver!' The horseman, fearful of his life, instantly surrendered a purse of ten sovereigns, as to the most practised assailant on the road. Whereupon Hind, with a flourish of ancient courtesy, gave him twenty shillings to bear his charges. `This,' said he, `is for handsale sake '; and thus they parted in mutual compliment and content.