The day of execution was the day of his supreme triumph. As some men are artists in their lives, so the Deacon was an artist in his death. Nothing became him so well as his manner of leaving the world. There is never a blot upon this exquisite performance. It is superb, impeccable! Again his dandyism supported him, and he played the part of a dying man in a full suit of black, his hair, as always, dressed and powdered. The day before he had been jovial and sparkling. He had chanted all his flash songs, and cracked the jokes of a man of fashion. But he set out for the gallows with a firm step and a rigorous demeanour. He offered a prayer of his own composing, and `O Lord,' he said, `I lament that I know so little of Thee.' The patronage and the confession are alike characteristic. As he drew near the scaffold, the model of which he had given to his native city a few years since, he stepped with an agile briskness; he examined the halter, destined for his neck, with an impartial curiosity.
His last pleasantry was uttered as he ascended the table. `George,' he muttered, `you are first in hand,' and thereafter he took farewell of his friends. Only one word of petulance escaped his lips: when the halters were found too short, his contempt for slovenly workmanship urged him to protest, and to demand a punishment for the executioner. Again ascending the table, he assured himself against further mishap by arranging the rope with his own hands. Thus he was turned off in a brilliant assembly. The Provost and Magistrates, in respect for his dandyism, were resplendent in their robes of office, and though the crowd of spectators rivalled that which paid a tardy honour to Jonathan Wild, no one was hurt save the customary policeman. Such was the dignified end of a `double life.' And the duplicity is the stranger, because the real Deacon was not Brodie the Cracksman, but Brodie the Gentleman. So lightly did he esteem life that he tossed it from him in a careless impulse. So little did he fear death that, `What is hanging?' he asked. `A leap in the dark.'
CHARLES PEACE, after the habit of his kind, was born of scrupulously honest parents. The son of a religious file-maker, he owed to his father not only his singular piety but his love of edged tools. As he never encountered an iron bar whose scission baffled him, so there never was a fire-eating Methodist to whose ministrations he would not turn a repentant ear. After a handy portico and a rich booty he loved nothing so well as a soul- stirring discourse. Not even his precious fiddle occupied a larger space in his heart than that devotion which the ignorant have termed hypocrisy. Wherefore his career was no less suitable to his ambition than his inglorious end. For he lived the king of housebreakers, and he died a warning to all evildoers, with a prayer of intercession trembling upon his lips.
The hero's boyhood is wrapped in obscurity. It is certain that no glittering precocity brought disappointment to his maturer years, and he was already nineteen when he achieved his first imprisonment. Even then 'twas a sorry offence, which merited no more than a month, so that he returned to freedom and his fiddle with his character unbesmirched. Serious as ever in pious exercises, he gained a scanty living as strolling musician. There was never a tavern in Sheffield where the twang of his violin was unheard, and the skill wherewith he extorted music from a single string earned him the style and title of the modern Paganini. But such an employ was too mean for his pride, and he soon got to work again--this time with a better success. The mansions of Sheffield were his early prey, and a rich plunder rewarded his intrepidity. The design was as masterly as its accomplishment. The grand style is already discernible. The houses were broken in quietude and good order. None saw the opened window; none heard the step upon the stair; in truth, the victim's loss was his first intelligence.
But when the booty was in the robber's own safe keeping, the empiricism of his method was revealed. As yet he knew no secret and efficient fence to shield him from detection; as yet he had not learnt that the complete burglar works alone. This time he knew two accomplices--women both, and one his own sister! A paltry pair of boots was the clue of discovery, and a goodly stretch was the proper reward of a clumsy indiscretion. So for twenty years he wavered between the crowbar and the prison house, now perfecting a brilliant scheme, now captured through recklessness or drink. Once when a mistake at Manchester sent him to the Hulks, he owned his failure was the fruit of brandy, and after his wont delivered (from the dock) a little homily upon the benefit of sobriety.
Meanwhile his art was growing to perfection. He had at last discovered that a burglary demands as diligent a forethought as a campaign; he had learnt that no great work is achieved by a multitude of minds. Before his boat carried off a goodly parcel of silk from Nottingham, he was known to the neighbourhood as an enthusiastic and skilful angler. One day he dangled his line, the next he sat peacefully at the same employ; and none suspected that the mild mannered fisherman had under the cloud of night despatched a costly parcel to London. Even the years of imprisonment were not ill-spent. Peace was still preparing the great achievement of his life, and he framed from solitary reflection as well as from his colleagues in crime many an ingenious theory afterwards fearlessly translated into practice. And when at last he escaped the slavery of the gaol, picture- framing was the pursuit which covered the sterner business of his life. His depredation involved him in no suspicion; his changing features rendered recognition impossible. When the exercise of his trade compelled him to shoot a policeman at Whalley Range, another was sentenced for the crime; and had he not encountered Mrs. Dyson, who knows but he might have practised his art in prosperous obscurity until claimed by a coward's death? But a stormy love-passage with Mrs. Dyson led to the unworthy killing of the woman's husband--a crime unnecessary and in no sense consonant to the burglar's craft; and Charles Peace was an outlaw, with a reward set upon his head.
And now came a period of true splendour. Like Fielding, like Cervantes, like Sterne, Peace reserved his veritable masterpiece for the certainty of middlelife. His last two years were nothing less than a march of triumph. If you remember his constant danger, you will realise the grandeur of the scheme. From the moment that Peace left Bannercross with Dyson's blood upon his hands, he was a hunted man. His capture was worth five hundred pounds; his features were familiar to a hundred hungry detectives. Had he been less than a man of genius, he might have taken an unavailing refuge in flight or concealment. But, content with no safety unattended by affluence, he devised a surer plan: he became a householder. Now, a semi-detached villa is an impregnable stronghold. Respectability oozes from the dusky mortar of its bricks, and escapes in clouds of smoke from its soot-grimed chimneys. No policeman ever detects a desperate ruffian in a demure black-coated gentleman who day after day turns an iron gate upon its rusty hinge. And thus, wrapt in a cloak of suburban piety, Peace waged a pitiless and effective war upon his neighbours.
He pillaged Blackheath, Greenwich, Peckham, and many another home of honest worth, with a noiselessness and a precision that were the envy of the whole family. The unknown and intrepid burglar was a terror to all the clerkdom of the City, and though he was as secret and secluded as Peace, the two heroes were never identified. At the time of his true eminence he `resided' in Evelina Road, Peckham, and none was more sensible than he how well the address became his provincial refinement. There he installed himself with his wife and Mrs. Thompson. His drawing- room suite was the envy of the neighbourhood; his pony-trap proclaimed him a man of substance; his gentle manners won the respect of all Peckham. Hither he would invite his friends to such entertainments as the suburb expected. His musical evenings were recorded in the local paper, while on Sundays he chanted the songs of Zion with a zeal which Clapham herself might envy.