Tyrants both, they exercised their sovereignty in accordance with their varying temperament. Hers was a fine, fat, Falstaffian humour, which, while it inspired Middleton, might have suggested to Shakespeare an equal companion of the drunken knight. His was but a narrow, cynic wit, not edged like the knife, which wellnigh cut his throat, but blunt and scratching like a worn-toothed saw.
She laughed with a laugh that echoed from Ludgate to Charing Cross, and her voice drowned all the City. He grinned rarely and with malice; he piped in a voice shrill and acid as the tricks of his mischievous imagination. She knew no cruelty beyond the necessities of her life, and none regretted more than she the inevitable death of a traitor. He lusted after destruction with a fiendish temper, which was a grim anticipation of De Sade; he would even smile as he saw the noose tighten round the necks of the poor innocents he had beguiled to Tyburn. It was his boast that he had contrived robberies for the mere glory of dragging his silly victims to the gallows. But Moll, though she stood half-way between the robber and his prey, would have sacrificed a hundred well-earned commissions rather than see her friends and comrades strangled. Her temperament compelled her to the loyal support of her own order, and she would have shrunk in horror from her rival, who, for all his assumed friendship with the thief, was a staunch and subtle ally of justice.
Before all things she had the genius of success. Her public offences were trivial and condoned. She died in her bed, full of years and of honours, beloved by the light-fingered gentry, reverenced by all the judges on the bench. He, for all the sacrifices he made to a squint-eyed law, died execrated alike by populace and police. Already Blueskin had done his worst with a pen-knife; already Jack Sheppard and his comrades had warned Drury Lane against the infamous thief-catcher. And so anxious, on the other hand, was the law to be quit of their too zealous servant, that an Act of Parliament was passed with the sole object of placing Jonathan's head within the noose. His method, meagre though masterly, lulled him too soon to an impotent security. She, with her larger view of life, her plumper sense of style, was content with nothing less than an ultimate sovereignty, and manifestly did she prove her superiority.
Though born for the wimple, she was more of a man than the breeched and stockinged Jonathan, whose only deed of valiance was to hang, terrier-like, by his teeth to an evasive enemy. While he cheated at cards and cogged the dice, she trained dogs and never missed a bear-baiting. He shrank, like the coward that he was, from the exercise of manly sports; she cared not what were the weapons--quarterstaff or broadsword--so long as she vanquished her opponent. She scoured the town in search of insult; he did but exert his cunning when a quarrel was put upon him. Who, then, shall deny her manhood? Who shall whisper that his style was the braver or the better suited to his sex?
As became a hero, she kept the best of loose company: her parlour was ever packed with the friends of loyalty and adventure. Are not Hind and Mull Sack worth a thousand Blueskins? Moreover, plunder and wealth were not the only objects of her pursuit: she was not merely a fence but a patriot, and she would have accounted a thousand pounds well lost, if she did but compass the discomfiture of a Parliament-man. Indeed, if Jonathan, the thief-catcher, limped painfully after his magnificent example, Jonathan the man and the sportsman confessed a pitiful inferiority to the valiant Moll. Thus she avenged her sex by distancing the most illustrious of her rivals; and if he pleads for his credit a taste for theology, hers is the chuckle of contemptuous superiority. She died a patriot, bequeathing a fountain of wine to the champions of an exiled king; he died a casuist, setting crabbed problems to the Ordinary. Here, again, the advantage is evident: loyalty is the virtue of men; a sudden attachment to religion is the last resource of the second-rate citizen and of the trapped criminal.
A SPARE, lean frame; a small head set forward upon a pair of sloping shoulders; a thin, sharp nose, and rat-like eyes; a flat, hollow chest; shrunk shanks, modestly retreating from their snuff-coloured hose--these are the tokens which served to remind his friends of Ralph Briscoe, the Clerk of Newgate. As he left the prison in the grey air of morning upon some errand of mercy or revenge, he appeared the least fearsome of mortals, while an awkward limp upon his left toe deepened the impression of timidity. So abstract was his manner, so hesitant his gait, that he would hug the wall as he went, nervously stroking its grimy surface with his long, twittering fingers. But Ralph, as justice and the Jug knew too well, was neither fool nor coward. His character belied his outward seeming. A large soul had crept into the case of his wizened body, and if a poltroon among his ancestors had gifted him with an alien type, he had inherited from some nameless warrior both courage and resource.
He was born in easy circumstances, and gently nurtured in the distant village of Kensington. Though cast in a scholar's mould, and very apt for learning, he rebelled from the outset against a career of inaction. His lack of strength was never a check upon his high stomach; he would fight with boys of twice his size, and accept the certain defeat in a cheerful spirit of dogged pugnacity. Moreover, if his arms were weak, his cunning was as keen-edged as his tongue; and, before his stricken eye had paled, he had commonly executed an ample vengeance upon his enemy. Nor was it industry that placed him at the top of the class. A ready wit made him master of the knowledge he despised.
But he would always desert his primer to follow the hangman's lumbering cart up Tyburn Hill, and, still a mere imp of mischief, he would run the weary way from Kensington to Shoe Lane on the distant chance of a cock-fight. He was present, so he would relate in after years, when Sir Thomas Jermin's man put his famous trick upon the pit. With a hundred pounds in his pocket and under his arm a dunghill cock, neatly trimmed for the fray, the ingenious ruffian, as Briscoe would tell you, went off to Shoe Lane, persuaded an accomplice to fight the cock in Sir Thomas Jermin's name, and laid a level hundred against his own bird. So lofty was Sir Thomas's repute that backers were easily found, but the dunghill rooster instantly showed a clean pair of heels, and the cheat was justified of his cunning.