Gilderoy was no drawing-room scoundrel, no villain of schoolgirl romance. He felt remorse as little as he felt fear, and there was no crime from whose commission he shrank. Before his death he confessed to thirty-seven murders, and bragged that he had long since lost count of his robberies and rapes. Something must be abated for boastfulness. But after all deduction there remains a tale of crime that is unsurpassed. His most admirably artistic quality is his complete consistence. He was a ruffian finished and rotund; he made no concession, he betrayed no weakness. Though he never preached a sermon against the human race, he practised a brutality which might have proceeded from a gospel of hate. He spared neither friends nor relatives, and he murdered his own mother with as light a heart as he sent a strange widow of Aberdeen to her death. His skill is undoubted, and he proved by the discipline of his band that he was not without some talent of generalship. But he owed much of his success to his physical strength, and to the temperament, which never knew the scandal of hesitancy or dread.
A born marauder, he devoted his life to his trade; and, despite his travels in France and Spain, he enjoyed few intervals of merriment. Even the humour, which proved his redemption, was as dour and grim as Scotland can furnish at her grimmes: and dourest. Here is a specimen will serve as well as another: three of Gilderoy's gang had been hanged according to the sentence of a certain Lord of Session, and the Chieftain, for his own vengeance and the intimidation of justice, resolved upon an exemplary punishment. He waylaid the Lord of Session, emptied his pockets, killed his horses, broke his coach in pieces, and having bound his lackeys, drowned them in a pond. This was but the prelude of revenge, for presently (and here is the touch of humour) he made the Lord of Session ride at dead of night to the gallows, whereon the three malefactors were hanging. One arm of the crossbeams was still untenanted. `By my soul, mon,' cried Gilderoy to the Lord of Session, `as this gibbet is built to break people's craigs, and is not uniform without another, I must e'en hang you upon the vacant beam.' And straightway the Lord of Session swung in the moonlight, and Gilderoy had cracked his black and solemn joke.
This sense of fun is the single trait which relieves the colossal turpitude of Gilderoy. And, though even his turpitude was melodramatic in its lack of balance, it is a unity of character which is the foundation of his greatness. He was no fumbler, led away from his purpose by the first diversion; his ambition was clear before him, and he never fell below it. He defied Scotland for fifteen years, was hanged so high that he passed into a proverb, and though his handsome, sinister face might have made women his slaves, he was never betrayed by passion (or by virtue) to an amiability.
THE `Green Pig' stood in the solitude of the North Road. Its simple front, its neatly balanced windows, curtained with white, gave it an air of comfort and tranquillity. The smoke which curled from its hospitable chimney spoke of warmth and good fare.
To pass it was to spurn the last chance of a bottle for many a weary mile, and the prudent traveller would always rest an hour by its ample fireside, or gossip with its fantastic hostess. Now, the hostess of the little inn was Ellen Roach, friend and accomplice of Sixteen-String Jack, once the most famous woman in England, and still after a weary stretch at Botany Bay the strangest of companions, the most buxom of spinsters. Her beauty was elusive even in her triumphant youth, and middle-age had neither softened her traits nor refined her expression. Her auburn hair, once the glory of Covent Garden, was fading to a withered grey; she was never tall enough to endure an encroaching stoutness with equanimity; her dumpy figure made you marvel at her past success; and hardship had furrowed her candid brow into wrinkles. But when she opened her lips she became instantly animated. With a glass before her on the table, she would prattle frankly and engagingly of the past. Strange cities had she seen; she had faced the dangers of an adventurous life with calmness and good temper. And yet Botany Bay, with its attendant horrors, was already fading from her memory. In imagination she was still with her incomparable hero, and it was her solace, after fifteen years, to sing the praise and echo the perfections of Sixteen-String Jack.
`How well I remember,' she would murmur, as though unconscious of her audience, `the unhappy day when Jack Rann was first arrested.
It was May, and he came back travel-stained and weary in the brilliant dawn. He had stopped a one-horse shay near the nine- mile stone on the Hounslow Road--every word of his confession is burnt into my brain--and had taken a watch and a handful of guineas. I was glad enough of the money, for there was no penny in the house, and presently I sent the maid-servant to make the best bargain she could with the watch. But the silly jade, by the saddest of mishaps, took the trinket straight to the very man who made it, and he, suspecting a theft, had us both arrested. Even then Jack might have been safe, had not the devil prompted me to speak the truth. Dismayed by the magistrate, I owned, wretched woman that I was, that I had received the watch from Rann, and in two hours Jack also was under lock and key. Yet, when we were sent for trial I made what amends I could. I declared on oath that I had never seen Sixteen-String Jack in my life; his name came to my lips by accident; and, hector as they would, the lawyers could not frighten me to an acknowledgment. Meanwhile Jack's own behaviour was grand. I was the proudest woman in England as I stood by his side in the dock. When you compared him with Sir John Fielding, you did not doubt for an instant which was the finer gentleman. And what a dandy was my Jack! Though he came there to answer for his life, he was all ribbons and furbelows. His irons were tied up with the daintiest blue bows, and in the breast of his coat he carried a bundle of flowers as large as a birch-broom. His neck quivered in the noose, yet he was never cowed to civility. `I know no more of the matter than you do,' he cried indignantly, `nor half so much neither,' and if the magistrate had not been an ill-mannered oaf, he would not have dared to disbelieve my true-hearted Jack. That time we escaped with whole skins; and off we went, after dinner, to Vauxhall, where Jack was more noticed than the fiercest of the bloods, and where he filled the heart of George Barrington with envy. Nor was he idle, despite his recent escape: he brought away two watches and three purses from the Garden, so that our necessities were amply supplied. Ah, I should have been happy in those days if only Jack had been faithful. But he had a roving eye and a joyous temperament; and though he loved me better than any of the baggages to whom he paid court, he would not visit me so often as he should. Why, once he was hustled off to Bow Street because the watch caught him climbing in at Doll Frampton's window. And she, the shameless minx, got him off by declaring in open court that she would be proud to receive him whenever he would deign to ring at her bell. That is the penalty of loving a great man: you must needs share his affection with a set of unworthy wenches. Yet Jack was always kind to me, and I was the chosen companion of his pranks.
`Never can I forget the splendid figure he cut that day at Bagnigge Wells. We had driven down in our coach, and all the world marvelled at our magnificence. Jack was brave in a scarlet coat, a tambour waistcoat, and white silk stockings. From the knees of his breeches streamed the strings (eight at each), whence he got his name, and as he plucked off his lace-hat the dinner-table rose at him. That was a moment worth living for, and when, after his first bottle, Jack rattled the glasses, and declared himself a highwayman, the whole company shuddered. ``But, my friends,'' quoth he, ``to-day I am making holiday, so that you have naught to fear.'' When the wine 's in, the wit 's out, and Jack could never stay his hand from the bottle. The more he drank, the more he bragged, until, thoroughly fuddled, he lost a ring from his finger, and charged the miscreants in the room with stealing it. ``However,'' hiccupped he, ``'tis a mere nothing, worth a paltry hundred pounds--less than a lazy evening's work. So I'll let the trifling theft pass.'' But the cowards were not content with Jack's generosity, and seizing upon him, they thrust him neck and crop through the window. They were seventeen to one, the craven-hearted loons; and I could but leave the marks of my nails on the cheek of the foremost, and follow my hero into the yard, where we took coach, and drove sulkily back to Covent Garden.