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source:zoptime:2023-12-05 00:21:55

But, despite the innovation of Simon Fletcher, the highway was the glory of Elizabeth, the still greater glory of the Stuarts. `The Lacedmonians were the only people,' said Horace Walpole, `except the English who seem to have put robbery on a right foot.' And the English of the seventeenth century need fear the rivalry of no Lacedmonian. They were, indeed, the most valiant and graceful robbers that the world has ever known. The Civil War encouraged their profession, and, since many of them had fought for their king, a proper hatred of Cromwell sharpened their wits. They were scholars as well as gentlemen; they tempered their sport with a merry wit; their avarice alone surpassed their courtesy; and they robbed with so perfect a regard for the proprieties that it was only the pedant and the parliamentarian who resented their interference.

Nor did their princely manner fail of its effect upon their victims. The middle of the seventeenth century was the golden age, not only of the robber, but of the robbed. The game was played upon either side with a scrupulous respect for a potent, if unwritten, law. Neither might nor right was permitted to control the issue. A gaily attired, superbly mounted highwayman would hold up a coach packed with armed men, and take a purse from each, though a vigorous remonstrance might have carried him to Tyburn. But the traveller knew his place: he did what was expected of him in the best of tempers. Who was he that he should yield in courtesy to the man in the vizard? As it was monstrous for the one to discharge his pistol, so the other could not resist without committing an outrage upon tradition. One wonders what had been the result if some mannerless reformer had declined his assailant's invitation and drawn his sword. Maybe the sensitive art might have died under this sharp rebuff. But none save regicides were known to resist, and their resistance was never more forcible than a volley of texts. Thus the High- toby-crack swaggered it with insolent gaiety, knowing no worse misery than the fear of the Tree, so long as he followed the rules of his craft. But let a touch of brutality disgrace his method, and he appealed in vain for sympathy or indulgence. The ruffian, for instance, of whom it is grimly recorded that he added a tie-wig to his booty, neither deserved nor received the smallest consideration. Delivered to justice, he speedily met the death his vulgarity merited, and the road was taught the salutary lesson that wigs were as sacred as trinkets hallowed by association.

With the eighteenth century the highway fell upon decline. No doubt in its silver age, the century's beginning, many a brilliant deed was done. Something of the old policy survived, and men of spirit still went upon the pad. But the breadth of the ancient style was speedily forgotten; and by the time the First George climbed to the throne, robbery was already a sordid trade. Neither side was conscious of its noble obligation. The vulgar audacity of a bullying thief was suitably answered by the ungracious, involuntary submission of the terrified traveller. From end to end of England you might hear the cry of `Stand and deliver.' Yet how changed the accent! The beauty of gesture, the deference of carriage, the ready response to a legitimate demand--all the qualities of a dignified art were lost for ever. As its professors increased in number, the note of aristocracy, once dominant, was silenced. The meanest rogue, who could hire a horse, might cut a contemptible figure on Bagshot Heath, and feel no shame at robbing a poor man. Once--in that Augustan age, whose brightest ornament was Captain Hind--it was something of a distinction to be decently plundered. A century later there was none so humble but he might be asked to empty his pocket. In brief, the blight of democracy was upon what should have remained a refined, secluded art; and nowise is the decay better illustrated than in the appreciation of bunglers, whose exploits were scarce worth a record.

James Maclaine, for instance, was the hero of his age. In a history of cowards he would deserve the first place, and the `Gentleman Highwayman,' as he was pompously styled, enjoyed a triumph denied to many a victorious general. Lord Mountford led half White's to do him honour on the day of his arrest. On the first Sunday, which he spent in Newgate, three thousand jostled for entrance to his cell, and the poor devil fainted three times at the heat caused by the throng of his admirers. So long as his fate hung in the balance, Walpole could not take up his pen without a compliment to the man, who claimed to have robbed him near Hyde Park. Yet a more pitiful rascal never showed the white feather. Not once was he known to take a purse with his own hand, the summit of his achievement being to hold the horses' heads while his accomplice spoke with the passengers. A poltroon before his arrest, in Court he whimpered and whinnied for mercy; he was carried to the cart pallid and trembling, and not even his preposterous finery availed to hearten him at the gallows. Taxed with his timidity, he attempted to excuse himself on the inadmissible plea of moral rectitude. `I have as much personal courage in an honourable cause,' he exclaimed in a passage of false dignity, `as any man in Britain; but as I knew I was committing acts of injustice, so I went to them half loth and half consenting; and in that sense I own I am a coward indeed.'

The disingenuousness of this proclamation is as remarkable as its hypocrisy. Well might he brag of his courage in an honourable cause, when he knew that he could never be put to the test. But what palliation shall you find for a rogue with so little pride in his art, that he exercised it `half loth, half consenting'? It is not in this recreant spirit that masterpieces are achieved, and Maclaine had better have stayed in the far Highland parish, which bred him, than have attempted to cut a figure in the larger world of London. His famous encounter with Walpole should have covered him with disgrace, for it was ignoble at every point; and the art was so little understood, that it merely added a leaf to his crown of glory. Now, though Walpole was far too well-bred to oppose the demand of an armed stranger, Maclaine, in defiance of his craft, discharged his pistol at an innocent head. True, he wrote a letter of apology, and insisted that, had the one pistol- shot proved fatal, he had another in reserve for himself. But not even Walpole would have believed him, had not an amiable faith given him an opportunity for the answering quip: `Can I do less than say I will be hanged if he is?'

As Maclaine was a coward and no thief, so also he was a snob and no gentleman. His boasted elegance was not more respectable than his art. Fine clothes are the embellishment of a true adventurer; they hang ill on the sloping shoulders of a poltroon.

And Maclaine, with all the ostensible weaknesses of his kind, would claim regard for the strength that he knew not. He occupied a costly apartment in St. James's Street; his morning dress was a crimson damask banjam, a silk shag waistcoat, trimmed with lace, black velvet breeches, white silk stockings, and yellow morocco slippers; but since his magnificence added no jot to his courage, it was rather mean than admirable. Indeed, his whole career was marred by the provincialism of his native manse.

And he was the adored of an intelligent age; he basked a few brief weeks in the noonday sun of fashion.