Captain Smith took the justest view of his subject. For him robbery, in the street as on the highway, was the finest of the arts, and he always revered it for its own sake rather than for vulgar profit. Though, to deceive the public, he abhorred villainy in word, he never concealed his admiration in deed of a `highwayman who robs like a gentleman.' `There is a beauty in all the works of nature,' he observes in one of his wittiest exordia, `which we are unable to define, though all the world is convinced of its existence: so in every action and station of life there is a grace to be attained, which will make a man pleasing to all about him and serene in his own mind.' Some there are, he continues, who have placed `this beauty in vice itself; otherwise it is hardly probable that they could commit so many irregularities with a strong gust and an appearance of satisfaction.' Notwithstanding that the word `vice' is used in its conventional sense, we have here the key to Captain Smith's position. He judged his heroes' achievements with the intelligent impartiality of a connoisseur, and he permitted no other prejudice than an unfailing loyalty to interrupt his opinion.
Though he loved good English as he loved good wine, he was never so happy as when (in imagination) he was tying the legs of a Regicide under the belly of an ass. And when in the manner of a bookseller's hack he compiled a Comical and Tragical History of the Lives and Adventures of the most noted Bayliffs, adoration of the Royalists persuaded him to miss his chance. So brave a spirit as himself should not have looked complacently upon the officers of the law, but he saw in the glorification of the bayliff another chance of castigating the Roundheads, and thus he set an honorific crown upon the brow of man's natural enemy. `These unsanctified rascals,' wrote he, `would run into any man's debt without paying him, and if their creditors were Cavaliers they thought they had as much right to cheat 'em, as the Israelites had to spoil the Egyptians of their ear-rings and jewels.' Alas! the boot was ever on the other leg; and yet you cannot but admire the Captain's valiant determination to sacrifice probability to his legitimate hate.
Of his declining years and death there is no record. One likes to think of him released from care, and surrounded by books, flowers, and the good things of this earth. Now and again, maybe, he would muse on the stirring deeds of his youth, and more often he would put away the memory of action to delight in the masterpiece which made him immortal. He would recall with pleasure, no doubt, the ready praise of Richard Steele, his most appreciative critic, and smile contemptuously at the baseness of his friend and successor, Captain Charles Johnson. Now, this ingenious writer was wont to boast, when the ale of Fleet Street had empurpled his nose, that he was the most intrepid highwayman of them all. `Once upon a time,' he would shout, with an arrogant gesture, `I was known from Blackheath to Hounslow, from Ware to Shooter's Hill.' And the truth is, the only `crime' he ever committed was plagiarism. The self-assumed title of Captain should have deceived nobody, for the braggart never stole anything more difficult of acquisition than another man's words. He picked brains, not pockets; he committed the greater sin and ran no risk. He helped himself to the admirable inventions of Captain Smith without apology or acknowledgment, and, as though to lighten the dead-weight of his sin, he never skipped an opportunity of maligning his victim. Again and again in the very act to steal he will declare vaingloriously that Captain Smith's stories are `barefaced inventions.' But doubt was no check to the habit of plunder, and you knew that at every reproach, expressed (so to say) in self-defence, he plied the scissors with the greater energy. The most cunning theft is the tag which adorns the title-page of his book:
Little villains oft submit to fate That great ones may enjoy the world in state.
Thus he quotes from Gay, and you applaud the aptness of the quotation, until you discover that already it was used by Steele in his appreciation of the heroic Smith! However, Johnson has his uses, and those to whom the masterpiece of Captain Alexander is inaccessible will turn with pleasure to the General History of the lives and adventures of the most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c., and will feel no regret that for once they are receiving stolen goods.
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.