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قراءة كتاب A Book of Scoundrels

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‏اللغة: English
A Book of Scoundrels

A Book of Scoundrels

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 2

the prowess of the highwayman and the dexterity of the cutpurse. Though the art displayed all the freshness and curiosity of the primitives, still it was art. With Gamaliel Ratsey, who demanded a scene from Hamlet of a rifled player, and who could not rob a Cambridge scholar without bidding him deliver an oration in a wood, theft was already better than a vulgar extortion. Moll Cutpurse, whose intelligence and audacity were never bettered, was among the bravest of the Elizabethans. Her temperament was as large and as reckless as Ben Jonson's own. Neither her tongue nor her courage knew the curb of modesty, and she was the first to reduce her craft to a set of wise and imperious rules. She it was who discovered the secret of discipline, and who insisted that every member of her gang should undertake no other enterprise than that for which nature had framed him. Thus she made easy the path for that other hero, of whom you are told that his band was made up 'of several sorts of wicked artists, of whom he made several uses, according as he perceived which way every man's particular talent lay.' This statesman—Thomas Dun was his name—drew up for the use of his comrades a stringent and stately code, and he was wont to deliver an address to all novices concerning the art and mystery of robbing upon the highway. Under auspices so brilliant, thievery could not but flourish, and when the Stuarts sat upon the throne it was already lifted above the level of questioning experiment.

Every art is shaped by its material, and with the variations of its material it must perforce vary. If the skill of the cutpurse compelled the invention of the pocket, it is certain that the rare difficulties of the pocket created the miraculous skill of those crafty fingers which were destined to empty it. And as increased obstacles are perfection's best incentive, a finer cunning grew out of the fresh precaution. History does not tell us who it was that discovered this new continent of roguery. Those there are who give the credit to the valiant Moll Cutpurse; but though the Roaring Girl had wit to conceive a thousand strange enterprises, she had not the hand to carry them out, and the first pickpocket must needs have been a man of action. Moreover, her nickname suggests the more ancient practice, and it is wiser to yield the credit to Simon Fletcher, whose praises are chanted by the early historians.

Now, Simon, says his biographer, was 'looked upon to be the greatest artist of his age by all his contemporaries.' The son of a baker in Rosemary Lane, he early deserted his father's oven for a life of adventure; and he claims to have been the first collector who, stealing the money, yet left the case. The new method was incomparably more subtle than the old: it afforded an opportunity of a hitherto unimagined delicacy; the wielders of the scissors were aghast at a skill which put their own clumsiness to shame, and which to a previous generation would have seemed the wildest fantasy. Yet so strong is habit, that even when the picking of pockets was a recognised industry, the superfluous scissors still survived, and many a rogue has hanged upon the Tree because he attempted with a vulgar implement such feats as his unaided forks had far more easily accomplished.

But, despite the innovation of Simon Fletcher, the highway was the glory of Elizabeth, the still greater glory of the Stuarts. 'The Lacedæmonians 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 Lacedæmonian. 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