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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: 3

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.

If distinction was not the heritage of the Eighteenth Century, its glory is that now and again a giant raised his head above the stature of a prevailing rectitude. The art of verse was lost in rhetoric; the noble prose, invented by the Elizabethans, and refined under the Stuarts, was whittled away to common sense by the admirers of Addison and Steele. Swift and Johnson, Gibbon and Fielding, were apparitions of strength in an amiable, ineffective age. They emerged sudden from the impeccable greyness, to which they afforded an heroic contrast. So, while the highway drifted—drifted to a vulgar incompetence, the craft was illumined by many a flash of unexpected genius. The brilliant achievements of Jonathan Wild and of Jack Sheppard might have relieved the gloom of the darkest era, and their separate masterpieces make some atonement for the environing cowardice and stupidity. Above all, the Eighteenth Century was Newgate's golden age; now for the first time and the last were the rules and customs of the Jug perfectly understood. If Jonathan the Great was unrivalled in the art of clapping his enemies into prison, if Jack the Slip-string was supreme in the rarer art of getting himself out, even the meanest criminal of his time knew what was expected of him, so long as he wandered within the walled yard, or listened to the ministrations of the snuff-besmirched Ordinary. He might show a lamentable lack of cleverness in carrying off his booty; he might prove a too easy victim to the wiles of the thief-catcher; but he never fell short of courage, when asked to sustain the consequences of his crime.

Newgate, compared by one eminent author to a university, by another to a ship, was a republic, whose liberty extended only so far as its iron door. While there was no liberty without, there was licence within; and if the culprit, who paid for the smallest indiscretion with his neck, understood the etiquette of the place, he spent his last weeks in an orgie of rollicking lawlessness. He drank, he ate, he diced; he received his friends, or chaffed the Ordinary; he attempted, through the well-paid cunning of the Clerk, to bribe the jury; and when every artifice had failed he went to Tyburn like a man. If he knew not how to live, at least he would show a resentful world how to die.

'In no country,' wrote Sir T. Smith, a distinguished lawyer of the time, 'do malefactors go to execution more intrepidly than in England'; and assuredly, buoyed up by custom and the approval of their fellows, Wild's victims made a brave show at the gallows. Nor was their bravery the result of a common callousness. They understood at once the humour and the delicacy of the situation. Though hitherto they had chaffed the Ordinary, they now listened to his exhortation with at least a semblance of respect; and though their last night upon earth might have been devoted to a joyous company, they did not withhold their ear from the Bellman's Chant. As twelve o'clock approached—their last midnight upon earth—they would interrupt the most spirited discourse, they would check the tour of the mellowest bottle to listen to the solemn doggerel. 'All you that in the condemn'd hole do lie,' groaned the Bellman of St. Sepulchre's in his duskiest voice, and they who held revel in the condemned hole prayed silence of their friends for the familiar cadences:

     All you that in the condemn'd hole do lie,
     Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall die,
     Watch all and pray, the hour is drawing near,
     That you before th' Almighty must appear.
     Examine well yourselves, in time repent
     That you may not t' eternal flames be sent;
     And when St. Pulchre's bell to-morrow tolls,
     The Lord above have mercy on your souls.
     Past twelve o'clock!

Even if this warning voice struck a momentary terror into their offending souls, they were up betimes in the morning, eager to pay their final debt. Their journey from Newgate to Tyburn was a triumph, and their vanity was unabashed at the droning menaces of the Ordinary. At one point a chorus of maidens cast wreaths upon their way, or pinned nosegays in their coats, that they might not face the executioner unadorned. At the Crown Tavern they quaffed their last glass of ale, and told the landlord with many a leer and smirk that they would pay him on their way back. Though gravity was asked, it was not always given; but in the Eighteenth Century courage was seldom wanting. To the common citizen a violent death was (and is) the worst of horrors; to the ancient highwayman it was the odd trick lost in the game of life. And the highwayman endured the rope, as the practised gambler loses his estate, without blenching. One there was, who felt his leg tremble in his own despite: wherefore he stamped it upon the ground so violently, that in other circumstances he would have roared with pain, and he left the world without a tremor. In this spirit Cranmer burnt his recreant right hand, and in either case the glamour of a unique occasion was a stimulus to courage.

But not even this brilliant treatment of accessories availed to save the highway from disrepute; indeed, it had become the profitless pursuit of braggarts and loafers, long before the abolition of the stage-coach destroyed its opportunity. In the meantime, however, the pickpocket was master