Rann, also, was consistent, even to the gallows. The night before his death he entertained seven women at supper, and outlaughed them all. The contrast is not so violent as it appears. The one act is melodrama, the other farce. And what is farce, but melodrama in a happier shape?
THOMAS PURENEY, Archbishop among Ordinaries, lived and preached in the heyday of Newgate. His was the good fortune to witness Sheppard's encounter with the topsman, and to shrive the battered soul of Jonathan Wild. Nor did he fall one inch below his opportunity. Designed by Providence to administer a final consolation to the evil-doer, he permitted no false ambition to distract his talent. As some men are born for the gallows, so he was born to thump the cushion of a prison pulpit; and his peculiar aptitude was revealed to him before he had time to spend his strength in mistaken endeavour.
For thirty years his squat, stout figure was amiably familiar to all such as enjoyed the Liberties of the Jug. For thirty years his mottled nose and the rubicundity of his cheeks were the ineffaceable ensigns of his intemperance. Yet there was a grimy humour in his forbidding aspect. The fusty black coat, which sat ill upon his shambling frame, was all besmirched with spilled snuff, and the lees of a thousand quart pots. The bands of his profession were ever awry upon a tattered shirt. His ancient wig scattered dust and powder as he went, while a single buckle of some tawdry metal gave a look of oddity to his clumsy, slipshod feet. A caricature of a man, he ambled and chuckled and seized the easy pleasures within his reach. There was never a summer's day but he caught upon his brow the few faint gleams of sunlight that penetrated the gloomy yard. Hour after hour he would sit, his short fingers hardly linked across his belly, drinking his cup of ale, and puffing at a half-extinguished tobacco-pipe. Meanwhile he would reflect upon those triumphs of oratory which were his supreme delight. If it fell on a Monday that he took the air, a smile of satisfaction lit up his fat, loose features, for still he pondered the effect of yesterday's masterpiece. On Saturday the glad expectancy of to-morrow lent him a certain joyous dignity. At other times his eye lacked lustre, his gesture buoyancy, unless indeed he were called upon to follow the cart to Tyburn, or to compose the Last Dying Speech of some notorious malefactor.
Preaching was the master passion of his life. It was the pulpit that reconciled him to exile within a great city, and persuaded him to the enjoyment of roguish company. Those there were who deemed his career unfortunate; but a sense of fitness might have checked their pity, and it was only in his hours of maudlin confidence that the Reverend Thomas confessed to disappointment. Born of respectable parents in the County of Cambridgeshire, he nurtured his youth upon the exploits of James Hind and the Golden Farmer. His boyish pleasure was to lie in the ditch, which bounded his father's orchard, studying that now forgotten masterpiece, `There's no Jest like a True Jest.' Then it was that he felt `immortal longings in his blood.' He would take to the road, so he swore, and hold up his enemies like a gentleman. Once, indeed, he was surprised by the clergyman of the parish in act to escape from the rectory with two volumes of sermons and a silver flagon. The divine was minded to speak seriously to him concerning the dreadful sin of robbery, and having strengthened him with texts and good counsel, to send him forth unpunished. `Thieving and covetousness,' said the parson, `must inevitably bring you to the gallows. If you would die in your bed, repent you of your evildoing, and rob no more.' The exhortation was not lost upon Pureney, who, chastened in spirit, straightly prevailed upon his father to enter him a pensioner at Corpus Christi College in the University of Cambridge, that at the proper time he might take orders.
At Cambridge he gathered no more knowledge than was necessary for his profession, and wasted such hours as should have been given to study in drinking, dicing, and even less reputable pleasures. Yet repentance was always easy, and he accepted his first curacy, at Newmarket, with a brave heart and a good hopefulness. Fortunate was the choice of this early cure. Had he been gently guided at the outset, who knows but he might have lived out his life in respectable obscurity? But Newmarket then, as now, was a town of jollity and dissipation, and Pureney yielded without persuasion to the pleasures denied his cloth. There was ever a fire to extinguish at his throat, nor could he veil his wanton eye at the sight of a pretty wench. Again and again the lust of preaching urged him to repent, yet he slid back upon his past gaiety, until Parson Pureney became a byword. Dismissed from Newmarket in disgrace, he wandered the country up and down in search of a pulpit, but so infamous became the habit of his life that only in prison could he find an audience fit and responsive.
And, in the nick, the chaplaincy of Newgate fell vacant. Here was the occasion to temper dissipation with piety, to indulge the twofold ambition of his life. What mattered it, if within the prison walls he dipped his nose more deeply into the punch-bowl than became a divine? The rascals would but respect him the more for his prowess, and knit more closely the bond of sympathy. Besides, after preaching and punch he best loved a penitent, and where in the world could he find so rich a crop of erring souls ripe for repentance as in gaol? Henceforth he might threaten, bluster, and cajole. If amiability proved fruitless he would put cruelty to the test, and terrify his victims by a spirited reference to Hell and to that Burning Lake they were so soon to traverse. At last, thought he, I shall be sure of my effect, and the prospect flattered his vanity. In truth, he won an immediate and assured success. Like the common file or cracksman, he fell into the habit of the place, intriguing with all the cleverness of a practised diplomatist, and setting one party against the other that he might in due season decide the trumpery dispute. The trusted friend of many a distinguished prig and murderer, he so intimately mastered the slang and etiquette of the Jug, that he was appointed arbiter of all those nice questions of honour which agitated the more reputable among the cross-coves. But these were the diversions of a strenuous mind, and it was in the pulpit or in the closet that the Reverend Thomas Pureney revealed his true talent.
As the ruffian had a sense of drama, so he was determined that his words should scald and bite the penitent. When the condemned pew was full of a Sunday his happiness was complete. Now his deep chest would hurl salvo on salvo of platitudes against the sounding-board; now his voice, lowered to a whisper, would coax the hopeless prisoners to prepare their souls. In a paroxysm of feigned anger he would crush the cushion with his clenched fist, or leaning over the pulpit side as though to approach the nearer to his victims, would roll a cold and bitter eye upon them, as of a cat watching caged birds. One famous gesture was irresistible, and he never employed it but some poor ruffian fell senseless to the floor. His stumpy fingers would fix a noose of air round some imagined neck, and so devoutly was the pantomime studied that you almost heard the creak of the retreating cart as the phantom culprit was turned off. But his conduct in the pulpit was due to no ferocity of temperament. He merely exercised his legitimate craft. So long as Newgate supplied him with an enforced audience, so long would he thunder and bluster at the wrongdoer according to law and the dictates of his conscience.
Many, in truth, were his triumphs, but, as he would mutter in his garrulous old age, never was he so successful as in the last exhortation delivered to Matthias Brinsden. Now, Matthias Brinsden incontinently murdered his wife because she harboured too eager a love of the brandy-shop. A model husband, he had spared no pains in her correction. He had flogged her without mercy and without result. His one design was to make his wife obey him, which, as the Scriptures say, all wives should do. But the lust of brandy overcame wifely obedience, and Brinsden, hoping for the best, was constrained to cut a hole in her skull. The next day she was as impudent as ever, until Matthias rose yet more fiercely in his wrath, and the shrew perished. Then was Thomas Pureney's opportunity, and the Sunday following the miscreant's condemnation he delivered unto him and seventeen other malefactors the moving discourse which here follows: