The cloistered seclusion of Gray's Inn grew daily more irksome. There he would sit, in mute despair, drumming the table with his fingers, and biting the quill, whose use he so bitterly contemned. Of winter afternoons he would stare through the leaded window-panes at the gaunt, leafless trees, on whose summits swayed the cawing rooks, until servitude seemed intolerable, and he prayed for the voice of the bearward that summoned him to Southwark. And when the chained bear, the familiar monkey on his back, followed the shrill bagpipe along the curious street, Briscoe felt that blood, not ink, coursed in his veins, forgot the tiresome impediment of the law, and joined the throng, hungry for this sport of kings. Nor was he the patron of an enterprise wherein he dared take no part. He was as bold and venturesome as the bravest ruffler that ever backed a dog at a baiting. When the bull, cruelly secured behind, met the onslaught of his opponents, throwing them off, now this side, now that, with his horns, Briscoe, lost in excitement, would leap into the ring that not a point of the combat should escape him.
So it was that he won the friendship of his illustrious benefactress, Moll Cutpurse. For, one day, when he had ventured too near the maddened bull, the brute made a heave at his breeches, which instantly gave way; and in another moment he would have been gored to death, had not Moll seized him by the collar and slung him out of the ring. Thus did his courage ever contradict his appearance, and at the dangerous game of whipping the blinded bear he had no rival, either for bravery or adroitness. He would rush in with uplifted whip until the breath of the infuriated beast was hot upon his cheek, let his angry lash curl for an instant across the bear's flank, and then, for all his halting foot, leap back into safety with a smiling pride in his own nimbleness.
His acquaintance with Moll Cutpurse, casually begun at a bull- baiting, speedily ripened, for her into friendship, for him into love. In this, the solitary romance of his life, Ralph Briscoe overtopped even his own achievements of courage. The Roaring Girl was no more young, and years had not refined her character unto gentleness. It was still her habit to appear publicly in jerkin and galligaskins, to smoke tobacco in contempt of her sex, and to fight her enemies with a very fury of insolence. In stature she exceeded the limping clerk by a head, and she could pick him up with one hand, like a kitten. Yet he loved her, not for any grace of person, nor beauty of feature, nor even because her temperament was undaunted as his own. He loved her for that wisest of reasons, which is no reason at all, because he loved her. In his eyes she was the Queen, not of Misrule, but of Hearts. Had a throne been his, she should have shared it, and he wooed her with a shy intensity, which ennobled him, even in her austere regard. Alas! she was unable to return his passion, and she lamented her own obduracy with characteristic humour. She made no attempt to conceal her admiration. `A notable and famous person,' she called him, confessing that, `he was right for her tooth, and made to her mind in every part of him.' He had been bred up in the same exercise of bull-baiting, which was her own delight; she had always praised his towardliness, and prophesied his preferment. But when he paid her court she was obliged to decline the honour, while she esteemed the compliment.
In truth, she was completely insensible to passion, or, as she exclaimed in a phrase of brilliant independence, `I should have hired him to my embraces.'
The sole possibility that remained was a Platonic friendship, and Briscoe accepted the situation in excellent humour. `Ever since he came to know himself,' again it is Moll that speaks, `he always deported himself to me with an abundance of regard, calling me his Aunt.' And his aunt she remained unto the end, bound to him in a proper and natural alliance. Different as they were in aspect, they were strangely alike in taste and disposition. Nor was the Paris Garden their only meeting-ground.
His sorry sojourn in Gray's Inn had thrown him on the side of the law-breaker, and he had acquired a strange cunning in the difficult art of evading justice. Instantly Moll recognised his practical value, and, exerting all her talent for intrigue, presently secured for him the Clerkship of Newgate. Here at last he found scope not only for his learning, but for that spirit of adventure that breathed within him. His meagre acquaintance with letters placed him on a pinnacle high above his colleagues. Now and then a prisoner proved his equal in wit, but as he was manifestly superior in intelligence to the Governor, the Ordinary, and all the warders, he speedily seized and hereafter retained the real sovereignty of Newgate.
His early progress was barred by envy and contempt. Why, asked the men in possession, should this shrivelled stranger filch our privileges? And Briscoe met their malice with an easy smile, knowing that at all points he was more than their match. His alliance with Moll stood him in good stead, and in a few months the twain were the supreme arbiters of English justice. Should a highwayman seek to save his neck, he must first pay a fat indemnity to the Newgate Clerk, but, since Moll was the appointed banker of the whole family, she was quick to sanction whatever price her accomplice suggested. And Briscoe had a hundred other tricks whereby he increased his riches and repute. There was no debtor came to Newgate whom the Clerk would not aid, if he believed the kindness profitable. Suppose his inquiries gave an assurance of his victim's recovery, he would house him comfortably, feed him at his own table, lend him money, and even condescend to win back the generous loan by the dice-box.
His civility gave him a general popularity among the prisoners, and his appearance in the Yard was a signal for a subdued hilarity. He drank and gambled with the roysterers; he babbled a cheap philosophy with the erudite; and he sold the necks of all to the highest bidder. Though now and again he was convicted of mercy or revenge, he commonly held himself aloof from human passions, and pursued the one sane end of life in an easy security. The hostility of his colleagues irked him but little. A few tags of Latin, the friendship of Moll, and a casual threat of exposure frightened the Governor into acquiescence, but the Ordinary was more difficult of conciliation. The Clerk had not been long in Newgate before he saw that between the reverend gentleman and himself there could be naught save war. Hitherto the Ordinary had reserved to his own profit the right of intrigue; he it was who had received the hard-scraped money of the sorrowing relatives, and untied the noose when it seemed good to him. Briscoe insisted upon a division of labour. `It is your business,' he said, `to save the scoundrels in the other world. Leave to me the profit of their salvation in this.' And the Clerk triumphed after his wont: freedom jingled in his pocket; he doled out comfort, even life, to the oppressed; and he extorted a comfortable fortune in return for privileges which were never in his gift.