Now, unnumbered were the affronts he had suffered from the Keeper's impertinence, and he chuckled aloud at his own witty rejoinder. Only two days since the Gaoler had caught him tampering with his irons. `Young man,' he had said, `I see what you have been doing, but the affair betwixt us stands thus: It is your business to make your escape, and mine to take care you shall not.' Jack had answered coolly enough: `Then let's both mind our own business.' And it was to some purpose that he had minded his. The letter to his baffled guardian, already sketched in his mind, tickled him afresh, when suddenly he leaps to his feet and begins to force the garret window.
The turner's maid was a heavy sleeper, and Sheppard crept from her garret to the twisted stair in peace. Once, on a lower floor, his heart beat faster at the trumpetings of the turner's nose, but he knew no check until he reached the street door. The bolt was withdrawn in an instant, but the lock was turned, and the key nowhere to be found. However, though the risk of disturbance was greater than in Newgate, the task was light enough: and with an iron link from his fetter, and a rusty nail which had served him bravely, the box was wrenched off in a trice, and Sheppard stood unattended in the Old Bailey. At first he was minded to make for his ancient haunts, or to conceal himself within the Liberty of Westminster; but the fetter-locks were still upon his legs, and he knew that detection would be easy as long as he was thus embarrassed. Wherefore, weary and an-hungered, he turned his steps northward, and never rested until he had gained Finchley Common.
At break of day, when the world re-awoke from the fear of thieves, he feigned a limp at a cottage door, and borrowed a hammer to straighten a pinching shoe. Five minutes behind a hedge, and his anklets had dropped from him; and, thus a free man, he took to the high road. After all he was persuaded to desert London and to escape a while from the sturdy embrace of Edgworth Bess. Moreover, if Bess herself were in the lock-up, he still feared the interested affection of Mistress Maggot, that other doxy, whose avarice would surely drive him upon a dangerous enterprise; so he struck across country, and kept starvation from him by petty theft. Up and down England he wandered in solitary insolence. Once, saith rumour, his lithe apparition startled the peace of Nottingham; once, he was wellnigh caught begging wort at a brew-house in Thames Street. But he might as well have lingered in Newgate as waste his opportunity far from the delights of Town; the old lust of life still impelled him, and a week after the hue-and-cry was raised he crept at dead of night down Drury Lane. Here he found harbourage with a friendly fence, Wild's mortal enemy, who promised him a safe conduct across the seas. But the desire of work proved too strong for prudence; and in a fortnight he had planned an attack on the pawnshop of one Rawling, at the Four Balls in Drury Lane.
Sheppard, whom no house ever built with hands was strong enough to hold, was better skilled at breaking out than at breaking in, and it is remarkable that his last feat in the cracking of cribs was also his greatest. Its very conception was a masterpiece of effrontery. Drury Lane was the thief-catcher's chosen territory; yet it was the Four Balls that Jack designed for attack, and watches, tie-wigs, snuff-boxes were among his booty. Whatever he could not crowd upon his person he presented to a brace of women. Tricked out in his stolen finery, he drank and swaggered in Clare Market. He was dressed in a superb suit of black; a diamond fawney flashed upon his finger; his light tie-periwig was worth no less than seven pounds; pistols, tortoise-shell snuff-boxes, and golden guineas jostled one another in his pockets.
Thus, in brazen magnificence, he marched down Drury Lane on a certain Saturday night in November 1724. Towards midnight he visited Thomas Nicks, the butcher, and having bargained for three ribs of beef, carried Nicks with him to a chandler's hard by, that they might ratify the bargain with a dram. Unhappily, a boy from the `Rose and Crown' sounded the alarm; for coming into the chandler's for the empty ale-pots, he instantly recognised the incomparable gaol-thief, and lost no time in acquainting his master. Now, Mr. Bradford, of the `Rose and Crown,' was a head- borough, who, with the zeal of a triumphant Dogberry, summoned the watch, and in less than half an hour Jack Sheppard was screaming blasphemies in a hackney-cab on his way home to Newgate.
The Stone-Jug received him with deference and admiration. Three hundred pounds weight of irons were put upon him for an adornment, and the Governor professed so keen a solicitude for his welfare that he never left him unattended. There was scarce a beautiful woman in London who did not solace him with her condescension, and enrich him with her gifts. Not only did the President of the Royal Academy deign to paint his portrait, but (a far greater honour) Hogarth made him immortal. Even the King displayed a proper interest, demanding a full and precise account of his escapes. The hero himself was drunk with flattery; he bubbled with ribaldry; he touched off the most valiant of his contemporaries in a ludicrous phrase. But his chief delight was to illustrate his prowess to his distinguished visitors, and nothing pleased him better than to slip in and out of his chains.
Confronted with his judge, he forthwith proposed to rid himself of his handcuffs, and he preserved until the fatal tree an illimitable pride in his artistry. Nor would he believe in the possibility of death. To the very last he was confirmed in the hope of pardon; but, pardon failing him, his single consolation was that his procession from Westminster to Newgate was the largest that London had ever known, and that in the crowd a constable broke his leg. Even in the Condemned Hole he was unreconciled. If he had broken the Castle, why should he not also evade the gallows? Wherefore he resolved to carry a knife to Tyburn that he might cut the rope, and so, losing himself in the crowd, ensure escape. But the knife was discovered by his warder's vigilance, and taken from him after a desperate struggle. At the scaffold he behaved with admirable gravity: confessing the wickeder of his robberies, and asking pardon for his enormous crimes. `Of two virtues,' he boasted at the self-same moment that the cart left him dancing without the music, `I have ever cherished an honest pride: never have I stooped to friendship with Jonathan Wild, or with any of his detestable thief-takers; and, though an undutiful son, I never damned my mother's eyes.'
Thus died Jack Sheppard; intrepid burglar and incomparable artist, who, in his own separate ambition of prison-breaking, remains, and will ever remain, unrivalled. His most brilliant efforts were the result neither of strength nor of cunning; for so slight was he of build, so deficient in muscle, that both Edgworth Bess and Mistress Maggot were wont to bang him to their own mind and purpose. And an escape so magnificently planned, so bravely executed as was his from the Strong Room, is far greater than a mere effect of cunning. Those mysterious gifts which enable mankind to batter the stone walls of a prison, or to bend the iron bars of a cage, were pre-eminently his. It is also certain that he could not have employed his gifts in a more reputable profession.