For others the arbiter of life and death, she was only thrice in an unexampled career confronted with the law. Her first occasion of arrest was so paltry that it brought discredit only on the constable. This jack-in-office, a very Dogberry, encountered Moll returning down Ludgate Hill from some merry-making, a lanthorn carried pompously before her. Startled by her attire he questioned her closely, and receiving insult for answer, promptly carried her to the Round House. The customary garnish made her free or the prison, and next morning a brief interview with the Lord Mayor restored Moll to liberty but not to forgetfulness.
She had yet to wreak her vengeance upon the constable for a monstrous affront, and hearing presently that he had a rich uncle in Shropshire, she killed the old gentleman (in imagination) and made the constable his heir. Instantly a retainer, in the true garb and accent of the country, carried the news to Dogberry, and sent him off to Ludlow on the costliest of fool's errands. He purchased a horse and set forth joyously, as became a man of property; he limped home, broken in purse and spirit, the hapless object of ridicule and contempt. Perhaps he guessed the author of this sprightly outrage; but Moll, for her part, was far too finished a humorist to reveal the truth, and hereafter she was content to swell the jesting chorus.
Her second encounter with justice was no mere pleasantry, and it was only her marvellous generalship that snatched her career from untimely ruin and herself from the clutch of Master Gregory. Two of her emissaries had encountered a farmer in Chancery Lane. They spoke with him first at Smithfield, and knew that his pocket was well lined with bank-notes. An improvised quarrel at a tavern-door threw the farmer off his guard, and though he defended the money, his watch was snatched from his fob and duly carried to Moll. The next day the victim, anxious to repurchase his watch, repaired to Fleet Street, where Moll generously promised to recover the stolen property. Unhappily security had encouraged recklessness, and as the farmer turned to leave he espied his own watch hanging among other trinkets upon the wall. With a rare discretion he held his peace until he had called a constable to his aid, and this time the Roaring Girl was lodged in Newgate, with an ugly crime laid to her charge.
Committed for trial, she demanded that the watch should be left in the constable's keeping, and, pleading not guilty when the sessions came round, insisted that her watch and the farmer's were not the same. The farmer, anxious to acknowledge his property, demanded the constable to deliver the watch, that it might be sworn to in open court; and when the constable put his hand to his pocket the only piece of damning evidence had vanished, stolen by the nimble fingers of one of Moll's officers.
Thus with admirable trickery and a perfect sense of dramatic effect she contrived her escape, and never again ran the risk of a sudden discovery. For experience brought caution in its train, and though this wiliest of fences lived almost within the shadow of Newgate, though she was as familiar in the prison yard as at the Globe Tavern, her nightly resort, she obeyed the rules of life and law with so precise an exactitude that suspicion could never fasten upon her. Her kingdom was midway between robbery and justice. And as she controlled the mystery of thieving so, in reality, she meted out punishment to the evildoer. Honest citizens were robbed with small risk to life or property. For Moll always frowned upon violence, and was ever ready to restore the booty for a fair ransom. And the thieves, driven by discipline to a certain humanity, plied their trade with an obedience and orderliness hitherto unknown. Moll's then was no mean achievement. Her career was not circumscribed by her trade, and the Roaring Girl, the daredevil companion of the wits and bloods, enjoyed a fame no less glorious than the Queen of Thieves.
`Enter Moll in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard.' Thus in the old comedy she comes upon the stage; and truly it was by her clothes that she was first notorious. By accident a woman, by habit a man, she must needs invent a costume proper to her pursuits. But she was no shrieking reformer, no fanatic spying regeneration in a pair of breeches. Only in her attire she showed her wit; and she went to a bull-baiting in such a dress as well became her favourite sport. She was not of those who `walk in spurs but never ride.' The jerkin, the doublet, the galligaskins were put on to serve the practical purposes of life, not to attract the policeman or the spinster. And when a petticoat spread its ample folds beneath the doublet, not only was her array handsome, but it symbolised the career of one who was neither man nor woman, and yet both. After a while, however, the petticoat seemed too tame for her stalwart temper, and she exchanged it for the great Dutch slop, habited in which unseemly garment she is pictured in the ancient prints.
Up and down the town she romped and scolded, earning the name which Middleton gave her in her green girlhood. `She has the spirit of four great parishes,' says the wit in the comedy, `and a voice that will drown all the city.' If a gallant stood in the way, she drew upon him in an instant, and he must be a clever swordsman to hold his ground against the tomboy who had laid low the German fencer himself. A good fellow always, she had ever a merry word for the passer-by, and so sharp was her tongue that none ever put a trick upon her. Not to know Moll was to be inglorious, and she `slipped from one company to another like a fat eel between a Dutchman's fingers.' Now at Parker's Ordinary, now at the Bear Garden, she frequented only the haunts of men, and not until old age came upon her did she endure patiently the presence of women.
Her voice and speech were suited to the galligaskin. She was a true disciple of Maltre Fran