(MOLL CUTPURSE AND JONATHAN WILD)
(MOLL CUTPURSE AND JONATHAN WILD)
THEY plied the same trade, each with incomparable success. By her, as by him, the art of the fence was carried to its ultimate perfection. In their hands the high policy of theft wanted nor dignity nor assurance. Neither harboured a single scheme which was not straightway translated into action, and they were masters at once of Newgate and the Highway. As none might rob without the encouragement of his emperor, so none was hanged at Tyburn while intrigue or bribery might avail to drag a half-doomed neck from the halter; and not even Moll herself was more bitterly tyrannical in the control of a reckless gang than the thin-jawed, hatchet-faced Jonathan Wild.
They were statesmen rather than warriors--happy if they might direct the enterprises of others, and determined to punish the lightest disobedience by death. The mind of each was readier than his right arm, and neither would risk an easy advantage by a misunderstood or unwonted sleight of hand. But when you leave the exercise of their craft to contemplate their character with a larger eye, it is the woman who at every point has the advantage. Not only was she the peerless inventor of a new cunning; she was at home (and abroad) the better fellow. The suppression of sex was in itself an unparalleled triumph, and the most envious detractor could not but marvel at the domination of her womanhood. Moreover, she shone in a gayer, more splendid epoch. The worthy contemporary of Shakespeare, she had small difficulty in performing feats of prowess and resource which daunted the intrepid ruffians of the eighteenth century. Her period, in brief, gave her an eternal superiority; and it were as hopeless for Otway to surpass the master whom he disgraced, as for Wild to o'ershadow the brilliant example of Moll Cutpurse.
Tyrants both, they exercised their sovereignty in accordance with their varying temperament. Hers was a fine, fat, Falstaffian humour, which, while it inspired Middleton, might have suggested to Shakespeare an equal companion of the drunken knight. His was but a narrow, cynic wit, not edged like the knife, which wellnigh cut his throat, but blunt and scratching like a worn-toothed saw.
She laughed with a laugh that echoed from Ludgate to Charing Cross, and her voice drowned all the City. He grinned rarely and with malice; he piped in a voice shrill and acid as the tricks of his mischievous imagination. She knew no cruelty beyond the necessities of her life, and none regretted more than she the inevitable death of a traitor. He lusted after destruction with a fiendish temper, which was a grim anticipation of De Sade; he would even smile as he saw the noose tighten round the necks of the poor innocents he had beguiled to Tyburn. It was his boast that he had contrived robberies for the mere glory of dragging his silly victims to the gallows. But Moll, though she stood half-way between the robber and his prey, would have sacrificed a hundred well-earned commissions rather than see her friends and comrades strangled. Her temperament compelled her to the loyal support of her own order, and she would have shrunk in horror from her rival, who, for all his assumed friendship with the thief, was a staunch and subtle ally of justice.
Before all things she had the genius of success. Her public offences were trivial and condoned. She died in her bed, full of years and of honours, beloved by the light-fingered gentry, reverenced by all the judges on the bench. He, for all the sacrifices he made to a squint-eyed law, died execrated alike by populace and police. Already Blueskin had done his worst with a pen-knife; already Jack Sheppard and his comrades had warned Drury Lane against the infamous thief-catcher. And so anxious, on the other hand, was the law to be quit of their too zealous servant, that an Act of Parliament was passed with the sole object of placing Jonathan's head within the noose. His method, meagre though masterly, lulled him too soon to an impotent security. She, with her larger view of life, her plumper sense of style, was content with nothing less than an ultimate sovereignty, and manifestly did she prove her superiority.
Though born for the wimple, she was more of a man than the breeched and stockinged Jonathan, whose only deed of valiance was to hang, terrier-like, by his teeth to an evasive enemy. While he cheated at cards and cogged the dice, she trained dogs and never missed a bear-baiting. He shrank, like the coward that he was, from the exercise of manly sports; she cared not what were the weapons--quarterstaff or broadsword--so long as she vanquished her opponent. She scoured the town in search of insult; he did but exert his cunning when a quarrel was put upon him. Who, then, shall deny her manhood? Who shall whisper that his style was the braver or the better suited to his sex?