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?
As became a hero, she kept the best of loose company: her parlour was ever packed with the friends of loyalty and adventure. Are not Hind and Mull Sack worth a thousand Blueskins? Moreover, plunder and wealth were not the only objects of her pursuit: she was not merely a fence but a patriot, and she would have accounted a thousand pounds well lost, if she did but compass the discomfiture of a Parliament-man. Indeed, if Jonathan, the thief-catcher, limped painfully after his magnificent example, Jonathan the man and the sportsman confessed a pitiful inferiority to the valiant Moll. Thus she avenged her sex by distancing the most illustrious of her rivals; and if he pleads for his credit a taste for theology, hers is the chuckle of contemptuous superiority. She died a patriot, bequeathing a fountain of wine to the champions of an exiled king; he died a casuist, setting crabbed problems to the Ordinary. Here, again, the advantage is evident: loyalty is the virtue of men; a sudden attachment to religion is the last resource of the second-rate citizen and of the trapped criminal.
A SPARE, lean frame; a small head set forward upon a pair of sloping shoulders; a thin, sharp nose, and rat-like eyes; a flat, hollow chest; shrunk shanks, modestly retreating from their snuff-coloured hose--these are the tokens which served to remind his friends of Ralph Briscoe, the Clerk of Newgate. As he left the prison in the grey air of morning upon some errand of mercy or revenge, he appeared the least fearsome of mortals, while an awkward limp upon his left toe deepened the impression of timidity. So abstract was his manner, so hesitant his gait, that he would hug the wall as he went, nervously stroking its grimy surface with his long, twittering fingers. But Ralph, as justice and the Jug knew too well, was neither fool nor coward. His character belied his outward seeming. A large soul had crept into the case of his wizened body, and if a poltroon among his ancestors had gifted him with an alien type, he had inherited from some nameless warrior both courage and resource.
He was born in easy circumstances, and gently nurtured in the distant village of Kensington. Though cast in a scholar's mould, and very apt for learning, he rebelled from the outset against a career of inaction. His lack of strength was never a check upon his high stomach; he would fight with boys of twice his size, and accept the certain defeat in a cheerful spirit of dogged pugnacity. Moreover, if his arms were weak, his cunning was as keen-edged as his tongue; and, before his stricken eye had paled, he had commonly executed an ample vengeance upon his enemy. Nor was it industry that placed him at the top of the class. A ready wit made him master of the knowledge he despised.
But he would always desert his primer to follow the hangman's lumbering cart up Tyburn Hill, and, still a mere imp of mischief, he would run the weary way from Kensington to Shoe Lane on the distant chance of a cock-fight. He was present, so he would relate in after years, when Sir Thomas Jermin's man put his famous trick upon the pit. With a hundred pounds in his pocket and under his arm a dunghill cock, neatly trimmed for the fray, the ingenious ruffian, as Briscoe would tell you, went off to Shoe Lane, persuaded an accomplice to fight the cock in Sir Thomas Jermin's name, and laid a level hundred against his own bird. So lofty was Sir Thomas's repute that backers were easily found, but the dunghill rooster instantly showed a clean pair of heels, and the cheat was justified of his cunning.
Thus Ralph Briscoe learnt the first lessons in that art of sharping wherein he was afterwards an adept; and when he left school his head was packed with many a profitable device which no book learning could impart. His father, however, still resolute that he should join an intelligent profession, sent him to Gray's Inn that he might study law. Here the elegance of his handwriting gained him a rapid repute; his skill became the envy of all the lean-souled clerks in the Inn, and he might have died a respectable attorney had not the instinct of sport forced him from the inkpot and parchment of his profession. Ill could he tolerate the monotony and restraint of this clerkly life. In his eyes law was an instrument, not of justice, but of jugglery. Men were born, said his philosophy, rather to risk their necks than ink their fingers; and if a bold adventure puts you in a difficulty, why, then, you hire some straw-splitting attorney to show his cunning. Indeed, the study of law was for him, as it was for Falstaff, an excuse for many a bout and merry-making. He loved his glass, and he loved his wench, and he loved a bull- baiting better than either. It was his boast, and Moll Cutpurse's compliment, that he never missed a match in his life, and assuredly no man was better known in Paris Garden than the intrepid Ralph Briscoe.
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.