Gilderoy and the Sixteen-String Jack

From A Book of Scoundrels by Charles Whibley

I--Gilderoy

HE stood six feet ten in his stockinged feet, and was the tallest ruffian that ever cut a purse or held up a coach on the highway. A mass of black hair curled over a low forehead, and a glittering eye intensified his villainous aspect; nor did a deep scar, furrowing his cheek from end to end, soften the horror of his sudden apparition. Valiant men shuddered at his approach; women shrank from the distant echo of his name; for fifteen years he terrorised Scotland from Caithness to the border; and the most partial chronicler never insulted his memory with the record of a good deed.

He was born to a gentle family in the Calendar of Monteith, and was celebrated even in boyhood for his feats of strength and daring. While still at school he could hold a hundredweight at arm's-length, and crumple up a horseshoe like a wisp of hay. The fleetest runner, the most desperate fighter in the country, he was already famous before his name was besmirched with crime, and he might have been immortalised as the Hercules of the seventeenth century, had not his ambition been otherwise flattered. At the outset, though the inclination was never lacking, he knew small temptation to break the sterner laws of conduct. His pleasures were abundantly supplied by his father's generosity, and he had no need to refrain from such vices as became a gentleman. If he was no drunkard, it was because his head was equal to the severest strain, and, despite his forbidding expression, he was always a successful breaker of hearts. His very masterfulness overcame the most stubborn resistance; and more than once the pressure of his dishonourable suit converted hatred into love. At the very time that he was denounced for Scotland's disgrace, his praises were chanted in many a dejected ballad. 'Gilderoy was a bonny boy,' sang one heart-broken maiden:

     Had roses till his shoon,
His stockings were of silken soy,
     Wi' garters hanging doon.

But in truth he was admired less for his amiability than for that quality of governance which, when once he had torn the decalogue to pieces, made him a veritable emperor of crime.

His father's death was the true beginning of his career. A modest patrimony was squandered in six months, and Gilderoy had no penny left wherewith to satisfy the vices which insisted upon indulgence. He demanded money at all hazards, and money without toil. For a while his more loudly clamant needs were fulfilled by the amiable simplicity of his mother, whom he blackmailed with insolence and contempt. And when she, wearied by his shameless importunity, at last withdrew her support, he determined upon a monstrous act of vengeance. With a noble affectation of penitence he visited his home; promised reform at supper; and said good-night in the broken accent of reconciliation. No sooner was the house sunk in slumber than he crawled stealthily upstairs in order to forestall by theft a promised generosity. He opened the door of the bed-chamber in a hushed silence; but the wrenching of the cofferlid awoke the sleeper, and Gilderoy, having cut his mother's throat with an infamous levity, seized whatever money and jewels were in the house, cruelly maltreated his sister, and laughingly burnt the house to the ground, that the possibility of evidence might be destroyed.

Henceforth his method of plunder was assured. It was part of his philosophy to prevent detection by murder, and the flames from the burning walls added a pleasure to his lustful eye. His march across Scotland was marked by slaughtered families and ruined houses. Plunder was the first cause of his exploits, but there is no doubt that death and arson were a solace to his fierce spirit; and for a while this giant of cruelty knew neither check nor hindrance. Presently it became a superstition with him that death was the inevitable accompaniment of robbery, and, as he was incapable of remorse, he grew callous, and neglected the simplest precautions. At Dunkeld he razed a rifled house to the ground, and with the utmost effrontery repeated the performance at Aberdeen. But at last he had been tracked by a company of soldiers, who, that justice might not be cheated of her prey, carried him to gaol, where after the briefest trial he was condemned to death.

Gilderoy, however, was still master of himself. His immense strength not only burst his bonds, but broke prison, and this invincible Samson was once more free in Aberdeen, inspiring that respectable city with a legendary dread. The reward of one hundred pounds was offered in vain. Had he shown himself on the road in broad daylight, none would have dared to arrest him, and it was not until his plans were deliberately laid, that he crossed the sea. The more violent period of his career was at an end. Never again did he yield to his passion for burning and sudden death; and, if the world found him unconquerable, his self-control is proved by the fact that in the heyday of his strength he turned from his unredeemed brutality to a gentler method. He now deserted Scotland for France, with which, like all his countrymen, he claimed a cousinship; and so profoundly did he impose upon Paris with his immense stature, his elegant attire, his courtly manners (for he was courtesy itself, when it pleased him), that he was taken for an eminent scholar, or at least a soldier of fortune.

Prosperity might doubtless have followed a discreet profession, but Gilderoy must still be thieving, and he reaped a rich harvest among the unsuspicious courtiers of France. His most highly renowned exploit was performed at St. Denis, and the record of France's humiliation is still treasured. The great church was packed with ladies of fashion and their devout admirers. Richelieu attended in state; the king himself shone upon the assembly. The strange Scotsman, whom no man knew and all men wondered at, attracted a hundred eyes to himself and his magnificent equipment. But it was not his to be idle, and at the very moment whereat Mass was being sung, he contrived to lighten Richelieu's pocket of a purse. The king was a delighted witness of the theft; Gilderoy, assuming an air of facile intimacy, motioned him to silence; and he, deeming it a trick put upon Richelieu by a friend, hastened, at the service-end, to ask his minister if perchance he had a purse of gold upon him. Richelieu instantly discovered the loss, to the king's uncontrolled hilarity, which was mitigated when it was found that the thief, having emptied the king's pocket at the unguarded moment of his merriment, had left them both the poorer.

Such were Gilderoy's interludes of gaiety; and when you remember the cynical ferocity of his earlier performance, you cannot deny him the credit of versatility. He stayed in France until his ominous reputation was too widely spread; whereupon he crossed the Pyrenees, travelling like a gentleman, in a brilliant carriage of his own. From Spain he carried off a priceless collection of silver plate; and he returned to his own country, fatigued, yet unsoftened, by the grand tour. Meanwhile, a forgetful generation had not kept his memory green. The monster, who punished Scotland a year ago with fire and sword, had passed into oblivion, and Gilderoy was able to establish for himself a new reputation. He departed as far as possible from his ancient custom, joined the many cavaliers, who were riding up and down the country, pistol in hand, and presently proved a dauntless highwayman. He had not long ridden in the neighbourhood of Perth before he met the Earl of Linlithgow, from whom he took a gold watch, a diamond ring, and eighty guineas. Being an outlaw, he naturally espoused the King's cause, and would have given a year of his life to meet a Regicide. Once upon a time, says rumour, he found himself face to face with Oliver Cromwell, whom he dragged from his coach, set ignominiously upon an ass, and so turned adrift with his feet tied under the beast's belly. The story is incredible, not only because the loyal historians of the time caused Oliver to be robbed daily on every road in Great Britain, but because our Gilderoy, had he ever confronted the Protector, most assuredly would not have allowed him to escape with his life.

Tired of scouring the highway, Gilderoy resolved upon another enterprise. He collected a band of fearless ruffians, and placed himself at their head. With this army to aid, he harried Sutherland and the North, lifting cattle, plundering homesteads, and stopping wayfarers with a humour and adroitness worthy of Robin Hood. No longer a lawless adventurer, he made his own conditions of life, and forced the people to obey them. He who would pay Gilderoy a fair contribution ran no risk of losing his sheep or oxen. But evasion was impossible, and the smallest suspicion of falsehood was punished by death. The peaceably inclined paid their toll with regret; the more daring opposed the raider to their miserable undoing; the timid satisfied the utmost exactions of Gilderoy, and deemed themselves fortunate if they left the country with their lives.

Thus Scotland became a land of dread; the most restless man within her borders hardly dare travel beyond his byre. The law was powerless against this indomitable scourge, and the reward of a thousand marks would have been offered in vain, had not Gilderoy's cruelty estranged his mistress. This traitress--Peg Cunningham was her name--less for avarice than in revenge for many insults and infidelities, at last betrayed her master. Having decoyed him to her house, she admitted fifty armed men, and thus imagined a full atonement for her unnumbered wrongs. But Gilderoy was triumphant to the last. Instantly suspecting the treachery of his mistress, he burst into her bed-chamber, and, that she might not enjoy the price of blood, ripped her up with a hanger. Then he turned defiant upon the army arrayed against him, and killed eight men before the others captured him.

Disarmed after a desperate struggle, he was loaded with chains and carried to Edinburgh, where he was starved for three days, and then hanged without the formality of a trial on a gibbet, thirty feet high, set up in the Grassmarket. Even then Scotland's vengeance was unsatisfied. The body, cut down from its first gibbet, was hung in chains forty feet above Leith Walk, where it creaked and gibbered as a warning to evildoers for half a century, until at last the inhabitants of that respectable quarter petitioned that Gilderoy's bones should cease to rattle, and that they should enjoy the peace impossible for his jingling skeleton.

Gilderoy was no drawing-room scoundrel, no villain of schoolgirl romance. He felt remorse as little as he felt fear, and there was no crime from whose commission he shrank. Before his death he confessed to thirty-seven murders, and bragged that he had long since lost count of his robberies and rapes. Something must be abated for boastfulness. But after all deduction there remains a tale of crime that is unsurpassed. His most admirably artistic quality is his complete consistence. He was a ruffian finished and rotund; he made no concession, he betrayed no weakness. Though he never preached a sermon against the human race, he practised a brutality which might have proceeded from a gospel of hate. He spared neither friends nor relatives, and he murdered his own mother with as light a heart as he sent a strange widow of Aberdeen to her death. His skill is undoubted, and he proved by the discipline of his band that he was not without some talent of generalship. But he owed much of his success to his physical strength, and to the temperament, which never knew the scandal of hesitancy or dread.

A born marauder, he devoted his life to his trade; and, despite his travels in France and Spain, he enjoyed few intervals of merriment. Even the humour, which proved his redemption, was as dour and grim as Scotland can furnish at her grimmes: and dourest. Here is a specimen will serve as well as another: three of Gilderoy's gang had been hanged according to the sentence of a certain Lord of Session, and the Chieftain, for his own vengeance and the intimidation of justice, resolved upon an exemplary punishment. He waylaid the Lord of Session, emptied his pockets, killed his horses, broke his coach in pieces, and having bound his lackeys, drowned them in a pond. This was but the prelude of revenge, for presently (and here is the touch of humour) he made the Lord of Session ride at dead of night to the gallows, whereon the three malefactors were hanging. One arm of the crossbeams was still untenanted. 'By my soul, mon,' cried Gilderoy to the Lord of Session, 'as this gibbet is built to break people's craigs, and is not uniform without another, I must e'en hang you upon the vacant beam.' And straightway the Lord of Session swung in the moonlight, and Gilderoy had cracked his black and solemn joke.

This sense of fun is the single trait which relieves the colossal turpitude of Gilderoy. And, though even his turpitude was melodramatic in its lack of balance, it is a unity of character which is the foundation of his greatness. He was no fumbler, led away from his purpose by the first diversion; his ambition was clear before him, and he never fell below it. He defied Scotland for fifteen years, was hanged so high that he passed into a proverb, and though his handsome, sinister face might have made women his slaves, he was never betrayed by passion (or by virtue) to an amiability.

II--Sixteen-String Jack

THE 'Green Pig' stood in the solitude of the North Road. Its simple front, its neatly balanced windows, curtained with white, gave it an air of comfort and tranquillity. The smoke which curled from its hospitable chimney spoke of warmth and good fare.

To pass it was to spurn the last chance of a bottle for many a weary mile, and the prudent traveller would always rest an hour by its ample fireside, or gossip with its fantastic hostess. Now, the hostess of the little inn was Ellen Roach, friend and accomplice of Sixteen-String Jack, once the most famous woman in England, and still after a weary stretch at Botany Bay the strangest of companions, the most buxom of spinsters. Her beauty was elusive even in her triumphant youth, and middle-age had neither softened her traits nor refined her expression. Her auburn hair, once the glory of Covent Garden, was fading to a withered grey; she was never tall enough to endure an encroaching stoutness with equanimity; her dumpy figure made you marvel at her past success; and hardship had furrowed her candid brow into wrinkles. But when she opened her lips she became instantly animated. With a glass before her on the table, she would prattle frankly and engagingly of the past. Strange cities had she seen; she had faced the dangers of an adventurous life with calmness and good temper. And yet Botany Bay, with its attendant horrors, was already fading from her memory. In imagination she was still with her incomparable hero, and it was her solace, after fifteen years, to sing the praise and echo the perfections of Sixteen-String Jack.

'How well I remember,' she would murmur, as though unconscious of her audience, 'the unhappy day when Jack Rann was first arrested.

It was May, and he came back travel-stained and weary in the brilliant dawn. He had stopped a one-horse shay near the nine-mile stone on the Hounslow Road--every word of his confession is burnt into my brain--and had taken a watch and a handful of guineas. I was glad enough of the money, for there was no penny in the house, and presently I sent the maid-servant to make the best bargain she could with the watch. But the silly jade, by the saddest of mishaps, took the trinket straight to the very man who made it, and he, suspecting a theft, had us both arrested. Even then Jack might have been safe, had not the devil prompted me to speak the truth. Dismayed by the magistrate, I owned, wretched woman that I was, that I had received the watch from Rann, and in two hours Jack also was under lock and key. Yet, when we were sent for trial I made what amends I could. I declared on oath that I had never seen Sixteen-String Jack in my life; his name came to my lips by accident; and, hector as they would, the lawyers could not frighten me to an acknowledgment. Meanwhile Jack's own behaviour was grand. I was the proudest woman in England as I stood by his side in the dock. When you compared him with Sir John Fielding, you did not doubt for an instant which was the finer gentleman. And what a dandy was my Jack! Though he came there to answer for his life, he was all ribbons and furbelows. His irons were tied up with the daintiest blue bows, and in the breast of his coat he carried a bundle of flowers as large as a birch-broom. His neck quivered in the noose, yet he was never cowed to civility. 'I know no more of the matter than you do,' he cried indignantly, 'nor half so much neither,' and if the magistrate had not been an ill-mannered oaf, he would not have dared to disbelieve my true-hearted Jack. That time we escaped with whole skins; and off we went, after dinner, to Vauxhall, where Jack was more noticed than the fiercest of the bloods, and where he filled the heart of George Barrington with envy. Nor was he idle, despite his recent escape: he brought away two watches and three purses from the Garden, so that our necessities were amply supplied. Ah, I should have been happy in those days if only Jack had been faithful. But he had a roving eye and a joyous temperament; and though he loved me better than any of the baggages to whom he paid court, he would not visit me so often as he should. Why, once he was hustled off to Bow Street because the watch caught him climbing in at Doll Frampton's window. And she, the shameless minx, got him off by declaring in open court that she would be proud to receive him whenever he would deign to ring at her bell. That is the penalty of loving a great man: you must needs share his affection with a set of unworthy wenches. Yet Jack was always kind to me, and I was the chosen companion of his pranks.

'Never can I forget the splendid figure he cut that day at Bagnigge Wells. We had driven down in our coach, and all the world marvelled at our magnificence. Jack was brave in a scarlet coat, a tambour waistcoat, and white silk stockings. From the knees of his breeches streamed the strings (eight at each), whence he got his name, and as he plucked off his lace-hat the dinner-table rose at him. That was a moment worth living for, and when, after his first bottle, Jack rattled the glasses, and declared himself a highwayman, the whole company shuddered. "But, my friends," quoth he, "to-day I am making holiday, so that you have naught to fear." When the wine 's in, the wit 's out, and Jack could never stay his hand from the bottle. The more he drank, the more he bragged, until, thoroughly fuddled, he lost a ring from his finger, and charged the miscreants in the room with stealing it. "However," hiccupped he, "'tis a mere nothing, worth a paltry hundred pounds--less than a lazy evening's work. So I'll let the trifling theft pass." But the cowards were not content with Jack's generosity, and seizing upon him, they thrust him neck and crop through the window. They were seventeen to one, the craven-hearted loons; and I could but leave the marks of my nails on the cheek of the foremost, and follow my hero into the yard, where we took coach, and drove sulkily back to Covent Garden.

'And yet he was not always in a mad humour; in fact, Sixteen-String Jack, for all his gaiety, was a proud, melancholy man. The shadow of the tree was always upon him, and he would make me miserable by talking of his certain doom. "I have a hundred pounds in my pocket," he would say; "I shall spend that, and then I shan't last long." And though I never thought him serious, his prophecy came true enough. Only a few months before the end we had visited Tyburn together. With his usual carelessness, he passed the line of constables who were on guard.

"It is very proper," said he, in his jauntiest tone, "that I should be a spectator on this melancholy occasion." And though none of the dullards took his jest, they instantly made way for him. For my Jack was always a gentleman, though he was bred to the stable, and his bitterest enemy could not have denied that he was handsome. His open countenance was as honest as the day, and the brown curls over his forehead were more elegant than the smartest wig. Wherever he went the world did him honour, and many a time my vanity was sorely wounded. I was a pretty girl, mind you, though my travels have not improved my beauty; and I had many admirers before ever I picked up Jack Rann at a masquerade. Why, there was a Templar, with two thousand a year, who gave me a carriage and servants while I still lived at the dressmaker's in Oxford Street, and I was not out of my teens when the old Jew in St. Mary Axe took me into keeping. But when Jack was by, I had no chance of admiration. All the eyes were glued upon him, and his poor doxy had to be content with a furtive look thrown over a stranger's shoulder. At Barnet races, the year before they sent me across the sea, we were followed by a crowd the livelong day; and truly Jack, in his blue satin waistcoat laced with silver, might have been a peer. At any rate, he had not his equal on the course, and it is small wonder that never for a moment were we left to ourselves.

'But happiness does not last for ever; only too often we were gravelled for lack of money, and Jack, finding his purse empty, could do naught else than hire a hackney and take to the road again, while I used to lie awake listening to the watchman's raucous voice, and praying God to send back my warrior rich and scatheless. So times grew more and more difficult. Jack would stay a whole night upon the heath, and come home with an empty pocket or a beggarly half crown. And there was nothing, after a shabby coat that he hated half so much as a sheriff's officer. "Learn a lesson in politeness," he said to one of the wretches who dragged him off to the Marshalsea. "When Sir John Fielding's people come after me they use me genteelly; they only hold up a finger, beckon me, and I follow as quietly as a lamb. But you bluster and insult, as though you had never dealings with gentlemen." Poor Jack, he was of a proud stomach, and could not abide interference; yet they would never let him go free. And he would have been so happy had he been allowed his own way. To pull out a rusty pistol now and again, and to take a purse from a traveller--surely these were innocent pleasures, and he never meant to hurt a fellow-creature. But for all his kindness of heart, for all his love of splendour and fine clothes, they took him at last.

'And this time, too, it was a watch which was our ruin. How often did I warn him: "Jack," I would say, "take all the money you can. Guineas tell no tale. But leave the watches in their owners' fobs." Alas! he did not heed my words, and the last man he ever stopped on the road was that pompous rascal, Dr. Bell, then chaplain to the Princess Amelia. "Give me your money," screamed Jack, "and take no notice or I'll blow your brains out." And the doctor gave him all that he had, the mean-spirited devil-dodger, and it was no more than eighteenpence. Now what should a man of courage do with eighteenpence? So poor Jack was forced to seize the parson's watch and trinkets as well, and thus it was that a second time we faced the Blind Beak.

When Jack brought home the watch, I was seized with a shuddering presentiment, and I would have given the world to throw it out of the window. But I could not bear to see him pinched with hunger, and he had already tossed the doctor's eighteenpence to a beggar woman. So I trudged off to the pawnbroker's, to get what price I could, and I bethought me that none would know me for what I was so far away as Oxford Street. But the monster behind the counter had a quick suspicion, though I swear I looked as innocent as a babe; he discovered the owner of the watch, and infamously followed me to my house.

'The next day we were both arrested, and once more we stood in the hot, stifling Court of the Old Bailey. Jack was radiant as ever, the one spot of colour and gaiety in that close, sodden atmosphere. When we were taken from Bow Street a thousand people formed our guard of honour, and for a month we were the twin wonders of London. The lightest word, the fleetest smile of the renowned highwayman, threw the world into a fit of excitement, and a glimpse of Rann was worth a king's ransom. I could look upon him all day for nothing! And I knew what a fever of fear throbbed behind his mask of happy contempt. Yet bravely he played the part unto the very end. If the toasts of London were determined to gaze at him, he assured them they should have a proper salve for their eyes. So he dressed himself as a light-hearted sportsman. His coat and waistcoat were of pea-green cloth; his buckskin breeches were spotlessly new, and all tricked out with the famous strings; his hat was bound round with silver cords; and even the ushers of the Court were touched to courtesy. He would whisper to me, as we stood in the dock, "Cheer up, my girl. I have ordered the best supper that Covent Garden can provide, and we will make merry to-night when this foolish old judge has done his duty." The supper was never eaten. Through the weary afternoon we waited for acquittal. The autumn sun sank in hopeless gloom. The wretched lamps twinkled through the jaded air of the court-house. In an hour I lived a thousand years of misery, and when the sentence was read, the words carried no sense to my withered brain. It was only in my cell I realised that I had seen Jack Rann for the last time; that his pea-green coat would prove a final and ineffaceable memory.

'Alas! I, who had never been married, was already a hempen widow; but I was too hopelessly heartbroken for my lover's fate to think of my own paltry hardship. I never saw him again. They told me that he suffered at Tyburn like a man, and that he counted upon a rescue to the very end. They told me (still bitterer news to hear) that two days before his death he entertained seven women at supper, and was in the wildest humour. This almost broke my heart; it was an infidelity committed on the other side of the grave. But, poor Jack, he was a good lad, and loved me more than them all, though he never could be faithful to me.' And thus, bidding the drawer bring fresh glasses, Ellen Roach would end her story. Though she had told it a hundred times, at the last words a tear always sparkled in her eye. She lived without friend and without lover, faithful to the memory of Sixteen-String Jack, who for her was the only reality in the world of shades. Her middle-age was as distant as her youth. The dressmaker's in Oxford Street was as vague a dream as the inhospitable shore of Botany Bay. So she waited on to a weary eld, proud of the 'Green Pig's' well-ordered comfort, prouder still that for two years she shared the glory of Jack Rann, and that she did not desert her hero, even in his punishment.

III--Gilderoy and the Sixteen-String Jack--A Parallel

THEIR closest parallel is the notoriety which dogged them from the very day of their death. Each, for his own exploits, was the most famous man of his time, the favourite of broadsides, the prime hero of the ballad-mongers. And each owed his fame as much to good fortune as to merit, since both were excelled in their generation by more skilful scoundrels. If Gilderoy was unsurpassed in brutality, he fell immeasurably below Hind in artistry and wit, nor may he be compared to such accomplished highwaymen as Mull Sack or the Golden Farmer. His method was not elevated by a touch of the grand style. He stamped all the rules of the road beneath his contemptuous foot, and cared not what enormity he committed in his quest for gold. Yet, though he lived in the true Augustan age, he yielded to no one of his rivals in glorious recognition. So, too, Jack Rann, of the Sixteen Strings, was a near contemporary of George Barrington. While that nimble-fingered prig was making a brilliant appearance at Vauxhall, and emptying the pockets of his intimates, Rann was riding over Hounslow Heath, and flashing his pistol in the eye of the wayfarer. The very year in which Jack danced his last jig at Tyburn, Barrington had astonished London by a fruitless attempt to steal Prince Orloff's miraculous snuff-box. And not even Ellen Roach herself would have dared to assert that Rann was Barrington's equal in sleight of hand. But Rann holds his own against the best of his craft, with an imperishable name, while a host of more distinguished cracksmen are excluded even from the Newgate Calendar.

In truth, there is one quality which has naught to do with artistic supremacy; and in this quality both Rann and Gilderoy were rich beyond their fellows. They knew (none better) how to impose upon the world. Had their deserts been even less than they were, they would still have been bravely notorious. It is a common superstition that the talent for advertisement has but a transitory effect, that time sets all men in their proper places.

Nothing can be more false; for he who has once declared himself among the great ones of the earth, not only holds his position while he lives, but forces an unreasoning admiration upon the future. Though he declines from the lofty throne, whereon his own vanity and love of praise have set him, he still stands above the modest level which contents the genuinely great. Why does Euripides still throw a shadow upon the worthier poets of his time? Because he had the faculty of displacement, because he could compel the world to profess an interest not only in his work but in himself. Why is Michael Angelo a loftier figure in the history of art than Donatello, the supreme sculptor of his time? Because Donatello had not the temper which would bully a hundred popes, and extract a magnificent advertisement from each encounter. Why does Shelley still claim a larger share of the world's admiration than Keats, his indubitable superior? Because Shelley was blessed or cursed with the trick of interesting the world by the accidents of his life.

So by a similar faculty Gilderoy and Jack Rann have kept themselves and their achievements in the light of day. Had they lived in the nineteenth century they might have been the vendors of patent pills, or the chairmen of bubble companies. Whatever trade they had followed, their names would have been on every hoarding, their wares would have been puffed in every journal. They understood the art of publicity better than any of their contemporaries, and they are remembered not because they were the best thieves of their time, but because they were determined to interest the people in their misdeeds. Gilderoy's brutality, which was always theatrical, ensured a constant remembrance, and the lofty gallows added to his repute; while the brilliant inspiration of the strings, which decorated Rann's breeches, was sufficient to conquer death. How should a hero sink to oblivion who had chosen for himself so splendid a name as Sixteen-String Jack?

So far, then, their achievement is parallel. And parallel also is their taste for melodrama. Each employed means too great or too violent for the end in view. Gilderoy burnt houses and ravished women, when his sole object was the acquisition of money. Sixteen-String Jack terrified Bagnigge Wells with the dreadful announcement that he was a highwayman, when his kindly, stupid heart would have shrunk from the shedding of a drop of blood. So they both blustered through the world, the one in deed, the other in word; and both played their parts with so little refinement that they frightened the groundlings to a timid admiration. Here the resemblance is at an end. In the essentials of their trade Gilderoy was a professional, Rann a mere amateur. They both bullied; but, while Sixteen-String Jack was content to shout threats, and pick up half-a-crown, Gilderoy breathed murder, and demanded a vast ransom. Only once in his career did the 'disgraceful Scotsman' become gay and debonair. Only once did he relax the tension of his frown, and pick pockets with the lightness and freedom of a gentleman. It was on his voyage to France that he forgot his old policy of arson and pillage, and truly the Court of the Great King was not the place for his rapacious cruelty. Jack Rann, on the other hand, would have taken life as a prolonged jest, if Sir John Fielding and the sheriffs had not checked his mirth. He was but a bungler on the road, with no more resource than he might have learned from the common chap-book, or from the dying speeches, hawked in Newgate Street. But he had a fine talent for merriment; he loved nothing so well as a smart coat and a pretty woman. Thieving was no passion with him, but a necessity. How could he dance at a masquerade or court his Ellen with an empty pocket? So he took to the road as the sole profession of an idle man, and he bullied his way from Hounslow to Epping in sheer lightness of heart. After all, to rob Dr. Bell of eighteenpence was the work of a simpleton. It was a very pretty taste which expressed itself in a pea-green coat and deathless strings; and Rann will keep posterity's respect rather for the accessories of his art than for the art itself. On the other hand, you cannot imagine Gilderoy habited otherwise than in black; you cannot imagine this monstrous matricide taking pleasure in the smaller elegancies of life. From first to last he was the stern and beetle-browed marauder, who would have despised the frippery of Sixteen-String Jack as vehemently as his sudden appearance would have frightened the foppish lover of Ellen Roach.

Their conduct with women is sufficient index of their character. Jack Rann was too general a lover for fidelity. But he was amiable, even in his unfaithfulness; he won the undying affection of his Ellen; he never stood in the dock without a nosegay tied up by fair and nimble fingers; he was attended to Tyburn by a bevy of distinguished admirers. Gilderoy, on the other hand, approached women in a spirit of violence. His Sadic temper drove him to kill those whom he affected to love. And his cruelty was amply repaid. While Ellen Roach perjured herself to save the lover, to whose memory she professed a lifelong loyalty, it was Peg Cunningham who wreaked her vengeance in the betrayal of Gilderoy. He remained true to his character, when he ripped up the belly of his betrayer. This was the closing act of his life.

Rann, also, was consistent, even to the gallows. The night before his death he entertained seven women at supper, and outlaughed them all. The contrast is not so violent as it appears. The one act is melodrama, the other farce. And what is farce, but melodrama in a happier shape?

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Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2016