For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter III.

The Story of Two Birds of Prey.

The reader of the foregoing pages has doubtless asked himself, “what is the link which binds together John Rex and Sarah Purfoy?”

In the year 1825 there lived at St. Heliers, Jersey, an old watchmaker, named Urban Purfoy. He was a hard-working man, and had amassed a little money — sufficient to give his grand-daughter an education above the common in those days. At sixteen, Sarah Purfoy was an empty-headed, strong-willed, precocious girl, with big brown eyes. She had a bad opinion of her own sex, and an immense admiration for the young and handsome members of the other. The neighbours said that she was too high and mighty for her rank in life. Her grandfather said she was a “beauty”, and like her poor dear mother. She herself thought rather meanly of her personal attractions, and rather highly of her mental ones. She was brimful of vitality, with strong passions, and little religious sentiment. She had not much respect for moral courage, for she did not understand it; but she was a profound admirer of personal prowess. Her distaste for the humdrum life she was leading found expression in a rebellion against social usages. She courted notoriety by eccentricities of dress, and was never so happy as when she was misunderstood. She was the sort of girl of whom women say — “It is a pity she has no mother”; and men, “It is a pity she does not get a husband”; and who say to themselves, “When shall I have a lover?” There was no lack of beings of this latter class among the officers quartered in Fort Royal and Fort Henry; but the female population of the island was free and numerous, and in the embarrassment of riches, Sarah was overlooked. Though she adored the soldiery, her first lover was a civilian. Walking one day on the cliff, she met a young man. He was tall, well-looking, and well-dressed. His name was Lemoine; he was the son of a somewhat wealthy resident of the island, and had come down from London to recruit his health and to see his friends. Sarah was struck by his appearance, and looked back at him. He had been struck by hers, and looked back also. He followed her, and spoke to her — some remark about the wind or the weather — and she thought his voice divine. They got into conversation — about scenery, lonely walks, and the dullness of St. Heliers. “Did she often walk there?” “Sometimes.” “Would she be there tomorrow?” “She might.” Mr. Lemoine lifted his hat, and went back to dinner, rather pleased with himself.

They met the next day, and the day after that. Lemoine was not a gentleman, but he had lived among gentlemen, and had caught something of their manner. He said that, after all, virtue was a mere name, and that when people were powerful and rich, the world respected them more than if they had been honest and poor. Sarah agreed with this sentiment. Her grandfather was honest and poor, and yet nobody respected him — at least, not with such respect as she cared to acknowledge. In addition to his talent for argument, Lemoine was handsome and had money — he showed her quite a handful of bank-notes one day. He told her of London and the great ladies there, and hinting that they were not always virtuous, drew himself up with a moody air, as though he had been unhappily the cause of their fatal lapse into wickedness. Sarah did not wonder at this in the least. Had she been a great lady, she would have done the same. She began to coquet with this seductive fellow, and to hint to him that she had too much knowledge of the world to set a fictitious value upon virtue. He mistook her artfulness for innocence, and thought he had made a conquest. Moreover, the girl was pretty, and when dressed properly, would look well. Only one obstacle stood in the way of their loves — the dashing profligate was poor. He had been living in London above his means, and his father was not inclined to increase his allowance.

Sarah liked him better than anybody else she had seen, but there are two sides to every bargain. Sarah Purfoy must go to London. In vain her lover sighed and swore. Unless he would promise to take her away with him, Diana was not more chaste. The more virtuous she grew, the more vicious did Lemoine feel. His desire to possess her increased in proportionate ratio to her resistance, and at last he borrowed two hundred pounds from his father’s confidential clerk (the Lemoines were merchants by profession), and acceded to her wishes. There was no love on either side — vanity was the mainspring of the whole transaction. Lemoine did not like to be beaten; Sarah sold herself for a passage to England and an introduction into the “great world”.

We need not describe her career at this epoch. Suffice it to say that she discovered that vice is not always conducive to happiness, and is not, even in this world, so well rewarded as its earnest practice might merit. Sated, and disappointed, she soon grew tired of her life, and longed to escape from its wearying dissipations. At this juncture she fell in love.

The object of her affections was one Mr. Lionel Crofton. Crofton was tall, well made, and with an insinuating address. His features were too strongly marked for beauty. His eyes were the best part of his face, and, like his hair, they were jet black. He had broad shoulders, sinewy limbs, and small hands and feet. His head was round, and well-shaped, but it bulged a little over the ears which were singularly small and lay close to his head. With this man, barely four years older than herself, Sarah, at seventeen, fell violently in love. This was the more strange as, though fond of her, he would tolerate no caprices, and possessed an ungovernable temper, which found vent in curses, and even blows. He seemed to have no profession or business, and though he owned a good address, he was even less of a gentleman than Lemoine. Yet Sarah, attracted by one of the strange sympathies which constitute the romance of such women’s lives, was devoted to him. Touched by her affection, and rating her intelligence and unscrupulousness at their true value, he told her who he was. He was a swindler, a forger, and a thief, and his name was John Rex. When she heard this she experienced a sinister delight. He told her of his plots, his tricks, his escapes, his villainies; and seeing how for years this young man had preyed upon the world which had deceived and disowned her, her heart went out to him. “I am glad you found me,” she said. “Two heads are better than one. We will work together.”

John Rex, known among his intimate associates as Dandy Jack, was the putative son of a man who had been for many years valet to Lord Bellasis, and who retired from the service of that profligate nobleman with a sum of money and a wife. John Rex was sent to as good a school as could be procured for him, and at sixteen was given, by the interest of his mother with his father’s former master, a clerkship in an old-established city banking-house. Mrs. Rex was intensely fond of her son, and imbued him with a desire to shine in aristocratic circles. He was a clever lad, without any principle; he would lie unblushingly, and steal deliberately, if he thought he could do so with impunity. He was cautious, acquisitive, imaginative, self-conceited, and destructive. He had strong perceptive faculties, and much invention and versatility, but his “moral sense” was almost entirely wanting. He found that his fellow clerks were not of that “gentlemanly” stamp which his mother thought so admirable, and therefore he despised them. He thought he should like to go into the army, for he was athletic, and rejoiced in feats of muscular strength. To be tied all day to a desk was beyond endurance. But John Rex, senior, told him to “wait and see what came of it.” He did so, and in the meantime kept late hours, got into bad company, and forged the name of a customer of the bank to a cheque for twenty pounds. The fraud was a clumsy one, and was detected in twenty-four hours. Forgeries by clerks, however easily detected, are unfortunately not considered to add to the attractions of a banking-house, and the old-established firm decided not to prosecute, but dismissed Mr. John Rex from their service. The ex-valet, who never liked his legalized son, was at first for turning him out of doors, but by the entreaties of his wife, was at last induced to place the promising boy in a draper’s shop, in the City Road.

This employment was not a congenial one, and John Rex planned to leave it. He lived at home, and had his salary — about thirty shillings a week — for pocket money. Though he displayed considerable skill with the cue, and not infrequently won considerable sums for one in his position, his expenses averaged more than his income; and having borrowed all he could, he found himself again in difficulties. His narrow escape, however, had taught him a lesson, and he resolved to confess all to his indulgent mother, and be more economical for the future. Just then one of those “lucky chances” which blight so many lives occurred. The “shop-walker” died, and Messrs. Baffaty & Co. made the gentlemanly Rex act as his substitute for a few days. Shop-walkers have opportunities not accorded to other folks, and on the evening of the third day Mr. Rex went home with a bundle of lace in his pocket. Unfortunately, he owed more than the worth of this petty theft, and was compelled to steal again. This time he was detected. One of his fellow-shopmen caught him in the very act of concealing a roll of silk, ready for future abstraction, and, to his astonishment, cried “Halves!” Rex pretended to be virtuously indignant, but soon saw that such pretence was useless; his companion was too wily to be fooled with such affectation of innocence. “I saw you take it,” said he, “and if you won’t share I’ll tell old Baffaty.” This argument was irresistible, and they shared. Having become good friends, the self-made partner lent Rex a helping hand in the disposal of the booty, and introduced him to a purchaser. The purchaser violated all rules of romance by being — not a Jew, but a very orthodox Christian. He kept a second-hand clothes warehouse in the City Road, and was supposed to have branch establishments all over London.

Mr. Blicks purchased the stolen goods for about a third of their value, and seemed struck by Mr. Rex’s appearance. “I thort you was a swell mobsman,” said he. This, from one so experienced, was a high compliment. Encouraged by success, Rex and his companion took more articles of value. John Rex paid off his debts, and began to feel himself quite a “gentleman” again. Just as Rex had arrived at this pleasing state of mind, Baffaty discovered the robbery. Not having heard about the bank business, he did not suspect Rex — he was such a gentlemanly young man — but having had his eye for some time upon Rex’s partner, who was vulgar, and squinted, he sent for him. Rex’s partner stoutly denied the accusation, and old Baffaty, who was a man of merciful tendencies, and could well afford to lose fifty pounds, gave him until the next morning to confess, and state where the goods had gone, hinting at the persuasive powers of a constable at the end of that time. The shopman, with tears in his eyes, came in a hurry to Rex, and informed him that all was lost. He did not want to confess, because he must implicate his friend Rex, but if he did not confess he would be given in charge. Flight was impossible, for neither had money. In this dilemma John Rex remembered Blicks’s compliment, and burned to deserve it. If he must retreat, he would lay waste the enemy’s country. His exodus should be like that of the Israelites — he would spoil the Egyptians. The shop-walker was allowed half an hour in the middle of the day for lunch. John Rex took advantage of this half-hour to hire a cab and drive to Blicks. That worthy man received him cordially, for he saw that he was bent upon great deeds. John Rex rapidly unfolded his plan of operations. The warehouse doors were fastened with a spring. He would remain behind after they were locked, and open them at a given signal. A light cart or cab could be stationed in the lane at the back, three men could fill it with valuables in as many hours. Did Blicks know of three such men? Blicks’s one eye glistened. He thought he did know. At half-past eleven they should be there. Was that all? No. Mr. John Rex was not going to “put up” such a splendid thing for nothing. The booty was worth at least £5,000 if it was worth a shilling — he must have £100 cash when the cart stopped at Blicks’s door. Blicks at first refused point blank. Let there be a division, but he would not buy a pig in a poke. Rex was firm, however; it was his only chance, and at last he got a promise of £80. That night the glorious achievement known in the annals of Bow Street as “The Great Silk Robbery” took place, and two days afterwards John Rex and his partner, dining comfortably at Birmingham, read an account of the transaction — not in the least like it — in a London paper.

John Rex, who had now fairly broken with dull respectability, bid adieu to his home, and began to realize his mother’s wishes. He was, after his fashion, a “gentleman”. As long as the £80 lasted, he lived in luxury, and by the time it was spent he had established himself in his profession. This profession was a lucrative one. It was that of a swindler. Gifted with a handsome person, facile manner, and ready wit, he had added to these natural advantages some skill at billiards, some knowledge of gambler’s legerdemain, and the useful consciousness that he must prey or be preyed on. John Rex was no common swindler; his natural as well as his acquired abilities saved him from vulgar errors. He saw that to successfully swindle mankind, one must not aim at comparative, but superlative, ingenuity. He who is contented with being only cleverer than the majority must infallibly be outwitted at last, and to be once outwitted is — for a swindler — to be ruined. Examining, moreover, into the history of detected crime, John Rex discovered one thing. At the bottom of all these robberies, deceptions, and swindles, was some lucky fellow who profited by the folly of his confederates. This gave him an idea. Suppose he could not only make use of his own talents to rob mankind, but utilize those of others also? Crime runs through infinite grades. He proposed to himself to be at the top; but why should he despise those good fellows beneath him? His speciality was swindling, billiard-playing, card-playing, borrowing money, obtaining goods, never risking more than two or three coups in a year. But others plundered houses, stole bracelets, watches, diamonds — made as much in a night as he did in six months — only their occupation was more dangerous. Now came the question — why more dangerous? Because these men were mere clods, bold enough and clever enough in their own rude way, but no match for the law, with its Argus eyes and its Briarean hands. They did the rougher business well enough; they broke locks, and burst doors, and “neddied” constables, but in the finer arts of plan, attack, and escape, they were sadly deficient. Good. These men should be the hands; he would be the head. He would plan the robberies; they should execute them.

Working through many channels, and never omitting to assist a fellow-worker when in distress, John Rex, in a few years, and in a most prosaic business way, became the head of a society of ruffians. Mixing with fast clerks and unsuspecting middle-class profligates, he found out particulars of houses ill guarded, and shops insecurely fastened, and “put up” Blicks’s ready ruffians to the more dangerous work. In his various disguises, and under his many names, he found his way into those upper circles of “fast” society, where animals turn into birds, where a wolf becomes a rook, and a lamb a pigeon. Rich spendthrifts who affected male society asked him to their houses, and Mr. Anthony Croftonbury, Captain James Craven, and Mr. Lionel Crofton were names remembered, sometimes with pleasure, oftener with regret, by many a broken man of fortune. He had one quality which, to a man of his profession, was invaluable — he was cautious, and master of himself. Having made a success, wrung commission from Blicks, rooked a gambling ninny like Lemoine, or secured an assortment of jewellery sent down to his “wife” in Gloucestershire, he would disappear for a time. He liked comfort, and revelled in the sense of security and respectability. Thus he had lived for three years when he met Sarah Purfoy, and thus he proposed to live for many more. With this woman as a coadjutor, he thought he could defy the law. She was the net spread to catch his “pigeons”; she was the well-dressed lady who ordered goods in London for her husband at Canterbury, and paid half the price down, “which was all this letter authorized her to do,” and where a less beautiful or clever woman might have failed, she succeeded. Her husband saw fortune before him, and believed that, with common prudence, he might carry on his most lucrative employment of “gentleman” until he chose to relinquish it. Alas for human weakness! He one day did a foolish thing, and the law he had so successfully defied got him in the simplest way imaginable.

Under the names of Mr. and Mrs. Skinner, John Rex and Sarah Purfoy were living in quiet lodgings in the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury. Their landlady was a respectable poor woman, and had a son who was a constable. This son was given to talking, and, coming in to supper one night, he told his mother that on the following evening an attack was to be made on a gang of coiners in the Old Street Road. The mother, dreaming all sorts of horrors during the night, came the next day to Mrs. Skinner, in the parlour, and, under a pledge of profound secrecy, told her of the dreadful expedition in which her son was engaged. John Rex was out at a pigeon match with Lord Bellasis, and when he returned, at nine o’clock, Sarah told him what she had heard.

Now, 4, Bank-place, Old Street Road, was the residence of a man named Green, who had for some time carried on the lucrative but dangerous trade of “counterfeiting”. This man was one of the most daring of that army of ruffians whose treasure chest and master of the mint was Blicks, and his liberty was valuable. John Rex, eating his dinner more nervously than usual, ruminated on the intelligence, and thought it would be but wise to warn Green of his danger. Not that he cared much for Green personally, but it was bad policy to miss doing a good turn to a comrade, and, moreover, Green, if captured might wag his tongue too freely. But how to do it? If he went to Blicks, it might be too late; he would go himself. He went out — and was captured. When Sarah heard of the calamity she set to work to help him. She collected all her money and jewels, paid Mrs. Skinner’s rent, went to see Rex, and arranged his defence. Blicks was hopeful, but Green — who came very near hanging — admitted that the man was an associate of his, and the Recorder, being in a severe mood, transported him for seven years. Sarah Purfoy vowed that she would follow him. She was going as passenger, as emigrant, anything, when she saw Mrs. Vickers’s advertisement for a “lady’s-maid,” and answered it. It chanced that Rex was shipped in the Malabar, and Sarah, discovering this before the vessel had been a week at sea, conceived the bold project of inciting a mutiny for the rescue of her lover. We know the result of that scheme, and the story of the scoundrel’s subsequent escape from Macquarie Harbour.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37