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Deacon Brodie

Deacon Brodie by Charles Whibley

As William Brodie stood at the bar, on trial for a his life, he seemed the gallantest gentleman in court. Thither he had been carried in a chair, and, still conscious of the honour paid him, he flashed a condescending smile upon his judges. His step was jaunty as ever; his superb attire well became the Deacon of a Guild. His coat was blue, his vest a very garden of flowers; while his satin breeches and his stockings of white silk were splendid in their simplicity. Beneath a cocked hat his hair was fully dressed and powdered, and even the prosecuting counsel assailed him with the respect due to a man of fashion. The fellow's magnificence was thrown into relief by the squalor of his accomplice. For George Smith had neither the money nor the taste to disguise himself as a polished rogue, and he huddled as far from his master as he could in the rags of his mean estate. Nor from this moment did Brodie ever abate one jot of his dignity. He faced his accusers with a clear eye and a frigid amiability; he listened to his sentence with a calm contempt; he laughed complacently at the sorry interludes of judicial wit; and he faced the last music with a bravery and a cynicism which bore the stamp of true greatness.

It was not until after his crime that Brodie's heroism approved itself. And even then his was a triumph not of skill but of character. Always a gentleman in manner and conduct, he owed the success and the failure of his life to this one quality. When in flight he made for Flushing on board the Endeavour, the other passengers, who knew not his name, straightway christened him `the gentleman.' The enterprise itself would have been impossible to one less persuasively gifted, and its proper execution is a tribute to the lofty quality of his mind. There was he in London, a stranger and a fugitive; yet instead of crawling furtively into a coal-barge he charters a ship, captures the confidence of the captain, carries the other passengers to Flushing, when they were bound for Leith, and compels every one to confess his charm! The thief, also, found him irresistible; and while the game lasted, the flash kens of Edinburgh murmured the Deacon's name in the hushed whisper of respect.

His fine temperament disarmed treachery. In London he visited an ancient doxy of his own, who, with her bully, shielded him from justice, though betrayal would have met with an ample reward. Smith, if he knew himself the superior craftsman, trembled at the Deacon's nod, who thus swaggered it through life, with none to withhold the exacted reverence. To this same personal compulsion he owed his worldly advancement. Deacon of the Wrights' Guild while still a young man, he served upon the Council, was known for one of Edinburgh's honoured citizens, and never went abroad unmarked by the finger of respectful envy. He was elected in 1773 a member of the Cape Club, and met at the Isle of Man Arms in Craig's Close the wittiest men of his time and town. Raeburn, Runciman, and Ferguson the poet were of the society, and it was with such as these that Brodie might have wasted his vacant hour. Indeed, at the very moment that he was cracking cribs and shaking the ivories, he was a chosen leader of fashion and gaiety; and it was the elegance of the `gentleman' that distinguished him from his fellows.

The fop, indeed, had climbed the altitudes of life; the cracksman still stumbled in the valleys. If he had a ready cunning in the planning of an enterprise, he must needs bungle at the execution; and had he not been associated with George Smith, a king of scoundrels, there would be few exploits to record. And yet for the craft of housebreaker he had one solid advantage: he knew the locks and bolts of Edinburgh as he knew his primer--for had he not fashioned the most of them himself? But, his knowledge once imparted to his accomplices, he cheerfully sank to a menial's office. In no job did he play a principal's part: he was merely told off by Smith or another to guard the entrance and sound the alarm. When M`Kain's on the Bridge was broken, the Deacon found the false keys; it was Smith who carried off such poor booty as was found. And though the master suggested the attack upon Bruce's shop, knowing full well the simplicity of the lock, he lingered at the Vintner's over a game of hazard, and let the man pouch a sumptuous booty.

Even the onslaught upon the Excise Office, which cost his life, was contrived with appalling clumsiness. The Deacon of the Wrights' Guild, who could slash wood at his will, who knew the artifice of every lock in the city, let his men go to work with no better implements than the stolen coulter of a plough and a pair of spurs. And when they tackled the ill omened job, Brodie was of those who brought failure upon it. Long had they watched the door of the Excise; long had they studied the habits of its clerks; so that they went to work in no vain spirit of experiment. Nor on the fatal night did they force an entrance until they had dogged the porter to his home. Smith and Brown ransacked the place for money, while Brodie and Andrew Ainslie remained without to give a necessary warning. Whereupon Ainslie was seized with fright, and Brodie, losing his head, called off the others, so that six hundred pounds were left, that might have been an easy prey. Smith, indignant at the collapse of the long- pondered design, laid the blame upon his master, and they swung, as Brodie's grim spirit of farce suggested, for four pounds apiece.

The humours of the situation were all the Deacon's own. He dressed the part in black; his respectability grinned behind a vizard; and all the while he trifled nonchalantly with a pistol. Breaking the silence with snatches from The Beggar's Opera, he promised that all their lead should turn to gold, christened the coulter and the crow the Great and Little Samuel, and then went off to drink and dice at the Vintner's. How could anger prevail against this undying gaiety? And if Smith were peevish at failure, he was presently reconciled, and prepared once more to die for his Deacon.

Even after escape, the amateur is still apparent. True, he managed the trip to Flushing with his ancient extravagance; true, he employed all the juggleries of the law to prevent his surrender at Amsterdam. But he knew not the caution of the born criminal, and he was run to earth, because he would still write to his friends like a gentleman. His letters, during this nightmare of disaster, are perfect in their carelessness and good-fellowship. In this he demands news of his children, as becomes a father and a citizen, and furnishes a schedule of their education; in that he is curious concerning the issue of a main, and would know whether his black cock came off triumphant. Nor, even in flight, did he forget his proper craft, but would have his tools sent to Charleston, that in America he might resume the trade that had made him Deacon.

But his was the art of conduct, not of guile, and he deserved capture for his rare indifference. Why, then, with no natural impulsion, did he risk the gallows? Why, being no born thief, and innocent of the thief's cunning, did he associate with so clever a scoundrel as George Smith, with cowards craven as Brown and Ainslie? The greed of gold, doubtless, half persuaded him, but gold was otherwise attainable, and the motive was assuredly far more subtle. Brodie, in fact, was of a romantic turn. He was, so to say, a glorified schoolboy, surfeited with penny dreadfuls. He loved above all things to patter the flash, to dream himself another Macheath, to trick himself out with all the trappings of a crime he was unfit to commit. It was never the job itself that attracted him: he would always rather throw the dice than force a neighbour's window. But he must needs have a distraction from the respectability of his life. Everybody was at his feet; he was Deacon of his Guild, at an age whereat his fellows were striving to earn a reputable living; his masterpieces were fashioned, and the wrights' trade was already a burden. To go upon the cross seemed a dream of freedom, until he snapped his fingers at the world, filled his mouth with slang, prepared his alibi, and furnished him a whole wardrobe of disguises.

With a conscious irony, maybe, he buried his pistols beneath the domestic hearth, jammed his dark lantern into the press, where he kept his game-cocks, and determined to make an inextricable jumble of his career. Drink is sometimes a sufficient reaction against the orderliness of a successful life.

But drink and cards failed with the Deacon, and at the Vintner's of his frequentation he encountered accomplices proper for his schemes. Never was so outrageous a protest offered against domesticity. Yet Brodie's resolution was romantic after its fashion, and was far more respectable than the blackguardism of the French Revolution, which distracted housewifely discontent a year after the Deacon swung. Moreover, it gave occasion for his dandyism and his love of display. If in one incarnation he was the complete gentleman, in another he dressed the part of the perfect scoundrel, and the list of his costumes would have filled one of his own ledgers.

But, when once the possibility of housebreaking was taken from him, he returned to his familiar dignity. Being questioned by the Procurator Fiscal, he shrugged his shoulders, regretting that other affairs demanded his attention. As who should say: it is unpardonable to disturb the meditations of a gentleman. He made a will bequeathing his knowledge of law to the magistrates of Edinburgh, his dexterity in cards and dice to Hamilton the chimney-sweeper, and all his bad qualities to his good friends and old companions, Brown and Ainslie, not doubting, however, that their own will secure them `a rope at last.' In prison it was his worst complaint that, though the nails of his toes and fingers were not quite so long as Nebuchadnezzar's, they were long enough for a mandarin, and much longer than he found convenient. Thus he preserved an untroubled demeanour until the day of his death. Always polite, and even joyous, he met the smallest indulgence with enthusiasm. When Smith complained that a respite of six weeks was of small account, Brodie exclaimed, `George, what would you and I give for six weeks longer? Six weeks would be an age to us.'

The day of execution was the day of his supreme triumph. As some men are artists in their lives, so the Deacon was an artist in his death. Nothing became him so well as his manner of leaving the world. There is never a blot upon this exquisite performance. It is superb, impeccable! Again his dandyism supported him, and he played the part of a dying man in a full suit of black, his hair, as always, dressed and powdered. The day before he had been jovial and sparkling. He had chanted all his flash songs, and cracked the jokes of a man of fashion. But he set out for the gallows with a firm step and a rigorous demeanour. He offered a prayer of his own composing, and `O Lord,' he said, `I lament that I know so little of Thee.' The patronage and the confession are alike characteristic. As he drew near the scaffold, the model of which he had given to his native city a few years since, he stepped with an agile briskness; he examined the halter, destined for his neck, with an impartial curiosity.

His last pleasantry was uttered as he ascended the table. `George,' he muttered, `you are first in hand,' and thereafter he took farewell of his friends. Only one word of petulance escaped his lips: when the halters were found too short, his contempt for slovenly workmanship urged him to protest, and to demand a punishment for the executioner. Again ascending the table, he assured himself against further mishap by arranging the rope with his own hands. Thus he was turned off in a brilliant assembly. The Provost and Magistrates, in respect for his dandyism, were resplendent in their robes of office, and though the crowd of spectators rivalled that which paid a tardy honour to Jonathan Wild, no one was hurt save the customary policeman. Such was the dignified end of a `double life.' And the duplicity is the stranger, because the real Deacon was not Brodie the Cracksman, but Brodie the Gentleman. So lightly did he esteem life that he tossed it from him in a careless impulse. So little did he fear death that, `What is hanging?' he asked. `A leap in the dark.'

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