To All my Good Friends Health
As Plato (my good friends) travelled from Athens to Egypt and from thence through sundry climes to increase his knowledge: so I as desirous as he to search the depth of those liberal arts wherein I was a professor, left my study in Whittington College<54> & traced the country to grow famous in my faculty, so that I was so expert in the art of cony-catching by my continual practice that that learned philosopher Jack Cuttes, whose deep insight into this science had drawn him thrice through every gaol in England, meeting of me at Maidstone, gave me the bucklers<55> as the subtlest that ever he saw in that quaint and mystical form of foolosophy: for if ever I brought my cony but to crush a pot of ale with me, I was as sure of all the crowns in his purse, as if he had conveyed them into my proper possession by a deed of gift with his own hand.
At dequoy, mumchance, catch-dolt, oure-le-bourse, non est possible, Dutch noddy or Irish one and thirty<56> none durst ever make compare with me for excellence: but as so many heads so many wits, so some that would not stoop a farthing at cards would venture all the bite in their bung<57> at dice. Therefore had I cheats for the very sice, of the squariers, langrets, gourds, stop-dice, highmen, lowmen, and dice barred for all advantages<58>: that if I fetched in any novice either at tables or any other game of hazard, I would be sure to strip him of all that his purse had in esse or his credit in posse<59> ere the simple cony and I parted.
When neither of these would serve, I had consorts that could verse, nip, and foist, so that I had a superficial sight into every profitable faculty. Insomuch that my principles grew authentical, and I so famous that had I not been crossed by those two peevish pamphlets, I might at the next midsummer have worn Doctor Storie's cap for a favour. For I travelled almost throughout all England, admired for my ingenious capacity, till coming about Exeter, I began to exercise my art, and drawing in a tanner for a tame cony, as soon as he had lost two shillings he made this reply. Sirrah, although you have a livery on your back<60> and a cognizance to countenance you withal, and bear the port of a gentleman, yet I see you are a false knave and a cony-catcher, and this companion your setter, and that before you and I part, I'll prove.
At these words cony-catcher and setter, I was driven into as great a maze as if one had dropped out of the clouds, to hear a peasant cant the words of art belonging to our trade: yet I set a good face on the matter and asked him what he meant by cony-catching. Marry (quoth he), although it is your practice, yet I have for 3 pence bought a little pamphlet that hath taught me to smoke such a couple of knaves as you be. When I heard him talk of smoking, my heart waxed cold and I began to gather into him gently. No no (quoth he), you cannot verse upon me; this book hath taught me to beware of cross-biting. And so to be brief, he used me courteously, and that night caused the constable to lodge me in prison, & the next morning I was carried before the justice, where likewise he had this cursed book of cony-catching, so that he could tell the secrets of mine art better than myself: whereupon after strict examination I was sent to the gaol, & at the sessions, by good hap & some friend that my money procured me, I was delivered. As soon as I was at liberty, I got one of these books & began to toss it over very devoutly, wherein I found our art so perfectly anatomized as if he had been practitioner in our faculty forty winters before. Then with a deep sigh I began to curse this R.G. that had made a public spoil of so noble a science, and to exclaim against that palpable ass whosoever, that would make any penman privy to our secret sciences. But see the sequel, I smothered my sorrow in silence, and away I trudged out of Devonshire & went towards Cornwall, & coming to a simple ale-house to lodge, I found at a square table hard by the fire half a dozen country farmers at cards. The sight of these penny-fathers at play drove me straight into a pleasant passion to bless fortune that had offered such sweet opportunity to exercise my wits & fill my purse with crowns, for I counted all the money they had mine by proper interest. As thus I stood looking on them playing at cross-ruff, one was taken revoking, whereat the other said: What, neighbour, will you play the cony-catcher with us? no, no, we have read the book as well as you. Never went a cup of small beer so sorrowfully down an ale-knight's belly in a frosty morning as that word struck to my heart, so that for fear of trouble I was fain to try my good hap at square play, at which, fortune favouring me, I won twenty shillings, and yet do as simply as I could, I was not only suspected, but called cony-catcher and cross-biter. But away I went with the money and came presently to London, where I no sooner arrived amongst the crew but I heard of a second part worse than the first, which drave me into such a great choler that I began to inquire what this R.G. should be. At last I learned that he was a scholar and a Master of Arts and a cony-catcher in his kind, though not at cards, and one that favoured good fellows, so they were not palpable offenders in such desperate laws: whereupon reading his books and surveying every line with deep judgement, I began to note folly in the man, that would strain a gnat and let pass an elephant, that would touch small scapes, and let gross faults pass without any reprehension. Insomuch that I resolved to make an apology, and to answer his libellous invectives, and to prove that we cony-catchers are like little flies in the grass which live on little leaves and do no more harm, whereas there be in England other professions that be great cony-catchers and caterpillars that make barren the field wherein they bait.
Therefore, all my good friends vouch of my pains and pray for my proceedings, for I mean to have a bout with this R.G. and to give him such a veny that he shall be afraid hereafter to disparage that mystical science of cony-catching: if not, and that I prove too weak for him in sophistry, I mean to borrow Will Bickerton's blade, of as good a temper as Morglay King Arthur's sword was, and so challenge him to the single combat. But desirous to end the quarrel with the pen if it be possible, hear what I have learned in Whittington College.<42>
Yours in cards and dice