When Owen Wood goes to offer his condolence to Joan, the widow of Tom Sheppard, who was executed for stealing from Wood, he finds the woman living in misery near the Old Mint, a haven for mendicants, thieves, and debtors. Joan tells Wood that Van Galgebrok, a Dutch seaman and conjurer, prophesied that her baby, Jack, would be executed as his father was. The prophecy was based on the presence of a mole behind Jack’s ear. Wood offers to take the infant out of the sordid environment in order to avert fulfillment of the prophecy, but the mother refuses to part with her child.
Left alone with the infant while Joan goes to the attic to get a key that her deceased husband ordered to be given to Wood, the carpenter is accosted by a mob led by Sir Rowland Trenchard, in pursuit of a young man named Darrell. In the confusion, Jonathan Wild, a thief-taker, picks up the key that Joan was to return to Wood.
While a great storm rages, Darrell, the fugitive, with a baby in his arms, is again pursued by Sir Rowland. The chase continues to the flooded Thames, where Darrell is drowned after a struggle with Sir Rowland. On his way home, Wood rescues the baby from drowning. Some falling bricks save him and the baby from Sir Rowland’s wrath. Understanding little of the night’s strange events, Wood takes the child home with him. He names the boy Thames Darrell.
Twelve years later, Wood takes Jack Sheppard as an apprentice in his carpenter shop, but he finds the boy indifferent and listless in his work. Thames, reared by the Woods, is a model apprentice. A third child in the household is Winifred, Wood’s daughter, a charming, beautiful girl. The three twelve-year-olds are very fond of one another.
Mrs. Wood, a termagant, has long berated her husband for his kindness to Jack and to Joan Sheppard, who live modestly and respectably in Willesden. Following an episode in which Thames is injured while trying to prevent injury to Jack, Mrs. Wood reprimands Jack and predicts that he will come to the same end that his father met. Her chastisement is strong enough to arouse a spirit of criminality in Jack.
Wild, who had hanged Tom, boasts that he will hang the son as well. A resolute and subtle plotter, he works slyly to bring about the boy’s ruin. One day, he gives Jack the key that he found on the floor of the Mint twelve years before. It is Wood’s master key; his hope is that Jack will rob the carpenter. Investigating Thames’s parentage, Wild learns also that Thames is the child of Sir Rowland’s sister, Lady Alvira, whose husband Sir Rowland drowned and whose child he tried to destroy on the night of the great storm. Later, Lady Alvira was forced to marry her cousin, Sir Cecil Trafford. Lady Trafford is dying, in which event the estates will revert to her brother if she leaves no other heir. Wild promises Sir Rowland that he will remove Thames in order that Sir Rowland can inherit the entire estate. As a hold over the nobleman, he tells him also that he knows the whereabouts of Sir Rowland’s other sister, Constance, carelessly lost in childhood to a Gypsy.
Wild and Sir Rowland trap Thames and Jack in Sir Rowland’s house and accuse them of robbery. Imprisoned, Jack and Thames make a jailbreak from Old...
(The entire section is 1333 words.)