The Switcher and Gentleman Harry
From A Book of Scoundrels by Charles Whibley
DAVID HAGGART was born at Canonmills, with no richer birthright than thievish fingers and a left hand of surpassing activity. The son of a gamekeeper, he grew up a long-legged, red-headed callant, lurking in the sombre shadow of the Cowgate, or like the young Sir Walter, championing the Auld Town against the New on the slopes of Arthur's Seat. Kipping was his early sin; but the sportsman's instinct, born of his father's trade, was so strong within him, that he pinched a fighting cock before he was breeched, and risked the noose for horse-stealing when marbles should have engrossed his boyish fancy. Turbulent and lawless, he bitterly resented the intolerable restraint of a tranquil life, and, at last, in the hope of a larger liberty, he enlisted for a drummer in the Norfolk Militia, stationed at the moment in Edinburgh Castle. A brief, insubordinate year, misspent in his country's service, proved him hopeless of discipline: he claimed his discharge, and henceforth he was free to follow the one craft for which nature and his own ambition had moulded him.
Like Chatterton, like Rimbaud, Haggart came into the full possession of his talent while still a child. A Barrington of fourteen, he knew every turn and twist of his craft, before he escaped from school. His youthful necessities were munificently supplied by facile depredation, and the only hindrance to immediate riches was his ignorance of flash kens where he might fence his plunder. Meanwhile he painted his soul black with wickedness. Such hours as he could snatch from the profitable conduct of his trade he devoted to the austere debauchery of Leith or the Golden Acre. Though he knew not the seduction of whisky, he missed never a dance nor a raffle, joining the frolics of prigs and callets in complete forgetfulness of the shorter catechism. In vain the kirk compared him to a 'bottle in the smoke'; in vain the minister whispered of hell and the gallows; his heart hardened, as his fingers grew agile, and when, at sixteen, he left his father's house for a sporting life, he had not his equal in the three kingdoms for cunning and courage.
His first accomplice was Barney M'Guire, who--until a fourteen stretch sent him to Botany Bay--played Clytus to David's Alexander, and it was at Portobello Races that their brilliant partnership began. Hitherto Haggart had worked by stealth; he had tracked his booty under the cloud of night. Now was the moment to prove his prowess in the eye of day, to break with a past which he already deemed ignoble. His heart leaped with the occasion: he tackled his adventure with the hot-head energy of a new member, big with his maiden speech. The victim was chosen in an instant: a backer, whose good fortune had broken the bookmakers. There was no thief on the course who did not wait, in hungry appetence, the sportsman's descent from the stand; yet the novice outstripped them all. 'I got the first dive at his keek-cloy,' he writes in his simple, heroic style, 'and was so eager on my prey, that I pulled out the pocket along with the money, and nearly upset the gentleman.' A steady brain saved him from the consequence of an o'erbuoyant enthusiasm. The notes were passed to Barney in a flash, and when the sportsman turned upon his assailant, Haggart's hands were empty.
Thereupon followed an infinite series of brilliant exploits. With Barney to aid, he plundered the Border like a reiver. He stripped the yeomen of Tweedside with a ferocity which should have avenged the disgrace of Flodden. More than once he ransacked Ecclefechan, though it is unlikely that he emptied the lean pocket of Thomas Carlyle. There was not a gaff from Newcastle to the Tay which he did not haunt with sedulous perseverance; nor was he confronted with failure, until his figure became a universal terror. His common method was to price a horse, and while the dealer showed Barney the animal's teeth, Haggart would slip under the uplifted arm, and ease the blockhead of his blunt. Arrogant in his skill, delighted with his manifold triumphs, Haggart led a life of unbroken prosperity under the brisk air of heaven, and, despite the risk of his profession, he remained two years a stranger to poverty and imprisonment. His worst mishap was to slip his forks into an empty pocket, or to encounter in his cups a milvadering horse-dealer; but his joys were free and frank, while he exulted in his success with a boyish glee. 'I was never happier in all my life than when I fingered all this money,' he exclaims when he had captured the comfortable prize of two hundred pounds. And then he would make merry at Newcastle or York, forgetting the knowing ones for a while, going abroad in white cape and tops, and flicking his leg like a gentleman with a dandy whip. But at last Barney and a wayward ambition persuaded him to desert his proper craft for the greater hazard of cracking a crib, and thus he was involved in his ultimate ruin. He incurred and he deserved the untoward fate of those who overlook their talents' limitation; and when this master of pickpockets followed Barney through the window of a secluded house upon the York Road, he might already have felt the noose tightening at his neck. The immediate reward of this bungled attack was thirty pounds, but two days later he was committed with Barney to the Durham Assizes, where he exchanged the obscurity of the perfect craftsman for the notoriety of the dangerous gaol-bird.
For the moment, however, he recovered his freedom: breaking prison, he straightway conveyed a fiddlestick to his comrade, and in a twinkling was at Newcastle again, picking up purses well lined with gold, and robbing the bumpkins of their scouts and chats. But the time of security was overpast. Marked and suspicious, he began to fear the solitude of the country; he left the horse-fair for the city, and sought in the budging-kens of Edinburgh the secrecy impossible on the hill-side. A clumsy experiment in shop-lifting doubled his danger, and more than once he saw the inside of the police-office. Henceforth, he was free of the family; he loafed in the Shirra-Brae; he knew the flash houses of Leith and the Grassmarket. With Jean Johnston, the blowen of his choice, he smeared his hands with the squalor of petty theft, and the drunken recklessness wherewith he swaggered it abroad hastened his approaching downfall.
With a perpetual anxiety to avoid the nippers his artistry dwindled. The left hand, invincible on the Cheviots, seemed no better than a bunch of thumbs in the narrow ways of Edinburgh; and after innumerable misadventures Haggart was safely lodged in Dumfries gaol. No sooner was he locked within his cell than his restless brain planned a generous escape. He would win liberty for his fellows as well as for himself, and after a brief council a murderous plot was framed and executed. A stone slung in a handkerchief sent Morrin, the gaoler, to sleep; the keys found on him opened the massy doors; and Haggart was free with a reward set upon his head. The shock of the enterprise restored his magnanimity. Never did he display a finer bravery than in this spirited race for his life, and though three counties were aroused he doubled and ducked to such purpose that he outstripped John Richardson himself with all his bloodhounds, and two days later marched into Carlisle disguised in the stolen rags of a potato-bogle.
During the few months that remained to him of life he embarked upon a veritable Odyssey: he scoured Scotland from the Border to St. Andrews, and finally contrived a journey oversea to Ireland, where he made the name of Daniel O'Brien a terror to well-doers. Insolent and careless, he lurched from prison to prison; now it was Armagh that held him, now Downpatrick, until at last he was thrust on a general charge of vagabondage and ill-company into Kilmainham, which has since harboured many a less valiant adventurer than David Haggart. Here the culminating disgrace overtook him: he was detected in the prison yard by his ancient enemy, John Richardson, of Dumfries, who dragged him back to Scotland heavily shackled and charged with murder. So nimble had he proved himself in extrication, that his captors secured him with pitiless severity; round his waist he carried an iron belt, whereto were padlocked the chains, clanking at his wrists and ankles. Thus tortured and helpless, he was fed 'like a sucking turkey in Bedlam'; but his sorrows vanished, and his dying courage revived at sight of the torchlight procession, which set forth from Dumfries to greet his return.
His coach was hustled by a mob, thousands strong, eager to catch sight of Haggart the Murderer, and though the spot where he slew Morrin was like fire beneath his passing feet, he carried to his cell a heart and a brain aflame with gratified vanity. His guilt being patent, reprieve was as hopeless as acquittal, and after the assured condemnation he spent his last few days with what profit he might in religious and literary exercises. He composed a memoir, which is a model of its kind; so diligently did he make his soul, that he could appear on the scaffold in a chastened spirit of prayerful gratitude; and, being an eminent scoundrel, he seemed a proper subject for the ministrations of Mr. George Combe. 'That is the one thing I did not know before,' he confessed with an engaging modesty, when his bumps were squeezed, and yet he was more than a match for the amiable phrenologist, whose ignorance of mankind persuaded him to believe that an illiterate felon could know himself and analyse his character.
His character escaped his critics as it escaped himself. Time was when George Borrow, that other picaroon, surprised the youthful David, thinking of Willie Wallace upon the Castle Rock, and Lavengro's romantic memory transformed the raw-boned pickpocket into a monumental hero, who lacked nothing save a vast theatre to produce a vast effect. He was a Tamerlane, robbed of his opportunity; a valiant warrior, who looked in vain for a battlefield; a marauder who climbed the scaffold not for the magnitude, but for the littleness of his sins. Thus Borrow, in complete misunderstanding of the rascal's qualities.
Now, Haggart's ambition was as circumscribed as his ability. He died, as he was born, an expert cly-faker, whose achievements in sleight of hand are as yet unparalleled. Had the world been one vast breast pocket his fish-hook fingers would have turned it inside out. But it was not his to mount a throne, or overthrow a dynasty. 'My forks,' he boasted, 'are equally long, and they never fail me.' That is at once the reason and the justification of his triumph. Born with a consummate artistry tingling at his finger-tips, how should he escape the compulsion of a glorious destiny? Without fumbling or failure he discovered the single craft for which fortune had framed him, and he pursued it with a courage and an industry which gave him not a kingdom, but fame and booty, exceeding even his greedy aspiration. No Tamerlane he, questing for a continent, but David Haggart, the man with the long forks, happy if he snatched his neighbour's purse.
Before all things he respected the profession which his left hand made inevitable, and which he pursued with unconquerable pride. Nor in his inspired youth was plunder his sole ambition: he cultivated the garden of his style with the natural zeal of the artist; he frowned upon the bungler with a lofty contempt. His materials were simplicity itself: his forks, which were always with him, and another's well-filled pocket, since, sensible of danger, he cared not to risk his neck for a purse that did not contain so much as would 'sweeten a grawler.' At its best, his method was always witty--that is the single word which will characterise it--witty as a piece of Heine's prose, and as dangerous. He would run over a man's pockets while he spoke with him, returning what he chose to discard without the lightest breath of suspicion. 'A good workman,' his contemporaries called him; and they thought it a shame for him to be idle. Moreover, he did not blunder unconsciously upon his triumph; he tackled the trade in so fine a spirit of analysis that he might have been the very Aristotle of his science. 'The keek-cloy,' he wrote, in his hints to young sportsmen, 'is easily picked. If the notes are in the long fold just tip them the forks; but if there is a purse or open money in the case, you must link it.' The breast-pocket, on the other hand, is a severer test. 'Picking the suck is sometimes a kittle job,' again the philosopher speaks. 'If the coat is buttoned it must be opened by slipping past. Then bring the lil down between the flap of the coat and the body, keeping your spare arm across your man's breast, and so slip it to a comrade; then abuse the fellow for jostling you.'
Not only did he master the tradition of thievery; he vaunted his originality with the familiar complacence of the scoundrel. Forgetting that it was by burglary that he was undone, he explains for his public glorification that he was wont to enter the houses of Leith by forcing the small window above the outer door. This artifice, his vanity grumbles, is now common; but he would have all the world understand that it was his own invention, and he murmurs with the pedantry of the convicted criminal that it is now set forth for the better protection of honest citizens. No less admirable in his own eyes was that other artifice which induced him to conceal such notes as he managed to filch in the collar of his coat. Thus he eluded the vigilance of the police, which searched its prey in those days with a sorry lack of cunning. In truth, Haggart's wits were as nimble as his fingers, and he seldom failed to render a profitable account of his talents. He beguiled one of his sojourns in gaol by manufacturing tinder wherewith to light the prisoners' pipes, and it is not astonishing that he won a general popularity. In Ireland, when the constables would take him for a Scot, he answered in high Tipperary, and saved his skin for a while by a brogue which would not have shamed a modern patriot. But quick as were his wits, his vanity always outstripped them, and no hero ever bragged of his achievements with a louder effrontery.
Thus he celebrated his downfall in a ballad that has the true Newgate ring, and verily in his own eyes he was a hero who carried to the scaffold a dauntless spirit unstained by treachery.
He believed himself an adept in all the arts; as a squire of dames he held himself peerless, and he assured the ineffable Combe, who recorded his flippant utterance with a credulous respect, that he had sacrificed hecatombs of innocent virgins to his importunate lust. Prose and verse trickled with equal facility from his pen, and his biography is a masterpiece. Written in the pedlar's French as it was misspoken in the hells of Edinburgh, it is a narrative of uncommon simplicity and directness, marred now and again by such superfluous reflections as are the natural result of thievish sentimentality. He tells his tale without paraphrase or adornment, and the worthy Writer to the Signet, who prepared the work for the Press, would have asked three times the space to record one-half the adventures. 'I sunk upon it with my forks and brought it with me'; 'We obtained thirty-three pounds by this affair'--is there not the stalwart flavour of the epic in these plain, unvarnished sentences?
His other accomplishments are pallid in the light of his brilliant left hand. Once, at Derry--he attended a cock-fight, and beguiled an interval by emptying the pockets of a lucky bookmaker. An expert, who watched the exploit in admiration, could not withhold a compliment. 'You are the Switcher,' he exclaimed; 'some take all, but you leave nothing.' And it is as the Switcher that Haggart keeps his memory green.
'DAMN ye both! stop, or I will blow your brains out!' Thus it was that Harry Simms greeted his victims, proving in a phrase that the heroic age of the rumpad was no more. Forgotten the debonair courtesy of Claude Duval! Forgotten the lightning wit, the swift repartee of the incomparable Hind! No longer was the hightoby-gloak a 'gentleman' of the road; he was a butcher, if not a beggar, on horseback; a braggart without the courage to pull a trigger; a swashbuckler, oblivious of that ancient style which converted the misery of surrender into a privilege. Yet Harry Simms, the supreme adventurer of his age, was not without distinction; his lithe form and his hard-ridden horse were the common dread of England; his activity was rewarded with a princely treasure; and if his method were lacking in urbanity, the excuse is that he danced not to the brilliant measure of the Cavaliers, but limped to the clumsy fiddle-scraping of the early Georges.
At Eton, where a too-indulgent grandmother had placed him, he ransacked the desks of his school-fellows, and avenged a birching by emptying his master's pockets. Wherefore he lost the hope of a polite education, and instead of proceeding with a clerkly dignity to King's College, in the University of Cambridge, he was ignominiously apprenticed to a breeches-maker. The one restraint was as irksome as the other, and Harry Simms abandoned the needle, as he had scorned the grammar, to go upon the pad. Though his early companions were scragged at Tyburn, the light-fingered rascal was indifferent to their fate, and squandering such booty as fell to his share, he bravely 'turned out' for more. Tottenham Court Fair was the theatre of his childish exploits, and there he gained some little skill in the picking of pockets. But a spell of bad trade brought him to poverty, and he attempted to replenish an empty pocket by the childish expedient of a threatening letter.
The plan was conceived and executed with a futility which ensured an instant capture. The bungler chose a stranger at haphazard, commanding him, under penalty of death, to lay five guineas upon a gun in Tower Wharf; the guineas were cunningly deposited, and the rascal, caught with his hand upon the booty, was committed to Newgate. Youth, and the intercession of his grandmother, procured a release, unjustified by the infamous stupidity of the trick. Its very clumsiness should have sent him over sea; and it is wonderful that from a beginning of so little promise, he should have climbed even the first slopes of greatness. However, the memory of gaol forced him to a brief interlude of honesty; for a while he wore the pink coat of Colonel Cunningham's postillion, and presently was promoted to the independence of a hackney coach.
Thus employed, he became acquainted with the famous Cyprians of Covent Garden, who, loving him for his handsome face and sprightly gesture, seduced him to desert his cab for an easier profession. So long as the sky was fair, he lived under their amiable protection; but the summer having chased the smarter gentry from town, the ladies could afford him no more than would purchase a horse and a pair of pistols, so that Harry was compelled to challenge fortune on the high road. His first journey was triumphantly successful. A post-chaise and a couple of coaches emptied their wealth into his hands, and, riding for London, he was able to return the favours lavished upon him by Covent Garden. At the first touch of gold he was transformed to a finished blade. He purchased himself a silver-hilted sword, which he dangled over a discreet suit of black velvet; a prodigious run of luck at the gaming-tables kept his purse well lined; and he made so brilliant an appearance in his familiar haunts that he speedily gained the name of 'Gentleman Harry.' But the money, lightly won, was lightly spent. The tables took back more than they gave, and before long Simms was astride his horse again, flourishing his irons, and crying: 'Stand and deliver'! upon every road in England.
Epping Forest was his general hunting-ground, but his enterprise took him far afield, and if one night he galloped by starlight across Bagshot Heath, another he was holding up the York stage with unbridled insolence. He robbed, he roared, he blustered with praiseworthy industry; and good luck coming to the aid of caution, he escaped for a while the necessary punishment of his crimes. It was on Stockbridge Downs that he met his first check.
He had stopped a chariot, and came off with a hatful of gold, but the victims, impatient of disaster, raised the county, and Gentleman Harry was laid by the heels. Never at a loss, he condescended to a cringing hypocrisy: he whined, he whimpered, he babbled of reform, he plied his prosecutors with letters so packed with penitence, that they abandoned their case, and in a couple of days Simms had eased a collector at Eversey Bank of three hundred pounds. For this enterprise two others climbed the gallows, and the robber's pride in his capture was miserably lessened by the shedding of innocent blood.
But he forgot his remorse as speedily as he dissipated his money, and sentimentality neither damped his enjoyment nor restrained his energy. Even his brief visits to London were turned to the best account; and, though he would have the world believe him a mere voluptuary, his eye was bent sternly upon business. If he did lose his money in a gambling hell, he knew who won it, and spoke with his opponent on the homeward way. In his eyes a fuddled rake was always fair game, and the stern windows of St. Clement's Church looked down upon many a profitable adventure. His most distinguished journey was to Ireland, whither he set forth to find a market for his stolen treasure. But he determined that the road should bear its own charges, and he reached Dublin a richer man than he left London. In three months he was penniless, but he did not begin trade again until he had recrossed the Channel, and, having got to work near Chester, he returned to the Piazza fat with bank-notes.
With success his extravagance increased, and, living the life of a man about town, he was soon harassed by debt. More than once he was lodged in the Marshalsea, and as his violent temper resented the interference of a dun, he became notorious for his assaults upon sheriff's officers. And thus his poor skill grew poorer: forgetting his trade, he expected that brandy would ease his embarrassment. At last, sodden with drink, he enlisted in the Guards, from which regiment he deserted, only to be pressed aboard a man-of-war. Freed by a clever trick, he took to the road again, until a paltry theft from a barber transported him to Maryland. There he turned sailor, and his ship, The Two Sisters, being taken by a privateer, he contrived to scramble into Portugal, whence he made his way back to England, and to the only adventure of which he was master. He landed with no more money than the price of a pistol, but he prigged a prancer at Bristol horsefair, and set out upon his last journey. The tide of his fortune was at flood. He crammed his pockets with watches; he was owner of enough diamonds to set up shop in a fashionable quarter; of guineas he had as many as would support his magnificence for half a year; and at last he resolved to quit the road, and to live like the gentleman he was. To this prudence he was the more easily persuaded, because not only were the thief-takers eager for his capture, but he was a double-dyed deserter, whose sole chance of quietude was a decent obscurity.
His resolution was taken at St. Albans, and over a comfortable dinner he pictured a serene and uneventful future. On the morrow he would set forth to Dublin, sell his handsome stock of jewels, and forget that the cart ever lumbered up Tyburn Hill. So elated was he with his growing virtue, that he called for a second bottle, and as the port heated his blood his fingers tingled for action. A third bottle proved beyond dispute that only the craven were idle; 'and why,' he exclaimed, generous with wine, 'should the most industrious ruffler of England condescend to inaction?' Instantly he summoned the ostler, screaming for his horse, and before Redburn he had emptied four pockets, and had exchanged his own tired jade for a fresh and willing beast. Still exultant in his contempt of cowardice, he faced the Warrington stage, and made off with his plunder at a drunken gallop. Arrived at Dunstable, he was so befogged with liquor and pride, that he entered the 'Bull Inn,' the goal of the very coach he had just encountered. He had scarce called for a quartern of brandy when the robbed passengers thronged into the kitchen; and the fright gave him enough sobriety to leave his glass untasted, and stagger to his horse. In a wild fury of arrogance and terror, of conflicting vice and virtue, he pressed on to Hockcliffe, where he took refuge from the rain, and presently, fuddled with more brandy, he fell asleep over the kitchen fire.
By this time the hue and cry was raised; and as the hero lay helpless in the corner three troopers burst into the inn, levelled their pistols at his head, and threatened death if he put his hand to his pocket. Half asleep, and wholly drunk, he made not he smallest show of resistance; he surrendered all his money, watches, and diamonds, save a little that was sewn into his neckcloth, and sulkily crawled up to his bed-chamber. Thither the troopers followed him, and having restored some nine pounds at his urgent demand, they watched his heavy slumbers. For all his brandy Simms slept but uneasily, and awoke in the night sick with the remorse which is bred of ruined plans and a splitting head. He got up wearily, and sat over the fire 'a good deal chagrined,' to quote his own simple phrase, at his miserable capture. Escape seemed hopeless indeed; there crouched the vigilant troopers, scowling on their prey. A thousand plans chased each other through the hero's fuddled brain, and at last he resolved to tempt the cupidity of his guardians, and to make himself master of their fire-arms. There were still left him a couple of seals, one gold, the other silver, and watching his opportunity, Simms flung them with a flourish in the fire. It fell out as he expected; the hungry troopers made a dash to save the trinkets; the prisoner seized a brace of pistols and leapt to the door. But, alas, the pistols missed fire, Harry was immediately overpowered, and on the morrow was carried, sick and sorry, before the Justice. From Dunstable he travelled his last journey to Newgate, and, being condemned at the Old Bailey, he was hanged till he was dead, and his body thereafter was carried for dissection to a surgeon's in that same Covent Garden where he first deserted his hackney cab for the pleasures of the town.
'Gentleman Harry' was neither a brilliant thief nor a courteous highwayman. There was no touch of the grand manner even in his prettiest achievement. His predecessors had made a pistol and a vizard an overwhelming terror, and he did but profit by their tradition when he bade the cowed traveller stand and deliver. His profession, as he practised it, neither demanded skill nor incurred danger. Though he threatened death at every encounter, you never hear that he pulled a trigger throughout his career. If his opponent jeered and rode off, he rode off with a whole skin and a full pocket. Once even this renowned adventurer accepted the cut of a riding-whip across his face, nor made any attempt to avenge the insult. But his manifold shortcomings were no hindrance to his success. Wherever he went, between London and York, he stopped coaches and levied his tax. A threatening voice, an arched eyebrow, an arrogant method of fingering an unloaded pistol, conspired with the craven, indolent habit of the time to make his every journey a procession of triumph. He was capable of performing all such feats as the age required of him. But you miss the spirit, the bravery, the urbanity, and the wit, which made the adventurer of the seventeenth century a figure of romance.
One point only of the great tradition did Harry Simms remember. He was never unwilling to restore a trinket made precious by sentiment. Once when he took a gold ring from a gentleman's finger a gentlewoman burst into tears, exclaiming, 'There goes your father's ring.' Whereupon Simms threw all his booty into a hat, saying, 'For God's sake, take that or anything else you please.' In all other respects he was a bully, with the hesitancy of a coward, rather than the proper rival of Hind or Duval. Apart from the exercise of his trade, he was a very Mohock for brutality. He would ill-treat his victims, whenever their drunkenness permitted the freedom, and he had no better gifts for the women who were kind to him than cruelty and neglect. One of his many imprisonments was the result of a monstrous ferocity. 'Unluckily in a quarrel,' he tells you gravely, 'I ran a crab-stick into a woman's eye'; and well did he deserve his sojourn in the New Prison. At another time he rewarded the keeper of a coffee-house, who supported him for six months, by stealing her watch; and, when she grumbled at his insolence, he reflected, with a chuckle, that she could more easily bear the loss of her watch than the loss of her lover. Even in his gaiety there was an unpleasant spice of greed and truculence. Once, when he was still seen in fashionable company, he went to a masquerade, dressed in a rich Spanish habit, lent him by a Captain in the Guards, and he made so fine a show that he captivated a young and beautiful Cyprian, whom, when she would have treated him with generosity, he did but reward with the loss of all her jewels.
Moreover, he had so small a regard for his craft, that he would spoil his effects by drink or debauchery; and, though a highwayman, he cared so little for style, that he would as lief trick a drunken gamester as face his man on Bagshot Heath or beneath the shade of Epping Forest. You admire not his success, because, like the success of the popular politician, it depended rather upon his dupes than upon his merit. You approve not his raffish exploits in the hells of Covent Garden or Drury Lane. But you cannot withhold respect from his consistent dandyism, and you are grateful for the record that, engaged in a mean enterprise, he was dressed 'in a green velvet frock and a short lac'd waistcoat.' Above all, his picturesque capture at Hockcliffe atones for much stupidity. The resolution, wavering at the wine glass, the last drunken ride from St. Albans--these are inventions in experience, which should make Simms immortal. And when he sits 'by the fireside a good deal chagrined,' he recalls the arrest of a far greater man--even of Cartouche, who was surprised by the soldiers at his bedside stitching a torn pair of breeches. His autobiography, wherein 'he relates the truth as a dying man,' seemed excellent in the eyes of Borrow, who loved it so well that he imagined a sentence, ascribed it falsely to Simms, and then rewarded it with extravagant applause.
But Gentleman Harry knew how to tell a simple story, and the book, 'all wrote by myself while under sentence of death,' is his best performance. In action he had many faults, for, if he was a highwayman among rakes, he was but a rake among highwaymen.
III--The Switcher and Gentleman Harry--A Parallel
HAGGART and Simms are united in the praise of Borrow, and in the generous applause of posterity. Each resumes for his own generation the prowess of his kind. Each has assured his immortality by an experiment in literature; and if epic simplicity and rapid narrative are the virtues of biography, it is difficult to award the prize. The Switcher preferred to write in the rough lingo, wherein he best expressed himself. He packs his pages with ill-spelt slang, telling his story of thievery in the true language of thieves. Gentleman Harry, as became a person of quality, mimicked the dialect wherewith he was familiar in the more fashionable gambling-dens of Covent Garden. Both write with out the smallest suggestion of false shame or idle regret, and a natural vanity lifts each of them out of the pit of commonplace on to the tableland of the heroic. They set forth their depredation, as a victorious general might record his triumphs, and they excel the nimblest Ordinary that ever penned a dying speech in all the gifts of the historian.
But when you leave the study for the field, the Switcher instantly declares his superiority. He had the happiness to practise his craft in its heyday, while Simms knew but the fag-end of a noble tradition. Haggart, moreover, was an expert, pursuing a difficult art, while Simms was a bully, plundering his betters by bluff. Simms boasted no quality which might be set off against the accurate delicacy of Haggart's hand. The Englishman grew rich upon a rolling eye and a rusty pistol. He put on his 'fiercest manner,' and believed that the world would deny him nothing. The Scot, rejoicing in his exquisite skill, went to work without fuss or bluster, and added the joy of artistic pride to his delight in plunder. Though Simm's manner seems the more chivalrous, it required not one tithe of the courage which was Haggart's necessity. On horseback, with the semblance of a fire-arm, a man may easily challenge a coachful of women. It needs a cool brain and a sound courage to empty a pocket in the watchful presence of spies and policemen. While Gentleman Harry chose a lonely road, or the cover of night for his exploits, the Switcher always worked by day, hustled by a crowd of witnesses.
Their hours of leisure furnish a yet more striking contrast. Simms was a polished dandy delighting in his clothes, unhappy if he were deprived of his bottle and his game. Haggart, on the other hand, was before all things sealed to his profession. He would have deserted the gayest masquerade, had he ever strayed into so light a frivolity, for the chance of lightening a pocket. He tasted but few amusements without the limits of his craft, and he preserved unto the end a touch of that dour character which is the heritage of his race. But, withal, he was an amiable decent body, who would have recoiled in horror from the drunken brutality of Gentleman Harry. Though he bragged to George Combe of his pitiless undoing of wenches, he never thrust a crab-stick into a woman's eye, and he was incapable of rewarding a kindness by robbery and neglect. Once--at Newcastle--he arrayed himself in a smart white coat and tops, but the splendour ill became his red-headed awkwardness, and he would have stood aghast at the satin frocks and velvet waistcoats of him who broke the hearts of Drury Lane. But if he were gentler in his life, Haggart was prepared to fight with a more reckless courage when his trade demanded it. It was the Gentleman's boast that he never shed the blood of man. When David found a turnkey between himself and freedom, he did not hesitate to kill, though his remorse was bitter enough when he neared the gallows. In brief, Haggart was not only the better craftsman, but the honester fellow, and though his hands were red with blood, he deserved his death far less than did the more truculent, less valiant Simms. Each had in his brain the stuff whereof men of letters are made: this is their parallel. And, by way of contrast, while the Switcher was an accomplished artist, Gentleman Harry was a roystering braggart.
Note that the copyright on this eBook has expired and it is free to copy.