THE SWITCHER AND GENTLEMAN HARRY
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.