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.
(THE SWITCHER AND GENTLEMAN HARRY)
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.