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.