(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.
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.
DEACON BRODIE AND CHARLES PEACE
AS William Brodie stood at the bar, on trial for a his life, he seemed the gallantest gentleman in court. Thither he had been carried in a chair, and, still conscious of the honour paid him, he flashed a condescending smile upon his judges. His step was jaunty as ever; his superb attire well became the Deacon of a Guild. His coat was blue, his vest a very garden of flowers; while his satin breeches and his stockings of white silk were splendid in their simplicity. Beneath a cocked hat his hair was fully dressed and powdered, and even the prosecuting counsel assailed him with the respect due to a man of fashion. The fellow's magnificence was thrown into relief by the squalor of his accomplice. For George Smith had neither the money nor the taste to disguise himself as a polished rogue, and he huddled as far from his master as he could in the rags of his mean estate. Nor from this moment did Brodie ever abate one jot of his dignity. He faced his accusers with a clear eye and a frigid amiability; he listened to his sentence with a calm contempt; he laughed complacently at the sorry interludes of judicial wit; and he faced the last music with a bravery and a cynicism which bore the stamp of true greatness.
It was not until after his crime that Brodie's heroism approved itself. And even then his was a triumph not of skill but of character. Always a gentleman in manner and conduct, he owed the success and the failure of his life to this one quality. When in flight he made for Flushing on board the Endeavour, the other passengers, who knew not his name, straightway christened him `the gentleman.' The enterprise itself would have been impossible to one less persuasively gifted, and its proper execution is a tribute to the lofty quality of his mind. There was he in London, a stranger and a fugitive; yet instead of crawling furtively into a coal-barge he charters a ship, captures the confidence of the captain, carries the other passengers to Flushing, when they were bound for Leith, and compels every one to confess his charm! The thief, also, found him irresistible; and while the game lasted, the flash kens of Edinburgh murmured the Deacon's name in the hushed whisper of respect.
His fine temperament disarmed treachery. In London he visited an ancient doxy of his own, who, with her bully, shielded him from justice, though betrayal would have met with an ample reward. Smith, if he knew himself the superior craftsman, trembled at the Deacon's nod, who thus swaggered it through life, with none to withhold the exacted reverence. To this same personal compulsion he owed his worldly advancement. Deacon of the Wrights' Guild while still a young man, he served upon the Council, was known for one of Edinburgh's honoured citizens, and never went abroad unmarked by the finger of respectful envy. He was elected in 1773 a member of the Cape Club, and met at the Isle of Man Arms in Craig's Close the wittiest men of his time and town. Raeburn, Runciman, and Ferguson the poet were of the society, and it was with such as these that Brodie might have wasted his vacant hour. Indeed, at the very moment that he was cracking cribs and shaking the ivories, he was a chosen leader of fashion and gaiety; and it was the elegance of the `gentleman' that distinguished him from his fellows.