Now all you ramblers in mourning go, For the prince of ramblers is lying low, And all you maidens that love the game, Put on your mourning veils again.
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.