People Who Are “Down” by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

If any one happens to feel ashamed when he notices the far-off resemblances between the lower animals and man’s august self, he will probably feel the most acute humiliation should he take an occasional walk through a great rookery, such as that in Richmond Park. The black cloud of birds sweeps round and round, casting a shadow as it goes; the air is full of a solemn bass music softened by distance, and the twirling fleets of strange creatures sail about in answer to obvious signals. They are an orderly community, subject to recognised law, and we might take them for the mildest and most amusing of all birds; but wait, and we shall see something fit to make us think. Far off on the clear gray sky appears a wavering speck which rises and falls and sways from side to side in an extraordinary way. Nearer and nearer the speck comes, until at last we find ourselves standing under a rook which flies with great difficulty. The poor rascal looks most disreputable, for his tail has evidently been shot away, and he is wounded. He drops on to a perch, but not before he has run the gauntlet of several lines of sharp eyes. The poor bird sits on his branch swinging weakly to and fro, humping up his shoulders in woebegone style. There is a rustle among the flock, a sharp exchange of caws, and one may almost imagine the questions and answers which pass. Circumstances prevent us from knowing the rookish system of nomenclature; but we may suppose the wounded fellow to be called Ishmael. Caw number one says, “Did you notice anything queer about Ishmael as he passed?” “Yes. Why, he’s got no tail!” “He’ll be rather a disgrace to the family if he tries to go with us into Sussex on Tuesday.” “Frightful! He’s been fooling about within range of some farming lout’s gun. The lazy, useless wretch never did know the difference between a gun and a broom!” “Serves him right! Let’s speak to the chief about him.” The chief considers the matter solemnly and sorrowfully, and then may be understood to say, “Sorry Ishmael’s in trouble, but we can’t acknowledge him. There’s an end of the matter. You Surrey crow, take a dozen of our mates, and drive that Ishmael away.” The wounded bird knows his doom. He fumbles his way through the branches, and flies off zig-zag and low; but the flight soon mob him. They laugh at him, and one can positively tell that they are chattering in derision. Presently one of them buffets him; and that is the signal for a general assault. Quick as lightning, one of the black cowards makes a vicious drive with his iron beak, and flies off with a triumphant caw; another and another squawk at the wretch, and then stab him, until at last, like a draggled kite, Ishmael sinks among the ferns and passes away, while the assassins fly back and tell how they settled the fool who could not keep the shot out of his carcass. If the observer sees this often, his disposition to moralise may become very importunate, for he sees an allegory of human life written in black specks on that sky that broods so softly, like a benediction, over the fair world. One may easily bring forward half a score of similar instances from the animal kingdom. A buffalo falls sick, and his companions soon gore and trample him to death; the herds of deer act in the same way; and even domestic cattle will ill-treat one of their number that seems ailing. The terrible “rogue” elephant is always one that has been driven from his herd; the injury rankles in him, and he ends by killing any weaker living creature that may cross his path. Again, watch a poor crow that is blown out to sea. So long as his flight is strong and even, he is unmolested; but let him show signs of wavering, or, above all, let him try to catch up with a steamship that is going in the teeth of the wind, and the fierce gulls slay him at once.

Do we not observe something analogous taking place in the terrible crush of civilised human life? To thoughtful minds there is no surer sign of the progress that humanity is slowly making than the fact that among our race the weak are succoured. Were it not for the sights of helpfulness and pity that we can always see, many of us would give way to despair, and think that man is indeed no more than a two-legged brute without feathers. The savage even now kills aged people without remorse, just as the Sardinian islanders did in the ancient days; and there are certain tribes which think nothing of destroying an unfortunate being who may have grown weakly. Among us, the merest lazar that crawls is sure of some succour if he can only contrive to let his evil case be known; and even the criminal, let him be never so vile, may always be taken up and aided by kindly friends for the bare trouble of asking.

But there are still symptoms of the animal disposition to be seen, and only too many people conspire to show that human nature is much the same as it was in the days when Job called in his agony for comfort and found none. Wonderful and disquieting it is to see how the noblest of minds have been driven in all ages to mourn over the disposition of men to strike at the unfortunate! The Book of Job is the finest piece of literary work known to the world, and it is mainly taken up with a picture of the treatment which the Arabian patriarch met with at the hands of his friends. People do not look for sarcasm in the Bible, but the unconscious lofty sarcasm of Job is so terrible, that it shows how a mighty intellect may be driven by bitter wrong into transcendencies of wrath and scorn. “Ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.” The old desert-prince will not succumb even in his worst extremity, and he lashes his tormentors with wild but strong bursts of withering satire. But Job was down, and his cool friends went on imperturbably, probing his weakness, sneering at his excuses, and, I suspect, rejoicing not a little in his wild outbreaks of pain and despair. The book is one of the world’s monuments, and it has been placed there to remind all people that dwell on earth of their own innate meanness; it has been placed before us as a lesson against cruelty, treachery, ingratitude. Have we gone very far in the direction since Job raged and mourned? Those who look around them may answer the question in their own way.

The world had not progressed much in Shakspere’s time, at any rate. Like all of us, Shakspere was able to look on the work of beautiful and kind souls–no one has ever spoken more nobly of the benefactions conferred on their brethren by the righteous; but that calm immortal soul had in it depths of awful scorn and anger, which bubbled up only a very few times. Few people read “Timon of Athens”; and I do not blame the neglect, for it is a spirit-crushing play, and a man must be bold if he cares to look at it twice. But in it it is plain to me that Shakspere lets us see a gleam from the boiling flood of scorn that raged far under his serene exterior. The words bite; the abandonment of the satirist is complete. He puts into the mouth of the man who is down a whole acrid and scurrilous philosophy of success and failure; and there is not a passage in Swift which can equal for venom and emphasis the ferocious words of the Athenian misanthrope. We know nothing of Shakspere’s mood while he was writing this cruel piece, but I should imagine he must have been ready to quit the world in a veritable ecstasy of wild passion and contempt.

If we take away the literature of love and the literature of fear, we have but little left save the endless works that harp on one theme–the remorseless savagery of civilised men toward those who fail, or are supposed to fail, in life’s grim warfare.

“Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot!
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy tooth is not so sharp
As friend remembered not!”

Those lines are hackneyed until every poetaster can quote them or parody them at will; but very few readers consider that the bitter verse summarises a whole literature. From Homer to Tennyson the ugly tune has been played on all strings; and mankind have such a vivid perception of the truth uttered by the satirists, that they read the whole story with gusto whenever it is put into a fresh form–and each man thinks that he at least is not one of those for whom the poet’s lash is meant. Novel, essay, poem, play, and sermon–all recur with steady persistence to one ancient topic; and yet men try their best to bring themselves low, as they might if Job, Shakspere, Congreve, and Tennyson had never written at all, and as though no warnings were being actually enacted all round, as on a stage.

Sometimes I wonder whether the majority of men ever really try to conceive what it is to be down until their fate is upon them. I can hardly think it. It has been well said that all of us know we shall die, but none of us believe it. The idea of the dark plunge is unfamiliar to the healthy imagination; and the majority of our race go on as if the great change were only a fable devised by foolish poets to scare children. I believe that, if all men were vouchsafed a sudden comprehension of the real meaning of death, sin would cease. Furthermore, I am persuaded that if every man could see in a flash the burning history of the one who is down, the whole of our reasonable population would take thought for the morrow–drink-shops would be closed, the dice-box would rattle no more, and the sight of a genuine idler would be unknown. Not a few of us have seen tragedies enough in the course of our pilgrimage, and have learned to regard the doomed weaklings–the wreckage of civilisation, the folk who are down–with mingled compassion and dismay. I have found in such cases that the miserable mortals never knew to what they were coming; and the most notable feature in their attitude was the wild and almost tearful surprise with which they regarded the conduct of their friends. The pictures of these forlorn wastrels people a certain corner of the mind, and one can make the ragged brigade start out in lines of deadly and lurid fire at a moment’s warning, until there is a whole Inferno before one. But I shall speak no more at present of the degraded ones; I wish to gain a thought of pity for those who are blameless; and I want to stir up the blameless ones, who are generally ignorant creatures, so that they may exercise a little of the wisdom of the serpent in time. Be it remembered that, although the ruined and blameless man is not subjected to such moral scorn as falls to the lot of the wastrel, the practical consequences of being down are much the same for him as for the victim of sloth or sin. He feels the pinch of physical misery, and, however lofty his spirit may be, it can never be lofty enough to relieve the gnawing pains of bodily privation. Moreover, he will meet with persecution just as if he were a villain or a cheat, and that too from men who know that he is honest. The hard lawyer will pursue him as a stoat pursues a hare; and, if he asks for time or mercy, the iron answer will be, “We have nothing to do with your private affairs; business is business, and our client’s interests must not suffer merely because you are a well-meaning man.” Even our dear Walter Scott, the soul of honour, one of the purest and brightest of all the spirits that make our joy, the gallant struggler–even that delight of the world was hounded to death by a firm of bill-discounters at the very time when he was breaking his gallant heart in the effort to retrieve disaster. No! The world is pitiful so far as its kindest hearts are concerned, but the army of commonplace people are all pitiless. See what follows when a man goes “down.” Suppose that he invests in bank shares. The directors are all men of substance, and most of them are even lights of religion; the leading spirit attends the same church as our investor, and he is a light of sanctity–so pure of heart is he, that he will not so much as look at Monday’s newspapers, because their production entailed Sabbath labour. Indeed, one wonders how such a man could bring himself to eat or sleep on Sunday, because his food must be carried up for him, and, I presume, his bed must be made. All the directors are free in their gifts to churches and chapels–for that is part of a wise director’s policy–and all of them live sumptuously. But surely our investor should guess that all this lavish expenditure must come out of somebody’s pocket; and surely he has skill enough to analyse a balance-sheet! The good soul goes on trusting, until one fine morning he wakes up and finds that his means of subsistence are gone. Then comes the bitter ordeal; his friends are grieved, the public are enraged, the sanctified men go to gaol, and the investor faces an altered world. His oldest friend says, “Well, Tom, it’s a bitter bad business, and if a hundred is of any use to you, it is at your service; but you know, with my family,” etc. The unhappy defrauded fellow finds it hard to get work of any sort; begins to show those pathetic signs of privation which are so easily read by the careful observer; hat, boots, coat, grow shabby; the knees seem to have a pathetic bend. Friends are not unkind, but they have their own burdens to bear, and if he inflicts his company and his sorrows too much on any one of them, he is apt to receive a hint–probably from a woman–that his presence can be spared; so the downward road trends towards utter deprivation, and then to extinction. A young man may recover from almost any blow that does not affect his character; and this was strikingly proved in the case of that brilliant man of science, R.A. Proctor, who was afterwards stricken out of life untimely. He lost his fortune in the crash of Overend and Gurney’s company, and he immediately forgot his luxurious habits and turned to work with blithe courage. How he worked only those who knew him can tell, for no four men of merely ordinary power could have achieved such bewildering success as he did. But a man who is on the downward slope of life cannot fare like the lamented Proctor; he must endure the pangs of neglect, until death comes and relieves him of the dire torture of being down.

And the harmless widows who are suddenly robbed of their protector. Ah, how some of them are made to suffer! Little Amelia Sedley, in “Vanity Fair,” has her sufferings and indignities painted by a master-hand, and there is not a line thickened or darkened overmuch. The miserable tale of the cheap lodgings, and the insults which the poor girl had flung at her because, in the passion of her love, she spent trifling sums on her boy–how actual it all seems! The widow who may have held her head high in her days of prosperity, soon receives lessons from women: they call it teaching her what is her proper place. Those good and discreet ladies have a notion that their conduct is full of propriety and discretion and sound sense; but how they make their sisters suffer–ah, how they make the poor things suffer! I believe that, if any improvident man could see, in a keenly vivid dream, a vision of his wife’s future after his death, he would stint himself of anything rather than run the risk of having to reflect on his death-bed that he had failed to do his best for those who loved him. Women sometimes out of pure wantonness try to exasperate a man so that he falls into courses which bring his end swiftly. Could those foolish ones only see their own fate when the doom of being down in the world came upon them, they would strain every nerve in their bodies so that their husband’s life and powers of work might be spared to the last possible hour.

What can the man do who is down? Frankly, nothing, unless his strength holds. I advise such a one never to seek for help from any one but himself, and never to try for any of the employments which are supposed to be “easy.” Cool neglect, insulting compassion, lying promises, evasive and complimentary nothings–these will be his portion. If he cannot perform any skilled labour, let him run the risk of seeming degraded; and, if he has to push a trade in matches or flowers, let him rather do that than bear the more or less kindly flouts which meet the supplicant. To all who are young and strong I would say, “Live to-day as though to-morrow you might be ruined–or dead.”

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