Scoundrels by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Byron very often flung out profound truths in his easy, careless way, but the theatrical vein in his composition sometimes prompted him to say dashing things, not because he regarded them as true, but because he wanted to make people stare. Speaking of one interesting and homicidal gentleman, the poet observes–

“He knew himself a villain, and he deemed
The rest no better than the thing he seemed.”

Now I take leave to say that the rawest of fifth-form lads never uttered a more school-boyish sentiment than that; and I wonder how a man of the world came to make such a blunder. Byron had lived in the degraded London of the Regency, when Europe’s rascality flocked towards St. James’s as belated birds flock towards a light; and he should have known some villains if any one did. Ephraim Bond, the abominable moneylender and sportsman, was swaggering round town in Byron’s later days; Crockford, that incarnate fiend, had his nets open; and ruined men–men ruined body and soul–left the gambling palace where the satanic spider sat spinning his webs. Byron must have known Crockford, and he had there a chance of studying a being who was indeed a villain, but who fancied himself to be a highly respectable person. From the time when “Crocky” started money-lending in the back parlour of his little fish-shop up to his last ghastly appearance on earth, he was a cheat and a consummate rascal; and even after death his hideous corpse was made to serve a deception. He was engaged in a Turf swindle, and it was necessary that he should be regarded as alive on the evening of the Derby day; but he died in the morning, and, to deceive the betting-men, the lifeless carcass of the old robber was put upright in a club window, and a daring sharper caused the dead hand to wave as if in greeting to the shouting crowd–a fit end to a bad life. Crockford’s delusion was that his character was marked by honesty and general benevolence; and those who wished to please him pretended to accept his own comfortable theory. He regarded himself as a really good fellow, and in his own person he was a living confutation of Byron’s dashing paradox. Then there was Renton Nicholson, a specimen of social vermin if ever there was one. This fellow earned a sordid livelihood by presiding over a club where men met nightly in orgies that stagger the power of belief. His huge figure and his raffish face were seen wherever rogues most did congregate; he showed young men “life”–and sometimes his work as cicerone led them to death; his style of conversation would nowadays lead to a speedy prosecution; he was always seen by the ringside when unhappy brutes met to pound each other, and his stock of evil stories entertained the interesting noblemen and gentlemen who patronised the manly British sport. I could not describe this man’s baseness in adequate terms, nor could I so much as give an idea of his ordinary round of roguery without arousing some incredulity. This unspeakable creature was fond of describing himself as “Jolly old Renton,” or “Good old John Bull Nicholson”; he really fancied himself to be a good, genial fellow, and he appeared to fancy that the crowds who usually collected to hear his abominations were attracted by his bonhomie and his estimable intellectual qualities. Byron must have known this striking example of the scoundrel species, but he appears to have forgotten him when he propounded his theory of villainy. Then there was Pea-green Haynes, who was also a fine sample of folly and rascality mingled. Haynes regarded himself as the most injured man on earth; he never performed an unselfish action, it is true, and he flung away a fine patrimony on his own pleasures, yet he whined and held himself up as an example of suffering virtue. Then there was the precious Regent. What a creature! Good men and bad men unite in saying that he was absolutely without a virtue; the shrewd, calculating Greville described him in words that burn; the great Duke, his chief subject, uses language of dry scorn–“The king could only act the part of a gentleman for ten minutes at a time”; and we find that the commonest satellites of the Court despised the wicked fribble who wore the crown of England. Faithless to women, faithless to men, a coward, a liar, a mean and grovelling cheat, George IV. nevertheless clung to a belief in his own virtues; and, if we study the account of his farcical progress through Scotland, we find that he imagined himself to be a useful and genuinely kingly personage. No man, except, perhaps, Philippe Egalite, was ever so contemned and hated; and until his death he imagined himself to be a good man. In all that wild set who disgraced England and disgraced human nature in those gay days of Byron’s youth, I can discover only one thoroughly manly and estimable individual, and that was Gentleman Jackson, the boxer; yet, with such a marvellously wide range of villainy to study, Byron never seems to have observed one ethical fact of the deepest importance–a villain never knows that he is villainous; if he did, he would cease to be a villain.

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Perhaps Byron’s own peculiar disposition–his constitution–prevented him from understanding the undoubted truth which I have stated. Like all other men, he possessed a dual nature; there was bad in him and good, and his force was such that the bad was very bad indeed, and the good was as powerful in its way as the evil. During the brief time that Byron employed in behaving as a bad man, his conduct reached almost epic heights–or depths–of misdoing; but he never in his heart seemed to recognise the fact that he had been a bad man. At any rate, he was wrong; and the commonest knowledge of our wild world suffices to show any reasoning man the gravity of the error propounded in my quotation. As we study the history of the frivolous race of men, it sometimes seems hard to disbelieve the theory of Descartes. The great Frenchman held that man and other animals are automata; and, were it not that such a theory strikes at the root of morals, we might almost be tempted to accept it in moments of weakness, when the riddle of the unintelligible earth weighs heavily on the tired spirit. I find that every prominent scoundrel known to us pursued his work of sin with an absolute unconsciousness of all moral law until pain or death drew near; then the scoundrel cringed like a cur under the scourges of remorse. Thackeray, in a fit of spasmodic courage, painted the archetypal scoundrel once and for all in “Barry Lyndon,” and he practically said the last word on the subject; for no grave analysis, no reasoning, can ever improve on that immortal and most moving picture of a wicked man. Observe the masterpiece. Lyndon goes on with his narrative from one horror to another; he exposes his inmost soul with cool deliberation; and the author’s art is so consummate that we never for a moment sympathise with the fiend who talks so mellifluously–the narrative of ill-doing unfolds itself with all the inevitable precision of an operation of nature, and we see the human soul at its worst. But Thackeray did not make Byron’s mistake; and throughout the book the Chevalier harps with deadly persistence on his own virtues. He does not exactly whine, but he lets you know that he regards himself as being very much wronged by the envious caprices of his fellow-men. His tongue is the tongue of a saint, and, even when he owns to any doubtful transaction, he takes care to let you know that he was actuated by the sweetest and purest motives. Many people cannot read “Barry Lyndon” a second time; but those who are nervous should screw their courage to the sticking-place, and give grave attention to that awful moral lesson, for all of us have a little of Barry in our composition. Thackeray’s sudden inspiration enabled him to plumb the deeps of the scoundrel nature, and he saw with the eye of genius that the very quality which makes a bad man dangerous is his belief in his own goodness. If you look at the appalling narrative of Lyndon’s life in this country, you see, with a shudder, that the man regards his cruelty to his wife, his villainy towards his step-son, as the inevitable outcome of stern virtue; he tells you things that make you long to stamp on the inanimate pages; for he rouses such a passion of wild scorn and wrath as we feel against no other artistic creation. Yet all the while, like a low under-song, goes on his monotonous assertion of his own goodness and his own injuries. No sermon could teach more than that hateful book; if it is read aright, it will supply men or women with an armoury of warnings, and enable them to start away from the semblance of self-deception as they would from a rearing cobra when the hood is up, and the murderous head flattened ready to strike. Thackeray worked on the same theme in his story of little Stubbs. Lyndon is the Lucifer of rascals; Stubbs–well, Stubbs beggars the English vocabulary; he is too low, too mean for adjectives to describe him, and I could almost find it in my heart to wish that his portraiture had never been placed before the horrified eyes of men. Yet this Stubbs–a being who was drawn from life–has a profound belief in the rectitude of everything that he does. Even when he tells us how he invited his gang of unspeakables home, to drink away his mother’s substance, he takes credit to himself for his fine display of British hospitality. How Thackeray contrived to live through the ordeal of composing those two books I cannot tell; he must have had a nerve of steel, with all his softness of heart and benevolence. At all events, he did live to complete his gruesome feat; and he has given us, in a vivid pictorial way, such a picture of scoundreldom as should serve as a beacon to all men. It may seem like a paradox; but I am inclined to think that our non-success in putting down actual crime and wickedness which do not come within range of the law arises from the fact that our jurists have not made a proper study of the criminal nature. Grod made the cobra, the cruel wolverine, and the thrice-cruel tiger; we study the animals and deal with them adequately; but some of us do not study our human cobras and wolverines and tigers. I scarcely ever knew of a case of a convict who would not moan about his own injuries and his own innocence. Even when these men, whose criminality is ingrained, are willing to own their guilt, they will always contrive to blame the world in general and society in particular. It is almost amusing to hear a desperate thief, who seems no more able to prevent himself from rushing on plunder than a greyhound can prevent itself from rushing on a hare, complaining that employers will not trust him. It is useless to say, “What can you expect?” The scoundrel persists in crying out against a hard world which drove him to be what he is.

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Some ten years ago the arch-rascal among English thieves was living quietly in a London suburb; he used to solace himself with high-class music, and he was very fond of poetry. This dreadful creature was a curious compound of wild beast and artist. During the day he went about with an innocent air; and the very police who were destined to take him and hang him learned to greet him cordially as he passed them in his walks. They thought he was “a sort of high-class tradesman.” Now, when this cheery little man with the decent frock-coat and the clean respectable air was sauntering on the margin of the breezy heath or walking up by-streets with measured sobriety, he was really marking down the places which he intended to plunder. Here his trained pony should stand; here he would make his entrance; that bedroom door should be fastened inside; this lock should be picked. The wild predatory beast drove the police to despair, for it seemed as if no human being could have performed the feats which came easy to the robber. The hard earning of good men went to the rascal’s store; the cherished household gods, the valued keepsakes of innocent women were transferred callously to the melting-pot. He went coolly into bedrooms where the inmates were asleep; had any one awaked, there would have been murder, and the murderer would have decamped long before the door could be broken open. Now my point is this–the wretch whom I have described never ceased to inveigh against the wrongs of society. Two unhappy women served him faithfully and followed him like dogs; but he did not apply his theories in his treatment of them, for they were never without the marks of his brutality. In the very presence of his bruised and beaten slaves he talked of his own virtues, of social inequality, of the tyranny of the rich, and he held to his belief in his own innate goodness after he had committed depredations to the extent of thousands of pounds, and even after he was answerable for two murders. That man never knew himself a villain, and it was only when the rope was gradually closing round his neck that the keen sleuth-hound remorse found him out, and he had the grace to save an innocent man from a living death. This monstrous hypocrite was another typical scoundrel, and his like people every prison in the country.

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The scoundrels who are called great do not usually come under the gallows-tree, and their last dying speeches are somewhat rare; but we may be pretty certain, from the little we know, that each one of them fancies himself an estimable person. Ivan of Russia, the ferocious ruler, who had men torn to pieces before his eyes, the being who had forty thousand men, women, and children massacred in cold blood, regarded himself as the deputy of the Supreme Being. The mad Capet, who fired the signal which started tho massacre of St. Bartholomew, believed that he was fulfilling the demands of goodness and orthodoxy. The deadly inquisitors who roasted unhappy fellow mortals wholesale believed–or pretended to believe–that they were putting their victims through a benign ordeal. The heretic was a naughty child; roast him, and his sin was purged; while the frosty-blooded old men who murdered him looked to heaven and returned thanks for their own special allowance of virtue. Conqueror and inquisitor, burglar and murderer, forger and wife-beater, brutal sea-captain and prowling thief–all the scoundrels go about their business with a full faith in their own blamelessness. I do not like to class them as automata, though the wise and genial Mr. Huxley would undoubtedly do so. What shall we do with them? Is it fair that a wearied world and a toil-worn society should maintain them? My own idea is that sentiment, softness, regrets for severity should be banished, and we should say to the scoundrel, “Attend, rascal! You say that you are wronged, and that you are driven to harm your fellow-creatures by the force of external circumstances; that may be so, but we have nothing to do with the matter. Take notice that you shall eat bitter bread on earth, no matter how you may whine, when our just grip is on you; if you persist in practising scoundrelism, we shall make your lot harder and harder for you; and, if in the end we find that you will go on working evil, we shall treat you as a dangerous wild beast, and put you out of the world altogether.”

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