The Ethics Of The Drink Question by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

All the statistics and formal statements published about drink are no doubt impressive enough to those who have the eye for that kind of thing; but, to most of us, the word “million” means nothing at all, and thus when we look at figures, and find that a terrific number of gallons are swallowed, and that an equally terrific amount in millions sterling is spent, we feel no emotion. It is as though you told us that a thousand Chinamen were killed yesterday; for we should think more about the ailments of a pet terrier than about the death of the Chinese, and we think absolutely nothing definite concerning the “millions” which appear with such an imposing intention when reformers want to stir the public. No man’s imagination was ever vitally impressed by figures, and I am a little afraid that the statistical gentlemen repel people instead of attracting them. The persons who screech and abuse the drink sellers are even less effective than the men of figures; their opponents laugh at them, and their friends grow deaf and apathetic in the storm of whirling words, while cool outsiders think that we should be better employed if we found fault with ourselves and sat in sackcloth and ashes instead of gnashing teeth at tradesmen who obey a human instinct. The publican is considered, among platform folk in the temperance body, as even worse than a criminal, if we take all things seriously that they choose to say, and I have over and over again heard vague blather about confiscating the drink-sellers’ property and reducing them to the state to which they have brought others. Then there is the rant regarding brewers. Why forget essential business only in order to attack a class of plutocrats whom we have made, and whom our society worships with odious grovellings? The brewers and distillers earn their money by concocting poisons which cause nearly all the crime and misery in broad Britain; there is not a soul living in these islands who does not know the effect of the afore-named poisons; there is not a soul living who does not very well know that there never was a pestilence crawling over the earth which could match the alcoholic poisons in murderous power. There is a demand for these poisons; the brewer and distiller supply the demand and gain thereby large profits; society beholds the profits and adores the brewer. When a gentleman has sold enough alcoholic poison to give him the vast regulation fortune which is the drink-maker’s inevitable portion, then the world receives him with welcome and reverence; the rulers of the nation search out honours and meekly bestow them upon him, for can he not command seats, and do not seats mean power, and does not power enable talkative gentry to feed themselves fat out of the parliamentary trough? No wonder the brewer is a personage. Honours which used to be reserved for men who did brave deeds, or thought brave thoughts, are reserved for persons who have done nothing but sell so many buckets of alcoholized fluid. Observe what happens when some brewer’s wife chooses to spend L5000 on a ball. I remember one excellent lady carefully boasting (for the benefit of the Press) that the flowers alone that were in her house on one evening cost in all L2000. Well, the mob of society folk fairly yearn for invitations to such a show, and there is no meanness too despicable to be perpetrated by women who desire admission. So through life the drink-maker and his family fare in dignity and splendour; adulation surrounds them; powerful men bow to the superior force of money; wealth accumulates until the amount in the brewer’s possession baffles the mind that tries to conceive it–and the big majority of our interesting race say that all this is good. Considering, then, how the English people directly and indirectly force the man of drink onward until he must of necessity fancy there is something of the moral demi-god about him; considering how he is wildly implored to aid in ruling us from Westminster; considering that his aid at an election may procure him the same honour which fell to the share of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham–may we not say that the community makes the brewer, and that if the brewer’s stuff mars the community we have no business to howl at him. We are answerable for his living, and moving, and having his being–the few impulsive people who gird at him should rather turn in shame and try to make some impression on the huge, cringing, slavering crowd who make the plutocrat’s pompous reign possible.

But for myself, I cannot be bothered with bare figures and vague abuse nowadays; abstractions are nothing, and neat arguments are less than nothing, because the dullest quack that ever quacked can always clench an argument in a fashion. Every turn that talk can take on the drink question brings the image of some man or woman, or company of men and women, before me, and that image is alive to my mind. If you pelt me with tabular forms, and tell me that each adult in Britain drank so many pints last year, you might just as well recite a mathematical proof. I fix on some one human figure that your words may suggest and the image of the bright lad whom I saw become a dirty, loafing, thievish sot is more instructive and more woeful than all your columns of numerals.

Before me passes a tremendous procession of the lost: I can stop its march when I choose and fix on any given individual in the ranks, so that you can hardly name a single fact concerning drink, which does not recall to me a fellow-creature who has passed into the place of wrecked lives and slain souls. The more I think about it the more plainly I see that, if we are to make any useful fight against drink, we must drop the preachee-preachee; we must drop loud execrations of the people whose existence the State fosters; we must get hold of men who know what drinking means, and let them come heart to heart with the victims who are blindly tramping on to ruin for want of a guide and friend. My hideous procession of the damned is always there to importune me; I gathered the dolorous recruits who form the procession when I was dwelling in strange, darkened ways, and I know that only the magnetism of the human soul could ever have saved one of them. If anybody fancies that Gothenburg systems, or lectures, or little tiresome tracts, or sloppy yarns about “Joe Tomkins’s Temperance Turkey,” or effusive harangues by half-educated buffoons, will ever do any good, he must run along the ranks of my procession with me, and I reckon he may learn something. The comic personages who deal with the subject are cruelly useless; the very notion of making jokes in presence of such a mighty living Terror seems desolating to the mind; I could not joke over the pest of drink, for I had as lief dance a hornpipe to the blare of the last Trumpet.

I said you must have men who know, if you care to rescue any tempted creature. You must also have men who address the individual and get fast hold of his imagination; abstractions must be completely left alone, and your workers must know so much of the minute details of the horror against which they are fighting that each one who comes under their influence shall feel as if the story of his life were known and his soul laid bare. I do not believe that you will ever stop one man from drinking by means of legislation; you may level every tavern over twenty square miles, but you will not thereby prevent a fellow who has the bite of drink from boozing himself mad whenever he likes. As for stopping a woman by such merely mechanical means as the closing of public-houses, the idea is ridiculous to anybody who knows the foxy cunning, the fixed determination of a female soaker. It is a great moral and physical problem that we want to solve, and Bills and clauses are only so much ink and paper which are ineffective as a schoolboy’s copybook. If a man has the desire for alcohol there is no power known that can stop him from gratifying himself; the end to be aimed at is to remove the desire–to get the drinker past that stage when the craving presses hardly on him, and you can never bring that about by rules and regulations. I grant that the clusters of drink-shops which are stuck together in the slums of our big towns are a disgrace to all of us, but if we closed 99 per cent. of them by Statute we should have the same drunken crew left. While wandering far and wide over England, nothing has struck me more than the steady resolution with which men will obtain drink during prohibited hours; the cleverest administrator in the world could not frame a network of clauses that could stop them; one might close every drink-selling place in Britain, and yet those folks that had a mind would get drink when they wanted it. You may ply bolts and bars; you may stop the working of beer-engines and taps; but all will be futile, for I repeat, that only by asserting power over hearts, souls, imaginations, can you make any sort of definite resistance to the awe-striking plague that envenoms the world. With every humility I am obliged to say that many of the good people who aim at reform do not know sufficiently well the central facts regarding drink and drinkers. It is beautiful to watch some placid man who stands up and talks gently to a gathering of sympathizers. The reposeful face, the reposeful voice, the refinement, the assured faith of the speaker are comforting; but when he explains that he has always been an abstainer, I am inclined to wonder how he can possibly exchange ideas with an alcoholized man. How can he know where to aim his persuasions with most effect? Can he really sympathize with the fallen? He has never lived with drunkards or wastrels; he is apart, like a star, and I half think that he only has a blurred vision of the things about which he talks so sweetly. He would be more poignant, and more likely to draw people after him, if he had living images burned into his consciousness. My own set of pictures all stand out with ghastly plainness as if they were lit up by streaks of fire from the Pit. I have come through the Valley of the Shadow into which I ventured with a light heart, and those who know me might point and say what was said of a giant: “There is the man who has been in hell.” It was true. Through the dim and sordid inferno, I moved as in a trance for awhile, and that is what makes me so keen to warn those who fancy they are safe; that is what makes me so discontented with the peculiar ethical conceptions of a society which bows down before the concocter of drink and spurns the lost one whom drink seizes. I have learned to look with yearning pity and pardon on all who have been blasted in life by their own weakness, and gripped by the trap into which so many weakly creatures stumble. Looking at brutal life, catching the rotting soul in the very fact, have made me feel the most careless contempt for Statute-mongers, because I know now that you must conquer the evil of evils by a straight appeal to one individual after another and not by any screed of throttling jargon. One Father Mathew would be worth ten Parliaments, even if the Parliaments were all reeling off curative measures with unexampled velocity. You must not talk to a county or a province and expect to be heard to any purpose; you must address John, and Tom, and Mary. I am sure that dead-lift individual effort will eventually reduce the ills arising from alcohol to a minimum, and I am equally sure that the blind groping of half-informed men who chatter at St. Stephen’s will never do more good than the chatter of the same number of jackdaws. It is impossible to help admiring Sir Wilfrid Lawson’s smiling courage, but I really do not believe that he sees more than the faint shadows of the evils against which he struggles; he does not know the true nature of the task which he has attacked, and he fancies that securing temperance is an affair of bolts, and bars, and police, and cackling local councils. I wish he had lived with me for a year.

If you talk with strong emotion about the dark horror of drink you always earn plenty of jibes, and it is true that you do give your hand away, as the fighting men say. It is easy to turn off a light paragraph like this: “Because A chooses to make a beast of himself, is that any reason why B, and C, and D should be deprived of a wholesome article of liquid food?”–and so on. Now, I do not want to trouble B, and C, and D at all; A is my man, and I want to get at him, not by means of a policeman, or a municipal officer of any kind, but by bringing my soul and sympathy close to him. Moreover, I believe that if everybody had definite knowledge of the wide ruin which is being wrought by drink there would be a general movement which would end in the gradual disappearance of drinking habits. At this present, however, our state is truly awful, and I see a bad end to it all, and a very bad end to England herself, unless a great emotional impulse travels over the country. The same middle class which is envenomed by the gambling madness is also the heir of all the more vile habits which the aristocrats have abandoned. Drinking–conviviality I think they call it–is not merely an excrescence on the life of the middle class–it is the life; and work, thought, study, seemly conduct, are now the excrescences. Drink first, gambling second, lubricity third–those are the chief interests of the young men, and I cannot say that the interests of mature and elderly men differ very much from those of the fledglings. Ladies and gentlemen who dwell in quiet refinement can hardly know the scenes amid which our middle-class lad passes the span of his most impressionable days. I have watched the men at all times and in all kinds of places; every town of importance is very well known to me, and the same abomination is steadily destroying the higher life in all. The Chancellors of the Exchequer gaily repeat the significant figures which give the revenue from alcohol; the optimist says that times are mending; the comfortable gentry who mount the pulpits do not generally care to ruffle the fine dames by talking about unpleasant things–and all the while the curse is gaining, and the betting, scoffing, degraded crew of drinkers are sliding merrily to destruction. Some are able to keep on the slide longer than others, but I have seen scores–hundreds–stop miserably, and the very faces of the condemned men, with the last embruted look on them, are before me. My subject has so many thousands of facets that I am compelled to select a few of the most striking. Take one scene through which I sat not very long ago, and then you may understand how far the coming regenerator will have to go. A great room was filled by about 350 men and lads, all of the middle class; a concert was going on, and I was a little curious to know the kind of entertainment which the well-dressed company liked. Of course there was drink in plenty, and the staff of waiters had a busy time; a loud crash of talk went on between the songs, and, as the drink gathered power on excited brains, this crash grew more and more discordant. Nice lads, with smooth, pleasant faces, grew flushed and excited, and I am afraid that I occupied myself in marking out possible careers for a good many of them as I studied their faces. There was not much fun of the healthy kind; fat, comfortable, middle-aged men laughed so heartily at the faintest indecent allusion that the singers grew broader and broader, and the hateful music-hall songs grew more and more risky as the night grew onward. By the way, can anything be more loathsomely idiotic than the average music-hall ditty, with its refrain and its quaint stringing together of casual filthiness? If I had not wanted to fix a new picture on my mind I should have liked better to be in a tap-room among honestly brutal costers and scavengers than with that sniggering, winking gang. The drink got hold, glasses began to be broken here and there, the time was beaten with glass crushers, spoons, pipes, and walking-sticks; and then the bolder spirits felt that the time for good, rank, unblushing blackguardism had come. A being stepped up and faced a roaring audience of enthusiasts who knew the quality of his dirtiness; he launched out into an unclean stave, and he reduced his admirers to mere convulsions. He was encored, and he went a trifle further, until he reached a depth of bestiality below which a gaff in Shoreditch could net descend. Ah! Those bonny lads, how they roared with laughter, and how they exchanged winks with grinning elders! Not a single obscure allusion to filth was lost upon them, and they took more and more drink under pressure of the secret excitement until many of them were unsteady and incoherent. I think I should shoot a boy of mine if I found him enjoying such a foul entertainment. It was leze-Humanity. The orgie rattled on, to the joy of all the steaming, soddened company, and I am not able to guess where some of the songs and recitations came from. There are deeps below deeps, and I suppose that there are skilled literary workmen who have sunk so far that they are ready to supply the unspeakable dirt which I heard.

There was a merry crowd at the bar when this astounding function ceased, and the lively lads jostled, and laughed, and quoted some of the more spicy specimens of nastiness which they had just heard.

Now, I should not have mentioned such an unsavoury business as this, but that it illustrates in a curious way the fact that one is met and countered by the power of Drink at every turn in this country. Among that unholy audience were one or two worthies who ought by rights to have called the police, and forced the promoters of the fun to appear before the Bench in the morning. But then these magistrates had an interest in Beer, and Brewery shares were pretty well represented in the odious room, and thus a flagrant scandal was gently passed aside. The worst of it is that, after a rouse like this, the young men do not care to go to bed, so they adjourn to some one’s rooms and play cards till any hour. In the train next morning there are blotchy faces, dull eyes, tongues with a bitter taste, and there is a general rush for “liveners” before the men go to office or warehouse; and the day drags on until the joyous evening comes, when some new form of debauch drowns the memory of the morning’s headache. Should you listen to a set of these men when the roar of a long bar is at its height at night, you will find that the life of the intellect has passed away from their midst. The fellows may be sharp in a small way at business, and I am sure I hope they are; but their conversation is painful in the extreme to any one who wishes to retain a shred of respect for his own species. If you listen long, and then fix your mind so that you can pick out the exact significance of what you have heard, you become confounded. Take the scraps of “bar” gabble. “So I says, ‘Lay me fours.’ And he winks and says, ‘I’ll give you seven to two, if you like.’ Well, you know, the horse won, and I stood him a bottle out of the three pound ten, so I wasn’t much in.” “‘What!’ says I; ‘step outside along o’ me, and bring your pal with you, and I’ll spread your bloomin’ nose over your face.’” “That corked him.” “I tell you Flyaway’s a dead cert. I know a bloke that goes to Newmarket regular, and he’s acquainted with Reilly of the Greyhound, and Reilly told him that he heard Teddy Martin’s cousin say that Flyaway was tried within seven pounds of Peacock. Can you have a better tip than that?” “I’ll give you the break, and we’ll play for a bob and the games.” “Thanks, deah boy, I’ll jest have one with you. Lor! wasn’t I chippy this morning? I felt as if the pavement was making rushes at me, and my hat seemed to want a shoehorn to get it on or off for that matter. Bill’s whisky’s too good.” “I’m going out with a Judy on Sunday, or else you’d have me with you. The girls won’t leave me alone, and the blessed dears can’t be denied.” So the talk goes steadily forward. What can a bright lad learn there? Many of the assembly are very young, and their features have not lost the freshness and purity of skin which give such a charm to a healthy lad’s appearance. Would any mother like to see her favourite among that hateful crowd? I do not think that mothers rightly know the sort of places which their darlings enter; I do not think they guess the kind of language which the youths hear when the chimes sound at midnight; they do not know the intricacies of a society which half encourages callow beings to drink, and then kicks them into the gutter if the drink takes hold effectually. The kindly, seemly woman remains at home in her drawing-room, papa slumbers if he is one of the stay-at-home sort; but Gerald, and Sidney, and Alfred are out in the drink-shop hearing talk fit to make Rabelais turn queasy, or they are in the billiard-room learning to spell “ruin” with all convenient speed, or perhaps they have “copped it”–that is the correct phrase–rather early, and they are swaggering along, shadowed by some creature–half girl, half tiger-cat–who will bring them up in good time. If the women knew enough, I sometimes think they would make a combined, nightly raid on the boozing-bars, and bring their lads out.

Some hard-headed fellows may think that there is something grandmotherly in the regrets which I utter over the cesspool in which so many of our middle-class seem able to wallow without suffering asphyxia; but I am only mournful because I have seen the plight of so many and many after their dip in the sinister depths of the pool. I envy those stolid people who can talk so contemptuously of frailty–I mean I envy them their self-mastery; I quite understand the temperament of those who can be content with a slight exhilaration, and who fiercely contemn the crackbrain who does not know when to stop. No doubt it is a sad thing for a man to part with his self-control, but I happen to hold a brief for the crackbrain, and I say that there is not any man living who can afford to be too contemptuous, for no one knows when his turn may come to make a disastrous slip.

Most strange it is that a vice which brings instant punishment on him who harbours it should be first of all encouraged by the very people who are most merciless in condemning it. The drunkard has not to wait long for his punishment; it follows hard on his sin, and he is not left to the justice of another world. And yet, as we have said, this vice, which entails such scathing disgrace and suffering, is encouraged in many seductive ways. The talk in good company often runs on wine; the man who has the deadly taint in his blood is delicately pressed to take that which brings the taint once more into ill-omened activity; but, so long as his tissues show no sign of that flabbiness and general unwholesomeness which mark the excessive drinker, he is left unnoticed. Then the literary men nearly always make the subject of drink attractive in one way or other. We laugh at Mr. Pickwick and all his gay set of brandy-bibbers; we laugh at John Ridd, with his few odd gallons of ale per day; but let any man be seen often in the condition which led to Mr. Pickwick’s little accident, and see what becomes of him. He is soon shunned like a scabbed sheep. One had better incur penal servitude than fall into that vice from which the Government derives a huge revenue–the vice which is ironically associated with friendliness, good temper, merriment, and all goodly things. There are times when one is minded to laugh for very bitterness.

And this sin, which begins in kindness and ends always in utter selfishness–this sin, which pours accursed money into the Exchequer–this sin, which consigns him who is guilty of it to a doom worse than servitude or death–this sin is to be fought by Act of Parliament! On the one hand, there are gentry who say, “Drink is a dreadful curse, but look at the revenue.” On the other hand, there are those who say, “Drink is a dreadful thing; let us stamp it out by means of foolscap and printers’ ink.” Then the neutrals say, “Bother both your parties. Drink is a capital thing in its place. Why don’t you leave it alone?” Meantime the flower of the earth are being bitterly blighted. It is the special examples that I like to bring out, so that the jolly lads who are tempted into such places as the concert-room which I described may perhaps receive a timely check. It is no use talking to me about culture, and refinement, and learning, and serious pursuits saving a man from the devouring fiend; for it happens that the fiend nearly always clutches the best and brightest and most promising. Intellect alone is not worth anything as a defensive means against alcohol, and I can convince anybody of that if he will go with me to a common lodging-house which we can choose at random. Yes, it is the bright and powerful intellects that catch the rot first in too many cases, and that is why I smile at the notion of mere book-learning making us any better. If I were to make out a list of the scholars whom I have met starving and in rags, I should make people gape. I once shared a pot of fourpenny ale with a man who used to earn L2000 a year by coaching at Oxford. He was in a low house near the Waterloo Road, and he died of cold and hunger there. He had been the friend and counsellor of statesmen, but the vice from which statesmen squeeze revenue had him by the throat before he knew where he was, and he drifted toward death in a kind of constant dream from which no one ever saw him wake. These once bright and splendid intellectual beings swarm in the houses of poverty: if you pick up with a peculiarly degraded one you may always be sure that he was one of the best men of his time, and it seems as if the very rich quality of his intelligence had enabled corruption to rankle through him so much the more quickly. I have seen a tramp on the road–a queer, long-nosed, short-sighted animal–who would read Greek with the book upside-down. He was a very fine Latin scholar, and we tried him with Virgil; he could go off at score when he had a single line given him, and he scarcely made a slip, for the poetry seemed ingrained. I have shared a pennyworth of sausage with the brother of a Chief Justice, and I have played a piccolo while an ex-incumbent performed a dance which he described, I think, as Pyrrhic. He fell in the fire and used hideous language in Latin and French, but I do not know whether that was Pyrrhic also. Drink is the dainty harvester; no puny ears for him, no faint and bending stalks: he reaps the rathe corn, and there is only the choicest of the choice in his sheaves. That is what I want to fix on the minds of young people–and others; the more sense of power you have, the more pride of strength you have, the more you are likely to be marked and shorn down by the grim reaper; and there is little hope for you when the reaper once approaches, because the very friends who followed the national craze, and upheld the harmlessness of drink, will shoot out their lips at you and run away when your bad moment comes.

The last person who ever suspects that a wife drinks is always the husband; the last person who ever suspects that any given man is bitten with drink is that man himself. So stealthily, so softly does the evil wind itself around a man’s being, that he very often goes on fancying himself a rather admirable and temperate customer–until the crash comes. It is all so easy, that the deluded dupe never thinks that anything is far wrong until he finds that his friends are somehow beginning to fight shy of him. No one will tell him what ails him, and I may say that such a course would be quite useless, for the person warned would surely fly into a passion, declare himself insulted, and probably perform some mad trick while his nerves were on edge. Well, there comes a time when the doomed man is disinclined for exertion, and he knows that something is wrong. He has become sly almost without knowing it, and, although he is pining for some stimulus, he pretends to go without, and tries by the flimsiest of devices, to deceive those around him. Now that is a funny symptom; the master vice, the vice that is the pillar of the revenue, always, without any exception known to me, turns a man into a sneak, and it generally turns him into a liar as well. So sure as the habit of concealment sets in, so surely we may be certain that the dry-rot of the soul has begun. The drinker is tremulous; he finds that light beverages are useless to him, and he tries something that burns: his nerve recovers tone; he laughs at himself for his early morning fears, and he gets over another day. But the dry-rot is spreading; body and soul react on each other, and the forlorn one soon begins to be fatally false and weak in morals, and dirty and slovenly in person. Then in the dead, unhappy nights he suffers all the torments that can be endured if he wakes up while his day’s supply of alcohol lies stagnant in his system. No imagination is so retrospective as the drunkard’s, and the drunkard’s remorse is the most terrible torture known. The wind cries in the dark and the trees moan; the agonized man who lies waiting the morning thinks of the times when the whistle of the wind was the gladdest of sounds to him; his old ambitions wake from their trance and come to gaze on him reproachfully; he sees that fortune (and mayhap fame) have passed him by, and all through his own fault; he may whine about imaginary wrongs during the day when he is maudlin, but the night fairly throttles him if he attempts to turn away from the stark truth, and he remains pinned face to face with his beautiful, dead self. Then, with a start, he remembers that he has no friends. When he crawls out in the morning to steady his hand he will be greeted with filthy public-house cordiality by the animals to whose level he has dragged himself, but of friends he has none. Now, is it not marvellous? Drink is so jolly; prosperous persons talk with such a droll wink about vagaries which they or their friends committed the night before; it is all so very, very lightsome! The brewers and distillers who put the mirth-inspiring beverages into the market receive more consideration, and a great deal more money, than an average European prince;–and yet the poor dry-rotted unfortunate whose decadence we are tracing is like a leper in the scattering effects which he produces during his shaky promenade. He is indeed alone in the world, and brandy or gin is his only counsellor and comforter. As to character, the last rag of that goes when the first sign of indolence is seen; the watchers have eyes like cats, and the self-restrained men among them have usually seen so many fellows depart to perdition that every stage in the process of degradation is known to them. No! there is not a friend, and dry, clever gentlemen say, “Yes. Good chap enough once on a day, but can’t afford to be seen with him now.” The soaker is amazed to find that women are afraid of him a little, and shrink from him–in fact, the only people who are cordial with him are the landlords, among whom he is treated as a sort of irresponsible baby. “I may as well have his money as anybody else. He shan’t get outrageously drunk here, but he may as well moisten his clay and keep himself from being miserable. If he gets the jumps in the night that’s his look-out.” That is the soaker’s friend. The man is not unkind; he is merely hardened, and his morals, like those of nearly all who are connected with the great Trade, have suffered a twist. When the soaker’s last penny has gone, he will receive from the landlord many a contemptuously good-natured gift–pity it is that the lost wastrel cannot be saved before that weariful last penny huddles in the corner of his pocket.

While the harrowing descent goes on our suffering wretch is gradually changing in appearance: the piggish element that is latent in most of us comes out in him; his morality is sapped; he will beg, borrow, lie, and steal; and, worst of all, he is a butt for thoughtless young fellows. The last is the worst cut of all, for the battered, bloodless, sunken ne’er-do-well can remember only too vividly his own gallant youth, and the thought of what he was drives him crazed.

There is only one end; if the doomed one escapes delirium tremens he is likely to have cirrhosis, and if he misses both of these, then dropsy or Bright’s disease claims him. Those who once loved him pray for his death, and greet his last breath with an echoing sigh of thankfulness and relief: he might have been cheered in his last hour by the graceful sympathy of troops of friends; but the State-protected vice has such a withering effect that it scorches up friendship as a fiery breath from a furnace might scorch a grass blade. If one of my joyous, delightful lads could just watch the shambling, dirty figure of such a failure as I have described; if he could see the sneers of amused passers-by, the timid glances of women, the contemptuous off-hand speech of the children–“Oh! him! That’s old, boozy Blank;” then the youths might well tremble, for the woebegone beggar that snivels out thanks for a mouthful of gin was once a brave lad–clever, handsome, generous, the delight of friends, the joy of his parents, the most brilliantly promising of all his circle. He began by being jolly; he was well encouraged and abetted; he found that respectable men drank, and that Society made no demur. But he forgot that there are drinkers and drinkers, he forgot that the cool-headed men were not tainted by heredity, nor were their brains so delicately poised that the least grain of foreign matter introduced in the form of vapour could cause semi-insanity. And thus the sacrifice of Society–and the Exchequer–goes to the tomb amid contempt, and hissing, and scorn; while the saddest thing of all is that those who loved him most passionately are most glad to hear the clods thump on his coffin. I believe, if you let me keep a youngster for an hour in a room with me, I could tell him enough stories from my own shuddery experience to frighten him off drink for life. I should cause him to be haunted.

There is none of the rage of the convert in all this; I knew what I was doing when I went into the base and sordid homes of ruin during years, and I want to know how any justification not fitted for the libretto of an extravaganza can be given by certain parliamentary gentlemen in order that we may be satisfied with their conduct. My wanderings and freaks do not count; I was a Bohemian, with the tastes of a Romany and the curiosity of a philosopher; I went into the most abominable company because it amused me and I had only myself to please, and I saw what a fearfully tense grip the monster, Drink, has taken of this nation; and let me say that you cannot understand that one little bit, if you are content to knock about with a policeman and squint at signboards. Well, I want to know how these legislators can go to church and repeat certain prayers, while they continue to make profit by retailing Death at so much a gallon; and I want to know how some scores of other godly men go out of their way to back up a traffic which is very well able to take care of itself. A wild, night-roaming gipsy like me is not expected to be a model, but one might certainly expect better things from folks who are so insultingly, aggressively righteous. One sombre and thoughtful Romany of my acquaintance said, “My brother, there are many things that I try to fight, and they knock me out of time in the first round.” That is my own case exactly when I observe comfortable personages who deplore vice, and fill their pockets to bursting by shoving the vice right in the way of the folks most likely to be stricken with deadly precision by it.

It is not easy to be bad-tempered over this saddening business; one has to be pitiful. As my memory travels over England, and follows the tracks that I trod, I seem to see a line of dead faces, that start into life if I linger by them, and mop and mow at me in bitterness because I put out no saving hand. So many and many I saw tramping over the path of Destruction, and I do not think that ever I gave one of them a manly word of caution. It was not my place, I thought, and thus their bones are bleaching, and the memory of their names has flown away like a mephitic vapour that was better dispersed. Are there many like me, I wonder, who have not only done nothing to battle with the mightiest modern evil, but have half encouraged it through cynical recklessness and pessimism? We entrap the poor and the base and the wretched to their deaths, and then we cry out about their vicious tendencies, and their improvidence, and all the rest. Heaven knows I have no right to sermonize; but, at least, I never shammed anything. When I saw some spectacle of piercing misery caused by Drink (as nearly all English misery is) I simply choked down the tendency to groan, and grimly resolved to see all I could and remember it. But now that I have had time to reflect instead of gazing and moaning, I have a sharp conception of the thing that is biting at England’s vitals. People fish out all sorts of wondrous and obscure causes for crime. As far as England is concerned I should lump the influences provocative of crime and productive of misery into one–I say Drink is the root of almost all evil. It is heartbreaking to know what is going on at our own doors, for, however we may shuffle and blink, we cannot disguise the fact that many millions of human beings who might be saved pass their lives in an obscene hell–and they live so in merry England. Durst any one describe a lane in Sandgate, Newcastle-on-Tyne, a court off Orange Street or Lancaster Street, London, an alley in Manchester, a four-storey tenement in the Irish quarter of Liverpool? I think not, and it is perhaps best that no description should be done; for, if it were well done it would make harmless people unhappy, and if it were ill done it would drive away sympathy. I only say that all the horrors of those places are due to alcohol alone. Do not say that idleness is answerable for the gruesome state of things; that would be putting cause for effect. A man finds the pains of the world too much for him; he takes alcohol to bring on forgetfulness; he forgets, and he pays for his pleasure by losing alike the desire and capacity for work. The man of the slums fares exactly like the gentleman: both sacrifice their moral sense, both become idle; the bad in both is ripened into rankness, and makes itself villainously manifest at all seasons; the good is atrophied, and finally dies. Goodness may take an unconscionable time a-dying, but it is sentenced to death by the fates from the moment when alcoholism sets in, and the execution is only a matter of time.

England, then, is a country of grief. I never yet knew one family which had not lost a cherished member through the national curse; and thus at all times we are like the wailing nation whereof the first-born in every house was stricken. It is an awful sight, and as I sit here alone I can send my mind over the sad England which I know, and see the army of the mourners. They say that the calling of the wounded on the field of Borodino was like the roar of the sea: on my battle-field, where drink has been the only slayer, there are many dead; and I can imagine that I hear the full volume of cries from those who are stricken but still living. The vision would unsettle my reason if I had not a trifle of Hope remaining. The philosophic individual who talks in correctly frigid phrases about the evils of the Liquor Trade may keep his reason balanced daintily and his nerve unhurt. But I have images for company–images of wild fearsomeness. There is the puffy and tawdry woman who rolls along the street goggling at the passengers with boiled eye. The little pretty child says, “Oh! mother, what a strange woman. I didn’t understand what she said.” My pretty, that was Drink, and you may be like that one of these days, for as little as your mother thinks it, if you ever let yourself touch the Curse carelessly. Bless you, I know scores who were once as sweet as you who can now drink any costermonger of them all under the stools in the Haymarket bar. The young men grin and wink as that staggering portent lurches past: I do not smile; my heart is too sad for even a show of sadness. Then there are the children–the children of Drink they should be called, for they suck it from the breast, and the venomous molecules become one with their flesh and blood, and they soon learn to like the poison as if it were pure mother’s milk. How they hunger–those little children! What obscure complications of agony they endure and how very dark their odd convulsive species of existence is made, only that one man may buy forgetfulness by the glass. If I let my imagination loose, I can hear the immense army of the young crying to the dumb and impotent sky, and they all cry for bread. Mercy! how the little children suffer! And I have seen them by the hundred–by the thousand–and only helped from caprice; I could do no other. The iron winter is nearing us, and soon the dull agony of cold will swoop down and bear the gnawing hunger company while the two dire agencies inflict torture on the little ones. Were it not for Drink the sufferers might be clad and nourished; but then Drink is the support of the State, and a few thousand of raw-skinned, hunger-bitten children perhaps do not matter. Then I can see all the ruined gentlemen, and all the fine fellows whose glittering promise was so easily tarnished; they have crossed my track, and I remember every one of them, but I never could haul back one from the fate toward which he shambled so blindly; what could I do when Drink was driving him? If I could not shake off the memories of squalor, hunger, poverty–well-deserved poverty–despair, crime, abject wretchedness, then life could not be borne. I can always call to mind the wrung hands and drawn faces of well-nurtured and sweet ladies who saw the dull mask of loathsome degradation sliding downward over their loved one’s face. Of all the mental trials that are cruel, that must be the worst–to see the light of a beloved soul guttering gradually down into stench and uncleanness. The woman sees the decadence day by day, while the blinded and lulled man who causes all the indescribable trouble thinks that everything is as it should be. The Drink mask is a very scaring thing; once you watch it being slowly fitted on to a beautiful and spiritual face you do not care over-much about the revenue.

And now the famous Russian’s question comes up: What shall we do? Well, so far as the wastrel poor are concerned, I should say, “Catch them when young, and send them out of England so long as there is any place abroad where their labour is sought.” I should say so, because there is not a shadow of a chance for them in this country: they will go in their turn to drink as surely as they go to death. As to the vagabond poor whom we have with us now I have no hope for them; we must wait until death weeds them out, for we can do nothing with them nor for them.

Among the classes who are better off from the worldly point of view, we shall have sacrifices offered to the fiend from time to time. Drink has wound like some ubiquitous fungus round and round the tissues of the national body, and we are sure to have a nasty growth striking out at intervals. It tears the heart-strings when we see the brave, the brilliant, the merry, the wise, sinking under the evil clement in our appalling dual nature, and we feel, with something like despair, that we cannot be altogether delivered from the scourge yet awhile. I have stabs of conscience when I call to mind all I have seen and remember how little I have done, and I can only hope, in a shame-faced way, that the use of intoxicants may be quietly dropped, just as the practice of gambling, and the habit of drinking heavy, sweet wines, have passed away from the exclusive society in which cards used to form the main diversion. Frankly speaking, I have seen the degradation, the abomination, and the measureless force of Drink so near at hand that I am not sanguine. I can take care of myself, but I am never really sure about many other people, and I had good reason for not being sure of myself. One thing is certain, and that is that the creeping enemy is sure to attack the very last man or woman whom you would expect to see attacked. When the first symptoms are seen, the stricken one should be delivered from ennui as much as possible, and then some friend should tell, in dull, dry style, the slow horror of the drop to the Pit. Fear will be effective when nothing else will. Many are stronger than I am and can help more. By the memory of broken hearts, by the fruitless prayers of mothers and sorrowing wives, for the sake of the children who are forced to stay on earth in a living death, I ask the strong to help us all. Blighted lives, wrecked intellects, wasted brilliancy, poisoned morality, rotted will–all these mark the road that the King of Evils takes in his darksome progress. Out of the depths I have called for aid and received it, and now I ask aid for others, and I shall not be denied.

October, 1889.

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