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قراءة كتاب A Book of Scoundrels

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‏اللغة: English
A Book of Scoundrels

A Book of Scoundrels

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 4

of his trade. His strategy was perfect, his sleight of hand as delicate as long, lithe fingers and nimble brains could make it. He had discarded for ever those clumsy instruments whose use had barred the progress of the Primitives. The breast-pocket behind the tightest buttoned coat presented no difficulty to his love of research, and he would penetrate the stoutest frieze or the lightest satin, as easily as Jack Sheppard made a hole through Newgate. His trick of robbery was so simple and yet so successful, that ever since it has remained a tradition. The collision, the victim's murmured apology, the hasty scuffle, the booty handed to the aide-de-camp, who is out of sight before the hue and cry can be raised—such was the policy advocated two hundred years ago; such is the policy pursued to day by the few artists that remain.

Throughout the eighteenth century the art of cly-faking held its own, though its reputation paled in the glamour of the highway. It culminated in George Barrington, whose vivid genius persuaded him to work alone and to carry off his own booty; it still flourished (in a silver age) when the incomparable Haggart performed his prodigies of skill; even in our prosaic time some flashes of the ancient glory have been seen. Now and again circumstances have driven it into eclipse. When the facile sentiment of the Early Victorian Era poised the tear of sympathy upon every trembling eyelid, the most obdurate was forced to provide himself with a silk handkerchief of equal size and value.

Now, a wipe is the easiest booty in the world, and the Artful Dodger might grow rich without the exercise of the smallest skill. But wipes dwindled, with dwindling sensibility; and once more the pickpocket was forced upon cleverness or extinction.

At the same time the more truculent trade of housebreaking was winning a lesser triumph of its own. Never, save in the hands of one or two distinguished practitioners, has this clumsy, brutal pursuit taken on the refinement of an art. Essentially modern, it has generally been pursued in the meanest spirit of gain. Deacon Brodie clung to it as to a diversion, but he was an amateur, without a clear understanding of his craft's possibilities. The sole monarch of housebreakers was Charles Peace. At a single stride he surpassed his predecessors; nor has the greatest of his imitators been worthy to hand on the candle which he left at the gallows. For the rest, there is small distinction in breaking windows, wielding crowbars, and battering the brains of defenceless old gentlemen. And it is to such miserable tricks as this that he who two centuries since rode abroad in all the glory of the High-toby-splice descends in these days of avarice and stupidity. The legislators who decreed that henceforth the rope should be reserved for the ultimate crime of murder were inspired with a proper sense of humour and proportion. It would be ignoble to dignify that ugly enterprise of to-day, the cracking of suburban cribs, with the same punishment which was meted out to Claude Duval and the immortal Switcher. Better for the churl the disgrace of Portland than the chance of heroism and respect given at the Tree!

And where are the heroes whose art was as glorious as their intrepidity? One and all they have climbed the ascent of Tyburn.

One and all, they have leaped resplendent from the cart. The world, which was the joyous playground of highwaymen and pickpockets, is now the Arcadia of swindlers. The man who once went forth to meet his equal on the road, now plunders the defenceless widow or the foolish clergyman from the security of an office. He has changed Black Bess for a brougham, his pistol for a cigar; a sleek chimney-pot sits upon the head, which once carried a jaunty hat, three-cornered; spats have replaced the tops of ancient times; and a heavy fur coat advertises at once the wealth and inaction of the modern brigand. No longer does he roam the heaths of Hounslow or Bagshot; no longer does he track the grazier to a country fair. Fearful of an encounter, he chooses for the fields of his enterprise the byways of the City, and the advertisement columns of the smugly Christian Press. He steals without risking his skin or losing his respectability. The suburb, wherein he brings up a blameless, flat-footed family, regards him as its most renowned benefactor. He is generally a pillar (or a buttress) of the Church, and oftentimes a mayor; with his ill-gotten wealth he promotes charities, and endows schools; his portrait is painted by a second-rate Academician, and hangs, until disaster overtakes him, in the town-hall of his adopted borough.

How much worse is he than the High-toby-cracks of old! They were as brave as lions; he is a very louse for timidity. His conduct is meaner than the conduct of the most ruffianly burglar that ever worked a centre-bit. Of art he has not the remotest inkling: though his greed is bounded by the Bank of England, he understands not the elegancies of life; he cares not how he plumps his purse, so long as it be full; and if he were capable of conceiving a grand effect, he would willingly surrender it for a pocketed half-crown. This side the Channel, in brief, romance and the picturesque are dead; and in France, the last refuge of crime, there are already signs of decay. The Abbé Bruneau caught a whiff of style and invention from the past. That other Abbé—Rosslot was his name—shone forth a pure creator: he owed his prowess to the example of none. But in Paris crime is too often passionel, and a crime passionel is a crime with a purpose, which, like the novel with a purpose, is conceived by a dullard, and carried out for the gratification of the middle-class.

To whitewash the scoundrel is to put upon him the heaviest dishonour: a dishonour comparable only to the monstrously illogical treatment of the condemned. When once a hero has forfeited his right to comfort and freedom, when he is deemed no longer fit to live upon earth, the Prison Chaplain, encouraging him to a final act of hypocrisy, gives him a free pass (so to say) into another and more exclusive world. So, too, the moralist would test the thief by his own narrow standard, forgetting that all professions are not restrained by the same code. The road has its ordinances as well as the lecture-room; and if the thief is commonly a bad moralist, it is certain that no moralist was ever a great thief. Why then detract from a man's legitimate glory? Is it not wiser to respect 'that deep intuition of oneness,' which Coleridge says is 'at the bottom of our faults as well as our virtues?' To recognise that a fault in an honest man is a virtue in a scoundrel? After all, he is eminent who, in obedience to his talent, does prodigies of valour unrivalled by his fellows. And none has so many opportunities of various eminence as the scoundrel.

The qualities which may profitably be applied to a cross life are uncommon and innumerable. It is not given to all men to be light-brained, light-limbed, light-fingered. A courage which shall face an enemy under the starlight, or beneath the shadow of a wall, which shall track its prey to a well-defended lair, is far rarer than a law-abiding cowardice. The recklessness that risks all for a present advantage is called genius, if a victorious general urge it to success; nor can you deny to the intrepid Highwayman, whose sudden resolution triumphs at an instant of peril, the possession of an admirable gift. But all heroes have not proved themselves excellent at all points. This one has been distinguished for the courtly manner of his attack, that other for a prescience which discovers booty behind a coach-door or within the pocket of a buttoned coat. If Cartouche was a master of strategy, Barrington was unmatched in another branch; and each may claim the credit due to a peculiar eminence. It is only thus that you may measure conflicting talents: as it were unfair to judge a poet by a brief experiment in prose, so it would be monstrous to cheapen the accomplishments of a pickpocket, because he bungled at the concealment of his gains.

A stern test