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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: 7

Captain Alexander Smith, whose Lives of the Highwaymen, published in 1719, was properly described by its author as 'the first impartial piece of this nature which ever appeared in English.' Now, Captain Smith inherited from a nameless father no other patrimony than a fierce loyalty to the Stuarts, and the sanguine temperament which views in horror a well-ordered life. Though a mere foundling, he managed to acquire the rudiments, and he was not wholly unlettered when at eighteen he took to the road. His courage, fortified by an intimate knowledge of the great tradition, was rewarded by an immediate success, and he rapidly became the master of so much leisure as enabled him to pursue his studies with pleasure and distinction. When his companions damned him for a milksop, he was loftily contemptuous, conscious that it was not in intelligence alone that he was their superior. While the Stuarts were the gods of his idolatry, while the Regicides were the fiends of his frank abhorrence, it was from the Elizabethans that he caught the splendid vigour of his style; and he owed not only his historical sense, but his living English to the example of Philemon Holland. Moreover, it is to his constant glory that, living at a time that preferred as well to attenuate the English tongue as to degrade the profession of the highway, he not only rode abroad with a fearless courtesy, but handled his own language with the force and spirit of an earlier age.

He wrote with the authority of courage and experience. A hazardous career had driven envy and malice from his dauntless breast. Though he confesses a debt to certain 'learned and eminent divines of the Church of England,' he owed a greater debt to his own observation, and he knew—none better—how to recognise with enthusiasm those deeds of daring which only himself has rivalled. A master of etiquette, he distributed approval and censure with impartial hand; and he was quick to condemn the smallest infraction of an ancient law. Nor was he insensible to the dignity of history. The best models were always before him. With admirable zeal he studied the manner of such masters as Thucydides and Titus Livius of Padua. Above all, he realised the importance of setting appropriate speeches in the mouths of his characters; and, permitting his heroes to speak for themselves, he imparted to his work an irresistible air of reality and good faith. His style, always studied, was neither too low nor too high for his subject. An ill-balanced sentence was as hateful to him as a foul thrust or a stolen advantage.

Abroad a craftsman, he carried into the closet the skill and energy which distinguished him when the moon was on the heath. Though not born to the arts of peace, he was determined to prove his respect for letters, and his masterpiece is no less pompous in manner than it is estimable in tone and sound in reflection. He handled slang as one who knew its limits and possibilities, employing it not for the sake of eccentricity, but to give the proper colour and sparkle to his page; indeed, his intimate acquaintance with the vagabonds of speech enabled him to compile a dictionary of Pedlar's French, which has been pilfered by a whole battalion of imitators. Moreover, there was none of the proverbs of the pavement, those first cousins of slang, that escaped him; and he assumed all the licence of the gentleman-collector in the treatment of his love-passages.

Captain Smith took the justest view of his subject. For him robbery, in the street as on the highway, was the finest of the arts, and he always revered it for its own sake rather than for vulgar profit. Though, to deceive the public, he abhorred villainy in word, he never concealed his admiration in deed of a 'highwayman who robs like a gentleman.' 'There is a beauty in all the works of nature,' he observes in one of his wittiest exordia, 'which we are unable to define, though all the world is convinced of its existence: so in every action and station of life there is a grace to be attained, which will make a man pleasing to all about him and serene in his own mind.' Some there are, he continues, who have placed 'this beauty in vice itself; otherwise it is hardly probable that they could commit so many irregularities with a strong gust and an appearance of satisfaction.' Notwithstanding that the word 'vice' is used in its conventional sense, we have here the key to Captain Smith's position. He judged his heroes' achievements with the intelligent impartiality of a connoisseur, and he permitted no other prejudice than an unfailing loyalty to interrupt his opinion.

Though he loved good English as he loved good wine, he was never so happy as when (in imagination) he was tying the legs of a Regicide under the belly of an ass. And when in the manner of a bookseller's hack he compiled a Comical and Tragical History of the Lives and Adventures of the most noted Bayliffs, adoration of the Royalists persuaded him to miss his chance. So brave a spirit as himself should not have looked complacently upon the officers of the law, but he saw in the glorification of the bayliff another chance of castigating the Roundheads, and thus he set an honorific crown upon the brow of man's natural enemy. 'These unsanctified rascals,' wrote he, 'would run into any man's debt without paying him, and if their creditors were Cavaliers they thought they had as much right to cheat 'em, as the Israelites had to spoil the Egyptians of their ear-rings and jewels.' Alas! the boot was ever on the other leg; and yet you cannot but admire the Captain's valiant determination to sacrifice probability to his legitimate hate.

Of his declining years and death there is no record. One likes to think of him released from care, and surrounded by books, flowers, and the good things of this earth. Now and again, maybe, he would muse on the stirring deeds of his youth, and more often he would put away the memory of action to delight in the masterpiece which made him immortal. He would recall with pleasure, no doubt, the ready praise of Richard Steele, his most appreciative critic, and smile contemptuously at the baseness of his friend and successor, Captain Charles Johnson. Now, this ingenious writer was wont to boast, when the ale of Fleet Street had empurpled his nose, that he was the most intrepid highwayman of them all. 'Once upon a time,' he would shout, with an arrogant gesture, 'I was known from Blackheath to Hounslow, from Ware to Shooter's Hill.' And the truth is, the only 'crime' he ever committed was plagiarism. The self-assumed title of Captain should have deceived nobody, for the braggart never stole anything more difficult of acquisition than another man's words. He picked brains, not pockets; he committed the greater sin and ran no risk. He helped himself to the admirable inventions of Captain Smith without apology or acknowledgment, and, as though to lighten the dead-weight of his sin, he never skipped an opportunity of maligning his victim. Again and again in the very act to steal he will declare vaingloriously that Captain Smith's stories are 'barefaced inventions.' But doubt was no check to the habit of plunder, and you knew that at every reproach, expressed (so to say) in self-defence, he plied the scissors with the greater energy. The most cunning theft is the tag which adorns the title-page of his book: