If the Scoundrel may claim distinction on many grounds, his character is singularly uniform. To the anthropologist he might well appear the survival of a savage race, and savage also are his manifold superstitions. He is a creature of times and seasons. He chooses the occasion of his deeds with as scrupulous a care as he examines his formidable crowbars and jemmies. At certain hours he would refrain from action, though every circumstance favoured his success: he would rather obey the restraining voice of a wise, unreasoning wizardry, than fill his pockets with the gold for which his human soul is ever hungry. There is no law of man he dares not break but he shrinks in horror from the infringement of the unwritten rules of savagery. Though he might cut a throat in self-defence, he would never walk under a ladder; and if the 13th fell on a Friday, he would starve that day rather than obtain a loaf by the method he best understands. He consults the omens with as patient a divination as the augurs of old; and so long as he carries an amulet in his pocket, though it be but a pebble or a polished nut, he is filled with an irresistible courage. For him the worst terror of all is the evil eye, and he would rather be hanged by an unsuspected judge than receive an easy stretch from one whose glance he dared not face. And while the anthropologist claims him for a savage, whose civilisation has been arrested at brotherhood with the Solomon Islanders, the politician might pronounce him a true communist, in that he has preserved a wholesome contempt of property and civic life. The pedant, again, would feel his bumps, prescribe a gentle course of bromide, and hope to cure all the sins of the world by a municipal Turkish bath. The wise man, respecting his superstitions, is content to take him as he finds him, and to deduce his character from his very candid history, which is unaffected by pedant or politician.
Before all things, he is sanguine; he believes that Chance, the great god of his endeavour, fights upon his side. Whatever is lacking to-day, to-morrow's enterprise will fulfil, and if only the omens be favourable, he fears neither detection nor the gallows. His courage proceeds from this sanguine temperament, strengthened by shame and tradition rather than from a self- controlled magnanimity; he hopes until despair is inevitable, and then walks firmly to the gallows, that no comrade may suspect the white feather. His ambition, too, is the ambition of the savage or of the child; he despises such immaterial advantages as power and influence, being perfectly content if he have a smart coat on his back and a bottle of wine at his elbow. He would rather pick a lock than batter a constitution, and the world would be well lost, if he and his doxy might survey the ruin in comfort.
But if his ambition be modest, his love of notoriety is boundless. He must be famous, his name must be in the mouths of men, he must be immortal (for a week) in a rough woodcut. And then, what matters it how soon the end? His braveries have been hawked in the street; his prowess has sold a Special Edition; he is the first of his race, until a luckier rival eclipses him. Thus, also, his dandyism is inevitable: it is not enough for him to cover his nakedness--he must dress; and though his taste is sometimes unbridled, it is never insignificant. Indeed, his biographers have recorded the expression of his fancy in coats and small-clothes as patiently and enthusiastically as they have applauded his courage. And truly the love of magnificence, which he shares with all artists, is sincere and characteristic. When an accomplice of Jonathan Wild's robbed Lady M----n at Windsor, his equipage cost him forty pounds; and Nan Hereford was arrested for shoplifting at the very moment that four footmen awaited her return with an elegant sedan-chair.
His vanity makes him but a prudish lover, who desires to woo less than to be wooed; and at all times and through all moods he remains the primeval sentimentalist. He will detach his life entirely from the catchwords which pretend to govern his actions; he will sit and croon the most heartrending ditties in celebration of home-life and a mother's love, and then set forth incontinently upon a well-planned errand of plunder. For all his artistry, he lacks balance as flagrantly as a popular politician or an advanced journalist. Therefore it is the more remarkable that in one point he displays a certain caution: he boggles at a superfluous murder. For all his contempt of property, he still preserves a respect for life, and the least suspicion of unnecessary brutality sets not only the law but his own fellows against him. Like all men whose god is Opportunity, he is a reckless gambler; and, like all gamblers, he is monstrously extravagant. In brief, he is a tangle of picturesque qualities, which, until our own generation, was incapable of nothing save dulness.
The Bible and the Newgate Calendar--these twain were George Borrow's favourite reading, and all save the psychologist and the pedant will applaud the preference. For the annals of the `family' are distinguished by an epic severity, a fearless directness of speech, which you will hardly match outside the Iliad or the Chronicles of the Kings. But the Newgate Calendar did not spring ready-made into being: it is the result of a curious and gradual development. The chap-books came first, with their bold type, their coarse paper, and their clumsy, characteristic woodcuts--the chap-books, which none can contemplate without an enchanted sentiment. Here at last you come upon a literature, which has been read to pieces. The very rarity of the slim, rough volumes, proves that they have been handed from one greedy reader to another, until the great libraries alone are rich enough to harbour them. They do not boast the careful elegance of a famous press: many of them came from the printing-office of a country town: yet the least has a simplicity and concision, which are unknown in this age of popular fiction. Even their lack of invention is admirable: as the same woodcut might be used to represent Guy, Earl of Warwick, or the last highwayman who suffered at Tyburn, so the same enterprise is ascribed with a delightful ingenuousness to all the heroes who rode abroad under the stars to fill their pockets.
The Life and Death of Gamaliel Ratsey delighted England in 1605, and was the example of after ages. The anecdote of the road was already crystallised, and henceforth the robber was unable to act contrary to the will of the chap-book. Thus there grew up a folk-lore of thievery: the very insistence upon the same motive suggests the fairytale, and, as in the legends of every country, there is an identical element which the anthropologists call `human'; so in the annals of adventure there is a set of invariable incidents, which are the essence of thievery. The industrious hacks, to whom we owe the entertainment of the chap-books, being seedy parsons or lawyers' clerks, were conscious of their literary deficiencies: they preferred to obey tradition rather than to invent ineptitudes. So you may trace the same jest, the same intrigue through the unnumbered lives of three centuries. And if, being a philosopher, you neglect the obvious plagiarism, you may induce from these similarities a cunning theory concerning the uniformity of the human brain. But the easier explanation is, as always, the more satisfactory; and there is little doubt that in versatility the thief surpassed his historian.
Had the chap-books still been scattered in disregarded corners, they would have been unknown or misunderstood. Happily, a man of genius came in the nick to convert them into as vivid and sparkling a piece of literature as the time could show. This was 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.