By Young E. Allison
The people that inhabit novels are like other peoples of the earth—if they are peaceful, they have no history. So that, therefore, in novels, as in nations, it is the great restless heights of society that are to be approached with greatest awe and that engage admiration and regard. Everybody is interested in Nero, but not one person in ten thousand can tell you anything definite about Constantine or even Marcus Aurelius. If you should speak off-handedly about Amelia Sedley in the presence of a thousand average readers you would probably miss 85 per cent. of effect; if you said Becky Sharp the whole thousand would understand.
There is this to be said of disreputable folk, that they are clever and picturesque and interesting, at least.
An elderly jeweler in New York City was arrested several years ago upon the charge of receiving stolen gold and silver plate, watches and jewelry from well-known thieves. For forty years he had been a respected merchant, a church officer, a husband, father, and citizen, of irreproachable reputation, with enduring friendships. He was charitable, liberal and kindly. For decade after decade he was the experienced, wise and fatherly “fence” of professional burglars and thieves. Why, it would be an education in itself to know that man, to shake his honest hand, fresh from charity or concealment, and smoke a pipe with him and hear him talk about things frankly. When he gave to the missionary collection, rest assured he gave sincerely; when he “covered swag,” into the melting pot for an industrious burglar, he did so only in the regular course of business.
Strange as it may seem, even criminals have human feelings in common with all of us. The old Thug who stepped aside into the bushes and prayed earnestly while his son was throwing his first strangling cloth around the throat of the English traveler—prayed for that son’s honorable, successful beginning in his life devotion—was a good father. And when he was told that the son had acted with unusual skill, who can doubt that his tears of joy were sincere and humble tears of thankfulness? At least Bowanee knew. Can you not imagine a kind-hearted Chinese matron saying to her neighbor over the bamboo fence, “Yes, we sent the baby down to the beach (or the river bank or the forest) yesterday. We couldn’t afford to keep it. I hope the gods have taken its little soul. At any rate it is sure of salvation hereafter.”
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Some twenty years ago I took the night train from Pineville to Barbourville, in the Kentucky mountains, reaching the latter place about 11 o’clock of a cold, rainy, dark November night. Only one other passenger alighted. There was an express wagon to take us to the town, a mile or so distant, and the wagon was already heavy with freight packages. The road was through a narrow lane, hub-deep with mud, and what, with stalling and resting, we were more than half an hour getting to the hotel. My fellow passenger was about my age, and was a shrewd, well-informed native of the vicinity. He knew the mineral, timber and agricultural resources, was evidently an enterprising business man and an intelligent but not voluble talker. He accepted a cigar, and advised me to see the house in Barbourville where the late Justice Samuel Miller was born. At the hotel he registered first, and, as he was going to leave next day and I was to remain several days, he told the clerk to give me the better of the two rooms vacant. It was a very pleasant act of thoughtfulness. The name on the register was “A. Johnson.” The next day I asked the clerk about Mr. Johnson. My fellow passenger was Andy Johnson, whose fame as a feud-fighter and slayer of men has never been exceeded in the history of mountain feuds. He then had three or four men to his credit, definitely, and several doubtful ascriptions. He added a few more, I believe, before he met the inevitable.
Now, while Mr. Johnson, in all matters where killing seemed to him to be appropriate, was a most prompt and accurate man in accomplishing it, yet he was not the murderer that ignorant and isolated folks conceive such persons to be. The cigar I had given him was a very bad, cheap cigar, and, if he had merely wanted murder, he had every reason to kill me for giving it to him, and he had a perfect night for the deed. But he smoked it to the stub without a complaint or remark and saw that I got the best room in the hotel. Johnson was a cautious and considerate fellow-man, whose murders were doubtless private hobbies and exercises growing out of his environment and heredity.
One of the houses I most delight to enter in a certain town is one where I am always sure to see a devoted and happy wife and beautiful, playful children clustering around the armchair in which sits a man who committed one of the most cold-blooded assassinations you can imagine. He is an honored, esteemed and model citizen. His acquittal was a miracle in a million chances. He has justified it. It is beautiful to see those happy children clinging to the hand that—
Well, dear friends, the dentist is not a cruel man in his social capacity, and you can get delicious viands instead of nauseous medicines at the doctor’s private table.
That is why beginning novel readers should take no advice. Strike out alone through the highways and lanes of story, character and experience. The best novelist is the one who fears not to tell you the truth, which is more wonderful than fiction. It is always the best hearts that bend to mistakes. Absolute virtue is as sterile as granite rock; absolute vice is as poisonous as a stagnant pond. No healthy interest or speculation can linger about either. Enter into the struggle and know human nature; don’t stay outside and try to appear superior.
For, which of us has not his crimes of thought to account for? Think not, because Andy Johnson or William Sykes or Dr. Webster actually killed his man, that you are guiltless, because you haven’t. Have you never wanted to? Answer that, in your conscience and in solitude—not to me. Speak up to yourself and then say whether the difference between you and the recorded criminal is not merely the difference between the overt act and the faltering wish. It is a matter of courage or of custom. Speaking for one gentleman, who knows himself and is not afraid to confess, I can say that, while he could not kill a mouse with his own hand, he has often murdered men in his heart. It may have been in fiery youth over the wrong name on a dancing card, or, later, when a rival got the better of him in discussion, or, when the dreary bore came and wouldn’t go, or, when misdirected goodness insisted on thrusting upon him intended kindness that was wormwood and poison to the soul. Are we not covetous (not confessedly, of course, but actually)? Is not covetousness the thwarted desire of theft without courage? How many of us, now—speaking man to man—can open up our veiled thoughts and desires and then look the Ten Commandments in the eye without blushing?
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The bravest, noblest, gentlest gentleman I have ever known was the Count de la Fere, whom we at the Hotel de Troisville, in old Paris, called “Athos.” He was not merely sans peur et sans reproche as Bayard, but was positive in his virtues. He fought for his friends without even asking the cause of the fray. Yet, what a prig he seemed to be at first, with his eternal gentle melancholy, his irreproachable courtesy, unvarying kindness and complete unselfishness. You cannot—quite—warm—to—a— man—who—is—so—perfectly—right—that—he—embarrasses—everybody— but—the—angels.
But, when he ordered the gloomy and awful death of the treacherous Miladi, woman though she was, and thus as a perfect gentleman took on human frailty also, ah! how attractively noble and strong he became I In that respect he was the antithetical corollary of William Sykes, who was a purposeless, useless and uninterestingly regular scoundrel, thief and brute, until he redeemed himself by becoming the instrument of social justice and pounding that unendurable lady, Miss Nancy, of his name, into absence from the world. Perhaps I have remarked before—and even if I have it is pleasant to repeat it—that Bill Sykes had his faults, as also have most of us, but it was given to him to earn forgiveness by the aid of a cheap chair and the providential propinquity of Miss Nancy. I never think of it without regretting that poor Bill Whally is dead. He did it—so—much—to—my—taste!
Who shall we say is the most loved and respected criminal in fiction? Not Monsignor Rodin, of “The Wandering Jew;” not Thenardier in “Les Miserables.” These are really not criminals; they are allegorical figures of perfect crime. They are solar centers, so far off and fixed that one may regard them only with awe, reverence and fear. They are types of fate, desire, temptation and chastisement. Let us turn to our own flesh and blood and speak gratefully of them.
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Who says Count Fosco? Now there is a criminal worthy of affection and confidence. What an expansive nature, with kindness presented on every side. Even the dogs fawned upon him and the birds came at his call. An accomplished gentleman, considerately mannered—queer, as becomes a foreigner, yet possessing the touchstone of universal sympathy. Another man with crime to commit almost certainly would have dispatched it with ruthless coldness; but how kindly and gently Count Fosco administered the cord of necessity. With what delicacy he concealed the bowstring and spoke of the Bosphorus only as a place for moonlight excursions. He could have presented prussic acid and sherry to a lady in such a manner as to render the results a grateful sacrifice to his courtesy. It was all due to his corpulence; a “lean and hungry” villain lacks repose, patience and the tact of good humor. In almost every small social and individual attitude Count Fosco was human. He was exceedingly attentive to his wife in society and bullied her only in private and when necessary. He struck no dramatic attitudes. “The world is mine oyster!” is not said by real men bent on terrible deeds. Count Fosco is the perfect villain, and also the perfect criminal, inasmuch as he not only acts naturally, but deliberately determines the action instead of being drawn into it or having it forced upon him.
He was a highly cultivated type of Andy Johnson, inasmuch as crime with him was not a life purpose, but what is called in business a “side-line.” All of us have our hobbies; the closely confined clerk goes home and roots up his yard to plant flower bulbs or cabbage plants; another fancies fowls; another man collects pewter pots and old brass and the millionaire takes to priceless horses; others of us turn from useful statistics and go broke on novels or poetry or music. Count Fosco was an educated gentleman and the pleasure of life was his purpose; crime and intrigue were his recreations. Andy Johnson was a good business man and wealth producer; murder was the direction in which his private understanding of personal disagreements was exercised and vented. Some men turn to poker playing, which is as wasteful as murder and not half as dignified. Count Fosco is the villain par excellence of novels. I do not remember what he did, because “The Woman in White” is the best novel in the world to read gluttonously at a sitting and then forget absolutely. It is nearly always a new book if you use it that way. When the world is dark, the fates bilious, the appetite dead and the infernal twinges of pain or sickness seem beyond reach of the doctor, “The Woman in White” is a friend indeed.
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But the man of men for villains, not necessarily criminals; but the ordinary, every-day, picturesque worthies of good, honest scoundrelism and disreputableness is Sir Robert Louis Stevenson. You can afford conscientiously to stuff ballot boxes in order that his election may be secured as Poet Laureate of Rascals. Leaving out John Silver and Billy Bones and Alan Breck, whom every privately shriven rascal of us simply must honor and revere as giants of courage, cunning and controlled, conscience, Stevenson turned from singles and pairs, and in “The Ebb Tide,” drove, by turns, tandem and abreast, a four-in-hand of scoundrels so buoyant, natural, strong, and yet each so totally unlike the others, that every honest novel reader may well be excused for shedding tears when he reflects that the marvelous hand and heart that created them are gone forever from the haunts of the interestingly wicked. No novelist ever exposed the human nature of rascals as Stevenson did.
Now, Iago was not a villain; he was a venomous toad, a scorpion, a mad-dog, a poisonous plant in a fair meadow. There was nobody lago loved, no weakness he concealed, no point of contact with any human being. His sister was Pandora, his brother made the shirt of Nessus, himself dealt in Black Plagues and the Leprosy. The old Serpent was permitted to rise from his belly and walk upright on the tip of his tail when he met Iago, as a demonstration of moral superiority. But think of those three Babes-in-the-Wood villains, skipper Davis, the Yankee swashbuckler and ship scuttler; Herrick, the dreamy poet, ruined by commerce and early love, with his days of remorse and his days of compensatary liquor; and Huish, the great-hearted Scotch ruffian, who chafed at the conventional concealments of trade among pals and never could—as a true Scotchman—understand why you should wait to use a knife upon a victim when promptness lay in the club right at hand—think of them sailing out of Honolulu harbor on the Farallone.
Let who will prefer to have sailed with Jason or Aeneas or Sinbad; but the Farallone and its precious freight of rascality gets my money every time. Think of the three incomparable reprobates afloat, with one case of smallpox and a cargo of champagne, daring to make no port, with over a hundred million square miles of ocean around them, every ten lookout knots of it containing a possible peril! It was simply grand—not pirates, shipwrecks or mutinies could beat that problem. And the pathos of the sixth day, when, with every man Jack of them looking delirium tremens in the face and suspecting each the other, Mr. Huish opened a new case of champagne and—found clear spring water under the French label! The honest scoundrels had been laid by the heels by a common wine merchant in the regular way of business! Oh, gentlemen, there should be honor in business; so that gallant villains can be free of betrayal.
The keynote of these gentlemen is struck in the second chapter, where all three of them writing lies home—Davis and Herrick, sentimental equivocations, Huish the strongest of brag with nobody to send it to. In a burst of weakness Davis tells Herrick what a villain he has been, through rum, and how he can not let his daughter, “little Adar,” know it. “Yes, there was a woman on board,” he said, describing the ship he had scuttled. “Guess I sent her to hell, if there’s such a place. I never dared go home again, and I don’t know,” he added, bitterly, “what’s come to them.”
“Thank you, Captain,” said Herrick, “I never liked you better!”
Is it not in human nature to cuddle to a great sheepish murderer like that, who groans in secret for his little girl—if even the girl was truth? I think she turned out a myth, but he had the sentiment.
Was there ever a more melancholy, remorse-stricken wretch than Cap’n Davis? Or a gentler and seedier poet than Herrick? Or a more finely sodden and soaked old rum sport than Huish (not—Whish!) But it was not until they fell in with Attwater that their weakness as scoundrels was exposed. Attwater was so splendidly religious! He was determined to have things right if he had to have them so by bloodshed; he saved souls by bullets. Things were right when they were as he thought they should be. And believing so, with Torquemada, Alexander Sixtus and other most religious brethren, he was ready to set up the stake and fagot and cauterize sin with fire. One thing you can say about the religious folks that are big with cocksureness and a mission—they may make mistakes, but the mistake doesn’t talk and criticise.
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The only rascal worthy to travel in company with Stevenson’s rascals is the Chevalier Balibari, of Castle Barry, in Ireland, whose admirable memoirs have been so well told by Mr. Thackeray. The Baron de la Motte in “Denis Duval,” was advantageously born to ornament the purple and fine linen of picturesque unrighteousness—but his was a brief star that fell unfinished from its place amidst the Pleiades. Thackeray’s genius ran more to disreputable men than to actual villains. But he drew two scoundrels that will serve as beacon lights to any clean-souled youth with the instinct to take warning. One was Lord Steyne, the other, Dr. George Brand Firmin; one the aristocratic, class-bred, cynical brute, the other the cold, tuft-hunting trained hypocrite. What encouragement of self-respect Judas Iscariot might have received if he had met Dr. Firmin!
Dr. Chadband, Mr. Pecksniff, Bill Sykes, Fagin, Mr. Murdstone, of Dickens’ family—they are all strong in impression, but wholly unreal; mere stage villains and caricatures. A villain who has no good traits, no hobbies of kindness and affection, is never born into the world; he is always created by grotesque novel writers.
The villains of Dumas, Hugo, Balzac, Daudet are French. There may have been, or may be now such prototypes alive in France—because the Dreyfus case occurred in France, and no doubt much can happen in that fine, fertile country which translators cannot fully convey over the frontiers; but they have always seemed to me first cousins to my friends, the ogres, the evil magicians and the werewolves, and, in that much, not quite natural.
For heroes of the genuine cavalleria type, plumed, doubleted, pumpt and magnificent, give me Dumas; for good folks and true, the great American Fenimore Cooper; but for the blessed company of blooming, breathing rascals, Stevenson and Thackeray all the time.
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