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An essay by James Runciman

Degraded Men

Title:     Degraded Men
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The man of science derives suggestive knowledge from the study of mere putrefaction; he places an infusion of common hay-seeds or meat or fruit in his phials, and awaits events; presently a drop from one of the infusions is laid on the field of the microscope, and straightly the economy of a new and strange kingdom is seen by the observer. The microscopist takes any kind of garbage; he watches the bacteria and their mysterious development, and he reaches at last the most significant conclusions regarding the health and growth and diseases of the highest organizations. The student of human nature must also bestow his attention on disease of mind if he would attain to any real knowledge of the strange race to which he belongs. We develop, it is true, but there are modes and modes of development. I have often pointed out that a steady process of degeneration goes on side by side with the unfolding of new and healthy powers in the animal and vegetable kingdoms. The great South American lizards grow strong and splendid in hue amid the rank freedom of pampas or forest; but their poor relatives in the sunless caves of Transylvania grow milky white, flabby, and stone-blind. The creatures in the Kentucky caves are all aborted in some way or other; the birds in far-off islands lose the power of flight, and the shrivelled wings gradually sink under the skin, and show us only a tiny network of delicate bones when the creature is stripped to the skeleton. The condor soars magnificently in the thin air over the Andes--it can rise like a kite or drop like a thunderbolt: the weeka of New Zealand can hardly get out of the way of a stick aimed by an active man. The proud forest giant sucks up the pouring moisture from the great Brazilian river; the shoots that rise under the shadow of the monster tree are weakened and blighted by lack of light and free air. The same astounding work goes on among the beings who are so haughty in their assumption of the post of creation's lords. The healthy child born of healthy parents grows up amid pure air and pure surroundings; his tissues are nourished by strength-giving food, he lives according to sane rules, and he becomes round-limbed, full-chested, and vigorous. The poor little victim who first sees the light in the Borough or Shadwell, or in the noxious alleys of our reeking industrial towns, receives foul air, mere atmospheric garbage, into his lungs; he becomes thin-blooded, his unwholesome pallor witnesses to his weakness of vitality, his muscles are atrophied, and even his hair is ragged, lustreless, ill-nurtured. In time he transmits his feebleness to his successors; and we have the creatures who stock our workhouses, hospitals, and our gaols--for moral degradation always accompanies radical degradation of the physique.

So, if we study the larger aspects of society, we find that in all grades we have large numbers of individuals who fall out of the line that is steadfastly progressing, and become stragglers, camp-followers--anything you will. Let a cool and an unsentimental observer bend himself to the study of degraded human types, and he will learn things that will sicken his heart if he is weak, and strengthen him in his resolve to work gallantly during his span of life if he is strong. Has any one ever fairly tried to face the problem of degradation? Has any one ever learned how it is that a distinct form of mental disease seems to lurk in all sorts of unexpected fastnesses, ready to breathe a numbing and poisonous vapour on those who are not fortified against the moral malaria? I am not without experience of the fell chances and changes of life; I venture therefore to use some portion of the knowledge that I have gathered in order to help to fortify the weak and make the strong wary.

If you wander on the roads in our country, you are almost sure to meet men whom you instinctively recognize as fallen beings. What their previous estate in life may have been you cannot tell, but you know that there has been a fall, and that you are looking on a moral wreck. The types are superficially varied, but an essential sameness, not always visible at first sight, connects them and enables you to class them as you would class the specimens in a gallery of the British Museum. As you walk along on a lonely highway, you meet a man who carries himself with a kind of jaunty air. His woeful boots show glimpses of bare feet, his clothes have a bright gloss in places, and they hang untidily; but his coat is buttoned with an attempt at smartness, and his ill-used hat is set on rakishly. You note that the man wears a moustache, and you learn in some mysterious way that he was once accustomed to be very trim and spruce in person. When he speaks, you find that you have a hint of a cultivated accent; he sounds the termination "ing" with precision, and you also notice that such words as "here," "there," "over," are pronounced with a peculiar broad vowel sound at the end. He cannot look you boldly in the face, and it is hard to catch a sight of his eyes, but you may take for granted that the eyes are bad and shifty. The cheeks are probably a little pendulous, and the jaw hangs with a certain slackness. The whole visage looks as if it had been cast in a tolerably good mould and had somehow run out of shape a little. Your man is fluent and communicative; he mouths his sentences with a genteel roll in his voice, and he punctuates his talk with a stealthy, insincere laugh which hardly rises above the dignity of a snigger.

Now how does such a man come to be tramping aimlessly on a public road? He does not know that he is going to any place in particular; he is certainly not walking for the sake of health, though he needs health rather badly. Why is he in this plight? You do not need to wait long for a solution, if the book of human experience has been your study. That man is absolutely certain to begin bewailing his luck--it is always "luck." Then he has a choice selection of abuse to bestow on large numbers of people who have trodden him down--he is always down-trodden; and he proves to you that, but for the ingratitude of A, the roguery of B, the jealousy of C, the undeserved credit obtained by the despicable D, he would be in "a far different position to-day, sir." If he is an old officer--and a few gentlemen who once bore Her Majesty's commission are now to be found on the roads, or in casual wards, or lounging about low skittle-alleys and bagatelle or billiard tables--he will allude to the gambling that went on in the regiment. "How could a youngster keep out of the swim?" All went well with him until he took to late hours and devilled bones; "then in the mornings we were all ready for a peg; and I should like to see the man who could get ready for parade after a hard night unless he had something in the shape of a reviver." So he prates on. He curses the colonel, the commander-in-chief, and the Army organization in general; he gives leering reminiscences of garrison belles--reminiscences that make a pure minded man long to inflict some sort of chastisement on him; and thus, while he thinks he is impressing you with an overpowering sense of his bygone rank and fashion, he really unfolds the history of a feeble unworthy fellow who carries a strong tinge of rascality about him. He is always a victim, and he illustrates the unvarying truth of the maxim that a dupe is a rogue minus cleverness. The final crash which overwhelmed him was of course a horse-racing blunder. He would have recovered his winter's losses had not a gang of thieves tampered with the favourite for the City and Suburban. "Do you think, sir, that Highflyer could not have given Stonemason three stone and a beating?" You modestly own your want of acquaintance with the powers of the famous quadrupeds, and the infatuated dupe goes on, "I saw how Bill Whipcord was riding; he eased at the corner, when I wouldn't have taken two thousand for my bets, and you could see that he let Stonemason up. I had taken seven to four eight times in hundreds, and that broke me." The ragged raffish man never thinks that he was quite ready to plunder other people; he grows inarticulate with rage only when he remembers how he was bitten instead of being the biter. His watery eyes slant as you near a roadside inn, and he is certain to issue an invitation. Then you see what really brought him low. It may be a lovely warm day, when the acrid reek of alcohol is more than usually abhorrent; but he must take something strong that will presently inflame the flabby bulge of his cheeks and set his evil eyes watering more freely than ever. Gin is his favourite refreshment, because it is cheap, and produces stupefaction more rapidly than any other liquid. Very probably he will mix gin and ale in one horrid draught--and in that case you know that he is very far gone indeed on the downward road. If he can possibly coax the change out of you when the waiter puts it down he will do so, for he cannot resist the gleam of the coins, and he will improvise the most courageous lies with an ease which inspires awe. He thanks you for nothing; he hovers between cringing familiarity and patronage; and, when you gladly part with him, he probably solaces himself by muttering curses on your meanness or your insolence. Once more--how does the faded military person come to be on the roads? We shall come to that presently.

Observe the temporary lord of the tap-room when you halt on the dusty roads and search for tea or lunch. He is in black, and a soiled handkerchief is wound round his throat like an eel. He wears a soft felt hat which has evidently done duty as a night-cap many times, and he tries to bear himself as though the linen beneath his pinned-up coat were of priceless quality. You know well enough that he has no shirt on, for he would sell one within half an hour if any Samaritan fitted him out. His boots are carefully tucked away under the bench, and his sharp knees seem likely to start through their greasy casing. As soon as he sees you he determines to create an impression, and he at once draws you into the conversation. "Now, sir, you and I are scholars--I am an old Balliol man myself--and I was explaining to these good lads the meaning of the phrase which had puzzled them, as it has puzzled many more. _Casus belli_, sir--that is what we find in this local rag of a journal; and _status quo ante bellum_. Now, sir, these ignorant souls couldn't tell what was meant, so I have been enlightening them. I relax my mind in this way, though you would hardly think it the proper place for a Balliol man, while that overfed brute up at the Hall can drive out with a pair of two-hundred-guinea bays, sir. Fancy a gentleman and a scholar being in this company, sir! Now Jones, the landlord there, is a good man in his way--oh, no thanks Jones; it is not a compliment!--and I'd like to see the man who dared say that I'm not speaking the truth, for I used to put my hands up like a good one when we were boys at the old 'varsity, sir. Jones, this gentleman would like something; and I don't mind taking a double dose of Glenlivat with a brother-scholar and a gentleman like myself." So the mawkish creature maunders on until one's gorge rises; but the stolid carters, the idle labourers, the shoemaker from the shop round the corner, admire his eloquence, and enjoy the luxury of pitying a parson and an aristocrat. How very numerous are the representatives of this type, and how unspeakably odious they are! This foul weed in dirty clothing assumes the pose of a bishop; he swears at the landlord, he patronizes the shoemaker--who is his superior in all ways--he airs the feeble remnants of his Latin grammar and his stock quotations. He will curse you if you refuse him drink, and he will describe you as an impostor or a cad; while, if you are weak enough to gratify his taste for spirits, he will glower at you over his glass, and sicken you with fulsome flattery or clumsy attempts at festive wit. Enough of this ugly creature, whose baseness insults the light of God's day! We know how he will end; we know how he has been a fraud throughout his evil life, and we can hardly spare even pity for him. It is well if the fellow has no lady-wife in some remote quarter--wife whom he can rob or beg from, or even thrash, when he searches her out after one of his rambles from casual ward to casual ward.

In the wastes of the great cities the army of the degraded swarm. Here is the loose-lipped rakish wit, who tells stories in the common lodging-house kitchen. He has a certain brilliancy about him which lasts until the glassy gleam comes over his eyes, and then he becomes merely blasphemous and offensive. He might be an influential writer or politician, but he never gets beyond spouting in a pot-house debating club, and even that chance of distinction does not come unless he has written an unusually successful begging-letter. Here too is the broken professional man. His horrid face is pustuled, his hands are like unclean dough, he is like a creature falling to pieces; yet he can show you pretty specimens of handwriting, and, if you will steady him by giving him a drink of ale, he will write your name on the edge of a newspaper in copper-plate characters or perform some analogous feat. All the degraded like to show off the remains of their accomplishments, and you may hear some odious being warbling. "_Ah, che la morte!_" with quite the air of a leading tenor. In the dreadful purlieus lurk the poor submissive ne'er-do-well, the clerk who has been imprisoned for embezzlement, the City merchant's son who is reduced to being the tout of a low bookmaker, the preacher who began as a youthful phenomenon and ended by embezzling the Christmas dinner fund, the forlorn brute whose wife and children have fled from him, and who spends his time between the police-cells and the resorts of the vilest. If you could know the names of the tramps who yell and make merry over their supper in the murky kitchen, you would find that people of high consideration would be touched very painfully could they be reminded of the existence of certain relatives. Degraded, degraded are they all! And why?

The answer is brief, and I have left it until last, for no particular elaboration is needed. From most painful study I have come to the conclusion that nearly all of our degraded men come to ruin through idleness in the first instance; drink, gambling, and other forms of debauch follow, but idleness is the root-evil. The man who begins by saying, "It's a poor heart that never rejoices," or who refers to the danger of making Jack a dull boy, is on a bad road. Who ever heard of a worker--a real toiler--becoming degraded? Worn he may be, and perhaps dull to the influence of beauty and refinement; but there is always some nobleness about him. The man who gives way to idleness at once prepares his mind as a soil for evil seeds; the universe grows tiresome to him; the life-weariness of the old Romans attacks him in an ignoble form, and he begins to look about for distractions. Then his idleness, from being perhaps merely amusing, becomes offensive and suspicious; drink takes hold upon him; his moral sense perishes; only the husks of his refinement remain; and by and by you have the slouching wanderer who is good for nothing on earth. He is despised of men, and, were it not that we know the inexhaustible bounty of the Everlasting Pity, we might almost think that he was forgotten of Heaven. Stand against idleness. Anything that age, aches, penury, hard trial may inflict on the soul is trifling. Idleness is the great evil which leads to all others. Therefore work while it is day.

_September, 1888._

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James Runciman's essay: Degraded Men