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Honest Thieves

by Patrick Pringle
Foreward by Rafael Sabatini

A PREFACE is something in the nature of a benediction, and this I am very happy to bestow upon a work dealing with a phase of rascally activity closely related to one in which I have, myself, occasionally delved in quest of raw material for work of my own. What I found I trimmed, adapted, tricked out and shaped to my own ends, taking the fullest advantage of the licence accorded the romancer. What our present author has found he has been content to elucidate, co-ordinate and present, unadulterated in substance, as becomes the historian. And it may be a melancholy reflection for a romancer that with the greater freedom permitted him he could hardly have produced a more entertaining tale.

"Il y a," says La Rochefoucauld, "des héros en bien comme en mal," and our author, realizing the truth of this, from the point of view of the popular outlook, offers in his introduction a suggestion of why the adventurous rogue makes his romantic appeal and why the hunted evokes ever a sympathy denied the hunter, however virtuous. There is here a fruitful field for speculation. Jean Jacques Rousseau, not himself heroic but apparently a judge of heroism, seems to be amplifying the dictum of La Rochefoucauld when he asserts that stoutness of spirit is what constitutes the hero, and that this stoutness of spirit may be applied to evil as to good. If this is true, as I suppose it is, in the smuggler, as in the pirate or the highwayman, what captivates our fancy and even evokes our sympathy is not the evil of his performances but the stoutness of spirit which his performances demand. And the smuggler, after all, halts clearly in the robber class, is not directly so. To this extent he justifies the author's paradoxical title. He lays no violent hands upon the property of his neighbour, nor yet exercises his wits to swindle or defraud him. If he has recourse to violence it is only, in engagements which, far from being of his own seeking, he diligently studies to avoid. When, nevertheless, they are thrust upon him by the excisemen he earns a large measure of acquittal because these, being the servants of the tax-gatherer, share some of the odium which an immoral world has commonly bestowed upon this necessary social evil.

It must not, however, be supposed that it is our author's endeavour here to present the smuggler as a hero. Rather, what he offers us is a rogues' gallery into which he has packed the members of every variety of that illicit craft, finding room even for that degenerate descendant of its grim bygone practitioners, the simpering madam who seeks to evade the duty on a couple of new hats from Paris. His main concern, however, is with the historical aspect of smuggling, with the hard-bitten runners of contraband cargoes, leaders of gangs and owners of their vessels, prepared at need to measure themselves with the revenue cutters, to meet cannonade with cannonade and steel with steel. The whole rascally company of them is assembled here between these covers, the gay, the grim, the wily and the merely brutal; and these pages are made lively by their adventures and instructive by the revelation of their various methods. So comprehensive is the survey that the book deserves a place beside Johnson's Lives of the Highwaymen, &c. on the shelves of that multitude which finds the contemplation of crime as attractive as, we hope, its practice is abhorrent, and which dignifies its members by describing them as students of the History of Crime.

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