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Bad Company
by [?]

There has been much talk about the insensate youth who boasted that he had squandered half-a-million on the Turf in a year. The marvellous journalists who frequent betting resorts printed hundreds of paragraphs every week explaining the wretched boy’s extravagances–how he lost ten thousand pounds in one evening at cards; how he lost five thousand on one pigeon-shooting match; how he kept fifty racehorses in training; how he made little presents of jewelry to all and sundry of his friends; how he gaily lost fifteen thousand on a single race, though he might have saved himself had he chosen; how he never would wear the same shirt twice. Dear boy! Every day those whose duty compels them to read newspapers were forced to see such nauseous stuff, so that a lad’s private business became public property, and no secret was made of matters which were a subject for grief and scorn. Hundreds of grown men stood by and saw that boy lose a fortune in two hours, and some forty paragraphs might have been collected in which the transaction was described in various terms as a gross swindle. A good shot was killing pigeons–gallant sport–and the wealthy schoolboy was betting. When a sign was given by a bookmaker the shooting-man obeyed, and won or lost according to orders; and every man in the assembly knew what foul work was being carried on. Did one man warn the victim? The next day the whole country knew what had happened, and the names of the thieves were given in almost every sporting print; but the mischief was done, and the lookers-on contented themselves with cheap wrath. A few brief months flew by, and every day saw the usual flock of tributes to the mad boy’s vanity; and now the end has come–a colossal fortune, amassed by half a century’s toil, has gone into the pockets of all sorts of knaves, and the fatal Gazette showed the end. The princely fortune that might have done so much good in the world has gone to fatten the foulest flock of predatory birds that ever cumbered the earth. Where are the glib parasites who came to fawn on the poor dolt? Where are the swarms of begging dandies who clustered around him? Where are the persons who sold him useless horses? Any one who has eyes can see that they point their fingers and shrug. Another victim gone–that is all.

And now our daily moralizers declare that bad company alone brought our unhappy subject down. Yes, bad company! The boy might have grown up into beneficent manhood; he might have helped to spread comfort and culture and solid happiness among the people; but he fell into bad company, and he is now pitied and scorned by the most despicable of the human race; and I observe that one of his humorous Press patrons advises him to drive a cab. Think of Gordon nobly spending his pittance among the poor mudlarks; think of the good Lord Shaftesbury ekeing out his scanty means among the poor; think of all the gallant souls that made the most of poverty; and then think of that precious half-million gone to light fresh fuel under the hotbeds of vice and villainy! Should I be wrong if I said that the contrast rouses me to indignation and even horror? And now let us consider what bad company means. Paradoxical as it may seem, I do not by any means think that bad company is necessarily made up of bad men. I say that any company is bad for a man if it does not tempt him to exert his higher faculties. It is as certain as death that a bodily member which is left unused shrinks and becomes aborted. If one arm is hung for a long time in a sling, the muscles gradually fade until the skin clings closely round the bone. The wing of the huge penguin still exists, but it is no bigger than that of a wren, and it is hidden away under the skin. The instances might be multiplied a thousandfold. In the same way then any mental faculty becomes atrophied if it is unused. Bad company is that which produces this atrophy of the finer powers; and it is strange to see how soon the deadly process of shrinkage sets in. The awful thing to think of is that the cramp may insensibly be set in action by a company which, as I have said, is composed of rather estimable people. Who can forget Lydgate in “Middlemarch”? There is a type drawn by a woman of transcendent genius; and the type represents only too many human wrecks. Lydgate was thrown into a respectable provincial society; he was mastered by high ambition, he possessed great powers, and he felt as though he could move the mocking solidities of the world. Watch the evolution of his long history; to me it is truly awful in spite of its gleams of brightness. The powerful young doctor, equipped in frock-coat and modern hat, plays a part in a tragedy which is as moving as any ever imagined by a brooding, sombre Greek. As you read the book and watch the steady, inexorable decline of the strong man, you feel minded to cry out for some one to save him–he is alive to you, and you want to call out and warn him. When the bitter end comes, you cannot sneer as Lydgate does–you can hardly keep back the tears. And what is it all about? It simply comes to this, that a good strong man falls into the bad company of a number of fairly good but dull people, and the result is a tragedy. Rosamund Vincy is a pattern of propriety; Mrs. Vincy is a fat, kindly soul; Mr. Vincy is a blustering good-natured middle-class man. There is no particular harm among the whole set, yet they contrive to ruin a great man; they lower him from a great career, and convert him into a mere prosperous gout-doctor. Every high aspiration of the man dies away. His wife is essentially a commonplace pretty being, and she cannot understand the great heart and brain that are sacrificed to her; so the genius is forced to break his heart about furniture and carpets and respectability, while the prim pretty young woman who causes the ghastly death of a soul goes on fancying herself a model of good sense and virtue and all the rest. “Of course I should like you to make discoveries,” she says; but she only shudders at the microscopic work. When the financial catastrophe comes, she has the great soul at her mercy, and she stabs him–stabs him through and through–while he is too noble and tender to make reply. Ah, it is pitiful! Lydgate is like too many others who are stifling in the mud of respectable dullness. The fate of those men proves what we have asserted, that bad company is that which does not permit the healthful and fruitful development of a soul. Take the case of a brilliant young man who leaves the University and dives into the great whirlpool of London. Perhaps he goes to the Bar, and earns money meantime by writing for the Press. The young fellows who swarm in the London centres–that is, the higher centres–are gentlemen, polished in manner and strict as to the code of honour, save perhaps as regards tradesmen’s bills; no coarse word or accent escapes them, and there is something attractive about their merry stoicism. But they make bad company for a young and high-souled man, and you may see your young enthusiast, after a year of town-life, converted into a cynic who tries to make game of everything. He talks lightly of women, because that is considered as showing a spirit of superiority; he is humorous regarding the state of his head on the morning after a late supper; he can give you slangy little details about any one and every one whom you may meet at a theatre or any other public place; he is somewhat proud when some bellowing, foul-mouthed bookmaker smiles suavely and inquires, “Doing anything to-day, sir?” Mark you, he is still a charming young fellow; but the bloom has gone from his character. He has been in bad company.