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Good Company
by [?]

The very thought of the men who are usually described in set slang phrases is enough to arouse a shudder. The loud wit who cracks his prepared witticisms either at the head of a tavern-table or in private society is a mere horror. The tavern men of the commercial traveller class are very bad, for their mirth is prepared; their jokes have run the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and they are not always prepared to sacrifice the privilege of being coarse which used to be regarded as the joker’s prerogative. In moving about the world I have always found that the society of the great commercial room set up for being jolly, but I could never exactly perceive where the jollity entered. Noise, sham gentility, the cackle of false laughter were there; but the strong, sincere cheerfulness of friendly men–never! Yet the tavern humourist, or even the club joker, is as nothing compared with the true professional wit. Who can remember that story about Theodore Hook and the orange? Hook wrote a note to the hostess, saying, “Ask me at dinner if I will venture on an orange.” The lady did so, and then the brilliant wit promptly made answer, “I’m afraid I should tumble off.” A whole volume of biography is implied in that one gruesome and vulgar anecdote. In truth, the professional wit is no company at all; he has the effect of a performing monkey suddenly planted on the table, and his efforts are usually quite on a level with the monkey’s.

Among the higher Bohemian sets–Bohemian they call themselves, as if there ever was a Bohemian with five hundred a year!–good company is common. I may say, with fear and much trembling, that the man of letters, the man who can name you all the Restoration comedies or tell you the styles of the contemporaries of Alan Chartier is a most terrible being, and I should risk sharks rather than remain with him on a desolate island; but a mixed set of artists, musicians, verse-makers, novelists, critics–yea, even critics–contrive usually to make an unusually pleasant company. They are all so clever that the professional wit dares not raise his voice lest some wielder of the bludgeon should smite him; no long-winded talk is allowed, and, though a bore may once be admitted to the company, he certainly will never be admitted more than once. The talk ranges loosely from point to point, and yet a certain sequence is always observed; the men are freed from conventions; they like each other and know each other’s measure pretty well; so the hours fly in merry fashion, and the brethren who carried on the symposium go away well pleased with themselves and with each other. There can be no good company where the capacity for general agreement is carried too far in any quarter. Unity of aim, difference of opinion–those are the elements that make men’s conversations valuable. Last of all, I must declare that there can be no good company unless women are present. The artists and authors and the rest are all very well in their way, but the dexterous unseen touch of the lady is needed; and no man can reckon himself fit to converse at all unless he has been taught by women’s care, and gently reproved by women’s impalpable skill. Young men of our day are beginning to think it childish or tedious to mix much in women’s society; the consequence is that, though many of them go a long way toward being gentlemen, too many are the merest cubs that ever exhibited pure loutishness in conversation. The subtle blending, the light give-and-take of chat between men and women is the true training which makes men graceful of tongue, kindly in the use of phrases, and, I believe, pure in heart.

October, 1888.