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by [?]

Byron very often flung out profound truths in his easy, careless way, but the theatrical vein in his composition sometimes prompted him to say dashing things, not because he regarded them as true, but because he wanted to make people stare. Speaking of one interesting and homicidal gentleman, the poet observes–

“He knew himself a villain, and he deemed
The rest no better than the thing he seemed.”

Now I take leave to say that the rawest of fifth-form lads never uttered a more school-boyish sentiment than that; and I wonder how a man of the world came to make such a blunder. Byron had lived in the degraded London of the Regency, when Europe’s rascality flocked towards St. James’s as belated birds flock towards a light; and he should have known some villains if any one did. Ephraim Bond, the abominable moneylender and sportsman, was swaggering round town in Byron’s later days; Crockford, that incarnate fiend, had his nets open; and ruined men–men ruined body and soul–left the gambling palace where the satanic spider sat spinning his webs. Byron must have known Crockford, and he had there a chance of studying a being who was indeed a villain, but who fancied himself to be a highly respectable person. From the time when “Crocky” started money-lending in the back parlour of his little fish-shop up to his last ghastly appearance on earth, he was a cheat and a consummate rascal; and even after death his hideous corpse was made to serve a deception. He was engaged in a Turf swindle, and it was necessary that he should be regarded as alive on the evening of the Derby day; but he died in the morning, and, to deceive the betting-men, the lifeless carcass of the old robber was put upright in a club window, and a daring sharper caused the dead hand to wave as if in greeting to the shouting crowd–a fit end to a bad life. Crockford’s delusion was that his character was marked by honesty and general benevolence; and those who wished to please him pretended to accept his own comfortable theory. He regarded himself as a really good fellow, and in his own person he was a living confutation of Byron’s dashing paradox. Then there was Renton Nicholson, a specimen of social vermin if ever there was one. This fellow earned a sordid livelihood by presiding over a club where men met nightly in orgies that stagger the power of belief. His huge figure and his raffish face were seen wherever rogues most did congregate; he showed young men “life”–and sometimes his work as cicerone led them to death; his style of conversation would nowadays lead to a speedy prosecution; he was always seen by the ringside when unhappy brutes met to pound each other, and his stock of evil stories entertained the interesting noblemen and gentlemen who patronised the manly British sport. I could not describe this man’s baseness in adequate terms, nor could I so much as give an idea of his ordinary round of roguery without arousing some incredulity. This unspeakable creature was fond of describing himself as “Jolly old Renton,” or “Good old John Bull Nicholson”; he really fancied himself to be a good, genial fellow, and he appeared to fancy that the crowds who usually collected to hear his abominations were attracted by his bonhomie and his estimable intellectual qualities. Byron must have known this striking example of the scoundrel species, but he appears to have forgotten him when he propounded his theory of villainy. Then there was Pea-green Haynes, who was also a fine sample of folly and rascality mingled. Haynes regarded himself as the most injured man on earth; he never performed an unselfish action, it is true, and he flung away a fine patrimony on his own pleasures, yet he whined and held himself up as an example of suffering virtue. Then there was the precious Regent. What a creature! Good men and bad men unite in saying that he was absolutely without a virtue; the shrewd, calculating Greville described him in words that burn; the great Duke, his chief subject, uses language of dry scorn–“The king could only act the part of a gentleman for ten minutes at a time”; and we find that the commonest satellites of the Court despised the wicked fribble who wore the crown of England. Faithless to women, faithless to men, a coward, a liar, a mean and grovelling cheat, George IV. nevertheless clung to a belief in his own virtues; and, if we study the account of his farcical progress through Scotland, we find that he imagined himself to be a useful and genuinely kingly personage. No man, except, perhaps, Philippe Egalite, was ever so contemned and hated; and until his death he imagined himself to be a good man. In all that wild set who disgraced England and disgraced human nature in those gay days of Byron’s youth, I can discover only one thoroughly manly and estimable individual, and that was Gentleman Jackson, the boxer; yet, with such a marvellously wide range of villainy to study, Byron never seems to have observed one ethical fact of the deepest importance–a villain never knows that he is villainous; if he did, he would cease to be a villain.