Bad Company by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

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.

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Let it be remembered that bad company may be pleasant at first; and I can easily give the reason for that, although the process of thinking out the problem is a little complicated. The natural tendency of our lower nature is toward idleness; our higher nature drives us to work. But no man ever attained the habit of work without an effort. If once that effort is slackened, then the lower nature gains sway by degrees and idleness creeps in. Idleness is the beginning of almost every form of ill, and the idlest man dashes down the steep to ruin either of body or soul, perhaps of both. Now the best of us–until our habits are formed–find something seductive in the notion of idleness; and it is most marvellous to observe how strongly we are apt to be drawn by a fascinating idle man. By-the-way, no one would accuse the resident Cambridge professors of being slothful, yet one brilliant idle man of genius said, “When I go to Cambridge, I affect them all with a murrain of idleness. I should paralyze the work of the place if I were resident.” To return–it appears that the best of men, especially of youthful men, feel the subtle charm of an invitation to laziness. The man who says, “It’s a sin to be indoors to-day; let us row up to the backwater and try a smoke among the willows;” or the one who says, “Never mind mathematics to-night; come and have a talk with me,” is much more pleasing than the stern moralist. Well, it happens that the most dangerous species of bad company is the species Idler. Look round over the ranks of the hurtful creatures who spoil the State, corrupt and sap the better nature of young men, and disgrace the name of our race. What are they all but idlers pure and simple? Idleness, idleness, the tap-root of misery, sin, villainy! Note the gambler at Monte Carlo, watching with tense but impassive face as the red and the black take the advantage by turns–he is an idler. The roaring bookmaker who contaminates the air with his cries, and who grows wealthy on the spoil of fools–he is an idler. The silly beings who crowd into the betting-shops and lounge till morning in the hot air; the stout florid person who passes from bar to bar in a commercial town; the greasy scoundrel who congregates with his mates at street corners; the unspeakable dogs who prowl at night in London and snatch their prey in lonely thoroughfares; the “jolly” gangs of young men who play cards till dawn in provincial club-rooms; even the slouching poacher who passes his afternoons in humorous converse at the ale-house–they are all idlers, and they all form bad company for anybody who comes within range of their influences. We are nearing the point of our demonstration. The youth is at first attracted by the charm of mere laziness, but he does not quite know it. Look at the case of the lad who goes fresh from school to the city, and starts life at seventeen years of age. We will say that he lives in a suburb of some great town. At first he returns home at night full of quite admirable resolves; he intends to improve himself and advance himself in the world. But on one fine evening a companion suggests a stroll, and it happens that billiards are suggested. Away goes the youngster into that flash atmosphere through which sharp, prematurely-aged features loom so curiously; he hears the low hum, he sees the intense eagerness and suspense of the strikers, and he learns to like the place. After a while he is found there nightly; his general style is low, his talk is that of the music-hall–the ineffable flash air has taken the place of his natural repose. He ought to be studying as many languages as possible, he ought to be watching the markets abroad, or he should be reading the latest science if he is engaged in practical work. But no–he is in bad company, and we find him at eight-and-twenty a disappointed, semi-competent man who grumbles very much about the Germans.

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If we go to the lower classes, we observe the same set of phenomena. A young workman is chatting with his friends in a public-house on Saturday night; he rises to go at half-past nine, but his comrades pull him down. “Make it eleven o’clock,” they say. He drinks fast in the last hour, and is then so exhilarated that he probably conveys a supply of beer home. On Sunday morning he feels muddled, heavy, a little troubled with nausea; his mates hail him joyously, and then the company wait with anxiety until the public-houses are open; then the dry throats are eased and the low spirits raised, and the game goes on till three. In the afternoon the young workman sleeps, and when he wakes up he is so depressed that he goes out and meets his mates again. Once more he is persuaded to exceed, but he reckons on having a good long sleep. With aching head and fevered hands he makes a wild rush next morning, and arrives at the shop only to find himself shut out. He is horrified and doleful, when up come a few of his friends. They laugh the matter off. “It’s only a quarter lost! There’s time for a pint before we go in.” So the drinking is begun again, and the men have none of the delicacy and steadiness of hand that are needed. Is it not an old story? The loss of “quarters,” half-days, and days goes on; then Saint Monday comes to be observed; then the spoiled young man and his merry crew begin to draw very short wages on Saturdays; then the foreman begins to look askance as the blinking uneasy laggard enters; and last comes the fatal quiet speech, “You won’t be required on Monday.” Bad company! As for the heartbreaking cases of young men who go up to the Universities full of bright hope and equipped at all points splendidly, they are almost too pitiful. Very often the lads who have done so well that subscriptions are raised for them are the ones who go wrong soonest. A smart student wins a scholarship or two, and his parents or relatives make a dead-lift effort to scrape money so that the clever fellow may go well through his course. At the end of a year the youth fails to present any trophies of distinction; he comes home as a lounger; this is “slow” and the other is “slow,” and the old folk are treated with easy contempt. Still there is hope–so very brilliant a young gentleman must succeed in the end. But the brilliant one has taken up with rich young cads who affect bull-terriers and boxing-gloves; he is not averse from a street-brawl in the foggy November days; he can take his part in questionable choruses; he yells on the tow-path or in the pit of the theatre, and he is often shaky in the morning after a dose of very bad wine. All the idleness and rowdyism do not matter to Brown and Tomkins and the rest of the raffish company, for they only read for the pass degree or take the poll; but the fortunes–almost the lives–of many folk depend on our young hopeful’s securing his Class, and yet he fritters away time among bad talk, bad habits, bad drink, and bad tobacco. Then come rumours of bills, then the crash, and the brilliant youth goes down, while Brown and Tomkins and all the rowdies say, “What a fool he was to try going our pace!” Bad company!

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I should therefore say to any youth–“Always be doing something–bad company never do anything; and thus, if you are resolved to be always doing something useful, it follows that you will not be among the bad company.” This seems to me to be conclusive; and many a broken heart and broken life might have been kept sound if inexperienced youths were only taught thus much continually.

October, 1888.

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