The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter x.

In the Cabin.

Stools, settees, sofas, divans, ottomans; occupying them are clusters of men, old and young, wise and simple; in their hands are cards spotted with diamonds, spades, clubs, hearts; the favorite games are whist, cribbage, and brag. Lounging in arm-chairs or sauntering among the marble-topped tables, amused with the scene, are the comparatively few, who, instead of having hands in the games, for the most part keep their hands in their pockets. These may be the philosophes. But here and there, with a curious expression, one is reading a small sort of handbill of anonymous poetry, rather wordily entitled:—

“ODE
ON THE INTIMATIONS
OF
DISTRUST IN MAN,
UNWILLINGLY INFERRED FROM REPEATED REPULSES,
IN DISINTERESTED ENDEAVORS
TO PROCURE HIS
CONFIDENCE.”

On the floor are many copies, looking as if fluttered down from a balloon. The way they came there was this: A somewhat elderly person, in the quaker dress, had quietly passed through the cabin, and, much in the manner of those railway book-peddlers who precede their proffers of sale by a distribution of puffs, direct or indirect, of the volumes to follow, had, without speaking, handed about the odes, which, for the most part, after a cursory glance, had been disrespectfully tossed aside, as no doubt, the moonstruck production of some wandering rhapsodist.

In due time, book under arm, in trips the ruddy man with the traveling-cap, who, lightly moving to and fro, looks animatedly about him, with a yearning sort of gratulatory affinity and longing, expressive of the very soul of sociality; as much as to say, “Oh, boys, would that I were personally acquainted with each mother’s son of you, since what a sweet world, to make sweet acquaintance in, is ours, my brothers; yea, and what dear, happy dogs are we all!”

And just as if he had really warbled it forth, he makes fraternally up to one lounging stranger or another, exchanging with him some pleasant remark.

“Pray, what have you there?” he asked of one newly accosted, a little, dried-up man, who looked as if he never dined.

“A little ode, rather queer, too,” was the reply, “of the same sort you see strewn on the floor here.”

“I did not observe them. Let me see;” picking one up and looking it over. “Well now, this is pretty; plaintive, especially the opening:—

‘Alas for man, he hath small sense

Of genial trust and confidence.’

— If it be so, alas for him, indeed. Runs off very smoothly, sir. Beautiful pathos. But do you think the sentiment just?”

“As to that,” said the little dried-up man, “I think it a kind of queer thing altogether, and yet I am almost ashamed to add, it really has set me to thinking; yes and to feeling. Just now, somehow, I feel as it were trustful and genial. I don’t know that ever I felt so much so before. I am naturally numb in my sensibilities; but this ode, in its way, works on my numbness not unlike a sermon, which, by lamenting over my lying dead in trespasses and sins, thereby stirs me up to be all alive in well-doing.”

“Glad to hear it, and hope you will do well, as the doctors say. But who snowed the odes about here?”

“I cannot say; I have not been here long.”

“Wasn’t an angel, was it? Come, you say you feel genial, let us do as the rest, and have cards.”

“Thank you, I never play cards.”

“A bottle of wine?”

“Thank you, I never drink wine.”

“Cigars?”

“Thank you, I never smoke cigars.”

“Tell stories?”

“To speak truly, I hardly think I know one worth telling.”

“Seems to me, then, this geniality you say you feel waked in you, is as water-power in a land without mills. Come, you had better take a genial hand at the cards. To begin, we will play for as small a sum as you please; just enough to make it interesting.”

“Indeed, you must excuse me. Somehow I distrust cards.”

“What, distrust cards? Genial cards? Then for once I join with our sad Philomel here:—

‘Alas for man, he hath small sense

Of genial trust and confidence.’

Good-bye!”

Sauntering and chatting here and there, again, he with the book at length seems fatigued, looks round for a seat, and spying a partly-vacant settee drawn up against the side, drops down there; soon, like his chance neighbor, who happens to be the good merchant, becoming not a little interested in the scene more immediately before him; a party at whist; two cream-faced, giddy, unpolished youths, the one in a red cravat, the other in a green, opposed to two bland, grave, handsome, self-possessed men of middle age, decorously dressed in a sort of professional black, and apparently doctors of some eminence in the civil law.

By-and-by, after a preliminary scanning of the new comer next him the good merchant, sideways leaning over, whispers behind a crumpled copy of the Ode which he holds: “Sir, I don’t like the looks of those two, do you?”

“Hardly,” was the whispered reply; “those colored cravats are not in the best taste, at least not to mine; but my taste is no rule for all.”

“You mistake; I mean the other two, and I don’t refer to dress, but countenance. I confess I am not familiar with such gentry any further than reading about them in the papers — but those two are — are sharpers, aint they?”

“Far be from us the captious and fault-finding spirit, my dear sir.”

“Indeed, sir, I would not find fault; I am little given that way: but certainly, to say the least, these two youths can hardly be adepts, while the opposed couple may be even more.”

“You would not hint that the colored cravats would be so bungling as to lose, and the dark cravats so dextrous as to cheat? — Sour imaginations, my dear sir. Dismiss them. To little purpose have you read the Ode you have there. Years and experience, I trust, have not sophisticated you. A fresh and liberal construction would teach us to regard those four players — indeed, this whole cabin-full of players — as playing at games in which every player plays fair, and not a player but shall win.”

“Now, you hardly mean that; because games in which all may win, such games remain as yet in this world uninvented, I think.”

“Come, come,” luxuriously laying himself back, and casting a free glance upon the players, “fares all paid; digestion sound; care, toil, penury, grief, unknown; lounging on this sofa, with waistband relaxed, why not be cheerfully resigned to one’s fate, nor peevishly pick holes in the blessed fate of the world?”

Upon this, the good merchant, after staring long and hard, and then rubbing his forehead, fell into meditation, at first uneasy, but at last composed, and in the end, once more addressed his companion: “Well, I see it’s good to out with one’s private thoughts now and then. Somehow, I don’t know why, a certain misty suspiciousness seems inseparable from most of one’s private notions about some men and some things; but once out with these misty notions, and their mere contact with other men’s soon dissipates, or, at least, modifies them.”

“You think I have done you good, then? may be, I have. But don’t thank me, don’t thank me. If by words, casually delivered in the social hour, I do any good to right or left, it is but involuntary influence — locust-tree sweetening the herbage under it; no merit at all; mere wholesome accident, of a wholesome nature. — Don’t you see?”

Another stare from the good merchant, and both were silent again.

Finding his book, hitherto resting on his lap, rather irksome there, the owner now places it edgewise on the settee, between himself and neighbor; in so doing, chancing to expose the lettering on the back —“Black Rapids Coal Company”— which the good merchant, scrupulously honorable, had much ado to avoid reading, so directly would it have fallen under his eye, had he not conscientiously averted it. On a sudden, as if just reminded of something, the stranger starts up, and moves away, in his haste leaving his book; which the merchant observing, without delay takes it up, and, hurrying after, civilly returns it; in which act he could not avoid catching sight by an involuntary glance of part of the lettering.

“Thank you, thank you, my good sir,” said the other, receiving the volume, and was resuming his retreat, when the merchant spoke: “Excuse me, but are you not in some way connected with the — the Coal Company I have heard of?”

“There is more than one Coal Company that may be heard of, my good sir,” smiled the other, pausing with an expression of painful impatience, disinterestedly mastered.

“But you are connected with one in particular. — The ‘Black Rapids,’ are you not?”

“How did you find that out?”

“Well, sir, I have heard rather tempting information of your Company.”

“Who is your informant, pray,” somewhat coldly.

“A— a person by the name of Ringman.”

“Don’t know him. But, doubtless, there are plenty who know our Company, whom our Company does not know; in the same way that one may know an individual, yet be unknown to him. — Known this Ringman long? Old friend, I suppose. — But pardon, I must leave you.”

“Stay, sir, that — that stock.”

“Stock?”

“Yes, it’s a little irregular, perhaps, but ——”

“Dear me, you don’t think of doing any business with me, do you? In my official capacity I have not been authenticated to you. This transfer-book, now,” holding it up so as to bring the lettering in sight, “how do you know that it may not be a bogus one? And I, being personally a stranger to you, how can you have confidence in me?”

“Because,” knowingly smiled the good merchant, “if you were other than I have confidence that you are, hardly would you challenge distrust that way.”

“But you have not examined my book.”

“What need to, if already I believe that it is what it is lettered to be?”

“But you had better. It might suggest doubts.”

“Doubts, may be, it might suggest, but not knowledge; for how, by examining the book, should I think I knew any more than I now think I do; since, if it be the true book, I think it so already; and since if it be otherwise, then I have never seen the true one, and don’t know what that ought to look like.”

“Your logic I will not criticize, but your confidence I admire, and earnestly, too, jocose as was the method I took to draw it out. Enough, we will go to yonder table, and if there be any business which, either in my private or official capacity, I can help you do, pray command me.”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11