The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xvi.

A Sick Man, After Some Impatience, is Induced to Become a Patient

The sky slides into blue, the bluffs into bloom; the rapid Mississippi expands; runs sparkling and gurgling, all over in eddies; one magnified wake of a seventy-four. The sun comes out, a golden huzzar, from his tent, flashing his helm on the world. All things, warmed in the landscape, leap. Speeds the dædal boat as a dream.

But, withdrawn in a corner, wrapped about in a shawl, sits an unparticipating man, visited, but not warmed, by the sun — a plant whose hour seems over, while buds are blowing and seeds are astir. On a stool at his left sits a stranger in a snuff-colored surtout, the collar thrown back; his hand waving in persuasive gesture, his eye beaming with hope. But not easily may hope be awakened in one long tranced into hopelessness by a chronic complaint.

To some remark the sick man, by word or look, seemed to have just made an impatiently querulous answer, when, with a deprecatory air, the other resumed:

“Nay, think not I seek to cry up my treatment by crying down that of others. And yet, when one is confident he has truth on his side, and that is not on the other, it is no very easy thing to be charitable; not that temper is the bar, but conscience; for charity would beget toleration, you know, which is a kind of implied permitting, and in effect a kind of countenancing; and that which is countenanced is so far furthered. But should untruth be furthered? Still, while for the world’s good I refuse to further the cause of these mineral doctors, I would fain regard them, not as willful wrong-doers, but good Samaritans erring. And is this — I put it to you, sir — is this the view of an arrogant rival and pretender?”

His physical power all dribbled and gone, the sick man replied not by voice or by gesture; but, with feeble dumb-show of his face, seemed to be saying “Pray leave me; who was ever cured by talk?”

But the other, as if not unused to make allowances for such despondency, proceeded; and kindly, yet firmly:

“You tell me, that by advice of an eminent physiologist in Louisville, you took tincture of iron. For what? To restore your lost energy. And how? Why, in healthy subjects iron is naturally found in the blood, and iron in the bar is strong; ergo, iron is the source of animal invigoration. But you being deficient in vigor, it follows that the cause is deficiency of iron. Iron, then, must be put into you; and so your tincture. Now as to the theory here, I am mute. But in modesty assuming its truth, and then, as a plain man viewing that theory in practice, I would respectfully question your eminent physiologist: ‘Sir,’ I would say, ‘though by natural processes, lifeless natures taken as nutriment become vitalized, yet is a lifeless nature, under any circumstances, capable of a living transmission, with all its qualities as a lifeless nature unchanged? If, sir, nothing can be incorporated with the living body but by assimilation, and if that implies the conversion of one thing to a different thing (as, in a lamp, oil is assimilated into flame), is it, in this view, likely, that by banqueting on fat, Calvin Edson will fatten? That is, will what is fat on the board prove fat on the bones? If it will, then, sir, what is iron in the vial will prove iron in the vein.’ Seems that conclusion too confident?”

But the sick man again turned his dumb-show look, as much as to say, “Pray leave me. Why, with painful words, hint the vanity of that which the pains of this body have too painfully proved?”

But the other, as if unobservant of that querulous look, went on:

“But this notion, that science can play farmer to the flesh, making there what living soil it pleases, seems not so strange as that other conceit — that science is now-a-days so expert that, in consumptive cases, as yours, it can, by prescription of the inhalation of certain vapors, achieve the sublimest act of omnipotence, breathing into all but lifeless dust the breath of life. For did you not tell me, my poor sir, that by order of the great chemist in Baltimore, for three weeks you were never driven out without a respirator, and for a given time of every day sat bolstered up in a sort of gasometer, inspiring vapors generated by the burning of drugs? as if this concocted atmosphere of man were an antidote to the poison of God’s natural air. Oh, who can wonder at that old reproach against science, that it is atheistical? And here is my prime reason for opposing these chemical practitioners, who have sought out so many inventions. For what do their inventions indicate, unless it be that kind and degree of pride in human skill, which seems scarce compatible with reverential dependence upon the power above? Try to rid my mind of it as I may, yet still these chemical practitioners with their tinctures, and fumes, and braziers, and occult incantations, seem to me like Pharaoh’s vain sorcerers, trying to beat down the will of heaven. Day and night, in all charity, I intercede for them, that heaven may not, in its own language, be provoked to anger with their inventions; may not take vengeance of their inventions. A thousand pities that you should ever have been in the hands of these Egyptians.”

But again came nothing but the dumb-show look, as much as to say, “Pray leave me; quacks, and indignation against quacks, both are vain.”

But, once more, the other went on: “How different we herb-doctors! who claim nothing, invent nothing; but staff in hand, in glades, and upon hillsides, go about in nature, humbly seeking her cures. True Indian doctors, though not learned in names, we are not unfamiliar with essences — successors of Solomon the Wise, who knew all vegetables, from the cedar of Lebanon, to the hyssop on the wall. Yes, Solomon was the first of herb-doctors. Nor were the virtues of herbs unhonored by yet older ages. Is it not writ, that on a moonlight night,

“Medea gathered the enchanted herbs

That did renew old Æson?”

Ah, would you but have confidence, you should be the new Æson, and I your Medea. A few vials of my Omni–Balsamic Reinvigorator would, I am certain, give you some strength.”

Upon this, indignation and abhorrence seemed to work by their excess the effect promised of the balsam. Roused from that long apathy of impotence, the cadaverous man started, and, in a voice that was as the sound of obstructed air gurgling through a maze of broken honey-combs, cried: “Begone! You are all alike. The name of doctor, the dream of helper, condemns you. For years I have been but a gallipot for you experimentizers to rinse your experiments into, and now, in this livid skin, partake of the nature of my contents. Begone! I hate ye.”

“I were inhuman, could I take affront at a want of confidence, born of too bitter an experience of betrayers. Yet, permit one who is not without feeling ——”

“Begone! Just in that voice talked to me, not six months ago, the German doctor at the water cure, from which I now return, six months and sixty pangs nigher my grave.”

“The water-cure? Oh, fatal delusion of the well-meaning Preisnitz! — Sir, trust me ——”


“Nay, an invalid should not always have his own way. Ah, sir, reflect how untimely this distrust in one like you. How weak you are; and weakness, is it not the time for confidence? Yes, when through weakness everything bids despair, then is the time to get strength by confidence.”

Relenting in his air, the sick man cast upon him a long glance of beseeching, as if saying, “With confidence must come hope; and how can hope be?”

The herb-doctor took a sealed paper box from his surtout pocket, and holding it towards him, said solemnly, “Turn not away. This may be the last time of health’s asking. Work upon yourself; invoke confidence, though from ashes; rouse it; for your life, rouse it, and invoke it, I say.”

The other trembled, was silent; and then, a little commanding himself, asked the ingredients of the medicine.


“What herbs? And the nature of them? And the reason for giving them?”

“It cannot be made known.”

“Then I will none of you.”

Sedately observant of the juiceless, joyless form before him, the herb-doctor was mute a moment, then said:—“I give up.”


“You are sick, and a philosopher.”

“No, no; — not the last.”

“But, to demand the ingredient, with the reason for giving, is the mark of a philosopher; just as the consequence is the penalty of a fool. A sick philosopher is incurable?”


“Because he has no confidence.”

“How does that make him incurable?”

“Because either he spurns his powder, or, if he take it, it proves a blank cartridge, though the same given to a rustic in like extremity, would act like a charm. I am no materialist; but the mind so acts upon the body, that if the one have no confidence, neither has the other.”

Again, the sick man appeared not unmoved. He seemed to be thinking what in candid truth could be said to all this. At length, “You talk of confidence. How comes it that when brought low himself, the herb-doctor, who was most confident to prescribe in other cases, proves least confident to prescribe in his own; having small confidence in himself for himself?”

“But he has confidence in the brother he calls in. And that he does so, is no reproach to him, since he knows that when the body is prostrated, the mind is not erect. Yes, in this hour the herb-doctor does distrust himself, but not his art.”

The sick man’s knowledge did not warrant him to gainsay this. But he seemed not grieved at it; glad to be confuted in a way tending towards his wish.

“Then you give me hope?” his sunken eye turned up.

“Hope is proportioned to confidence. How much confidence you give me, so much hope do I give you. For this,” lifting the box, “if all depended upon this, I should rest. It is nature’s own.”


“Why do you start?”

“I know not,” with a sort of shudder, “but I have heard of a book entitled ‘Nature in Disease.’”

“A title I cannot approve; it is suspiciously scientific. ‘Nature in Disease?’ As if nature, divine nature, were aught but health; as if through nature disease is decreed! But did I not before hint of the tendency of science, that forbidden tree? Sir, if despondency is yours from recalling that title, dismiss it. Trust me, nature is health; for health is good, and nature cannot work ill. As little can she work error. Get nature, and you get well. Now, I repeat, this medicine is nature’s own.”

Again the sick man could not, according to his light, conscientiously disprove what was said. Neither, as before, did he seem over-anxious to do so; the less, as in his sensitiveness it seemed to him, that hardly could he offer so to do without something like the appearance of a kind of implied irreligion; nor in his heart was he ungrateful, that since a spirit opposite to that pervaded all the herb-doctor’s hopeful words, therefore, for hopefulness, he (the sick man) had not alone medical warrant, but also doctrinal.

“Then you do really think,” hectically, “that if I take this medicine,” mechanically reaching out for it, “I shall regain my health?”

“I will not encourage false hopes,” relinquishing to him the box, “I will be frank with you. Though frankness is not always the weakness of the mineral practitioner, yet the herb doctor must be frank, or nothing. Now then, sir, in your case, a radical cure — such a cure, understand, as should make you robust — such a cure, sir, I do not and cannot promise.”

“Oh, you need not! only restore me the power of being something else to others than a burdensome care, and to myself a droning grief. Only cure me of this misery of weakness; only make me so that I can walk about in the sun and not draw the flies to me, as lured by the coming of decay. Only do that — but that.”

“You ask not much; you are wise; not in vain have you suffered. That little you ask, I think, can be granted. But remember, not in a day, nor a week, nor perhaps a month, but sooner or later; I say not exactly when, for I am neither prophet nor charlatan. Still, if, according to the directions in your box there, you take my medicine steadily, without assigning an especial day, near or remote, to discontinue it, then may you calmly look for some eventual result of good. But again I say, you must have confidence.”

Feverishly he replied that he now trusted he had, and hourly should pray for its increase. When suddenly relapsing into one of those strange caprices peculiar to some invalids, he added: “But to one like me, it is so hard, so hard. The most confident hopes so often have failed me, and as often have I vowed never, no, never, to trust them again. Oh,” feebly wringing his hands, “you do not know, you do not know.”

“I know this, that never did a right confidence, come to naught. But time is short; you hold your cure, to retain or reject.”

“I retain,” with a clinch, “and now how much?”

“As much as you can evoke from your heart and heaven.”

“How? — the price of this medicine?”

“I thought it was confidence you meant; how much confidence you should have. The medicine — that is half a dollar a vial. Your box holds six.”

The money was paid.

“Now, sir,” said the herb-doctor, “my business calls me away, and it may so be that I shall never see you again; if then ——”

He paused, for the sick man’s countenance fell blank.

“Forgive me,” cried the other, “forgive that imprudent phrase ‘never see you again.’ Though I solely intended it with reference to myself, yet I had forgotten what your sensitiveness might be. I repeat, then, that it may be that we shall not soon have a second interview, so that hereafter, should another of my boxes be needed, you may not be able to replace it except by purchase at the shops; and, in so doing, you may run more or less risk of taking some not salutary mixture. For such is the popularity of the Omni–Balsamic Reinvigorator — thriving not by the credulity of the simple, but the trust of the wise — that certain contrivers have not been idle, though I would not, indeed, hastily affirm of them that they are aware of the sad consequences to the public. Homicides and murderers, some call those contrivers; but I do not; for murder (if such a crime be possible) comes from the heart, and these men’s motives come from the purse. Were they not in poverty, I think they would hardly do what they do. Still, the public interests forbid that I should let their needy device for a living succeed. In short, I have adopted precautions. Take the wrapper from any of my vials and hold it to the light, you will see water-marked in capitals the word ‘confidence,’ which is the countersign of the medicine, as I wish it was of the world. The wrapper bears that mark or else the medicine is counterfeit. But if still any lurking doubt should remain, pray enclose the wrapper to this address,” handing a card, “and by return mail I will answer.”

At first the sick man listened, with the air of vivid interest, but gradually, while the other was still talking, another strange caprice came over him, and he presented the aspect of the most calamitous dejection.

“How now?” said the herb-doctor.

“You told me to have confidence, said that confidence was indispensable, and here you preach to me distrust. Ah, truth will out!”

“I told you, you must have confidence, unquestioning confidence, I meant confidence in the genuine medicine, and the genuine me.”

“But in your absence, buying vials purporting to be yours, it seems I cannot have unquestioning confidence.”

“Prove all the vials; trust those which are true.”

“But to doubt, to suspect, to prove — to have all this wearing work to be doing continually — how opposed to confidence. It is evil!”

“From evil comes good. Distrust is a stage to confidence. How has it proved in our interview? But your voice is husky; I have let you talk too much. You hold your cure; I will leave you. But stay — when I hear that health is yours, I will not, like some I know, vainly make boasts; but, giving glory where all glory is due, say, with the devout herb-doctor, Japus in Virgil, when, in the unseen but efficacious presence of Venus, he with simples healed the wound of Æneas:—

‘This is no mortal work, no cure of mine,

Nor art’s effect, but done by power divine.’”

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