The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xxiv.

A Philanthropist Undertakes to Convert a Misanthrope, but Does Not Get Beyond Confuting Him.

“Hands off!” cried the bachelor, involuntarily covering dejection with moroseness.

“Hands off? that sort of label won’t do in our Fair. Whoever in our Fair has fine feelings loves to feel the nap of fine cloth, especially when a fine fellow wears it.”

“And who of my fine-fellow species may you be? From the Brazils, ain’t you? Toucan fowl. Fine feathers on foul meat.”

This ungentle mention of the toucan was not improbably suggested by the parti-hued, and rather plumagy aspect of the stranger, no bigot it would seem, but a liberalist, in dress, and whose wardrobe, almost anywhere than on the liberal Mississippi, used to all sorts of fantastic informalities, might, even to observers less critical than the bachelor, have looked, if anything, a little out of the common; but not more so perhaps, than, considering the bear and raccoon costume, the bachelor’s own appearance. In short, the stranger sported a vesture barred with various hues, that of the cochineal predominating, in style participating of a Highland plaid, Emir’s robe, and French blouse; from its plaited sort of front peeped glimpses of a flowered regatta-shirt, while, for the rest, white trowsers of ample duck flowed over maroon-colored slippers, and a jaunty smoking-cap of regal purple crowned him off at top; king of traveled good-fellows, evidently. Grotesque as all was, nothing looked stiff or unused; all showed signs of easy service, the least wonted thing setting like a wonted glove. That genial hand, which had just been laid on the ungenial shoulder, was now carelessly thrust down before him, sailor-fashion, into a sort of Indian belt, confining the redundant vesture; the other held, by its long bright cherry-stem, a Nuremburgh pipe in blast, its great porcelain bowl painted in miniature with linked crests and arms of interlinked nations — a florid show. As by subtle saturations of its mellowing essence the tobacco had ripened the bowl, so it looked as if something similar of the interior spirit came rosily out on the cheek. But rosy pipe-bowl, or rosy countenance, all was lost on that unrosy man, the bachelor, who, waiting a moment till the commotion, caused by the boat’s renewed progress, had a little abated, thus continued:

“Hark ye,” jeeringly eying the cap and belt, “did you ever see Signor Marzetti in the African pantomime?”

“No; — good performer?”

“Excellent; plays the intelligent ape till he seems it. With such naturalness can a being endowed with an immortal spirit enter into that of a monkey. But where’s your tail? In the pantomime, Marzetti, no hypocrite in his monkery, prides himself on that.”

The stranger, now at rest, sideways and genially, on one hip, his right leg cavalierly crossed before the other, the toe of his vertical slipper pointed easily down on the deck, whiffed out a long, leisurely sort of indifferent and charitable puff, betokening him more or less of the mature man of the world, a character which, like its opposite, the sincere Christian’s, is not always swift to take offense; and then, drawing near, still smoking, again laid his hand, this time with mild impressiveness, on the ursine shoulder, and not unamiably said: “That in your address there is a sufficiency of the fortiter in re few unbiased observers will question; but that this is duly attempered with the suaviter in modo may admit, I think, of an honest doubt. My dear fellow,” beaming his eyes full upon him, “what injury have I done you, that you should receive my greeting with a curtailed civility?”

“Off hands;” once more shaking the friendly member from him. “Who in the name of the great chimpanzee, in whose likeness, you, Marzetti, and the other chatterers are made, who in thunder are you?”

“A cosmopolitan, a catholic man; who, being such, ties himself to no narrow tailor or teacher, but federates, in heart as in costume, something of the various gallantries of men under various suns. Oh, one roams not over the gallant globe in vain. Bred by it, is a fraternal and fusing feeling. No man is a stranger. You accost anybody. Warm and confiding, you wait not for measured advances. And though, indeed, mine, in this instance, have met with no very hilarious encouragement, yet the principle of a true citizen of the world is still to return good for ill. — My dear fellow, tell me how I can serve you.”

“By dispatching yourself, Mr. Popinjay-of-the-world, into the heart of the Lunar Mountains. You are another of them. Out of my sight!”

“Is the sight of humanity so very disagreeable to you then? Ah, I may be foolish, but for my part, in all its aspects, I love it. Served up à la Pole, or à la Moor, à la Ladrone, or à la Yankee, that good dish, man, still delights me; or rather is man a wine I never weary of comparing and sipping; wherefore am I a pledged cosmopolitan, a sort of London–Dock-Vault connoisseur, going about from Teheran to Natchitoches, a taster of races; in all his vintages, smacking my lips over this racy creature, man, continually. But as there are teetotal palates which have a distaste even for Amontillado, so I suppose there may be teetotal souls which relish not even the very best brands of humanity. Excuse me, but it just occurs to me that you, my dear fellow, possibly lead a solitary life.”

“Solitary?” starting as at a touch of divination.

“Yes: in a solitary life one insensibly contracts oddities — talking to one’s self now.”

“Been eaves-dropping, eh?”

“Why, a soliloquist in a crowd can hardly but be overheard, and without much reproach to the hearer.”

“You are an eaves-dropper.”

“Well. Be it so.”

“Confess yourself an eaves-dropper?”

“I confess that when you were muttering here I, passing by, caught a word or two, and, by like chance, something previous of your chat with the Intelligence-office man; — a rather sensible fellow, by the way; much of my style of thinking; would, for his own sake, he were of my style of dress. Grief to good minds, to see a man of superior sense forced to hide his light under the bushel of an inferior coat. — Well, from what little I heard, I said to myself, Here now is one with the unprofitable philosophy of disesteem for man. Which disease, in the main, I have observed — excuse me — to spring from a certain lowness, if not sourness, of spirits inseparable from sequestration. Trust me, one had better mix in, and do like others. Sad business, this holding out against having a good time. Life is a pic-nic en costume; one must take a part, assume a character, stand ready in a sensible way to play the fool. To come in plain clothes, with a long face, as a wiseacre, only makes one a discomfort to himself, and a blot upon the scene. Like your jug of cold water among the wine-flasks, it leaves you unelated among the elated ones. No, no. This austerity won’t do. Let me tell you too —en confiance— that while revelry may not always merge into ebriety, soberness, in too deep potations, may become a sort of sottishness. Which sober sottishness, in my way of thinking, is only to be cured by beginning at the other end of the horn, to tipple a little.”

“Pray, what society of vintners and old topers are you hired to lecture for?”

“I fear I did not give my meaning clearly. A little story may help. The story of the worthy old woman of Goshen, a very moral old woman, who wouldn’t let her shoats eat fattening apples in fall, for fear the fruit might ferment upon their brains, and so make them swinish. Now, during a green Christmas, inauspicious to the old, this worthy old woman fell into a moping decline, took to her bed, no appetite, and refused to see her best friends. In much concern her good man sent for the doctor, who, after seeing the patient and putting a question or two, beckoned the husband out, and said: ‘Deacon, do you want her cured?’ ‘Indeed I do.’ ‘Go directly, then, and buy a jug of Santa Cruz.’ ‘Santa Cruz? my wife drink Santa Cruz?’ ‘Either that or die.’ ‘But how much?’ ‘As much as she can get down.’ ‘But she’ll get drunk!’ ‘That’s the cure.’ Wise men, like doctors, must be obeyed. Much against the grain, the sober deacon got the unsober medicine, and, equally against her conscience, the poor old woman took it; but, by so doing, ere long recovered health and spirits, famous appetite, and glad again to see her friends; and having by this experience broken the ice of arid abstinence, never afterwards kept herself a cup too low.”

This story had the effect of surprising the bachelor into interest, though hardly into approval.

“If I take your parable right,” said he, sinking no little of his former churlishness, “the meaning is, that one cannot enjoy life with gusto unless he renounce the too-sober view of life. But since the too-sober view is, doubtless, nearer true than the too-drunken; I, who rate truth, though cold water, above untruth, though Tokay, will stick to my earthen jug.”

“I see,” slowly spirting upward a spiral staircase of lazy smoke, “I see; you go in for the lofty.”

“How?”

“Oh, nothing! but if I wasn’t afraid of prosing, I might tell another story about an old boot in a pieman’s loft, contracting there between sun and oven an unseemly, dry-seasoned curl and warp. You’ve seen such leathery old garretteers, haven’t you? Very high, sober, solitary, philosophic, grand, old boots, indeed; but I, for my part, would rather be the pieman’s trodden slipper on the ground. Talking of piemen, humble-pie before proud-cake for me. This notion of being lone and lofty is a sad mistake. Men I hold in this respect to be like roosters; the one that betakes himself to a lone and lofty perch is the hen-pecked one, or the one that has the pip.”

“You are abusive!” cried the bachelor, evidently touched.

“Who is abused? You, or the race? You won’t stand by and see the human race abused? Oh, then, you have some respect for the human race.”

“I have some respect for myself” with a lip not so firm as before.

“And what race may you belong to? now don’t you see, my dear fellow, in what inconsistencies one involves himself by affecting disesteem for men. To a charm, my little stratagem succeeded. Come, come, think better of it, and, as a first step to a new mind, give up solitude. I fear, by the way, you have at some time been reading Zimmermann, that old Mr. Megrims of a Zimmermann, whose book on Solitude is as vain as Hume’s on Suicide, as Bacon’s on Knowledge; and, like these, will betray him who seeks to steer soul and body by it, like a false religion. All they, be they what boasted ones you please, who, to the yearning of our kind after a founded rule of content, offer aught not in the spirit of fellowly gladness based on due confidence in what is above, away with them for poor dupes, or still poorer impostors.”

His manner here was so earnest that scarcely any auditor, perhaps, but would have been more or less impressed by it, while, possibly, nervous opponents might have a little quailed under it. Thinking within himself a moment, the bachelor replied: “Had you experience, you would know that your tippling theory, take it in what sense you will, is poor as any other. And Rabelais’s prowine Koran no more trustworthy than Mahomet’s anti-wine one.”

“Enough,” for a finality knocking the ashes from his pipe, “we talk and keep talking, and still stand where we did. What do you say for a walk? My arm, and let’s a turn. They are to have dancing on the hurricane-deck to-night. I shall fling them off a Scotch jig, while, to save the pieces, you hold my loose change; and following that, I propose that you, my dear fellow, stack your gun, and throw your bearskins in a sailor’s hornpipe — I holding your watch. What do you say?”

At this proposition the other was himself again, all raccoon.

“Look you,” thumping down his rifle, “are you Jeremy Diddler No. 3?”

“Jeremy Diddler? I have heard of Jeremy the prophet, and Jeremy Taylor the divine, but your other Jeremy is a gentleman I am unacquainted with.”

“You are his confidential clerk, ain’t you?”

Whose, pray? Not that I think myself unworthy of being confided in, but I don’t understand.”

“You are another of them. Somehow I meet with the most extraordinary metaphysical scamps today. Sort of visitation of them. And yet that herb-doctor Diddler somehow takes off the raw edge of the Diddlers that come after him.”

“Herb-doctor? who is he?”

“Like you — another of them.”

Who?” Then drawing near, as if for a good long explanatory chat, his left hand spread, and his pipe-stem coming crosswise down upon it like a ferule, “You think amiss of me. Now to undeceive you, I will just enter into a little argument and ——”

“No you don’t. No more little arguments for me. Had too many little arguments today.”

“But put a case. Can you deny — I dare you to deny — that the man leading a solitary life is peculiarly exposed to the sorriest misconceptions touching strangers?”

“Yes, I do deny it,” again, in his impulsiveness, snapping at the controversial bait, “and I will confute you there in a trice. Look, you ——”

“Now, now, now, my dear fellow,” thrusting out both vertical palms for double shields, “you crowd me too hard. You don’t give one a chance. Say what you will, to shun a social proposition like mine, to shun society in any way, evinces a churlish nature — cold, loveless; as, to embrace it, shows one warm and friendly, in fact, sunshiny.”

Here the other, all agog again, in his perverse way, launched forth into the unkindest references to deaf old worldlings keeping in the deafening world; and gouty gluttons limping to their gouty gormandizings; and corseted coquets clasping their corseted cavaliers in the waltz, all for disinterested society’s sake; and thousands, bankrupt through lavishness, ruining themselves out of pure love of the sweet company of man — no envies, rivalries, or other unhandsome motive to it.

“Ah, now,” deprecating with his pipe, “irony is so unjust: never could abide irony: something Satanic about irony. God defend me from Irony, and Satire, his bosom friend.”

“A right knave’s prayer, and a right fool’s, too,” snapping his rifle-lock.

“Now be frank. Own that was a little gratuitous. But, no, no, you didn’t mean it; any way, I can make allowances. Ah, did you but know it, how much pleasanter to puff at this philanthropic pipe, than still to keep fumbling at that misanthropic rifle. As for your worldling, glutton, and coquette, though, doubtless, being such, they may have their little foibles — as who has not? — yet not one of the three can be reproached with that awful sin of shunning society; awful I call it, for not seldom it presupposes a still darker thing than itself — remorse.”

“Remorse drives man away from man? How came your fellow-creature, Cain, after the first murder, to go and build the first city? And why is it that the modern Cain dreads nothing so much as solitary confinement?

“My dear fellow, you get excited. Say what you will, I for one must have my fellow-creatures round me. Thick, too — I must have them thick.”

“The pick-pocket, too, loves to have his fellow-creatures round him. Tut, man! no one goes into the crowd but for his end; and the end of too many is the same as the pick-pocket’s — a purse.”

“Now, my dear fellow, how can you have the conscience to say that, when it is as much according to natural law that men are social as sheep gregarious. But grant that, in being social, each man has his end, do you, upon the strength of that, do you yourself, I say, mix with man, now, immediately, and be your end a more genial philosophy. Come, let’s take a turn.”

Again he offered his fraternal arm; but the bachelor once more flung it off, and, raising his rifle in energetic invocation, cried: “Now the high-constable catch and confound all knaves in towns and rats in grain-bins, and if in this boat, which is a human grain-bin for the time, any sly, smooth, philandering rat be dodging now, pin him, thou high rat-catcher, against this rail.”

“A noble burst! shows you at heart a trump. And when a card’s that, little matters it whether it be spade or diamond. You are good wine that, to be still better, only needs a shaking up. Come, let’s agree that we’ll to New Orleans, and there embark for London — I staying with my friends nigh Primrose-hill, and you putting up at the Piazza, Covent Garden — Piazza, Covent Garden; for tell me — since you will not be a disciple to the full — tell me, was not that humor, of Diogenes, which led him to live, a merry-andrew, in the flower-market, better than that of the less wise Athenian, which made him a skulking scare-crow in pine-barrens? An injudicious gentleman, Lord Timon.”

“Your hand!” seizing it.

“Bless me, how cordial a squeeze. It is agreed we shall be brothers, then?”

“As much so as a brace of misanthropes can be,” with another and terrific squeeze. “I had thought that the moderns had degenerated beneath the capacity of misanthropy. Rejoiced, though but in one instance, and that disguised, to be undeceived.”

The other stared in blank amaze.

“Won’t do. You are Diogenes, Diogenes in disguise. I say — Diogenes masquerading as a cosmopolitan.”

With ruefully altered mien, the stranger still stood mute awhile. At length, in a pained tone, spoke: “How hard the lot of that pleader who, in his zeal conceding too much, is taken to belong to a side which he but labors, however ineffectually, to convert!” Then with another change of air: “To you, an Ishmael, disguising in sportiveness my intent, I came ambassador from the human race, charged with the assurance that for your mislike they bore no answering grudge, but sought to conciliate accord between you and them. Yet you take me not for the honest envoy, but I know not what sort of unheard-of spy. Sir,” he less lowly added, “this mistaking of your man should teach you how you may mistake all men. For God’s sake,” laying both hands upon him, “get you confidence. See how distrust has duped you. I, Diogenes? I he who, going a step beyond misanthropy, was less a man-hater than a man-hooter? Better were I stark and stiff!”

With which the philanthropist moved away less lightsome than he had come, leaving the discomfited misanthrope to the solitude he held so sapient.

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