The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xxviii.

Moot Points Touching the Late Colonel John Moredock.

“Charity, charity!” exclaimed the cosmopolitan, “never a sound judgment without charity. When man judges man, charity is less a bounty from our mercy than just allowance for the insensible lee-way of human fallibility. God forbid that my eccentric friend should be what you hint. You do not know him, or but imperfectly. His outside deceived you; at first it came near deceiving even me. But I seized a chance, when, owing to indignation against some wrong, he laid himself a little open; I seized that lucky chance, I say, to inspect his heart, and found it an inviting oyster in a forbidding shell. His outside is but put on. Ashamed of his own goodness, he treats mankind as those strange old uncles in romances do their nephews — snapping at them all the time and yet loving them as the apple of their eye.”

“Well, my words with him were few. Perhaps he is not what I took him for. Yes, for aught I know, you may be right.”

“Glad to hear it. Charity, like poetry, should be cultivated, if only for its being graceful. And now, since you have renounced your notion, I should be happy, would you, so to speak, renounce your story, too. That, story strikes me with even more incredulity than wonder. To me some parts don’t hang together. If the man of hate, how could John Moredock be also the man of love? Either his lone campaigns are fabulous as Hercules’; or else, those being true, what was thrown in about his geniality is but garnish. In short, if ever there was such a man as Moredock, he, in my way of thinking, was either misanthrope or nothing; and his misanthropy the more intense from being focused on one race of men. Though, like suicide, man-hatred would seem peculiarly a Roman and a Grecian passion — that is, Pagan; yet, the annals of neither Rome nor Greece can produce the equal in man-hatred of Colonel Moredock, as the judge and you have painted him. As for this Indian-hating in general, I can only say of it what Dr. Johnson said of the alleged Lisbon earthquake: ‘Sir, I don’t believe it.’”

“Didn’t believe it? Why not? Clashed with any little prejudice of his?”

“Doctor Johnson had no prejudice; but, like a certain other person,” with an ingenuous smile, “he had sensibilities, and those were pained.”

“Dr. Johnson was a good Christian, wasn’t he?”

“He was.”

“Suppose he had been something else.”

“Then small incredulity as to the alleged earthquake.”

“Suppose he had been also a misanthrope?”

“Then small incredulity as to the robberies and murders alleged to have been perpetrated under the pall of smoke and ashes. The infidels of the time were quick to credit those reports and worse. So true is it that, while religion, contrary to the common notion, implies, in certain cases, a spirit of slow reserve as to assent, infidelity, which claims to despise credulity, is sometimes swift to it.”

“You rather jumble together misanthropy and infidelity.”

“I do not jumble them; they are coordinates. For misanthropy, springing from the same root with disbelief of religion, is twin with that. It springs from the same root, I say; for, set aside materialism, and what is an atheist, but one who does not, or will not, see in the universe a ruling principle of love; and what a misanthrope, but one who does not, or will not, see in man a ruling principle of kindness? Don’t you see? In either case the vice consists in a want of confidence.”

“What sort of a sensation is misanthropy?”

“Might as well ask me what sort of sensation is hydrophobia. Don’t know; never had it. But I have often wondered what it can be like. Can a misanthrope feel warm, I ask myself; take ease? be companionable with himself? Can a misanthrope smoke a cigar and muse? How fares he in solitude? Has the misanthrope such a thing as an appetite? Shall a peach refresh him? The effervescence of champagne, with what eye does he behold it? Is summer good to him? Of long winters how much can he sleep? What are his dreams? How feels he, and what does he, when suddenly awakened, alone, at dead of night, by fusilades of thunder?”

“Like you,” said the stranger, “I can’t understand the misanthrope. So far as my experience goes, either mankind is worthy one’s best love, or else I have been lucky. Never has it been my lot to have been wronged, though but in the smallest degree. Cheating, backbiting, superciliousness, disdain, hard-heartedness, and all that brood, I know but by report. Cold regards tossed over the sinister shoulder of a former friend, ingratitude in a beneficiary, treachery in a confidant — such things may be; but I must take somebody’s word for it. Now the bridge that has carried me so well over, shall I not praise it?”

“Ingratitude to the worthy bridge not to do so. Man is a noble fellow, and in an age of satirists, I am not displeased to find one who has confidence in him, and bravely stands up for him.”

“Yes, I always speak a good word for man; and what is more, am always ready to do a good deed for him.”

“You are a man after my own heart,” responded the cosmopolitan, with a candor which lost nothing by its calmness. “Indeed,” he added, “our sentiments agree so, that were they written in a book, whose was whose, few but the nicest critics might determine.”

“Since we are thus joined in mind,” said the stranger, “why not be joined in hand?”

“My hand is always at the service of virtue,” frankly extending it to him as to virtue personified.

“And now,” said the stranger, cordially retaining his hand, “you know our fashion here at the West. It may be a little low, but it is kind. Briefly, we being newly-made friends must drink together. What say you?”

“Thank you; but indeed, you must excuse me.”

“Why?”

“Because, to tell the truth, I have today met so many old friends, all free-hearted, convivial gentlemen, that really, really, though for the present I succeed in mastering it, I am at bottom almost in the condition of a sailor who, stepping ashore after a long voyage, ere night reels with loving welcomes, his head of less capacity than his heart.”

At the allusion to old friends, the stranger’s countenance a little fell, as a jealous lover’s might at hearing from his sweetheart of former ones. But rallying, he said: “No doubt they treated you to something strong; but wine — surely, that gentle creature, wine; come, let us have a little gentle wine at one of these little tables here. Come, come.” Then essaying to roll about like a full pipe in the sea, sang in a voice which had had more of good-fellowship, had there been less of a latent squeak to it:

“Let us drink of the wine of the vine benign,

That sparkles warm in Zansovine.”

The cosmopolitan, with longing eye upon him, stood as sorely tempted and wavering a moment; then, abruptly stepping towards him, with a look of dissolved surrender, said: “When mermaid songs move figure-heads, then may glory, gold, and women try their blandishments on me. But a good fellow, singing a good song, he woos forth my every spike, so that my whole hull, like a ship’s, sailing by a magnetic rock, caves in with acquiescence. Enough: when one has a heart of a certain sort, it is in vain trying to be resolute.”

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