The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xxx.

Opening with a Poetical Eulogy of the Press and Continuing with Talk Inspired by the Same.

“‘Praise be unto the press, not Faust’s, but Noah’s; let us extol and magnify the press, the true press of Noah, from which breaketh the true morning. Praise be unto the press, not the black press but the red; let us extol and magnify the press, the red press of Noah, from which cometh inspiration. Ye pressmen of the Rhineland and the Rhine, join in with all ye who tread out the glad tidings on isle Madeira or Mitylene. — Who giveth redness of eyes by making men long to tarry at the fine print? — Praise be unto the press, the rosy press of Noah, which giveth rosiness of hearts, by making men long to tarry at the rosy wine. — Who hath babblings and contentions? Who, without cause, inflicteth wounds? Praise be unto the press, the kindly press of Noah, which knitteth friends, which fuseth foes. — Who may be bribed? — Who may be bound? — Praise be unto the press, the free press of Noah, which will not lie for tyrants, but make tyrants speak the truth. — Then praise be unto the press, the frank old press of Noah; then let us extol and magnify the press, the brave old press of Noah; then let us with roses garland and enwreath the press, the grand old press of Noah, from which flow streams of knowledge which give man a bliss no more unreal than his pain.’”

“You deceived me,” smiled the cosmopolitan, as both now resumed their seats; “you roguishly took advantage of my simplicity; you archly played upon my enthusiasm. But never mind; the offense, if any, was so charming, I almost wish you would offend again. As for certain poetic left-handers in your panegyric, those I cheerfully concede to the indefinite privileges of the poet. Upon the whole, it was quite in the lyric style — a style I always admire on account of that spirit of Sibyllic confidence and assurance which is, perhaps, its prime ingredient. But come,” glancing at his companion’s glass, “for a lyrist, you let the bottle stay with you too long.”

“The lyre and the vine forever!” cried the other in his rapture, or what seemed such, heedless of the hint, “the vine, the vine! is it not the most graceful and bounteous of all growths? And, by its being such, is not something meant — divinely meant? As I live, a vine, a Catawba vine, shall be planted on my grave!”

“A genial thought; but your glass there.”

“Oh, oh,” taking a moderate sip, “but you, why don’t you drink?”

“You have forgotten, my dear Charlie, what I told you of my previous convivialities today.”

“Oh,” cried the other, now in manner quite abandoned to the lyric mood, not without contrast to the easy sociability of his companion. “Oh, one can’t drink too much of good old wine — the genuine, mellow old port. Pooh, pooh! drink away.”

“Then keep me company.”

“Of course,” with a flourish, taking another sip —“suppose we have cigars. Never mind your pipe there; a pipe is best when alone. I say, waiter, bring some cigars — your best.”

They were brought in a pretty little bit of western pottery, representing some kind of Indian utensil, mummy-colored, set down in a mass of tobacco leaves, whose long, green fans, fancifully grouped, formed with peeps of red the sides of the receptacle.

Accompanying it were two accessories, also bits of pottery, but smaller, both globes; one in guise of an apple flushed with red and gold to the life, and, through a cleft at top, you saw it was hollow. This was for the ashes. The other, gray, with wrinkled surface, in the likeness of a wasp’s nest, was the match-box. “There,” said the stranger, pushing over the cigar-stand, “help yourself, and I will touch you off,” taking a match. “Nothing like tobacco,” he added, when the fumes of the cigar began to wreathe, glancing from the smoker to the pottery, “I will have a Virginia tobacco-plant set over my grave beside the Catawba vine.”

“Improvement upon your first idea, which by itself was good — but you don’t smoke.”

“Presently, presently — let me fill your glass again. You don’t drink.”

“Thank you; but no more just now. Fill your glass.”

“Presently, presently; do you drink on. Never mind me. Now that it strikes me, let me say, that he who, out of superfine gentility or fanatic morality, denies himself tobacco, suffers a more serious abatement in the cheap pleasures of life than the dandy in his iron boot, or the celibate on his iron cot. While for him who would fain revel in tobacco, but cannot, it is a thing at which philanthropists must weep, to see such an one, again and again, madly returning to the cigar, which, for his incompetent stomach, he cannot enjoy, while still, after each shameful repulse, the sweet dream of the impossible good goads him on to his fierce misery once more — poor eunuch!”

“I agree with you,” said the cosmopolitan, still gravely social, “but you don’t smoke.”

“Presently, presently, do you smoke on. As I was saying about ——”

“But why don’t you smoke — come. You don’t think that tobacco, when in league with wine, too much enhances the latter’s vinous quality — in short, with certain constitutions tends to impair self-possession, do you?”

“To think that, were treason to good fellowship,” was the warm disclaimer. “No, no. But the fact is, there is an unpropitious flavor in my mouth just now. Ate of a diabolical ragout at dinner, so I shan’t smoke till I have washed away the lingering memento of it with wine. But smoke away, you, and pray, don’t forget to drink. By-the-way, while we sit here so companionably, giving loose to any companionable nothing, your uncompanionable friend, Coonskins, is, by pure contrast, brought to recollection. If he were but here now, he would see how much of real heart-joy he denies himself by not hob-a-nobbing with his kind.”

“Why,” with loitering emphasis, slowly withdrawing his cigar, “I thought I had undeceived you there. I thought you had come to a better understanding of my eccentric friend.”

“Well, I thought so, too; but first impressions will return, you know. In truth, now that I think of it, I am led to conjecture from chance things which dropped from Coonskins, during the little interview I had with him, that he is not a Missourian by birth, but years ago came West here, a young misanthrope from the other side of the Alleghanies, less to make his fortune, than to flee man. Now, since they say trifles sometimes effect great results, I shouldn’t wonder, if his history were probed, it would be found that what first indirectly gave his sad bias to Coonskins was his disgust at reading in boyhood the advice of Polonius to Laertes — advice which, in the selfishness it inculcates, is almost on a par with a sort of ballad upon the economies of money-making, to be occasionally seen pasted against the desk of small retail traders in New England.”

“I do hope now, my dear fellow,” said the cosmopolitan with an air of bland protest, “that, in my presence at least, you will throw out nothing to the prejudice of the sons of the Puritans.”

“Hey-day and high times indeed,” exclaimed the other, nettled, “sons of the Puritans forsooth! And who be Puritans, that I, an Alabamaian, must do them reverence? A set of sourly conceited old Malvolios, whom Shakespeare laughs his fill at in his comedies.”

“Pray, what were you about to suggest with regard to Polonius,” observed the cosmopolitan with quiet forbearance, expressive of the patience of a superior mind at the petulance of an inferior one; “how do you characterize his advice to Laertes?”

“As false, fatal, and calumnious,” exclaimed the other, with a degree of ardor befitting one resenting a stigma upon the family escutcheon, “and for a father to give his son — monstrous. The case you see is this: The son is going abroad, and for the first. What does the father? Invoke God’s blessing upon him? Put the blessed Bible in his trunk? No. Crams him with maxims smacking of my Lord Chesterfield, with maxims of France, with maxims of Italy.”

“No, no, be charitable, not that. Why, does he not among other things say:—

‘The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel’?

Is that compatible with maxims of Italy?”

“Yes it is, Frank. Don’t you see? Laertes is to take the best of care of his friends — his proved friends, on the same principle that a wine-corker takes the best of care of his proved bottles. When a bottle gets a sharp knock and don’t break, he says, ‘Ah, I’ll keep that bottle.’ Why? Because he loves it? No, he has particular use for it.”

“Dear, dear!” appealingly turning in distress, “that — that kind of criticism is — is — in fact — it won’t do.”

“Won’t truth do, Frank? You are so charitable with everybody, do but consider the tone of the speech. Now I put it to you, Frank; is there anything in it hortatory to high, heroic, disinterested effort? Anything like ‘sell all thou hast and give to the poor?’ And, in other points, what desire seems most in the father’s mind, that his son should cherish nobleness for himself, or be on his guard against the contrary thing in others? An irreligious warner, Frank — no devout counselor, is Polonius. I hate him. Nor can I bear to hear your veterans of the world affirm, that he who steers through life by the advice of old Polonius will not steer among the breakers.”

“No, no — I hope nobody affirms that,” rejoined the cosmopolitan, with tranquil abandonment; sideways reposing his arm at full length upon the table. “I hope nobody affirms that; because, if Polonius’ advice be taken in your sense, then the recommendation of it by men of experience would appear to involve more or less of an unhandsome sort of reflection upon human nature. And yet,” with a perplexed air, “your suggestions have put things in such a strange light to me as in fact a little to disturb my previous notions of Polonius and what he says. To be frank, by your ingenuity you have unsettled me there, to that degree that were it not for our coincidence of opinion in general, I should almost think I was now at length beginning to feel the ill effect of an immature mind, too much consorting with a mature one, except on the ground of first principles in common.”

“Really and truly,” cried the other with a kind of tickled modesty and pleased concern, “mine is an understanding too weak to throw out grapnels and hug another to it. I have indeed heard of some great scholars in these days, whose boast is less that they have made disciples than victims. But for me, had I the power to do such things, I have not the heart to desire.”

“I believe you, my dear Charlie. And yet, I repeat, by your commentaries on Polonius you have, I know not how, unsettled me; so that now I don’t exactly see how Shakespeare meant the words he puts in Polonius’ mouth.”

“Some say that he meant them to open people’s eyes; but I don’t think so.”

“Open their eyes?” echoed the cosmopolitan, slowly expanding his; “what is there in this world for one to open his eyes to? I mean in the sort of invidious sense you cite?”

“Well, others say he meant to corrupt people’s morals; and still others, that he had no express intention at all, but in effect opens their eyes and corrupts their morals in one operation. All of which I reject.”

“Of course you reject so crude an hypothesis; and yet, to confess, in reading Shakespeare in my closet, struck by some passage, I have laid down the volume, and said: ‘This Shakespeare is a queer man.’ At times seeming irresponsible, he does not always seem reliable. There appears to be a certain — what shall I call it? — hidden sun, say, about him, at once enlightening and mystifying. Now, I should be afraid to say what I have sometimes thought that hidden sun might be.”

“Do you think it was the true light?” with clandestine geniality again filling the other’s glass.

“I would prefer to decline answering a categorical question there. Shakespeare has got to be a kind of deity. Prudent minds, having certain latent thoughts concerning him, will reserve them in a condition of lasting probation. Still, as touching avowable speculations, we are permitted a tether. Shakespeare himself is to be adored, not arraigned; but, so we do it with humility, we may a little canvass his characters. There’s his Autolycus now, a fellow that always puzzled me. How is one to take Autolycus? A rogue so happy, so lucky, so triumphant, of so almost captivatingly vicious a career that a virtuous man reduced to the poor-house (were such a contingency conceivable), might almost long to change sides with him. And yet, see the words put into his mouth: ‘Oh,’ cries Autolycus, as he comes galloping, gay as a buck, upon the stage, ‘oh,’ he laughs, ‘oh what a fool is Honesty, and Trust, his sworn brother, a very simple gentleman.’ Think of that. Trust, that is, confidence — that is, the thing in this universe the sacredest — is rattlingly pronounced just the simplest. And the scenes in which the rogue figures seem purposely devised for verification of his principles. Mind, Charlie, I do not say it is so, far from it; but I do say it seems so. Yes, Autolycus would seem a needy varlet acting upon the persuasion that less is to be got by invoking pockets than picking them, more to be made by an expert knave than a bungling beggar; and for this reason, as he thinks, that the soft heads outnumber the soft hearts. The devil’s drilled recruit, Autolycus is joyous as if he wore the livery of heaven. When disturbed by the character and career of one thus wicked and thus happy, my sole consolation is in the fact that no such creature ever existed, except in the powerful imagination which evoked him. And yet, a creature, a living creature, he is, though only a poet was his maker. It may be, that in that paper-and-ink investiture of his, Autolycus acts more effectively upon mankind than he would in a flesh-and-blood one. Can his influence be salutary? True, in Autolycus there is humor; but though, according to my principle, humor is in general to be held a saving quality, yet the case of Autolycus is an exception; because it is his humor which, so to speak, oils his mischievousness. The bravadoing mischievousness of Autolycus is slid into the world on humor, as a pirate schooner, with colors flying, is launched into the sea on greased ways.”

“I approve of Autolycus as little as you,” said the stranger, who, during his companion’s commonplaces, had seemed less attentive to them than to maturing with in his own mind the original conceptions destined to eclipse them. “But I cannot believe that Autolycus, mischievous as he must prove upon the stage, can be near so much so as such a character as Polonius.”

“I don’t know about that,” bluntly, and yet not impolitely, returned the cosmopolitan; “to be sure, accepting your view of the old courtier, then if between him and Autolycus you raise the question of unprepossessingness, I grant you the latter comes off best. For a moist rogue may tickle the midriff, while a dry worldling may but wrinkle the spleen.”

“But Polonius is not dry,” said the other excitedly; “he drules. One sees the fly-blown old fop drule and look wise. His vile wisdom is made the viler by his vile rheuminess. The bowing and cringing, time-serving old sinner — is such an one to give manly precepts to youth? The discreet, decorous, old dotard-of-state; senile prudence; fatuous soullessness! The ribanded old dog is paralytic all down one side, and that the side of nobleness. His soul is gone out. Only nature’s automatonism keeps him on his legs. As with some old trees, the bark survives the pith, and will still stand stiffly up, though but to rim round punk, so the body of old Polonius has outlived his soul.”

“Come, come,” said the cosmopolitan with serious air, almost displeased; “though I yield to none in admiration of earnestness, yet, I think, even earnestness may have limits. To human minds, strong language is always more or less distressing. Besides, Polonius is an old man — as I remember him upon the stage — with snowy locks. Now charity requires that such a figure — think of it how you will — should at least be treated with civility. Moreover, old age is ripeness, and I once heard say, ‘Better ripe than raw.’”

“But not better rotten than raw!” bringing down his hand with energy on the table.

“Why, bless me,” in mild surprise contemplating his heated comrade, “how you fly out against this unfortunate Polonius — a being that never was, nor will be. And yet, viewed in a Christian light,” he added pensively, “I don’t know that anger against this man of straw is a whit less wise than anger against a man of flesh, Madness, to be mad with anything.”

“That may be, or may not be,” returned the other, a little testily, perhaps; “but I stick to what I said, that it is better to be raw than rotten. And what is to be feared on that head, may be known from this: that it is with the best of hearts as with the best of pears — a dangerous experiment to linger too long upon the scene. This did Polonius. Thank fortune, Frank, I am young, every tooth sound in my head, and if good wine can keep me where I am, long shall I remain so.”

“True,” with a smile. “But wine, to do good, must be drunk. You have talked much and well, Charlie; but drunk little and indifferently — fill up.”

“Presently, presently,” with a hasty and preoccupied air. “If I remember right, Polonius hints as much as that one should, under no circumstances, commit the indiscretion of aiding in a pecuniary way an unfortunate friend. He drules out some stale stuff about ‘loan losing both itself and friend,’ don’t he? But our bottle; is it glued fast? Keep it moving, my dear Frank. Good wine, and upon my soul I begin to feel it, and through me old Polonius — yes, this wine, I fear, is what excites me so against that detestable old dog without a tooth.”

Upon this, the cosmopolitan, cigar in mouth, slowly raised the bottle, and brought it slowly to the light, looking at it steadfastly, as one might at a thermometer in August, to see not how low it was, but how high. Then whiffing out a puff, set it down, and said: “Well, Charlie, if what wine you have drunk came out of this bottle, in that case I should say that if — supposing a case — that if one fellow had an object in getting another fellow fuddled, and this fellow to be fuddled was of your capacity, the operation would be comparatively inexpensive. What do you think, Charlie?”

“Why, I think I don’t much admire the supposition,” said Charlie, with a look of resentment; “it ain’t safe, depend upon it, Frank, to venture upon too jocose suppositions with one’s friends.”

“Why, bless you, Frank, my supposition wasn’t personal, but general. You mustn’t be so touchy.”

“If I am touchy it is the wine. Sometimes, when I freely drink, it has a touchy effect on me, I have observed.”

“Freely drink? you haven’t drunk the perfect measure of one glass, yet. While for me, this must be my fourth or fifth, thanks to your importunity; not to speak of all I drank this morning, for old acquaintance’ sake. Drink, drink; you must drink.”

“Oh, I drink while you are talking,” laughed the other; “you have not noticed it, but I have drunk my share. Have a queer way I learned from a sedate old uncle, who used to tip off his glass-unperceived. Do you fill up, and my glass, too. There! Now away with that stump, and have a new cigar. Good fellowship forever!” again in the lyric mood, “Say, Frank, are we not men? I say are we not human? Tell me, were they not human who engendered us, as before heaven I believe they shall be whom we shall engender? Fill up, up, up, my friend. Let the ruby tide aspire, and all ruby aspirations with it! Up, fill up! Be we convivial. And conviviality, what is it? The word, I mean; what expresses it? A living together. But bats live together, and did you ever hear of convivial bats?”

“If I ever did,” observed the cosmopolitan, “it has quite slipped my recollection.”

“But why did you never hear of convivial bats, nor anybody else? Because bats, though they live together, live not together genially. Bats are not genial souls. But men are; and how delightful to think that the word which among men signifies the highest pitch of geniality, implies, as indispensable auxiliary, the cheery benediction of the bottle. Yes, Frank, to live together in the finest sense, we must drink together. And so, what wonder that he who loves not wine, that sober wretch has a lean heart — a heart like a wrung-out old bluing-bag, and loves not his kind? Out upon him, to the rag-house with him, hang him — the ungenial soul!”

“Oh, now, now, can’t you be convivial without being censorious? I like easy, unexcited conviviality. For the sober man, really, though for my part I naturally love a cheerful glass, I will not prescribe my nature as the law to other natures. So don’t abuse the sober man. Conviviality is one good thing, and sobriety is another good thing. So don’t be one-sided.”

“Well, if I am one-sided, it is the wine. Indeed, indeed, I have indulged too genially. My excitement upon slight provocation shows it. But yours is a stronger head; drink you. By the way, talking of geniality, it is much on the increase in these days, ain’t it?”

“It is, and I hail the fact. Nothing better attests the advance of the humanitarian spirit. In former and less humanitarian ages — the ages of amphitheatres and gladiators — geniality was mostly confined to the fireside and table. But in our age — the age of joint-stock companies and free-and-easies — it is with this precious quality as with precious gold in old Peru, which Pizarro found making up the scullion’s sauce-pot as the Inca’s crown. Yes, we golden boys, the moderns, have geniality everywhere — a bounty broadcast like noonlight.”

“True, true; my sentiments again. Geniality has invaded each department and profession. We have genial senators, genial authors, genial lecturers, genial doctors, genial clergymen, genial surgeons, and the next thing we shall have genial hangmen.”

“As to the last-named sort of person,” said the cosmopolitan, “I trust that the advancing spirit of geniality will at last enable us to dispense with him. No murderers — no hangmen. And surely, when the whole world shall have been genialized, it will be as out of place to talk of murderers, as in a Christianized world to talk of sinners.”

“To pursue the thought,” said the other, “every blessing is attended with some evil, and ——”

“Stay,” said the cosmopolitan, “that may be better let pass for a loose saying, than for hopeful doctrine.”

“Well, assuming the saying’s truth, it would apply to the future supremacy of the genial spirit, since then it will fare with the hangman as it did with the weaver when the spinning-jenny whizzed into the ascendant. Thrown out of employment, what could Jack Ketch turn his hand to? Butchering?”

“That he could turn his hand to it seems probable; but that, under the circumstances, it would be appropriate, might in some minds admit of a question. For one, I am inclined to think — and I trust it will not be held fastidiousness — that it would hardly be suitable to the dignity of our nature, that an individual, once employed in attending the last hours of human unfortunates, should, that office being extinct, transfer himself to the business of attending the last hours of unfortunate cattle. I would suggest that the individual turn valet — a vocation to which he would, perhaps, appear not wholly inadapted by his familiar dexterity about the person. In particular, for giving a finishing tie to a gentleman’s cravat, I know few who would, in all likelihood, be, from previous occupation, better fitted than the professional person in question.”

“Are you in earnest?” regarding the serene speaker with unaffected curiosity; “are you really in earnest?”

“I trust I am never otherwise,” was the mildly earnest reply; “but talking of the advance of geniality, I am not without hopes that it will eventually exert its influence even upon so difficult a subject as the misanthrope.”

“A genial misanthrope! I thought I had stretched the rope pretty hard in talking of genial hangmen. A genial misanthrope is no more conceivable than a surly philanthropist.”

“True,” lightly depositing in an unbroken little cylinder the ashes of his cigar, “true, the two you name are well opposed.”

“Why, you talk as if there was such a being as a surly philanthropist.”

“I do. My eccentric friend, whom you call Coonskins, is an example. Does he not, as I explained to you, hide under a surly air a philanthropic heart? Now, the genial misanthrope, when, in the process of eras, he shall turn up, will be the converse of this; under an affable air, he will hide a misanthropical heart. In short, the genial misanthrope will be a new kind of monster, but still no small improvement upon the original one, since, instead of making faces and throwing stones at people, like that poor old crazy man, Timon, he will take steps, fiddle in hand, and set the tickled world a’dancing. In a word, as the progress of Christianization mellows those in manner whom it cannot mend in mind, much the same will it prove with the progress of genialization. And so, thanks to geniality, the misanthrope, reclaimed from his boorish address, will take on refinement and softness — to so genial a degree, indeed, that it may possibly fall out that the misanthrope of the coming century will be almost as popular as, I am sincerely sorry to say, some philanthropists of the present time would seem not to be, as witness my eccentric friend named before.”

“Well,” cried the other, a little weary, perhaps, of a speculation so abstract, “well, however it may be with the century to come, certainly in the century which is, whatever else one may be, he must be genial or he is nothing. So fill up, fill up, and be genial!”

“I am trying my best,” said the cosmopolitan, still calmly companionable. “A moment since, we talked of Pizarro, gold, and Peru; no doubt, now, you remember that when the Spaniard first entered Atahalpa’s treasure-chamber, and saw such profusion of plate stacked up, right and left, with the wantonness of old barrels in a brewer’s yard, the needy fellow felt a twinge of misgiving, of want of confidence, as to the genuineness of an opulence so profuse. He went about rapping the shining vases with his knuckles. But it was all gold, pure gold, good gold, sterling gold, which how cheerfully would have been stamped such at Goldsmiths’ Hall. And just so those needy minds, which, through their own insincerity, having no confidence in mankind, doubt lest the liberal geniality of this age be spurious. They are small Pizarros in their way — by the very princeliness of men’s geniality stunned into distrust of it.”

“Far be such distrust from you and me, my genial friend,” cried the other fervently; “fill up, fill up!”

“Well, this all along seems a division of labor,” smiled the cosmopolitan. “I do about all the drinking, and you do about all — the genial. But yours is a nature competent to do that to a large population. And now, my friend,” with a peculiarly grave air, evidently foreshadowing something not unimportant, and very likely of close personal interest; “wine, you know, opens the heart, and ——”

“Opens it!” with exultation, “it thaws it right out. Every heart is ice-bound till wine melt it, and reveal the tender grass and sweet herbage budding below, with every dear secret, hidden before like a dropped jewel in a snow-bank, lying there unsuspected through winter till spring.”

“And just in that way, my dear Charlie, is one of my little secrets now to be shown forth.”

“Ah!” eagerly moving round his chair, “what is it?”

“Be not so impetuous, my dear Charlie. Let me explain. You see, naturally, I am a man not overgifted with assurance; in general, I am, if anything, diffidently reserved; so, if I shall presently seem otherwise, the reason is, that you, by the geniality you have evinced in all your talk, and especially the noble way in which, while affirming your good opinion of men, you intimated that you never could prove false to any man, but most by your indignation at a particularly illiberal passage in Polonius’ advice — in short, in short,” with extreme embarrassment, “how shall I express what I mean, unless I add that by your whole character you impel me to throw myself upon your nobleness; in one word, put confidence in you, a generous confidence?”

“I see, I see,” with heightened interest, “something of moment you wish to confide. Now, what is it, Frank? Love affair?”

“No, not that.”

“What, then, my dear Frank? Speak — depend upon me to the last. Out with it.”

“Out it shall come, then,” said the cosmopolitan. “I am in want, urgent want, of money.”

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