The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xxxvi.

In which the Cosmopolitan is Accosted by a Mystic, Whereupon Ensues Pretty Much Such Talk as Might Be Expected.

As, not without some haste, the boon companion withdrew, a stranger advanced, and touching the cosmopolitan, said: “I think I heard you say you would see that man again. Be warned; don’t you do so.”

He turned, surveying the speaker; a blue-eyed man, sandy-haired, and Saxon-looking; perhaps five and forty; tall, and, but for a certain angularity, well made; little touch of the drawing-room about him, but a look of plain propriety of a Puritan sort, with a kind of farmer dignity. His age seemed betokened more by his brow, placidly thoughtful, than by his general aspect, which had that look of youthfulness in maturity, peculiar sometimes to habitual health of body, the original gift of nature, or in part the effect or reward of steady temperance of the passions, kept so, perhaps, by constitution as much as morality. A neat, comely, almost ruddy cheek, coolly fresh, like a red clover-blossom at coolish dawn — the color of warmth preserved by the virtue of chill. Toning the whole man, was one-knows-not-what of shrewdness and mythiness, strangely jumbled; in that way, he seemed a kind of cross between a Yankee peddler and a Tartar priest, though it seemed as if, at a pinch, the first would not in all probability play second fiddle to the last.

“Sir,” said the cosmopolitan, rising and bowing with slow dignity, “if I cannot with unmixed satisfaction hail a hint pointed at one who has just been clinking the social glass with me, on the other hand, I am not disposed to underrate the motive which, in the present case, could alone have prompted such an intimation. My friend, whose seat is still warm, has retired for the night, leaving more or less in his bottle here. Pray, sit down in his seat, and partake with me; and then, if you choose to hint aught further unfavorable to the man, the genial warmth of whose person in part passes into yours, and whose genial hospitality meanders through you — be it so.”

“Quite beautiful conceits,” said the stranger, now scholastically and artistically eying the picturesque speaker, as if he were a statue in the Pitti Palace; “very beautiful:” then with the gravest interest, “yours, sir, if I mistake not, must be a beautiful soul — one full of all love and truth; for where beauty is, there must those be.”

“A pleasing belief,” rejoined the cosmopolitan, beginning with an even air, “and to confess, long ago it pleased me. Yes, with you and Schiller, I am pleased to believe that beauty is at bottom incompatible with ill, and therefore am so eccentric as to have confidence in the latent benignity of that beautiful creature, the rattle-snake, whose lithe neck and burnished maze of tawny gold, as he sleekly curls aloft in the sun, who on the prairie can behold without wonder?”

As he breathed these words, he seemed so to enter into their spirit — as some earnest descriptive speakers will — as unconsciously to wreathe his form and sidelong crest his head, till he all but seemed the creature described. Meantime, the stranger regarded him with little surprise, apparently, though with much contemplativeness of a mystical sort, and presently said:

“When charmed by the beauty of that viper, did it never occur to you to change personalities with him? to feel what it was to be a snake? to glide unsuspected in grass? to sting, to kill at a touch; your whole beautiful body one iridescent scabbard of death? In short, did the wish never occur to you to feel yourself exempt from knowledge, and conscience, and revel for a while in the carefree, joyous life of a perfectly instinctive, unscrupulous, and irresponsible creature?”

“Such a wish,” replied the other, not perceptibly disturbed, “I must confess, never consciously was mine. Such a wish, indeed, could hardly occur to ordinary imaginations, and mine I cannot think much above the average.”

“But now that the idea is suggested,” said the stranger, with infantile intellectuality, “does it not raise the desire?”

“Hardly. For though I do not think I have any uncharitable prejudice against the rattle-snake, still, I should not like to be one. If I were a rattle-snake now, there would be no such thing as being genial with men — men would be afraid of me, and then I should be a very lonesome and miserable rattle-snake.”

“True, men would be afraid of you. And why? Because of your rattle, your hollow rattle — a sound, as I have been told, like the shaking together of small, dry skulls in a tune of the Waltz of Death. And here we have another beautiful truth. When any creature is by its make inimical to other creatures, nature in effect labels that creature, much as an apothecary does a poison. So that whoever is destroyed by a rattle-snake, or other harmful agent, it is his own fault. He should have respected the label. Hence that significant passage in Scripture, ‘Who will pity the charmer that is bitten with a serpent?’”

I would pity him,” said the cosmopolitan, a little bluntly, perhaps.

“But don’t you think,” rejoined the other, still maintaining his passionless air, “don’t you think, that for a man to pity where nature is pitiless, is a little presuming?”

“Let casuists decide the casuistry, but the compassion the heart decides for itself. But, sir,” deepening in seriousness, “as I now for the first realize, you but a moment since introduced the word irresponsible in a way I am not used to. Now, sir, though, out of a tolerant spirit, as I hope, I try my best never to be frightened at any speculation, so long as it is pursued in honesty, yet, for once, I must acknowledge that you do really, in the point cited, cause me uneasiness; because a proper view of the universe, that view which is suited to breed a proper confidence, teaches, if I err not, that since all things are justly presided over, not very many living agents but must be some way accountable.”

“Is a rattle-snake accountable?” asked the stranger with such a preternaturally cold, gemmy glance out of his pellucid blue eye, that he seemed more a metaphysical merman than a feeling man; “is a rattle-snake accountable?”

“If I will not affirm that it is,” returned the other, with the caution of no inexperienced thinker, “neither will I deny it. But if we suppose it so, I need not say that such accountability is neither to you, nor me, nor the Court of Common Pleas, but to something superior.”

He was proceeding, when the stranger would have interrupted him; but as reading his argument in his eye, the cosmopolitan, without waiting for it to be put into words, at once spoke to it: “You object to my supposition, for but such it is, that the rattle-snake’s accountability is not by nature manifest; but might not much the same thing be urged against man’s? A reductio ad absurdum, proving the objection vain. But if now,” he continued, “you consider what capacity for mischief there is in a rattle-snake (observe, I do not charge it with being mischievous, I but say it has the capacity), could you well avoid admitting that that would be no symmetrical view of the universe which should maintain that, while to man it is forbidden to kill, without judicial cause, his fellow, yet the rattle-snake has an implied permit of unaccountability to murder any creature it takes capricious umbrage at — man included? — But,” with a wearied air, “this is no genial talk; at least it is not so to me. Zeal at unawares embarked me in it. I regret it. Pray, sit down, and take some of this wine.”

“Your suggestions are new to me,” said the other, with a kind of condescending appreciativeness, as of one who, out of devotion to knowledge, disdains not to appropriate the least crumb of it, even from a pauper’s board; “and, as I am a very Athenian in hailing a new thought, I cannot consent to let it drop so abruptly. Now, the rattle-snake ——”

“Nothing more about rattle-snakes, I beseech,” in distress; “I must positively decline to reenter upon that subject. Sit down, sir, I beg, and take some of this wine.”

“To invite me to sit down with you is hospitable,” collectedly acquiescing now in the change of topics; “and hospitality being fabled to be of oriental origin, and forming, as it does, the subject of a pleasing Arabian romance, as well as being a very romantic thing in itself — hence I always hear the expressions of hospitality with pleasure. But, as for the wine, my regard for that beverage is so extreme, and I am so fearful of letting it sate me, that I keep my love for it in the lasting condition of an untried abstraction. Briefly, I quaff immense draughts of wine from the page of Hafiz, but wine from a cup I seldom as much as sip.”

The cosmopolitan turned a mild glance upon the speaker, who, now occupying the chair opposite him, sat there purely and coldly radiant as a prism. It seemed as if one could almost hear him vitreously chime and ring. That moment a waiter passed, whom, arresting with a sign, the cosmopolitan bid go bring a goblet of ice-water. “Ice it well, waiter,” said he; “and now,” turning to the stranger, “will you, if you please, give me your reason for the warning words you first addressed to me?”

“I hope they were not such warnings as most warnings are,” said the stranger; “warnings which do not forewarn, but in mockery come after the fact. And yet something in you bids me think now, that whatever latent design your impostor friend might have had upon you, it as yet remains unaccomplished. You read his label.”

“And what did it say? ‘This is a genial soul,’ So you see you must either give up your doctrine of labels, or else your prejudice against my friend. But tell me,” with renewed earnestness, “what do you take him for? What is he?”

“What are you? What am I? Nobody knows who anybody is. The data which life furnishes, towards forming a true estimate of any being, are as insufficient to that end as in geometry one side given would be to determine the triangle.”

“But is not this doctrine of triangles someway inconsistent with your doctrine of labels?”

“Yes; but what of that? I seldom care to be consistent. In a philosophical view, consistency is a certain level at all times, maintained in all the thoughts of one’s mind. But, since nature is nearly all hill and dale, how can one keep naturally advancing in knowledge without submitting to the natural inequalities in the progress? Advance into knowledge is just like advance upon the grand Erie canal, where, from the character of the country, change of level is inevitable; you are locked up and locked down with perpetual inconsistencies, and yet all the time you get on; while the dullest part of the whole route is what the boatmen call the ‘long level’— a consistently-flat surface of sixty miles through stagnant swamps.”

“In one particular,” rejoined the cosmopolitan, “your simile is, perhaps, unfortunate. For, after all these weary lockings-up and lockings-down, upon how much of a higher plain do you finally stand? Enough to make it an object? Having from youth been taught reverence for knowledge, you must pardon me if, on but this one account, I reject your analogy. But really you someway bewitch me with your tempting discourse, so that I keep straying from my point unawares. You tell me you cannot certainly know who or what my friend is; pray, what do you conjecture him to be?”

“I conjecture him to be what, among the ancient Egyptians, was called a ——” using some unknown word.

“A——! And what is that?”

“A—— is what Proclus, in a little note to his third book on the theology of Plato, defines as ————” coming out with a sentence of Greek.

Holding up his glass, and steadily looking through its transparency, the cosmopolitan rejoined: “That, in so defining the thing, Proclus set it to modern understandings in the most crystal light it was susceptible of, I will not rashly deny; still, if you could put the definition in words suited to perceptions like mine, I should take it for a favor.

“A favor!” slightly lifting his cool eyebrows; “a bridal favor I understand, a knot of white ribands, a very beautiful type of the purity of true marriage; but of other favors I am yet to learn; and still, in a vague way, the word, as you employ it, strikes me as unpleasingly significant in general of some poor, unheroic submission to being done good to.”

Here the goblet of iced-water was brought, and, in compliance with a sign from the cosmopolitan, was placed before the stranger, who, not before expressing acknowledgments, took a draught, apparently refreshing — its very coldness, as with some is the case, proving not entirely uncongenial.

At last, setting down the goblet, and gently wiping from his lips the beads of water freshly clinging there as to the valve of a coral-shell upon a reef, he turned upon the cosmopolitan, and, in a manner the most cool, self-possessed, and matter-of-fact possible, said: “I hold to the metempsychosis; and whoever I may be now, I feel that I was once the stoic Arrian, and have inklings of having been equally puzzled by a word in the current language of that former time, very probably answering to your word favor.”

“Would you favor me by explaining?” said the cosmopolitan, blandly.

“Sir,” responded the stranger, with a very slight degree of severity, “I like lucidity, of all things, and am afraid I shall hardly be able to converse satisfactorily with you, unless you bear it in mind.”

The cosmopolitan ruminatingly eyed him awhile, then said: “The best way, as I have heard, to get out of a labyrinth, is to retrace one’s steps. I will accordingly retrace mine, and beg you will accompany me. In short, once again to return to the point: for what reason did you warn me against my friend?”

“Briefly, then, and clearly, because, as before said, I conjecture him to be what, among the ancient Egyptians ——”

“Pray, now,” earnestly deprecated the cosmopolitan, “pray, now, why disturb the repose of those ancient Egyptians? What to us are their words or their thoughts? Are we pauper Arabs, without a house of our own, that, with the mummies, we must turn squatters among the dust of the Catacombs?”

“Pharaoh’s poorest brick-maker lies proudlier in his rags than the Emperor of all the Russias in his hollands,” oracularly said the stranger; “for death, though in a worm, is majestic; while life, though in a king, is contemptible. So talk not against mummies. It is a part of my mission to teach mankind a due reverence for mummies.”

Fortunately, to arrest these incoherencies, or rather, to vary them, a haggard, inspired-looking man now approached — a crazy beggar, asking alms under the form of peddling a rhapsodical tract, composed by himself, and setting forth his claims to some rhapsodical apostleship. Though ragged and dirty, there was about him no touch of vulgarity; for, by nature, his manner was not unrefined, his frame slender, and appeared the more so from the broad, untanned frontlet of his brow, tangled over with a disheveled mass of raven curls, throwing a still deeper tinge upon a complexion like that of a shriveled berry. Nothing could exceed his look of picturesque Italian ruin and dethronement, heightened by what seemed just one glimmering peep of reason, insufficient to do him any lasting good, but enough, perhaps, to suggest a torment of latent doubts at times, whether his addled dream of glory were true.

Accepting the tract offered him, the cosmopolitan glanced over it, and, seeming to see just what it was, closed it, put it in his pocket, eyed the man a moment, then, leaning over and presenting him with a shilling, said to him, in tones kind and considerate: “I am sorry, my friend, that I happen to be engaged just now; but, having purchased your work, I promise myself much satisfaction in its perusal at my earliest leisure.”

In his tattered, single-breasted frock-coat, buttoned meagerly up to his chin, the shutter-brain made him a bow, which, for courtesy, would not have misbecome a viscount, then turned with silent appeal to the stranger. But the stranger sat more like a cold prism than ever, while an expression of keen Yankee cuteness, now replacing his former mystical one, lent added icicles to his aspect. His whole air said: “Nothing from me.” The repulsed petitioner threw a look full of resentful pride and cracked disdain upon him, and went his way.

“Come, now,” said the cosmopolitan, a little reproachfully, “you ought to have sympathized with that man; tell me, did you feel no fellow-feeling? Look at his tract here, quite in the transcendental vein.”

“Excuse me,” said the stranger, declining the tract, “I never patronize scoundrels.”


“I detected in him, sir, a damning peep of sense — damning, I say; for sense in a seeming madman is scoundrelism. I take him for a cunning vagabond, who picks up a vagabond living by adroitly playing the madman. Did you not remark how he flinched under my eye?’

“Really?” drawing a long, astonished breath, “I could hardly have divined in you a temper so subtlely distrustful. Flinched? to be sure he did, poor fellow; you received him with so lame a welcome. As for his adroitly playing the madman, invidious critics might object the same to some one or two strolling magi of these days. But that is a matter I know nothing about. But, once more, and for the last time, to return to the point: why sir, did you warn me against my friend? I shall rejoice, if, as I think it will prove, your want of confidence in my friend rests upon a basis equally slender with your distrust of the lunatic. Come, why did you warn me? Put it, I beseech, in few words, and those English.”

“I warned you against him because he is suspected for what on these boats is known — so they tell me — as a Mississippi operator.”

“An operator, ah? he operates, does he? My friend, then, is something like what the Indians call a Great Medicine, is he? He operates, he purges, he drains off the repletions.”

“I perceive, sir,” said the stranger, constitutionally obtuse to the pleasant drollery, “that your notion, of what is called a Great Medicine, needs correction. The Great Medicine among the Indians is less a bolus than a man in grave esteem for his politic sagacity.”

“And is not my friend politic? Is not my friend sagacious? By your own definition, is not my friend a Great Medicine?”

“No, he is an operator, a Mississippi operator; an equivocal character. That he is such, I little doubt, having had him pointed out to me as such by one desirous of initiating me into any little novelty of this western region, where I never before traveled. And, sir, if I am not mistaken, you also are a stranger here (but, indeed, where in this strange universe is not one a stranger?) and that is a reason why I felt moved to warn you against a companion who could not be otherwise than perilous to one of a free and trustful disposition. But I repeat the hope, that, thus far at least, he has not succeeded with you, and trust that, for the future, he will not.”

“Thank you for your concern; but hardly can I equally thank you for so steadily maintaining the hypothesis of my friend’s objectionableness. True, I but made his acquaintance for the first today, and know little of his antecedents; but that would seem no just reason why a nature like his should not of itself inspire confidence. And since your own knowledge of the gentleman is not, by your account, so exact as it might be, you will pardon me if I decline to welcome any further suggestions unflattering to him. Indeed, sir,” with friendly decision, “let us change the subject.”

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