The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xxxvii

The Mystical Master Introduces the Practical Disciple.

“Both, the subject and the interlocutor,” replied the stranger rising, and waiting the return towards him of a promenader, that moment turning at the further end of his walk.

“Egbert!” said he, calling.

Egbert, a well-dressed, commercial-looking gentleman of about thirty, responded in a way strikingly deferential, and in a moment stood near, in the attitude less of an equal companion apparently than a confidential follower.

“This,” said the stranger, taking Egbert by the hand and leading him to the cosmopolitan, “this is Egbert, a disciple. I wish you to know Egbert. Egbert was the first among mankind to reduce to practice the principles of Mark Winsome — principles previously accounted as less adapted to life than the closet. Egbert,” turning to the disciple, who, with seeming modesty, a little shrank under these compliments, “Egbert, this,” with a salute towards the cosmopolitan, “is, like all of us, a stranger. I wish you, Egbert, to know this brother stranger; be communicative with him. Particularly if, by anything hitherto dropped, his curiosity has been roused as to the precise nature of my philosophy, I trust you will not leave such curiosity ungratified. You, Egbert, by simply setting forth your practice, can do more to enlighten one as to my theory, than I myself can by mere speech. Indeed, it is by you that I myself best understand myself. For to every philosophy are certain rear parts, very important parts, and these, like the rear of one’s head, are best seen by reflection. Now, as in a glass, you, Egbert, in your life, reflect to me the more important part of my system. He, who approves you, approves the philosophy of Mark Winsome.”

Though portions of this harangue may, perhaps, in the phraseology seem self-complaisant, yet no trace of self-complacency was perceptible in the speaker’s manner, which throughout was plain, unassuming, dignified, and manly; the teacher and prophet seemed to lurk more in the idea, so to speak, than in the mere bearing of him who was the vehicle of it.

“Sir,” said the cosmopolitan, who seemed not a little interested in this new aspect of matters, “you speak of a certain philosophy, and a more or less occult one it may be, and hint of its bearing upon practical life; pray, tell me, if the study of this philosophy tends to the same formation of character with the experiences of the world?”

“It does; and that is the test of its truth; for any philosophy that, being in operation contradictory to the ways of the world, tends to produce a character at odds with it, such a philosophy must necessarily be but a cheat and a dream.”

“You a little surprise me,” answered the cosmopolitan; “for, from an occasional profundity in you, and also from your allusions to a profound work on the theology of Plato, it would seem but natural to surmise that, if you are the originator of any philosophy, it must needs so partake of the abstruse, as to exalt it above the comparatively vile uses of life.”

“No uncommon mistake with regard to me,” rejoined the other. Then meekly standing like a Raphael: “If still in golden accents old Memnon murmurs his riddle, none the less does the balance-sheet of every man’s ledger unriddle the profit or loss of life. Sir,” with calm energy, “man came into this world, not to sit down and muse, not to befog himself with vain subtleties, but to gird up his loins and to work. Mystery is in the morning, and mystery in the night, and the beauty of mystery is everywhere; but still the plain truth remains, that mouth and purse must be filled. If, hitherto, you have supposed me a visionary, be undeceived. I am no one-ideaed one, either; no more than the seers before me. Was not Seneca a usurer? Bacon a courtier? and Swedenborg, though with one eye on the invisible, did he not keep the other on the main chance? Along with whatever else it may be given me to be, I am a man of serviceable knowledge, and a man of the world. Know me for such. And as for my disciple here,” turning towards him, “if you look to find any soft Utopianisms and last year’s sunsets in him, I smile to think how he will set you right. The doctrines I have taught him will, I trust, lead him neither to the mad-house nor the poor-house, as so many other doctrines have served credulous sticklers. Furthermore,” glancing upon him paternally, “Egbert is both my disciple and my poet. For poetry is not a thing of ink and rhyme, but of thought and act, and, in the latter way, is by any one to be found anywhere, when in useful action sought. In a word, my disciple here is a thriving young merchant, a practical poet in the West India trade. There,” presenting Egbert’s hand to the cosmopolitan, “I join you, and leave you.” With which words, and without bowing, the master withdrew.

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