The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xliii

Very Charming.

“So you are a philanthropist, sir,” added the barber with an illuminated look; “that accounts, then, for all. Very odd sort of man the philanthropist. You are the second one, sir, I have seen. Very odd sort of man, indeed, the philanthropist. Ah, sir,” again meditatively stirring in the shaving-cup, “I sadly fear, lest you philanthropists know better what goodness is, than what men are.” Then, eying him as if he were some strange creature behind cage-bars, “So you are a philanthropist, sir.”

“I am Philanthropos, and love mankind. And, what is more than you do, barber, I trust them.”

Here the barber, casually recalled to his business, would have replenished his shaving-cup, but finding now that on his last visit to the water-vessel he had not replaced it over the lamp, he did so now; and, while waiting for it to heat again, became almost as sociable as if the heating water were meant for whisky-punch; and almost as pleasantly garrulous as the pleasant barbers in romances.

“Sir,” said he, taking a throne beside his customer (for in a row there were three thrones on the dais, as for the three kings of Cologne, those patron saints of the barber), “sir, you say you trust men. Well, I suppose I might share some of your trust, were it not for this trade, that I follow, too much letting me in behind the scenes.”

“I think I understand,” with a saddened look; “and much the same thing I have heard from persons in pursuits different from yours — from the lawyer, from the congressman, from the editor, not to mention others, each, with a strange kind of melancholy vanity, claiming for his vocation the distinction of affording the surest inlets to the conviction that man is no better than he should be. All of which testimony, if reliable, would, by mutual corroboration, justify some disturbance in a good man’s mind. But no, no; it is a mistake — all a mistake.”

“True, sir, very true,” assented the barber.

“Glad to hear that,” brightening up.

“Not so fast, sir,” said the barber; “I agree with you in thinking that the lawyer, and the congressman, and the editor, are in error, but only in so far as each claims peculiar facilities for the sort of knowledge in question; because, you see, sir, the truth is, that every trade or pursuit which brings one into contact with the facts, sir, such trade or pursuit is equally an avenue to those facts.”

How exactly is that?”

“Why, sir, in my opinion — and for the last twenty years I have, at odd times, turned the matter over some in my mind — he who comes to know man, will not remain in ignorance of man. I think I am not rash in saying that; am I, sir?”

“Barber, you talk like an oracle — obscurely, barber, obscurely.”

“Well, sir,” with some self-complacency, “the barber has always been held an oracle, but as for the obscurity, that I don’t admit.”

“But pray, now, by your account, what precisely may be this mysterious knowledge gained in your trade? I grant you, indeed, as before hinted, that your trade, imposing on you the necessity of functionally tweaking the noses of mankind, is, in that respect, unfortunate, very much so; nevertheless, a well-regulated imagination should be proof even to such a provocation to improper conceits. But what I want to learn from you, barber, is, how does the mere handling of the outside of men’s heads lead you to distrust the inside of their hearts?

“What, sir, to say nothing more, can one be forever dealing in macassar oil, hair dyes, cosmetics, false moustaches, wigs, and toupees, and still believe that men are wholly what they look to be? What think you, sir, are a thoughtful barber’s reflections, when, behind a careful curtain, he shaves the thin, dead stubble off a head, and then dismisses it to the world, radiant in curling auburn? To contrast the shamefaced air behind the curtain, the fearful looking forward to being possibly discovered there by a prying acquaintance, with the cheerful assurance and challenging pride with which the same man steps forth again, a gay deception, into the street, while some honest, shock-headed fellow humbly gives him the wall! Ah, sir, they may talk of the courage of truth, but my trade teaches me that truth sometimes is sheepish. Lies, lies, sir, brave lies are the lions!”

“You twist the moral, barber; you sadly twist it. Look, now; take it this way: A modest man thrust out naked into the street, would he not be abashed? Take him in and clothe him; would not his confidence be restored? And in either case, is any reproach involved? Now, what is true of the whole, holds proportionably true of the part. The bald head is a nakedness which the wig is a coat to. To feel uneasy at the possibility of the exposure of one’s nakedness at top, and to feel comforted by the consciousness of having it clothed — these feelings, instead of being dishonorable to a bold man, do, in fact, but attest a proper respect for himself and his fellows. And as for the deception, you may as well call the fine roof of a fine chateau a deception, since, like a fine wig, it also is an artificial cover to the head, and equally, in the common eye, decorates the wearer. — I have confuted you, my dear barber; I have confounded you.”

“Pardon,” said the barber, “but I do not see that you have. His coat and his roof no man pretends to palm off as a part of himself, but the bald man palms off hair, not his, for his own.”

“Not his, barber? If he have fairly purchased his hair, the law will protect him in its ownership, even against the claims of the head on which it grew. But it cannot be that you believe what you say, barber; you talk merely for the humor. I could not think so of you as to suppose that you would contentedly deal in the impostures you condemn.”

“Ah, sir, I must live.”

“And can’t you do that without sinning against your conscience, as you believe? Take up some other calling.”

“Wouldn’t mend the matter much, sir.”

“Do you think, then, barber, that, in a certain point, all the trades and callings of men are much on a par? Fatal, indeed,” raising his hand, “inexpressibly dreadful, the trade of the barber, if to such conclusions it necessarily leads. Barber,” eying him not without emotion, “you appear to me not so much a misbeliever, as a man misled. Now, let me set you on the right track; let me restore you to trust in human nature, and by no other means than the very trade that has brought you to suspect it.”

“You mean, sir, you would have me try the experiment of taking down that notification,” again pointing to it with his brush; “but, dear me, while I sit chatting here, the water boils over.”

With which words, and such a well-pleased, sly, snug, expression, as they say some men have when they think their little stratagem has succeeded, he hurried to the copper vessel, and soon had his cup foaming up with white bubbles, as if it were a mug of new ale.

Meantime, the other would have fain gone on with the discourse; but the cunning barber lathered him with so generous a brush, so piled up the foam on him, that his face looked like the yeasty crest of a billow, and vain to think of talking under it, as for a drowning priest in the sea to exhort his fellow-sinners on a raft. Nothing would do, but he must keep his mouth shut. Doubtless, the interval was not, in a meditative way, unimproved; for, upon the traces of the operation being at last removed, the cosmopolitan rose, and, for added refreshment, washed his face and hands; and having generally readjusted himself, began, at last, addressing the barber in a manner different, singularly so, from his previous one. Hard to say exactly what the manner was, any more than to hint it was a sort of magical; in a benign way, not wholly unlike the manner, fabled or otherwise, of certain creatures in nature, which have the power of persuasive fascination — the power of holding another creature by the button of the eye, as it were, despite the serious disinclination, and, indeed, earnest protest, of the victim. With this manner the conclusion of the matter was not out of keeping; for, in the end, all argument and expostulation proved vain, the barber being irresistibly persuaded to agree to try, for the remainder of the present trip, the experiment of trusting men, as both phrased it. True, to save his credit as a free agent, he was loud in averring that it was only for the novelty of the thing that he so agreed, and he required the other, as before volunteered, to go security to him against any loss that might ensue; but still the fact remained, that he engaged to trust men, a thing he had before said he would not do, at least not unreservedly. Still the more to save his credit, he now insisted upon it, as a last point, that the agreement should be put in black and white, especially the security part. The other made no demur; pen, ink, and paper were provided, and grave as any notary the cosmopolitan sat down, but, ere taking the pen, glanced up at the notification, and said: “First down with that sign, barber — Timon’s sign, there; down with it.”

This, being in the agreement, was done — though a little reluctantly — with an eye to the future, the sign being carefully put away in a drawer.

“Now, then, for the writing,” said the cosmopolitan, squaring himself. “Ah,” with a sigh, “I shall make a poor lawyer, I fear. Ain’t used, you see, barber, to a business which, ignoring the principle of honor, holds no nail fast till clinched. Strange, barber,” taking up the blank paper, “that such flimsy stuff as this should make such strong hawsers; vile hawsers, too. Barber,” starting up, “I won’t put it in black and white. It were a reflection upon our joint honor. I will take your word, and you shall take mine.”

“But your memory may be none of the best, sir. Well for you, on your side, to have it in black and white, just for a memorandum like, you know.”

“That, indeed! Yes, and it would help your memory, too, wouldn’t it, barber? Yours, on your side, being a little weak, too, I dare say. Ah, barber! how ingenious we human beings are; and how kindly we reciprocate each other’s little delicacies, don’t we? What better proof, now, that we are kind, considerate fellows, with responsive fellow-feelings — eh, barber? But to business. Let me see. What’s your name, barber?”

“William Cream, sir.”

Pondering a moment, he began to write; and, after some corrections, leaned back, and read aloud the following:

“AGREEMENT
Between
FRANK GOODMAN, Philanthropist, and Citizen of the World,
and
WILLIAM CREAM, Barber of the Mississippi steamer, Fidèle.

“The first hereby agrees to make good to the last any loss that may come from his trusting mankind, in the way of his vocation, for the residue of the present trip; PROVIDED that William Cream keep out of sight, for the given term, his notification of NO TRUST, and by no other mode convey any, the least hint or intimation, tending to discourage men from soliciting trust from him, in the way of his vocation, for the time above specified; but, on the contrary, he do, by all proper and reasonable words, gestures, manners, and looks, evince a perfect confidence in all men, especially strangers; otherwise, this agreement to be void.

“Done, in good faith, this 1st day of April 18 — at a quarter to twelve o’clock, P. M., in the shop of said William Cream, on board the said boat, Fidèle.”

“There, barber; will that do?”

“That will do,” said the barber, “only now put down your name.”

Both signatures being affixed, the question was started by the barber, who should have custody of the instrument; which point, however, he settled for himself, by proposing that both should go together to the captain, and give the document into his hands — the barber hinting that this would be a safe proceeding, because the captain was necessarily a party disinterested, and, what was more, could not, from the nature of the present case, make anything by a breach of trust. All of which was listened to with some surprise and concern.

“Why, barber,” said the cosmopolitan, “this don’t show the right spirit; for me, I have confidence in the captain purely because he is a man; but he shall have nothing to do with our affair; for if you have no confidence in me, barber, I have in you. There, keep the paper yourself,” handing it magnanimously.

“Very good,” said the barber, “and now nothing remains but for me to receive the cash.”

Though the mention of that word, or any of its singularly numerous equivalents, in serious neighborhood to a requisition upon one’s purse, is attended with a more or less noteworthy effect upon the human countenance, producing in many an abrupt fall of it — in others, a writhing and screwing up of the features to a point not undistressing to behold, in some, attended with a blank pallor and fatal consternation — yet no trace of any of these symptoms was visible upon the countenance of the cosmopolitan, notwithstanding nothing could be more sudden and unexpected than the barber’s demand.

“You speak of cash, barber; pray in what connection?”

“In a nearer one, sir,” answered the barber, less blandly, “than I thought the man with the sweet voice stood, who wanted me to trust him once for a shave, on the score of being a sort of thirteenth cousin.”

“Indeed, and what did you say to him?”

“I said, ‘Thank you, sir, but I don’t see the connection,’”

“How could you so unsweetly answer one with a sweet voice?”

“Because, I recalled what the son of Sirach says in the True Book: ‘An enemy speaketh sweetly with his lips;’ and so I did what the son of Sirach advises in such cases: ‘I believed not his many words.’”

“What, barber, do you say that such cynical sort of things are in the True Book, by which, of course, you mean the Bible?”

“Yes, and plenty more to the same effect. Read the Book of Proverbs.”

“That’s strange, now, barber; for I never happen to have met with those passages you cite. Before I go to bed this night, I’ll inspect the Bible I saw on the cabin-table, today. But mind, you mustn’t quote the True Book that way to people coming in here; it would be impliedly a violation of the contract. But you don’t know how glad I feel that you have for one while signed off all that sort of thing.”

“No, sir; not unless you down with the cash.”

“Cash again! What do you mean?”

“Why, in this paper here, you engage, sir, to insure me against a certain loss, and ——”

“Certain? Is it so certain you are going to lose?”

“Why, that way of taking the word may not be amiss, but I didn’t mean it so. I meant a certain loss; you understand, a CERTAIN loss; that is to say, a certain loss. Now then, sir, what use your mere writing and saying you will insure me, unless beforehand you place in my hands a money-pledge, sufficient to that end?”

“I see; the material pledge.”

“Yes, and I will put it low; say fifty dollars.”

“Now what sort of a beginning is this? You, barber, for a given time engage to trust man, to put confidence in men, and, for your first step, make a demand implying no confidence in the very man you engage with. But fifty dollars is nothing, and I would let you have it cheerfully, only I unfortunately happen to have but little change with me just now.”

“But you have money in your trunk, though?”

“To be sure. But you see — in fact, barber, you must be consistent. No, I won’t let you have the money now; I won’t let you violate the inmost spirit of our contract, that way. So good-night, and I will see you again.”

“Stay, sir”— humming and hawing —“you have forgotten something.”

“Handkerchief? — gloves? No, forgotten nothing. Good-night.”

“Stay, sir — the — the shaving.”

“Ah, I did forget that. But now that it strikes me, I shan’t pay you at present. Look at your agreement; you must trust. Tut! against loss you hold the guarantee. Good-night, my dear barber.”

With which words he sauntered off, leaving the barber in a maze, staring after.

But it holding true in fascination as in natural philosophy, that nothing can act where it is not, so the barber was not long now in being restored to his self-possession and senses; the first evidence of which perhaps was, that, drawing forth his notification from the drawer, he put it back where it belonged; while, as for the agreement, that he tore up; which he felt the more free to do from the impression that in all human probability he would never again see the person who had drawn it. Whether that impression proved well-founded or not, does not appear. But in after days, telling the night’s adventure to his friends, the worthy barber always spoke of his queer customer as the man-charmer — as certain East Indians are called snake-charmers — and all his friends united in thinking him QUITE AN ORIGINAL.

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