The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xlv.

The Cosmopolitan Increases in Seriousness.

In the middle of the gentleman’s cabin burned a solar lamp, swung from the ceiling, and whose shade of ground glass was all round fancifully variegated, in transparency, with the image of a horned altar, from which flames rose, alternate with the figure of a robed man, his head encircled by a halo. The light of this lamp, after dazzlingly striking on marble, snow-white and round — the slab of a centre-table beneath — on all sides went rippling off with ever-diminishing distinctness, till, like circles from a stone dropped in water, the rays died dimly away in the furthest nook of the place.

Here and there, true to their place, but not to their function, swung other lamps, barren planets, which had either gone out from exhaustion, or been extinguished by such occupants of berths as the light annoyed, or who wanted to sleep, not see.

By a perverse man, in a berth not remote, the remaining lamp would have been extinguished as well, had not a steward forbade, saying that the commands of the captain required it to be kept burning till the natural light of day should come to relieve it. This steward, who, like many in his vocation, was apt to be a little free-spoken at times, had been provoked by the man’s pertinacity to remind him, not only of the sad consequences which might, upon occasion, ensue from the cabin being left in darkness, but, also, of the circumstance that, in a place full of strangers, to show one’s self anxious to produce darkness there, such an anxiety was, to say the least, not becoming. So the lamp — last survivor of many — burned on, inwardly blessed by those in some berths, and inwardly execrated by those in others.

Keeping his lone vigils beneath his lone lamp, which lighted his book on the table, sat a clean, comely, old man, his head snowy as the marble, and a countenance like that which imagination ascribes to good Simeon, when, having at last beheld the Master of Faith, he blessed him and departed in peace. From his hale look of greenness in winter, and his hands ingrained with the tan, less, apparently, of the present summer, than of accumulated ones past, the old man seemed a well-to-do farmer, happily dismissed, after a thrifty life of activity, from the fields to the fireside — one of those who, at three-score-and-ten, are fresh-hearted as at fifteen; to whom seclusion gives a boon more blessed than knowledge, and at last sends them to heaven untainted by the world, because ignorant of it; just as a countryman putting up at a London inn, and never stirring out of it as a sight-seer, will leave London at last without once being lost in its fog, or soiled by its mud.

Redolent from the barber’s shop, as any bridegroom tripping to the bridal chamber might come, and by his look of cheeriness seeming to dispense a sort of morning through the night, in came the cosmopolitan; but marking the old man, and how he was occupied, he toned himself down, and trod softly, and took a seat on the other side of the table, and said nothing. Still, there was a kind of waiting expression about him.

“Sir,” said the old man, after looking up puzzled at him a moment, “sir,” said he, “one would think this was a coffee-house, and it was war-time, and I had a newspaper here with great news, and the only copy to be had, you sit there looking at me so eager.”

“And so you have good news there, sir — the very best of good news.”

“Too good to be true,” here came from one of the curtained berths.

“Hark!” said the cosmopolitan. “Some one talks in his sleep.”

“Yes,” said the old man, “and you —you seem to be talking in a dream. Why speak you, sir, of news, and all that, when you must see this is a book I have here — the Bible, not a newspaper?”

“I know that; and when you are through with it — but not a moment sooner — I will thank you for it. It belongs to the boat, I believe — a present from a society.”

“Oh, take it, take it!”

“Nay, sir, I did not mean to touch you at all. I simply stated the fact in explanation of my waiting here — nothing more. Read on, sir, or you will distress me.”

This courtesy was not without effect. Removing his spectacles, and saying he had about finished his chapter, the old man kindly presented the volume, which was received with thanks equally kind. After reading for some minutes, until his expression merged from attentiveness into seriousness, and from that into a kind of pain, the cosmopolitan slowly laid down the book, and turning to the old man, who thus far had been watching him with benign curiosity, said: “Can you, my aged friend, resolve me a doubt — a disturbing doubt?”

“There are doubts, sir,” replied the old man, with a changed countenance, “there are doubts, sir, which, if man have them, it is not man that can solve them.”

“True; but look, now, what my doubt is. I am one who thinks well of man. I love man. I have confidence in man. But what was told me not a half-hour since? I was told that I would find it written —‘Believe not his many words — an enemy speaketh sweetly with his lips’— and also I was told that I would find a good deal more to the same effect, and all in this book. I could not think it; and, coming here to look for myself, what do I read? Not only just what was quoted, but also, as was engaged, more to the same purpose, such as this: ‘With much communication he will tempt thee; he will smile upon thee, and speak thee fair, and say What wantest thou? If thou be for his profit he will use thee; he will make thee bear, and will not be sorry for it. Observe and take good heed. When thou hearest these things, awake in thy sleep.’”

“Who’s that describing the confidence-man?” here came from the berth again.

“Awake in his sleep, sure enough, ain’t he?” said the cosmopolitan, again looking off in surprise. “Same voice as before, ain’t it? Strange sort of dreamy man, that. Which is his berth, pray?”

“Never mind him, sir,” said the old man anxiously, “but tell me truly, did you, indeed, read from the book just now?”

“I did,” with changed air, “and gall and wormwood it is to me, a truster in man; to me, a philanthropist.”

“Why,” moved, “you don’t mean to say, that what you repeated is really down there? Man and boy, I have read the good book this seventy years, and don’t remember seeing anything like that. Let me see it,” rising earnestly, and going round to him.

“There it is; and there — and there”— turning over the leaves, and pointing to the sentences one by one; “there — all down in the ‘Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach.’”

“Ah!” cried the old man, brightening up, “now I know. Look,” turning the leaves forward and back, till all the Old Testament lay flat on one side, and all the New Testament flat on the other, while in his fingers he supported vertically the portion between, “look, sir, all this to the right is certain truth, and all this to the left is certain truth, but all I hold in my hand here is apocrypha.”

“Apocrypha?”

“Yes; and there’s the word in black and white,” pointing to it. “And what says the word? It says as much as ‘not warranted;’ for what do college men say of anything of that sort? They say it is apocryphal. The word itself, I’ve heard from the pulpit, implies something of uncertain credit. So if your disturbance be raised from aught in this apocrypha,” again taking up the pages, “in that case, think no more of it, for it’s apocrypha.”

“What’s that about the Apocalypse?” here, a third time, came from the berth.

“He’s seeing visions now, ain’t he?” said the cosmopolitan, once more looking in the direction of the interruption. “But, sir,” resuming, “I cannot tell you how thankful I am for your reminding me about the apocrypha here. For the moment, its being such escaped me. Fact is, when all is bound up together, it’s sometimes confusing. The uncanonical part should be bound distinct. And, now that I think of it, how well did those learned doctors who rejected for us this whole book of Sirach. I never read anything so calculated to destroy man’s confidence in man. This son of Sirach even says — I saw it but just now: ‘Take heed of thy friends;’ not, observe, thy seeming friends, thy hypocritical friends, thy false friends, but thy friends, thy real friends — that is to say, not the truest friend in the world is to be implicitly trusted. Can Rochefoucault equal that? I should not wonder if his view of human nature, like Machiavelli’s, was taken from this Son of Sirach. And to call it wisdom — the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach! Wisdom, indeed! What an ugly thing wisdom must be! Give me the folly that dimples the cheek, say I, rather than the wisdom that curdles the blood. But no, no; it ain’t wisdom; it’s apocrypha, as you say, sir. For how can that be trustworthy that teaches distrust?”

“I tell you what it is,” here cried the same voice as before, only more in less of mockery, “if you two don’t know enough to sleep, don’t be keeping wiser men awake. And if you want to know what wisdom is, go find it under your blankets.”

“Wisdom?” cried another voice with a brogue; “arrah and is’t wisdom the two geese are gabbling about all this while? To bed with ye, ye divils, and don’t be after burning your fingers with the likes of wisdom.”

“We must talk lower,” said the old man; “I fear we have annoyed these good people.”

“I should be sorry if wisdom annoyed any one,” said the other; “but we will lower our voices, as you say. To resume: taking the thing as I did, can you be surprised at my uneasiness in reading passages so charged with the spirit of distrust?”

“No, sir, I am not surprised,” said the old man; then added: “from what you say, I see you are something of my way of thinking — you think that to distrust the creature, is a kind of distrusting of the Creator. Well, my young friend, what is it? This is rather late for you to be about. What do you want of me?”

These questions were put to a boy in the fragment of an old linen coat, bedraggled and yellow, who, coming in from the deck barefooted on the soft carpet, had been unheard. All pointed and fluttering, the rags of the little fellow’s red-flannel shirt, mixed with those of his yellow coat, flamed about him like the painted flames in the robes of a victim in auto-da-fe. His face, too, wore such a polish of seasoned grime, that his sloe-eyes sparkled from out it like lustrous sparks in fresh coal. He was a juvenile peddler, or marchand, as the polite French might have called him, of travelers’ conveniences; and, having no allotted sleeping-place, had, in his wanderings about the boat, spied, through glass doors, the two in the cabin; and, late though it was, thought it might never be too much so for turning a penny.

Among other things, he carried a curious affair — a miniature mahogany door, hinged to its frame, and suitably furnished in all respects but one, which will shortly appear. This little door he now meaningly held before the old man, who, after staring at it a while, said: “Go thy ways with thy toys, child.”

“Now, may I never get so old and wise as that comes to,” laughed the boy through his grime; and, by so doing, disclosing leopard-like teeth, like those of Murillo’s wild beggar-boy’s.

“The divils are laughing now, are they?” here came the brogue from the berth. “What do the divils find to laugh about in wisdom, begorrah? To bed with ye, ye divils, and no more of ye.”

“You see, child, you have disturbed that person,” said the old man; “you mustn’t laugh any more.”

“Ah, now,” said the cosmopolitan, “don’t, pray, say that; don’t let him think that poor Laughter is persecuted for a fool in this world.”

“Well,” said the old man to the boy, “you must, at any rate, speak very low.”

“Yes, that wouldn’t be amiss, perhaps,” said the cosmopolitan; “but, my fine fellow, you were about saying something to my aged friend here; what was it?”

“Oh,” with a lowered voice, coolly opening and shutting his little door, “only this: when I kept a toy-stand at the fair in Cincinnati last month, I sold more than one old man a child’s rattle.”

“No doubt of it,” said the old man. “I myself often buy such things for my little grandchildren.”

“But these old men I talk of were old bachelors.”

The old man stared at him a moment; then, whispering to the cosmopolitan: “Strange boy, this; sort of simple, ain’t he? Don’t know much, hey?”

“Not much,” said the boy, “or I wouldn’t be so ragged.”

“Why, child, what sharp ears you have!” exclaimed the old man.

“If they were duller, I would hear less ill of myself,” said the boy.

“You seem pretty wise, my lad,” said the cosmopolitan; “why don’t you sell your wisdom, and buy a coat?”

“Faith,” said the boy, “that’s what I did today, and this is the coat that the price of my wisdom bought. But won’t you trade? See, now, it is not the door I want to sell; I only carry the door round for a specimen, like. Look now, sir,” standing the thing up on the table, “supposing this little door is your state-room door; well,” opening it, “you go in for the night; you close your door behind you — thus. Now, is all safe?”

“I suppose so, child,” said the old man.

“Of course it is, my fine fellow,” said the cosmopolitan.

“All safe. Well. Now, about two o’clock in the morning, say, a soft-handed gentleman comes softly and tries the knob here — thus; in creeps my soft-handed gentleman; and hey, presto! how comes on the soft cash?”

“I see, I see, child,” said the old man; “your fine gentleman is a fine thief, and there’s no lock to your little door to keep him out;” with which words he peered at it more closely than before.

“Well, now,” again showing his white teeth, “well, now, some of you old folks are knowing ‘uns, sure enough; but now comes the great invention,” producing a small steel contrivance, very simple but ingenious, and which, being clapped on the inside of the little door, secured it as with a bolt. “There now,” admiringly holding it off at arm’s-length, “there now, let that soft-handed gentleman come now a’ softly trying this little knob here, and let him keep a’ trying till he finds his head as soft as his hand. Buy the traveler’s patent lock, sir, only twenty-five cents.”

“Dear me,” cried the old man, “this beats printing. Yes, child, I will have one, and use it this very night.”

With the phlegm of an old banker pouching the change, the boy now turned to the other: “Sell you one, sir?”

“Excuse me, my fine fellow, but I never use such blacksmiths’ things.”

“Those who give the blacksmith most work seldom do,” said the boy, tipping him a wink expressive of a degree of indefinite knowingness, not uninteresting to consider in one of his years. But the wink was not marked by the old man, nor, to all appearances, by him for whom it was intended.

“Now then,” said the boy, again addressing the old man. “With your traveler’s lock on your door to-night, you will think yourself all safe, won’t you?”

“I think I will, child.”

“But how about the window?”

“Dear me, the window, child. I never thought of that. I must see to that.”

“Never you mind about the window,” said the boy, “nor, to be honor bright, about the traveler’s lock either, (though I ain’t sorry for selling one), do you just buy one of these little jokers,” producing a number of suspender-like objects, which he dangled before the old man; “money-belts, sir; only fifty cents.”

“Money-belt? never heard of such a thing.”

“A sort of pocket-book,” said the boy, “only a safer sort. Very good for travelers.”

“Oh, a pocket-book. Queer looking pocket-books though, seems to me. Ain’t they rather long and narrow for pocket-books?”

“They go round the waist, sir, inside,” said the boy “door open or locked, wide awake on your feet or fast asleep in your chair, impossible to be robbed with a money-belt.”

“I see, I see. It would be hard to rob one’s money-belt. And I was told today the Mississippi is a bad river for pick-pockets. How much are they?”

“Only fifty cents, sir.”

“I’ll take one. There!”

“Thank-ee. And now there’s a present for ye,” with which, drawing from his breast a batch of little papers, he threw one before the old man, who, looking at it, read “Counterfeit Detector.”

“Very good thing,” said the boy, “I give it to all my customers who trade seventy-five cents’ worth; best present can be made them. Sell you a money-belt, sir?” turning to the cosmopolitan.

“Excuse me, my fine fellow, but I never use that sort of thing; my money I carry loose.”

“Loose bait ain’t bad,” said the boy, “look a lie and find the truth; don’t care about a Counterfeit Detector, do ye? or is the wind East, d’ye think?”

“Child,” said the old man in some concern, “you mustn’t sit up any longer, it affects your mind; there, go away, go to bed.”

“If I had some people’s brains to lie on. I would,” said the boy, “but planks is hard, you know.”

“Go, child — go, go!”

“Yes, child — yes, yes,” said the boy, with which roguish parody, by way of congé, he scraped back his hard foot on the woven flowers of the carpet, much as a mischievous steer in May scrapes back his horny hoof in the pasture; and then with a flourish of his hat — which, like the rest of his tatters, was, thanks to hard times, a belonging beyond his years, though not beyond his experience, being a grown man’s cast-off beaver — turned, and with the air of a young Caffre, quitted the place.

“That’s a strange boy,” said the old man, looking after him. “I wonder who’s his mother; and whether she knows what late hours he keeps?”

“The probability is,” observed the other, “that his mother does not know. But if you remember, sir, you were saying something, when the boy interrupted you with his door.”

“So I was. — Let me see,” unmindful of his purchases for the moment, “what, now, was it? What was that I was saying? Do you remember?”

“Not perfectly, sir; but, if I am not mistaken, it was something like this: you hoped you did not distrust the creature; for that would imply distrust of the Creator.”

“Yes, that was something like it,” mechanically and unintelligently letting his eye fall now on his purchases.

“Pray, will you put your money in your belt to-night?”

“It’s best, ain’t it?” with a slight start. “Never too late to be cautious. ‘Beware of pick-pockets’ is all over the boat.”

“Yes, and it must have been the Son of Sirach, or some other morbid cynic, who put them there. But that’s not to the purpose. Since you are minded to it, pray, sir, let me help you about the belt. I think that, between us, we can make a secure thing of it.”

“Oh no, no, no!” said the old man, not unperturbed, “no, no, I wouldn’t trouble you for the world,” then, nervously folding up the belt, “and I won’t be so impolite as to do it for myself, before you, either. But, now that I think of it,” after a pause, carefully taking a little wad from a remote corner of his vest pocket, “here are two bills they gave me at St. Louis, yesterday. No doubt they are all right; but just to pass time, I’ll compare them with the Detector here. Blessed boy to make me such a present. Public benefactor, that little boy!”

Laying the Detector square before him on the table, he then, with something of the air of an officer bringing by the collar a brace of culprits to the bar, placed the two bills opposite the Detector, upon which, the examination began, lasting some time, prosecuted with no small research and vigilance, the forefinger of the right hand proving of lawyer-like efficacy in tracing out and pointing the evidence, whichever way it might go.

After watching him a while, the cosmopolitan said in a formal voice, “Well, what say you, Mr. Foreman; guilty, or not guilty? — Not guilty, ain’t it?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” returned the old man, perplexed, “there’s so many marks of all sorts to go by, it makes it a kind of uncertain. Here, now, is this bill,” touching one, “it looks to be a three dollar bill on the Vicksburgh Trust and Insurance Banking Company. Well, the Detector says ——”

“But why, in this case, care what it says? Trust and Insurance! What more would you have?”

“No; but the Detector says, among fifty other things, that, if a good bill, it must have, thickened here and there into the substance of the paper, little wavy spots of red; and it says they must have a kind of silky feel, being made by the lint of a red silk handkerchief stirred up in the paper-maker’s vat — the paper being made to order for the company.”

“Well, and is ——”

“Stay. But then it adds, that sign is not always to be relied on; for some good bills get so worn, the red marks get rubbed out. And that’s the case with my bill here — see how old it is — or else it’s a counterfeit, or else — I don’t see right — or else — dear, dear me — I don’t know what else to think.”

“What a peck of trouble that Detector makes for you now; believe me, the bill is good; don’t be so distrustful. Proves what I’ve always thought, that much of the want of confidence, in these days, is owing to these Counterfeit Detectors you see on every desk and counter. Puts people up to suspecting good bills. Throw it away, I beg, if only because of the trouble it breeds you.”

“No; it’s troublesome, but I think I’ll keep it. — Stay, now, here’s another sign. It says that, if the bill is good, it must have in one corner, mixed in with the vignette, the figure of a goose, very small, indeed, all but microscopic; and, for added precaution, like the figure of Napoleon outlined by the tree, not observable, even if magnified, unless the attention is directed to it. Now, pore over it as I will, I can’t see this goose.”

“Can’t see the goose? why, I can; and a famous goose it is. There” (reaching over and pointing to a spot in the vignette).

“I don’t see it — dear me — I don’t see the goose. Is it a real goose?”

“A perfect goose; beautiful goose.”

“Dear, dear, I don’t see it.”

“Then throw that Detector away, I say again; it only makes you purblind; don’t you see what a wild-goose chase it has led you? The bill is good. Throw the Detector away.”

“No; it ain’t so satisfactory as I thought for, but I must examine this other bill.”

“As you please, but I can’t in conscience assist you any more; pray, then, excuse me.”

So, while the old man with much painstakings resumed his work, the cosmopolitan, to allow him every facility, resumed his reading. At length, seeing that he had given up his undertaking as hopeless, and was at leisure again, the cosmopolitan addressed some gravely interesting remarks to him about the book before him, and, presently, becoming more and more grave, said, as he turned the large volume slowly over on the table, and with much difficulty traced the faded remains of the gilt inscription giving the name of the society who had presented it to the boat, “Ah, sir, though every one must be pleased at the thought of the presence in public places of such a book, yet there is something that abates the satisfaction. Look at this volume; on the outside, battered as any old valise in the baggage-room; and inside, white and virgin as the hearts of lilies in bud.”

“So it is, so it is,” said the old man sadly, his attention for the first directed to the circumstance.

“Nor is this the only time,” continued the other, “that I have observed these public Bibles in boats and hotels. All much like this — old without, and new within. True, this aptly typifies that internal freshness, the best mark of truth, however ancient; but then, it speaks not so well as could be wished for the good book’s esteem in the minds of the traveling public. I may err, but it seems to me that if more confidence was put in it by the traveling public, it would hardly be so.”

With an expression very unlike that with which he had bent over the Detector, the old man sat meditating upon his companions remarks a while; and, at last, with a rapt look, said: “And yet, of all people, the traveling public most need to put trust in that guardianship which is made known in this book.”

“True, true,” thoughtfully assented the other. “And one would think they would want to, and be glad to,” continued the old man kindling; “for, in all our wanderings through this vale, how pleasant, not less than obligatory, to feel that we need start at no wild alarms, provide for no wild perils; trusting in that Power which is alike able and willing to protect us when we cannot ourselves.”

His manner produced something answering to it in the cosmopolitan, who, leaning over towards him, said sadly: “Though this is a theme on which travelers seldom talk to each other, yet, to you, sir, I will say, that I share something of your sense of security. I have moved much about the world, and still keep at it; nevertheless, though in this land, and especially in these parts of it, some stories are told about steamboats and railroads fitted to make one a little apprehensive, yet, I may say that, neither by land nor by water, am I ever seriously disquieted, however, at times, transiently uneasy; since, with you, sir, I believe in a Committee of Safety, holding silent sessions over all, in an invisible patrol, most alert when we soundest sleep, and whose beat lies as much through forests as towns, along rivers as streets. In short, I never forget that passage of Scripture which says, ‘Jehovah shall be thy confidence.’ The traveler who has not this trust, what miserable misgivings must be his; or, what vain, short-sighted care must he take of himself.”

“Even so,” said the old man, lowly.

“There is a chapter,” continued the other, again taking the book, “which, as not amiss, I must read you. But this lamp, solar-lamp as it is, begins to burn dimly.”

“So it does, so it does,” said the old man with changed air, “dear me, it must be very late. I must to bed, to bed! Let me see,” rising and looking wistfully all round, first on the stools and settees, and then on the carpet, “let me see, let me see; — is there anything I have forgot — forgot? Something I a sort of dimly remember. Something, my son — careful man — told me at starting this morning, this very morning. Something about seeing to — something before I got into my berth. What could it be? Something for safety. Oh, my poor old memory!”

“Let me give a little guess, sir. Life-preserver?”

“So it was. He told me not to omit seeing I had a life-preserver in my state-room; said the boat supplied them, too. But where are they? I don’t see any. What are they like?”

“They are something like this, sir, I believe,” lifting a brown stool with a curved tin compartment underneath; “yes, this, I think, is a life-preserver, sir; and a very good one, I should say, though I don’t pretend to know much about such things, never using them myself.”

“Why, indeed, now! Who would have thought it? that a life-preserver? That’s the very stool I was sitting on, ain’t it?”

“It is. And that shows that one’s life is looked out for, when he ain’t looking out for it himself. In fact, any of these stools here will float you, sir, should the boat hit a snag, and go down in the dark. But, since you want one in your room, pray take this one,” handing it to him. “I think I can recommend this one; the tin part,” rapping it with his knuckles, “seems so perfect — sounds so very hollow.”

“Sure it’s quite perfect, though?” Then, anxiously putting on his spectacles, he scrutinized it pretty closely —“well soldered? quite tight?”

“I should say so, sir; though, indeed, as I said, I never use this sort of thing, myself. Still, I think that in case of a wreck, barring sharp-pointed timbers, you could have confidence in that stool for a special providence.”

“Then, good-night, good-night; and Providence have both of us in its good keeping.”

“Be sure it will,” eying the old man with sympathy, as for the moment he stood, money-belt in hand, and life-preserver under arm, “be sure it will, sir, since in Providence, as in man, you and I equally put trust. But, bless me, we are being left in the dark here. Pah! what a smell, too.”

“Ah, my way now,” cried the old man, peering before him, “where lies my way to my state-room?”

“I have indifferent eyes, and will show you; but, first, for the good of all lungs, let me extinguish this lamp.”

The next moment, the waning light expired, and with it the waning flames of the horned altar, and the waning halo round the robed man’s brow; while in the darkness which ensued, the cosmopolitan kindly led the old man away. Something further may follow of this Masquerade.

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