Littell's Living Age/Volume 154/Issue 1985/Baron Fisco at Home

<poem>Ha, my old friend! so, you've come back again!

Sit down, sit down! — 'tis years since we have met. How goes the world with you? — You shake your head Not well? Indeed! Im sorry. So your plan Did not succeed. You see 'twas as I feared. You would not heed me, thought my counsel bad; Would go your own way; had your notions high Of honesty and honor, and all that, Straightforwardness, uprightness, these at last Would, must succeed; what think you of it now? Was it not as I told you? Honesty Is simply the worst policy on earth: As for the other world, the future world, If any such there be, it may be best; But for this world, made as it is, 'tis worst — A mean low proverb, and what's more, a lie. “Virtues its own reward,” exactly so — Its own reward, whatever that may be, But not the world's success. No, no, my friend!

You look surprised to find me titled, rich, Housed in a palace, playing the great man — It must be laughable to you who know How we began in life. So let us laugh — Laugh inextinguishable laughter, just As the old augurs did upon the sly When no one saw them. Faith, this serious load Of dignity is sometimes hard to bear! And pleasant 'tis to meet a friend with whom One may throw off ones livery of pretence, Relax, laugh, lie no more, be natural.

So now, a truce to lying and pretence, — I do so suffocate beneath my mask, I am so sick of my falsetto voice, Almost I'd like to cry out to the world I am a scoundrel, though a prosperous one — Only it would not do; and then so long To Christian jargon I have schooled my tongue And virtuous slang, that it comes hard at last Even to myself to own the very truth, And wholly cease to be a hypocrite — Nay, sometimes I impose upon myself, And almost think I am what I pretend.

You bring the old times back, how vividly! We started from the self-same path in life, You one way, I the other. Both of us When we were young and poor, ay, very poor, Hawked through the streets our little stock of wares Spread on a tray, and swinging from our necks, Pens, pencils, trinkets, brooches, — all mere sham; Mine were, at least, — what yours were, you know best; And so, mere boys, we bore along the streets Our tawdry store, and cried: “Who'll buy? Who'll buy?” Well, passers bought of me more than of you Simply because I lied with glib, false tongue, Vaunted my goods as real, — in a word, Cheated; of course I cheated, if I could. What's any trade but cheating? All the world Strove to cheat me, and I strove to cheat them. And thus at first we earned enough to live — Badly, of course, but still we lived and saved; Went to bed hungry many a night to dream Of coming fortune, that was slow to come.

So daily turning over our small gains, We by degrees laid by a pretty sum, — Paltry enough indeed, but still enough At least to start upon — to place our feet Upon the ladders lowest rung of trade; And then we parted, what long years ago! How many is it? Forty at the least. And now we meet again. Ah well, my friend! You have not prospered; you are poor, I see, — Still poor hungry perhaps.

                             Stop! let me ring, —

A glass of good old wine will do you good. Wine? You shall breakfast with me — we will talk Over old times. Perhaps 'tis not too late Even now to put you on the prosperous road. We'll see — we'll see!

                             John, set the table here —

Set it for two — my friend will lunch with me; And bring two bottles of that old red seal Out of the right bin, A I — upper shelf. And your champagne? You like it sweet or dry? Dry? I agree with you. The best dry, John — You know my brand; and quick too, don't delay.

Ah, you are looking at my pictures! Well, What say you of them? That's Meissonier — A drinking-bout. Fine, I am told — I know It stood me in a hundred thousand francs, And cheap at that. There's a Fortuny there. Bright, isnt it? And that? Oh, that's a nymph! By — faith, I've quite forgot who painted it! Nude — yes, I think so — very nude, but then That's all the vogue now. Living, is it not? Live, palpitating flesh! To balance it There's a Madonna pale and pure enough, Painted by — what's his name? Enough of these — You'll come and look at them another time. Now for our breakfast, lunch, or what you will.

You need not wait, John! Come, sit down, my friend!

Well, yes! I have succeeded as you say; You find me rich — ay, and I mean to be Much richer. 'tis the first step costs. To gain The first ten thousand costs pains, toil, care, skill, Great self-denial; after that it grows Easier and easier, — and at last your pile Breeds almost of itself left quite alone. But then I never let it quite alone. How did I make the first ten thousand? Well, Simply by following out my principles — Not yours. Oh no! Your principles were fine, High, noble, anything you will, but then Purely unpractical. I took the world Just as I found it; strove not to amend Its many faults, but profit by them all, — Made large professions, crouched and crept and crawled, Put in my pocket all my pride, — picked up Out of the dirtiest gutter, so to speak, The dirtiest penny, not too proud for that, — Bore all reviling patiently, bent low To kiss the hand that struck me; what I felt Within me I concealed, never gave voice To bitterness in empty words. Ah no! Not such a fool; bided my time — talked soft — Was simply sad to be misunderstood — Meant to do right but was deceived by knaves Who took advantage of my ignorance. Ah me! ah me! ah, what a wicked world! And then your splendid counters, too, I used, — Had always in my mouth those sounding words, Truth, honor, justice, duty, honesty. Reproved false dealing, speaking; went to church, Prayed loudly, openly declared myself A miserable sinner; dropped my mite Into the poor-box in the face of all; Let all my good deeds shine out before men, And wore a face of pure simplicity.

A cloak, you say! Well, yes! I wore a cloak. One must not go quite naked in this world. We must use phrases — only they are fools Who think them more than phrases. Everywhere Men use them — in the pulpit, in the mart. But who does more than use them as a cloak, If there be any such, they are rank fools. Dishonest was I? Fie! Beyond the verge Of law — and that, as I suppose, is right — I never put my foot, or not both feet; One foot within the law I always kept. Of course I used the law, and studied it, Availed myselt of all its shifts and turns, — And in its limits planted, flung my nets Beyond, to haul my hooked fish safely in.

With even little means one may do much Through knowledge of the law and pains and skill. My little businQss at the first I did, Only from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth, — Never with writings, contracts, signatures — That is on my part, never put my name To obligations. Promises in words, Of course, I gave; but promises are air — One may forget, deny, misapprehend.

Shaved notes? Of course. Lent money? Yes, of course. Upon usurious interest? Stop, my friend! What is usurious interest? If I own A little sum, and some poor man has need Of just that sum, I should of course be glad To give it him, not lend it; but indeed I am too poor, have other duties too, I dare not run even temporary risk. But for your note, say, for a hundred francs, You must at once have money. Ah, good sir, I have but fifty; and your simple note, What is it worth? Out of pure friendliness I offer this; but pray don't take me up — This is a friends act, who can call it wrong?

There have been times, I will confess to you, That I have sheered too closely to the law, And made mistakes — but they were mere mistakes. I once forgot some money that was placed For my safe keeping in my hands, forgot Most absolutely — and, in fact, forgot To make a memorandum. Being thus, I naturally used it for my own. But somehow it was proved that I was wrong, And I repaid it — certainly — at once, When it was proved; but the censorious world Would not admit this was a mere mistake. Ah me! what evil minds and thoughts there are!

There have been several mistakes like this; But who among us does not make mistakes? There were some notes that once passed through my hands With altered numbers, — in one case, indeed, With awkward signatures, — mere carelessness. I should have been more careful, — I admit, And even now I scarce forgive myself.

Well, this is all, I think: you see, my friend, How I have prospered. Spite of my mistakes I have my palace here, who used to climb To the fifth story of my garret mean; I have rich meats and wines (this wine, I think, You will acknowledge good), French cook, and all That luxury asks, who once was well content With my stale crust, and once a week, at most, A scrap of meat, not always sure of that. Around my neck I carried once my tray, And now my brougham and horses carry me — Nor finer horses will you see in town. My playhouse was the street once, — now I own My opera-box, and sitting there at night I take some pride that I am gazed at there And pointed out as one to be observed, The Baron Fisco —that is he. Ah, well! Little we thought, we two poor ragged boys, Of anything like this; but now I am Wealthy, respected, — and ennobled too, — Have been a deputy, and should be still But for an unexplained mistake, that now Is scarce worth mentioning since it is past.

To me obsequious many a hat is raised Despite it all; and on my breast I wear Stars, crosses, ribbons, when I go to court, — And smiling, I shake hands with some like you — Having such principles as yours, I mean — Upon whose breast I see no simplest cross To hide the well.worn coat with its white seams. It pays, you see — it pays, say what we will.

Success, my friend, covers all kinds of sins. Never be found out, thats my rule of life. Truth, honor, honesty, are excellent To talk about, but as strict rules of life Are, let us say, most serious obstacles. You've found them such, I think— so have not I. Little by little small things grow to great. One must be patient — never force ones card, But wait the time to play. Riches are power, And having won them, if we bide our time, We can buy anything we will. All things Are purchasable — if we only knew Just how and when to buy them. That needs skill. Honors and titles? Ah, well — well — a loan Is sometimes needed, privately, you know, For persons high in power and influence; And then, of course, one lends it as a friend, With no advantage asked or dreamed. Ah no! Glad of the honor to be borrowed from, — Only too proud to be of the least use, — Even as a carpet to be trod upon, — Such generosity brings its reward. —

And then, again, with riches at command, Things take a different aspect, better name. What looks like swindling with a petty sum, Is on a grand and speculative scale Honest enough, so it be large enough. The difference 'twixt a million and a franc, Makes such a difference in so many ways.

Come, fill your glass again — we are old friends; You see I nought conceal, speak openly. We began life together. I am rich, You poor. You see my principles were best. If you object to the word principles, I'll say my practices. We'll not discuss The word — that's nothing. Now I say to you, Join me, Im getting old and tired too; Be my first clerk, first confidential man — I'll pay you well; and having gone thus far, Made enough money, if indeed one has Ever enough, quite, — I can now afford To let you have your way, since I can trust Your honesty, and that, I must confess, Is of all things the rarest on the earth. I have been seeking for an honest man, God knows how long! I find him here at last.

You smile as if to say, “So at the last, Even honesty succeeds.” — Well, — yes, — sometimes. Not of itself, though, save by happy chance, When it can lend itself to abler hands. We all like honesty in those we use — That is, as far as what concerns ourselves.