Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the scrivener

" first, bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing.  as if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.  there was no pause for digestion.  he ran a day and night line, copying by sunlight and by candlelight.  I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious.  but he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.  

it is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word.  where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original.  it is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair.  I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable.  for example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet, byron, would have contentedly sat down with bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand. 

now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in comparing some brief document myself, calling turkey or nippers for this purpose.  one object I had in placing bartleby so handy to me behind the screen was to avail myself of his services on such trivial occasions.  it was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to bartleby.  in my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that, immediately upon emerging from his retreat, bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay. 

in this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me.  imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when, without moving from his privacy, bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.” 

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties.  immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning.  I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume; but in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.” 

“prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride.  “what do you mean?  are you moon-struck?  I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him. 

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

I looked at him steadfastly.  his face was leanly composed; his gray eyes dimly calm.  not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.  had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.  but as it was I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of cicero out of doors.  I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk.  this is very strange, thought I.  what had one best do?  but my business hurried me.  I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure.  so calling nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined. 

a few days after this, bartleby concluded four lengthy documents, being quadruplicates of a week’s testimony taken before me in my high court of chancery.  it became necessary to examine them.  it was an important suit, and great accuracy was imperative.  having all things arranged, I called turkey, nippers and ginger nut, from the next room, meaning to place the four copies in the hands of my four clerks, while I should read from the original. accordingly, turkey, nippers, and ginger nut had taken their seats in a row, each with his document in his hand, when I called to bartleby to join this interesting group. 

“bartleby! quick, I am waiting.” 

I heard a slow scrape of his chair legs on the uncarpeted floor, and soon he appeared standing at the entrance of his hermitage. 

“what is wanted?” said he, mildly. 

“the copies, the copies,” said I, hurriedly.  “we are going to examine them.  there”—and I held towards him the fourth quadruplicate. 

“I would prefer not to,” he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen. 

for a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt, standing at the head of my seated column of clerks. recovering myself, I advanced towards the screen and demanded the reason for such extraordinary conduct. 

“why do you refuse?” 

“I would prefer not to.” 

with any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence.  but there was something about bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but, in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me. I began to reason with him.

“these are your own copies we are about to examine. it is labor saving to you, because one examination will answer for your four papers.  it is common usage. every copyist is bound to help examine his copy.  is it not so?  will you not speak?  answer!” 

“I prefer not to,” he replied in a flutelike tone. 

it seemed to me that, while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did. 

“you are decided, then, not to comply with my request—a request made according to common usage and common sense?” 

he briefly gave me to understand that on that point my judgment was sound. yes: his decision was irreversible. 

it is seldom the case that, when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side.  accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind.

“turkey,” said I, “what do you think of this?  am I not right?” 

“with submission, sir,” said turkey, in his blandest tone, “I think that you are.” 

“nippers,” said I, “what do you think of it?” 

“I think I should kick him out of the office.” 

(the reader of nice perceptions, will here perceive that, it being morning, turkey’s answer is couched in polite and tranquil terms, but nippers replies in ill-tempered ones.  or, to repeat a previous sentence, nippers’s ugly mood was on duty, and turkey’s off.) 

“ginger nut,” said I, willing to enlist the smallest suffrage in my behalf, “what do you think of it?” 

“I think, sir, he’s a little luny,” replied ginger nut, with a grin. 

“you hear what they say,” said I, turning towards the screen, “come forth and do your duty.” 

but he vouchsafed no reply.  I pondered a moment in sore perplexity.  but once more business hurried me.  I determined again to postpone the consideration of this dilemma to my future leisure.  with a little trouble we made out to examine the papers without bartleby, though at every page or two turkey deferentially dropped his opinion that this proceeding was quite out of the common; while nippers, twitching in his chair with a dyspeptic nervousness, ground out between his set teeth occasional hissing maledictions against the stubborn oaf behind the screen.  and for his (nippers’s) part, this was the first and the last time he would do another man’s business without pay. 

meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to everything but his own peculiar business there. 

some days passed, the scrivener being employed upon another lengthy work.  his late remarkable conduct led me to regard his ways narrowly.  I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere.  as yet I had never, of my personal knowledge, known him to be outside of my office.  he was a perpetual sentry in the corner.  at about eleven o’clock, though, in the morning, I noticed that ginger nut would advance towards the opening in bartleby’s screen, as if silently beckoned thither by a gesture invisible to me where I sat.  the boy would then leave the office jingling a few pence, and reappear with a handful of gingernuts, which he delivered in the hermitage, receiving two of the cakes for his trouble. 

he lives, then, on gingernuts, thought I; never eats a dinner, properly speaking; he must be a vegetarian, then; but no, he never eats even vegetables, he eats nothing but gingernuts.  my mind then ran on in reveries concerning the probable effects upon the human constitution of living entirely on gingernuts. gingernuts are so called because they contain ginger as one of their peculiar constituents, and the final flavoring one.  now, what was ginger?  a hot, spicy thing.  was bartleby hot and spicy?  not at all.  ginger, then, had no effect upon bartleby.  probably he preferred it should have none. 

nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.  if the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.  even so, for the most part, I regarded bartleby and his ways.  poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary.  he is useful to me.  I can get along with him.  if I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve.  yes.  here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval.  to befriend bartleby, to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.  but this mood was not invariable with me.  the passiveness of bartleby sometimes irritated me.  I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition— to elicit some angry spark from him answerable to my own.  but, indeed, I might as well have essayed to strike fire with my knuckles against a bit of windsor soap.  but one afternoon the evil impulse in me mastered me, and the following little scene ensued:

“bartleby,” said I, “when those papers are all copied, I will compare them with you.” 

“I would prefer not to.” 

“how? surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?” 

no answer. I threw open the folding doors near by, and, turning upon turkey and nippers, exclaimed: 

“bartleby a second time says he won’t examine his papers.  what do you think of it, turkey?” 

it was afternoon, be it remembered.  turkey sat glowing like a brass boiler, his bald head steaming, his hands reeling among his blotted papers. 

“think of it?” roared turkey.  “I think I’ll just step behind his screen and black his eyes for him!” 

so saying, turkey rose to his feet and threw his arms into a pugilistic position.  he was hurrying away to make good his promise when I detained him, alarmed at the effect of incautiously rousing turkey’s combativeness after dinner. 

“sit down, turkey,” said I, “and hear what nippers has to say.  what do you think of it, nippers?  would I not be justified in immediately dismissing bartleby?” 

“excuse me, that is for you to decide, sir.  I think his conduct quite unusual, and indeed, unjust, as regards turkey and myself.  but it may only be a passing whim.” 

“ah,” exclaimed I, “you have strangely changed your mind, then— you speak very gently of him now.” 

“all beer,” cried turkey; “gentleness is effects of beer— nippers and I dined together today.  you see how gentle I am, sir.  shall I go and black his eyes?”

 “you refer to bartleby, I suppose.  no, not today, turkey,” I replied; “pray, put up your fists.” 

I closed the doors and again advanced towards bartleby.  I felt additional incentives tempting me to my fate.  I burned to be rebelled against again.  I remembered that bartleby never left the office. 

“bartleby,” said I, “ginger nut is away; just step around to the post office, won’t you? (it was but a three minutes’ walk), and see if there is anything for me.” 

“I would prefer not to.” 

“you will not?” 

“I prefer not.” 

I staggered to my desk and sat there in a deep study.  my blind inveteracy returned.  was there any other thing in which I could procure myself to be ignominiously repulsed by this lean, penniless wight?— my hired clerk?  what added thing is there, perfectly reasonable, that he will be sure to refuse to do? 


no answer. 

“bartleby,” in a louder tone. 

no answer. 

“bartleby,” I roared. 

like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage. 

“go to the next room, and tell nippers to come to me.” 

“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared. 

“very good, bartleby,” said I, in a quiet sort of serenely severe self-possessed tone, intimating the unalterable purpose of some terrible retribution very close at hand.  at the moment I half intended something of the kind.  but upon the whole, as it was drawing towards my dinner hour, I thought it best to put on my hat and walk home for the day, suffering much from perplexity and distress of mind..."