Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences by Edgar Allen Poe


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1850
DIDDLING
Considered as One of the Exact Sciences
by Edgar Allen Poe

Hey, diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle

SINCE the world began there have been two Jeremys. The one wrote a
Jeremiad about usury, and was called Jeremy Bentham. He has been
much admired by Mr. John Neal, and was a great man in a small way. The
other gave name to the most important of the Exact Sciences, and was a
great man in a great way- I may say, indeed, in the very greatest of
ways.
Diddling- or the abstract idea conveyed by the verb to diddle- is
sufficiently well understood. Yet the fact, the deed, the thing
diddling, is somewhat difficult to define. We may get, however, at a
tolerably distinct conception of the matter in hand, by defining-
not the thing, diddling, in itself- but man, as an animal that
diddles. Had Plato but hit upon this, he would have been spared the
affront of the picked chicken.
Very pertinently it was demanded of Plato, why a picked chicken,
which was clearly “a biped without feathers,” was not, according to
his own definition, a man? But I am not to be bothered by any
similar query. Man is an animal that diddles, and there is no animal
that diddles but man. It will take an entire hen-coop of picked
chickens to get over that.
What constitutes the essence, the nare, the principle of diddling
is, in fact, peculiar to the class of creatures that wear coats and
pantaloons. A crow thieves; a fox cheats; a weasel outwits; a man
diddles. To diddle is his destiny. “Man was made to mourn,” says the
poet. But not so:- he was made to diddle. This is his aim- his object-
his end. And for this reason when a man’s diddled we say he’s “done.”
Diddling, rightly considered, is a compound, of which the
ingredients are minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity,
audacity, nonchalance, originality, impertinence, and grin.
Minuteness:- Your diddler is minute. His operations are upon a small
scale. His business is retail, for cash, or approved paper at sight.
Should he ever be tempted into magnificent speculation, he then, at
once, loses his distinctive features, and becomes what we term
“financier.” This latter word conveys the diddling idea in every
respect except that of magnitude. A diddler may thus be regarded as
a banker in petto- a “financial operation,” as a diddle at Brobdignag.
The one is to the other, as Homer to “Flaccus”- as a Mastodon to a
mouse- as the tail of a comet to that of a pig.
Interest:- Your diddler is guided by self-interest. He scorns to
diddle for the mere sake of the diddle. He has an object in view-
his pocket- and yours. He regards always the main chance. He looks
to Number One. You are Number Two, and must look to yourself.
Perseverance:- Your diddler perseveres. He is not readily
discouraged. Should even the banks break, he cares nothing about it.
He steadily pursues his end, and

Ut canis a corio nunquam absterrebitur uncto.

so he never lets go of his game.
Ingenuity:- Your diddler is ingenious. He has constructiveness
large. He understands plot. He invents and circumvents. Were he not
Alexander he would be Diogenes. Were he not a diddler, he would be a
maker of patent rat-traps or an angler for trout.
Audacity:- Your diddler is audacious.- He is a bold man. He
carries the war into Africa. He conquers all by assault. He would
not fear the daggers of Frey Herren. With a little more prudence
Dick Turpin would have made a good diddler; with a trifle less
blarney, Daniel O’Connell; with a pound or two more brains Charles the
Twelfth.
Nonchalance:- Your diddler is nonchalant. He is not at all
nervous. He never had any nerves. He is never seduced into a flurry.
He is never put out- unless put out of doors. He is cool- cool as a
cucumber. He is calm- “calm as a smile from Lady Bury.” He is easy-
easy as an old glove, or the damsels of ancient Baiae.
Originality:- Your diddler is original- conscientiously so. His
thoughts are his own. He would scorn to employ those of another. A
stale trick is his aversion. He would return a purse, I am sure,
upon discovering that he had obtained it by an unoriginal diddle.
Impertinence.- Your diddler is impertinent. He swaggers. He sets his
arms a-kimbo. He thrusts. his hands in his trowsers’ pockets. He
sneers in your face. He treads on your corns. He eats your dinner,
he drinks your wine, he borrows your money, he pulls your nose, he
kicks your poodle, and he kisses your wife.
Grin:- Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody
sees but himself. He grins when his daily work is done- when his
allotted labors are accomplished- at night in his own closet, and
altogether for his own private entertainment. He goes home. He locks
his door. He divests himself of his clothes. He puts out his candle.
He gets into bed. He places his head upon the pillow. All this done,
and your diddler grins. This is no hypothesis. It is a matter of
course. I reason a priori, and a diddle would be no diddle without a
grin.
The origin of the diddle is referrable to the infancy of the Human
Race. Perhaps the first diddler was Adam. At all events, we can
trace the science back to a very remote period of antiquity. The
moderns, however, have brought it to a perfection never dreamed of
by our thick-headed progenitors. Without pausing to speak of the
“old saws,” therefore, I shall content myself with a compendious
account of some of the more “modern instances.”
A very good diddle is this. A housekeeper in want of a sofa, for
instance, is seen to go in and out of several cabinet warehouses. At
length she arrives at one offering an excellent variety. She is
accosted, and invited to enter, by a polite and voluble individual
at the door. She finds a sofa well adapted to her views, and upon
inquiring the price, is surprised and delighted to hear a sum named at
least twenty per cent. lower than her expectations. She hastens to
make the purchase, gets a bill and receipt, leaves her address, with a
request that the article be sent home as speedily as possible, and
retires amid a profusion of bows from the shopkeeper. The night
arrives and no sofa. A servant is sent to make inquiry about the
delay. The whole transaction is denied. No sofa has been sold- no
money received- except by the diddler, who played shop-keeper for
the nonce.
Our cabinet warehouses are left entirely unattended, and thus afford
every facility for a trick of this kind. Visiters enter, look at
furniture, and depart unheeded and unseen. Should any one wish to
purchase, or to inquire the price of an article, a bell is at hand,
and this is considered amply sufficient.
Again, quite a respectable diddle is this. A well-dressed individual
enters a shop, makes a purchase to the value of a dollar; finds,
much to his vexation, that he has left his pocket-book in another coat
pocket; and so says to the shopkeeper-
“My dear sir, never mind; just oblige me, will you, by sending the
bundle home? But stay! I really believe that I have nothing less
than a five dollar bill, even there. However, you can send four
dollars in change with the bundle, you know.”
“Very good, sir,” replies the shop-keeper, who entertains, at
once, a lofty opinion of the high-mindedness of his customer. “I
know fellows,” he says to himself, “who would just have put the
goods under their arm, and walked off with a promise to call and pay
the dollar as they came by in the afternoon.”
A boy is sent with the parcel and change. On the route, quite
accidentally, he is met by the purchaser, who exclaims:
“Ah! This is my bundle, I see- I thought you had been home with
it, long ago. Well, go on! My wife, Mrs. Trotter, will give you the
five dollars- I left instructions with her to that effect. The
change you might as well give to me- I shall want some silver for
the Post Office. Very good! One, two, is this a good quarter?-
three, four- quite right! Say to Mrs. Trotter that you met me, and
be sure now and do not loiter on the way.”
The boy doesn’t loiter at all- but he is a very long time in getting
back from his errand- for no lady of the precise name of Mrs.
Trotter is to be discovered. He consoles himself, however, that he has
not been such a fool as to leave the goods without the money, and
re-entering his shop with a self-satisfied air, feels sensibly hurt
and indignant when his master asks him what has become of the change.
A very simple diddle, indeed, is this. The captain of a ship,
which is about to sail, is presented by an official looking person
with an unusually moderate bill of city charges. Glad to get off so
easily, and confused by a hundred duties pressing upon him all at
once, he discharges the claim forthwith. In about fifteen minutes,
another and less reasonable bill is handed him by one who soon makes
it evident that the first collector was a diddler, and the original
collection a diddle.
And here, too, is a somewhat similar thing. A steamboat is casting
loose from the wharf. A traveller, portmanteau in hand, is
discovered running toward the wharf, at full speed. Suddenly, he makes
a dead halt, stoops, and picks up something from the ground in a
very agitated manner. It is a pocket-book, and- “Has any gentleman
lost a pocketbook?” he cries. No one can say that he has exactly
lost a pocket-book; but a great excitement ensues, when the treasure
trove is found to be of value. The boat, however, must not be
detained.
“Time and tide wait for no man,” says the captain.
“For God’s sake, stay only a few minutes,” says the finder of the
book- “the true claimant will presently appear.”
“Can’t wait!” replies the man in authority; “cast off there, d’ye
hear?”
“What am I to do?” asks the finder, in great tribulation. “I am
about to leave the country for some years, and I cannot
conscientiously retain this large amount in my possession. I beg
your pardon, sir,” [here he addresses a gentleman on shore,] “but
you have the air of an honest man. Will you confer upon me the favor
of taking charge of this pocket-book- I know I can trust you- and of
advertising it? The notes, you see, amount to a very considerable sum.
The owner will, no doubt, insist upon rewarding you for your trouble-
“Me!- no, you!- it was you who found the book.”
“Well, if you must have it so- I will take a small reward- just to
satisfy your scruples. Let me see- why these notes are all hundreds-
bless my soul! a hundred is too much to take- fifty would be quite
enough, I am sure-
“Cast off there!” says the captain.
“But then I have no change for a hundred, and upon the whole, you
had better-
“Cast off there!” says the captain.
“Never mind!” cries the gentleman on shore, who has been examining
his own pocket-book for the last minute or so- “never mind! I can
fix it- here is a fifty on the Bank of North America- throw the book.”
And the over-conscientious finder takes the fifty with marked
reluctance, and throws the gentleman the book, as desired, while the
steamboat fumes and fizzes on her way. In about half an hour after her
departure, the “large amount” is seen to be a “counterfeit
presentment,” and the whole thing a capital diddle.
A bold diddle is this. A camp-meeting, or something similar, is to
be held at a certain spot which is accessible only by means of a
free bridge. A diddler stations himself upon this bridge, respectfully
informs all passers by of the new county law, which establishes a toll
of one cent for foot passengers, two for horses and donkeys, and so
forth, and so forth. Some grumble but all submit, and the diddler goes
home a wealthier man by some fifty or sixty dollars well earned.
This taking a toll from a great crowd of people is an excessively
troublesome thing.
A neat diddle is this. A friend holds one of the diddler’s
promises to pay, filled up and signed in due form, upon the ordinary
blanks printed in red ink. The diddler purchases one or two dozen of
these blanks, and every day dips one of them in his soup, makes his
dog jump for it, and finally gives it to him as a bonne bouche. The
note arriving at maturity, the diddler, with the diddler’s dog,
calls upon the friend, and the promise to pay is made the topic of
discussion. The friend produces it from his escritoire, and is in
the act of reaching it to the diddler, when up jumps the diddler’s dog
and devours it forthwith. The diddler is not only surprised but
vexed and incensed at the absurd behavior of his dog, and expresses
his entire readiness to cancel the obligation at any moment when the
evidence of the obligation shall be forthcoming.
A very mean diddle is this. A lady is insulted in the street by a
diddler’s accomplice. The diddler himself flies to her assistance,
and, giving his friend a comfortable thrashing, insists upon attending
the lady to her own door. He bows, with his hand upon his heart, and
most respectfully bids her adieu. She entreats him, as her
deliverer, to walk in and be introduced to her big brother and her
papa. With a sigh, he declines to do so. “Is there no way, then, sir,”
she murmurs, “in which I may be permitted to testify my gratitude?”
“Why, yes, madam, there is. Will you be kind enough to lend me a
couple of shillings?”
In the first excitement of the moment the lady decides upon fainting
outright. Upon second thought, however, she opens her purse-strings
and delivers the specie. Now this, I say, is a diddle minute- for
one entire moiety of the sum borrowed has to be paid to the
gentleman who had the trouble of performing the insult, and who had
then to stand still and be thrashed for performing it.
Rather a small but still a scientific diddle is this. The diddler
approaches the bar of a tavern, and demands a couple of twists of
tobacco. These are handed to him, when, having slightly examined them,
he says:
“I don’t much like this tobacco. Here, take it back, and give me a
glass of brandy and water in its place.” The brandy and water is
furnished and imbibed, and the diddler makes his way to the door.
But the voice of the tavern-keeper arrests him.
“I believe, sir, you have forgotten to pay for your brandy and
water.”
“Pay for my brandy and water!- didn’t I give you the tobacco for the
brandy and water? What more would you have?”
“But, sir, if you please, I don’t remember that you paid me for
the tobacco.”
“What do you mean by that, you scoundrel?- Didn’t I give you back
your tobacco? Isn’t that your tobacco lying there? Do you expect me to
pay for what I did not take?”
“But, sir,” says the publican, now rather at a loss what to say,
“but sir-”
“But me no buts, sir,” interrupts the diddler, apparently in very
high dudgeon, and slamming the door after him, as he makes his
escape.- “But me no buts, sir, and none of your tricks upon
travellers.”
Here again is a very clever diddle, of which the simplicity is not
its least recommendation. A purse, or pocket-book, being really
lost, the loser inserts in one of the daily papers of a large city a
fully descriptive advertisement.
Whereupon our diddler copies the facts of this advertisement, with a
change of heading, of general phraseology and address. The original,
for instance, is long, and verbose, is headed “A Pocket-Book Lost!”
and requires the treasure, when found, to be left at No. 1 Tom Street.
The copy is brief, and being headed with “Lost” only, indicates No.
2 Dick, or No. 3 Harry Street, as the locality at which the owner
may be seen. Moreover, it is inserted in at least five or six of the
daily papers of the day, while in point of time, it makes its
appearance only a few hours after the original. Should it be read by
the loser of the purse, he would hardly suspect it to have any
reference to his own misfortune. But, of course, the chances are
five or six to one, that the finder will repair to the address given
by the diddler, rather than to that pointed out by the rightful
proprietor. The former pays the reward, pockets the treasure and
decamps.
Quite an analogous diddle is this. A lady of ton has dropped, some
where in the street, a diamond ring of very unusual value. For its
recovery, she offers some forty or fifty dollars reward- giving, in
her advertisement, a very minute description of the gem, and of its
settings, and declaring that, on its restoration at No. so and so,
in such and such Avenue, the reward would be paid instanter, without a
single question being asked. During the lady’s absence from home, a
day or two afterwards, a ring is heard at the door of No. so and so,
in such and such Avenue; a servant appears; the lady of the house is
asked for and is declared to be out, at which astounding
information, the visitor expresses the most poignant regret. His
business is of importance and concerns the lady herself. In fact, he
had the good fortune to find her diamond ring. But perhaps it would be
as well that he should call again. “By no means!” says the servant;
and “By no means!” says the lady’s sister and the lady’s
sister-in-law, who are summoned forthwith. The ring is clamorously
identified, the reward is paid, and the finder nearly thrust out of
doors. The lady returns and expresses some little dissatisfaction with
her sister and sister-in-law, because they happen to have paid forty
or fifty dollars for a fac-simile of her diamond ring- a fac-simile
made out of real pinch-beck and unquestionable paste.
But as there is really no end to diddling, so there would be none to
this essay, were I even to hint at half the variations, or
inflections, of which this science is susceptible. I must bring this
paper, perforce, to a conclusion, and this I cannot do better than
by a summary notice of a very decent, but rather elaborate diddle,
of which our own city was made the theatre, not very long ago, and
which was subsequently repeated with success, in other still more
verdant localities of the Union. A middle-aged gentleman arrives in
town from parts unknown. He is remarkably precise, cautious, staid,
and deliberate in his demeanor. His dress is scrupulously neat, but
plain, unostentatious. He wears a white cravat, an ample waistcoat,
made with an eye to comfort alone; thick-soled cosy-looking shoes, and
pantaloons without straps. He has the whole air, in fact, of your
well-to-do, sober-sided, exact, and respectable “man of business,” Par
excellence- one of the stern and outwardly hard, internally soft, sort
of people that we see in the crack high comedies- fellows whose
words are so many bonds, and who are noted for giving away guineas, in
charity, with the one hand, while, in the way of mere bargain, they
exact the uttermost fraction of a farthing with the other.
He makes much ado before he can get suited with a boarding house. He
dislikes children. He has been accustomed to quiet. His habits are
methodical- and then he would prefer getting into a private and
respectable small family, piously inclined. Terms, however, are no
object- only he must insist upon settling his bill on the first of
every month, (it is now the second) and begs his landlady, when he
finally obtains one to his mind, not on any account to forget his
instructions upon this point- but to send in a bill, and receipt,
precisely at ten o’clock, on the first day of every month, and under
no circumstances to put it off to the second.
These arrangements made, our man of business rents an office in a
reputable rather than a fashionable quarter of the town. There is
nothing he more despises than pretense. “Where there is much show,” he
says, “there is seldom any thing very solid behind”- an observation
which so profoundly impresses his landlady’s fancy, that she makes a
pencil memorandum of it forthwith, in her great family Bible, on the
broad margin of the Proverbs of Solomon.
The next step is to advertise, after some such fashion as this, in
the principal business six-pennies of the city- the pennies are
eschewed as not “respectable”- and as demanding payment for all
advertisements in advance. Our man of business holds it as a point
of his faith that work should never be paid for until done.
“WANTED- The advertisers, being about to commence extensive business
operations in this city, will require the services of three or four
intelligent and competent clerks, to whom a liberal salary will be
paid. The very best recommendations, not so much for capacity, as
for integrity, will be expected. Indeed, as the duties to be performed
involve high responsibilities, and large amounts of money must
necessarily pass through the hands of those engaged, it is deemed
advisable to demand a deposit of fifty dollars from each clerk
employed. No person need apply, therefore, who is not prepared to
leave this sum in the possession of the advertisers, and who cannot
furnish the most satisfactory testimonials of morality. Young
gentlemen piously inclined will be preferred. Application should be
made between the hours of ten and eleven A. M., and four and five P.
M., of Messrs.

“Bogs, Hogs Logs, Frogs & Co.,
“No. 110 Dog Street”

By the thirty-first day of the month, this advertisement has brought
to the office of Messrs. Bogs, Hogs, Logs, Frogs, and Company, some
fifteen or twenty young gentlemen piously inclined. But our man of
business is in no hurry to conclude a contract with any- no man of
business is ever precipitate- and it is not until the most rigid
catechism in respect to the piety of each young gentleman’s
inclination, that his services are engaged and his fifty dollars
receipted for, just by way of proper precaution, on the part of the
respectable firm of Bogs, Hogs, Logs, Frogs, and Company. On the
morning of the first day of the next month, the landlady does not
present her bill, according to promise- a piece of neglect for which
the comfortable head of the house ending in ogs would no doubt have
chided her severely, could he have been prevailed upon to remain in
town a day or two for that purpose.
As it is, the constables have had a sad time of it, running hither
and thither, and all they can do is to declare the man of business
most emphatically, a “hen knee high”- by which some persons imagine
them to imply that, in fact, he is n. e. i.- by which again the very
classical phrase non est inventus, is supposed to be understood. In
the meantime the young gentlemen, one and all, are somewhat less
piously inclined than before, while the landlady purchases a
shilling’s worth of the Indian rubber, and very carefully
obliterates the pencil memorandum that some fool has made in her great
family Bible, on the broad margin of the Proverbs of Solomon.
THE END

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