The Voyage of Captain Popanilla, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 7

‘Although we are yet some way from our hotel,’ remarked Popanilla’s conductor, ‘we have now arrived at a part of the city where I can ease you, without difficulty, from your troublesome burthen; let us enter here!’

As he spoke, they stopped before a splendid palace, and proceeding through various halls full of individuals apparently intently busied, the companions were at last ushered into an apartment of smaller size, but of more elegant character. A personage of prepossessing appearance was lolling on a couch of an appearance equally prepossessing. Before him, on a table, were some papers, exquisite fruits, and some liqueurs. Popanilla was presented, and received with fascinating complaisance. His friend stated the object of their visit, and handed the sackful of gold to the gentleman on the sofa. The gentleman on the sofa ordered a couple of attendants to ascertain its contents. While this computation was going on he amused his guests by his lively conversation, and charmed Popanilla by his polished manners and easy civility. He offered him, during his stay in Vraibleusia, the use of a couple of equipages, a villa, and an opera-box; insisted upon sending to his hotel some pine-apples and some rare wine, and gave him a perpetual ticket to his picture-gallery. When his attendants had concluded their calculation, he ordered them to place Popanilla’s precious metal in his treasury; and then, presenting the Captain with a small packet of pink shells, he kindly inquired whether he could be of any further use to him. Popanilla was loth to retire without his gold, of the utility of which, in spite of the convenience of competition, he seemed to possess an instinctive conception; but as his friend rose and withdrew, he could do nothing less than accompany him; for, having now known him nearly half a day, his confidence in his honour and integrity was naturally unbounded.

‘That was the King, of course?’ said Popanilla, when they were fairly out of the palace.

‘The King!’ said the unknown, nearly surprised into an exclamation; ‘by no means!’

‘And what then?’

‘My good friend! is it possible that you have no bankers in your country?’

‘Yes, it is very possible; but we have mermaids, who also give us shells which are pretty. What then are your bankers?’

‘Really, my good friend, that is a question which I never remember having been asked before; but a banker is a man who keeps our money for us.’

‘Ah! and he is bound, I suppose, to return your money, when you choose?’

‘Most assuredly!’

‘He is, then, in fact, your servant: you must pay him handsomely, for him to live so well?’

‘By no means! we pay him nothing.’

‘That is droll; he must be very rich then?’

‘Really, my dear friend, I cannot say. Why, yes! I— I suppose he may be very rich!’

’Tis singular that a rich man should take so much trouble for others!’

‘My good friend! of course he lives by his trouble.’

‘Ah! How, then,’ continued the inquisitive Fantaisian, ‘if you do not pay him for his services, and he yet lives by them; how, I pray, does he acquire these immense riches?’

‘Really, my good sir, I am, in truth, the very last man in the world to answer questions: he is a banker; bankers are always rich; but why they are, or how they are, I really never had time to inquire. But I suppose, if the truth were known, they must have very great opportunities.’

‘Ah! I begin to see,’ said Popanilla. ‘It was really very kind of him,’ continued the Captain, ‘to make me a present of these little pink shells: what would I not give to turn them into a necklace, and send it to a certain person at Fantaisie!’

‘It would be a very expensive necklace,’ observed his companion, almost surprised. ‘I had no idea, I confess, from your appearance, that in your country they indulged in such expensive tastes in costume.’

‘Expensive!’ said Popanilla. ‘We certainly have no such shells as these in Fantaisie; but we have much more beautiful ones. I should think, from their look, they must be rather common.’

His conductor for the first time nearly laughed. ‘I forgot,’ said he, ‘that you could not be aware that these pink shells are the most precious coin of the land, compared with which those bits of gold with which you have recently parted are nothing; your whole fortune is now in that little packet. The fact is,’ continued the unknown, making an effort to communicate, ‘although we possess in this country more of the precious metals than all the rest of the world together, the quantity is nevertheless utterly disproportioned to the magnitude of our wealth and our wants. We have been, therefore, under the necessity of resorting to other means of representing the first and supplying the second; and, taking advantage of our insular situation, we have introduced these small pink shells, which abound all round the coast. Being much more convenient to carry, they are in general circulation, and no genteel person has ever anything else in his pocket.’

‘Wonderful! But surely, then, it is no very difficult thing in this country to accumulate a fortune, since all that is necessary to give you every luxury of life is a stroll one morning of your existence along the beach?’

‘By no means, my friend! you are really too rapid. The fact is, that no one has the power of originally circulating these shells but our Government; and if any one, by any chance, choose to violate this arrangement, we make up for depriving him of his solitary walks on the shore by instant submersion in the sea.’

‘Then the whole circulation of the country is at the mercy of your Government?’ remarked Popanilla, summoning to his recollection the contents of one of those shipwrecked brochures which had exercised so strange an influence on his destiny. ‘Suppose they do not choose to issue?’

‘That is always guarded against. The mere quarterly payments of interest upon our national debt will secure an ample supply.’

‘Debt! I thought you were the richest nation in the world?’

’Tis true; nevertheless, if there were a golden pyramid with a base as big as the whole earth and an apex touching the heavens, it would not supply us with sufficient metal to satisfy our creditors.’

‘But, my dear sir,’ exclaimed the perplexed Popanilla, ‘if this really be true, how then can you be said to be the richest nation in the world?’

‘It is very simple. The annual interest upon our debt exceeds the whole wealth of the rest of the world; therefore we must be the richest nation in the world.’

’Tis true,’ said Popanilla; ‘I see I have yet much to learn. But with regard to these pink shells, how can you possibly create for them a certain standard of value? It is merely agreement among yourselves that fixes any value to them.’

‘By no means! you are so rapid! Each shell is immediately convertible into gold; of which metal, let me again remind you, we possess more than any other nation; but which, indeed, we only keep as a sort of dress coin, chiefly to indulge the prejudices of foreigners.’

‘But,’ said the perpetual Popanilla, ‘suppose every man who held a shell on the same day were to —’

‘My good friend! I really am the last person in the world to give explanations. In Vraibleusia, we have so much to do that we have no time to think; a habit which only becomes nations who are not employed. You are now fast approaching the Great Shell Question; a question which, I confess, affects the interests of every man in this island more than any other; but of which, I must candidly own, every man in this island is more ignorant than of any other. No one, however, can deny that the system works well; and if anything at any time go wrong, why really Mr. Secretary Periwinkle is a wonderful man, and our most eminent conchologist. He, no doubt, will set it right; and if, by any chance, things are past even his management, why then, I suppose, to use our national motto, something will turn up.’

Here they arrived at the hotel. Having made every arrangement for the comfort and convenience of the Fantaisian stranger, Popanilla’s conductor took his leave, previously informing him that his name was Skindeep; that he was a member of one of the largest families in the island; that, had he not been engaged to attend a lecture, he would have stayed and dined with him; but that he would certainly call upon him on the morrow.

Compared with his hotel the palace of his banker was a dungeon; even the sunset voluptuousness of Fantaisie was now remembered without regret in the blaze of artificial light and in the artificial gratification of desires which art had alone created. After a magnificent repast, his host politely inquired of Popanilla whether he would like to go to the Opera, the comedy, or a concert; but the Fantaisian philosopher was not yet quite corrupted; and, still inspired with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, he begged his landlord to procure him immediately a pamphlet on the Shell Question.

While his host was engaged in procuring this luxury a man entered the room and told Popanilla that he had walked that day two thousand five hundred paces, and that the tax due to the Excise upon this promenade was fifty crowns. The Captain stared, and remarked to the excise-officer that he thought a man’s paces were a strange article to tax. The excise-officer, with great civility, answered that no doubt at first sight it might appear rather strange, but that it was the only article left untaxed in Vraibleusia; that there was a slight deficiency in the last quarter’s revenue, and that therefore the Government had no alternative; that it was a tax which did not press heavily upon the individual, because the Vraibleusians were of a sedentary habit; that, besides, it was an opinion every day more received among the best judges that the more a man was taxed the richer he ultimately would prove; and he concluded by saying that Popanilla need not make himself uneasy about these demands, because, if he were ruined tomorrow, being a foreigner, he was entitled by the law of the land to five thousand a-year; whereas he, the excise-man, being a native-born Vraibleusian, had no claims whatever upon the Government; therefore he hoped his honour would give him something to drink.

His host now entered with the ‘Novum Organon’ of the great Periwinkle. While Popanilla devoured the lively pages of this treatise, he discovered that the system which had been so subtilely introduced by the Government, and which had so surprised him in the morning, had soon been adopted in private life; and although it was a drowning matter to pick up pink shells, still there was nothing to prevent the whole commerce of the country from being carried on by means of a system equally conchological. He found that the social action in every part of the island was regulated and assisted by this process. Oyster-shells were first introduced; muscle-shells speedily followed; and, as commerce became more complicate, they had even been obliged to have recourse to snail-shells. Popanilla retired to rest with admiration of the people who thus converted to the most useful purposes things apparently so useless. There was no saying now what might not be done even with a nutshell. It was evident that the nation who contrived to be the richest people in the world while they were over head and ears in debt must be fast approaching to a state of perfection. Finally, sinking to sleep in a bed of eiderdown, Popanilla was confirmed in his prejudices against a state of nature.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19