The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xv.

An Old Miser, Upon Suitable Representations, is Prevailed Upon to Venture an Investment.

The merchant having withdrawn, the other remained seated alone for a time, with the air of one who, after having conversed with some excellent man, carefully ponders what fell from him, however intellectually inferior it may be, that none of the profit may be lost; happy if from any honest word he has heard he can derive some hint, which, besides confirming him in the theory of virtue, may, likewise, serve for a finger-post to virtuous action.

Ere long his eye brightened, as if some such hint was now caught. He rises, book in hand, quits the cabin, and enters upon a sort of corridor, narrow and dim, a by-way to a retreat less ornate and cheery than the former; in short, the emigrants’ quarters; but which, owing to the present trip being a down-river one, will doubtless be found comparatively tenantless. Owing to obstructions against the side windows, the whole place is dim and dusky; very much so, for the most part; yet, by starts, haggardly lit here and there by narrow, capricious sky-lights in the cornices. But there would seem no special need for light, the place being designed more to pass the night in, than the day; in brief, a pine barrens dormitory, of knotty pine bunks, without bedding. As with the nests in the geometrical towns of the associate penguin and pelican, these bunks were disposed with Philadelphian regularity, but, like the cradle of the oriole, they were pendulous, and, moreover, were, so to speak, three-story cradles; the description of one of which will suffice for all.

Four ropes, secured to the ceiling, passed downwards through auger-holes bored in the corners of three rough planks, which at equal distances rested on knots vertically tied in the ropes, the lowermost plank but an inch or two from the floor, the whole affair resembling, on a large scale, rope book-shelves; only, instead of hanging firmly against a wall, they swayed to and fro at the least suggestion of motion, but were more especially lively upon the provocation of a green emigrant sprawling into one, and trying to lay himself out there, when the cradling would be such as almost to toss him back whence he came. In consequence, one less inexperienced, essaying repose on the uppermost shelf, was liable to serious disturbance, should a raw beginner select a shelf beneath. Sometimes a throng of poor emigrants, coming at night in a sudden rain to occupy these oriole nests, would — through ignorance of their peculiarity — bring about such a rocking uproar of carpentry, joining to it such an uproar of exclamations, that it seemed as if some luckless ship, with all its crew, was being dashed to pieces among the rocks. They were beds devised by some sardonic foe of poor travelers, to deprive them of that tranquility which should precede, as well as accompany, slumber. — Procrustean beds, on whose hard grain humble worth and honesty writhed, still invoking repose, while but torment responded. Ah, did any one make such a bunk for himself, instead of having it made for him, it might be just, but how cruel, to say, You must lie on it!

But, purgatory as the place would appear, the stranger advances into it: and, like Orpheus in his gay descent to Tartarus, lightly hums to himself an opera snatch.

Suddenly there is a rustling, then a creaking, one of the cradles swings out from a murky nook, a sort of wasted penguin-flipper is supplicatingly put forth, while a wail like that of Dives is heard:—“Water, water!”

It was the miser of whom the merchant had spoken.

Swift as a sister-of-charity, the stranger hovers over him:—

“My poor, poor sir, what can I do for you?”

“Ugh, ugh — water!”

Darting out, he procures a glass, returns, and, holding it to the sufferer’s lips, supports his head while he drinks: “And did they let you lie here, my poor sir, racked with this parching thirst?”

The miser, a lean old man, whose flesh seemed salted cod-fish, dry as combustibles; head, like one whittled by an idiot out of a knot; flat, bony mouth, nipped between buzzard nose and chin; expression, flitting between hunks and imbecile — now one, now the other — he made no response. His eyes were closed, his cheek lay upon an old white moleskin coat, rolled under his head like a wizened apple upon a grimy snow-bank.

Revived at last, he inclined towards his ministrant, and, in a voice disastrous with a cough, said:—“I am old and miserable, a poor beggar, not worth a shoestring — how can I repay you?”

“By giving me your confidence.”

“Confidence!” he squeaked, with changed manner, while the pallet swung, “little left at my age, but take the stale remains, and welcome.”

“Such as it is, though, you give it. Very good. Now give me a hundred dollars.”

Upon this the miser was all panic. His hands groped towards his waist, then suddenly flew upward beneath his moleskin pillow, and there lay clutching something out of sight. Meantime, to himself he incoherently mumbled:—“Confidence? Cant, gammon! Confidence? hum, bubble! — Confidence? fetch, gouge! — Hundred dollars? — hundred devils!”

Half spent, he lay mute awhile, then feebly raising himself, in a voice for the moment made strong by the sarcasm, said, “A hundred dollars? rather high price to put upon confidence. But don’t you see I am a poor, old rat here, dying in the wainscot? You have served me; but, wretch that I am, I can but cough you my thanks — ugh, ugh, ugh!”

This time his cough was so violent that its convulsions were imparted to the plank, which swung him about like a stone in a sling preparatory to its being hurled.

“Ugh, ugh, ugh!”

“What a shocking cough. I wish, my friend, the herb-doctor was here now; a box of his Omni–Balsamic Reinvigorator would do you good.”

“Ugh, ugh, ugh!”

“I’ve a good mind to go find him. He’s aboard somewhere. I saw his long, snuff-colored surtout. Trust me, his medicines are the best in the world.”

“Ugh, ugh, ugh!”

“Oh, how sorry I am.”

“No doubt of it,” squeaked the other again, “but go, get your charity out on deck. There parade the pursy peacocks; they don’t cough down here in desertion and darkness, like poor old me. Look how scaly a pauper I am, clove with this churchyard cough. Ugh, ugh, ugh!”

“Again, how sorry I feel, not only for your cough, but your poverty. Such a rare chance made unavailable. Did you have but the sum named, how I could invest it for you. Treble profits. But confidence — I fear that, even had you the precious cash, you would not have the more precious confidence I speak of.”

“Ugh, ugh, ugh!” flightily raising himself. “What’s that? How, how? Then you don’t want the money for yourself?”

“My dear, dear sir, how could you impute to me such preposterous self-seeking? To solicit out of hand, for my private behoof, an hundred dollars from a perfect stranger? I am not mad, my dear sir.”

“How, how?” still more bewildered, “do you, then, go about the world, gratis, seeking to invest people’s money for them?”

“My humble profession, sir. I live not for myself; but the world will not have confidence in me, and yet confidence in me were great gain.”

“But, but,” in a kind of vertigo, “what do — do you do — do with people’s money? Ugh, ugh! How is the gain made?”

“To tell that would ruin me. That known, every one would be going into the business, and it would be overdone. A secret, a mystery — all I have to do with you is to receive your confidence, and all you have to do with me is, in due time, to receive it back, thrice paid in trebling profits.”

“What, what?” imbecility in the ascendant once more; “but the vouchers, the vouchers,” suddenly hunkish again.

“Honesty’s best voucher is honesty’s face.”

“Can’t see yours, though,” peering through the obscurity.

From this last alternating flicker of rationality, the miser fell back, sputtering, into his previous gibberish, but it took now an arithmetical turn. Eyes closed, he lay muttering to himself —

“One hundred, one hundred — two hundred, two hundred — three hundred, three hundred.”

He opened his eyes, feebly stared, and still more feebly said —

“It’s a little dim here, ain’t it? Ugh, ugh! But, as well as my poor old eyes can see, you look honest.”

“I am glad to hear that.”

“If — if, now, I should put”— trying to raise himself, but vainly, excitement having all but exhausted him —“if, if now, I should put, put ——”

“No ifs. Downright confidence, or none. So help me heaven, I will have no half-confidences.”

He said it with an indifferent and superior air, and seemed moving to go.

“Don’t, don’t leave me, friend; bear with me; age can’t help some distrust; it can’t, friend, it can’t. Ugh, ugh, ugh! Oh, I am so old and miserable. I ought to have a guardian. Tell me, if ——”

“If? No more!”

“Stay! how soon — ugh, ugh! — would my money be trebled? How soon, friend?”

“You won’t confide. Good-bye!”

“Stay, stay,” falling back now like an infant, “I confide, I confide; help, friend, my distrust!”

From an old buckskin pouch, tremulously dragged forth, ten hoarded eagles, tarnished into the appearance of ten old horn-buttons, were taken, and half-eagerly, half-reluctantly, offered.

“I know not whether I should accept this slack confidence,” said the other coldly, receiving the gold, “but an eleventh-hour confidence, a sick-bed confidence, a distempered, death-bed confidence, after all. Give me the healthy confidence of healthy men, with their healthy wits about them. But let that pass. All right. Good-bye!”

“Nay, back, back — receipt, my receipt! Ugh, ugh, ugh! Who are you? What have I done? Where go you? My gold, my gold! Ugh, ugh, ugh!”

But, unluckily for this final flicker of reason, the stranger was now beyond ear-shot, nor was any one else within hearing of so feeble a call.

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