The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xvii.

Towards the End of which the Herb-Doctor Proves Himself a Forgiver of Injuries.

In a kind of ante-cabin, a number of respectable looking people, male and female, way-passengers, recently come on board, are listlessly sitting in a mutually shy sort of silence.

Holding up a small, square bottle, ovally labeled with the engraving of a countenance full of soft pity as that of the Romish-painted Madonna, the herb-doctor passes slowly among them, benignly urbane, turning this way and that, saying:—

“Ladies and gentlemen, I hold in my hand here the Samaritan Pain Dissuader, thrice-blessed discovery of that disinterested friend of humanity whose portrait you see. Pure vegetable extract. Warranted to remove the acutest pain within less than ten minutes. Five hundred dollars to be forfeited on failure. Especially efficacious in heart disease and tic-douloureux. Observe the expression of this pledged friend of humanity. — Price only fifty cents.”

In vain. After the first idle stare, his auditors — in pretty good health, it seemed — instead of encouraging his politeness, appeared, if anything, impatient of it; and, perhaps, only diffidence, or some small regard for his feelings, prevented them from telling him so. But, insensible to their coldness, or charitably overlooking it, he more wooingly than ever resumed: “May I venture upon a small supposition? Have I your kind leave, ladies and gentlemen?”

To which modest appeal, no one had the kindness to answer a syllable.

“Well,” said he, resignedly, “silence is at least not denial, and may be consent. My supposition is this: possibly some lady, here present, has a dear friend at home, a bed-ridden sufferer from spinal complaint. If so, what gift more appropriate to that sufferer than this tasteful little bottle of Pain Dissuader?”

Again he glanced about him, but met much the same reception as before. Those faces, alien alike to sympathy or surprise, seemed patiently to say, “We are travelers; and, as such, must expect to meet, and quietly put up with, many antic fools, and more antic quacks.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” (deferentially fixing his eyes upon their now self-complacent faces) “ladies and gentlemen, might I, by your kind leave, venture upon one other small supposition? It is this: that there is scarce a sufferer, this noonday, writhing on his bed, but in his hour he sat satisfactorily healthy and happy; that the Samaritan Pain Dissuader is the one only balm for that to which each living creature — who knows? — may be a draughted victim, present or prospective. In short:— Oh, Happiness on my right hand, and oh, Security on my left, can ye wisely adore a Providence, and not think it wisdom to provide? — Provide!” (Uplifting the bottle.)

What immediate effect, if any, this appeal might have had, is uncertain. For just then the boat touched at a houseless landing, scooped, as by a land-slide, out of sombre forests; back through which led a road, the sole one, which, from its narrowness, and its being walled up with story on story of dusk, matted foliage, presented the vista of some cavernous old gorge in a city, like haunted Cock Lane in London. Issuing from that road, and crossing that landing, there stooped his shaggy form in the door-way, and entered the ante-cabin, with a step so burdensome that shot seemed in his pockets, a kind of invalid Titan in homespun; his beard blackly pendant, like the Carolina-moss, and dank with cypress dew; his countenance tawny and shadowy as an iron-ore country in a clouded day. In one hand he carried a heavy walking-stick of swamp-oak; with the other, led a puny girl, walking in moccasins, not improbably his child, but evidently of alien maternity, perhaps Creole, or even Camanche. Her eye would have been large for a woman, and was inky as the pools of falls among mountain-pines. An Indian blanket, orange-hued, and fringed with lead tassel-work, appeared that morning to have shielded the child from heavy showers. Her limbs were tremulous; she seemed a little Cassandra, in nervousness.

No sooner was the pair spied by the herb-doctor, than with a cheerful air, both arms extended like a host’s, he advanced, and taking the child’s reluctant hand, said, trippingly: “On your travels, ah, my little May Queen? Glad to see you. What pretty moccasins. Nice to dance in.” Then with a half caper sang —

“‘Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle;

The cow jumped over the moon.’

Come, chirrup, chirrup, my little robin!”

Which playful welcome drew no responsive playfulness from the child, nor appeared to gladden or conciliate the father; but rather, if anything, to dash the dead weight of his heavy-hearted expression with a smile hypochondriacally scornful.

Sobering down now, the herb-doctor addressed the stranger in a manly, business-like way — a transition which, though it might seem a little abrupt, did not appear constrained, and, indeed, served to show that his recent levity was less the habit of a frivolous nature, than the frolic condescension of a kindly heart.

“Excuse me,” said he, “but, if I err not, I was speaking to you the other day; — on a Kentucky boat, wasn’t it?”

“Never to me,” was the reply; the voice deep and lonesome enough to have come from the bottom of an abandoned coal-shaft.

“Ah! — But am I again mistaken, (his eye falling on the swamp-oak stick,) or don’t you go a little lame, sir?”

“Never was lame in my life.”

“Indeed? I fancied I had perceived not a limp, but a hitch, a slight hitch; — some experience in these things — divined some hidden cause of the hitch — buried bullet, may be-some dragoons in the Mexican war discharged with such, you know. — Hard fate!” he sighed, “little pity for it, for who sees it? — have you dropped anything?”

Why, there is no telling, but the stranger was bowed over, and might have seemed bowing for the purpose of picking up something, were it not that, as arrested in the imperfect posture, he for the moment so remained; slanting his tall stature like a mainmast yielding to the gale, or Adam to the thunder.

The little child pulled him. With a kind of a surge he righted himself, for an instant looked toward the herb-doctor; but, either from emotion or aversion, or both together, withdrew his eyes, saying nothing. Presently, still stooping, he seated himself, drawing his child between his knees, his massy hands tremulous, and still averting his face, while up into the compassionate one of the herb-doctor the child turned a fixed, melancholy glance of repugnance.

The herb-doctor stood observant a moment, then said:

“Surely you have pain, strong pain, somewhere; in strong frames pain is strongest. Try, now, my specific,” (holding it up). “Do but look at the expression of this friend of humanity. Trust me, certain cure for any pain in the world. Won’t you look?”

“No,” choked the other.

“Very good. Merry time to you, little May Queen.”

And so, as if he would intrude his cure upon no one, moved pleasantly off, again crying his wares, nor now at last without result. A new-comer, not from the shore, but another part of the boat, a sickly young man, after some questions, purchased a bottle. Upon this, others of the company began a little to wake up as it were; the scales of indifference or prejudice fell from their eyes; now, at last, they seemed to have an inkling that here was something not undesirable which might be had for the buying.

But while, ten times more briskly bland than ever, the herb-doctor was driving his benevolent trade, accompanying each sale with added praises of the thing traded, all at once the dusk giant, seated at some distance, unexpectedly raised his voice with —

“What was that you last said?”

The question was put distinctly, yet resonantly, as when a great clock-bell — stunning admonisher — strikes one; and the stroke, though single, comes bedded in the belfry clamor.

All proceedings were suspended. Hands held forth for the specific were withdrawn, while every eye turned towards the direction whence the question came. But, no way abashed, the herb-doctor, elevating his voice with even more than wonted self-possession, replied —

“I was saying what, since you wish it, I cheerfully repeat, that the Samaritan Pain Dissuader, which I here hold in my hand, will either cure or ease any pain you please, within ten minutes after its application.”

“Does it produce insensibility?”

“By no means. Not the least of its merits is, that it is not an opiate. It kills pain without killing feeling.”

“You lie! Some pains cannot be eased but by producing insensibility, and cannot be cured but by producing death.”

Beyond this the dusk giant said nothing; neither, for impairing the other’s market, did there appear much need to. After eying the rude speaker a moment with an expression of mingled admiration and consternation, the company silently exchanged glances of mutual sympathy under unwelcome conviction. Those who had purchased looked sheepish or ashamed; and a cynical-looking little man, with a thin flaggy beard, and a countenance ever wearing the rudiments of a grin, seated alone in a corner commanding a good view of the scene, held a rusty hat before his face.

But, again, the herb-doctor, without noticing the retort, overbearing though it was, began his panegyrics anew, and in a tone more assured than before, going so far now as to say that his specific was sometimes almost as effective in cases of mental suffering as in cases of physical; or rather, to be more precise, in cases when, through sympathy, the two sorts of pain coöperated into a climax of both — in such cases, he said, the specific had done very well. He cited an example: Only three bottles, faithfully taken, cured a Louisiana widow (for three weeks sleepless in a darkened chamber) of neuralgic sorrow for the loss of husband and child, swept off in one night by the last epidemic. For the truth of this, a printed voucher was produced, duly signed.

While he was reading it aloud, a sudden side-blow all but felled him.

It was the giant, who, with a countenance lividly epileptic with hypochondriac mania, exclaimed —

“Profane fiddler on heart-strings! Snake!”

More he would have added, but, convulsed, could not; so, without another word, taking up the child, who had followed him, went with a rocking pace out of the cabin.

“Regardless of decency, and lost to humanity!” exclaimed the herb-doctor, with much ado recovering himself. Then, after a pause, during which he examined his bruise, not omitting to apply externally a little of his specific, and with some success, as it would seem, plained to himself:

“No, no, I won’t seek redress; innocence is my redress. But,” turning upon them all, “if that man’s wrathful blow provokes me to no wrath, should his evil distrust arouse you to distrust? I do devoutly hope,” proudly raising voice and arm, “for the honor of humanity — hope that, despite this coward assault, the Samaritan Pain Dissuader stands unshaken in the confidence of all who hear me!”

But, injured as he was, and patient under it, too, somehow his case excited as little compassion as his oratory now did enthusiasm. Still, pathetic to the last, he continued his appeals, notwithstanding the frigid regard of the company, till, suddenly interrupting himself, as if in reply to a quick summons from without, he said hurriedly, “I come, I come,” and so, with every token of precipitate dispatch, out of the cabin the herb-doctor went.

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