The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xviii.

Inquest into the True Character of the Herb-Doctor.

“Sha’n’t see that fellow again in a hurry,” remarked an auburn-haired gentleman, to his neighbor with a hook-nose. “Never knew an operator so completely unmasked.”

“But do you think it the fair thing to unmask an operator that way?”

“Fair? It is right.”

“Supposing that at high ‘change on the Paris Bourse, Asmodeus should lounge in, distributing hand-bills, revealing the true thoughts and designs of all the operators present — would that be the fair thing in Asmodeus? Or, as Hamlet says, were it ‘to consider the thing too curiously?’”

“We won’t go into that. But since you admit the fellow to be a knave ——”

“I don’t admit it. Or, if I did, I take it back. Shouldn’t wonder if, after all, he is no knave at all, or, but little of one. What can you prove against him?”

“I can prove that he makes dupes.”

“Many held in honor do the same; and many, not wholly knaves, do it too.”

“How about that last?”

“He is not wholly at heart a knave, I fancy, among whose dupes is himself. Did you not see our quack friend apply to himself his own quackery? A fanatic quack; essentially a fool, though effectively a knave.”

Bending over, and looking down between his knees on the floor, the auburn-haired gentleman meditatively scribbled there awhile with his cane, then, glancing up, said:

“I can’t conceive how you, in anyway, can hold him a fool. How he talked — so glib, so pat, so well.”

“A smart fool always talks well; takes a smart fool to be tonguey.”

In much the same strain the discussion continued — the hook-nosed gentleman talking at large and excellently, with a view of demonstrating that a smart fool always talks just so. Ere long he talked to such purpose as almost to convince.

Presently, back came the person of whom the auburn-haired gentleman had predicted that he would not return. Conspicuous in the door-way he stood, saying, in a clear voice, “Is the agent of the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum within here?”

No one replied.

“Is there within here any agent or any member of any charitable institution whatever?”

No one seemed competent to answer, or, no one thought it worth while to.

“If there be within here any such person, I have in my hand two dollars for him.”

Some interest was manifested.

“I was called away so hurriedly, I forgot this part of my duty. With the proprietor of the Samaritan Pain Dissuader it is a rule, to devote, on the spot, to some benevolent purpose, the half of the proceeds of sales. Eight bottles were disposed of among this company. Hence, four half-dollars remain to charity. Who, as steward, takes the money?”

One or two pair of feet moved upon the floor, as with a sort of itching; but nobody rose.

“Does diffidence prevail over duty? If, I say, there be any gentleman, or any lady, either, here present, who is in any connection with any charitable institution whatever, let him or her come forward. He or she happening to have at hand no certificate of such connection, makes no difference. Not of a suspicious temper, thank God, I shall have confidence in whoever offers to take the money.”

A demure-looking woman, in a dress rather tawdry and rumpled, here drew her veil well down and rose; but, marking every eye upon her, thought it advisable, upon the whole, to sit down again.

“Is it to be believed that, in this Christian company, there is no one charitable person? I mean, no one connected with any charity? Well, then, is there no object of charity here?”

Upon this, an unhappy-looking woman, in a sort of mourning, neat, but sadly worn, hid her face behind a meagre bundle, and was heard to sob. Meantime, as not seeing or hearing her, the herb-doctor again spoke, and this time not unpathetically:

“Are there none here who feel in need of help, and who, in accepting such help, would feel that they, in their time, have given or done more than may ever be given or done to them? Man or woman, is there none such here?”

The sobs of the woman were more audible, though she strove to repress them. While nearly every one’s attention was bent upon her, a man of the appearance of a day-laborer, with a white bandage across his face, concealing the side of the nose, and who, for coolness’ sake, had been sitting in his red-flannel shirt-sleeves, his coat thrown across one shoulder, the darned cuffs drooping behind — this man shufflingly rose, and, with a pace that seemed the lingering memento of the lock-step of convicts, went up for a duly-qualified claimant.

“Poor wounded huzzar!” sighed the herb-doctor, and dropping the money into the man’s clam-shell of a hand turned and departed.

The recipient of the alms was about moving after, when the auburn-haired gentleman staid him: “Don’t be frightened, you; but I want to see those coins. Yes, yes; good silver, good silver. There, take them again, and while you are about it, go bandage the rest of yourself behind something. D’ye hear? Consider yourself, wholly, the scar of a nose, and be off with yourself.”

Being of a forgiving nature, or else from emotion not daring to trust his voice, the man silently, but not without some precipitancy, withdrew.

“Strange,” said the auburn-haired gentleman, returning to his friend, “the money was good money.”

“Aye, and where your fine knavery now? Knavery to devote the half of one’s receipts to charity? He’s a fool I say again.”

“Others might call him an original genius.”

“Yes, being original in his folly. Genius? His genius is a cracked pate, and, as this age goes, not much originality about that.”

“May he not be knave, fool, and genius altogether?”

“I beg pardon,” here said a third person with a gossiping expression who had been listening, “but you are somewhat puzzled by this man, and well you may be.”

“Do you know anything about him?” asked the hooked-nosed gentleman.

“No, but I suspect him for something.”

“Suspicion. We want knowledge.”

“Well, suspect first and know next. True knowledge comes but by suspicion or revelation. That’s my maxim.”

“And yet,” said the auburn-haired gentleman, “since a wise man will keep even some certainties to himself, much more some suspicions, at least he will at all events so do till they ripen into knowledge.”

“Do you hear that about the wise man?” said the hook-nosed gentleman, turning upon the new comer. “Now what is it you suspect of this fellow?”

“I shrewdly suspect him,” was the eager response, “for one of those Jesuit emissaries prowling all over our country. The better to accomplish their secret designs, they assume, at times, I am told, the most singular masques; sometimes, in appearance, the absurdest.”

This, though indeed for some reason causing a droll smile upon the face of the hook-nosed gentleman, added a third angle to the discussion, which now became a sort of triangular duel, and ended, at last, with but a triangular result.

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