The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xix.

A Soldier of Fortune.

“Mexico? Molino del Rey? Resaca de la Palma?”

“Resaca de la Tomba!”

Leaving his reputation to take care of itself, since, as is not seldom the case, he knew nothing of its being in debate, the herb-doctor, wandering towards the forward part of the boat, had there espied a singular character in a grimy old regimental coat, a countenance at once grim and wizened, interwoven paralyzed legs, stiff as icicles, suspended between rude crutches, while the whole rigid body, like a ship’s long barometer on gimbals, swung to and fro, mechanically faithful to the motion of the boat. Looking downward while he swung, the cripple seemed in a brown study.

As moved by the sight, and conjecturing that here was some battered hero from the Mexican battle-fields, the herb-doctor had sympathetically accosted him as above, and received the above rather dubious reply. As, with a half moody, half surly sort of air that reply was given, the cripple, by a voluntary jerk, nervously increased his swing (his custom when seized by emotion), so that one would have thought some squall had suddenly rolled the boat and with it the barometer.

“Tombs? my friend,” exclaimed the herb-doctor in mild surprise. “You have not descended to the dead, have you? I had imagined you a scarred campaigner, one of the noble children of war, for your dear country a glorious sufferer. But you are Lazarus, it seems.”

“Yes, he who had sores.”

“Ah, the other Lazarus. But I never knew that either of them was in the army,” glancing at the dilapidated regimentals.

“That will do now. Jokes enough.”

“Friend,” said the other reproachfully, “you think amiss. On principle, I greet unfortunates with some pleasant remark, the better to call off their thoughts from their troubles. The physician who is at once wise and humane seldom unreservedly sympathizes with his patient. But come, I am a herb-doctor, and also a natural bone-setter. I may be sanguine, but I think I can do something for you. You look up now. Give me your story. Ere I undertake a cure, I require a full account of the case.”

“You can’t help me,” returned the cripple gruffly. “Go away.”

“You seem sadly destitute of ——”

“No I ain’t destitute; today, at least, I can pay my way.”

“The Natural Bone-setter is happy, indeed, to hear that. But you were premature. I was deploring your destitution, not of cash, but of confidence. You think the Natural Bone-setter can’t help you. Well, suppose he can’t, have you any objection to telling him your story? You, my friend, have, in a signal way, experienced adversity. Tell me, then, for my private good, how, without aid from the noble cripple, Epictetus, you have arrived at his heroic sang-froid in misfortune.”

At these words the cripple fixed upon the speaker the hard ironic eye of one toughened and defiant in misery, and, in the end, grinned upon him with his unshaven face like an ogre.

“Come, come, be sociable — be human, my friend. Don’t make that face; it distresses me.”

“I suppose,” with a sneer, “you are the man I’ve long heard of — The Happy Man.”

“Happy? my friend. Yes, at least I ought to be. My conscience is peaceful. I have confidence in everybody. I have confidence that, in my humble profession, I do some little good to the world. Yes, I think that, without presumption, I may venture to assent to the proposition that I am the Happy Man — the Happy Bone-setter.”

“Then, you shall hear my story. Many a month I have longed to get hold of the Happy Man, drill him, drop the powder, and leave him to explode at his leisure.”.

“What a demoniac unfortunate” exclaimed the herb-doctor retreating. “Regular infernal machine!”

“Look ye,” cried the other, stumping after him, and with his horny hand catching him by a horn button, “my name is Thomas Fry. Until my ——”

—“Any relation of Mrs. Fry?” interrupted the other. “I still correspond with that excellent lady on the subject of prisons. Tell me, are you anyway connected with my Mrs. Fry?”

“Blister Mrs. Fry! What do them sentimental souls know of prisons or any other black fact? I’ll tell ye a story of prisons. Ha, ha!”

The herb-doctor shrank, and with reason, the laugh being strangely startling.

“Positively, my friend,” said he, “you must stop that; I can’t stand that; no more of that. I hope I have the milk of kindness, but your thunder will soon turn it.”

“Hold, I haven’t come to the milk-turning part yet. My name is Thomas Fry. Until my twenty-third year I went by the nickname of Happy Tom — happy — ha, ha! They called me Happy Tom, d’ye see? because I was so good-natured and laughing all the time, just as I am now — ha, ha!”

Upon this the herb-doctor would, perhaps, have run, but once more the hyæna clawed him. Presently, sobering down, he continued:

“Well, I was born in New York, and there I lived a steady, hard-working man, a cooper by trade. One evening I went to a political meeting in the Park — for you must know, I was in those days a great patriot. As bad luck would have it, there was trouble near, between a gentleman who had been drinking wine, and a pavior who was sober. The pavior chewed tobacco, and the gentleman said it was beastly in him, and pushed him, wanting to have his place. The pavior chewed on and pushed back. Well, the gentleman carried a sword-cane, and presently the pavior was down — skewered.”

“How was that?”

“Why you see the pavior undertook something above his strength.”

“The other must have been a Samson then. ‘Strong as a pavior,’ is a proverb.”

“So it is, and the gentleman was in body a rather weakly man, but, for all that, I say again, the pavior undertook something above his strength.”

“What are you talking about? He tried to maintain his rights, didn’t he?”

“Yes; but, for all that, I say again, he undertook something above his strength.”

“I don’t understand you. But go on.”

“Along with the gentleman, I, with other witnesses, was taken to the Tombs. There was an examination, and, to appear at the trial, the gentleman and witnesses all gave bail — I mean all but me.”

“And why didn’t you?”

“Couldn’t get it.”

“Steady, hard-working cooper like you; what was the reason you couldn’t get bail?”

“Steady, hard-working cooper hadn’t no friends. Well, souse I went into a wet cell, like a canal-boat splashing into the lock; locked up in pickle, d’ye see? against the time of the trial.”

“But what had you done?”

“Why, I hadn’t got any friends, I tell ye. A worse crime than murder, as ye’ll see afore long.”

“Murder? Did the wounded man die?”

“Died the third night.”

“Then the gentleman’s bail didn’t help him. Imprisoned now, wasn’t he?”

“Had too many friends. No, it was I that was imprisoned. — But I was going on: They let me walk about the corridor by day; but at night I must into lock. There the wet and the damp struck into my bones. They doctored me, but no use. When the trial came, I was boosted up and said my say.”

“And what was that?”

“My say was that I saw the steel go in, and saw it sticking in.”

“And that hung the gentleman.”

“Hung him with a gold chain! His friends called a meeting in the Park, and presented him with a gold watch and chain upon his acquittal.”

“Acquittal?”

“Didn’t I say he had friends?”

There was a pause, broken at last by the herb-doctor’s saying: “Well, there is a bright side to everything. If this speak prosaically for justice, it speaks romantically for friendship! But go on, my fine fellow.”

“My say being said, they told me I might go. I said I could not without help. So the constables helped me, asking where would I go? I told them back to the ‘Tombs.’ I knew no other place. ‘But where are your friends?’ said they. ‘I have none.’ So they put me into a hand-barrow with an awning to it, and wheeled me down to the dock and on board a boat, and away to Blackwell’s Island to the Corporation Hospital. There I got worse — got pretty much as you see me now. Couldn’t cure me. After three years, I grew sick of lying in a grated iron bed alongside of groaning thieves and mouldering burglars. They gave me five silver dollars, and these crutches, and I hobbled off. I had an only brother who went to Indiana, years ago. I begged about, to make up a sum to go to him; got to Indiana at last, and they directed me to his grave. It was on a great plain, in a log-church yard with a stump fence, the old gray roots sticking all ways like moose-antlers. The bier, set over the grave, it being the last dug, was of green hickory; bark on, and green twigs sprouting from it. Some one had planted a bunch of violets on the mound, but it was a poor soil (always choose the poorest soils for grave-yards), and they were all dried to tinder. I was going to sit and rest myself on the bier and think about my brother in heaven, but the bier broke down, the legs being only tacked. So, after driving some hogs out of the yard that were rooting there, I came away, and, not to make too long a story of it, here I am, drifting down stream like any other bit of wreck.”

The herb-doctor was silent for a time, buried in thought. At last, raising his head, he said: “I have considered your whole story, my friend, and strove to consider it in the light of a commentary on what I believe to be the system of things; but it so jars with all, is so incompatible with all, that you must pardon me, if I honestly tell you, I cannot believe it.”

“That don’t surprise me.”

“How?”

“Hardly anybody believes my story, and so to most I tell a different one.”

“How, again?”

“Wait here a bit and I’ll show ye.”

With that, taking off his rag of a cap, and arranging his tattered regimentals the best he could, off he went stumping among the passengers in an adjoining part of the deck, saying with a jovial kind of air: “Sir, a shilling for Happy Tom, who fought at Buena Vista. Lady, something for General Scott’s soldier, crippled in both pins at glorious Contreras.”

Now, it so chanced that, unbeknown to the cripple, a prim-looking stranger had overheard part of his story. Beholding him, then, on his present begging adventure, this person, turning to the herb-doctor, indignantly said: “Is it not too bad, sir, that yonder rascal should lie so?”

“Charity never faileth, my good sir,” was the reply. “The vice of this unfortunate is pardonable. Consider, he lies not out of wantonness.”

“Not out of wantonness. I never heard more wanton lies. In one breath to tell you what would appear to be his true story, and, in the next, away and falsify it.”

“For all that, I repeat he lies not out of wantonness. A ripe philosopher, turned out of the great Sorbonne of hard times, he thinks that woes, when told to strangers for money, are best sugared. Though the inglorious lock-jaw of his knee-pans in a wet dungeon is a far more pitiable ill than to have been crippled at glorious Contreras, yet he is of opinion that this lighter and false ill shall attract, while the heavier and real one might repel.”

“Nonsense; he belongs to the Devil’s regiment; and I have a great mind to expose him.”

“Shame upon you. Dare to expose that poor unfortunate, and by heaven — don’t you do it, sir.”

Noting something in his manner, the other thought it more prudent to retire than retort. By-and-by, the cripple came back, and with glee, having reaped a pretty good harvest.

“There,” he laughed, “you know now what sort of soldier I am.”

“Aye, one that fights not the stupid Mexican, but a foe worthy your tactics — Fortune!”

“Hi, hi!” clamored the cripple, like a fellow in the pit of a sixpenny theatre, then said, “don’t know much what you meant, but it went off well.”

This over, his countenance capriciously put on a morose ogreness. To kindly questions he gave no kindly answers. Unhandsome notions were thrown out about “free Ameriky,” as he sarcastically called his country. These seemed to disturb and pain the herb-doctor, who, after an interval of thoughtfulness, gravely addressed him in these words:

“You, my Worthy friend, to my concern, have reflected upon the government under which you live and suffer. Where is your patriotism? Where your gratitude? True, the charitable may find something in your case, as you put it, partly to account for such reflections as coming from you. Still, be the facts how they may, your reflections are none the less unwarrantable. Grant, for the moment, that your experiences are as you give them; in which case I would admit that government might be thought to have more or less to do with what seems undesirable in them. But it is never to be forgotten that human government, being subordinate to the divine, must needs, therefore, in its degree, partake of the characteristics of the divine. That is, while in general efficacious to happiness, the world’s law may yet, in some cases, have, to the eye of reason, an unequal operation, just as, in the same imperfect view, some inequalities may appear in the operations of heaven’s law; nevertheless, to one who has a right confidence, final benignity is, in every instance, as sure with the one law as the other. I expound the point at some length, because these are the considerations, my poor fellow, which, weighed as they merit, will enable you to sustain with unimpaired trust the apparent calamities which are yours.”

“What do you talk your hog-latin to me for?” cried the cripple, who, throughout the address, betrayed the most illiterate obduracy; and, with an incensed look, anew he swung himself.

Glancing another way till the spasm passed, the other continued:

“Charity marvels not that you should be somewhat hard of conviction, my friend, since you, doubtless, believe yourself hardly dealt by; but forget not that those who are loved are chastened.”

“Mustn’t chasten them too much, though, and too long, because their skin and heart get hard, and feel neither pain nor tickle.”

“To mere reason, your case looks something piteous, I grant. But never despond; many things — the choicest — yet remain. You breathe this bounteous air, are warmed by this gracious sun, and, though poor and friendless, indeed, nor so agile as in your youth, yet, how sweet to roam, day by day, through the groves, plucking the bright mosses and flowers, till forlornness itself becomes a hilarity, and, in your innocent independence, you skip for joy.”

“Fine skipping with these ’ere horse-posts — ha ha!”

“Pardon; I forgot the crutches. My mind, figuring you after receiving the benefit of my art, overlooked you as you stand before me.”

“Your art? You call yourself a bone-setter — a natural bone-setter, do ye? Go, bone-set the crooked world, and then come bone-set crooked me.”

“Truly, my honest friend, I thank you for again recalling me to my original object. Let me examine you,” bending down; “ah, I see, I see; much such a case as the negro’s. Did you see him? Oh no, you came aboard since. Well, his case was a little something like yours. I prescribed for him, and I shouldn’t wonder at all if, in a very short time, he were able to walk almost as well as myself. Now, have you no confidence in my art?”

“Ha, ha!”

The herb-doctor averted himself; but, the wild laugh dying away, resumed:

“I will not force confidence on you. Still, I would fain do the friendly thing by you. Here, take this box; just rub that liniment on the joints night and morning. Take it. Nothing to pay. God bless you. Good-bye.”

“Stay,” pausing in his swing, not untouched by so unexpected an act; “stay — thank’ee — but will this really do me good? Honor bright, now; will it? Don’t deceive a poor fellow,” with changed mien and glistening eye.

“Try it. Good-bye.”

“Stay, stay! Sure it will do me good?”

“Possibly, possibly; no harm in trying. Good-bye.”

“Stay, stay; give me three more boxes, and here’s the money.”

“My friend,” returning towards him with a sadly pleased sort of air, “I rejoice in the birth of your confidence and hopefulness. Believe me that, like your crutches, confidence and hopefulness will long support a man when his own legs will not. Stick to confidence and hopefulness, then, since how mad for the cripple to throw his crutches away. You ask for three more boxes of my liniment. Luckily, I have just that number remaining. Here they are. I sell them at half-a-dollar apiece. But I shall take nothing from you. There; God bless you again; good-bye.”

“Stay,” in a convulsed voice, and rocking himself, “stay, stay! You have made a better man of me. You have borne with me like a good Christian, and talked to me like one, and all that is enough without making me a present of these boxes. Here is the money. I won’t take nay. There, there; and may Almighty goodness go with you.”

As the herb-doctor withdrew, the cripple gradually subsided from his hard rocking into a gentle oscillation. It expressed, perhaps, the soothed mood of his reverie.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/melville/herman/confidence-man/chapter19.html

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