The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter xxi.

A Hard Case.

“Yarbs, yarbs; natur, natur; you foolish old file you! He diddled you with that hocus-pocus, did he? Yarbs and natur will cure your incurable cough, you think.”

It was a rather eccentric-looking person who spoke; somewhat ursine in aspect; sporting a shaggy spencer of the cloth called bear’s-skin; a high-peaked cap of raccoon-skin, the long bushy tail switching over behind; raw-hide leggings; grim stubble chin; and to end, a double-barreled gun in hand — a Missouri bachelor, a Hoosier gentleman, of Spartan leisure and fortune, and equally Spartan manners and sentiments; and, as the sequel may show, not less acquainted, in a Spartan way of his own, with philosophy and books, than with woodcraft and rifles.

He must have overheard some of the talk between the miser and the herb-doctor; for, just after the withdrawal of the one, he made up to the other — now at the foot of the stairs leaning against the baluster there — with the greeting above.

“Think it will cure me?” coughed the miser in echo; “why shouldn’t it? The medicine is nat’ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me.”

“Because a thing is nat’ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?”

“Sure, you don’t think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?”

“Natur is good Queen Bess; but who’s responsible for the cholera?”

“But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?”

“What’s deadly-nightshade? Yarb, ain’t it?”

“Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs — ugh, ugh, ugh! — ain’t sick men sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass?”

“Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?”

“Then you don’t believe in these ’ere yarb-doctors?”

“Yarb-doctors? I remember the lank yarb-doctor I saw once on a hospital-cot in Mobile. One of the faculty passing round and seeing who lay there, said with professional triumph, ‘Ah, Dr. Green, your yarbs don’t help ye now, Dr. Green. Have to come to us and the mercury now, Dr. Green. — Natur! Y-a-r-b-s!’”

“Did I hear something about herbs and herb-doctors?” here said a flute-like voice, advancing.

It was the herb-doctor in person. Carpet-bag in hand, he happened to be strolling back that way.

“Pardon me,” addressing the Missourian, “but if I caught your words aright, you would seem to have little confidence in nature; which, really, in my way of thinking, looks like carrying the spirit of distrust pretty far.”

“And who of my sublime species may you be?” turning short round upon him, clicking his rifle-lock, with an air which would have seemed half cynic, half wild-cat, were it not for the grotesque excess of the expression, which made its sincerity appear more or less dubious.

“One who has confidence in nature, and confidence in man, with some little modest confidence in himself.”

“That’s your Confession of Faith, is it? Confidence in man, eh? Pray, which do you think are most, knaves or fools?”

“Having met with few or none of either, I hardly think I am competent to answer.”

“I will answer for you. Fools are most.”

“Why do you think so?”

“For the same reason that I think oats are numerically more than horses. Don’t knaves munch up fools just as horses do oats?”

“A droll, sir; you are a droll. I can appreciate drollery — ha, ha, ha!”

“But I’m in earnest.”

“That’s the drollery, to deliver droll extravagance with an earnest air — knaves munching up fools as horses oats. — Faith, very droll, indeed, ha, ha, ha! Yes, I think I understand you now, sir. How silly I was to have taken you seriously, in your droll conceits, too, about having no confidence in nature. In reality you have just as much as I have.”

I have confidence in nature? I? I say again there is nothing I am more suspicious of. I once lost ten thousand dollars by nature. Nature embezzled that amount from me; absconded with ten thousand dollars’ worth of my property; a plantation on this stream, swept clean away by one of those sudden shiftings of the banks in a freshet; ten thousand dollars’ worth of alluvion thrown broad off upon the waters.”

“But have you no confidence that by a reverse shifting that soil will come back after many days? — ah, here is my venerable friend,” observing the old miser, “not in your berth yet? Pray, if you will keep afoot, don’t lean against that baluster; take my arm.”

It was taken; and the two stood together; the old miser leaning against the herb-doctor with something of that air of trustful fraternity with which, when standing, the less strong of the Siamese twins habitually leans against the other.

The Missourian eyed them in silence, which was broken by the herb-doctor.

“You look surprised, sir. Is it because I publicly take under my protection a figure like this? But I am never ashamed of honesty, whatever his coat.”

“Look you,” said the Missourian, after a scrutinizing pause, “you are a queer sort of chap. Don’t know exactly what to make of you. Upon the whole though, you somewhat remind me of the last boy I had on my place.”

“Good, trustworthy boy, I hope?”

“Oh, very! I am now started to get me made some kind of machine to do the sort of work which boys are supposed to be fitted for.”

“Then you have passed a veto upon boys?”

“And men, too.”

“But, my dear sir, does not that again imply more or less lack of confidence? —(Stand up a little, just a very little, my venerable friend; you lean rather hard.)— No confidence in boys, no confidence in men, no confidence in nature. Pray, sir, who or what may you have confidence in?”

“I have confidence in distrust; more particularly as applied to you and your herbs.”

“Well,” with a forbearing smile, “that is frank. But pray, don’t forget that when you suspect my herbs you suspect nature.”

“Didn’t I say that before?”

“Very good. For the argument’s sake I will suppose you are in earnest. Now, can you, who suspect nature, deny, that this same nature not only kindly brought you into being, but has faithfully nursed you to your present vigorous and independent condition? Is it not to nature that you are indebted for that robustness of mind which you so unhandsomely use to her scandal? Pray, is it not to nature that you owe the very eyes by which you criticise her?”

“No! for the privilege of vision I am indebted to an oculist, who in my tenth year operated upon me in Philadelphia. Nature made me blind and would have kept me so. My oculist counterplotted her.”

“And yet, sir, by your complexion, I judge you live an out-of-door life; without knowing it, you are partial to nature; you fly to nature, the universal mother.”

“Very motherly! Sir, in the passion-fits of nature, I’ve known birds fly from nature to me, rough as I look; yes, sir, in a tempest, refuge here,” smiting the folds of his bearskin. “Fact, sir, fact. Come, come, Mr. Palaverer, for all your palavering, did you yourself never shut out nature of a cold, wet night? Bar her out? Bolt her out? Lint her out?”

“As to that,” said the herb-doctor calmly, “much may be said.”

“Say it, then,” ruffling all his hairs. “You can’t, sir, can’t.” Then, as in apostrophe: “Look you, nature! I don’t deny but your clover is sweet, and your dandelions don’t roar; but whose hailstones smashed my windows?”

“Sir,” with unimpaired affability, producing one of his boxes, “I am pained to meet with one who holds nature a dangerous character. Though your manner is refined your voice is rough; in short, you seem to have a sore throat. In the calumniated name of nature, I present you with this box; my venerable friend here has a similar one; but to you, a free gift, sir. Through her regularly-authorized agents, of whom I happen to be one, Nature delights in benefiting those who most abuse her. Pray, take it.”

“Away with it! Don’t hold it so near. Ten to one there is a torpedo in it. Such things have been. Editors been killed that way. Take it further off, I say.”

“Good heavens! my dear sir ——”

“I tell you I want none of your boxes,” snapping his rifle.

“Oh, take it — ugh, ugh! do take it,” chimed in the old miser; “I wish he would give me one for nothing.”

“You find it lonely, eh,” turning short round; “gulled yourself, you would have a companion.”

“How can he find it lonely,” returned the herb-doctor, “or how desire a companion, when here I stand by him; I, even I, in whom he has trust. For the gulling, tell me, is it humane to talk so to this poor old man? Granting that his dependence on my medicine is vain, is it kind to deprive him of what, in mere imagination, if nothing more, may help eke out, with hope, his disease? For you, if you have no confidence, and, thanks to your native health, can get along without it, so far, at least, as trusting in my medicine goes; yet, how cruel an argument to use, with this afflicted one here. Is it not for all the world as if some brawny pugilist, aglow in December, should rush in and put out a hospital-fire, because, forsooth, he feeling no need of artificial heat, the shivering patients shall have none? Put it to your conscience, sir, and you will admit, that, whatever be the nature of this afflicted one’s trust, you, in opposing it, evince either an erring head or a heart amiss. Come, own, are you not pitiless?”

“Yes, poor soul,” said the Missourian, gravely eying the old man —“yes, it is pitiless in one like me to speak too honestly to one like you. You are a late sitter-up in this life; past man’s usual bed-time; and truth, though with some it makes a wholesome breakfast, proves to all a supper too hearty. Hearty food, taken late, gives bad dreams.”

“What, in wonder’s name — ugh, ugh! — is he talking about?” asked the old miser, looking up to the herb-doctor.

“Heaven be praised for that!” cried the Missourian.

“Out of his mind, ain’t he?” again appealed the old miser.

“Pray, sir,” said the herb-doctor to the Missourian, “for what were you giving thanks just now?”

“For this: that, with some minds, truth is, in effect, not so cruel a thing after all, seeing that, like a loaded pistol found by poor devils of savages, it raises more wonder than terror — its peculiar virtue being unguessed, unless, indeed, by indiscreet handling, it should happen to go off of itself.”

“I pretend not to divine your meaning there,” said the herb-doctor, after a pause, during which he eyed the Missourian with a kind of pinched expression, mixed of pain and curiosity, as if he grieved at his state of mind, and, at the same time, wondered what had brought him to it, “but this much I know,” he added, “that the general cast of your thoughts is, to say the least, unfortunate. There is strength in them, but a strength, whose source, being physical, must wither. You will yet recant.”


“Yes, when, as with this old man, your evil days of decay come on, when a hoary captive in your chamber, then will you, something like the dungeoned Italian we read of, gladly seek the breast of that confidence begot in the tender time of your youth, blessed beyond telling if it return to you in age.”

“Go back to nurse again, eh? Second childhood, indeed. You are soft.”

“Mercy, mercy!” cried the old miser, “what is all this! — ugh, ugh! Do talk sense, my good friends. Ain’t you,” to the Missourian, “going to buy some of that medicine?”

“Pray, my venerable friend,” said the herb-doctor, now trying to straighten himself, “don’t lean quite so hard; my arm grows numb; abate a little, just a very little.”

“Go,” said the Missourian, “go lay down in your grave, old man, if you can’t stand of yourself. It’s a hard world for a leaner.”

“As to his grave,” said the herb-doctor, “that is far enough off, so he but faithfully take my medicine.”

“Ugh, ugh, ugh! — He says true. No, I ain’t — ugh! a going to die yet — ugh, ugh, ugh! Many years to live yet, ugh, ugh, ugh!”

“I approve your confidence,” said the herb-doctor; “but your coughing distresses me, besides being injurious to you. Pray, let me conduct you to your berth. You are best there. Our friend here will wait till my return, I know.”

With which he led the old miser away, and then, coming back, the talk with the Missourian was resumed.

“Sir,” said the herb-doctor, with some dignity and more feeling, “now that our infirm friend is withdrawn, allow me, to the full, to express my concern at the words you allowed to escape you in his hearing. Some of those words, if I err not, besides being calculated to beget deplorable distrust in the patient, seemed fitted to convey unpleasant imputations against me, his physician.”

“Suppose they did?” with a menacing air.

“Why, then — then, indeed,” respectfully retreating, “I fall back upon my previous theory of your general facetiousness. I have the fortune to be in company with a humorist — a wag.”

“Fall back you had better, and wag it is,” cried the Missourian, following him up, and wagging his raccoon tail almost into the herb-doctor’s face, “look you!”

“At what?”

“At this coon. Can you, the fox, catch him?”

“If you mean,” returned the other, not unselfpossessed, “whether I flatter myself that I can in any way dupe you, or impose upon you, or pass myself off upon you for what I am not, I, as an honest man, answer that I have neither the inclination nor the power to do aught of the kind.”

“Honest man? Seems to me you talk more like a craven.”

“You in vain seek to pick a quarrel with me, or put any affront upon me. The innocence in me heals me.”

“A healing like your own nostrums. But you are a queer man — a very queer and dubious man; upon the whole, about the most so I ever met.”

The scrutiny accompanying this seemed unwelcome to the diffidence of the herb-doctor. As if at once to attest the absence of resentment, as well as to change the subject, he threw a kind of familiar cordiality into his air, and said: “So you are going to get some machine made to do your work? Philanthropic scruples, doubtless, forbid your going as far as New Orleans for slaves?”

“Slaves?” morose again in a twinkling, “won’t have ’em! Bad enough to see whites ducking and grinning round for a favor, without having those poor devils of niggers congeeing round for their corn. Though, to me, the niggers are the freer of the two. You are an abolitionist, ain’t you?” he added, squaring himself with both hands on his rifle, used for a staff, and gazing in the herb-doctor’s face with no more reverence than if it were a target. “You are an abolitionist, ain’t you?”

“As to that, I cannot so readily answer. If by abolitionist you mean a zealot, I am none; but if you mean a man, who, being a man, feels for all men, slaves included, and by any lawful act, opposed to nobody’s interest, and therefore, rousing nobody’s enmity, would willingly abolish suffering (supposing it, in its degree, to exist) from among mankind, irrespective of color, then am I what you say.”

“Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but are useless for right.”

“From all this,” said the herb-doctor, still forgivingly, “I infer, that you, a Missourian, though living in a slave-state, are without slave sentiments.”

“Aye, but are you? Is not that air of yours, so spiritlessly enduring and yielding, the very air of a slave? Who is your master, pray; or are you owned by a company?”

My master?”

“Aye, for come from Maine or Georgia, you come from a slave-state, and a slave-pen, where the best breeds are to be bought up at any price from a livelihood to the Presidency. Abolitionism, ye gods, but expresses the fellow-feeling of slave for slave.”

“The back-woods would seem to have given you rather eccentric notions,” now with polite superiority smiled the herb-doctor, still with manly intrepidity forbearing each unmanly thrust, “but to return; since, for your purpose, you will have neither man nor boy, bond nor free, truly, then some sort of machine for you is all there is left. My desires for your success attend you, sir. — Ah!” glancing shoreward, “here is Cape Girádeau; I must leave you.”

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