The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter iii.

In which a Variety of Characters Appear.

In the forward part of the boat, not the least attractive object, for a time, was a grotesque negro cripple, in tow-cloth attire and an old coal-sifter of a tamborine in his hand, who, owing to something wrong about his legs, was, in effect, cut down to the stature of a Newfoundland dog; his knotted black fleece and good-natured, honest black face rubbing against the upper part of people’s thighs as he made shift to shuffle about, making music, such as it was, and raising a smile even from the gravest. It was curious to see him, out of his very deformity, indigence, and houselessness, so cheerily endured, raising mirth in some of that crowd, whose own purses, hearths, hearts, all their possessions, sound limbs included, could not make gay.

“What is your name, old boy?” said a purple-faced drover, putting his large purple hand on the cripple’s bushy wool, as if it were the curled forehead of a black steer.

“Der Black Guinea dey calls me, sar.”

“And who is your master, Guinea?”

“Oh sar, I am der dog widout massa.”

“A free dog, eh? Well, on your account, I’m sorry for that, Guinea. Dogs without masters fare hard.”

“So dey do, sar; so dey do. But you see, sar, dese here legs? What ge’mman want to own dese here legs?”

“But where do you live?”

“All ‘long shore, sar; dough now. I’se going to see brodder at der landing; but chiefly I libs in dey city.”

“St. Louis, ah? Where do you sleep there of nights?”

“On der floor of der good baker’s oven, sar.”

“In an oven? whose, pray? What baker, I should like to know, bakes such black bread in his oven, alongside of his nice white rolls, too. Who is that too charitable baker, pray?”

“Dar he be,” with a broad grin lifting his tambourine high over his head.

“The sun is the baker, eh?”

“Yes sar, in der city dat good baker warms der stones for dis ole darkie when he sleeps out on der pabements o’ nights.”

“But that must be in the summer only, old boy. How about winter, when the cold Cossacks come clattering and jingling? How about winter, old boy?”

“Den dis poor old darkie shakes werry bad, I tell you, sar. Oh sar, oh! don’t speak ob der winter,” he added, with a reminiscent shiver, shuffling off into the thickest of the crowd, like a half-frozen black sheep nudging itself a cozy berth in the heart of the white flock.

Thus far not very many pennies had been given him, and, used at last to his strange looks, the less polite passengers of those in that part of the boat began to get their fill of him as a curious object; when suddenly the negro more than revived their first interest by an expedient which, whether by chance or design, was a singular temptation at once to diversion and charity, though, even more than his crippled limbs, it put him on a canine footing. In short, as in appearance he seemed a dog, so now, in a merry way, like a dog he began to be treated. Still shuffling among the crowd, now and then he would pause, throwing back his head and, opening his mouth like an elephant for tossed apples at a menagerie; when, making a space before him, people would have a bout at a strange sort of pitch-penny game, the cripple’s mouth being at once target and purse, and he hailing each expertly-caught copper with a cracked bravura from his tambourine. To be the subject of alms-giving is trying, and to feel in duty bound to appear cheerfully grateful under the trial, must be still more so; but whatever his secret emotions, he swallowed them, while still retaining each copper this side the oesophagus. And nearly always he grinned, and only once or twice did he wince, which was when certain coins, tossed by more playful almoners, came inconveniently nigh to his teeth, an accident whose unwelcomeness was not unedged by the circumstance that the pennies thus thrown proved buttons.

While this game of charity was yet at its height, a limping, gimlet-eyed, sour-faced person — it may be some discharged custom-house officer, who, suddenly stripped of convenient means of support, had concluded to be avenged on government and humanity by making himself miserable for life, either by hating or suspecting everything and everybody — this shallow unfortunate, after sundry sorry observations of the negro, began to croak out something about his deformity being a sham, got up for financial purposes, which immediately threw a damp upon the frolic benignities of the pitch-penny players.

But that these suspicions came from one who himself on a wooden leg went halt, this did not appear to strike anybody present. That cripples, above all men should be companionable, or, at least, refrain from picking a fellow-limper to pieces, in short, should have a little sympathy in common misfortune, seemed not to occur to the company.

Meantime, the negro’s countenance, before marked with even more than patient good-nature, drooped into a heavy-hearted expression, full of the most painful distress. So far abased beneath its proper physical level, that Newfoundland-dog face turned in passively hopeless appeal, as if instinct told it that the right or the wrong might not have overmuch to do with whatever wayward mood superior intelligences might yield to.

But instinct, though knowing, is yet a teacher set below reason, which itself says, in the grave words of Lysander in the comedy, after Puck has made a sage of him with his spell:—

“The will of man is by his reason swayed.”

So that, suddenly change as people may, in their dispositions, it is not always waywardness, but improved judgment, which, as in Lysander’s case, or the present, operates with them.

Yes, they began to scrutinize the negro curiously enough; when, emboldened by this evidence of the efficacy of his words, the wooden-legged man hobbled up to the negro, and, with the air of a beadle, would, to prove his alleged imposture on the spot, have stripped him and then driven him away, but was prevented by the crowd’s clamor, now taking part with the poor fellow, against one who had just before turned nearly all minds the other way. So he with the wooden leg was forced to retire; when the rest, finding themselves left sole judges in the case, could not resist the opportunity of acting the part: not because it is a human weakness to take pleasure in sitting in judgment upon one in a box, as surely this unfortunate negro now was, but that it strangely sharpens human perceptions, when, instead of standing by and having their fellow-feelings touched by the sight of an alleged culprit severely handled by some one justiciary, a crowd suddenly come to be all justiciaries in the same case themselves; as in Arkansas once, a man proved guilty, by law, of murder, but whose condemnation was deemed unjust by the people, so that they rescued him to try him themselves; whereupon, they, as it turned out, found him even guiltier than the court had done, and forthwith proceeded to execution; so that the gallows presented the truly warning spectacle of a man hanged by his friends.

But not to such extremities, or anything like them, did the present crowd come; they, for the time, being content with putting the negro fairly and discreetly to the question; among other things, asking him, had he any documentary proof, any plain paper about him, attesting that his case was not a spurious one.

“No, no, dis poor ole darkie haint none o’ dem waloable papers,” he wailed.

“But is there not some one who can speak a good word for you?” here said a person newly arrived from another part of the boat, a young Episcopal clergyman, in a long, straight-bodied black coat; small in stature, but manly; with a clear face and blue eye; innocence, tenderness, and good sense triumvirate in his air.

“Oh yes, oh yes, ge’mmen,” he eagerly answered, as if his memory, before suddenly frozen up by cold charity, as suddenly thawed back into fluidity at the first kindly word. “Oh yes, oh yes, dar is aboard here a werry nice, good ge’mman wid a weed, and a ge’mman in a gray coat and white tie, what knows all about me; and a ge’mman wid a big book, too; and a yarb-doctor; and a ge’mman in a yaller west; and a ge’mman wid a brass plate; and a ge’mman in a wiolet robe; and a ge’mman as is a sodjer; and ever so many good, kind, honest ge’mmen more aboard what knows me and will speak for me, God bress ’em; yes, and what knows me as well as dis poor old darkie knows hisself, God bress him! Oh, find ’em, find ’em,” he earnestly added, “and let ’em come quick, and show you all, ge’mmen, dat dis poor ole darkie is werry well wordy of all you kind ge’mmen’s kind confidence.”

“But how are we to find all these people in this great crowd?” was the question of a bystander, umbrella in hand; a middle-aged person, a country merchant apparently, whose natural good-feeling had been made at least cautious by the unnatural ill-feeling of the discharged custom-house officer.

“Where are we to find them?” half-rebukefully echoed the young Episcopal clergymen. “I will go find one to begin with,” he quickly added, and, with kind haste suiting the action to the word, away he went.

“Wild goose chase!” croaked he with the wooden leg, now again drawing nigh. “Don’t believe there’s a soul of them aboard. Did ever beggar have such heaps of fine friends? He can walk fast enough when he tries, a good deal faster than I; but he can lie yet faster. He’s some white operator, betwisted and painted up for a decoy. He and his friends are all humbugs.”

“Have you no charity, friend?” here in self-subdued tones, singularly contrasted with his unsubdued person, said a Methodist minister, advancing; a tall, muscular, martial-looking man, a Tennessean by birth, who in the Mexican war had been volunteer chaplain to a volunteer rifle-regiment.

“Charity is one thing, and truth is another,” rejoined he with the wooden leg: “he’s a rascal, I say.”

“But why not, friend, put as charitable a construction as one can upon the poor fellow?” said the soldierlike Methodist, with increased difficulty maintaining a pacific demeanor towards one whose own asperity seemed so little to entitle him to it: “he looks honest, don’t he?”

“Looks are one thing, and facts are another,” snapped out the other perversely; “and as to your constructions, what construction can you put upon a rascal, but that a rascal he is?”

“Be not such a Canada thistle,” urged the Methodist, with something less of patience than before. “Charity, man, charity.”

“To where it belongs with your charity! to heaven with it!” again snapped out the other, diabolically; “here on earth, true charity dotes, and false charity plots. Who betrays a fool with a kiss, the charitable fool has the charity to believe is in love with him, and the charitable knave on the stand gives charitable testimony for his comrade in the box.”

“Surely, friend,” returned the noble Methodist, with much ado restraining his still waxing indignation —“surely, to say the least, you forget yourself. Apply it home,” he continued, with exterior calmness tremulous with inkept emotion. “Suppose, now, I should exercise no charity in judging your own character by the words which have fallen from you; what sort of vile, pitiless man do you think I would take you for?”

“No doubt”— with a grin —“some such pitiless man as has lost his piety in much the same way that the jockey loses his honesty.”

“And how is that, friend?” still conscientiously holding back the old Adam in him, as if it were a mastiff he had by the neck.

“Never you mind how it is”— with a sneer; “but all horses aint virtuous, no more than all men kind; and come close to, and much dealt with, some things are catching. When you find me a virtuous jockey, I will find you a benevolent wise man.”

“Some insinuation there.”

“More fool you that are puzzled by it.”

“Reprobate!” cried the other, his indignation now at last almost boiling over; “godless reprobate! if charity did not restrain me, I could call you by names you deserve.”

“Could you, indeed?” with an insolent sneer.

“Yea, and teach you charity on the spot,” cried the goaded Methodist, suddenly catching this exasperating opponent by his shabby coat-collar, and shaking him till his timber-toe clattered on the deck like a nine-pin. “You took me for a non-combatant did you? — thought, seedy coward that you are, that you could abuse a Christian with impunity. You find your mistake”— with another hearty shake.

“Well said and better done, church militant!” cried a voice.

“The white cravat against the world!” cried another.

“Bravo, bravo!” chorused many voices, with like enthusiasm taking sides with the resolute champion.

“You fools!” cried he with the wooden leg, writhing himself loose and inflamedly turning upon the throng; “you flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools!”

With which exclamations, followed by idle threats against his admonisher, this condign victim to justice hobbled away, as disdaining to hold further argument with such a rabble. But his scorn was more than repaid by the hisses that chased him, in which the brave Methodist, satisfied with the rebuke already administered, was, to omit still better reasons, too magnanimous to join. All he said was, pointing towards the departing recusant, “There he shambles off on his one lone leg, emblematic of his one-sided view of humanity.”

“But trust your painted decoy,” retorted the other from a distance, pointing back to the black cripple, “and I have my revenge.”

“But we aint agoing to trust him!” shouted back a voice.

“So much the better,” he jeered back. “Look you,” he added, coming to a dead halt where he was; “look you, I have been called a Canada thistle. Very good. And a seedy one: still better. And the seedy Canada thistle has been pretty well shaken among ye: best of all. Dare say some seed has been shaken out; and won’t it spring though? And when it does spring, do you cut down the young thistles, and won’t they spring the more? It’s encouraging and coaxing ’em. Now, when with my thistles your farms shall be well stocked, why then — you may abandon ’em!”

“What does all that mean, now?” asked the country merchant, staring.

“Nothing; the foiled wolf’s parting howl,” said the Methodist. “Spleen, much spleen, which is the rickety child of his evil heart of unbelief: it has made him mad. I suspect him for one naturally reprobate. Oh, friends,” raising his arms as in the pulpit, “oh beloved, how are we admonished by the melancholy spectacle of this raver. Let us profit by the lesson; and is it not this: that if, next to mistrusting Providence, there be aught that man should pray against, it is against mistrusting his fellow-man. I have been in mad-houses full of tragic mopers, and seen there the end of suspicion: the cynic, in the moody madness muttering in the corner; for years a barren fixture there; head lopped over, gnawing his own lip, vulture of himself; while, by fits and starts, from the corner opposite came the grimace of the idiot at him.”

“What an example,” whispered one.

“Might deter Timon,” was the response.

“Oh, oh, good ge’mmen, have you no confidence in dis poor ole darkie?” now wailed the returning negro, who, during the late scene, had stumped apart in alarm.

“Confidence in you?” echoed he who had whispered, with abruptly changed air turning short round; “that remains to be seen.”

“I tell you what it is, Ebony,” in similarly changed tones said he who had responded to the whisperer, “yonder churl,” pointing toward the wooden leg in the distance, “is, no doubt, a churlish fellow enough, and I would not wish to be like him; but that is no reason why you may not be some sort of black Jeremy Diddler.”

“No confidence in dis poor ole darkie, den?”

“Before giving you our confidence,” said a third, “we will wait the report of the kind gentleman who went in search of one of your friends who was to speak for you.”

“Very likely, in that case,” said a fourth, “we shall wait here till Christmas. Shouldn’t wonder, did we not see that kind gentleman again. After seeking awhile in vain, he will conclude he has been made a fool of, and so not return to us for pure shame. Fact is, I begin to feel a little qualmish about the darkie myself. Something queer about this darkie, depend upon it.”

Once more the negro wailed, and turning in despair from the last speaker, imploringly caught the Methodist by the skirt of his coat. But a change had come over that before impassioned intercessor. With an irresolute and troubled air, he mutely eyed the suppliant; against whom, somehow, by what seemed instinctive influences, the distrusts first set on foot were now generally reviving, and, if anything, with added severity.

“No confidence in dis poor ole darkie,” yet again wailed the negro, letting go the coat-skirts and turning appealingly all round him.

“Yes, my poor fellow I have confidence in you,” now exclaimed the country merchant before named, whom the negro’s appeal, coming so piteously on the heel of pitilessness, seemed at last humanely to have decided in his favor. “And here, here is some proof of my trust,” with which, tucking his umbrella under his arm, and diving down his hand into his pocket, he fished forth a purse, and, accidentally, along with it, his business card, which, unobserved, dropped to the deck. “Here, here, my poor fellow,” he continued, extending a half dollar.

Not more grateful for the coin than the kindness, the cripple’s face glowed like a polished copper saucepan, and shuffling a pace nigher, with one upstretched hand he received the alms, while, as unconsciously, his one advanced leather stump covered the card.

Done in despite of the general sentiment, the good deed of the merchant was not, perhaps, without its unwelcome return from the crowd, since that good deed seemed somehow to convey to them a sort of reproach. Still again, and more pertinaciously than ever, the cry arose against the negro, and still again he wailed forth his lament and appeal among other things, repeating that the friends, of whom already he had partially run off the list, would freely speak for him, would anybody go find them.

“Why don’t you go find ’em yourself?” demanded a gruff boatman.

“How can I go find ’em myself? Dis poor ole game-legged darkie’s friends must come to him. Oh, whar, whar is dat good friend of dis darkie’s, dat good man wid de weed?”

At this point, a steward ringing a bell came along, summoning all persons who had not got their tickets to step to the captain’s office; an announcement which speedily thinned the throng about the black cripple, who himself soon forlornly stumped out of sight, probably on much the same errand as the rest.

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