The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter iv.

Renewal of Old Acquaintance.

“How do you do, Mr. Roberts?”

“Eh?”

“Don’t you know me?”

“No, certainly.”

The crowd about the captain’s office, having in good time melted away, the above encounter took place in one of the side balconies astern, between a man in mourning clean and respectable, but none of the glossiest, a long weed on his hat, and the country-merchant before-mentioned, whom, with the familiarity of an old acquaintance, the former had accosted.

“Is it possible, my dear sir,” resumed he with the weed, “that you do not recall my countenance? why yours I recall distinctly as if but half an hour, instead of half an age, had passed since I saw you. Don’t you recall me, now? Look harder.”

“In my conscience — truly — I protest,” honestly bewildered, “bless my soul, sir, I don’t know you — really, really. But stay, stay,” he hurriedly added, not without gratification, glancing up at the crape on the stranger’s hat, “stay — yes — seems to me, though I have not the pleasure of personally knowing you, yet I am pretty sure I have at least heard of you, and recently too, quite recently. A poor negro aboard here referred to you, among others, for a character, I think.”

“Oh, the cripple. Poor fellow. I know him well. They found me. I have said all I could for him. I think I abated their distrust. Would I could have been of more substantial service. And apropos, sir,” he added, “now that it strikes me, allow me to ask, whether the circumstance of one man, however humble, referring for a character to another man, however afflicted, does not argue more or less of moral worth in the latter?”

The good merchant looked puzzled.

“Still you don’t recall my countenance?”

“Still does truth compel me to say that I cannot, despite my best efforts,” was the reluctantly-candid reply.

“Can I be so changed? Look at me. Or is it I who am mistaken? — Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant, of Wheeling, Pennsylvania? Pray, now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man I take you for.”

“Why,” a bit chafed, perhaps, “I hope I know myself.”

“And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy. Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else? Stranger things have happened.”

The good merchant stared.

“To come to particulars, my dear sir, I met you, now some six years back, at Brade Brothers & Co’s office, I think. I was traveling for a Philadelphia house. The senior Brade introduced us, you remember; some business-chat followed, then you forced me home with you to a family tea, and a family time we had. Have you forgotten about the urn, and what I said about Werter’s Charlotte, and the bread and butter, and that capital story you told of the large loaf. A hundred times since, I have laughed over it. At least you must recall my name — Ringman, John Ringman.”

“Large loaf? Invited you to tea? Ringman? Ringman? Ring? Ring?”

“Ah sir,” sadly smiling, “don’t ring the changes that way. I see you have a faithless memory, Mr. Roberts. But trust in the faithfulness of mine.”

“Well, to tell the truth, in some things my memory aint of the very best,” was the honest rejoinder. “But still,” he perplexedly added, “still I——”

“Oh sir, suffice it that it is as I say. Doubt not that we are all well acquainted.”

“But — but I don’t like this going dead against my own memory; I——”

“But didn’t you admit, my dear sir, that in some things this memory of yours is a little faithless? Now, those who have faithless memories, should they not have some little confidence in the less faithless memories of others?”

“But, of this friendly chat and tea, I have not the slightest ——”

“I see, I see; quite erased from the tablet. Pray, sir,” with a sudden illumination, “about six years back, did it happen to you to receive any injury on the head? Surprising effects have arisen from such a cause. Not alone unconsciousness as to events for a greater or less time immediately subsequent to the injury, but likewise — strange to add — oblivion, entire and incurable, as to events embracing a longer or shorter period immediately preceding it; that is, when the mind at the time was perfectly sensible of them, and fully competent also to register them in the memory, and did in fact so do; but all in vain, for all was afterwards bruised out by the injury.”

After the first start, the merchant listened with what appeared more than ordinary interest. The other proceeded:

“In my boyhood I was kicked by a horse, and lay insensible for a long time. Upon recovering, what a blank! No faintest trace in regard to how I had come near the horse, or what horse it was, or where it was, or that it was a horse at all that had brought me to that pass. For the knowledge of those particulars I am indebted solely to my friends, in whose statements, I need not say, I place implicit reliance, since particulars of some sort there must have been, and why should they deceive me? You see sir, the mind is ductile, very much so: but images, ductilely received into it, need a certain time to harden and bake in their impressions, otherwise such a casualty as I speak of will in an instant obliterate them, as though they had never been. We are but clay, sir, potter’s clay, as the good book says, clay, feeble, and too-yielding clay. But I will not philosophize. Tell me, was it your misfortune to receive any concussion upon the brain about the period I speak of? If so, I will with pleasure supply the void in your memory by more minutely rehearsing the circumstances of our acquaintance.”

The growing interest betrayed by the merchant had not relaxed as the other proceeded. After some hesitation, indeed, something more than hesitation, he confessed that, though he had never received any injury of the sort named, yet, about the time in question, he had in fact been taken with a brain fever, losing his mind completely for a considerable interval. He was continuing, when the stranger with much animation exclaimed:

“There now, you see, I was not wholly mistaken. That brain fever accounts for it all.”

“Nay; but ——”

“Pardon me, Mr. Roberts,” respectfully interrupting him, “but time is short, and I have something private and particular to say to you. Allow me.”

Mr. Roberts, good man, could but acquiesce, and the two having silently walked to a less public spot, the manner of the man with the weed suddenly assumed a seriousness almost painful. What might be called a writhing expression stole over him. He seemed struggling with some disastrous necessity inkept. He made one or two attempts to speak, but words seemed to choke him. His companion stood in humane surprise, wondering what was to come. At length, with an effort mastering his feelings, in a tolerably composed tone he spoke:

“If I remember, you are a mason, Mr. Roberts?”

“Yes, yes.”

Averting himself a moment, as to recover from a return of agitation, the stranger grasped the other’s hand; “and would you not loan a brother a shilling if he needed it?”

The merchant started, apparently, almost as if to retreat.

“Ah, Mr. Roberts, I trust you are not one of those business men, who make a business of never having to do with unfortunates. For God’s sake don’t leave me. I have something on my heart — on my heart. Under deplorable circumstances thrown among strangers, utter strangers. I want a friend in whom I may confide. Yours, Mr. Roberts, is almost the first known face I’ve seen for many weeks.”

It was so sudden an outburst; the interview offered such a contrast to the scene around, that the merchant, though not used to be very indiscreet, yet, being not entirely inhumane, remained not entirely unmoved.

The other, still tremulous, resumed:

“I need not say, sir, how it cuts me to the soul, to follow up a social salutation with such words as have just been mine. I know that I jeopardize your good opinion. But I can’t help it: necessity knows no law, and heeds no risk. Sir, we are masons, one more step aside; I will tell you my story.”

In a low, half-suppressed tone, he began it. Judging from his auditor’s expression, it seemed to be a tale of singular interest, involving calamities against which no integrity, no forethought, no energy, no genius, no piety, could guard.

At every disclosure, the hearer’s commiseration increased. No sentimental pity. As the story went on, he drew from his wallet a bank note, but after a while, at some still more unhappy revelation, changed it for another, probably of a somewhat larger amount; which, when the story was concluded, with an air studiously disclamatory of alms-giving, he put into the stranger’s hands; who, on his side, with an air studiously disclamatory of alms-taking, put it into his pocket.

Assistance being received, the stranger’s manner assumed a kind and degree of decorum which, under the circumstances, seemed almost coldness. After some words, not over ardent, and yet not exactly inappropriate, he took leave, making a bow which had one knows not what of a certain chastened independence about it; as if misery, however burdensome, could not break down self-respect, nor gratitude, however deep, humiliate a gentleman.

He was hardly yet out of sight, when he paused as if thinking; then with hastened steps returning to the merchant, “I am just reminded that the president, who is also transfer-agent, of the Black Rapids Coal Company, happens to be on board here, and, having been subpoenaed as witness in a stock case on the docket in Kentucky, has his transfer-book with him. A month since, in a panic contrived by artful alarmists, some credulous stock-holders sold out; but, to frustrate the aim of the alarmists, the Company, previously advised of their scheme, so managed it as to get into its own hands those sacrificed shares, resolved that, since a spurious panic must be, the panic-makers should be no gainers by it. The Company, I hear, is now ready, but not anxious, to redispose of those shares; and having obtained them at their depressed value, will now sell them at par, though, prior to the panic, they were held at a handsome figure above. That the readiness of the Company to do this is not generally known, is shown by the fact that the stock still stands on the transfer-book in the Company’s name, offering to one in funds a rare chance for investment. For, the panic subsiding more and more every day, it will daily be seen how it originated; confidence will be more than restored; there will be a reaction; from the stock’s descent its rise will be higher than from no fall, the holders trusting themselves to fear no second fate.”

Having listened at first with curiosity, at last with interest, the merchant replied to the effect, that some time since, through friends concerned with it, he had heard of the company, and heard well of it, but was ignorant that there had latterly been fluctuations. He added that he was no speculator; that hitherto he had avoided having to do with stocks of any sort, but in the present case he really felt something like being tempted. “Pray,” in conclusion, “do you think that upon a pinch anything could be transacted on board here with the transfer-agent? Are you acquainted with him?”

“Not personally. I but happened to hear that he was a passenger. For the rest, though it might be somewhat informal, the gentleman might not object to doing a little business on board. Along the Mississippi, you know, business is not so ceremonious as at the East.”

“True,” returned the merchant, and looked down a moment in thought, then, raising his head quickly, said, in a tone not so benign as his wonted one, “This would seem a rare chance, indeed; why, upon first hearing it, did you not snatch at it? I mean for yourself!”

“I? — would it had been possible!”

Not without some emotion was this said, and not without some embarrassment was the reply. “Ah, yes, I had forgotten.”

Upon this, the stranger regarded him with mild gravity, not a little disconcerting; the more so, as there was in it what seemed the aspect not alone of the superior, but, as it were, the rebuker; which sort of bearing, in a beneficiary towards his benefactor, looked strangely enough; none the less, that, somehow, it sat not altogether unbecomingly upon the beneficiary, being free from anything like the appearance of assumption, and mixed with a kind of painful conscientiousness, as though nothing but a proper sense of what he owed to himself swayed him. At length he spoke:

“To reproach a penniless man with remissness in not availing himself of an opportunity for pecuniary investment — but, no, no; it was forgetfulness; and this, charity will impute to some lingering effect of that unfortunate brain-fever, which, as to occurrences dating yet further back, disturbed Mr. Roberts’s memory still more seriously.”

“As to that,” said the merchant, rallying, “I am not ——”

“Pardon me, but you must admit, that just now, an unpleasant distrust, however vague, was yours. Ah, shallow as it is, yet, how subtle a thing is suspicion, which at times can invade the humanest of hearts and wisest of heads. But, enough. My object, sir, in calling your attention to this stock, is by way of acknowledgment of your goodness. I but seek to be grateful; if my information leads to nothing, you must remember the motive.”

He bowed, and finally retired, leaving Mr. Roberts not wholly without self-reproach, for having momentarily indulged injurious thoughts against one who, it was evident, was possessed of a self-respect which forbade his indulging them himself.

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