The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter vi.

At the Outset of which Certain Passengers Prove Deaf to the Call of Charity.

——“You — pish! Why will the captain suffer these begging fellows on board?”;

These pettish words were breathed by a well-to-do gentleman in a ruby-colored velvet vest, and with a ruby-colored cheek, a ruby-headed cane in his hand, to a man in a gray coat and white tie, who, shortly after the interview last described, had accosted him for contributions to a Widow and Orphan Asylum recently founded among the Seminoles. Upon a cursory view, this last person might have seemed, like the man with the weed, one of the less unrefined children of misfortune; but, on a closer observation, his countenance revealed little of sorrow, though much of sanctity.

With added words of touchy disgust, the well-to-do gentleman hurried away. But, though repulsed, and rudely, the man in gray did not reproach, for a time patiently remaining in the chilly loneliness to which he had been left, his countenance, however, not without token of latent though chastened reliance.

At length an old gentleman, somewhat bulky, drew nigh, and from him also a contribution was sought.

“Look, you,” coming to a dead halt, and scowling upon him. “Look, you,” swelling his bulk out before him like a swaying balloon, “look, you, you on others’ behalf ask for money; you, a fellow with a face as long as my arm. Hark ye, now: there is such a thing as gravity, and in condemned felons it may be genuine; but of long faces there are three sorts; that of grief’s drudge, that of the lantern-jawed man, and that of the impostor. You know best which yours is.”

“Heaven give you more charity, sir.”

“And you less hypocrisy, sir.”

With which words, the hard-hearted old gentleman marched off.

While the other still stood forlorn, the young clergyman, before introduced, passing that way, catching a chance sight of him, seemed suddenly struck by some recollection; and, after a moment’s pause, hurried up with: “Your pardon, but shortly since I was all over looking for you.”

“For me?” as marveling that one of so little account should be sought for.

“Yes, for you; do you know anything about the negro, apparently a cripple, aboard here? Is he, or is he not, what he seems to be?”

“Ah, poor Guinea! have you, too, been distrusted? you, upon whom nature has placarded the evidence of your claims?”

“Then you do really know him, and he is quite worthy? It relieves me to hear it — much relieves me. Come, let us go find him, and see what can be done.”

“Another instance that confidence may come too late. I am sorry to say that at the last landing I myself — just happening to catch sight of him on the gangway-plank — assisted the cripple ashore. No time to talk, only to help. He may not have told you, but he has a brother in that vicinity.

“Really, I regret his going without my seeing him again; regret it, more, perhaps, than you can readily think. You see, shortly after leaving St. Louis, he was on the forecastle, and there, with many others, I saw him, and put trust in him; so much so, that, to convince those who did not, I, at his entreaty, went in search of you, you being one of several individuals he mentioned, and whose personal appearance he more or less described, individuals who he said would willingly speak for him. But, after diligent search, not finding you, and catching no glimpse of any of the others he had enumerated, doubts were at last suggested; but doubts indirectly originating, as I can but think, from prior distrust unfeelingly proclaimed by another. Still, certain it is, I began to suspect.”

“Ha, ha, ha!”

A sort of laugh more like a groan than a laugh; and yet, somehow, it seemed intended for a laugh.

Both turned, and the young clergyman started at seeing the wooden-legged man close behind him, morosely grave as a criminal judge with a mustard-plaster on his back. In the present case the mustard-plaster might have been the memory of certain recent biting rebuffs and mortifications.

“Wouldn’t think it was I who laughed would you?”

“But who was it you laughed at? or rather, tried to laugh at?” demanded the young clergyman, flushing, “me?”

“Neither you nor any one within a thousand miles of you. But perhaps you don’t believe it.”

“If he were of a suspicious temper, he might not,” interposed the man in gray calmly, “it is one of the imbecilities of the suspicious person to fancy that every stranger, however absent-minded, he sees so much as smiling or gesturing to himself in any odd sort of way, is secretly making him his butt. In some moods, the movements of an entire street, as the suspicious man walks down it, will seem an express pantomimic jeer at him. In short, the suspicious man kicks himself with his own foot.”

“Whoever can do that, ten to one he saves other folks’ sole-leather,” said the wooden-legged man with a crusty attempt at humor. But with augmented grin and squirm, turning directly upon the young clergyman, “you still think it was you I was laughing at, just now. To prove your mistake, I will tell you what I was laughing at; a story I happened to call to mind just then.”

Whereupon, in his porcupine way, and with sarcastic details, unpleasant to repeat, he related a story, which might, perhaps, in a good-natured version, be rendered as follows:

A certain Frenchman of New Orleans, an old man, less slender in purse than limb, happening to attend the theatre one evening, was so charmed with the character of a faithful wife, as there represented to the life, that nothing would do but he must marry upon it. So, marry he did, a beautiful girl from Tennessee, who had first attracted his attention by her liberal mould, and was subsequently recommended to him through her kin, for her equally liberal education and disposition. Though large, the praise proved not too much. For, ere long, rumor more than corroborated it, by whispering that the lady was liberal to a fault. But though various circumstances, which by most Benedicts would have been deemed all but conclusive, were duly recited to the old Frenchman by his friends, yet such was his confidence that not a syllable would he credit, till, chancing one night to return unexpectedly from a journey, upon entering his apartment, a stranger burst from the alcove: “Begar!” cried he, “now I begin to suspec.”

His story told, the wooden-legged man threw back his head, and gave vent to a long, gasping, rasping sort of taunting cry, intolerable as that of a high-pressure engine jeering off steam; and that done, with apparent satisfaction hobbled away.

“Who is that scoffer,” said the man in gray, not without warmth. “Who is he, who even were truth on his tongue, his way of speaking it would make truth almost offensive as falsehood. Who is he?”

“He who I mentioned to you as having boasted his suspicion of the negro,” replied the young clergyman, recovering from disturbance, “in short, the person to whom I ascribe the origin of my own distrust; he maintained that Guinea was some white scoundrel, betwisted and painted up for a decoy. Yes, these were his very words, I think.”

“Impossible! he could not be so wrong-headed. Pray, will you call him back, and let me ask him if he were really in earnest?”

The other complied; and, at length, after no few surly objections, prevailed upon the one-legged individual to return for a moment. Upon which, the man in gray thus addressed him: “This reverend gentleman tells me, sir, that a certain cripple, a poor negro, is by you considered an ingenious impostor. Now, I am not unaware that there are some persons in this world, who, unable to give better proof of being wise, take a strange delight in showing what they think they have sagaciously read in mankind by uncharitable suspicions of them. I hope you are not one of these. In short, would you tell me now, whether you were not merely joking in the notion you threw out about the negro. Would you be so kind?”

“No, I won’t be so kind, I’ll be so cruel.”

“As you please about that.”

“Well, he’s just what I said he was.”

“A white masquerading as a black?”

“Exactly.”

The man in gray glanced at the young clergyman a moment, then quietly whispered to him, “I thought you represented your friend here as a very distrustful sort of person, but he appears endued with a singular credulity. — Tell me, sir, do you really think that a white could look the negro so? For one, I should call it pretty good acting.”

“Not much better than any other man acts.”

“How? Does all the world act? Am I, for instance, an actor? Is my reverend friend here, too, a performer?”

“Yes, don’t you both perform acts? To do, is to act; so all doers are actors.”

“You trifle. — I ask again, if a white, how could he look the negro so?”

“Never saw the negro-minstrels, I suppose?”

“Yes, but they are apt to overdo the ebony; exemplifying the old saying, not more just than charitable, that ‘the devil is never so black as he is painted.’ But his limbs, if not a cripple, how could he twist his limbs so?”

“How do other hypocritical beggars twist theirs? Easy enough to see how they are hoisted up.”

“The sham is evident, then?”

“To the discerning eye,” with a horrible screw of his gimlet one.

“Well, where is Guinea?” said the man in gray; “where is he? Let us at once find him, and refute beyond cavil this injurious hypothesis.”

“Do so,” cried the one-eyed man, “I’m just in the humor now for having him found, and leaving the streaks of these fingers on his paint, as the lion leaves the streaks of his nails on a Caffre. They wouldn’t let me touch him before. Yes, find him, I’ll make wool fly, and him after.”

“You forget,” here said the young clergyman to the man in gray, “that yourself helped poor Guinea ashore.”

“So I did, so I did; how unfortunate. But look now,” to the other, “I think that without personal proof I can convince you of your mistake. For I put it to you, is it reasonable to suppose that a man with brains, sufficient to act such a part as you say, would take all that trouble, and run all that hazard, for the mere sake of those few paltry coppers, which, I hear, was all he got for his pains, if pains they were?”

“That puts the case irrefutably,” said the young clergyman, with a challenging glance towards the one-legged man.

“You two green-horns! Money, you think, is the sole motive to pains and hazard, deception and deviltry, in this world. How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?”

Whereupon he hobbled off again with a repetition of his intolerable jeer.

The man in gray stood silently eying his retreat a while, and then, turning to his companion, said: “A bad man, a dangerous man; a man to be put down in any Christian community. — And this was he who was the means of begetting your distrust? Ah, we should shut our ears to distrust, and keep them open only for its opposite.”

“You advance a principle, which, if I had acted upon it this morning, I should have spared myself what I now feel. — That but one man, and he with one leg, should have such ill power given him; his one sour word leavening into congenial sourness (as, to my knowledge, it did) the dispositions, before sweet enough, of a numerous company. But, as I hinted, with me at the time his ill words went for nothing; the same as now; only afterwards they had effect; and I confess, this puzzles me.”

“It should not. With humane minds, the spirit of distrust works something as certain potions do; it is a spirit which may enter such minds, and yet, for a time, longer or shorter, lie in them quiescent; but only the more deplorable its ultimate activity.”

“An uncomfortable solution; for, since that baneful man did but just now anew drop on me his bane, how shall I be sure that my present exemption from its effects will be lasting?”

“You cannot be sure, but you can strive against it.”

“How?”

“By strangling the least symptom of distrust, of any sort, which hereafter, upon whatever provocation, may arise in you.”

“I will do so.” Then added as in soliloquy, “Indeed, indeed, I was to blame in standing passive under such influences as that one-legged man’s. My conscience upbraids me. — The poor negro: You see him occasionally, perhaps?”

“No, not often; though in a few days, as it happens, my engagements will call me to the neighborhood of his present retreat; and, no doubt, honest Guinea, who is a grateful soul, will come to see me there.”

“Then you have been his benefactor?”

“His benefactor? I did not say that. I have known him.”

“Take this mite. Hand it to Guinea when you see him; say it comes from one who has full belief in his honesty, and is sincerely sorry for having indulged, however transiently, in a contrary thought.”

“I accept the trust. And, by-the-way, since you are of this truly charitable nature, you will not turn away an appeal in behalf of the Seminole Widow and Orphan Asylum?”

“I have not heard of that charity.”

“But recently founded.”

After a pause, the clergyman was irresolutely putting his hand in his pocket, when, caught by something in his companion’s expression, he eyed him inquisitively, almost uneasily.

“Ah, well,” smiled the other wanly, “if that subtle bane, we were speaking of but just now, is so soon beginning to work, in vain my appeal to you. Good-by.”

“Nay,” not untouched, “you do me injustice; instead of indulging present suspicions, I had rather make amends for previous ones. Here is something for your asylum. Not much; but every drop helps. Of course you have papers?”

“Of course,” producing a memorandum book and pencil. “Let me take down name and amount. We publish these names. And now let me give you a little history of our asylum, and the providential way in which it was started.”

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