The Confidence-Man, by Herman Melville

Chapter ix.

Two Business Men Transact a Little Business.

——“Pray, sir, have you seen a gentleman with a weed hereabouts, rather a saddish gentleman? Strange where he can have gone to. I was talking with him not twenty minutes since.”

By a brisk, ruddy-cheeked man in a tasseled traveling-cap, carrying under his arm a ledger-like volume, the above words were addressed to the collegian before introduced, suddenly accosted by the rail to which not long after his retreat, as in a previous chapter recounted, he had returned, and there remained.

“Have you seen him, sir?”

Rallied from his apparent diffidence by the genial jauntiness of the stranger, the youth answered with unwonted promptitude: “Yes, a person with a weed was here not very long ago.”

“Saddish?”

“Yes, and a little cracked, too, I should say.”

“It was he. Misfortune, I fear, has disturbed his brain. Now quick, which way did he go?”

“Why just in the direction from which you came, the gangway yonder.”

“Did he? Then the man in the gray coat, whom I just met, said right: he must have gone ashore. How unlucky!”

He stood vexedly twitching at his cap-tassel, which fell over by his whisker, and continued: “Well, I am very sorry. In fact, I had something for him here.”— Then drawing nearer, “you see, he applied to me for relief, no, I do him injustice, not that, but he began to intimate, you understand. Well, being very busy just then, I declined; quite rudely, too, in a cold, morose, unfeeling way, I fear. At all events, not three minutes afterwards I felt self-reproach, with a kind of prompting, very peremptory, to deliver over into that unfortunate man’s hands a ten-dollar bill. You smile. Yes, it may be superstition, but I can’t help it; I have my weak side, thank God. Then again,” he rapidly went on, “we have been so very prosperous lately in our affairs — by we, I mean the Black Rapids Coal Company — that, really, out of my abundance, associative and individual, it is but fair that a charitable investment or two should be made, don’t you think so?”

“Sir,” said the collegian without the least embarrassment, “do I understand that you are officially connected with the Black Rapids Coal Company?”

“Yes, I happen to be president and transfer-agent.”

“You are?”

“Yes, but what is it to you? You don’t want to invest?”

“Why, do you sell the stock?”

“Some might be bought, perhaps; but why do you ask? you don’t want to invest?”

“But supposing I did,” with cool self-collectedness, “could you do up the thing for me, and here?”

“Bless my soul,” gazing at him in amaze, “really, you are quite a business man. Positively, I feel afraid of you.”

“Oh, no need of that. — You could sell me some of that stock, then?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. To be sure, there are a few shares under peculiar circumstances bought in by the Company; but it would hardly be the thing to convert this boat into the Company’s office. I think you had better defer investing. So,” with an indifferent air, “you have seen the unfortunate man I spoke of?”

“Let the unfortunate man go his ways. — What is that large book you have with you?”

“My transfer-book. I am subpoenaed with it to court.”

“Black Rapids Coal Company,” obliquely reading the gilt inscription on the back; “I have heard much of it. Pray do you happen to have with you any statement of the condition of your company.”

“A statement has lately been printed.”

“Pardon me, but I am naturally inquisitive. Have you a copy with you?”

“I tell you again, I do not think that it would be suitable to convert this boat into the Company’s office. — That unfortunate man, did you relieve him at all?”

“Let the unfortunate man relieve himself. — Hand me the statement.”

“Well, you are such a business-man, I can hardly deny you. Here,” handing a small, printed pamphlet.

The youth turned it over sagely.

“I hate a suspicious man,” said the other, observing him; “but I must say I like to see a cautious one.”

“I can gratify you there,” languidly returning the pamphlet; “for, as I said before, I am naturally inquisitive; I am also circumspect. No appearances can deceive me. Your statement,” he added “tells a very fine story; but pray, was not your stock a little heavy awhile ago? downward tendency? Sort of low spirits among holders on the subject of that stock?”

“Yes, there was a depression. But how came it? who devised it? The ‘bears,’ sir. The depression of our stock was solely owing to the growling, the hypocritical growling, of the bears.”

“How, hypocritical?”

“Why, the most monstrous of all hypocrites are these bears: hypocrites by inversion; hypocrites in the simulation of things dark instead of bright; souls that thrive, less upon depression, than the fiction of depression; professors of the wicked art of manufacturing depressions; spurious Jeremiahs; sham Heraclituses, who, the lugubrious day done, return, like sham Lazaruses among the beggars, to make merry over the gains got by their pretended sore heads — scoundrelly bears!”

“You are warm against these bears?”

“If I am, it is less from the remembrance of their stratagems as to our stock, than from the persuasion that these same destroyers of confidence, and gloomy philosophers of the stock-market, though false in themselves, are yet true types of most destroyers of confidence and gloomy philosophers, the world over. Fellows who, whether in stocks, politics, bread-stuffs, morals, metaphysics, religion — be it what it may — trump up their black panics in the naturally-quiet brightness, solely with a view to some sort of covert advantage. That corpse of calamity which the gloomy philosopher parades, is but his Good–Enough-Morgan.”

“I rather like that,” knowingly drawled the youth. “I fancy these gloomy souls as little as the next one. Sitting on my sofa after a champagne dinner, smoking my plantation cigar, if a gloomy fellow come to me — what a bore!”

“You tell him it’s all stuff, don’t you?”

“I tell him it ain’t natural. I say to him, you are happy enough, and you know it; and everybody else is as happy as you, and you know that, too; and we shall all be happy after we are no more, and you know that, too; but no, still you must have your sulk.”

“And do you know whence this sort of fellow gets his sulk? not from life; for he’s often too much of a recluse, or else too young to have seen anything of it. No, he gets it from some of those old plays he sees on the stage, or some of those old books he finds up in garrets. Ten to one, he has lugged home from auction a musty old Seneca, and sets about stuffing himself with that stale old hay; and, thereupon, thinks it looks wise and antique to be a croaker, thinks it’s taking a stand-way above his kind.”

“Just so,” assented the youth. “I’ve lived some, and seen a good many such ravens at second hand. By the way, strange how that man with the weed, you were inquiring for, seemed to take me for some soft sentimentalist, only because I kept quiet, and thought, because I had a copy of Tacitus with me, that I was reading him for his gloom, instead of his gossip. But I let him talk. And, indeed, by my manner humored him.”

“You shouldn’t have done that, now. Unfortunate man, you must have made quite a fool of him.”

“His own fault if I did. But I like prosperous fellows, comfortable fellows; fellows that talk comfortably and prosperously, like you. Such fellows are generally honest. And, I say now, I happen to have a superfluity in my pocket, and I’ll just ——”

“—— Act the part of a brother to that unfortunate man?”

“Let the unfortunate man be his own brother. What are you dragging him in for all the time? One would think you didn’t care to register any transfers, or dispose of any stock — mind running on something else. I say I will invest.”

“Stay, stay, here come some uproarious fellows — this way, this way.”

And with off-handed politeness the man with the book escorted his companion into a private little haven removed from the brawling swells without.

Business transacted, the two came forth, and walked the deck.

“Now tell me, sir,” said he with the book, “how comes it that a young gentleman like you, a sedate student at the first appearance, should dabble in stocks and that sort of thing?”

“There are certain sophomorean errors in the world,” drawled the sophomore, deliberately adjusting his shirt-collar, “not the least of which is the popular notion touching the nature of the modern scholar, and the nature of the modern scholastic sedateness.”

“So it seems, so it seems. Really, this is quite a new leaf in my experience.”

“Experience, sir,” originally observed the sophomore, “is the only teacher.”

“Hence am I your pupil; for it’s only when experience speaks, that I can endure to listen to speculation.”

“My speculations, sir,” dryly drawing himself up, “have been chiefly governed by the maxim of Lord Bacon; I speculate in those philosophies which come home to my business and bosom — pray, do you know of any other good stocks?”

“You wouldn’t like to be concerned in the New Jerusalem, would you?”

“New Jerusalem?”

“Yes, the new and thriving city, so called, in northern Minnesota. It was originally founded by certain fugitive Mormons. Hence the name. It stands on the Mississippi. Here, here is the map,” producing a roll. “There — there, you see are the public buildings — here the landing — there the park — yonder the botanic gardens — and this, this little dot here, is a perpetual fountain, you understand. You observe there are twenty asterisks. Those are for the lyceums. They have lignum-vitae rostrums.”

“And are all these buildings now standing?”

“All standing — bona fide.”

“These marginal squares here, are they the water-lots?”

“Water-lots in the city of New Jerusalem? All terra firma — you don’t seem to care about investing, though?”

“Hardly think I should read my title clear, as the law students say,” yawned the collegian.

“Prudent — you are prudent. Don’t know that you are wholly out, either. At any rate, I would rather have one of your shares of coal stock than two of this other. Still, considering that the first settlement was by two fugitives, who had swum over naked from the opposite shore — it’s a surprising place. It is, bona fide. — But dear me, I must go. Oh, if by possibility you should come across that unfortunate man ——”

“— In that case,” with drawling impatience, “I will send for the steward, and have him and his misfortunes consigned overboard.”

“Ha ha! — now were some gloomy philosopher here, some theological bear, forever taking occasion to growl down the stock of human nature (with ulterior views, d’ye see, to a fat benefice in the gift of the worshipers of Ariamius), he would pronounce that the sign of a hardening heart and a softening brain. Yes, that would be his sinister construction. But it’s nothing more than the oddity of a genial humor — genial but dry. Confess it. Good-bye.”

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