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The Usurer's Gift - Harper's

 

A FEW months ago in London an old man sat in a large paneled room in one of the streets near Soho-square. Every thing in the apartment was brown with age and neglect. Nothing more superlatively dingy could well be imagined. The leathern covers of the chairs were white and glossy at the edges; the carpet was almost of a uniform tint, notwithstanding its original gaudy contrasts; there were absurd old engravings upon the walls—relics of the infancy of the art; and curtains to the windows, which the smoke of years had darkened from a delicate fawn to a rusty chocolate color. In the centre of the room, and, as it were, the sun of this dusty system, stood an office-table of more modern manufacture, at which was seated the old man alluded to, sole lord and master of the dismal domicile. He was by profession a money-lender. His age might be from sixty to sixty-five years; his face was long, and his features seemed carved out of box-wood or yellow sand-stone, so destitute were they of mobility; his eyes were of a cold, pale, steel color, but his brows were black and tufted like a grim old owl's; a long aquiline nose, a thin and compressed mouth, and a vast double chin, buried in a voluminous white neckcloth of more than one day's wear, completed the portrait. Nor did the expression of his countenance undergo any perceptible change as, after a timid knock, the door opened, and a young man entered of singularly interesting appearance.

The new-comer was well-dressed, though his clothes were none of the newest, and had the air of a man accustomed to society. His pale brow was marked with those long horizontal lines of which time is rarely the artist. His dark, deep-set gray eyes flashed with a painful brightness; his long chestnut hair, damp with perspiration, clung in narrow strips to his forehead; his whole manner implied the man who had made up his mind to some extraordinary course, from which no wavering or weakness on his part was likely to turn him aside, whatever the opposition of others might compel him to abandon or determine. Bending his tall figure slightly, he addressed the money-lender in a tone of constrained calmness.

"You lend money, I believe?"

"Sometimes—on good security," replied the usurer, indifferently, forming a critical summary of his visitor's costume at a glance.

The stranger hesitated: there was a discouraging sort of coldness in the mode of delivering this answer that seemed to prejudge his proposition. Nevertheless, he resumed with an effort—"I saw your advertisement in the paper." The usurer did not even nod in answer to this prelude. He sat bolt upright in his chair, awaiting further information. "I am, as you will see by these papers, entitled to some property in reversion."

The usurer stretched out his hand for the papers, which he looked over carefully with the same implacable tranquillity, while his visitor entered into explanations as to their substance.

Once only the money-lender peered over the top of a document he was scanning, and said, gruffly: "Your name, sir, is Bernard West?"

"It is," replied the stranger, mechanically taking up a newspaper, in which the first thing which caught his eye was the advertisement alluded to, which ran thus:—"Money to any amount advanced immediately on every description of security, real or personal. Apply between the hours of ten and five to Mr. John Brace, —— street, Soho-square."

After a brief interval of silence, the usurer methodically rearranged the papers, and returned them to the stranger. "They are of no use," he said, "no use whatever: the reversion is merely contingent. You have no available security to offer?"

"Could you not advance something upon these expectations—not even a small sum?"

"Not a farthing," said the money-lender.

"Is there no way of raising fifty—thirty—even twenty pounds?" said the stranger, anxiously, and with the tenacity of a drowning man grasping at a straw.

"There is a way," said the usurer, carelessly. West in his turn was silent, awaiting the explanation of his companion. "On personal security," continued the latter with a sinister impatience, beginning to arrange his writing materials for a letter.

"I will give any discount," said the young man, eagerly. "My prospects are good: I can—"

"Get a friend to be security for the payment of the interest?"

"Of the interest and principal, you mean?"

"Of the interest only—and the life insurance," added the usurer, with a slight peculiarity of intonation that might have escaped the notice of one whose nerves were less exalted in their sensitive power than those of his visitor's.

"And what sum can I borrow on these terms?" said West, gloomily.

"A hundred pounds: more if you require it. In fact, any amount, if your security be good."

"The interest will doubtless be high?"

"Not at all: four or five per cent. As much is often given for money on mortgage of land."

"And the life insurance?"

"You will insure your life for five hundred pounds, and you will pay the premiums with the interest."

"For five hundred?" said West, hesitating. "That is, if I borrow—"

"One hundred," replied the usurer, sharply. "Men who lend money do not run risks. You may die, and four out of five insurance offices may fail; but the chances are that the fifth would pay."

"But it is not likely—" began Bernard West, amazed at this outrageous display of caution.

"I do not say it is likely," snarled the usurer with a contemptuous sort of pity for his visitor's dullness of apprehension; "I say it is possible; and I like to be on the safe side."

"Well, and how is the affair to be arranged?"

"Your security, who of course must be a person known to have property, will give a bond guaranteeing the regular payment of interest and premiums—that is all."

West reflected for some minutes in silence. The faint expression of hope that had for an instant lighted up his countenance vanished. He understood the money-lender and his proposition. A sufficiently clear remembrance of the tables of life assurance which he had seen, enabled him to perceive that the interest and premiums together would amount to nearly twenty per cent., and that the bond engaged his security to pay an annuity for his (West's) life of that amount. It is true that, full of energy and hope, he felt no doubt of his capacity to meet the payments regularly: it is true that, monstrous as were the terms, he would have accepted eagerly still harder ones, had it simply depended on his own decision. But where find, or how ask, a friend to become his bondsman? He ran over in despair the scanty list of acquaintances whom his poverty had not already caused to forget him. He felt that the thing was impossible. There was not one he could think of who would have even dreamed of entering into such a compact. He turned desperately to the money-lender.

"I have no friend," he said, "of whom I could or would ask such a service. If I had, I should not be here. Are there no terms, however high, on which you can lend me even the most trifling sum, for which I myself alone need be responsible?"

"None," replied the usurer, already commencing his letter.

"I will give thirty per cent.?"

"Impossible."

"Fifty?"

The usurer shook his head impatiently.

"A hundred—cent. per cent.?"

"No!"

The strange seeker of loans at length rose to depart. He reached the door. Suddenly he turned back, his eyes blazing with the sombre radiance of despair. He strode up to the table, and planted himself, with folded arms, immediately in front of the usurer.

"Mark me!" said West, in a tone of deep suppressed passion, like the hollow murmur of the sea before a storm: "It is a question of life or death with me to get money before sunset. Lend me only twenty pounds, and within twelve months I will repay you one hundred. I will give you every power which the law can give one man over another; and I will pledge my honor, which never yet was questioned, to the bargain!"

The usurer almost smiled, so strangely sarcastic was the contraction of his features, as he listened to these words.

"I do not question your honor," he said, icily, "but honor has nothing to do with business. As for the law, there is an old axiom which says, Out of nothing, nothing comes."

Bernard West regarded the cold rocky face and the passionless mouth from which these words proceeded with that stinging wrath a man feels who has humiliated himself in vain. Nevertheless he clung to the old flinty usurer as to the last rock in a deluge, and a sense of savage recklessness came over him when he advanced yet closer to the living cash-box before him, while the latter shrank half-terrified before the burning gaze of his visitor's dilated pupils.

Laying his hand upon the money-lender's shoulder, by a gesture of terrible familiarity that insisted upon and commanded attention to his words, West spoke with a sudden clearness and even musical distinctness of utterance that made his words yet more appalling in their solemn despair—"Old man, I am desperate; I am ruined. It is but a few months since my father died, leaving me not only penniless, but encircled by petty obligations which have cramped every movement I would have made. I have had no time, no quiet, to make an effort such as my position requires. This day I have spent my last shilling. I am too proud to beg, and to borrow is to beg when a man is known to be in real distress. Within one hour from this time I shall be beyond all the tortures of a life which for my own sake I care little to preserve. And yet I have spent my youth in accumulating treasures, which but a brief space might have rendered productive of benefit to man, and of profit to myself. My father's little means and my own have vanished in the pursuit of science, and in the gulf of suffering more immediate than our own. If I die also, with me perish the results of his experiments, his studies, and his sacrifices. There are moments when all ordinary calculations and prudence are empty baubles. Life is the only real possession we have, and death the only certainty. Listen! I will make one last proposal to you. Lend me but ten pounds—that is but ten weeks of life—and I swear to you that if I live, I will repay you for each pound lent not ten or twenty, but one hundred—in all; one thousand pounds! Grant that it be but a chance upon the one hand, yet, upon the other, how small is the risk; and then, to save a human life—- is not that something in the scale?" And the stranger laughed at these last words with a bitter gayety, which caused a strange thrill to creep along the nerves of the usurer.

However, the lender of gold shrugged his shoulders without relaxing his habitual impassibility of manner. He did not speak. Possibly the idea occurred to him that his strange client meditated some act of violence upon himself or his strong box. But this idea speedily vanished, as the stranger, relapsing suddenly into silence and conventional behavior, removed his hand from the usurer's shoulder, and strode rapidly but calmly from the apartment.

The door closed behind the ruined man, and the usurer drew a long breath, while his bushy brows were contracted in a sort of agony of doubt and irresolute purpose.

Meanwhile Bernard West paused for an instant on the threshold of the outer-door, as if undecided which road to take. In truth all roads were much alike to him at that moment. Some cause, too subtle to be seized by the mental analyst, determined his course. He turned to the right, and strode rapidly onward.

He felt already like one of the dead, to join whom he was hurrying headlong. He looked neither to the right nor to the left; and before him was a mist, in which the phantoms of his imagination disported themselves, to the exclusion of all other visible objects. Nothing earthly had any further interest for him. He did not even hear the steps of some one running behind him, nor hear the voice which called after him to stop; but his course was soon more effectually arrested by the firm grasp of a man's hand, which seized him by the arm with the force and the tenacity of a vice.

He turned fiercely round. He was in no humor for the converse of casual acquaintances. Nor was it any gay convivialist of happier days whose face now greeted him: it was the old money-lender, who in a voice husky with loss of breath, or possibly emotion, said, thrusting couple of twenty-pound bank-notes into West' hand—

"Here! take these notes. Take them, I say!" he repeated, as the young man, dizzy with amazement, stammered out—

"You accept, then, my terms?"

"No!" growled the usurer, "I give them to you. Do you understand me? I say I give them to you. I am an old man; I never gave away a shilling before in my life! Repay me if you will, when and how it please you. I have no security—I ask no acknowledgment; I want none. I do not count upon it. It is gone!" and the usurer pronounced the last words with an effort which was heroic, from the evident self-mastery it cost him. "There! go—go!" he resumed, "and take an old man's advice—Make money at all hazards, and never lend except on good security. Remember that!" The old man gently pushed West away, and all hatless and slippered as he was, ran back muttering to his den, leaving the object of his mysterious generosity fixed like a statue of amazement in the centre of the pavement.

About three months had elapsed, when Bernard West once more knocked at the door of the money-lender.

"Is Mr. Brace at home?" he inquired, cheerfully.

"Oh! if you please, sir, they buried him yesterday," replied the servant, with a look of curiously-affected solemnity.

"Buried him!" cried the visitor, with sincere disappointment and grief in his tone.

"Yes, sir; perhaps you would like to see Miss Brace, if it's any thing very particular?"

"I should, indeed," said West; "and when she knows the cause of my visit, I think she will excuse the intrusion."

The servant gave an odd look, whose significance West was unable to divine, as she led the way to her young mistress's drawing-room.

West entered timidly, for he doubted the delicacy of such a proceeding, though his heart was almost bursting with desire of expansion under the shock just received. A beautiful and proud-looking girl of nineteen or twenty years rose to meet him. Her large blue eyes, which bore traces of many and recent tears, worked strangely upon his feelings, already sufficiently excited.

"I came," he said, in his deep musical voice, "to repay a noble service. Will you permit me to share a grief for the loss of one to whom I owe my life—yes, more than my life!" West paused, and strove vainly to master the emotion which checked his utterance.

"My father rendered you a service?" said the young lady, eagerly, regarding with involuntary interest the noble countenance of Bernard, which, though it still bore traces of great suffering, was no longer wild and haggard, as at his interview with the money-lender.

"A most unexpected and generous service," replied West, who, softening down the first portion of the scene we have described, proceeded to recount to the fair orphan the narrative of the great crisis in his destiny.

"I knew it was so!" cried the young lady, almost hysterically affected; "I knew he was not so grasping—so hard-hearted, as they said—as he himself pretended. I knew he had a generous heart beneath all his seeming avarice! Oh, you are not the only one doubtless whom he has thus served!"

West did not discourage the illusion. Nay, the enthusiasm of the charming woman before him was contagious. "Thanks to your father's disinterested liberality," he resumed, "I am now in comparatively prosperous circumstances. I came not merely to discharge a debt; believe me, it is no common gratitude I feel! Doubtless you inherit all your father's wealth—doubtless it is but little service I can ever hope to render you. Yet I venture to entreat you never to forget that you possess one friend of absolute devotion, ready at all times to sacrifice himself in every way to your wishes and to your happiness."

West paused abruptly, for the singular expression of the young lady's features filled him with astonishment.

"You do not know, then—" she began.

"Know what?"

"That I—am a—a natural child!" she completed, with, a crimson blush, turning away her head as she spoke, and covering her face with her hands—"that I am without fortune or relations; that my father died intestate; that the heir-at-law, who lives abroad, and without whose permission nothing can be done—moreover, who is said to be a heartless spendthrift—will take all my father leaves; that I have but one more week given me to vacate this house by the landlord; in short, that I must work if I would not starve: that, in a word, I am a beggar!" And the poor girl sobbed convulsively; while Bernard West, on whom this speech acted as some terrible hurricane upon the trees of a tropical forest, tearing up, as it were, by the roots, all the terrible stoicism of his nature, and rousing hopes and dreams which he had long banished to the deepest and most hopeless abysses of his soul; while Bernard, we repeat, ventured to take her hand in his own, and calm her painful agitation by such suggestions as immediately occurred to his mind.

"In the first place," he said, "my dear Miss Brace, I come to repay to you your father's generous gift."

"It belongs to his legal heirs. I can not receive it with honor," said the money-lender's daughter, firmly.

"Not so," replied West, gravely: "it was a free gift to me. I repay it by a natural, not a legal obligation;" and he laid the two twenty-pound notes upon the table. "Next," he resumed, "I have to pay a debt of gratitude. I owe my life to your father. Thus in a manner I have become his adopted son. Thus," he continued impetuously, "I have a right to say to you, regard me as a brother; share the produce of my labor; render me happy in the thought that I am serving the child of my benefactor! To disdain my gratitude would be a cruel insult."

"I can not disdain it!" exclaimed the daughter of the usurer with a sudden impulse of that sublime confidence which a noble and generous soul can alone inspire. "Yes—I accept your assistance!"

The face of Bernard brightened up, as if by an electric agent. But how were the two children of sorrow confounded by the discovery that they were no longer alone, and that their conversation had been overheard by an utter stranger, who, leaning against the wall at the further end of the room, near the door, appeared to survey them with an utter indifference to the propriety of such behavior!

He was a man of between forty and fifty years; a great beard and mustache concealed the lower part of a swarthy but handsome countenance of rare dignity and severity of outline. His dress was utterly un-English. A vast mantle, with a hood, fell nearly to the ground, and he wore huge courier's boots, which were still splashed, as if from a journey. His great dark eyes rested with an expression of royal benevolence upon the two young people, toward whom he had advanced with a courteous inclination, that, as if magnetically, repressed Bernard's first indignant impulse.

"I am the heir-at-law," he said, in a mild voice, as if he had been announcing a most agreeable piece of intelligence.

"Then, sir," said Bernard, "I trust—"

"Trust absolutely!" interrupted quickly the foreign-looking heir. "My children, do you know who I am? No? I will tell you. I am a monster, who in his youth preferred beauty to ambition, and glory to gold. For ten years after attaining manhood I struggled on, an outcast from my family, in poverty and humiliation, without friends, and often without bread. At the end of five more years I was a great man, and those who had neglected, and starved, and scorned me, came to bow down and worship. But the beauty I had adored was dust, and the fire of youthful hope quenched in the bitter waters of science. For ten years since I have wandered over the earth. I am rich; I may say my wealth is boundless; for I have but to shake a few fancies from this brain, to trace a few ciphers with this hand, and they become gold at my command. Yet, mark my words, my children! One look of love is, in my esteem, worth more than all the applause of an age, or all the wealth of an empire!" The dark stranger paused for an instant, as if in meditation, then abruptly continued: "I take your inheritance, fair child!—I rob the orphan and the fatherless!"—and the smile of disdainful pride which followed these words said more than whole piles of parchment renunciations as to his intention.

Involuntarily the orphan and Bernard seized each a hand of the mysterious man beside them, who, silently drawing the two hands together, and uniting them in his own, said, gently, "Love one another as you will, my young friends, yet spare at times a kind thought for the old wandering poet! Not a word! I understand you, though you do not understand yourselves. It is as easy to tell a fortune as to give it."

And was the prophecy realized? asks a curious reader. But no answer is needed; for if the prophecy were false, why record it? And, pray, who was the stranger, after all? Too curious reader!—it is one thing to tell stories, and another to commit breaches of confidence.