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
"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
"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
"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
"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.?"
The usurer shook his head impatiently.
"A hundred—cent. per cent.?"
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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.
"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
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.