Home  »  Prose Works  »  10. Dumb Kate

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

10. Dumb Kate

NOT many years since—and yet long enough to have been before the abundance of railroads, and similar speedy modes of conveyance—the travelers from Amboy village to the metropolis of our republic were permitted to refresh themselves, and the horses of the stage had a breathing spell, at a certain old-fashion’d tavern, about half way between the two places. It was a quaint, comfortable, ancient house, that tavern. Huge buttonwood trees embower’d it rough about, and there was a long porch in front, the trellis’d work whereof, though old and moulder’d, had been, and promised still to be for years, held together by the tangled folds of a grape vine wreath’d about it like a tremendous serpent.

How clean and fragrant everything was there! How bright the pewter tankards wherefrom cider or ale went into the parch’d throat of the thirsty man! How pleasing to look into the expressive eyes of Kate, the landlord’s lovely daughter, who kept everything so clean and bright!

Now the reason why Kate’s eyes had become so expressive was, that, besides their proper and natural office, they stood to the poor girl in the place of tongue and ears also. Kate had been dumb from her birth. Everybody loved the helpless creature when she was a child. Gentle, timid, and affectionate was she, and beautiful as the lilies of which she loved to cultivate so many every summer in her garden. Her light hair, and the like-color’d lashes, so long and silky, that droop’d over her blue eyes of such uncommon size and softness—her rounded shape, well set off by a little modest art of dress—her smile—the graceful ease of her motions, always attracted the admiration of the strangers who stopped there, and were quite a pride to her parents and friends.

How could it happen that so beautiful and inoffensive a being should taste, even to its dregs, the bitterest unhappiness? Oh, there must indeed be a mysterious, unfathomable meaning in the decrees of Providence which is beyond the comprehension of man; for no one on earth less deserved or needed ‘the uses of adversity’ than Dumb Kate. Love, the mighty and lawless passion, came into the sanctuary of the maid’s pure breast, and the dove of peace fled away forever.

One of the persons who had occasion to stop most frequently at the tavern kept by Dumb Kate’s parents was a young man, the son of a wealthy farmer, who own’d an estate in the neighborhood. He saw Kate, and was struck with her natural elegance. Though not of thoroughly wicked propensities, the fascination of so fine a prize made this youth determine to gain her love, and, if possible, to win her to himself. At first he hardly dared, even amid the depths of his own soul, to entertain thoughts of vileness against one so confiding and childlike. But in a short time such feelings wore away, and he made up his mind to become the betrayer of poor Kate. He was a good-looking fellow, and made but too sure of his victim. Kate was lost!

The villain came to New York soon after, and engaged in a business which prosper’d well, and which has no doubt by this time made him what is call’d a man of fortune.

Not long did sickness of the heart wear into the life and happiness of Dumb Kate. One pleasant spring day, the neighbors having been called by a notice the previous morning, the old churchyard was thrown open, and a coffin was borne over the early grass that seem’d so delicate with its light green hue. There was a new made grave, and by its side the bier was rested—while they paused a moment until holy words had been said. An idle boy, call’d there by curiosity, saw something lying on the fresh earth thrown out from the grave, which attracted his attention. A little blossom, the only one to be seen around, had grown exactly on the spot where the sexton chose to dig poor Kate’s last resting-place. It was a weak but lovely flower, and now lay where it had been carelessly toss’d amid the coarse gravel. The boy twirl’d it a moment in his fingers—the bruis’d fragments gave out a momentary perfume, and then fell to the edge of the pit, over which the child at that moment lean’d and gazed in his inquisitiveness. As they dropp’d, they were wafted to the bottom of the grave. The last look was bestow’d on the dead girl’s face by those who loved her so well in life, and then she was softly laid away to her sleep beneath that green grass covering.

Yet in the churchyard on the hill is Kate’s grave. There stands a little white stone at the head, and verdure grows richly there; and gossips, sometimes of a Sabbath afternoon, rambling over that gathering-place of the gone from earth, stop a while, and con over the dumb girl’s hapless story.