Home  »  Prose Works  »  3. One Wicked Impulse!

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

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

3. One Wicked Impulse!

THAT section of Nassau street which runs into the great mart of New York brokers and stock-jobbers, has for a long time been much occupied by practitioners of the law. Tolerably well-known amid this class some years since, was Adam Covert, a middle-aged man of rather limited means, who, to tell the truth, gained more by trickery than he did in the legitimate and honorable exercise of his profession. He was a tall, bilious-faced widower; the father of two children; and had lately been seeking to better his fortunes by a rich marriage. But somehow or other his wooing did not seem to thrive well, and, with perhaps one exception, the lawyer’s prospects in the matrimonial way were hopelessly gloomy.

Among the early clients of Mr. Covert had been a distant relative named Marsh, who, dying somewhat suddenly, left his son and daughter, and some little property, to the care of Covert, under a will drawn out by that gentleman himself. At no time caught without his eyes open, the cunning lawyer, aided by much sad confusion in the emergency which had caused his services to be called for, and disguising his object under a cloud of technicalities, inserted provisions in the will, giving himself an almost arbitrary control over the property and over those for whom it was designed. This control was even made to extend beyond the time when the children would arrive at mature age. The son, Philip, a spirited and high-temper’d fellow, had some time since pass’d that age. Esther, the girl, a plain, and somewhat devotional young woman, was in her nineteenth year.

Having such power over his wards, Covert did not scruple openly to use his advantage, in pressing his claims as a suitor for Esther’s hand. Since the death of Marsh, the property he left, which had been in real estate, and was to be divided equally between the brother and sister, had risen to very considerable value; and Esther’s share was to a man in Covert’s situation a prize very well worth seeking. All this time, while really owning a respectable income, the young orphans often felt the want of the smallest sum of money—and Esther, on Philip’s account, was more than once driven to various contrivances—the pawn-shop, sales of her own little luxuries, and the like, to furnish him with means.

Though she had frequently shown her guardian unequivocal evidence of her aversion, Esther continued to suffer from his persecutions, until one day he proceeded farther and was more pressing than usual. She possess’d some of her brother’s mettlesome temper, and gave him an abrupt and most decided refusal. With dignity, she exposed the baseness of his conduct, and forbade him ever again mentioning marriage to her. He retorted bitterly, vaunted his hold on her and Philip, and swore an oath that unless she became his wife, they should both thenceforward become penniless. Losing his habitual self-control in his exasperation, he even added insults such as woman never receives from any one deserving the name of man, and at his own convenience left the house. That day, Philip return’d to New York, after an absence of several weeks on the business of a mercantile house in whose employment he had lately engaged.

Toward the latter part of the same afternoon, Mr. Covert was sitting in his office, in Nassau street, busily at work, when a knock at the door announc’d a visitor, and directly afterward young Marsh enter’d the room. His face exhibited a peculiar pallid appearance that did not strike Covert at all agreeably, and he call’d his clerk from an adjoining room, and gave him something to do at a desk near by.

“I wish to see you alone, Mr. Covert, if convenient,” said the new-comer.

“We can talk quite well enough where we are,” answer’d the lawyer; “indeed, I don’t know that I have any leisure to talk at all, for just now I am very much press’d with business.”

“But I must speak to you,” rejoined Philip sternly, “at least I must say one thing, and that is, Mr. Covert, that you are a villain!”

“Insolent!” exclaimed the lawyer, rising behind the table, and pointing to the door: “Do you see that, sir! Let one minute longer find you the other side, or your feet may reach the landing by quicker method. Begone, sir?”

Such a threat was the more harsh to Philip, for he had rather high-strung feelings of honor. He grew almost livid with suppress’d agitation.

“I will see you again very soon,” said he, in a low but distinct manner, his lips trembling as he spoke; and left the office.

The incidents of the rest of that pleasant summer day left little impression on the young man’s mind. He roam’d to and fro without any object or destination. Along South street and by Whitehall, he watch’d with curious eyes the movements of the shipping, and the loading and unloading of cargoes; and listen’d to the merry heave-yo of the sailors and stevedores. There are some minds upon which great excitement produces the singular effect of uniting two utterly inconsistent faculties—a sort of cold apathy, and a sharp sensitiveness to all that is going on at the same time. Philip’s was one of this sort; he noticed the various differences in the apparel of a gang of wharf laborers—turn’d over in his brain whether they receiv’d wages enough to keep them comfortable, and their families also—and if they had families or not, which he tried to tell by their looks. In such petty reflections the daylight passed away. And all the while the master wish of Philip’s thoughts was a desire to see the lawyer Covert. For what purpose he himself was by no means clear.

Nightfall came at last. Still, however, the young man did not direct his steps homeward. He felt more calm, however, and entering an eating house, order’d something for his supper, which, when it was brought to him, he merely tasted, and stroll’d forth again. There was a kind of gnawing sensation of thirst within him yet, and as he pass’d a hotel, he bethought him that one little glass of spirits would perhaps be just the thing. He drank, and hour after hour wore away unconsciously; he drank not one glass, but three or four, and strong glasses they were to him, for he was habitually abstemious.

It had been a hot day and evening, and when Philip, at an advanced period of the night, emerged from the bar-room into the street, he found that a thunderstorm had just commenced. He resolutely walk’d, on, however, although at every step it grew more and more blustering.

The rain now pour’d down a cataract; the shops were all shut; few of the street lamps were lighted; and there was little except the frequent flashes of lightning to show him his way. When about half the length of Chatham street, which lay in the direction he had to take, the momentary fury of the tempest forced him to turn aside into a sort of shelter form’d by the corners of the deep entrance to a Jew pawnbroker’s shop there. He had hardly drawn himself in as closely as possible, when the lightning reveal’d to him that the opposite corner of the nook was tenanted also.

“A sharp rain, this,” said the other occupant, who simultaneously beheld Philip.

The voice sounded to the young man’s ears a note which almost made him sober again. It was certainly the voice of Adam Covert. He made some commonplace reply, and waited for another flash of lightning to show him the stranger’s face. It came, and he saw that his companion was indeed his guardian.

Philip Marsh had drank deeply—(let us plead all that may be possible to you, stern moralist.) Upon his mind came swarming, and he could not drive them away, thoughts of all those insults his sister had told him of, and the bitter words Covert had spoken to her; he reflected, too, on the injuries Esther as well as himself had receiv’d, and were still likely to receive, at the hands of that bold, bad man; how mean, selfish, and unprincipled was his character—what base and cruel advantages he had taken of many poor people, entangled in his power, and of how much wrong and suffering he had been the author, and might be again through future years. The very turmoil of the elements, the harsh roll of the thunder, the vindictive beating of the rain, and the fierce glare of the wild fluid that seem’d to riot in the ferocity of the storm around him, kindled a strange sympathetic fury in the young man’s mind. Heaven itself (so deranged were his imaginations) appear’d to have provided a fitting scene and time for a deed of retribution, which to his disorder’d passion half wore the semblance of a divine justice. He remember’d not the ready solution to be found in Covert’s pressure of business, which had no doubt kept him later than usual; but fancied some mysterious intent in the ordaining that he should be there, and that they two should meet at that untimely hour. All this whirl of influence came over Philip with startling quickness at that horrid moment. He stepp’d to the side of his guardian.

“Ho!” said he, “have we met so soon, Mr. Covert? You traitor to my dead father—robber of his children! I fear to think on what I think now!”

The lawyer’s natural effrontery did not desert him.

“Unless you’d like to spend a night in the watch-house, young gentleman,” said he, after a short pause, “move on. Your father was a weak man, I remember; as for his son, his own wicked heart is his worst foe. I have never done wrong to either—that I can say, and swear it!”

“Insolent liar!” exclaimed Philip, his eye flashing out sparks of fire in the darkness.

Covert made no reply except a cool, contemptuous laugh, which stung the excited young man to double fury. He sprang upon the lawyer, and clutch’d him by the neckcloth.

“Take it, then!” he cried hoarsely, for his throat was impeded by the fiendish rage which in that black hour possess’d him. “You are not fit to live!”

He dragg’d his guardian to the earth and fell crushingly upon him, choking the shriek the poor victim but just began to utter. Then, with monstrous imprecations, he twisted a tight knot around the gasping creature’s neck, drew a clasp knife from his pocket, and touching the spring, the long sharp blade, too eager for its bloody work, flew open.

During the lull of the storm, the last strength of the prostrate man burst forth into one short loud cry of agony. At the same instant, the arm of the murderer thrust the blade, once, twice, thrice, deep in his enemy’s bosom! Not a minute had passed since that fatal exasperating laugh—but the deed was done, and the instinctive thought which came at once to the guilty one, was a thought of fear and escape.

In the unearthly pause which follow’d, Philip’s eyes gave one long searching sweep in every direction, above and around him. Above! God of the all-seeing eye! What, and who was that figure there?

“Forbear! In Jehovah’s name forbear;” cried a shrill, but clear and melodious voice.

It was as if some accusing spirit had come down to bear witness against the deed of blood. Leaning far out of an open window, appear’d a white draperied shape, its face possess’d of a wonderful youthful beauty. Long vivid glows of lightning gave Philip a full opportunity to see as clearly as though the sun had been shining at noonday. One hand of the figure was raised upward in a deprecating attitude, and his large bright black eyes bent down upon the scene below with an expression of horror and shrinking pain. Such heavenly looks, and the peculiar circumstance of the time, fill’d Philip’s heart with awe.

“Oh, if it is not yet too late,” spoke the youth again, “spare him. In God’s voice, I command, ‘Thou shalt do no murder!’”

The words rang like a knell in the ear of the terror-stricken and already remorseful Philip. Springing from the body, he gave a second glance up and down the walk, which was totally lonesome and deserted; then crossing into Reade street, he made his fearful way in a half state of stupor, half-bewilderment, by the nearest avenues to his home.

When the corpse of the murder’d lawyer was found in the morning, and the officers of justice commenced their inquiry, suspicion immediately fell upon Philip, and he was arrested. The most rigorous search, however, brought to light nothing at all implicating the young man, except his visit to Covert’s office the evening before, and his angry language there. That was by no means enough to fix so heavy a charge upon him.

The second day afterward, the whole business came before the ordinary judicial tribunal, in order that Philip might be either committed for the crime, or discharged. The testimony of Mr. Covert’s clerk stood alone. One of his employers, who, believing in his innocence, had deserted him not in this crisis, had provided him with the ablest criminal counsel in New York. The proof was declared entirely insufficient, and Philip was discharged.

The crowded court-room made way for him as he came out; hundreds of curious looks fixed upon his features, and many a jibe pass’d upon him. But of all that arena of human faces, he saw only one—a sad, pale, black-eyed one, cowering in the centre of the rest. He had seen that face twice before—the first time as a warning spectre—the second time in prison, immediately after his arrest—now for the last time. This young stranger—the son of a scorn’d race—coming to the court-room to perform an unhappy duty, with the intention of testifying to what he had seen, melted at the sight of Philip’s bloodless cheek, and of his sister’s convulsive sobs, and forbore witnessing against the murderer. Shall we applaud or condemn him? Let every reader answer the question for himself.

That afternoon Philip left New York. His friendly employer own’d a small farm some miles up the Hudson, and until the excitement of the affair was over, he advised the young man to go thither. Philip thankfully accepted the proposal, made a few preparations, took a hurried leave of Esther, and by nightfall was settled in his new abode.

And how, think you, rested Philip Marsh that night? Rested indeed! O, if those who clamor so much for the halter and the scaffold to punish crime, could have seen that sight, they might have learn’d a lesson then! Four days had elapsed since he that lay tossing upon the bed there had slumber’d. Not the slightest intermission had come to his awaken’d and tensely strung sense, during those frightful days.

Disturb’d waking dreams came to him, as he thought what he might do to gain his lost peace. Far, far away would he go! The cold roll of the murder’d man’s eye, as it turn’d up its last glance into his face—the shrill exclamation of pain—all the unearthly vividness of the posture, motions, and looks of the dead—the warning voice from above—pursued him like tormenting furies, and were never absent from his mind, asleep or awake, that long weary night. Anything, any place, to escape such horrid companionship! He would travel inland—hire himself to do hard drudgery upon some farm—work incessantly through the wide summer days, and thus force nature to bestow oblivion upon his senses, at least a little while now and then. He would fly on, on, on, until amid different scenes and a new life, the old memories were rubb’d entirely out. He would fight bravely in himself for peace of mind. For peace he would labor and struggle—for peace he would pray!

At length after a feverish slumber of some thirty or forty minutes, the unhappy youth, waking with a nervous start, rais’d himself in bed, and saw the blessed daylight beginning to dawn. He felt the sweat trickling down his naked breast; the sheet where he had lain was quite wet with it. Dragging himself wearily, he open’d the window. Ah! that good morning air—how it refresh’d him—how he lean’d out, and drank in the fragrance of the blossoms below, and almost for the first time in his life felt how beautifully indeed God had made the earth, and that there was wonderful sweetness in mere existence. And amidst the thousand mute mouths and eloquent eyes, which appear’d as it were to look up and speak in every direction, he fancied so many invitations to come among them. Not without effort, for he was very weak, he dress’d himself, and issued forth into the open air.

Clouds of pale gold and transparent crimson draperied the eastern sky, but the sun, whose face gladden’d them into all that glory, was not yet above the horizon. It was a time and place of such rare, such Eden-like beauty! Philip paused at the summit of an upward slope, and gazed around him. Some few miles off he could see a gleam of the Hudson river, and above it a spur of those rugged cliffs scatter’d along its western shores. Nearer by were cultivated fields. The clover grew richly there, the young grain bent to the early breeze, and the air was filled with an intoxicating perfume. At his side was the large well-kept garden of his host, in which were many pretty flowers, grass plots, and a wide avenue of noble trees. As Philip gazed, the holy calming power of Nature—the invisible spirit of so much beauty and so much innocence, melted into his soul. The disturb’d passions and the feverish conflict subsided. He even felt something like envied peace of mind—a sort of joy even in the presence of all the unmarr’d goodness. It was as fair to him, guilty though he had been, as to the purest of the pure. No accusing frowns show’d in the face of the flowers, or in the green shrubs, or the branches of the trees. They, more forgiving than mankind, and distinguishing not between the children of darkness and the children of light—they at least treated him with gentleness. Was he, then a being so accurs’d? Involuntarily, he bent over a branch of red roses, and took them softly between his hands—those murderous, bloody hands! But the red roses neither wither’d nor smell’d less fragrant. And as the young man kiss’d them, and dropp’d a tear upon them, it seem’d to him that he had found pity and sympathy from Heaven itself.

Though against all the rules of story-writing, we continue our narrative of these mainly true incidents (for such they are,) no further. Only to say that the murderer soon departed for a new field of action—that he is still living—and that this is but one of thousands of cases of unravel’d, unpunish’d crime—left, not to the tribunals of man, but to a wider power and judgment.