Home  »  Prose Works  »  4. The Last Loyalist

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

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

4. The Last Loyalist

  • “She came to me last night,
  • The floor gave back no tread.”
  • THE STORY I am going to tell is a traditional reminiscence of a country place, in my rambles about which I have often passed the house, now unoccupied, and mostly in ruins, that was the scene of the transaction. I cannot, of course, convey to others that particular kind of influence which is derived from my being so familiar with the locality, and with the very people whose grandfathers or fathers were contemporaries of the actors in the drama I shall transcribe. I must hardly expect, therefore, that to those who hear it thro’ the medium of my pen, the narration will possess as life-like and interesting a character as it does to myself.

    On a large and fertile neck of land that juts out in the Sound, stretching to the east of New York city, there stood, in the latter part of the last century, an old-fashion’d country-residence. It had been built by one of the first settlers of this section of the New World; and its occupant was originally owner of the extensive tract lying adjacent to his house, and pushing into the bosom of the salt waters. It was during the troubled times which mark’d our American Revolution that the incidents occurr’d which are the foundation of my story. Some time before the commencement of the war, the owner, whom I shall call Vanhome, was taken sick and died. For some time before his death he had lived a widower; and his only child, a lad of ten years old, was thus left an orphan. By his father’s will this child was placed implicitly under the guardianship of an uncle, a middle-aged man, who had been of late a resident in the family. His care and interest, however, were needed but a little while—not two years elaps’d after the parents were laid away to their last repose before another grave had to be prepared for the son—the child who had been so haplessly deprived of their fostering care.

    The period now arrived when the great national convulsion burst forth. Sounds of strife and the clash of arms, and the angry voices of disputants, were borne along by the air, and week after week grew to still louder clamor. Families were divided; adherents to the crown, and ardent upholders of the rebellion, were often found in the bosom of the same domestic circle. Vanhome, the uncle spoken of as guardian to the young heir, was a man who lean’d to the stern, the high-handed and the severe. He soon became known among the most energetic of the loyalists. So decided were his sentiments that, leaving the estate which he had inherited from his brother and nephew, he join’d the forces of the British king. Thenceforward, whenever his old neighbors heard of him, it was as being engaged in the cruelest outrages, the boldest inroads, or the most determin’d attacks upon the army of his countrymen or their peaceful settlements.

    Eight years brought the rebel States and their leaders to that glorious epoch when the last remnant of a monarch’s rule was to leave their shores—when the last waving of the royal standard was to flutter as it should be haul’d down from the staff, and its place fill’d by the proud testimonial of our warriors’ success.

    Pleasantly over the autumn fields shone the November sun, when a horseman, of somewhat military look, plodded slowly along the road that led to the old Vanhome farmhouse. There was nothing peculiar in his attire, unless it might be a red scarf which he wore tied round his waist. He was a dark-featured, sullen-eyed man; and as his glance was thrown restlessly to the right and left, his whole manner appear’d to be that of a person moving amid familiar and accustom’d scenes. Occasionally he stopp’d, and looking long and steadily at some object that attracted his attention, mutter’d to himself, like one in whose breast busy thoughts were moving. His course was evidently to the homestead itself, at which in due time he arrived. He dismounted, led his horse to the stables, and then, without knocking, though there were evident signs of occupancy around the building, the traveler made his entrance as composedly and boldly as though he were master of the whole establishment.

    Now the house being in a measure deserted for many years, and the successful termination of the strife rendering it probable that the Vanhome estate would be confiscated to the new government, an aged, poverty-stricken couple had been encouraged by the neighbors to take possession as tenants of the place. Their name was Gills; and these people the traveler found upon his entrance were likely to be his host and hostess. Holding their right as they did by so slight a tenure, they ventur’d to offer no opposition when the stranger signified his intention of passing several hours there.

    The day wore on, and the sun went down in the west; still the interloper, gloomy and taciturn, made no signs of departing. But as the evening advanced (whether the darkness was congenial to his sombre thoughts, or whether it merely chanced so) he seem’d to grow more affable and communicative, and informed Gills that he should pass the night there, tendering him at the same time ample remuneration, which the latter accepted with many thanks.

    “Tell me,” said he to his aged host, when they were all sitting around the ample hearth, at the conclusion of their evening meal, “tell me something to while away the hours.”

    “Ah! sir,” answered Gills, “this is no place for new or interesting events. We live here from year to year, and at the end of one we find ourselves at about the same place which we filled in the beginning.”

    “Can you relate nothing, then?” rejoin’d the guest, and a singular smile pass’d over his features; “can you say nothing about your own place?—this house or its former inhabitants, or former history?”

    The old man glanced across to his wife, and a look expressive of sympathetic feeling started in the face of each.

    “It is an unfortunate story, sir,” said Gills, “and may cast a chill upon you, instead of the pleasant feeling which it would be best to foster when in strange walls.”

    “Strange walls!” echoed he of the red scarf, and for the first time since his arrival he half laughed, but it was not the laugh which comes from a man’s heart.

    “You must know, sir,” continued Gills, “I am myself a sort of intruder here. The Vanhomes—that was the name of the former residents and owners—I have never seen; for when I came to these parts the last occupant had left to join the red-coat soldiery. I am told that he is to sail with them for foreign lands, now that the war is ended, and his property almost certain to pass into other hands.”

    As the old man went on, the stranger cast down his eyes, and listen’d with an appearance of great interest, though a transient smile or a brightening of the eye would occasionally disturb the serenity of his deportment.

    “The old owners of this place,” continued the white-haired narrator, “were well off in the world, and bore a good name among their neighbors. The brother of Sergeant Vanhome, now the only one of the name, died ten or twelve years since, leaving a son—a child so small that the father’s will made provision for his being brought up by his uncle, whom I mention’d but now as of the British army. He was a strange man, this uncle; disliked by all who knew him; passionate, vindictive, and, it was said, very avaricious, even from his childhood.

    “Well, not long after the death of the parents, dark stories began to be circulated about cruelty and punishment and whippings and starvation inflicted by the new master upon his nephew. People who had business at the homestead would frequently, when they came away, relate the most fearful things of its manager, and how he misused his brother’s child. It was half hinted that he strove to get the youngster out of the way in order that the whole estate might fall into his own hands. As I told you before, however, nobody liked the man; and perhaps they judged him too uncharitably.

    “After things had gone on in this way for some time, a countryman, a laborer, who has hired to do farm-work upon the place, one evening observed that the little orphan Vanhome was more faint and pale even than usual, for he was always delicate, and that is one reason why I think it possible that his death, of which I am now going to tell you, was but the result of his own weak constitution, and nothing else. The laborer slept that night at the farm house. Just before the time at which they usually retired to bed, this person, feeling sleepy with his day’s toil, left the kitchen hearth and wended his way to rest. In going to his place of repose he had to pass a chamber—the very chamber where you, sir, are to sleep to-night—and there he heard the voice of the orphan child uttering half-suppress’d exclamations as if in pitiful entreaty. Upon stopping, he heard also the tones of the elder Vanhome, but they were harsh and bitter. The sound of blows followed. As each one fell it was accompanied by a groan or shriek, and so they continued for some time. Shock’d and indignant, the countryman would have aburst open the door and interfered to prevent this brutal proceeding, but he bethought him that he might get himself into trouble, and perhaps find that he could do no good after all, and so he passed on to his room.

    “Well, sir, the following day the child did not come out among the work-people as usual. He was taken very ill. No physician was sent for until the next afternoon; and though on arrived in the course of the night, it was too late—the poor boy died before morning.

    “People talk’d threateningly upon the subject, but nothing could be proved against Vanhome. At one period there were efforts made to have the whole affair investigated. Perhaps that would have taken place, had not every one’s attention been swallow’d up by the rumors of difficulty and war, which were then beginning to disturb the country.

    “Vanhome joined the army of the king. His enemies said that he feared to be on the side of the rebels, because if they were routed his property would be taken from him. But events have shown that, if this was indeed what he dreaded, it has happen’d to him from the very means which he took to prevent it.”

    The old man paused. He had quite wearied himself with so long talking. For some minutes there was unbroken silence.

    Presently the stranger signified his intention of retiring for the night. He rose, and his host took a light for the purpose of ushering him to his apartment.

    When Gills return’d to his accustom’d situation in the large arm-chair by the chimney hearth, his ancient helpmate had retired to rest. With the simplicity of their times, the bed stood in the same room where the three had been seated during the last few hours; and now the remaining two talk’d together about the singular events of the evening. As the time wore on, Gills show’d no disposition to leave his cosy chair; but sat toasting his feet, and bending over the coals. Gradually the insidious heat and the lateness of the hour began to exercise their influence over the old man. The drowsy indolent feeling which every one has experienced in getting thoroughly heated through by close contact with a glowing fire, spread in each vein and sinew, and relax’d its tone. He lean’d back in his chair and slept.

    For a long time his repose went on quietly and soundly. He could not tell how many hours elapsed; but, a while after midnight, the torpid senses of the slumberer were awaken’d by a startling shock. It was a cry as of a strong man in his agony—a shrill, not very loud cry, but fearful, and creeping into the blood like cold, polish’d steel. The old man raised himself in his seat and listen’d, at once fully awake. For a minute, all was the solemn stillness of midnight. Then rose that horrid tone again, wailing and wild, and making the hearer’s hair to stand on end. One moment more, and the trampling of hasty feet sounded in the passage outside. The door was thrown open, and the form of the stranger, more like a corpse than living man, rushed into the room.

    “All white!” yeli’d the conscience-stricken creature—“all white, and with the grave-clothes around him. One shoulder was bare, and I saw,” he whisper’d, “I saw blue streaks upon it. It was horrible, and I cried aloud. He stepp’d toward me! He came to my very bedside; his small hand almost touch’d my face. I could not bear it, and fled.”

    The miserable man bent his head down upon his bosom; convulsive rattlings shook his throat; and his whole frame waver’d to and fro like a tree in a storm. Bewilder’d and shock’d, Gills look’d at his apparently deranged guest, and knew not what answer to make, or what course of conduct to pursue.

    Thrusting out his arms and his extended fingers, and bending down his eyes, as men do when shading them from a glare of lightning, the stranger stagger’d from the door, and, in a moment further, dash’d madly through the passage which led through the kitchen into the outer road. The old man heard the noise of his falling footsteps, sounding fainter and fainter in the distance, and then, retreating, dropp’d his own exhausted limbs into the chair from which he had been arous’d so terribly. It was many minutes before his energies recover’d their accustomed tone again. Strangely enough, his wife, unawaken’d by the stranger’s ravings, still slumber’d on as profoundly as ever.

    Pass we on to a far different scene—the embarkation of the British troops for the distant land whose monarch was never more to wield the sceptre over a kingdom lost by his imprudence and tyranny. With frowning brow and sullen pace the martial ranks moved on. Boat after boat was filled, and, as each discharged its complement in the ships that lay heaving their anchors in the stream, it return’d, and was soon filled with another load. And at length it became time for the last soldier to lift his eye and take a last glance at the broad banner of England’s pride, which flapp’d its folds from the top of the highest staff on the Battery.

    As the warning sound of a trumpet called together all who were laggards—those taking leave of friends, and those who were arranging their own private affairs, left until the last moment—a single horseman was seen furiously dashing down the street. A red scarf tightly encircled his waist. He made directly for the shore, and the crowd there gather’d started back in wonderment as they beheld his dishevel’d appearance and ghastly face. Throwing himself violently from his saddle, he flung the bridle over the animal’s neck, and gave him a sharp cut with a small riding whip. He made for the boat; one minute later, and he had been left. They were pushing the keel from the landing—the stranger sprang—a space of two or three feet already intervened—he struck on the gunwale—and the Last Soldier of King George had left the American shores.