Home  »  Prose Works  »  6. The Boy Lover

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

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

6. The Boy Lover

LISTEN, and the old will speak a chronicle for the young. Ah, youth! thou art one day coming to be old, too. And let me tell thee how thou mayest get a useful lesson. For an hour, dream thyself old. Realize, in thy thoughts and consciousness, that vigor and strength are subdued in thy sinews—that the color of the shroud is liken’d in thy very hairs—that all those leaping desires, luxurious hopes, beautiful aspirations, and proud confidences, of thy younger life, have long been buried (a funeral for the better part of thee) in that grave which must soon close over thy tottering limbs. Look back, then, through the long track of the past years. How has it been with thee? Are there bright beacons of happiness enjoy’d, and of good done by the way? Glimmer gentle rays of what was scatter’d from a holy heart? Have benevolence, and love, and undeviating honesty left tokens on which thy eyes can rest sweetly? Is it well with thee, thus? Answerest thou, it is? Or answerest thou, I see nothing but gloom and shatter’d hours, and the wreck of good resolves, and a broken heart, filled with sickness, and troubled among its ruined chambers with the phantoms of many follies?

O, youth! youth! this dream will one day be a reality—a reality, either of heavenly peace or agonizing sorrow.

And yet not for all is it decreed to attain the neighborhood of the threescore and ten years—the span of life. I am to speak of one who died young. Very awkward was his childhood—but most fragile and sensitive! So delicate a nature may exist in a rough, unnoticed plant! Let the boy rest;—he was not beautiful, and dropp’d away betimes. But for the cause—it is a singular story, to which let crusted worldlings pay the tribute of a light laugh—light and empty as their own hollow hearts.

Love! which with its cankerseed of decay within, has sent young men and maidens to a long’d-for, but too premature burial. Love! the child-monarch that Death itself cannot conquer; that has its tokens on slabs at the head of grass-cover’d tombs—tokens more visible to the eye of the stranger, yet not so deeply graven as the face and the remembrances cut upon the heart of the living. Love! the sweet, the pure, the innocent; yet the causer of fierce hate, of wishes for deadly revenge, of bloody deeds, and madness, and the horrors of hell. Love! that wanders over battlefields, turning up mangled human trunks, and parting back the hair from gory faces, and daring the points of swords and the thunder of artillery, without a fear or a thought of danger.

Words! words! I begin to see I am, indeed, an old man, and garrulous! Let me go back—yes, I see it must be many years!

It was at the close of the last century. I was at that time studying law, the profession my father follow’d. One of his clients was an elderly widow, a foreigner, who kept a little ale-house, on the banks of the North River, at about two miles from what is now the centre of the city. Then the spot was quite out of town and surrounded by fields and green trees. The widow often invited me to come and pay her a visit, when I had a leisure afternoon—including also in the invitation my brother and two other students who were in my father’s office. Matthew, the brother I mention, was a boy of sixteen; he was troubled with an inward illness—though it had no power over his temper, which ever retain’d the most admirable placidity and gentleness. He was cheerful, but never boisterous, and everybody loved him; his mind seem’d more develop’d than is usual for his age, though his personal appearance was exceedingly plain. Wheaton and Brown, the names of the other students, were spirited, clever young fellows, with most of the traits that those in their position of life generally possess. The first was as generous and brave as any man I ever knew. He was very passionate, too, but the whirlwind soon blew over, and left everything quiet again. Frank Brown was slim, graceful, and handsome. He profess’d to be fond of sentiment, and used to fall regularly in love once a month.

The half of every Wednesday we four youths had to ourselves, and were in the habit of taking a sail, a ride, or a walk together. One of these afternoons, of a pleasant day in April, the sun shining, and the air clear, I bethought myself of the widow and her beer—about which latter article I had made inquiries, and heard it spoken of in terms of high commendation. I mention’d the matter to Matthew and to my fellow-students, and we agreed to fill up our holiday by a jaunt to the ale-house. Accordingly, we set forth, and, after a fine walk, arrived in glorious spirits at our destination.

Ah! how shall I describe the quiet beauties of the spot, with its long, low piazza looking out upon the river, and its clean homely tables, and the tankards of real silver in which the ale was given us, and the flavor of that excellent liquor itself, There was the widow; and there was a sober, stately old woman, half companion, half servant, Margery by name; and there was (good God! my fingers quiver yet as I write the word!) young Ninon, the daughter of the widow.

O, though the years that live no more, my memory strays back, and that whole scene comes up before me once again—and the brightest part of the picture is the strange ethereal beauty of that young girl! She was apparently bout the age of my brother Matthew, and the most fascinating, artless creature I had ever beheld. She had blue eyes and light hair, and an expression of childish simplicity which was charming indeed. I have no doubt that ere half an hour and elapsed from the time we enter’d the tavern and saw Ninon, every one of the four of us loved the girl to the very depth of passion.

We neither spent so much money, nor drank as much beer, as we had intended before starting from home. The widow was very civil, being pleased to see us, and Margery served our wants with a deal of politeness—but it was to Ninon that the afternoon’s pleasure was attributable; for though we were strangers, we became acquainted at once—the manners of the girl, merry as she was, putting entirely out of view the most distant imputation of indecorum—and the presence of the widow and Margery, (for we were all in the common room together, there being no other company,) serving to make us all disembarass’d and at ease.

It was not until quite a while after sunset that we started on our return to the city. We made several attempts to revive the mirth and lively talk that usually signalized our rambles, but they seem’d forced and discordant, like laughter in a sick-room. My brother was the only one who preserved his usual tenor of temper and conduct.

I need hardly say that thenceforward every Wednesday afternoon was spent at the widow’s tavern. Strangely, neither Matthew or my two friends, or myself, spoke to each other of the sentiment that filled us in reference to Ninon. Yet we all knew the thoughts and feelings of the others; and each, perhaps, felt confident that his love alone was unsuspected by his companions.

The story of the widow was a touching yet simple one. She was by birth a Swiss. In one of the cantons of her native land, she had grown up, and married, and lived for a time in happy comfort. A son was born to her, and a daughter, the beautiful Ninon. By some reverse of fortune, the father and head of the family had the greater portion of his possessions swept from him. He struggled for a time against the evil influence, but it press’d upon him harder and harder. He had heard of a people in the western world—a new and swarming land—where the stranger was welcom’d, and peace and the protection of the strong arm thrown around him. He had not heart to stay and struggle amid the scenes of his former prosperity, and he determin’d to go and make his home in that distant republic of the west. So with his wife and children, and the proceeds of what little property was left, he took passage for New York. He was never to reach his journey’s end. Either the cares that weigh’d upon his mind, or some other cause, consign’d him to a sick hammock, from which he only found relief through the Great Dismisser. He was buried in the sea, and in due time his family arrived at the American emporium. But there, the son too sicken’d—died, ere long, and was buried likewise. They would not bury him in the city, but away—by the solitary banks of the Hudson; on which the widow soon afterwards took up her abode.

Ninon was too young to feel much grief at these sad occurrences; and the mother, whatever she might have suffer’d inwardly, had a good deal of phlegm and patience, and set about making herself and her remaining child as comfortable as might be. They had still a respectable sum in cash, and after due deliberation, the widow purchas’d the little quiet tavern, not far from the grave of her boy; and of Sundays and holidays she took in considerable money—enough to make a decent support for them in their humble way of living. French and Germans visited the house frequently, and quite a number of young Americans too. Probably the greatest attraction to the latter was the sweet face of Ninon.

Spring passed, and summer crept in and wasted away, and autumn had arrived. Every New Yorker knows what delicious weather we have, in these regions, of the early October days; how calm, clear, and divested of sultriness, is the air, and how decently nature seems preparing for her winter sleep.

Thus it was the last Wednesday we started on our accustomed excursion. Six months had elapsed since our first visit, and, as then, we were full of the exuberance of young and joyful hearts. Frequent and hearty were our jokes, by no means particular about the theme or the method, and long and loud the peals of laughter that rang over the fields or along the shore.

We took our seats round the same clean, white table, and received our favorite beverage in the same bright tankards. They were set before us by the sober Margery, no one else being visible. As frequently happen’d, we were the only company. Walking and breathing the keen, fine air had made us dry, and we soon drain’d the foaming vessels, and call’d for more. I remember well an animated chat we had about some poems that had just made their appearance from a great British author, and were creating quite a public stir. There was one, a tale of passion and despair, which Wheaton had read, and of which he gave us a transcript. Wild, startling, and dreamy, perhaps it threw over our minds its peculiar cast.

An hour moved off, and we began to think it strange that neither Ninon or the widow came into the room. One of us gave a hint to that effect to Margery; but she made no answer, and went on in her usual way as before.

“The grim old thing,” said Wheaton, “if she were in Spain, they’d make her a premier duenna!”

I ask’d the woman about Ninon and the widow. She seemed disturb’d, I thought; but, making no reply to the first part of my question, said that her mistress was in another part of the house, and did not wish to be with company.

“Then be kind enough, Mrs. Vinegar,” resumed Wheaton, good-naturedly, “be kind enough to go and ask the widow if we can see Ninon.”

Our attendant’s face turn’d as pale as ashes, and she precipitately left the apartment. We laugh’d at her agitation, which Frank Brown assigned to our merry ridicule.

Quite a quarter of an hour elaps’d before Margery’s return. When she appear’d she told us briefly that the widow had bidden her obey our behest, and now, if we desired, she would conduct us to the daughter’s presence. There was a singular expression in the woman’s eyes, and the whole affair began to strike us as somewhat odd; but we arose, and taking our caps, follow’d her as she stepp’d through the door. Back of the house were some fields, and a path leading into clumps of trees. At some thirty rods distant from the tavern, nigh one of those clumps, the larger tree whereof was a willow, Margery stopp’d, and pausing a minute, while we came up, spoke in tones calm and low:

“Ninon is there!”

She pointed downward with her finger. Great God! There was a grave, new made, and with the sods loosely join’d, and a rough brown stone at each extremity! Some earth yet lay upon the grass near by. If we had look’d, we might have seen the resting-place of the widow’s son, Ninon’s brother—for it was close at hand. But amid the whole scene our eyes took in nothing except that horrible covering of death—the oven-shaped mound. My sight seemed to waver, my head felt dizzy, and a feeling of deadly sickness came over me. I heard a stifled exclamation, and looking round, saw Frank Brown leaning against the nearest tree, great sweat upon his forehead, and his cheeks bloodless as chalk. Wheaton gave way to his agony more fully than ever I had known a man before; he had fallen—sobbing like a child, and wringing his hands. It is impossible to describe the suddenness and fearfulness of the sickening truth that came upon us like a stroke of thunder.

Of all of us, my brother Matthew neither shed tears, or turned pale, or fainted, or exposed any other evidence of inward depth of pain. His quiet, pleasant voice was indeed a tone lower, but it was that which recall’d us, after the lapse of many long minutes, to ourselves.

So the girl had died and been buried. We were told of an illness that had seized her the very day after our last preceding visit; but we inquired not into the particulars.

And now come I to the conclusion of my story, and to the most singular part of it. The evening of the third day afterward, Wheaton, who had wept scalding tears, and Brown, whose cheeks had recover’d their color, and myself, that for an hour thought my heart would never rebound again from the fearful shock—that evening, I say, we three were seated around a table in another tavern, drinking other beer, and laughing but a little less cheerfully, and as though we had never known the widow or her daughter—neither of whom, I venture to affirm, came into our minds once the whole night, or but to be dismiss’d again, carelessly, like the remembrance of faces seen in a crowd.

Strange are the contradictions of the things of life! The seventh day after that dreadful visit saw my brother Matthew—the delicate one, who, while bold men writhed in torture, had kept the same placid face, and the same untrembling fingers—him that seventh day saw a clay-cold corpse, carried to the repose of the churchyard. The shaft, rankling far down and within, wrought a poison too great for show, and the youth died.