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

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

7. The Child and the Profligate

JUST after sunset, one evening in summer—that pleasant hour when the air is balmy, the light loses its glare, and all around is imbued with soothing quiet—on the door-step of a house there sat an elderly woman waiting the arrival of her son. The house was in a straggling village some fifty miles from New York city. She who sat on the door step was a widow; her white cap cover’d locks of gray, and her dress, though clean, was exceedingly homely. Her house—for the tenement she occupied was her own—was very little and very old. Trees cluster’d around it so thickly as almost to hide its color—that blackish gray color which belongs to old wooden houses that have never been painted; and to get in it you had to enter a little rickety gate and walk through a short path, border’d by carrot beds and beets and other vegetables. The son whom she was expecting was her only child. About a year before he had been bound apprentice to a rich farmer in the place, and after finishing his daily task he was in the habit of spending half an hour at his mother’s. On the present occasion the shadows of night had settled heavily before the youth made his appearance. When he did, his walk was slow and dragging, and all his motions were languid, as if from great weariness. He open’d the gate, came through the path, and sat down by his mother in silence.

“You are sullen to-night, Charley,” said the widow, after a moment’s pause, when she found that he return’d no answer to her greeting.

As she spoke she put her hand fondly on his head; it seem’d moist as if it had been dipp’d in the water. His shirt, too, was soak’d; and as she pass’d her fingers down his shoulder she felt a sharp twinge in her heart, for she knew that moisture to be the hard wrung sweat of severe toil, exacted from her young child (he was but thirteen years old) by an unyielding task-master.

“You have work’d hard to-day, my son.”

“I’ve been mowing.”

The widow’s heart felt another pang.

“Not all day, Charley?” she said, in a low voice; and there was a slight quiver in it.

“Yes, mother, all day,” replied the boy; “Mr. Ellis said he couldn’t afford to hire men, for wages are so high. I’ve swung the scythe ever since an hour before sunrise. Feel of my hands.”

There were blisters on them like great lumps. Tears started in the widow’s eyes. She dared not trust herself with a reply, though her heart was bursting with the thought that she could not better his condition. There was no earthly means of support on which she had dependence enough to encourage her child in the wish she knew he was forming—the wish not utter’d for the first time—to be freed from his bondage.

“Mother,” at length said the boy, “I can stand it no longer. I cannot and will not stay at Mr. Ellis’s. Ever since the day I first went into his house I’ve been a slave; and if I have to work so much longer I know I shall run off and go to sea or somewhere else. I’d as leave be in my grave as there.” And the child burst into a passionate fit of weeping.

His mother was silent, for she was in deep grief herself. After some minutes had flown, however, she gather’d sufficient self-possession to speak to her son in a soothing tone, endeavoring to win him from his sorrows and cheer up his heart. She told him that time was swift—that in the course of a few years he would be his own master—that all people have their troubles—with many other ready arguments which, though they had little effect in calming her own distress, she hoped would act as a solace to the disturb’d temper of the boy. And as the half hour to which he was limited had now elaps’d, she took him by the hand and led him to the gate, to set forth on his return. The youth seemed pacified, though occasionally one of those convulsive sighs that remain after a fit of weeping, would break from his throat. At the gate he threw his arms about his mother’s neck; each press’d a long kiss on the lips of the other, and the youngster bent his steps towards his master’s house.

As her child pass’d out of sight the widow return’d, shut the gate and enter’d her lonely room. There was no light in the old cottage that night—the heart of its occupant was dark and cheerless. Love, agony, and grief, and tears and convulsive wrestlings were there. The thought of a beloved son condemned to labor—labor that would break down a man—struggling from day to day under the hard rule of a soulless gold-worshipper; the knowledge that years must pass thus; the sickening idea of her own poverty, and of living mainly on the grudged charity of neighbors—thoughts, too, of former happy days—these rack’d the widow’s heart, and made her bed a sleepless one without repose.

The boy bent his steps to his employer’s, as has been said. In his way down the village street he had to pass a public house, the only one the place contain’d; and when he came off against it he heard the sound of a fiddle—drown’d, however, at intervals, by much laughter and talking. The windows were up, and, the house standing close to the road, Charles thought it no harm to take a look and see what was going on within. Half a dozen footsteps brought him to the low casement, on which he lean’d his elbow, and where he had a full view of the room and its occupants. In one corner was an old man, known in the village as Black Dave—he it was whose musical performances had a moment before drawn Charles’s attention to the tavern; and he it was who now exerted himself in a violent manner to give, with divers flourishes and extra twangs, a tune very popular among that thick-lipp’d race whose fondness for melody is so well known. In the middle of the room were five or six sailors, some of them quite drunk, and others in the earlier stages of that process, while on benches around were more sailors, and here and there a person dress’d in landsman’s attire. The men in the middle of the room were dancing; that is, they were going through certain contortions and shufflings, varied occasionally by exceeding hearty stamps upon the sanded floor. In short the whole party were engaged in a drunken frolic, which was in no respect different from a thousand other drunken frolics, except, perhaps, that there was less than the ordinary amount of anger and quarreling. Indeed everyone seem’d in remarkably good humor.

But what excited the boy’s attention more than any other object was an in seated on one of the benches opposite, who, though evidently enjoying the spree as much as if he were an old hand at such business, seem’d in every other particular to be far out of his element. His appearance was youthful. He might have been twenty-one or two years old. His countenance was intelligent, and had the air of city life and society. He was dress’d not gaudily, but in every respect fashionably; his coat being of the finest broadcloth, his linen delicate and spotless as snow, and his whole aspect that of one whose counterpart may now and then be seen upon the pave in Broadway of a fine afternoon. He laugh’d and talk’d with the rest, and it must be confess’d his jokes—like the most of those that pass’d current there—were by no means distinguish’d for their refinement or purity. Near the door was a small table, cover’d with decanters and glasses, some of which had been used, but were used again indiscriminately, and a box of very thick and very long cigars.

One of the sailors—and it was he who made the largest share of the hubbub—had but one eye. His chin and cheeks were cover’d with huge, bushy whiskers, and altogether he had quite a brutal appearance. “Come, boys,” said this gentleman, “come, let us take a drink. I know you’re all a getting dry;” and he clench’d his invitation with an appalling oath.

This politeness was responded to by a general moving of the company toward the table holding the before-mention’d decanters and glasses. Clustering there, around, each one help’d himself to a very handsome portion of that particular liquor which suited his fancy; and steadiness and accuracy being at that moment by no means distinguishing traits of the arms and legs of the party, a goodly amount of the fluid was spill’d upon the floor. This piece of extravagance excited the ire of the personage who gave the “treat;” and that ire was still further increas’d when he discover’d two or three loiterers who seem’d disposed to slight his request to drink. Charles, as we have before mention’d, was looking in at the window.

“Walk up, boys! walk up! If there be any skulker among us, blast my eyes if he shan’t go down on his marrow bones and taste the liquor we have spilt! Hallo!” he exclaim’d as he spied Charles; “hallo, you chap in the window, come here and take a sup.”

As he spoke he stepp’d to the open casement, put his brawny hands under the boy’s arms, and lifted him into the room bodily.

“There, my lads,” said he, turning to his companions, “there’s a new recruit for you. Not so coarse a one, either,” he added as he took a fair view of the boy, who, though not what is called pretty, was fresh and manly looking, and large for his age.

“Come, youngster, take a glass,” he continued. And he pour’d one nearly full of strong brandy.

Now Charles was not exactly frighten’d, for he was a lively fellow, and had often been at the country merry-makings, and at the parties of the place; but he was certainly rather abash’d at his abrupt introduction to the midst of strangers. So, putting the glass aside, he look’d up with a pleasant smile in his new acquaintance’s face.

“I’ve no need for anything now,” he said, “but I’m just as much obliged to you as if I was.”

“Poh! man, drink it down,” rejoin’d the sailor, “drink it down—it won’t hurt you.”

And, by way of showing its excellence, the one-eyed worthy drain’d it himself to the last drop. Then filling it again, he renew’d his efforts to make the lad go through the same operation.

“I’ve no occasion. Besides, my mother has often pray’d me not to drink, and I promised to obey her.”

A little irritated by his continued refusal, the sailor, with a loud oath, declared that Charles should swallow the brandy, whether he would or no. Placing one of his tremendous paws on the back of the boy’s head, with the other he thrust the edge of the glass to his lips, swearing at the same time, that if he shook it so as to spill its contents the consequences would be of a nature by no means agreeable to his back and shoulders. Disliking the liquor, and angry at the attempt to overbear him, the undaunted child lifted his hand and struck the arm of the sailor with a blow so sudden that the glass fell and was smash’d to pieces on the floor; while the brandy was about equally divided between the face of Charles, the clothes of the sailor, and the sand. By this time the whole of the company had their attention drawn to the scene. Some of them laugh’d when they saw Charles’s undisguised antipathy to the drink; but they laugh’d still more heartily when he discomfited the sailor. All of them, however, were content to let the matter go as chance would have it—all but the young man of the black coat, who has been spoken of.

What was there in the words which Charles had spoken that carried the mind of the young men back to former times—to a period when he was more pure and innocent than now? “My mother has often pray’d me not to drink!” Ah, how the mist of months roll’d aside, and presented to his soul’s eye the picture of his mother, and a prayer of exactly similar purport! Why was it, too, that the young man’s heart moved with a feeling of kindness toward the harshly treated child?

Charles stood, his cheek flush’d and his heart throbbing, wiping the trickling drops from his face with a handkerchief. At first the sailor, between his drunkenness and his surprise, was much in the condition of one suddenly awaken’d out of a deep sleep, who cannot call his consciousness about him. When he saw the state of things, however, and heard the jeering laugh of his companions, his dull eye lighting up with anger, fell upon the boy who had withstood him. He seized Charles with a grip of iron, and with the side of his heavy boot gave him a sharp and solid kick. He was about repeating the performance—for the child hung like a rag in his grasp—but all of a sudden his ears rang, as if pistols were snapp’d close to them; lights of various hues flicker’d in his eye, (he had but one, it will be remember’d,) and a strong propelling power caused him to move from his position, and keep moving until he was brought up by the wall. A blow, a cuff given in such a scientific manner that the hand from which it proceeded was evidently no stranger to the pugilistic art, had been suddenly planted in the ear of the sailor. It was planted by the young man of the black coat. He had watch’d with interest the proceeding of the sailor and the boy—two or three times he was on the point of interfering; but when the kick was given, his rage was uncontrollable. He sprang from his seat in the attitude of a boxer—struck the sailor in a manner to cause those unpleasant sensations which have been described—and would probably have follow’d up the attack, had not Charles, now thoroughly terrified, clung around his legs and prevented his advancing.

The scene was a strange one, and for the time quite a silent one. The company had started from their seats, and for a moment held breathless but strain’d positions. In the middle of the room stood the young man, in his not at all ungraceful attitude—every nerve out, and his eyes flashing brilliantly. He seem’d rooted like a rock; and clasping him, with an appearance of confidence in his protection, clung the boy.

“You scoundrel!” cried the young man, his voice thick with passion, “dare to touch the boy again, and I’ll thrash you till no sense is left in your body.”

The sailor, now partially recover’d, made some gestures of a belligerent nature.

“Come on, drunken brute!” continued the angry youth; “I wish you would! You’ve not had half what you deserve!”

Upon sobriety and sense more fully taking their power in the brains of the one-eyed mariner, however, that worthy determined in his own mind that it would be most prudent to let the matter drop. Expressing therefore his conviction to that effect, adding certain remarks to the purport that he “meant no harm to the lad,” that he was surprised at such a gentleman being angry at “a little piece of fun,” and so forth—he proposed that the company should go on with their jollity just as if nothing had happen’d. In truth, he of the single eye was not a bad fellow at heart, after all; the fiery enemy whose advances he had so often courted that night, had stolen away his good feelings, and set busy devils at work within him, that might have made his hands do some dreadful deed, had not the stranger interposed.

In a few minutes the frolic of the party was upon its former footing. The young man sat down upon one of the benches, with the boy by his side, and while the rest were loudly laughing and talking, they two convers’d together. The stranger learn’d from Charles all the particulars of his simple story—how his father had died years since—how his mother work’d hard for a bare living—and how he himself, for many dreary months, had been the servant of a hard-hearted, avaricious master. More and more interested, drawing the child close to his side, the young man listen’d to his plainly told history—and thus an hour pass’d away.

It was now past midnight. The young man told Charles that on the morrow he would take steps to relieve him from his servitude—that for the present night the landlord would probably give him a lodging at the inn—and little persuading did the host need for that.

As he retired to sleep, very pleasant thoughts filled the mind of the young man—thoughts of a worthy action perform’d—thoughts, too, newly awakened ones, of walking in a steadier and wiser path than formerly.

That roof, then, sheltered two beings that night—one of them innocent and sinless of all wrong—the other—oh, to that other what evil had not been present, either in action or to his desires!

Who was the stranger? To those that, from ties of relationship or otherwise, felt an interest in him, the answer to that question was not pleasant to dwell upon. His name was Langton—parentless—a dissipated young man—a brawler—one whose too frequent companions were rowdies, blacklegs, and swindlers. The New York police offices were not strangers to his countenance. He had been bred to the profession of medicine; besides, he had a very respectable income, and his house was in a pleasant street on the west side of the city. Little of his time, however, did Mr. John Langton spend at his domestic hearth; and the elderly lady who officiated as his housekeeper was by no means surprised to have him gone for a week or a month at a time, and she knowing nothing of his whereabouts.

Living as he did, the young man was an unhappy being. It was not so much that his associates were below his own capacity—for Langton, though sensible and well bred, was not highly talented or refined—but that he lived without any steady purpose, that he had no one to attract him to his home, that he too easily allow’d himself to be tempted—which caused his life to be, of late, one continued scene of dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction he sought to drive away by the brandy bottle, and mixing in all kinds of parties where the object was pleasure. On the present occasion he had left the city a few days before, and was passing his time at a place near the village where Charles and his mother lived. He fell in, during the day, with those who were his companions of the tavern spree; and thus it happen’d that they were all together. Langton hesitated not to make himself at home with any associate that suited his fancy.

The next morning the poor widow rose from her sleepless cot; and from that lucky trait in our nature which makes one extreme follow another, she set about her toil with a lighten’d heart. Ellis, the farmer, rose, too, short as the nights were, an hour before day; for his god was gain, and a prime article of his creed was to get as much work as possible from everyone around him. In the course of the day Ellis was called upon by young Langton, and never perhaps in his life was the farmer puzzled more than at the young man’s proposal—his desire to provide for the widow’s family, a family that could do him no pecuniary good, and his willingness to disburse money for that purpose. The widow, too, was called upon, not only on that day, but the next and the next.

It needs not that I should particularize the subsequent events of Langton’s and the boy’s history—how the reformation of the profligate might be dated to begin from that time—how he gradually sever’d the guilty ties that had so long gall’d him—how he enjoy’d his own home again—how the friendship of Charles and himself grew not slack with time—and how, when in the course of seasons he became head of a family of his own, he would shudder at the remembrance of his early dangers and his escapes.