Home  »  Prose Works  »  9. Little Jane

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

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

9. Little Jane

“LIFT up!” was ejaculated as was signal!—and click! went the glasses in the hands of a party of tipsy men, drinking one night at the bar of one of the middling order of taverns. And many a wild gibe was utter’d, and many a terrible blasphemy, and many an impure phrase sounded out the pollution of the hearts of these half-crazed creatures, as the toss’d down their liquor, and made the walls echo with their uproar, The first and foremost in recklessness was a girlish-faced, fair-hair’d fellow of twenty-two or three years. They called him Mike. He seem’d to be look’d upon by the others as a sort of prompter, from whom they were to take cue. And if the brazen wickedness evinced by him in a hundred freaks and remarks to his companions, during their stay in that place, were any test of his capacity—there might hardly be one more fit to go forward as a guide on the road of destruction. From the conversation of the party, it appear’d that they had been spending the early part of the evening in a gambling house.

A second, third and fourth time were the glasses fill’d; and the effect thereof began to be perceiv’d in a still higher degree of noise and loquacity among the revellers. One of the serving-men came in at this moment, and whisper’d the barkeeper, who went out, and in a moment return’d again.

“a person,” he said, “wish’d to speak with Mr. Michael. He waited on the walk in front.”

The individual whose name was mention’d, made his excuse to the others, telling them he would be back in a moment, and left the room. As the shut the door behind him, and stepp’d into the open air, he saw one of his brothers—his elder by eight or ten years—pacing to and fro with rapid and uneven steps. As the man turn’d in his walk, and the glare of the street lamp fell upon his face, the youth, half-benumb’d as his senses were, was somewhat startled at its paleness and evident perturbation.

“Come with me!” said the elder brother, hurriedly, “the illness of our little Jane is worse, and I have been sent for you.”

“Poh!” answered the young drunkard, very composedly, “is that all? I shall be home by-and-by,” and he turn’d back again.

“But, brother, she is worse than ever before. Perhaps when you arrive she may be dead.”

The tipsy one paus’d in his retreat, perhaps alarm’d at the utterance of that dread word, which seldom fails to shoot a chill to the hearts of mortals. But he soon calm’d himself and waving his hand to the other:

“Why, see,” said he, “a score of times at least, have I been call’d away to the last sickness of our good little sister; and each time it proves to be nothing worse than some whim of the nurse or physician. Three years has the girl been able to live very heartily under her disease; and I’ll be bound she’ll stay on the earth three years longer.”

And as he concluded this wicked and most brutal reply, the speaker open’d the door and went into the bar-room. But in his intoxication, during the hour that follow’d, Mike was far from being at ease. At the end of the hour, the words, “perhaps when you arrive she may be dead,” were not effaced from his hearing yet, and he started for home. The elder brother had wended his way back in sorrow.

Let me go before the younger one, awhile, to a room in that home. A little girl lay there dying. She had been ill a long time; so it was no sudden thing for her parents, and her brethren and sisters, to be called for the witness of the death agony. The girl was not what might be called beautiful. And yet, there is a solemn kind of loveliness that always surrounds a sick child. The sympathy for the weak and helpless sufferer, perhaps, increases it in our own ideas. The ashiness and the moisture on the brow, and the film over the eyeballs—what man can look upon the sight, and not feel his heart awed within him? Children, I have sometimes fancied too, increased in beauty as their illness deepens.

Besides the nearest relatives of little Jane, standing round her bedside, was the family doctor. He had just laid her wrist down upon the coverlet, and the look he gave the mother, was a look in which there was no hope.

“My child!” she cried, in uncontrollable agony, “O! my child!”

And the father, and the sons and daughters, were bowed down in grief, and thick tears rippled between the fingers held before their eyes.

Then there was silence awhile. During the hour just by-gone, Jane had, in her childish way, bestow’d a little gift upon each of her kindred, as a remembrancer when she should be dead and buried in the grave. And there was one of these simple tokens which had not reach’d its destination. She held it in her hand now. It was a very small much-thumbed book—a religious story for infants, given her by her mother when she had first learn’d to read.

While they were all keeping this solemn stillness—broken only by the suppress’d sobs of those who stood and watch’d for the passing away of the girl’s soul—a confusion of some one entering rudely, and speaking in a turbulent voice, was heard in an adjoining apartment. Again the voice roughly sounded out; it was the voice of the drunkard Mike, and the father bade one of his sons go and quiet the intruder.

“If nought else will do,” said he sternly, “put him forth by strength. We want to tipsy brawlers here, to disturb such a scene as this.”

For what moved the sick girl uneasily on her pillow, and raised her neck, and motion’d to her mother? She would that Mike should be brought to her side. And it was enjoin’d on him whom the father had bade to eject the noisy one, that he should tell Mike his sister’s request, and beg him to come to her.

He came. The inebriate—his mind sober’d by the deep solemnity of the scene—stood there, and leaned over to catch the last accounts of one who soon was to be with the spirits of heaven. All was the silence of the deepest night. They dying child held the young man’s hand in one of hers; with other she slowly lifted the trifling memorial she had assigned especially for him, aloft the air. Her arm shook—her eyes, now becoming glassy with the death-damps, were cast toward her brother’s face. She smiled pleasantly, and as an indistinct gurgle came from her throat, the uplifted hand fell suddenly into the open palm of her brother’s, depositing the tiny volume there. Little Jane was dead.

From that night, the young man stepped no more in his wild courses, but was reform’d.