Title: The Child's Champion
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Walter Whitman]
Date: November 20, 1841
Whitman Archive ID: per.00319
Source: The New World, November 20, 1841: –322. Transcribed from digital images of an original issue held at the American Antiquarian Society.
Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock, Nicole Gray, and Kirsten Clawson
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THE CHILD'S CHAMPION.1
BY WALTER WHITMAN.
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 the great city, whose spires and ceaseless clang rise up, where the Hudson pours forth its waters. She who sat on the door-step was a widow; her neat white cap covered locks of gray, and her dress though clean, was patched and exceeding homely. Her house, for the tenement she occupied was her own, was very little, and very old. Trees clustered 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 to it, you had to enter a little ricketty gate, and walk through a short path, bordered 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 tasks, he was in the habit of spending half an hour at his mother's. On the present occasion, the shadows of the 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 opened 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 minute's pause, when she found that he returned no answer to her greetings. As she spoke, she put her hand fondly on his head; it was as wet as if it had been dipped in the water. His shirt, too, was soaked; and as she passed 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 twelve years old,) by an unyielding task-master.
"You have worked hard to-day, my son."
"I've been mowing."2
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 could n't afford to hire men, for wages is 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 was coming; the wish—not uttered 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. Ells's. Ever since the day I first went into his house, I've been a slave, and if I have to work there much longer, I know I shall run away, and go to sea, or somewhere else. I'd as lieveleive 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 gathered 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 years he would be his own master; that all people had their troubles; with other ready arguments, which though they had little effect in calming her own distress, she hoped would act as a solace on the disturbed temper of the boy. And as the half hour to which he was limited had now elapsed, she took him by the hand and led him to the gate to set forth on his return. The child 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 pressed a long kiss on the lips of the other, and the youngster bent his steps towards his master's house.
As her child passed out of sight, the widow returned, shut the gate, and entered her lonesome room. There was no light in the old cottage that night; the heart of its occupant was dark and cheerless. Sore agony, and grief, and tears, and convulsive wrestlings were there. The thought of a beloved son condemned to labor—labor that would bend 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—these racked the widow's heart, and made her bed a sleepless one. O, you, who, living in plenty and peace, fret at some little misfortune or some trifling disappointment—behold this spectacle, and blush at your unmanliness! Little do you know of the dark trials (compared to yours as night's great veil to a daylight cloud) that are still going on around you; the pangs of hunger—the faintness of the soul at seeing those we love trampled down, without our having the power to aid them—the wasting away of the body in sickness incurable—and those dull achings of the heart when the consciousness comes upon the poor man's mind, that while he lives he will in all probability live in want and wretchedness.
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,3 the only one the
place contained; and when he came off against it, he heard the sound of a fiddle, drowned 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,4 on which he leaned 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 most violent manner to give, with divers flourishes and extra twangs, a tune popular among
that thick-lipped 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 dressed in landsmen's attire,
but hardly behind the sea-gentlemen in uproariousness and mirth. The individuals 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
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"Come, boys," said one of the sailors, taking advantage of a momentary pause in the hubbub to rap his enormous knuckles on the table, and call attention to himself; the gentleman in question had but one eye, and two most extensive whiskers. "Come, boys, let's take a drink, I know you're all a getting dry, so curse me if you shant have a suck at my expense."
This polite invitation was responded to by a general moving of the company toward the little table, holding the before-mentioned decanters and glasses. Clustering there around, each gentleman helped himself to a very respectable portion of that particular liquor which suited his fancy; and steadiness and accuracy being at that time by no means distinguishing traits of the arms and legs of the party, a goodly amount of the fluid was spilled upon the floor. This piece of extravagance excited the ire of the personage who was treating; and his anger was still further increased when he discovered two or three loiterers who seemed disposed to slight his civil request to drink.
"Walk up boys, walk up. Do n't let there be any skulkers among us, or blast my eyes if he shant go down on his marrow bones and gobble up the rum we've spilt. Hallo!" he exclaimed, as he spied Charles, "Hallo! you chap in the window, come here and take a sup."
As he spoke, he stepped to the open casement, put his brawny hands under the boy's armpits, and lifted him into the room bodily.
"There, my lads," he said 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 poured one nearly full of strong brandy.
Now Charles was not exactly frightened, for he was a lively fellow and had often been at the country merry-makings, and with the young men of the place who were very fond of him; but he was certainly rather abashed at his abrupt introduction to the midst of strangers. So, putting the glass aside, he looked up with a pleasant smile in his new acquaintance's face.
"I've no need of any thing now," he said, "but I'm just as much obliged to you as if I was."
"Poh! man, drink it down," rejoined the sailor; "drink it down, it wont hurt you." And by way of showing its excellence, the one-eyed worthy drained it himself to the very last drop. Then filling it again he renewed his hospitable efforts to make the lad go through the same operation.
"I've no occasion; beside, it makes my head ache, and I have promised my mother not to drink any," was the boy's answer.
A little irritated by his continued refusals, 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 smashed to pieces on the floor, while the liquid 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 laughed when they saw Charles' undisguised antipathy to the drink; but they laughed still more heartily when he discomfitted 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 had before been spoken of. Why was it that from the first moment of seeing him, the young man's heart had moved with a strange feeling of kindness toward the boy? He felt anxious to know more of him—he felt that he should love him. O, it is passing wondrous, how in the hurried walks of life and business, we meet with young beings, strangers, who seem to touch the fountains of our love, and draw forth their swelling waters. The wish to love and to be beloved, which the forms of custom, and the engrossing anxiety for gain, so generally smother, will sometimes burst forth in spite of all obstacles; and, kindled by one, who, till the hour was unknown to us, will burn with a lovely and a pure brightness. No scrap is this of sentimental fiction; ask your own heart, reader, and your own memory, for endorsement to its truth.
Charles stood, his cheek flushed 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 pretty much in the condition of one who is suddenly awakened out of a deep sleep, and 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 the child with a grip of iron; he bent Charles half way over, and with the side of his heavy foot, 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 rung as if pistols had snapped close to them; lights of various hues flickered in his eye, (he had but one, it must be remembered,) 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 and effectual manner, that the hand from which it came was evidently no stranger to the pugilistic art—had been suddenly planted on the ear of the sailor. It was planted by the young stranger of the black coat. He had watched with interest the proceedings of the sailor and the boy: two or three times he was on the point of interfering, but when he witnessed the kick, his rage was uncontrollable. He sprung from his seat like a mad tiger. Assuming, unconsciously, however, the attitude of a boxer, he struck the sailor in a manner to cause those unpleasant sensations just described; and he would probably have followed up his attack in a method by no means consistent with the sailor's personal ease, had not Charles, now thoroughly terrified, clung round his leg, and prevented his advancing. The scene was a strange one, and for a moment quite a silent one. The company had started from their seats and held startled but quiet positions; in the middle of the room stood the young man, in his not at all ungraceful posture, every nerve strained, and his eyes flashing very brilliantly. He seemed to be rooted like a rock, and clasping him with an appearance of confidence in his protection, hung the boy.
"Dare! you scoundrel!" cried the young man, his voice thick with agitation; "dare to touch this boy again, and I'll batter you till no sense is left in your body."
The sailor, now partially recovered, made some gestures from which it might be inferred that he resented this ungenteel treatment.
"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 seats 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 getting so "up about a little piece of fun," and so forth. He proposed that the company should go on with their jollity just as if nothing had happened. In truth, he of the single eye was not a bad hearted fellow; 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 interfered.
In a few minutes the frolic of the party was upon its former footing. The young man sat down on one of the benches, with the boy by his side; and, while the rest were loudly laughing and talking, they two held communion together. The stranger learned from Charles all the particulars of his simple story—how his father had died years since—how his mother had worked hard for a bare living, and how he himself for many dreary months had been the bond-child of a hard-hearted, avaricious master. More and more interested, drawing the child close to his side, the young man listened to his plainly told history; and thus an hour passed away. It was now past midnight. The young man told Charles that on the morrow he would take steps to have him liberated from his servitude; for the present night, he said, it would perhaps be best for the boy to stay and share his bed at the inn; and little persuading did the child need to do so. As they retired to sleep, very pleasant thoughts filled the mind of the young man; thoughts of a worthy action performed; of unsullied affection; thoughts, too—newly awakened ones—of walking in a steadier and wiser path than formerly. All his imaginings seemed to be interwoven with the youth who lay by his side; he folded his arms around him, and, while he slept, the boy's cheek rested on his bosom. Fair were those two creatures in their unconscious beauty—glorious, but yet how differently glorious! One of them was innocent and sinless of all wrong: the other—O to that other, what evil had not been present, either in action or to his desires!
Who was the stranger? To those who, from ties of relationship or otherwise, felt an interest in him, the answer to such a question was not a pleasant theme to dwell upon. His name was Lankton—parentless—a dissipated young man—a brawler—one whose too frequent companions were rowdies, blacklegs, and swindlers. The New-York police officers were not altogether strangers to his countenance; and certain reporters who note the transactions there, had more than once received gratuities for leaving out his name from the disgraceful notoriety of their columns. He had been bred to the profession of medicine: beside that, 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 Lankton spend at his domestic hearth; and the elderly lady who officiated as 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 whereabout. 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 Lankton, though sensible and well-bred, was by no means 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 allowed himself to be tempted—which caused his life to be of late one continued scene of dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction he sought to drive away (ah! foolish youth!) by mixing in all kinds of parties and places where the object was pleasure. On the present occasion, he had left the city a few days before, and was passing the time at a place near the village where Charles and his mother lived. He had that day fallen in with those who were his companions in the tavern spree—and thus it happened that they were all together: for Lankton hesitated not to make himself at home with any associates 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 daily toil with a lightened 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 every one around him. He roused up all his people, and finding that Charles had not been home the preceding night, he muttered threats against him, and calling a messenger, to whom he hinted that any minutes which he stayed beyond a most exceeding short period, would be subtracted from his breakfast time, dispatched him to the widow's to find what was her son about.
What was he about? With one of the brightest and earliest rays of the warm sun a gentle angel entered his apartment, and hovering over the sleepers on invisible wings, looked down with a pleasant smile and blessed them. Then noiselessly taking a stand by the bed, the angel bent over the boy's face, and whispered strange words into his ear: thus it came that he had beautiful visions. No sound was heard but the slight breathing of those who slumbered there in each others arms; and the angel paused a moment, and smiled another and a doubly sweet smile as he drank in the scene with his large soft eyes. Bending over again to the boy's lips, he touched them with a kiss, as the languid wind touches a flower. He seemed to be going now—and yet he lingered. Twice or thrice he bent over the brow of the young man—and went not. Now the angel was troubled; for he would have pressed the young man's forehead with a kiss, as he did the child's; but a spirit from the Pure Country, who touches anything tainted by evil thoughts, does it at the risk of having his breast pierced with pain, as with a barbed arrow. At that moment a very pale bright ray of sunlight darted through the window and settled on the young man's features. Then the beautiful spirit knew that permission was granted him: so he softly touched the young man's face with his, and silently and swiftly wafted himself away on the unseen air.
In the course of the day Ellis was called upon by young Lankton, and never perhaps in his life was the farmer more puzzled than at the young man's proposals—his desire to provide for a boy who could do him no pecuniary good—and his willingness to disburse money for that purpose. In that department of Ellis's structure where the mind was, or ought to have been situated, there never had entered the slightest thought assimilating to those which actuated the young man in his proceedings in this business. Yet Ellis was a church member and a county officer.
The widow too, was called upon, not only that day, but the next and the next.
It needs not to particularise the subsequent events of Lankton's and the boy's history: how the reformation of the profligate might be dated to begin from that time; how he gradually severed the guilty ties that had so long galled him—how he enjoyed his own home, and loved to be there, and why he loved to be there; how the close knit love of the boy and him grew not slack with time; and how, when at length he became head of a family of his own, he would shudder when he thought of his early danger and escape.
Loved reader, own you the moral of this simple story? Draw it forth—pause a moment, ere your eye wanders to a more bright and eloquent page—and dwell upon it.
1. Whitman made extensive and significant revisions to this story before he reprinted it in the October 1844 issue of The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine under the title of "The Child and the Profligate." He kept this title but made additional revisions to the story before republishing it as a work of serial fiction in three installments in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 27–29, 1847, while he was editing that paper. The story was also published under the same title in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 361–366. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "The Child and the Profligate." Several of the revisions to the Columbian Magazine (1844) version of the story made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1847) and in Collect (1882) are included in our footnotes to the Columbian Magazine version. For a reprint of the Collect version and a complete list of revisions made or authorized by Whitman to the language of the story for publication in the Eagle and Collect, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 68–79. For a publication history of the tale under its original title, "The Child's Champion," see "About 'The Child's Champion.'" For a publication history of the tale under its later title "The Child and the Profligate," see "About 'The Child and the Profligate.'" [back]
2. Mowing can refer here to cutting grass or reaping crops like hay using a scythe. A scythe is an agricultural hand tool consisting of a wooden shaft and a blade for cutting. [back]
3. A public house could refer to a pub or tavern, or an inn that provided travelers with food, drink, and lodging. [back]
4. A casement is a window with its frame attached to a hinge so that it opens like a door. [back]
5. Broadcloth is a dense cloth that was woven and then milled in order to draw the yarn as closely together as possible, thereby creating a dense, largely weatherproof, and sturdy cloth used for clothing. It was often used for men's clothing and it became a marker of refinement and respectability. [back]