Title: The Half-Breed; A Tale of the Western Frontier
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as A Brooklynite]
Date: June 1, 1846
Whitman Archive ID: per.00354
Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and King's County Democrat, June 1, 1846: . Transcribed from digital images of a microfilm reproduction of an original issue.
Contributors to digital file: Sara Duke, Nicole Gray, and Stephanie Blalock
cropped image 1
A TALE OF THE WESTERN FRONTIER.2
BY A BROOKLYNITE.
Loudly rang merry peals of laughter from a group of children, of almost every age and size, as they emerged, one afternoon, through the door of the rude log school-house, in the little town of Warren, a place situated on one of the upper branches of the Mississippi. Less than seven years previously, the site on which the dwellings of the Warrenites now stood, had been a tangled forest, roamed by the savage in pursuit of game. An adventurous settler purchased a few hundred acres there, and with some companions, took up his abode, and gave it the name I have mentioned. The place numbered nearly three hundred inhabitants.
Loudly rang the laugh of the liberated children. Master Caleb, the teacher, stood in the door of his school-house, and gazed with a cheerful smile upon their noisy merriment. He was a pale young man, from the East—and, because that his strength did not allow him to engage in the heavy labours of his comrades, (for in the West, all men are comrades) he gladly accepted an offer from the fathers of the village to take charge of the education of the small people.
"Hurrah!" said one harum-scarum young elf, who was running and tearing like a mad tiger, "Hurrah! the master has given us a holiday, next Thursday, because he is going to Peter Brown's wedding! Hey! Hurrah!"
"But Bill!" said a larger and more sedate looking youth, addressing the elf, "Bill! be quiet, and do n't act so foolish. Can't you see Mr. Caleb is looking at you?
"Well," rejoined the other, "what if he—?"
The sentence which the exuberant child was about to utter was cut short suddenly, by a loud shout from seven or eight of his companions.
"Boddo! Boddo!" they cried, "Boddo is coming!" And they pointed with their mischievous fingers, to a turn in the road, at about ten rods distance, where a figure was seen slowly walking, or rather limping, towards them.
More than half the party started off on a gallop, and in a few moments they were at the side of him who had attracted their attention. Boddo, as the youngsters called him—and that was the name he went by all over the settlement—appeared to be a man of about seven-and-twenty years of age. He was deformed in body—his back being mounted with a mighty hunch, and his long neck bent forward, in a peculiar and disagreeable manner. In height he was hardly taller than the smallest of the children who clustered tormentingly around him.—His face was the index to many bad passions—which were only limited in the degree of their evil, because his intellect itself was not very bright; though the sedulous care of some one had taught him even more than the ordinary branches of education. Among the most powerful of his bad points was a malignant peevishness, dwelling on every feature of his countenance. Perhaps it was this latter trait which caused the wild boys of the place ever to take great comfort in making him the subject of their vagaries. The gazer would have been at some doubt whether to class this strange and hideous creature with the race of Red Men or White—for he was a half-breed, his mother an Indian squaw, and his father some unknown member of the race of the settlers.
"Why, Boddo," said the elf, Bill, "how-d'e-do? You lovely creature, I hav'nt seen you for a week!"
And the provoking boy took the hunchback's hand, and shook it as heartily as if they had been old friends forever. Boddo scowled, but it was of no avail. He was in the power of the lawless ones, and could not escape.
"What's the price of soap, Boddo?" said another urchin, pointing to the filthy hands and face of the Indian. And they all laughed merrily.
"Devils!" exclaimed the passionate half-breed, making an impotent attempt at blows, which they easily foiled; "why do you pester me? Go!—go away—or I shall turn upon you."
"O, Boddo! dear Boddo! do not let your sweet temper rise!" said little Bill, and he patted the Indian on his head, as a man would do to a child.
Boddo glanced up to him with an expression of hate which might have appalled any but the heedless one on whom he gazed. He turned round and round, like a wild beast in the toils; but wherever he cast his look, he saw nothing but villainous little fingers extended, and roguish eyes flashing. The poor fellow was indeed sadly beset, and was rapidly working himself up to a pitch of rage, which might have cost some of the thoughtless crew a broken head. At this moment, the tall boy who had reproved Bill in front of the school-house, came up, and, beholding the plight of the tormented one, offered his gentle interference.
"Boys! boys!" he cried, "do'nt let us bother this poor friend of ours any more. Come, now, are you not willing that he should go?"
He paused, and it was plainly a doubtful case, whether his mediation would be successful. The boys had just come from a three-hours' confinement to their lessons, and they felt disposed for any thing in the shape of mirth. So, like a prudent arbiter, Quincy Thorne, the tall lad, offered a kind of compromise between both difficulties:
"I'll tell you what!" said he, "Boddo shall say all about where he has been this afternoon, and what after; for I see he is just returned from a long tramp—and then we'll let him go. Hey, boys?"
"Agreed!" said the band.
And the hunchback, garrulous by nature and glad no doubt, to be let off thus easily, at once commenced his recital—which we shall take the liberty, however, for our readers' sake, of giving in our own style:
"You know," said he, "of Peter Brown, the blacksmith's marriage, which is to take place soon. Well, even this could not be managed, it seems, without the help of Boddo. A marriage needs a priest—and hereabouts one of that kind is not often met with. Now I, who so love to see my neighbors happy," the hunchback grinned, "could not bear that the pretty sport should all be spoiled for want of a priest. And so—"
"Rather say," interrupted the elf Bill, "you feared the loss of some drinks of rum, and meals of pork, you had set your heart upon getting at the wedding."
Boddo snarled at the saucy boy, and continued:
"And so I said to Brown, that my worthy teacher and friend, Father Luke, the Lonesome Man, at Oak Creek, might be brought hither. They say he is a priest; one not exactly of the right sort to suit the people here, perhaps—but when the nearest town is distant a three days' journey, we are not apt to stand on trifles. This priest, then—this Catholic monk, I think, he calls himself—being the only one near at hand, and even the place where he lives not known to many of the people, Mr. Peter bid me go and seek him out, and deliver to him a message, written on paper. More than ten hours have I been wandering up and down the banks of the river, and through the wood, to discover the house of the Lonesome Man. I, Boddo, to whom every tree in the forest, I thought, was known—and every dent in the shore—and every swamp and thicket—could hardly find that place. Not that I have ever taken pains to search for it before; for I defy any of you—the cunningest boy of all—to hide a dead squirrel within five miles, where I shall not ferret it out—so well do I know every spot.
"Well, after a long time, and when I had more than once thought of giving up the search and coming back—which I might have done, had I not reflected on the disappointment to Mr. Peter and the rest—what should—"
"Don't lie, Boddo," interrupted the elf, again, "you ca'nt deny it was the fear of the trouncing you might get—and nothing else—that made you keep on."
The group did not laugh at this sally as at the former ones—for they were anxious to hear the end of the story.
"What should I see, as I came out of a thicket, about two hours' walk from here, but Father Luke himself. He was standing on the bank, at a high place, and looking down into the stream—quiet as one of the trees back of us. I approached, and told him my errand.
"Though I knew not his residence, we were old acquaintances in times by-gone; so I thought it strange that he should start, and tremble like a frightened girl, before I spoke a word. He took my letter—and then asked me into his hut; for it was near at hand. He led the way and I followed. A few rods brought us to the side of a crag, all covered with bushes and hanging trees—he parted them at a place where not one eye out of a thousand would have suspected aught else than the brown ground to lie underneath—and we were in a room, dimly lighted in some way from above, whose sides were stone and dirt, half hidden by some few domestic utensils.
"There stood a table in the middle of the room, covered with books and paper. He sat down there, and, taking a pen, told me he would write an answer to the request I brought. In a few minutes it was ready. He put before me some drink and meat, and then, though he spoke not, I saw he wished my departure. Carefully noting the place, as I emerged, in order that I might tell it again, if occasion required, I bent my steps homeward."
"And now you have all of my story—and I must go, for it is time Peter Brown received his answer."
The children made no opposition to his departure, with the exception of little Bill, who gave Boddo an extra pinch, and a stout pull of the hair, ere he scampered off to engage in some new mischief.
The house of Peter Brown was situated at one end of the village—a pleasant place, where the beams of the sun, of a clear day, dazzled the gazer's eye, as they were reflected from the stream. Peter, contrary to the advice of his neighbours, had, in clearing up his land, left a number of the finest trees standing close to his dwelling—which divested it of that rather disagreeable aspect of newness which a lately settled town almost invariably possesses. The house, too, was of better build and material than most of its fellows; it was of logs, to be sure, but it had a number of good glass windows, and two tall chimneys, and doors which swing on hinges, and fitted tightly.
The blacksmith lived in it now alone. A day or two more was to see him with a companion, however—and that companion, a wife, the daughter of a respectable man, of his own grade in life.
Some three or four rods distant, on the other side of the road, was the shop of the blacksmith, with its smoky fire, and bellows, and the anvil which every morning was heard to clink with rapid and ponderous blows.3 Leaning idly on the handle of the bellows, stood the master of the establishment himself. He was a stout, well-made, strongly-jointed young man, with light hair, and clear grey eyes.—Though not what is called handsome, he was far from being ill-looking. His lips were beautifully cut, and his neck might have been taken by the most fastidious sculptor as a model of that part of the human form in some fine work of art.
What were Peter's thoughts about? Nothing more or less than love. He had despatched Boddo many hours previous, and he feared the malicious creature had forgotten or disregarded the duty—and would not perform his bidding. A dozen times during the half hour, would he step to the door of his smithy, and strain his gaze to catch any glimpse of the returning hunchback—and in vain.
When at last he beheld his messenger, and looking into his face, saw the expression of one who returns to a master with news he is sure will be pleasant—he forgot his determinations to wring Boddo's neck, and beat him with a bar of iron, and so on—and eagerly demanded the result of his mission.
The Hunchback told the story which the reader has already heard—as related to the school-children—and then gave to Peter the note which had been sent him from the monk. Impatiently breaking the seal, and opening it, the hunchback read as follows:
"In answer to Peter Brown, the Blacksmith.
"A wretched man has come to me with a demand that I should perform the ceremonials of marriage between yourself and a maiden of your town. The messenger explains that no holy minister of heaven, of your faith, is at hand—and entreats me, in your name to refuse him not.
"I am a Catholic monk—for reasons of piety and choice, holding myself aloof from any communion with my kind. But in this matter, though a strict interpretation of my priestly allegiance might keep me from granting what you ask—uniting two members of a church we condemn, in bonds of marriage—I have thought fit, taking all things into consideration, to do as you desire.
"On the morrow, I shall visit the village, and will hold further conference with you on the subject.
"A plague on the roundabout way of his saying Yes!" exclaimed the blacksmith, with a laugh: "as if it made any difference whether our fathers sat in a meeting-house, or heard mass before papal altars—in such a case as this!"
The briefly informing Boddo that as he had been faithful and successful, he should be rewarded still farther, the happy Peter gave him a small coin, and prepared to shut up his shop, for the purpose of walking over, and telling the news to the family of his intended bride.
[To be continued.]4
1. This tale is unique among Whitman's fiction because it is longer than all his other fiction works except for his temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. This novelette was originally published in The Aristidean in March 1845 under the title of "Arrow-Tip." Some of Whitman's revisions to the language of the story for publication in the Eagle are listed in our footnotes to "Arrow-Tip." For a complete list of revisions to the language of The Aristidean version of the novella made by Whitman for publication in the Eagle, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 257–291. For the publication history of Whitman's novella, see "About 'Arrow-Tip.'" [back]
2. A poem that has been attributed to Walt Whitman, titled "The Play-Ground" and signed "W.," appears on the same page just before this installment in the Brooklyn Eagle. Thomas L. Brasher notes that "the first installment of the tale initiated the literary page of the Eagle, thereafter a daily feature" (The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction [New York: New York University Press, 1963], 257n1). [back]
3. Bellows and anvils are common blacksmithing tools. A bellows is a device that provides a gust of air when its two ends are brought together, and an anvil is a hard block on which another object is struck. [back]