Title: One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Walter Whitman]
Date: September 8, 1846
Whitman Archive ID: per.00369
Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, September 8, 1846: . Transcribed from digital images of a microfilm reproduction of an original issue.
Contributors to digital file: Sara Duke and Nicole Gray
cropped image 1
From the Democratic Review.1
One Wicked Impulse!
(A tale of a Murderer escaped.)
BY WALTER WHITMAN.
(Continued from our last.)
When the corpse of the murdered lawyer was found in the morning, and the officers of justice commenced their inquiry, suspicion immediately fell upon Philip, and he was arrested. The most rigorous search, however, brought to light nothing at all implicating the young man, except his visit to Covert's office, the evening before, and his angry language then. That was by no means enough to fix so heavy a charge upon him.
The second day afterward, the whole business came before the ordinary judicial tribunal, in order that Philip might be either committed for the crime, or discharged. The testimony of Mr. Covert's clerk stood alone. One of his employers, who, believing in his innocence, had deserted him not in this crisis, had provided him with the ablest criminal council in New York. The proof was declared entirely insufficient, and Philip was discharged.
The crowded court room made way for him as he came out; hundreds of curious looks fixed upon his features, and many a jibe passed upon him. But of all that arena of human faces, he saw only one—a sad, pale, black-eyed one, cowering in the centre of the rest. He had seen that face twice before—the first time as a warning spectre—the second time in prison, immediately after his arrest—now for the last time! This young stranger—the son of a scorned and persecuted race—coming to the court-room to perform an unhappy duty, with the intention of testifying to what he had seen, melted at the sight of Philip's bloodless cheek, and of his sister's convulsive sobs, and forbore witnessing against the murderer. Shall we applaud or condemn him! Let every reader answer this question for himself.
That afternoon Philip left New York. His friendly employer owned a small farm some miles up the Hudson, and until the excitement of the affair was over, he advised the young man to go thither. Philip thankfully accepted the proposal, made a few preparations, took a hurried leave of Esther, with a sad foreboding, which indeed proved true, that he should see her no more on earth, and by nightfall was settled in his new abode.
And how, think you, rested Philip Marsh that night? Rested indeed! O, if those who clamor so much for the halter and the scaffold to punish crime, could have seen that sight, they might have learned a lesson then! Four days had elapsed since he that lay tossing upon the bed there had slumbered. Not the slightest intermission had come to his awakened and tensely strung sense, during those frightful days.
And now, oh pitying Heaven, if he could only lose his remorse, in one little hour of wholesome repose!
Disturbed waking dreams came to him, as he thought what he might do to gain his lost peace. Far, far away would be go! The cold roll of the murdered man's eye, as it turned up its last glance into his face—the shrill exclamation of pain—all the unearthly vividness of the posture, motions, and looks of the dead—the warning voice from above—pursued him like tormenting furies, and were never absent from his mind, asleep or awake, that long weary night! Anything, any place, to escape such horrid companionship! He would travel inland—hire himself to do hard drudgery upon some farm—work incessantly through the wide summer days, and thus force nature to bestow oblivion upon his senses, at least a little while now and then. He would fly on, on, on, until amid different scenes and a new life, the old memories were rubbed entirely out. He would fight bravely in himself for peace of mind. For peace he would labor and struggle—for peace he would pray!
At length after a feverish slumber of some thirty or forty minutes, the unhappy youth, waking with a nervous start, raised himself in bed, and saw the blessed daylight beginning to dawn. He felt the sweat trickling down his naked breast; the sheet where he had lain was quite wet with it. Dragging himself wearily, he opened the window.
Ah! that good morning air—how it refreshed him—how he leaned out, and drank in the fragrance of the blossoms below, and almost for the first time in his life felt how beautifully indeed God had made the earth, and that there was wonderful sweetness in mere existence! And amidst the thousand mute mouths and eloquent eyes, which appeared as it were to look up and speak in every direction, he almost fancied so many invitations to come forth, and be among them. Not without effort, for he was very weak, he dressed himself, and issued forth into the open air.
Clouds of pale gold and transparent crimson draperied the eastern sky, but the sun, whose face gladdened them into all that glory, was not yet above the horizon. It was a time and place of such rare, such Eden-like beauty! Philip paused at the summit of an upward slope, and gazed around him. Some few miles off he could see a gleam of the Hudson river, and above it a spur of those rugged cliffs that are scattered along its western shores. Nearer by were cultivated fields. The clover grew richly there, the young grain bent to the early breeze, and the air was filled with an intoxicating perfume from the neighboring apple orchards, snowy in their luxuriant bloom. At his side was the large well-kept garden of his host, in which were many pretty flowers, grass plots, and a wide avenue of noble trees. As Philip gazed, the holy calming power of Nature—the invisible spirit of so much beauty and so much innocence, melted into his soul. The disturbed passions and the feverish conflict subsided. He even felt something like that envied peace of mind—a sort of joy even in the presence of all the unmarred goodness. It was fair to him, guilty though he had been, as to the purest of the pure. No accusing frowns saw in the face of the flowers, or in the green shrubs, or the branches of the trees. They, more forgiving than mankind, and distinguishing not between the children of darkness and the children of light—they at least treated him with gentleness. Was he, then, a being so accursed? Involuntarily, he bent over a branch of red roses, and took them softly between his hands—those murderous, bloody hands! But the red roses neither withered nor smelled less fragrant. And as the young man kissed them, and dropped a tear upon them, it seemed to him that he had found pity and sympathy from Heaven itself.
(Concluded in our next.)2
1. This second installment of the story in the Eagle is preceded by two poems. The first, titled "The White Dove.—(A Hymn for Children)," is attributed to Fredrika Bremer. The second, "The Quadroon Girl," is attributed to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. [back]