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Bervance: Or, Father and Son



ALMOST incredible as it may seem, there is more truth than fiction in the following story. Whatever of the latter element may have been added, is for the purpose of throwing that disguise around the real facts of the former, which is due to the feelings of a respectable family. The principal parties alluded to have left the stage of life many years since; but I am well aware there are not a few yet alive, who, should they, as is very probable, read this narration, will have their memories carried back to scenes and persons of a much more substantial existence than the mere creation of an author's fancy. I have given it the form of a confession in the first person, partly for the sake of convenience, partly of simplicity, but chiefly because such was the form in which the main incidents were a long time ago repeated to me by my own informant. It is a strange story—the true solution of which will probably be found in the supposition of a certain degree of unsoundness of mind, on the one part, manifesting itself in the morbid and unnatural paternal antipathy; and of its reproduction on the other, by the well known though mysterious law of hereditary transmission.

W. W.

My appointed number of years has now almost sped. Before I sink to that repose in the bosom of our great common mother, which I have so long and earnestly coveted, I will disclose the story of a life which one fearful event has made, through all its latter stages, a continued stretch of wretchedness and remorse. There may possibly be some parents to whom it may serve as a not useless lesson.

I was born, and have always lived, in one of the largest of our Atlantic cities. The circumstances of my family were easy; I received a good education, was intended by my father for mercantile business, and upon attaining the proper age, obtained  per_nhg.00074_large.jpg from him a small but sufficient capital; and in the course of a few years from thus starting, found myself sailing smoothly on the tide of fortune.2 I married; and, possessed of independence and domestic comfort, my life was a happy one indeed. Time passed on; we had several children; when about twenty years after our marriage my wife died. It was a grievous blow to me, for I loved her well; and the more so of late, because that a little while before, at short intervals, I had lost both my parents.

Finding myself now at that period of life when ease and retirement are peculiarly soothing, I purchased an elegant house in a fashionable part of the city; where, surrounding myself and my family with every resource that abundance and luxury can afford for happiness, I settled myself for life—a life which seemed to promise every prospect of a long enjoyment. I had my sons and daughters around me; and objecting to the boarding-school system, I had their education conducted under my own roof, by a private tutor who resided with us. He was a mild, gentlemanly man, with nothing remarkable about his personal appearance, unless his eyes might be called so. They were gray—large, deep, and having a softly beautiful expression, that I have never seen in any others; and which, while they at times produced an extraordinary influence upon me, and yet dwell so vividly in my memory, no words that I can use could exactly describe. The name of the tutor was Alban.

Of my children, only two were old enough to be considered anything more than boys and girls. The eldest was my favorite. In countenance he was like the mother, whose first-born he was; and when she died, the mantle of my affections seemed transferred to him, with a sadly undue and unjust degree of preference over the rest. My second son, Luke, was bold, eccentric, and high-tempered. Strange as it may seem, notwithstanding a decided personal resemblance to myself, he never had his father's love. Indeed, it was only by a strong effort that I restrained and concealed a positive aversion. Occasions seemed continually to arise wherein the youth felt disposed to thwart me, and make himself disagreeable to me. Every time I saw him, I was conscious of something evil in his conduct or disposition. I have since thought that a great deal of all this existed only in my own imagination, warped and darkened as it was, and disposed to look upon him with an "evil eye." Be that as it may, I was several times made very angry by what I felt sure were intended to be wilful violations of my rule, and contemptuous taunts toward me for that partiality to his brother which I could not deny. In the course of time, I grew to regard the heedless boy with a  per_nhg.00075_large.jpg feeling almost amounting—I shudder to make the confession—to hatred. Perhaps, for he was very cunning, he saw it, and, conscious that he was wronged, took the only method of revenge that was in his power.

I have said that he was eccentric. The term is hardly strong enough to mark what actually was the case with him. He occasionally had spells which approached very nearly to complete derangement. My family physician spoke learnedly of regimen, and drugs, and courses of treatment which, if carefully persevered in, might remove the peculiarity. He said, too, that cases of that kind were dangerous, frequently terminating in confirmed insanity. But I laughed at him, and told him his fears were idle. Had it been my favorite son instead of Luke, I do not think I would have passed by the matter so contentedly.

Matters stood as I have described them for several years. Alban, the tutor, continued with us; as fast as one grew up, so as to be beyond the need of his instructions, another appeared in the vacant place. The whole family loved him dearly, and I have no doubt he repaid their affection; for he was a gentle-hearted creature, and easily won. Luke and he seemed always great friends. I blush now, as I acknowledge that this was the only thing by which Alban excited my displeasure.

I shall pass over many circumstances that occurred in my family, having no special relation to the event which, in the present narrative, I have chiefly in view. One of my favorite amusements was afforded by the theatre. I kept a box of my own, and frequently attended, often giving my family permission also to be present. Luke I seldom allowed to go. The excuse that I assigned to myself and to others was, that he was of excitable temperament, and the acting would be injurious to his brain. I fear the privilege was withheld quite as much from vindictiveness toward him, and dislike of his presence on my own part. So Luke himself evidently thought and felt. On a certain evening—(were it last night, my recollection of it all could not be more distinct)—a favorite performer was to appear in a new piece; and it so happened that every one of us had arranged to attend—every one but Luke. He besought me earnestly that he might go with the rest—reminded me how rarely such favors were granted him—and even persuaded Alban to speak to me on the subject.

"Your son," said the tutor, "seems so anxious to partake of this pleasure, and has set his mind so fully upon it, that I really fear, sir, your refusal would excite him more than the sight of the play."


"I have adopted a rule," said I, "and once swerving from it makes it no rule at all."

"Mr. Bervance will excuse me," he still continued, "if I yet persevere in asking that you will allow Luke this indulgence, at least for this one evening. I am anxious and disturbed about the boy,—and should even consider it as a great personal favor to myself."

"No, sir," I answered, abruptly, "it is useless to continue this conversation. The young man cannot go, either from considerations of his pleasure or yours."

Alban made no reply; he colored, bowed slightly, and I felt his eye fixed upon me with an expression I did not at all like, though I could not analyze it. I was conscious, however, that I had said too much; and if the tutor had not at that moment left the room, I am sure I should have apologized for my rudeness.

We all went to the theatre. The curtain had hardly risen, when my attention was attracted by some one in the tier above, and right off against my box, coming noisily in, talking loudly, and stumbling along, apparently on purpose to draw the eyes of the spectators. As he threw himself into a front seat, and the glare of the lamps fell upon his face, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw it was Luke. A second and a third observation were necessary to convince me. There he sat, indeed. He looked over to where I was seated, and while my sight was riveted upon him in unbounded astonishment, he deliberately rose—raised his hand to his head—lifted his hat, and bowed low and long—a cool sarcastic smile playing on his features all the time,—and finally breaking into an actual laugh, which even reached my ears. Nay—will it be believed!—the foolish youth had even the effrontery to bring down one of the wretched outcasts who are met with there, and seat himself full in our view—he laughing and talking with his companion so much to the annoyance of the house, that a police officer was actually obliged to interfere! I felt as if I should burst with mortification and anger.

At the conclusion of the tragedy we went home. Reader, I cannot dwell minutely on what followed. At a late hour my rebellious boy returned. Seemingly bent upon irritating me to the utmost, he came with perfect nonchalance into the room where I was seated. The remainder of that night is like a hateful dream in my memory, distinct and terrible, though shadowy. I recollect the sharp, cutting, but perfectly calm rejoinders he made to all my passionate invectives against his conduct. They worked me up to phrensy, and he smiled all the more calmly the while. Half maddened by my rage, I seized him by the collar, and shook  per_nhg.00077_large.jpg him. My pen almost refuses to add—but justice to myself demands it—the Son felled the Father to the earth with a blow! Some blood even flowed from a slight wound caused by striking my head, as I fell against a projecting corner of furniture—and the hair that it matted together was gray!

What busy devil was it that stepped noiselessly round the bed, to which I immediately retired, and kept whispering in my ears all that endless night? Sleep forsook me. Thoughts of a deep revenge—a fearful redress—but it seemed to me hardly more fearful than the crime—worked within my brain. Then I turned, and tried to rest, but vainly. Some spirit from the abodes of ruin held up the provocation and the punishment continually before my mind's eye. The wretched youth had his strange fits: those fits were so thinly divided from insanity, that who should undertake to define the difference? And for insanity was there not a prison provided, with means and appliances, confinement, and, if need be, chains and scourges? For a few months it would be nothing more than wholesome that an unnatural child, a brutal assaulter of his parent, should taste the discipline of such a place. Before my eyes closed, my mind had resolved on the scheme—a scheme so cruel, that as I think of it now, my senses are lost in wonder that any one less than fiend could have resolved to undertake it.

The destinies of evil favored me. The very next morning Luke had one of his strange turns, brought on, undoubtedly, by the whirl and agitation of the previous day and night. With the smooth look and the quiet tread with which I doubt not Judas looked and trod, I went into his room and enjoined the attendants to be very careful of him. I found him more violently affected than at any former period. He did not know me; I felt glad that it was so, for my soul shrank at its own intentions, and I could not have met his conscious eye. At the close of the day, I sent for a physician; not him who generally attended my family, but one of those obsequious gentlemen who bend and are pliant like the divining-rod, that is said to be attracted by money.3 I sent, too, for some of the officers of the lunatic asylum.4 Two long hours we were in conversation. I was sorry, I told them, very sorry; it was a dreadful grief to me; the gentlemen surely could not but sympathize in my distress; but I felt myself called upon to yield my private feelings. I felt it best for my unhappy son to be, for a time at least, removed to the customary place for those laboring under his miserable disease. I will not say what other measures I took—what tears I shed. Oh, to what a depth may that man be sunk who once gives bad passions their  per_nhg.00078_large.jpg swing! The next day, Luke was taken from my dwelling to the asylum, and confined in what was more like a dungeon, than a room for one used to all the luxurious comforts of life.

Days rolled on. I do not think any one suspected aught of what really was the case. Evident as it had been that Luke was not a favorite of mine, no person ever thought it possible that a father could place his son in a mad-house, from motives of any other description than a desire to have him cured. The children were very much hurt at their brother's unfortunate situation. Alban said nothing; but I knew that he sorrowed in secret. He frequently sought, sometimes with success, to obtain entrance to Luke; and after a while began to bring me favorable reports of the young man's recovery. One day, about three weeks after the event at the theatre, the tutor came to me with great satisfaction on his countenance. He had just returned from Luke, who was now as sane as ever. Alban said he could hardly get away from the young man, who conjured him to remain, for solitude there was a world of terror and agony. Luke had besought him, with tears streaming down his cheeks, to ask me to let him be taken from that place. A few days longer residence there, he said, a conscious witness of its horrors, and he should indeed be its fit inmate for ever.

The next morning I sent private instructions to the asylum, to admit no person in Luke's apartment without an order from me. Alban was naturally very much surprised, as day after day elapsed, and I took no measures to have my son brought home. Perhaps, at last, he began to suspect the truth; for in one of the interviews we had on the subject, those mild and beautiful eyes of his caused mine to sink before them, and he expressed a determination, dictated as he said by an imperious duty, in case I did not see fit to liberate the youth, to take some decided steps himself. I talked as smoothly and as sorrowfully as possible—but it was useless.

"My young friend, I am sure," said he, "has received all the benefits he can possibly derive from the institution, and I do not hesitate to say, any longer continuance there may be followed by dangerous—even fatal consequences. I cannot but think," and the steadfast look of that gray eye settled at me, as if it would pierce my inmost soul, "that Mr. Bervance desires to see his unlucky child away from so fearful an abode; and I have no doubt that I shall have his approval in any proper and necessary measures for that purpose."

I cursed him in my heart, but I felt that I had to submit. So I told him that if in two days more Luke did not have any  per_nhg.00079_large.jpg relapse, I would then consider it safe to allow him to be brought home.

The swift time flew and brought the evening of the next day. I was alone in the house, all the family having gone to a concert, which I declined attending, for music was not then suited to my mood. The young people stayed later than I had expected; I walked the floor till I was tired, and then sat down on a chair. It was a parlor at the back of the house, with long, low windows opening into the garden. There and then, in the silence of the place, I thought for the first time of the full extent of the guilt I had lately been committing. It pressed upon me, and I could not hide from my eyes its dreadful enormity. But it became too painful, and I rose, all melted with agonized yet tender emotions, and determined to love my injured boy from that hour as Father should love Son. In the act of rising, my eyes were involuntarily cast toward a large mirror, on the chimney-piece. Was it a reflection of my own conscience, or a horrid reality? My blood curdled as I saw there an image of the form of my son—my cruelly treated Luke—but oh, how ghastly, how deathly a picture! I turned, and there was the original of the semblance. Just inside one of the windows stood the form, the pallid, unwashed, tangly-haired, rag-covered form of Luke Bervance. And that look of his—there was no deception there—it was the vacant, glaring, wild look of a maniac.

"Ho, ho!"

As I listened, I could hardly support myself, for uncontrollable horror.

"My son, do you not know me? I am your father," I gasped.

"You are Flint Serpent. Do you know me, Flint? A little owl screeched in my ear, as I came through the garden, and said you would be glad to see me, and then laughed a hooting laugh. Speak low," he continued in a whisper; "big eyes and bony hands are out there, and they would take me back again. But you will strike at them, Flint, and scatter them, will you not? Sting them with poison; and when they try to seize me, knock them down with your heart, will you not?"

"Oh, Christ! what a sight is this!" burst from me, as I sank back into the chair from which I had risen, faint with agony. The lunatic started as I spoke, and probably something like recollection lighted up his brain for a moment. He cast a fierce look at me:

"Do you like it?" he said, with a grim smile; "it is of your own doing. You placed me in a mad-house. I was not mad; but when I woke, and breathed that air, and heard the sounds, and saw what is to be seen there—Oh, now I am mad! Curse you! it is your work. Curse you! Curse you!"


I clapped my hands to my ears, to keep out the appalling sounds that seemed to freeze my very blood. When I took them away, I heard the noise of the street door opening, and my children's voices sounding loud and happily. Their maniac brother heard them also. He sprang to the window.

"Hark!" he said; "they are after me, Flint. Keep them back. Rather than go there again, I would jump into a raging furnace of fire!" He glided swiftly into the garden, and I heard his voice in the distance. I did not move, for every nerve seemed paralyzed.

"Keep them back, Flint! It is all your work! Curse you!"

When my family came into the apartment, they found me in a deep swoon, which I fully recovered from only at the end of many minutes.

My incoherent story, the night, and the strangeness of the whole affair, prevented any pursuit that evening, though Alban would have started on one, if he had had any assistance or clue. The next morning, the officers of the asylum came in search of the runaway. He had contrived a most cunning plan of escape, and his departure was not found out till day-light.

My story is nearly ended. We never saw or heard of the hapless Luke more. Search was extensively made, and kept up for a long time; but no tidings were elicited of his fate. Alban was the most persevering of those who continued the task, even when it became hopeless. He inserted advertisements in the newspapers, sent emissaries all over the country, had handbills widely distributed, offering a large reward; but all to no purpose.5 The doom, whatever it was, of the wretched young man, is shrouded in a mantle of uncertainty as black as the veil of the outer darkness in which his form had disappeared on that last memorable night; and in all likelihood it will now never be known to mortal.

A great many years have gone by since these events. To the eyes of men, my life and feelings have seemed in no respect different from those of thousands of others. I have mixed with company—laughed and talked—eaten and drunk; and, now that the allotted term is closing, must prepare to lay myself in the grave. I say I have lived many years since then, and have laughed and talked. Let no one suppose, however, that time has banished the phantoms of my busy thoughts, and allowed me to be happy. Down in the inward chamber of my soul there has been a mirror—large, and very bright. It has pictured, for the last thirty years, a shape, wild and haggard, and with tangly hair—the shape of my maniac son. Often, in the midst of society, in the public street, at my own table, and in the silent  per_nhg.00081_large.jpg watches of the night, that picture stands out in glaring brightness; and, without a tongue, tells me that it is all my work, and repeats that terrible cursing which, the last time the tyrant and victim stood face to face together, rang from the lips of the Son, and fell like a knell of death on the ear of the Father.


1. This tale is the third of nine short stories by Whitman that were published for the first time in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. For the publication history of "Bervance: or, Father and Son" and more information about Whitman's short fiction in The Democratic Review, see "About 'Bervance: or, Father and Son.'" [back]

2. The mercantile business refers to the profession of engaging in trade or in the exchange of merchandise. [back]

3. A divining-rod is a stick used for dowsing, which involves walking over an area where water or minerals, for example, are said to be located. The dowsing rod supposedly dips or twitches when the desired resource is located. Dowsing is considered a pseudoscience; there is little evidence to suggest that dowsing leads to more finds than luck or chance. [back]

4. A lunatic asylum was a precursor to the modern psychiatric hospital. It was an institution intended for receiving and treating persons with mental illness. [back]

5. A handbill is a printed notice or advertisement meant to be circulated by hand. [back]

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