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The Child-Ghost; A Story of the Last Loyalist



WERE it not from the evidence of my own ears and observation, I could hardly believe that any considerable number of persons exist among us, who give credence to accounts of spectres and disembodied spirits appearing from the dead;—yet there are many such people, especially in our country places. Though the schools are gradually thrusting aside these superstitious relics of a by-gone time, it will perhaps be long before their influence is effectually rooted out. Guilt or ignorance, working through imagination, has magic power; and the ideal forms through which terror is thus stricken, produces a panic in the minds of their victims, as real as if those forms were of perceptible substance.

The story I am going to tell is a traditional reminiscence of a country place, in my rambles about which I have often passed the house, now unoccupied and mostly in ruins, that was the scene of the transaction.2 I cannot, of course, convey to others that particular kind of influence, which is derived from my being so familiar with the locality and with the very people whose grandfathers or fathers were contemporaries of the actors in the drama I shall transcribe. I must hardly expect, therefore, that to those who hear it through the medium of my pen, the narration will possess as life-like and interesting a character as it does to myself.

On a large and fertile neck of land that juts out in the Sound which stretches to the south-east of New York city, there stood, in the latter part of the last century, an old-fashioned country residence. It had been built by one of the first settlers of this section of the New World; and its occupant was originally owner of the extensive tract lying adjacent to his house, and pushing into the very bosom of the salt waters.

It was during the troubled times which marked our American Revolution that the incidents occurred which are the foundation of my story.3 Some time before the commencement of the war, the owner, whom I shall call Vanhome, was taken sick and died. For years before his death he had lived a widower; and his child, an only one, a lad of ten years old, was thus left an orphan. By his father's will, this child was placed implicitly under the guardianship of an uncle, a middle-aged man, who had been of late a resident in the family.

As if to verify the truth of the ancient proverb, which declares that evils, when once started on their path, follow each other  per_kc.00005_large.jpg thick and fast—not two years elapsed after the parents were laid away to their last repose, before another grave had to be prepared for the son—the fair and lovely child who had been so haplessly deprived of their fostering care.

The period had now arrived when the great national convulsion burst forth. Sounds of strife, and the clash of arms, and the angry voices of disputants, were borne along by the air; and week after week grew to louder and still louder clamor. Families were divided; adherents to the crown, and ardent upholders of the rebellion, were often found in the bosom of the same domestic circle. Vanhome, the uncle spoken of as guardian to the young heir, was a man who leaned to the stern, the high-handed, and the severe. He soon became known among the most energetic of the loyalists. So violent were his sentiments, that, leaving the estate which he had so fortunately inherited from his brother and nephew, he joined the forces of the British king. Thenceforward, whenever his old neighbors heard of him, it was as being engaged in the cruellest outrages, the boldest inroads, or the most determined attacks upon the army of his countrymen, or their peaceful settlements.

Though pleasant for an American mind to dwell upon the traits,—the unshaken patriotism, the lofty courage, and the broad love of liberty exhibited by our fathers in their memorable struggle, I shall pass over the relation.4

Eight years brought the rebel States and their leaders to that glorious epoch when the last remnant of a monarch's rule was to leave their shores—when the last waving of the royal standard was to flutter as it should be hauled down from the staff, and its place filled by the proud testimonial of our warriors' success.

Pleasantly over the autumn fields shone the November sun, when a horseman, of somewhat military look, plodded slowly along the road that led to the old Vanhome farm-house. There was nothing peculiar in his attire, unless it might be a red scarf which he wore tied round his waist. He was a dark-featured, sullen-eyed man; and as his glance was thrown restlessly to the right and left, his whole manner appeared to be that of a person moving amid familiar and accustomed scenes. Occasionally he stopped, and looking long and steadily at some object that attracted his attention, muttered to himself, like one in whose breast busy thoughts were moving. His course was evidently to the homestead itself, at which in due time he arrived. He dismounted, led his horse to the stables, and then, without knocking, though there were evident signs of occupancy around the build-  per_kc.00006_large.jpg ing, the traveller made his entrance as composedly and boldly as though he were master of the whole establishment.

Now it had happened that the house being in a measure deserted for many years, and the successful termination of the strife rendering it probable that the Vanhome estate would be confiscated to the new government,5 —an aged, poverty-stricken couple had been encouraged by the neighbors to take possession as tenants of the place. Their name was Gills; and these people the traveller found upon his entrance were likely to be his host and hostess. Holding their right as they did by so slight a tenure, they ventured to offer no opposition when the stranger signified his intention of passing several hours there.

The day wore on, and the sun went down in the west. Still the interloper made no signs of departing. But as the night fell, (whether the darkness was congenial to his sombre thoughts, or whether it merely chanced so,) he seemed to grow more affable and communicative.

"Tell me," said he to his aged host, when they were all sitting around the ample hearth, at the conclusion of their evening meal, "tell me something to while away the hours."

"Ah! sir," answered Gills, "this is no place for new or interesting events to happen. We live here from year to year, and, at the end of one, we find ourselves at about the same place which we filled in the beginning."

"Can you relate nothing, then," rejoined the guest—and a singular smile passed over his features; "can you say nothing about your own place? this house or its former inhabitants, or former history?"

The old man glanced across to his wife, and a look expressive of sympathetic feeling started in the face of each.

"It is an unfortunate story, sir," said Gills, "and may cast a chill upon you, instead of the pleasant feeling which it would be best to foster when in strange walls."

"Strange walls!" echoed he of the red scarf; and for the first time since his arrival, he half laughed, but it was not the laugh which comes from a man's heart.

"You must know, sir," continued Gills, "I am myself a sort of intruder here. The Vanhomes—that was the name of the former residents and owners—I have never seen; for when I came to these parts the last Mr. Vanhome had left, to join the red-coat soldiery. I am told that he is to sail with them for foreign lands, now that the war is ended, and his property almost certain to pass into other hands."

As the old man went on, the stranger cast down his eyes, and  per_kc.00007_large.jpg listened with an appearance of great interest, though a transient smile, or a brightening of the eye, would occasionally disturb the serenity of his deportment.

"The old occupants of this place," continued the white-haired narrator, "were well off in the world, and bore a good name among their neighbors. The brother of Sergeant Vanhome, now the only one of the name, died ten or twelve years since, leaving a son—a child so small, that the father's will made provision for his being brought up by his uncle, whom I mentioned but now as of the British army. He was a strange man, this uncle; disliked by all who knew him, passionate, vindictive, and, it was said, very avaricious, even from his childhood.

"Well; not long after the death of the parents, dark stories began to be circulated about cruelty, and punishment, and whippings, and starvation, inflicted by the new master upon his nephew.6 People who had business at the homestead would frequently, when they came away, relate the most fearful things of its manager, and how he misused his brother's child. It was half hinted that he strove to get the youngster out of the way, in order that the whole estate might fall into his own hands. As I told you before, however, nobody liked the man; and perhaps they judged him too uncharitably.

"After things had gone on in this way for some time, a countryman, a laborer, who was hired to do farm-work upon the place, one evening observed that the little orphan Vanhome was more faint and pale even than usual, for he was always delicate, and that is one reason why I think it possible that his death, of which I am now going to tell you, was but the result of his own weak constitution, and nothing else.

"The laborer slept that night at the farm-house. Just before the time at which they usually retired to bed, this person, feeling tired and sleepy with his day's toil, took his light, and wended his way to rest. In going to his place of repose, he had to pass a chamber—the very chamber where you, sir, are to sleep to-night—and there he heard the voice of the orphan child, uttering half-suppressed exclamations, as if in pitiful entreaty. Upon stopping, he heard also the tones of the elder Vanhome, but they were harsh and bitter. The whacking sound of blows followed. As each one fell, it was accompanied by a groan or a shriek; and so they continued for some time. Shocked and indignant, the countryman would have burst open the door and interfered to prevent this brutal proceeding; but he bethought him that he might get himself into trouble, and perhaps find that he could do no good after all, and so he passed on to his room.


"Well, sir; the following day the child did not come out among the work-people as usual. He was taken very ill. No physician was sent for until the next afternoon; and though one arrived in the course of the succeeding night, it was too late—the poor boy died before morning.

"People talked threateningly upon the subject, but nothing could be proved against Vanhome. At one period there were efforts made to have the whole affair investigated. Perhaps such a proceeding would have taken place, had not every one's attention been swallowed up by the rumors of difficulty and war, which at that time were beginning to disturb the country.

"Vanhome joined the army of the king. His enemies said that he feared to be on the side of the rebels, because if they were routed his property would be taken from him. But events have shown, that if this was indeed what he dreaded, it has happened to him from the very means which he took to prevent it."

The old man paused. He had quite wearied himself with so long talking. For some minutes there was unbroken silence.

"Did you say that Vanhome had left this land and sailed for Europe?" at length asked the stranger; who, when Gills concluded, had raised his face, pale, and with eyes glittering like one in great perturbation.7

"So we hear," returned the old man.

Again there was silence, which no one seemed inclined to break.

Presently, the stranger signified his intention of retiring for the night. He rose, and his host took a light for the purpose of ushering him to his apartment.

"What of this chamber which you mentioned?" said the traveller, pausing as he stood with his back to the fire, and looking not into the face of the old man, but as it were into vacancy.8

The host started, and it was evident the question had awakened agitating thoughts in his mind; for his face blanched a little, and his glance turned feverishly from object to object.

"It is said," answered he, in a low stealthy tone, "that the spirit of the little orphan child haunts that chamber in the silent hours of night!"

The stranger wheeled, and looked full into the face of the speaker. A convulsive spasm passed over his features, and from his eyes came the flashing of condensed rage and hideous terror.

"Hell!" uttered he, furiously, "am I to be taunted by ghosts, and placed amid the spectres of puling brats? Find me, hoary  per_kc.00009_large.jpg thief!—find me some other sleeping place; else will I have you dragged forth and lashed—lashed before the whole regiment!"

His cheeks were white with excitement; ferocity gleamed in every look and limb; and the frightened Gills and his wife shrank back in very fear that he would do them some bodily harm. They thought him mad; his words were so incoherent and strange.

But not quicker passed away is the lightning's flash—not in the swiftest night-storm does a cloud flit more quickly over the face of the moon—than was the clearing up of the stranger's countenance, and the clothing of his face again in its former mantle of indifference.

"Forgive me!" said he, with a bland smile, "I am too hasty. In truth, I have a horror of these superstitious stories; they fret me. But no matter. Do not think I am so silly as to fear this child-spirit you have spoken of. Such nonsense is for the ignorant and the credulous. Again I ask pardon for my rudeness. Let me now be shown to this chamber—this haunted chamber. I am weary. Good night, mistress!"

And without waiting for an answer, he of the red scarf hastily pushed the old man through the door, and they passed to the sleeping room.

When Gills returned to his accustomed situation in the large arm-chair by the chimney hearth, his ancient help-mate had retired to rest. With the simplicity of their times, the bed stood in a kind of alcove, just out of the same room where the three had been seated during the last few hours; and now the remaining two talked together about the singular events of the evening. As the time wore on, Gills showed no disposition to leave his cosy chair; but sat toasting his feet, and bending over the coals—an enjoyment that was to his mind very pleasant and satisfactory.

Gradually the insidious heat and the lateness of the hour began to exercise their influence over the old man. That drowsy indolent feeling which every one has experienced in getting thoroughly heated through by close contact with a glowing fire, spread in each vein and sinew, and relaxed its tone. He leaned back in his chair and slept.

For a long time his repose went on quietly and soundly. He could not tell how many hours elapsed; but a while after midnight, the torpid senses of the slumberer were awakened by a startling shock. It was a cry as of a strong man in his agony—a shrill, not very loud cry, but fearful, and creeping into the blood, like cold, sharp, polished steel. The old man raised himself in  per_kc.00010_large.jpg his seat and listened—at once fully awake. For a minute, all was the solemn stillness of midnight. Then rose that horrid tone again—wailing and wild, and making the hearer's hair stand on end. As it floated along to the chamber—borne through the darkness and stillness—it brought to the mind of Gills thoughts of the howlings of damned spirits, and the death-rattle of murdered men, and the agonies of the drowning, and the hoarse croak of the successful assassin.9

He sat almost paralyzed in his chair. Then came an interval; and then another of those terrible shrieks. One moment more, and the trampling of hasty feet sounded in the passage outside. The door was thrown open, and the form of the stranger, more like a corpse than living man, rushed into the room.10

"He is there!" said the quivering wretch, pointing with his finger, and speaking in low hoarse tones; "he is there, in his little shroud! And he smiled and looked gently upon me with those blue eyes of his—O, how much sharper than a thousand frowns!"

The man shook, like one in a great ague, and his jaws clashed against each other.

"All white!" continued the miserable, conscience-stricken creature; "all white, and with the grave-clothes around him!—One shoulder was bare, and I saw," he whispered, "I saw blue streaks upon it. It was horrible, and I cried aloud. He stepped toward me! He came to my very bed-side; his small hand was raised, and almost touched my face. I could not bear it, and fled."

The miserable man bent his head down upon his bosom; convulsive rattlings shook his throat; and his whole frame wavered to and fro, like a tree in a storm. Bewildered and shocked, Gills looked at his apparently deranged guest, and knew not what answer to make, or what course of conduct to pursue.

"Do you not believe it?" furiously exclaimed the stranger, with a revulsion of feeling, in consistence with his character; "do you think me a child, to be frightened by a bugbear?—Come!" continued he, seizing the alarmed old man by the shoulder; "come hither, and let your own eyes be blasted with the sight!"11

And dragging the unresisting Gills, he strode to the door, and dashed it open with a loud and echoing clang.

The house was one of that old-fashioned sort, still to be met with occasionally in country villages, the ground floor of which was comprised of two rooms, divided by a hall—the door of each room being off against the other; so that the old man and his companion had a full view of the adjoining apartment. Though  per_kc.00011_large.jpg there was no light there, Gills fancied he could see everything distinctly.

In one corner stood the bed from which the stranger had started—its coverlets and sheets all tumbled and half dragged down on the floor. A few feet on one side of its head, was the hearth-stone; and the sight thereon, as Gills strained his eyes to behold it, was drunk in with chilling terror to his heart.

Upon that hearth-stone stood the form of a boy, some ten years old. His face was wan and ghastly, but very beautiful; his hair light and wavy; and he was apparelled in the habiliments of the tomb. As the appalled Gills looked, he felt that the eyes of the pale child were fixed upon him and his companion—fixed, not as in anger, but with a gentle sorrow. From one shoulder the fearful dress had fallen aside, and the appearance of gashes and livid streaks was visible.

"See you?" harshly shrieked the stranger, as if maddened by the sight; "I have not dreamed—he is there, in his snowy robes—he comes to mock me. And look you!" he crouched and recoiled, "does he not step this way again? I shall go mad! If he but touches me with that little hand, I am mad! Away, spectre! boy-phantom, away! or I die too upon this very floor!"

And thrusting out his arms and his extended fingers, and bending down his eyes, as men do when shading them from a glare of lightning—he staggered from the door, and in a moment further, dashed madly through the passage which led through the kitchen into the outer road. The old man heard the noise of his flying footsteps, sounding fainter and fainter in the distance, and then, retreating, dropped his own exhausted limbs into the chair from which he had been aroused so terribly. It was many minutes before his energies recovered their accustomed tone again. Strangely enough, his wife, unawakened by the stranger's ravings, still slumbered on as profoundly as ever.

Pass we on to a far different and almost as thrilling a scene—the embarkation of the British troops for the distant land whose monarch was never more to wield the sceptre over a kingdom lost by his imprudence and tyranny. With frowning brow and sullen pace, the martial ranks moved on. Boat after boat was filled; and as each discharged its complement in the ships that lay heaving their anchors in the stream, it returned, and was soon filled with another load. And at length it became time for the last soldier to lift his eye, and take a last glance at the broad banner of England's pride, which flapped its folds from the top of the highest staff on the Battery. Proud spectacle! May the flag which was planted in the place of the blood-red cross, waft  per_kc.00012_large.jpg out to the wind for ages and ages yet—and the nations of earth number not one so glorious as that which claims the star-gemmed symbol of liberty for its token!12

As the warning sound of a trumpet called together all who were laggards—those taking leave of friends, and those who were arranging their own private affairs, left until the last moment—a single horseman was seen furiously dashing down the street. A red scarf tightly encircled his waist. He made directly for the shore, and the crowd there gathered started back in wonderment as they beheld his dishevelled appearance and his ghastly face. Throwing himself violently from his saddle, he flung the bridle over the animal's neck, and gave him a cut with a small riding-whip. He made for the boat; one minute later, and he had been left. They were pushing the keel from the landing—the stranger sprang—a space of two or three feet already intervened—he struck on the gunwale13 —and the Last Soldier of King George had left the American shores.


1. This tale is the sixth 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. "The Child-Ghost; A Story of the Last Loyalist" was later reprinted under the shortened title of "The Last Loyalist" in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 349–353. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "The Last Loyalist." For a complete list of revisions to the original language made or authorized by Whitman for publication in 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), 101–109. For the publication history of the story, see "About 'The Child-Ghost; A Story of the Last Loyalist.'" [back]

2. In Collect (1882), "The Last Loyalist" begins with this sentence. The entire preceeding paragraph is omitted. [back]

3. Whitman is referring to the American War of Independence between Britain—ruled by King George III— and the North American colonies that sought independence from British rule and called themselves the United States of America. Whitman's short story "The Last of the Sacred Army" (March 1842) also deals with the American Revolution insofar as it centers on the last surviving Revolutionary War soldier. [back]

4. In Collect, this paragraph is omitted. [back]

5. Whitman refers to the fear that the Vanhome estate might be confiscated given that it is both abandoned and its previous occupant was loyal to British rule. [back]

6. In Whitman's short fiction, physical or emotional violence is often inflicted upon young male children by their cruel father figures. Other short stories of "cruelty, and punishment" include "Death in the School-Room" (August 1841) and "Bervance: or, Father and Son" (December 1841). [back]

7. In Collect, this paragraph is omitted. [back]

8. In Collect, this paragraph—along with the next eight—are omitted, and the previous sentence is followed by the paragraph that begins, "When Gills returned to his accustomed situation." [back]

9. In Collect, this sentence is omitted. [back]

10. Both this paragraph and the one that follows are omitted in Collect. [back]

11. This paragraph and the five that follow it are omitted in Collect. [back]

12. This sentence is omitted in Collect. [back]

13. A gunwale is the top of the side of a ship. [back]

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