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A Legend of Life and Love



A VERY cheerless and fallacious doctrine is that which teaches to deny the yielding to natural feelings, righteously directed, because the consequences may be trouble and grief, as well as satisfaction and pleasure. The man who lives on from year to year, jealous of ever placing himself in a situation where the chances can possibly turn against him—ice, as it were, surrounding his heart, and his mind too scrupulously weighing in a balance the results of giving way to any of those propensities his Creator has planted in his heart—may be a philosopher, but can never be a happy man.

Upon the banks of a pleasant river stood a cottage, the residence of an ancient man whose limbs were feeble with the weight of years and of former sorrow.2 In his appetites easily gratified, like the simple race of people among whom he lived, every want of existence was supplied by a few fertile acres. Those acres were tilled and tended by two brothers, grandsons of the old man, and dwellers also in the cottage. The parents of the boys lay buried in a grave near by.

Nathan, the elder, had hardly seen his twentieth summer. He was a beautiful youth. Glossy hair clustered upon his head, and his cheeks were very brown from sunshine and open air. Though the eyes of Nathan were soft and liquid, like a girl's, and his cheeks curled with a voluptuous swell, exercise and labor had developed his limbs into noble and manly proportions. The bands of hunters, as they met sometimes to start off together after game upon the neighboring hills, could hardly show one among their number who in comeliness, strength,  per_kc.00014_large.jpg or activity, might compete with the youthful Nathan.

Mark was but a year younger than his brother. He, too, had great beauty.

In course of time the ancient sickened, and knew that he was to die. Before the approach of the fatal hour, he called before him the two youths, and addressed them thus:

"The world, my children, is full of deceit. Evil men swarm in every place; and sorrow and disappointment are the fruits of intercourse with them. So wisdom is wary.

"And as the things of life are only shadows, passing like the darkness of a cloud, twine no bands of love about your hearts. For love is the ficklest of the things of life. The object of our affection dies, and we thenceforth languish in agony; or perhaps the love we covet dies, and that is more painful yet.

"It is well never to confide in any man. It is well to keep aloof from the follies and impurities of earth. Let there be no links between you and others. Let not any being control you through your dependence upon him for a portion of your happiness. This, my sons, I have learned by bitter experience, is the teaching of truth."

Within a few days afterward, the old man was placed away in the marble tomb of his kindred, which was built on a hill by the shore.

Now the injunctions given to Nathan and his brother—injunctions frequently impressed upon them before by the same monitorial voice—were pondered over by each youth in his inmost heart. They had always habitually respected their grandsire: whatever came from his mouth, therefore, seemed as the words of an oracle not to be gainsayed.3

Soon the path of Nathan chanced to be sundered from that of Mark.

And the trees leaved out, and then in autumn cast their foliage; and in due course leaved out again, and again, and many times again—and the brothers met not yet.

Two score years and ten! what change works over earth in such a space as two score years and ten!

As the sun, an hour ere his setting, cast long slanting shadows to the eastward, two men, withered, and with hair thin and snowy, came wearily up from opposite directions, and stood together at a tomb built on a hill by the borders of a fair river. Why do they start, as each casts his dim eyes toward the face of the other? Why do tears drop down their cheeks, and their frames tremble even more than with the feebleness of age? They are the long separated brethren, and they enfold themselves in one another's arms.

"And yet," said Mark, after a few moments, stepping back, and gazing earnestly upon his companion's form and features, "and yet it wonders me that thou art my brother. There should be a brave and beautiful youth, with black curls upon his head, and not those pale emblems of decay. And my brother should be straight and nimble—not bent and tottering as thou."

The speaker cast a second searching glance—a glance of discontent.

"And I," rejoined Nathan, "I might require from my brother, not such shrivelled limbs as I see,—and instead of that cracked voice, the full swelling music of a morning heart—but that half a century is a fearful melter of comeliness and of strength; for half a century it is, dear brother, since my hand touched thine, or my gaze rested upon thy face."

Mark sighed, and answered not.

Then, in a little while, they made inquiries about what had befallen either during the time past. Seated upon the marble by which they had met, Mark briefly told his story.

"I bethink me, brother, many, many years have indeed passed over since the sorrowful day when our grandsire, dying, left us to seek our fortunes amid a wicked and a seductive world.

"His last words, as thou, doubtless, dost remember, advised us against the snares that should beset our subsequent journeyings. He portrayed the dangers which lie in the path of love; he impressed upon our minds the folly of placing confidence in human honor; and warned us to keep aloof from too close communion with our kind. He then died, but his instructions live, and have ever been present in my memory.

"Dear Nathan, why should I conceal from you that at that time I loved. My simple soul, ungifted with the wisdom of our aged relative, had yielded to the delicious folly, and the brown-eyed Eva was my young heart's  per_kc.00015_large.jpg choice. O brother, even now,—the feeble and withered thing I am,—dim recollections, pleasant passages, come forth around me, like the joy of old dreams. A boy again, and in the confiding heart of a boy, I walk with Eva by the river's banks. And the gentle creature blushes at my protestations of love, and leans her cheek upon my neck. The regal sun goes down in the west, and we gaze upon the glory of the clouds that attend his setting, and while we look at their fantastic changes, a laugh sounds out, clear like a flute, and merry as the jingling of silver bells. It is the laugh of Eva."

The eye of the old man glistened with unwonted brightness. He paused, sighed, the brightness faded away, and he went on with his narration.

"As I said, the dying lessons of him whom we reverenced were treasured in my soul. I could not but feel their truth. I feared that if I again stood beside the maiden of my love, and looked upon her face, and listened to her words, the wholesome axioms might be blotted from my thought, so I determined to act as became a man: from that hour I never have beheld the brown-eyed Eva.

"I went amid the world. Acting upon the wise principles which our aged friend taught us, I looked upon everything with suspicious eyes. Alas! I found it but too true that iniquity and deceit are the ruling spirits of men.

"Some called me cold, calculating, and unamiable; but it was their own unworthiness that made me appear so to their eyes. I am not—you know, my brother—I am not, naturally, of proud and repulsive manner; but I was determined never to give my friendship merely to be blown off again, it might chance, as a feather by the wind; nor interweave my course of life with those that very likely would draw all the advantage of the connexion, and leave me no better than before.

"I engaged in traffic. Success attended me. Enemies said that my good fortune was the result of chance,—but I knew it the fruit of the judicious system of caution which governed me in matters of business, as well as of social intercourse.

"My brother, thus have I lived my life. Your look asks me if I have been happy. Dear brother, truth impels me to say no. Yet assuredly, if few glittering pleasures ministered to me on my journey, equally few were the disappointments, the hopes blighted, the trusts betrayed, the faintings of the soul, caused by the defection of those in whom I had laid up treasures.

"Ah, my brother, the world is full of misery!"

The disciple of a wretched faith ceased his story, and there was silence a while.

Then Nathan spake:

"In the early years," he said, "I too loved a beautiful woman. Whether my heart was more frail than thine, or affection had gained a mightier power over me, I could not part from her I loved without the satisfaction of a farewell kiss. We met,—I had resolved to stay but a moment,—for I had chalked out my future life after the fashion thou hast described thine.

"How it was I know not, but the moment rolled on to hours; and still we stood with our arms around each other.

"My brother, a maiden's tears washed my stern resolves away. The lure of a voice rolling quietly from between two soft lips, enticed me from remembrance of my grandsire's wisdom. I forgot his teachings, and married the woman I loved.

"Ah! how sweetly sped the seasons! We were blessed. True, there came crossings and evils; but we withstood them all, and holding each other by the hand, forgot that such a thing as sorrow remained in the world.

"Children were born to us—brave boys and fair girls. Oh, Mark, that, that is a pleasure—that swelling of tenderness for our offspring—which the rigorous doctrines of your course of life have withheld from you!

"Like you, I engaged in trade. Various fortune followed my path. I will not deny but that some in whom I thought virtue was strong, proved cunning hypocrites, and worthy no man's trust. Yet are there many I have known, spotless, as far as humanity may be spotless.

"Thus, to me, life has been alternately dark and fair. Have I lived happy?—No, not completely; it is never for mortals so to be. But I can lay my hand upon my heart, and thank the Great Master, that the  per_kc.00016_large.jpg sunshine has been far oftener than the darkness of the clouds.

"Dear brother, the world has misery—but it is a pleasant world still, and affords much joy to the dwellers!"

As Nathan ceased, his brother looked up in his face, like a man unto whom a simple truth had been for the first time revealed.


1. This tale is the seventh 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. Whitman reprinted this story with the same title in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 11, 1846, while he was editor of that paper. He included a poem just before the story titled "The Prison Convict," which was attributed to Albert Tracy. For a complete list of revisions to the language of the story made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Brooklyn Daily 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), 115–119. For the publication history of "A Legend of Life and Love," see "About 'A Legend of Life and Love.'" [back]

2. In the Eagle, Whitman removed the entire first paragraph and began the tale with this sentence. [back]

3. Grandsire is another term for grandfather. [back]

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