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The Love of the Four Students




O SUBTLE spirit, Love! in our earlier years, when the heart is fresh and the impulses strong, how potent your influence over us for good or for evil!1 The gyves wherewith you bind us, though softer and easier than silk, are firmer than bands of brass or iron.2 The sway of love over the mind of a man, though the old subject of flippant and sneering remarks from those who are too coarse to appreciate its delicate ascendancy, is a strange and beautiful thing.

Love! the mighty passion which, ever since human life began, has been conquering the great and subduing the humble, bending princes and mighty warriours, and the famous men of all nations, to the ground before it. Love! the delirious dream of youth, and the fond memory of old age. Love! which, with its canker-seed of decay within, has sent young men and maidens to a longed-for but too premature burial.3 Love! the child-monarch that death itself cannot overcome, but that has its tokens upon marble slabs at the head of grass-covered tombs; tokens more visible to the eye of the stranger, yet not so deeply graven as the face and the remembrances cut upon the heart of the living. Love! the sweet, the pure, the innocent; yet the causer of fierce hate, of wishes for deadly revenge, of bloody deeds, and madness, and the horrours of hell. Love! that wanders over battlefields, turning up mangled human trunks, and parting back the hair from gory faces, and daring the points of swords and the thunder of artillery, without a fear or a thought of danger.

New-York is my birth-place. My father was engaged in a moderate, respectable business, and we kept up a good appearance. Of my brothers and sisters I shall introduce only one, my brother Matthew, not quite two years younger than myself. He was a pleasant-looking but pale and delicate creature, and my mother often said that he was not long for this world. He had an inward affection, which troubled him in infancy, and which was never wholly eradicated. Mat, as we called him, was beloved by us all for his gentleness, amiability and singular quietness. He never was heard to complain of his illness, nor anything else; but there was still that gentle expression of the eye and the smile upon the lip, on any and every occasion when he spoke. My brother, however, was of keen sensitiveness, and had a tender heart beneath that calm exteriour.

Well, time passed on. I was intended for the profession  per_kc.00060_large.jpg of the law; though, being lazy in my studies, it was not until my twenty-first year that I entered the office of an eminent practitioner, a rigid man, with whom I was to study and drudge.

The very first day of my appearance there, about the middle of the morning, there came to see my master a large, obtuse-looking woman, with a strong foreign accent. Her broken English, and a peculiar expression of the eye, excited the risibilities of a couple of young gentlemen, Mr. Harry Wheaton and Mr. Frank Brown, fellow-students of mine, and they commenced toward that lady what is called quizzing—a process which is generally the sure sign of a soft and pitiful brain in the originator.

I rebuked them, and, asking the woman into the adjoining room, sacred to our master's own use, I requested her to wait a few minutes and the lawyer would probably be there. With female tact, she made no allusion to the young men's impertinence, but thanked me with a dignity and politeness which I certainly did not at all expect. Before she went away that morning I found that she was a Swiss immigrant, a widow, and kept a little ale-house on the banks of the North river, at about two miles from what is now the centre of the city.4 Though the spot was then quite out of town, surrounded by trees and green fields, in these days it is well covered with buildings, and resounds to the clang of carts and the noise of traffic. The widow invited me, when I had a leisure afternoon, to come out and pay a visit to the ale-house; including in the invitation, alas! the other students—a piece of civility of which their rudeness had certainly not made them worthy.

It may not be amiss for me to describe more particularly my two companions in martyrdom—for that was the term which we unanimously voted as most applicable to the condition in which we were placed. Each was of the same age with myself. Wheaton was a handsome, red-cheeked, jovial fellow, full of mirth and spirits, and as generous and brave as any man I ever knew. He was very passionate, too; but the whirlwind of his temper was as quick in passing as it was violent, and, when over, unlike the whirlwinds, it left no desolation or wreck in its path. Frank Brown was a slim, tall, gracefully-formed youth, but by no means as handsome in the face as his companion. He was fond of vague metaphysical speculation, and used to fall in love regularly about once a month with any pretty girl he came across. The half of every Wednesday we had to ourselves, and, accompanied by my brother Matthew, who was studying under a French teacher in the same building, we were in the habit of having a sail, a ride, or a walk together.

One of those Wednesday afternoons, of a pleasant day in April, I bethought myself of the Swiss widow and her beer, about which latter article I had since her visit made inquiries, and heard spoken of in terms of high commendation. I mentioned the matter to Matthew, and to my brothers in martyrdom, and we agreed that there was no better way of filling up the hours than a visit. Accordingly we set forth, and, after a fine walk, arrived in glorious spirits at our destination.

Ah! how shall I describe the quiet beauties of the spot, with its long, low piazza looking out upon the river, and its clean, homely tables, and the tankards of real silver, in which the ale was given us, and the flavour of that excellent liquor itself.5 There was the fat Swiss widow, and there was a sober, stately old woman, half servant, half companion, Margery by name, and there was (good God! my fingers quiver yet as I write the name!) young Ninon, the daughter of the widow. O, through the years that have passed, my memory strays back, and that whole scene comes up before me again; and the brightest part of the picture is the strange ethereal beauty of that young girl! She was but sixteen, and the most fascinating, artless female I had ever beheld. She had soft blue eyes and light hair, and an expression of childish simplicity, which was charming to behold. I have no doubt that ere half an hour had elapsed from the time we entered the tavern, and saw Ninon, every one of the four of us, with the feelings of our age, loved the girl with the very depth of passion.6

We neither spent as much or drank as much beer, by three-quarters, as we had intended before starting on the jaunt. The widow was very civil to us; and Margery, who waited upon us, though not quite a Hebe, behaved with a great deal of politeness; but it was to Ninon, after all, that the afternoon's pleasure was attributable; for, though we were strangers, we became acquainted at once, the manners of the girl, merry as she was, putting entirely out of view the most distant imputation of indecorum, and the presence of the widow and Margery (for we were all in the common room together, there being no other company) serving to make us all still more unembarrassed and at home.7 It was not till quite a while after sunset that we started on our return to our homes. We made several efforts to revive the fun and mirth which usually signalized our rambles when occasion allowed; but they seemed forced and discordant, like laughter in a sick room. Matthew was the only one who preserved his usual tenour of temper and conduct.

I need hardly say that thenceforward every Wednesday afternoon was spent by us at the widow's tavern. Strangely, neither Matthew, or my two fellow-students, or myself, spoke to each other of the sentiment which filled us, in reference to Ninon; yet we all knew the thoughts and feelings of the others; and each, perhaps, felt confident that his love alone was unsuspected by his companions.

The story of the widow was a simple yet touching one. In one of the cantons of her native land, she had grown up, and married, and lived in happy comfort.8 A son was born to her, and a daughter, the beautiful Ninon. By some of those reverses of fortune which visit even those romantic and liberty-loving regions, the father and head of the family had the greater portion of his possessions swept from him. He struggled for a time against the evil influence, but it pressed upon him harder and harder. He had heard of a people in a western world—a new and swarming land, where the stranger was welcomed, and peace and the protection of the strong arm were around and over him. He had no heart to stay and struggle amid the scenes of his former being, and he determined to go, and make his home in that distant republic of the west. So, with his wife and children, and the proceeds of their little property, he took passage for New-York. Alas! he was never to reach his destination. Either the cares and troubles that preyed upon his mind, or some other cause, consigned him to a fit of illness, from which he was only relieved by the great dismisser from all griefs and agonies, Death. He was buried in the sea; and in due time his weeping family arrived at the great American emporium, to find that his death was only the first part of their deprivations. The son, he too sickened, and ere long was laid away to his rest.

Ninon was too young to feel permanent grief at these sad occurrences, and the mother, whatever she might have suffered inwardly, had a good deal of phelgm and patience, and set about making herself and her remaining child as comfortable as might be. They had still a respectable sum in cash, and, after due deliberation, the widow purchased the little quiet tavern, where, of Sundays and holydays, she  per_kc.00061_large.jpg took in considerable sums. The French and Germans visited the house frequently, and quite a number of young Americans, too. Probably, not the least attraction to the latter was the sweet face and form of Ninon.

Spring passed, and summer crept in and wasted away, and autumn had arrived. Every American knows what delicious weather we have, in these regions, of the early October days; how calm, clear, and divested of sultriness is the air, how blue the skies, and how decently nature seems preparing herself for her winter-sleep!

Thus it was of the Wednesday we started on our accustomed excursion. Six months had elapsed since our first visit, and, as then, we were full of the exuberance of young and joyful hearts. Frequent and hearty were our jokes, by no means particular about the theme or the method, and long and loud the peals of laughter that rang over the fields or along the shore.

We took our seats round the same clean white table, and received our liquor in the same bright tankards. They were set before us by the sober Margery, no one else being visible. As frequently happened, we were the only company. Walking and breathing the keen fine air had made us dry, and we soon drained the foaming vessels and called for more. I remember well an animated chat we had about some poems that had just made their appearance from a great British author, and were creating quite a sensation. There was one, a story of passion and despair, which Wheaton had read, and of which he gave us a transcript. It was a wild, startling, dreary thing, and perhaps it threw over our minds its peculiar cast.

An hour moved off, and we began to think it strange that neither Ninon or the widow came into the room. One of us gave a hint to that effect to Margery; but she made no answer, and went on with her usual way as before.

"The grim old thing," said Harry Wheaton; "if she were in Spain, they'd make her a premium duenna!"9

I asked the woman about Ninon and the widow. She seemed perturbed, I thought; but, making no reply to the first part of my question, said that her mistress was in another room of the house, and did not wish to be with company.

"Then be kind enough," resumed Wheaton, with a grimace, "be kind enough, Mrs. Vinegar, to go and ask the widow if we can see Ninon."

Our attendant's face turned as pale as ashes, and she precipitately left the apartment. We laughed at her agitation, which Frank Brown (and we unanimously agreed thereto) assigned to her ill-temper at the ridicule of our company.

Quite a quarter of an hour elapsed before Margery's return. When she appeared, she told us briefly that the widow had bidden her obey our desire, and now, if we pleased, she would conduct us to the daughter's presence. There was a singular expression in the woman's eyes, and the whole affair began to strike us as somewhat odd; but we arose, and taking our caps, followed her as she stepped through the door. Back of the house were some fields, and our path leading into clumps of trees. At some thirty rods distant from the tavern, nigh one of these clumps, the largest tree whereof was a willow, Margery stopped, and pausing a minute, while we came up, spoke in tones calm and low:

"Ninon is there."

She pointed downward with her finger. Great God! there was a grave, new-made, and with the sods loosely joined, and a huge brown stone at each extremity! Some earth yet lay upon the grass near by, and amid that whole scene our eyes took in nothing but that horrible, oven-shaped mound. My eyesight seemed to waver, my head felt dizzy, and a feeling of deadly nausea came over me. I heard a stifled exclamation, and looking round, saw Frank Brown fall heavily upon the grass in a fainting-fit. Wheaton gave way to his agony more fully than ever I had known a man before; he sobbed like a child, and wrung his hands. It is impossible to describe the suddenness and fearfulness of the sickening truth that came upon us all in such thunder-stroke force! Of all of us, my brother Matthew neither shed tears, or turned pale, or fainted, or gave any other evidence of inward depth of pain. His quiet, pleasant voice it was that recalled us, after the lapse of many long minutes, to ourselves.

So the girl had died and been buried. We were told, of a sudden illness that seized her the very day after our last preceding visit; but we inquired not into the particulars. The mother had that lucky toughness to sorrow which I have before alluded to, and outwardly seemed to grieve but little. For our own part, it was, perhaps, after all, not the depth of any intrinsic passion we shared toward Ninon, though we all loved her, but the startling, terrible way of the bursting upon us of the awful fact, which brought forth such abandonment to grief on the part of each of us, except my brother.

I come now to the conclusion of my story, and to the most curious part of it. The evening of the third day from our introduction to the girl's grave, Wheaton, who had wept scalding tears, and felt the perfect tempest of grief; and Brown, who had fallen as if stricken by a giant's club; and myself, that, for an hour, thought my heart would never rebound again from the fearful shock; that evening, I say, we three were seated around a table in another tavern, drinking other beer, and laughing as gleesomely as though we had never known the widow or her daughter—neither of whom, I venture to affirm, came into our minds once the whole night.

Strange are the contradictions of the things of life! The seventh day after that dreadful visit saw my brother Matthew, him who, alone of all the four, had been cold to the breath of the withering blast; the weak and delicate one, who, while bold men and brave men writhed in torture or lay stunned upon the ground, had kept the same placid, gentle face, and the same untrembling fingers; the one who complained not, raved not, recurred not to the subject; him that seventh day saw a clay-cold corpse, shrouded in the pale cerements of decay, and carried to the repose of the churchyard and the coffin.10 The malignant shaft, far, far down and within, wrought a poison and a pain too great for show, and the youth died.


1. Whitman significantly revised the opening to this story before reprinting it as "The Boy-Lover" in the May 1845 issue of the American Review. The later version of the tale opens with a narrator's recollection intended to provide a lesson for youth rather than presenting the story as it is introduced here: with a lengthy meditation on love. He also made changes to the story for later publications in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Specimen Days & Collect. Several of these later revisions are noted in our footnotes to the American Review version. For a publication history of the story under its earliest known title, see "About 'The Love of the Four Students.'" For a publication history of the story under its later title, see "About 'The Boy-Lover.'" [back]

2. Gyves are shackles or fetters. [back]

3. A canker-seed constitutes the beginnings of a sore or disease that threatens to grow and spread. [back]

4. An ale-house is a tavern or public house where travelers and other customers can purchase ale. [back]

5. A piazza is a veranda or an open porch with a roof over it. [back]

6. A tavern is another name for the ale-house—a place of business where a customer can purchase alcoholic drinks and food. At some taverns, it was also possible to obtain lodging. Taverns, barrooms, and similar drinking establishments feature prominently in Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times and in his short stories, including "The Child's Champion," "Wild Frank's Return," and "The Madman." [back]

7. In Greek mythology, Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, was the goddess of youth and the cupbearer of the Gods. Here, "Hebe" is likely a reference to Margery's role as a barmaid or "half-servant" in the tavern. [back]

8. A canton is an administrative unit or a state. [back]

9. A duenna is an older woman who acts as a governess for young women within a Spanish family. [back]

10. A cerement is a cloth used to wrap a corpse. [back]

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