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One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped

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One Wicked Impulse!

(A tale of a Murderer escaped.)

That section of Nassau street which runs into the great mart of New York brokers and stock-jobbing, has for a long time been much occupied by practitioners of the law.3 Tolerably well known amid this class some years since, was Adam Covert,4 a middle-aged man of rather limited means, who, to tell the truth, gained more by trickery than he did in the legitimate and honorable exercise of his profession. He was a tall, bilious-faced widower; the father of two children; and had lately been seeking to better his fortunes by a rich marriage. But somehow or other, his wooing did not seem to thrive well, and, with perhaps one exception, the lawyer's prospects in the matrimonial way were hopelessly gloomy.

Among the early clients of Mr. Covert had been a distant relative named Marsh, who, dying somewhat suddenly, left his son and daughter, and some little property, to the care of Covert, under a will drawn out by that gentleman himself. At no time caught without his eyes open, the cunning lawyer, aided by much sad confusion in the emergency which had caused his services to be called for, and disguising his object under a cloud of technicalities, inserted provisions in the will, giving himself an almost arbitrary control over the property and over those for whom it was designed. This control was even made to extend beyond the time when the children would arrive at mature age. The son, Philip, a spirited and high-tempered fellow, had some time since passed that age. Esther, the girl, a plain, and somewhat devotional young woman, was in her nineteenth year.

Having such power over his wards, Covert did not scruple openly to use his advantage, in pressing his claims as a suitor for Esther's hand.5 Since the death of Marsh, the property he left, which had been in real estate, and was to be divided equally between the brother and sister, had risen to very considerable value; and Esther's share, was to a man in Covert's situation, a prize very well worth seeking. In all this time, while really owning a respectable income, the young orphans often felt the want of the smallest sums of money—and Esther, on Philip's account, was more than once driven to various contrivances—the pawn-shop, sales of her own little luxuries, and the like, to furnish him with means.

Though she had frequently shown her guardian unequivocal evidence of her aversion, Esther continued to suffer from his persecutions, until one day he proceeded farther and was more pressing than usual. She possessed some of her brother's mettlesome temper, and gave him an abrupt and most decided refusal. With dignity, she exposed the baseness of his conduct, and forbade him ever again mentioning marriage to her. He retorted bitterly, vaunted his hold on her and Philip, and swore an oath that unless she became his wife, they should both thence-forward become penniless. Losing his habitual self-control in his exasperation, he even added insults such as woman never receives from any one deserving the name of man, and at his own convenience left the house. That day, Philip returned to New York, after an absence of several weeks on the business of a mercantile house in whose employment he had lately engaged.

Toward the latter part of the same afternoon, Mr. Covert was sitting in his office, in Nassau street, busily at work, when a knock at the door announced a visitor, and directly afterward young Marsh entered the room. His face exhibited a peculiar pallid appearance that did not strike Covert at all agreeably, and he called his clerk from an adjoining room, and gave him something to at a desk near by.

"I wish to see you alone, Mr. Covert, if convenient," said the new comer.

"We can talk quite well enough where we are," answered the lawyer; "indeed, I don't know that I have any leisure to talk at all, for just now I am very much pressed with business."

"But I must speak to you," rejoined Philip sternly, "at least I must say one thing, and that is, Mr. Covert, that you are a villain!"

"Insolent!" exclaimed the lawyer, rising behind the table, and pointing to the door: "Do you see that, sir! Let one minute longer find you the other side, or your feet may reach the landing by a quicker method. Begone, sir!"

Such a threat was the more harsh to Philip, for he had rather high-strung feelings of honor. He grew almost livid with suppressed agitation.

"I will see you again very soon," said he, in a low but distinct manner, his lips trembling as he spoke; and left the office.

The incidents of the rest of that pleasant summer day left little impression on the young man's mind. He roamed to and fro without any object or destination. Along South street and by Whitehall, he watched with curious eyes the movements of the shipping, and the loading and unloading of cargoes; and listened to the merry heave-yo of the sailors and stevedores.6 There are some minds upon which great excitement produces the singular effect of uniting two utterly inconsistent faculties—a sort of cold apathy, and a sharp sensitiveness to all that is going on at the same time. Philip's was one of this sort; he noticed that the various differences in the apparel of a gang of wharf-laborers—turned over in his brain whether they received wages enough to keep them comfortable, and their families also,—and if they had families or not, which he tried to tell by their looks. In such petty reflections the daylight passed away. And all the while the master wish of Philip's thoughts was a desire to see the lawyer Convert. For what purpose he himself was by no means clear.


Nightfall came at last. Still however, the young man did not direct his steps homeward. He felt more calm, however, and entering an eating-house, ordered something for his supper, which, when it was brought to him, he merely tasted, and strolled forth again. There was a kind of gnawing sensation of thirst within him yet, and as he passed a hotel, he bethought him that one little glass of spirits would perhaps be just the thing. He drank, and hour after hour wore away unconsciously; he drank not one glass, but three or four, and strong glasses they were to him, for he was habitually abstemious.

It had been a hot day and evening, and when Philip, at an advanced period of the night, emerged from the bar-room into the street, he found that a thunder storm had just commenced. He resolutely walked on, however, although at every step it grew more and more blustering.

The rain now poured down a cataract; the shops were all shut; few of the street lamps were lighted; and there was little except the frequent flashes of lightning to show him his way. When long about half the length of Chatham street, which lay in the direction he had to take, the momentary fury of the tempest forced him to turn aside into a sort of shelter formed by the corners of the deep entrance to a Jew pawnbroker's shop there. He had hardly drawn himself in as closely as possible, when the lightning revealed to him that the opposite corner of the nook was tenanted also.

"A sharp rain, this," said the other occupant, who simultaneously beheld Philip.

The voice sounded to the young man's ears a note which almost made him sober again. It was certainly the voice of Adam Covert. He made some common place reply, and waited for a flash of lightning to show him the stranger's face. It came, and he saw that his companion was indeed his guardian.

Philip Marsh had drank deeply—(let us plead all that may be possible to you, stern moralist.) Upon his mind came swarming, and he could not drive them away, thoughts of all those insults his sister had told him of, and the better words Covert had spoken to her; he reflected, too, on the injuries Esther as well as himself had received, and were still likely to receive, at the hands of that bold, bad man; how mean, selfish, and unprincipled was his character—what base and cruel advantages he had taken of many poor people, entangled in his power, and of how much wrong and suffering he had been the author, and might be again through future years. The very turmoil of the elements, the harsh roll of the thunder, the vindictive beating of the rain, and the fierce glare of the wild fluid that seemed to riot in the ferocity of the storm around him, kindled a strange sympathetic fury in the young man's mind. Heaven itself (so deranged were his imaginings) appeared to have provided a fitting scene and time for a deed of retribution, which to his disordered passion half wore the semblance of a divine justice. He remembered not the ready solution to be found in Covert's pressure of business which had no doubt kept him later than usual; but fancied some mysterious intent in the ordaining that he should be there, and that they two should meet at that untimely hour.—All this whirl of influences came over Philip with startling quickness at that horrid moment. He stepped to the side of his guardian.

"Ho!" said he, "have we met so soon, Mr. Covert? You traitor to my dead father—robber of his children! I fear to think on what I think now!"

The lawyer's natural effrontery did not desert him.

"Unless you'd like to spend a night in the watch-house, young gentleman," said he, after a short pause, "move on. Your father was a weak man, I remember; as for his son, his own wicked heart is his worst foe.7 I have never done wrong to either—that I can say, and swear it!"

"Insolent liar!" exclaimed Philip, his eye flashing out sparks of fire in the darkness.

Covert made no reply except a cool, contemptuous laugh.

This stung the excited young man to double fury. He sprang upon the lawyer, and clutched him by the neckcloth.

"Take it, then!" he cried hoarsely, for his threat was impeded by the fiendish rage which in that black hour possessed him. "You are not fit to live!"

He dragged his guardian to the earth and fell crushingly upon him, choking the shriek the poor victim but just began to utter. Then, with monstrous imprecations, he twisted a tight knot around the gasping creature's neck, drew a clasp knife from his pocket, and touching the spring, the long sharp blade, too eager for its bloody work, flew open.

During the lull of the storm, the last strength of the prostrate man burst forth into one short loud cry of agony. At the same instant, the arm of the murderer thrust the blade, once, twice, thrice, deep in his enemy's bosom! Not a minute had passed since that fatal, exasperating laugh,—but the deed was done, and the instinctive thought which came at once to the guilty one, was a thought of fear and escape.

In the unearthly pause which followed, Philip's eyes gave one long searching sweep in every direction, above and around him. Above! God of the all-seeing eye! What, and who was that figure there?

"Forbear! In Jehovah's name forbear:" cried a shrill, but clear and melodious voice.

It was as if some accusing spirit had come down to bear witness against thee deed of blood. Learning far out of an open window, appeared a white draperied shape, its face possessed of a wonderful youthful beauty. Long vivid glows of lightning gave Philip a full opportunity to see as clearly as though the sun had been shining at noon day. One hand of the figure was raised upward in a deprecating attitude, and his large bright black eyes bent down upon the scene below with an expression of horror and shrinking pain. Such heavenly looks and the peculiar circumstances of the time, filled Philip's heart with awe.

"Oh, if it is not yet too late," spoke the youth again, "spare him! In God's voice, I command, 'Thou shalt do no murder!'"

The words rang like a knell in the ear of the terror-stricken and already remorseful Philip. Springing from the body, he gave a second glance up and down the walk, which was totally lonesome and deserted; then crossing into Reade street, he made his fearful way in a half state of stupor, half-bewilderment, by the nearest avenues to his home.

(Concluded in our next.)8


1. From the Democratic Review.1 [back]

1. The first known version of this tale was published as "Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1845. When he republished the story in installments in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on September 7–9, 1846, while he was editor of that paper, Whitman retitled it "One Wicked Impulse! (A tale of a Murderer escaped.)" He kept that title but dropped the subtitle when he published the story again in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 344–349. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "One Wicked Impulse!" For a list of several of the revisions to the language of the story for publication in the Eagle and in Collect, see our footnotes to "Revenge and Requital." For the publication history of the story see "About 'Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped'" and "About 'One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped.'" [back]

3. A stock-jobber is engaged in the business of buying and selling stocks. The term was often used to mean dishonest buying and trading, which is how Whitman uses it here. Nassau Street is located in the financial district in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. [back]

4. Whitman jotted down notes about a character named Covert in an early notebook (see "a schoolmaster"). The ideas in that notebook about the plot of the story that would involve Covert bear some resemblance to the plot of "Revenge and Requital," though it is unclear whether the notes were written before or after the publication of the story. For a more detailed assessment of the similarities and differences between Whitman's notebook and the plot of "Revenge and Requital," see "About 'Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped.'" [back]

5. Esther and Philip are considered Covert's wards because he is their legal guardian and has control over their inheritance. [back]

6. A stevedore loads and/or unloads the cargo on merchant ships. [back]

7. A watch-house is a place where disorderly persons taken into custody during the night can be detained until the following morning. [back]

8. Click here for the next installment of "One Wicked Impulse!" [back]

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