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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.)



After desolating the cities of the eastern world, the dreaded Cholera made its appearance on our American shores.3 In New York, hardly had the first few cases occurred, when thousands of the inhabitants precipitately left town, and sought safety in the neighboring country districts. For various reasons, however, large numbers still remained.—While fear drove away so many—poverty, quite as stern a force, also compelled many to stay where they were. The desire of gain, too, made a large number continue their business as usual, for competition was narrowed down, and profits were large.—Besides these, there was, of the number who remained, still another class, every name among whom is brightly kept in the records writ by God's angels. These were the men and women, heedless of their own small comfort, who went out amid the diseased, the destitute, and the dying, like merciful spirits—wiping the drops from hot brows, and soothing the agony of cramped limbs—speaking words of consolation to many a despairing creature, who would else have been vanquished by his soul's weakness alone—and treading softly but quickly from bedside to bedside, with those little offices which are so grateful to the sick, but which can so seldom be obtained from strangers. O, Charity and Love! sister throbbings in the heart of great Humanity! sweetly, but ever surely, step you forth from the very tempest of those horrors, which whirl away by wholesale man's virtue and his life! Even in carnage and pestilence, sad fruits of the evil that will work from ourselves—when hate, selfishness, and all monstrous vice, threaten to beat the good utterly out of mortal hearts—the Genius of Perfection which our Maker gave us, springs up loftily and cheerfully from the ruin and laughs to scorn the taunts of those malignant fiends who please themselves in the depression of our better nature! Yes; then to cancel the weight of wickedness, appear large deeds of devotion and love;—then come forth heroes of charity and brotherly kindness, whose meek courage is greater than the courage of war;—then favorite messengers of Heaven enter into the hearts of noble women, who go forth and relieve the scene of its sombre gloom, like lamps at night. And though the number be few, their sum of holiness affords a leaven large enough for the freshness and healthiness of an otherwise unwholesome world! Ye true sons and daughters of Christ! I bow before you with a reverence I never pay either to earthly rank or intellectual majesty!

Such, during the cholera season in New York, was the character of a small and sacred band, who, with no union except the union of that sublimest of impulses, good will to man, went wherever they could find themselves needed or useful. One among them seemed even more ardent and devoted than the rest. Wherever the worst cases of the contagion were to be found, he also was to be found. In noisome alleys and foul rear-buildings, in damp cellars and hot garrets, thither came he with food, medicine, gentle words, and gentle smiles. By the head of the dying, the sight of his pale calm face, and his eyes moist with tears of sympathy, often divested death of its severest terrors. At midnight he hovered over the forms of sick children, hushing their fretful cries, solacing them to rest with a soft voice, and cooling their hot cheeks with his own hands and lips, disdainful of the peril he inhaled at every breath. At night, too, when not occupied with other cares, he went prying and peering about, threading that dirtiest and wretchedest section of the city, between Chatham and Centre streets, pausing frequently, and gazing hither and thither. And when his well-trained ear caught those familiar sounds, those wailings of anguish and fear, how unerringly would he direct his feet to the spot whence they proceeded. There, like an unearthly help, vouchsafed from above, he would at once take the measures experience had proved most efficacious, not seldom finding his reward the next day in the recovered safety of his patient.

This messenger of health to many, and peace to all, this unwearied, unterrified man, was Philip Marsh. His heart swelled with an engrossing wish to cancel, as far as he could, the great outrage he had committed on society by taking the life of one of its members. For that purpose he would cheerfully have endured any pains or privations, however severe: and he rejoiced in all the additional risk he ran, for the preservation or recovery of those unhappy sufferings. It even seemed as if he were thus making interest in the Courts of Heaven. How many new comers to the Immortal Land must have passed its golden arches, with the thought of his devoted sympathy fresh within them. Who should say he was not already interceded for at the throne of God?

Late one evening, Philip was walking slowly home, faint with the labors of the day, to gain that repose which would fit him for farther efforts. His course led him through one of those thoroughfares that intersect the eastern part of Grand street; and in the solemn stillness of the time, his attention was arrested by the low sobbing of a child whose face could be indistinctly seen at an open basement window. Philip stepped closer, paused, and leaning down, saw that it was a young boy.

"Why are you crying, my little son?" said he.

The child ceased his sobs, and looked up, but made no answer.

"Are you alone here?" continued Philip. "Is your father or mother sick?"

"My brother is sick," answered the child. "I have no father. He is dead."

"Did he die of the cholera, then?"

"No," replied the boy, "a bad man killed him a year ago."

Philip's heart quivered as if some sharp instrument had cut into it. A dim foreboding, not without joy, too, came dreamily to him.

"What is your name, my poor boy?" he asked.

"Adam Covert," said the child.

And at the same moment Philip was down the area steps, and had entered the door.

By the death of Covert his two children were left without any protector, and almost without a shelter. The lawyer's business was conducted on a plan so entirely without method—the knowledge of its details being confined to himself almost exclusively—that it would have been difficult for any one to realize the smallest sum over the demands against him. In this state of things several rapacious creditors came in and took possession of all that remained.

The elder of the two young Coverts was a lad of about eighteen, an industrious and intelligent youngster, whose earnings now sufficed for the support of himself and his little brother. They rubbed along tolerably well until the coming of the cholera, which broke up the boarding house where they had made their home, dispersed the boarders, and drove off the frightened landlady and her family among some distant country relations.4 The orphans, too poor to go with the rest, obtained permission to occupy the basement of the house, and the elder continued his avocations for a while longer, when unfortunately his business stopped, and of course his wages with it.

The afternoon previous to Philip's accidental encounter with the child at the window, poor living and a disturbed mind had done their work on the unemployed lad, and he began to feel the symptoms of the prevailing illness. There was no aid, no friend, no doctor near. He went forth into the street, but feared that he might perhaps die there upon the public walk, and returned to his dwelling again, comforting his brother as well as he could.

And now, Philip, thanking the indulgence of God, which had vouchsafed him this happiness, was the nurse, the friend and the physician of the sick youth. Hardly for a moment stirred he from the room. He always carried about him the medicines necessary in such cases, and here all his experience and skill were taxed to their utmost.

Heaven blessed those exertions, and the boy recovered his health again.

But this was Philip's crowning act of recompense. From the very hour when his young patient was beyond danger, the over-wearied man began to droop. His illness however was not long. He wrote a short note to sister, who was many miles away at the house of a distant relative—bequeathed his property to the boys whom he had made fatherless—(after the death of Covert, the orphans of course received their inheritance at once)—and a few days afterward, calmly passed Philip Marsh from the circuit of that life, which, young as he was, had been to him little else than a scene of crime, suffering and repentance.


1. From the Democratic Review.1 [back]

1. This final installment is preceded in the Eagle by a poem titled "The Grave," a translation from the Anglo-Saxon attributed to Longfellow. [back]

3. Cholera, an instestinal infection, is often caused by drinking contaminated water and is common where there is poor sanitation. Cholera outbreaks occurred in the United States in the 1800s before modern water and sewage treatments prevented the spread of the disease. Here, Whitman may be referring to the cholera outbreak in 1832 that prompted many to leave New York City and killed more than three thousand. See John Duff, History of Public Health in New York City, 1625–1866, Volume 1 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1968), 441–442. [back]

4. A boarding house is a place where a lodger can rent a room and/or obtain meals for a few days or during an extended period of time. Boarding houses flourished in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. In an article titled "New York Boarding Houses," published in the New York Aurora on March 18, 1842, Whitman estimated that "half the inhabitants of the city hire accommodations at these houses," and noted that "if we were called upon to describe the universal Yankee nation in laconic terms, we should say, they are 'a boarding people.'" Whitman himself stayed a a number of different boarding houses during the early 1840s: see David Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (New York: Random House, 1996), 84. [back]

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