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Title: Fortunes of a Country-Boy; Incidents in Town—and his Adventure at the South

Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as J. R. S.]

Date: November 21, 1846

Whitman Archive ID: per.00285

Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, November 21, 1846: 1. Transcribed from digital images of a microfilm reproduction of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the fiction, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock, Nicole Gray, and Ed Folsom

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A Moral Tale.


Incidents in Town—and his Adventure at the South.


BY J. R. S. ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙.



Yet was the tempest a terrible one. Widows, left with a narrow competence; young children; sick people, whose cases were hopeless, but who might languish on for many years; sailors, away upon the ocean; fishermen, whose earnings were scant and dearly bought; mechanics; young men just commencing business; economical doctors and clergymen in their novitiate; all these, and hundreds more, had either deposited sums of money in the institution, or were sufferers by its bankruptcy in other ways. Many lost their all. There was one woman, a widow, an energetic country trader, the mother of a large family, which she supported by her business habits, who had come to the city with what was for her quite a large sum—all she was worth, and some borrowed funds besides. Her intent was to purchase a heavy stock of goods, for sale the subsequent season. For security, she had her money placed in the vaults of the institution—and lost every cent!

It would be almost an endless effort to tell who was injured. All classes, all ranks, all occupations, felt more or less of the withering blight.1

But the tempest blew over at last. The two men who had provoked it, went out still among their fellow-men, with forms erect, and with smooth smiles. He of the dark eye was just finishing, a few miles from the city, a palace-like residence, of great size and beauty. Now he had it furnished with the most sumptuous luxury. Cost and pains were not spared, until Desire had no further room for wishing. Here this rich man settled himself; and here, when he had become a little used to his grandeur, so that it did not sit awkwardly upon him, he determined to give a superb entertainment.—Preparations were accordingly made; scientific cooks were engaged; foreign delicacies purchased, and the most exquisite dishes prepared.

The hour and the company arrived; and the master of the feast looked around with a smile, as each one seated himself at his appointed place.—They ate, and drank, and made merry. Delight, and Friendliness, and Content, seemed the presiding spirits of the banquet.

After awhile, when their glasses were filled with rich wine, it was proposed that they should have a toast. So a benevolent-looking elderly gentleman rose, and after speaking a few minutes, to the purport that he felt sure those present would all cordially join him, he raised his glass aloft—his example being followed by the others, and said—

"Even-handed laws—which, in our glorious republic, dispense to all impartially their due."

When the revellers heard this sentiment, they clinked their glasses together, and raised a peal which made the lofty ceiling ring again. Then a second, and then a third—which was a louder and a gladder peal than either of the others.

And at the same moment that the echoes died away, there was, about a mile off, a human soul writhing in its final struggle. It was that of the poor drunkard Dennis, who stole the loaf in his hunger, and had been sent to expiate his crime in toil and imprisonment. The dissipation of years had made him weak; and he could not bear up against the exposure, joined with hard work. But his task maker was merciless; and as long as the wretched man could stand, he was kept laboring.—At last, he fell very ill. Who would medicine a rascally jail-bird? He went on from bad to worse, and was soon in a dying condition.

Before the splendid dinner party returned to their homes that night, the corpse of the convicted thief lay cold and clayey upon the prison floor.


Chapter VI.

After I had been a while in my situation at Mr. Lee's store, I thought I might safely indulge myself in adding a little to my expenses. I made improvements both in my style of living, and in my dress—The new boarding-house in which I took my quarters, was in the upper part of the town. Colby came to see me quite often, as usual. The reader, probably by this time, has gained no small insight into the character of my friend. He was by no means a bad man; and yet his early habits, and giving way to temptation, had brought him to be anything else but a fit companion for a country youth, just beginning life in the city.

One morning, while I was attending to my usual duties in the counting room,2 a stranger with a dark and swarthy complexion, came in and asked for Mr. Lee. He was not in at the time; and thinking that the business of the dark faced personage was very likely some trifling affair, I told him that my employer was away, but would probably return in half an hour, or less. The stranger paused a moment with a troubled expression upon his countenance; then drew from his breast-pocket a couple of sealed documents, and handed them to me.

"Give these papers," said he, "to your employer, the moment he arrives. They are of more consequence than you know, and I would that I could have delivered them to his own hands."

"I will do as you desire," said I, laying the papers up in a little partition on the desk.

The stranger told his name as Bourne. I knew that my employer had had large dealings with him, and frequently sent letters to him, and once or twice had despatched his most confidential clerks on personal missions to him. One of these had been described to me by a fellow clerk—who represented Mr. Bourne's residence as filled with comfort and hospitality. And Mr. Lee had partly engaged that on the next occasion, which demanded such an agency, I should be sent on it.

A few minutes afterwards, I learned from one of my fellow-clerks, that Mr. Lee had gone out that morning, leaving word that he would not be back till the close of the day. I thought of the stranger's parting injunction; but he was gone some time, and could not be informed how the fact really was. After all, perhaps the documents might be of no weighty moment, and I reflected no more upon the subject.

On my way down from dinner, Colby met me in the street.

"This is lucky," he exclaimed, seizing me by the hand. "We have made up a fine party for the play to-night, and you must promise to be one of us."

"With pleasure," was my reply; "nothing could please me more."

So it was arranged, that when the hour arrived, they should call upon me, and we would all go together.

We did not close our store as early as usual that evening, in consequence of our employer's absence. Though doing an extensive business, he was a man very careful of the details, and was in the practice of being in his counting-room until the last moment. We waited therefore until the very evening, and the neighbors all around had shut up, and left us quite solitary. As the porter was making the usual arrangements of closing, Mr. Lee returned. He looked around him a moment, remarked that he did not know as his presence there was necessary, and was on the point of departing. So selfish was I, that though at that moment the remembrance of the swarthy stranger, and his letters, came to my mind, I debated a moment whether I should give them to Mr. Lee, as that would detain us some minutes longer. I was in haste to get home, that I might be ready in time for our visit to the theatre. Happily, however, duty triumphed.

"I had nearly forgotten, sir," said I, "these papers were left here this morning, by a man who desired that you might get them as soon as possible."

Mr. Lee took them, and opened them. The very moment he began to read, I could see that he was deeply interested. After finishing one, he perused the other with the same eagerness. And then a second time, with a slower and more careful manner, he read over both the letters again, from beginning to end.

"It's a lucky thing, Evans," said he, "that you did not miss giving me these. Not for half my fortune would I have been without them this very evening."

He then explained to me, that he had of late been engaged in some mercantile speculations at the south, which proved a failure. Some traders with whom he had intercourse there, were becoming alarmed, and demanded certain moneys, or their value, which Mr. Lee was bound to pay; but which it had been the understanding, were to remain uncalled for, for several months yet. A statement of this sudden demand was forwarded by Mr. Lee's agent, with a sorrowful acknowledgement that he had not the wherewithal to meet it, and asking directions for his conduct. The swarthy southerner, who was a planter, come to the north on business, was going to leave the city the next morning, at an early hour, and prompt action was therefore necessary.

Mr. Lee immediately sat down and wrote to his agent, directing where and how he could obtain the needed funds. He enjoined him to pay the liabilities the moment they were called for, as he would rather be at the expense of them twice over, than have his reputation and fair name as a merchant put in danger. Having made up and endorsed his reply, he gave it into my hands, with the address of the planter, who was to take it on, telling me to call at his hotel in the course of the evening, and place it in his hands. I promised to do so, of course, and went home to my supper.

As it was now quite in the evening, I had hardly finished my meal before my companions came, according to arrangement, to take me with them to the play. I debated a little while whether I had not better postpone my evening's enjoyment, as I had the planter's letter to carry. But I feared they would suspect that I did not like their companionship; and determined, in my own mind, to go out between some of the earlier acts of the piece, and convey my message.

I went to the theatre. We enjoyed ourselves highly, for the performances were creditable, and each of us naturally fond of that species of amusement, and moreover in great spirits. As the first piece was one I had long wished to see acted, I concluded not to go until that was finished. Then there was to come a dance, which one of my companions praised so highly that I was determined to stay and see that also. And then the intermission was so very short that, before I knew it, the curtain was up, and the actors on in the after-piece. Feeling that I was not doing right, I made a bold push, and bade my companions good night, if I should not see them again, telling them that I had some business to transact for my employer. They laughed at me, stating the improbability of such a thing, at that time of night. If ever there was anything that annoyed me, it was to be suspected of trying to sneak out from the truth by a kind of back-door, as it were. Accordingly, when they promised that if I would wait until the end of the first act, they would all go with me, I sat down again by them. I knew I was culpable, and yet I had not resolution of mind enough to break away.

We went from the theatre. On our way to the hotel, we were to pass one of our favorite drinking-places, where, as we came off against the entrance, we heard the inmates stamping and applauding at a great rate. There was evidently something more than usual going on, so one of our party insisted that we should step in and have a look.

"Only one moment," said he, "and then we will walk on with Evans."

But the moment stretched on to minutes, and the minutes to almost half an hour; at the end of which time we were snugly seated round a table, imbibing fragrant liquors through long glass tubes. And with the contents of the first glass, came a total disregard of anything but the pleasure of drink. Forgetful of my duty—of my employer's honor, and the crisis which would turn against him, if I continued sitting there a little while longer, I drank, and drank, and drank; until, as the night advanced, lost to the slightest vestige of remembrance with regard to the pacquet, I was the wildest and the most exhilarated of the party.

What fire burnt in my brain! I laughed, and with garrulous tongue entertained those about me with silly stories, which the quantity of liquor they had taken, alone prevented them from being nauseated with. All around us were the scenes which belonged to such a place, and which I have partially described before. The music went on, but we heard it no longer. The people talked and the dice rattled, but we heeded them not.

A wretched scene! Half-a-dozen men, just entering the busy scenes of life, not one of us over twenty five years, and there we were, benumbing our faculties, and confirming ourselves in practices which ever too surely bring the scorn of the world and disgrace to their miserable victims! It is a terrible sight, I have often thought since, to see young men beginning their walk upon this fatal journey!

To be continued.3


1. This scam, juxtaposed with the story of Dennis's poverty and theft on a much smaller scale, might be a reference to the aftermath of Andrew Jackson's banking policies and the Panic of 1837, which ushered in a Free Banking era that destabilized financial institutions for several years. It is also comparable to the tendency of other sensationalist writers of the time to criticize elitism in the form of corrupt bankers and lawyers. See David Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (New York: Random House, 1993), 86–7. [back]

2. The counting-room was a room in commercial establishments dedicated to book-keeping, accounts, or correspondence. [back]

3. Click here for the next installment of "Fortunes of a Country-Boy." [back]


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