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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 23, 1846

Whitman Archive ID: per.00286

Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, November 23, 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. ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙.



Chapter 7.

There is no need that I should pause here to dwell on my meeting with my benefactor Lee, and the shame with which I acknowledged my guilt, and gave him back his letter. But great as was my fault, I was hardly prepared for his storm of anger. I did not know how much he valued his good name among the mercantile world, or I might have been better prepared for it. He had jealously guarded his professional honor, as the apple of his eye; and now there was no escape. The mails to the distant place were very irregular; and besides, a letter to that town where his agent resided, would not reach it in time, now, if there were no impediment.

Though conscious of my remissness, the irritability, which was one of the results of late habits, caused me in the course of our interview, to attempt an excuse for my conduct. High words arose—in the end I was insolent, and Mr. Lee bade me leave the place and never enter it again! I departed, telling him he should be obeyed.

Dearly, during that day, and many subsequent ones, did I repent my folly. How often did I curse that miserable weakness of my mind, which led me to yield to the slightest opening of temptation!

And what was to be done now, for a living? Some employment must be had—I could not starve. Though my salary had been quite liberal, I had spent every cent, and with the exception of a small sum, due me on a back account, I owned not a dollar in the world. I took the first chance that offered. I accidently learned that the proprietor of a second rate hotel, where I had in times past been in the habit of going, was in want of a bar-keeper. I made application for the place, and, after some demur, was accepted. But the scenes which I witnessed there, and the duties my situation obliged me to perform, were not pleasant: and at the end of a fortnight I left my place.

During my avocations there, I saw many an occurrence, which had I possessed true judgement, might have served as a sufficent warning to me.—There was one of the customers at our bar, quite a small boy, who came almost every evening with a little jug, which he got filled with brandy. I never asked the child—but I knew the principal part of his story from his actions. He had an intemperate parent! Their dwelling was nigh the tavern. I had occasion, two or three times, to show some little kindness to the boy, when he was rudely treated by the inmates of our place.

One evening, when I had a respite from employment, I amused myself by my favorite recreation, the theatre. As I was returning quite late, and was passing through a narrow, dirty street, a boy asked me for a few pennies, in a piteous tone. He said he wanted them to buy bread. I thought the voice was familiar—and scanning the lad's features, discovered my little acquaintance who had so often brought the jug. Of late, however, I had missed his accustomed visits to the bar. I spoke kindly to him—and the poor fellow, no doubt unaccustomed to such treatment, burst into tears. More and more interested, I inquired of him what distress had sent him forth at that hour; and he acknowledged that, instead of wanting the pennies to buy bread, he wished to purchase liquor—and for his mother!

"I don't know what ails her," said the little wretch, "but she acts more strange to-night, than I ever saw her before."

"Where does she live?" said I.

"Not a block off," answered the boy. "Would'nt you just come and see her, sir? She has been sick for a long time."

I thought it no wonder, when, as the child turned on before, to show me the way, I caught sight of the little red jug, under his jacket. He led me up a dirty rickety stoop, into a dark entry of the same description; and it was not without considerable risk of my personal safety, that I arrived at last at the door of a room in the attic, where, he said, his mother was lying. He opened the door and we entered. Never before had I been in so miserable a place.—The furniture of the apartment, what there was of it, would have been scouted from a negro hovel.—The bed in which the woman herself lay in one corner, was a filthy thing of feathers and soiled rags. Another corner was tenanted by a little girl, the sister of the boy who had conducted me: she was asleep. There was no fire—hardly any light; for the flickering of a half-burned tallow candle on the hearth-stone, only served to cast shadowy hues around, making the place drearier and still more desolate. I stood and looked upon the scene—then, approaching the woman, I gazed down upon her, and the very first glance I gave in her face, saw that she was dying! Horror-struck, I stepped away from the bed, and for several minutes was silent and motionless with awe.

Every little while, the woman would turn uneasily, and raise herself somewhat from the bed, and look about—oftenest looking at the spot where her girl slumbered. My little guide crouched down close by my feet—it may be that the knowledge of the presence of death was upon him. Again the woman raised herself—then sank wearily back again, her faint groans sounding through the apartment. Poor creature! She was very wretched—and no doubt she had been as guilty as she was wretched; and thoughts of remorse might be the cause of that restlessness which I saw depicted in her countenance. But amid all her agony—amid the dark remembrances that came trooping up there, like fiends in the silence of midnight, to torment her—amid her doubts and fears about the Dim Beyond—amid faintness, and thirstiness, and pain—one controlling thought was mightier than all the rest—motherly love. She called in a hoarse whisper,


There was no answer. A second time she called, and sank down her head, and held very still, to listen if she was heard. The quiet, regular breathing of the sleeping girl, was the only sound that broke that terrible stillness—for we were mute with dread. Again, the whisper sounded out with even a ghastlier tone than before,

"My daughter!"

The hoarse sound seemed to be reechoed from other voices. It was as if around the room, and peering down from the upper corners of the wall, the death-stricken outcast fancied she saw faces, bodiless, and working with strange grins of mockery. She sat up in the bed—horror giving her strength—and stared wildly about. I was half petrified as her look was directed toward me, and the child at my feet. I stood as still as a statue. With a feeble hand, she drew from its place, the rag-heap used for her pillow; she tightened and bound it with her trembling fingers—I looking on in wonder the while—and then she threw it toward me! I half shrieked with fear.

The woman was plainly losing her senses, as the dread moment came nigh.

"Oh, Jack!" she exclaimed, as she saw her boy near me, "come to your poor mother!"

I raised the child, and bade him obey her. He was frightened at her fearful wildness, and crept toward the bed with trembling steps.

"Dear boy, lean to my face!" she said.

The poor lad speechlessly obeyed the injunction. The girl slept on. And now the dying woman lay, her mouth partly open, drawing in the breath at intervals with a convulsive movement of the jaws.—Her face was livid, and covered with large drops of sweat, and her eyes turned upward. It was evident that she struggled with the Grim Messenger.

To me, the fearful novelty of the scene almost took away all power of speech or action. What I have narrated was done in the space of but few seconds. Indeed, I was not in the room, from first to last, more than ten or twelve minutes. The woman's arm, numb as it was getting to be, wound itself around her child, and pressed him closer.—Something like a smile—a most deathly one—settled upon her features. She tried to speak—but just then her sinking powers forbade the effort. It seemed from her looks and faint gestures, that she would have had the boy rouse his sister, and bring her there also. Then she probably felt conscious how very short were her moments, and how she might die ere the drowsy child could be fully awakened. Her pallid lips moved—just moved, and that was all.

"Father in Heaven!" was the slight thin sound, "hallowed be thy name—thy will be done on earth as in heaven—forgive us of our trespasses as—"

A ghastly rattle shook the repentant sinner's neck.

"Forgive us our trespasses—"

There was a choking gush, as of wind and water in the throat.

"Forgive us—"

Her head turned slowly, and fell on its side with a kind of leaden sound; her arm relaxed its hold; and the guilty creature lay there a corpse—her last prayer smothered in its utterance, and her immortal part starting from its now useless tabernacle, to waft itself on the journey for the Strange Land.

To be continued.1


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


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