The Child and the Profligate by Walt Whitman
Just after sunset, one evening in summer — that pleasant hour when
the air is balmy, the light loses its glare, and all around is imbued
with soothing quiet — on the door-step of a house there sat an elderly
woman waiting the arrival of her son. The house was in a straggling
village some fifty miles from New York city. She who sat on the door
step was a widow; her white cap cover'd locks of gray, and her dress,
though clean, was exceedingly homely. Her house — for the tenement she
occupied was her own — was very little and very old. Trees cluster'd
around it so thickly as almost to hide its color — that blackish gray
color which belongs to old wooden houses that have never been painted;
and to get in it you had to enter a little rickety gate and walk
through a short path, border'd by carrot beds and beets and other
vegetables. The son whom she was expecting was her only child. About a
year before he had been bound apprentice to a rich farmer in the place,
and after finishing his daily task he was in the habit of spending half
an hour at his mother's. On the present occasion the shadows of night
had settled heavily before the youth made his appearance. When he did,
his walk was slow and dragging, and all his motions were languid, as if
from great weariness. He open'd the gate, came through the path, and
sat down by his mother in silence. "You are sullen to-night, Charley,"
said the widow, after a moment's pause, when she found that he return'd
no answer to her greeting.
As she spoke she put her hand fondly on his head; it seem'd moist
as if it had been dipp'd in the water. His shirt, too, was soak'd; and
as she pass'd her fingers down his shoulder she felt a sharp twinge in
her heart, for she knew that moisture to be the hard wrung sweat of
severe toil, exacted from her young child (he was but thirteen years
old) by an unyielding task-master.
"You have work'd hard to-day, my son."
"I've been mowing."
The widow's heart felt another pang.
"Not all day, Charley?" she said, in a low voice; and there was a
slight quiver in it.
"Yes, mother, all day," replied the boy; "Mr. Ellis said he
couldn't afford to hire men, for wages are so high. I've swung the
scythe ever since an hour before sunrise. Feel of my hands."
There were blisters on them like great lumps. Tears started in the
widow's eyes. She dared not trust herself with a reply, though her
heart was bursting with the thought that she could not better his
condition. There was no earthly means of support on which she had
dependence enough to encourage her child in the wish she knew he was
forming — the wish not utter'd for the first time — to be freed from
"Mother," at length said the boy, "I can stand it no longer. I
cannot and will not stay at Mr. Ellis's. Ever since the day I first
went into his house I've been a slave; and if I have to work so much
longer I know I shall run off and go to sea or somewhere else. I'd as
leave be in my grave as there." And the child burst into a passionate
fit of weeping.
His mother was silent, for she was in deep grief herself. After
some minutes had flown, however, she gather'd sufficient
self-possession to speak to her son in a soothing tone, endeavoring to
win him from his sorrows and cheer up his heart. She told him that time
was swift — that in the course of a few years he would be his own
master — that all people have their troubles — with many other ready
arguments which, though they had little effect in calming her own
distress, she hoped would act as a solace to the disturb'd temper of
the boy. And as the half hour to which he was limited had now elaps'd,
she took him by the hand and led him to the gate, to set forth on his
return. The youth seemed pacified, though occasionally one of those
convulsive sighs that remain after a fit of weeping, would break from
his throat. At the gate he threw his arms about his mother's neck; each
press'd a long kiss on the lips of the other, and the youngster bent
his steps towards his master's house.
As her child pass'd out of sight the widow return'd, shut the gate
and enter'd her lonely room. There was no light in the old cottage that
night — the heart of its occupant was dark and cheerless. Love, agony,
and grief, and tears and convulsive wrestlings were there. The thought
of a beloved son condemned to labor — labor that would break down a
man — struggling from day to day under the hard rule of a soulless
gold-worshipper; the knowledge that years must pass thus; the sickening
idea of her own poverty, and of living mainly on the grudged charity of
neighbors — thoughts, too, of former happy days — these rack'd the
widow's heart, and made her bed a sleepless one without repose.
The boy bent his steps to his employer's, as has been said. In his
way down the village street he had to pass a public house, the only one
the place contain'd; and when he came off against it he heard the sound
of a fiddle — drown'd, however, at intervals, by much laughter and
talking. The windows were up, and, the house standing close to the
road, Charles thought it no harm to take a look and see what was going
on within. Half a dozen footsteps brought him to the low casement, on
which he lean'd his elbow, and where he had a full view of the room and
its occupants. In one corner was an old man, known in the village as
Black Dave — he it was whose musical performances had a moment before
drawn Charles's attention to the tavern; and he it was who now exerted
himself in a violent manner to give, with divers flourishes and extra
twangs, a tune very popular among that thick-lipp'd race whose fondness
for melody is so well known. In the middle of the room were five or six
sailors, some of them quite drunk, and others in the earlier stages of
that process, while on benches around were more sailors, and here and
there a person dress'd in landsman's attire. The men in the middle of
the room were dancing; that is, they were going through certain
contortions and shufflings, varied occasionally by exceedingly hearty
stamps upon the sanded floor. In short the whole party were engaged in
a drunken frolic, which was in no respect different from a thousand
other drunken frolics, except, perhaps, that there was less than the
ordinary amount of anger and quarreling. Indeed everyone seem'd in
remarkably good humor.
But what excited the boy's attention more than any other object was
an individual, seated on one of the benches opposite, who, though
evidently enjoying the spree as much as if he were an old hand at such
business, seem'd in every other particular to be far out of his
element. His appearance was youthful. He might have been twenty-one or
two years old. His countenance was intelligent, and had the air of city
life and society. He was dress'd not gaudily, but in every respect
fashionably; his coat being of the finest broadcloth, his linen
delicate and spotless as snow, and his whole aspect that of one whose
counterpart may now and then be seen upon the pave in Broadway of a
fine afternoon. He laugh'd and talk'd with the rest, and it must be
confess'd his jokes — like the most of those that pass'd current there
— were by no means distinguish'd for their refinement or purity. Near
the door was a small table, cover'd with decanters and glasses, some of
which had been used, but were used again indiscriminately, and a box of
very thick and very long cigars.
One of the sailors — and it was he who made the largest share of
the hubbub — had but one eye. His chin and cheeks were cover'd with
huge, bushy whiskers, and altogether he had quite a brutal appearance.
"Come, boys," said this gentleman, "come, let us take a drink. I know
you're all a getting dry;" and he clench'd his invitation with an
This politeness was responded to by a general moving of the company
toward the table holding the before-mention'd decanters and glasses.
Clustering there around, each one help'd himself to a very handsome
portion of that particular liquor which suited his fancy; and
steadiness and accuracy being at that moment by no means distinguishing
traits of the arms and legs of the party, a goodly amount of the fluid
was spill'd upon the floor. This piece of extravagance excited the ire
of the personage who gave the "treat;" and that ire was still further
increas'd when he discover'd two or three loiterers who seem'd disposed
to slight his request to drink. Charles, as we have before mention'd,
was looking in at the window.
"Walk up, boys! walk up! If there be any skulker among us, blast my
eyes if he shan't go down on his marrow bones and taste the liquor we
have spilt! Hallo!" he exclaim'd as he spied Charles; "hallo, you chap
in the window, come here and take a sup."
As he spoke he stepp'd to the open casement, put his brawny hands
under the boy's arms, and lifted him into the room bodily.
"There, my lads," said he, turning to his companions, "there's a
new recruit for you. Not so coarse a one, either," he added as he took
a fair view of the boy, who, though not what is called pretty, was
fresh and manly looking, and large for his age.
"Come, youngster, take a glass," he continued. And he pour'd one
nearly full of strong brandy.
Now Charles was not exactly frighten'd, for he was a lively fellow,
and had often been at the country merry-makings, and at the parties of
the place; but he was certainly rather abash'd at his abrupt
introduction to the midst of strangers. So, putting the glass aside, he
look'd up with a pleasant smile in his new acquaintance's face.
"I've no need for anything now," he said, "but I'm just as much
obliged to you as if I was."
"Poh! man, drink it down," rejoin'd the sailor, "drink it down —
it won't hurt you."
And, by way of showing its excellence, the one-eyed worthy drain'd
it himself to the last drop. Then filling it again, he renew'd his
efforts to make the lad go through the same operation.
"I've no occasion. Besides, my mother has often pray'd me not to
drink, and I promised to obey her."
A little irritated by his continued refusal, the sailor, with a
loud oath, declared that Charles should swallow the brandy, whether he
would or no. Placing one of his tremendous paws on the back of the
boy's head, with the other he thrust the edge of the glass to his lips,
swearing at the same time, that if he shook it so as to spill its
contents the consequences would be of a nature by no means agreeable to
his back and shoulders. Disliking the liquor, and angry at the attempt
to overbear him, the undaunted child lifted his hand and struck the arm
of the sailor with a blow so sudden that the glass fell and was smash'd
to pieces on the floor; while the brandy was about equally divided
between the face of Charles, the clothes of the sailor, and the sand.
By this time the whole of the company had their attention drawn to the
scene. Some of them laugh'd when they saw Charles's undisguised
antipathy to the drink; but they laugh'd still more heartily when he
discomfited the sailor. All of them, however, were content to let the
matter go as chance would have it — all but the young man of the black
coat, who has been spoken of.
What was there in the words which Charles had spoken that carried
the mind of the young man back to former times — to a period when he
was more pure and innocent than now? "My mother has often pray'd me not
to drink!" Ah, how the mist of months roll'd aside, and presented to
his soul's eye the picture of his mother, and a prayer of exactly
similar purport! Why was it, too, that the young man's heart moved with
a feeling of kindness toward the harshly treated child?
Charles stood, his cheek flush'd and his heart throbbing, wiping
the trickling drops from his face with a handkerchief. At first the
sailor, between his drunkenness and his surprise, was much in the
condition of one suddenly awaken'd out of a deep sleep, who cannot call
his consciousness about him. When he saw the state of things, however,
and heard the jeering laugh of his companions, his dull eye lighting up
with anger, fell upon the boy who had withstood him. He seized Charles
with a grip of iron, and with the side of his heavy boot gave him a
sharp and solid kick. He was about repeating the performance — for the
child hung like a rag in his grasp — but all of a sudden his ears
rang, as if pistols were snapp'd close to them; lights of various hues
flicker'd in his eye, (he had but one, it will be remember'd,) and a
strong propelling power caused him to move from his position, and keep
moving until he was brought up by the wall. A blow, a cuff given in
such a scientific manner that the hand from which it proceeded was
evidently no stranger to the pugilistic art, had been suddenly planted
in the ear of the sailor. It was planted by the young man of the black
coat. He had watch'd with interest the proceeding of the sailor and the
boy — two or three times he was on the point of interfering; but when
the kick was given, his rage was uncontrollable. He sprang from his
seat in the attitude of a boxer — struck the sailor in a manner to
cause those unpleasant sensations which have been described — and
would probably have follow'd up the attack, had not Charles, now
thoroughly terrified, clung around his legs and prevented his
The scene was a strange one, and for the time quite a silent one.
The company had started from their seats, and for a moment held
breathless but strain'd positions. In the middle of the room stood the
young man, in his not at all ungraceful attitude — every nerve out,
and his eyes flashing brilliantly. He seem'd rooted like a rock; and
clasping him, with an appearance of confidence in his protection, clung
"You scoundrel!" cried the young man, his voice thick with passion,
"dare to touch the boy again, and I'll thrash you till no sense is left
in your body."
The sailor, now partially recover'd, made some gestures of a
"Come on, drunken brute!" continued the angry youth; "I wish you
would! You've not had half what you deserve!"
Upon sobriety and sense more fully taking their power in the brains
of the one-eyed mariner, however, that worthy determined in his own
mind that it would be most prudent to let the matter drop. Expressing
therefore his conviction to that effect, adding certain remarks to the
purport that he "meant no harm to the lad," that he was surprised at
such a gentleman being angry at "a little piece of fun," and so forth
— he proposed that the company should go on with their jollity just as
if nothing had happen'd. In truth, he of the single eye was not a bad
fellow at heart, after all; the fiery enemy whose advances he had so
often courted that night, had stolen away his good feelings, and set
busy devils at work within him, that might have made his hands do some
dreadful deed, had not the stranger interposed. In a few minutes the
frolic of the party was upon its former footing. The young man sat down
upon one of the benches, with the boy by his side, and while the rest
were loudly laughing and talking, they two convers'd together. The
stranger learn'd from Charles all the particulars of his simple story
— how his father had died years since — how his mother work'd hard
for a bare living — and how he himself, for many dreary months, had
been the servant of a hard-hearted, avaricious master. More and more
interested, drawing the child close to his side, the young man listen'd
to his plainly told history — and thus an hour pass'd away.
It was now past midnight. The young man told Charles that on the
morrow he would take steps to relieve him from his servitude — that
for the present night the landlord would probably give him a lodging at
the inn — and little persuading did the host need for that.
As he retired to sleep, very pleasant thoughts filled the mind of
the young man — thoughts of a worthy action perform'd — thoughts,
too, newly awakened ones, of walking in a steadier and wiser path than
That roof, then, sheltered two beings that night — one of them
innocent and sinless of all wrong — the other — oh, to that other
what evil had not been present, either in action or to his desires!
Who was the stranger? To those that, from ties of relationship or
otherwise, felt an interest in him, the answer to that question was not
pleasant to dwell upon. His name was Langton — parentless — a
dissipated young man — a brawler — one whose too frequent companions
were rowdies, blacklegs, and swindlers. The New York police offices
were not strangers to his countenance. He had been bred to the
profession of medicine; besides, he had a very respectable income, and
his house was in a pleasant street on the west side of the city. Little
of his time, however, did Mr. John Langton spend at his domestic
hearth; and the elderly lady who officiated as his housekeeper was by
no means surprised to have him gone for a week or a month at a time,
and she knowing nothing of his whereabouts.
Living as he did, the young man was an unhappy being. It was not so
much that his associates were below his own capacity — for Langton,
though sensible and well bred, was not highly talented or refined —
but that he lived without any steady purpose, that he had no one to
attract him to his home, that he too easily allow'd himself to be
tempted — which caused his life to be, of late, one continued scene of
dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction he sought to drive away by the
brandy bottle, and mixing in all kinds of parties where the object was
pleasure. On the present occasion he had left the city a few days
before, and was passing his time at a place near the village where
Charles and his mother lived. He fell in, during the day, with those
who were his companions of the tavern spree; and thus it happen'd that
they were all together. Langton hesitated not to make himself at home
with any associate that suited his fancy.
The next morning the poor widow rose from her sleepless cot; and
from that lucky trait in our nature which makes one extreme follow
another, she set about her toil with a lighten'd heart. Ellis, the
farmer, rose, too, short as the nights were, an hour before day; for
his god was gain, and a prime article of his creed was to get as much
work as possible from every one around him. In the course of the day
Ellis was called upon by young Langton, and never perhaps in his life
was the farmer puzzled more than at the young man's proposal — his
desire to provide for the widow's family, a family that could do him no
pecuniary good, and his willingness to disburse money for that purpose.
The widow, too, was called upon, not only on that day, but the next and
It needs not that I should particularize the subsequent events of
Langton's and the boy's history — how the reformation of the
profligate might be dated to begin from that time — how he gradually
sever'd the guilty ties that had so long gall'd him — how he enjoy'd
his own home again — how the friendship of Charles and himself grew
not slack with time — and how, when in the course of seasons he became
head of a family of his own, he would shudder at the remembrance of his
early dangers and his escapes.