One Wicked Impulse! by Walt Whitman
That section of Nassau street which runs into the great mart of New
York brokers and stock-jobbers, has for a long time been much occupied
by practitioners of the law. Tolerably well-known amid this class some
years since, was Adam Covert, 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
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-temper'd fellow, had some time since pass'd 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. 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. All this
time, while really owning a respectable income, the young orphans often
felt the want of the smallest sum 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 possess'd 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 thenceforward
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 return'd to New York, after an absence of several
weeks on the business of a mercantile house in whose employment he had
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 announc'd a visitor, and directly afterward young Marsh
enter'd the room. His face exhibited a peculiar pallid appearance that
did not strike Covert at all agreeably, and he call'd his clerk from an
adjoining room, and gave him something to do 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," answer'd the
lawyer; "indeed, I don't know that I have any leisure to talk at all,
for just now I am very much press'd 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 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 suppress'd
"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 roam'd to and fro without any
object or destination. Along South street and by Whitehall, he watch'd
with curious eyes the movements of the shipping, and the loading and
unloading of cargoes; and listen'd to the merry heave-yo of the sailors
and stevedores. 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 the various differences in the apparel of a gang of
wharf-laborers — turn'd over in his brain whether they receiv'd 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 Covert.
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, order'd something for his supper, which, when it was
brought to him, he merely tasted, and stroll'd forth again. There was a
kind of gnawing sensation of thirst within him yet, and as he pass'd 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 thunderstorm had just commenced. He resolutely walk'd on,
however, although at every step it grew more and more blustering.
The rain now pour'd 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 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 form'd 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 reveal'd to him that the opposite corner
of the nook was tenanted also.
"A sharp rain, this," said the other occupant, who simultaneously
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 commonplace reply, and waited for another 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 bitter words Covert had spoken to her; he
reflected, too, on the injuries Esther as well as himself had receiv'd,
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 seem'd 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 imaginations)
appear'd to have provided a fitting scene and time for a deed of
retribution, which to his disorder'd passion half wore the semblance of
a divine justice. He remember'd 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 influence came over Philip with startling quickness
at that horrid moment. He stepp'd 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
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. I have never done wrong to either — that I can say, and swear
"Insolent liar!" exclaimed Philip, his eye flashing out sparks of
fire in the darkness.
Covert made no reply except a cool, contemptuous laugh, which stung
the excited young man to double fury. He sprang upon the lawyer, and
clutch'd him by the neckcloth.
"Take it, then!" he cried hoarsely, for his throat was impeded by
the fiendish rage which in that black hour possess'd him. "You are not
fit to live!"
He dragg'd 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
In the unearthly pause which follow'd, 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
It was as if some accusing spirit had come down to bear witness
against the deed of blood. Leaning far out of an open window, appear'd
a white draperied shape, its face possess'd 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 noonday. 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 circumstance of the time, fill'd 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.
When the corpse of the murder'd lawyer was found in the morning,
and the officers of justice commenced their inquiry, suspicion
immediately fell upon Philip, and he was arrested. The most rigorous
search, however, brought to light nothing at all implicating the young
man, except his visit to Covert's office the evening before, and his
angry language there. That was by no means enough to fix so heavy a
charge upon him.
The second day afterward, the whole business came before the
ordinary judicial tribunal, in order that Philip might be either
committed for the crime, or discharged. The testimony of Mr. Covert's
clerk stood alone. One of his employers, who, believing in his
innocence, had deserted him not in this crisis, had provided him with
the ablest criminal counsel in New York. The proof was declared
entirely insufficient, and Philip was discharged.
The crowded court-room made way for him as he came out; hundreds of
curious looks fixed upon his features, and many a jibe pass'd upon him.
But of all that arena of human faces, he saw only one — a sad, pale,
black-eyed one, cowering in the centre of the rest. He had seen that
face twice before — the first time as a warning spectre — the second
time in prison, immediately after his arrest — now for the last time.
This young stranger — the son of a scorn'd race — coming to the
court-room to perform an unhappy duty, with the intention of testifying
to what he had seen, melted at the sight of Philip's bloodless cheek,
and of his sister's convulsive sobs, and forbore witnessing against the
murderer. Shall we applaud or condemn him? Let every reader answer the
question for himself.
That afternoon Philip left New York. His friendly employer own'd a
small farm some miles up the Hudson, and until the excitement of the
affair was over, he advised the young man to go thither. Philip
thankfully accepted the proposal, made a few preparations, took a
hurried leave of Esther, and by nightfall was settled in his new abode.
And how, think you, rested Philip Marsh that night? Rested indeed!
O, if those who clamor so much for the halter and the scaffold to
punish crime, could have seen that sight, they might have learn'd a
lesson there! Four days had elapsed since he that lay tossing upon the
bed there had slumber'd. Not the slightest intermission had come to his
awaken'd and tensely strung sense, during those frightful days.
Disturb'd waking dreams came to him, as he thought what he might do
to gain his lost peace. Far, far away would he go! The cold roll of the
murder'd man's eye, as it turn'd up its last glance into his face —
the shrill exclamation of pain — all the unearthly vividness of the
posture, motions, and looks of the dead — the warning voice from above
— pursued him like tormenting furies, and were never absent from his
mind, asleep or awake, that long weary night. Anything, any place, to
escape such horrid companionship! He would travel inland — hire
himself to do hard drudgery upon some farm — work incessantly through
the wide summer days, and thus force nature to bestow oblivion upon his
senses, at least a little while now and then. He would fly on, on, on,
until amid different scenes and a new life, the old memories were
rubb'd entirely out. He would fight bravely in himself for peace of
mind. For peace he would labor and struggle — for peace he would pray!
At length after a feverish slumber of some thirty or forty minutes,
the unhappy youth, waking with a nervous start, rais'd himself in bed,
and saw the blessed daylight beginning to dawn. He felt the sweat
trickling down his naked breast; the sheet where he had lain was quite
wet with it. Dragging himself wearily, he open'd the window. Ah! that
good morning air — how it refresh'd him — how he lean'd out, and
drank in the fragrance of the blossoms below, and almost for the first
time in his life felt how beautifully indeed God had made the earth,
and that there was wonderful sweetness in mere existence. And amidst
the thousand mute mouths and eloquent eyes, which appear'd as it were
to look up and speak in every direction, he fancied so many invitations
to come among them. Not without effort, for he was very weak, he
dress'd himself, and issued forth into the open air.
Clouds of pale gold and transparent crimson draperied the eastern
sky, but the sun, whose face gladden'd them into all that glory, was
not yet above the horizon. It was a time and place of such rare, such
Eden-like beauty! Philip paused at the summit of an upward slope, and
gazed around him. Some few miles off he could see a gleam of the Hudson
river, and above it a spur of those rugged cliffs scatter'd along its
western shores. Nearer by were cultivated fields. The clover grew
richly there, the young grain bent to the early breeze, and the air was
filled with an intoxicating perfume. At his side was the large
well-kept garden of his host, in which were many pretty flowers, grass
plots, and a wide avenue of noble trees. As Philip gazed, the holy
calming power of Nature — the invisible spirit of so much beauty and
so much innocence, melted into his soul. The disturb'd passions and the
feverish conflict subsided. He even felt something like envied peace of
mind — a sort of joy even in the presence of all the unmarr'd
goodness. It was as fair to him, guilty though he had been, as to the
purest of the pure. No accusing frowns show'd in the face of the
flowers, or in the green shrubs, or the branches of the trees. They,
more forgiving than mankind, and distinguishing not between the
children of darkness and the children of light — they at least treated
him with gentleness. Was he, then a being so accurs'd? Involuntarily,
he bent over a branch of red roses, and took them softly between his
hands — those murderous, bloody hands! But the red roses neither
wither'd nor smell'd less fragrant. And as the young man kiss'd them,
and dropp'd a tear upon them, it seem'd to him that he had found pity
and sympathy from Heaven itself.
Though against all the rules of story-writing, we continue our
narrative of these mainly true incidents (for such they are,) no
further. Only to say that the murderer soon departed for a new field of
action — that he is still living — and that this is but one of
thousands of cases of unravel'd, unpunish'd crime — left, not to the
tribunals of man, but to a wider power and judgment.