Authors: Dennis McFarland
A few minutes later, when he returned to the dining room in a fresh shirt, she’d added to the sideboard a soup tureen and dishes of lima beans, potato balls, grapes, and raisins, as well as Mrs. B’s tipsy cake on a glass stand. She said her brief time with Mrs. B had caused her to lose her appetite but that she would sit with him and have half a glass of wine while he ate. Thus the Christmas meal passed quietly but pleasantly enough, and he rediscovered a thing he’d known before: that the familiar wild energy he’d felt earlier could be tamed with overeating. Midmeal, the bell rang, producing in them disparate reactions—his intrigued, hers anxious—but when he went to the door, no one stood on the stoop. Looking into the street, he saw a band of young hooligans, down a ways toward Remsen, going about pulling bell knobs for a prank.
With effusive apologies, Jane interrupted them twice, once to tend the fire in the parlor and again to bring up the coffee from the kitchen, each time reassuring them that she meant to return
to her sister’s bedside, not to worry. They had coffee and cake by the fire in the
parlor and opened their Christmas boxes. Hers from him contained two white handkerchiefs he’d bought on Montague Street, which she claimed to “adore.” His from her contained a silver watch with a fob chain.
“But we agreed not to spend more than ten dollars,” he said, dangling the beautiful shiny thing by the fob.
“It was Papa’s,” she said. “I only had it cleaned and repaired. All this time it was among the things at Mr. Brisling’s offices.”
He turned the crown, then held the watch to his ear—the ticking, how it mimicked something alive, made him feel light-headed.
“By the way,” she said, “Mr. Brisling wants us to stop in after the New Year. Something to do with selling one of Mommy’s properties in Flatbush. I do look forward to the day when we can execute these sorts of things on our own.”
He understood her allusion: he would one day be a lawyer himself, provided of course he survived to study the law.
They were sitting at opposite ends of the green sofa. The candles on the little tree had melted down. The sun had left the windows in the dining room, and the parlor had grown dimmer. When he looked at her, she held his gaze in some meaningful way. At last she said, “You’ve had to grow up very fast, haven’t you, Summerfield? Too fast, I fear.”
“If it’s true of me,” he said, “then surely it’s true of you as well.”
“But I was born grown up,” she said, laughing. “I don’t recall myself as much of a little girl, ever. Do you?”
“No, not really,” he said. “You always seemed impossibly old to me. You would forever be older than I, so whatever age you were … it always seemed unattainable to me.”
“But you,” she said. “You were such an amusing mixture of mischief and good manners … such a boy. Always on the move. Never still for long—until you discovered books, of course. Even then, reading, you would squirm around as if you needed tying down. Or your foot would be twitching, or you’d be drumming with your fingers.”
“You were very observant,” he said, not entirely happy with the path of her conversation. Their mother had been inclined to such wistful reminiscing, and he’d never quite dodged the intimation, when
she did it, that she’d preferred him the way she remembered him, the way he
Sarah leaned forward and took the new handkerchiefs from the table, folded them neatly, and laid them in her lap. “There’s a boy at the school,” she said, “Harmon Fellows, twelve years old. His father was killed last month in Virginia, a place called Payne’s Farm. He was absent from school for a week, and when he returned to the classroom, oh, how he’d aged! No longer a little boy at all.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You see,” she said, “I worry that when boys have to grow up too fast … they can get confused about their feelings.”
Now he reached for his cup, though it was empty. He turned it once in its saucer and then rubbed his hand on the leg of his trousers. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
“I see a great confusion in his eyes,” she said. “He’s caught in a condition that’s neither here nor there … not the boy he was, certainly not yet a man … and I can see that he’s no longer at home inside his skin.”
She paused, gazed into the fire for a moment, and then looked at him again. “He’s carrying an unhappy truth inside himself,” she said. “And one has the feeling he wants, above all else, to escape it.”
She stopped there in what seemed a purposeful way, and he allowed a few seconds to pass in silence. Unable to find his bearings with any confidence, he said, “Well, that would make sense, I suppose.”
She only looked at him but didn’t say anything more. Over the course of the past two weeks, as he’d accustomed himself to her cool withdrawal, he’d thought that if he’d meant to drive a wedge between them, he’d done so by announcing his intentions—the actual war was hardly required. But this, now, whatever it was, lacked the clarity of the wedge.
Thankfully, a new idea came into his head, and to his rescue. He said, “Your Mr. Gilfinian tells me he’s petitioning the school board for increases for all his female teachers.”
He might have sworn she blushed then, but he couldn’t be sure, and at that moment, Jane reappeared at the doors to the dining room,
cupping something in her hands and weeping. “I found it outside the door, in the garden,” she said, in a child’s voice. “Its little heart was still beating, still beating when I first brought it inside.”
Sarah—quickly up and putting her arm around the woman, leading her through the dining room, toward the hall and the stairs to the kitchen—glanced back at him once, as if to express regret, and then she was gone. The candles on the dining room table were still lit; their flames, having bent as the women moved through the room, now stood straight again. He heard Jane’s voice faintly from the kitchen stairs. “The poor thing died in my hands,” she said. “It died in my own hands.”
He had meant to propose a toast to the memory of their parents, and so he went to the dining table, poured an inch of wine into his goblet, and said aloud, “To Mommy and Papa.”
He emptied the glass and poured another inch. “To Papa and Mommy,” he said, and emptied the glass again.
Now he returned to the parlor and paused near the middle of the carpet, just behind the sofa. The handkerchiefs he’d given Sarah were good ones, he told himself, but he wished he’d thought of something more original. He wished they’d not seemed so like a boy’s present to his mother. He wished he could rid himself of the impression that she was growing unnecessarily complicated, that her every word and gesture carried veiled meanings.
She’d asked him to join her yesterday for the Christmas exercises at her school, and since she’d declined every holiday invitation and extended only this one, he’d arranged to leave the office early. The schoolchildren, delightful to the last, gave recitations and sang carols and enjoyed cakes, lemonade, and lady apples. It was sometime during these activities that Mr. Gilfinian, the school’s principal, a clean-shaven energetic man of about thirty, took Summerfield aside and said he wanted him to know that he was petitioning the school board for wage increases for all seven of his female teachers. While he spoke to Summerfield, he appeared to keep one eye on Sarah across the room and from time to time nodded in her direction, as if to imply that he was a champion on her behalf in particular. Summerfield
assured the man that his efforts would be appreciated and refrained from saying that Sarah depended very little upon her teacher’s wages, for even with an increase they wouldn’t support a housemaid.
Among the children, a rumor had somehow got started that he, Summerfield, was Sarah’s betrothed. No fewer than five little girls approached him, flushed and giddy, and asked if he was Miss Hayes’s “fiancé,” a word that apparently bewitched them, its charm undiminished by his negative answer. He began to think that the persistent flow of them was caused by a belief that, with enough repetition of the word, his answer would change. The young boys, for their part, seemed only able to stare at him from a distance and to avert their eyes whenever he happened to catch them at it.
Afterward, on the walk home, Sarah had thanked him for coming but otherwise kept her thoughts to herself. He told her about the little girls and the rumor, which did manage to make her laugh, briefly, though she couldn’t account for it—she said she’d informed the children in advance that it was her brother who would be visiting. He mentioned the boys, too, how they’d stared, and she explained that she’d also told the children that her brother played base ball for one of the city’s most famous clubs.
“But I should think that would have made them want to meet me all the more,” he’d said.
She stopped and placed a hand on each of his arms, as if she meant to instruct him. “Summerfield,” she’d said, giving him a most serious look, “don’t you see? It put you beyond their reach.”
He was still standing near the middle of the carpet in the parlor—recalling that moment with his sister in the street, virtually transported there—when he felt the first wave of nausea go bucking through him. He steadied himself with one hand to the back of the sofa and yanked at his tie with the other.
Now the pace of the evening was to escalate, though with an inverse prolonging effect. He would view much of it as through the bottom of a glass bottle. A remarkably cheerful Dr. Tilbrook would make an appearance after all, at
bedside. Some sort of vile aromatic bitters would be administered. And somehow, as if by an unprecedented miracle, night would fall.
In his room, Sarah and Dr. Tilbrook would agree about the inferiority of the gas they were lately being delivered—it burned faster and provided a poorer light. In hushed tones meant to spare him, he would hear them speak about a small fortune’s worth of perfectly good oysters, thrown out, when all along it had been the sausages. Doubled over in agony and heaving, he would strike his head against the rim of a pan, and he would think of a small gray bird crashing with a thump against a windowpane.
And then, he would open his eyes and see her face as she sat smiling beside him on the bed, holding a cold cloth to his brow. He would think she’d changed her dress, but perhaps she’d only put on an apron over what she’d worn all day. The light in the room would seem an odd mix of gold and pale white. She would catch him glancing at the window and say that, yes, indeed, Christmas Eve’s full moon seemed even brighter a day later, tonight, on Christmas. At his first attempt to speak, his lips would feel as if they were glued shut, but with some effort he would ask his question: “In church today,” he would say, “what did you pray for?”
Her smile would not fade even slightly. “For more than one thing,” she would say.
“But was there a dominant thing?”
“Oh, I think you know.”
“Yes, but I want to hear you say it.”
“All right,” she would say. “I prayed that you might still change your mind. There, I’ve said it. Now try to sleep.”
ATE IN THE AFTERNOON
, Leggett returned to the tent in an even fouler mood than before. Agitated and unhappy about their having to sleep in the Wilderness, he’d left the tent an hour earlier to go scouting and see what he could learn; Hayes surmised from the looks of him that either he’d learned nothing or what he’d learned had failed to please him. The long march, which had taken its toll on everybody, seemed to have shrunken Leggett, and he appeared to Hayes bonier, with sharp angles and a permanent scowl. Now he tore about noisily rearranging everything Hayes had already arranged, sweating,
slinging gear this way and that, and swearing under his breath. Hayes sat on the ground nearby, barefoot and opposite St. Clair, the fellow from Maine with the backgammon set, who’d stopped by for a few games. St. Clair had beat him in every game but one, yet Hayes felt proud, for in that one, he’d executed a near-perfect backgame and taken St. Clair for four points. With a knifelike glower, Leggett dismissed them both as frivolous and stupid, and soon St. Clair leaned across the board and whispered to Hayes, “I think I’d best be on my way.”
Last night, they’d left camp between eleven and midnight, a great raucous migration through darkness. As rumored, the Second Corps was to march down into the fork of land between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, toward Richardsville, and from there on to Ely’s Ford. They went in two columns of two divisions each, splitting the corps in half and advancing along two separate routes, one more southerly than the other. For the first few hours—afforded little light from the stars and a sliver of moon—they could see nothing of their surroundings; in generally fine spirits, happy to be on the move at last, the men brightened the night with laughter and song. But as time wore on, their heavy packs grew heavier, and the march grew quieter. At first light, Hayes saw violets along the edges of the road and the shredded blankets and overcoats discarded by soldiers desperately wanting to reduce their burden. At sunrise, the two columns united near Richardsville, where they slowed to a snail’s pace, moving onward to the Rapidan and the ford.
The day, which started out soft and cool, quickly became hot, more like summer than spring. Once the forward units reached the river and began to cross the canvas pontoon bridge laid by the engineers, what had been a march became a long standing-still wait. Hayes spotted the foxhound Banjo weaving her way through the lines, begging for a scrap. Things picked up a bit midmorning, when the engineers completed their wooden bridge, but it would still be early afternoon before the whole corps got to the other side. When Hayes’s company finally reached the river, Hayes followed Leggett’s lead and waded straight through the waist-deep water, holding his gear over his head.
Also prompted by Leggett, he filled his canteen. On the opposite bank, they passed through a narrow gulley and then had to climb a steep bluff before they reached a table of flatland thick with trees and scrub. Through the woods, on hard-packed paths of mud, they continued to Chancellorsville. Hayes noticed Leggett peering around—into the thicket at his left, then at his right, then up at the overhanging limbs—like a child, awed, moving through a cathedral. When at last they reached their destination, the men, weary and wretched from the long grueling march, were happy to be done for the day. But Leggett threw his gear angrily to the ground. “So here’s where I’ve ended up after all,” he said to Hayes. “Back where I was a year ago. A place I swore I’d never return to.” He removed his hat, wiped his brow with the back of his hand, and looked at Hayes as if Hayes were responsible. “We’ve come this far,” he said. “There’s plenty of daylight left. Why don’t we keep going till we’re out of these godforsaken woods?” And leaving Hayes to pitch the tent and arrange their camp, Leggett had stalked off, determined to find out the reasoning behind the decision to stop in the Wilderness.