Amherst, Massachusetts. September 5, 1862.
Professor Newton Manross walked slowly up a street lined with elm trees, a newspaper clutched in his hand. It was a brilliant day, a cool breeze stirring the trees and his full, reddish brown beard. The new uniform he wore still felt strange. Tight around the waist and heavy on his shoulders. He wondered if he would grow accustomed to it.
He hesitated a moment as he climbed the hill to turn and take in the view of the town below him. Streets filled with carriages lined the village common. At the far end of the Green stood the towers and spires of Amherst College. His throat tightened.
He could still recall William’s letter: My dear Manross, I am truly delighted to learn that you are to occupy my chair at Amherst. Believe no stories as to what Professor Clark said or did, but keep your dish right side up with care. Write me often. He looked down to the newspaper in his hand and again read the headline. “Another Hero Gone.” He swallowed hard, then spun and strode towards the white house at the top of the hill.
He reached the house, glanced at its elegant pillars and the verandah where he had sat and shared so many conversations with William. Taking a deep breath, he opened the front gate and stepped up the verandah steps to the door. He knocked.
The door was answered by little Emily Clark. The numb confusion on her face suddenly forced the realization that all this was truly happening. Not just a headline.
His eyes filled with tears as he dropped the newspaper and scooped the girl into his arms. “Mellie, where is your mother?”
“She’s with Auntie in the parlor. Uncle Newton, they’re upset, and I don’t know what’s wrong.”
As he struggled to find an answer, he was relieved to see Sarah Clark, William’s youngest sister, emerge from the parlor. He always remembered Sarah as a handsome woman with long curls and a bold smile. At present, her face was drawn, her eyes red and swollen. “Mellie,” she said, “be a dear and check on Artie for me.”
Manross set the little girl down. Emily frowned, “Yes, Auntie.” Then she scampered up the stairs to the nursery.
Manross cleared his throat, and made one last effort to steady himself. “Sadie,” he said. And then found he could not say anything else.
Sarah’s composure crumbled. To his surprise, she embraced him and wept. “It will mean so much to Harriet to see you,” she said, pulling away from him and wiping at her eyes. “Thank God you could come.”
“I only wish I could remain to do something more for her. My leave has been cut short. The Sixteenth is leaving for Washington immediately.”
She gripped his hands tightly, “You mustn’t tell Harriet that. Oh, Newton, we couldn’t bear to lose you both. Can’t you stay?”
He slipped an arm around her shoulders and began to lead her to the parlor, “Don’t trouble yourself, Sadie. I’ll return soon.”
She looked to him and seemed to struggle to force out words. “We…telegraphed for brother’s…body this morning…”
Manross pressed her more closely to his side as she trailed off. They stepped into the parlor, and Manross tried to manage something of a smile as he saw Harriet. She was seated rigidly, staring out a window at the town beyond. As they entered, she turned to him. Her eyes betrayed no emotion. No tears, no anguish.
“Newton…” she said. And nothing else.
Manross knelt at the side of her chair and took her hand. “Hello, Linnie.”
She managed a slight smile. Then shook her head. “All those Amherst boys in Company H…” she whispered, “The town will never be the same.”
He had planned some words on his walk here. Some trite notions that might bring her some peace. But he could remember none of them now.
She turned to him. Her mouth trembled and he could begin to see the emotion. There was something strange about her expression. Not sadness. More like fear…or guilt. “Newton,” she said, “tell me truly…was it William’s fault? Did he do something wrong?”
“Linnie!” Sarah gasped, “You mustn’t think such things…”
“I simply could not bear it if it was William’s fault. All those Amherst boys…”
“William is a fine officer…” Manross could see Harriet wince and he cursed himself. He considered correcting the statement…to say that William was a fine officer. But he could not do it. “I’m quite sure he did nothing wrong,” he said.
“And now you’re leaving us, too,” Harriet’s voice was thick. She set her hand on his arm and her fingers clenched the blue wool of his uniform. Her grip tightened and it seemed to him she was trying to tear the thick fabric. “Damn this army…” she said with quiet intensity.
Off near the fireplace, Sarah made a small noise of astonishment.
“And damn those rebels…they are fiends incarnate, every one!”
Manross gently pried Harriet’s hand from his arm. “Sadie, please fetch Harriet some water.” As Sarah left the room, Manross spoke softly, “Harriet, you understand that I must leave. I have ignored the call for too long. William understood his duty. And so do I.”
She gripped both his arms, “Newton, please…”
The bell rang. Manross stood and started for the hallway to answer it. But then saw Sarah cross the parlor doorway to answer it first. He could hear conversation, and then Sarah was weeping and shouting loudly. Alarmed, Manross strode for the hall and spotted a young boy in the front doorway holding a piece of paper. With Sarah weeping so, the boy, his eyes full of panic, looked as though he might flee.
Tears ran down her face as Sarah shook her fists at the boy. “This rascal!” she said to Newton. “Oh, this little devil is playing some terrible trick!”
The young boy was panting, “Please, sir, I swear…Mr. Hastings told me to run this here as quick as I could go…I swear…He said it was from Colonel Clark.”
“You see!” Sarah cried, “Oh, you horrible little brute!”
Manross took the telegram from the boy and opened it. Instantly, he felt the gloom vanish from his mind as he read. He laughed, grabbed a distraught Sarah by the hand and pulled her into the parlor.
Harriet stood there, her mouth open, confused.
“Harriet!” Newton laughed, “Harriet, read this!” He gave her the telegram.
She read, then placed a trembling hand over her lips. She read again, this time out loud for Sarah to hear. “Received your request. Still have use for body. Will bring it back in person.”
Harriet looked up to Manross. Her face at first blank. Then something like a sob mixed with laughter escaped her.