Yet, he also recalled that lovely spring day when he had been speaking with his oldest son, Charles, now 17, about the possibility of civil war.
“I know that Lincoln has promised not to attack first,” Charles was saying, but, with the way the south is now, don't you think civil war is a distinct possibility?”
“No Son, I don't.” he had replied. “If anyone can unite this country, President Lincoln can.”
But just then, they had heard the news boy outside, ringing his bell and yelling out the news of war. “Rebels attack Fort Sumter. War is declared! Read all about it!” He had sent Charles out to buy the paper and had slumped back in his chair, greatly disappointed. He had thought that surely Lincoln would be able to keep the country united and avoid war. He had slumped further down in his armchair and dozed off to sleep.
It was two and a half months later, and he had again been talking with Charles, when the news came of Union defeat.
He had been telling Charles “It looks like we have a good chance of winning the war.”
“Yes, Father.” Charles had replied. “Perhaps this stupid war will be over soon.”
“Let's hope so, Son.”
But just then, they had heard again the newsboy's bell and the boy yelling out the headlines: “Union forces routed at Carthage. General Sigel withdraws. Read all about it.”
“Oh no!” he had sighed. “It looks like it's going the other way.” Again he had gone into his study and had slumped down in his easy chair. Again he had begun to doze off.
It had been unseasonably hot that July, and Fanny had decided to trim the heavy locks of their seven year old daughter, Edith's hair. Dozing off, he had been able to faintly hear them speaking in the adjacent room.
“But, mother, I don't feel hot, really.”
“Believe me, Edith, you'll feel a lot better without all that hair. Let me just trim off a few of these locks.”
“Well, alight mother, but could you be quick about it? I want to go out and play.”
At this point, he was in dreamland. He hadn’t heard Fanny say, “There, that's perfect, and these locks are so perfect that I think I'll save one for posterity,” or Edith ask: “O.K. Mother, can I go out and play now?” He hadn’t heard Fanny remark as she heated the wax to seal the envelope, “Yes, dear, but change into your play clothes first.”
“Must I mother?” the child had replied, still unheard by the slumbering Henry. Fanny had been about to answer, when, perhaps because of the distraction of Edith's question, some of the hot drops of wax had fallen unseen onto her dress. Then, as if on signal from an unseen evil force, a boisterous breeze had blown through the open window and set the smoldering dress aflame.
“Oh, mother, mother! Your dress is on fire!” had yelled Alice Mary, who’d been standing in the doorway, watching the whole procedure. In an effort to protect her young daughters from the flames, Fanny had rushed, screaming into her husband's study.
He had awakened with a start, yelling, “What in the world? O my God, Fanny!” He had first tried to extinguish the flames with a rug, and when that had failed he had begun to throw his body onto his wife, severely burning his face, arms and hands, yelling all the while.
By now all the children had gathered and begun yelling hysterically as well. Then Charles had yelled out, “Silence! We will get nowhere by panicking. You other children lead them to their bedroom, while I go for Doc. Buridge.”
Soon Charles was back with the doctor. Henry had lain there in pain, as the doctor applied the ointment to him and to his wife beside him.
When he had awakened the next morning, she was still beside him. She had asked for a cup of coffee. Charles had brought it to her. She had drunk it and lain back in the bed. An hour later she was gone. Henry had called her name, but she had not answered. He had gotten up and tired shaking her, but there had been no response. He had gazed in disbelief and shock at her lifeless body.
He had asked God a thousand times since that fateful day, why. Why had she been taken from him when he felt he needed her so? Or why had he not died along with her? But, he realized that this was just selfish thinking. If he were gone too, who would take care of the children?
He had tried to forget about her and the terrible fire, first by turning to laudanum and ether, which he obtained from the nearby apothecary. They had also helped to ease the pain from the burns, but he’d soon found himself becoming too dependent on these substances and had realized that they could also leave him helpless at times to tend to the children when they most needed him. So he had decided to stop the drugs and to start a new writing project instead. He had come up with what he thought was a good idea for a new book--a group of poems centered around a wayside inn. The burns had begun to heal and be less painful, and his concentrated effort on his new writing project had helped him forget about the fire and his loss for a while. But, then the awful memories would come flooding back.
This Christmas season, 1861, the house seemed especially empty even with the cheery voices of the children. They had somehow gotten over their mother's death. Children are somehow more pliable than adults—they bounce back easier. He felt he would never get over it. And now that it was Christmas time again, he thought it may never really be Christmas again without her.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish