Advent Stories: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1863

Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow

The older brother is the mature, responsible one, the younger carefree and reckless. That’s what everyone says.

But not in my family. One look at our family photograph, taken when my mother was still alive, and you can see at a glance: Ernest, the small, timid, logical one who preferred books to athletics. And next to him, favoring the viewer with a smile despite the photographer’s warning to the contrary, Charley, the golden boy, the ace scholar and champion sportsman…and now the Union army lieutenant.

Well, he was a lieutenant, anyway.

It’s been 25 days since we received the telegram that every family dreads. I remember that clearly because it came on December 1, the first day of Advent, the season of expectation. It sounds terrible to say, but I’d been expecting the news ever since we heard the causalities from Antietam. Our boys, our Boston-raised, tried-and-true Yankee boys cut down by the hundreds, thousands even.

But I didn’t expect Charley’s first letter, tossed on the table like an afterthought over a year ago. Father’s hands trembled as he read it. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.” That’s what Charley said when he ran off to join the Union army, as if he was compelled by an irrepressible instinct and couldn’t help himself. Then he went on about duty and love of country and sacrifice.

Even then, at sixteen, I knew it’s not the son who leaves who sacrifices. It’s the one who stays.

The telegram informed my father that a reporter friend of his had chanced upon Charley among the wounded in a Virginia hospital.

Of course, Father wanted to go to the capital right away, where the worst cases were being taken. I left my classes in military engineering to go with him, battling miserable December weather to scrounge a ticket on a late-night steamboat from Fall River to Washington City.

At least the prodigal son had the decency to come home and save his father and brother the trip.

Do you know how many times I wanted to blurt that out, every hour that the swaying of the steamboat and the muttering of the other passengers kept us awake? But I didn’t, not once, because I’m the son who cares about what his words and actions do to our father.

I just moved his armchair closer to one of the lounge’s small stoves and prayed. Not that Charley would live, but that Father would.

I’d only seen him so distraught once before, when my mother died. You’ve probably heard the gossip about it. I still hear whispers trailing us at social events. “Didn’t you know?” “A tragic accident.” “And her girls so young, poor things.” “He was quite devoted to her. Imagine, the most celebrated poet in America, and he hasn’t written a line of verse since.” “He’s got burns, you know, from trying to put out the fire. But it was too late.”

That’s why Father grew out his beard, not an aspiration toward a more scholarly look or the transcendental fashion that demands facial hair be unruly enough to support multiple birds’ nest. No. Father only wanted to hide his scars and the memories that came with them. But some scars are too deep. If we heard the news that Charley had died in battle…it might be the final crushing blow to a tired old poet’s heart.

Once off the steamboat, we made it to the War Office, where no one knew of Charles Appleton Longfellow or his unit or the entire battle—apparently it was classified as a “skirmish,” leaving it in a disordered mess of forgotten records. But if he were to be anywhere, the clerk informed us, they’d take him or his body to the station at Alexandria.

So there we went, every day for three days, passing up and down the line of bleeding, rotting men, limp on pallets packed into boxcars, calling out for water or mercy, whichever you had on hand to give.

After three days, we found him, barely alive, but breathing. Father rushed him to receive the best medical care to be found in Washington City, while we were put up in a hotel with hot meals and a servant to run a flat-iron of coals under the sheets before we retired for the night

Outside, just miles to the south, the cannons kept sounding and shrapnel tore through flesh and other sons and brothers breathed their last.

While Charley slept, peacefully, ready to go home.

It’s not as if I wanted him to die. I was relieved to find him alive. Just…surprised. The way he left home, I never expected him to come back. Not the punishment of God, exactly. At least, I wouldn’t put it that way around Father. It’s just the way war is, the terrible toll it’s taken.

Charley thought it would a lark, an adventure, a response to the taunting of his friends who had enlisted to skirmish with those know-it-all Southerners and be back home with medals and glory in a few months.

It’s been over three years. The war isn’t over, and for all I know, it never will be. We’ll just go on fighting and fighting until the Mason-Dixon line is nothing more than a boundary between two graveyards.

I apologize for my dark mood on a holiday, of all times. But it hasn’t been our usual merry celebration, although Father made an effort for the girls’ sake. Charley is convalescing in the parlor, shivering though the fireplace is at full heat, the servants tossing in enough wood to put Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace to shame. I’m surprised my father can stand it, not when this time of year already reminds him of Mother. That must be why he keeps pacing before the hearth, eyes alight for any sparks that might fly out and light on a rug or the fringe of a curtain.

But he can’t have been at Charley’s bedside all day, because he also wrote a poem. I have it here, the ink barely dry.

It’s been years since he’s written one. Everyone knows that. Ever since…well, he’s only translated. Academic routine was always very comforting for Father. His major project was linguistic work on Dante’s Inferno of all things.

No poetry. Only fire.

Until today. I found it on his desk, after dinner, when the girls were playing with their presents. A Christmas poem. Here is part of it:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 

It’s plain, simple verse, the sort destined for an anthology for children or perhaps a sentimental holiday edition of Harper’s Magazine. Not that I’m an expert—I’m more apt to draw up architectural designs—but even I can’t miss the innocence of it.

And yet…he wrote himself into the poem. He wrote Charley. He might have even written me.

Will the wrong fail and the right prevail? At the end of all things, I suppose, is the good Christian answer. Before then…I can’t say, but I rather doubt it, though I hope it will. I’ve always been the realist of the family. “A realist is a pessimist who won’t admit to it.” That was Charley’s quip, with an accompanying grin when he couldn’t argue against my logic about why his latest rash scheme would fail.

He was always the optimist, the idealist, the one who hoped even when times were dark. He would love this poem.

That’s one thing I hadn’t thought of: if he’d died, there would have been much left unresolved between us.

Perhaps I’ll go and read it to him, if he’s still awake. After all, it’s Christmas night. Still time left to bring a bit of good-will to men and say welcome home.

(This is the second in a series of narratives based on the true origins of beloved Christmas carols. To read past narratives, go here.)

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