George VanArsdale had all too briefly tasted the camaraderie and bonhomie, the brotherhood, of Army membership. But then he'd been singled out, left out, and then at the next depot, cast out. Army membership had tasted delicious, but after Adam Van Houten had outed George on the train, everything had turned sour. For the remainder of the ride to the next depot, he had had to endure the laughter and jibes of the volunteers. And at the smithy, he underwent more of the same, until the event's humor wore off and the smithy visitors moved on to other entertainment sources.
The newspapers were now reporting that the Confederate army had escaped, was now back in Virginia again, with Meade's army dogging the rebels' movements. It was galling not to be part of it.
In church, once again, Reverend Wyeth mentioned George's name during a prayer. "O Lord, thank you for bringing our beloved young friend, George VanArsdale, back into our midst. At the same time, we are sad for him that his enlistment did not go as planned, and we pray that, in time, you will see fit to help him to achieve his goal."
After church, out front, Clarissa brightly said to George, in a voice designed to be heard by numerous others (including her family and Rev. and Mrs. Wyeth), "George, you simply must come calling today!" George did not want to embarrass her. He could not refuse. Besides, overlooking some of Clarissa's episodes of misbehavior, he mostly enjoyed his visits with her. George and Clarissa shared common interests. They had viewed stereoscopic photos together. They had had enjoyable discussions about the popular books of the time, especially Uncle Tom's Cabin. Occasionally they even talked about something Reverend Wyeth had said in church. So it should not be too surprising that he accepted Clarissa's invitation.
At the Fallons', Clarissa welcomed him in the same bright manner she had used after church. That was for her mother's benefit. As soon as Clarissa had George to herself in the parlor, she fairly hissed, "I was so embarrassed!"
"What do you have to be embarrassed about?"
"My beau, thrown out of the Army! What must people think of me now? Do you never consider how your actions reflect on me?"
"I fail to see how anything I do could possibly impact people's opinions of you. Since I make such a negative reflection on you, perhaps it would be better if we simply stop seeing one another." George stood.
Clarissa grabbed George's hands and put on a fake smile. "Dear George, now, don't say such things!" She pulled him back to his seat, then started putting some cake on a dessert plate. "I must apologize, by the way, for the silly way I acted before you went away." She handed him the plate, and said, "It must have been terrible for you, to be turned away by the Army."
George swallowed and said, "Yes." He took another bite.
He had had too few sympathetic ears of late. His pent-up thoughts needed to crystallize, and her opening was not unwelcome. "There was a fellow from back in Caton. He told the sergeant I was under eighteen."
"Why would he do that?"
"He always disliked me."
"Now how could anyone dislike you, dear George!"
"They tore up my enlistment, made me get off the train at the next stop."
"How did you get back so quickly?"
"An officer arranged a return ticket for me."
"Well. That was thoughtful, at least."
"Waiting for the train, I felt so frustrated. It was so unfair! If only Adam had not been on the train..."
"That's the fellow who told them you were underage?"
George nodded. "Then the anger wore off, and I felt just sad, like I was unworthy."
"My poor, dear George."
"On the train coming back, there were several returning soldiers. Mostly wounded fellows, going home for good, or going home to heal. Most of them didn't want to talk, but one fellow did. He said his name was Shad. He didn't say much, really, but it was the way he talked, the way he looked. I could tell he had been through a terrible battle, seen terrible things. Done brave things. But he would never say so. I admire him greatly for that. He went through hell on earth..." Clarissa gasped. "... he endured and fought for the honor of our country, fought to end slavery, and yet he's just a man. After his wound heals, he'll live a humble life, yet what he did was part of a God-ordained fight to right terrible evil. Still, though, the look in his eyes haunts me. He didn't so much look at me as through me. I saw that look on other veterans, too. It must be because of what they've done. What they've seen."
Clarissa's eyes had glazed over during George's talk of a humble life, but now that George's words were turning dark again, Clarissa became encouraged. "Don't speak of such things, George." She tried to take his hands and pull them to her, but George would have none of it.
George took in a breath and said, his eyes on some distant point, "I have to try again."
"Not right away, surely? You are just sixteen. You will be eligible in two years. In the meantime, we can plan a proper engagement and wedding."
George put his plate down. The fork was heavy and made a loud clank on the plate, which he regretted. "You misunderstand. I plan to lie about my age."
"To get married? There's no need..."
"I mean, I plan to enlist at the earliest opportunity, and this time I will not be sent home." He took a deep breath. "Also, I am not ready to propose marriage at this time."
"But George, many people get married at our age..."
"No, that's not..."
"You mean because you are an apprentice? That's temporary. I have faith in your prospects..."
"I mean, I cannot contemplate matrimony, not while this war is unresolved and slavery still exists in our country."
Tears began to flow down Clarissa's cheeks. George was helpless to stop her crying, and he left not long after. He thought again of Lottie Howe, back in Caton. He wished ... but no use wishing. He had left Caton behind him. There was no going back.
* * *