The Story of a Year

One of the earliest pieces published by the author, who was 21 years old at the time

A Union soldier with the tattered colors of the Eighth Pennsylvania Infantry (Corbis)

Henry James was 18 when the war broke out, but his father was protective of his shy second child and urged him not to enlist in the Union army. Instead James enrolled in law school, dropped out, and began to focus on his writing.

As of 1864, only one of his short stories had yet seen print—in an obscure New York publication. Setting his sights higher, he decided to try The Atlantic. He feared rejection, however, and asked the editors to send their response to a friend’s address so that his family (especially his older brother, William, who was wont to tease) wouldn’t see it. To his delight, the piece was accepted, and “The Story of a Year”—about the fate of a couple who get engaged just before the young man heads off to fight in Virginia—appeared in the March 1865 issue.

James’s relationship with The Atlantic would prove long and fruitful: in the years to come, he would contribute numerous reviews, travel essays, and stories, and the magazine would serialize such classics as Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady.
—Sage Stossel

My story begins as a great many stories have begun within the last three years, and indeed as a great many have ended; for, when the hero is despatched, does not the romance come to a stop?

In early May, two years ago, a young couple I [knew] of strolled homeward from an evening walk, a long ramble among the peaceful hills which inclosed their rustic home. Into these peaceful hills the young man had brought, not the rumor, (which was an old inhabitant,) but some of the reality of war,—a little whiff of gunpowder, the clanking of a sword; for, although Mr. John Ford had his campaign still before him, he wore a certain comely air of camp-life which stamped him a very Hector to the steady-going villagers, and a very pretty fellow to Miss Elizabeth Crowe, his companion in this sentimental stroll. And was he not attired in the great brightness of blue and gold which befits a freshly made lieutenant? …

These young people, I say, had been roaming. It was plain that they had wandered into spots where the brambles were thick and the dews heavy,—nay, into swamps and puddles where the April rains were still undried. Ford’s boots and trousers had imbibed a deep foretaste of the Virginia mud; his companion’s skirts were fearfully bedraggled. What great enthusiasm had made our friends so unmindful of their steps? What blinding ardor had kindled these strange phenomena: a young lieutenant scornful of his first uniform, a well-bred young lady reckless of her stockings? …

Elizabeth (as I shall not scruple to call her outright) was leaning upon her companion’s arm, half moving in concert with him, and half allowing herself to be led, with that instinctive acknowledgment of dependence natural to a young girl who has just received the assurance of lifelong protection …

They made their way up a long swelling mound, whose top commanded the sunset. The dim landscape which had been brightening all day to the green of spring was now darkening to the gray of evening …

Ford and Elizabeth had quietly watched this great mystery of the heavens.

“That is an allegory,” said the young man, as the sun went under, looking into his companion’s face, where a pink flush seemed still to linger: “it means the end of the war. The forces on both sides are withdrawn. The blood that has been shed gathers itself into a vast globule and drops into the ocean.”

“I’m afraid it means a shabby compromise,” said Elizabeth. “Light disappears, too, and the land is in darkness.”

“Only for a season,” answered the other. “We mourn our dead. Then light comes again, stronger and brighter than ever. Perhaps you’ll be crying for me, Lizzie, at that distant day.”

“Oh, Jack, didn’t you promise not to talk about that?” says Lizzie, threatening to anticipate the performance in question …

“Jack,” said she, after a pause, “I wonder how you ’ll look when you get back.”

Ford’s soberness gave way to a laugh.

“Uglier than ever. I shall be all incrusted with mud and gore. And then I shall be magnificently sun-burnt, and I shall have a beard.”

“Oh, you dreadful!” and Lizzie gave a little shout. “Really, Jack, if you have a beard, you’ll not look like a gentleman.”

“Shall I look like a lady, pray?” says Jack …

“You’ve a very nice chin, my dear, and I think it’s a shame to hide it.”

“Yes, I know my chin’s handsome; but wait till you see my beard.”

“Oh, the vanity!” cried Lizzie, “the vanity of men in their faces!” …

“If anything happens to me, you’ll take comfort, won’t you?”

“Never!” said Lizzie, tremulously.

“Oh, but you must … Who am I that you should cry for me?”

“You are the best and wisest of men. I don’t care; you are.”

“Thank you for your great love, my dear. That’s a delightful illusion. But I hope Time will kill it, in his own good way, before it hurts any one. I know so many men who are worth infinitely more than I—men wise, generous, and brave—that I shall not feel as if I were leaving you in an empty world.”

“Oh, my dear friend!” said Lizzie, after a pause, “I wish you could advise me all my life.”

“Take care, take care,” laughed Jack; “you don’t know what you are bargaining for” …

They turned southward and went jolting down the hill.

“Do you mind this talk, Lizzie?” asked Ford.

“No,” said Lizzie, swallowing a sob, unnoticed by her companion in the sublime egotism of protection; “I like it.”

“Very well,” said the young man, “I want my memory to help you. When I am down in Virginia, I expect to get a vast deal of good from thinking of you” …

“And pray what am I to do,” resumed Lizzie … “while you are marching and countermarching in Virginia?”

“Your duty, of course,” said Jack, in a steady voice … “I think you will find the sun will rise in the east, my dear, just as it did before you were engaged.”

“I’m sure I didn’t suppose it wouldn’t,” says Lizzie.

“By duty I don’t mean anything disagreeable, Liz,” pursued the young man. “I hope you’ll take your pleasure, too. I wish you might go to Boston, or even to Leatherborough, for a month or two.”

“What for, pray?”

“What for? Why, for the fun of it: to ‘go out,’ as they say.”

“Jack, do you think me capable of going to parties while you are in danger?”

“Why not?” …

“I wonder what your mother will say to the news” …

“I think for the present our engagement had better be kept quiet.”

Lizzie’s heart sank with a sudden disappointment …

“You see, I think secrecy would leave us much freer,” said Jack,—“leave you much freer” …

“I don’t entirely understand you” …

“There’s no telling what may happen, Lizzie. I want you to marry me with your eyes open. I don’t want you to feel tied down or taken in. You’re very young, you know. You’re responsible to yourself of a year hence. You’re at an age when no girl can count safely from year’s end to year’s end” …

Before many minutes they drew near home. There stood Mrs. Ford at the garden-gate, looking up and down the road, with a letter in her hand.

“Something for you, John,” said his mother, as they approached. “It looks as if it came from camp.—Why, Elizabeth, look at your skirts!”

“I know it,” says Lizzie, giving the articles in question a shake. “What is it, Jack?”

“Marching orders!” cried the young man. “The regiment leaves day after to-morrow. I must leave by the early train in the morning.”

Read the full text of this story here.