In the year 1842, a young man stepped out onto the sandy soil of Beaufort, North Carolina, for the first time. Bookish and lean, with the long distance gaze of one accustomed to the exclusionary comfort of internal thought, Charles French had traveled from the Northeast, venturing south of the Mason Dixon at the behest of one of Beaufort’s most prominent citizens, Dr. James Manney, who sought a tutor for his growing family. For Charles French, the quiet coastal town was a mere stop on the way to greater things, a pause after his graduation from Brown University, where he could regroup, refill his pockets, then retreat back to his studies. Little could he have known, however, that the moment he knocked on the Manneys’ front door, the entire trajectory of his life would be changed.
It’s easy to assume that it was love at first sight. She was beautiful in a way that defied tradition, with dark hair, high cheekbones, and an ineffable Mona Lisa allure—something hidden in the upturned corners of her mouth and devilish cast to her eyes that suggested some ongoing private joke with the world. At twenty-two, Nancy LeCroft Manney was the oldest of the doctor’s children, and was therefore due a significant portion of the new tutor’s time, but the intensity of Charles’s attention and warmth of Nancy’s focus belied the ostensibly innocent relationship of student and teacher. Despite their attempts to hide the affection that swelled between them, Nancy and Charles had obviously fallen in love, and the fact did not go unnoticed by Nancy’s father.
Two years passed with Charles anchored in Beaufort. Though with Nancy as the cynosure of his world, Charles’s aspirations for higher education had drifted out of focus, he knew that if he wanted to win Dr. Manney’s approval, he needed something to offer. Gathering his gumption, Charles turned in his notice, informed the doctor of his plans to return to school, and asked his permission to return for Nancy when he was through. Dr. Manny categorically refused.
Charles, however, was undeterred. He packed his bags and set off to earn the doctor’s approval, leaving Nancy with the promise to write often and return for her as soon as possible. Charles was true to his word: letter after letter arrived at the post office addressed to Nancy—but they went no farther. Beaufort was a small town, and Dr. Manney’s connections ran deep. The Postmaster, also the doctor’s son-in-law, was under strict orders to hold and keep secret all correspondence between Nancy and Charles.
The following months were wrought with anxiety on both sides. Despite the fact that Nancy made weekly inquiries at the post office, she had no way of knowing that a growing stack of letters was hidden beneath the postmaster’s desk. And despite the fact that Charles wrote diligently, he had no way of knowing that Nancy’s silence was due to ignorance, not neglect. Eventually, Charles resigned himself to the apparent fact that Nancy’s affection must have withered beneath her father’s displeasure or in the light of another love. He threw himself into his career, counterbalancing heartache with the diversionary power of hard work.
Despite his vocational success, however, or the fact that he eventually married another, his love for Nancy never subsided. In 1885 Charles—now sixty-five, a widower, and the Chief Justice of Arizona Territory—found his thoughts drifting back to his first love and the tiny little Southern town by the sea.
The pretense of his letter was innocent enough. Forty years had passed since Charles had laid foot in Beaufort, and his inquiry into the well-being of a family to whom he was once well connected was not unreasonable. Though it remains unclear as to whether it was the guilt-ridden postmaster himself or the courier of the man’s deathbed confession who answered Charles’s letter, the response that Charles received from Beaufort left little room for confusion. Dr. Manney’s meddling, Nancy’s years of lovelorn heartache, and the urgency with which Charles must return to Beaufort were laid bare. Nancy had waited for him, but she could not wait much longer. She was dying of consumption.
“All that I am, all that I have, and all I hope for in this life, I am ready now to devote to you,” Charles wrote, but their reunion was bittersweet. Though their love was none the less bright for the forty years that had passed—Charles rushed to Beaufort and the pair was married only weeks after—it was fated to be short-lived. Bolstered by her love’s return and strengthened by his presence, Nancy fought valiantly against the fever and fatigue of consumption, but less than two months after their wedding, Nancy passed away. Charles laid her to rest in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground, returned to the Western Territories, and died five years later, closing the final chapter in the improbably tragic, but heartbreakingly true, romance of Nancy Manney.