I was advised to ditch the first title by wiser heads. Read the first, amended chapter below.
(Martin Dugard in “Killing Lincoln” says Booth didn’t grab a horse at the theater; he’d already rented one and it was waiting. Also that the theater’s bill carrier was nicknamed “Peanut” John, not “Peanuts;” and that Booth knew Grant would not be in attendance because the actor had seen the general and Julia Grant leave DC that day. “Killing Lincoln” is credited to Bill O’Reilly and Dugard. But one is a historian, one a talking head. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one wrote the book.)
It was neither a dark nor stormy night in Washington City, April 14, 1865…
Peter Pike and the Lincoln Love Letters
(Or, Ah Love)
Neal W. Fandek
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
–Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, 1867
Washington City, April 1865
Night enveloped Washington. The wild jubilee after Lee’s surrender four days ago had given way to quiet.
Mostly. A few drunks still wa-hooed! over slimed cobblestones, a few women frowned and hurried and a few others, dressed in far less, stood smiling at the male passersby. Whiskey had flowed like the mighty Mississipp, hundreds of pistols fired into the air, their clamor lost in the explosion of fireworks, newsboys hawking final editions full of details from Appomattox, ragged brass bands playing, army howitzers launching a 500-gun salute which shattered windows all over the city.
The handsome actor strode head down, cursing, not looking where he was going. He turned the corner and almost collided with an older woman in hoops.
She stopped. Looked at him keenly. ‘Why, ‘tis he!’
‘Here now is an afternoonified man. Eh, my dear?’
The woman blushed. So did the speaker, a runt of a man.
Both stared at him. The actor had curling, jet black hair, clear perfect skin, a lean and athletic build, piercing dark eyes. And one hand in his coat pocket, the other in his trouser pocket.
‘Yea, ‘tis I — now let me pass.’
They glanced down. The actor felt their eyes walk all over on him. The short sword was hidden in his coat, the little pistol in his trouser pocket, barrel quite long and thick for such a small weapon, just like that man’s —
No! Not a man at’all. A tyrant. A demon. Worse, an invert.
‘Certainly, sir. And may I say, your last performance as—’
‘You may not, by God.’
They let him pass, mouths open in shock.
No sense at’all, these people. Trampling on the rights and liberties of the South, defecating on the Constitution – These Yankees and their heretical ideas. Freeing the slaves! Were they mad? It was against God. Like him, it was against nature.
He turned onto 10th Street. St. Patrick’s was alight with
gaslight and candles, a hymn wafting loudly and out of tune from open doors. Yankees. Left doors wide open in churches, homes, shops. Why, he’d heard women belaboring menfolk through these selfsame open doors, children talking back to mothers.
What was next, hogs berating horses? Men pulling mules?
Worse. Negroes consorting with white women. Negroes ruling white men.
Heaven called for a restoration of the natural balance!
It was his divine mission. If they only knew what he knew, why—
Three more blocks and he was at the theater. He opened the door and entered. The foyer was deserted, only a few men in Union blue, sash and braids, smoking.
A few soldiers turned and bowed, acknowledging his status as king of this and indeed all theater.
Clara fluttered up.
‘Oh – we weren’t expecting you sir– your box is, we–’ she began.
‘It’s alright my dear,’ he replied.
She blushed to her toes. Silly cock-chafer. Even lovely little Lucy, daughter of abolitionist Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire, blushed and fluttered like a schoolgirl when he entered the room all these months later. Even old Tommy had to admit being engaged to an abolitionist’s daughter was a fine ruse. But he was done with her now. Why, she’d openly consorted with the demon’s son! Lucy, the Confederate gold, the kidnapping plot, all of that was behind him now. He had only one path now. The path of divine righteousness.
‘Miss the hit of the season,’ he continued, ‘Our American Cousin? Have I mail?’
Cousin. A silly, trifling play. Nothing like the thundering Julius Caesar. The third act of Cousin. It must be in the third act, when the audience was a-howl with laughter and no one would hear the shot.
‘O, just one letter today sir.’
He looked at the envelope she handed him, thick writing paper folded over thrice to accept the name and address. In that neat, looping handwriting. Perhaps the most elegant handwriting he’d ever seen, graceful prose flowing from the long fingers and pen of the man who—
No! Not a man. A dictator, a fiend. An invert who sought to convert all to his sin.
Clara was studying him. He looked away, cleared his throat.
‘Thank you, Clara. And how go sales?’
Her smile was slow in dawning.
‘Yes, tolerably well sir – such glorious news from Appomattox! They say that Lee himself has–’
She saw his face and stopped.
‘Terribly sad for the South of course,’ she hurriedly continued. ‘Yet, sir, this event hath not quenched the public’s all-consuming desire for theatricals. ‘Tis not quite sold out tonight, sir, but we fare quite well indeed.’
Wretched woman. The news was terrible from that damned courthouse deep in Virginny. Robert E. Lee surrendering the noble Army of Northern Virginia, to that drunken dwarf of a general Grant. Grant would escape justice. This time. The actor had seen the sot and his wife leave town this very day, carriage piled high with luggage. He’d glared as Grant passed. Grant met his eye coolly and levelly, tapping his cigar.
The world had turned upside down. And this drabtail dared to speak to him about—
‘Sir? Are you feeling alright?’
‘Never better my dear,’ he replied with his most dashing grin. She frowned.
‘Oh, well, then …’ she trailed off, returned to the ticket booth.
He tucked the letter into his coat pocket. Strode softly to the theater door, peeked in. Nearing the end of the second act, those silly vulgarians on stage shouting and hooting in mock British and exaggerated backwoods accents — gutter theater. For Yankee gutter trash.
He strode up the stairs, chest out. If anyone dared to question him, why this was his home. He was the theater.
He walked along the rear wall toward the State Box on the south side of the theater. It was dimmer up here than in the lobby, hotter, too. He saw Abner, nodded.
‘How d’ye do sir?’ he said.
Abner just grunted. In his cups again, like enough.
Six feet or so from the outer door to the box sat two army officers side by side, effectively blockading the aisle. He marched toward them.
‘Give way sirs.’
They gave him hard looks but scooted their chairs out of the way to let him pass.
‘Here now is an ill-bred fellow.’
He ignored them.
Stepping down a level, he paused, removed his slouch hat to wipe the sweat from his brow, leaned against the wall.
He looked down. The house was well filled but not packed, perhaps because it was Good Friday. He could not see the occupants of the box but he knew they were there. The demon and his ugly little wife were in the box, a high-ranking cabinet member too if rumor served. Who knew who else he could free from mortal coils this night to liberate mankind?
He again measured the distance from the hidden box, an elevation of 10 or 11 feet from the stage. A distance of no trifle. But he had made similar leaps from such heights onto such very stages without mishap.
He looked straight down. Yes. He’d have to leap forward or end up in the pit. Even if the orchestra pit was empty, not needed until the play’s conclusion. The actor Harry Hawk, who delivered the play’s funniest line, and the woman would soon be alone on stage. Then.
A very young and stocky man sat before the antechamber to the State Box. He too reeked of alcohol.
The actor took a step down to the level where the man sat. He pulled a small pack of visiting cards from his pocket, selected one, presented it to the flunky.
The flunky’s eyebrows went up.
‘O, I didn’t recognize you Senator — please.’ He motioned the actor to proceed. Frequenting Hale’s house had its benefits.
The door to the box stuck. The actor smiled winningly.
‘These ancient theaters—’
He popped it free with his left knee, entered and closed it behind him.
He stood in an empty corridor about eight feet long and four feet wide that led to the State Box. It was like standing in a coffin. The dim space concealed the plank he’d hidden two days before.
He now wedged one end of the pine board against the door he’d just entered and the other into a mortise in the wall. Anyone attempting to enter would have to break the door down.
Two smaller doors, neither with working locks — the theater was deteriorating by the day, the locks required only the barest tinkering — led into the State Box. He crept through one, gently opened the other.
He now could see into the box. The demonwas theclosest of the four occupants, bundled in an overcoat and seated in a large rocker despite the theater’s pungent warmth. The plump little wife sat close to her huge husband, small hand invisible under his huge one. Those giant icy hands, trailing down his thighs … He felt a flutter in his belly.
The deviant bodyguard Derickson was not in evidence, per plan. Good man. If you could call that creature a man.
The plump little wife wore blue, he black. The actor could only see a slice of the demon’s face. He looked – what? Not happy. He never looked happy. At ease?
For an instant the actor felt a moment of pity. This sad old man.
He shook himself. No! Not a man. A monster!
That sorry excuse for an actor Harry Hawk was screeching, Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old mantrap!
The audience howled with laughter, the mismatched presidential couple too.
The actor opened the door completely, momentarily confused, who was this officer in the box? That was no cabinet member but a mere major.
He pulled the pistol from his pocket anyway.
That man heard the door open. He turned his big shaggy head toward the actor.
And smiled, worn face creasing into a thousand folds.
‘Why it’s Wilky,’ he croaked. His eyes flicked to the pistol. ‘You are too late, sir.’
He turned back to the stage.
The actor fired.
The pistol bucked in his hand and the man’s greasy head jerked toward his chest, blood and tiny bits of skull spraying, right arm flying up convulsively.
He slumped forward in the rocker. The wife screamed.
Dropping the pistol, the actor rushed past the wife to the front of the box.
‘Oh my God, and have I given my husband to die?’ the wife screamed. Her blue silk gown was dappled with blood and brains.
The actor put a boot on the cushioned balustrade, about to leap. The unknown officer wrapped strong arms around the actor from behind.
‘Let go of me, or I will kill you, too!’ the actor yelled.
‘No I will not sir!’
The officer reached higher and clutched the actor’s throat with brawny hand. But years of fencing and gymnasiums had given the actor sinews of steel. He jerked free and as he did so whipped the Bowie sword out.
The officer saw the short sword coming down and threw up his left arm. The blade sliced into the officer’s tunic and arm and he fell away, blood spurting.
The actor stepped onto the balustrade then was airborne, floating onto the stage, short sword held aloft and landing so loudly on the boards it was like a second gunshot. The blade reflected the gaslights like a diamond.
The audience sat stunned.
He felt his limbs. Nothing broken.
He opened his mouth to orate — what was he going to say?
He unstuck his leaden feet, rushed past old Hawk who seemed glued to the spot, to the curtain past four or five cast members in full makeup who gawped at him, was that old agony aunt smiling? Dead silence in the theater. A few nervous titters. Was this part of the performance?
In the box, the officer was on his feet, clutching his blood-sodden arm.
‘Stop that man! Stop him!’
He fled past the British actress Laura Keene and W.J. Ferguson rehearsing their lines at the prompter’s desk. Ferguson saw the sword, gasped and backpedaled. Laura did not, eyes steady on him.
‘What have you done, sir?’
The actor ducked into a narrow passageway leading to the back-alley entrance. It was always kept clear so female actors in full hoops and skirts could pass through to the stage.
A figure in a black swallowtail coat suddenly filled the passage by the exit. It was Withers, the orchestra leader, his back to the actor, chatting up the pretty little actress Jeannie.
‘Let me pass!’
Withers turned, froze. The men collided.
‘I said, Let me pass!’
‘What – why, Johnny, what are you—’
‘Damn you sir!’
The actor sliced at the orchestra leader’s neck and he fell to the floor. The actor leaped over him, banged open the alley door as Jeannie screamed.
A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!
Peanut John, the theater’s bill carrier, moved into the gaslight with the little bay as if on cue. Yes! The gods were smiling upon him. Why, the horse even had a white star on her forehead, acknowledging his heaven-sent mission.
‘Give me my horse!’
The actor seized the reins, flung himself into the saddle, the teenager still holding the bridle.
‘Let go, boy!’
The actor reached down and hit Peanut hard in the chest with the butt of the sword and sent him flying.
The starry bay spun in a circle, spooked by the excitement. Two, three men burst through the door and spilled into the alley.
‘You! Sir! Stop!’
The actor shortened the right rein, forced the bay back and headed her up. Then he dug his bootheels in and she leaped forward, dirt from her hooves flying into the faces of his would-be pursuers as he raced through the brightly lit streets. The rattling of her hooves echoed off the stone buildings.
He had done it! With one shot from one pistol. Done what great armies armed with thousands of muskets and cannons clashing by day and night had been unable to do, free the South. One bullet! Fired by one true son of liberty into one foul monster to right these monstrous evils. One noble act that would ring through the ages and make his name a blazing beacon of freedom forevermore!
But his line, the greatest line in all history, he’d muffed his line —
Sic semper tyrannus! The very motto of the Richmond Grays. Damnation!
No one noticed Peanut picking himself up from the cobblestones and tucking the letter into his tunic.