Read the first chapter below. It was neither a dark nor stormy night in Washington City, April 14, 1865…
Chapter 1: Washington City, April 1865
The handsome actor turned the corner to the theater, almost colliding with a young woman’s hoops.
She stopped. Looked at him keenly. ‘Why, ‘tis he!’
‘Who, my dear?’ said her male companion. ‘Here now is an afternoonified man.’
The woman blushed. So did the speaker, a man. Both stared as he passed. The actor had curling, jet black hair, clear and perfect skin, a lean and athletic build, piercing dark eyes. He had one hand in his coat pocket, the other in his trouser pocket.
He felt the heaviness of the short sword in his coat pocket, the weight of the little pistol in his trouser pocket, barrel long and thick for such a small weapon, just like that man’s —
No! Not a man at’all.
He opened the door and entered the theater. The foyer was deserted, only a few men in sash and braids smoking.
He tried not to stare. Union blue was flattering on an athletic young man’s body.
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–’
‘It’s alright my dear.’
She blushed to her toes. 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. And they were engaged. Even old Tommy had to admit being engaged to an abolitionist’s daughter was a fine ruse.
‘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.
‘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.
With that neat, looping handwriting. Perhaps the most elegant handwriting he’d ever seen, graceful prose skating from the pen of the man who—
No! Not a man. A serpent! A tyrant! Worse, an invert who sought to convert all to sin!
Clara was studying him. He recovered.
‘Thank you, Clara. How go sales?’
Her smile was slow in dawning.
‘Yes, tolerably well sir – such glorious news from Appomattox! They say that Lee–’
She saw his face and stopped.
‘Terribly sad for the South of course,’ she continued hastily. ‘Yet, sir, this event hath not quenched the public’s all-consuming desire for drama. ‘Tis not quite sold out tonight, sir, but we fare quite well.’
The news from that all-fired courthouse deep in Virginny. The great Robert E. Lee surrendering the noble Army of Northern Virginia. To that drunken wretch of a general Grant, no less. The end of the world! 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 gutter Yankee 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?’
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. That tall demon and his ugly little wife, Grant too if rumor served. Who knew who else?
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. When 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 reeked of alcohol.
The actor took another 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 sir — please.’ He motioned the actor to proceed.
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 now 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 growing shabbier 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 beast was theclosest of the four occupants, bundled in an overcoat and seated in a large rocker despite the theater’s warmth. Holding his wife’s hand. Those huge icy hands, trailing down his thighs to…. 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 ugly little wife sat close to her huge husband, small hand invisible under his. The actor could only see a slice of his 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. Not a man. A monster!
They stirred and he looked out at the stage. 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 actor now opened the door completely, the actor monetarily confused, who was this officer in the box? That wasn’t Gen’l Grant but a mere major.
He pulled the pistol from his pocket.
That man heard the door open. He turned his big shaggy head.
And smiled, worn face creasing into a thousand folds.
‘Why it’s Wilky.’
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.
He 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!’
‘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, sword held aloft and landing so loudly on the boards it was like a second gunshot. The blade reflected the gaslights like a diamond.
He opened his mouth to proclaim, what was he going to say?
He felt his limbs. Nothing broken. His mind was a blank.
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 ran to his right 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 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 to 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.
A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!
Peanuts, the theater’s bill carrier, moved into the gaslight with a little bay as if on cue. Yes! The gods were smiling upon him.
‘Give me that horse!’
The actor seized the reins, slung himself into the saddle, the teenager still holding the bridle.
‘Let go, boy!’
The actor reached down and hit Peanuts hard in the chest with the butt of the sword and sent him flying.
The 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 too-brightly lit streets. The rattling of her hooves echoed off the silent buildings.
He had done it! One pistol, 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 the actor’s 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 motto of the Richmond Grays. Damnation!
No one noticed Peanuts picking up the