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Robert A. Mills

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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

AURA LEE - PART NINE
12/19/2009 6:47:12 AM    [ Flag as Spam or Inappropriate ]

AURA LEE PART NINE

“Lieutenant” Thomas Lincoln, resplendent in his slightly orchidaceous but meticulously tailored uniform, was given, by his parents, on the occasion of his eleventh birthday, a tan and maroon pony; and he named the pony Bayonet. The honorary commission of “lieutenant” in the Union army had been bestowed upon the boy by his father, the President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief, in a ceremony in the second floor President’s Sanctorum, and Tad, as he was always called, stood ramrod straight while Mr. Lincoln pinned the wide white stripe on each epaulet and both sides of his collar.

“Your mother,” the president said, “will have these sewn on later. For now, we’ll affix them with a pin hidden beneath. I’m sure there are officers of higher rank whose commissions are more tenuous than yours.”

Tad nodded, not fully understanding the allusion, and shook his father’s hand. Those in attendance, a coterie of clerks, military advisers, three Supreme Court justices, and Secretary Stanton (whose idea it had been originally) smiled and applauded. Tad, due to his incurable cleft palate and worsening speech impediment, said a quiet “’Ank coo” and ran out of the room to find his pony.

Tad had never been called “Tom” or “Tommy” because Lincoln had inscribed the hypocorism on the boy the day he’d been born. “He reminds me of a tadpole,” the new father chuckled when he first laid eyes on the tiny baby. And Thomas had been called “Tad” from that day forward.

Mary Todd Lincoln did not approve of the name. “If I’d wanted the boy named ‘Tad’, I would have him baptized Theodore. Tad sounds so—miniscule. Really, Abraham, please—call him by his Christian name.”

Lincoln nodded, smiling acquiescence, but never stopped calling him ‘Tad’. Eventually his mother capitulated and by the time he was three, Tad it was and Tad it would remain.

The pony, she was certain, was a parlous gift. Mary did not like horses, and to her a pony was nothing more or less than a horse. “The boy will kill himself on that animal,” she moaned, when Lincoln had earlier told her the birthday gift was on its way to becoming a fait accompli.

Much to the president’s delectation, Tad took to the pony with masculine enthusiasm. He ran across the patch of lawn behind the mansion and mounted the animal “Indian-fashion,” throwing his small body up the left side and over the pony’s bare back, straddling him with spindly legs, grabbing a hank of mane, and shouting: “Yess go, By-yaw-net!”

Bayonet lowered his head and began trotting in the short, jerky steps peculiar to ponies, while the other animals—the goats, the ewes, the pigs, two old cows, and eight chickens—scattered to make a path. Lincoln’s Presidential Mansion, from the rear, might well have dropped from a cloud that had passed over Kentucky or Illinois. It resembled a small farm with its barn and stable and occasional haystacks: a bucolic tableau arising from the humid mist of a swampy bottomland. The incongruity of the White House was lost on few.

Tad was an entrepreneur, perhaps the only one in the family who ever was or would be, his older brother Robert’s eventual rise to commercial fame and glory notwithstanding. He saw many opportunities, even at eleven, to capitalize on being the youngest living son of a seated U.S. President, and when the ten o’clock to one-thirty practice of admitting anyone wishing an audience with Mr. Lincoln was instituted, Tad immediately had visions of substantial sums he might, under the guise of charitable fund-raising, garner to augment his meager allowance of ten cents a week.

“I see my-kin five doll-yers a week doin’ ‘is,” he told his best friend, Alvinas Turner, the old freeman retainer who worked as a butler in the Visitors’ Salon. “Yew inner out?”

“Wass in hit fer me?”

Alvinas Turner was nearly seventy, the top of his black head an unbrushed ball of trampled cotton. He was a former slave, now a freeman, his sovereignty bought and paid for by the lawyer from Illinois who would become president; Turner was released by the demarche of Lincoln’s controversial regard for Negro servitude, and he had attached himself to the family in many capacities over the last thirteen years. When Tad was born, Turner was there. He was a sometime butler, sometime housekeeper, sometime buggy driver, and fulltime bodyguard for young Tad. They were rarely far from each other.

“When the war’s over,” Tad said, “I’ll tell my daddy to give you Free Papers.”

Turner laughed. He was a big man, aging though he was, actually taller than the president, fuller and more muscular. “Ha! You ain’t offer’n nuthin Ah ain’t got already, boy. Ah been free as a bum’le bee ‘fore you was born’d.”

“Well, then—I’ll give you money.”

The black man clapped his hands and did a two-step gander. “Ha! Ha! Yeah, boy, thass da ticket! Shoot, Ah got more money in my pocket than you ever seen an’ no place to spend it on anyway! Wha’ you gonna gimme Ah can use?”

Tad sat down on the bottom step of the angled staircase that led from the Visitors’ Salon up to the Business Room (as Lincoln called his office) and regarded his friend. “I ain’t got nuthin’ I can give anybody . . . wait a minute. How ‘bout I give you a ride on By-ya-net?”


Turned started to laugh, but he held it back. “You want me to ride on ‘at ol’ nag pony o’ yours? Wha’ you want; you wanna kill me?”
Tad saw no humor in that. “No. I don’t want you killed. I want you to help me.”

“Help you how?” Turner noticed that glint in Tad’ eye that usually preceded an exercise in schadenfreude that would give the youngster tremors of glee at someone else’s expense.

Conspiratorially, Tad lowered his voice and beckoned the old Negro bend down closer. “I got me an idea how to raise money for . . . for . . . for War Relief.”

“Whass ‘War Relief’?”

“A charity. A real good charity. We can raise money to buy food and clothes for families of men gone and killed in the war. We can help set up a kitchen right out on the street in front of this here ol’ house and feed hundreds of them people that ain’t got nuthin. We can be remembered as the president’s kin that saved people from starvin’ an’ freezin’. But you gotta help me.” His impassioned plea somehow touched the old man.

“Yass sir,” Turner said, “Ah can do that.”

“Good!” Tad jumped up and grabbed his friend’s arm. “Here’s what we gonna do. . . .”

The president’s son outlined his plan in simplest terms. Whenever someone came into the Visitors’ Salon to seek an audience with Lincoln, that person would present his calling card to Alvinas Turner, and the old retainer would place that card beneath the growing stack of others on a silver tray resting on the demilune table next to the prime newel post at the base of the angled staircase. The stack was held in place by a weighted tchotchke, a glass replica of Old Ironsides. Each person wishing to see the president would be given fifteen minutes to present whatever plan or petition had brought him to the Executive Mansion, and when that person descended the stairs to leave the premises, Turner would lift the tchotchke, take the next card on top and announce the next visitor could come forth, climb the stairs, and be admitted to the president’s sanctorum.

There were, from the beginning, two problems with this protocol. The first was that Lincoln, a most gregarious man, could not be relied up to stick to the fifteen-minute rule. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the conversation, a visitor would remain in the Presidential Presence for over an hour, and this did not bode well with other solicitors, especially since the demands of official duty required these sessions end for the day promptly at one-thirty—or thereabouts.

The second problem was that Alvinas Turner could not read.

So, it became a common practice for Tad, during the time he was not in school, usually from noon to one-thirty from fall to spring, and all day in the summer, to simply take the calling card from Turner and read aloud the next visitor’s name. It worked out quite well, even when the boy was not available, and some other family member or house employee stepped in to assist the aged retainer
.
“Here’s what we gonna do,” Tad told Turner. “From now on, when we get a card from somebody that wants to see my daddy, I’m going to whisper in their ear that for a small fee we will hurry things up an’ get him in faster.”

A puzzled look rolled across Turner’s crinkled face. “How we do dat?”

“For twenty-five cents, we slip his card right in the middle of the pile. For fifty cents, we stick it ‘bout three-quarters the way up. An’ for a dollar, we lay it right smack-dab on the top!”

Turner sucked in his breath. “Oh, my! Oh, oh, oh, my! We gonna hang inna mornin’ foh sure!”

Tad laughed. “No, we ain’t. We gonna raise lotsa money for poor folks!” And to himself he thought, ‘specially me!

It was an Aesopianlan plan, and it worked for several weeks, as though concocted through sapient engineering, successful for young Tad until he had collected more than thirty-five dollars—none of which, of course, ever made its way into the coffers of anything resembling “War Relief”. No, Tad had other plans. He squirreled the money away in a huge flour can under his bed, a goal of one hundred dollars already set with which to buy another pony and a dual-harnessed carriage to be pulled by Bayonet and his as yet unnamed stable mate.

And, of course, the constant stream of paying customers loved it, were delighted to pay to shorten their wait and were committed to silence, for to reveal the ploy to others would bring it crashing down forever. Unfortunately, however, nothing good lasts forever.

The man sitting on the hard chair looked vaguely familiar, but Tad couldn’t place him. He smiled at the boy and reached up, tousling the youngster’s unruly curls. Tad stared at the man’s teeth; he had never seen teeth so even and straight and brilliantly white. The man handed him his calling card and said, “Here you go, son. Make sure I am delayed not one extra minute.” Folded under the card was a crisp five-dollar note.

Tad stepped back, speechless for once, and regarded first the man, and then the money. Five dollars! No one had ever given him so princely a sum!

“Yes, sir!” he exclaimed through his harelip. Yeh-thur!

He ran across the room and looked at the pile of cards on the demilune; the pile was over two inches high and Old Ironsides seemed to rock precariously on top. He glanced over his shoulder to see if any of the throng waiting their turn with the Chief Executive was paying any attention; he gingerly pretended to slip the card beneath the pile as he casually switched hands and placed it squarely on the top, sliding it deftly beneath the tchotchke. For the first time, he looked through the glass trinket at the name engraved in a raised and elegant scroll:

John Wilkes Booth


TO BE CONTINUED

Copyright©2009 by Robert A. Mills


DON’T MISS THE “BONUS BLOG” MONDAY,
DECEMBER 21 – ALEX’S FIRST CHRISTMAS by
Alexandra E. Faucette (Mills,) as told to her father many
years after the fact



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