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AURA LEE -- PART 12
12/30/2009 12:10:09 PM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

AURA LEE -- PART TWELVE


Mary Todd Lincoln looked down the long dining room table and told her husband that now would be a good time to have the White House painted.

The president, his face no more than a foot from that of Salmon Chase, stopped in mid-remark, and looked at his wife.

“I’m sorry, my dear; what did you say?” he asked; but he was not smiling.

Mrs. Lincoln reached for her wine glass. “I was saying, how nice it would be right now, at this time of year, if we made arrangements to have the mansion painted. It is the White House, and I was noticing this past week how—un-white— it is. Haven’t any of you noticed, or am I the only one left in Washington with a sense of decor?”

Those at the table, roughly a dozen or so, had ceased talking, eating, sipping wine; they had all turned and looked at the First Lady, not entirely sure they had heard her correctly.

“Madam,” said William Seward, from his place at her left, “you have a most keen eye for detail and an uncanny sense of design. Now that you mention it, the exterior does seem somewhat tawdry and off-color. . . By Jove, you’re right! This would be a good time to give the old place a coat of whitewash!” He looked down the table and, seeing that Lincoln had ceased his private dialogue with Chase, added, “Don’t you agree, Mr. President?”

All eyes now shifted toward the chief executive who turned away from his Secretary of the Treasury and contemplated his wife and his Secretary of State. An audible sigh preceded, “The color of this dilapidated palace, Mrs. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, is, though an issue, I’m sure, of national concern, so far removed from the apex of my agenda of priorities that even these powerful bifocals fail to discern it.” Smiling, he dangled his reading glasses from the ribbon about his neck, raising them and peering through them, and creating an amusing portrait of a chimpanzee squinting down the table. He protruded his lower lip just enough to complete the caricature, and this brought a resounding laugh from the assembled diners.

Mary Lincoln stifled a chuckle and used her linen napkin to dab an imaginary tear from the corner of her left eye. “I love when you make that silly face, Mr. President,” she giggled. “But seriously, don’t you think we could order Mr. Harrelson to begin at least a superficial restoration?”

The invited guests—some cabinet members, a Supreme Court Justice or two, a senator here and a congressman there, all with their ladies—now sat stone silent, realizing they were being entertained with a domestic scene that could have been taking place in any household, the crushing urgency of the times notwithstanding.

“Of course, my dear,” responded the president. “I will convene a special committee of Mr. Harrelson, Alvinas Turner and their entire maintenance staff in my office first thing in the morning. And I think I shall ask Tad to either dispose of, or at least move, some of his more unkempt, mephitic and noisy livestock from the front lawn!”

This brought another hearty guffaw from about the table, and Lincoln good-naturedly turned again to Salmon Chase and continued where he’d left off.

“How serious is it?”

Chase looked into his raised palm and, in contemplation, rubbed away an imaginary spot. “Very. Very serious.”

The secretary was a peculiarly handsome man well past his prime. He was not so tall as Lincoln, but he was of a massive structure, heavy, full-waisted, and his white hair toppled in ringlets over his pate and around his ears, swallowed, as they were, by cumbersome sideburns. His complexion was ruddy, his eyes deep, deep brown, an iridescent chocolate, and piercing. But his hands were most remarkable—the hands of a concert pianist, young and strong, with elongated digits and covered with skin totally devoid of wrinkles or age spots. He loved showing them, letting them be seen; and when he sat at dinner he invariably kept them up and high about his face, playing with them, moving and caressing them, and generally calling attention to them.

“Very serious,” he repeated, keeping his voice too low to be overheard by anyone at the table save Lincoln. “A Republican caucus can be a disastrous maneuver, and they have the strength of numbers behind them—and I’m not talking about cloakroom majorities. A Republican caucus,” he muttered, “at any time, but given these times, must be regarded as extremely serious.”

The president knew exactly that Chase was talking about: the vast, incredible numbers of dead and wounded Americans on both sides lying all over several hundred acres in and surrounding the Virginia town of Fredericksburg. A major battle, a major positioning of purpose, so badly orchestrated, so poorly organized and manipulated, that what should have been little more than a bloody skirmish had resulted in what the newspapers were calling “not a military operation, but a slaughter devalorized from warfare to murder!”

Lincoln’s long face seemed a contradiction of itself. He possessed that inexplicable ability to appear pleasantly content while smoldering beneath; it was a quality of charisma inherent in some politicians, a number of clergymen, and many superlative thespians (to beguile the time, look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t). His disappointment in his choice of Ambrose Burnside to lead the Army of the Potomac lay heavily on the bosom of his peculiar responsibility. Lincoln, as with so many of his predecessors, honestly believed that all facets of fate must needs be placed at his feet.

“Their plan is obvious, transparent,” he sighed. “That I should resign and elevate Hannibal Hamlin to the presidency—better still, get rid of the entire cabinet, parlay the War Democrats into that position . . .”

The treasury man shook his head, while the president eyed him suspiciously. “Not a prayer that could ever happen, Mr. President. Even if they were thinking in terms of a coup and went so far as to call up General McClellan to form a military government unlike—”

“I think I know where this is heading,” interrupted the chief executive, “and if this were not such common knowledge, I would suggest you are very close to crossing the line. The conflict between you and Bill Seward goes far beyond capitol latrine gossip.”

While Salmon Chase’s lovely face turned a violent crimson, the president looked away and smiled down the table at his wife who, at that instant, was amusing Secretary Seward and others with a story, certainly of suspect veracity, about how her youngest son was actually charging her husband’s daily visitors for a favored place on the appointment list. The laughter this brought forth at the lower end of the banquet caused the president to say, “Share the mirth! What scenario of our private lives is Mrs. Lincoln publishing now?”

Into his left ear, Chase leaned forward and whispered, “Mr. President, I assure you I have no ulterior motives, save to end this dreadful conflagration. My relationship with Secretary Seward— ”

Lincoln raised his hirsute paw and literally created a wall between Chase’s lips and the presidential ear. Still smiling, still the serpent beneath, he said, through tight teeth, “You cannot, at this table, boast of any relationship with Secretary Seward, save your insistence that that noble fellow wields some sort of magical influence over me. I am more distressed by this damnable senatorial caucus than by any event in my life. What do these men want from me?” he asked, and then answered his own question:

“They wish to get rid of me, and sometimes I am more than half disposed to gratify them. We are on the brink of destruction. It appears to me that even the Almighty is against us.”

“Perhaps General Burnside— ”

The president clenched his fist as if he might strike his mouthy treasury secretary, but he instead dropped his arm like a hammer and punctuated the moment with a clattering of dishes and chiming of crystal. Every tongue stopped in mid-sentence and every head turned his way.

“General Burnside be hanged! The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. The fault, if no better word can be found, lies in the stupefying happenstance that General Thomas Jackson is employed by Jefferson Davis—and we have no visible counterpart!”

There was, over the next interminable seconds, a mystifying silence in the dining room as the serpent, but for a flash, revealed itself.

* * *

Neither Scoffie Goodis nor Hunter Worboys had ever heard of Daniel Menefee and his “little brother Dirk.” Scoffie wondered, when asked by Lt. Joe Morrison, how they could possibly know a couple of infantrymen from North Carolina, especially in an army of several thousand now gathered on a virtual eight mile line along the south shore of the Rappahannock?

“Well,” Morrison pursued, “that division come up from Raleigh at about the same time you two showed up on General Jackson’s doorstep, and we marched all the way from Shenandoah as the same like we were one unit.”

Hunter pulled off his cap and scratched his head. “We been split up so many times these last weeks I’m surprised we still together at all with the general.”

“Well, I just wonderin’ if y’all knew ‘em,” Morrison conceded. “They was startin’ out with General Longstreet’s outfit up by Marye’s Heights, and two nights ago they fell off a raft swappin’ stuff with the Yankees, and they were reported drowned. But that ain’t what happened.”

Scoffie and Hunter leaned on their rifles.

“Dirk Menefee’s just a little kid,” the lieutenant went on. “Li’l towhead no more’n fifteen, if that. His brother’s a big fella—nearly as big as you, Goodis, but not as scrawny. Big muscle fella, more like ol’ Hunter here.” With that, he playfully punched Worboys in the shoulder. Scoffie could not figure out why Morrison was telling them all this, and, truth of the matter, he never would know.

“Nope,” Joe Morrison went on, “they was pulled outta the water less’n ten minutes after they went in by a bunch of Yankees prowlin’ along the banks swappin’ all sorts of stuff with our fellas. Been doin’ that gone on three days now, and neither side’s shot so much as a sissy-pistol at each other.”

“What was they doin’ in the river anyhow, sir?” Hunter wanted to know.

“Dunno. Guess they just fell in, or somethin’.”

What Joe Morrison didn’t know was that Melissa Menefee was a much better swimmer than she’d let on; in fact, much better and stronger than Daniel. When they had hit the icy waters of the Rappahannock, they had both sunk like stones to the bottom, some sixteen feet from the surface, amidst rocks and weeds that grappled for them like hungry demons, tentacles of prehistoric phantasms that lashed out with puissant resolve to ensnare an unexpected but possibly palatable morsel. Daniel immediately panicked and began thrashing and rolling, his mouth open with inaudible screams, then sucking in water and choking, drowning, as Melissa clenched his neck in the crook of her right arm while pulling wildly in an upward swim until they achieved an erumpent crescendo and exploded through the surface gasping cool, clean air.

Daniel was barely conscious, but aware enough to start making swimming motions in the direction Melissa pointed him. She swam alongside, looking back and seeing the raft and its three Rebels disappear in the distance, no longer interested, it seemed, whether they were safe or not. “Piss-pot Rednecks,” she muttered, gurgling against the current, suddenly aware they were in shallow water and able to walk ashore, shivering, stumbling over small, loose rocks, their teeth shattering, wet-chilled to the bone.

Two Union infantrymen, privates, stood watching along the water’s edge. “What you fool Rebs doin’,” one called out, but not too loudly.

“Comin’ ashore, Blue Belly! My big brother dang near like to drown jess now!”

Daniel, as soon as he was out of the water, dropped to one knee and vomited, ridding himself of at least a quart of bile and Rappahanock sludge. One of the Yankee soldiers took off his greatcoat and draped it around Melissa’s shoulders. “You gonna git pneumonia, kid,” he said. “I got a li’l brother ‘bout same age as you if he lived who died of pneumonia when he was seven in Scranton, Pennsylvania.”

Melissa looked up at the infantryman. “Y’all from Pennsylvania?”

“Yep. Me and Brently here both. 22nd Pennsylvania Regulars, we are.”

Daniel slowly got up on both feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “We wanna see your commandin’ officer,” he said, his tone a shade demanding.

The one named Brently found that amusing and stifled a laugh. “What would a couple drowned rats like you want with Cap’in Landry? Shoot, he ain’t gonna swap no goodie stuff with the likes of you!” This brought uproarious laughter from both Union soldiers, but neither Daniel nor Melissa saw the humor. “Cap’in Landry ain’t gonna want no trek with a couple soaked Rebel hookworms!”

Daniel stepped forward. “We ain’t Rebels, you assho’. My wife and me is Yankees from No’ Car’lina!”

“Your wife?”

“My l’il brother!” Daniel hastily corrected. “This here young-un!”

Both Federals raised their rifles. “Shit, man! Whatever he is, you both unner arrest, thass what you are! Righ’ now! Go!”

TO BE CONTINUED

Copyright©2002 by Robert A. Mills


A BONUS BLOG – “Alex’s Third Christmas” will be posted Monday, January 4, 2010


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• LUCKY STRIKE GREEN - Saturday, August 14, 2010
• AMERICARE vs. OBAMACARE - Saturday, August 07, 2010
• THE MAN WHO WOULD (temporarily) BE PRESIDENT - Saturday, July 31, 2010
• THE WEDDING - Saturday, July 24, 2010
• BUTTERFLIES ARE HAPPY - Saturday, July 17, 2010
• HATTERS ARE MAD - Saturday, July 10, 2010
• WHAT DOES THE BOSTON TEA PARTY AND THE REPUBLICAN TEA PARTY HAVE IN COMMON? - Friday, July 02, 2010
• MILQUETOAST HEADLINES - Saturday, June 26, 2010
• JAMIE DUPREE DESERVES BETTER - Saturday, June 19, 2010
• WHAT BARACK OBAMA AND HELEN THOMAS HAVE IN COMMON - Saturday, June 12, 2010
• GRANDNIECE LEIGH IS OFF TO HONDURAS - Saturday, June 05, 2010
• MEMORIAL HOLE-IN-ONE - Saturday, May 29, 2010
• GRANDNIECE EMILY GRADUATES - Wednesday, May 26, 2010
• THE MOON IS ROQUEFORT - Saturday, May 22, 2010
• LENO VS. O’BRIEN – TEMPEST IN A TV POT - Saturday, May 15, 2010


Distraction by Pamela Ackerson

Family secrets, a gorgeous man with a wounded heart, and a young woman who is determined to get exactly what she wants.....  
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