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1/9/2010 2:38:25 PM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

An appreciation to those who’ve sent a note expressing enthusiasm for AURA LEE. . . . I was reluctant at first about the merits of serializing the novel as a Blog, but a couple letters from people who claim to have had no prior interest in the Civil War proved me wrong—-and another who said, “I never read books but this one shows me what I’ve been missing. I can’t wait to see what happens next!”

Even Remarks such as this makes the lonely writer’s life less lonely. Although AURA LEE is historical fiction, there is, hopefully, enough truth beyond the obvious fairy tale to keep you coming back.


Major Dr. Roger Murphy, field surgeon, Army of the Potomac, sat on a high wooden stool in his clinic and sleeping tent well behind the lines in a primeval Virginia jungle known as “the Wilderness.” He regarded the woman sitting on the edge of the examining table before him—he regarded her as something of a military bibelot. A diminutive female of tender age, pale hair shorn to the unkempt signature of an adolescent boy, a beautifully proportioned body well hidden under filthy, tattered and billowing Rebel clothes, mismatched shoes (actually a boot and a shoe), a sweet, beguiling, beckoning face, a pleasantly modulated voice, and, most certainly, eight to ten weeks pregnant.

“You do know,” he asked, as he washed his hands in a tin basis, “you are unmistakably with child?”

Roger Murphy, in examining Melissa Menefee, had just had the best forty minutes of his life as an army surgeon. At nearly fifty, the doctor had had to abandon a comfortable and successful practice of obstetrics and gynecology in downtown New York City when informed by the surgeon general in Washington that his services were needed at the front, and that he was to report immediately for duty to the Navy Yard Depot near Arlington. In no time, he found himself assigned to the field hospital under command of Lt. Col. Dr. Herbert Repenter, in the army of General Ambrose Burnside, then, later, General “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker. Murphy was a large man with gentle but over-sized hands, and his manner was honed at the bedsides of countless fragile women having babies, losing babies, being diagnosed with cervical cancer, being elated with benign ovarian cysts, and those being sent home undiagnosed more often than not because medical science, at that time, could not concoct what, if anything, was wrong with them or what to do about it. All the charm and charisma bestowed on any practitioner, especially one with steel gray hair, flashing green eyes, and the clean shaven, chiseled features of an artist’s catalogue model, made Maj. Dr. Roger Murphy welcome at any table fixed with stirrups—or knee-deep in the blood and gore of a wartime field hospital.
The transition from the gleaming Manhattan Clinic for Women to the sordid tents and sweltering heat or bone-chilling damp cold of war-torn Virginia was a traumatic nightmare, and after months of suturing gaping holes left by Minié balls, amputating limbs with rare and limited anesthetics, bandaging sightless eyes, applying whatever balm was handy to hideous burns, stuffing innards back into rent torsos while hoping something wound up in the right place and remained functional, removing personal belongings from shattered bodies that had mercifully ceased living—these were things most doctors never considered while attending medical school and residencies. The sudden appearance of Melissa Menefee in his tent was almost metaphysical.

“Doc,” said the sergeant who had brought her to him, “we pulled this here boy outta the river with some other guy, but the cap’in says this here Reb ain’t no boy. He’s a gal, sure ‘nuff.”

“How do you know?”

“He’s got titties, big and soft like a bag o’ marshmellas. I seen ‘em when we pulled him out, all wet and drippin’, and his shirt like to juss fall apart. This soldier ain’t no boy! Besides, you look at him hard an’ close up an’ you see he’s too purty to be a boy!”

The doctor dismissed the sergeant and told the Rebel to take a seat beside his examining table. “What’s your name, soldier?”

Melissa sighed in resignation. “Melissa Menefee. An’ I ain’t no soldier, I mean, like a real soldier. An’ he’s right; I’m a woman, an’ I’m married.”

Instinctively, Maj. Dr. Murphy reached for his pad with some thought of taking notes, as he would have done two years ago, but he stopped and pushed the pad away. “Would you be more comfortable if a nurse were here?”

Melissa offered a shallow shrug. “Make no diff’rence.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” he smiled. “We have no real nurses, anyway, and what we have to help out right now are all men. I assure you, though, I am a doctor, and my specialty is, was, gynecology.”

“You a ‘woman’ doctor then?”

“That’s right.” He reached forward and took her hand and felt for a pulse, which was strong and regular. “You want to tell me how you wound up here, in a Federal camp?”
To one as educated and sheltered as Roger Murphy, Melissa’s story was nothing short of astounding. Living all her life in western North Carolina, marrying the young man she’d known since she was seven years old, slipping away from home and posing as a teenage boy to walk over a hundred miles to meet up with him in the Confederate Army for the sole purpose of defecting to the North, fighting in three major battles in the last seven months without being hit (or hitting anything), and then getting across the Rappahannock in the dead of winter by swimming and pulling her husband the last fifty yards . . . it was too much.

“I don’t believe a word of this,” the doctor said, when she had finished.

“You ken as’ my husband if’n you want. He’s the one with me when they pulled us out of the river.”

Maj. Dr. Murphy leaned back and stared at the young women. “This is rather . . . incredible. May I examine you?”
“You the doctor. But I ain’t had no proper bath in a long time.”

“That’s all right; don’t be concerned. And then, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

* * *

General Joseph Hooker was listening but he was not looking at any of the people around him that evening. He was cleaning his fingernails, surreptitiously, by carefully slipping the longer nail of his left index finger under the edge of the nail of a right hand digit, and then working it slowly back and forth, up and down, until it was smooth and clean. He would then move on to the next. Intently curious, his notable civilian guest, alone in the shadows at the edge of the large command tent, was watching him closely.

The others in the tent were either standing in whatever unoccupied place was available or sitting on one of the few chairs scattered before Hooker’s desk. Lt. Col Richard Arriman was closest to the entrance flap. Col. Darrius Milhouse, Hooker’s palmary confidant, leaned against the tent pole. Lieutenants Cary Colthran and Preston Kuntz were seated closer to Hooker’s desk—these later two were aides-de-camp whose posture indicated attention to duty. A sergeant and two corporals stood nearby, their eyes on the prisoner who stood before the general, and the prisoner, a rather ragged, ill-smelling, and totally tatterdemalion Rebel, still sopping wet, stood with his arms folded and continued his story. The civilian, lingering off to the left, wondered why Hooker even bothered listening to this absurd monologue. The thought crossed his mind that they would probably wind up executing the unfortunate Rebel as a spy, anyway, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.

“So,” Daniel Menefee said, “there y’all have it, jus’ as it happen to be. My wife an’ me jus’ wanna sign up with the Union troops an’ git this here war done with fast as we can. We waited ‘til we had jus’ the right chance to make our move an’ git over here. I like to drown in that river, an’ I woulda, too, if Melissa hadn’t pulled me up an’ got me near shore . . . Sir, can you tell me where she is, what you all done with her?”

General Hooker separated his hands and made a noncommittal gesture. “You know where the other soldier is, Lieutenant?”
Lt. Colthran wasn’t sure which aide-de-camp was being addressed, but he answered anyway. “I think they took him—or her—to Major Doctor Murphy’s tent, sir.”

Hooker looked back at the captured Rebel. “Your story is most intriguing, Corporal, and I find myself believing you. Almost. Who, truly, is your captured accomplice?”
Daniel’s voice softened, and he moved his right foot perceptively.
“Like I said. My wife. Sir.”

There was a momentary silence; the men and officers glanced at one another. General Hooker seemed amused as he stifled a mild guffaw. “Your wife. Interesting. Are you of a homosexual persuasion, soldier?”

“No, sir. My wife—she’s a full-growed woman!”

“And I can attest to that.” Maj. Dr. Murphy entered the general’s tent with Melissa in tow just in time to confirm the small private’s gender. “And she’s over twenty-one, among other things.”

General Hooker folded his hands in his lap and looked from one to the other of his captured Rebels. “Gentlemen, what we have here is a most unusual—but tantalizing—development. Two Southerners from North Carolina so bound and determined to defect to the Union Army and fight for the cause of freedom and unity, they have placed themselves on the path to great harm. Do you two realize you could easily have been shot crawling out of the river in those gray pants and tunics? And you, sir, just about drowned! Augment that with my possible absence—or indifference—or, God forbid, they’d drug you over to General Burnside’s headquarters—and you might be facing a firing squad at this precise instant? This war is rampant with lunatics!”

The civilian stepped out of the shadows furthest from the group. He spoke for the first time. “General, if I may be so bold . . . The arrival of these two may have come at a most propitious moment. The map we were discussing must needs be delivered and placed in the hands of the formidable Stonewall Jackson, and you may have been blessed with the arrival of a most deserving pair of messengers. Singular proof of their sincerity could not become more evident than such a successful mission might present. In fact, were the choices mine, which they most certainly are not, I might send but one—retaining the other as a guarantee of intent and effort. Should you send one, keeping the other back, you will have perfect assurances the message will not fly away, leaving the entire plan to become little more than wishful thinking.”

Daniel and Melissa Menefee exchanged glances, signifying they had no inkling what this handsome, strange man was talking about.

Joseph Hooker nodded his head in agreement. “For an actor, Mr. Booth, you have a remarkably keen military head. I’m glad you stopped by on your way to Richmond.” The general spoke airily, as if Booth’s sudden appearance so near the front lines was an everyday occurrence.

“No more than I,” asserted John Wilkes Booth, bowing deeply before the general. “I was proud once to say in Henry the Fifth, ‘He will maintain his argument as well as any military man in the world, in the disciplines of the pristine wars of the Romans.’ I trust my credentials, as provided by your Secretary of War, were of sufficient merit to afford me safe passage and a fresh horse.”

“Most assuredly, sir. But I struggle with dismay that I cannot know the full purpose of your mission.”

Booth sighed heavily. “Do not disturb your heart, General. A premature revelation would serve but to trouble you and your men even further. This war is far from over, and my ‘mission’, as you call it, has a double purpose that will to fruition peace and restoration that much more rapidly.” He paused and stepped back into the tenebrous shadows before continuing.

“Your mission, my dear General, is of much greater expediency; an endeavor of urgent moment. These Carolinians, whose purpose is just a sidelight in which we may take passing dusk, may well be heaven sent. I would beseech you to use them wisely."

Alone an hour later, Joseph Hooker still pondered the wisdom of his decision, predicated as it was on the almost supernatural elements of the past day.

First, the arrival of a world-renown actor atop a dreadful stallion about to breathe its last, a mount driven with impassioned ferocity at least a hundred miles with minimal rest and sustenance—on the road to Richmond, John Wilkes Booth had encountered a full squad of pickets just outside the Wilderness, any one of whom would have shot him on sight had it not been for a cosmopolitan squad leader who had recognized the thespian. Booth whipped out a portfolio of serious documents indicating he was on a “government assignment of national security” and should, if in need, present himself before any general officer of the Army of the Potomac for assistance and succor. Knowing that Fighting Joe Hooker was encamped not three miles further, the young lieutenant and his squad escorted the civilian deeper into the Wilderness and, brought before Hooker’s tent, Booth’s horse finally staggered, then dropped beyond resuscitation, literally yards from the command post.
Booth could not have been more delighted that he’d so easily found General Hooker. And Hooker, likewise, reveling in this gift of a sounding board of cultured insight, was ecstatic that Providence had sent him someone of the actor’s ilk to discuss a most daring plan—especially a persona known to be diligently active in efforts to bring the war to a speedy end, even as he was suspect of having Southern sympathies as well as strong Northern ties.
After mere moments of amenities—fresh water, sandwiches, and a jigger of Kentucky bourbon—Hooker unrolled the complicated map and asked Booth if he knew what it was. Booth studied it for nearly twenty minutes before declaring it looked like an ancient Roman campaign against a vast army of Huns, somewhere, he thought, in France, along the Loire River. Hooker was impressed. The actor continued, noting the pyre of Attila’s saddles, chariots, shields, and other wooden accoutrements in the midst of the fortification, and a passage from Julius Caesar sprang forth: Thou seest the world, Volumnius, how it goes; Our enemies have beat us to the pit; It is more worthy to leap in ourselves, Than tarry till they push us.
Hooker was more than pleased. If this civilian dilettante could discern that much without ever knowingly having studied historical military strategy, would not Stonewall Jackson as easily grasp the deeper meaning? The general asked Booth if he was aware the Roman leader Aetius Flavius actually had crossed the river and met with Attila before the last great battle? The actor was not. What did he think of a plan to bring Jackson to a meeting place with him, Hooker, to discuss a final and total cessation of hostilities? Assuming he would come, Booth wondered, upon what authority could he agree to such an armistice?
“Has he not the ear of the emperor?” replied Hooker.
“No—Lee. If,” Hooker confided, “this map is delivered into Jackson’s hands by, say, someone in whom he would have perfunctory trust, say, one of his own, say, someone like yourself, he would he not, therefore, with a totally open mind, comprehend the nature and purpose of the message? He would go to all lengths to attend a meeting—here—with me. And he would come without hesitation, knowing the full consequences of such an assignation.” And, Hooker thought to himself, the place in the history of the United States of America such an undertaking would afford us both—and, may I dare consider it?—me, in particular!

Booth shook his head, his crescendo of curls swaying over his forehead like a scattered melody of delicate, visual harmonics. “Not I, sir, not a distraction from my own mission of peace. The honorable and esteemed General Jackson, though a genuine idol, would not, knew he my true purpose on this sojourn, take kindly to a lowly civilian’s meddling in areas of high military and political intrigue. My own focus must remain the sharp zenith of an immoveable prism. Trust me, if I may be so bold: my singular undertaking will have as great a moment as your own.”
Hooker accepted it. He reached beneath his desk and again produced the bottle of Kentucky whisky. “Would you join me once more in a touch of Lexington’s finest?”

Booth smiled his most charming and stepped forward. “Be most honored, General.”

Later Hooker conceded, in his reverie, sending Melissa Menefee off with the map to find Stonewall Jackson was a stroke of genius. John Wilkes Booth, he concluded, was a better military strategist and definer of human nature than he wanted to seem. And Melissa’s reluctance to become the messenger and leave her husband behind as hostage confirmed to Hooker success was not only assured, it was preordained.

* * *

Abraham Lincoln had jailed nearly every state government official and suspended habeas corpus in Baltimore to prevent Maryland from seceding from the Union—a flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution—and he’d gotten away with it. It had worked.

“There is always a way,” he told Tad, “to accomplish things that have to be done in order to achieve a greater good. Take that pony of yours, that Bayonet,”

“Take him where, Father?” the boy asked, sudden apprehension slipping like rolling fog under the door of his concerns.

The president chuckled softly. “Not literally,” he said. “I don’t mean ‘take’ him in any sense of moving him from one place to another. I mean, just an example: take him and think on him for a moment.”


They were standing in the broad yard off to the southwest of the White House where Lincoln had gone to watch his son ride Bayonet, now adorned with a miniature and ornate military saddle. Alvinas Turner, Robert Lincoln, and Tad had built a riding rink with two partial mini-fences spaced equally within its perimeter, and the boy proudly spent the last half hour showing off his prowess at cantering, galloping, then leaning forward over the mane as Bayonet glided smoothly above the fences, clearing their thirty inches with room to spare.

“Well done, lad!” Lincoln had shouted, applauding enthusiastically. “Wait till your mother sees this!”
They did not have to wait long. Mary Todd Lincoln, accompanied by Robert and the handmaiden Elizabeth Wardlaw, suddenly appeared from the house and joined the president and Tad in the yard.

It was an absolutely gorgeous April day in Washington, an invigorating precursor to the crushing heat and humidity of July and August, and often September, when the Lincolns would abandon the White House for the cooler breezes of their summer place close to three miles northeast of the Capitol. “Pity we have to seek refuge away from this old mansion,” Lincoln often complained. Quietly, he dreamed of creating a Presidential Retreat somewhere in the low hills of Maryland, the state whose topography he secretly admired.

“It is nearly impossible,” he once said to Gideon Welles, who later jotted it down, “to swim through a sea of governmental tasks in Washington’s summer oppression. I cannot buoy my thoughts when they are being drowned in ceaseless perspiration.”

It was Welles who suggested the rambling old house called Anderson Cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, away from the swampy and odoriferous lowland of Washington’s tidal basin.

“It’s a grand place,” the Secretary of the Navy commended.

“In fact, it’s next door to Ed Stanton’s place; his family loves it. Shaded, cool, high up—“

“Mosquitoes?” Lincoln asked.

“Not a one!”

“Hah! Were that so!”

Both Mary and the president found the area delightful, and there is little question the short time together there with the children were their happiest, especially in those ephemeral weeks before Willie died.
Today, however, on the south lawn of the White House facing the Potomac, it was Tad, the remaining pride of Abraham Lincoln’s heart, showing off for a dozen or so his prowess aboard Bayonet, which swelled the chief executive with fatherly pride.

“Look at that, Mother! Robert—look at your brother! The makings of a cavalry officer, for certain! He’s already a lieutenant. Do your duty and commission him a brevet major on the spot!”

When they boy reined up where his parents and older brother stood, his mother reached out and took the halter and pulled the pony closer. “You’ll be the death of me yet!” she admonished, but her tone was not severe. “Come off that beast and come sit with us in the shade for some iced tea.” She turned to Robert, “Take him, son—why don’t you ride him a few turns around the rink and show your little brother some army maneuvers the way they do in battle?”

Robert, in full uniform for his short visit, blushed crimson at his mother’s suggestion. “Mother, you embarrass me,” he said. “I could no more straddle a midget pony than father here could climb upon a two-wheeler. Besides, I need to keep these trousers presentable for dinner tonight with General Meade and his staff and family.”

Mary took a step backward, letting go of Bayonet’s halter, and regarded her eldest son in a sudden new light. Robert was certainly well turned out in his Union officer’s regimentals. And he was fast becoming a social match for generals and corporate heads.

The president glanced at his son from over the top of Mary’s head. Nicely done, he thought, a polite and gentlemanly officer befitting the uniform with a slim, athletic body below a clean-shaven, strong countenance. I must do what I can to keep him from harm’s way, mused Lincoln to himself. We can ill afford to lose another.

Tad, aware of Mary’s release of the halter, dug his heels into Bayonet’s belly, and off they went for another spin around the rink and more graceful leaps over the low fences. The Lincolns watched their son and his brother, and each one secretly harbored intense pride.

Iced tea was brought by servants to a small table beneath the huge oak that draped its branches with lethargic indolence nearly to the ground. This was, at the time, the only genuinely shaded spot on the broad lawn that rolled in patches down to the river’s edge, hurrying past the well-tended gardens in anticipation of cooler, more moist surroundings at the shore. Lincoln loved it here, loved being out of doors when the season was still mild and devoid of summer humidity and insects.

“The Army Band is coming Saturday night,” Mary announced, “and if the weather holds dry, we will have the concert out here, on the lawn.”

“Will they play that piece by Gounod, the one I like so! Such a grand, stirring piece of music!”

Mary shrugged. “They will if I ask them. . . .Do you really like it all that much?”

“Ah, yes, Mother, I do. Hard to believe such an American-sounding soldier’s song was written by a Frenchman.”

“All right, Abraham, I’ll ask. . . .It’s such a—banal piece.” Her voice trailed off in thought.

“Will many be coming?” the president asked, after a moment, stirring a mountain of sugar into his tea.

“Oh, yes! Many!” the First Lady beamed. “Many congressmen and senators, and the entire Cabinet. Also, I heard the British Counsel General and his wife responded in the affirmative.”

“Ah, yes,” Abe nodded, and his intonation and speech pattern suddenly dropped to the crisp and staccato accent of a British nobleman. “And my I ask, m’lady, will there be fireworks following the concert? I do so hope not. You know how I abhor the painful cacophony of pyrotechnics!”

As always, this made Mary and Robert laugh aloud, and wh
at they found so amusing was the president’s uncanny ability at mimicry. He sounded, to their benevolent ears, exactly like the counsel general, Sir Halifax Frye-Stickney.

“If he does come,” Lincoln suggested, “let’s ensconce ourselves beneath this tree and arrange the chairs so that all foreign dignitaries may sit downhill— and mercifully, downwind—and enjoy the company of their sundry ladies at a safe distance. Can anyone tell me why Europeans, ‘specially the English and the French, take such great personal pride in smelling so rancid?”

Mary Lincoln glanced up from her lap and regarded her husband with slightly flared nostrils, portraying the embryo of a sneer. “Oh, I wish you hadn’t said ‘rancid’ when putrid would have given off such an effluvium of alliteration: personal pride . . . putrid! How delightfully,” she said, “we resonate in our glorious language!”

The president was amused, and he laughed heartily.
Robert sipped his iced tea and thought how truly odd his mother sometimes spoke and behaved. Unquestionably, he loved Mary Todd Lincoln dutifully, as a son should love his mother. But he did not particularly like her. Theirs was a strange, syncretic relationship developed and corrupted over a number of years as he, the first born, suffered and shared the suffering brought on by the deaths of his young brothers, Eddie and Willie Lincoln. His father’s remarkable political career and his mother’s avalanche of fomenting insecurity, charged and recharged by her constant grief, had long ago welded Robert’s personality and aspirations to a distant plate of indifferent steel. He plunged into his military career with great expectations of battlefield valor and heroic assumptions that would cause Washington’s sycophants to see him not as the eldest son of an erstwhile President, but, rather, as Robert Lincoln, decorated war hero and son of a two-term President folks called Abe, and sometimes, Honest Abe. There was no shadow in Captain Robert’s mind that precluded his eventual success, perhaps as a captain of industry, once his military acumen, such as it was, was no longer required.
The president leaned across and placed his huge hand on his son’s knee. “Robert, show us one of your inspired card tricks.”

“Oh, yes!” his mother chirped. “Show us the one where you make the card I choose appear right up through the deck!”

One of the few charismatic talents Robert possessed was a penchant for simple magic, particularly uncomplicated manual dexterity combined with slightly more sophisticated math. Consequently, he had mastered a few clever and entertaining card tricks; and he usually carried a small deck in the large pocket of his tunic.

“Tad!” the president shouted, as the younger sibling rode by. “Come watch Robert! He’s going to do some card tricks!”

“No! I wanna wide! I know all his twicks! I know how he does ‘em, too!” And Bayonet made a tight turn for another jump with Tad leaning far over his mane.

Lincoln signaled to John Hays and Donald Palafox, two of his secretaries lingering not far away in the oak’s broad shade. “You two—come here! Watch this. My son’s going to mesmerize us with a card trick. Have some iced tea.”

This, of course, was interpreted as an invitation for everyone within earshot to come over and join the family circle, and within a few seconds there were ten or twelve people, staff mostly, plus an occasional visitor who just happened to be wandering about the grounds, crowding around the small serving table under the attentive oak.

Robert, openly shy but secretly excited by any impromptu audience, brought forth his deck of cards, shuffling them dramatically with a practiced flourish. Mary and her handmaiden Elizabeth removed the iced tea glasses and pitcher, placing them carefully on the ground at their feet, while the president wiped the table top dry of errant condensation with his handkerchief. Robert continued to shuffle the cards until he was sure every eye from the circular venue was focused on him.

“Let me see . . .” he muttered, improvising a plausible patter. “Ah. This is an illusion I once learned from an old Indian shaman while traveling with the cavalry up near Lake Ontario. It requires a great deal of concentration, so I’d appreciate it if silence could be maintained.”

“Aaiiieeeee!” screeched Tad, reining Bayonet precariously close to the group under the tree. “Lemme see! Lemme see!” He slid off the pony’s back and squirmed through the group, finding a perfect spot between his father’s long legs.
“All right,” Robert continued. “In a moment I am going to ask my mother to select a card. She will show the card to anyone interested in seeing it—everyone, of course, save me—and she and others will be required to memorize that card. Why? Because I am going to persuade her, even against her will, to reveal precisely what that card is. And then, from deep within its fifty-one cousins, I will make that card literally jump from the deck onto this table before us.”

“Hah!” snorted the president. “Highly unlikely!”

“He can do it, Daddy! I know he can! I seen him do it be’ore!”

“Shhhh,” admonished Robert. “Pay attention. Why? Hah! Because the hand is quicker than the eye!” The captain passed the cards to the president. “Sir, if you would be so kind as to give these ducats a final shuffle, or two, or three—or half a dozen—so that no one will ever be able to say the deck was pre-arranged.”

Lincoln took the cards and slipped them back and forth in a most amateurish shuffle, commenting, “Upon what revelation can we attest I am not in cahoots with this young charlatan and am actually setting these cards in a pattern for easy identification?”

That made Mary chuckle. “If the grace and dexterity with which you handle them now is an indication, this trick is over before it’s begun!”

That brought a good-natured guffaw from the entire audience.
“Now then,” Robert instructed, retrieving the deck from his father, “watch ever so closely.”

Holding the deck of cards facedown in his left hand, he peeled off the top with his right and placed one card at a time face-up on the table, silently counting to himself. When he reached three, he spoke to his mother. “Tell me when to stop, Mother.”


“Yes, anywhere.”

He reached the fourth card, then the fifth—he made a mental note that the fifth card was the Jack of Clubs—and he continued turning them over one at a time until, at the twelfth card, Mary said, “Stop!”

The card showing on top the pile was the Three of Diamonds, and to Robert, of course, it meant nothing. The key card was the fifth, the Jack of Clubs, which he had committed to memory.

He scooped up all twelve cards, turned them over, and placed them atop the remaining deck. With his right hand, he took the full complement and made, from the bottom, four nearly equal piles on the table in front of him, keeping the fifth pile in his left hand.. Then, dramatically, he peeled off, face down, four cards from the top of the remaining pile and placed one each on top of each of the four piles on the table. The fifth card, or more accurately, the top card now on the deck still in his hand, was, of course, the Jack of Clubs—face down and unseen by him and his rapt audience.

With a broad gesture, he placed that final pile on the table in front of Mary Lincoln and said, “Now, Mother, when I turn my back and close my eyes, I want you to take the top card from that pile before you. Look at it. Memorize it. Show it to one and all. And when you’ve planted it indelibly in your mind, hide it anywhere your heart desires in any one of the five piles on the table. Straighten those piles, move them about if you wish, do whatever suits you to prevent me from knowing in which pile you’ve sequestered it. I promise you I will find it in no time at all—because I will compel you to tell me precisely what it is. And where!”

With that, the captain stood up and turned his back on the group, closing his eyes tightly. While Mary was lifting the top card from the fifth pile and showing the Jack of Clubs to all around her, Tad moved away from the president and circled his brother, looking up at him and waving his hand in front of his face to make sure he wasn’t peeking.

"All right, Robert,” Mary called. “It’s hidden.”

Robert turned around and opened his eyes. “And,” he said, “you know what it is—you won’t forget?”

“Not a chance, son.”

“Father, did Mother show it to you?”

“Yes, most certainly! I have it committed to eternal memory.”

“Good. Now I’m going to make Mother tell me what it is.”
Mary glanced in the direction of Bayonet, off on the lawn, nibbling at the rough tufts of grass. “Wild horses could not extract that information!”

“We’ll see.”

With a casual carelessness, Robert scooped up all five piles and melded them into one helter-skelter pile, which he tapped firmly on the table. “The card in question,” he announced, “is definitely in this pack. The question is—where, and what is it?”

“You’ll never know,” Tad sneered.

Slowly, Robert began shuffling the pack, surreptiously glancing at the faces of the cards as they moved from one hand to the other. The moment he saw the Jack of Clubs, he did a clever cut and simultaneous shuffle that resulted in moving the object card from near the center of the deck to directly on top. Once that was achieved with smooth confidence, he quietly placed the entire pack back on the table.

“Now, Mother,” his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, “place the forefinger of your right hand on the top card of the deck and, without turning it over, tell me what it is.”

“I will not!” Mary looked indignant.

“Well, then, tell me this: how many cards are there in this deck?”

“I assume there are fifty-two.”

“And how many cards are there in each suit?”

“There are . . . ah, thirteen.”

“Very good. Now . . . how many suits are there?”

“That would be four.”

Robert nodded. “Right. Four. Can you name them?”

Mary pretended to think. “Let’s see. . . Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and Spades.”

“Excellent, Mother. Name two of those.”

“Well . . . Hearts and Spades.”

“What two are remaining, what two do you have left?”

“I would have . . . I would have Clubs and Diamonds.”

“Absolutely correct. Clubs and Diamonds. Name one of those.”

Mary suspected she was about to be trapped; she remained silent for fully fifteen seconds. “Well, Diamonds.”

He had her. “What’s left?”

Begrudgingly: “Clubs,” she whispered.

“Hah! Hah! Your card is a Club! Now you must tell me what it is.”

“Not on your life!”

“Let me help you then,” Robert chuckled. This was the part he liked best; the part where he had to use some imagination to lead her up to revealing it was the Jack. If the projected card had been a “number” card, it would have been easier to concoct some little formula that would further mesmerize the audience. With face cards, it was more difficult.

“Your card, obviously, is not the Three of Diamonds, which, if you’ll recall, was the card you stopped me at when I was turning them over one by one. But the Three is important. Think on it.”

In truth, Robert was not entirely sure where this was going, but his mind was racing. I must get her to tell me it is the Jack, he thought. “Concentrate, Mother, concentrate. Everyone, think hard on that card. I’m starting to get a message.” He reached over and placed his hand on top of his mother’s, and they were both touching the mysterious pile that contained the elusive Jack.

“Oh, yes,” Robert intoned, “I’m getting it now. It is not the Three of Diamonds, but there are three soldiers out there, three great Union generals riding three beautiful stallions across the third state—Virginia—and they are pursuing the dark one, the evil demon of the Confederacy . . . Yes, that’s him, that’s who it is— you’ve told me, Mother! Your card is—pick it up, right there, on top of the deck! . . .” Robert’s voice had dropped to a sonorous monotone of sinister, theatrical doom. “The: Jack of Clubs! Turn it over! . . .”

Genuinely frightened, her hand trembling, Mary Lincoln picked up the top card and turned it over, holding it up for all to see: the Jack of Clubs.

“That’s it, Mother, the Jack of Clubs! The Jack handed to you by your son! Jack--son! The ‘Stonewall’ Jackson of Rebel Clubs. I knew you’d tell me. I knew it!”

There was a ripple of applause from under the oak, and no one except Abraham Lincoln noticed that Elizabeth Wardlaw had fainted, overcome by the wizardry of it all.

Copyright©2002 by Robert A. Mills

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Between Clouds and the Sea by Frank Ryan

19-year-old Mylie O'Farrel is interested in music, girls and wild nights out on the town in London. Then Harry, an elderly ex-army officer, is brought into the psychiatr..  
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