Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Thirty-Six

Previously in the novel: War Secretary Edwin Stanton held President and Mrs. Lincoln captive under guard in basement of the White House. Duff and Alethia find pretending to be the Lincolns difficult, especially with Tad coming down sick. Stanton interrupts their dinner to make sure Duff is not eating too much.
“Sit down and resume eating.” Stanton paused to smirk. “Enjoy it while you can.” He pulled out his notepad and handed it to Duff. “This is what you’ll say at the Cabinet meeting in the morning.” Going to the door, he stopped and turned to look at Alethia. “Oh. How’s the boy doing?”
“The boy?” Alethia looked up, a bit distracted.
“Yes, the Lincoln boy. Tad. Is he well?”
“Yes, he’s fine.” She paused. “His forehead was hot tonight, and he said he didn’t feel well, so he went straight to bed.”
“I’m so glad you cared to ask,” she said, trying to smile at a man she both feared and loathed.
“I don’t care.”
“His mother asked.” With that, Stanton left as quickly as he had appeared.
When Phebe arrived with a tray of fried chicken, potatoes, and collard greens, Duff put on a good show of not being hungry. Alethia noticed a glint in Phebe’s dark eyes. Was it a recognition that something was wrong? Feeling panic rise from the pit of her stomach, Alethia tried to control her emotions while deciding what to do. Out of her chair she bustled to Phebe and placed an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
“Dear Phebe,” she said, “we work you to death, and for what? Willy-nilly appetites. We’re so sorry.”
“That’s all right, Mrs. Lincoln.”
Again seeing the cloud of doubt cover Phebe’s eyes, Alethia pulled away.
“Of course, we do pay you well to accommodate our peccadilloes.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Phebe bit her lip and then looked at Alethia. “I hope you don’t mind my being so bold, ma’am.”
“What is it, Phebe?”
“I’m just glad to see you feeling better, since the passing of little Willie,” she cautiously said.
Alethia was taken aback by Phebe’s observation, knowing true mourning continued in the basement. Momentary shame crossed her mind for not grieving for Tad’s brother.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Mrs. Lincoln,” Phebe said. She turned to leave. “I probably shouldn’t have said nothing at all.”
“No, thank you.” Alethia reached out to touch her. “Not too many people care how I feel anymore.” She smiled. “No one much really likes me. Mrs. Keckley, and now you. I can count you as a friend, can’t I?”
“Of course, ma’am.” A grin flashed across her dark face.
After Phebe left, Alethia sat and looked across at Duff, who was staring at his empty soup bowl. “Did I do right?”
“What I said to the cook. Did I blather on too long? I worry my own personality comes out instead of Mrs. Lincoln’s.”
“Oh. No. You were fine.” His voice sounded hollow.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Duff shook his head, refusing to look up. Before she knew what she was doing, Alethia was in the chair next to Duff, hesitantly touching his large, bony hands, becoming aware how sensitive they seemed, despite the calluses and scars.
“Please, tell me.”
“I can’t eat like this no more.” He raised his head, his cheeks wet with tears. “It reminds me too much of Libby Prison. I can’t go on. Mr. Lincoln may be able to live on vegetables and fruits, but I can’t.”
“Libby Prison?”
“In Richmond. I spent a year there before me and a handful of others escaped.”
“That’s where they sent you after you were caught as a spy?”
“Yes.” Taking his napkin, Duff wiped his eyes, averting them from Alethia.

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