Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Thirty-Eight

Mrs. Frederick Lander
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. Alethia finds herself romantically attracted to Duff.
“Good night, Father.” Alethia tried to hide her disappointment that Duff did not offer to share his bed with her. As she went to her room, she decided it was for the best. They should not become intimate in the middle of their mission. She wiped a small tear from her cheek and thought Duff a very wise and wonderful man. Instead of undressing, Alethia quietly listened to Duff as he removed his shoes, slacks, and shirt. She clutched her bosom as she thought of him putting on his nightshirt and slipping into bed. Shaking her head, Alethia chastised herself for her silly thoughts. A knock at Lincoln’s door caused her to jump.
“Mr. President?”
“Come in, Mr. Hay,” Duff said.
“I wouldn’t bother you so late, Mr. President,” Hay said, “but I heard something tonight that I thought you needed to know immediately.”
Alethia wrinkled her brow and went to the door to eavesdrop more efficiently.
“I was at a party…”
“Where was it?” Duff asked.
“At the home of Colonel Frederick W. Lander,” Hay replied. “You know him. The civil engineer.”
“Of course. Last I heard he was wrestling with a bout of influenza.”
“He still is. He remained in his room the entire evening. The event was a fund-raiser hosted by his wife for the federal hospitals at Port Royal, South Carolina.”
“She was an actress or something like that, wasn’t she?” Duff said.
“An angel on stage,” Hay gushed. “When I first came to Washington I was quite smitten with her. Along with many others. She had many suitors.”
Not unlike Rose Greenhow, Alethia thought. Her mind often wandered to her childhood friend and wondered if she had ever escaped prison. She knew for certain Rose had not been executed, because she would have read about it in the newspapers.
“Even Mr. Stanton, before he remarried,” Hay added, “if that can be imagined.” After an embarrassing pause, he continued, “But that’s not what I came to say. During the evening Mrs. Lander sat beside me on her davenport and told me of meeting a brash young actor at an opening-night party at Grover’s Theater—a Virginian, I believe she said—who was trying to impress her with a story about some scandalous activity he was planning with friends that would make the front page of every newspaper in the nation.”
“And what might that activity be?”
“She said he didn’t elaborate, but from his tone and manner she drew distressing conclusions.”
“Which were?”
“Kidnapping, sir, possibly assassination.” Hay cleared his throat. “Of you, Mr. President.”
The concept of losing Duff to assassins caused Alethia to lurch into the room. Thinking better of intruding into the conversation, she decided to be startled.
“Oh, Mr. Hay.” She eyed him haughtily, as she thought Mrs. Lincoln would.
“He was telling me about a party,” Duff said.
“And to give the president a gift. Going through the buffet line, I noticed a large bowl of licorice.” He pulled a handful of the black candy from his pocket and placed it on the nightstand. “I thought he might like some.”
“Oh.” Alethia sniffed. That terrible stuff. He won’t eat decent food but turns his teeth black with that disgusting candy.”
“Now, Mother, you know it’s my only vice.” Duff looked at Hay and smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Hay. That was very kind of you.”
Both Alethia and Duff noticed Hay staring at the top of Duff’s open nightshirt.
“Is anything wrong?” Duff asked.
Hay paused, shook his head, and smiled, saying nothing. Alethia caught her breath, stepped forward, and then laughed.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking, seeing Mr. Lincoln shorn like a sheep,” she said blithely. “But he has a cold coming on, and I absolutely refuse to rub ointment on that dreadful, hairy chest. So he must shave every time he feels under the weather.”
“Yes.” Duff coughed.
“You’ll keep our little secret, won’t you, Mr. Hay?” Alethia fluttered her eyes.
“Of course, ma’am.” Turning a light pink, Hay backed up.
“We’ll discuss that other matter tomorrow,” Duff said.
“Yes, sir.”
“I really don’t think there’s anything to it,” Duff added. “Just chatter at a party.”
“I hope so, sir.” Hay backed to the door, fumbled with the knob, then left.
Listening for Hay’s receding steps, Alethia and Duff smiled.
“At least you got the licorice.” She nodded at the nightstand.
“Yes.” Duff picked up a piece and looked at it. “It’s the one thing I absolutely can’t stand to eat, and I must.”

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