Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns captive under guard in the White House basement. Janitor Gabby Zook by accident must stay in the basement too. Guard Adam Christy tells the Lincoln Tad has become ill. Lincoln demands the boy be brought to them. Cook Phebe sees Adam take Tad in the room.
For an hour, Phebe kept an eye to her slightly ajar door, watching comings and goings of the white people. At times she could swear she heard a woman screaming something about my baby, my baby, and other times she thought she heard laughter. When Adam reappeared in the hall carrying Tad she felt an impulse to confront them again, but decided to stay prudently hidden. After they entered the service stairs, Phebe went to the next door and knocked.
She heard a soft moan, followed by grumbling and padding of stocking feet across the room. Phebe stepped back when she saw Neal’s light coffee face speckled with nutmeg jut out the door and scowl.
“What do the white folk want now?” He paused before adding, “Tell them to get it for themselves. I’m off duty.”
“It ain’t the white folk.”
A smile, slightly soured by the hint of a smirk, crossed his lips.
“It’s about the white folks,” Phebe said in clarification.
“Oh.” The smile faded, replaced by a quizzical furrowing of his brow.
“Let me in.”
Opening the door wide, Neal stepped aside, absently buttoning the top of his woolen long underwear.
“I hope you don’t think this is anything improper, nothing romantic.” Phebe stepped inside, turned sharply, her eyes widening.
“I know.” Neal smiled and softened his gaze as he went to a small table to light a kerosene lamp.
“No,” Phebe said. “Don’t light the lamp.”
“Well,” Neal replied, “This room’s pretty black without light.”
“I don’t want anyone to know we’re talking.”
“Shut the door.”
“We won’t be able to see each other.”
“Shut the door.”
He shrugged and closed the door, leaving them in complete darkness. “I feel foolish,” he said after a moment.
“I do too,” Phebe replied. “That’s why I don’t want you to see me.” She paused and added timidly, “And I don’t want to see the scorn in your eyes.”
“I never look at you with scorn.” A hurt tone clouded his voice.
“Yes, you have. But we don’t have time to fight over it.” She sucked in air. “There’s something strange going on.”
“And I don’t want to hear no scorn in your voice neither,” she said, interrupting him. “Please listen.”
Phebe closed her eyes to compose her thoughts. So many images raced through her mind that she had trouble deciding where to begin.
“The soldier boy—that Private Christy—carried Tad down here. They went into the billiards room. After a while they came back out, Private Christy looking around like he didn’t want to be seen.”
“So he didn’t see you?”
“Coming down they did,” Phebe said. “Tad said hello. The private turned red and looked away. On their way out, I just cracked the door.”
“What do you think it means?”
“If I tell you, you’ll laugh at me.”
“I’ve laughed at you before.”
“But those times you laughed because you thought I was funny. This time you’ll laugh because you think I’m crazy.”
“All right.” Neal paused. “No laughing at you. Tell me what you think is going on.”
“Well, I fixed the same meals for the Lincolns upstairs as I do for those important, secret people who stay locked away in the basement. Mr. Lincoln has peculiar eating habits, an apple and milk for lunch, just picking at a decent supper. Ever since September, when those mysterious important folks arrived, I never saw nobody go into that room.”
“Sure, a whole mess of folks go in there,” Neal said, “that soldier boy and Secretary Stanton.”
“You see? Don’t you think that’s queer, only two visitors, ever?”
“I don’t make it a practice to keep up with what the white folks do.”
“The lunch being sent downstairs now comes back with nothing eaten but the apple and milk.”
Neal remained silent. Phebe heard the cot creak as he sat. She had him interested, so she continued.
“About a month ago, the private came out of the billiards room with a laundry basket balanced on his hip as he tried to lock the door. Well, he lost his grip and dropped the basket.”
Neal snorted. “I always thought he was clumsy.”
“There was women’s underthings in the basket—I mean, all over the floor. I came out to help him pick everything up. When it dawned on me what I held in my hand, he snatched it from me and gave me this look like he wished I’d never seen those panties. But I did see them and that meant only one thing.”
“There’s a woman in that room.”
“So whoever heard of a woman advising men-folk about war?”
“Maybe she’s the wife of some diplomat,” he offered.
“No woman would stay in a locked basement room just to be with her husband, under her own free will, that is.”
“So who do you think the woman is?”
“Stop playing games with me.” Neal’s voice sounded impatient.
“If you don’t believe me, you’ll laugh. If you do believe me, you’ll get mad.”