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.
Jangling keys and the turning of a lock jarred Gabby’s thoughts from the past to his empty stomach and his full chamber pot. Gabby carried it carefully around the crates and barrels, depositing the pot by the door. He waited for Adam and the breakfast tray.
“Private Christy,” Mrs. Lincoln said graciously as she emerged from her French lace curtains. “Good morning.”
Adam kept his eyes down as he put the tray on the billiards table. Gabby could tell he was sinking into melancholia, a place Gabby himself visited many times and for extended periods. If the boy tarried there too long, he might find it hard to return. Gabby frantically tried to figure how to throw Adam a lifeline.
“Is it going to be another sweltering day, Private?” Mrs. Lincoln persisted in her pleasantries. “It’s been absolutely stifling. I’ve been glowing, absolutely glowing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Adam said in muted tones. “Another warm day.” He avoided eye contact and went to the door.
“I appreciate your kindness, Private. Really I do.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Adam turned to her and managed a weak smile.
“Father?” Mrs. Lincoln called out after Adam had left, and she had heard the lock clank shut.
The tall, bearded man—who Gabby sometimes thought was president of the United States when he was not certain he himself held that title—walked out of his makeshift bedroom, brushing his shaggy hair away from his brow.
“Now what, Molly?” he asked in a tired voice, which sounded like Adam’s sad, muted tones.
Gabby frowned as he realized the similarities between Adam and Mr. Lincoln—the long, unruly locks and vacant stares. This was a time for him to keep his wits about him, Gabby told himself as he subconsciously brushed his own hair out of his eyes.
“I want you to talk to Private Christy,” Mrs. Lincoln said.
“He seems to be suffering from some malaise,” she replied, walking to the billiards table to look at the tray. “Fried eggs again.” She looked up. “Mr. Gabby, come get your breakfast.”
“Fried eggs again?” His head down, Gabby shuffled toward the table. “I like fried eggs. Eggs taste good. Rooster eggs are best. Once the roosters jump on the back of the hens and pump them then the eggs can become chicks, if we don’t eat them first. Wonder what it is about the rooster’s stuff that makes the eggs taste better?”
“I have no idea, Mr. Gabby,” she replied with reserved disgust. “This isn’t actually a proper topic for conversation.”
“Do you know if these are rooster eggs?” he asked, ignoring her comment. “I guess you don’t since you haven’t been out of this room for almost a year. I haven’t been out of this room for almost a year, almost a year without Cordie. Cordie doesn’t like fried eggs. She doesn’t like the runny part—”
“Mr. Gabby.” Closing her eyes, Mrs. Lincoln firmly grasped his hands. Her voice was frantic, but soft and fragile. After inhaling deeply, she continued. “I’m so glad you like fried eggs.”
“You can have mine,” Lincoln offered.
“No, thank you, sir.” Gabby examined Lincoln’s loose-fitting suit. “You need to eat all you can get your hands on. You’re a bag of bones. I haven’t seen a bag of bones like yours since my father died.” Responding to the sudden squeeze on his hands from Mrs. Lincoln, he stopped. After looking at each of them, he took his plate. “I think I better eat my breakfast now.”
Settling on the floor behind the crates and barrels, Gabby began to eat, his head slightly cocked to hear the conversation between the Lincolns.
“I wish he’d taken the fried eggs,” Lincoln said, a hint of humor shading his voice. “Do you want them?”
“Heavens no!” Mrs. Lincoln replied. “I keep telling Private Christy I prefer poached eggs, but I suppose my poached eggs go to that woman upstairs.” She paused to sip her coffee. “Mr. Gabby’s right, you know. You’re too thin. You should eat more.”
Gabby smiled with pride as he wiped dribbled egg yolk from the corner of his mouth. Mrs. Lincoln knew he was smart. That colonel at West Point was wrong. He said Gabby was stupid after the accident. He said West Point never made a mistake. Stupid people get people killed, the colonel said. But Mrs. Lincoln did not think he was stupid.
“Father,” Mrs. Lincoln announced, “I was wrong to think being locked up in this basement was the worst thing that could happen to a human being.”
Her remark shook Gabby. He did not want her to be wrong about something. Mrs. Lincoln thought he was smart, and he did not want her to think she made mistakes.
“I’ve concluded it’s much worse to be the guard at the door,” she continued. “At least we’ve the peace of mind of knowing we’re sinned against. How horrible to live knowing you are the sinner.”
“Mother.” Lincoln paused to sigh. “You’re too profound for this early hour of the morning.”
“It’s Private Christy, Mr. Lincoln,” she persisted. “His appearance, his demeanor. He knows he’s a sinner—an innocent sinner compared to that devil Stanton, but a sinner all the same—and that terrible knowledge is killing his soul.”
“You expect me to save his soul?” Lincoln muttered. “My dear, I’m not divine.”
Gabby’s head turned as he heard the door unlock. Adam came sooner and sooner every day for the breakfast plates, Gabby grumbled. He stuffed an entire bran muffin in his mouth. Soon he would not have time even to finish his eggs. Gabby stood to take his plate to the billiards table. Adam gathered the others, accepted Gabby’s plate, mumbled thank you, and turned away. Gabby noticed Mrs. Lincoln nudging her husband.
“Say something,” she whispered.
Lincoln scowled at her, then turned and forced a smile on his face. “Son, do you like licorice?”
“What?” Adam stopped on his way to the door, startled.
“Licorice. Do you like to suck on it?”
“Licorice?” Mrs. Lincoln said, hissing at her husband under her breath.
“I suppose. I ain’t had much.”
“Well, then, let me give you some.” Lincoln walked toward him, patting his pockets. When he pulled out a white paper wrapping the licorice, a small framed picture fell to the floor.
“Thank you, sir,” Adam said, taking the candy and leaving.