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.
This makes him witness to conversations he doesn’t want to hear.
Lingering at the corner of the crates and barrels, Gabby watched Mrs. Lincoln pick up the picture frame, focus her small brown eyes on it, and turn a bright scarlet. Her cheeks puffed out. Lincoln stopped when he saw his wife staring at it. Gabby knew yelling was about to begin, and his stomach tied into knots. He lost his appetite for his fried eggs. The air in the basement room became hotter and thicker. This wasn’t any of his business, but Gabby had to listen to it. He had no place to go. He was trapped like one of the rats he used to set traps for. Even as scared as he was, Gabby couldn’t help but peek around first stack of crates.
“Oh,” was the only word Lincoln could say. His head went down, and he stuck his hands in his pockets.
“I thought you left this photograph in Springfield.” Mrs. Lincoln’s voice was soft, but intense.
He cocked his head and shrugged. “Looking at it makes me forget for a few minutes about this awful war.”
“Looking at me is supposed to do that.” Her eyes welled with tears. “I’m your wife. I’m supposed to give you comfort. But it seems you don’t want any comfort from me!”
What kind of picture would provoke Mrs. Lincoln to such anger, Gabby wondered as he peered around the crates. The frame was small, perhaps three by five inches, not ornate but plain. Could it be a photograph of their first child who died? Shaking his head, Gabby decided that was not it. He would be very happy to have picture of his father, and no one could get mad for him having it.
Lincoln awkwardly tried to but his long arms around her tiny body, but she jerked away in holy indignation.
“You promised me you wouldn’t bring it.” After a cold moment of silence, Mrs. Lincoln flung the picture across the room.
Gabby’s eyes widened as Lincoln scrambled to pick up the frame, running his bony fingers over it, to check to see if the glass had broken. Lincoln returned it to his coat pocket and walked slowly to his wife.
“She was only a child. And now she’s dead.” Lincoln’s voice almost cracked. “She’s not a threat to you.”
“Not a threat!” Mrs. Lincoln’s face twisted. “That trollop has tormented me through my entire marriage!”
“Don’t call her that.” Lincoln’s hand impulsively reached to the pocket holding the photograph. “She was a sweet, innocent child who encouraged my dreams.”
“I didn’t encourage your dreams?” Mrs. Lincoln’s hysteria grew.
“I’ve told you; it isn’t even her in the photograph.”
“But it looks like her. That’s why you bought it.” Mrs. Lincoln’s eyes narrowed.
Gabby wondered who the girl in the picture was to create such a torrent of emotions between the Lincolns. She must have been a former girlfriend of Lincoln. She supported his dreams, Gabby sighed. Joe had encouraged his dreams, and he had supported Joe’s dreams. Joe had died, and all their dreams vanished with him. Gabby’s thoughts turned to his sister Cordie. He couldn’t her ever saying anything about his dreams. She was too busy trying to keep a roof over their heads and making sure they had something to eat.
“You’ve never loved me.” Tears rolled down Mrs. Lincoln’s cheeks. “Ann Rutledge won your heart, and she has it still.”
Lincoln took a deep breath, and Gabby expected a reasoned reply from him, but the door opened, and Stanton strode in, breaking the tension. Mrs. Lincoln, wiping her tears away, turned to disappear behind her French lace curtains, barely acknowledging the secretary of war. Shuddering, Gabby retreated further into his corner with his plate of fried eggs. Stanton scared the hell out of him. He cocked his head to eavesdrop.