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.
Have a seat, Mr. Secretary,” Lincoln said. Scratching of chairs covered another comment which Gabby couldn’t understand. Lincoln chuckled and Stanton harrumphed.
“The information from Chancellorsville was late yesterday afternoon. There was a surprise attack led by General Jackson.”
“How bad was it?” the president asked.
“Hooker was caught off-guard and—“
“More lives lost.” Lincoln sighed. “More lives will be lost.”
“Meade acquitted himself well, but it was not enough.”
“Meade’s a good man.”
“Hooker must be replaced,” Stanton said.
Gabby became aware of an awkward pause.
“Or perhaps he should be given another opportunity,” Stanton offered. His tone was softer.
He wanted Lincoln to decide, Gabby thought, but Stanton did not want to say so. The war secretary wanted the president to say what he would tell the cabinet upstairs, except he was still locked in the basement. The president, Gabby repeated in his mind. If he—Gabby–were actually president, then perhaps Stanton was waiting for him to step from behind the crates and barrels to tell him what to do. Gabby moved a foot slightly before two other thoughts seeped into his mind: he did not know what to do, and if he were indeed president, he would follow the adage that the leader who leads least, leads best.
“And if Hooker were replaced,” Stanton continued after another long silence, “who’d replace him?”
Again, stinging silence controlled the room.
“You’ve nothing to say?” Stanton asked.
“Oh. You expected a response,” Lincoln ingeniously replied. “I presumed you were merely thinking out loud.”
“You know very well I wasn’t.” Stanton spat. “If I wish to think aloud I needn’t come here.”
Gabby heard Lincoln’s sigh and respected his remarkable restraint.
“Where will you put me if I’m wrong this time, Old Capitol Prison?”
Stanton began to gurgle in indignation.
“I apologize,” Lincoln said. Gabby thought he should not have. “Try to forget what I said. I seem to be in the middle of a malaise. Why I should be melancholy I don’t know—once again I slide into irony. It’s the Union’s future that’s important, and not me.”
“Thank you, sir,” Stanton whispered.
“Replace Hooker with Meade. With whom we shall eventually replace Meade can be discussed another day.”
Very wise that I stepped back to allow Lincoln to decide, Gabby thought. He did well. Chairs shuffled about, indicating Stanton was leaving.
“Mr. Stanton?” Mrs. Lincoln’s voice was subdued.
“Yes?” he wearily replied.
“I’m worried about Private Christy. His clothes are disheveled and his hair—“
“His appearance is his own business.” Stanton turned away.
“I’m not complaining about his appearance,” Mrs. Lincoln persisted. “It’s the reason for his appearance. He’s not happy.”
“We’re at war.” H emitted a brutal laugh. “No one’s happy.”
Before she could reply, the door opened. Gabby could see that it was Adam returning the chamber pots. Stanton left, and Lincoln disappeared behind his curtain. Mrs. Lincoln just stood there, eyeing Adam with sympathy. Gabby wanted to help. After Adam put the pots in their respective places, Gabby remembered what the strange man in the straw hat said to him. He reached out to touch the private’s arm.
“Ocean waves taught me always to see beyond the things on hand as the ocean always points beyond the waves of the moment.”
Gabby followed Adam to the door.
“Young men are meant to laugh and play.”
“All right.” Adam wrinkled his brow as he unlocked the door to leave.
“Do you have a strong, lean, white belly?” Gabby reached out to touch his midsection, but Adam opened the door and stepped out into the hall.
As he heard the key locking the door, Gabby earnestly added, “Your nation needs you.”