Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Fifty-Five

Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns captive under guard in the White House basement. Stanton selects Duff, an AWOL convict,to impersonate Lincoln. Duff forms his own opinions about cabinet members, including Navy Secretary Gideon Welles.
Duff paused to look at the executive office second-story window and found Stanton gone. That meant the secretary of war was waiting. He feared what Stanton wanted to tell him. He climbed the service stairs, trying to compose his thoughts. When he entered the second-floor hallway and passed through the etched glass panel into the office, Duff heard Stanton instructing Hay.
“You may have your dinner hour now.”
“But I’ve a couple of questions about my notes,” Hay replied.
“I’ve a private appointment with the president which may last hours.”
“Would you like for me to stay to take notes?”
“I said I want you to leave the building. I’ve been quite clear.”
Duff detected a pause.
“Oh. Yes, sir.”
Entering the office with all the casualness as he could feign, Duff smiled at them. “Ah, Mr. Stanton, you remembered my order to stay for a couple of hours.” Taking pleasure from Stanton’s pinched Cupid’s bow lips, Duff winked at Hay and laughed. “I shouldn’t be too hard on the old man.”
Stanton’s cheeks burned bright red, and Duff flung one of his long, gangling arms around Hay’s shoulders. “I hope Secretary Stanton didn’t try to boss you into forgoing your dinner to take notes on our strategy session.”
“No, sir.”
“That’s good. I’ve noticed Mr. Stanton oversteps his authority by ordering around my personal staff.” Duff laughed again. “You know, he reminds me of the barnyard cock who strutted around the hens, thinking his crowing made the sun rise.”
As Hay chuckled, Duff pushed him out the door, firmly shutting it behind him.
“That,” Stanton said in an angry whisper, “was totally uncalled for.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Duff replied. “I thought it sounded like something Mr. Lincoln would say.” He sat behind the large oaken desk, hoping to hide his shaking leg.
“Yes, and you know where his arrogance got him.”
“Mr. Stanton, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about Lincoln in the basement.” He looked grave. “What do you want?”
“You know very well.” Stanton walked to the desk, planting both fists on it. “What did Mr. Welles say to you?”
“That bewigged, doddering old fool? Merely gossip.”
“Gossip? What kind of gossip?”
“The campaign in Vicksburg will end successfully, possibly today.”
“He wants Grant to replace Meade.”
“Why replace the victor of Gettysburg?”
“Circumstances change quickly. Our record of changing generals suggests that trend will continue.”
“You see-it’s futile to keep a secret from me.” Stanton cocked his head to eye Duff. “You’ve another secret.”
“Nothing serious.” Duff stalled Stanton, thinking of some crumb to toss him, something to appease him, something somewhat related to the war—but not connected to Alethia.
“It’s foolish to defy me. Spit it out.”
“It’s something Mr. Hay said. Don’t blame him. He thought he was reporting it to the proper authority.”
“He came to my bedroom several months ago…”
“You waited to tell me?”
“I had my reasons. One being concern for your personal life.”
Stanton took a step back.
“As I was saying, he visits me often late at night to share stories he’s heard at some party. I didn’t know social gossip interested you. Besides, it involves someone you know.”
“Jean H. Davenport Lander.”
“Don’t believe gossip.” He shuffled his feet. “I was between marriages when Jean and I—enjoyed each other’s company. This was before she married Colonel Lander.”
Duff gained confidence; for once, he held the upper hand. Smiling at Stanton, Duff was certain he saw beads of perspiration across his brow.
“Mr. Hay, it seems, talked to her at this party.”
“Go on.”
“She seemed concerned, he said, about a young Virginian she had met who boasted of a great, daredevil thing.”
“A daredevil thing?”
“What if he were planning an assassination?”
“That’s highly unlikely.”
“I thought, how ironic if I were killed instead of Mr. Lincoln.”
“Did she mention his name?”
“I don’t know.”
“If Mr. Hay mentions it again, tell me.”
Before Duff responded, office messenger Tom Cross rapped softly at the door and opened it. He timidly stepped in, his eyes wide with apprehension.
“Yes, Tom. What is it?” Duff asked.
“We just received a message from the Soldiers’ Home.” He paused to swallow hard. “They want you to come immediately. Mrs. Lincoln’s condition, it’s worse. She’s got a fever and is in and out of consciousness.”

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