Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Sixty-Two

Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns and janitor Gabby Zook captive under guard in the White House basement. Stanton selects Duff, an AWOL convict,to impersonate Lincoln. Mrs. Surratt confronts Gabby’s sister Cordie at the boardinghouse.
“I’m sorry I’ve been harsh with you.” Mrs. Surratt looked fondly at Cordie.
“Then you’re not going to charge me for having Gabby’s clothes here?”
“Of course not.” She paused. “While your loyalty to your father and his Union sympathies is worthy, you must admit Mr. Lincoln does nothing to ease your financial woes.”
“Gabby and I take care of ourselves.”
“You know, the awful northern press paints a terribly unfair picture of the South and its sympathizers. We don’t want to see any citizen suffer. A lady like you shouldn’t have to worry about where the rent money is coming from each month.”
“Between selling quilts and mending socks I can pay our bills.” Cordie was becoming irritated by Mrs. Surratt’s comments on money. It was not her business.
“But you must have enough for emergencies.”
“What emergencies?” Cordie tried to sound pleasant.
“Why,” Mrs. Surratt said, with a twinkle in her eyes, “when a daft old woman like me demands more money than she should.”
“Oh.” That did not make sense to Cordie, but she did not want to be rude and tell Mrs. Surratt that.
“I shouldn’t tell you this, but I do so want to help you—in the spirit of the Confederacy, of course.” Mrs. Surratt put her arm around Cordie’s rounded shoulders. “My son John has very close contacts with the Confederate government, and therefore access to the Confederate treasury. I think I could intercede on your behalf to my son for money.”
“I don’t want charity.” Cordie was becoming angry.
“Bless you, my dear. Of course you don’t want charity. That’s what’s so wonderful about the Confederacy. It’s willing to examine your situation to find out what you have that it could buy.”
“What on earth would they want to buy from me?” Cordie narrowed her eyes.
“I don’t know anything.” Cordie felt extremely uncomfortable with Mrs. Surratt’s arm around her shoulders.
“You’re so modest. How sweet. Your brother works at the White House. He sees things. He hears things. The Confederacy pays to learn those things.”
“We won’t be spies.” Cordie stood; she had had enough.
“You’re so innocent.” Mrs. Surratt laughed. “It’s quite appealing. They’re playing word games with you. If they send people to Richmond, they call it surveillance, but when we southerners seek the truth, they call us spies.”
“It’s still spying.” Cordie turned her back to her. “I don’t even talk to Gabby.”
“Then how does he get his mending?”
“A White House soldier takes it,” she said grudgingly.
“Is he young?”
“He’s a private.”
“Appeal to his maternal needs. He can tell you—”
“I’m not his mother.” Cordie turned to look at her with steely eyes. “I’m not good at being devious.”
“You disappoint me.” Mrs. Surratt stiffened and stood. “On second thought, maybe I should charge you for your brother. After all, we’re saving space for him here, aren’t we? Space I could be renting to someone else.”
“Charge more?” Cordie held her breath. Gabby was not bringing in his salary, so there was not enough to pay more rent.
“And you’re selling these quilts. I didn’t know that. You’re making quite a living under my roof. I should charge more for that.”
“I can’t pay more,” she whispered.
“Then you’ll have to find another place to live, won’t you?”
Washington boardinghouses were filled; no rooms were available. Everybody knew that. What would she do? Cordie worried, as tears filled her eyes.
“Of course, if you were a friend of the Confederacy and asked your young soldier a few questions about the White House, perhaps I could reconsider.”
“Very well.” Cordie wiped her tear-stained cheeks. “I’ll try.”
“Bless you, my dear.” Mrs. Surratt kissed Cordie’s forehead. “You’ll save many, many lives.” Walking to the door, she turned to smile. “When will you see that dear young private?”
“Tonight. We’re going to watch the parade. I’ll give him Gabby’s trousers.”
“Good. Like I said, ask him a few questions.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Cordie hung her head as blankness covered her face.
“Thank you, my dear.” Mrs. Surratt reached for her change purse. “You look exhausted. Here’s money for the omnibus.” She dropped a few coins in Cordie’s hand. “There’s more where that came from, if you do your job well.”
As the door shut quietly, Cordie looked at the coins and sighed. Mrs. Surratt gave her only enough for the ride to the Executive Mansion and not back. Gathering her things together, Cordie left and, with apprehension, climbed on board the omnibus.

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