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A Very Civil Flashman Part 2

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Grant visited Lee again the next morning, behind the rebel lines. He was accompanied by many Union officers, eager to meet old comrades they had spent four years fighting. By that time I was making my way to City Point via the Burkesvillerailroad, to take a dispatch boat to Washington. With the war over I was more than ready to set off for home. God knows what I'd say to Elspeth – I'd been gone longer than ever before and knowing her I was sure she hadn't missed out on Adam's arsenal in my absence. But there was a more urgent reason for me to hightail it out of Dodge, after a conversation with Grant the night before.

I was called to his tent mid-evening. He was sat on a campstool in front of it, by a small fire, puffing contentedly on a cigar. When I reached him he said 'Pull up a chair, Major, and make yourself comfortable'. I sat down and said 'I think it's time to resign my commission, General'. To my surprise he said 'You might want to keep that uniform on a while longer, Harry'.

'Why is that, Sam ?', I asked.

'Your former friends amongst the rebels haven't forgiven you for what they believe is your treachery. Some of them, according to reports from our agents, think a reckoning is due'.

'Did Lee say anything about it ?', I asked, in shock.

'He didn't say a word about it. I doubt he would arrange it, but the way he was looking at you I'd say he'd not be inclined to stop it'.

'Good Lord,it's two years ago now', I said. 'They've had spies as well. Do they expect them to be assassinated by the Federals now ? The war is over, after all. Anyway, why will keeping my commission help ?'

'As for that, some are less likely to try to kill you while you remain a former combatant, and covered by the terms of surrender', Grant answered. 'But not all are of the same mind. They see you as betraying them, not as an agent, because you came to them and offered your help'.

'But I only did that under threats from Mr Lincoln ! Don't they know that ?'

'I doubt it, and if they did, what of it ? It's not why you did it, it's that you did spy on them'.

Typical, I thought. I didn't want to help the Union, I was bullied into it. As a result of my weakness then I was now at risk for doing something I had little choice in. This is what comes of mixing with politicians and diplomats – never again, I thought. Looking at it dispassionately I was at little risk at present, in the middle of a victorious army. Still, if I needed any further incentive to get back to England this was it. I said much the same to Grant.

'You're safe enough here, for now', he said. 'But we'll get you on your road home in the morning, and back to Washington where I've no doubt your own people will see you right. Mr Lincoln will contact them via Secretary Seward with a letter, no doubt fulsome in its praise, telling of your considerable assistance in the cause of freedom. Good night, and thank you from myself for all your valuable help'. With that he put out his cigar, rose and went into his tent, leaving me ready to start at shadows, again.

By rail and then boat I was back in Washington on the afternoon of the 12th. Grant's staff had arranged accommodation for me there. Not the Willard this time – I was too well known there so if any vengeful rebels were after me I'd best avoid it this time. I was put up at the National Hotel, just 6 blocks from the Capitol on the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. I decided to ditch the uniform as well. I was too conspicuous in it and and I doubted if it would put off anyone who'd made the effort to find me in Washington. Scruples only go so far.

The National was a big place, long and broad with five storeys. It was as popular as the Willard and the scene of a lot of history – Lincoln had held his first inaugral dinner there, and Andrew Jackson and a number of other presidents had stayed there prior to inauguration. It had a reputation for good food and wine, so it seemed a snug enough place to hole up in, till I could get a ship home, probably from Baltimore. What I didn't know, until I registered at the reception desk was that another guest was one John Wilkes Booth.

I had just finished registering at reception when I caught a glimpse of a slim elegantly dressed man in his twenties. It was Booth, just as I remembered him when I put a spoke in his plan to kidnap Lincoln two years before. I'd expected him to stay in the south after that or face arrest but he was soon back in Washington carrying on with his acting career, as though nothing had happened. I could only assume that the fear of giving away my part in foiling the plot, and exposing me as a Federal agent in the heart of Lee's army had kept him free.

Fortunately I was able to turn slightly so he didn't spot me. As he passed I remarked to the clerk 'That gentleman is familiar to me', as I pointed to Booth. 'Should I know him ?'

The clerk looked at me in surprise. 'You surely should, sir. That's Mr John Wilkes Booth, the famous actor'.

'So it is', I answered. 'Staying here, is he ?'

'Yes, sir, regular guest here when he's in a play. Has the same room whenever he can, number 228', he replied. As I made my way to my room I determined to keep clear of Booth. Not that I was scared of him but if he recognised me he might mention it to one of his southern friends. With Grant's warning in mind that was something I was naturally keen to avoid.

 

I spent much of the following day at the British Ministry, arranging for a diplomatic passage home and recounting my adventures to Prosser, my old co-conspirator. Lord Lyons was no longer British Minister there, having gone home in ill health the previous year. The new man was Frederick Bruce, who I knew from my time in China where he was secretary to his brother Lord Elgin – not that he deigned to see me on this occasion. Still as he'd only arrived a week before I suppose he might have been somewhat busy. When I returned to the hotel I found a nice quiet corner in the large main dining room, where I'd be out of immediate view, had dinner, and retired for the night. On reaching my room I was delighted to find, propped up on the nightstand, an invitation to visit Mr Lincoln at the White House the following morning.

When I woke the next day, the 14th, I found the weather was better than expected and decided to take a stroll later in the morning round the centre of the city. My fears of kidnap or murder had subsided and I didn't relish the prospect of staying in my room most of the day. If I was careful I should be safe enough. Besides, I had to pay my respects to the President. I won't go into that here, as I've discussed it elsewhere, but that duty done, I went out into the city.

The city, of course, was packed. Visitors had poured into the capital to celebrate the end of the war, a grand military parade was being planned and there were fairs and entertainments being set up or arranged all over the place. Where there were these sort of entertainments they were usually accompanied by ones of a coarser, more earthy style that was more to my taste. I'd almost forgotten when I last had a woman and decided that was my immediate priority. It was around noon when I was strolling in the weak sunshine when I spotted a familiar figure heading for a livery stable. It was Booth. As ever he cut quite the dandy figure, wearing a tall black silk hat, flourishing a cane in one hand, with a light overcoat slung over his other arm. I ducked out of sight and out of nothing more than sheer curiousity decided to see what he was up to.

Booth walked up to the stable and called out a name, but I was too far away to make it out. After a moment a man in his thirties, I suppose, wearing a battered round hat and dressed like a stablehand appeared. He seemed to know Booth as he greeted him with a nod and a handshake. They talked for a few moments and then the stablehand – I supposed he must be the owner – reappeared leading a pretty little bay mare. Booth looked her over for a moment, then nodded, spoke again, and after shaking hands turned and walked off back the way he came.

Well, thinks I, he can't be buying the horse as he didn't look it over for long or very intently. Why would he be hiring a horse, I wondered ? I waited a few minutes in case he came back, then sauntered down to the stable to have a nosey around.

As I got there I saw the same man tidying some tack up at the front of the stable, so I called out a cheery 'hello'. Looking up he saw me and came out.

'Hello, mister', he said. 'I'm Jim Pumphrey, and this is my livery yard. What kin I do for you ?'

'Just the man I need', I replied. 'I need to hire a horse mid–morning tomorrow for the day. What have you got available ?'

'Most of my horses are out or are already hired. I gotta couple left free if you wanna come in and take a look', he said.

'Splendid, splendid', says I, and followed Pumphrey into the stable.

'What kinda horse was you looking for ?' he said over his shoulder as I followed. 'Planning a longish ride, or just riding the town for pleasure ?'

'Just a short jaunt out to see the sights beyond the city', I answered. 'I like an animal with a bit of spirit, ready for a sharp gallop when the road is clear'. Spotting the mare Booth had apparently hired I said 'That looks a mettlesome beast. Is she available ?'

He looked me over. 'You're a big fella. If you were going any distance I'd say you'd need something bigger and stronger. In any case she's hired out. I don't expect her back in time for you tomorrow'.

'Oh, what a shame', I replied. 'I'm not going far. Perhaps the other chap wouldn't mind taking another animal? She looks just like my sort of horse'.

Pumphrey shook his head. 'Even iff'n he would I wouldn't want to be discourteous to him. One of my best customers. Famous too'.

'Really', says I. 'General, perhaps, or bigwig politico ?'

'Nope. Neither o' them. He's a famous actor, probably the most famous in America', he said, with a note of reflected glory in his voice.

'I say, I follow the stage', I answered, with an edge of excitement in my voice. 'Would I know him ?'

'I should say so – Mr John W Booth', Pumphrey said.

'Well, he is a celebrity, I'm sure. I've not been in the US long but I've heard his name an awful lot', I said.

'I could tell you wasn't American', answered this bright spark. 'Where you frum, anyways ?'

'England, my dear chap. My name is Comber. Do you think Mr Booth might bring this darling little mare back before tomorrow ?'

'Well, he's only paid a day's hire so I guess he might. Can't be going far, said he was off to some theatre after he'd picked her up. Grover's, he said it was.

'I tell you what, old fellow', I said, 'I'll come back in the morning to see if she's ready. If not I'll see what else you've got'. With that I shook his hand, ruffled the mare's mane affectionately and left him to it.

Curiousity satisfied I set about finding a suitable establishment to sate my other inclinations. Being the capital, and wartime, with the city filled with soldiers there was no shortage of options. Still, I didn't want a rough house run by an old slattern where any common soldier could go, and likely get rolled and his money stolen. Discreet enquiries led me to one ran by a stern but polite Madam in her fifties named Mary Ann. Pleasantly appointed, the dozen or so whores there were nice and clean, and it even ran to good French champagne - Piper-Heidsieck if I remember right. Handily placed for the Capitol, too, so I knew it wouldn't have any rough necks among the clientele – more likely the odd senator or congressman. American politicos are damned censorious about sex – except for themselves. of course.

 

So it was in a relaxed mood that I sauntered back to the International in the pleasant afternoon sunshine. I contemplated dinner, speculated on whether my ticket home would be waiting on me, and wondered how I'd explain at this to Elspeth – assuming she recalled that I was her husband, of course. Reaching my room I turned the key in the lock and opened the door. As I stepped over the threshold I sensed a movement beside me, turned slightly towards it, and saw a figure with its arm raised. Instinctively I tried to step away but too late, whatever was in his hand hit me on the side of the head and everything went black.

I woke up some time later, with my head ringing and a sickening feeling in my stomach. I tried to move and found I was on the floor, bound hand and foot. It was now fully dark so it must have been late evening or even early morning but the curtains hadn't been drawn so I was able to see what I was doing in the bright moonlight that came in through the window.

With a great effort I sat up, my heading pounding again, and after a moment looked at my bonds. Hands and feet were lashed together by some thick rope, with tight, expertly tied knots. The only way out of them was to cut them. Looking round I saw my valise a few feet away, by the dresser. If I could get to that I might be able to tip my razor out and use it to cut through the rope. Rolling over to it was a huge effort which made my head pound more fiercely and my stomach heave again but after a moment I reached it. Fortunately my fingers and thumbs were fairly free so I was able to open the case, then tip it upside down. Out fell all my shaving gear along with brush, comb, tooth powder and what have you. In the middle was the precious razor. I opened the blade, nicking myself in the process. With some effort I cut through the knot joining hands and feet together, and fell back, able to stretch my legs for the first time in hours, chest heaving, sweat pouring off me in little streams, and my head feeling it was about to burst.

After a few minutes, with the circulation restored to my legs, and the pounding in my head receding slightly I sat up.. Shuffling on my backside I made my way back to the razor. Picking up the sharp blade with care between my hands I cut the rope round my ankles free. From there things were much easier, as I stood up, and made my way to a chair, blade in hand. Putting the razor between my knees, facing away from me, I was able to saw through the ropes around my wrists till they fell away to the floor.

Exhausted, with renewed pounding in my head, I slumped back in the chair for a few moments, resting, till I felt well enough to stand, then made my way to the wash stand. There was a ewer with clean, cool water in it. I emptied the water into the washbowl, soaked a small towel in it and staggered back to the chair, using the towel as a compress on the egg shaped lump on the side of my head where I'd been struck.

I'm not sure how long I sat there in the semi dark with the towel pressed to my head, but eventually the pounding and sickness began to wear off and I was able to pay some attention to my situation. I'd no notion of the time so the first thing I did was to take out my pocket watch. It was just after 9:15 pm. I needed a drink, now, and not water so I took the little tooth glass from the wash stand and filled it to the brim from a bottle of brandy I kept hidden in the wardrobe.

The first one went straight down in a gulp, hardly touching my lips. The fiery liquid burst into my stomach, warming and settling it, and sending that warmth through my aching limbs, reviving me in a few seconds. I poured another but this time took it to the chair where I sipped at it carefully, while I considered the situation.

Clearly someone had got access to my room and waited who knows how long till I returned, and then coshed me and trussed me up while I was unconscious. The question was who and why they did it.

My first thought was robbery but I soon discounted that. My room didn't look like it had been searched, I still had my wallet and pocket watch, which was worth stealing on its own. That ruled that theory out. My next thought made me shudder. What if it was rebels out for revenge for my treachery ? Another sip of brandy, and I ruled that out. Why tie me up and leave me ? If they'd been intent on revenge they'd have killed me on the spot, or more likely, considering their delicate notions, have spirited me away so they could put me on trial in some kangaroo court, before slitting my weasand, their consciences clear. Who the hell, then, would go to all this trouble but leave me trussed up and essentially in good health ? I thought back through the last few days and then it came to me like a bolt from the blue. It could only be Booth ! What if he'd picked up his horse, and Pumphrey had told him someone else had been interested in it ? He'd soon recognise me if Pumphrey described my appearance. Or what if he'd seen me in the hotel despite my care and decided that I might be a fly in the ointment that would be best removed from the scene ? He'd surely know by now that I'd been working for the Union all along. That was the only realistic possibility.

That left the question why ? Was he planning another kidnap attempt like the one I'd foiled before ? How could he get away with that ? Washington was crammed to the gunnels with soldiers and visitors. How could he spirit the US President away from the city ? He'd not get a mile with a prisoner, especially as he'd only hired one horse. One horse. With that thought the truth shot into my brain. He's not trying to capture Lincoln, he's hired a speedy little mare for a getaway. He's going to kill him ! I shot up from my chair, then sank down into it again, groaning, as the effort made my head start pounding again.

After a moment my head cleared and I started to think again. What could I do to stop him ? I'd no idea where he was, or Lincoln for that matter. I was in no condition for gun play or wrestling, even with a little weed like Booth. Lincoln wasn't my President, he'd used me abominably over the past two years, and he knew me for what I was. Not my place to act as his saviour, putting my precious hide at risk, after all. Perhaps I could get a message to Pinkerton or someone, warning them ?

With that intention I stood up, more slowly this time, and started for the door. What time was it, I wondered ? Looking at my watch it was just about 9:45. Of course I could be too late, he might have murdered Lincoln already. But if that was the case the news would spread like wildfire. Surely there'd be a commotion, a hubbub throughout the city ? I couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary going on. But he must be planning to do it this very night, and it must be soon, given the time now. There was no time to find Pinkerton or anyone else – if he was to be stopped it had to be now, and I was the only one who could do it. But where would he do the deed ? Then I remembered about the theatre – Booth was going there tonight. It had to be there. After all, he was an actor and it would suit the little montebank's sense of the dramatic to commit the act there. As I stepped out onto the pavement I picked up the pace and headed off into the night.

You might find it strange that I, with my innards still grumbling and a ringing head from my recent assault and moreover a self confessed poltroon who'd learned to steer clear of violence, would go off into the night on what was a probably a fool's errand. I had no real obligation to put my oar into whatever scheme Booth had planned. I might be completely wrong about Booth's intentions – it was all supposition on my part, with no concrete evidence he was planning an assassination. Even after all these years I'm still not sure why. These days, of course, it would be a simple matter of telephoning the requisite authority, or even the nearest police station to set the apparatus of the state in motion. For that reason I can't see any future in political assassination, not in a civilised country, anyway. Communication is too quick now for a lone gunman to succeed, what with how the top rank politicos are now guarded. A more complex plot involving more people would leak out – they always do.

That wasn't so in 1865 Washington though. I wasn't even sure how well guarded Lincoln was. When Booth had hatched his earlier kidnap plan Lincoln's guard was merely an amateur detective. In any case I can only think that my quixotic attempt to save Lincoln was partly down to the bash on the head, and being slightly fuddled with brandy on an empty stomach. Most of all, though, was the fear that if Booth succeeded I'd somehow be blamed if they found out I knew he was up to something. So I blundered on towards the theatre, occasionally stumbling or bumping into people on the crowded streets, as I made my way there, hoping I wouldn't be too late.

It was less than a mile to the theatre but on Washington's unlit and unpaved streets, full of people in the late evening. In my less than perfect state I suppose it must have taken me quarter of an hour to reach the theatre. It was situated on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks down from the White House itself. As I stumbled in througfh the main entrance I started to shout 'Mr Lincoln ! Where's Mr Lincoln ? I need to see him urgently ! Mr Lincoln !'

As the play, or whatever it was, was in mid performance there were only a few people in the foyer but they all looked round at this dishevelled madman, who'd burst in and begun bellowing like a wounded cow. I stumbled towards the nearest door into the auditorium but before I got there two sturdy ushers had grabbed my arms and restrained me.

'Can't go in there, mister', said one,. 'performance is still on. Your shouting and raving will interrupt the show'.

'That doesn't matter', I replied, chest heaving and sweat pouring down my face in streams. 'I must see Mr Lincoln this very minute !'

As I twisted in their grip, trying to free myself I heard a voice behind me.

'Bart, what in the devil's name is going on here ?'

'This feller's come crashing in, shouting for Mr Lincoln, Mr Hess. Don't rightly know if he's mad or just drunk', said the chap who'd first spoken to me.

 

By now I could see this new arrival, who was evidently the manager or owner of the place. He was a non-descript chap, quite tall but slim, with a big brush of a moustache but no other whiskers. He looked at me quizically.

'Only Lincoln here tonight is Tad, Mr Lincoln's son. He's here to see this', and he showed me a playbill. which read” Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp” 'The President is at Ford's theatre, on 10th St, to see 'Our American Cousin', he went on.

'Christ', I've come to the wrong theatre !', I shouted, and shook myself free from the ushers. 'Which way is it ?', I asked Hess.

'It's back on 10th street, about half a mile or so, he answered. 'Take you about 10 minutes at this time I guess. What do you want with the President ?'

By this time I was headed for the exit. 'Danger, he's in danger from Booth. Tell Pinkerton,tell Pinkerton', I called back over my shoulder, as I dashed out onto the crowded streets again. I must have been in there for less than 2 minutes.

Fuelled by the energy of the desperate I ran through the crowded streets, yelling fiercely about 'murder, murder', with people either staring at the madman, or hurrying to get out of his way. I reached Ford's in less than ten minutes. As I approached it all seemed quiet with none of the noise and commotion that could be expected if Booth had made his assassination attempt. Perhaps he'd changed his mind, I thought. After all, for all his bluster he didn't seem to have the nerve to shoot a man in cold blood. But of course I couldn't rely on that so I ran up the few steps into the entrance hall. As I entered I glanced up at the clock above the main theatre doors – it was just coming up to 10 past 10.

There was a ticket collector just inside. As I went to go past him he stopped me. 'You gotta a ticket, mister', he asked me, as he put a hand on my right arm.

'No time for that', I said, shaking his hand off. 'Is Booth here ? Is Booth here ?'.

'What do you want with Mr Booth?', he asked.

I grabbed him by his lapels, pulling him to me, and glaring like a madmen.

'Is he here ?', I shouted at him, his face mere inches from mine. His face went pale and he started to stammer – Flashy in a fright can be quite intimidating.

'He's been in and out all night. Last I saw him was just a few minutes ago, going up the stairs over there, to the dress circle. He pointed to a spiral staircase in the corner of the lobby, which lead up to the seats on the right hand of the stage. 'That's where the President's private box is', he added. Without a seconds thought I flung him away and dashed up the stairs, hoping to God not to hear the crash of pistol shots and the screams of Mrs Lincoln.

I reached the top of the stairs in seconds and looking round saw a door with a guard sitting outside it. As I approached he stood up and barred my way.

'Can't go in there, mister', he told me. 'that's Mr Lincoln's state box through there'.

'Has anyone else gone in there apart from Mr Lincoln and his party ?', I asked him, struggling to keep in some sort of calm state, though by now I was soaking with sweat, my face was burning red and I could hardly stop shaking.

'No one except that actor feller whose always round here. Booth is his name', he said.

'My God, no !', I shouted and flung him aside, crashing my way to the doorway. I tried to push it open but it seemed to be stuck. I started to heave at it, cursing vilely but it wouldn't move – it was locked or wedged shut somehow. Exhausted though I was I took my boot to it. After a few seconds I heard a splintering from the other side of the door and I rammed my shoulder against it to burst through. On the other side were two doors. The one on the left was part open – strangely I noticed it was numbered 8. As I stepped towards it I heard a gale of laughter from the audience and, the sound mostly drowned by the audience, a single pistol shot, followed by someone shouting, indistinctly, in Latin.

As I burst through the door I saw Booth wrestling with a young man in army uniform. He slashed at the man with a large hunting knife, aiming for his chest but the soldier parried the thrust with his arm, receiving a long, deep wound from his shoulder to the bottom of his arm. Booth thrust him aside and jumped over the balcony, landing awkwardly on the stage as the audience, as one, stared in horror at the drama now taking place offstage.

It was utter bedlam in the box, with Mary Lincoln and another woman staring and shrieking at the same time, the soldier bleeding copiously from his wound, and face down on the floor, completely still, blood running from a large wound on the back of his head, lay the President of the United States.

 

This is the final entry in this packet of the Flashman Papers.