In early January, Anna and I sat side by side on the piano bench, singing a duet. I was not particularly musical—my older sister, the nun, had inherited all of the family talent in this direction—but I did enjoy singing, and no one had been known to cringe when I lifted my voice in song. Anna, on the other hand, played and sang beautifully, to the point where she could have earned her living working in a music hall, had it been respectable. So she and I were happily warbling away when the parlor door opened. As Mr. Surratt was expected any moment, we paid it no mind and carried on until we finished with a great flourish.
“Bravo!”said a voice of pure velvet. “Well played, ladies!”
Anna and I turned and found ourselves face-to-face with John Wilkes Booth.
If I looked half as foolish as Anna, and I daresay I looked far more foolish, the two of us must have resembled a pair of gaping idiots. And how we were dressed! We weren’t in curl papers, fortunately, but I had my oldest shawl flung carelessly around my shoulders, and Anna’s fair hair was twisted up in a ragged knot. Neither of us would have wanted to meet a lady friend in such a condition, much less this epitome of male beauty. For Mr. Booth was every bit as splendid as I could have imagined. I was mildly surprised to see he was not tall, but of medium height. I quickly decided tallness was a trait overrated in men, especially since I myself was short. In every other aspect, however, he was even finer than he appeared in his photographs, which could be purchased at any studio in Washington. His black hair fell in soft curls, framing a face that was lit by deep brown eyes that I, to this day, dare not demean with any further description, lest it be inadequate. His clothing, a study in black and white, was simply yet exquisitely cut, and showed off his fine physique without at all seeming to do so.
He was, in short, sheer perfection.
Having secured a buggy and horses from there, Johnny left early the next morning for the train station and returned in the buggy with Mrs. Slater dozing on his shoulder. “I was on the train all night,” she explained plaintively after Johnny nudged her awake. “I scarcely slept a wink. So you are coming with us, Mrs. Surratt?”
This chit was maddening.
Mrs. Slater graciously moved to the back of the carriage so I could ride up front with Johnny, but all this did was encourage Johnny, who of course, was driving, to keep turning around to speak to her. I kept telling him to watch in front of him, and he obeyed for ten minutes until he remembered something else amusing he wanted to tell Mrs. Slater. He did this so often I almost wished he would run off the road, just so I could have the pleasure of telling him I was right.
Mrs. Slater’s nap against my son’s shoulder seemed to have refreshed her remarkably. When Johnny was not risking life and limb to gaze into her eyes (for she had lifted that ever-present veil of hers), this hussy was chattering on: about her train ride with Mr. Booth, about the shops she had been to in New York, about her mama, the Frenchwoman, and about the beauties of New Bern, North Carolina (such as they were). The only subject she did not trip her tongue about was that of her husband, except when I asked about him. The little harlot did not even have the decency to be offended: she simply hoped he was safe. Then Johnny, as if to spare her feelings, asked her to speak in French—a language he had learned in school but claimed to speak only passably. How much he could understand of what Mrs. Slater rattled off I did not know, but he looked enthralled, and Mrs. Slater certainly did speak the language prettily.
She had thoroughly ensnared my Johnny.
Not a moment too soon, we arrived at Surrattsville and my tavern. Was it my imagination, or was it looking a little seedy? Before I could give this much thought, Mr. Lloyd lurched out to greet us. It was midmorning, and if he was not completely in his cups, he was certainly well on his way there. “He’s been arrested!”
“Who?” Johnny asked.
“Last night! He had just sat down to play a game of cards when they swooped in and seized him. Carried him off in chains!”
“But who, man?”
“He made a heap amount of fuss about it too.”
“Do you mean Mr. Howell?” I asked.
“That’s what I said.” Mr. Lloyd gave us a look of offended dignity.
"Oh,” said Johnny. “Damn.” He nodded at me. “Thank you for clearing that up, Ma.”
“And I am ruined,” Mr. Lloyd said.
“How? You’re here, aren’t you? Did they arrest anyone else?”
"Did the card game go on?”
“Yes.” Mr. Lloyd strained to remember. “I think I won, actually.”
“Well, then!” Johnny sighed and stroked his goatee. “But it is a pity about poor Howell. And even more of a pity for the person who tries to get him to talk."
Mrs. Slater had been listening to this from her perch in the carriage. Now she tugged at Johnny’s arm. “Mr. Surratt, how I am to travel now?”
"Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’ll get you across the river, and if there’s no one I can trust you with, I’ll take you to Richmond myself. To Jeff Davis himself, if you please. Haven’t I brought you there safely before?”
“Yes, and beautifully.”
“I wish you would leave,” Mr. Lloyd said. “What if they come back?”
“What if they do? They will see your landlady and her son, in company with a fair young lady. Hardly something to send shivers up the federal spine. But I suppose you have a point. Once the horses are rested—they’re a handsome pair, aren’t they?—I’ll take Mrs. Slater on her way, and Ma can fetch my cousin and take the stage back. Is that satisfactory to everyone?”
I nodded, though I could not say I was happy about leaving my son and this hussy together, especially after this “sweetheart” slipped out. But I supposed the Confederacy needed whatever she was carrying.
Mr. Lloyd, however, was still frowning. “Can’t you take those damn guns of yours too, Surratt?”
“No,” Johnny said crisply. “They must stay here for now.”