There was shouting along the banks of the East River, but Arthur could not quite make it out.
He stood upon the deck of the Saint John, the steamboat that he and Conkling had caught very early that morning, and peered across the morning fog that now was lifting from the waters of that tributary that shot north from New York Harbor, cleft the island of Manhattan from the cities of Brooklyn and Queens, swept heedlessly through the sharp breaks at Spuyten Duyvil, then rushed into the great Hudson River and ran up to Albany. But the return of Conkling and Platt to Albany had proven less triumphant than anticipated. The mood of the Stalwarts in the New York legislature was cool, at best, and the mood of the Half-Breeds even cooler. Soon the unpleasant realization descended upon Arthur that Conkling had not consulted with Albany in advance of his gambit, and that although Conkling’s friends might have hailed his show of rebellion against the ungrateful Garfield and rewarded him for it, to impose it upon them without any notice was an unwelcome display of extraordinary presumption. The Stalwarts were slow to rally to the cause of Conkling and Platt and insisted instead upon selecting Senators through the usual legislative process — slow stuff in the best of times, interminable at a time when a prompt rejoinder to the President was imperative.
Arthur wondered what the d____ they were shouting about. During the course of any river journey, there were locales upon the shore that were louder than others, ordinarily celebrations by drunken sailors at the taverns along the docks. But it seemed to Arthur that the cries from the banks had nearly followed the steamboat from Ninety-Sixth Street for nearly forty blocks now.
Long delays in Albany demanding their own diversions, for it was well-nigh stifling that summer, Arthur and Platt spent many evenings at table and at drink. Scheming was all the daily bread that Conkling required. After one particularly boisterous evening, however, Platt’s manly urges were untethered, and he attracted the attentions of a pliant young lady who was inconveniently already married. Arthur, being a gentleman, took Platt’s assignation as an indication that his involvement in the evening was over, and went to bed. There were, however, Half-Breeds in Albany as well as in Washington, and these rogues employed a step-ladder to steal a glance over the transom into Platt’s hotel room. After much mirth, one slipped a note under the door to Platt:
We will give you ten minutes to get out of that room.
Platt thereupon withdrew his name for the position of Senator, having served the State of New York in that capacity for only four months. But Conkling would not withdraw.
“I say,” Arthur inquired of a porter, who was by now assembling suitcases upon the decks in preparation of their arrival at the docks, “can you make out what they are saying on shore?”
The well-tanned porter squinted his eyes and wrinkled his nose. After a few moments, he shook his head.
“Can’t say I do, sir. We shall be landing in a few minutes.”
“Very well.” Arthur sighed and continued to wait above decks. Conkling was in a foul mood, and Arthur had no desire to return to his cabin. The shouting continued, and Arthur fancied that it continued to follow the Saint John. Finally a word rang from the shore with such clarity that Arthur could comprehend it.
There was news, to be sure, but there was always news, for the papers contrived to sell their wares with endless proclamations of urgency that, upon review and reflection, scarcely warranted the nickel dropped in the filthy hands of the young scamps who scurried about the streets of New York with the papers. Perhaps there had been a drop in the stock market? That would be most unfortunate, as Arthur had many parties to attend for the commemoration of the Fourth of July, and a run on the market would cast a pall upon such celebrations. Now he leaned over the deck and focused his utmost attention upon the docks, where he fancied he could see a large gathering of men and newsboys. Perhaps the legislature named Conkling as Senator, he speculated, and they have come back to greet us.
Now he could make out another word.
How appalling! Arthur shook his head. There were murders to spare in New York, and it seemed that the papers covered every one of them, whether the suspect was a conniving Irish maid, a surly Negro stable-boy, a mistress consumed by jealousy, or a gentleman gone to seed.
Now Conkling appeared on deck, the sun christening his curls with a halo of gold.
“It appears that we have arrived,” Conkling ventured, making a display of nonchalance. Now Conkling squinted his eyes. “Is that your Aleck at the dock?”
Arthur turned. Why, there was his valet! He sighed with relief, for Aleck was ever his ally against Conkling’s turbulent moods. Aleck perceived his master and began to wave his hat. Now Arthur heard another cry.
“I am a Stalwart!” the newsboys cried.
This must be quite a story, Arthur mused, perhaps even a good one for the Stalwarts. He walked to his bags and accounted for all of his possessions, and pulled out a cigar, fancying that there might still be enough time for a smoke, when there was a loud clanging noise as a gangway fell upon the ship and Aleck came bounding aboard.
“Mr. Vice-President, sir!” Aleck cried.
“Good morning, Aleck!” Arthur beamed. “Have you forgotten your manners in my absence?”
Aleck’s ebony visage was awash in sweat, and he did not smile.
“You are in grave danger, sir. The President has been shot by a madman!”
Arthur dropped the cigar.
“What is the meaning of this?” Conkling exclaimed angrily, seizing Aleck by the shoulder and turning him around.
Aleck shook off Conkling’s hand.
“President Garfield was shot this morning,” Aleck intoned, “by a man who claims to be a Stalwart.” Aleck cast a glance at Conkling, who did not acknowledge it.
The next few minutes passed in a terrifying blur. Assisted by several porters, Aleck shoved his way down the gangplank and through the crowds, nearly dragging Arthur along with him. Conkling followed in a fit of deep agitation, and Arthur thought he could see more than a few men thrown to the ground for hindering Conkling’s passage. They eventually traversed the docks and reached the street, where Aleck had a carriage waiting. Conking leapt inside, while Arthur had to be trundled in by an increasingly vexed Aleck. Aleck rapped on the inside of the roof and the carriage took off with a jolt.
“Where are we going?” Arthur cried, bouncing and swaying.
“The Fifth Avenue Hotel,” Aleck replied, then fixed his deep brown eyes upon Arthur’s. “There is a crowd at your home, and it is not safe there.”
“Good Lord!” Arthur cried. He looked across the carriage at Conkling, who was in a state of deep agitation, peering out a thin opening in the curtains lining the carriage. Arthur could hear the sing-song cadence of the newsboys, dreadfully unsuited to the news of the day:
“Garfield Shot! President Feared Dead!”
“I Am A Stalwart and Arthur Is President!”
Arthur’s heart stopped. If there was one assassin, were there others? The night that Lincoln was murdered, a conspirator broke into Secretary Seward’s home and slashed his throat, while Vice-President Johnson’s intended assassin lost his nerve. What sort of assassin might be coming for him? The thought of Andrew Johnson awoke an even more disturbing thought. If Garfield were dead, he would be President. He had never wished for such a thing! He opened his mouth to ask Conkling, but the question died on his lips. Conkling would not look at him. The three men spent the remainder of the ride in silence — one seething, one courageous, one afraid.
The carriage came to a sudden halt and the door was thrown open.
“Quickly!” Platt appeared at the door of the carriage, surrounded with several of the burlier hangers-on employed at the Customs-House. “We shall take you through the servants’ entrance!”
Aleck shoved Arthur from behind while Platt pulled him from the front. A cloak was thrown over his head.
“Just for a moment, Chet!” Platt hissed in his ear.
Arthur stumbled along, relying upon Aleck’s firm hands at his back, and after several twists and turns, the cloak was removed from his head. He was now in the cavernous lobby of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, unkempt and gasping, with Platt at one side and Conkling on the other, Aleck behind him. Before them stood the very worried proprietor of the establishment and a uniformed member of the New York City Police Department.
“Mr. Vice-President, Senator Conkling, sirs,” the hotelier began. “You are welcome here as always. But you must understand that we cannot be responsible for protecting you from every threat. This is Commissioner Stephen French. I am constrained to turn you over to his protection.”
“Protection?” Arthur cried. “From what?”
Commissioner French cleared his throat.
“We have received warnings, sirs, that — should the President die — Arthur, Conkling, and Platt should pay the penalty.”
“What?” Arthur exclaimed. “Why?”
Conkling turned upon Arthur.
“Don’t be a fool, Chet! They are blaming all this on me! The Half-Breeds think that I am plotting to install you as President!” Now Conkling smoothed his waistcoat, straightened his posture, and turned to French.
“What do you advise, Commissioner?”
“You ought to stay here for the time being, together, so that my men can protect you. I advise the greatest discretion in your every move.”
“Our usual suite?” Conkling demanded of the hotelier.
“Of course, sir.”
“Very well. I trust Aleck shall bring our bags.”
Conkling turned upon his heel and strode toward the stairs, Platt nipping at his heels. Aleck snorted and whistled for the porters.
“Now, sir!” French took his arm, and, surrounded by New York policemen with billy clubs at the ready, French escorted Arthur upstairs.
When Arthur arrived at the suite, Conkling had assumed his usual place, gazing out the window, his left thumb hooked into the pocket of his side-trousers, his right foot slightly advanced.
“Senator Conkling,” said French, “I must advise — ”
“They have no angle on me here,” Conkling replied curtly. “I chose this suite for the discretion it offers.”
French hesitated then finally replied.
“Very well, sir. Mr. Vice-President, there is a telegram for you on the table.”
Arthur held his breath for a moment, then steadied himself. He picked up the telegram and instantly breathed a sigh of relief.
At this hour (1 P.M.) the President’s symptoms are not regarded as unfavorable, but no definite assurance can be given. There are strong grounds for hope and at the same time the gravest anxiety as to the final result.
Arthur set the telegram down.
“That sounds promising, I suppose,” he said, “but what happened?”
“We do not know all the details yet,” French replied, “but from my colleagues in Washington it appears that the President departed the Executive Mansion this morning to take a train to his college reunion. Shortly upon entering the Baltimore and Potomac Station, a man appeared from nowhere and shot him, before being subdued by the constables. Secretary Blaine was with the President at the time and immediately obtained medical attention.”
Conkling shook his head.
“Blaine!” he muttered. “A pity the bullet did not take him instead!”
“What about what the newspapers are saying?” Arthur pressed. “ ‘I am a Stalwart and Arthur is President’?”
French paused for several moments. “The assassin is alleged to have shouted those words.”
Arthur covered his face with his hands. He would never have countenanced any actions of violence against Garfield but, as he weighed in his mind the events of the past few months, he could not but admit that the vituperations directed against Garfield, particularly from Conkling, might have created an altogether less friendly impression.
There was a short rapping at the door, to which French attended.
“Ah!” French said, returning with a messenger boy. “We took the liberty of sending a man to your home to see if any communiques arrived there, and here we are. By the time-stamp, it appears that this is the first telegram sent to you by Blaine.”
The messenger boy offered the telegram, and Arthur read it aloud:
The President of the United States was shot this morning by an assassin named Charles Guiteau. The surgeons in consultation regard his wounds as very serious though not necessarily fatal. He had not lost consciousness for a minute.
“Guiteau? Who was that?”
“Not one of ours,” Conkling muttered from the window.
“Take this down,” Arthur commanded the messenger. “To Blaine —Your telegram with its deplorable narrative did not reach me promptly, owing to my absence. I am shocked’ — no, say ‘I am profoundly shocked at the dreadful news.’ Now make haste.”
The messenger boy bowed.
“There are uniformed patrolmen with detectives stationed in the lobby,” said French, “and plainclothes detectives at other suitable locations in the hotel. I shall return in due course.”
French and the messenger boy departed the suite, and in the moment that the door to the suite opened, the frantic exclamations of newspapermen could be heard, with French demanding order. In French’s absence, the mood grew foul. Conkling continued to brood by the window, Platt sat hunched tapping his fingertips together, and Arthur began to pace the room, wishing for Aleck.
“The mood in this city is as the draft riots,” Platt said darkly.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Conkling snapped.
“I mean that if we go out there, we will be lynched.”
“Nonsense!” Conkling glared at Platt. “Some madman has engaged in an act of lunacy, and the fault lies with us? Why, that is preposterous, not to mention libelous! Our good names shall be forever besmirched?”
Platt blinked several times. “But there is nothing to be done for it.”
“Nothing?” Conkling cried. “There is a mob outside the door, sure — armed with pencil stubs and notepads! They shall eagerly devour anything that I give them! A few well-chosen words shall make all the difference here.”
There began a pounding in Arthur’s head, and a tightness in his chest.
“Roscoe, my friend,” he began.
“You ought not say anything!” Conkling snarled at Arthur. “You have everything to gain from this reversal of fortune. I must demand your silence!”
“Roscoe,” Arthur pleaded, “whatever would you say to them?”
“Why, it is obvious.” Conkling appeared insulted. “There is no occasion for public apprehension or excitement. The Constitution points out just what should be done. The Vice-President on the death of the President instantly succeeds, and the government goes on as if no change had occurred.”
“That is the very truth!” Platt brightened considerably.
Arthur shook his head. “We must remain silent for now. I must implore you not to make any statements on my behalf.”
“This is not a statement on your behalf,” Conkling scoffed, “but mine!”
With that, Conkling smoothed his waistcoat, ran his hand through his curly mane such that his Hyperion curl dangled just so, strode forcefully to the door, and opened it.
There was an instant barrage of questions.
“Do you regret your treatment of the President now, sir?”
“Would you agree that you inspired a madman?”
“Are you an accessory to attempted murder?”
“Did the Commissioner advise that you would be arrested?”
“Any words for Mrs. Garfield? The Garfield children?”
“Are you happy now, Senator?”
Arthur could see Conkling only from behind, but he immediately perceived the great man’s shoulders sag, and his head bow. For Conkling had never been that politico who stands upon a soap-box at some rowdy town fair and commands an unruly crowd of indifferent revelers, surly drunks, and rambunctious children. No — it was Conkling’s pleasant fate to ascend podia before educated men in accordance with the rules of parliamentary procedure, and he was utterly unmanned in the chaos at the door. That the parasites of the press would not submit their questions to him in a polite and orderly manner was intolerable. He shook his head in disgust, slammed the door shut, and wheeled upon Arthur and Platt.
“A thief breaks into your house, steals your watch, and goes to Sing Sing!” Conkling spat. “The newspaperman breaks into the casket which contains your most precious treasure — your reputation — and goes unscathed before the law!”
Conkling retreated to one of the bedrooms.
“Well, now what?” Platt asked Arthur.
“I suppose we wait,” Arthur said mournfully.
The day passed as an agony. There were more telegrams, but the true condition of Garfield was impossible to discern. A telegram arrived in the afternoon stating that Garfield had died, but another came shortly thereafter to clarify that his condition was merely alarming. There was little conversation to be had with either Conkling or Platt; the former insisted upon being stowed away for a carriage ride to clear his head, while the latter sighed and worried. Arthur, for his part, remained slumped upon the couch in the suite for the duration. He was brought supper but did not touch it. He never wanted this, never wanted any of this.
Arthur must have fallen asleep for some moments, for he felt the firm hand of Commissioner French rouse him from his torpor.
“Mr. Vice-President?” French whispered. “You must listen to me.”
“Eh?” Arthur struggled to right himself. It was now dark, and he could not tell how long he had been asleep. He had drooled into his whiskers, which he regarded with deep embarrassment. Commissioner French crouched before him, and Arthur now perceived that there were several New York City police officers standing about the suite who had not been there before.
“I have informed the other gentlemen already, Mr. Vice-President,” he said. “We received this handwritten card at the front desk.” He handed Arthur a card.
We will hang Conkling and Co. at nine P.M. sharp.
Arthur stared at the card.
“There are officers stationed at your home,” French said, “and I have asked your valet to pack your bags, as you may be here for some time.”
“But what about this?” Arthur looked up from the card, ashen.
“It is a threat and nothing more,” said French. “It is already past nine P.M., if that is any consolation.”
“Can Aleck come here, with my bags?”
French pursed his lips. “We cannot take that risk, I am afraid. As you must be aware, your valet is conspicuous.”
“He is a Negro. It shall be difficult to ensure your safety; it shall be far harder to do so if a Negro is with you.”
There was a rapping at the door. French pulled out his revolver.
“Good Lord!” Arthur cried.
“A precaution. The knock was a code used by one of my men.” French motioned to one of the officers in the suite, who pulled out his own revolver, approached the door to the suite, opened the door slightly, and returned with a telegram, which he thereupon handed to Arthur.
Mr. Vice-President —
It is the judgment of the Cabinet that you should come to Washington to-night by the midnight train.
Arthur displayed the telegram to French, who pulled out his pocket watch.
“We do not have much time,” French said. “Officer Cosgrove here shall take you to the ferry and accompany you on the train.”
“But what about — ?” Arthur asked, but then the enormity of it struck him. For the first time in well over a decade, Conkling had no business in Washington.
“You cannot make this journey with him,” French said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Now get up.”
* * *
It was several moments before Kate’s eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom. Ever faithful and attentive to the conditions of her friends, she had made discreet inquiries as to the whereabouts of the Vice-President following his return to the capital. Blaine, for all of his faults, was a steady and sober presence at times of great uncertainty, and he determined to stash Arthur away at a location where he would be unmolested, and the home of Senator John Jones of Nevada was deemed fit for that purpose. Arthur was stowed in a back room, with the curtains drawn and strict admonitions ordered that he never show his distinctive mutton-chopped cheeks at the windows.
Kate, naturally, had read the newspapers and understood the need for secrecy. A Louisville paper asserted that there was more circumstantial evidence against Arthur and Conkling than there had been against Mrs. Surratt, who was hanged for giving shelter to John Wilkes Booth. One paper called Arthur the last man who would be considered eligible for the Presidency, and another bemoaned that Arthur might become President only through a mess of filth. In light of all the circumstances, it was best that Arthur remain safe as well as quiet. Yet possessed as she was by that distinctly feminine power of persuasion, coupled with the favors she had accumulated as queen of society during the war between the states, if not for several years thereafter, letters from Arthur had been delivered to her and she had corresponded in turn, and then granted a visit.
Now she could see her old friend, lying upon a divan, one hand dropped to the floor. He was not asleep but stared only vacantly up at the ceiling.
“How is the President?” Arthur abruptly inquired.
Kate sighed and sat down. It was most uncharacteristic of Arthur to greet a lady with curt inquiries about a third person.
“There has been little change in his condition, I am afraid,” she said. “He continues to lie upon his sick-bed, and the doctors continue to search for the bullet, but to no avail.”
“I cannot take another week of this,” Arthur moaned. Now that Kate could have a better look, she could see that Arthur’s eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with tears.
“Have you been to see him?” Kate could not help but inquire.
“I have tried, twice. The doctors will not let me see him,” Arthur complained.
“Perhaps that is for the best.”
“I need to talk to him.” Here Arthur began to sob. “I did not want any of this.”
Kate was silent for several moments, as it was most uncomfortable to be in the same room as a grown man who was weeping.
“They have been nothing but kind to me,” Arthur slobbered.
“No, no.” Arthur half-raised and half-waved his hand. “The Garfields. Crete. She apologized that I should have been summoned to Washington on such short notice. Can you imagine?”
Kate thought that an absurd thing to say but reckoned that Arthur would be in no mood to hear it.
“She said,” Arthur began sobbing anew, “that one so touched by sorrow could well imagine the grief in her heart.”
Kate had never thought much of Lucretia Garfield. During the war, her father had extended an invitation for Garfield, a fellow Ohioan, to live in their house. Garfield was married to Crete then, but openly desirous of Kate, and often took her horseback riding in Rock Creek Park. Beset as she had been by protestations of love from any number of men, Kate had little use for furtive overtures of passion from a married man. But Arthur’s invocation of his deceased wife afforded a convenient opening for a response.
“I have no doubt,” Kate said, “that Nell is looking down from Heaven upon you, giving you strength.”
This commonplace assertion prompted a new round of blubbering. Kate began to toy with her gloves, as Arthur’s miseries were growing tedious.
“Have you spoken with anyone else?” she ventured.
“Senator Harrison, too, has been ever so kind. He told me that there were rumors back in ‘forty-one that his grandfather had not died of pneumonia but been poisoned. He thinks the rumors about me are equally absurd.”
“Against you and Senator Conkling, you mean,” Kate hastened to add.
“Yes, yes,” Arthur said absent-mindedly. He rubbed his eyes and sighed. “Have you seen him?”
“How is he?”
“About as well as might be imagined under the circumstances. I think that he is more persuaded now by the virtue of silence than he was previously. He knows he cannot do battle against a sick-bed.”
“How I wish I could see him!” Arthur cried.
“I would not counsel that,” Kate said severely. “I shall call upon him instead, as there are no longer any formal barriers to our acquaintance.”
Arthur abruptly sat up, and Kate now saw that he was more disheveled than she had ever witnessed. “Good heavens! I am forgetting my manners. How are you, my dear?”
“Fine, I suppose.”
Kate now twisted her gloves in her hand, while Arthur recovered his self-possession.
“We have both been treated most foully in the press,” he said. “Please accept my condolences.”
Kate sighed. “It is not a person who has died, merely a marriage. My lawyers advised me to spare no detail of Mr. Sprague’s drunken debauches, so that I might obtain an advantage in court, and we knew that the press would light upon it as carrion upon a corpse.”
“I have thrown aside the papers rather than read any such accounts,” Arthur said. This was not true, of course, but it was the gentlemanly thing to say. Kate’s petition had alleged that Sprague was perpetually drunk, engaged in liaisons with at least six other women, threatened to kill her and to throw her from a window, imprisoned her at Canonchet, engaged in attempts at criminal intercourse with the female domestics of the household; that he had relations with diverse lewd women; and that he permitted Canonchet to become a resort for revelry and drunkenness, corrupting the morals of his son Willie.
“You are too kind,” Kate replied.
Arthur did not know what to say for several moments.
“I suppose,” he began, “that if it is any consolation, you now have your freedom.”
“That is every consolation in the world to me,” Kate said.
Arthur held out his hand, and Kate clasped it.
* * *
It was midnight in Manhattan, but the church bells were ringing. Commissioner French raced up the steps at 123 Lexington Avenue and began pounding at the door. Although the hour was late, the candelabras in the parlor had not been extinguished, and French could observe movement behind the curtains.
“Come, come!” French muttered, and again rang the bell and pounded the door. Suddenly there was a sharp creak, and an ebon visage greeted him.
“We were well aware that we had a guest,” Aleck reproached him. “There is no need to keep hammering away at this hour.”
French glared at Aleck. “I am not used to hearing such an intemperate tone from a Negro, but under the press of circumstances shall forgive it. Where is your master?”
“Indisposed for the time being,” Aleck replied.
“I have a telegram for him, of the utmost consequence!” French insisted.
“As we do for you,” Aleck replied, and handed it to him:
It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as President of the United States without delay. If it concurs with your judgment we will be very glad if you will come on the earliest train tomorrow morning.
“You know, then,” French said.
“The church bells at midnight were some indication,” Aleck said. “Mr. Arthur’s son is coming down here from Columbia and shall be here shortly, at which time we can begin to make the necessary arrangements.”
“What does his son know?” French demanded.
“Mr. Arthur’s son is a source of great support to his father,” Aleck replied. “As for arrangements, I have sent word to Judge Brady to administer an oath.”
“That is but the first of the Vice-President’s concerns.”
“And I have sent for Mr. Root,” Aleck continued, politely but firmly, “as he previously expressed the view that a declaration might be necessary to establish a line of succession, in the event that unforeseen circumstances befall Mr. Arthur en route.”
French narrowed his eyes. “My men shall accompany the Vice-President every step of the way. At no time shall he be in any danger.”
“Then Mr. Arthur’s bags are packed and he shall be prepared to take the train to Washington straightaway.”
“Good! Now I must talk to your master.”
“I told you, sir, that he is indisposed.”
“Fetch him here at once!” French bridled at Aleck’s impudence. “That is an order of the New York Police Department!”
“If you are ordering me to bring my master,” Aleck replied coolly, “then you ought to know that he is sitting alone in his room, sobbing like a child with his head on his desk and his face buried in his hands.”