(March 20, 1849)
The passengers boarding the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad coaches struggled to drag their luggage through the narrow passageways, puffing clouds of white breath in the chilly air. Screams of excitement came from a gaggle of children chasing one another around the piles of chests and satchels.
The chill in Washington City was unexpected, since it was, in fact, the exact day of the vernal equinox. Winter was supposed to be finished, yet it lingered. Edwin Blair, however, anticipated the chill. Having done the research, he gave it little notice.
Aside from surveying the antics of the overly rambunctious children, Blair also carefully observed a tall, gangly man with unruly black hair who looked to be about his age, signaling for help. No sooner had the man arched his brow, accompanied by a sweeping gesture toward several well-worn bags, than two of the non-company black men scattered about the platform leapt into action. How am I going to refer to them? Blair tried not to panic. I’m not going to use the slavers’ term! ‘African-American’ won’t work. He tried to reorient his thinking and adjust his speech patterns to the time. There was that 1844 newspaper article about a “colored” man stopping the runaway carriage of President Tyler. And eventually the War Department’s going to create the Bureau of Colored Troops. He shook his head in resignation. ‘Colored’s’ going to have to do.
Edwin Blair, sporting a newly grown blonde, well-trimmed beard, and carrying nothing but a shiny metallic valise that he held closely by his right side, boarded several moments after the tall traveler, catching the eye of virtually everyone he passed. The perfectly polished surface of the valise seemed more like mirrored glass than metal, and his black leather jacket flapped opened in the cool breeze, revealing a black cable-knit pullover sweater. This, together with his dark blue denim trousers, his shoes made of indeterminate material, and his gleaming valise, were the source of near universal curiosity. Several of the young children skipping along beside him pointed and laughed. Their parents offered barely-hushed admonitions: “Behave yourselves! You know you mustn’t stare at strangers. It simply is not polite.”
Yet they, to a person, failed to follow their own advice. Blair held nothing in his left hand, yet he clenched it so tight that his nails dug into his flesh, his teeth clenched every bit as tight as his hand. No one mentioned the word “LEVI’S” burnt into a small leather patch on the back of his trousers, but several men did wonder aloud about the word “NIKE” on the side of his black and white shoes.
“What ho?” one heavily bewhiskered person asked while pointing at Blair’s feet with his lit cigar, spilling its ash over his lap in the process.
Edwin Blair acknowledged him with a brief but empty glance. Egads, he thought, trying to ignore his pounding heart. It’s not going to be a cakewalk to maintain the balance. I’ve got to reveal enough, but not so much that it disrupts the necessary chain of events. Otherwise, this enterprise is doomed from the start.
The recently manufactured New Castle locomotive built up a head of steam and began to pull slowly out of the Baltimore & Ohio depot. Still clutching his shiny metallic valise, Blair lurched back and forth as he made his way toward a pair of bench seats facing each other at the front of the coach. One seat had but a single occupant, the tall, gangly traveler, while the other was vacant. My God, he thought as he swayed from side to side, that really is he! If my students could only see me now.
The traveler was glaring out of one window, oblivious to all else. His curiosity aroused, Blair tossed a quick glance out of the window and caught sight of the station’s bulletin board. Posters nailed to it, some new, some faded, offered various rewards for runaways. One large, relatively pristine placard offered $600 for the return of three slaves. “Henry Morsell, Jim Parker and Bill Hutton,” Blair whispered, then winced. “Leaving the service of their subscriber.” He shivered, and then pulled his attention back inside the coach. Moving toward the empty seat, he noticed that the aisle-side armrest was broken, split down the middle with several shards of wood protruding upward. He made a quick mental note of it then cleared his throat and asked with a small tremor in his voice, “May I join you?”
The gangly traveler turned his gaze to Blair, looked him up and down, and then, arching his brow ever so slightly, offered a wry smile while nodding his assent. “I suppose. Maybe then, you might be willing to inform me as to why the name of the Greek goddess of victory is emblazoned on your rather odd footwear?”
Blair began to perspire and forced out a nervous laugh. No frenetic reviewing of the history and language of the time had fully prepared him for the actual encounter. Placing his valise on the seat, he sat down between it and the damaged armrest. “I suspected you might know the appellation’s reference, although I wasn’t positive. I am pleased that my suspicion was correct.”
The traveler raised both eyebrows. “That reminds me of the simpleton farm boy who knew just one fact, and spent his whole lifetime waiting for someone to ask him the right question. When someone finally presented him with the opportunity, and he answered it correctly, he felt extremely proud of his accomplishment.” He smiled before nodding toward the metallic valise. “I may know a bit about the goddess, but I don’t have the slightest idea what that might be. More than that, I wonder why you had any suspicions about me at all. Have we met?”
“No, sir, I have not had the honor.”
“Well, since we seem to be traveling together, my name — ”
“Oh, I know your name, sir. You are a well-known public figure.”
“Then, my wondering increases, Mr..."
“Blair. Edwin Blair.” Blair extended his hand, which the traveler accepted with a firm grip.
As the train neared full speed, clattering over rails in need of repair, it passed through neatly cultivated Maryland farmlands emptied of their crops in the previous fall harvest. Spring was on the way, however, and they would soon be made ready for planting. They’ll probably plant corn, Blair thought as he stared out the window at the passing scenery. He couldn’t help making a comparison between the bucolic setting and the fields from whence he had come. They, too, stood empty, but not from harvesting. They had been ravaged by a pestilence that the people with whom he shared the train could not possibly imagine. Empty fields are normal here, even healthy. Those at home are anything but. These people may worry about locusts, but they know nothing about the horrors that real Pests can bring. And if I’m successful, they never will. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
The farmlands gradually succumbed to thick green forests. A farm trail broke through the trees and intersected the rails with several bare-footed children wearing straw hats, which they quickly doffed to wave the passengers on their journey, waiting at the intersection for passing trains. The traveler raised his hand in response, to the immediate and ecstatic delight of his minuscule and fleeting audience.
Blair watched the scene through the window with detached interest. I wonder if those children even own shoes. Probably not, since they would no doubt be wearing them.
None of the other passengers took time to engage in this brief courtesy with the world passing by outside, but every now and then, some snuck a careful a glance at the two men conversing in the front seats.
“Well, then,” the traveler asked once the children were left behind. “How does Mr. Edwin Blair come to suspect things about me? My service in Washington City these past two years was rather unremarkable.”
Blair stared into the traveler’s eyes with more intensity than politeness warranted. “Actually, Mr. Lincoln, I know a great deal about you.”
“Should that cause me some concern?”
“Oh no, sir! Not at all. In fact, everything that I have learned — know — about you causes me to have great admiration for you.”
Lincoln laughed. “Well, Mr. Blair, I do believe you’ve been had. The folks who know me might question whether or not you’ve lost possession of your senses. A simple country lawyer such as I am has not had the opportunity to attract many admirers. I do believe, however, that I may have acquired more than a few detractors.”
“That may be so, sir. But during your two years as a Congressman, you have caught the attention of more than a few souls. You are not an unknown person.”
Lincoln nodded again, a wry smile tugging at his lips. “I’m afraid I caught the attention of some of them much like the fox caught the attention of the farmer and his shotgun instead of the chicken he was after.”
Blair‘s own lips formed a cautious smile.
Lincoln’s expression grew serious once again and he leaned back against the seat. “On what is your admiration based, Mister Blair?”
Blair stiffened, then took a deep breath and chose his words carefully. “On three things, sir. Three items, I daresay, of considerable noteworthiness.”
A twinkle sparked in Lincoln’s eyes and his voice rose in volume. “You ‘daresay,’ Mr. Blair?” He chuckled. “I take it you enjoy reading the Bronte sisters on occasion? But don’t let me interrupt you.”
Blair was again unnerved. This is going to be even harder than I thought. He cleared his throat and tried to focus on his mission, raising his voice as the wheels of the train clattered across several switches. “As I was saying, the first item concerns your proposed bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. The second are your ‘Spot’ Resolutions, demanding that President Polk prove that Mexico’s incursion into the United States in truth occurred and was unjust. And the third is your vote in opposition to the Mexican War itself.”
Lincoln edged forward in his seat as Blair went through the list. “As I recall, none of those won me many friends. Nor were any of them on the winning side of a single vote.” He raised his brow and produced a faint smile. “A lot of my colleagues even took to calling me ‘Spotty Lincoln.’”
Yes they did, Blair thought, as several historians noted. Doris Kerns Goodwin being among them. “True, but they amply demonstrate your courage in the face of the popular will — acting against it when you believe the majority to be wrong.”
Lincoln allowed a sad smile to settle briefly across his face. “So here I am, making my way back home with my tail between my legs. There’s no danger of me taking on an unfriendly majority ever again. I just may fare better back in the courtroom.”
Edwin Blair offered an empty smile of his own.
Lincoln sat forward, his gaze traveling down to Blair’s shoes again. “Now, Mister Blair, you haven’t told me of your interest in the goddess Nike.” He shifted his gaze back to Blair’s face.
“None whatsoever, sir. I wore the shoes to elicit your interest, and,” Blair paused for emphasis, “to help create a memory.” He took a deep breath. “You see, I have a request.”
Lincoln raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“It’s a simple request which will require only a brief portion of your time.”
Lincoln shifted his body to gain a more comfortable position, pursed his lips, and still said nothing.
A beat of cold sweat trickled down Blair’s back. “Of course, I would not expect you to do this as a mere favor. You are, after all, a lawyer, and your time is valuable. For this commitment, I am prepared to offer you a direct compensation. A retainer, as it were.”
Still no response.
“Let me add, sir,” Blair hushed his voice and tried to sound mysterious, “that I am aware that you are returning to Springfield to resume your law practice with your friend William Herndon, and you are currently without paying clients. I also know that you have recently contracted for some extensive remodeling of your home in Springfield. The addition of a few stoves and extensive brickwork, I believe.”
Blair was growing desperate. “Furthermore, sir, I know that your previous remodeling, a new bedroom and pantry, is still not completely paid for.”
Lincoln nodded slowly in stoic contemplation. The engine’s steam trumpet chose that moment to scream three quick bursts as they crossed yet another intersection. This time there were no children waiting, and Lincoln’s gaze remained unbroken. When the noise subsided, he calmly queried, “Mr. Blair?”
“This is a passel of personal information you have compiled.”
Blair’s heart raced. Did I reveal too much? He slowly inhaled to calm himself. “Yes. However, I assure you, sir, I have engaged in no skullduggery of any kind. Merely research.”
“And you have done so, why?”
“To provide a good reason for you to accept my retainer.”
“Hmmm....” Lincoln mussed the hair about on his head.
“You didn’t think just asking me would do the trick?”
“Would it have worked?”
“Mr. Blair, if you know my financial situation, why would you doubt that I would accept a retainer?” Lincoln shook his head and chuckled. “Now I know what the turkey felt like when he was invited to dinner and foolishly accepted the invitation.”
“I assure you,” Blair said while trying to hide his nervousness, “that this commitment will not entail you being ‘served’ for dinner. I only need your advice. Although I may desire a particular outcome, there is no way I can ensure it. I would be relying on your honest counsel and insight.”
Lincoln said nothing for a long moment. “Before I accept your invitation, let me ask you this. In the portion of time you refer to, wherein I would be giving you my ‘honest counsel,’ would I be acting as your legal representative?”
“No sir. I would only be seeking your thoughtful advice.”
“Well then, sir, I must ask that you elaborate a tad about the unnamed problem about which you wish me to advise you, so that I might be a little bit prepared.”
Blair gave a short little nod. “Yes, sir. You do need information from me, but the time is not right.”
A thoughtful expression crossed Lincoln’s face, and he brought his right hand up to scratch his clean-shaven chin. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why the time is not right.”
“I can’t, sir.” Blair reached into his jacket and withdrew a black leather billfold. “But if you accept my retainer, I can give you a date when I will be able to clarify matters.” He withdrew a single banknote and displayed it so that its printed face was plainly evident. “As you can see, sir, it was issued by the Globe Bank of New York on April 20th, 1840. I am assured that it is a trustworthy institution and that their notes are good.”
“A one-hundred dollar note! You must regard this problem as a hard one.”
“I most certainly do.”
“Well,” Lincoln sighed, “I suppose I can give it some thought and, as you request, honestly advise you about what to do.” He picked the note up and turned it around, studying it.
A sincere smile crossed Blair’s face. “Thank you. You have greatly relieved me of considerable anxiety and stress.”
“Now, when is it that you would like to see me about your problem? After living two years in the capital, going home to Illinois is a welcome prospect, but it’s going to be a twelve day journey on three railroads, a stagecoach, and two carriage rides, as well as a river steamer through St. Louis.” Lincoln resettled himself in the seat, as if in preparation for the trek. “In the coming weeks, I have to settle back into Springfield and become a lawyer again. My wife and children have preceded me home, and I do miss them, so I’m afraid all that comes first. Also, I’ve promised to meet with several gentlemen about the future and direction of the Whig Party, of which I am still a somewhat dissatisfied member.”
Blair pulled two cards out of his wallet. “My name is printed on both of these as well as the date that I am requesting to see you. One is for you, to assist in your recollection, and the other is for me. I hope you will be gracious enough to sign both so as to lend a certain degree of authenticity to our meeting.”
As Lincoln received the two cards from Blair and read the one on top, he gave a sudden start. “There is no mistake here, Mr. Blair?”
“You are requesting a meeting at ten o’clock in the morning on June 27th, 1863?”
Lincoln furrowed his brow deeply and directed a quizzical gaze at Edwin Blair. “You do realize that this date is fourteen years from now?”
Blair smiled without evincing even a trace of pleasure. “Yes, sir. And I do intend, with all possible seriousness, to meet with you on that particular day at that particular time. And to that end, I have offered, and you have accepted, my retainer.”
Lincoln shook his head while gazing at the bank note. “I certainly hope you’ll get your money’s worth of advice, Mr. Blair. And I hope that I’m still around to give it.” He signed one card and returned it, then signed the other and placed it in the breast pocket of his suit.
As the train began to slow, an aging conductor moved from the rear of the coach toward the front, swaying back and forth, and grasping every seatback for stability. “All out for Baltimore!”
Edwin Blair started to rise. The train jerked, knocking him off balance, and he plunged his hand down onto the damaged armrest, skewering his palm on one of the protruding shards in the process. Suppressing an outcry, he gave a strangled grunt and then rapidly extracted the splinter. Removing a handkerchief from his hip pocket, he fashioned a makeshift bandage.
Lincoln lurched to his feet. “I am surprised, Mr. Blair. You did notice the armrest when you seated yourself. I saw you rather carefully look it over so as to avoid a mishap — or so I assumed.”
“Yes. A stupid mistake.” Blair clenched his hand into a fist to stem the bleeding and extended his other hand in farewell. “It has truly been an honor to meet you, sir.” Pain shot up his arm from the wound, causing him to wince. He gulped and then continued, “I fear I must leave you at this station.”
Lincoln accepted Blair’s undamaged hand, small in comparison to his own, with a firm grip. “I have to admit that this has been very interesting. After speaking with you, Mr. Blair, I do believe I know less about you now than I did before I even met you.” He glanced at Blair’s bandaged hand, and then gave a slight incline to his head, barely lifting an eyebrow. “Do take care of that wound.”
Blair reached for his metallic valise while nodding. “Thank you. I shall. And... I shall see you again. In fourteen years. It will be a Saturday.”
Lincoln studied Blair as he readied for departure at the station in Baltimore. “You were quite successful, you know.”
“You have created a memory.”