After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Out of the tub and dressed in clean, if wrinkled clothing, he made arrangements with the porter concerning laundry. When he went downstairs at last, he remembered to check the local time by a clock in the lobby. Then he carefully, for the first time, reset his watch, opening the face and moving the hands exactly as Pilgrim’s video tutorial had directed. Exactly how knowing the exact local time might help him on Friday night, he could not be sure. But he felt better for having made at least a vague commitment to exact timing.

Just off the lobby of Willard’s was a magnificent and crowded bar, where Jerry now repaired for a beer. This struck him as the perfect means of sluicing the last of the railroad soot out of his throat. As he enjoyed the first gulp he realized that there was something peculiar about the crowd of men around him; and a moment later he understood what it was. In the whole bar there were, to his initial amazement, no uniforms. Then he read a faded notice on the wall, warning everyone that in Washington liquor service to members of the military was illegal. That was something to keep in mind; it meant that there would have to be a lot of back rooms, somewhere.

After that one cold delicious beer he took himself to dinner, which at Willard’s seemed to be a more or less continuous affair; the entrance to the dining room had been busy since he first saw it. Crowds of a density that made Jerry feel secure surrounded him as he sought and obtained a table, and after days of subsistence on what amounted to box lunches, a serious meal improved his morale enormously.

After he had eaten, he strolled through the lobby, wondering if after all he should try a cigar. At last he did buy one and got it lighted. When it went out he was content to chew on it a little—if the enemy who were looking for him now had spent much time observing him on the cars, they might well be convinced that the man they were looking for didn’t smoke.

Jerry was restless, unable to stop walking. The lobby soon proved too confining, and he went outside. The cigar was starting to make him queasy now, and he threw it into the muddy street. Judging by appearances, anyone who objected to littering here would be put away as a lunatic.

The crowds on the sidewalk were tending irresistibly in one direction, toward the White House. Jerry wondered why.

Mr. Lincoln was at home again, he heard somebody say. Home from where? he wondered. Oh yes, there had been something about the President visiting the fallen Rebel capital. Richmond, as Jerry recalled, was not very far away.

And now, just over there, a few yards away beyond that high iron fence, Mr. Lincoln was at home. Gradually the impact of that simple statement grew on the visitor. Jerry shuffled forward with the crowd. For the moment his problems were forgotten.

The sun was down now, and the evening cool and misty, like the last part of the day that had gone before. Far down Pennsylvania Avenue to the southeast, the new-looking dome of the Capitol was somehow being illuminated as dusk faded into night. They must, Jerry supposed, be using some kind of gaslights.

Earlier he had been able to catch an occasional glimpse of the unmistakable White House. And now as he drew closer he could see, just ahead, what must be part of the grounds behind an iron fence. For the moment the building itself remained out of sight behind a gray bulk of stone; when Jerry got close enough to read the sign in the faint gaslight of the street lamps this stone mass turned out to be the Treasury Department. Jerry couldn’t remember whether the Treasury building had been standing here or not when he had visited this city as a schoolboy in the nineteen-seventies.

And now the President’s House itself was coming into view, considerably smaller than Jerry’s twentieth-century memories proclaimed it, and more isolated in its park-like grounds. The crowd was flowing slowly and spontaneously toward it. Some of the people walking toward their President’s house were carrying lighted candles, Jerry saw now, as if this were some vigil of protest organized in the late twentieth-century. But the mood tonight was not protest, it was one of quiet rejoicing. Gates in the iron fence stood open, and guards, both military and civilian, stood by, letting the people in. A crowd was gathering freely on the north lawn; and the nonchalant ease with which this was allowed sent something like a shock of horror through Jerry.

A number of people around him were singing now, singing softly and joyfully, groups of them working away on different songs, none of which he could recognize. Only now did he gradually become aware of how high a proportion of black people there were in this particular crowd. In a way the blacks were difficult to see, making only a shadowy part of the throng, ever ready to move aside, to disappear when jostled. But they were there, ineluctably.

Lighted candles had been placed in many of the windows of the White House too, as if this gathering on the lawn had been anticipated or invited. And now there was a murmuring in the crowd. Directly over the north entrance—Jerry was sure the entryway he saw now was a simpler construction than the one he remembered seeing in his own century—a light of extra brightness appeared in a window, the exactly central window on the upper floor. The glow of a lamp held there illuminated the faces of the crowd below.

And now the window was being swung open to the nation and the night. There were people standing just inside, in what appeared to be a hallway. Someone’s arm held the kerosene lamp up higher, and now a murmur of applause ascended through the night from the crowd below.

Abraham Lincoln, holding some papers in his hand, was standing in the window, in the bright lamplight. There could be no mistake about who he was.

Jerry, aware presently of a strange sensation in his lungs and ears, realized presently that he had suspended breathing. It needed almost a conscious effort to start the process up again. Meanwhile across the surface of his mind there flowed the memory of how as a child, visiting Disneyland, he had sat between his parents watching the robot Lincoln there. That robot was a thing of plastic and metal and electronics that stood up from a chair, facing the tourist audience, and with occasional lifelike movements of arms and head, a natural-seeming shifting of its weight, delivered a speech of Lincoln’s words in a recorded voice—whose voice? Yes, that of the actor Royal Dano.

At moments this evening’s experience was eerily similar. “We meet this evening,” the tall man in the window began—and then he had to pause for a moment while the arm beside him adjusted the position of the lamp, so he could read his speech. Lincoln was wearing reading glasses, whereas the robot had not. Dano’s voice in the character of Lincoln, Jerry decided now, had been very much like the real thing, high and clear, with a kind of rustic accent. Lincoln continued: “Not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart.”

Another murmur, almost the start of a cheer, ran through the crowd, there was some jostling for position, and Jerry missed the next words. For a short time the President’s voice dropped below audibility.

The next words that Jerry was able to hear clearly were: “Unlike the case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has the authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mold from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of Reconstruction.”

Jerry was trying to work his way forward through the crowd, in an effort to hear better; it wasn’t easy, for a lot of other people were doing the same thing, and the bodies toward the front, almost under the overhanging portico, were closely packed.

Around him there were murmurings: not of approval of what the President was saying, nor of disagreement either. Actually it sounded rather like the beginning of inattention. So far the President was not giving these people what they wanted tonight; what they had come here this evening to get, whatever that was.

Now he was talking about Louisiana. “Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the state, held elections, organized a state government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the Constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state—committed to the very things, and nearly all the things, the nation wants—and they ask the nation’s recognition and its assistance to make good their committal.”

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