After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

A minute later Jerry was back in the auditorium, getting his second look at the place, this time with the official guidance of Tom Raybold, ticket seller and general executive aid.

Meanwhile another man, a carpenter with a thin brown mustache and thin short beard, had come into the cavernous space and was banging away at something near the foremost row of seats.

“Ned!” Raybold called out. “Are you going to have that finished before tonight?”

“Reckon I will.” The man’s voice wheezed with the tones of a lifelong drunk, though Jerry guessed his age at no more than an ill-preserved thirty. He went back to his hammering.

“I understand,” said Jerry to Raybold, “that the President comes here sometimes.”

“Oh, yes sir, he does indeed. Mr. Lincoln was here in attendance twice just last month, I do believe.” And Raybold touched his jaw; he did indeed seem to have some kind of pain on the side of his face, a toothache maybe. Jerry could sympathize. He wondered what the dentists were like here. Did they even have anesthetics? Suddenly he was in abject terror of being trapped.

When he had mastered the pang of fear, and could again be sure that his voice was steady, he asked, over the sound of Ned’s hammer: “Will he be here Friday, do you suppose?”

“I’ve no reason to think so, Mr. Flint. Of course sometimes he and his lady decide to come to the theater on short notice. And then—” The ticket-seller looked suddenly doubtful.

“What is it?”

“Well, you were asking about box seats. And if Mr. Lincoln were to come on Friday night, we would be unable to honor tickets for any of the other boxes. Out of respect for the President. We’d give you other tickets in exchange, of course, here on the main floor. Or up there in the front of the dress circle if you’d prefer.” He pointed upward.

Jerry craned his neck, trying to see up into the dark first balcony from here. He could use another look at that part of the auditorium. “Might we go up and take a look?” Of course.

A minute later, standing again at the front of the first balcony, he surveyed the scene with a slightly more knowledgeable eyes, thanks to Pilgrim’s little lecture.

There were cane-bottomed chairs for the audience in this balcony, more than four hundred of them if Raybold had his numbers right. And it appeared that, in accordance with what Pilgrim had said, Booth would be compelled to pass this way to reach the President’s box. On the right side of the dress circle, as you faced the stage, a narrow white door at the end of the front aisle gave access to the passageway that would run behind the two, upper boxes on that side. That is, assuming the layout on the right was a mirror-image of the box seats Jerry had already visited on the left. Pilgrim had said it was. That white door was the one that Booth was going to block; the one that Jerry was going to have to get through before it closed behind the assassin.

“Do you mind,” Jerry asked, “if I take a look into the boxes?”


They went through the little white door, which opened inward and was unlocked. The lock looked broken; and Jerry could see no ready means of putting up a barricade. Inside was a gloomy passage just like the one on the other side of the stage where Jerry had met Pilgrim. The passage on this side led to the rear of Box 7 and Box 8. Here, as in the boxes on the opposite side, the gaslights over the stage shone in. The furnishings in the boxes were not impressive, except for a crimson sofa at the rear of Box 7.

Tom Raybold explained that when the President attended, and on certain other important occasions, the wooden partition dividing Boxes 7 and 8 was removed, converting them to one unit suitable for a large party. Then more comfortable chairs were brought in, some of them from Mr. Ford’s own living quarters upstairs in the building. There was one particular rocking chair in which President Lincoln liked to sit.

There was no reason to prolong the tour any longer. Walking with Raybold back down to the lobby, Jerry announced, as if it had just occurred to him, that he thought he would take just two tickets for Friday night, in the dress circle, and organize his theater party some other time. Privately he decided that a man buying two tickets to any theater was less likely to attract attention that someone buying only one.

Aloud he explained that some of his companions might not be ready to go out for an evening of fun on Good Friday.

“And another thing,” he added, “some of my friends have recommended a certain actor to me—John Wilkes Booth. I believe he has played here in the past?”

“Oh yes, certainly, a number of times. Everyone at Ford’s knows Mr. Booth—he has his mail sent here sometimes. He’s in town now, but he won’t be on our stage Friday night. Can’t say when he’ll be in one of our plays again.”

They had reached the ticket office, where there was no problem in buying two seats in the dress circle for Friday night—Jerry got the impression that the performance was a long way from being sold out.

As Raybold was showing him out of the theater, Jerry paused. “I would certainly like to meet Mr. Booth. When my sister back home heard that I was about to visit Washington, and that he might be here, she commissioned me to get his autograph.”

Raybold smiled. “He’s in town now. Staying at the National Hotel.”


A minute later Jerry had got his directions from Tom Raybold and was on his way again, still traveling on foot. Four blocks east and four blocks south from Ford’s Theater and he had found his goal, a long, five-story building of pale brick at the corner of Sixth and Pennsylvania.

The National was not quite as impressive a hotel as Willard’s, or as crowded, but still it was imposing. The air in the lobby was somewhat more subdued and genteel, and when Jerry entered he heard Southern accents on every side.

The desk clerk made no difficulty about giving out the room number of John Wilkes Booth, and said that yes, the actor happened to be in. Jerry walked upstairs to find him.

When he stood before the door of the room, he could hear low voices inside, but was unable to distinguish words. When he tapped on the door they quieted immediately.

Then the door was opened six or eight inches by a man perhaps two or three years older than Jerry, who was immediately reminded of Pilgrim. Not by face, but by attitude. The well-dressed man in the doorway had something of an actor’s presence, immediately perceptible. He was not large, except perhaps for his hands. Only an inch or two taller than Jerry, but erect and handsome, with black hair and a black luxurious mustache that contrasted with his pale skin.

“Mr. Booth?”

“Yes sir?” The voice was an actor’s too, as suave and practiced as Pilgrim’s, and soft if not exactly Southern. His manner was at once arrogant and courtly.

Jerry said: “My name is Jeremiah Flint. I wonder if I might trouble you for an autograph. If now is not a convenient time, I can certainly come back later. The truth is, I’m a visitor in Washington, and my sister rather firmly laid the duty on me of not leaving the city until I had at least tried…”

Booth was smiling tolerantly at him now. The door swung halfway open. Now Jerry caught a glimpse of a second occupant of the room, a large, dark-haired, strong-looking youth seated at a table, on which he drummed his fingers as if waiting impatiently for the interruption to be over.

The actor in the doorway said to Jerry: “We must make every effort not to disappoint the ladies—have you something you wish me to sign?”

“Yes I do, Mr. Booth, thank you. A playbill, if you don’t mind.” Jerry had picked it up before leaving Ford’s, and produced it from his pocket now. “It would give Martha a great deal of pleasure. I know she has seen you on stage several times.”

“Then we must do our best not to disappoint her. Step in, please.”

Jerry entered the room, and followed Booth across to a small writing table, where the actor picked up a steel-nibbed pen and neatly opened a bottle of ink. Meanwhile the other man remained silently in his chair; when Booth glanced at him he immediately stopped drumming with his fingers.

Jerry watched the signing carefully. Booth’s pale, well-manicured hands were large and strong, as if they had been meant for a man with a bigger body. A detail caught Jerry’s eye; there were the tattooed initials, JWB, near the branching of the thumb and forefinger on the right hand. A strange decoration for an actor to wear, he thought.

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