But there was no way for an occupant of Jerry’s seat, or of almost any other in the theater, to get a good look into the Presidential box. Leaning over the vacant chair to his right, he asked his neighbor in that direction, a stout, bureaucratic-looking gentleman: “Have the President and General Grant arrived yet?”
Maybe the man was a judge; he gave the question serious thought. “No sir, I don’t believe so.”
Though neither President nor General had yet appeared by eight o’clock, the houselights dimmed in unison quite punctually. Jerry realized that the gas supply for the lights must be under some central control.
He was aware, a minute later, of the curtain going up, and of actors appearing on the stage. But after that he was barely conscious of what they might be doing there. The President was late. Was that usual? Or was history already twisted out of shape? Had he, Jerry, done something already that was going to wreck the world? Had his strange behavior finally worried someone, someone important enough to take precautions to protect the President? He, Jerry, was going to be trapped here in this dreary time for the rest of his life—probably only a few years of miserable existence. Or was it possible—
From time to time the laughter of his fellow playgoers rose and fell around him, distracting him from his worries, so that he supposed the show was meant to be a comedy. Its characters had names like Asa Trenchard, Mrs. Mountchessington, Lord Dundreary, and Florence Trenchard—that part was played by Laura Keene. Jerry could tell by the applause when she first appeared.
Jerry pulled out Pilgrim’s watch but failed to register the time before his nervous hand had put the watch away. Then he pulled the timepiece out to look at it again.
It was almost eight-thirty when Jerry heard a sharp murmur run through the audience. Heads were turning. He looked up and saw Abraham Lincoln, six feet four and wearing a tall stovepipe hat, walking almost directly toward him along the aisle that ran from the stairs to the Presidential box. A small party of people followed the President in single file. First came a short man in shabby civilian clothes, who looked as if he was in doubt as to whether he ought to hurry ahead of Lincoln or not. That could not possibly be General Grant. Was history slipping? Jerry couldn’t worry about it; he could only press ahead.
After the shabby man came a woman Jerry supposed had to be Mrs. Lincoln in a low-cut gown, looking younger and more attractive than Jerry had for some reason expected her to be. Following the President’s wife came a youthful couple Jerry did not recognize, obviously aglow with the excitement of a very special occasion. And bringing up the rear, a male attendant carried what looked like a folded shawl or robe.
Behind Jerry a man’s voice whispered to a companion: “Looks like Grant couldn’t make it. Who are they? The younger couple?”
“Why, that’s Clara Harris, the senator’s daughter. Her escort is a Major Rathbone, I believe.” The young man was in civilian clothes.
The tall figure of the President passed right in front of Jerry, almost within arm’s length, plodding on with a peculiar, flat-footed gait, huge hands swinging on long arms, nodding and smiling to right and left in acknowledgement of the growing applause. Now he removed his tall hat, carrying it in his right hand, and he waved it to and fro in a kind of continuous salute. Everyone in the theater was standing now. The band had struck up Hail to the Chief.
On stage, one of the actresses who was playing the part of a semi-invalid had just said something about her need to avoid drafts. “Do not be alarmed,” ad-libbed the young man playing opposite. “For there is no more draft!” The applause in the theater built briefly to almost deafening volume.
The President had now arrived at the white door, which someone was holding open for him. In a moment his entire party had followed him through, and the door was closed again. In a matter of seconds the hesitant plainclothes attendant—if he was a bodyguard, Jerry was not impressed—emerged from the white door again, and took his seat beside it, in a small chair with his back to the box seats, facing the rest of the audience.
Booth, or anyone else who wanted to approach Lincoln, was evidently going to have to get past that guard. Using violence to do so, thought Jerry, would be sure to alert everyone else in the theater before the assassin—or Jerry—could get close enough to the chosen victim to do anything effective.
And he, Jerry, was going to have to get past that guard post somehow. Since his tour of the theater on Wednesday had entertained no hope of being able to sneak in early and lie concealed until the proper moment right in the box, or in the inner passage. There simply was no place in there for anyone to hide, and anyway the guard tonight had presumably inspected the site before Lincoln and his party settled in.
Now the white door was opening again, and Jerry stared as someone else came out. It was the attendant who had been carrying the shawl or blanket. Empty-handed now, the man moved toward the stairs and vanished in the direction of the lobby.
The play went on, and people laughed at it. Jerry sat on the edge of his seat, watching the door and the guard, and waiting. John Wilkes Booth was going to appear from somewhere tonight, sooner or later, as sure as fate itself, and make his move. Unless history had already been derailed, and Jerry was already doomed to die before the invention of the automobile. No, he couldn’t accept that. Booth would come. But exactly how and when…
And then a familiar form was walking along the aisle toward him. But it wasn’t Booth. Colleen Monahan, elegantly dressed for the theater, smiled at Jerry and took the seat beside him as confidently as if he had been saving it for her all along.
“This seat is not taken, is it, sir?” she whispered politely. Back deep in her brown eyes an Irish harpy danced, waiting her turn to come forward.
“It is taken,” Jerry whispered back desperately.
“Indeed sir, it is now. By me.” And Colleen gave every appearance of settling in with pleasure to watch the play.
And what could Jerry do about it? Absolutely nothing. He sat there holding his tall hat in his lap, his young lady companion beside him, her attention brightly on the stage as if nothing more momentous than this play had ever entered her silly head. It was eight-forty now. And it seemed miraculous to Jerry that the play should still be going on, the performers calling out their lines as confidently as if their world itself was in no danger of having the curtain rung down in the middle of this act, the parts of all the actors on its stage drastically rewritten. As if—
There was a burst of laughter, somewhat louder than usual, from the audience. Abruptly the shabby guard shifted in his seat beside the white door, then arose briefly from his chair to peer around the edge of the wall that otherwise prevented him from seeing the stage. He gave the impression of regretting more and more being stuck in a place from which he was unable to see the show. But after a moment he resumed his seat.
Beside Jerry, Colleen, her eyes bright, her lips smiling, was still watching the show, as if she had no other care in the world but this.
About ten more minutes passed. Then the guard—looking at that man closely now, Jerry would not have wanted to rely on him for anything—repeated his earlier performance, getting up to glance fleetingly at the stage once more, then resuming his seat.
Eight fifty-five. The guard got up unhurriedly out of his chair, stretched with his arms over his head, put on his hat, and with one more glance in the direction of the stage—the play seemed, after all, not such a big attraction—walked leisurely out of the auditorium.
Lincoln, as far as Jerry could see, had now been left totally unguarded.
So that’s how it works. The guard is in on the plot, thought Jerry. At least that meant one possible difficulty had been removed for Jerry himself. His legs were quivering now from the long tension, his muscles on the verge of hurling him from his chair. Somehow he forced his body to relax.
Colleen was looking at him. Not steadily, but he was sure that she was studying him, a bit and a moment at a time, out of the corner of her eye. And her pretense of interest in the play was fading. A professional agent, she could not fail to be aware of the ongoing tension in the man beside her. And it must be striking her as odd that he was not offering explanations, that he was so intent on—something else—that he had almost completely ignored her.