Being so near the nation's capital, the soldiers naturally wanted to go into the city. George got his chance in early November. Sergeant Lane gave passes to a few of the fellows. George asked Hez, "You wanna go into the city with me?"
"Wish I could. I got guard duty. Kiss a gal for me."
Tom Emly said, "I got a pass. I'll go with you, George."
So the two young cavalrymen retraced the route they'd taken upon arrival in the capital, in reverse this time. From the camp they passed the Lunatic Asylum and crossed a bridge into the city. They visited the Capitol and were heading up Pennsylvania Avenue, when Emly suddenly poked George in the ribs. "Looky there, George! It's the President!"
George looked where Emly was pointing and sure enough, there coming on horseback was a very tall bearded man in a black suit, riding along by himself. The two boys ran for all they were worth to meet the great man and shake his hand. As they came up to him, he greeted them, "Boys, if only our whole Army would charge like that, we'd have this war won in no time!"
The boys shook hands with him. He said, "I reckon you already know me. What are your names, where are you from?"
"I'm Tom Emly! Pleased to meet you!"
"George VanArsdale, sir."
Emly said, "We're from Upstate."
"Buffalo, or thereabouts, perhaps?"
"Not far, Abe!" Emly then asked, "Are you gonna run for a second term? I'll vote for you if you do!"
Lincoln smiled. "That question reminds me of old Jesse DuBois back in Springfield, Illinois. A meek little walking corpse of a preacher came to Jesse one day and said he wanted to rent a hall for a series of lectures. Jesse told him, 'You can't rent a hall in this town 'til we know what you propose to preach about.' The preacher replied, 'My subject shall be the Second Coming of Our Lord.' Jesse said, 'Then you're wasting your time. If the Lord has been to this town once, he knows better than to come back a second time.'"
The boys laughed, although Emly looked like he hadn't quite seen the applicability of the joke to his question. George asked the question that had been burning in his brain. "Mr. President, may I be honest with you?"
"'Tis the best policy, or so Mr. Franklin once said."
"I am unhappy that your Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery everywhere. Could you not order a more powerful act?"
Lincoln put a serious expression on his face. "I confess that I am a slow walker. But let me assure you, I never walk back! Thing is, we've got to be very cautious as to the Negro question. We might find ourselves like the barber out in Illinois who was shaving a fellow with a hollow cheek. The barber stuck his finger in the customer's mouth to make his cheek stick out. But while shaving away he cut through the fellow's cheek and cut off his own finger! If we are not very careful, we shall do as the barber did."
Lincoln smiled ruefully. "Well, there I go again, telling stories. Senator Wade berated me once for telling stories. He said, 'Lincoln, you would tell stories if you were only a mile from Hell!'"
Lincoln cocked his head towards the Capitol Building. "Well, a mile is just about the distance from here to the Capitol! If you boys will excuse me, I have a speech to write."
Lincoln touched the brim of his hat and went on his way.
George looked at Emly. Emly was grinning in a puzzled sort of way. His grin died when he observed the frown on George's face. Emly asked, "What's the matter with you? We just met the President! Old Abe himself!"
"I did not like his answer."
"Now that you mention it," Emly replied. "It did sound like he's told those jokes a thousand times."
George sputtered, "No, that's..."
"I know: the abolition of slavery. But just look at all the coloreds that keep coming across from Virginia. I hear everywhere the Army goes, they just keep coming. Slavery's already starting to die."
"You seem to have a point there."
"My ma isn't going to believe it! Nor Abigail! I gotta write, tell'em I met the President! Shook his hand! He told jokes!"
George, agreeing absently: "Yes. I still did not like his answer. Can't he make slavery die faster...!"
"You're a hard man to please, George!" Grinning ear to ear, Emly continued, "Now what were they again? A barber who cut off his own finger while shaving a customer... that was some kind of parable or something, it had a point. What was it, do you know, George?"
* * *
© 2019 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.