"Doctor, thank you for taking time out of your work to visit my wife. I need to know what I can do to keep her from these bouts with insanity."
Charles nodded self-consciously. Only minutes before, he had been cleaning the infected bullet wound of a colonel and planning his next chance to sneak a longing look at the photograph of his fiancé in his pocket. Then the messenger had arrived, and he had dropped his instruments onto a table, seized his overcoat, and ran to the mansion. He had never expected to meet this great patriot he idolized, much less be requested by him. Now, grimacing at the sound of his worn shoe soles slapping loudly on the marble floor, he still had no idea of the remarkable part he would play in the man's life.
Charles clutched his leather kit in a white-knuckled hand and studied the care-worn face of the savior of his country. "I will do my best, sir, but it astonishes me that you have requested a simple army surgeon to attend."
His guide shook his head gravely. "My dear fellow, the last doctor recommended you."
"Do you mean Doctor Whitesides, sir?"
He winced. "Er, no, I don't think so. He had a shorter name. Holmes perhaps."
"Doctor Hall, sir?"
"Yes, he's the one."
"Poor Doctor Hall." Charles had heard the news of how the physician had rushed onto the battlefield before the fighting ceased and gotten in the path of a stray cannonball.
"When civilian doctors join the army, army doctors must attend civilians. It is but a small part of the bedlam of our nation." He patted Charles on the shoulder in a fatherly way with a strong but trembling hand, and the doctor mused that the man was in fact old enough to be his father, despite his virility and darkness of hair. The hair was, in fact, not as thick as Charles had seen it in photographs. In the brilliant light of the crystal chandeliers, he could even see a tuft of it drift down to the marble. "Here is the room," he announced, seizing a doorknob and ushering Charles into a room furnished in high Edwardian fashion.
Charles had expected a bedroom, but instead, he found himself in a sitting room. High-backed chairs ranged around a soft rug of intricate design. A small dark-haired woman sat with perfect posture on a rather uncomfortable looking chair. A pair of knitting needles worked furiously in her hands. Charles had the sense from her set jaw that she expected the mundane work to relieve tense nerves. He dipped his head in acknowledgment. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Madam."
She did not answer. Instead, her husband leaned down, and she whispered into his ear. Charles took care not to overhear. He spent his time gathering a pair of gold candlesticks.
When his host moved away, Charles moved closer to the woman. "Don't be alarmed by the candles, Madam. I am only going to use their light to look at your eyes."
She dipped her head as a bird would. "Of course, Doctor. They are not such small concerns that frighten me. Do as you need to do, and feel free to call me Mary since our business will be one so personal."
He found her demure manner remarkable in so public a figure. "I will call you Mary if you will agree to call me Charles. I insist that our terms be fair." He studied the dark pupils, which were not overwide. The eyes were bright but not feverishly bright. Charles noted the way that they kept darting over to her husband in obvious concern. Setting down the candlesticks, he asked her permission and held her wrist for her pulse. It felt normal as well. "Do you enjoy the springtime in this city?" He preferred not to ask her the questions directly.
Mary smiled. "It's beautiful. It makes me feel young again. It helps me to forget about all the years of politics."
"Have you had any trouble sleeping, madam?"
"Yes, Charles, and not only in the springtime, but all year round. I have nightmares also. Really, why don't you just tell my husband what he can do for me?" She glanced across the room at him, and he turned away from the window and came back toward us.
Still observing both of them, Charles ran his fingers through his thick sideburns. "I cannot in good conscience make any prescription without seeing any symptoms first, however-much respect I have for the late Doctor Hall and his diagnosis."
His host slammed his fist down on a mahogany chair arm. The wood creaked beneath the force. "Just do it, boy!"
Instantly he turned away, clucking to himself in shame. "Please forgive me, Doctor. I have many cares weighing on my mind."
Charles cleared his throat. "I only received my degree in medicine two months ago, and I have seen few cases other than that of trauma and infection, but I can recognize the signs of erithism: retreat from social interaction, trembling hands, mood swings, sleeplessness, fatigue, and head pains. I see all these in you, sir, not your wife, and I would bet a high wager that you are the one who experiences the insomnia and delusions." Charles bit his tongue, waiting to see the reaction that his chief would have to such an outburst.
The man gave a grave nod, with a hint of a smile. "Doctor Helms did well to recommend you. I know that you see the gravity of the situation now. A man in my position can ill afford to succumb to insanity. Yet not a night passes that I do not dream of fire or black carriages. Hardly a waking hour passes when I do not start from some awful vision. I have swung an ax with all my might to chop firewood and come to my senses to realize that I am gripping the arm of a Portuguese ambassador."
"Please help us in any way you can," Mary urged, returning to her knitting with gusto.
Charles sighed. "I have studied little on the subject. I know of no cure at all and no treatment other than a complete renunciation of worldly cares. I little think that strong drink has caused your malady, and I dare not suggest that ancestry is to blame. Sir, I believe that the pressures of your job have caused it, and you can have no hope for recovery while retaining it."
"I feared as much. But what can I do? I refuse to let my country down in this great time of need." Husband and wife embraced, each struggling to gain strength from the other. Charles shifted awkwardly from foot to foot until his host shook his hand. "I have the utmost faith in you, just as Doctor Henry did. I thank you for not sparing my feelings. Can you find your way out?"
"You won't speak of this, Doctor, not even to my boys should you chance to meet them?"
"I'll breathe not a word, sir."
Charles felt a new great care on his own mind as he stood still in the doorway. The most influential man in the world is out of his mind. I should not let this be. "Sir?"
The man jumped as if he had forgotten Charles' presence, and the doctor wondered if his host had just had another episode. "Yes? What can I do for you, good fellow?"
Mary placed a hand on his arm. "This is the new doctor, dear."
Charles considered his beautiful, wealthy fiancé, whom he loved dearly. He considered his job, one of the most fulfilling that any man could have. It might cost him both if he followed through with his thoughts. I will not fold. I wager them without reservation for my country. "Sir, if you are willing to do it, I can get you away from here, secretly, so that no one will know of your condition, so that no one will worry you again."
Mary's lips parted. "We want nothing more."
"But you are so young. Can you do it?"
Charles gazed shook all hesitation and gazed into the leader's eyes with a steely gaze. "I can do it. I have never been so sure of anything in my life."
Mary clasped her hands together. "Yes. Tell him yes, dear."
He gazed over Charles' head for a long moment. "I've tried to plug the holes in the ship of state. But there are many rocks ahead, and if the boat will sink anyway, what good are sore thumbs?"
Charles waited for a less cryptic answer, but the man turned and began to lecture a candlestick on the importance of honoring the dead. Mary nodded, and Charles bowed out of the room. His shoes clattered on the marble-floored hall again. I can hardly believe I've just agreed to remove such a great man from power. But how can I do it?
John kicked the door shut with a force that shook the boardinghouse. "It's over! They surrendered!"
"Well, not every general," a meek-eyed man offered. "We still have old…."
"Don't correct me!" John snapped. He stared down his collection of saddened comrades one by one. They kept their wide eyes on him as he strutted in front of them. "If I had only taken up my arms and fought, maybe it would have turned the tide of the war. I will be more than a smuggler and a spy yet, though."
David piped up again. "How? Our government is running away. They will make no hostage exchange now."
John laughed. "Common pirates held Julius Caesar as a hostage. That is too good for our cutthroat. I will be Brutus, and I will kill our Caesar. Then will the true end of this war come."
The plain room filled with young men, wooden chairs, and discarded cigar stubs rested in absolute silence for a long moment. Then a chair squeaked on the floor, and one of the men stood. "No. I was with you at first, when you only wanted to kidnap the man, but I cannot go along with this. I have no other work and no lack of pride to call you my friend, John, but I will not do this." A second man stood, and they walked from the room together, startling the woman who owned the house as she hovered at the door.
The self-proclaimed Brutus watched them go with lowered eyelids. It gave him a certain satisfaction to see his followers reduced. It nurtured the indignation that drove him, and it showed him that more of his plans relied on only himself, an intoxicating situation. He took a long draw from a bottle of gin and smacked his lips with satisfaction. "And so we have removed the weak from our midst. They are my old schoolfellows. We need fear no further treasury than this abandonment. But you David, and you Lewis and George, will be invaluable to me. We will be remembered as the saviors of our nation."
A clean-shaven young man of twenty-one chuckled happily. He elbowed a thirty-year old German. "Could this get any better, George?"
George didn't speak. He shook his head and drained his own bottle of gin.
John tossed his bottle against the wall across the room. He smiled when his gang jumped. "Get ready, boys. We'll be heroes within the week!"