The Man With The Beard
By Jay Dee
We were underground now, as was apparent when lamplight cast into view water trickling down the elbow of a tree root snaking out of the tunnel's stone wall as we passed. The man I followed strode swiftly down the corridor's slope, the tail end of his swallowtail cloak flailing wildly back and forth behind him with every stride he took.
"Hurry lad," he turned back to say, "And hold that light up."
I did as I was told.
The great mansion, two floors above us now, had turned from a bustling theatre of activity into a place of whispers and suspicions. This was the second time visiting the - home I supposed it can be called. That first time, working with my father to dress a magnificent dining table, nearly as long as the carriages that gathered outside, I could not help but watch all these coat-tailed men, like the man I followed, rushing back and forth in and out of enormous rooms and retiring behind hard closing doors. These busy men crossed paths throwing nods here and there as if to say, 'I have not got time', displaying stern looks of business. Many had lit cigars and hats - bowlers and stovepipes - and walked with canes swinging at their sides, and all had fluttering papers tucked under arms.
My father scolded me, "Keep a eye on your work." These men he exhorted, were here to discuss "matters of import." But he needn't of felt uneasy because nary a one ever glanced my way.
Ignored as we were, the atmosphere about the place seemed tolerably welcome to all, even to me and my father. But now, only glaring faces below stooped collars paced the hallways, many coming out of those same hard closing doors but few entering. These faces turned edgy glances at the man I hastened to keep behind, squinting behind spectacles that flickered back flames tossed at us from inside oil lamps hanging at every corner.
Unlike that first visit, my presence was not ignored. For before entering the basement, many looks lowered from the man I followed to glower on me as well.
"Trust died with the Yankee vote," my father said.
These thoughts filtered through me as I raced to keep up with this man who had collected me from my tasks for what he called, "An errand of gravity."
Not sure what that meant, I only nodded.
"How old are you," he asked.
"Twelve I think," I answered.
"I am told you told you are capable and can be trusted. Is this true?"
"Yes sir," I replied.
"Very well then. Come along."
I did. Downward two flights of stonework stairs into a basement below a basement. Into darkness lit only by the oil lamp I carried, following with quick steps to keep pace.
He was not a tall man, but he was stout and had a face to match. Some might say round. But that would be like calling a stone retrieved from a cliffside round. A lot more could be said of the stone, spending all those years planted in the earth among the other rocks, witness to all sorts of history, always firmly in place, until history began to change. His face showed with craggy, unfaltering awareness, just like that long-lived stone. He was bearded below the chin and his black hair, pressed in a tight ring around the crown of his head, curled out like wings over his ears. His eyes pierced me, like the savages I had seen once walking the dirt lanes of town. They always hunched over like this man. But from time to time, when the notion struck them, like this man, they would stand erect and stare at you, as if one wrong move would be the last.
"Son, come here," said the bearded man in front of me. He had paused in front of a dark doorway recessed within a split stone arch. "What is your name?"
"Ezra Welles", I told him.
He seemed a bit surprised, "Fredrick's boy?"
I nodded. He nodded back. "Hold the lamp here," he said, pointing at the iron door handle, and then fished in his cloak to bring out a set of dangling keys.
As I lifted the lamplight the blaze washed over the giant timbers supporting the door frame. They were charred black from top to bottom.
"Don't worry, the beams will hold," the man said. "The palace above us was set ablaze the year I was born. Someday repairs may reach this far. Maybe not."
He fumbled the key into the latch. At first, it moved a little, then as he jiggled the lock, it finally gave with a quick click, and he shoved the heavy door inward.
"Give me that light," he demanded.
As I handed it over, he stepped into the room beyond. I followed even though uninvited hoping he would not tell me to wait outside. He glanced at me seeming to consider, then nodded. As I said, the surroundings of this whole place had changed to reflect an atmosphere of menace, and in this new darkness, I not only sensed but somehow knew dangers lurked. Not from anything of a ghostly nature, which I might have preferred, but from men. Men my father had warned me to stay clear. Men who had, he told me, "Killing evil in their eyes."
Something grunted inside the room's dark interior. As the stout man in front of me held the lamp high, there appeared another man, seated in a large oak chair, wrists bound to cushioned armrests, legs chained together in front of him. A white blood-spattered rag was shoved into his mouth. While the man fit exactly into my expectations, the ornate chair that bound him was very out of place inside this dungeonous chamber. Someone had for sure dragged it here from some apartment above. The man seated was stout as well, taller even than my father, who was nearly as tall as some house ceilings.
The man glanced down at me, and I felt the foulness of his stare dig into me as if it were a burrowing insect. I cringed, moving a step back.
"Don't worry son. This gentleman is going nowhere," said the bearded man. Without further pretext, he hung the lantern on a wood peg poking out of the dirt wall, turned and yanked the rag from the seated man's mouth. "That's right. You assumed this boy's father could not read."
Puzzled by this, I shifted my weight. The bearded man looked at me, "Your father may have saved more than he knows, besides just a coup."
I certainly did not understand. The man with the beard smiled oddly, a grin nearly hidden within the weave of his whiskers and reached out to rub a meaty palm over my head.
"There are others," the bound man grumbled.
Suddenly, all of us heard swift footfalls coming down the corridor outside the underground room. A man appeared in the doorway. He was of equal height to the bearded man I followed here, but burly and heavy set, with a disheveled expression glowing under his own high held lamp. The bearded man visibly relaxed and I followed suit guessing this visitor was no threat.
"Did any answer arrive?" asked the one I had followed.
Rather than answer, the new man peered at the one seated. "It is true then?" he asked. No response came back. I don't think the question was asked for a response. The new man took in a breath, then he answered the bearded man, "Word is Mr. A is not convinced."
"But the Pinkerton's are," the bearded man said. It was not a question.
"Aye," The new man replied. "Allan himself is working to persuade him."
"No names," the bearded man admonished. He lowered his gaze, a bit pensive. "Allan will make him listen," he whispered, using the name despite his just stated warning. "The sooner the better," he added, lifting his gaze.
"He's a dead man," the seated miscreant growled. "Y'all are dead men."
The burly man stepped instantly to the chairside and slapped the captive across the face. A fresh stream of blood spilled from the bound man's nose. Unable to wipe, he coughed roughly expelling more blood, which sprayed onto the new man's arm. Then he flicked his head sharply, spattering the blood splotching his cheeks back into his assailant's face.
"We found your partner's arsenal," the new man disclosed. He moved in close, nearly nose to nose with the bleeding man's scowl. "Above us, as we speak, all your cronies are being ferreted out. By morning you will be friendless. South Caroline will have to muster their own weapons."
"Oh, they will. You can be sure of it," the man said, grunting out his response unintimidated. "The few you have here will not stem the tide. And your man will be diet for worms before this is over. Believe me."
The burly man pulled back to administer another slap but was stopped by a hand clamping over his forearm. "Not going to help," the bearded man said. Then asked, "You have something to jot a note?"
The man nodded and slipped a block wood pencil and a paper sheet out of a side pocket of his cloak.
"Write this down."
The burly man knelt to the ground. The bearded man nodded at me and I pulled the lantern from the peg holding the light close over the knelt man's shoulder.
The bearded man began, "Mr. Seward-"
The burly man looked up, "You said no names."
"Right." He began again, "Attempt was in play but is stopped. There is said to be others." With this, he glanced at the man seated. "Convince Mr. A this is more than suspicion." As the knelt man wrote, the bearded man glared at the seated captive, who returned the look with the same fury. The man with the beard waited for the man with the pencil to catch up, then added, "Was to occur inside the crowd, with a knife to the back."
The man writing paused. "If there are others, how long before one gets through?"
"Never mind that," said the bearded man. "I have a feeling we'll all be behind front lines before long. Like Mr. A says, this coming conflict may be the death of us all."
Then strangely, he stared down at me. "But I know in my bones, the longer we let this continue the more damnation will be upon us." He spoke directly to me, "I do not believe Mr. Jefferson intended this institution to persist beyond the century, and we will see to it that it does not. My life be damned."
"Anything else?" the knelt man asked.
"Yes," the bearded man said. "Add this line: These words are for your ears only. Do not tell Mr. A. there was an actual plot. But we found the assassin." Both men glanced up at the bound man. The bearded man turned back and stared absently into the lamplight, and to himself said, "The burden for him at this time is unnecessary."
The knelt man wrote and when he finished, he stood. "We really want to keep this from Mr. A?"
"You're traitors," the seated man called. The man with the beard and the note taker stared without response. "It's a good thing you don't tell that demonic minion. Let him enjoy peace while he can before we send him back to hell." He grinned malevolently.
The man with the beard locked eyes with the seated man. He took a step closer. Despite his bravado, the captive man shrunk back. But the man with the beard stopped. He took the slip of paper from the knelt man and turned to me.
"Give this to your father. Can you do that? Without anyone knowing?"
Wide-eyed - I couldn't help myself - I nodded, dreading the responsibility.
"Tell your father Edwin says it is to be in Pinkerton's hands before the night is out. Tell him as well, do not let Mr. A see or know of its existence."
I had to ask, and so did, "Who is Mr. A?"
The man, Edwin I now assumed, shook his head without answering. The burly man rose. "Maybe we'll bring it up to him later when events above have settled down. He has enough to worry about at the moment," he said to no one in particular.
I received the paper as it was folded into my palm.
Edwin said, "Tell your father immediately. Can you remember all this?"
"Yes sir," I said.
He looked down at me, with an expression of sadness it seemed. "Son, you be proud of your father you hear. He's risking his life to give you a better one."
I had no idea what he meant.
Before I left, the burly man asked, "What do we do with this one?"
Both men stared at the man bound to the chair.
"I suppose every war must have its first casualty," the man with the beard said.