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Chapter One: The Assignment

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Tidwell.” A voice that is clearly not that belonging to Captain Ross emerges from behind me. Turning in my seat I see Mr. Stanton press the door closed with his back as he smiles upon me. He reaches behind his back and turns the lock.

“Sir, please forgive me for I seem to have wandered into the wrong office. I was expecting to be waiting in Captain Ross’s office, waiting for a meeting with my father,” I find myself uncontrollably stammering. “That is, I was called here by my father, Admiral Johnson, but he remains in a meeting… and I was instructed that this was the office of his aide Captain Ross. Sir, I was only in here waiting for—”

President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Mr. Edwin Stanton, finally tires of my nervous ramble and raises a palm to halt my speech.

I had met this esteemed gentleman only last night at the coming-out affair for the teenage daughters of the local military families. Each summer many such parties are held at military installation across the United States, or probably the world, to present the marriageable daughters of officers to their potential suitors. Indeed I had met my own husband at just such an affair six years ago. As I was now a young widow with only 22 years of age, having returned to Washington DC to live with my father, I had been invited to use this celebratory occasion to exit my period of mourning. While the younger girls were giddily collecting the calling cards of interested junior officers I was engaging in polite conversation with the more senior yet still single officers and other gentlemen who might be agreeably disposed toward a youthful widow. The war with the southern states has created many young widows; yet the military always takes care of its own.

Mr. Stanton was known to me by the notoriety of his position in the president’s cabinet. As he was my father’s supervisor, I was most polite to him as he assisted me by refilling my cup with punch. While he was facing me with his back was to the crowd, he removed a silver flask from his pocket and poured a small quantity of amber fluid into his cup. Then, acknowledging my maturity relative to the other girls seeking suitors, he raised the flask in a wordless offer to me.

“Yes, please,” I responded and extended my cup towards him.

After he poured a small quantity of the whiskey into my cup he quietly spoke to me for the first time, “It does make these affairs more enjoyable.” He smiled as I sipped my spiked beverage and nodded knowing that this would indeed ease my tension when meeting my potential suitors. “Mrs. Tidwell, I presume,” he said there being no one around who could properly introduce us.

While somewhat surprised that he was aware of my identity I calmly replied, “Yes, Mr. Stanton.” I did not wish to demonstrate my shock and perhaps I wanted to surprise him.

“I understand you are quite an accomplished seamstress,” he continued with our conversation as he gently touched my arm and guided me away from the serving table.

I indeed was an acknowledged seamstress by my own education. The sharp tailoring of my late husband’s uniforms was quickly noticed by his superior officers and I believe I favorably promoted his short career when I most agreeably tailored those officers’ uniforms as well.

“Yes, I’ve been told that I have a knack for it,” I respond proudly though not wishing to be a braggart. I noticed that his suit was exquisitely fitted revealing that it was not my sewing ability that interested him as he halted our promenade in an unoccupied corner of the room.

“Hmm.” He smiled oddly, sipped his spiked punch and then he quietly continued, “I have heard that you are also skilled with the written word.”

How did he know so much about me?

“This is also true,” I stated more curtly as I have always been annoyed with the surprise shown by men when they discover that I – a woman – know how to read and write.

“Is there an author whose work has attracted your fancy?” he quickly continued sensing that he had sparked the ire in me.

“Yes actually, I’ve been reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. It’s the second of his works that I have read. I finished his The Three Musketeers only last week.”

“Do you read them in their native French?”

“Of course”

“Indeed,” his face brightened, “I am very familiar with these adventure stories. Is this a genre that interests you?” Then without waiting for my response he enthusiastically added, “I have just finished the most fanciful short tale by another Frenchman, whom I’ve previously never heard of, Jules Verne. The story is called The First Ships of the Mexican Navy, but then my interests do favor the naval adventures.” He smiled. My mouth began to form a response, but he was still talking, “I should present the book to you.” It was a statement, not a question.

As it was now my turn to speak I said, “The adventure stories are indeed some of my favorites and I would be delighted to receive your loan of the book for I too have never heard of this author.”

“Monsieur Verne’s book being written in the modern style is more easily understood than the older style of Monsieur Dumas. Of course, both are vastly more discernible that the old English style of Chaucer.”

Like all women at the party, I carried a folded fan attached to my left wrist by means of lanyard and now my hand snapped this fan open as I quickly raised it to cover my blushing face. This man’s meaning had suddenly become apparent. I had made a dire mistake in mentioning the works of Alexandre Dumas as they contained many not-so-veiled inferences to amorous activities among unmarried couples. Also I very well knew the extraordinarily direct depictions of unmarried lustful relations within the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer.

Mr. Stanton was seeking a mistress.

It was well known to me than men in positions of power, whether they are military commanders or political officials, gravitate toward a need for attentions beyond what a wife provides – no matter how willing she may be. Additionally, it was well known to me that widows of similar men were the frequent recipients of these attentions. The military always takes care of its own. However, being youthful and childless I did not consider myself to yet be a mistress candidate. I had known that this may eventually be my fate, but once I accepted such a position I would have great difficulty exiting the social quagmire.

With his true desire now unmasked I struggled to cool my flushed face with the fan.

However, Mr. Stanton’s disposition suddenly changed. “I beg your pardon, madam. I am unpracticed in the art of polite conversation with young women and my mouth clearly spoke beyond the bounds of what my mind intended. Truly, Mrs. Tidwell, I was only meaning to discuss the varying literary style of the adventure story through the ages. I most humbly beg your pardon for the inference that a woman of your upbringing would know of Chaucer’s works.” He quickly attempted to climb from the hole he had dug though he must have noticed from my reaction that I might not be of such lofty breeding. My reaction clearly indicated that I did indeed know the contents of Chaucer’s stories. “Quite honestly, madam, my next reference was to be the difficulty in reading Homer,” he finished.

Once he stopped talking he stood and waited to see if I chose to slap him or simply walk away.

Lowering my fan I pulled a long portion of my whisky flavored drink into my mouth and swallowed, and then I chose to neither slap him nor stomp away. “Homer is not so difficult to understand,” I flatly responded holding his gaze. We exchanged a few more words about Homer’s Odyssey and then he embarrassingly departed my company.

However now in Captain Ross’s office, Mr. Stanton again chooses to intrude upon me – alone with the door closed and locked!

The office contains Captain Ross’s desk and chair along with two rather uncomfortable bentwood chairs facing the desk. I am currently seated in one chair while Mr. Stanton takes the other without my invitation. With the closed the door, the social question of whether I am in the position of being his mistress will be answered to the affirmative in about ten minutes regardless of our true actions.

“Sir—”

Again he raises his hand to stop me. “Mrs. Tidwell, I again apologize for my clumsy introduction last night. I meant no disrespect to you and let me assure you that no smirch will stain your reputation with our conversation. Please trust me, no one will ever know we had this meeting.”

The puzzlement upon my face must have shown like a beacon.

“I had intended to speak of this matter with you last night,” he continues, “but… well… it was entirely my fault and let me apologize one last time.”

When he pauses for a breath I say, “I took no insult from our conversation, sir. My startled response was not from insult, but from surprise at the directness of your conversation. My only regret is that we were unable to continue our discussion of adventure stories.” I nervously attempt a smile.

“Thank you, madam, for relieving my soul of that burden. And so let me now continue with the discussion I had intended to deliver last night. Mrs. Tidwell…”

“Emily, if it pleases you,” I say.

“Emily,” he smiles, “I know from your birthright and the details of your life that you are most loyal to the Union.” He pauses for a moment and I nod agreement thinking that he will continue with what is apparently not a discussion about adventure stories, but he simply continues to stare at me.

“Sir, you were going to say something more?” I finally ask filling the void in our conversation.

“Yes,” he takes a breath, “I’m sorry, but I just remembered the report of your husband. Among other mistakes I made last night I failed to offer you my sincerest condolences of the death of your husband. Please accept them now along with another apology for my insolence.”

My husband Captain Jack Tidwell had been killed a year earlier in a battle outside Winchester, Virginia on May 23, 1862. I had met Jack at the coming-out party arranged by my father shortly after my sixteenth birthday and we married two years later – after my father finally lifted his opposition to my marrying an army man. As his only children were two daughters, Father was struggling to maintain his envisioned naval family dynasty.

As with all military wives, I had very little private time with Jack. Therefore, I had not forced him wait for the final wedding ceremony before lying with me. Other young women in this same predicament had encouraged me to believe that this was the best course. “You don’t want your wedding night to be spoiled with the pain and blood of your maidenhead,” one recent bride had encouraged me. Therefore, a month before our scheduled nuptials – I picked this time so that if I became with child its timing would go unquestioned – I allowed Jack to escort me horseback riding alone, and without Father’s knowledge. Jack and I had longingly discussed our first coupling several times and our ‘picnic’ was well planned. There, in the shade of a large tree, I lay upon the blanket and allowed Jack to lift my skirt. I had not worn drawers, and stockings were my only undergarments to simplify the occasion’s purpose. I was surprisingly unembarrassed though this was the first time a man had ever seen much less touched the bare pale skin of my Venus. Jack’s fingers had tenderly caressed my belly ending with teasing tugs of my curly cunny hair. Gently, Jack used his short sword – as army officers refer to their manhood – to penetrate my maidenhead. While this was slightly painful – a burning feeling – and there was a small amount of blood, it was not nearly as displeasing as I had been lead to believe.

What was painful was the whipping I received when I got home. As careful as I had been arranging our ‘picnic’, my younger sister Lilly had seen us departing together – alone – and she had reported the event to Mother who was waiting for me in the stable upon my return. She didn’t even ask if I had lain with Jack. She simply instructed me to bend across my saddle after I placed it upon its rack. She told me that if I resisted her punishment, or if I ever lay with Jack again before our matrimonial blessing, then she would tell Father. He had not spanked me for nearly five years and I knew that I didn’t want him to take up the task again. So, I lifted my skirt and the truth of Mother’s suspicion was visible before her eyes. Not only was I without undergarments, but also the stains upon my petticoat and inner thighs told only one tale.

“Please Mother, not on the bare!” I pleaded as all of my previous spankings had been through the thin fabric of my nightdress.

However, Mother stated the obvious, “Emily, you should have considered that when you chose to go riding – in the bare!”

Using the leather strap of my bridle, she whipped my fully exposed nether raw.

I didn’t tell Jack of the experience; however I did lay with him twice more before our wedding night. I was just more careful not to get caught. Once more to ensure that the first time was indeed the only painful time and again because the second time had been astonishingly pleasant. Our wedding night had been most wonderful! Unfortunately, we had insufficient opportunities to create a child within me as the war began shortly after our wedding. 

Now, I am a pathetically inexperienced widow.

“Thank you for your kind thoughts,” I say to the humbled Mr. Stanton as we sit in Captain Ross’ office, “but trust again that you owe me no apology as there was no insolence. You see I am no longer in mourning,” I show him my left hand which is absent of jewelry as I have retired my wedding ring. I smile, thinking that being his mistress might not be altogether displeasing.

He displays an uncomfortable smile and then continues, “Finally I think I can get to the point – it was I who sent the messenger calling you here today. Your father does not know you are here and I would appreciate it if he would remain uninformed.” The look of astonishment again floods my face. “To the quick of it, you are a trusted citizen of the Union and I need your assistance. Among my duties is to see to the activities of several individuals that obtain valuable information… to assist the war effort. These individuals are not military and their actions are not known to anyone but me. They are spies.” He takes a deep breath and finally states his purpose, “I want to enlist you as one of my spies and discharge you upon an adventure. While not likely dangerous, no one must know of your true purpose.”

“Sir.” My breath catches in my throat.

“Before you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I must have your assurance that the secret existence of my spies, that I have just revealed to you, will remain only between us.”

I swallow and take another breath. The concept that spies are always engaged around military action is certainly not a surprise. “Sir, I cannot image what purpose I can serve for you, but I cannot refuse your request to perform whatever duty you require and most certainly I promise to keep this and every such conversation a secret.”

He takes my right hand in both of his and lifts it for a polite kiss. “Emily, thank you so very much.” He smiles and I try to mimic his pleased expression, but fail. “Now we must separate to keep this meeting a secret. Here,” he hands me a small package that I had not before noticed in his possession, “is the book I promised you. Also, there are some additional pages that I want you to read. You do not need to commit them to memory or anything like that. I just want you to be aware of the subject for our next meeting. Burn them after you study them. And then when you finish… the book,” he winks, “send me a message that you wish to return it and discuss its story.”

With that he stood and left.

 


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