by Mike Manolakes
I was having a most wonderful dream when I was awakened by what must rank as the most chilling combination of words in the English language.
“Get up! I think my husband’s home!”
So great was my disbelief that she had to repeat the words again. On the second iteration, cold realization struck home, and immediately I bolted from the lady’s comfortable bed and began gathering my discarded clothes.
“No time!” she said. “Quick, in there!” She pointed toward the large wardrobe that stood in the corner of her bedchamber.
“I thought he was in Baltimore?”
“He was! Quickly! He’ll kill you if he finds you here!”
I could tell, from the urgency in Hattie’s voice, that she was not exaggerating the seriousness of the situation in the least. Trousers and boots in hand, I fairly dove into the depths of her wardrobe and shut the doors behind me. I decided that my life just may depend on how silent and motionless I could be in the next few minutes, for almost at once I heard the heavy tread of a man’s footsteps entering the room.
These, I was certain, belonged to a man I had never met but heard enough about. Captain William Bensel, Company A, of the Seventh New York State Militia, a regiment that had lately been assigned to provost duty in Baltimore. I had no idea why, instead of being in Baltimore as he should have been, the captain was here in his home in Manhattan.
I soon found out, for I could just make out what was being said through the closed doors of the wardrobe. The fair city of New York, it seemed, was suffering through several nights of rioting, all brought about by Mr. Lincoln’s decision to conscript soldiers into the army. I heard Bensel tell his wife that his regiment was one of several summoned to New York by train in hopes of restoring peace and order to the metropolis. As soon as his company arrived at the depot, Bensel immediately came home to the Upper East Side to make sure that his wife was safe.
Of course, what Captain Bensel didn’t know was that, during the weeks that he had been away, serving the Union in this time of rebellion, his dear wife Harriet had been unfaithful to him. She had found a lover, a man who, while patriotic in his own way, did not feel the same need to volunteer for military service as her husband did. That man was me, and I would soon pay the consequences for the time I spent with the captain’s beautiful wife if I did not find a way to escape from her bedroom undetected. My mother had always told me I had been born under a lucky star, and so far she had always been proven correct. I hoped it would remain so in this instance.
From the other side of the wardrobe doors I could hear all the expected sounds that might be made by a husband and wife suddenly reunited after several weeks of separation. This went on for several minutes, and then to my relief I could hear Hattie urging Bensel to go downstairs and wait in the parlor, and she would get him something cool to drink after his long journey. I heard both of them exit the room, and then the room was silent.
By now I had finished dressing myself as best I could within the confines of the wardrobe. Very cautiously I pushed open the wardrobe doors enough to see into the room beyond. Illuminated only by the cold light of dawn through the eastern window, the room was now unoccupied. Stealthily I extricated myself from the wardrobe and assessed my options. There were only two ways out of this room: the door and the window. The door led to the stairs which would take me right to the parlor, where Captain Bensel sat, no doubt with a loaded revolver on his hip. That left the window.
I walked over to the window and looked it over. It was already partially open, to let in the morning breezes in anticipation of another hot July day. To the alleyway below was a drop of at least twenty feet, far more for me to jump without injury, with nothing below to break my fall except hard cobblestones. Yet there was a ledge that ran around the perimeter of the stone house, narrow yet possibly wide enough for me to edge my way around to where there might be a way to get down to ground level.
Should I risk it? My indecision ended the moment I heard footsteps on the stairs again. They might belong to Hattie, but I could not risk that they might belong to Captain Bensel instead. I climbed through the window and stepped out onto the stone ledge.
I had always been blessed with a fine sense of balance, yet my head did swim momentarily as I looked at the great open expanse just beyond my toes. But I recovered enough to slowly, step by cautious step, inch my way away from the window and toward the rear corner of the building. I suppose I must have looked a sight, clinging to the side of the two-story house, but fortunately there was no one else in sight, as the hour was still quite early. The sun was still yet to rise, which meant that at this time of year it was probably not yet five o’clock. The rest of New York’s citizens, even the rioters, were now home in bed, all except for one fool standing up on a ledge.
At last I reached the point where the ledge turned the corner, and I carefully followed it around to the southern side of the house. Now I had a view downtown, and I could see smoke rising from several locations in the distance. This was evidence of the destruction wrought in the previous nights; I had heard that several buildings had been burned to the ground in the rioting, and black columns of smoke still marked where they stood. I suppose it was out of fear for her safety that drove me to come to see Hattie yesterday, though in time our fears were forgotten after we had taken comfort in each other’s arms.
But now that I had reached the rear of the building, I saw a possible means of lowering myself to the ground. A sturdy oak tree grew nearby, and one of its limbs extended almost to the wall of the house. However, the branch was just out of reach, which meant that I would have to leap from the ledge and grab hold of it if it was to be of use. I inched over to the spot on the ledge closest to the tree limb and studied my chances. It would not be a great leap, merely one of two or three feet, but if I failed to hold onto the limb, I would plummet twenty feet down to the hard cobblestones. Once I leaped, there would be no second chance: either I grabbed the branch and held on, or I would surely break my legs or worse from the fall. Though I was reasonably fit, I was no circus acrobat, and I was not entirely confident that I could successfully jump from the ledge to the tree. Yet what choice did I have? I could not stay here on the ledge until some passerby noticed me and reported my activity to the owner of this house. Since this tree seemed to be my only way of getting down to the ground safely, I made up my mind to do it. I held my arms out in front of me, prayed that my grip would be strong enough, and jumped.
A moment later, my right arm was hooked around the branch at the elbow, and the fingers of my left hand were gripping the branch solidly. My feet, however, dangled unsupported below me, and the whole of my weight was suspended from my arms. For an awful moment I feared that I would not be able to hold on, but as I tightened my grip around the branch I found that I was going to be able to manage after all. The branch itself, thankfully, was thick enough so that it bent but did not break and after a few moments of wriggling in the air like this, I was able to swing my right leg around the lower part of the branch and straddle it.
Being mid-July, the oak tree was now quite leafy, which probably served to hide me from anyone passing below, but it also made it quite uncomfortable as the large leaves slapped my face and poked me here and there. Yet I was able to carefully slide down the branch, lowering myself by degrees, until I was able to place my foot in the spot where two of the great limbs met. At this point, I saw that I was no more than about ten feet from the ground, and I gingerly lowered myself from the tree and hung from the branch until I finally let go and dropped the rest of the way to the ground without harm.
I landed on my feet, and while I was afraid someone might have heard the sound of my landing, it appeared that I had made it down undetected. I straightened myself up and brushed the loose leaves and tree grime out of my clothes, then walked around the building to the front of the house. I felt very pleased with myself for having successfully escaped, but my self-congratulations proved to be premature, for as I reached the sidewalk in front of the house, I saw a man in the uniform of the Union Army walk out the front door. And he saw me.
“You, sir!” he called to me. I had no doubt that this was Captain Bensel himself, even though I had never seen his face before. “Come here!”
I looked behind me to see if perhaps he was addressing someone else, but there was no one else on the street but me. Did he know where I had just come from, and was he about to take his revenge on me for my philandering activity with his wife? I had to decide in a moment whether or not to attempt to flee. It might have been the wisest move, but I saw that the captain was indeed wearing a revolver in his belt holster, and I believed he could draw it and shoot me before I could make a safe escape. So I chose to feign innocence instead of taking flight. “Me, sir?”
“Yes, you!” Bensel called impatiently. “I wish to speak to you.”
He was now standing at the bottom of his front steps. I walked over to him, trying to judge his mood from his facial expression, but it was unreadable. He fixed me with a hard stare and looked me up and down. “Are you an honorable man?”
“It’s a simple question. Are you a man of honor? Are you a temperate man, trustworthy, reliable?”
None of those words applied to me, but I saw no reason to tell him so. “I think so, sir.”
The man appeared to think hard for a moment before apparently reaching a decision. “My name is Bensel, Captain William Bensel. I command a company in the State Militia. This is my house. Inside is my wife, two infant children, and two servant girls under the age of twenty. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
I had to confess that I did not. I still did not know if he was accusing me of my misdeeds within his home.
“These last few days and nights, as I am sure you know, there have been riots in the city. Young men angry about the conscription law have been burning buildings and murdering innocent citizens. The Secretary of War has had to order regiments who have been lately fighting the Southern rebels to come here and end the violence in New York.”
I told him that I was aware of all that. “What does that have to do with me?” I added. “I’m no rioter.”
“No, of course, I can see that. I cannot stay here. I must rejoin my regiment which is even now preparing to take position downtown to keep the violence from spreading. Yet I do not wish to leave my house unguarded. So far there have been no reports of trouble in this neighborhood, but I can take no chances. The lives of my wife and children are at stake. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any able-bodied man in this area who isn’t already serving his country in the army, so there is no one else I can call upon to protect my house and family. That is why I find I must turn to a stranger.”
I could not believe what he was asking. “You wish me to guard your house?”
“I hope I am not making a grave mistake, but you have the look of a trustworthy man. I wish to employ your services for the day until I can return, if you are not otherwise engaged. Are you interested, sir? I’m sorry, but I do not know your name.”
I was about to give him my real name, which was Jimmy Flynn, but I thought better of it. “It’s Klein,” I said, appropriating the name of the butcher who sells me cuts of meat.
“Very well, Mr. Klein. I would consider it a personal favor, as well as a service to your country, if you would do this for me. I will pay you a ten-dollar gold piece for your troubles. Do we have an agreement?”
What else could I do? I extended my hand, and he shook it.
“Do you own a pistol?” he asked.
“No,” I lied again.
He unholstered his sidearm and handed it to me. “Here. You may return it to me at the end of the day. I doubt that you will need to use it, but it will give me some measure of relief knowing that my wife and family are being protected by it.”
I took the weapon and stuck it in my belt. I do not know how I kept my face from betraying that he was hiring the fox to guard the henhouse, but somehow I managed to convince the army captain that I possessed nothing but good moral character. “Thank you,” I said as earnestly as I could. “You can rely on me.”
“Good. Come inside, Mr. Klein. My wife is awake, and I would like to introduce you before I return to my regiment.”
What can I say? My mother was right. I was born under a lucky star.
Mike Manolakes is an author of historical fiction, alternative history, and science fiction. He is also an actor, director, Civil War reenactor, and elementary school teacher. He lives in Illinois.