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Raleigh Gilmore settled into an empty chair in the anteroom on the second floor of the executive mansion, leaned his head back against the wallpaper, and waited. Outside, the sky was gray, in the way a January day in Richmond turns raw and cold, threatening rain or even snow. He heard the wind picking up, battering the shutters. His men would be miserable by the time he returned to them, shivering in their makeshift cabins and tents, one blanket apiece and lucky to have even that. And hungry, always hungry.
The door at the end of the room opened so quietly that he didn't even notice until a high, fawning voice spoke practically at his elbow. "The president will see you now, Colonel Gilmore."
Raleigh grabbed his black felt hat and stood. He had to take a moment to let his left leg become accustomed to his weight before he limped after the clerk into the darkened office beyond. As the door closed softly behind him, he saw that he stood in the middle of a Persian rug of deep reds and brilliant blues. A large mahogany desk faced him. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he recognized the lean figure of President Jefferson Davis seated at the desk. The more solid form of the Confederacy's secretary of state, Judah Benjamin, stood near the heavily draped window.
"Forgive the melodrama of summoning you to such a darkened office, Colonel," Davis said, "but I find the light too painful on my eyes today." He waved a hand at the chair facing his desk. "Do sit down."
Raleigh eased himself into the straight-backed chair and glanced from one man to the other. When his commanding general had told him to report to the president, he'd given noclue as to why the South's chief executive wanted to see a mere colonel. But the presence of the secretary of state made the question even more puzzling.
Davis leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. "How is the army? How are your men, Colonel?"
Raleigh didn't need to think before answering. "My men are cold and hungry, Mr. President, but just waiting to have another go at the Yankees come spring."
A look of satisfaction spread over the sharp features of the president's face. He leaned back in his chair and glanced at the man standing by the window. "Good. Very good," he intoned and moved his gaze to stare into Raleigh's eyes as if trying to come to a decision. After several awkward moments, his voice rang out sharply in the silent room.
"Are you willing to die for your country, Colonel?"
"I nearly did last summer at Gettysburg." Raleigh stopped and wondered if that sounded accusatory. "After all the men we've lost already, officers especially, I reckon I'm a little surprised that I've lasted this long myself."
"And are you willing to be hanged for your country?" Davis asked in a strained voice, then went on before Raleigh could reply. "I ask nothing of you which I am not willing to accept for myself, for I realize that should I ever have the misfortune to fall into the enemy's hands, the hangman's noose awaits me."
Raleigh had to think about that for a moment before replying. "If I'm going to die for my country, I don't suppose the manner of my death should make any difference, as long as I die for an honorable cause."
Davis rose and paced behind the desk before turning to speak again. "I need you to undertake a very special mission for me, Colonel Gilmore. If you succeed, it may well result in victory and independence for the Confederacy."
The president resumed his pacing as he continued to talk, almost ignoring the two men in the room. "Our armies are strong, despite last year's setbacks, full of hardened veterans, and led by the finest officers. But the enemy outnumbers us, and his advantage in materiel, in arms, ships, everything, is considerable. We need the assistance of an outside power, a European nation such as England or France."
"England and France won't get involved now that the North's convinced their people this is a war over slavery," Raleigh interrupted before he could stop himself.
Davis stopped pacing and glared down at him. "That's why you are here, Colonel. You are going to convince England to come into this war. On our side, of course."
Raleigh stared up at the president, stunned by his words. "You want me to go to London, sir?"
"No." Davis shook his head slowly. "Boston."
"I don't understand, sir."
Copyright © 2003 by Pamela Cummings