Later young John Hay would write that "a look of unspeakable peace" had come over the features of the man over whom the Secretary of War had just pronounced this impromptu epitaph. Peace was far from Hay's mind. In addition to everything else he was feeling at this moment, he had a distraction to deal with: the dandy had mouthed the words along with Stanton.
The fellow, who looked to be Hay's age, had entered the room in Petersen's boarding house across from the theatre about half an hour ago. His fair hair was as long as a girl's, and the styling of his suit was odd - perhaps a new fashion Hays hadn't seen before - but no one else seemed to notice him.
Stanton, after calling a cabinet meeting, was sending for the first lady. Hay didn't want to be here for that. In his grief for this man he respected and admired he wasn't distracted enough by his curiosity about the stranger to pursue it. But now, as he left the room in what he hoped wasn't an unseemly rush, the dandy - closer to the door than Hay, for arriving later - chanced to decide to leave just when it meant they'd go through the door together.
"Who are you?" Hay asked him, confronted with the puzzle too baldly to ignore it any longer.
"I'm the Doctor," said the stranger, confusing Hay; he'd gone nowhere near the deathbed. He sounded British. He had an easy smile, dimmed somewhat now by what they had both witnessed. He put out his hand which Hay reflexively shook. "A great man," he said, nodding toward the door.
"He sacrificed himself, to keep the Union together," said Hay, not without bitterness.
The Doctor nodded. He turned toward the house's main entrance casually and Hay walked with him. "For what it's worth, it worked. The United States of America will now be as strong as to become a world power - the world power - before it even really realizes."
"He said," Hay couldn't help but remember, "that its fall would come not from without, but within."
The Doctor nodded. "Such is power. ...I say, you're John Hay, aren't you?"
"Well, yes," said Hay, nonplussed at being recognized.
"You'll see it, you know. You'll be a part of the building of the empire."
Hay shook his head. "I don't know. Now that he's gone I think I'll want to get away from Washington awhile." Now they were out of the house and on the street.
"Oh, don't worry, you'll be back. Just don't get too comfortable with McKinley's laid-back management style." With a grin and a wave he vanished into the early morning fog.
Hay blinked. He'd never learned who the man was. And though the meaning of "laid-back" was inferrable from context, who was McKinley?
"Well, he's the one who kicked me upstairs into the Vice-Presidency," snorted T.R. "Now John, I know you were used to running your department your way, but things are going to be different now."
"I've been warned," said Hay.
Bibliographical note: John Hay was Lincoln's personal secretary and is a major character in Gore Vidal's historical novel Lincoln. He's also a major character in Vidal's Empire, and John Huston played him in the film The Wind and the Lion.
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