Witness to the Greatest Man Who Ever Lived
His name is Major Henry Rathbone. They say that he was there when the President was shot—that he was an inch away from the assassin, close enough to see the veins on murderer’s hand as he pulled the trigger. Once upon a time Major Rathbone was favored by destiny. Now he sits in his study, cobwebs forming on the wheels of his chair, the color fading from the flag that hangs on the wall behind his immobile body. He is not the same man as he once was. He was passed over, found wanting in his heart and in his soul. His aspirations and his hopes bled out even as the President bled out. Henry Rathbone died the day the man he loved most in this world died. Now, all that is left is a fading memory of that young major. The playbill presented the performance and its acts, never mentioning that the finale would be a gunshot echoing throughout the theater. Henry Rathbone was duped by fate into thinking that he would enjoy a play with his President. Duped into thinking that life, no matter the inconsistencies, rather in spite of them, could end happily for him just once.
They say that Abraham Lincoln was not just a President, but that he was a theologian and philosopher. At dinner parties, he would espouse ideas so brilliantly that they lit up the room. The mahogany panels that covered the wall would suddenly glow, as if newly varnished. His voice was high, but rhetorical and lofty. The awkwardness of his height, the effeminate stance his body would always take, and the shrillness of his voice all seemed irrelevant. Lincoln was more than just his person—he was the manifestation of America, the living, breathing symbol of freedom. People were silent when he spoke. They came from miles and across counties to see him debate. Lives revolved around him, at differing radii, like planets orbiting a sun. He was the gravitational pull that brought Southern slaves and Northern industrialists together in a grand scheme. When he died, the world collapsed around him, leaving a black hole in his wake.
Major Rathbone had distinguished himself during the war by showing a valor that few men possessed. When he returned home, Lincoln was there, his hat in his hand, smiling. He softly pinned a medal to the lapel of his uniform. The two spoke for a long time that day, conversing over the state of freedom, and the future of the Union. They spoke of nature, and their favorite flowers, and strongest trees. They even talked of God, of which Lincoln showed a reverence for, though not necessarily a belief in. Major Rathbone was always faithful, and yet he could not help but see the world as Lincoln saw it. When he felt the wind, he wondered how the President felt it. When he tasted wine, he wondered how Lincoln tasted it. When he lay down with his wife, he wondered how Lincoln spent the night with his wife. If only there were a war every day, so that Major Rathbone could show Lincoln his courage and have him pin a thousand more medals to his chest.
Major Henry Rathbone sits in his wheelchair and replays that day over and over again, transfixed to that event. For America, it held monumental significance, a historical event that eclipsed all others. Yet for Henry Rathbone the assassination is a moment of personal importance. It was the death of a great friend and a great love. In his mind, he sees the assassin emerge from the darkness, revolver in hand. He sees the barrel staring down at the back of Lincoln’s head. He sees the finger pull the trigger, and the smoke trail out of the barrel. It all happened so quickly. Suddenly Lincoln gave up the spirit, and the force of the bullet propelled his body forward a foot, so that his giant corpse lay curled awkwardly around the base of his chair. The spectators began to shout, and the room was filled with the wail of women and the cry of children. The assassin turned and fled, and Major Rathbone could only throw his hand out in desperation as his loved one’s murderer disappeared behind a curtain.
Lincoln, the great emancipator, the guardian of the Union, was dead. There was a vast emptiness that quickly spread across the theater and hung over the balcony. Destiny pervaded the room; History hung on the curtains that night, and when it came time to bow, the nation stepped forth to bow.
Sadness seeped out from Rathbone, like blood from a mauled animal. It spread out and hung in the air, dirty and contaminating. The people behind the walls whispered into his ears at night, telling him that he failed his country and his President. Redemption was a bullet away, they had told him, their words slithering into his ears. One click of the finger at Clara’s heart, and all would be forgiven. Nothing was forgiven. Everything had been lost, as he held her limp body in his eyes. He cupped her pale face as the light drained out of it. Far away, in Hamburg, he was surrounded in the foyer of his house. Their rifles were trained on him as they called out in strange tongues. The light was dim, the curtains drawn. The red blood spilling out from her torso made a pool around his knees. Rathbone was crying as the policemen surrounded him. He was pointing at the wall and shouting at the picture frames. They were watching him. They have always been watching him. It is time to take your bow, and then, applause.