The First Lady and the Rebel: An Outtake

Like most novels, The First Lady and the Rebel underwent revisions on its path to publication (look for it on October 1!). This is the epilogue in the first draft. It was replaced by one that I felt was more in keeping with the focus of the novel: the relationship between the two Todd sisters of the title, Mary Lincoln and Emily Todd Helm.

Emily Todd Helm as an older woman (Kentucky Digital Library)

October 1911

Emily had hesitated about accepting Dr. Shaw’s kind invitation to address the convention. “Just a few words of welcome,” Dr. Shaw had written. It wasn’t as if Emily had become shy in her old age; if anything, she was more outspoken. But all of her public appearances thus far had related to the war. There were the regular reunions of the Orphan Brigade, which she delighted in attending, even though by now the number of attendees was getting sadly small. Whereas in the old days, the talk at the reunions had focused on the battles and the brave men like Hardin and Mac who had died in them, now the conversation centered around those who had died in their offices and in their fields and tucked up comfortably in their beds.

And there were the Lincoln events. Of her siblings, only George and Margaret had survived the nineteenth century, and Margaret’s death a few years before had left Emily as the last living sister of Mary Lincoln. So it was Emily the reporters turned to when some anniversary or the other brought Mary to mind, and it was Emily who had been asked to lift the drape from the statue of Lincoln when it was unveiled in his birthplace of Hodgenville, Kentucky. Robert had been there too. (Poor Robert! From the way some people talked now, he had enjoyed committing his unfortunate mother to that private asylum, when Emily and every person with sense knew that it had broken his heart.) Unused to the Kentucky heat after all his years in Vermont, he’d had become faint and had had to retire to the special train that had brought them there. Emily hadn’t even wilted, as she’d been pleased to tell Kate, Dee, and Ben Junior, who tended to fuss over her these days like the children none of them had ever had. (A slight sore spot with Emily where Kate and Ben Junior were concerned, as they could have at least made an effort by finding someone to marry. But then, Emily hadn’t exactly set them an example, having never remarried. Not only could no man measure up to Hardin, but at some point, maybe after she’d finally sold her cotton and bought a house all by herself, or maybe during all those years when she had worked as the postmistress for Elizabethtown, she had realized that she rather liked being answerable to no one.)

In a way it was good that Dr. Shaw wasn’t inviting her to yet another war-related event, because these always brought up questions that Emily struggled to answer. What exactly had the South been fighting for? Might slavery had faded of its own accord without the cost of so many men’s lives? Was the country better for all that bloodshed? Would North and South ever really understand each other? In the end, it was easier not to answer such questions at all. Instead, whenever a reporter approached her, she stuck to talking about people. People like Maggie, who had turned up back in Lexington after the war and looked after the children until she had married, although Emily admitted to herself that it was probably Kentucky more than anything that had brought her back. People like her brother-in-law the President. People like Hardin. People like her sister Mary.

In any case, reporters seldom asked Emily about anything other than those people she’d known. They saved the more complicated questions for the men they interviewed. As if half of America couldn’t form an intelligent thought about events that had affected them as much as anybody.

She thought of the sermon that had been preached at Mary’s funeral, back in 1882, about the two trees so intertwined so that when the first was struck by lightning, the second had essentially died at the same time, even though it lingered in its withered state for years afterward. It was a beautiful sermon, and Emily had understood the point: that Mary had all but died the night of her husband’s assassination. And in a sense she had, Emily knew; she’d never been quite the same, and certainly the last few months of her life she had been a pathetic figure, never leaving her room at the Edwards house and passing her days digging through her dozens of trunks. Still, Emily thought the minister could have given Mary more credit for carrying on all these years. She’d gotten Tad the education that had been neglected during his father’s lifetime, traveled twice through Europe, wrestled a pension from the hands of a stingy government. She hadn’t just withered like a pathetic skinny tree.

And neither had Emily. Neither had most of the war widows she knew, and she certainly knew a lot of war widows. Surely they deserved a little credit.

So with all that in mind, she had accepted Dr. Shaw’s invitation to say a few words of welcome, and here she sat, decked in a yellow sash and blushing a bit as Dr. Shaw introduced her.

She stepped to the podium, first adjusting her large hat.  (In her prime, ladies had wore most of their clothes around their hips. Now it seemed they wore them on their heads.) For a moment, she hesitated–she’d never had to give a full-fledged speech, even a short one.

Then she was astounded to see the entire assembly rising, the mass of them almost obscuring the signs they held, VOTES FOR WOMEN. With their expectant eyes upon her, Emily cleared her throat and found her voice.

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