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Rebel Falls -- Excerpt

August 1864 – Niagara Falls, N.Y.


The rebels' table was more uproarious than the previous evening. The champagne flowed freely as Wreet and I entered the Cataract's grand ballroom.

"Despite all the heartbreak in the world, the party never stops with this lot," Wreet muttered as she pulled her shawl tighter about her shoulders.

I surveyed the table, my eyes settling upon a dark-haired gentleman with a thick mustache and piercing eyes. He sat next to Captain Beall and I realized that I had seen him somewhere before.


Bennet Burley approached us, his face flush with excitement and alcohol. "Good news," he beamed.


"Has the war ended, dear chap?" Wreet said sarcastically.


"Almost as good," Burley said, trying his best to be in on the joke. "John Wilkes Booth is here."


"The actor?" I said, now recognizing the man next to Beall. The two of them were caught up in their own conversation.


"One and the same," Burley replied. "He and the captain go way back."


Several years ago, before the war, I had accompanied Fanny Seward to Syracuse to see Booth in the role of Romeo in Shakespeare's play. While Booth was better known for playing more devious parts, Cassius in "Julius Caesar" and the like, both of us came away impressed by how well he had carried the role. Despite the longing looks, the ridiculous way a first love can make a person appear to the rest of the world, Booth's manner also carried a hint of mischief and melancholy.


Tonight, as we drew closer, I recognized that same air about him in real life. How Booth could slide close to any person he was with, in this case Captain Beall, and appear to be hanging on his every word. Yet his mind was elsewhere, scheming and preparing for what was next.


"Ah, here they are," Beall said when he saw us accompanied by Burley. "Added fuel for our cause, John."


Booth rose and briefly took Wreet's gloved hand and brought it to his lips.


"We've met before?"


"No, sir," Wreet said.


"No, no, I'm sure of it," the actor continued. "The captain says you're from this part of the world?"


"Born and raised in Buffalo."


"And you've been to the theater there?"


"Once in a blue moon."


"The last time I was through this land was as Romeo, speaking so many heartfelt, dare say boyish utterances to his beloved Juliet."


I almost mentioned that I had seen the same production in Syracuse, but I bit my tongue.


Wreet nodded. "Yes, I was at that show."


"You were sitting down front, stage right, I believe."


"How can you remember that?"


Booth beamed. "Every actor has his tricks, the sleight of hand to get him though another performance in fine stead. From the lip of the most stages, I can make out faces in the first few rows. That allows me to lock onto the eyes in front of me. I can pretend that we are the best of friends and we share such confidences. Some lines I'll speak directly to the person right there, in front of me. Dear woman, I undoubtedly opened my heart and my very soul to you that evening in Buffalo, and you didn't even realize it."


That brought laughter from all around. Booth nodded, as if he was dismissing Wreet, and turned his attention to me.


"This is Miss Chase," Beall said. "The one I've telling you about."


"Suffice to say that if Miss Chase had been in the front row for 'Romeo and Juliet,'" Booth began. "Well, I would have never forgotten such a lovely face."


Throughout the evening, Booth remained the center of attention. Eventually, Leila Beth Kidder came down from the stage and took a seat at the table, realizing that she couldn't hold a candle to the famous actor. The band played on as background music to Booth's tales, jokes and monologues. When they packed up for the night, the actor couldn't resist climbing onto the stage and urging who was left in the ballroom to join him.


"Now let's imagine it's the dawn before another great battle," he said, "perhaps Manassas or Chancellorsville."


I prayed that he didn't mention Ball's Bluff. That would have been too much for me. Making a production of where my brave brother had fallen.


"Now gather round, in groups of two or three," Booth said. "We're in our encampment, fearful but resolute. Those times when words can mean so much."

As everyone drew close, the actor gazed out on the nearly empty ballroom. Once again, our party had gone late into the night and soon Booth's voice began to fill every corner of the place.


"I'm not covetous for gold," he said. "Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost."


His voice became a shade louder and richer, soon a soaring entity unto itself.


"But if it be a sin to covet honor," he continued. "I am the most offending soul alive."


Heads turned toward him, ensnared by his growing web of words.


"This day in called the feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand on tip-toe when the day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispian…"


I recognized this was more Shakespeare – the speech before the final battle in "Henry V." What the embattled British king told his vastly outnumbered army before the Battle of Agincourt.


"This story shall the good man teach his son," Booth continued, "and Crispin Crispian shall ner're go by, from this day to the ending of the world."


Here Booth shifted his gaze from the Cataract ballroom to those of us who had joined him up on stage.


"But we in it shall be remembered," the actor smiled. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentleman in England no a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispin's day."


As Booth's final words rang throughout the ballroom, he raised his arms skyward and his performance seemed to carry everyone aloft with him. So stunned were those remaining in the room that it took all of us several moments to remember to applaud.


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