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“Mr. Gladstone, I wish a very good evening to you.”

“And to you, sir. Health and happiness.”

Happiness the Prince certainly had, with his adoring wife and ample family. But he could certainly use every wish for good health — since he looked decidedly ill. The years had not been kind to him. The elegant and graceful youth was now paunchy, balding, prematurely middle-aged. His skin was pale and damp, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He held shakily to the arms of the chair as he dropped into it. The Queen looked at him worriedly but he waved away her concern.

“It is the lung congestion you know, it comes and goes. It will be much better after a good dinner. Please, do not be concerned.”

With this reassurance the Queen turned to other matters. “Mr. Gladstone, my secretary informs me that there are affairs of state that you wish to address to us.”

“A dispatch that the Prime Minister intends to send to the Americans, ma’am, about the Trent Affair. With your approval, of course. But I am sure that it can wait until after we dine.”

“Perhaps. Nevertheless we shall see it now. I am most disturbed about this matter — more than disturbed, horrified I should say. We do not take lightly the fact that a British ship has not only been stopped, but boarded at sea.”

She pointed to the Prince Consort when Gladstone drew out the letter. “Albert will read it. I would not even consider writing a letter without consulting him. He is of the greatest support to me in this and many other matters.”

Lord Russell bowed in agreement, well aware of the common knowledge that the Queen would not even dress without consulting him. He passed the envelope to Prince Albert.

The Prince unfolded the sheet of paper and turned it to face the light, then read aloud.

“ ‘As regards the matter of the forced removal of four passengers from a British vessel on the high seas. Her Majesty’s government are unwilling to imagine that the United States government will not of their own accord be anxious to afford ample reparation for this act of folly. The Queen’s ministers expect the following. One. The liberation of all four captured gentlemen and delivery to the Lord Lyons, the British ambassador in Washington. Two. An apology for the insult offered to the British flag. Three…’ ”

He coughed deeply. “Excuse me. This is very strong language and there is more like this I am afraid. Most strongly worded.”

“As it should be,” the Queen said with marked indignation. “I do not admire the Americans — and I despise that Mr. Seward who has made so many untruthful remarks about this country. But, still, if you feel there are changes needed, Liebchen.”

Albert’s drawn face was drawn into a quick smile at the German term of endearment. He believed that his wife was Vortrefflichste, a matchless woman, mother, queen. Moody perhaps, one day screaming at him, the next most affectionate. And he felt the need to advise her at all times. Only his ill health had prevented him from being of greater aid to her in her unceasing labors as ruling monarch. Now this. Palmerston had made his demands in a most bellicose and threatening manner. Any head of state would be greatly offended by the manner as well as the message.

“Not so much changes,” he said, “for the Prime Minister is quite correct in his demands. An international crime has been committed, there is no doubt about that. But perhaps the captain of the American ship is to blame for the incident. We must determine exactly what has happened, and why, before threats are made. This matter must not be allowed to get out of hand. Therefore I believe that perhaps some alterations are in order. Not so much in the contents but in the tone. A sovereign country cannot be ordered about like a willful child.” He climbed to his feet shakily. “I think perhaps I should write a bit on it now. At the present I am not hungry. I will eat later if you will excuse me.”

“Are you not well?” the Queen asked, half-rising from her chair.

“A slight malaise, nothing, please do not let me the dinner disturb.”

Prince Albert climbed shakily to his feet, trying to smile. He started forward — then appeared to stumble. Bending at the knees, collapsing. Striking his head sharply on the floor.

“Albert!” the Queen cried.

Gladstone was instantly at his side, turning the Prince, touching the pale skin.

“He is unconscious, ma’am, but breathing quite steadily. Perhaps the physician…”

The Queen needed no encouragement in ordering assistance to her dear Albert. Servants appeared in great numbers, rushed to find a rug, covered his legs, put a pillow beneath his head, searched for a stretcher, sent a footman running for Sir James. The Queen wrung her hands and was beyond speech now. Gladstone looked down at the unconscious Albert and noticed for the first time that the dispatch was still clutched in his tightened fist.

“If I may, ma’am,” he whispered, as he knelt and gently pulled it free. He hesitated. This was neither the time nor the place. Nevertheless he felt that he was forced to mention it.

“This dispatch, tomorrow perhaps?”

“No! Take it away. Look what it has contrived to do! The wretched thing has done this to my dear Albert. It disturbed him, you saw that. In his delicate state it was just too much for him. It is the Americans again, this is all their fault. Poor man, he was so concerned… take it from my sight. Do what you will with it. At last — the doctor!”

There was no further mention of dinner. The Queen exited with the Prince. When the door had closed behind her Gladstone called for their coats and asked for his carriage to be brought around.

It had not been a good evening.

The dispatch would go out just as it had been written.

The die had been cast.


When the presidential train had stopped to fill the engine’s water tanks in Jersey City, the latest messages and reports were put aboard: the President’s personal secretary brought them to him. Abraham Lincoln, away from the constant press and demands of the White House, stared out at the frosty winter beauty of the Hudson River. A radiant coal stove kept the cold at bay. Simon Cameron, the Secretary of War, dozed in the seat opposite. This was a peaceful refuge from the White House where favor seekers besieged him every moment of the day. He was relaxed and at ease for the first time in weeks. Even the sight of the thick bundle of paper did not disturb him.

“I see that the war still follows me everywhere, Nicolay.”

“The war with the Secesh and with the Congress. I sometimes think that the latter is worse. The congressmen in…”

“Spare me the politicians for the moment. Shot and shell seem kindlier.”

John Nicolay nodded agreement and shuffled through the new reports that Hay passed over to him. “Now here is one that should please you. The landings on Tybee Island in the Savannah River were most successful. The commander says that Fort Pulaski will be attacked next. Once that is reduced, Savannah will surely be taken. Next, our undercover agent in Norfolk reports that more armor plate for the Merrimack has arrived. Guns as well. They’ve renamed the ship CSS Virginia.”

“We won’t worry about her for awhile yet. But see that a copy of the report gets to the Monitor people. That should keep them working around the clock.”

The President leafed through the newspapers. The press seemed to be uniformly against him and his administration these days. The abolitionists were in full bay after him again — anything short of killing every Southerner and freeing every slave was a worthless goal. An item caught his eye and he smiled as he read it, then smacked the paper with his hand.

“Now this is real journalism, Nicolay. Our guardians of law and order have made a famous victory on a steamer at Baltimore. Listen… ‘Their suspicions were aroused by a lady who appeared nervous and desirous of avoiding them. When her reticule was searched a quantity of gloves, stockings and letters were found, all intended to the South. As well a small boy was discovered to be carrying a quantity of quinine. Both were allowed to pass after their cargo had been confiscated.’ Our protectors never sleep.”