Portrait Of The Dead Men


It looks like Lincoln. It moves and talks and smiles like Lincoln. But it's a machine. And it has an inevitable date with destiny.


EMILE VARNER CARESSED the worn almost living features with a gentle, tracing finger. ''Soch weariness, sooch grandeur. That sooch a man should die.'' His own worn, tired mouth smiled softly, his tired old eyes lighted momentarily and his back, not quite hunched -but gnome-like in droop, came almost erect. ''But I make you live again.''

Emile's kindly, gentle voice still held distinct traces of the old Bavarian accent, event after forty years. ''Yes, by me you live again.'' His finger touched the eyelid with tenderness. ''In a moment you will open those great eyes that saw so clearly. Sooch wise eyes, yet so shadowed, so tragically sad. Yet they lived to see a country united.''

He reached down and lifted one of the great gnarled hands, studied the knuckled fingers, turned the hand over as laid the hand lightly on the still breast. ''In a moment. . . if he would read a destiny in the palm.

''United by these hands.'' Old Emile Varner sighed and a moment. . . you will. . . breathe.''

''Hey, Pop!'' The young, brash voice behind him startled the old man into sudden shivers. He pivoted slowly on bandy legs to glare at the younger man. What was the boy's name? Jim? John? It didn't really matter. He was just one of the clever young men, electronic experts they called themselves, who were working under Varner. He nodded at the recumbentfigure.

''He looks more like Lincoln than Raymond Massey.''

The irreverence of it struck Emile Varner like a blow. His bent back straightened, his big, slightly over-sized head tossed so that the white hair whipped across his forehead.

''He IS Lincoln! That is the face which looked out over Gettysburg! Those hands rested on the Bible to take the Oath!''

''Sorry, sir.'' The young man really sounded regretful. He turned away from the fading anger in Varner's eyes and stared sown at the recumbent figure. ''Guess I've been working on the meachanics of it too long.'' He peered at the tired, noble face, quiet now in repose. ''He looks---at peace.''

Varner nodded. ''He was a peaceful man. That is his face, it tells us so. His face. Cast from the death mask by Volks. His hands---from the very molds the good doctor took of him. The big, awkward knuckles. Even the lines. . . the tragic, abrupt lifeline. That should have warned him.'' Varner hesitated, smiled almost shyly at the young man. ''Perhaps it did.''

The young technician nodded, sober now. ''I've heard stories. I mean, about his premonitions. Didn't he. . . Oh.'' The young man started. ''Sorry, I forgot. I'm supposed to tell you we're going to activate the face. To time with the tape.'' He grinned at Varner. ''Might be a little startling to see his eyes open and hear him talk if you weren't prepared.''

Emile Varner stepped back, away from the recumbent givant, away from the young man. His own shabby suit and frayed cuffs took on some lustre of dignity from his proudly held head, his suddenly straightened back. ''I' have been prepared for this moment longer than you have lived.'' He hesitated, glanced at the tired, gentle face, speaking softly. '' I will stay with him. When he awakes it is better he sees first someone who loves him.''

The young man stifled an exclamation, managed not to smile at the old man, and nodded. ''Of course, sir. This is your moment.'' He turned away, walking rapidly across the stage, which had been weathererd and aged artfully to simulate the stage of Ford's Theater. He passed the figure of Laura Keene, caught in a half curtsy toward the right hand box. So truly intent on the box was her simulated gaze that he perforce turned back to glance at it himself.

In the bunting-draped box, well forward, sat Mary Todd Lincoln, her curiously stiff curls framing the withering cheeks, her black lace fan held almost coquettishly. Behind her, was the emty space. He could just see the high back of the old rocker where the figure of Lincoln would soon be placed.

To Mary Lincoln's right sat the vapid-faced girl. Alice? The young technician couldn't remember. And behind her, smart in a resplendent uniform, sat Major Rathbone, substitude for the aide who might have been alert enought to prevent. . .

''I'm getting as crackers as Varner,'' the young man told himself. ''Been working too long on this project. That's the ticket. Keep thinking of it as a project, and it won't get to me, like it's gotten to Varner''

But he knew that wasn't quite right. There wouldn't have been any project if it hadn't beenfor Varner, with his intense dedication, his long, often spectacular battle to bring this off. The figure of Lincoln at the unfortunate New York World's Fair---now in Disneyland--- had almost broken the old man, but the project had gone on.

And the Lincoln in Disneyland was good. Good, hell. It was a terrific accomplishment. A masterpiece. He'd spent long weeks studying the meticulous detaik of the figure, the electronic console that controlled it.

But Varner's reproduction of the Ford Theater scene went far beyond that. Seven Figures. The four in the box and Laura Keene in her pin-wheel gown standing in that half curtsy between the plump, dough-faced, overdressed haridan, The Dowager, and the horse-faced, blundering Asa Trenchard. Joe Jefferson? No,not Joe Jefferson. He'd already left the company. Set up his own as Rip van Winkle. If he'd been at the theater that night, John Wilkes Booth wouldn't have been allowed in the house.

The young man shook his head, as if to clear it. ''I'm doing it again. Reliving history, Damn the old man. He's got us so steeped in it we. . . Still, maybe we wouldn't have been so patient with the old boy. . . Kee-rist, this thing takes more programming than a Moon shot.

''And you'd better get with it,'' he told himself, ''or some of that programmmig won't time out.'' He scuttled below the stage, into a brilliantly lit area crammed with electronic gear, long, fat cables reached up through the ceiling to animate the seven figures Of course, the Dowager and the comic were mainly cyclical, a casual bow and then only breathing and slight motion, so they wouldn't look like wax-works. Laura Keene, as befitted the star with her own company---now why had she let Joe Jefferson go?

The young man joined the group around the great console, immersing himself delibetarily in the intricacies of the equipment. This bank controlled Mary Todd Lincoln's timed bow which acknowledged the audience's applause. The vapis girl was to be made to turn twice and speak, or rather titter, at the Major. The Major was a little more complex. He had to stand when the President rose to speak and hold his broad-brimmed hat over his heart during the National Anthem. After all, with the war just over, there'd be the ceremony acknowledging the President in his first relaxation since the Peace Treaty.

Getting the old musical instruments---and men who could play them in the correct tempo---had been a job. Not his, thank goodness. And thank goodness there wasn't much that had to be coordinated with the music. Only the comic to stand at attention along with the major and the President.

The truly complex part came when Lincoln rose to speak. Eye movements to control, facial muscles to flex, the mouth to coordinate, the hands to move in lanky, awkward gestures, the tired swaying of the great, gaunt body so burdened with the cares of a torn and bleeding nation. It would be a miracle if they could have all this complexity meshing in time for the opening perfprmance. Yet he knew they would.

It looked like bedlam now, like confusion confounded, but it would all tie together. The curtain would go up---and Varner would taste his triumph.

Above, on the quiet stage, Emile Varner watched the tired face, cast from the Volk death mask into metal and a plastic so true it seemed like flesh. He waited solemnly, yet with a chest tightening exultation. In a moment. . .

The great eyes opened, blinked, then steadied on Varner's own majestic, wearied features. The lips opened, moved, but no sound came. Varner reached for one of the great, knuckled hands, cradling it in two of his. ''Don't try to speak. Not yet. You're tired. Mister Lincoln. These are terrible times.''

The face of Lincoln softened into a smile and the lips moved again. Suddenly Varner felt the hand open under his, twitch, then close with gentle pressure.

''I am your friend.'' Emile Varner watched the great, soft, baffled eyes close, and movement was stilled.

Below stage the electronics engineer at the console nodded, held up a hand, thumb and forefinger forming a circle of approval. ''All contacts okay.''

A week later the doors opened on the first performance of ''Mister Lincoln at Ford'S Theater,'' to a capacity house, mostly, of course, celebrities who carefully cultivate such premieres on a advice of agents and managements, a large block of the backers and their friends, a few public officials whose main function seems to be attending functions, and a few of Lincoln's ''just people.'' who had been lucky enough to obtain tickets.

It had beeb a triumph for Emile Varner. Even the giddiest starlet had been subdued and awed. Offcials congratulated themselves on for once having attended something that didn't bore them to death, and the backers went away happy, surrounded by groups of vociferously admiring friends.

Of course, there were some who were disappointed that the show hadn't carried on to the assassination, but those critics were few. Some historians attended and argued afterward that Mister Lincoln hadn't said anything like that at Ford's Theater, which he hadn't but Varner and the producers had taken certain license there. The Gettysburg address had seemed appropriate for that moment of ending a war.

Even after the opening night crowd left and the theater was deserted, except for Emile Varner seated far back in a corner, the final ringing words seemed to stir the curtain and sway the last, dimming ligts. . . ''that a government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from this earth.''

Emile Varner, tears blurring his eyes, made his way down the center aisle and stopped just below the bunting draped box. He caught at the eye of the stage and looked up ''Thank you, Mister Lincoln.'' He turned and walked down the aisle to the spacious lobby, as he was to do every night after the last performance.

''Mister Lincoln at Ford's Theater'' temporarily swept the latest Moon probe off the front pages of the newspapers and usurped vast numbers of pages in weekly news magazines. Radios talked of it, and television, as much as was permitted, showed portions of the tremendously complex electronic features, but always with rather awed references to Mister Lincoln.

The publicity also triggered any number of new books on Lincoln and his era and revived interest in hundreds of others. Comparisons with the assassination of John F. Kennedy were revived and parallels cited, including the fact that both assassins had been paranoiacs, frustrated men who committed the greates abomination each could conceive to satisfy a shrivelled and warped ego.

Emile Varner was in his usual place that night, weeks later, as the awed and silently admiring audience straggled out.

He waited a moment for the last flicker of lights that signalled the end of the long day. Only a few scattered lights would be left on for the cleaning crew, and he watched them flash mechanically on. Slowly he made his way down the aisle, made his good nigh speech and then dropped down below stage for a final check, as he always did, to be sure that none of the equipment had been left turned on inasvertently.

All was in order. Emile Varner nodded approvingly. His crew was good. He started back up the narrow stairs which opened into the orchestra pit just below the draped box. It was only then that he heard the voices.

Some of the crew remaining late? The cleaning people? No, they wouldn't be in until nearly dawn. Then who. . . ?

Silently, on old legs gone shaky, Emile tiptoed up the last remaining steps and turned toward the stage.

A young man stood there. Just how Emile knew he ws young he couldn't say. Something in the arrogance of the head, the lithe, supple stance of the body, visible despite the short cape. The figure was vaguely familiar, yet he couldn't place it. Shadows from the work lights obscured the face.

The figure moved, darted toward the box, and the voiice, tight with strain and anger, shouted out. ''You can't do this! You're dead! Dead a century! You should be forgotten! I am the martyr! I sacrificed everything---career, love, money, to destroy you! I should be the one they honor! The statues belong to me. The pedestals, the praise, the warmth of human love! You've stolen them from me!''

'' No.'' The tall, gaunt figure rose from the rocking chair and stepped to the front of the box. ''I stole nothing, young man. You stuck in anger, frustration, in some perverted sense of revenge.'' The voice d,ded almost to a whisper, gentle, kindly. ''I bear you no ill will. Not even for the agony I endured from your bullet. Not even for the things I might have done to heal the breach of this tragic war.''

The slender figure took another step, one arm flashing up, a single splash of light along the silver tonque of a dagger. ''You robbed me of honor, for a deed that should have rung down through the ages!'' The young, strained voice went off hysterically. ''For you I died in disgrace, hunted, hiding in a barn, when all the world. . . . ''

The gentle, weary voice of Abraham Lincoln spoke from the box, the magnificent eyes looking down in pity. ''Revenge, my son, is the recourse of small souls. You cannot expect honor for revenge.''

''I can! It is my due! My due, for a noble deed, nobly conceived. . . As Ceasar had his Brutus, as. . . ''

His breath tight in his chest, his limbs leaden,, Emile Varner moved. It seemed as if he moved through heavier air, with difficult, even with pain, but his hand found the revolver he had always carried since those mad days of vengeance back in Germany.

He raised the weapon, stadying ,t on the lip of the stage, aimed at the young man's back, before he spoke. Just one single, crisp, short word.

''Stop!''

The young man whirled, one hand diving under his cape for a derringer. Emile Varner stared at the face, familiar from a thousand picture studies. John Wilkes Booth.

''You can't stop me! This time I shall. . . ''

Emile Varner fired.

The young man staggered, gasped and turned so that he faced the work light. The head tilted far back, the mouth opening ,n a silent scream. Then, as the slender figure slumped, the agonized face went blank.

And changed, softened, grew younger, calmer. The young technician? What was his name? James? John?

''Oh, god! I've made a ghastly mistake!'' Emile Varner tried to clamber to the stage and couldn't quite make it.

The young technician crumpled slowly, rolling until his eyes stared into Varner's. His voice was dying whisper in a mouth that twisted in pain. ''I. . . didn't. . . want to. . . He. . . took over. . . '' The last word trailed off into a faint whisper, a little more than a stirring in the dust.

And hen the figure was dust, old, dessicated, with a faint odor of the tomb. And the dust settled into a tidy outline, leaving nothing but the derringer and a silver glitter of a dagger on the stage.

#ShortStory #EnglishEnglisch

© 2019 - 2020 DAILY STRANGE ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ™