The three officers smiled. At nineteen, Jacob could not yet tell the difference on strangers faces between admiration and condescension, and he did not yet know that he ought always to expect the latter. He suppressed a smile of his own, certain that he had triumphed.
Another puff of smoke. What does he do, this Hyams of yours?
Jacob winced at the of yours. Then he felt a memory, the kind that is sensed physically in the body rather than envisioned in the mind. At that moment his body was a small boys, and Harrys strong hands were reaching down to lift him up. He felt the grip of those hands in his armpits, and the breeze at the nape of his neck as those hands hoisted him high in the air. He pushed the memory aside. I havent seen him in years, sir, he answered, still hoping to pass the test. My fathers firm worked with him on occasion. He was a sugar dealer out of New Orleans.
The general chewed on his pipe as the three of them eyed Jacob from what now seemed like a judges bench. When he spoke again, his voice was slow and deliberate, enunciating each word. It seems that his professional aspirations have changed since you and he were last in contact, the general said, with a slight smirk. Jacob was disturbed to notice that the two other officers smirked along with him. With deliberate, slow movements, the general placed the pipe back in the holder, letting the smoke weave itself into a smooth veil before Jacobs eyes. Then he looked back at Jacob and said, Harris Hyams is a Confederate spy.
He might as well have said that Harris Hyams was the king of Scotland. It was preposterous, Jacob thought. A spy, sir? Was this another test?
A very highly placed one, in fact, the major said, and tapped a finger on the table. With ties to Judah Benjamin.
What -- what ties, sir? Jacob asked. The name itself had nauseated him: Judah P. Benjamin, the first Hebrew to serve in the United States Senate, and now the first Jewish Cabinet member in history -- but one who had chosen to devote his talents to, of all supposed countries on earth, the Confederacy, where he served passionately as the Secretary of State and was the closest confidant of Jefferson Davis himself. Every Hebrew in the Union blanched at his name. As for Jacob, he nearly vomited.
It seems that Benjamin is his first cousin. But not yours, apparently, your being related through the wife, of course. Were quite pleased about that. He smiled again.
Jacob smiled back. An unexpected ease flowed down into his spine, and he stood taller. He felt a sudden and acute awareness, hovering above the intimate taste of pipe smoke, of his own rightful presence in the room: alive and attuned in every nerve and hair to these officers, pleased by what pleased them, dismayed by what dismayed them, his living body a breathing expression of all of their hatreds and hopes. For a single beautiful instant, he imagined himself as the generals son.
Hyams has been in and out of the border statesin the past few months, the general continued. As you know, he used to do frequent business in the North, before the war, and has many contacts there. He paused, and looked at Jacob. Jacob couldnt help but look down, dodging the mans eye. Was it a reference to his father? He has also slipped over the border itself many times, and now we have managed to intercept his communications with Richmond. Unfortunately he is involved in a plot. He waited for Jacob, a melodramatic pause that Jacob might have resented if he werent so entranced.
What sort of plot, sir? Jacob asked.
An assassination plot. Against President Lincoln.
Thats -- thats not possible, sir, Jacob stammered.
Copyright 2009 Dara Horn. Reprinted with permission from W. W. Norton & Co.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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