Why? the colonel asked.
Jacob saw that the three officers were genuinely interested -- certain, it seemed, that he had something to tell them that they did not already know. He tried to remember his fathers comments about Harry and the sugar business, but he recalled nothing; the subject had always bored him. All he could remember were the arguments between the guests at the Passover table the previous year: how Otto Strauss wouldnt stop arguing that the abolitionists were right, that the slave question wasnt only a moral problem but an economic one, that no business run on slave labor would survive the new industrial developments, and how Hermann Seligman wouldnt stop arguing that Otto was wrong on the business point even if he was right on the moral point, that as much as he might agree with Otto in principle, Otto ought to admit he was advocating a revolution, and revolutions nearly always ended in disaster, as his cousins prison sentence in the German states so clearly demonstrated, and anyone heading down that path ought to have a plan quite far in advance for what he intended to do once the world, however corrupt it had been, came to an end, and nothing in Ottos argument suggested that he was even the slightest bit prepared -- and then Jacob remembered how his father had silenced his fighting guests by pointing out, as he did to Jacob with irritating frequency, that with or without a war, they all ought to be grateful to God simply for the fact of America, for the astonishing reality that they could even have this conversation, that they all ought to stop arguing and accept whatever might happen and be willing to devote absolutely everything to this country under any circumstances whatsoever, simply out of gratitude for the unimaginable truth that all of them were here, sitting with their own free children around a Passover table, with no one to terrify them, and no one to make them ashamed. But none of it had interested Jacob in the least. He had been busy at the time, avoiding eye contact with Emma Jonas. Mr. Hyams is -- hes not that sort of man, sir, Jacob finally said.
We could show you rather convincing evidence to the contrary, the major said, though we hope that will not be necessary.
But its impossible, Jacob insisted. It really was, he knew. It had to be.
That is precisely what we propose that you ensure, said the general, still smiling, by assassinating Harris Hyams before the plot can progress.
The three men watched Jacob, grinning at him, as the blood in Jacobs body began draining into his shoes. The room swayed before him. But the men continued to smile.
Are you suggesting that I kill my uncle, sir, Jacob said slowly. It wasnt a question, of course. The veil of smoke in the air between them parted, dissipated.
Your actions would do honor to your race, the major said.
Do -- do you mean my country, sir, Jacob stammered, this time trying to make it sound like a question, but without succeeding. In his memory Harrys hands held him under the armpits again, but now his body would not move.
Both your country and your race, of course, the general said brightly, warming to his theme. Judah Benjamin and his kin have done your race a great disservice. Every Hebrew in the Union will reward you if you undo what he has done.
The three officers looked Jacob in the eye, and under their gaze, he realized what they saw. While he looked in the mirror and saw a tall, blond, nineteen-year-old American boy, the three men at this table looked at him and saw Judah Benjamin. And Jacob suddenly knew that he would do anything not to be that man. The three officers continued speaking, their words buzzing through Jacobs brain in a blur. But as he listened, he felt himself stepping onto the stage, becoming the other Jacob Rappaport: the Jacob Rappaport whom no one expected, the one who surpassed all expectations, the one who could prove beyond all doubt that his life was entirely his own.
Copyright 2009 Dara Horn. Reprinted with permission from W. W. Norton & Co.
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