CHAPTER ONE: Washington D.C. June 1861
“ Lonely, Sister?”
“Rent to ride?”
Miss Lauren Jacobsen ignored the strangers’ remarks as she walked the early morning sidewalks. The population of the city had doubled twice since Fort Sumner. The majority of the newcomers were male, and most of them left their manners at home with their kin.
Nothing about men or their behavior shocked Lauren; she was a madam. The crowded streets didn’t scare her. It took guts to walk alone in hoop skirts that made a woman almost as wide as she was tall. Her deep skirt pockets held a pistol, hat pins, and laudanum pills. By her side was a large mixed breed dog she’d named Beau.
At her wrist, Lauren tucked a perfume soaked handkerchief to mask the stench of horses and unwashed men in the summer heat.
She startled some of the newcomers with the directness of her gaze. Who were
They? Could they help her? A buggy rushed by and nearly blew off her hat. She
quickly saved it from the gust and laughed at her contradictions. What she did with
strangers for money she could live with, but to be seen in public without a hat; now that
She saw her reflection in a store window. Lauren stood out not because she was a lone female in a huge group of men. Her looks would have drawn attention anywhere. Lauren’s waist length hair was carefully done up in masses of looped corkscrew curls. Her complexion flushed pink with the heat, and her dark eyes flashed with long lashes that were darker still.
She dressed in the latest fashions made on the sly by one of the city’s best dressmakers. They met early in the morning in a hotel room booked under a false name.
Arriving separately so no one would see them together, they picked out patterns and fabrics, while gossiping about their elite customers. (These politicians and prostitutes were more interwoven than anyone on the outside would suspect.) They couldn’t acknowledge each other publicly, but together they knew most of the secrets and scandals in the Capitol.
Lauren’s heart ached seeing the young boys lining the streets waiting to go to war.
They were about the same age she was when her father put her out ten years prior. .(Mother died in childbirth.) He spent his time in bars with her younger sister, Esther, as she worked the streets. He knew she’d never run away as she loved her little sister, and was protective of her.
By midmorning, she’d covered the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, looking for familiar faces. Passing Brown’s Hotel, she ran into the desk clerk who was posting a sign reading: “FULL, NO ROOMS FOR RENT.”
He grinned and called out, “Miss Lauren, you should rent out your rooms!”
Her laugh in response was small and forced.
He went on, “They got troops sleeping in the Treasury, Senate, and on the White House lawn!”
She smiled weakly, “Todd, have you heard anything else?”
He lowered his voice, “They took Maud Hillers’ last night”.
Lauren’s stomach dropped. Maud’s was just a few blocks away from her establishment. She’d had run-ins with Maud over the years, but this was too close to enjoy.
“Who did they put up there?”
Todd scratched his face and replied, “Maine’s 13th -- the gals ended up in the street with their trunks.” The numbers, states, and divisions were a foreign language that seemed to have taken over the town. He motioned for her to stay, as he went back into the hotel. She patted Beau. Her dog, the house, and the stolen Confederate fortune buried in the cellar were the only things she could count on.
* * *
The house had come to her with the death of her father. Not her real father, but the one who had bought the sisters before Father took off for the West. The new “father” liked young girls and owned a boarding house/whorehouse in the trouble triangle part of Washington, which was bordered by Pennsylvania Avenue and the Potomac Canal.
The man’s name was Randolph Curson. He never let her sister Esther leave the house and treated her like a wife when she was just nine year old. Lauren was too old for him at fourteen, so she became the housemaid.
Soon after she and Esther came to live with Randolph, Lauren found one of the whores going through cleaning solutions in the pantry. It was impossible to not to hear the woman’s vicious fights with her boyfriend that came through the thin house walls.
As the older woman turned around, Lauren saw the bruises, her face and arms were covered with dark purple and red marks. The whore sadly smiled, “A little lye and arsenic, he’ll never beat me again.”
Within a few days, the violent boyfriend took sick. He broke out in sores and sweated with odd fevers for weeks before passing away. Two men came with a rug to take the body away after nightfall. No one cared about mysterious deaths in this part of town.
Lauren added the whore’s formula to Randolph’s food in small doses. It was easy. She took his dinner tray upstairs every night as he dined with Esther. She was surprised by how quickly he got sick, but what she didn’t know was that Susie, the cook, was poisoning him, too.
Susie was a runaway slave who was the house cook. Randolph used this against her, molesting and beating her to amuse himself. She pitied Esther and Lauren, and made sure they never got any of the food with the ground glass in it.
Lauren nursed him once he became ill. Nothing he ate or drank was without poison and by the time the doctor was finally called, it was too late. The man presenting himself as their father got the ugly and painful death he deserved. After the body was out of the house, Esther, Lauren and Susie celebrated by helping themselves to the sweets he’d kept in his room.
“I know how he died,” Susie blurted out. Lauren froze, thinking she had been caught.
“ I do, too,” she replied. Both women stared at each other.
“That’ll be our secret always”, said Susie. The women would go to their graves each believing she had killed Randolph alone.
Randolph had been claiming the girls so long as his daughters, they inherited the house. Lauren introduced one of the whores to the lawyer as her Aunt Mina from Baltimore, and the estate went through probate. (Less what the attorneys, bankers, and Aunt Mina took.)
Money was spent on toys, candy, clothes, and books. Esther loved dolls, and Lauren loved to surprise her with new ones. Susie left for Canada with a group of former slave thanks to some cash from the girls.
Lauren tried to teach Esther to read so she could go to school, but something was wrong with her. This broke Lauren’s heart, as reading was one of her great joys. She remembered her mother teaching her to read, and popular dime novels helped take her away from the ugliness of her life. The novels and stories in ladies’ magazines introduced her to what “normal” lives were like. The sort of lives Lauren and Esther would never have. But poor Esther could not pay attention. She just laughed at the wrong times and watched out the windows. Sometimes she wouldn’t speak for days, but just nod, as Lauren tried to draw her out. Esther had been an easy baby and slept most of the time. However, Lauren wasn’t around other babies and didn’t know how they behaved. In the back of her mind, she wondered if being “touched” by men had warped her sister.
After she turned eighteen, she received a letter from the bank that held the deed to the house in trust. The note requested her presence at a meeting. The banker, William Rustford, greeted her warmly as she arrived. After all, she was an attractive girl, and had deed on a house that was paid for.
“Miss Jacobson, how nice to see you again. I‘m Mister Rustford.” Lauren wasn’t sure if she’d ever met him before. They went into his office, with the door remaining open as to avoid scandal. He showed her a ledger of what the estate had started with and currently had in the bank. She looked at it blankly, thinking she had just to sign some papers to have control of the inheritance.
“So, you can see, with the funds that remain, you will run out of money within the year and, there’s the matter of the property taxes to be paid.”
He studied her face carefully. She knew the money wouldn’t last forever, but hadn’t considered when that might be.
“I’d like to make you an offer of marriage. I’m twentyeight years old with no children, and my wife died two years ago. You don’t have to give me an answer right now, we could start courting to get to know each other.”
Lauren’s face got hot. Her upbringing had not prepared her for a moment like this. She’d leanred how to negotiate a price for her body, but had no experience turning down a marriage proposal. She searched her mind for something out of one her books that a normal girl might say to an unwelcome proposal.
“Mr. Rustford, but you may call me William.”
The correct manners she’d read about emerged. “Mr. Rustford, my sister is ill. My main task is returning her to health,” she said. “Thank you for your attentions, but I cannot become involved in courting at this time.”
Rustford faked concern for her sister escorting Lauren out of the bank. By the time she hit the sidewalk, she was planning on becoming a madam. It was the only business she knew. In her mind, all men were like her father and Randolph, so whoring was preferable to marriage.
It wasn’t the best thought-out plan, and didn’t go as smoothly as she’d wanted it to go. But she had little fear, and the overriding desire to take care of her sister made it possible for her to do the unthinkable. She didn’t care what she had to do, as long as Esther didn’t have to go with men. Sadly, she watched as Esther’s body grew older, but her mind never did.
Lauren had brazenly walked into barrooms and other brothels. She got slapped and spit on for her efforts. She offered the girls better rates and promised not to abuse them. Lauren had also learned how to handle a gun to prevent others from taking over her business. In six years, she had done all right for herself and had kept Esther from having to work.
* * *
It made Lauren sick to think that the Army might take her house. Ordinarily, Washington worked in way she understood. The war had changed all that. Even her dressmaker didn’t know half the people of importance in town. In addition, Lauren had lost her taste for currying the favor of new men, and her old friends were gone or too busy with the war to help her. She had no defenders, and few trusted advisors anymore. It wasn’t just the war, part of the blame fell on her sister. Or rather laudanum. The addictive morphine-based pills helped her deal with the unthinkable. After the last in a long series of doctors told her that Esther would never get any better, she found a huge tumor on her sister, and then another, and another. All kinds of growths, spots, and sores were scattered over Esther’s body. Lauren didn’t need a doctor to tell her what the tumors meant: the pox or syphilis. There was no cure for this ugly affliction that painfully mutated the body. What little mind Esther had would be taken from her, too. Whether she had been born with it, gotten it from Randolph, or an earlier man would never be known. Lauren began slipping into an opiate haze more and more often.
Her thoughts returned to the present, as she waited for Todd to return. He sometimes steered powerful men to her, keeping a portion of the money for himself. She waited under the awning outside as the doorman watched--they both knew she didn’t belong in the lobby. The late morning air had become uncomfortably humid and a drop of sweat ran down the back of her scalp to her neck.
“Hello, Miss Lauren.” A short man with spectacles offered up his arm to her. “My name is Samuel, Todd mentioned you might like some company.”
She took his arm, and guided him to the direction of her house. “What brings you to the Capitol?”
Samuel told her that he had once been a lowly shop clerk, but his fortunes had changed with the war. He was now a purchasing agent for the Army, plus his brother worked for the Hall of Records.
They arrived at her house. It was one of the few original row houses left on the block, and sat tucked behind large trees with a narrow porch that disguised how far back the house went. On the porch, on tip toe and leaning left, one had a partial view of the White House. The Willard Hotel, the domain of Washington’s elite, was in the other direction. Out the upstairs hall window, the unfinished Capitol dome peaked though the trees.
The entryway led into a large parlor and formal dining room, where the customers were greeted. The small kitchen was the hub of the house, and where the girls gathered when not working. Off the kitchen were two small rooms for the help, and a narrow door to the cellar.
A steep dark wood staircase rose from the parlor to the second floor. A long hallway at the top of the stairs had narrow doors into eight small bedrooms with a larger two room suite at the far end that Esther and Lauren shared. The smaller bedroom was Esther’s sickroom.
Upstairs, Lauren entertained Samuel in one of the empty rooms. She kept Esther locked in, as she was now in diapers and rarely spoke. She insisted on caring for Esther alone, except when she was having one of her drug spells. Then Nora took over the difficult task.
The poor sick girl spent her time looking out the window through the curtains. Through the lace, Esther looked as pretty as she had before getting sick. The sores and large tumors could not be seen. She loved to watch the people come and go from the boarding house across the street. Unbeknownst to Lauren, one of the men who lived there watched Esther back, and waved at her several times a day. The simple minded girl waved back whenever she saw him.
In the small room, Lauren quickly calculated what she would have to endure to get what she wanted from Samuel. She turned her head when he tried to kiss her, and he had his way with the rest of her body. She felt nothing. Dressing afterwards, she wondered how many minutes it would take to forget the face of the stranger who had pounded her dryly into the mattress.
In the kitchen below the bedroom, three women took in the event above them-- Lauren with another customer. This had been a rare occurrence before the war.
The house was nearly empty. Most everyone had left; gone to work on their own or to escape the war. Only Nora, Abby, and Tess remained. Abby and Tess claimed to be cousins, but everyone knew they were a romantic couple. Nora referred to them as “Boston Sisters.” Lauren didn’t care what they did. The ugliness of prostitution often made women turn to each other for tenderness. They resembled a pair of plump birds, always whispering jokes and secrets to each other.
Nora was unofficially second in charge of the house. She could hardly read or write, but knew enough to help Lauren out when needed. Her blonde hair and easy laughter got lots of male attention. She took life as it came, and rarely thought about the future.
The handyman, Tom, enlisted in May. His helper, Billy, ran off to be a drummer for a color guard. Nora thought it odd that Lauren hadn’t gotten new girls, but figured she’d make more money herself that way. It never occurred to her that Lauren might be trying to figure out a way to leave.
Upstairs, Samuel awkwardly tried to express his gratitude as Lauren interrupted.
“Please help me! My house, will the Army take it?” She appealed to his male vanity. He was flattered and confused at the same time. “What can I do?”
“Could you ask around? Does your brother see orders or supply lists? My house might be on a list.”
She went to her desk and wrote the address down: 348 Ohio Street. Lauren handed it to him along with a calling card. He took them both, and followed her downstairs to the kitchen door. It led to an alley that emptied between shops on Fourteenth Street.
As Lauren watched him go, she searched for a small flask of brandy she kept off the pantry in a bookshelf. She opened it and took a long, deep gulp. Nora watched silently from the landing, and said nothing. As she wiped her mouth, Lauren recapped the flask and returned it to it the hiding place. Smoothing her hair, she gave Nora a look that told her not to even think about saying anything.
Nora had that same sinking feeling. Lauren’s “spells” always started this way. It was her house and she could drink anytime she wanted. But when she started to hide it, Nora knew they were in trouble.
Lauren’s weakness for brandy and opiates seem to come out at the wrong times. The laudanum pills were available at the general stores, and she knew Lauren got stronger versions from the corrupt Dr. Phillips, who was also an addict. Dr. Phillips nursed the whores when no one else would. He also came to the house to take care of Esther, since she could no longer be taken out in public.
The brandy Lauren favored gave her headaches. That was an invitation to take more laudanum pills and morphine syrups, which killed the pain but dulled her appetite. She stopped eating, got thin, and disappeared upstairs for days at a time. Even the sight of her beloved sister couldn’t snap her out it.
Lauren’s last spell was awful. She had descended quickly into a druggy fog. Dr. Phillips had been summoned. Not surprised at her condition, he had slapped her awake, and forced her to drink a liquid from a dark, dirty bottle.
Lauren moaned loudly as the doctor locked the door from the hallway. The other women in the house left or pulled their pillows over their ears. Lauren screamed and shook for nearly an hour before she passed out.
The nasty potion left her frail, but she recovered in a few weeks, and didn’t drink for almost six months. This spell, like the others before it, were never discussed.
“What will we have for dinner, it’s my turn to cook,” asked Nora. Louisa, the darkie cook, had taken off months before. “Please don’t let Lauren go into a spell now,” thought Nora. She was a few years older, but Lauren was smarter and always knew what to do.
“Potatoes in the cellar, I’ll get them”, replied Lauren. “And ham from last night.” Lauren searched for the cellar door key from the chatelaine she kept pinned to her waistband. The center pin had several long chains with keys, small scissors, and magnifiers attached to the ends. Everything that was valuable in the house was locked up. Food, liquor, and everything else had a way of disappearing if left out in the open.
Lauren’s answer relieved Nora for now, but something still wasn’t right.
The midday meal was eaten in the kitchen, with Lauren at the head of the table. She was silent as Beau lay at her feet waiting for scraps. Nora watched Lauren carefully for signs of trouble, as Abby and Tess were oblivious to anyone else. They playfully teased each other until Lauren shot them a harsh look. They waited until she looked away, and like children, began the teasing again.
Everything stopped as they heard a quick knock at the front door. Customers didn’t usually come until after dark. Was it someone from the government to seize the house for Army housing?
Abby dropped the ham plate; as it slid towards the floor, Beau dived to retrieve it. Nora tipped over a glass of water, and leapt up for a towel. In the confusion, the knocking continued. They all watched silently as Lauren got up to answer the door, Beau slinking behind her.
At the door, an eager young man waited impatiently. He looked surprised to see Lauren.
“Is your mistress at home?” He had an odd accent. He appeared to be a new arrival to the city with no idea what part of town he was in.
“I am the mistress,” Lauren replied, feeling the outline of the pistol she always kept in her pocket.
“Miss Jacobsen?” He stammered, and held out an envelope.
“Thank you.” She took it, and the messenger continued to awkwardly stand on the porch. Lauren realized he wasn’t going away.
“Would you like a drink of water?’ The young man nodded, and she motioned him in.
Lauren sat on a settee reading the note. Nora entered with a pitcher of water and a glass. The boy looked around, and saw a cathouse painting of a half-naked reclining woman. He blushed bright red, chugged the water, wiped his mouth, and handed the glass back to Nora.
As she finished reading, Lauren looked up, almost as if she’d forgotten the young man. She thanked him, and showed him the door. He couldn’t get out fast enough.
Lauren calmly took the pitcher from Nora and placed it on the sideboard before collapsing in a sobbing heap on the floor. Her petticoat layered hoopskirts awkwardly bunched up around her. Nora watched stunned, as if she didn’t know the woman crying on the floor.
Finally, Nora spoke. “What was in the note?”
Lauren continued to lay on the floor, looking around for something to grab to help her get up. She clumsily pushed off Beau to help get up from the trap of her skirts.
“The deed to the house is missing. The deed to the house is gone from the Hall of Records, “she said.
Nora was confused,”I don’t understand.”
Lauren looked up at the ceiling, “Most likely, someone has stolen it, and plans to claim the house after the war.”
“Who would do that?” Nora saw the world in simple terms.
Lauren sighed and explained, “Someone who wants the property. Maybe, after the war, this area will be cleaned up. One of the bankers who held the deed tried to talk me into marrying him when I was eighteen.”
Nora couldn’t comprehend why a piece of paper would be so important. Everyone knew this was Lauren’s house. Lauren slowly arose from the floor, and straightened her hoops. She went to Nora, looked her in the eyes, and said, “Tell no one.”
It wasn’t really the house she was so concerned about, it was the small fortune in gold pieces that she’d buried in the cellar.
Three months earlier, Fort Sumner had fallen, and the city reeled with intrigues. One morning, when Lauren was in the house with Beau and Esther, a sick man came to the side door. He was weak and delirious, barely able to speak. She recognized the dazed state as river fever. The poor man was in the last stages of the sickness.
He’d pulled his wagon into the back alleyway, and slumped in her doorway. In his hand was a grimy piece of paper with a nearby address of a known Confederate sympathizer. Lauren had the fever as a child, and knew he posed no threat to her.
She tethered up his horse, and peeked at the trunk under the seat of the wagon. It was sturdily locked, and she figured it must hold something valuable. She had helped him into the house and laid him down in the parlor. He’d be dead soon enough, she thought. There was no way to save him.
She slid the trunk down a ramp they kept around for just such tasks. Only this was no ladies’ trunk full of clothing and finery. It was too heavy for that.
Working quickly, she got a small cart that Tom had made to haul the rain barrel. She wrestled the trunk off the ramp to the cart, and to the outside cellar door. She unlocked the door and took the locked trunk inside the cellar.
Lauren raced upstairs to the visitor. He was going in and out of consciousness, as she checked his pockets for the key. After she found it, she opened the trunk. Stacks of twenty dollar United States double eagle gold pieces were crammed in the trunk . Bright and shiny, they held out a promise of a better future for Lauren, but she would have to hide them for awhile.
The coins had most likely been stolen from a bank in the west and were going east for the Confederacy. If the sick man, or anyone was caught with these coins, they’d be charged with treason.
She buried them deep under the boards of the cellar, and prepared to wait until the end of the war. After the war, she could put the now dirty aged coins in several banks, claiming it was money she made whoring during the war. No one would suspect where they came from.
However, it seemed a shame to bury the beautiful coins in the dirt. She loved the lady with the tiara and pearl necklace on the coin. Her head was turned to the side, as if the pretty lady couldn’t bear to look at what had been done to earn her. On the backside was a federal eagle with a shield in his talons. She rarely looked at that side. One of these coins represented having to service at least ten men. Every coin meant ten men who would never touch her. Lauren would keep some of them underneath a loose piece of paneling trim in her room, and another twenty she’d sew in the hems of her full skirts.
Many women sewed iron or lead weights into their hems to keep them weighted down. Lauren was not the only one who had coins or jewelry hidden in her dress hems during the war.
She hurried as she buried the coins, and then replaced the floor boards. There were old bricks in the cellar for a repair job Tom had never gotten to, and Lauren moved the pile over the gold. The dirty bricks looked like they’d been there for years. She knew the others in the house wouldn’t be back for a few more hours.
The empty trunk was replaced on the wagon. After watering the horse, she led it and the wagon to the alley. A group of men had gathered there to gamble away from the street crowds. They would steal the horse and wagon the moment she left.
Back at the house, she mixed whisky with morphine syrup and poured it down the nearly dead man’s throat. It was a compassionate gesture. He’d be dead soon. She felt no guilt or remorse over her actions. If anything, she’d done her duty preventing the gold from going South.
When the others finally returned to the house, Lauren met them at the door and told them about the sick stranger, but not about the gold. They avoided the parlor and knew not to ask too many questions. Once he was dead, men were sent for to take the body. He was wrapped in a blanket and dumped in the nearby Potomac Canal in the darkness.
Later in the evening, in the privacy of her room, she lingered over the remaining coins. Even in the low candlelight, they glowed. The coins opened up new vistas of what her life could be. Maybe this would make up for all the bad that had happened to her. She could move far away and open a little store with pretty things. It was too late to save Esther, but with the coins, she could buy her a lovely tombstone and bury her properly when the time came. The more she thought about what she could do with the coins, the more excited she got. However, it was not safe to leave with them now.
There were sentries guarding all routes in and out of the area--and searching everyone for contraband. Someone powerful must have paid a lot to get the gold this far. She hoped they wouldn’t be able to trace it back to her. She’d best stay here for now, pray her house wasn’t seized, and wait out the war.
* * *
As she prepared for the evening’s guests, Lauren sipped brandy and tried to clear her mind. The heat radiated throughout the house: the humidity was unforgiving. She checked Esther to make sure the laudanum pills had knocked her out. Her sister’s fits had gotten worse, and this was the only way to make sure she didn‘t hurt herself.
Lauren’s head throbbed with pain, so she took a pill, and laid down for short nap. Later she awoke to Nora pounding on her door and calling her name. Lauren slowly came to, and asked, “What?”
Nora blurted out, “ I wanted to make sure you were awake.”
“I am fine,” Lauren replied crossly.
Nora opened the door and looked in.
“I am fine” Lauren repeated as she left. Easing back into her nap, Lauren slept fitfully before being awakened by a loud male voice. She couldn’t make out what the voice was saying. Slowly, she got off the bed and finished dressing. It was dark outside.
Lauren took a few more gulps of brandy before starting downstairs. From the upstairs landing, she saw Abby and Tess conversing with two gentlemen around the settee. Nora poured drinks for another small group of men. The effects of the brandy, the pills, and the heat got to her. Lauren stumbled halfway down the stairs.
It happened in slow motion: out of nowhere, a tall blond man grabbed and stopped her fall. She seemed to hang in mid air for a moment; before he half carried her down the rest of the stairs, and into a parlor chair. His strength and grace were outstanding; other men had been closer, but only he had acted.
He took a deep bow and introduced himself, “Miss, Captain Joseph Hooker”. When the room stopped spinning, she could tell he was about twenty years older than she was, but handsome in a rugged, outdoorsy way. His face was unusually rosy pink. After stammering for a second, she found her voice.
“Thank you, thank you, Captain Hooker, would you like a drink?”
Hooker nodded in the direction of his glass. “Thank you, I have one.”
She looked to Nora, “Well, I need one after that.” The men all laughed as Nora brought her a small drink of brandy.
“I am Miss Lauren Jacobsen, but after that, you may call me Lauren.”
He laughed again, and asked, “Have we met before?”
“Not to my knowledge, Sir. Tell me all about yourself, Hooker.” It felt right to call him that rather than Joe or Joseph.
He settled into a chair facing her. As he sat, he unconsciously pulled his jacket sleeves over his tattered shirt cuffs. His bearing couldn’t disguise the fact they were worn beyond repair.
“All about would take days, my dear,” he began. “Soldier by trade, here from the West, my military career began at West Point.”
The other men in the room began to feel small next to Hooker and turned away to the other gals for attention. Lauren focused on Hooker.
“I don’t understand much about military rankings and titles,” Lauren smiled warmly as she continued, “What group are you in, Captain?”
He smiled back, “I am waiting for an appointment to serve again in this great nation’s army. I served with honor in the Seminole War, and then in Mexico.”
Lauren became more direct with her questions and less flirtatious. “Is it difficult to get an appointment? The city is full of military men.”
Hooker took a long drink before answering. “There are many of us, and the process goes slowly. I am a son of Massachusetts, with letters of recommendation from Senators Baker, Nesmith, and Sumner.”
Lauren acted suitably impressed. Over the years, she’d worked out a formula for men’s stories; the longer and louder the boasting, the larger the lie. If this fellow came so well recommended, why hadn’t he been granted an appointment already?
Anyone who’d served with Hooker could answer that easily. He was confident to the point of conceit. He had a good military mind, but drank, whored, and gambled to excess. He was almost fifty, and had no wife or children. Hooker had a fondness for what were known as “soiled doves,” for his female companions.
Over the years, he’d burned bridges with several of his classmates and superiors. He’d testified against General Scott after the Mexican War in a military trial. He had gone to California afterwards as an adjunct to General Smith and been brought up on court martial charges for selling supplies to the Army at a high profit. What he had done wasn’t illegal, but was considered conduct unbecoming an officer. Hooker resigned in 1853, but after all his civilian businesses failed he wrote Secretary of War Floyd asking for a commission as a Lieutenant Colonel. His letter was never answered.
General Scott had remained in the Army, and now had the ear of President Lincoln. He blackballed Hooker from coming back into the Army. Plus there was a large unpaid gambling debt to Henry Halleck, Lincoln’s chief of staff, that went back ten years.
Hooker’s letters of recommendation sat on these men’s desks as he stewed. He’d come East broke, on money raised by the California delegation. That stake was almost gone.
“That must be frustrating-- the waiting.” Lauren didn’t quite believe Hooker, but began to like him, despite her reservations. He had a certain rowdy warmth and charm. He didn’t appear to look down on her as so many men did.
Nora watched Hooker from across the room with concern. She did not care for him from the moment she saw him. Vain and loud, he seemed like nothing but trouble. Yet Lauren was doting on him. His voice grated on Nora as he rambled on.
“I spend days at the Capitol, the White House and the Department of Defense, seeking opportunity.” Hooker had no problem talking about himself.
Lauren began to put together a plan. Being in the thick of the military, he could help her find out about the house. She had little success on her own, and needed someone who knew the ropes to help her.
She took a deep breath and spoke, “Perhaps you could help me with a military matter.”
He smiled. “Well, this war affects all of us now. I’d be glad to help you. Is it about a brother, or a husband?”
She smiled, he was such a devil! He knew she had no husband.
“No, it is about my house.”
He looked serious for a moment. “The house?”
“I know the Army has seized property to house the troops, will they take mine?” Suddenly, she felt exposed and vulnerable.
“Why do you think they will take this house?” Hooker asked.
“It was a boarding house, it is half empty and it is close to many government buildings”.
He carefully looked around the room before he answered, “The city is full, very full. Matter of fact, I myself am without lodgings at this time.”
Lauren knew he was testing the waters but refused to acknowledge it. She interrupted him, “Of course, I do support the Union.”
“Sure.” He laughed and slapped his knee. “I wouldn’t want a house full of soldiers, either.”
Lauren dared not look at Nora as she spoke. “Captain Hooker, why don’t you stay here while you’re waiting for an appointment?”
He acted as if the thought had just occurred to him.
“May I?” The pleasant surprise in his voice was a bald-faced lie. “You are too kind. Thank you, Lauren. I will not forget it.” He paused for a moment, and added “And I will do everything in my power to protect you and your house. Once I am back in the Army.”
Nora did her best to hide her dismay over their new guest. She knew Lauren thought Hooker might be able to help, but Nora’s “whore’s sense” told her different. To her, Hooker was another man without money or rank who talked big. She thought he was just a yowling old tomcat, a stray that Lauren should’ve known better than to be taken in by.
Before they closed up for the night, Lauren showed Hooker to Tom the hired man’s old room off the kitchen. Nora was silent as she retired , but Lauren slept better than she had since the war started.
Hooker stayed in the small downstairs room and was certain all the women in the house locked their doors. He rose at dawn the next morning, cut and stacked firewood, then made the coffee. Nora stumbled downstairs later with open disgust. How dare he weasel his way into Lauren’s affection by being useful, she sulked.
Lauren woke with a start: for a half second she couldn’t remember if the blond stranger had been real or a dream. Before she washed or dressed, she unlocked the door to Esther’s room. Her sister laid on the bed in pool of her own filth, clutching her favorite French doll. After Lauren had cleaned both of them up, she went downstairs to get Esther her breakfast. Morning was the only time she could get her to eat. The handsome stranger downstairs would have to wait.
As she entered the kitchen, she saw the door to Tom’s room was slightly ajar. She saw Hooker shaving in a small mirror, stripped to the waist. He stood ramrod straight, the result of his West Point training. His fair hair was even lighter at the ends, where it had been bleached by the sun. His physique was trim, his back a tangle of scars from military and civilian fights over his forty six years.
Lauren suddenly realized she was starring, and turned away to go to the cellar. At the bottom of the stairs, she called out, “Good morning, Captain Hooker.” She could hear him searching for her and calling out her name.
“Lauren?” He opened the door to the cellar, and started down as she was coming up with canned food for Esther.
“Let me help you with those,” Hooker reached for her as she came to the top of the stairs.
“That is not necessary,” she barked at him guiding him back into the kitchen. Her coldness surprised him. “ I keep the cellar locked, and I am the only one allowed down there. House rules.”
Hooker smiled as he remembered that he was guest and a stranger. “Forgive me. I will not do that again,” he vowed.
Lauren took a deep breath as she decided to tell him about Esther. “There is another member of the household upstairs. My younger sister is very ill, and frightened of people. You may hear her, but do not attempt to go into her room.”
This came as a surprise to Hooker, who said nothing.
She continued, “What she has is not contagious, but I don’t want her upset. Disobey, and you will have to leave.”
“I’m sorry she’s sick. I will not do anything to upset her or you. I appreciate your hospitality.”
Lauren nodded, and then prepared a tray for Esther that she took upstairs. While she was gone, Hooker ate breakfast. He made polite conversation with Abby and Tess. Nora kept to herself upstairs.
Lauren returned with a tray that had been hardly touched. She inquired as to Hooker’s day.
“Capitol and the White House,” he replied. “In my spare time, I’ll check on the house.” Lauren wrote out the address, and handed it to him. As he took it, his hand paused on hers for just a moment, as he looked deep in her eyes. She pulled back a little, not used to being so obviously courted. Starting with her father, no man had ever taken care of her or kept his promises. Would Joe Hooker be any different? He was old enough to be her father. Before he walked out the door, he gave her a slight nod of the chin, then turned to go.
After Abby and Tess went upstairs, Lauren found herself in the doorway of Hooker’s room. He had made the bed in military style and cleaned up after shaving. Lauren saw he left nothing except a shaving kit. The worn leather kit had been left open to dry. The brush and other items were all well cared for, and once expensive. She took every item out and inspected it carefully. The razor gleamed shiny in the morning light, and felt perfectly balanced in her hand. Many men kept notes or pictures of their sweethearts stuck in their kits, but Hooker’s yielded up nothing except a few large blue powdery pills. She recognized them immediately as “Blue Mass.” Which were the general cure for many ailments: dysentery, constipation, fever, the pox, the drip, and other diseases.
The kit gave off a deep masculine scent of cloves, tobacco, and strong soap. She inhaled deeply before she left the room, and without knowing why, began to hum under her breath.
She didn’t expect Hooker back until later that evening, but knew he’d return. Lunch and the rest of the day was ordinary. A little more food was prepared for dinner and left on the sideboard in anticipation of an additional person. The gals dressed and prepared for the evening trade in their usual way.
Lauren forced herself to act in a normal manner; she wasn’t a fretful wife or a naïve girl with a crush. She knew everything about the animal side of human beings, but little about romance or courting, other than what she’d read in novels.
Nora became friendly and talkative when it appeared Hooker might not return. Good riddance to him, and the house would return to normal, she thought.
Was Lauren more concerned about Hooker as someone who could help with the house or as a man? She told herself it was about the house. As she began her toilet, she poured a large brandy, and took two laudanum pills. They seemed to have little effect on her.
Nora functioned as hostess that evening, as Lauren was distracted in spite of her best efforts to not think about Hooker. The evening wore on slowly in the summer heat. The small talk and merriment on the part of the others began to annoy her.
The evening came to a close without Hooker. Nora vowed not to gloat openly about his absence as she closed the front door behind the last customer.
Lauren snuffed out an oil lamp and with a heavy heart began to plan anew for someone to help her find out if her house would be taken.
A growing commotion was heard in front of the house. It grew louder, and came closer.
“Lauren! Miss Lauren!” A familiar male voice hollered out, “ LAUREN!”
Lauren dashed past Nora, and flung the door open. In the moonlight, Hooker was escorted by a group of men who were almost as drunk as he was.
Hooker was definitely in his cups-- loud, laughing, and rambunctious. The drunk men staggered inside, barely missing the women and Beau. His pals placed Hooker in a chair, and he thanked them loudly as they left.
He then turned his attention to Lauren. “Hello, Darlin’.”
Her relief at his return quickly turned to anger. She stared at him, collecting her thoughts.
“Aren’t you happy for me, Honey?” He slurred the words slowly. This was painful for even Nora to watch.
Lauren turned and started up the stairs as he continued on. “Be happy for me, because I got an appointment.” He smiled to himself.
Not sure if she heard right, Lauren stopped. “You said you got an appointment?”
“Yup. I got an appointment in the United States Army.”
She softened a bit. A man could be forgiven for celebrating. Perhaps he overdid it a bit, but that was understandable. She went to sit beside him. Now he could really help her.
“What did you get appointed to?” She asked.
He pulled himself up straighter for his audience of one. “Colonel, Old Bay Regiment.”
She had no idea what that meant. “How many soldiers will you command?”
Hooker broke out into a huge grin. “Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter.”
Lauren was tired. “Why doesn’t it matter?” she asked abruptly.
“Because I turned it down!” Hooker began laughing like a maniac. “I turned the bastards down! It was a shitty little command, a piss ant little regiment. Way beneath my talents. Turned it down. That’ll show them.”
With that, Hooker slumped over and fell asleep. Lauren went upstairs wondering what she had gotten herself into.