Six Months at the White House/XLVII
I had been engaged in the official chamber until quite late one evening, upon some pencil studies of accessories, necessary to introduce in my picture. The President, Mrs. Lincoln, and the Private Secretaries had gone to the opera, and for the time being I had undisturbed possession. Towards twelve o'clock I heard some persons enter the sleeping apartment occupied by Mr. Nicolay and Major Hay, which was directly opposite the room where I was sitting; and shortly afterward the hearty laugh of Mr. Lincoln broke the stillness, proceeding from the same quarter. Throwing aside my work, I went across the hall to see what had occasioned this outbreak of merriment. The Secretaries had come in and Hay had retired; Mr. Nicolay sat by the table with his boots off, and the President was leaning over the "footboard" of the bed, laughing and talking with the hilarity of a schoolboy. It seemed that Hay, or "John," as the President called him, had met with a singular adventure, which was the subject of the amusement. Glancing through the half-open door, Mr. Lincoln caught sight of me, and the story had to be repeated for my benefit. The incident was trifling in itself, but the President's enjoyment of it was very exhilarating. I never saw him in so frolicsome a mood as on this occasion.
It has been well said by a critic of Shakspeare, that "the spirit which held the woe of 'Lear,' and the tragedy of 'Hamlet,' would have broken, had it not also had the humor of the 'Merry Wives of Windsor,' and the merriment of 'Midsummer Night's Dream.'" With equal justice can this profound truth be applied to the late President. The world has had no better illustration of it since the immortal plays were written.
Mr. Lincoln's "laugh" stood by itself. The "neigh" of a wild horse on his native prairie is not more undisguised and hearty. A group of gentlemen, among whom was his old Springfield friend and associate, Hon. Isaac N. Arnold, were one day conversing in the passage near his office, while waiting admission. A congressional delegation had preceded them, and presently an unmistakable voice was heard through the partition, in a burst of mirth. Mr. Arnold remarked, as the sound died away: "That laugh has been the President's life-preserver!"
In a corner of his desk he kept a copy of the latest humorous work; and it was his habit when greatly fatigued, annoyed, or depressed, to take this up and read a chapter, frequently with great relief.
Among the callers in the course of an evening which I well remember, was a party composed of two senators, a representative, an ex-lieutenant-governor of a western State, and several private citizens. They had business of great importance, involving the necessity of the President's examination of voluminous documents. He was at this time, from an unusual pressure of office-seekers, in addition to his other cares, literally worn out. Pushing everything aside, he said to one of the party: "Have you seen the 'Nasby Papers'?" "No, I have not," was the answer; "who is 'Nasby?'" "There is a chap out in Ohio," returned the President, "who has been writing a series of letters in the newspapers over the signature of 'Petroleum V. Nasby.' Some one sent me a pamphlet collection of them the other day. I am going to write to 'Petroleum' to come down here, and I intend to tell him if he will communicate his talent to me, I will 'swap' places with him." Thereupon he arose, went to a drawer in his desk, and, taking out the "Letters," sat down and read one to the company finding in their enjoyment of it the temporary excitement and relief which another man would have found in a glass of wine. The instant he ceased, the book was thrown aside, his countenance relapsed into its habitual serious expression, and the business before him was entered upon with the utmost earnestness.
During the dark days of '62, the Hon. Mr. Ashley, of Ohio, had occasion to call at the White House early one morning, just after news of a disaster. Mr. Lincoln commenced some trifling narration, to which the impulsive congressman was in no mood to listen. He rose to his feet and said: "Mr. President, I did not come here this morning to hear stories; it is too serious a time." Instantly the smile faded from Mr. Lincoln's face. "Ashley," said he, "sit down! I respect you as an earnest, sincere man. You cannot be more anxious than I have been constantly since the beginning of the war; and I say to you now, that were it not for this occasional vent, I should die."