A Face Reading Short Story by Barbara Roberts
Abraham Lincoln emerged from the War Room tired and sick at heart. He had just come from the battlefield where he visited the tents of the surgeons. His mind held the continuous image of timelessly sobbing widows in black long dresses. Hopeless, orphaned sons and daughters cried at the doors of the homes waiting for their fathers who would never return.
Although he had surrounded himself politically with those who had opposed him and wished for his nation to be open to all men and all views, the president was acutely aware of that political incompetence meant wounded soldiers and dead men. His heart was filled with quiet grieving, and the Great War never left his heart for a moment.
“To even have a healthy son reach adulthood was a miracle of God,” he reflected. “So many epidemics of flu or cases of consumption. Even a body soaked with rain on a wintry day might be lost by nightfall.”
So that some of the city’s young bucks dreamed of the ‘battle cry’ and fighting to prove their manhood angered him deep in his soul. That the young people romanticized war gave him lingering sadness. If only they saw what he had seen. Brothers in battle together – one kneeling over his dying loved on. And no grieving, they say, can compare to a parent who has lost a son. He had Todd, and he knew what the all encompassing love of a father could be. Protective and tender at the same time.
And how cruel men and nature could be to the human flesh. Some was Fate. War was choice. He was determined to end the War as quickly as he could. Send just one son home to his Mama - one son who might never have had a chance on the battlefield. It would be worth one son - whole and well.
So much rested on the integrity and capabilities of the men he chose for his Cabinet. His leaders must be of the highest caliber. Strong, fearless and true. They must be understanding of his people, their children, and the future of a great nation. Everything was at stake now. Of the Cabinet he had chosen, some were from different states and had different backgrounds. He liked that about them. He chose them by looking closely at their military records, their letters of accommodation, and by reading their characters. He tried not to miss anything. As president he could not control much, but he could hand-select his men who would make national decisions. That was his job. The destiny of a nation at War depended on it. He must not fail his people.
When he was younger the Illinois lawyer had met with one obstacle after another. Some eight at least, he reflected. Many elections lost. To others he seemed like a complete failure. But in each political skirmish he had learned to look at people closely and assess their nuances of personality. So their behavior or decisions would never surprise him. He knew more about some people than they knew about themselves, but he kept his own council. He studied the ancient system of physiognomy (Face Reading). Ten feet from a prospective juror or witness in a trial, he could turn the fate of a legal outcome. Lincoln could laugh and weave a good story with the best of them, but inside he had the instincts of a cougher. He looked at people and saw them – beyond artifices, fancy verbiage and fine clothes. He would laugh at a child’s story and shun an arrogant general.
One afternoon as his Cabinet assembled in the White House, the sun’s hot fierceness poured through the room. Men were loosening their neck clothes and removing their bulky jackets, wiping their forehead with large white hankies. All stood as Lincoln entered the room. His hands rose palms down to motion them to be seated.
“I understand that today we are reviewing the application for Lt. James Need, who wishes to be Secretary of the Treasury. Will those of you who have letters of accommodation, military files and written testimonials abut him, please step forward.” Lincoln seated himself behind the mahogany desk and opened his right hand to receive the papers. Letters from Generals, teachers, red wax sealed missives about Lt. McNeed were handed over. The pile was so high that by the time Lincoln had read them all, the sun was setting. The men were eager to get into their carriages and return home to their wives and dinners.
“Well,” Lincoln began, “he seems an ideal candidate form these dossiers. His war record is impeccable, and I can find no fault with anything I have read about this man. Let us meet him now, so we might to return to a quiet evening with our families. Bring Lt. James McNeed to me please.”
The side door opened, and the attending army aide ushered a man in uniform into the room. He came to stand directly in front of Abraham Lincoln. The president’s gaze was powerful and searching as he regarded the officer. Lincoln was reviewing McNeed’s facial features, as system called Face Reading, which he had learned when he was a young lawyer. It helped him to accurately read a person’s character. In his mind, Lincoln made note of Lt. McNeed's features: a dimpled chin that was short, a chin which receded back to tuck behind forward thrusting front teeth, an uneven forehead hairline, a tiny, tight mouth (that looked like a man set on a vinegar drink), strange ears which protruded out from his head at odd angles, a mouth that upturned like a joker (but McNeed wasn’t smiling), and a thick unibrow eyebrow. The president reflected that he looked like a rat. And then Lincoln remembered the words of Aristotle, the first great scholar in science of physiognomy: “If you look like an animal, you are it!” (You will have the temperament of that animal.)
What was curious about Mr. McNeed, Lincoln thought, was that as he answered each direct question, his eyes would shift, almost retract visibly. Then they would become clear and present. It seemed to happen when the questions involved his military record. Lincoln had learned to recognize this eye change as “cloaking,” and he had seen it often in spies of all sorts. The president paced up and down, his head down and reflective before his men.
He made his decision and turned to the group, “Please leave us, Mr. McNeed.”
And after the man disappeared down the corridor, Lincoln turned to the curious Cabinet members and said, “I don’t want this man anywhere close to me.” Lincoln pounded his open flat hand onto his desk as the astonished group gasped and was riveted to attention. “Show me a man who is forty who is not responsible for his face.” With that he pulled in his vest and with long strides left the room.
Weeks later a news bulletin emerged from a Border state with an artist’s rendering of an escaped convict, Walter McNeed, who had been incarcerated for killing his brother, Lt. James McNeed, and stealing his military papers. The murdered brother, Lt. James McNeed had been a valiant soldier, decorated in battle. And for those who studied the facial drawing closely, the man who had stood before Lincoln had been none other than Walter McNeed.
(C) Copyright, Barbara Roberts, 2009. All rights reserved.