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BLACK CHAMBER

by S.M. Stirling


 

PROLOGUE:

 

Sagamore Hill, Long Island, New York,
May 25th, 1912 A.D.—1912(b)
Point of Departure Plus 4 hours

 

There was a rising murmur of voices outside the door of Sagamore Hill’s North Room. Theodore Roosevelt and his advisors ignored it.

“Your tour’s really fired up the party’s supporters, Colonel Roosevelt,” Lucius Swift said. “As far as the ordinary members are concerned, the Party’s ours. We took Ohio by nearly fifty thousand votes... Taft’s home state! It’s the Progressive Republican Party now in all but name.”

“Bully!” Roosevelt said, sincerely.

He’d broken with tradition and whistle-stopped the country as a candidate for the nomination, and he intended to do much more along those lines. Tradition was good, but you couldn’t let it become a set of shackles, turning a young vigorous country into a bunch of prissy lawyers... like his ex-friend and the current President, William Howard Taft. The North Room of his country estate, lined with books and maps and hunting trophies—he was very proud of the elephant tusks framing the entrance, and the rhino horn—showed what he was and how he led. From the front, as he’d led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill with the 7mm bullets of the Spanish Mausers making that ripping-silk sound as they punched past his ears.

Senator Dixon nodded: “They can’t win it now unless they steal it, so they’re panicking and punching below the belt. They stole New York outright with fake ballots, and they’ll rely on stuffing the selection committees to disqualify our delegates and put in theirs”

Roosevelt tapped his knuckles on the table thoughtfully. “The Old Guard controls the State machines and Taft has his hand on the Federal patronage spigots. Right now we need to—”

The voices outside rose to near-shouts, and there was a swift hard knock on the door.

The men around the table looked at each other. Some like the newspaperman Frank Knox had fought with him in Cuba, others like Croly had furthered the reform cause with their books... and Roosevelt was an author himself many times over. Only one was older than his own fifty-two years and a few were new to serious politics, earnest young men who reminded him of his earlier, unbattered self. He’d left strict orders that nobody should interrupt this late-night meeting with his closest advisors, and there were a couple of ex-Rough Riders in the corridor to enforce it, men whose real duties involved six-shooters and brass knuckles rather than the chores of stables and farm. Assassination wasn’t unknown—McKinley’s had put him in the white house a decade ago—and Roosevelt had been outspoken enough about the need to do something about Mexico’s gathering chaos that some wild-eyed fanatic might have travelled north to slay the gringo devil.

“Come in,” Roosevelt said.

He felt a welcome quickening of the blood. Whatever the news was, it would be a challenge.

A flash of memory; that time in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory, walking into Nolan’s saloon and the taunting voice of the killing-drunk gunman demanding the four-eyed Eastern dude buy the drinks all ‘round, and the two Colts pointing at his gut. He’d laughed then... just before a quick right-left-right to the jaw had left the man unconscious on the sawdust-covered boards with the smoking pistols in his hands. The bullets had come close, but he’d never felt more alive.

A fight gave life its savor... and so did an opportunity.

“Telegraph, Colonel,” the pale-eyed man in the bowler hat said as he stuck his head through the door and waved a Western Union flimsy; there was a bulge under the left armpit of his cheap blue suit, a scar kinked his beaky nose, and his voice had a strong Western twang. “You’re going to want to see this one right now and no mistake.”

Whitlock’s a reliable man. This has to be something big...

Herbert Croly went to the door and took the paper. It took a moment for him to cross the big dim room, and the others had an instant to look at each other again with growing speculation. His usually stolid moon-shaped face went slack in surprise as he read.

“Hell and damnation!” he said, even more uncharacteristically, being rather prim and reserved by nature. “President Taft’s dead!”

“Good God!” a young Harvard man murmured under the chorus of gasps and oaths, which was a Boston Brahmin’s way of running around the room waving his arms and shrieking.

What!” Roosevelt said, almost a shout.

After surprise came a stab of grief. He’d meant what he said when he called Taft a fat-headed Old Guard flubdub, but they’d been friends and allies once.

“How?” he said sharply.

“Just didn’t wake up from his nap after dinner. They think it was his heart. A gentle way to go, at least.”

Roosevelt shook his head as the brief message was dropped on the table, looking at it as if it were a carrion bird cawing nevermore. Croly slumped back into his chair and gulped at a hitherto-untasted glass, choking a little on the brandy.

“He never did exercise enough,” Roosevelt said sadly.

Taft had looked like a walrus on legs for decades, and it had gotten worse since he moved into the White House and ate more to cope with the nervous strain. They’d had to install a custom-built bathtub seven feet by four after he got stuck in the regular one and was left roaring for help when he couldn’t pull himself out. The terrible grinding labor of campaigning in the new fashion must have been the last straw that broke him...

“God rest his soul; he always meant well. As a judge, he’d have been magnificent. A patriot and a scholar, but he just wasn’t made to be a leader.”

Theodore Roosevelt was a bit stocky himself these days, but it was nearly all muscle. He rode and wrestled and swam, hunted and hiked and split wood and pitched in on the farm here at Sagamore Hill with gusto, enjoying the strenuous, outdoor life he’d pursued since he was a sickly little boy dreaming of adventure. That was why he’d gone West to be a rancher, that and sorrow after his first wife died bearing her namesake daughter Alice, for the challenge and the adventure of the rough frontier life. The same spirit had taken him through the East African wilderness and down the Nile, and it would take him back to the White House whatever the conservative faction thought.

Everyone was silent for a long moment, in respect and speculation. Then Knox cleared his throat.

“There’s Sherman,” he said, naming Taft’s Vice-President. “He’s able, and popular with the Old Guard. They could rally around him; he’s the President now, after all.”

“No,” Roosevelt said incisively. “Sherman is very ill.”

He’d known, but hadn’t mentioned it before because it hadn’t been directly relevant and a gentleman didn’t refer to another’s personal matters unless he must. Now it was something that had to be said.

“How sick, Colonel?” Knox asked.

Only men who’d fought with the Rough Riders called him that without the name attached; as a nickname he liked it a good deal more than Teddy, to which he was most unwillingly resigned when it came from other adults.

“He’s dying, Frank,” Roosevelt said. “His kidneys, Bright’s disease. His doctors don’t think he can survive the year. He may not live to November.”

Roosevelt wouldn’t wish that long painful passing on any man; he’d always carried a vial of morphine in dangerous situations, so that if death was coming he could choose its manner and time and not die like a beaten beast. But in practical terms... Possibly you could be nominated as a Vice-Presidential candidate with a fatal disease. Not as a contender for President.

And I’m as healthy as a bull moose!

“We’ve got them, if we move quickly,” he said. “Their candidate is... gone, and now Sherman’s a sitting President but too sick to run. The Three Witches from Macbeth couldn’t have cursed them more comprehensively.”

“Good God Almighty,” Knox said... but in a very different tone, and looked at Roosevelt with a tinge of awe. “Colonel, didn’t Bismarck say something once about Providence and America—”

Roosevelt knew the German statesman’s saying, but let Croly supply the quote:

“A special providence of God protects drunkards, small children, and the United States of America.”

Roosevelt waited for laughter, but nobody was treating it as a joke... or even smiling. He didn’t believe in Divine intervention of that type himself, but he did believe in destiny, for men and nations. He could feel his stirring now, and with it America’s, like boulders shifting at the tipping-point of an all-conquering avalanche. And all because of one blocked artery in a fat man’s heart, a tiny thing moving mountains. He went on thoughtfully, but with a growing feeling of exhilarating certainty:

“The Old Guard probably can’t even agree on a candidate without an incumbent to run, not in the time they’ve got before the convention... and they don’t have the guts to bolt the party when we carry the nomination.”

Which I would have done, if they’d stolen it!

Dixon broke a brown study of concentration: “Taft’s ordinary delegates will come over to us in the next week, or enough of them. But the big boys, and the corporations and Trusts behind them... they’ll sit on their hands all the way to November.”

The campaign manager’s warning meant he was already looking ahead to the general election. It was just dawning on the rest that the struggle they’d met here to plan was effectively over. The Senator from Montana continued:

“They’ll close their checkbooks too, and hope we’re discredited if the Democrats win.”

“I don’t care if they pout. All the better! We can put reliable Progressives in every position while the malefactors of great wealth are sulking in their tents.” Roosevelt said.

“We can build a Progressive Republican party that’s a disciplined political army, not a divided rabble!” Croly said.

“And we’ll have the people with us,” Roosevelt said; he liked Croly’s ideas, even if he wasn’t over-fond of the man himself.

His fist thudded on the table.

“By God, we’ve got them! And if the Democrats are stupid enough to nominate that prissy sissy of a Princeton professor, that fake Progressive and sad excuse for a man Woodrow Woodenhead Wilson, we’ve got them too!”

“And then...” Dixon almost crooned; he’d earned his Progressive spurs fighting the well-named Anaconda Copper Company’s crushing hold on his home state. “There are some scores to pay, by God—the railroads and the Trusts will learn to walk small.”

That brought a rumble of agreement, and Roosevelt nodded. It was time to show that the people’s voice... spoken through him... was master. Half-measures hadn’t worked.

Croly nodded too. “And we can finally get the nineteenth century over with, make this a planned efficient nation instead of a mess with a few efficient spots in it.”

Roosevelt grinned, his fighting grin. “We can set this great country of ours to rights, and give it a government worthy of it!”

A wolfish growl ran around the table, hungry and determined. The Rough Riders had followed him up San Juan Hill, and now the Republican Party...

No, the Progressive Republican Party—we’ll change the name to let people know a new broom is sweeping clean!

... would follow him to Washington.

And might God have pity on those who got in the way, for he didn’t intend to do much along those lines himself.

 

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Copyright © 2016-2018 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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