Nancy arrived at the edge of the crowd, breathing hard and feeling damp and uncomfortable in her heavy skirt and jacket. Now, as she looked around, fear clutched at her. She’d never seen so many people as had come together on this barren hilltop. Here and there were sprinkled a few bearded Amish in flat black hats and some hobbling veterans in their faded uniforms. An occasional brightly garbed woman stood out in bold relief among the drab browns and grays of men’s clothing.
Directly ahead, a square wooden platform caught her attention. On it stood a white-haired man gesturing with generous motions. That must be Senator Everett, she thought. Nancy studied him briefly, then scanned the faces of the men seated in twos on the platform. Is that bare-headed man sitting in the center President Lincoln, she wondered, or is that other gentleman to the right of him wearing the tall hat? Both had beards, so it was difficult for Nancy to tell from a distance. She edged closer for a better look.
She pushed past the onlookers who smelled of sweaty wool and stale food even in the outdoors.
“How much longer before the president takes his turn?” she whispered to a boy in front of her.
“Soon, I hope,” he said. “I’m hungry.” He eyed her parcel. “Is that something to eat?”
“No,” she said and hugged her parcel closer. They both looked up as scattered applause began around them. Peering between men’s shoulders, Nancy saw Mr. Everett bowing and waving as he made his way to his seat then watched as he sat down heavily, pulled out a billowing kerchief, and wiped his face.
“Lookee there,” the boy said. “He worked up a sweat making a speech and all I did was work up an appetite listening to it.”
Nancy smiled and continued searching for a good vantage point from which to hear the president. As a chorale group on the stage began to sing, she saw a man and woman standing nearby, and she edged closer to them. Somehow, the presence of a woman made her feel more comfortable.
They turned as she stopped beside them and Nancy saw that they were very old. The man’s face looked like a shriveled, dried-out apple and the woman’s colorless face reminded Nancy of her favorite china doll. Their clothes had an ancient look, too, worn to a thinness that even patches would no longer hold together.
“Did you come far?” Nancy asked.
“All the way from Ohio,” the old man replied.
Nancy gasped. “That’s a long, long way. You must be very tired.”
“Sarah, my wife, is not feeling so good,” the man said. “She’s not over her sickness.”
“I had to come. I had to find our son’s grave.” The woman spoke so softly that Nancy wasn’t sure she heard her at first.
“Oh,” Nancy said. She felt a sudden rush of sympathy for them and knew she’d cry if she tried to talk anymore. If only Papa were here now, she wished, he’d know what to say and do.
The chorale group finished and the crowd surged forward in anticipation, as someone announced simply, “The president of the United States.” Nancy looked up, paralyzed with the depth of her feelings. There he stood—tall, thin, somber-looking in his steel-rimmed glasses—as he began to read from a paper.
She hardly heard his words because her emotions threatened to boil up and outside of her and carry her away. To realize the dream, to be here at long last was almost more than she could physically handle. Her head buzzed and pounded and her stomach threatened a revolt. She swallowed hard and hugged her package closer.
Then the president stopped talking. Surely he can’t be finished already, Nancy thought. He’s hardly said anything yet.
People looked at one another uncertainly for a moment, then slowly began to applaud. The applause gathered momentum and Nancy joined in, disappointed because she had paid so little attention to what the president said. She’d have to ask Papa about it later.
Now the crowd pushed forward again and Nancy felt panic. She was afraid she might be crushed or trampled and never get to give the president his gift. She looked around wildly and saw a small opening to slip through. Perhaps she could work her way out of the crowd and go around to the other side of the platform. The president was still busy shaking hands and talking. She hoped she had enough time to meet him.
Nancy pushed and poked with her elbows, slowly forcing her way through until she came to the edge of the gathering. Sighing, she stopped and licked a salty drop from her lip. The air was close and sticky as though it might rain soon.
Then she saw them, the old man and woman, standing away from the crowd. Suddenly, the old lady seemed to sag as though someone had let the air out of her, and then she slipped to the ground through her husband’s grasp. Nancy ran to them.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“My wife, she’s so sick,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Where’s your wagon? Can’t you take her to it?”
“It’s too far. She’d never make it,” he replied.
“You go get it. I’ll stay with your wife,” Nancy suggested.
“Oh, thank you, young lady. Thank you.” Gently, he touched Nancy’s cheek and even though the touch of his old gnarled fingers felt like prickly berry bushes, she was strangely moved.
“Hurry, Edward, hurry!” his wife whispered.
The old man trotted off and Nancy looked down at the crumpled form on the ground. Sweat stood out on the woman’s forehead and yet she shook uncontrollably with chills.
“What’s wrong?” Nancy asked.
“I’m so cold,” she said. “My fever’s come back.”
Nancy took off her jacket and put it over the nearly threadbare cape the lady wore.
“Does that help?”
“Don’t worry about me. You run along and find your family.”
“Oh, no, I can’t leave you alone,” Nancy told her.
The minutes ticked by and the crowd thinned out, and still the old man did not appear with the wagon. People stopped to stare at them curiously, but no one offered to help and Nancy grew increasingly anxious. She looked at the platform again where the president stood talking to several men. Oh please, let him stay a few minutes longer, she silently prayed. Don’t let him get away from me now.
She glanced down and found the woman shaking worse than before. Nancy tried to tuck her clothes about her, but the girl knew it wasn’t enough. The woman needed more covers, something warm and woolly, to cover her now.
Nancy realized what she had to do. She’d known it all along. Slowly she unwrapped her parcel and pulled out the blue woolen shawl she had made for President Lincoln.
“I think this will help,” she said.
The look of gratitude in the woman’s eyes when she saw the shawl warmed Nancy deeply, the way a cup of hot milk spreads its comfort on a cold day. She felt infinitely older as she tucked the shawl around the old woman and smiled at her with newly awakened feelings.
After a moment, Nancy turned to look at the platform and watched the president move through the people massed around him, away from her and out of her life. She knew she’d not meet him face to face today, perhaps never. And she knew she would never give him the shawl but, somehow, it didn’t matter anymore.
Is this growing up? she wondered. It felt different, yet made to order, like a new cloak put on over an old dress. The old dress was still there underneath, but the cloak was what showed. Underneath she was still a child and the child would always remain a part of her, but as she grew she’d add more garments of growing. Precious moments of understanding would be added until one day she’d be a woman.
She hugged the thought closer and then settled down to wait for the old man and her father to find her.