When darkness fell on the evening of the day after Christmas 1864, a closed carriage drew up to the curb outside the Duncan home in Baltimore. A second and a third carriage, also closed, parked at a discreet distance. Two men in dark coats descended from the first carriage and stood aside. A tall figure, wearing a stovepipe hat of beaver felt and swathed in a long black cloak, stepped down from the same vehicle and strode up the steps to the wide verandah.
The windows still glowed with Christmas cheer. Annie's glorious voice wafted outside.
The visitor lifted the brass knocker and let it fall.
In a moment, Bessie opened the door.
With a curtsy, she smiled up at him. A puzzled look crossed her face and then changed to surprise. The expression froze before she could utter a word.
"I have startled you, Miss," he said apologetically. "May I see Missus Duncan?"
Still speechless, Bessie nodded, stepped aside, and gestured toward the parlor.
He went to the velvet portieres.
In the parlor, Annie was singing the moody third verse of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: "And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth,' I said, 'for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.'"
The boys stood listening, Little Bart's arm slung across Ardie's shoulders while Nelle played.
Annie alone saw the stranger enter the room. Hardly believing her eyes, she faltered, but he raised a hand to indicate she should continue.
His gaze drifted to the portrait of Philo, making his heart ache with sadness. Captain Duncan, hero, friend! What terrible tidings I bring to those you loved! There will be no peace for them this night. They, too, will know Longfellow's despair when he wrote those words fraught with grief for the death of his soldier son. As gave he his boy's life to our great cause, so have these good people paid the price. Peace! Peace! God give us peace!
Annie's low, mournful tone suddenly gave way to a crescendo of hope and joy:
"Then pealed the bells now loud and deep: 'God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men. '"Finishing the carol, Annie touched Nelle's shoulder.
"Miz Nelle," she whispered, "President Lincoln done come to us."
Flustered, Nelle sprang up from the piano and dipped in a curtsy all the way to the floor.
"Missus Duncan, we must talk," he said. "I've no more than a little time."
Nelle took the President by the arm.
"Come into my husband's study, sir," she offered. "We may speak privately there."
Sitting on the banquette, Bessie remained unnoticed as Nelle showed the President into the study, and Annie led the boys upstairs to bed.
Bessie waited. Directly, the study door opened, and the President stepped out alone. He turned and saw her.
She rose. "My name is Bessie, President Lincoln. I'm sorry that I behaved so rudely. I never thought I'd see...I mean...the President of the United States walking right up to our door! Lordy!"
He walked toward her with a loping stride, his expression friendly but unsmiling, his hand extended in greeting. "Oh, dear Miz Bessie, I am glad to meet you. I have spoken of your daughter to Missus Duncan."
Even more anxious than before, she clasped his great hand between her small ones. "My Sarah? My little girl?" she breathed, wide-eyed.
"General Sherman himself has informed me that she has become a very beautiful and brave young belle of the new Savannah, Bessie," he said softly. "Have no fear for your child, Bessie, but your mistress...Missus Duncan...she will have need of you this night. I pray you, go to her now, please."
Bessie stood for a moment at the open door while the President's carriage disappeared in the darkness. Despite the good news about Sarah, the December air seemed no colder than the chill of apprehension that still cloaked her soul. A noise caused her to reel around as Nelle stumbled out of the study clutching her stomach. Her face was drained of all color. Bessie ran to her, saving her mistress from a fall. A pool of blood formed on the gray carpet at Nelle's feet.
"Annie!" screamed Bessie. "Annie, come here! Something terrible has happened to Miz Nelle!"
In a flurry of petticoats, the frightened mammy hurriedly descended the stairs with the boys.
"Momma!" Ardie cried hysterically. "Momma!"
"Run git Doctuh Heskitt, Li'l Bart," Annie ordered, helping Bessie carry Nelle to the parlor.
Without thought for a coat, the barefoot boy raced madly outside in his nightshirt to the large house across the street.