Feature: All Other Nights A Novel
Less than a year after joining New York’s 18th Infantry Regiment, Jacob Rappaport—having fled his family to avoid an arranged marriage—thinks he is about to be promoted. Instead, the officers who summon him have a surprise. They tell him that a New Orleans sugar dealer named Harry Hyams is involved in a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Rappaport’s mission is to kill Hyams—who happens to be his uncle. This is the central thread of Dara Horn’s new novel, All Other Nights.
As the chapter excerpted here begins, it is the first night of Passover 1862, and Jacob—dressed in a dead Confederate soldier’s uniform, equipped with a vial of poison and an elaborate cover story designed to fool his Southern kin—has slipped into New Orleans and knocked on his uncle’s door. For him, it will truly be a night like no other.
The peacock feathers moved toward Jacob Rappaport as if the bird itself were strutting in his direction, waving its gaudy tail in a delicate mating dance. The feathers slowly lowered, and Jacob saw her face: the pale green eyes, the full-lipped mouth stretched into a society smile, the guarded greeting and the kindness lurking far beneath it. And then he almost wept, because in the face of Elizabeth Hyams, Jacob saw his own mother standing before him.
It had been several years since he and Elizabeth Hyams had seen each other, and Jacob looked quite different now than he had looked when he was fourteen. But he did resemble his mother. People had always told him so, especially in the year or two before he ran away, when he was still barely able to grow a beard. Elizabeth Hyams must have thought so too, because she didn’t even say hello to him. Instead, she looked at his eyes and said, “Dear God.” And fainted.
“Clearly I wasn’t expecting you.”
Elizabeth had recovered quickly, with Jacob raising her off the ground and the slave limping to the kitchen and back with smelling salts. Jacob was surprised by how frail her body felt. Her voice was his mother’s, down to the slight German accent. She looked him over. “And in our uniform! But—but you’re a Yankee!”
“There was no way to tell you,” Jacob said, and tried not to sicken at the words. He then began reciting the story the officers had fed him—the long and sentimental tale of how he had been about to open his own branch of the business in Mobile mere weeks before the war began; how his beloved wife in Mobile, whom he had married after corresponding with her for over a year, had died of malaria; how he had been conscripted and had so courageously chosen not to betray her and her family; how he had written to the Hyamses many times but had had the wrong address; how his parents had tried to write too, but of course no one could correspond across the lines; the name and number of his supposed Rebel regiment; the vague imaginary battle where he had lost his comrades; how he had walked all the way to New Orleans; how amazed he was that he had arrived in time for Passover; and on and on. Jacob had practiced this monologue so many times he could perform it without the slightest thought. What he wasn’t prepared for was giving this speech while being watched by his mother.
“So tell me everything—what you’ve seen, all of it,” Elizabeth said, her eyes full of compassion. She had believed every word.
Jacob looked at Elizabeth and thought of his own mother, of how devastated she must have been when he left. His mother, too, had been one of his father’s acquisitions, ordered by mail from his old town in Bavaria. Her sister Elizabeth, whom Jacob’s mother still called Elisheva, had been similarly exported to New Orleans. Not long after the sisters’ departure, the rest of their family in Bavaria had proceeded to die in a cholera epidemic. The two surviving sisters lived in awe of their husbands, whom they regarded as agents of divine rescue; their breathing American children were their evidence of God’s presence in the world. For an instant the poison burned in Jacob’s pocket, and he was ashamed to find himself swallowing a sob. Elizabeth mistook his muted sob for a sign of his own painful past rather than her own painful future, and Jacob grimaced as he saw tears gathering in her eyes.
“Oh, you don’t have to speak of it,” she said, grasping his hands. “It’s so cruel of me to ask. It’s just that I’m thinking of our boys. Please forgive me.”
The knot in Jacob’s stomach tightened as her rings dug into his fingers. Again he told himself that it was nerves. And again he knew that it wasn’t. He remembered the mesmerizing words of those three men in the officers’ tent, and he continued his performance as planned. “It will all end soon enough, I assure you,” he said.
“I’m delighted to hear it from you,” Elizabeth replied with genuine joy. “The newspapers have been so gloomy. Everyone is gloomy, I suppose. Even Harry.”
Harry! No, he wouldn’t think of him now, Jacob told himself. Luckily Elizabeth was able to distract him. “How are your parents?” she asked.
His parents? Jacob imagined them as he had nearly every night since he had run away—his father enraged, his mother destroyed, both of them unable to comprehend why he had done what he had done. Jacob looked Elizabeth in the eye and imagined, for a brief and liberating instant, that his parents were no longer his parents, that his existence before this moment had been no more than a vanishing cloud, a fleeting dream—that he belonged to no one except the officers of the command. And what was one more lie?
‘‘They are well, very well, as I last heard,” Jacob told her, and was grateful that the blockade had gone into effect just before he had enlisted; there was no way his mother could have told her that he had run off. “Of course, they were quite concerned about you.”
“Oh, we are all fine, really,” she said, and he heard her first false note. He glanced around the bare, shabby room, then back at her, and noticed a small hole in the toe of her shoe. “Though we’re always worried about our boys,” she continued. ‘‘All four of them are away, of course. Everyone’s boys are. For the first time in my life, I’ve envied those mothers with daughters, the ones who used to envy me.” She smiled. “But how glorious to have you here, a fine substitute for our boys! Harry will be so pleased to see you,” she told him. “And in our uniform, too! He already has such admiration for you.”
A REAL MAN, Jacob had learned during the past year, is one who excels at concealing emotion, succeeding in pretense. He looked down at the hole in Elizabeth’s shoe with his lips pursed, in an attitude of what he hoped would come across as modestly hidden pride. He used this opportunity to create a small mental fantasy in which he escaped to the kitchen and delivered the contents of his stomach into the nearest bucket. He reenacted this fantasy in his head several times as Elizabeth spoke of each of her four sons: Henry, the brilliant one, whose letters were full of arcane discussions of military law; Richard, the wicked one who was always running into trouble with the ladies, and whose letters consisted of nothing but jokes; Tom, who saw the world in such an innocent way, and who was now recuperating from some sort of hand injury—he hadn’t answered her questions about the wound, but he had sounded so cheerful that she couldn’t imagine it was anything serious; and Charles, the youngest and the sweetest, who never asked anything of anyone—and from whom she hadn’t heard since the winter, when he had written to say that he was somewhere in Virginia. What expert pretenders his cousins were, Jacob thought. Henry and Richard with their letters full of distractions! Tom, who was likely hiding the fact that he had lost an arm. As for Charles, Jacob had been in Virginia that winter too. At one point after a skirmish in Dranesville, he had retreated through a field strewn with enemy corpses, tripping over the bodies. Perhaps he had killed Charles himself. He tried to think of the mission, of Lincoln, to remind himself that he was about to become a hero, the one who would, in a single gesture, redeem the world, tonight. But he couldn’t look at Elizabeth’s eyes. He was the angel of death.
“Judah will be here, too, I’m sure you shall be pleased to know, though he said in his last letter that he may be late,” Jacob heard Elizabeth say. Her words halted Jacob’s dark thoughts in their tracks. “I don’t believe you’ve ever met him before. His sister is ill, so he will come alone. His wife and daughter live in France.”
“Judah?” Jacob asked. His face showed only gentle curiosity, but he could scarcely believe it. Could it possibly be?
Elizabeth looked at him as though his brains had spilled out onto his uniform. “Why, Judah Benjamin, of course!” she announced. Her cheeks reddened with pride. “He’s Harry’s first cousin. Oh, I see why you’re confused,” she said, though Jacob was more astonished than confused. “He married a Catholic,” she said, in the low voice that society women use to tell people that someone has had a disease, or an affair. As a Rappaport, Jacob had heard that voice many times. “But that was just for the show of it. Hardly even for the show of it, actually, since he barely shows it. He often comes back to New Orleans for Passover.”
Jacob found this nearly impossible to believe. What Secretary of State abandons his president in the midst of war, traveling for days just to celebrate a holiday? Benjamin might not have become a Christian, but it was impossible to believe that as a Hebrew he had suddenly become devout. There was another reason for this visit. And he rallied as he understood what it might be.
The smells from the kitchen were now seeping into the parlor, spreading through the room like distant music: old, familiar smells of wet parsley, chopped horseradish, stuffed fish. Suddenly Jacob was a child again, smelling those same smells coming up from the kitchen while confined to his bedroom until the preparations were done. He shifted in his stolen uniform and imagined his body becoming the boy he had been, in a starched shirt, short pants and spotless new shoes, arranging toy soldiers in rows along his bedroom floor as he inhaled the smells from below. Jacob breathed in and wished, for an instant, that time might stop: that he might remain in this day forever, confined and protected in this room, with this familiar woman and these familiar smells, never released into the wilds of the night to come.
He had another thought: that the poison in his pocket might be given to Benjamin instead, surely a more worthy target. But he was too horrified of doing something wrong. The sky in the windows was already growing darker, a heavy blue dusk pressing against the windowpanes. He listened as Elizabeth continued talking about her darling sons and waited for the door of the house to open, dreading the moment when Harry Hyams would come home and join them for the evening meal.
JUST HALF AN hour later, he did. To Jacob’s great relief, he came in the door with ten other people in tow, which mitigated Jacob’s need to speak with him more than was bearable. Of course, Harry nearly fainted himself when he saw Jacob standing in his foyer. But Jacob was the one holding his breath.
“My dear boy!” Harry exclaimed, doffing his hat in Jacob’s direction. “The young Rappaport scion—a real man now! And a Yankee turned Rebel! I never would have guessed it!” Harry was taller than Jacob, over six feet high. The top hat Harry tipped toward him reminded him of his own father’s. The similarity in their gestures alarmed him, disturbed him. The collar of the dead man’s uniform stuck to his damp neck.
“I never would have guessed it either,” he replied. Elizabeth immediately began to babble about the unopened office in Mobile and Jacob’s poor dead wife and how he had been conscripted and couldn’t bear to betray her and so forth. Jacob was relieved not to have to repeat the story. He had to work hard enough to appear calm. Harry absorbed the lies. He offered his condolences before hiding a grin.
“Tell me, son, do I look older?” he asked.
“Not a bit,” Jacob told him. When he dared to look more closely at Harry’s face, he was surprised to see that it was true. One always imagines that people are preserved precisely as they looked when one last saw them, but Harry Hyams actually was. The war, which had so clearly aged his wife and nearly everyone else Jacob had crossed paths with in the past year, seemed to have had the opposite effect on Harry Hyams. Unlike everyone else in America, who had become haggard and ill, Harry appeared just as young as when Jacob had last seen him, or even younger. His arms and legs and even his stomach looked lean and muscular. But more than that, the reversal of aging showed in Harry’s eyes. They gleamed, as though they saw more than they let on, like a boy playing a prank. When Jacob was a child, that look on Harry’s face had intrigued him, making him think of Harry as a boy in man’s clothing. But now, as Jacob stood before him in a uniform stolen from a corpse, he saw that gleeful look and felt sickened, sensing, for the first time in his short life, what it might mean to be a boy in man’s clothing.
“I must admit, Jacob, I never imagined that we would see each other again. Five years, has it been? How life has changed. How the world has changed.”
Jacob smiled at Harry as Harry kissed his cheeks. For an instant he blinked his eyes, and in his mind Harry Hyams became his father: grinning, satisfied, unable to fathom what was about to happen to him. The image emboldened Jacob, making him stand straighter. He thought again of the three officers, of their faith in him, and nodded. “And it continues changing,” he added.
A man standing beside Harry removed his hat. “We’re proud of you, son,” he said to Jacob. “This isn’t the old kind of war. My father was a veteran of the Revolution, and he always spoke of how war should be about principle. I know up north they think it’s about principle, but it isn’t. It’s about land.”
Never in Jacob’s life—his city life, lived in carriages and on cobblestones—had he heard anyone talk about land. No one in his family had owned land.
Jacob was grateful when Elizabeth began ushering everyone into the dining room. As he followed the other guests, he saw Harry turn to Elizabeth. He expected to hear a friendly greeting, or even see him kiss her hand. Instead, Jacob heard Harry say, in a voice so harsh it shocked him, “Where is Judah?”
“Late,” she whispered back. “He said that he would be late.”
“He had better come,” Harry said.
Elizabeth smiled. “Oh, he’ll be here. Be patient, you old fool,” she told him.
Harry grumbled as Elizabeth hurried past him to the table. All of Jacob’s memories of Harry were of a cheerful, boyish man who was impossible to annoy. But those were a child’s memories. Jacob took a seat toward the end of the table, with a good view of Harry’s place at the head, as the service began.
JACOB WONDERED IF there could be anything stranger than sitting down to a Passover Seder, the feast of freedom, with every part of the meal served by slaves. But that was exactly what happened at the home of Harry Hyams. It was a good thing that most of the service was in Hebrew, Jacob noticed, because it was far more comfortable without the slaves listening, though there were more than enough awkward passages about freedom that Harry read in English from his seat at the table’s head. The limping slave who had answered the door, along with a Negro woman (the cripple’s wife, Jacob wondered? Or, he forced himself to imagine, had the cripple’s wife been sold elsewhere, and this woman was a new purchase, a stranger?), were the ones who carried the platters of matzah and bitter herbs in and out of the dining room while the guests sang the Hebrew hymns thanking God for freeing them from bondage. The others avoided eye contact with the slaves who delivered their food and dishes. But Jacob decided to look at them each time. The woman avoided his gaze, but the man glared back at him, with a look of strange and vicious triumph. It frightened Jacob more than Harry did.
Harry Hyams led the service, rising from his seat to raise his first glass of wine and recite the opening prayers. As he sat down and the slaves began to pass around the basin and pitcher for the ritual washing of hands, and then platters of green vegetables, Harry introduced every man at the table, each of whom seemed to be the owner of some plantation or mercantile concern, until he came to Jacob. “And this,” he said, raising his glass in Jacob’s direction with a wink, “is my nephew, Jacob Rappaport, the greatest turncoat of the century.”
Jacob had to force himself to laugh with the company and kept smiling when, a few moments later, Harry addressed him again. “Jacob, as the youngest person at the table, would you do us the honor of asking the Four Questions?”
Jacob tried to hide his grimace beneath a grin. It was the child’s part of the service, the part he had recited at his parents’ table since he was three years old, but now the nature of the opening question sickened him. With a crack in his voice, he began to sing the traditional words, trying not to imagine what they might mean: “How is this night different from all other nights?”
Fortunately he did not have to think about the answer for long. A moment later, Judah Benjamin entered the room. Everyone stood.
EVERY HEBREW IN America was fascinated by Judah Benjamin. Southern Hebrews saw him as the messenger of the Messiah, the herald who would proclaim liberty throughout the land to anyone who had ever felt that Jewish fear of power. Northern Hebrews saw him as the beginning of a descent into an American Jewish hell, and whispered at Friday night tables that if the Confederacy were to prevail, the rot of centuries would eat through even the freshness of America and the Jews would be blamed again. After poring over all the information the officers had given him to read in preparation for his mission, Jacob found that his every thought about Judah Benjamin made him ill at ease.
Benjamin had achieved everything through self-transformation. Born on some godforsaken Caribbean island before his family relocated to South Carolina, where his parents sold fruit near the Charleston docks, he had been admitted to Yale Law School at the age of fourteen, despite his name, lineage, and utter lack of funds.
Leaving Yale after being accused (falsely, Jacob was later convinced) of stealing, and unwilling to return to his poverty-stricken parents, he had decamped to New Orleans, where he quickly took advantage of being the cleverest man in town by opening a law practice, getting himself elected to the state legislature, then graduating to the United States Senate. Along the way he acquired a gorgeous wife from the city’s French Catholic elite and later his own plantation, a fine prelude to becoming the second-in-command of the Confederacy. It was American brilliance, plain and simple. His entire life was an elaborate refusal to be the person he had been born to be.
The problem was that it was all a façade. He was a lawyer without ever having finished law school, a planter who knew so little about farming that he traveled to France to learn about seeds, a patriarch of a Catholic family who would never dream of believing that Jesus was a god, a man married into the Southern aristocracy whose wife and child had permanently traded the South for Paris. And everyone who looked at him remarked that they had never seen such a Hebrew face.
He was not much more than five feet tall, with rounded, smooth cheeks like a boy’s, dark skin and dark eyes. Jacob had read articles about his mysterious smile, but it was a shock to see it in person. Benjamin’s eyes roamed the room, pausing at each face, and the smile on his lips wasn’t an invitation to friendship, but a guard against it. It was impossible to guess what he was thinking. “It is a pleasure to be here, Harry,” he said slowly, as Harry rose to show him to his seat. His voice was careful, articulate, with only a very slight drawl. “It was so gracious of you to include me this evening.”
Jacob watched as Harry drew out a chair for him, with a slight bow. The entire company avoided Benjamin’s gaze, as though they were in the presence of a king. Benjamin took his seat, and it was only when Harry returned to his place and announced the next part of the service that everyone felt free to smile. Harry continued chanting along with the company that they had been slaves in Egypt until God took them out with a mighty hand. Jacob’s memories of Harry were of a grand presence. But here he saw a different Harry: timid, waiting for permission. As Harry continued reading the service aloud, he seemed under a spell.
Since it was Jacob’s great ambition, at nineteen, to achieve the kind of victory that Benjamin had purportedly achieved in becoming an American hero, he observed him across the table for the rest of the evening. What he saw was that there was something odd about Benjamin, though he couldn’t quite place it. It was obvious Benjamin was fiercely intelligent; everything he said was a sort of aphorism, though Jacob didn’t know if the lines were original.
When one of the guests asked him what plans Richmond had in terms of strategy, Jacob was disappointed and then frightened when Benjamin looked straight at him and said, as though quoting, “Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The company found this witty, and when everyone laughed, Jacob joined in, hiding his fear. For the rest of the meal Benjamin seemed friendly enough. But there was an awkwardness about him. He answered questions put to him, but didn’t inspire anyone to continue the conversation. It was as if every word were carefully parsed out, after he had decided whether it was worth saying. While he was silent, he would smile—a strange smile, as if he were laughing at you without your knowing why.
But watching Benjamin was just a distraction for Jacob, an escape from the personage of Harry Hyams. Jacob tried to concentrate on the story as they chanted around the table, describing the anguish of their ancestors. He imagined how terrible it must have been: the tortures of slavery, and then the horrifying vindication of the angel of death, slaying the firstborn of Egypt so that the Israelites might be free. What had the Israelites felt as the great cry went up in Egypt, when there was not a household where there was not one dead? Victory? Vengeance? Or astonishment at their power, through the will of their God, of determining life and death? Did one of them feel, perhaps, that still, small fear that Jacob felt as he listened to Harry Hyams, with the poison in his pocket?
“In every generation,” Harry chanted, “each person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.” Harry read with the alacrity and expression of someone who didn’t just recite the words, but felt and believed them.
“We ourselves shall come out of Egypt soon enough,” Benjamin said when Harry paused. “I have good word of it from Richmond.”
The company laughed aloud as the lame Negro—unnoticed by the other guests, glaringly present to Jacob—came to serve the small dishes used for the bitter herbs. “But I thought it was all a secret,” Elizabeth replied, with a playful air.
“Victory is no secret, but an inevitability,” Benjamin said. “It was true in the past, and it remains true now. Every time they rise up to destroy us, Providence rescues us from their hands.”
The people around the table cheered. There was something mad about this, Jacob saw, hypnotic. Every person in the company was in Benjamin’s power. Soon the meal was served, and the conversation consisted almost entirely of compliments to him, questions about war strategy which he refused to answer, and sad laughter as the women shared stories about their sons who were away, and, though Jacob was the only one who could imagine it, quite possibly dead. The delusion was grand, glorious, and they were all part of it. H
Excerpted from All Other Nights by Dara Horn.With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.