Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 10

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

10
Wedding Bells

ON the evening before the wedding Robert and Mary strolled together in the moonlit garden.

“Darling, I can’t believe my dream is at last coming true.” His arm went round her slender waist:. “You’re sure you love me?”

“You know that without my telling you!”

“But I like to hear you say it—over and over again.”

Their lips met and above their heads in the great magnolia tree a Virginia nightingale warbled its enchanting song.

Invitations had been sent far and wide. Kith and kin gathered from the broad countryside and found shelter and welcome beneath the huge columned portico of Arlington. Never before had that majestic mansion been so bright and gay. It seemed as if every hour of the day for a week before the wedding coaches and carriages and stages had been arriving.

Stout, elderly ladies in their best black satin gowns, with lace fichus crossed over stiff-corseted bosoms preceded their buxom lords through the wide-opened doorway; and the charming bridesmaids—Catherine, Julia, Mary, Angela, Marietta and Britannia—followed nimbly in their wake, accompanied by numberless bandboxes and gay flowered carpetbags.

An hour or so before the wedding there was a downpour of rain, but after it cleared the sunset was beautiful.

Upstairs, in the big, square front bedroom, the bevy of pretty bridesmaids crowded about the high, gilt pier glass, tying scores of bows and pulling dozens of drawstrings. Behind them hovered a group of turbaned mammies, each secretly thinking that her own “chile” was the most “beautifulous” of the lot.

Finally, each dangling curl was snugged into place and each ruffle of the full-flounced dresses was set to a proper swing.

In the alcove, the bride, gentle, lovely Mary, a trifle pale and sweetly serious, was given a last inspection by old “Aunt Caroline,” who had, years before, been Madam Washington’s maid and had been in the room when the great George himself had died.

“Gawd bless my lil’ Miss Mary an’ keep her an’ her young Marse Robert!” she murmured with tears in her eyes, as Mrs. Custis, gracious and dignified in mauve brocade, handed her daughter the sweet-scented bouquet of homegrown lilies of the valley.

Mary seemed calmer than any of the others, unruffled and serene. She had waited long for this day, knowing fully in her loyal heart that it would be to her the gateway to a lifelong happiness.

In a room of another wing of the great house, Robert’s best man, his brother Smith, was scurrying around in a last-minute fidget. The groom himself, like the bride, was calm. His dark blue dress uniform with its gold epaulets fitted his slim figure smoothly and his curly hair was well-brushed and straightly parted on the left side. His sideburns were well trimmed and his linen fine and snowy.

Joe Johnston smiled at him and said, “Well, old man, how does it feel to be getting married at last?”

“Fine,” Robert answered, “just as I knew it would. You’d better follow suit. I hope your good fortune equals mine!” He smiled at his groomsmen as they took their places in line when the clock on the mantel struck the hour.

A tinkle of harpsichord music floated up the wide stairway—and the gay chatter of several hundred voices. A thousand candle flames danced in the polished sconces and the silver chandeliers. Beautiful and gracious Arlington shone at its loveliest for the wedding of its young mistress.

The guests whispered together and glanced with interest about the spacious rooms, noting with reverence the many relics of the first president. Overhead was the lantern from the hall at Mount Vernon. Above the mantel was Washington’s portrait. There, in the corner cupboard, was the set of china presented to him by the Society of Cincinnati. In the library was his bookcase and upstairs, it was said, was the very bed in which he had died.

“This marriage,” whispered an elderly man to his half-grown granddaughter, “makes Robert E. Lee, in the eyes of the world, the representative of the family of the founder of American liberty.”

She nodded without much interest and said beseechingly, “Grandpa, can I have a glass of wine when it comes round after the ceremony? And can I stay downstairs and dance a while when the fiddlers begin to play? Cousin Polly Porter Jones says she’ll chaperone me. She used to play with Lieutenant Lee when he was a little boy. . . .”

“We’ll see, we’ll see, my dear.” The old gentleman glanced toward the stairway, wondering what was delaying the Reverend Doctor Keith, who was to perform the marriage ceremony.

“Upon my soul and honor!” he exclaimed quite loudly as he noted the minister now descending the steps. Poor Doctor Keith was indeed an object of some comment and of many suppressed smiles. He had been caught in the downpour and forced to borrow dry trousers from his host, the only gentleman of the household who did not wear a uniform. Sadly enough, Mr. Custis was a short, plump man, while the doctor was tall and exceedingly thin, so a good six inches of bony shank appeared below the cuffs of the trousers.

With an air of somewhat self-conscious detachment, he descended the steps and took his place as quickly as possible behind the small, flower-banked altar.

There was a hush as the bridal party came down the stairway, the sextette of pretty bridesmaids and of handsome groomsmen, Mary on her father’s arm, Robert and his brother Smith close behind.

In a moment Mary and Robert stood before the minister, seemingly alone on the island of their happiness. Her dark eyes glowed as she gazed up at him, so tall, so handsome, so brave, and yet so gentle and kind, she thought.

Her voice was low, but vibrant. It could be heard in the far corners of the room.

“I, Mary, take thee, Robert . . . for better, for worse. . . .”

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