Fiction | March 01, 2003
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen from hither and yon, and welcome to the Lee Chapel on the campus of historic Washington and Lee University. My name is Sybil Mildred Clemm Legrand Pascal, and I will be your guide and compass on this dull, dark and soundless day, as the poet says, in the autumn of the year. You can call me Miss Sibby, and in case you are wondering about my hooped dress of ebony, my web-like hairnet and calf-leather shoes, they are authentic to the period just following the War Between the States, and I will be happy to discuss the cut and fabric of my mourning clothing with any of you fashion-conscious ladies at the end of the tour—which by the way will be concluded in the passageway between the crypt and the museum proper. If anyone should need to avail themselves of the running-water facilities, I will indicate their location before you enter the basement displays; and please, all you gentlemen, remove your caps in the chapel, and also, ladies, kindly ask your little darlings to keep a hush on their voices as they would at any shrine. No camera flashes, please, in the General Lee alcove. No smoking, of course—a habit I deplore.
Now, I am sure you know a lot already, and I may cover ground you have heard before, but please respect those who enter this tour with an open heart, and I will periodically pause to entertain questions, though I do not personally see any reason why they would arise.
The Lee Chapel, before you, was completed with intricately milled brick in 1868 on a Victorian design during the General’s tenure, but it wore no green gown of ivy to begin with; I myself adore the ivy and do not care for the decision to trim it back. At this time of the afternoon it turns the light attractively spectral, wouldn’t you agree? And I do not believe ivy could rip the building down. The chapel itself, which has never been officially consecrated by a legitimate denomination, should not be confused with the Robert E. Lee Episcopal Church, which you can see, with the steeple facing Washington Street, at the end of the paved walk. I am told there are two Episcopal churches in the world which are not named for saints, but that is not one of them—which is told locally as a joke, if you think such things are funny.
If you look directly above to the bell tower, you will see the black face and white numbers of the timepiece, which with its chimes duplicates the Westminster Clock in London and is dedicated to the memory of Livingston Waddell Houston, a student drowned in the North River, though I do not recall when nor deem it important. The pendulum, of course, is invisible, as in all the best devices. The numerals, you will notice, are not normal American ones with curves and circles but the I’s and X’s and V’s of Latin numbers, a language which was taught here to the young men from the beginning—and still is to some few, especially those who wish to stand for the bar. Did you know that the “Lex” in “Lexington” is Latin for “law”? I have heard, however, that the young ladies who have matriculated—let’s see, it’s been some dozen years now since that infliction—do not enroll in dead languages. They are here, no doubt, for progress, and do not have time for such niceties. If such a perspective keeps them provided for and protected, they truly have my envy. In just ten minutes the hour will strike, and we will hear the tintinnabulation of the bells. I love that sound and will not abide random chatter once it begins.
As we proceed through the front portals, you will see on either side caracole staircases with bentwood banisters, and we will file to the left, but mind you do not cross the velvet ropes to climb the steps because insurance issues must guide our path. We are entering a National Historic Landmark that is also a museum and a tomb, and especially in these troubled modern times, we must show the greatest respect. Perhaps we could say that the very existence of this edifice—which is, as I say, a National Historic Landmark—is one of the rare benefits of that old and storied war, but watch your step: we do not want to add you to the already lamentable casualty count.
As we enter the vestibule, please do us the kindness of signing our guest register, which bears the autographs of presidents and princes, as well as luminaries from Reynolds Price to Burt Reynolds, from Maya Linn, the memorial designer, to Rosalynn Carter, Woodrow Wilson, Bing Crosby, Vincent Price and the Dalai Lama. Fifty thousand visitors annually, I believe, many of them repeaters, from far and away, devotees of Lee, people who love the Stars and Bars or have a morbid curiosity, I suppose, about the Fall of the South. If you have a morbid curiosity about the Fall of the South—which is not the same as a healthy historical interest—please save your comments for your own diaries and private conversations. One of my cardinal epigrams, a compilation of which I will pen myself someday under the title “Miss Sibby Says,” is this: “History is not gossip; opinion is seldom truth.”
I am sure many of you all know as much about General Lee as I do, but it may be that some of the information you know is false, so I will highlight only selected facts as we file through the antechamber and into what one is tempted to call “the sanctuary” but is actually only a multipurpose auditorium, though a splendid and clean one. You could eat off the floor. When the General, who was indeed a legend but hardly a myth, agreed to come here as president, right after the sorrows and fury of the war that rent our land in half and wasted a gallant generation, he did so because, as he said, Virginia now needs all her sons—though there were fewer than forty students enrolled at the time. This chamber will seat 600, so we know he had a vision. He was a military man with many projects and plans—”strategies” they call them—and I was once betrothed to just such a disciplined and tactical gentleman myself, but fate has denied me that marriage, among other joys. If you have been denied a significant portion of life’s joys and your own prospects, you will indeed understand.
The school, of course, was then called Washington College and had been spared from Yankee fire in the end by that revered influence and the statue of dear George atop the cupola of the main building on the colonnade (which always sounds too much like “cannonade” to suit my ear). We all wish that our dear Virginia Military Academy had been similarly spared, but alas, invaders have their own designs. Many people, such as foragers and raiders, can come into a place as easily as into a person’s life and leave matters far more damaged than they found them, for they have their own designs.
And please do not hesitate to touch the pews or try them out. If you’ll kindly look at the wall to your left, you will see the engraved plaque testifying that the General, whom some students wanted to call President Lee—which you must admit has a nice ring to it—sat here during services, though he often napped, accustomed as he was to catching a few winks on campaign. A man who has marched and fought as a steady diet for years will find civilian life a difficult fit, and General Lee was no exception, though it was in his ancient blood, as genealogical experts have proved that he was descended from Robert the Bruce through the Spottiswoods, though far more honorable than one Spottiswood descendant, whom I knew all too well but whom discretion prevents me from calling by his sullied name.
I daresay some of you have served your states and countries and may have posed for portraits like the two flanking the memorial gate. On the left you see the Father of our country depicted on the grounds of Mount Vernon, and you will no doubt note that the Virginia militia uniform he wears so handsomely looks English, complete with gorget and musket, for he fought for the German Hanover English kings against French and Indian savagery, though he would later alter his opinion of the French. You can see he is a young man, confident and noble, even a touch haughty, with marching orders in his pocket, and the sky behind him is overcast, as with both today’s sky and the current political climate, but there is a ray of light unsuppressed, and we can all hope to witness that ourselves someday. This is not to say that every officer who encamps, lays siege, then suddenly debouches is acting on official orders, for some are not to be trusted.
Before we ascend the steps and cross the stage to examine the second but primary portrait, the image of the most trustworthy man imaginable, I should inform you that this chapel has been renovated and expanded on several occasions and was almost razed in 1919 by no less fifth-column a foe than its own president-of-the-moment, who claimed it was a firetrap with a perilous heating system and a roof that leaked like a war-worn tent—though despite today’s threatening weather, you should not be alarmed. He had designs of his own and wished to replace it with a huge Georgian structure, and his name was Smith, supposedly, but the Mary Custis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in which I am still proud to claim emerita membership, entered the fray, along with the Colonial Dames and the DAR, until the renovation party was vanquished, the field secured and the site declared a shrine. My own relations were in the vanguard of this action, which may bring to your mind the question of my personal role as docent, which used to mean “professor,” though I am surely not one of those types. A docent is a hostess, a volunteer, like so many of our martyred sons. I like to think of my function as an older sister who opens the door to hidden history. “Decent” is only one letter removed, and decency is what I strive for daily, despite personal disappointments. My own fiancé never felt such hospitality was a function an unattached lady should perform, but since his furtive departure, I have done what I please and have risen through the ranks of a somewhat special and discreet society called the Keepers of the Magnolia, who are dedicated to preservation of the past. In France the magnolia flowers are called les fleurs du mal, and we Keepers have appointed ourselves sentries against the invasion of evil revisionist history and the casting of shadows over past glories. The battalions of blasphemers come into my dreams, whenever I can manage to sleep—the unholy reunderstanders and condescenders, and they may wear the masks of scholars but are no better than carrion rats, their tails scratching the hardwood till I wake up mouthing a silent scream.
This space is now employed by the university for a variety of programs and gatherings, since as I said it is not an actual church, and the atmosphere of holiness depends entirely upon who is present. And now you and I are here and can add our reverence to the general fund. In the past few months we have hosted six weddings (all of which I have attended in my docent attire), one tipsy Irish poet, our own famous alumnus Tom Wolfe the Younger dressed in a French vanilla ice cream suit and spats while speaking of the death of art. We have heard the angry opinions of Mr. Spike Lee (no relation, of course), tapped our feet to the Armenian guitar band right after a forum on cultural diversity. We have been entertained by near-president Al Gore, and just yesterday the community witnessed the famous celebrity Dr. Maya Angelou in a headdress like a parrot and with a mighty voice, but you no doubt are eager to get back to the more historical highlights of our tour.
Yes, Theodore Pine’s portrait here is the original, and the family said it was lifelike and true to their father’s features, perhaps around the time of the Wilderness, though it was painted thirty years after his death on that chilling and killing October day from what some say was a stroke, and if he was in fact the victim of foul play, as I myself have sometimes suspected, no evidence has surfaced in all this time, but he was a strong man and a good one, younger than I am now—not old enough to easily succumb to the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. He used no spirits or nicotine and had always displayed a flirtatious vigor, though Mary Chesnutt’s diaries remark that he was “so cold and quiet and grand” as a young man. No doubt he felt already the inconvenient weight of destiny, and she, as I remember, was blind to some species of charm. Yet if he was in fact the subject of knavery, no verifiable evidence has ever surfaced, though there was no official investigation—which should itself arouse our suspicions. We know the Northern press reviled him, and more than once public sentiment in the victorious states was roused toward trying him for treason and marching him straight to the gallows. So great a man cannot but beget enemies. I am certain you have known of plots yourself to undo the virtuous and lay waste to their peace of mind. Some men smile and smile and are villains, as the poet says. When the General breathed his last, the rain came down in torrents for days in a loud, tumultuous shouting sound, and flash floods were widespread and ruinous.
Few people are aware that the General’s birthday, January 19, coincides with that of Edgar Allan Poe, who represents the dark side of our Virginia psyche. Fewer still realize that the General’s extended family’s loveliest estate was not Arlington, which was his wife’s Custis dowry, but Ravensworth. If that connection is not enough to lend this chamber a chill, I ask you to imagine that perhaps Mr. Poe’s “Annabel Lee” in fact concerns a young lady from family the poet could only aspire to. The cosmic inequities of romance abound. A sad prospect, but we may only ponder it and move on.
Above the wrought iron gate is the Lee family crest, with its Latin motto, Ne incautus futuri, which means not without regard for the future, a valuable reminder to those who would dance lighthearted till dawn rather than consider the demands of the morrow. My favorite detail is the squirrel rampant and feeding above the argent helm, which reminds us of those animals’ foraging and storage, their selfsufficient happy chatter and industry, though Lee himself in no way resembled vermin. He was five feet eleven and every inch a king.
The centerpiece, of course, here under the various regimental Stars and Bars, is this recumbent statue carved from a single block of Vermont marble by Edward Valentine—truly his name, according to sources, but deceit abounds. He was said to be from Richmond (where I came out as a debutante further back then any of you can possibly remember), and I believe it is the rival of any statuary in Italy, where I have always hoped someday to visit, though I was long ago disappointed in my best opportunity. And strong as the temptation may be, please do not touch the statue, for any mortal contact would mar the surface of the stone, which is like the magnolia blossom itself. Have you ever touched a petal and watched it rust before your eyes? Precious things are the most vulnerable, for the slightest blemish can destroy. Could that be why we are most devoted to what must perish? He looks, in this muted light, serene at last.
I would like to direct your attention to the texture Mr. Valentine’s chisel has given the General’s campaign blanket, the soft-leather look of his boots, the elegant beard, but please, I repeat, do not touch the statue, for the living hand with its native oils will soil this chiseled stone. Our touch could not now warm him, and see how at peace he appears, in complete repose? He is and is not at once a “touchstone,” but if you bend your ear closely, you can almost hear the beating of his hidden heart.
Mrs. Lee instructed that her beloved be depicted napping before an engagement, sword at his side, gauntlets nearby. He is not to be considered dead, but only resting, and there are some who claim that he might yet rise, might return when the Commonwealth most needs him, though his actual remains are located in the crypt beneath the stairs. Doesn’t that word “crypt” remind you of the writings of Mr. Poe? It means a secret code. This chapel is, as you may have surmised, a structure with its own secrets.
Do you recall Mr. Disney’s charming film Snow White? Since first I saw the princess in her trance I have thought of the General as someone under an enchantment, awaiting the right deliverer, but perhaps it is the trumpet of the Second Coming for which he waits. And no, I do not for a moment believe, as one rude visitor from Florida implied, that his effigy resembles a large salt lick which animals might tongue down to nothing. The very suggestion disgusts me. He could never under any circumstances be nothing and was present even when not in attendance. Mrs. Lee was herself chair-bound and grew accustomed to his absence. She endured for three sad years of widow-weeping after his untimely passing but at last found the peace of oblivion. It is perhaps a peace we should not ourselves underestimate.
As you know, General Lee could never sleep in a bed after Appomattox, for he was haunted by the many gallant men he had led to the grave. In fact, who is to say that he ever truly left the war, as he wore his gray coat and campaign hat with a military cord until that October day when he succumbed. Considering his stern correctness and the martial bearing that he never abandoned, it would not surprise me if he did not sometimes see the students as his troopers and Lexington as beleaguered Richmond in miniature. He wore the dignity of conflict to the end. His last words were, “Strike the tent.”
Now be careful as you descend the staircase. You will pass the vault itself, which is carved into the bowels of the earth like a dungeon, with its many Lees walled in, from the rogue Lighthorse Harry to his sons and grandsons, and you can see the diagram of his family tree with its fabled roots deep in the richest Virginia soil. Mrs. Lee herself is there behind the bricks, and so outspoken was her love of cats, one can only speculate as to whether some feline remains might be found there as well. Other relatives have been unearthed from the cemeteries where they were first interred and transported here in high ceremony, which is enough to make a mere mortal’s skin crawl, but you will appreciate how important it was that they all come home.
Before I leave you to wander through the gallery with its pistols and portraits, documents and costumes, and his office as he left it, with maps and papers, his veteran Bible and the massive but eloquent correspondence that he sustained like a man still issuing orders, I would like—well, yes, I must remember to direct you to the restrooms yonder and the gift shop where you might purchase post cards, key chains, paperweights, bracelet charms, videos and other keepsakes. You will no doubt desire a souvenir of this visit. As you pass his desk, I suggest you speculate on what momentous documents hide there before our very eyes, in plain sight. It was there he wrote the college honor code and there he penned his personal motto: “Misfortune nobly borne is fortune,” a code I always strive to honor.
And please do not forget to express your generosity in the contribution box, for though there is no charge for admission, the chapel does not sustain and clean itself like some haunted mansion but rather requires our vigilant assistance. So long as we can generate donations, this shrine is one cause that will not be lost.
There is time, here on the threshold, for one last morsel of history from Miss Sibby—the story of Traveller, the noble steed who is finally interred outside the lower exit. What an astonishing narrative his story is. He was born in 1857 and named Jeff Davis, then purchased in 1862 by the General, who renamed his mount after Washington’s favorite stallion. He carried his master through the entire war and then to Lexington, where they were close companions, often making the jaunt to the mineral waters of Rockbridge Baths. Some evenings the General could think of nothing but the mud and gunfire, the broken bodies of young men, the twisted faces of the wounded and weevils in the meal, and on those occasions he would excuse himself from table and walk out to Traveller’s stable, run his burdened hands down the muzzle and brushed mane of his boon companion, then step out to the garden to relieve himself in starlight, listening for ghosts, looking heavenward and weeping. “It is all my fault,” he repeated after the bloodbath of Gettysburg, for he was not one to dodge responsibility, unlike some I might name.
Traveller marched solemnly at the funeral with boots reversed in his stirrups and lived until 1871, at which time he stepped on a rusty nail and died of lockjaw. (Does that strike you also as a little bit difficult to believe?) He was himself a symbol of the South’s pride and beauty, and therefore had many enemies. Death loves a shining mark, and he was buried unceremoniously in a ravine cut by Woods Creek, but his amazing journey had just begun. Raised from the grave in 1875 by the Daughters, his bones were sent away for preservation, but an inexplicable red hue had infused them, and there was no turning them white. In 1907 the skeleton was returned and mounted in the museum, where the students who had earlier plucked souvenir strands from his tail—well, not those students, obviously, but later ones of the same ilk—circulated the word that academic success was insured by carving one’s initials upon the bones, like sailors making scrimshaw. In a less harmful jest, a buck goat’s bones were once smuggled into the museum, assembled beside the General’s steed and accompanied by the label “Traveller as a colt.” You cannot ever guess what boys will think of next, even after they rise to manhood and begin to sow promises like seeds, or pebbles that resemble seeds but yield no issue.
Beside the door you will see Traveller’s memorial stone, which is even in this cold time of the year decorated by visitors with coins and candy, apples and miniature battle flags. It is a place for wishing and the site I linger at when my day here is finished and I am waiting for evening to embrace me.
If you should care to pose any questions about the General and his highborn kinsmen, his four maiden daughters or his influence on the liberal curriculum, I would be delighted to address them now, though I have decided it no longer prudent for me to speculate on what the General would have thought about the admission of females to the college or what his ghost might have to tell us about his sudden decline after the war or what he thought of the works of the scandalous and ill-fated Mr. Poe, who also attended West Point, but was more bete noir than noblesse oblige.
Now I must leave you, for the security guard on duty there with the evil-looking eye has taken it upon himself to restrict my tours to the chapel proper, which is why I at once savor and regret the fact that it has never been consecrated as a church. If you do not choose to rendezvous at the monument to equestrian fidelity, I thank you for your interest and kind attention to our sepulchral treasure as well as your indulgence of an old woman’s eccentric ways. I bid you, now, at this charmed threshold, a fond and wistful adieu.
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