AMERICA is a country with many thousands of institutions and only one shrine; only one place in all this big country to which our smart, successful, self-complacent, self-indulgent folk resort from motives of piety purely; not even hoping, in this case, to get the burden of their own sins lightened thereby; abashed, even the most frivolous and vulgar of them, from the moment they enter the sacred precinct, by the commanding presence of a mighty shade: a great and grave Ideal.
I had not seen Mount Vernon for exactly twenty years, when, on the day before Easter, Holy Saturday, I went there with a sympathetic younger friend, much elbowed and put about, but never seriously offended, by a perfect mob of holiday “trippers” and school-children en vacances.
We went down from Washington by the train, rather than by the Potomac boat, that we might the more conveniently stop off at shabby, sleepy old Alexandria. It was one of the first days of April, the first really mild and vernal morning of a cold, late spring. The river, under the long bridge, ran brown with Virginian soil; the attenuated sprays of the weeping willows along its banks, fledged lightly with their earliest foliage, waved in the soft, strong wind, like tresses of yellow hair.
The plain colonial church of St. John at Alexandria,—a square structure of red brick with a white wooden belfry, — to which about half our crowd went trooping down an ill-paved side-street, stood with clear glass windows wide open to the spring morning, and the green encompassing churchyard, where a feathered choir was practicing its Easter anthems among the shady pines, or on the still barren boughs of secular oaks.
The parishioners of St. John, having happily recovered — about a generation ago — some portion of the æsthetic senses which had been effectually scattered by our great war of independence, brought down from their dusty attic, and restored to its former position, all the beautiful old white woodwork of the church interior, — the high panelled wainscotting, and the pulpit upborne upon its one tall column, like a lily on a slender stem. Young girls of the parish, on that sacred Saturday morning of suspended hope, were lovingly dusting pew and desk and wall-panel, and bringing in the first crocuses of the season, to trim the altar for the morrow’s festa. What we saw was exactly what the Father of his Country used to see in his last years, when he said his prayers weekly in the prim, high-backed pew, — only a little more spacious than its neighbors,— standing up for the General Confession (we have it on the authority of his favorite Nelly Custis that he did not kneel), and getting counsel and comfort from somewhere, with courage to live on.
The tablet which records his passing, exactly at the close of the century that his name adorns, is in the centre of the white wall-space facing the Washington pew. It is an extremely modest memorial, without one word of pompous eulogy, and in the corresponding space upon the other side of the altar is inserted, with a curious effect of style and symmetry, another tablet, the only other one the church contains, to the memory of Robert Lee.
“Out of the same clay . . . one vessel to honour, and one ” — not to dishonor surely, but to irremediable and most sorrowful defeat. Two brave sons of Virginia, baptized in the same faith, reared in the same tradition; “One port methought, alike they sought;” and it was easy, on that clear vigil of the Resurrection, to divine their union with full understanding there.
Some such simple morning-service as ours at Alexandria ought always, I think, to be first attended by the good American who proposes making his act of faith at Mount Vernon. It prepares the mind for what is to follow, and strikes the true chord of a dignified austerity. Let us faithfully keep the pitch of those two notes, — the one just as essential as the other to a right perception of the genius loci: the silent admonition offered to a scampering, squandering generation by that beautiful old seat on the Potomac.
Beautiful for situation it certainly is. The eastern coast of the North American Continent can lay no great claim to distinction in scenery, — as the glories of this world’s landscape go. It is nowhere in the great style. But there are spots among its rugged hills, or along its wooded river-banks and winding estuaries which have a very real and beguiling, if not overpowering, charm. Preeminent among these is that commanding slope upon the large bend of a noble stream, which was chosen with unerring if unconscious taste, by the man who built Mount Vernon: while the house he planned, both in its original form and as judiciously enlarged to meet the requirements of the retired generalissimo and chief magistrate, is worthy of the ground it stands on, and exactly adapted to it.
Coming back after so long an absence, and after having seen quite a number of the more sumptuous habitations of men, I find Mount Vernon, more than ever, the ideal country home of the republican gentleman. It is exactly the sort of place which would have been dear to the heart of a Roman of the vieille roche, moved, by the reckless extravagances of a pair of comparatively new men like the Cicero brothers, to a certain fastidious disdain.
It has, indeed, now I come to think of it, not a little of the rustic nobility, the pure atmosphere of a homely religion, with which Pater, in his Marius, contrived to invest Whitenights, — the ancestral home of his “naturally Christian ” epicurean. How white the plenilunar nights must be, by the way, upon that spacious lawn at Mount Vernon, when surveyed from the long portico upon the river-front, the one rather stately architectural feature of the otherwise rigidly plain white mansion!
Here, where there is nothing for arrogant assumption or vain display, there is everything for personal refinement, an ordered leisure, the simple though ample entertainment of guests of any grade and in almost any number, the decent distinction of a manly retirement at the fitting hour into life’s reserves, of one who has borne ungrudgingly the burden and heat of the day. “This modest estate is henceforth my throne. Bid kings come bow to it.” And they came.
One cannot help fancying upon the marble lips of the well-known bust, whose firm line it must always have been a little formidable to confront, a distinct rebuke to the meaningless luxury, the profuse and ill-assorted splendors, the insensate emulations — we will say of Dupont Circle!
I have always thought the groundplan of the Mount Vernon house very attractive, and I wonder that it has not been oftener copied. The carriagedrive and entrance at the back, between the old-fashioned garden with its prim box borders, and the kitchens and comfortable servants’ quarters; the wide, airy hall running through the house to the door opening upon the great portico: the four moderate-sized living rooms, two on either side of the hall, — all with their graceful, ample fireplaces economically built across the inner angle; the slightly more elaborate but still simple “banqueting room,” added in the final years, and balancing upon one side of the house the wing on the other with the spacious but severely plain library,— a room with something about it of the solemnity of a chapel, made, if ever a room was made, for sober work, untroubled thought, and unspoken prayer. — all these go to make up an interior as unassuming as it is convenient.
The principal guest-rooms are on the first floor, in the main body of the house, while above the library is the quiet chamber, at whose door the most disreputable hat comes off, the shrillest accents are hushed in unaffected awe. For here, under the antique tester, the discharged warrior, the unwillingly released statesman, the happy farmer, lay down for the last time, after a hard day’s ride over his beloved acres, through winter wind and sleet. “ My lady ” — as certain folks of that day to whom their old-world habits clung were fond of calling her — would never allow this room to be occupied again. One seemed to see her — a small and still erect, though rapidly aging figure, climbing o’ winter nights, as we did on that April day, the narrow creaking stair that leads to the room above the General’s chamber. It is a decent place enough, but still a species of attic, and according to the universally accepted legend, the widow chose it for her own occupancy, because its western window commanded the narrow path down which her lord’s coffin had been carried through the snows of December to the old brick family tomb under trees that overhang the river. In our very mixed company of visitors there was a plain, solitary, elderly woman, in a black veil and white cap, who paused and leaned her forehead, for a moment, against the frame of that west window, — while her round shoulders heaved with a silent sob.
Good-by, Mount Vernon! But let us not go without one gracious word of thanks and praise for the devoted women to whose civic piety, untiring zeal, and unerring taste, we owe the rescue from decay, and the restoration of Mount Vernon to its fine — though ever plain — old semblance. All that the ladies of the Mount Vernon Association have done has been done skillfully and reverently. They have made no mistakes. There is not a discordant note, nor a touch of false color, nor a sensible anachronism anywhere.
Good-by again to the pleasant and revered old place. And if for another twenty years, good-by forever!