Mine might be the very last face you’d expect to see at this wedding; at least it would have been not so long ago. I had arrived in Pennsylvania just a few months before – my first time north of the Potomac – on account of receiving an offer of employment from a wealthy landowner, Henry Collins who works a vast ranch in the Appalachians. I explained to him in all sincerity that I had no experience of working with livestock. He assured me that would not be a problem and that mine would be light duties. I did not need much convincing: the entirety of my life to that point had been spent toiling – one way or another – in the suffocating heat and humidity of Southeast Virginia. It was high time to leave and I was happy to, little knowing back then that I would be invited to a wedding.
And what a wedding it promises to be; I have travelled north to Harrisburg, a large and important city in these the strangest times of our lives. It is where the groom, one of my commanders, Lieutenant Thomas Goode will be married to Abigail Evans. Abigail is daughter to a wealthy industrialist and she is to be wedded at her father’s estate. I keep the invitation close, in part out of the apprehension of being mistaken for someone else but mostly because of its beautiful script and the warm, comforting smell of the parchment. I am uncertain if it is required as a proof of my name or if it is simply good manners to bring it. I have never been to a wedding. The invitation reads thus:
YOUR PRESENCE IS CORDIALLY REQUESTED
AT THE MARRIAGE OF
MISS ABIGAIL CYNTHIA EVANS & LIEUTENANT THOMAS ROBERT GOODE
THE FIFTEENTH OF APRIL
EIGHTEEN-HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FIVE
ONE O’CLOCK IN THE AFTERNOON
WILLIAM EVANS ESTATE, HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA
As I said before, I keep this close, in the breast pocket of a glorious morning suit coat, tailored, not for myself, but for my good friend and benefactor, Mr Collins. One night during the week before I departed for Harrisburg, he assisted in fitting me out for the occasion, confident that we were the same size.
“Yours to keep,” Mr Collins said; his mouth parting with a smile wider than Chesapeake Bay.
“Your eye for this surpasses mine, sir. I was afraid I’d be too long in the limbs.”
“You might have been once.”
As soon as he said this, Mr Collins fell awfully quiet.
“I’m so sorry, Gordon,” he began again in the most apologetic tone. “I was not thinking about what I was saying.”
It should go without saying that Mr Collins is one of two men on this Earth to whom I am most beholden. He should never have to apologise to me for anything. He is a humble man who possesses an infinite store of compassion. It is with thanks to Lieutenant Goode that I made his acquaintance. After I was discharged from the army, where I served as a Private, the Lieutenant wrote to Mr Collins to inform him of my circumstances. Mr Collins, aggrieved by my story, agreed to employ and house me without exercising his right to levy my earnings for the comfort I have come to enjoy.
I am shamed by his kindness.
* * *
You might wonder how a Private has become ingratiated with such esteemed personages. The truth is that I did very little save for my predilection of being in the right and wrong places at the wrong and right times. In my life, I have seemed to enjoy the fates of a dozen men; they follow me in the way that shadows follow the sun and I have no explanation for how that recurs.
* * *
I arrived early at the Evans’ Estate on the morning of the wedding and felt myself in the thrall of anticipation for the day ahead. I rode alone from my hotel in the comfort of a horse-drawn carriage sent for my transition by Lieutenant Goode himself.
The estate is a short distance from the city. Overlooking one of the many veins of the Susquehanna River on one side and secluded by a crest of magnificent pines on the other, it is a perfect setting for such a wonderful occasion.
I climb out of the carriage with the assistance of my courteous coachman. As my hand moves toward the pocket that holds my purse he takes hold of my wrist and, with a warm smile across his face, shakes his head. He tells me that he will be here to collect me tomorrow and passes my personal effects to a young man: a servant, not a slave.
I looked around the garden leading up to the mansion. I feel comfortable calling it that; simply calling it a house would not speak to the sheer size of this dwelling. Not that I am a reliable authority to adjudicate; I had seen, briefly, Robert E. Lee’s mansion in Arlington. This, in comparison, made Lee’s home look like one of Mr Collins’ larger barns. I was overwhelmed. I felt my body tremor as I approached the mansion, slowly and with the aid of my cane.
The atmosphere and mood was surprisingly subdued – even grave – as I entered the reception hall. I smiled and bowed my head to each person I saw. I was met with courteous smiles by most, perfunctory nods by others and solemn eyes by all. I was then greeted by a man who introduced himself as Joshua Goode, the Lieutenant’s younger brother. I removed the invitation from my breast pocket; as I was about to pass this to him for his inspection, he wrapped his arms around me and embraced me tightly.
“It is a most overdue and special honour to finally meet you, Mr Phillips,” he said, addressing me by my chosen surname.
“I assure you, sir, the honour is all mine.”
He removed his arms from around my waist and then clasped my shoulders tightly.
“You shall not call me ‘sir’,” Mr Goode said as he gave me a shake. “I implore you to call me Joshua, or even Josh.”
“I’m not sure I can do that, sir.”
“Well, if you cannot then I do not possibly see how I can call you Gordon.”
I felt myself blushing under this earnest and unfamiliar ceremony.
“I would be honoured for you to call me Gordon.”
“Excellent! Then it is fixed,” as he said this, his smiling face suddenly gave way to a deep and mournful frown, as though his mind had recollected something from a bad dream. “It is sad that we are met with such tragic news on what should be the best of days.”
* * *
I recognise my failure to confide in you over the details of my relationship with Lieutenant Goode and why I find myself treated with such deference. Now, as I sit in the Evans’ chapel to await the service, I realise there are many things I want to say and they hover over my every waking moment. Some things are difficult to talk about.
There is word of terrible news from Washington and that has lent this occasion a funereal air. President Lincoln is dead. Shot. The chapel is now full but there is rumour the ceremony may be postponed.
I hear an urgent pacing coming from down the aisle. I look up to see my friend, the Lieutenant. I rise from my seat as I see him head toward me. He has been crying. Before I can say anything I am pulled into another fraternal embrace.
“Thank you for coming,” he says softly.
“Have you decided to do the decent thing and postpone, sir?” came a curt voice from the opposite side of the aisle.
We turn to see an old man, his face grey and stern, devoid of humour. As the Lieutenant was about to reply, I spoke up.
“Forgive me for speaking out of turn, Lieutenant, but I would say you should not postpone.”
The old man snorted.
“Fine words and gratitude from someone like you; you should be more remorseful than anyone on this sorry day.”
The Lieutenant and I were stunned into silence.
“Hard to conceive how one of those, a cripple as well, could afford to come here looking so fine,” said the old man as he turned to face his wife.
I was on the verge of exploding with rage. Holding my cane firmly, my mind mustered a volley of retorts. The Lieutenant clutched my arm and calmly bade me to sit.
“Forgive me, sir,” he began, addressing the old man directly. “Forgive us both if the colour of his skin and general bearing are incompatible with your condition. Do you wonder why he is here? Well, I will tell you.” The Lieutenant paced up and down the aisle, now addressing the congregation at large. “Mr Philips and I fought beside each other, not so long ago. We came under heavy shelling during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. It was there I was found by him, wounded and dazed,” at this point, the Lieutenant, fighting back the tears, pointed directly at me. “This man,” he said, raising his voice. “This man saved my life. He pushed me to the ground and covered me as shells exploded all around us. He helped me and for his valour he has lost his legs. I owe him my life and that is only one reason why he can afford to come here looking so fine.”
The chapel fell silent. The colour drained from the old man’s face. I bowed my head. After a pause, the Lieutenant resumed:
“In honour of Mr Lincoln’s memory and his deeds, this wedding shall go ahead.”
And with that, he departed down the aisle with a regal flourish.
* * *
It is propitious for a man to have a friend who can lend words to what one finds so hard to speak about. Lieutenant Goode, however, was too modest in his testament to my presence, and this is something of which I shall speak directly. The Lieutenant owes me nothing; he has gifted me life beyond my reckoning. I now see that I have been remiss in speaking little of the third and greatest of my benefactors: the rough man from Illinois who died today. Just as Lieutenant Goode was the actuator of my freedom when he stole me away from that accursed plantation, so Mr Lincoln was the author of my emancipation and the true father of my future. He resides now with the eternal good; his name consecrated in the lexicon of liberty. He will never be repaid.
The ceremony is splendid and the bride looks beautiful. As the newlyweds walk back down the aisle, serenaded by rapturous applause, I allow myself a moment’s thought. How wonderful it seems to me that a man such as I, a freed slave, could be asked to join in the pleasure of those whom I may never have met were it not for the providence and sacrifices of greater men. Now I see that my days are accompanied not by slavers, brothers in bonds and comrades, but by friends. As the couple pass me, the Lieutenant stops to give me a salute. I salute him back. My heart weighs heavy, but I am filled with indescribable joy.