I AM MOST FORTUNATE TO HAVE BEEN BLESSED with a great friend. Lee and I attended the same school and our friendship endured beyond our graduation. We remained in contact through letters and visits and his presence in my life has undoubtedly enriched it.
I have always believed that he, being orphaned at an early age, took great pains to hold to the traditions and values of his ancestors. He was a model gentleman, even as a child. I believed him when he told me it was his love for a young woman, that made him understand so early in life what it was to be a man.
He told me of his love, a love which seized him at first sight, and how he vowed to devote his life to winning her heart. I shall never forget his words, for they have come to mean so much more.
“I shall love her with each day of my life and with all my soul forever.”
When I heard of their engagement, I was overjoyed for him and he honored me with the privilege of being his best man. It was a happy journey, the long trek to join them at the plantation that was his ancestral home.
A splendid place, with majestic columns gleaming like pearls in the sun. His bride was an angelic beauty beyond compare. And he, so blissfully enchanted, attained a happiness which made me nearly weep. For that day I would not have doubted that heaven had made itself real and tangible upon the Earth.
As I watched, cheering for them, they departed on their honeymoon. I was stirred to wonder and admiration for that simple, yet transcendent, power of true love.
There, for a time, I heard nothing from my friend. I sent letters, but received no reply. Still, I assumed this was quite natural as he adjusted to his new connubial life. Days became months, then a year, then two. Though I feared our friendship had been forgotten, I could not begrudge him the attainment of his life’s dream.
When at last I heard of him again, the news came to me through a letter, though not one penned by my friend. It was a letter of introduction sent by a physician. The doctor informed me that tragedy had attended their trip to New Orleans. The bride, lovely Annabelle, had been stricken with a terrible illness and had weakened with terrible rapidity. She had perished before his eyes.
The loss had driven Lee into melancholia which had lingered all this time. The doctor had long feared that his depression had damaged his mind. He had neglected his holdings, his business, and his social contacts. But worse than all, his health was beginning to fail.
The doctor, having found my letters to him, implored me to visit my friend, in hope of helping to draw him from this state. I wrote a response and immediately set out to join him. How very different that long journey seemed from the last joyous sojourn I had taken on those roads. And when I finally laid eyes upon the plantation I was stunned.
In a scant two years, the gleaming walls had grayed, the paint now flaking. It loomed like a forgotten mausoleum amid long, neglected grass and twisted talon-like trees. With each increment I drew closer, a dread for my friend grew within me. All was impossibly aged, withered and decrepit, and I shuddered at the undeniable presence of death.
I feared I was too late as I glimpsed naught but darkness in the windows, but my knocks were answered by a butler whose sullen features came alive with hope. I was ushered to the foyer, where I heard voices in a smoldering debate.
“Glad to see you here, sir,” whispered the servant before announcing me.
There were three in the room, one I recognized as the reverend who had performed the wedding ceremony. Another I presumed was the doctor and thought his face might have been one I had likewise seen on that happy occasion. The third man I did not seem to know at all, and at first I thought him to be an elder as he leaned heavily on a cane. But as he turned to me, I saw the face of my old friend.
That face was ghastly pallid, with sunken darkly rimmed eyes. His features were as a rag draped loosely across his skull. His blonde hair was streaked with gray. I nearly balked at the changes that had overcome him.
But there, in an instant, his eyes sparkled and life rushed back into his face. At least for that moment, I had brought him some relief. In his tired smile, he told me much, and my expression must have done the same.
Briefly, I was introduced to the Reverend James and Doctor Finch who soon left us, promising to see us on the morrow.