Six months later, Lawrence and George left Mount Vernon, a modest one-and-a-half-story home flanked by two chimneys, painted white, and well sited overlooking the Potomac. The pair rode to an engagement party at Belvoir, the Fairfax family estate. It was a beautiful, clear, crisp Friday evening in late fall in northern Virginia. Will’s wedding was planned for late December, and the best of Virginia society were attending his engagement ball.
“I spoke with Will yesterday,” Lawrence commented. “He can be a dour little fellow, but his pending nuptials seem to have lifted his spirits.”
Lawrence was in an excellent mood and good health, George noted. His brother had been experiencing a persistent and violent cough that bloodletting and other treatments had not alleviated. However, Lawrence’s condition appeared to improve in the cool evening air as they rode together.
“Will is as happy as I have ever seen him,” George replied. “He showed me a miniature, and the girl looks comely. Certainly a union with the Cary family is a superb match. According to Will, she is not only pretty, but also pleasant and intelligent.”
“With Will’s marriage, I suspect your surveying trips with him will largely come to an end. What is your progress on becoming the surveyor of Culpeper County?”
George gave a small shrug as an amusing thought crossed his mind: Wedding or not, I don’t think I will be seeing Will in the wilderness anytime soon. “I spoke to Colonel Fairfax about the possibility last week during a foxhunt. He told me he would be discussing the matter with some friends and thought a position would likely open after the first of the year.”
“Good. We need to keep you on the road, earning money, and out of the clutches of your lovely mother,” Lawrence said with a wry smile as they turned the corner and began to progress up the long tree-lined drive to Belvoir.
Standing on high ground overlooking the Potomac, the home commanded two thousand acres with stunning riverside views. Its formal gardens and outbuildings presented lavishness equal to any English country house.
The sunset was turning the sky a brilliant purple and red that only emphasized the festive night that lay ahead. The pleasant sound of strings and horns from Belvoir reached them a half mile away.
Every window in the lovely two-story Georgian brick mansion was lit, projecting warmth to arriving guests. While George was dressed in his best attire, he was suddenly aware of his trail-worn and poorly presented horse. The sight of the mansion’s circular drive, the huge courtyard, and the spectacle of elegantly dressed men and women alighting from carriages only intensified his insecurity.
Shaking off his uneasiness, George turned to Lawrence and said with heartfelt sincerity, “I am so sorry Ann could not come tonight. Is my niece feeling any better?”
Lawrence’s smile disappeared. “She is very weak and frail. Little Mildred, you know, is just shy of three months old.” He spoke as if every word drove a knife deeper into his gentle heart. “With the passing of our other babies, we felt it prudent for Ann to remain. In any event, Ann has been feeling under the weather and was disinclined to attend.
“If your wife dies, you are a widower. If your parents die, you are an orphan. If all your children die, what do they call you?” The pace of Lawrence’s horse slackened to match his rider’s mood. Without looking up, Lawrence murmured, “Cursed?”
George let his horse drift back to ride even with Lawrence. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came.
Seeing George’s discomfort, Lawrence forced a grin and shook his head quickly, as if trying to shake off his worry and disappointment, “So, dear brother, it is just us bachelors this evening. Shall we wear out the feet of the young women of Virginia on the dance floor?”
George readily agreed, happy to change the subject. In fact, he loved to dance. With kindness and patience, Lawrence and Ann had taught him the proper evolutions and etiquette of dance. In contrast to the oppressive silence of Ferry Farm, Ann and Lawrence immersed him in the music and happiness that pervaded Mount Vernon.
Once inside Belvoir, the brothers collected drinks and conversed with their neighbors about politics in Williamsburg, and the latest gossip. George spoke briefly with his friend William Chamberlayne about the progress in completing the fall harvest. Virginia’s elite were in full force, including Lawrence’s fellow members of the House of Burgesses. At one point, Lawrence glided up to one of his colleagues and joked, “I believe we have a quorum tonight.”
George, meanwhile, considered the striking differences between Ferry Farm, with its six plain rooms, whitewashed walls, and lack of pictures or decorations; the comparative elegance of Mount Vernon; and the opulence of Belvoir. In its celebratory splendor, Belvoir was decorated with the finest French and English furnishings. The walls were covered with exquisite molding, rich paneling, gilded paintings, and ornate wall coverings. The floors were parquet and marble. Plush curtains of gold and white framed the large glass windows, and the many crystal chandeliers and lamps cast a dazzling light on the assembled guests.
After a time, Lawrence and George approached Colonel Wilson Cary—the bride’s father, a member of the House of Burgesses, and a Cambridge-educated scion of the Tidewater aristocracy. The portly, red-faced, and slightly inebriated man exuded a contagious air of enthusiasm and friendliness.
“A pleasure, a genuine pleasure to see you again, Major Washington,” Cary said as he bowed a little unsteadily toward Lawrence. “Military men all around in this family, eh? Colonel Fairfax and yourself just four miles upstream. I can be sure my young Sally will be well protected, eh?”
Lawrence, gracious as always, smiled and returned the bow. “Colonel Carey, you can be assured that the Washingtons and Fairfaxes will always be at the ready to guard your lovely daughter.”
George could not help but marvel at Lawrence’s absolute self-confidence and enjoyment of the friendly banter. Lawrence always knew what to say and how to put people at ease.
“To that end, may I introduce you to my younger brother, George,” Lawrence said as he smoothly tilted his head. “He is a great admirer and friend of Will.”
George was grateful that Lawrence had not mentioned that they were half brothers, but rather accorded him the full kinship George deeply felt and desired.
Cary looked up at George as if noticing him for the first time and turned to Lawrence. “My goodness, your family makes them big, eh?” Then he looked up at George. “Nice to meet you, lad, a pleasure indeed.” But before George could reply, Cary’s eyes were already moving on.
“Lad?” I am taller than virtually every man in this room, but I am still a “lad.” Damn his eyes! Am I ever—
At that moment, the doors at the end of the ballroom swung open, and Colonel Fairfax, Will’s father, entered and announced in a booming voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to introduce the happy couple, my son and his intended bride, Sally . . . er . . . Miss Sarah Cary . . . er . . . soon to be Fairfax.”
The room erupted with applause and happy laughter at the Colonel’s rare gaffe.
As Sally entered the ballroom on Will’s arm, all noise and conversation around George seemed to cease. Indeed, time itself stopped. His vision focused on the most beautiful and intriguing woman he had ever seen.
Everything about her drew his attention. She appeared only a couple years older than George but projected a lifetime’s more sophistication. In a tasteful acknowledgment of the Christmas season, she wore a scarlet-and-white gown with green bows and delicate silk flowers around her bodice. A stunning pearl-and-silver necklace highlighted a long neck and shapely shoulders. Her hair was drawn back and held in place with flowers, emphasizing a thin yet beautiful face with striking and intelligent eyes.
Will had often described her as beautiful, bright, and elegant, but George had not given his words much thought. Such hyperbole was to be expected from a smitten bachelor, especially someone like Will, who constantly felt the need to remind everyone of his social superiority. The reality of Sally Cary’s blinding beauty made George forget everyone, including Will.
Minutes went by, and George realized the crowd around him had moved toward the couple, and he had been left behind, transfixed. He knew he needed to regain his composure and return to Lawrence’s side.
Lawrence and George were lower on the pecking order for introductions, and thus George had time to compose himself. As he walked across the room, he could hear snippets of comments: “Isn’t she lovely?” . . . “comes from a wonderful family” . . . “speaks French” . . . “a wonderful addition.” These observations only increased his trepidation at the prospect of the upcoming introduction.
Lawrence, always the center of attention, had a group of people around him. All were confirming that Will had done well for both himself and the Fairfaxes. It took all of George’s self-control not to stare at Sally as she and Will worked their way around the room. Fortunately no one seemed to notice his complete inability to participate in conversation.
Finally, the time came for Lawrence and George to meet the couple. To George’s surprise, Lawrence was not, as was customary, the focus of the introduction. After a quick and polite exchange with Lawrence, they turned to George. Will’s face lightened with an unexpected burst of warmth and enthusiasm. He grasped George’s shoulder, forgoing the traditional stiff bow, and pivoted so he stood between Sally and George, saying, “Sally, may I present my friend, George Washington.” It was apparent Will was so genuinely pleased to introduce them that he had inadvertently used Sally’s first name.
Ignoring the mistake, Sally extended her hand. As George stared into her eyes, he froze, and for a brief moment, he forgot what to do. In the uncomfortable seconds that passed, Sally quipped, “Mr. Washington, I have heard so much about you, sir. Although I must confess, while I did expect a giant, I thought I would find you covered in buckskin and mud covered, as my fiancé always describes you in your exciting travels.” And then her face lit up with the most kind and gentle smile.
Finally remembering to bend forward to kiss her hand, George regained his voice only enough to croak, “Pleased to meet you, Miss Cary. Your servant.”
George knew that a more sophisticated man would have responded to her comment with a witty comeback. He had made a fool of himself and appeared the uneducated provincial that Will had no doubt described. He could feel blood rushing to his face and a sudden, desperate need to leave the room. As the couple moved on to meet other guests, he excused himself and walked out onto the veranda, grateful for the rush of crisp evening air.