This story is by Page Craw and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
George Seldon, an eligible bachelor, retained a bemused expression on the sidelines of the Jefferson Hotel’s ballroom until Lettie Carter’s name was announced. Amazed, he nudged Thomas Waller. “Can that be little Lettie?” His eyes never wavered from the dark-haired debutante. “I will marry her.”
With parental blessings, their courtship endured a decent interval throughout the summer of 1913, the waiting couple anxious to be joined—Lettie at twenty and George five years her senior, her dainty doll-like figure contrasting with his honed equestrian athleticism.
Coinciding with the golden age of tobacco, they honeymooned in Europe. They returned to Richmond to their newly built Monument Avenue mansion to inaugurate a blissful life together. Money afforded them the premier location facing the statue of General Robert E. Lee atop his steed, Traveler. George often stood in his bay window, giving homage to his mother’s illustrious relative.
In this early period, George oversaw his tobacco plantations while Lettie refined the house’s decorations and established a second-floor nursery wing. A paramount goal was to occupy the space with small Seldons. Within six rapturous months of their wedding, Lettie confirmed her pregnancy.
“My darling, my sweet. You’ve made me the proudest man. No one compares to you in all the world, and you’ll be a blessed mother.”
“An event like no other in the history of the world,” Lettie joked. “But our baby will be a first. I love you, my strength and universe.” Their embrace led to a kiss that said it all.
Lettie’s mother brought from Tidewater Lettie’s own baby clothes. “My boy won’t wear pink or bows, but it’s nice to have these remembrances.”
“Now, George, there are no guarantees—you need to steel yourself to the possibility of a baby girl,” Lettie said.
“Quite. I’m in love with the baby in advance, whether a boy or a girl. Have no fear.”
Coming a month early, it was protracted labor. Doctor Johnson sent the anxious husband to the first floor, where he could smoke cigarettes unreservedly. The wall clock marked the slowness of time’s passing. George paced and puffed without ceasing. When he spied the doctor in the hallway many hours later, he rose unsteadily, his expression conveying his apprehension of the news.
His face haggard, Doctor Johnson entered, laying his hand on George’s back. “A shock, dear fellow. Steady now.”
“The baby—is the baby dead?”
George spoke in a breathless gasp. “Oh, my God. And my dear wife, Lettie? Please say she’s all right.”
“She is weak and grieving, understandably. She will need time to recover.”
Beneath an ancient oak in the Hollywood cemetery overlooking the James River, Baby Seldon occupied a tiny portion of the Seldon family plot. Lettie remained in bed and cried for a week, refusing all food, the bloom on her cheeks sinking into a gray pallor.
George evidenced his intolerable stress with a loss of energy and wit. The servants labored with muted voices, and the household was on the verge of crisis. On an evening of drunken distress, George sealed the nursery wing. The house’s majordomo found him crumpled at the hallway entrance to the rooms.
The youthful exuberance of the couple diminished with each passing month. Lettie found no interest in her daily routines and often brooded in the Front Parlor. She, too, frequently stared at the proud figure of the once-victorious general.
Doctor Johnson insisted on a change of location. In April, George and Lettie visited her family in Gloucester County for the Daffodil Festival. The sunny faces of thousands of cheery blooms amidst the crepe myrtles and azaleas, assisted by the amusing banter of Lettie’s young relatives, restored the couple’s spirits. The house’s mood lifted at their return. Lettie sought intimacy again after the prolonged hiatus, and George basked in her face’s fresh glow. She smiled anew and even laughed at his manufactured antics.
Could they dare hope again for a child?
She confessed to George after she began to show. He whooped with joy, then silenced quickly. “What has Doctor Johnson prescribed for your regimen?”
“He wants me to eat lots of beef liver, to strengthen my blood. He said I need to guard against anemia.”
“Did you have anemia before?” George asked.
“This is just in case. And I’m to eat four meals a day.” Seeing the look on George’s face, Lettie giggled. “not big ones, silly. He knows I couldn’t handle that.”
“If you’d allow me, I’ll serve you breakfast in bed, provided the early hour won’t disturb your requisite rest.”
“As long as I have eight solid hours of sleep, I’ll be fine. You do need to get back to work. You’ve spent months catering to my needs, but it’s time for you to attend to the fields. Without a proper crop, we’ll be hard-pressed to raise our family.”
“Leave the family’s budget to me, Dearest. My foremen have done well enough without me, but it’s a good time for me to resume my duties. The demand for cigarettes is high at the front. I’ve hired a lady-in-waiting to help you during this period. Marcy will look after you and ease my mind.”
“Good heavens! You’d think I were royalty.”
“Well, you’re my princess.”
Marcy cherished her mistress.
Lettie patted her bump. “With your care, Marcy, I haven’t been sick at any time. The happy day will coincide with George’s winter off-season, and we’ll enjoy our new baby together.”
Without worry, George overnighted at his plantations while the harvested tobacco was dried, bundled, and awaited shipment to the manufacturing factories.
“Please saddle, Gallant, for my last ride until after Christmas. I want to tour the land before returning to Richmond.” As the early morning mist curled through the overhanging water oak boughs, Gallant’s gallop halted abruptly in a groundhog hole. The stallion’s front leg cracked with a sharp snap, and amidst intense shrieks from his mount, George hurtled, landing chin down on the ground. The impact fractured his neck—George grasped his paralysis. George labored to breathe while Gallant thrashed in place. “Oh, Lettie, my Lettie,” George moaned several times before the woods absorbed his last sounds. His heart stopped before his foreman found him late that day.
Lettie sat alone in the funeral conveyance, whispering inarticulate utterances to George laid out in his coffin. She joined the family at the gravesite and then at home, where Marcy had orchestrated the details of the wake. Her response to any pleasantness was monosyllabic, and her posture remained stooped. At day’s end, Lettie ordered the house’s drapes permanently closed, and no persuasion ever resulted in a change of mind. Her heart had broken, and her sanity shattered. Although cognizant of the unborn baby’s health, Doctor Johnson prescribed laudanum to soothe Lettie’s anguish. His concern was she’d do herself harm.
There was no consolation with the boy’s birth around New Year’s. Lettie required a wet nurse’s assistance because, delirious, she wanted no part in the child’s existence. Her mourning was unrelenting, and her depressed condition persisted.
Darkness enshrouded the lower floors, but Marcy moved the baby to the third floor, where the sun’s rays still brightened the interior. As the boy developed, she shuttled the toddler along the back stairs to Monument Park for fresh air and play. Only the household staff attended the boy’s baptism, where he was christened George. Lettie remained in isolation and darkness, refusing entry to her family, who continued the status quo to avoid public stigma.
The housekeepers rotated, disturbed by the working conditions. Finally, only Marcy brought Lettie her meals—Lettie waved off two of them, subsisting on one with an ever-increasing consumption of laudanum. Echoes of Lettie’s intoning George’s name resounded within the mansion at all hours. Doctor Johnson was inadequate to quell death’s rising tide. The quiet sleep of death came to Lettie, a barely twenty-five-year-old waif, found at the side of her bed, apparently too weak to crawl into it.
Little George didn’t know his once beautiful mother and had only the association of his birth. Retained by the family and moved to Tidewater, Marcy continued caring for George. The Seldon estate sold the Richmond house.
For nearly a century, residents along Monument Avenue claimed to sight the spirits of George and Lettie, distinctive in their garb and location at the Seldon mansion address. Although some disbelief resulted, portraits of the couple confirmed their identity to the claimants. George’s person attended Lettie’s form, and often they danced a waltz in the moonlight near the bronze statue. Or they promenaded, hand-in-hand. Other people claimed to have witnessed Lettie arrive with her baby to position herself on the pedestal below George, who sat in Lee’s place upon the back of Traveler. According to these accounts, the baby raised his hands toward his father, who then secured him; immediately, the baby matured into a child sitting in the saddle before him.
In 2021, Governor Northam removed Lee’s statue to storage, and to date, the Seldon couple has not returned to Monument Avenue.