The entrance to Montpelier, once the home of James and Dolley Madison, is marked by two ivy-covered pillars. An eagle, wings outstretched, perches atop each pillar. This first Saturday in November, Mary Minor Haristeen--"Harry"--drove through the elegant, understated entrance as she had done for thirty-four years. Her parents had brought her to Montpelier's 2,700 acres in the first year of her life, and she had not missed a race meet since. Like Thanksgiving, her birthday, Christmas, and Easter, the steeplechase races held at the Madisons' estate four miles west of Orange, Virginia, marked her life. A touchstone.
As she rolled past the pillars, she glanced at the eagles but gave them little thought. The eagle is a raptor, a bird of prey, capturing its victims in sharp talons, swooping out of the air with deadly accuracy. Nature divides into victor and victim. Humankind attempts to soften such clarity. It's not that humans don't recognize that there are victors and victims in life, but that they prefer to cast their experiences in such terms as good or evil, not feaster and feast. However she chose to look at it, Harry would remember this crisp, azure day, and what would return to her mind would be the eagles...how she had driven past those sentinels so many times yet missed their significance.
One thing was for sure--neither she nor any of the fifteen thousand spectators would ever forget this particular Montpelier meet.
Mrs. Miranda Hogendobber, Harry's older friend and partner at work, rode with her in Harry's battered pickup truck, of slightly younger vintage than Mrs. Hogendobber's ancient Ford Falcon. Since Harry had promised Arthur Tetrick, the race director, that she'd be a fence judge, she needed to arrive early.
They passed through the gates, clambering onto the bridge arching over the Southern Railroad tracks and through the spate of hardwoods, thence emerging onto the emerald expanse of the racecourse circling the 100-acre center field. Brush and timber jumps dotted the track bound by white rails that determined the width of the difficult course. On her right, raised above the road, was the dirt flat track, which the late Mrs. Marion duPont Scott had built in 1929 to exercise her Thoroughbreds. Currently rented, the track remained in use and, along with the estate, had passed to the National Historic Trust upon Mrs. Scott's death in the fall of 1983.
Straight ahead through more pillared gates loomed Montpelier itself, a peach-colored house shining like a chunk of soft sunrise that had fallen from the heavens to lodge in the foothills of the Southwest Range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Harry thought to herself that Montpelier, built while America labored under the punitive taxes of King George III, was a kind of sunrise, a peep over the horizon of a new political force, a nation made up of people from everywhere united by a vision of democracy. That the vision had darkened or become distorted didn't lessen the glory of its birth, and Harry, not an especially political person, believed passionately that Americans had to hold on to the concepts of their forefathers and foremothers.
One such concept was enjoying a cracking good time. James and Dolley Madison adored a good horse race and agreed that the supreme horseman of their time had been George Washington. Even before James was born in 1752, the colonists wagered on, argued over, and loved fine horses. Virginians, mindful of their history, continued the pastime.
Tee Tucker, Harry's corgi, sat in her lap staring out the window. She, too, loved horses, but she was especially thrilled today because her best friend and fiercest competitor, Mrs. Murphy, a tiger cat of formidable intelligence, was forced to stay home. Mrs. Murphy had screeched "dirty pool" at the top of her kitty lungs, but it had done no good because Harry had told her the crowd would upset her and she'd either run into the truck and pout or, worse, make the rounds of everyone's tailgates. Murphy had no control when it came to fresh roasted chicken, and there'd be plenty of that today. Truth be told, Tucker had no self-control either when it came to savoring meat dishes, but she couldn't jump up into the food the way the cat could.
Oh, the savage pleasure of pressing her wet, cold nose to the window as the truck pulled out of the farm's driveway and watching Mrs. Murphy standing on her hind legs at the kitchen window. Tucker was certain that when they returned early in the evening Murphy would have shredded the fringes on the old couch, torn the curtains, and chewed the phone cord, for starters. Then the cat would be in even more trouble while Tucker, the usual scapegoat, would polish her halo. If she'd had a tail, she'd wag it, she was so happy. Instead she wiggled.