Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 1

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

1
In the Beginning

COLONEL Henry Lee stood beside the huge carved bed in which many of his ancestors had been born. He glanced down affectionately at his wife, then surveyed with paternal interest and pride the small, red-faced baby beside her.

“Another little boy. What shall we name him, Anne?”

“You choose, Harry!ࢭ Mrs. Lee cuddled the baby close against her, loving him already. “He must have a fine name,” she said softly. “He’s a fine baby, though he’s such a tiny one. See what perfect hands he has, what exquisite little feet. . . .”

“He looks like you. He has your eyes, Anne. I hope he’ll
be kind and brave as you are.”

Mrs. Lee closed her eyes for a moment and lay back on her pillow with a gentle sigh. This new baby, she was thinking, had come at a difficult time. Things had not been easy during this past year. There had been many grave problems and anxious hours.

Colonel Lee seemed to read her troubled thoughts as he leaned down to kiss her tenderly. “We’ve much to be thankful for, Anne,” he said cheerfully as he crossed the big bedroom to the desk which stood between the high curtained windows and opened the huge Family Bible. Taking a fresh quill, he sharpened it with a gold pen-knife. On the page marked “Family Records” he wrote the words: “Stratford, Westmoreland County, Virginia, January 19th, 1807.” He paused and glanced questioningly at his wife. “What name shall we give him, Anne?”

“You choose, dear!” Anne was smiling now. She was thinking that Harry had been right when he said that, in spite of their recent sorrows, they had enjoyed many blessing. She had had a happy girlhood and a happy marriage with the man she loved. Never had there been so handsome a young man as her Harry. He had been dashing and brave and impetuous.

Light Horse Harry, the world had called him and she, more than any, had thrilled to the sound of this gallant name and rejoiced in the heroic deeds which had won it for him.

This new baby had a proud heritage, a fine future, she told herself firmly.

“We’ll name him for your people.” Colonel Lee looked thoughtful for a moment, holding the quill poised. “Robert?” he suggested. “That’s one of the Carter names—and Edward for your favorite uncle, Robert Edward Lee. . . . Does that have a good sound, Wife?”

“Robert Edward Lee,” Anne repeated the name consideringly. “Yes, dear, I like that. It’s simple and strong. He’ll grow to be a good man and live up to its promises. He really is a beautiful baby, isn’t he? I think he’s the prettiest baby I ever saw.”

“That’s what you always say!” His tone teased her tenderly. ̶o;What do the children think of their new little brother? Have they seen him yet?”

“No, they’re outdoors, playing in the snow. I sent Mammy down to call them. They’ll come storming in any minute now.”

“And want our new little man to go out and romp with them, I’ll wager! I remember that was my only interest in a baby brother or sister when I was their age.”

“He’ll be doing that soon enough,” Anne patted the downy head on her arm. “Babies grow up so fast. In no time at all this young Master Robert will be a year old, then two and then three. I wonder if . . .”

“That must be the children now,” Colonel Lee broke in as there was a scuffling sound outside the door.

“Let them in,” Mrs. Lee said as she wrapped the fluffy shawl more closely about tiny Robert and smiled down at him. “Come in, Ann, Carter and Smith,” she called. “I’ve got a surprise for you!”

Colonel Lee flung open the door—and then shut it quickly, turning the big brass key in the lock.

Mrs. Lee glanced at him in amazement. “Harry! What is it?” She saw at once that he was very angry. How red his face was! How short his breath! “Tell me at once what the matter is!” She raised herself on her pillows and gave him a frightened and appealing look.

He came to the bed and stood beside her. “It was the sheriff, Anne. He must have found the front door unlocked. He must have sneaked in through the deserted part of the house, have found his way upstairs, . . . He had the Debtor’s Book in his arms. He has come to arrest me. I must think quickly. I must decide what is best for me to do!” He dropped to his knees beside the bed and buried his face in his hands.

“Harry,” she said gently, reaching toward him to lay a hand on his bent head. “You must face the man. There must be something we can do. Here. Take this!” She slipped a ring from her thin finger. “Give it to the sheriff. It will at least postpone things, won’t it?”

He glanced up at her. He took the ring and cupped it in his palm, staring down at the cluster of diamonds. “Anne, I can’t take your ring. I gave it to you when Carter was born. Things were bright and happy then, do you remember?”

How well I do remember, she thought sadly. How fair our prospects were then. You came to me, riding on a black charger. Your spurs were silver and your saddlecloth was scarlet. You were the idol of the country, I laughed as I called you “the darling of the gods!” And yet I love you as much, I love you more now than I loved you then, dear Harry!

“Of course, I remember,” she said aloud with her quick, sweet smile. “Nine years ago. That’s not very long. Two years after that Ann came. Five years ago it was Smith. And now it’s Robert Edward. He gives you the ring. Use it for his sake!” She folded Harry’s fingers over his palm and gave them a little pat.

“No, Anne, I can’t. There must be something else. It’s a new man this time—a young sheriff I’ve never seen before. Perhaps I can persuade him to give me more time till my affairs are straightened out. Surely some of those new lands I speculated in will prove profitable. My luck must turn before long. Some of those fellows will pay me what they owe me. . . .”

“You can’t count on that,” Anne said soberly, “You are too trusting, too. . . .”

“I won’t take your ring, Anne. I’ll find another way, I’ll find something else to stave the man off.” He slipped the ring back on her finger and got to his feet.

”You must take it, my dear. There isn’t any other way! There isn’t anything else!” She caught his hand and closed his fingers again over the ring.

There was a knock on the door. A stern rat-tat-tat.

Young Robert woke and began to cry lustily.

His father glanced down at him, frowning thoughtfully. “You’re right. There isn’t any other way,” he acknowledged brokenly as he started across the room.

Anne’s face was turned from him. She was watching the fire now, seemingly absorbed in the bright dance of the flames as a sudden down-draught of gusty wind sent them roaring up the huge chimney. One arm was about her baby. She drew him closer to her, parting him, sheltering him, pulling the little woolly shawl more snugly about him, trying to shield him from the cold.

If Harry would only hurry, she thought—only get this ugly business over and done with. Why didn’t he unlock the door? Why didn’t he face the sheriff?

He was turning away from the door, coming back toward her now.

“Please, Harry!” she said anxiously.

His face was determined and purposeful. His shoulders were squared and his head was high.

“Anne, I’ve thought of something else. Here, take your ring, darling!” He tossed it onto the bed beside her and walked quickly across the room toward the high walnut wardrobe on the south wall. Pulling the door open with a quick jerk, he reached into the very back corner.

Anne raised herself on her elbow, watching wonderingly. What could it be that he was searching for, fumbling there among his old uniforms, his army gear?

“What are you looking for, Harry? There’s nothing there. Nothing of any value at all,” she said with forced patience.

“You’re wrong, Anne!” He had found what he wanted, turned with the object in his hand and was coming toward her, holding it out.

“My Memorial Sword,” he said and his voice was full of vigor and hope now. “The one I was given after the capture of Paulus Hook. It is made of fine Damascus steel and has a gold hilt. It should be worth a good deal!”

Before she could expostulate with him, before she could say she would rather sacrifice her ring than the sword, he was across the room, had unlocked the door, opened it and stepped quickly outside, shutting it quietly behind him.

She lay there for a moment, listening to the buzz of voices, letting the tears trickle down her face now, wondering how she would ever find courage to face the darkening life ahead, dreading the uncertain future which this baby must face.

And then the door opened. Harry was striding toward her. A bright, new Harry with the face, almost, of the gallant young officer of long ago.

“Anne!” There was hope in his voice now—hope and encouragement. “The new sheriff fought under me at Paulus Hook, he says. He declined to accept the sword. . . . Says he was told to collect a hundred pounds or its equivalent to settle the more pressing debts. One look at the new baby will be worth that, he insists. Give me Robert. Quick! I’ll tickle those fine feet of his to make him smile.”

Laughing now, he leaned over the bed and picked up the tiny baby, tucking the shawl about the little bundle awkwardly, tenderly.

Miraculously the baby opened his dark eyes and did actually seem to smile up at them.

Colonel Lee chuckled as he started toward the door, poking the little chin waggishly. “You’re worth a hundred pounds now, Boy. Think what you’ll be worth when you’re a three-year-old, more than a Virginia thoroughbred colt even, if we don’t like you and want to trade you off!”

“Harry, how dreadful! Don’t jest about my darling!” Anne’s voice was reproachful, but she was smiling tremulously now. Men are such foolish creatures, she thought—and some day her Robert would be a man. She closed her eyes and prayed that in whatever future lay before him he would find wisdom—and strength—and true happiness.

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