Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 2


The Ancestor Game

THE next three years drifted by quickly, as Anne had predicted they would. Robert became a sturdy youngster and Smith, Ann and Carter grew to be big children. Colonel Lee struggled along from month to month, trying to straighten out his money affairs, to redeem the Western lands and various other enterprises in which he was interested. Sometimes life would be easy and pleasant for weeks on end, but mostly a dark cloud of financial worry hung over the elders.

While many of the other estates on Virginia’s Northern Neck, between the Rappahannock and the Potomac Rivers, looked much as they had throughout the generations, Stratford grew shabbier and shabbier with the passage of time. There were fewer slaves these days to take care of the beautiful rose gardens. The gilt harp in the Great Hall was growing tarnished from neglect, and cobwebs gathered in remote corners of the unused guest rooms.

There was no money for the proper upkeep of the place. There was no money even for a tutor for the older children and there were no schools in the neighborhood.

Anne Lee was not sorry when the time came for a necessary move to be made. The year that Robert was three, Smith eight, Ann ten and Carter twelve, their half-brother, Henry, the son of Colonel Lee and his first wife, had his twenty-first birthday. Stratford had been left to him in his mother’s will and it was with a good deal of relief that his father and his stepmother turned the place over to him and found a small house in Alexandria, where the children would be able to attend the Dame School and the Academy and where the housekeeping would be simpler and less expensive.

During the following two years there was much visiting back and forth between the two households. Young Henry was a hospitable host and an affectionate son and brother.

During the summer months the young Lees often spent weeks at a time under the old mansion’s rooftree. They loved the freedom of the country, the wooded acres and the vast, velvety lawns. They loved the horses and the pigs and the baby lambs.

By the time that Robert was five he was well able to take care of himself, tagging along after Carter and Ann and Smith as they ranged the rolling acres of the home-farm.

One morning a little girl came to spend the day and, though she was supposed to be Robert’s special company, as she was closest to his age, he felt shy with her and hung back.

“My name’s Polly Porter. What’s yours?” She took hold of his hand firmly and swung him around to face her.

“Robbie.” He pulled his hand away and ducked behind Ann.

“Don’t be silly. Come along, children.” Ann’s tone was bored and patient. “Mammy says all the grownups want to take a nap. She told me to take you down to the Green Court and let you play there.”

“Let’s go to the pigpens instead. It’s more fun there,” Smith suggested. “I bet Polly’d like to see the old sow. I’ll boost her up to the top rail.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” Ann told ten-year-old Smith firmly. “I remember the last time you boosted Rob up you gave him an extra push and he landed right in the middle of the mud, on top of all the piglets. Such a mess I never saw in all my life!”

Smith, who was a great; tease, chuckled as he said, “That was fun. Robbie, you liked it, didn’t you, feller?”

“No, I didn’t! Mammy scrubbed too hard, trying to get me clean.”

“Sissy!” Smith shouted as he ran ahead down the path, calling, “Run, sheep, run!”

Robert was off at once, his plump little legs pumping up and down as he raced after his big brother.

“Come back here, you two!” Ann called out, “It’s too hot for that game. Let’s play something quiet. Polly has on her best dress. It’s too pretty—”

“Pretty Polly! Pretty Polly! Pretty Poll!” Smith came racing back, doubling to head off Robert, shouting his refrain over and over again, “Pretty Polly! Pretty Polly! Pretty Poll!”

At first six-year-old Polly liked the song. She preened herself, twisted her yellow curls and smoothed the ruffles of her muslin frock proudly.

“Pretty Polly Parrot! Pretty Polly Porter!” Smith was dancing up and down and yelling now.

“Hush this minute, Smith Lee,” Ann said sharply, “or I’ll tell on you and you’ll get a whipping.”

“Pretty Poll!” Smith screeched defiantly and stuck out his tongue.

Polly stamped her little red morocco shoe on the gravel path. “Make him stop!” she begged Ann and burst out crying.

I’ll make him stop!” Robert forgot his shyness and, flying
at his brother like a young wildcat, he began to pummel
him with small, clenched fists.

Smith laughed and caught him up in his arms, holding him tight in a bear-hug. Robert managed to squirm loose and, grabbing Smith unexpectedly around the ankles, threw him to the ground.

Polly looked on with interest, her tears forgotten now, as the big boy and the little one rolled over and tumbled about on the grass. But Ann said severely, “You boys should be ashamed of yourselves, fighting before company. Where in the world are your company manners?”

Smith shook Robert off and sat up as a thought struck him. “We’re company, too,” he said, “just as much as Polly Porter is. We don’t belong here at Stratford any more than she does.”

“We half-way belong,” Ann explained seriously as she sat down beside the boys on the grass and Polly followed suit. “All of us were born here—all but little Sister Milly, who was born last year in Alexandria.”

“I don’t remember when I was born here,” Robert said thoughtfully. “I don’t even remember living here—but I remember the iron squirrel!” he added triumphantly.

“What’s the iron squirrel?” Polly wanted to know.

“In the house, on a shield,” Smith told her. “It’s holding a nut and under it is written ‘Non Incautus Futuri.’ That’s Latin. It means ‘Not Unmindful of the Future.’ Father taught me to read it ages ago, before I even went to the Academy.”

“Why didn’t we take it when we moved?” Robert asked. “Mother took her brooch General Washington gave her and I took my red ball.”

Ann glanced up at Carter, who had joined them now, coming over from the Far-field where he had been helping Henry break a young colt.

“Henry had the right to keep it,” Carter explained. “His mother was a Lee, too. She was Father’s cousin.”

“She didn’t make up that motto,” Smith said. “It’s belonged to the Lees for a thousand years. Our great-great-great, ever-so-many great-grandfather. . . .”

“Let’s play ‘Grandfathers’,” Ann interrupted. “I bid to be Launcelot Lee, the first one we know about.”

“You can’t,” Smith objected. “You’re a girl. Girls didn’t fight in the Battle of Hastings.”

“You don’t know what girls did eight hundred years ago.”

“Neither do you, But I do know girls didn’t fight in the old-time battles.”

“What about Joan of Arc?” Ann asked quickly.”

“Hush fussing, you two,” Carter said patronizingly. “I’ll play with you for a while till Henry needs my help again. Let’s go on down to the pond and come across it in the rowboat.”

“We pretend the pond’s the Atlantic Ocean,” Ann explained to Polly, “and that the other side’s Loudon, France, where our ancestors came from. You and Robert can be pages. . . .”

“In the battles we’ll be trumpeters. . . . Watch me, Polly; do like this. Toot! Toot! Toot!” Robert cupped his hands about his mouth and let out a series of sounds which, to himself at least, represented a convincing imitation of a battle charge.

Carter, being the oldest, had the best parts, of course. He doubled as William the Conqueror and Launcelot Lee, his faithful follower.

In the second generation Smith was allowed to be Lionel Lee, while Carter, as King Richard, conferred an earldom on him for his valiant part in the Crusades. Ann had begged hard to be Lionel but was told firmly that ladies stayed home from the Crusades to look after the children.

“I won’t play any more,” Ann announced crossly. “I have to look after Robert and Milly half the time in real life, so what’s the use in playing ‘pretend’ if that’s all you’re going to let me do?”

“Well, then you can be Queen Elizabeth and I’ll be Sir Harry Lee and you can make me a Knight of the Garter,” Carter conceded.

“I’ve got blue garters under my pantalettes,” Polly said proudly.

“We’ll use them. Let’s have them,” Carter held out his hand and Polly hiked up her muslin skirts and petticoats and pantalettes and stripped off the little blue satin garters.

“Robert, give us your jacket,” Smith ordered, “That can be Sir Harry’s coat of mail that’s hanging in St. George’s Chapel in London. It’s been there for two hundred years. Father told me so.”

“It’s the only jacket I’ve got,” Robert protested, “What are you going to do with it?”

“Just hang it on the limb of a tree, silly. It won’t hurt your old jacket.” Carter was already shinnying up the trunk of the big tulip tree as Robert, with some reluctance, peeled off his jacket and handed it up to him.

“It won’t have to hang there for two hundred years, will it?” he asked plaintively.

“Sure, till doomsday!” Smith teased and then laughed, so Robert knew he was joking.

“Go break off some branches to be our swords,” Carter commanded, “and you girls run dip your handkerchiefs in the pond to bandage our wounds after the battle.”

“I’ve lost mine,” Polly announced after a search, but brightened considerably when Ann produced two out of the pocket of the long calico skirt which fell to her ankles.

After the battles were fought and the wounds duly dressed, Sir Harry was knighted and presented with the blue garters most properly.

Next Richard the Founder was portrayed. He it was who had been the first ancestor to settle in Virginia, Governor Berkeley’s right-hand man and the largest landowner in the community. Carter, playing the lead as usual, gave the others handfuls of leaves to symbolize the gold pieces which Richard the First had distributed bountifully from his rich tobacco acres at Paradise Plantation.

Then Carter sent Smith and Robert to the poultry yard for goose quills. He sharpened these, announcing that the girls could be Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, the two Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Ann’s handkerchief was the parchment and muddy water the ink.

“I know all about Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot,” Ann boasted, “and that’s more than the rest of you do. Richard was called the ‘American Cicero.’ He was president of the Continental Congress and he and his brother Francis lived at Menokin.”

Pooh! That’s nothing. I know the names of all the Lee houses,” Smith countered. “First there was Paradise Plantation and after that Chantilly and Lee Hall and Menokin and Ditchley and Mount Pleasant and Stratford, of course. . . .”

“I want to be Father when he lived at Stratford,” Robert broke in. “Let me be Light Horse Harry, now please, Carter. I’ll run get the pony and lead my men in the surprise attack against Paulus Hook. I can ride real good, even without a saddle and bridle!”

“Light Horse Harry’s not a grandfather,” Smith remonstrated. “He’s just a father.”

“He’s famouser than all the others put together,” Robert contended loyally. “General Washington couldn’t have won the war without him!”

“Oh, go on, let him be Father, Smith,” Ann begged. “Robert wants to show Polly how well he can ride. Old Nat says he’s already got a better seat than either you or Carter. Besides, he’s right in what he says. Father is the greatest of all the Lees. He may not be a grandfather now but he will be as soon as we marry and have children, so that makes it; all right.”

Smith and Carter both agreed to let their younger brother do it if he wanted to, so Robert, completely happy now, fetched the pony from the adjoining pasture, mounted him at the stile and dashed at full gallop through the cedar copse, brandishing his leafy lance and shouting proudly to his imaginary cohorts.”

Little Polly Porter turned to the others with complete admiration on her round face. “Isn’t Robert wonderful?” she whispered breathlessly. “I didn’t know he could ride that good!”

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