Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 3

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

3
Stratford

ALL during that long summer afternoon the children A played happily, acting out the lives of brave Lees who had lived in the long-ago. Finally, when the sun went down over the Potomac River, the deep notes of the field bell came to them below the garden.

They knew then that it was almost time for supper at the Big House and that they must go in to freshen themselves before they joined their elders and took their places at the lower end of the huge table in the candlelighted dining-room.

As they went up the winding path, Robert studied the Big House with fresh interest. Somehow, it seemed to him as if he were seeing it for the first time. Though it did belong to Brother Henry, he had been born there, he thought, and so had many of those ancestors of his which their play this afternoon had made so real to him.

Their own house on Cameron Street in Alexandria could be set right down inside the great central wing of Stratford. The Big House was made of brick and shaped like the letter H, with a flight of steps up the front in the cross-stroke of the H.

“Carter, how many rooms are there?” Robert asked.

“More than you can count, young sir.” Carter’s tone sounded very grownup.

“How many?” Robert insisted. “I want to know. I want to remember.”

“Sixteen or seventeen or eighteen,” Carter said uncertainly; then added, “and there are the galleries on the roof. Father says they used to have dances there a long time ago. The fiddlers played near the great chimney and the young ladies and gentlemen danced the minuet in the moonlight.”

“That must have been fun.” Smith lagged behind with Robert, staring up at the broad expanse of roof. “Maybe Henry will give some parties there when we’re grown up and let us come to them.”

“Mother has promised that in two more years, when I’m fourteen, she’ll have one of the ‘young-lady ball-gowns’ she wore cut down for me,” Ann boasted.

“Did she dance the minuet?” Polly asked interestedly.

Ann nodded. “And the quadrille, too. She lived at Shirley. They had a dancing master and lots of good times. She was a great; belle. She. . . .”

Again the clang-clang-clang of the field bell sounded its warning note and the children began to run now, racing through the grove of maples that surrounded the mansion-house. They passed the brick office, where the boys loved to sleep when the house was full of company, and the detached summer kitchen from whose open doorway floated odors of the readying supper.

Beyond the hedge, on the other side of the grape arbor, they glimpsed a black and yellow coach in the stableyard, An ancient Negro in a plum-colored livery stood near by smoking a corncob pipe and directing half a dozen little helpers who were sloshing buckets of water on the dusty yellow spokes of the wheels.

“Company’s already come,” Smith said as he pulled the latchstring of the side door which the children used to gain admittance to their quarters.

“Company’s Mistress Custis and her little girl,” Carter said as he started up the steps. “Brother Henry says they’ll be here tor several days. They’re on their way from Arlington to visit their kinfolks.”

“Hump yo’ stumps, you chillun,” Mammy called from the top of the back stairs. “I been waitin’ to freshen ye sence goodness knows when. Miss Ann, I’se got yo dimity layin’ out on yo’ bed. Marse Cyarter an’ Marse Smith, quicken yo’selves into yo’ frilt shirts, an’ Marse Robert, come along an’ let me give you a scrub-up. Never seed sech dirty chillun in all my bawn days! Comin’ in here late an’ makin’ extra work on me, I’ve half a mind to tell you’ ma.”

Mammy’s wide smile softened the threat of her words. She stood in the doorway to the nursery, her fresh apron encircling her stout girth and her red turban making a splash of color against the candlelit gloom of the big room behind her. In her arms was Baby Mildred, smiling and crowing at the crowd of children. By her side, with a plump hand clasping a fold of apron, stood three-year-old Mary Custis.

She smiled shyly at Polly and Robert. Robert looked at her with interest. He knew that her father was General Washington’s adopted grandson. After his own father, General Washington was his hero and anything that related to the General had an attraction for him.

Little Mary returned his stare. “I’ve got a dolly,” she said and held out a rag-baby for his inspection. Robert took the doll and examined it with polite gravity.

“It’s a nice doll.” He smiled at her. Little Mary was pretty, he thought, even prettier than Polly. “What’s your dolly’s name?” he asked.

“Robert.”

“But it’s a girl-doll. It can’t be named Robert. That’s a boy’s name.”

“Robert,” she repeated softly and smiled at him.

The sweetness and gentleness of the smile and the picture which the little girl made as she stood there in her ruffled white frock, with the knots of blue ribbons on her shoulders, were to stay with Robert as long as he lived, and when he was a young man, a middle-aged man and an old man, Mary Custis, who became Mary Custis Lee, was to be forever the light of his eyes and the love of his life.

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