Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 4


Farewell to Father

“ROBBIE, Robbie, wake up! It’s morning-time. Get up, little Mister Lazy Bones!”

That was Ann’s voice, Robert thought drowsily. He didn’t want to wake up. He didn’t want to open his eyes, even! They were home again, in the little house in Alexandria. While his eyes were closed he could pretend they were still at Stratford. That would mean he could paddle in the brook today, could pick strawberries in the garden and ride the pony. Here, on Cameron Street, he couldn’t do any of those things.

He wouldn’t be here on Cameron Street. He just wouldn’t!

He kept his eyes tight shut and said, “I’m still asleep, Ann. Honest, I am!”

Ann laughed at that and jerked the sheet off him. “If you want any breakfast, Mammy says you’d better ‘hump yo’-self’!”

Robert opened one eye slowly. “If I do, will Father let me go with him?”

“Likely he will,” Ann said encouragingly, and that was enough to get him out of bed, for Robert loved these walks with his father. Everyone they passed as they took their way along the cobbled streets spoke admiringly to Colonel Lee. The gentlemen removed their high beaver hats from their heads as they stopped to chat with him and the ladies smiled from under the brims of their scoop-bonnets.

As they were about to start off on their walk that morning, it seemed to Robert that his father was in a particularly good humor. His usually grave face was almost gay as he kissed his wife good-bye and took his hat and cane which she held out to him.

Robert thought that this would be a fine time to ask a favor he had been wanting for a long while. He caught hold of the hand held out; to him and looked up into the handsome face.

“Father,” he said impulsively, “instead of that cane, won’t you take your sword today, your beautiful Memorial Sword? Then, on our walk, you could tell me about Paulus Hook. You’ve promised to so many times!”

His father’s face clouded over and Robert was sorry at once that he had asked, as his mother said quickly, “Robbie, if you want to go with Father, don’t be a bother. You must be quiet and good. It wouldn’t be suitable for him to wear the sword. Not on an ordinary day like this.”

Robert didn’t understand. He had thought that if his father wore the sword, that would make it a fine day—a specially happy one, but he said, “Yes, ma’am,” most politely, for he knew that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get to go on that walk.

His obedience was rewarded, for his question seemed to have turned his father’s thoughts back to the past, and as they walked along Cameron Street, the full story of Paulus Hook was told.

Robert listened breathlessly as his father lengthened his stride and squared his shoulders. He seemed to lay the troubled years aside and to become again the young man of twenty-three whom he was describing so vividly. He spoke of his splendid white war horse and his delight in the spirited creature, of his gallant and reckless soldiers—three mounted companies and three on foot, and told modestly how their great commander, Washington, had praised their tactics. Paulus Hook, New Jersey, he said, was directly across from New York. In its capture he had lost only half a dozen men and had taken a hundred and sixty prisoners.

“And Congress thanked you, Father, and gave you a gold medal, and the sword and the rank of major commandant!” Robert said proudly. “And then it sent you to the aid of General Nathanael Greene in the Carolinas. Ann told me about that. And then you were Governor of the State of Virginia, and after that?” he asked breathlessly, hurrying along, trying hard to keep up with his father’s long steps, trying to preserve this happy storytelling mood.

But as soon as he asked the thoughtless question he was sorry—dreadfully sorry—for he remembered now what else Ann had said. Those months in prison because there was no money to pay debts. He shouldn’t have asked that question. He shouldn’t have asked it! Robert thought miserably. At once he tried to pretend that he hadn’t asked it, that it hadn’t popped out of his mouth. Giving his father’s hand a sharp tug, he said quickly, “Look at hat puppy over there under the tree! He’s so funny, chasing his tail! Isn’t he funny, Father? Isn’t he?”

But his father didn’t answer, He had slowed his steps now, had slumped his shoulders again and was lost in his own sad thoughts.

Robert walked along silently. His father had let his hand tree now. He felt sad and forlorn and his footsteps lagged.

After what seemed like a long while they reached Gadsby’s Tavern, and Colonel Lee said, “Wait for me outside, Son. I won’t be long. There’s a man I have to see.”

In spite of his father’s words, it seemed like a long time to Robert. For a while he looked through the window. He could see his father seated at a table. He was talking to a man with stiff gray whiskers, a frowning, cross-looking man, who waved his hands excitedly and thumped so hard on the table that his mug of ale jumped. At first Colonel Lee shook his head and then he nodded. His face was calm. But he didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile.

I remember Father used to smile, Robert thought. But he hardly ever smiles now. Not even when he saw that funny puppy chasing his tail!

Robert turned away from the window to study the people who were passing up and down the street. A carriage went by with a pretty lady in it and three little girls. One was smaller than he was and had soft brown curls. She reminded him of Mary Custis, and he watched till they were out of sight. Their own Negro, Nat, came by with his market basket on his arm and Robert called out to him and waved his hand in a joyful salute.

Soon afterward his father came out of the tavern. He smiled at Robert now but it was just a kind smile and not a merry one. He said, “Good boy! You’ve been mighty patient,” and gave him his hand again as they started back toward home.

From that day on there were no more walks together, for Colonel Lee was away for weeks at a time.

The few times he was at home there were strange men with him nearly always. These men rarely sat in the little parlor with Mrs. Lee and Ann and Robert. They went into the study and shut the door and sometimes they argued loudly and shouted words that could be heard all over the house. Robert noticed that his mother sighed then and said sadly, “Politics! Politics! Why will he get so excited? Why does he care so much?”

And then there came a day when Colonel Lee left home to go to Baltimore, to help a young friend who was an editor. The family gathered on the front verandah to tell him good-bye. Robert saw that his mother was crying. She was begging Father not to go. She was saying she had a feeling there would be trouble. . . .

Father was annoyed. Robert could see this plainly. He said, “Nonsense, Anne! If a newspaper hasn’t the right to express its views frankly, something’s very wrong with the temper of this country. There won’t be any trouble and—if there is. . . .”

He kissed them hurriedly and climbed into the coach which was waiting for him.

Trouble there was. And bad trouble, too! A messenger brought them word in a day or so. He galloped up to the darkened house in the middle of the night and thumped on the door. Robert, waking in a fright, saw his mother pass his opened doorway. She was carrying a lighted candle and her long hair was streaming over her shoulders. Her face was white and anxious.

Robert slipped out of bed and padded barefooted down the carpetted stairs behind her. Mammy had already opened the front door and let the messenger in. He was breathless from his long ride. His words tumbled out one on top of another.

A good deal of it Robert couldn’t understand, but there were words that he caught “. . . printing office barricaded. . . .” “. . . an angry mob attacking the men inside . . .” “. . . one man killed and eleven others, including Colonel Lee, severely beaten. . . .” “the quelling of the rioters by the militia. . . .”

When, weeks afterwards, the Colonel was at last strong enough to return to his home and his family in Alexandria, he was a man whose body and spirit were altogether broken. Mrs. Lee and the children often wept as they tried, in the months that followed, to nurse the beloved head of the household back to health.

In this effort they were unsuccessful and in the early summer of 1813 they bade him a loving farewell as he set out for the southern islands of the West Indies, in the hope that there, where the climate was mild and bright, he might gain strength and courage once more.

This hope was vain, for Henry Lee spent six long years away from his family. At last, when Robert was eleven, there was talk of a return. How happy Mrs. Lee and the children were! Robert said again and again, “Father won’t know me at first, will he? He’ll be so surprised to see how big I am, won’t he, Mother?”

His mother nodded happily as she and Ann went forward with preparations for the homecoming. A dozen times each day she reread the last letter which had come to Carter, She carried it around in her pocket so that she might take it out every little while and see again those comforting words, “I begin to hope that I may live to see you again, to see your dear Mother and our other sweet offspring.”

Sadly enough, that fond dream was not to be realized, for Colonel Lee became ill on the voyage and was taken from the ship to the home of his old commander, General Greene. There, on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, he died within a short time.

It was not until Robert was a middle-aged man, during the War Between the States, that he saw his father’s grave. But always, from boyhood, he was guided by the legend of the young Light Horse Harry’s gallant deeds. And, above all else, throughout his life Robert took pride in the fact that Colonel Lee had written the famous funeral oration for George Washington, the Father of his Country.

Long afterward, as an old man, Robert E, Lee could close his eyes and hear in memory the beautiful, solemn voice repeat the immortal words: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

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