Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 5


Black Letter Days—And Red Ones

WHEN Robert was a boy some days were dull ones and some were exciting, just as they are for boys today. Month after month the black numbers could be crossed off on the calendar. Lessons, lessons, lessons. Chores, chores, chores. . . .

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, something happened! Something big that Robert and all the other people who were alive then wrote down in their memories and wise men copied into their history books so that we, who were to live long afterward, would know about it.

Two of these red-letter events came very close to Robert while he was still a little boy.

There was a day which began in quite an ordinary fashion. He knew, or thought he knew, everything that was going to happen in the next twelve hours. It was September of the year 1814. Already the leaves were fingered with scarlet and gold and the mornings and evenings had a touch of freshness in their breath which made the timid, gray field mice seek the warmth of sheltered corners.

For breakfast that morning, he thought, there would be sausage, piping hot and spiced with sage. There’d be crispy fried apples, brown and sugared, and corn cakes, too, maybe, with scalloped, lacy edges. After breakfast, Robert decided, he’d carry in the basket of chips and put them on the hearth in the parlor. He’d fetch the purple shawl from the hall cupboard and put it about his mother’s shoulders. The clock on the mantelpiece would strike nine and she would say, “Get your lesson books, Robbie dear. It’s time to begin our work now. You may do the copybook first. And watch your p’s and q’s! And after that I’ll give you a problem in numbers and then our reading. We’ll take up where we left off yesterday. . . .”

Robert was up out of bed and wide awake by now. Under Mammy’s watchful eye, he had made a great show of splashing his face with chilly well water from the blue china pitcher on the washstand in the corner of his room. He had put on his gray homespun suit and was tying his bootlaces. Mammy had gone into the next room and was dressing Baby Millie. From downstairs came the smell of the frying apples. In a moment she would go clumping down to see that they didn’t bum, Robert thought, as he tugged the comb through his dark, curly hair.

But that moment never came, for just then there was the sound of running footsteps on the street outside, and from far off there came the clang-clang-clang of the Town Crier’s bell. Mammy was back in Robert’s room now, with Milly clasped tightly in her arms. She was beside Robert at the open window, her red-turbaned head poked way out as she called loudly, “What’s a-matter, Mister? Do tell now!” to a second and a third hurrying passer-by.

When there was just a wave and an indistinct shout from the men below, Robert called out, too, as he recognized a farmer in the rushing group which was now filling the narrow street.

“Mr. Gray, what’s happened. Is it a fire?” he yelled loudly.

“Big news! War news! A great victory for our side!” the man turned co shout as he ran on.

Robert raced downstairs and into the kitchen, where he found his mother taking care of the burning apples which Mammy had forgotten.

“Run ahead, Robbie,” she said. “Find out what it is. Come straight home and tell me. Perhaps there’s been a battle on the lakes. Maybe your brother Smith was in it. Hurry, Robert, hurry!” She flung the door open and peered anxiously up the street.

Robert was off like a shot, his heart thumping against his ribs as he was caught up in the crowd of men and older boys. There was shouting and cheering all around him now and news bandied back and forth.

“Victory! Victory! Victory!”

“A naval engagement on Lake Erie!”

“The redcoats whipped to a fare-you-well. Scores of BRITISHERS KILLED and hundreds wounded. Lieutenant Oliver Perry, the greatest hero that ever was!”

“Three cheers for Perry! Rah! Rah! Rah!

Robert listened to all the news carefully and then turned to go back home. His mother would be waiting at the door. She would say right off, “Did the Town Crier have a list of wounded and killed? Smith’s name wasn’t on it? You didn’t hear it read out, did you?” That would be more important to his mother, Robert knew, than any great battle won or lost.

He turned and ran quickly back to the Square. The Crier stood high up on the tailpiece of a cart. He was shouting out names. He had reached the H’s. The L’s would come soon. Robert listened carefully, It was hard to hear with the crowd so noisy.

A woman beside Robert began to weep. He looked up and saw that it was Mrs. Harris, who lived near them on Cameron Street. Her son’s name had just been read out. He pulled at her apron and whispered, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I truly am!” He caught her hand and squeezed it.

The Crier had reached the L’s now. Robert stood on tiptoe and held his breath. . . . If he said Lee . . . if he said Sydney Smith Lee!

But he didn’t say it1 He didn’t say it!

Robert wormed his way out of the crowd now. At last he Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South Black Letter Days-And Red Ones was in the open. He started running toward home, as fast as he could. In a moment there were quick steps behind him and Farmer Gray overtook him, laying a hand on his shoulder, slowing him to a trot.

“I’ll go along with you, Son,” he said in a kindly tone. “Your ma’ll want to know all about the victory, soon as she hears Smith’s safe. I talked to the courier hisself afore he sped on to the next town. You hear the words of that message Perry sent?”

Robert shook his head as he hurried along. Behind them they could still hear the shouting and the cheers and firecrackers were beginning to pop. Mr. Gray was striding along swiftly now, his long steps keeping pace with Robert’s trot. But he stopped right there, and though they were in the hot, bright sunshine, he took his hat off his head. Robert stopped, too, and glanced up inquiringly.

“Listen,” the farmer said solemnly. “Listen real well—and remember!”

“Yes, sir. I am. I will,” Robert said politely, trying not to show how much he wished Mr. Gray would hurry up.

But he didn’t seem to be in any hurry at all now. He seemed not to be thinking about anything at all beyond those words he was saying in such a deep, quiet voice. “We have met; the enemy and they are ours!”

“Robert repeated the words. He knew now why Mr. Gray liked them so much. They were fine words. Indeed they were!

After this excitement the days were quiet black-letter ones for a while and then came another red-letter time when the near-by town of Washington was in flames and the smoke was visible from Alexandria. Not only the smoke, but British soldiers trailed through the market square and all women and children were warned to stay indoors.

Robert and Ann and Mrs. Lee peeked out of the upstairs windows and listened to the gossip and discussion which flew about. There was talk that the town would be sacked and then the news came that a compromise had been reached and that contributions of flour and cotton would be made to avoid destruction.

After this there were quiet weeks and months again. Robert was sent to join his boy cousins of the Carter clan in the family school at Eastern View, in Farquier County, at his Aunt Elizabeth Randolph’s house. It was fun to be there. There were games as well as lessons. He was a fine runner, a splendid rider and learned to give a good account of himself with his fists.

Smith was a midshipman now and Carter was completing his education at Harvard, while Ann, who was extreme1y delicate, spent much of her time in Philadelphia. The weeks and months raced by and vacation time came.

It seemed queer to Robert to come home from the rough-and-tumble life with all the boy cousins on the plantation and find no one in the house on Washington Street, to which the family had now moved, but his gentle mother and his little sister Milly.

However, in the town of Alexandria itself there were numberless cousins, and up the Potomac River was Arlington, that large, porticoed house where Mary Custis lived, and many happy hours were spent there.

At least once each year Mrs. Lee took the two children to Shirley, her girlhood home on the James River. Here was grandeur beyond even Stratford or Arlington. Here the great gardens bloomed in all their glory and entertaining was done on a vast and elaborate scale.

During the evenings, before the bedtime hour, Robert and the other children listened in the parlors to the conversation of the older members of the clan and learned much of the famous Carters from whom his mother was descended. Mention was made often of “King” Carter whose great wealth had earned him his nickname. Charles Carter, Robert’s grandfather, had owned twenty-five thousand acres of land and had had twenty-three children by his two wives. He had, in his day, given generously to charity in Virginia, it was said, but since the supply of paupers in the new land was not sufficient for his largesse, he had sent moneys from his huge tobacco crop to be distributed among the English poor.

At Shirley both the surroundings and the routine were very different from the simplicity which Robert found at home in Alexandria when he returned there for his vacations. As soon as he entered the smaller doorway on Washington Street, he assumed the responsibility of the head of the family and saved his mother in every way he could. He took over the keys to the storeroom and doled out the supply of sugar and coffee and flour as it was needed. He went to market every day with a basket on his arm and chose the fowls and freshest vegetables to tempt his mother’s appetite.

In the afternoons old Nat often took Mrs. Lee and her son driving. The family carriage had grown shabby and dilapidated. When the wind was cool and crisp, Robert would pull the shawl tenderly about his mother’s thin shoulders and pack strips of newspaper into the cracks between the curtains. The two never grew tired of talking to one another. Mrs, Lee’s melancholy sorrow and loneliness for her husband would leave her as she looked at the world through her dear Robbie’s fresh young eyes. Sometimes she said that he was a daughter as well as a son to her. He was so gentle, she told her friends, and so understanding.

When, at her wish, he returned to Shirley, Robert became a different boy. His days there were carefree and manly. It was his special delight to help break the unmanageable colts. He and the other growing lads were in the saddle most of the day, His thoroughbred was the first to take the fences and his view-halloo was heard often in the hunting field.

One summer after another came and went, but the life remained unchanged—young people frolicking together, fishing and swimming and dancing, laughter and play. Picnics in the moonlit groves.

Often enough on these picnics, Robert and Mary Custis were apt to find themselves riding together or sitting side by side as the huge platters of Virginia ham and fried chicken and ripe red watermelon went round. After the feast they would sit next to one another in the ring that gathered, as the purple shadows lengthened, to sing the old English ballads which Cavalier ancestors had handed down to them.

Robert’s boyish bass and Mary’s sweet, girlish soprano would join sometimes in a well-loved duet:

All the woods are new in leaf, all the fruit is budding,
Bees are humming round the hive, done with winter’s brooding:
Seas are calm and blue again, clouds no more foretell the rain,
Winds are kind and tender,
High above the kingly sun, laughs once more his course to run,
Shining bright in all his splendor.

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