Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 6


Seventeenth Birthday

“ROBBIE, you’re wonderful!” Twelve-year-old Milly looked up at her tall brother adoringly. All afternoon they had been taking advantage of the freezing weather and skating on the pond.

“Just because I can cut a figure eight and do a few other tricks?” Robert chuckled as he gave his little sister a hand up the bank and, still clasping her elbow affectionately, led her over to the log which lay beside a smoldering bonfire.

“You did mighty well, yourself,” he said encouragingly as she sat down on the log and held out her feet for him to unbuckle the skate-straps.

Milly sneezed and shivered. “How cold it is! I hadn’t noticed it was getting dark. Where’s everybody else?”

“They’ve all gone on home,” Robert said as he picked up a stick and stirred the fire to a brighter blaze. “You’d better get warm before we start,” he added in a worried tone as she sneezed again.

“I’m fine!” She smiled up at him through her tears as she mopped her weeping eyes and held out her redmittened hands to the warmth of the shifting flames. “I had the best time I ever had in my whole life, Robbie. I won’t ever forget today-your seventeenth birthday. You skated with me more than with any of the other girls. Most boys don’t like to do things with their little sisters!”

“Most little sisters aren’t like you! It was fun teaching you. Keep on doing as well as you are now and in a few more years you’ll skate better than any other girl in Alexandria.”

“Better than Mary Custis?” Milly teased.

“She doesn’t live in Alexandria!” Robert came back quickly. “She just visits here, worse luck!” Then, as Mildred sneered again, he said anxiously, “Come along, Sis. Hurry up. Let’s get started. I don’t like all that sneezing. Not on my birthday—or any other day.”

“I don’t feel so good,” Milly admitted reluctantly as she got up from the log. “I fell down a lot of times and the ice was sort of slushy. I’m wet all through.”

“Here, take my jacket.” Robert unbuttoned his coat and put it about her shoulders as they started home at a jog-trot.

The minute they got inside the door Mammy took one look at Milly and told her sternly to get her clothes off and go to bed that very minute, while she brewed a bowl of cinnamon gruel and heated up some goose grease to rub on her chest.

Milly protested that she couldn’t till Robbie opened his present from her. She’d go right after that, she promised, as she held the package out to him. He took it and ripped the paper off, exclaiming with genuine delight over the pair of cross-stitched bedroom slippers she had worked for him.

“They’ve got pansies on them. That means thoughts,” she said happily as he gave her a hug and a kiss.

“Now show me your other presents,” she demanded as she hopped into bed, so Robert brought from his room the fine white cambric handkerchief Mary Custis had embroidered for him and the cravat which Ann had sent him from Philadelphia. There were affectionate letters and keepsakes, too, from Smith and Carter and Henry. There was a pin cushion from Mammy and a carved hickory walking cane from Nat.

Downstairs, in the parlor, Mrs. Lee was waiting for Robert.

She smiled up at him from the couch where she spent most of her days now. Her son, she reflected, was one of the “handsome Lees,” just as his father had been. His grayish-brown eyes, his dark, curly hair, his clear skin and his erect carriage made him a young man of whom any mother might well be proud.

“Light the candles and draw the curtains, darling,” she said. “Nat managed to get a fine, plump duckling for us and Mammy has made your favorite plum duff with burnt sugar sauce for dessert. I’ll wait till after we finish supper to give you my present.”

“I’m hungry as a couple of wolves!” Robert pulled up the comfortable, shabby old rocking chair to sit near his mother’s couch.

“You look happy as well as hungry. Was it a good day, Robbie?”

“Fine. The ice was just right for skating. All the boys and girls were there. Mary sent her love to you. She looked so pretty. She had on a green scarf and hood and mittens she had knitted. Her dress was some sort of plaid stuff and her cheeks were pink as rose petals, She had plenty of beaux at her command and was the most graceful skater on the pond.”

“The most graceful skater in all the world, I’m sure you thought!” A hint of tender amusement came into Mrs. Lee’s usually sad eyes.

Robert’s cheeks reddened as he nodded, smiling. “I’ve a piece of news for you-good news,” he said as he crossed the room and took an opened letter off the mantelpiece. “It came this afternoon.”

“Maybe I can guess!” There was a twinkle in his mother’s loving eyes.

“Maybe you had a letter from Aunt Lewis?” he countered.

“Maybe I did,” she admitted. “She wrote me that General Andrew Jackson had spoken a good word for you and that you would receive your appointment to West Point, perhaps not immediately, but in the near future.”

Robert nodded as he took his seat again in the low chair close beside his mother. “The delay doesn’t matter. I need some more mathematics, anyway. If I can get some coaching in that, then everything will be fine. I’ve finally made up my mind for the Army. It seems to me like a very good life.”

“It was your father’s life. He found it good,” Mrs. Lee said quietly. “When he was young, he was General Washington’s right-hand-man. He was gallant and handsome and dashing and brilliant. . . .”

“And you were gentle and sweet and beautiful,” Robert said, taking her hand. “Aunt Randolph and Aunt Lewis have often told me that you were the most beautiful of all the Carter girls. You led the balls at Shirley.”

“That was a great many years ago.” Mrs. Lee sighed. “Certainly your father was the handsomest and the most promising of all the beaux who came to the balls. He had a splendid mind—was intended for the law, did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t,” Robert said with interest. “I thought he’d always planned to be a soldier.”

His mother shook her head. “He graduated from Princeton with high honors. He would have sailed for further study in England, like many of the other Lees, but war came. Patrick Henry was Governor of Virginia then. Harry was barely twenty but he was so fired with enthusiasm that he couldn’t wait to join the cavalry. He was made a captain almost at once. He was a splendid commander. His troops adored him. . . .”

“Brother Henry had a sketch of him dashing into battle. I remember it at Stratford. . . . A white horse and a golden saber. . . . I remember a game we played—ancestors, we called it. I pretended I was Father. I rode the pony and brandished a walnut branch. . . . I wonder what ever became of little Polly Porter. She was so pretty. Almost as pretty as Mary Custis.”

“She’s married, dear. Aunt Lewis wrote me that, too. She went to the wedding last month. A young man from South Carolina, named Jones.”

“You and Father must have hated to leave Stratford,” Robert said as Nat entered the room and set up a little table by the invalid’s couch. He placed on it a tray which held the duckling, crisp and browned to a turn, several tempting vegetables and a plate of tiny biscuits, flaky and dripping with golden butter.

Mrs. Lee said grace and then helped Robert to a lion’s share of the good food. She unfolded her fringed linen napkin and waited till Nat had left the room before she answered, “No, I honestly did not hate to leave Stratford. I loved the old place dearly because your father had been born there and all of my children, except Mildred; but, in a way, it was never quite home to me as Shirley was. I’ve been happier here in Alexandria. I felt; I could be more of a help to your father. . . .”

“But the parties, the gay life of your early days at Stratford. . . .”

“I’d had my full share of all that,” Mrs. Lee said quietly. “When your father was appointed a major-general and served in Congress and, later, when he was Governor, those days were happy. But these quieter ones have been happy, too.”

Robert leaned over to kiss the patient face on the pillow. Nat was bringing in the dessert now, heaping his young master’s plate with the favorite pudding. “Hafta put some meat on our young gemmun, sence he am goin’ for to be a sojer now!” he said with proprietary affection as he gathered up the empty dishes and left the room.

Robert settled back in his easy chair, clasping his hands between his knees. He was thinking, I know what Mother means. There’s something about this homey little house, about the crimson curtains and the snug little fire—about the quietness. . . .

Looking up, he caught her tender smile and said, “What about my birthday present? I can’t wait much longer!”

“Fetch it for me, Son, It’s over on that little table, under my knitting bag.”

He brought her the package and she presented it to him, watching with loving eyes as he undid the ribbon and disclosed the beautifully bound copy of his father’s book, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States.

“Thank you, Mother.” He examined it with delight, feeling the soft leather with his fingertips. “You know, it was reading this book a long time ago that made me decide I wanted to be a soldier. Mr. Hallowell, who has promised to tutor me in mathematics, says the way Father describes his campaigns under General Greene shows he was a real military genius. . . . If I do my best with him—work really hard. . . .”

“You’re looking forward to West Point, aren’t you, Robert?” Mrs. Lee propped herself higher on her pillows and settled to work on the sock she was knitting for her son.

“All but leaving you. That’s the only part of the business I don’t like.”

“Nat and Mammy and Milly will take care of me,” Mrs. Lee said cheerfully. “There’ll be vacations here and at Shirley. And before you leave there’s a special treat in store for you. One that I’ve kept for a last surprise to give you happy dreams.” Mrs, Lee reached for a letter on the table beside her and handed it to Robert, He examined the writing on the envelope and looked wonderingly at the French stamp as he read the address aloud, “Madame Henri Lee, Alexandria, Virginia, États-Unis.”

His mother smiled at the expression of mystification on his face. “Read the letter,” she said with twinkling eyes.

Robert unfolded it and glanced at the signature, “Marie Jean Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.” He whistled softly.

“He’s coming to America in the fall,” Mrs. Lee said in a pleased tone. “The President has invited him. He is to be given various honors. Every town he visits will entertain him royally. He says in his gracious way that when he comes here, to Alexandria, he wishes to pay me homage as the of his well-loved comrade. You will meet him, Robert, and shake his hand!”

Robert, said, “The old hero, himself! And won’t that be something to write to Smith and Carter and Brother Henry about. They’ll be positively green with envy!”

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