Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 7


Welcome to a Hero

SPRING and summer passed quickly as Robert applied himself to his lessons under Mr. Hallowell’s direction and at last the great day, which he had so eagerly anticipated, arrived.

Lafayette’s visit in Alexandria, as elsewhere, was a triumphant progress. Arches of flowers spanned the cobbled streets and young girls in gala costumes welcomed the French general with gracious speeches delivered in his mother tongue. One huge banner draped from a building read, “A Nation’s Gratitude Thy Due!” and another proclaimed a quotation from one of the hero’s own speeches, “For a Nation to Be Free It Is Sufficient That She Wills It!”

A live eagle from the Alexandria Museum spread its wings above the arch of triumph and every old soldier from the town marched in the grand parade.

Nat polished the harness and curried the Lee horse with great care. The family, dressed in their Sunday best, found a point of vantage on Cameron Street, near old Christ Church.

Mrs. Lee sat in quiet dignity in the carriage, her silk-mitted hands folded in her lap. Though she gave little thought to her appearance, she presented a picture of aristocratic charm in her black lace bonnet, with the narrow velvet ribbons tied under her chin, and her old but carefully pressed and still-handsome taffeta dress.

Nat stood protectingly beside the wheel, his worn beaver hat held in his hand as a mark of respect to his revered mistress and to the great man whose open barouche was approaching slowly through the tree-lined street.

Not far away, Robert and young Mildred were standing on their tiptoes, trying to get a first glimpse of the oncoming carriage, At last they saw him—the little old man, dressed in blue brocade, wearing a brown wig.

“He’s so old, Robbie!” Milly’s tone was childishly disappointed.

“Of course he’s old. It’s been almost fifty years since he came over to help us win our independence. You must remember today, Milly. You must tell your children that you saw the Marquis de Lafayette!” Robert spoke with the authority of an elder brother.

“Oh, I will, Robbie. I won’t forget!” Milly answered eagerly, but: already her eyes were wandering from the barouche which was passing them to the crowds of young people who were following it.

“Look, Brother, quick!” She gave his arm a sharp little pinch and pointed to one of the girls wearing a yellow gauze costume. “Look! There, with the garland of yellow roses around her head. It’s Mary Custis! She’s your sweetheart, isn’t she?”

Robert pretended that; his eves had not picked out that very figure some moments before, “Which one is she?” he asked too casually. “All girls look alike in that funny getup.”

“Funny getup, indeed!” Milly repeated in a horrified tone, “They’ve been working on those dresses for weeks. I helped sew some of the seams. If only, only, only I’d been old enough to be in the parade. It’s simply horrid to be so young!”

“Horrid to be old like the General—and horrid to be young like you!” Robert teased.

But Milly was paying no attention to him. “Look, she’s seen us! She’s waving!” Milly waved back with schoolgirl enthusiasm. “If I can get through the crowd, I’ll run and ask Mother if we can invite her to supper.”

“Maybe she already has other plans,” Robert demurred.

“Pooh! She’d break them for a chance to have supper with Monsieur Lafayette. She’d break them for a chance to have supper even with you, Robert, without Lafayette. She told me she thought you were the handsomest man she knew.”

Robert smiled affectionately at his little sister. It was flattering to be called a man—flattering to be thought handsome! He gave her arm a fond little pat and blushed boyishly as he said, “I bet you just made that up!”

Milly laughed teasingly as she slipped away from him through the crowd. In a moment he saw her by the carriage, watched her speak to their mother and saw Mrs. Lee’s pleased nod.

Eagerly he pressed through the throng, caught up with Mary in the procession and whispered the invitation to her. There was a burst of martial music from the band up ahead and, though he couldn’t catch her answer, he saw by the expression on her face that it had been “yes.”

“I’ll meet you on Orinoco Street where the parade disbands,” he told her and her smile said that she would wait for him there.

The remainder of that day was a never-to-be-forgotten event in the calendar of Robert’s life. He often remembered it and spoke of it afterward.

The simple and unpretentious Lee home was gaily decked with bright flowers from the small garden. When darkness brought the chill of early autumn, a pleasant fire crackled in the brick fireplace and Nat drew the curtains snugly and touched a taper to the candlewicks.

The round mahogany table shone in the soft light and the silver tea service winked brightly. The meal was not an elaborate one but the plain food was seasoned in the French manner and served with some formality on fine old Sèvres plates which had been in the family for many generations.

The guest of honor was gracious and friendly, smiling at the quiet young people and exchanging reminiscences of the past with Mrs. Lee. He recalled many instances of his friendship with the Colonel in their youthful days and said that he thought Robert resembled his father.

Before he left, Mrs. Lee asked Mary to sing for them, at Lafayette’s suggestion, and, with a mixture of charming girlish modesty and poise, she took her place at the rosewood spinet. Her voice, though it had no great strength, was sweet and fresh.

The General closed his eyes and smiled contentedly as she began:

Je voudrais que la rose
Fut encore rosier
Et que le rosier même
Fut dans la mer jeter.
Il y a longtemps que je t’aime,
Jamais je ne t’oublierai.

“I don’t understand any French, though I do study it in school,” Mildred said plaintively.

“Sing it once more for the little miss. Sing it in English this time,” Lafayette commanded graciously.

Mary smiled at Mildred and repeated the song;

Would that each rose were growing
Still on the rose tree gay,
And that the fatal rose-tree
Deep in the ocean lay.
I’ve loved thee long and dearly,
I’ll love thee, Sweet, for aye!

As she turned from the spinet to find Robert’s serious
eyes gazing gravely at her, she blushed as red as one of
in the old-fashioned song.

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