Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 8

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

8
Ready for West Point

NOVEMBER brought clear, cold weather. Robert and Milly joined the other young people in their nutting parties in the woods. Their mother kissed them fondly when they came stamping in with reddened cheeks and merry voices, At Christmas time she urged them to spend vacation days with their country cousins. Robert was working so hard with Mr. Hallowell (whom the boys all called “Old Brimstone”) that she was glad to see him throw off his ambitions and responsibilities for a time and be jolly and gay.

After Christmas and on up until spring, it was bleak and gray. Robert pegged hard at his mathematics and, almost before he realized it, spring was upon them again.

Roses bloomed then. His mother told him what to do in the garden: “Snip the smaller buds off the peonies,” she said. “Cut the pansies every day. . . . Take out my watering pot. The English daisies are thirsty little beggars. . . . Plant sun-flower seeds for the birds, Robert, Nat always forgets that.”

Quite suddenly it was July and time for Robert to go to West Point. There were so many things to be thought about—so many things to be discussed in the small family. The journey, which would be made by stage and steamer, was to be the longest that Robert had ever undertaken, and Milly was full of curiosity both about it and about the new life which her brother would be leading at the Academy.

“What time will you have to get up in the morning? What will you be doing all day long?” she asked as they walked home from one of the cousins’ houses where they had been paying a farewell visit.

“We get up when reveille sounds at a quarter to six,” Robert answered. “After this there’s roll call and room inspection. Breakfast at a quarter to eight. Recitations till twelve-thirty, then a half hour recess and lunch. Classes begin again at two and last till four. Then there’s drill, sunset parade and supper. Study hour’s from eight to ten and then taps sounds.”

Milly said, “One of the girls told me her brother says the food is simply awful.”

“Oh, I’ll manage to get along.” Robert smiled down at her. “No one seems to have been poisoned by it to date.”

“But you do love good food, Robbie, you know you do!” Milly’s voice sounded anxious. “Maybe Mother and I can send you a box every now and then and you can have a midnight feast.”

“That’ll be fine—if it’s permitted,” Robert said enthusiastically, and then went on, “Eighty-five other boys are going now but there won’t be any lessons for the summer, just drilling, as the upperclassmen are home on furlough.”

“I can hardly wait for us to get your first letter, telling us which boy you like best and all about everything.” They were turning in at the gate now and Milly ran on up the veranda steps, going straight to her mother’s sitting room to report on events of the afternoon and to tell what she had learned about the Academy.

Robert followed her and bent to kiss his mother who was, as usual, lying on the sofa.

“What does all this mean?” He pointed, smiling, to a heap of flowered stuff on the floor, a frilly pincushion and a hand-painted trash basket.

“I remembered the curtains I had put away when we left Stratford,” Mrs. Lee explained. “I had Mammy get them out. I thought they’d give your room at school a cozy look.”

Robert chuckled. “I met a captain in town the other day and he was telling me about those rooms at the Academy. They’re twelve feet square and four cadets sleep in each of them. The furniture consists of four chairs, four bookshelves, a table and a musket rack. The required equipment is a washbasin and pitcher, a tin pail, a broom and a scrubbing brush!”

“But, darling, what about beds?” His mother looked bewildered.

“Four mattresses are spread on the floor each night, We fetch our water from the spring, where there’s a pump, and our firewood from the outer hall. Tinder and flint are furnished us, The mess hall is equipped with wooden benches and tin plates.”

“How simply horrible!” Milly exclaimed. But Robert only laughed and said, “Oh, boys don’t mind things like that.”

“I meant to ask you about pocket money, Son.” Mrs. Lee looked a little anxious. “I’ve been going over my budget to see what can be spared.”

“I won’t need a dime,” Robert assured her quickly. “Fact is, I’ll be rich as a lord. We get a salary of eighteen dollars a month, plus forty cents a day for rations.”

“Speaking of rations, there’s the supper bell!” Milly jumped up and ran to open the dining-room door, as Robert helped his mother up from the couch. “I made you a chocolate cake this morning for a going-away surprise, Robbie, and Mammy says it’s perfect; that I’m turning into a first-rate cook,” Milly boasted.

“Fine, Sis.” Robert smiled at her as he took his place at the foot of the table. “Some day you’ll make somebody a good wife! Is that what you’re angling for me to say?” he teased, and added, “Maybe I’ll pick out a husband for you—one of the fellows at school. Blond or brunet, which’ll it be?”

“Children, children, do be serious for a moment,” Mrs. Lee said as Nat brought in the simple high tea which took the place of supper with them. “There are so many questions I want to ask, Robert, before you get off. For instance, do you know yet what subjects you will be taking?”

“Only mathematics and French the first year, Mother. The next year drawing will be added. The third year I’ll have natural philosophy, chemistry and drawing, and the fourth chemistry, constitutional law, engineering, ethics and rhetoric. The captain said that if any of the boys didn’t know how to dance, they’d be given lessons. . . .”

“Lucky you do,” Milly put in. “Mary Custis says you dance better than any boy in Alexandria, Robbie. I heard her tell a whole crowd of people that!”

To cover Robert’s confusion his mother said proudly, “Of course Robert dances well. All the Lees do. It’s a well-known fact.”

“Will you have hops at the Academy, Robbie?” Milly asked. “When I’m sixteen, may I come to one of them? Please say ‘yes’! You simply must!”

“Yes!” Robert said. “I’ll try to find that blond for you before then,” he promised. “Or was it to be a brunet?”

“Oh, a blond, by all means,” Milly answered, “one with pretty, curly hair, just the color of Mary Custis’!”

“ou’re as bad a tease as Smith used to be when he was a little boy, Milly,” Mrs. Lee said as she urged the last piece of chocolate cake on Robert, who took it without too much begging. “Tell us about your uniform, Son,” she went on. “You must have a picture taken of yourself in it and send us one.”

Robert nodded. “I’ll have a tintype made just as soon as I can, Mother. The uniforms are of gray cloth, trimmed with black braid and have three rows of gilt bullet buttons down the front. The same buttons are on the tails, the collar, the cuffs and the gray waistcoats. The winter trousers are made of kerseymere and the summer ones of white linen. The leather cap has a plume seven inches high on it. The captain says it’s mighty uncomfortable but fine for smuggling food into the barracks!”

Milly giggled at that and Mrs. Lee smiled with amusement. “You must get to bed early,” she said, “because you’ll be making a dawn start in the morning.”

“And I haven’t quite finished my packing, either,” Robert said, “so I’ll go on up now and gee it out of the way.”

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