Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 14

ROBERT E. LEE, KNIGHT OF THE SOUTH

14
The Squire of Arlington

GEORGE WASHINGTON GUSTIS, “the child of Mount Vernon,” died at the age of seventy-six, Mary Lee wrote the sad news to her husband in San Antonio and he hastened to ask for leave and return to Arlington to settle the old gentleman’s affairs, which were in a sorry state. The property, which was greatly run-down, had been left to the grandchildren, with the provision that all the slaves be freed within five years.

Through mismanagement during Lee’s absence, the family
had become land poor and it was his immediate business
to see to a reorganisation of the estate. Mary could be of no
help, for she had become an invalid by this time.

There was work to be done and Robert put his shoulder to the wheel. From dawn to dark, every day he rode over the fields, directing the work on the crops, seeing to the building of the broken-down fences and, when they were shorthanded, dismounting and joining in the labor. Usually he was accompanied by his youngest daughter, Mildred, to whom lie was especially partial, since she reminded him of the aunt after whom she had been named, who had been his “Little Sis” in the long-ago boyhood days in Alexandria. Even though she was thirteen, Mildred still rode Santa Anna, the fat, white pony who had been passed down from one Lee child to another. Her bright hair hung shoulder-length and it was caught up in a silken snood. Her long, dark, woolen skirt swung below her booted feet on the small sidesaddle, and her eyes were bright and happy as she trotted proudly beside her father, who was mounted on his favorite mare, Grace Darling.

One Saturday afternoon in late autumn, the two were jogging along the lane which followed the river. They had been down to the far woods to inspect the supply of firewood which the men were cutting and hauling.

Milly said, “Father, did you see that big tree the storm blew down last week? It would make a fine Yule log. When Christmas comes—” She broke off and seemed to be thinking deeply.

“Yes, Daughter, when Christmas comes?” Lee slackened the reins of his bridle and glanced inquiringly down at the girl beside him.

“Will you be here then, Father? It isn’t like Christmas if you aren’t at home. No matter how many presents we get, they aren’t half as nice. Haven’t you been a soldier long enough, Father? Don’t you think you have?”

Lee considered the question thoughtfully before he answered. “I’ve been a soldier for thirty years,” he finally said slowly. “I’ve always thought that when I grew old I’d rather farm than anything. The life of a Virginia planter seems to me the best life a man can have. Nature, his wife, his children, his horses and dogs and cats.”

“Father, you mean it, you do?” Mildred asked joyously. “You’ll stay at home now. Always, forever! You promise you’ll never go away again?”

There was so much hope and happiness in young Milly’s face that Lee was tempted to say, “Yes, I promise.” But that was too easy, too quick a way for him. There was his duty to be considered before his pleasure.

“I must think the matter over, Child. I must discuss it with your mother. She is a very wise woman and will know what is right. Already I have had my leave extended twice. I wouldn’t want to be remiss—to fail in what is expected of me by my superior officers.”

“You ask Mother what she thinks,” Mildred said slyly. “She misses you even worse than we do. She wants you to stay home. She needs you to take care of her, now that her bones ache most all the time.”

Lee smiled. “I will ask her, I promise that. I’ll have a long talk with her tomorrow after church.”

“But there’s company coming for dinner, Father. Don’t you remember, Mother said she’d asked that lady you used to know when you were a little boy? The one who has a boy my age. Porter Jones. I don’t like him. He sticks out his lip, like this!” Milly mimicked the boy, tossing her head and laughing gaily.

Lee put his hand to his mouth to conceal his smile. He, too, had thought the boy sulky when he had last seen him, but he said tolerantly, “Maybe if you knew him better, you’d like him. His mother, Polly Porter her name used to be, was one of the prettiest little girls I ever knew”

“Prettier than Mother?”

“Nobody was as pretty as your mother. But Polly Porter was next prettiest. You try to be nice to her boy and after they leave I’ll have a good talk with Mother and we’ll see what she says about my leaving the Army and becoming a stay-at-home.”

“Hooray, horray, hooray!” Milly shouted happily, and with a smart slap on Santa Anna’s fat flank, she dashed on ahead.

The next day the Joneses and a half-dozen other guests took their places around the big oval table at Arlington. The weather was glorious on this bright seventeenth of October, 1859. Every tree in the woodland which was visible through the wide dining-room windows flamed with scarlet and gold. There was some discussion of the sermon and then the talk turned to the casual chatter of the neighborhood. The men commented on crops and the unsettled state of politics, while the ladies talked of the fashions for the coming winter. Black lace headdresses were coming into vogue, Mrs. Jones said authoritatively. They were to be draped like a coronet, the Ladies Magazine stated, with trailing ends over the shoulders.

Mrs. Lee smiled and nodded, her housewifely eye on the heaped platters of crisp fried chicken, the bowls of thick cream gravy and numerous vegetables which went round and round again in a seemingly never-ending circle. The hot biscuits were passed and repassed and were followed at long last by the deep silver bowl full of country-rich ice cream and the flat platters of mince and pumpkin pie.

Finally, the long meal was ended and the ladies left the gentleman to their cheroots. In the parlor Annie and Agnes Lee favored the company with a sacred selection on the pianoforte, An elderly matron took a quick catnap and Mary Lee glanced surreptitiously at the mantel clock. Robert had so little leisure time during his busy week, she thought, and Sunday afternoon was such a peaceful time for a good talk.

It almost seemed as if Polly Porter Jones must have read her hostess’s thoughts, for in a moment she gathered up her full green skirt and rose from her chair. “We must be going, my dear,“ she said briskly. ”I see the young people are out on the lawn. I’ll call Porter to make his adieux. Such a lovely time, Mary! Such a delicious dinner. That baked squash with the dusting of nutmeg. I must remember to tell my Lula!” With a smile and a nod, Mrs. Jones swept across the parlor, through the hall and out the front door, where she “yoo-hoed” in a ladylike manner to her son.

At the second or third call, Porter truculently followed the group of young people to the verandah. Colonel Lee, who had escorted the gentlemen to join the ladies, stood watching the boy, Milly has right, he decided, young Porter was a sulky-looking lad. His lip stuck out like a shelf, as he said in a whining tone, “Why do we hate to go home now? I was having a good time teasing the dogs. If you pull that spaniel’s tail, he whimpers just like a baby does when you pinch it. You ought to hear him, Ma, it’s real funny!”

Colonel Lee glanced swiftly at Milly and noticed her angry, flushed face. He saw her temper rising and knew that in a moment there would be a flare-up, for she loved Spec, the old spaniel, and couldn’t bear to have him teased. He moved quietly to her side and laid a gently restraining hand on her shoulder. She glanced up at him and whispered, “Father, I hate him. He—”

Ssh, Daughter! Our guests are leaving now. Say goodbye like a little lady!”

Mildred obeyed with what show of grace she could muster and her father gave her a tender and approving smile as the quests loaded themselves into carriages, and with lingering farewells took their departure.

“Good girl!” Colonel Lee said to Mildred after they had left. “I was proud of you, Daughter. Run along now and I’ll have that talk with Mother.” He hugged her and gave her an affectionate kiss as she nodded and ran back on the lawn to where Spec was nursing his injured dignity and licking his sore tail.

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