Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 15


Fair Weather

MARY LEE was seated in a rocking chair on the verandah, her wide black silk skirts rustling a little as the soft breeze of late Indian summer played in their folds. Robert Lee drew up a hassock and placed it tenderly under her feet, which were troubled so cruelly with arthritis.

“Sit beside me, dear,” she said and motioned to a stool.

“That’s what I want to do, always, from now on.” His voice was thoughtful and grave as he took his place close to her and laid a loving hand on her knee.

How tired she looked, he thought, but how patient and gentle her expression was, in spite of her constant suffering. Her smooth hair, parted in the middle and drawn simply back over her ears, framed her almost girlishly-rounded cheeks. Her skin was still fair and delicate and flushed with a faint rose-pink when she was excited or pleased. The corners of her mouth were, more often than not, lifted in a smile and her steady, brave eyes met fortune and misfortune with equal calm. The world did not classify her as a brilliant woman nor as an ambitious wife but to her husband she was an ideal mate, devoted and companionable.

“I love you, Mary, dearest. You know that, don’t you?”

“I like to hear you say it, anyway. All the years you were away I missed your saying it, A soldier has to say it twice as often as an ordinary man. Don’t forget that, ever!”

Behind them, through the open window, they could hear two of the girls chatting.

“Give us some music,” Mrs. Lee called to them, “Your father loves to hear you sing. Play one of his favorites.”

Annie crossed to the pianoforte and strummed a few notes. Agnes took up the song as Robert leaned closer to whisper to Mary, “Remember that night when General Lafayette came to supper? Remember the French song you sang?”

She nodded and laid a finger on his lips, as they both sat back to listen to the song the girls had chosen. It was one written in honor of Lee’s old commander, General Zachary Taylor, at the time of the Seminole War, when he had fought in the swampy marshlands of Florida against Chief Furious Alligator.

Young Annie’s voice was tender and true and she put deep feeling into the touching words:

Sweet, oh sweet, are the thoughts of home
In warrior’s breast abounding:
But hark the fife and rolling drum,
A call to arms are sounding.

And we must away, the strife is near,
Every man to his duty;
Ours are the hearts that know not fear,
Yet melt at the smile of Beauty.

Soon, soon we’ll end our wild campaign,
And to our loved ones turning,
We’ll kiss them o’er and o’er again,
Each heart with rapture burning.

And then we’ll swear no more to roam,
From the laughing eyes of Beauty,
And keep our vows till rolling drums
Shall sound the call “to duty!”

“Brava!” Colonel Lee shouted gaily as the last notes of the song died away.

“Don’t forget your Sunday letters to Rooney, girls,” Mrs. Lee called. “Tell your brother all the news of the week. A soldier looks forward to his mail, I know.”

“Indeed he does. I can vouch for that,” the Colonel said heartily.

“We’ll go write to him now,” Agnes promised as she and her sister started up the wide stairway.

“They’re good, kind children. I love them dearly,” Robert Lee said happily, “and every year I find, too, that I love this place more and more. We are blessed, Mary, to have such splendid boys and girls and such a beautiful home. Often when I am away I dream of all of you here at Arlington. I find that as a man grows older, places as well as people mean more to him. You and the children, the trees on this place and the familiar rooms, the colored people and the horses, the dogs and the cats.. . .”

“You and your cats!” Mary teased. “I’ve never understood your passion for them.”

“They’re such comfortable creatures. They give even a rough barracks the feel of home. If you’d been foot-loose all these years as I have, my dear. . . .”

“Even that doesn’t, explain it to me. The funny thing is, I was thinking about it just this morning. I was helping Milly tidy her room before the company came and we ran across a letter you wrote her last year. I had forgotten how amusing I though; it was at the time. I’ve got it here in my pocket. Let me read it to you.”

Lee nodded and sat back with a smile on his lips, as his
wife unfolded the sheets and began:

. . . Can you not pack up and come to the Comanche country? I would get you such a fine cat you would never look at Tom again. Did I tell you Jim Snooks, Mrs. Waite’s cat, was dead? He died of apoplexy. I foretold his end. Coffee and cream for breakfast, pound cake for lunch, turtle and oysters for dinner, buttered toast for tea and Mexican rats, taken raw, for supper. He grew enormously and ended in a spasm. His beauty could not save him. I saw in San Antonio a cat dressed up for company. He had two holes bored in each ear, and in each were two bows of pink and blue ribbon. His round face, set in pink and blue, looked like a big owl in a full-blooming ivy bush. He was snow white and wore the golden fetters of his inamorata around his neck in the form of a collar. His tail and feet were tipped with black. . . .

“I remember the beauty,” Lee broke in. “I longed to steal him from his owner. My only pet at the moment was a wildcat which had grown so big that he had to be caged. He whistled like a tiger when I came near him but was so fierce that he thought nothing of killing a kid when we turned him loose.”

“I’m glad you didn’t bring him home with the horses and the pony. Pets, if they’re gentle and well-trained, are all right in their way, but. . . .”

“I hope that Jones boy didn’t hurt old Spec.” Robert gave a shrill whistle and in a moment Spec and another dog dashed around the corner of the house and, with joyous barkings and wagging tails, made a rush toward their master, leaping into his lap.

Lee patted them affectionately, examining Spec’s tail with care. “Nothing wrong with it now, in spite of that young scamp’s mischief,” he said. His stroking hand buried itself in a shaggy coat as the two dogs settled themselves on his knees.

“The Jones boy seems badly spoiled,” Mary commented.

“His mother isn’t strict enough with him.”

“You used to think Polly Porter was perfect.”

“Did I?” Robert chuckled. “I thought she was the prettiest girl I ever saw—except for you. Don’t tell me you were jealous!”

“A little bit, perhaps,” Mary said with a fond smile. “Enough, anyway, to be glad you don’t think her son is well brought up.”

“You have to be strict with boys,” Robert said judicially. “I know. I’ve raised three of my own and a whole parcel of young West Pointers.”

“And always been strict with them?” The amusement in Mary’s tone was plain.

“Certainly.” Robert’s voice was solemn. “Do you doubt my word, madam?”

“I was just thinking that last week Rob and the girls were laughing together over the way you told them stories when they were youngsters.”

“To improve their morals and their manners,” Lee said as, growing tired of the squirming dogs, he spread his knees wide so that they slipped to the floor, where they gave him reproachful looks before they took themselves off.

“You told them tales—and not all moralizings, either, when they’d wake you up and climb into bed with you in the morning. You’d go on just as long as they’d tickle your toes. When they’d get bored or excited and forger to tickle, the story would stop and you’d say, ‘No tickle, no tale!’ Remember?”

Robert threw back his handsome head and laughed.

“One can’t be a stern father twenty-four hours a day. But at least; I’ve always been a stern husband, haven’t I?”

“Oh, very! A perfect ogre!” Mary puckered up her lips, touched her fingertips to them and threw him a kiss.

Pulling his chair closer to her, Robert laid a hand on her knee. “Seriously, Mary dear, what I wanted to discuss with you was my resignation from the Army. Affairs here have dragged on much longer than I thought they would. It seems to me that my first obligation is to get the children’s inheritance in shape. Fitzhugh is married. He and Charlotte are expecting a baby, Before long the others will need their share of your father’s estate. It has been nearly a year now and the end is not let in sight, Labor’s hard to get with the country in a political turmoil. . . .”

“You’ve done your best, dear. Most of the fences are mended, the fields are productive again and the new buildings going up.”

“But slowly, so slowly,” Lee sighed, letting his glance wander over the vast, spreading acres. “My plans overstep my ability. I. . . .”

“Who’s that coming up the drive, dear?” Mary interrupted, shading her eyes with her hand. “Who could it be? Not another visitor, I hope. Lina’s gone back down to her cabin and there’s only cold supper for us. Who is it now?” She shaded her eyes with her hands against the last rays of the sun, trying to recognize the approaching horseman.

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