Robert E. Lee, Knight of the South, by Isabel McLennan McMeekin, Chapter 24


Evening at Home

PRESIDENT DAVIS summoned Lee to Richmond for conferences and he was more than delighted to go, for this meant a little visit with Mary and the girls, who were living on Franklin Street.

His wife was a chair-bound invalid now. She couldn’t knit or sew any more these days, for her hands were crippled with arthritis, but she was contented with her blooming plants about her and a singing bird close beside her rocker.

Lee came into the room where she sat in the sunny bow window. She was more than contented now. She was gloriously happy, for here was her dear Robert bending down to kiss her.

Darling, it is so good, so good to see you at last. But you look tired. There are lines in your face. You look. . . .”

“I look old, Mary. That’s it, isn’t it? But I’m not old. Not when I can be with you and the children. Why, these weeks will knock ten years off my age—and a haircut will help, too,” he added with a smile as he passed his hand over his head and then felt his beard. “Neither Perry nor Meredith can trim my locks to suit me, I’ll go to the Ballard House this afternoon and get all ‘beautified’ before I pay my respects to the President at the White House tonight.’”

“Do that, my dear,” Mary said, smiling, “but sit down in this chair close beside me now and tell me everything about yourself, just as you used to do in the old days.”

“Nothing to tell.” He pulled a stool near her and settled himself comfortably. “I haven’t even any pets now, I had my same old hen that I wrote you about (the one which nested in my tent and gave me a breakfast egg every day) till after Gettysburg. But last month, alas, Bryan grew so desperate that he cooked her and gave her to me for dinner. I’d never have eaten her if I’d known it was my ‘old faithful’ which was being offered up. . . .”

“Tell me more, Robert. Tell me everything, big and little. It’s been so long—so terribly long!”

And so Robert told her everything, talking away all that afternoon until he had to hurry away to keep his promised appointment with the hotel barber.

After a good trim and “all the fixin’s,” he told Jim, the barber, who was an old friend, that he felt like a new man.

“An’ you sho looks it, Marse Robert!” Jim said as he dropped to his knees to pick up the clippings, putting them into a small square of paper which he folded with great care.

The General swung about. “Hey, there, my man, what in the name of common time are you doing?”

Jim looked sheepish. “I didn’ aim you’d cotch me, Marse Rob. I got a customer for these, five-six customers, more like. They’ll pay me a dollar for each lil wisp I ties up with blue ribbon. It’s good money, suh, an’ don’t do no harm. Folks like to have souvenirs. You know how they is. Sometimes I uses other folks’ white hair an’ calls it yourn. But that ain’t right, I know better, for sure!”

Lee’s face showed unaccustomed anger now. “Here, give me that hair. Give it to me at once!” He held out his hand and took the folded paper, stuffing it into his pocket, “If I ever hear of your doing such a thing again, I’ll speak to the management and you’ll be out of a job. You understand?”

“Yas-suh, yas-suh! I didn’ aim no harm, Marse Rob, honest-to-goodness, I didn’t!”

The General nodded curtly and left the shop with annoyance still plainly visible on his face.

That night, after his conference with Davis, he sat beside Mary again and answered all her questions which she had been saving up for the past months. The girls were there, too, and his daughter-in-law, Fitzhugh’s wife, Chass, to whom he was equally devoted.

“Girls,” he said, and smiled at them over his spectacles, “you’re always wanting to know what camp life is like. Well, here’s a man who tells about it better than I could. He’s a fellow named Benjamin Taylor who does ‘Sketches from the Field’ for the Chicago Journal. He happens to be writing about the Union Army, but I’ve found that, all-in-all, the Yanks and the Johnny Rebs are cut pretty much out of the same cloth, though part of it’s blue and part of it’s gray.”

“Read it to us, Father,” Agnes said, as they pulled up their chairs around the red-clothed table, and young Mary leaned over to turn the wick of the lamp to a higher, clearer glow.

“He says,” Robert began, “‘I have seen soldiers march into a strange region at dark and at once fires were twinkling all over the field, the Sibley cones rising like the work of enchantment everywhere and the little dog-tents lying snug to the ground, as if, like the mushrooms, they had grown there. Nobody can tell tonight where he will be tomorrow and yet with the first glimmer of morning the camp is astir and the preparations begin as if the men were staying there forever, cozy little cabins of red cedar, neatly fitted are going up.’ . . .”

“He writes well, that Mr. Taylor,” Agnes commented as her father paused for breath.

Lee nodded and continued: “‘Here a boy is making a fireplace, plastering it with red earth. He has found a crane somewhere and swung up a two-legged dinner pot, Yonder a bower-house, closely woven of evergreens, is almost ready for occupation. Tables, stools, cots are tumbled together by rough carpenters. The avenues between the lines of tents are cleared and “policed.” Little seats with cedar awnings in front of the tents give a cottage-look, while the interiors have a home-like air. The bit of a looking-glass hangs against the cotton wall, a “handkerchief” of a carpet in front of the bunks marks the stepping-off place to a land of dreams. A violin case is strung up on a convenient hook, flanked by a picture of some hero mounted on a horse, rampant.

“‘But at five o’clock some dingy morning, obedient to sudden orders, the regiments march away in good cheer. The army wagons go streaming and swearing after them. The beat of the drum grows fainter. The last straggler is out of sight, the canvas city has vanished like a vision’.”

“Father,” Mildred suggested, “let me get you a glass of wine. We have a bottle we’ve been saving till you came home. Just a minute and I’ll get it out of the dining-room cupboard.”

“Save it for the wounded, Child. I have no need of it. A glass of water, or, better still, a mug of buttermilk, will be more to my liking,”

“Don’t read while I’m gone,” Mildred called as she left the room.

Mary smiled at Robert. “It’s like old times, isn’t it, dear? If only the boys were here, too.”

Lee said, “If only they were! But they will be soon, please God,” and gave an encouraging look to Chass who, he knew, was thinking with a special heartache of her husband in his gloomy prison cell.

Mildred was back now, bearing a little tray with a carefully saved stale cookie on it and the mug of buttermilk.

“To the very good health and future fortune of all the Lees!” Robert said as he drank the milk with a flourish. Then he picked up again the paper which the President had given him and went on with his reading:

“‘While they were there every wood, hill and ravine was explored and in one day the soldiers know as much about the place as if they had been living there a lifetime. They have tasted water from every spring and well, tried the watermelons, or stolen the peaches or knocked down the persimmons according to the season, milked the cows, roasted the pigs and plucked the chickens. They have found out who lives in every near-by house and learned the names of all the boys and girls of the neighborhood’.”

“Young people don’t seem to have changed their natures much since we were young, Robert,” Mrs. Lee said with a smile. “I remember once when we were first married you and I went to Alum Springs for a day or so. When we arrived the guests were all strangers to us, but after twenty-four hours they seemed like lifelong friends.”

“I remember,” Robert agreed. “I said one of the young matrons resembled Polly Porter Jones and was a true beauty. You got so mad at me that you’d hardly grace me with a smile all evening. Remember?”

There was a gently teasing tone to his voice as he took her hand.

“Robert, how can you! And before the girls, tool They’ll think I was a jealous wife!”

“Well, weren’t you?” he asked, still teasing, and as her only answer was a joking little frown he chuckled as he went back to his reading: “‘If there aren’t any boys and girls in the district but just a ragged baby or two, the young fellows who wouldn’t; have touched the young critturs with a pair of tongs a couple of years ago will make friends with them now, giving them brass buttons from their overcoats and saving them sweet-sops from their own supper.

“‘And, as for souvenirs, they will hunt them down like hound dogs. The strange rocks and shells and natural wonders those lads bring back to camp are beyond all thought. Nothing will catch a homesick soldier’s eye quicker than a patch of velvety moss or a bright wild flower. Almost every letter that leaves camp, winging toward sweetheart or mother, bears some pressed leaf or bit of faded blossom. And, as for the songs they sing.’ . . .”

“Robert,” Mary spoke up, “the girls have learned one of the Northern songs. I don’t know whether or not I should let them sing it. But it’s very sweet, really. If you’d like to hear it. . . .”

“Of course I would,” Lee answered quickly. “This war isn’t going to last forever, and whatever’s good on either side will remain part of our common heritage. That is, if you don’t think we’ll be arrested as Yankee spied!” He glanced humorously at the windows which opened out onto the street.

The four girls gathered about the piano and while Agnes played, Mary and Mildred and Charlotte sang:

We’re tenting tonight on the old camp ground:
Give us a song of cheer,
Our weary hearts, a song of home,
And friends we love so dear.

Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease:
Many are the hearts looking for the right,
To see the dawn of peace.
Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,
Tenting on the old camp ground.

The lamplight shone like a halo around Robert E. Lee’s silvery head, bent low, as he whispered softly, repeating the words, “Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease!”

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