Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

Off to West Point

It was a beautiful morning in the early spring. Out in the blue waters of the Potomac long lines of wild fowl, swans, geese, and ducks floated in the current. The twigs of the willow-trees were tipped with little furry points. The river-sedges were turning from gray to green.

A young man of eighteen and a slender girl, some two years younger, were walking down a path that led from the meadow to a little boat-landing at the water's edge. Many times they had made this short pilgrimage together, for Robert Lee had always been a welcome guest at Arlington, the great white house that stood back in the shadow of the ancient oaks. Since they were children Mary Custis, to whom all these broad acres would some day belong, and the "son of Light Horse Harry" had been friends. People had smiled when they had seen them, and even the colored servitors of the house had grown to accept the state of things as foreordained. As old Micah, Mr. Custis's body-servant, had remarked, "De seem jes made foh wun anuther." And there was between them that frank interchange of feeling, that essence of companionship, that makes all childish loves so sweet to witness.

When they reached the landing-place the girl seated herself on the edge of a skiff that had been hauled out of the water, and, pointing out to midstream, spoke thoughtfully:

"They will soon be leaving us," she said, "and going north. I wonder why they don't stay here all the year round?"

The young man looked out, following the direction of her pointing finger, and watched a long line of white swans that were hallooing and calling like children at recess. And as he watched there was a flutter in the sunlight like the waft of a great white pennant above the surface, and the line rose, sweeping into the air; still calling joyfully and swinging to the north, the great birds disappeared in the blue of the sky.

"And you will soon be going, too," said the girl, turning to the young man who had seated himself beside her.

"But not exactly like that," was the reply. "It will be in a jolting old coach, with miles of muddy road before me. That is," he added, "if I get my appointment."

"Oh, you'll get that certainly, from what I hear," laughed the girl, "and you'll be right glad to leave us. My father told me that General Jackson spoke very well of you."

"I shall be glad to go," said the young man, gravely, turning his dark eyes to the half-laughing face beside him. "Do you know, I remember a day when I was a little boy while my father was alive, a day when I made up my mind what I was going to be, and nothing yet has altered it."

"You know Mr. Leary always said that you should have been a parson." As she spoke Mary Custis looked at her companion roguishly. "Stand up," she said, "I want to look at you. No, really, I mean it," she added, as the young man did not comply.

And then, without any blushing or awkwardness, he rose and stood before her. There was a slight gleam of merriment in his eye as he leaned himself to her mood.

"Yes," she continued, observing him critically, "you'd look quite well in uniform, much better than in cassock and bands, I am sure. Must every soldier swear and stamp around the way Major Shirley does? I wouldn't like to hear you swear, but I should like to see you stamp a little. Try it," she said, gayly. "No one is looking, and I'll promise not to tell."

The stamp that followed almost shattered the plank of the flimsy little landing, and the laughter that rang out drew the attention of a tall, fine-looking man who was riding up the lane on a clean-limbed roan saddle-horse, and he shouted to them as he waved his hand:

"Ho, Robert!" he called. "There's news for you at the house. Your brother Sydney has just arrived. He has a letter for you."

"The appointment!" cried Mary Custis. "Come, let's run." She extended her hand with a childish invitation.

Robert Lee took it, held it an instant, and dropped it.

"Now you're angry," said the girl, "because I asked you to stamp."

The young man looked at her gravely and shook his head and smiled. "I'm terribly angry," he replied, with a twinkle in his dark eyes. And then quietly, with his companion walking by his side, they went up the pathway to the lane where the tall man on the horse waited for them. Often it had been Mary's endeavor to break down the dignity of her playmate, for ever since she could remember he possessed a grave, quiet way that, while not obtrusive, made her feel that he was almost as old at times, and surely as wise, as her father, who sat there stroking the roan mare's arching neck.

"The letter comes from Washington, young man," said Mr. Custis, bending from the saddle and taking Robert's extended hand. "I told you we would not fail."

"When will he have to go, father?" asked Mary, placing her hand on Robert's arm, much as a sister might have done to an older brother.

The old man looked down on them both affectionately. Like all the neighbors and all the old darkies, he had long ago watched gladly the trend affairs were taking. And looking into the future it gladdened his heart to see the vista of happiness spreading out for his only surviving daughter. He had long looked upon Robert as a man might look upon his son.

It was true; the message brought from Alexandria, only eight miles away, by the young midshipman Sydney, conveyed the information of Robert Edward's appointment as a cadet to the Military Academy at West Point. It contained orders also for, him to report at West Point on the Hudson, and he must leave at once.

Sydney Lee showed more outward signs of gratification than did his grave-faced younger brother. The two boys were alike in some things and very different in others. Each in his own way held the peculiar attraction of the Lees. They were gifted with that hard-to-define personality that is the inheritance of some great families the brow-mark of a ruling race.

That evening, before the two young men started on their long drive back to Alexandria in the high, two-wheeled chaise, Mary Custis got an opportunity to speak to Robert alone.

"You'll be coming back very often, won't you?" she asked, and, strange to say, her voice and manner showed a shyness that was new to her. "You'll be back here in the fall?"

"I'm afraid not, Mary," replied Robert, as he took her hand.

"The swans will be here again," she answered.

"If I were like the swans and could fly as fast as they I'd come back every week." Again he smiled gravely as he spoke, but his brother called to him, so, bidding a quick farewell, he jumped into the chaise.

That evening, at dinner, Mr. Custis spoke to a guest who was at the table. "Young Lee will make a fine soldier," he said. Mary started suddenly.

"Oh, father," she asked, earnestly, "you don't think there will ever be another war?"

"No one can tell, my dear; but that's what soldiers are for," replied the father. "I mean, to fight our battles for us."

"Then, if there is, I wish he had been a parson," said the girl.

Mr. Custis pinched her cheek. "You'll get over all that," he said. "You'll send him off with your ribbon on his arm."