What Did Marse Robert Think?
MARSE ROBERT, — better, but less affectionately, known elsewhere as General Robert E. Lee, — done by Mascier in colossal bronze, very dignified and heroic, very beautiful also against the tender blue of an early spring sky, sat upon Traveller at the meeting-place of four broad streets, and looked out over the city of his affection; while all the bright afternoon, to the crash of bands, the clapping of hands, and the steady throb of marching feet, the huge war parade, with its black festoons of watching people on the sidewalks, eddied and swirled around the great base of his statue. And what did Marse Robert think of it all?
There was very much for him to see — there was more, perhaps, for him to think.
Here below him an immense panorama of war unrolled itself, company after company, marching and marching up the wide street under faintly budding trees, past Marse Robert on the right, up and around the Davis Column beyond, and down past Marse Robert on the left again. In the foreground of every mind was the pageantry of war; in the background of every heart was its sharp reality; for, just as the parade got itself at last into marching order and started from the Capitol, little newsboys ran suddenly out among the crowd crying extras: ’Great German Drive Unchecked!’ — ‘British Line Broken at St. Quentin!’— ‘Shells Dropping on Paris from Gun Sixty Miles Away!’
Column after column of troops — soldiers, sailors, marines, white troops, colored troops, Home Defense, Aviation Corps, Red Cross, Blue Cross, tank, medical float, — doctors and nurses displaying a brave sign: ‘Don’t Worry, Mothers, We ’ll Take Care of Your Boys Over There,’ — Governor of the State, Commander of Camp Lee, marching mothers, marching schoolchildren, marching business men — what a medley! A little group of smart English officers — a merry Highlander with them; then a line of blue-clad Frenchmen. Mr. B—, the druggist around the corner, could tell Marse Robert a story about these last delightful and courteous gentlemen.
The little druggist — a quiet man of middle age — was afflicted by a German neighbor. At the time of the sinking of the Lusitania, the latter came into Mr. B—’s establishment, and triumphed, winding up with, ‘Well, the damned Yankees, why don’t they stay at home then?’ Suddenly and violently he found himself flat on the floor; then with equal violence he was jerked to his feet and rushed to the street, where the furious little druggist faced him exclaiming, ’Now, sir, in case you have any objection to fighting me in my own store, we are out in the street, so come ahead!’
The German, however, did not come ahead: he went home.
It was a great day for Mr. B—. Old friends came in to shake him by the hand, strangers from all over the country wrote and telegraphed their congratulations; but the best was yet to come. Two and a half years later, looking out of his window one day, he beheld the young French officers of whom every one was talking come swinging down the street, very stiff and martial, very brisk and businesslike. At his shop they paused, they entered, they lined up before him, they saluted, smiling. ‘Monsieur,’ they said, ‘we haf come to view ze battleground of ze first American victory of ze war.’ The druggist would like Marse Robert to know about that.
More and more marchers: Y.M.C.A. float, Knights of Columbus, Thrift Stamp, Liberty Loan; and everywhere waving United States flags. And what did Marse Robert think of it all ?
There were many children and grandchildren of former kinsmen and old friends of his, marching there. Doubtless the features of many of them looked familiar to him; and he would be very familiar, too, with the pleasant friendliness of the crowd on doorsteps and porches, calling out greetings and encouragement to the marchers — to Uncle Sams, Columbias, or Red Cross nurses. ‘How do, Sallie! You look grand — but ain’t you mighty cold?’ — ‘Well, will you please to look at Wilcox!’ — ‘There, that’s Lucy! ain’t she sweet?'
It is the Home Defense that comes in for the greatest amount of comment. They are perhaps the bravest body of men in the world. They know they are not glorious in appearance. They are used to securing their equipment from any cast-off lots that come their way; they know that their women-folk regard them askance, asking one another in anxious asides, ‘Do you think Jim looks very funny in his uniform?’ They are used also to having their small sons, home from the near-by Military Academy, drill them severely, singling out their own particular parents for especial abuse. ‘There now, father, you messed that up! You were pivot man that time!’ And yet they march bravely on, apparently oblivious to masculine hoots of ’Oh, look! just look at Bill! Oh! he, he, he!’ and the softer feminine tones lamenting, ‘Oh, why did n’t somebody pull his coat down good for him ’fore he started!’ Three cheers for the Home Defense!
Yes, all the gay exchange of greeting Marse Robert would have found familiar enough; but what about the tank, the aviators, and a gun that would shoot sixty miles? And what about all those waving United States flags? And what did he think also when a detachment of soldiers swung by to the tune of John Brown’s Body, and the words, ‘We’ll hang the Kaiser to a sour-apple tree’? Perhaps he hoped they would choose another refrain before they reached the Davis monument.
But if any of this surprised and puzzled Marse Robert, there was at least a handful of men there in the crowd whom he completely and tenderly understood. These were old men with faded eyes and white hair; broken men they were, too, with here a leg missing, and there an arm twisted out of shape; and they were clad in gray uniforms.
One of these old soldiers of the Lost Cause stood for a long time rooted to the same spot and stared speechless at the great parade. A kindly neighbor ran down the steps and invited the old man to sit on his porch; but, never taking his eyes from the sight before him, he shook his head in refusal. He could not see enough of that moving warpicture before him. He gazed and gazed, not with his eyes alone, but with his whole body as well. French officers, English officers, aviation, tank — here was war, indeed! And what did the silent old soldier think of it? Were the years wiped out for him, and did he remember his own fighting youth? Did he remember the Battle of the Crater, Manassas, and Seven Pines? And what did he think of all those United States flags waving there before him? Well, if any one knew, certainly the heroic figure sitting there above him on Traveller must have known; and surely Marse Robert’s heart must have been very tender and understanding toward his old gray comrade there in the street, who seemed the very incarnation of the past flung sharply up against the background of this vivid present.
And if the years were wiped out for that old veteran, for others distance was destroyed. With those tall black headlines walking ominously across the front pages, and the ‘Big Drive’ on, France was no longer a far-away country. All at once it was poignantly close inside one’s very heart, indeed. And people farther away than Dover or Kent heard the guns that day. There were mothers marching there, with bright rosettes on their bosoms, who heard them terribly loud, thundering all through their bodies every step they took. And fathers too. ‘Look at Ellis Blair,’ the crowd whispered, as a business man’s section went past; ‘he’s got a boy over there right now in this big drive — how do you reckon he feels?’ He looked like a prosperous gentleman strolling quietly down the avenue to his office; but how do you reckon he felt?
And as the black headlines flared in their eyes, apprehension shivered wildly through the colored spectators. ‘Now, if the Germans git through dis time, do it mean they has dominion over the United States?’ they questioned.
So all the bright afternoon the great procession swept around the base of Marse Robert’s statue, the head coming down on one side of the double street while the tail went slowly up on the other. The bands played, the hands clapped, the feet marched and marched; and then at last it was all over. The crowd broke up and swirled away; nurses and parents collected tired children; automobiles honked, and backed heavily out of vacant lots; friends parted with a hand-clasp, and, ‘Well, I hope we have better news in the morning.’
The sun went down as a red ball of fire, and the moon came riding up in silver silence; and Marse Robert was all alone in the empty street —
And what had he thought of it all? Well, nobody knows; but one may surmise that he must have been deeply proud of his city and of his people.
And, perhaps, with his pride in his face, he turned to another watching American, and spoke. ‘Have you noticed my people to-day?’ he said; ‘have you marked their high hearts, and the splendor of their spirit?’
And if he did, I know that the other American was very swift to respond. ‘Yes, Bob,’ I think he said, putting out a great hand, — the hand of a railsplitter,— ‘yes, I have watched our people to-day, and so I always knew they would be.’