Mary Anna Custis Lee is a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and heiress to Virginia’s storied Arlington house and General Washington’s personal belongings.
Born in bondage at Arlington, Selina Norris Gray learns to read and write in the schoolroom Mary and her mother keep for the slave children and eventually becomes Mary’s housekeeper and confidante. As Mary’s health declines, Selina becomes her personal maid, strengthening a bond that lasts until death parts them.
Forced to flee Arlington at the start of the Civil War, Mary entrusts the keys to her beloved home to no one but Selina. When Union troops begin looting the house, it is Selina who confronts their commander and saves many of its historic treasures.
In a story spanning crude slave quarters, sunny schoolrooms, stately wedding parlors, and cramped birthing rooms, novelist Dorothy Love amplifies the astonishing true-life account of an extraordinary alliance and casts fresh light on the tumultuous years leading up to and through the wrenching battle for a nation’s soul.
A classic American tale, Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray is the first novel to chronicle this beautiful fifty-year friendship forged at the crossroads of America’s journey from enslavement to emancipation.
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Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray
By Dorothy Love
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Dorothy Love
All rights reserved.
Mary Custis Lee
There was a time when Arlington was a magical place, enchanted and inviolate, the place where all that was beautiful in my world began.
I grew up amid its thousand acres of rolling green hills and pleasant shades, my hands stained with the rust-brown soil of Virginia and branded by the oil of roses from hot summer days working in the gardens with my mother.
A great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, I learned reverence for my family's storied history as soon as I could talk. By the age of eight, I could recite the particulars of the Battle of Trenton and recount details of the bitter winter at Valley Forge. By twelve, I had committed to memory substantial portions of General Washington's writings, and I delighted in showing off my knowledge to the constant stream of politicians, poets, and artists who arrived by carriage or boat or horseback to dine at my father's table. A man of wide interests and legendary hospitality, he enjoyed entertaining the obscure and the famous in equal measure, so long as they were interesting. By the age of seventeen, I had broken bread with horse traders, newspapermen, soldiers, and tobacco farmers — and with such public figures as Sam Houston, Washington Irving, and Lafayette.
After my daily lessons in French, Greek, and Latin, I was free to plunder my father's studio, a thrilling and amusing hodgepodge of books, maps, mementos, and half-finished paintings and plays. I spent hours poring over his volumes of botany, history, and poetry while General Washington kept watch from his portrait above the fireplace mantel. On rainy afternoons I sprawled on the floor with paints and canvas, making sketches of flowers and people and the cats that roamed the house.
My father, George Washington Parke Custis, inherited a number of slaves from his father's estate, sixty of whom lived at Arlington in quarters that stretched from the backyard and along the river to the fields of corn and winter wheat. I knew each of them by name, and they would pause in their various occupations to exchange a greeting whenever I happened by. I spent hours on horseback roaming the silent loveliness of the woods and fields, which were full of foxes, rabbits, and deer. I waded in the cold streams that meandered through dense thickets. I captured butterflies and studied the beetles inching their way along the forest floor. When I grew tired I stopped to rest at our little chapel nestled in a grove of trees. Even now, it is pleasant to recall the sound of voices lifted in song that lingered in the evening air like a benediction.
How long ago it seems. How innocent I was of the ways in which life could wind. I couldn't have imagined that one day this dear old house, the scene of so many happy hours, would be stolen from me, trampled by a lawless foe, never again to shelter me and mine.CHAPTER 2
The forty-mile journey from Arlington to the home of my mother's cousins in Fauquier consumed an entire day. My mother usually accompanied me on visits to her cousin Thomas Turner's family, but she was fighting a cough that spring. I was nineteen, old enough to make the trip without her, so it was Eleanor, affectionately called Old Nurse because she had looked after Papa and then me from our earliest childhoods, who sat with me in the carriage, her sewing on her lap, our lunch basket at her feet.
We left Arlington before sunrise, crossing the dark river that shimmered beneath a waxing moon, meandering eastward past the sleeping farms of Fairfax and Chantilly before turning north to Kinloch, every mile punctuated by Eleanor's complaints about the bumpy ride, her aching bones, and the gathering heat. It was quite a relief when through the deepening twilight the house came into view.
Though the Turner place was not to my eye as lovely as Arlington, it was pleasantly situated on a rise that afforded a view of meadows that in spring were thick with wildflowers, and beyond, acres of rich green fields that spread out in all directions.
My cousins spilled from the house to greet me. Old Nurse climbed stiffly from the carriage and trailed me up the steps and onto the porch while Daniel began unloading my trunks.
"Mary Anna." Cousin Elizabeth, Thomas's wife, squeezed my hands. "Welcome, child. We've missed you."
I kissed her cheek. "Mother sends her love. She said to tell you she hopes to come out later on, when she feels better."
Thomas, tall and spare, consulted his watch. "It's nearly seven. You must be famished by now."
Caroline, who had recently turned eight years old, said, "Papa, we are all famished." She turned her dark eyes on me. "We have been waiting forever, Mary. We thought you would never get here."
"It was a long trip." I smiled and embraced my frank young cousin. "Goodness, you've grown so much since last summer."
"I know it. Almost two inches."
"Mary!" Eliza, two years younger than Caroline, launched herself into my arms. "Guess what?"
"No, you have to guess."
"Well, you must give me some clue."
"We have a new animal in the barn. Guess what it is."
"Bigger than a puppy? Let's see. Do you have an elephant hiding in your barn, Eliza Turner?"
She giggled. "It's a foal. Papa says he's a real beauty and I get to name him."
I set her on her feet and we all went inside. Daniel carried my trunks up to my usual room. Old Nurse went with him to unpack my dresses.
Elizabeth herded us to the table and rang for Wilhelmina, who had presided over Kinloch's dining room for as long as I could remember, and supper was served.
After asking for the news from home, Thomas described a series of agricultural talks he had heard at last year's lyceum in Massachusetts. Elizabeth asked after Mother and Papa. Caroline and Eliza finally nodded off and were taken up to bed by their nurse. The boys, Edward and Henry, badgered their father to continue his reading of The Last of the Mohicans.
"I'm afraid my sons have nothing but Indians on their minds these days," Elizabeth said when Wilhelmina had removed the last of the dishes.
"It's the best book there ever was," Edward said. At eleven years old, he was the younger of the two boys and, like his father, tall and thin, with a shock of brown hair and lively eyes. "Have you read it, Cousin Mary?"
"I have not. But you can tell me about it later, when I am not so sleepy. Right now I don't think I can stay awake for another minute."
"Go on up to bed, Mary," Elizabeth said. "Let me know if there is anything you need."
Old Nurse had prepared my bed and taken out my nightdress and hairbrush before retiring to the little alcove off my bedroom. I washed my face and hands, brushed my hair, and climbed into bed, where I slept like the dead until the crowing of the rooster woke me at sunrise. Old Nurse was still asleep.
I dressed quietly and went downstairs. No one was stirring except Thomas, who was in his library surrounded by crates of books.
"Mary. There you are." He picked up a book, glanced at it, and set it aside. "The boys are off somewhere, and Elizabeth has taken the girls down to the stables to see the new foal. They shouldn't be long. Are you hungry?"
"Not a bit. I ate too much at supper last night."
He nodded in that quiet way of his and poked through another crate.
I looked over his shoulder. "A new shipment of books?"
"Just the opposite, I'm afraid. The shelves are overflowing, and I need to make room for newer works. Some of these are headed for the trash heap, sorry to say."
"Oh, may I have them?"
He looked up, surprised. "I suppose so. But I don't think you will find much that interests you. Elizabeth tells me you and your mother are very fond of novels."
"Yes, but there might be something I can use for my schoolroom."
He frowned. "So the two of you are still teaching your servants to read?"
I ignored the disapproval in his eyes. "We are. I have seven pupils at present, five girls and two boys." I peered into the crates. "Maybe there is something in here to hold their attention. The girls are very keen to master their lessons, but the boys are harder to impress."
"A dangerous business, educating slaves when nothing good can come of it." He set down the book he was holding, a large volume bound in mustard-yellow leather. "The more they know, the more discontented they become."
"Papa says the same thing, but then he admits that slavery will end one day. Maybe sooner than we think. Mother and I want the children of Arlington to be prepared for it."
He nodded, tight-lipped. "I'll leave you to it then."
I rolled up my sleeves and poked through the crates. Most of the books were boring tomes: instruction on agricultural practices, collections of sermons, political treatises. Some were so moldered they fell apart in my hands. Some were missing pages. I was about to give up on finding anything useful when I opened a thick book bound in red leather and found beautiful illustrations of flowers and wildlife. Another book contained poems for children, and a third was a book about sailing ships. These three I set aside for my schoolroom.
I was looking through another crate in search of more treasures when I heard the sound of a horse approaching. I looked out the window, then quickly brushed the dust from my skirt and ran out to the porch just as the rider dismounted and handed his reins to the stable boy.
"Robert Edward Lee, what a happy sight!" I couldn't hide my joy at seeing my favorite cousin. We had been childhood playmates and the closest of confidants before he left for his studies at West Point. Cadets were allowed only a single leave at the end of their second year, and the separation seemed interminable.
"Hello, Molly," he said, using my old childhood nickname. He came up the steps and clasped my hands tightly. "I cannot tell you how long I have waited for this day."
We went into the house together. Except for the servants, we were alone.
"I went first to Arlington, and your mother told me you were here," he said. "I came as soon as I could."
"I'm glad you did," I said. "Have you had any breakfast?"
"No, but I don't want anything." He set his leather hat on the table in the parlor. "All I could think about these past weeks was how much I wanted to walk with you and read with you and ride with you."
"So you said in your letters."
Robert had been an extraordinarily handsome boy, and in his two-year absence he had matured into a strong and handsome man.
"I missed you, Cousin."
"Splendid. Perhaps I can make you forget those other beaux who danced attendance on you while I was away."
"I wouldn't call them beaux, exactly. And anyway, they have all absconded now."
He smiled, seemingly relieved. "What have you been doing?"
I told him about my book-sorting project and led him into the library to see for himself.
"You've grown up since I've been gone," he said. "You seem so much more serious now."
"Maybe I am." I was not very good at sharing my innermost thoughts, but there in the Turners' library with dust motes swirling in the beams of sunlight streaming through the tall windows, I told Robert how very badly I wanted to make a contribution to something that mattered. "After all, what is life worth if you can't accomplish in it something for the benefit of others? Especially those who are so entirely dependent upon our will and pleasure."
"Your mother mentioned that you two are still working on behalf of the colonization society."
"Yes, but progress is difficult when we are obliged to purchase slaves in order to free them. And then there is the cost of their passage to Liberia."
I nattered on, because suddenly it had become important to me that he understand. I leaned on the corner of Thomas's desk. "The children have nothing that's only theirs, and the fact of it is truly shameful. An education, however rudimentary, is something that no one can take away from them, whether they choose to go to Liberia or not. And one day when —"
He smiled then.
"Are you laughing at me?"
"Of course not. I was thinking how pretty you look in that green dress."
"Oh." For the first time in my life I felt shy around him.
"And you have changed your hair too. It's very becoming."
"Mother says ringlets are all the rage these days. I take her word for it."
"So you are still not interested in fashion."
"Not in the least."
Elizabeth and her girls returned from their visit to the foal then, exclaiming over Robert and asking a thousand questions about his life at West Point. By the time Thomas and the boys returned, it was too late for breakfast, but presently an early dinner was set before us, during which Robert described his studies and his plans to become a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Wilhelmina came in with dessert — a strawberry cake with boiled icing. Robert ate two pieces, and after a polite interval in the parlor he caught my eye.
"What do you say, Mary? Shall we go riding?"
We set out across the meadow at a smart canter, giving the horses their lead. We forded a shallow stream and passed through a forest thick with old oaks clothed in summer green.
I was so happy to see Robert I could have ridden with him all day, listening to his tales of life at West Point, but after an hour the sun disappeared and black clouds boiled up in the distance.
"We ought to head back," Robert said, and we turned our mounts for home.
But the sky suddenly opened and we were caught in a down- pour. We sheltered beneath a stand of old oaks. Raindrops glittered in the gusts of warm, humid air that blew against our faces. A low rumble of thunder startled my little mare, and Robert reached for my reins.
Our fingers touched. His eyes met mine and held, and all at once everything changed, and I knew.
The storm slackened and we rode home. Leaving our horses to the stable boy, we went inside, laughing together and shaking off the rain.
Supper that night was a feast to welcome Robert home. Everything was delicious, but I was too jittery, remembering the touch of his hand on mine. I pushed my food around on my plate, listening to the Turner clan chatter on about the new foal, all the while wondering how on earth I could continue to breathe if Robert did not return my tender feelings.
Thomas said something that made everyone laugh. Robert caught my eye across the candlelit table and smiled. And I saw then — to my great delight — that he too understood we were meant for each other.
I knew he couldn't declare himself for a long while yet. He still had two more years at West Point, and after that the challenge of his first posting as an army engineer. But on that warm
May evening at Kinloch, I was as happy as I had ever been. One day Robert Lee would be mine.
Three years later
He proposed marriage over a plate of fruitcake.
It was summer and Arlington was in its full beauty. The broad green lawn sloped gently toward the shimmering Potomac. The gardens brimmed with myrtle and roses and lilac. Children and dogs played among the trees. A family of orange cats lay sunning themselves on the front steps.
Robert was visiting, and we had spent every moment since his arrival walking by the river or talking politics with my father. Following Sunday services, Papa read to us from the new play he was writing. After that we enjoyed an hour of listening to Robert reading aloud a novel by Sir Walter Scott.
When he reached the end of the chapter, Mother caught my eye and said in that sweet, gentle way of hers, "Mary dear, perhaps Cousin Robert could use some refreshments after such a long reading."
Her smile was an unspoken apology for the disagreement we'd had earlier that morning after church. I had changed into an old yellow calico dress with a frayed hem instead of the new apricot silk she had recently made for me. To keep the peace I'd donned the silk, but during dinner I treated her with cool detachment to underscore my displeasure.
Then Robert had arrived, impeccably attired as always, and Mother had sent me a look that plainly said, See, I have saved you from embarrassment.
Now I returned her smile, for it was impossible to remain at odds with someone of such refinement and gentleness. Mother
was a quiet-spoken woman whom nothing ever defeated, a model of piety and parental love. I despaired of ever becoming her equal.
"I could do with something to eat." Robert set his book on the empty chair next to mine.
I went into the dining room to see what was available, and he soon followed. As I finished cutting the fruitcake I'd found on the sideboard, I felt his arm slide around my waist. Drawing me close, he said without preamble, "Molly, will you be my wife?"
My hand trembled so terribly I feared I'd drop the knife. I set it down and turned to face him and was struck anew by his beauty. He was nearly six feet tall, broad shouldered, with a military bearing that made him seem important whenever he entered a room. His hair was thick and dark. His eyes were deep brown and shining with the love that had been slowly growing between us nearly all our lives. I had dreamed of this moment since that magical summer at Kinloch, for I was drawn to him as sunflowers turn toward the sun.
But I had been told all too often that I was too unrestrained in my speech and too unconventional in my conduct. Also, plain and dull. Although I was not completely without male attention, my mother, when she thought I was out of earshot, confided to my aunts and her friends that she was worried about my matrimonial prospects. "Wherever will we find someone suitable for Mary?" was her constant refrain.
Excerpted from Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray by Dorothy Love. Copyright © 2016 Dorothy Love. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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