Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell Page 3
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On an afternoon of the following week, Scarlett came home from the hospital weary and indignant. She was tired from standing on her feet all morning and irritable because Mrs. Merriwether had scolded her sharply for sitting on a soldier's bed while she dressed his wounded arm. Aunt Pitty and Melanie, bonneted in their best, were on the porch with Wade and Prissy, ready for their weekly round of calls. Scarlett asked to be excused from accompanying them and went upstairs to her room.
When the last sound of carriage wheels had died away and she knew the family was safely out of sight, she slipped quietly into Melanie's room and turned the key in the lock. It was a prim, virginal little room and it lay still and warm in the slanting rays of the four o'clock sun. The floors were glistening and bare except for a few bright rag rugs, and the white walls unornamented save for one corner which Melanie had fitted up as a shrine.
Here, under a draped Confederate flag, hung the gold hilted saber that Melanie's father had carried in the Mexican War, the same saber Charles had worn away to war. Charles' sash and pistol belt hung there too, with his revolver in the holster. Between the saber and the pistol was a daguerreotype of Charles himself, very stiff and proud in his gray uniform, his great brown eyes shining out of the frame and a shy smile on his lips.
Scarlett did not even glance at the picture but went unhesitatingly across the room to the square rosewood writing box that stood on the table beside the narrow bed. From it she took a pack of letters tied together with a blue ribbon, addressed in Ashley's hand to Melanie. On the top was the letter which had come that morning and this one she opened.
When Scarlett first began secretly reading these letters, she had been so stricken of conscience and so fearful of discovery she could hardly open the envelopes for trembling. Now, her never too scrupulous sense of honor was dulled by repetition of the offense and even fear of discovery had subsided. Occasionally, she thought with a sinking heart, "What would Mother say if she knew?" She knew Ellen would rather see her dead than know her guilty of such dishonor. This had worried Scarlett at first, for she still wanted to be like her mother in every respect. But the temptation to read the letters was too great and she put the thought of Ellen out of her mind. She had become adept at putting unpleasant thoughts out of her mind these days. She had learned to say, "I won't think of this or that bothersome thought now. I'll think about it tomorrow." Generally when tomorrow came, the thought either did not occur at all or it was so attenuated by the delay it was not very troublesome. So the matter of Ashley's letters did not lie very heavily on her conscience.
Melanie was always generous with the letters, reading parts of them aloud to Aunt Pitty and Scarlett. But it was the part she did not read that tormented Scarlett, that drove her to surreptitious reading of her sister in law's mail. She had to know if Ashley had come to love his wife since marrying her. She had to know if he even pretended to love her. Did he address tender endearments to her? What sentiments did he express and with what warmth?
She carefully smoothed out the letter.
Ashley's small even writing leaped up at her as she read, "My dear wife," and she breathed in relief. He wasn't calling Melanie "Darling" or "Sweetheart" yet.
"My Dear wife: You write me saying you are alarmed lest I be concealing my real thoughts from you and you ask me what is occupying my mind these days "
"Mother of God!" thought Scarlett, in a panic of guilt. "'Concealing his real thoughts.' Can Melly have read his mind? Or my mind? Does she suspect that he and I "
Her hands trembled with fright as she held the letter closer, but as she read the next paragraph she relaxed.
"Dear Wife, if I have concealed aught from you it is because I did not wish to lay a burden on your shoulders, to add to your worries for my physical safety with those of my mental turmoil. But I can keep nothing from you, for you know me too well. Do not be alarmed. I have no wound. I have not been ill. I have enough to eat and occasionally a bed to sleep in. A soldier can ask for no more. But, Melanie, heavy thoughts lie on my heart and I will open my heart to you.
"These summer nights I lie awake, long after the camp is sleeping, and I look up at the stars and, over and over, I wonder, 'Why are you here, Ashley Wilkes? What are you fighting for?'
"Not for honor and glory, certainly. War is a dirty business and I do not like dirt. I am not a soldier and I have no desire to seek the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth. Yet, here I am at the wars whom God never intended to be other than a studious country gentleman. For, Melanie, bugles do not stir my blood nor drums entice my feet and I see too clearly that we have been betrayed, betrayed by our arrogant Southern selves, believing that one of us could whip a dozen Yankees, believing that King Cotton could rule the world. Betrayed, too, by words and catch phrases, prejudices and hatreds coming from the mouths of those highly placed, those men whom we respected and revered 'King Cotton, Slavery, States' Rights, Damn Yankees.'
"And so when I lie on my blanket and look up at the stars and say 'What are you fighting for?' I think of States' Rights and cotton and the darkies and the Yankees whom we have been bred to hate, and I know that none of these is the reason why I am fighting. Instead, I see Twelve Oaks and remember how the moonlight slants across the white columns, and the unearthly way the magnolias look, opening under the moon, and how the climbing roses make the side porch shady even at the hottest noon. And I see Mother, sewing there, as she did when I was a little boy. And I hear the darkies coming home across the fields at dusk, tired and singing and ready for supper, and the sound of the windlass as the bucket goes down into the cool well. And there's the long view down the road to the river, across the cotton fields, and the mist rising from the bottom lands in the twilight. And that is why I'm here who have no love of death or misery or glory and no hatred for anyone. Perhaps that is what is called patriotism, love of home and country. But Melanie, it goes deeper than that. For, Melanie, these things I have named are but the symbols of the thing for which I risk my life, symbols of the kind of life I love. For I am fighting for the old days, the old ways I love so much but which, I fear, are now gone forever, no matter how the die may fall. For, win or lose, we lose just the same.
"If we win this war and have the Cotton Kingdom of our dreams, we still have lost, for we will become a different people and the old quiet ways will go. The world will be at our doors clamoring for cotton and we can command our own price. Then, I fear, we will become like the Yankees, at whose money making activities, acquisitiveness and commercialism we now sneer. And if we lose, Melanie, if we lose!
"I am not afraid of danger or capture or wounds or even death, if death must come, but I do fear that once this war is over, we will never get back to the old times. And I belong in those old times. I do not belong in this mad present of killing and I fear I will not fit into any future, try though I may. Nor will you, my dear, for you and I are of the same blood. I do not know what the future will bring, but it cannot be as beautiful or as satisfying as the past.
"I lie and look at the boys sleeping near me and I wonder if the twins or Alex or Cade think these same thoughts. I wonder if they know they are fighting for a Cause that was lost the minute the first shot was fired, for our Cause is really our own way of living and that is gone already. But I do not think they think these things and they are lucky.
"I had not thought of this for us when I asked you to marry me. I had thought of life going on at Twelve Oaks as it had always done, peacefully, easily, unchanging. We are alike, Melanie, loving the same quiet things, and I saw before us a long stretch of uneventful years in which to read, hear music and dream. But not this! Never this! That this could happen to us all, this wrecking of old ways, this bloody slaughter and hate! Melanie, nothing is worth it States' Rights, nor slaves, nor cotton. Nothing is worth what is happening to us now and what may happen, for if the Yankees whip us the future will be one of incredible horror. And, my dear, they may yet whip us.
"I should not write those words. I should not even think them. But you have asked me what was in my heart, and the fear of defeat is there. Do you remember at the barbecue, the day our engagement was announced, that a man named Butler, a Charlestonian by his accent, nearly caused a fight by his remarks about the ignorance of Southerners? Do you recall how the twins wanted to shoot him because he said we had few foundries and factories, mills and ships, arsenals and machine shops? Do you recall how he said the Yankee fleet could bottle us up so tightly we could not ship out our cotton? He was right. We are fighting the Yankees' new rifles with Revolutionary War muskets, and soon the blockade will be too tight for even medical supplies to slip in. We should have paid heed to cynics like Butler who knew, instead of statesmen who felt and talked. He said, in effect, that the South had nothing with which to wage war but cotton and arrogance. Our cotton is worthless and what he called arrogance is all that is left. But I call that arrogance matchless courage. If "
But Scarlett carefully folded up the letter without finishing it and thrust it back into the envelope, too bored to read further. Besides, the tone of the letter vaguely depressed her with its foolish talk of defeat. After all, she wasn't reading Melanie's mail to learn Ashley's puzzling and uninteresting ideas. She had had to listen to enough of them when he sat on the porch at Tara in days gone by.
All she wanted to know was whether he wrote impassioned letters to his wife. So far he had not. She had read every letter in the writing box and there was nothing in any one of them that a brother might not have written to a sister. They were affectionate, humorous, discursive, but not the letters of a lover. Scarlett had received too many ardent love letters herself not to recognize the authentic note of passion when she saw it. And that note was missing. As always after her secret readings, a feeling of smug satisfaction enveloped her, for she felt certain that Ashley still loved her. And always she wondered sneeringly why Melanie did not realize that Ashley only loved her as a friend. Melanie evidently found nothing lacking in her husband's messages but Melanie had had no other man's love letters with which to compare Ashley's."
"He writes such crazy letters," Scarlett thought. "If ever any husband of mine wrote me such twaddle twaddle, he'd certainly hear from me! Why, even Charlie wrote better letters than these."
She flipped back the edges of the letters, looking at the dates, remembering their contents. In them there were no fine descriptive pages of bivouacs and charges such as Darcy Meade wrote his parents or poor Dallas McLure had written his old maid sisters, Misses Faith and Hope. The Meades and McLures proudly read these letters all over the neighborhood, and Scarlett had frequently felt a secret shame that Melanie had no such letters from Ashley to read aloud at sewing circles.
It was as though when writing Melanie, Ashley tried to ignore the war altogether, and sought to draw about the two of them a magic circle of timelessness, shutting out everything that had happened since Fort Sumter was the news of the day. It was almost as if he were trying to believe there wasn't any war. He wrote of books which he and Melanie had read and songs they had sung, of old friends they knew and places he had visited on his Grand Tour. Through the letters ran a wistful yearning to be back home at Twelve Oaks, and for pages he wrote of the hunting and the long rides through the still forest paths under frosty autumn stars, the barbecues, the fish fries, the quiet of moonlight nights and the serene charm of the old house.
She thought of his words in the letter she had just read: "Not this! Never this!" and they seemed to cry of a tormented soul facing something he could not face, yet must face. It puzzled her for, if he was not afraid of wounds and death, what was it he feared? Unanalytical, she struggled with the complex thought.
"The war disturbs him and he he doesn't like things that disturb him. . . . Me, for instance. . . . He loved me but he was afraid to marry me because for fear I'd upset his way of thinking and living. No, it wasn't exactly that he was afraid. Ashley isn't a coward. He couldn't be when he's been mentioned in dispatches and when Colonel Sloan wrote that letter to Melly all about his gallant conduct in leading the charge. Once he's made up his mind to do something, no one could be braver or more determined but He lives inside his head instead of outside in the world and he hates to come out into the world and Oh, I don't know what it is! If I'd just understood this one thing about him years ago, I know he'd have married me."
She stood for a moment holding the letters to her breast, thinking longingly of Ashley. Her emotions toward him had not changed since the day when she first fell in love with him. They were the same emotions that struck her speechless that day when she was fourteen years old and she had stood on the porch of Tara and seen Ashley ride up smiling, his hair shining silver in the morning sun. Her love was still a young girl's adoration for a man she could not understand, a man who possessed all the qualities she did not own but which she admired. He was still a young girl's dream of the Perfect Knight and her dream asked no more than acknowledgment of his love, went no further than hopes of a kiss.
After reading the letters, she felt certain he did love her, Scarlett, even though he had married Melanie, and that certainty was almost all that she desired. She was still that young and untouched. Had Charles with his fumbling awkwardness and his embarrassed intimacies tapped any of the deep vein of passionate sexy feeling within her, her dreams of Ashley would not be ending with a kiss. But those few moonlight nights alone with Charles had not touched her emotions or ripened her to maturity. Charles had awakened no idea of what passion might be or tenderness or true intimacy of body or spirit.
All that passion meant to her was servitude to inexplicable male madness, unshared by females, a painful and embarrassing process that led inevitably to the still more painful process of childbirth. That marriage should be like this was no surprise to her. Ellen had hinted before the wedding that marriage was something women must bear with dignity and fortitude, and the whispered comments of other matrons since her widowhood had confirmed this. Scarlett was glad to be done with passion and marriage.
She was done with marriage but not with love, for her love for Ashley was something different, having nothing to do with passion or marriage, something sacred and breathtakingly beautiful, an emotion that grew stealthily through the long days of her enforced silence, feeding on oft thumbed memories and hopes.
She sighed as she carefully tied the ribbon about the packet, wondering for the thousandth time just what it was in Ashley that eluded her understanding. She tried to think the matter to some satisfactory conclusion but, as always, the conclusion evaded her uncomplex mind. She put the letters back in the lap secretary and closed the lid. Then she frowned, for her mind went back to the last part of the letter she had just read, to his mention of Captain Butler. How strange that Ashley should be impressed by something that scamp had said a year ago. Undeniably Captain Butler was a scamp, for all that he danced divinely. No one but a scamp would say the things about the Confederacy that he had said at the bazaar.
She crossed the room to the mirror and patted her smooth hair approvingly. Her spirits rose, as always at the sight of her white skin and slanting green eyes, and she smiled to bring out her dimples. Then she dismissed Captain Butler from her mind as she happily viewed her reflection, remembering how Ashley had always liked her dimples. No pang of conscience at loving another woman's husband or reading that woman's mail disturbed her pleasure in her youth and charm and her renewed assurance of Ashley's love.
She unlocked the door and went down the dim winding stair with a light heart. Halfway down she began singing "When This Cruel War Is Over."
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|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
The war went on, successfully for the most part, but people had stopped saying "One more victory and the war is over," just as they had stopped saying the Yankees were cowards. It was obvious to all now that the Yankees were far from cowardly and that it would take more than one victory to conquer them. However, there were the Confederate victories in Tennessee scored by General Morgan and General Forrest and the triumph at the Second Battle of Bull Run hung up like visible Yankee scalps to gloat over. But there was a heavy price on these scalps. The hospitals and homes of Atlanta were overflowing with the sick and wounded, and more and more women were appearing in black. The monotonous rows of soldiers' graves at Oakland Cemetery stretched longer every day.
Confederate money had dropped alarmingly and the price of food and clothing had risen accordingly. The commissary was laying such heavy levies on foodstuffs that the tables of Atlanta were beginning to suffer. White flour was scarce and so expensive that corn bread was universal instead of biscuits, rolls and waffles. The butcher shops carried almost no beef and very little mutton, and that mutton cost so much only the rich could afford it. However there was still plenty of hog meat, as well as chickens and vegetables.
The Yankee blockade about the Confederate ports had tightened, and luxuries such as tea, coffee, silks, whalebone stays, colognes, fashion magazines and books were scarce and dear. Even the cheapest cotton goods had skyrocketed in price and ladies were regretfully making their old dresses do another season. Looms that had gathered dust for years had been brought down from attics, and there were webs of homespun to be found in nearly every parlor. Everyone, soldiers, civilians, women, children and negroes, began to wear homespun. Gray, as the color of the Confederate uniform, practically disappeared and homespun of a butternut shade took its place.
Already the hospitals were worrying about the scarcity of quinine, calomel, opium, chloroform and iodine. Linen and cotton bandages were too precious now to be thrown away when used, and every lady who nursed at the hospitals brought home baskets of bloody strips to be washed and ironed and returned for use on other sufferers.
But to Scarlett, newly emerged from the chrysalis of widowhood, all the war meant was a time of gaiety and excitement. Even the small privations of clothing and food did not annoy her, so happy was she to be in the world again.
When she thought of the dull times of the past year, with the days going by one very much like another, life seemed to have quickened to an incredible speed. Every day dawned as an exciting adventure, a day in which she would meet new men who would ask to call on her, tell her how pretty she was, and how it was a privilege to fight and, perhaps, to die for her. She could and did love Ashley with the last breath in her body, but that did not prevent her from inveigling other men into asking to marry her.
The ever present war in the background lent a pleasant informality to social relations, an informality which older people viewed with alarm. Mothers found strange men calling on their daughters, men who came without letters of introduction and whose antecedents were unknown. To their horror, mothers found their daughters holding hands with these men. Mrs. Merriwether, who had never kissed her husband until after the wedding ceremony, could scarcely believe her eyes when she caught Maybelle kissing the little Zouave, Rene Picard, and her consternation was even greater when Maybelle refused to be ashamed. Even the fact that Rene immediately asked for her hand did not improve matters. Mrs. Merriwether felt that the South was heading for a complete moral collapse and frequently said so. Other mothers concurred heartily with her and blamed it on the war.
But men who expected to die within a week or a month could not wait a year before they begged to call a girl by her first name, with "Miss," of course, preceding it. Nor would they go through the formal and protracted courtships which good manners had prescribed before the war. They were likely to propose in three or four months. And girls who knew very well that a lady always refused a gentleman the first three times he proposed rushed headlong to accept the first time.
This informality made the war a lot of fun for Scarlett. Except for the messy business of nursing and the bore of bandage rolling, she did not care if the war lasted forever. In fact, she could endure the hospital with equanimity now because it was a perfect happy hunting ground. The helpless wounded succumbed to her charms without a struggle. Renew their bandages, wash their faces, pat up their pillows and fan them, and they fell in love. Oh, it was Heaven after the last dreary year!
Scarlett was back again where she had been before she married Charles and it was as if she had never married him, never felt the shock of his death, never borne Wade. War and marriage and childbirth had passed over her without touching any deep chord within her and she was unchanged. She had a child but he was cared for so well by the others in the red brick house she could almost forget him. In her mind and heart, she was Scarlett O'Hara again, the belle of the County. Her thoughts and activities were the same as they had been in the old days, but the field of her activities had widened immensely. Careless of the disapproval of Aunt Pitty's friends, she behaved as she had behaved before her marriage, went to parties, danced, went riding with soldiers, flirted, did everything she had done as a girl, except stop wearing mourning. This she knew would be a straw that would break the backs of Pittypat and Melanie. She was as charming a widow as she had been a girl, pleasant when she had her own way, obliging as long as it did not discommode her, vain of her looks and her popularity.
She was happy now where a few weeks before she had been miserable, happy with her beaux and their reassurances of her charm, as happy as she could be with Ashley married to Melanie and in danger. But somehow it was easier to bear the thought of Ashley belonging to some one else when he was far away. With the hundreds of miles stretching between Atlanta and Virginia, he sometimes seemed as much hers as Melanie's.
So the autumn months of 1862 went swiftly by with nursing, dancing, driving and bandage rolling taking up all the time she did not spend on brief visits to Tara. These visits were disappointing, for she had little opportunity for the long quiet talks with her mother to which she looked forward while in Atlanta, no time to sit by Ellen while she sewed, smelling the faint fragrance of lemon verbena sachet as her skirts rustled, feeling her soft hands on her cheek in a gentle caress.
Ellen was thin and preoccupied now and on her feet from morning until long after the plantation was asleep. The demands of the Confederate commissary were growing heavier by the month, and hers was the task of making Tara produce. Even Gerald was busy, for the first time in many years, for he could get no overseer to take Jonas Wilkerson's place and he was riding his own acres. With Ellen too busy for more than a goodnight kiss and Gerald in the fields all day, Scarlett found Tara boring. Even her sisters were taken up with their own concerns. Suellen had now come to an "understanding" with Frank Kennedy and sang "When This Cruel War Is Over" with an arch meaning Scarlett found well nigh unendurable, and Carreen was too wrapped up in dreams of Brent Tarleton to be interesting company.
Though Scarlett always went home to Tara with a happy heart, she was never sorry when the inevitable letters came from Pitty and Melanie, begging her to return. Ellen always sighed at these times, saddened by the thought of her oldest daughter and her only grandchild leaving her.
"But I mustn't be selfish and keep you here when you are needed to nurse in Atlanta," she said. "Only only, my darling, it seems that I never get the time to talk to you and to feel that you are my own little girl again before you are gone from me."
"I'm always your little girl," Scarlett would say and bury her head upon Ellen's breast, her guilt rising up to accuse her. She did not tell her mother that it was the dancing and the beaux which drew her back to Atlanta and not the service of the Confederacy. There were many things she kept from her mother these days. But, most of all, she kept secret the fact that Rhett Butler called frequently at Aunt Pittypat's house.
During the months that followed the bazaar, Rhett called whenever he was in town, taking Scarlett riding in his carriage, escorting her to danceables and bazaars and waiting outside the hospital to drive her home. She lost her fear of his betraying her secret, but there always lurked in the back of her mind the disquieting memory that he had seen her at her worst and knew the truth about Ashley. It was this knowledge that checked her tongue when he annoyed her. And he annoyed her frequently.
He was in his mid thirties, older than any beau she had ever had, and she was as helpless as a child to control and handle him as she had handled beaux nearer her own age. He always looked as if nothing had ever surprised him and much had amused him and, when he had gotten her into a speechless temper, she felt that she amused him more than anything in the world. Frequently she flared into open wrath under his expert baiting, for she had Gerald's Irish temper along with the deceptive sweetness of face she had inherited from Ellen. Heretofore she had never bothered to control her temper except in Ellen's presence. Now it was painful to have to choke back words for fear of his amused grin. If only he would ever lose his temper too, then she would not feel at such a disadvantage.
After tilts with him from which she seldom emerged the victor she vowed he was impossible, ill bred and no gentleman and she would have nothing more to do with him. But sooner or later, he returned to Atlanta, called, presumably on Aunt Pitty, and presented Scarlett, with overdone gallantry, a box of bonbons he had brought her from Nassau. Or preempted a seat by her at a musicale or claimed her at a dance, and she was usually so amused by his bland impudence that she laughed and overlooked his past misdeeds until the next occurred.
For all his exasperating qualities, she grew to look forward to his calls. There was something exciting about him that she could not analyze, something different from any man she had ever known. There was something breathtaking in the grace of his big body which made his very entrance into a room like an abrupt physical impact, something in the impertinence and bland mockery of his dark eyes that challenged her spirit to subdue him.
"It's almost like I was in love with him!" she thought, bewildered. "But I'm not and I just can't understand it."
But the exciting feeling persisted. When he came to call, his complete masculinity made Aunt Pitty's well bred and ladylike house seem small, pale and a trifle fusty. Scarlett was not the only member of the household who reacted strangely and unwillingly to his presence, for he kept Aunt Pitty in a flutter and a ferment.
While Pitty knew Ellen would disapprove of his calls on her daughter, and knew also that the edict of Charleston banning him from polite society was not one to be lightly disregarded, she could no more resist his elaborate compliments and hand kissing than a fly can resist a honey pot. Moreover, he usually brought her some little gift from Nassau which he assured her he had purchased especially for her and blockaded in at risk of his life papers of pins and needles, buttons, spools of silk thread and hairpins. It was almost impossible to obtain these small luxuries now ladies were wearing hand whittled wooden hairpins and covering acorns with cloth for buttons and Pitty lacked the moral stamina to refuse them. Besides, she had a childish love of surprise packages and could not resist opening his gifts. And, having once opened them, she did not feel that she could refuse them. Then, having accepted his gifts, she could not summon courage enough to tell him his reputation made it improper for him to call on three lone women who had no male protector. Aunt Pitty always felt that she needed a male protector when Rhett Butler was in the house.
"I don't know what it is about him," she would sigh helplessly. "But well, I think he'd be a nice, attractive man if I could just feel that well, that deep down in his heart he respected women."
Since the return of her wedding ring, Melanie had felt that Rhett was a gentleman of rare refinement and delicacy and she was shocked at this remark. He was unfailingly courteous to her, but she was a little timid with him, largely because she was shy with any man she had not known from childhood. Secretly she was very sorry for him, a feeling which would have amused him had he been aware of it. She was certain that some romantic sorrow had blighted his life and made him hard and bitter, and she felt that what he needed was the love of a good woman. In all her sheltered life she had never seen evil and could scarcely credit its existence, and when gossip whispered things about Rhett and the girl in Charleston she was shocked and unbelieving. And, instead of turning her against him, it only made her more timidly gracious toward him because of her indignation at what she fancied was a gross injustice done him.
Scarlett silently agreed with Aunt Pitty. She, too, felt that he had no respect for any woman, unless perhaps for Melanie. She still felt unclothed every time his eyes ran up and down her figure. It was not that he ever said anything. Then she could have scorched him with hot words. It was the bold way his eyes looked out of his swarthy face with a displeasing air of insolence, as if all women were his property to be enjoyed in his own good time. Only with Melanie was this look absent. There was never that cool look of appraisal, never mockery in his eyes, when he looked at Melanie; and there was an especial note in his voice when he spoke to her, courteous, respectful, anxious to be of service.
"I don't see why you're so much nicer to her than to me," said Scarlett petulantly, one afternoon when Melanie and Pitty had retired to take their naps and she was alone with him.
For an hour she had watched Rhett hold the yarn Melanie was winding for knitting, had noted the blank inscrutable expression when Melanie talked at length and with pride of Ashley and his promotion. Scarlett knew Rhett had no exalted opinion of Ashley and cared nothing at all about the fact that he had been made a major. Yet he made polite replies and murmured the correct things about Ashley's gallantry.
And if I so much as mention Ashley's name, she had thought irritably, he cocks his eyebrow up and smiles that nasty, knowing smile!
"I'm much prettier than she is," she continued, "and I don't see why you're nicer to her."
"Dare I hope that you are jealous?"
"Oh, don't presume!"
"Another hope crushed. If I am 'nicer' to Mrs. Wilkes, it is because she deserves it. She is one of the very few kind, sincere and unselfish persons I have ever known. But perhaps you have failed to note these qualities. And moreover, for all her youth, she is one of the few great ladies I have ever been privileged to know."
"Do you mean to say you don't think I'm a great lady, too?"
"I think we agreed on the occasion of our first meeting that you were no lady at all."
"Oh, if you are going to be hateful and rude enough to bring that up again! How can you hold that bit of childish temper against me? That was so long ago and I've grown up since then and I'd forget all about it if you weren't always harping and hinting about it."
"I don't think it was childish temper and I don't believe you've changed. You are just as capable now as then of throwing vases if you don't get your own way. But you usually get your way now. And so there's no necessity for broken bric a brac."
"Oh, you are I wish I was a man! I'd call you out and "
"And get killed for your pains. I can drill a dime at fifty yards. Better stick to your own weapons dimples, vases and the like."
"You are just a rascal."
"Do you expect me to fly into a rage at that? I am sorry to disappoint you. You can't make me mad by calling me names that are true. Certainly I'm a rascal, and why not? It's a free country and a man may be a rascal if he chooses. It's only hypocrites like you, my dear lady, just as black at heart but trying to hide it, who become enraged when called by their right names."
She was helpless before his calm smile and his drawling remarks, for she had never before met anyone who was so completely impregnable. Her weapons of scorn, coldness and abuse blunted in her hands, for nothing she could say would shame him. It had been her experience that the liar was the hottest to defend his veracity, the coward his courage, the ill bred his gentlemanliness, and the cad his honor. But not Rhett. He admitted everything and laughed and dared her to say more.
He came and went during these months, arriving unheralded and leaving without saying good by. Scarlett never discovered just what business brought him to Atlanta, for few other blockaders found it necessary to come so far away from the coast. They landed their cargoes at Wilmington or Charleston, where they were met by swarms of merchants and speculators from all over the South who assembled to buy blockaded goods at auction. It would have pleased her to think that he made these trips to see her, but even her abnormal vanity refused to believe this. If he had ever once made love to her, seemed jealous of the other men who crowded about her, even tried to hold her hand or begged for a picture or a handkerchief to cherish, she would have thought triumphantly he had been caught by her charms. But he remained annoyingly unloverlike and, worst of all, seemed to see through all her maneuverings to bring him to his knees.
Whenever he came to town, there was a feminine fluttering. Not only did the romantic aura of the dashing blockader hang about him but there was also the titillating element of the wicked and the forbidden. He had such a bad reputation! And every time the matrons of Atlanta gathered together to gossip, his reputation grew worse, which only made him all the more glamorous to the young girls. As most of them were quite innocent, they had heard little more than that he was "quite loose with women" and exactly how a man went about the business of being "loose" they did not know. They also heard whispers that no girl was safe with him. With such a reputation, it was strange that he had never so much as kissed the hand of an unmarried girl since he first appeared in Atlanta. But that only served to make him more mysterious and more exciting.
Outside of the army heroes, he was the most talked about man in Atlanta. Everyone knew in detail how he had been expelled from West Point for drunkenness and "something about women." That terrific scandal concerning the Charleston girl he had compromised and the brother he had killed was public property. Correspondence with Charleston friends elicited the further information that his father, a charming old gentleman with an iron will and a ramrod for a backbone, had cast him out without a penny when he was twenty and even stricken his name from the family Bible. After that he had wandered to California in the gold rush of 1849 and thence to South America and Cuba, and the reports of his activities in these parts were none too savory. Scrapes about women, several shootings, gun running to the revolutionists in Central America and, worst of all, professional gambling were included in his career, as Atlanta heard it.
There was hardly a family in Georgia who could not own to their sorrow at least one male member or relative who gambled, losing money, houses, land and slaves. But that was different. A man could gamble himself to poverty and still be a gentleman, but a professional gambler could never be anything but an outcast.
Had it not been for the upset conditions due to the war and his own services to the Confederate government, Rhett Butler would never have been received in Atlanta. But now, even the most strait laced felt that patriotism called upon them to be more broad minded. The more sentimental were inclined to view that the black sheep of the Butler family had repented of his evil ways and was making an attempt to atone for his sins. So the ladies felt in duty bound to stretch a point, especially in the case of so intrepid a blockader. Everyone knew now that the fate of the Confederacy rested as much upon the skill of the blockade boats in eluding the Yankee fleet as it did upon the soldiers at the front.
Rumor had it that Captain Butler was one of the best pilots in the South and that he was reckless and utterly without nerves. Reared in Charleston, he knew every inlet, creek, shoal and rock of the Carolina coast near that port, and he was equally at home in the waters around Wilmington. He had never lost a boat or even been forced to dump a cargo. At the onset of the war, he had emerged from obscurity with enough money to buy a small swift boat and now, when blockaded goods realized two thousand per cent on each cargo, he owned four boats. He had good pilots and paid them well, and they slid out of Charleston and Wilmington on dark nights, bearing cotton for Nassau, England and Canada. The cotton mills of England were standing idle and the workers were starving, and any blockader who could outwit the Yankee fleet could command his own price in Liverpool. Rhett's boats were singularly lucky both in taking out cotton for the Confederacy and bringing in the war materials for which the South was desperate. Yes, the ladies felt they could forgive and forget a great many things for such a brave man.
He was a dashing figure and one that people turned to look at. He spent money freely, rode a wild black stallion, and wore clothes which were always the height of style and tailoring. The latter in itself was enough to attract attention to him, for the uniforms of the soldiers were dingy and worn now and the civilians, even when turned out in their best, showed skillful patching and darning. Scarlett thought she had never seen such elegant pants as he wore, fawn colored, shepherd's plaid, and checked. As for his waistcoats, they were indescribably handsome, especially the white watered silk one with tiny pink rosebuds embroidered on it. And he wore these garments with a still more elegant air as though unaware of their glory.
There were few ladies who could resist his charms when he chose to exert them, and finally even Mrs. Merriwether unbent and invited him to Sunday dinner.
Maybelle Merriwether was to marry her little Zouave when he got his next furlough, and she cried every time she thought of it, for she had set her heart on marrying in a white satin dress and there was no white satin in the Confederacy. Nor could she borrow a dress, for the satin wedding dresses of years past had all gone into the making of battle flags. Useless for the patriotic Mrs. Merriwether to upbraid her daughter and point out that homespun was the proper bridal attire for a Confederate bride. Maybelle wanted satin. She was willing, even proud to go without hairpins and buttons and nice shoes and candy and tea for the sake of the Cause, but she wanted a satin wedding dress.
Rhett, hearing of this from Melanie, brought in from England yards and yards of gleaming white satin and a lace veil and presented them to her as a wedding gift. He did it in such a way that it was unthinkable to even mention paying him for them, and Maybelle was so delighted she almost kissed him. Mrs. Merriwether knew that so expensive a gift and a gift of clothing at that was highly improper, but she could think of no way of refusing when Rhett told her in the most florid language that nothing was too good to deck the bride of one of our brave heroes. So Mrs. Merriwether invited him to dinner, feeling that this concession more than paid for the gift.
He not only brought Maybelle the satin but he was able to give excellent hints on the making of the wedding dress. Hoops in Paris were wider this season and skirts were shorter. They were no longer ruffled but were gathered up in scalloped festoons, showing braided petticoats beneath. He said, too, that he had seen no pantalets on the streets, so he imagined they were "out." Afterwards, Mrs. Merriwether told Mrs. Elsing she feared that if she had given him any encouragement at all, he would have told her exactly what kind of drawers were being worn by Parisiennes.
Had he been less obviously masculine, his ability to recall details of dresses, bonnets and coiffures would have been put down as the rankest effeminacy. The ladies always felt a little odd when they besieged him with questions about styles, but they did it nevertheless. They were as isolated from the world of fashion as shipwrecked mariners, for few books of fashion came through the blockade. For all they knew the ladies of France might be shaving their heads and wearing coonskin caps, so Rhett's memory for furbelows was an excellent substitute for Godey's Lady's Book. He could and did notice details so dear to feminine hearts, and after each trip abroad he could be found in the center of a group of ladies, telling that bonnets were smaller this year and perched higher, covering most of the top of the head, that plumes and not flowers were being used to trim them, that the Empress of France had abandoned the chignon for evening wear and had her hair piled almost on the top of her head, showing all of her ears, and that evening frocks were shockingly low again.
For some months, he was the most popular and romantic figure the town knew, despite his previous reputation, despite the faint rumors that he was engaged not only in blockading but in speculating on foodstuffs, too. People who did not like him said that after every trip he made to Atlanta, prices jumped five dollars. But even with this under cover gossip seeping about, he could have retained his popularity had he considered it worth retaining. Instead, it seemed as though, after trying the company of the staid and patriotic citizens and winning their respect and grudging liking, something perverse in him made him go out of his way to affront them and show them that his conduct had been only a masquerade and one which no longer amused him.
It was as though he bore an impersonal contempt for everyone and everything in the South, the Confederacy in particular, and took no pains to conceal it. It was his remarks about the Confederacy that made Atlanta look at him first in bewilderment, then coolly and then with hot rage. Even before 1862 passed into 1863, men were bowing to him with studied frigidity and women beginning to draw their daughters to their sides when he appeared at a gathering.
He seemed to take pleasure not only in affronting the sincere and red hot loyalties of Atlanta but in presenting himself in the worst possible light. When well meaning people complimented him on his bravery in running the blockade, he blandly replied that he was always frightened when in danger, as frightened as were the brave boys at the front. Everyone knew there had never been a cowardly Confederate soldier and they found this statement peculiarly irritating. He always referred to the soldiers as "our brave boys" and "our heroes in gray" and did it in such a way as to convey the utmost in insult. When daring young ladies, hoping for a flirtation, thanked him for being one of the heroes who fought for them, he bowed and declared that such was not the case, for he would do the same thing for Yankee women if the same amount of money were involved.
Since Scarlett's first meeting with him in Atlanta on the night of the bazaar, he had talked with her in this manner, but now there was a thinly veiled note of mockery in his conversations with everyone. When praised for his services to the Confederacy, he unfailingly replied that blockading was a business with him. If he could make as much money out of government contracts, he would say, picking out with his eyes those who had government contracts, then he would certainly abandon the hazards of blockading and take to selling shoddy cloth, sanded sugar, spoiled flour and rotten leather to the Confederacy.
Most of his remarks were unanswerable, which made them all the worse. There had already been minor scandals about those holding government contracts. Letters from men at the front complained constantly of shoes that wore out in a week, gunpowder that would not ignite, harness that snapped at any strain, meat that was rotten and flour that was full of weevils. Atlanta people tried to think that the men who sold such stuff to the government must be contract holders from Alabama or Virginia or Tennessee, and not Georgians. For did not the Georgia contract holders include men from the very best families? Were they not the first to contribute to the hospital funds and to the aid of soldiers' orphans? Were they not the first to cheer at "Dixie" and the most rampant seekers, in oratory at least, for Yankee blood? The full tide of fury against those profiteering on government contracts had not yet risen, and Rhett's words were taken merely as evidence of his own bad breeding.
He not only affronted the town with insinuations of venality on the part of men in high places and slurs on the courage of the men in the field, but he took pleasure in tricking the dignified citizenry into embarrassing situations. He could no more resist pricking the conceits, the hypocrisies and the flamboyant patriotism of those about him than a small boy can resist putting a pin into a balloon. He neatly deflated the pompous and exposed the ignorant and the bigoted, and he did it in such subtle ways, drawing his victims out by his seemingly courteous interest, that they never were quite certain what had happened until they stood exposed as windy, high flown and slightly ridiculous.
During the months when the town accepted him, Scarlett had been under no illusions about him. She knew that his elaborate gallantries and his florid speeches were all done with his tongue in his cheek. She knew that he was acting the part of the dashing and patriotic blockade runner simply because it amused him. Sometimes he seemed to her like the County boys with whom she had grown up, the wild Tarleton twins with their obsession for practical jokes; the devil inspired Fontaines, teasing, mischievous; the Calverts who would sit up all night planning hoaxes. But there was a difference, for beneath Rhett's seeming lightness there was something malicious, almost sinister in its suave brutality.
Though she was thoroughly aware of his insincerity, she much preferred him in the role of the romantic blockader. For one thing, it made her own situation in associating with him so much easier than it had been at first. So, she was intensely annoyed when he dropped his masquerade and set out apparently upon a deliberate campaign to alienate Atlanta's good will. It annoyed her because it seemed foolish and also because some of the harsh criticism directed at him fell on her.
It was at Mrs. Elsing's silver musicale for the benefit of the convalescents that Rhett signed his final warrant of ostracism. That afternoon the Elsing home was crowded with soldiers on leave and men from the hospitals, members of the Home Guard and the militia unit, and matrons, widows and young girls. Every chair in the house was occupied, and even the long winding stair was packed with guests. The large cut glass bowl held at the door by the Elsings' butler had been emptied twice of its burden of silver coins. That in itself was enough to make the affair a success, for now a dollar in silver was worth sixty dollars in Confederate paper money.
Every girl with any pretense to accomplishments had sung or played the piano, and the tableaux vivants had been greeted with flattering applause. Scarlett was much pleased with herself, for not only had she and Melanie rendered a touching duet, "When the Dew Is on the Blossom," followed as an encore by the more sprightly "Oh, Lawd, Ladies, Don't Mind Stephen!" but she had also been chosen to represent the Spirit of the Confederacy in the last tableau.
She had looked most fetching, wearing a modestly draped Greek robe of white cheesecloth girdled with red and blue and holding the Stars and Bars in one hand, while with the other she stretched out to the kneeling Captain Carey Ashburn, of Alabama, the gold hilted saber which had belonged to Charles and his father.
When her tableau was over, she could not help seeking Rhett's eyes to see if he had appreciated the pretty picture she made. With a feeling of exasperation she saw that he was in an argument and probably had not even noticed her. Scarlett could see by the faces of the group surrounding him that they were infuriated by what he was saying.
She made her way toward them and, in one of those odd silences which sometimes fall on a gathering, she heard Willie Guinan, of the militia outfit, say plainly: "Do I understand, sir, that you mean the Cause for which our heroes have died is not sacred?"
"If you were run over by a railroad train your death wouldn't sanctify the railroad company, would it?" asked Rhett and his voice sounded as if he were humbly seeking information.
"Sir," said Willie, his voice shaking, "if we were not under this roof "
"I tremble to think what would happen," said Rhett. "For, of course, your bravery is too well known."
Willie went scarlet and all conversation ceased. Everyone was embarrassed. Willie was strong and healthy and of military age and yet he wasn't at the front. Of course, he was the only boy his mother had and, after all, somebody had to be in the militia to protect the state. But there were a few irreverent snickers from convalescent officers when Rhett spoke of bravery.
"Oh, why doesn't he keep his mouth shut!" thought Scarlett indignantly. "He's simply spoiling the whole party!"
Dr. Meade's brows were thunderous.
"Nothing may be sacred to you, young man," he said, in the voice he always used when making speeches. "But there are many things sacred to the patriotic men and ladies of the South. And the freedom of our land from the usurper is one and States' Rights is another and "
Rhett looked lazy and his voice had a silky, almost bored, note.
"All wars are sacred," he said. "To those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn't make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and the fine words from stay at home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is 'Save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!' Sometimes it's 'Down with Popery!' and sometimes 'Liberty!' and sometimes 'Cotton, Slavery and States' Rights!'"
"What on earth has the Pope to do with it?" thought Scarlett. "Or Christ's tomb, either?"
But as she hurried toward the incensed group, she saw Rhett bow jauntily and start toward the doorway through the crowd. She started after him but Mrs. Elsing caught her skirt and held her.
"Let him go," she said in a clear voice that carried throughout the tensely quiet room. "Let him go. He is a traitor, a speculator! He is a viper that we have nursed to our bosoms!"
Rhett, standing in the hall, his hat in his hand, heard as he was intended to hear and, turning, surveyed the room for a moment. He looked pointedly at Mrs. Elsing's flat bosom, grinned suddenly and, bowing, made his exit.
Mrs. Merriwether rode home in Aunt Pitty's carriage, and scarcely had the four ladies seated themselves when she exploded.
"There now, Pittypat Hamilton! I hope you are satisfied!"
"With what?" cried Pitty, apprehensively.
"With the conduct of that wretched Butler man you've been harboring."
Pittypat fluttered, too upset by the accusation to recall that Mrs. Merriwether had also been Rhett Butler's hostess on several occasions. Scarlett and Melanie thought of this, but bred to politeness to their elders, refrained from remarking on the matter. Instead they studiously looked down at their mittened hands.
"He insulted us all and the Confederacy too," said Mrs. Merriwether, and her stout bust heaved violently beneath its glittering passementerie trimmings. "Saying that we were fighting for money! Saying that our leaders had lied to us! He should be put in jail. Yes, he should. I shall speak to Dr. Meade about it. If Mr. Merriwether were only alive, he'd tend to him! Now, Pitty Hamilton, you listen to me. You mustn't ever let that scamp come into your house again!"
"Oh," mumbled Pitty, helplessly, looking as if she wished she were dead. She looked appealingly at the two girls who kept their eyes cast down and then hopefully toward Uncle Peter's erect back. She knew he was listening attentively to every word and she hoped he would turn and take a hand in the conversation, as he frequently did. She hoped he would say: "Now, Miss Dolly, you let Miss Pitty be," but Peter made no move. He disapproved heartily of Rhett Butler and poor Pitty knew it. She sighed and said: "Well, Dolly, if you think "
"I do think," returned Mrs. Merriwether firmly. "I can't imagine what possessed you to receive him in the first place. After this afternoon, there won't be a decent home in town that he'll be welcome in. Do get up some gumption and forbid him your house."
She turned a sharp eye on the girls. "I hope you two are marking my words," she continued, "for it's partly your fault, being so pleasant to him. Just tell him politely but firmly that his presence and his disloyal talk are distinctly unwelcome at your house."
By this time Scarlett was boiling, ready to rear like a horse at the touch of a strange rough hand on its bridle. But she was afraid to speak. She could not risk Mrs. Merriwether writing another letter to her mother.
"You old buffalo!" she thought, her face crimson with suppressed fury. "How heavenly it would be to tell you just what I think of you and your bossy ways!"
"I never thought to live long enough to hear such disloyal words spoken of our Cause," went on Mrs. Merriwether, by this time in a ferment of righteous anger. "Any man who does not think our Cause is just and holy should be hanged! I don't want to hear of you two girls ever even speaking to him again For Heaven's sake, Melly, what ails you?"
Melanie was white and her eyes were enormous.
"I will speak to him again," she said in a low voice. "I will not be rude to him. I will not forbid him the house."
Mrs. Merriwether's breath went out of her lungs as explosively as though she had been punched. Aunt Pitty's fat mouth popped open and Uncle Peter turned to stare.
"Now, why didn't I have the gumption to say that?" thought Scarlett, jealousy mixing with admiration. "How did that little rabbit ever get up spunk enough to stand up to old lady Merriwether?"
Melanie's hands were shaking but she went on hurriedly, as though fearing her courage would fail her if she delayed.
"I won't be rude to him because of what he said, because It was rude of him to say it out loud most ill advised but it's it's what Ashley thinks. And I can't forbid the house to a man who thinks what my husband thinks. It would be unjust."
Mrs. Merriwether's breath had come back and she charged.
"Melly Hamilton, I never heard such a lie in all my life! There was never a Wilkes who was a coward "
"I never said Ashley was a coward," said Melanie, her eyes beginning to flash. "I said he thinks what Captain Butler thinks, only he expresses it in different words. And he doesn't go around saying it at musicales, I hope. But he has written it to me."
Scarlett's guilty conscience stirred as she tried to recall what Ashley might have written that would lead Melanie to make such a statement, but most of the letters she had read had gone out of her head as soon as she finished reading them. She believed Melanie had simply taken leave of her senses.
"Ashley wrote me that we should not be fighting the Yankees. And that we have been betrayed into it by statesmen and orators mouthing catchwords and prejudices," said Melly rapidly. "He said nothing in the world was worth what this war was going to do to us. He said here wasn't anything at all to glory it was just misery and dirt."
"Oh! That letter," thought Scarlett. "Was that what he meant?"
"I don't believe it," said Mrs. Merriwether firmly. "You misunderstood his meaning."
"I never misunderstand Ashley," Melanie replied quietly, though her lips were trembling. "I understand him perfectly. He meant exactly what Captain Butler meant, only he didn't say it in a rude way."
"You should be ashamed of yourself, comparing a fine man like Ashley Wilkes to a scoundrel like Captain Butler! I suppose you, too, think the Cause is nothing!"
"I I don't know what I think," Melanie began uncertainly, her fire deserting her and panic at her outspokenness taking hold of her. "I I'd die for the Cause, like Ashley would. But I mean I mean, I'll let the men folks do the thinking, because they are so much smarter."
"I never heard the like," snorted Mrs. Merriwether. "Stop, Uncle Peter, you're driving past my house!"
Uncle Peter, preoccupied with the conversation behind him, had driven past the Merriwether carriage block and he backed up the horse. Mrs. Merriwether alighted, her bonnet ribbons shaking like sails in a storm.
"You'll be sorry," she said.
Uncle Peter whipped up the horse.
"You young misses ought ter tek shame, gittin' Miss Pitty in a state," he scolded.
"I'm not in a state," replied Pitty, surprisingly, for less strain than this had frequently brought on fainting fits. "Melly, honey, I knew you were doing it just to take up for me and, really, I was glad to see somebody take Dolly down a peg. She's so bossy. How did you have the courage? But do you think you should have said that about Ashley?"
"But it's true," answered Melanie and she began to cry softly. "And I'm not ashamed that he thinks that way. He thinks the war is all wrong but he's willing to fight and die anyway, and that takes lots more courage than fighting for something you think is right."
"Lawd, Miss Melly, doan cry hyah on Peachtree Street," groaned Uncle Peter, hastening his horse's pace. "Folks'll talk sumpin' scan'lous. Wait till us gits home."
Scarlett said nothing. She did not even squeeze the hand that Melanie had inserted into her palm for comfort. She had read Ashley's letters for only one purpose to assure herself that he still loved her. Now Melanie had given a new meaning to passages in the letters which Scarlett's eyes had barely seen. It shocked her to realize that anyone as absolutely perfect as Ashley could have any thought in common with such a reprobate as Rhett Butler. She thought: "They both see the truth of this war, but Ashley is willing to die about it and Rhett isn't. I think that shows Rhett's good sense." She paused a moment, horror struck that she could have such a thought about Ashley. "They both see the same unpleasant truth, but Rhett likes to look it in the face and enrage people by talking about it and Ashley can hardly bear to face it."
It was very bewildering.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
Under Mrs. Merriwether's goading, Dr. Meade took action, in the form of a letter to the newspaper wherein he did not mention Rhett by name, though his meaning was obvious. The editor, sensing the social drama of the letter, put it on the second page of the paper, in itself a startling innovation, as the first two pages of the paper were always devoted to advertisements of slaves, mules, plows, coffins, houses for sale or rent, cures for private diseases, abortifacients and restoratives for lost manhood.
The doctor's letter was the first of a chorus of indignation that was beginning to be heard all over the South against speculators, profiteers and holders of government contracts. Conditions in Wilmington, the chief blockade port, now that Charleston's port was practically sealed by the Yankee gunboats, had reached the proportions of an open scandal. Speculators swarmed Wilmington and, having the ready cash, bought up boatloads of goods and held them for a rise in prices. The rise always came, for with the increasing scarcity of necessities, prices leaped higher by the month. The civilian population had either to do without or buy at the speculators' prices, and the poor and those in moderate circumstances were suffering increasing hardships. With the rise in prices, Confederate money sank, and with its rapid fall there rose a wild passion for luxuries. Blockaders were commissioned to bring in necessities but now it was the higher priced luxuries that filled their boats to the exclusion of the things the Confederacy vitally needed. People frenziedly bought these luxuries with the money they had today, fearing that tomorrow's prices would be higher and the money worthless.
To make matters worse, there was only one railroad line from Wilmington to Richmond and, while thousands of barrels of flour and boxes of bacon spoiled and rotted in wayside stations for want of transportation, speculators with wines, taffetas and coffee to sell seemed always able to get their goods to Richmond two days after they were landed at Wilmington.
The rumor which had been creeping about underground was now being openly discussed, that Rhett Butler not only ran his own four boats and sold the cargoes at unheard of prices but bought up the cargoes of other boats and held them for rises in prices. It was said that he was at the head of a combine worth more than a million dollars, with Wilmington as its headquarters for the purpose of buying blockade goods on the docks. They had dozens of warehouses in that city and in Richmond, so the story ran, and the warehouses were crammed with food and clothing that were being held for higher prices. Already soldiers and civilians alike were feeling the pinch, and the muttering against him and his fellow speculators was bitter.
"There are many brave and patriotic men in the blockade arm of the Confederacy's naval service," ran the last of the doctor's letter, "unselfish men who are risking their lives and all their wealth that the Confederacy may survive. They are enshrined in the hearts of all loyal Southerners, and no one begrudges them the scant monetary returns they make for their risks. They are unselfish gentlemen, and we honor them. Of these men, I do not speak.
"But there are other scoundrels who masquerade under the cloak of the blockader for their own selfish gains, and I call down the just wrath and vengeance of an embattled people, fighting in the justest of Causes, on these human vultures who bring in satins and laces when our men are dying for want of quinine, who load their boats with tea and wines when our heroes are writhing for lack of morphia. I execrate these vampires who are sucking the lifeblood of the men who follow Robert Lee these men who are making the very name of blockader a stench in the nostrils of all patriotic men. How can we endure these scavengers in our midst with their varnished boots when our boys are tramping barefoot into battle? How can we tolerate them with their champagnes and their pates of Strasbourg when our soldiers are shivering about their camp fires and gnawing moldy bacon? I call upon every loyal Confederate to cast them out."
Atlanta read, knew the oracle had spoken, and, as loyal Confederates, they hastened to cast Rhett out.
Of all the homes which had received him in the fall of 1862, Miss Pittypat's was almost the only one into which he could enter in 1863. And, except for Melanie, he probably would not have been received there. Aunt Pitty was in a state whenever he was in town. She knew very well what her friends were saying when she permitted him to call but she still lacked the courage to tell him he was unwelcome. Each time he arrived in Atlanta, she set her fat mouth and told the girls that she would meet him at the door and forbid him to enter. And each time he came, a little package in his hand and a compliment for her charm and beauty on his lips, she wilted.
"I just don't know what to do," she would moan. "He just looks at me and I I'm scared to death of what he would do if I told him. He's got such a bad reputation. Do you suppose he would strike me or or Oh, dear, if Charlie were only alive! Scarlett, YOU must tell him not to call again tell him in a nice way. Oh, me! I do believe you encourage him, and the whole town is talking and, if your mother ever finds out, what will she say to me? Melly, you must not be so nice to him. Be cool and distant and he will understand. Oh, Melly, do you think I'd better write Henry a note and ask him to speak to Captain Butler?"
"No, I don't," said Melanie. "And I won't be rude to him, either. I think people are acting like chickens with their heads off about Captain Butler. I'm sure he can't be all the bad things Dr. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether say he is. He wouldn't hold food from starving people. Why, he even gave me a hundred dollars for the orphans. I'm sure he's just as loyal and patriotic as any of us and he's just too proud to defend himself. You know how obstinate men are when they get their backs up."
Aunt Pitty knew nothing about men, either with their backs up or otherwise, and she could only wave her fat little hands helplessly. As for Scarlett, she had long ago become resigned to Melanie's habit of seeing good in everyone. Melanie was a fool, but there was nothing anybody could do about it.
Scarlett knew that Rhett was not being patriotic and, though she would have died rather than confess it, she did not care. The little presents he brought her from Nassau, little oddments that a lady could accept with propriety, were what mattered most to her. With prices as high as they were, where on earth could she get needles and bonbons and hairpins, if she forbade the house to him? No, it was easier to shift the responsibility to Aunt Pitty, who after all was the head of the house, the chaperon and the arbiter of morals. Scarlett knew the town gossiped about Rhett's calls, and about her too; but she also knew that in the eyes of Atlanta Melanie Wilkes could do no wrong, and if Melanie defended Rhett his calls were still tinged with respectability.
However, life would be pleasanter if Rhett would recant his heresies. She wouldn't have to suffer the embarrassment of seeing him cut openly when she walked down Peachtree Street with him.
"Even if you think such things, why do you say them?" she scolded. "If you'd just think what you please but keep your mouth shut, everything would be so much nicer."
"That's your system, isn't it, my green eyed hypocrite? Scarlett, Scarlett! I hoped for more courageous conduct from you. I thought the Irish said what they thought and the Divvil take the hindermost. Tell me truthfully, don't you sometimes almost burst from keeping your mouth shut?"
"Well yes," Scarlett confessed reluctantly. "I do get awfully bored when they talk about the Cause, morning, noon and night. But goodness, Rhett Butler, if I admitted it nobody would speak to me and none of the boys would dance with me!"
"Ah, yes, and one must be danced with, at all costs. Well, I admire your self control but I do not find myself equal to it. Nor can I masquerade in a cloak of romance and patriotism, no matter how convenient it might be. There are enough stupid patriots who are risking every cent they have in the blockade and who are going to come out of this war paupers. They don't need me among their number, either to brighten the record of patriotism or to increase the roll of paupers. Let them have the haloes. They deserve them for once I am being sincere and, besides, haloes will be about all they will have in a year or so."
"I think you are very nasty to even hint such things when you know very well that England and France are coming in on our side in no time and "
"Why, Scarlett! You must have been reading a newspaper! I'm surprised at you. Don't do it again. It addles brains. For your information, I was in England, not a month ago, and I'll tell you this. England will never help the Confederacy. England never bets on the underdog. That's why she 's England. Besides, the fat Dutch woman who is sitting on the throne is a God fearing soul and she doesn't approve of slavery. Let the English mill workers starve because they can't get our cotton but never, never strike a blow for slavery. And as for France, that weak imitation of Napoleon is far too busy establishing the French in Mexico to be bothered with us. In fact he welcomes this war, because it keeps us too busy to run his troops out of Mexico. . . . No, Scarlett, the idea of assistance from abroad is just a newspaper invention to keep up the morale of the South. The Confederacy is doomed. It's living on its hump now, like the camel, and even the largest of humps aren't inexhaustible. I give myself about six months more of blockading and then I'm through. After that, it will be too risky. And I'll sell my boats to some foolish Englishman who thinks he can slip them through. But one way or the other, it's not bothering me. I've made money enough, and it's in English banks and in gold. None of this worthless paper for me."
As always when he spoke, he sounded so plausible. Other people might call his utterances treachery but, to Scarlett, they always rang with common sense and truth. And she knew that this was utterly wrong, knew she should be shocked and infuriated. Actually she was neither, but she could pretend to be. It made her feel more respectable and ladylike.
"I think what Dr. Meade wrote about was right, Captain Butler. The only way to redeem yourself is to enlist after you sell your boats. You're a West Pointer and "
"You talk like a Baptist preacher making a recruiting speech. Suppose I don't want to redeem myself? Why should I fight to uphold the system that cast me out? I shall take pleasure in seeing it smashed."
"I never heard of any system," she said crossly.
"No? And yet you are a part of it, like I was, and I'll wager you don't like it any more than I did. Well, why am I the black sheep of the Butler family? For this reason and no other I didn't conform to Charleston and I couldn't. And Charleston is the South, only intensified. I wonder if you realize yet what a bore it is? So many things that one must do because they've always been done. So many things, quite harmless, that one must not do for the same reason. So many things that annoyed me by their senselessness. Not marrying the young lady, of whom you have probably heard, was merely the last straw. Why should I marry a boring fool, simply because an accident prevented me from getting her home before dark? And why permit her wild eyed brother to shoot and kill me, when I could shoot straighter? If I had been a gentleman, of course, I would have let him kill me and that would have wiped the blot from the Butler escutcheon. But I like to live. And so I've lived and I've had a good time. . . . When I think of my brother, living among the sacred cows of Charleston, and most reverent toward them, and remember his stodgy wife and his Saint Cecilia Balls and his everlasting rice fields then I know the compensation for breaking with the system. Scarlett, our Southern way of living is as antiquated as the feudal system of the Middle Ages. The wonder is that it's lasted as long as it has. It had to go and it's going now. And yet you expect me to listen to orators like Dr. Meade who tell me our Cause is just and holy? And get so excited by the roll of drums that I'll grab a musket and rush off to Virginia to shed my blood for Marse Robert? What kind of a fool do you think I am? Kissing the rod that chastised me is not in my line. The South and I are even now. The South threw me out to starve once. I haven't starved, and I am making enough money out of the South's death throes to compensate me for my lost birthright."
"I think you are vile and mercenary," said Scarlett, but her remark was automatic. Most of what he was saying went over her head, as did any conversation that was not personal. But part of it made sense. There were such a lot of foolish things about life among nice people. Having to pretend that her heart was in the grave when it wasn't. And how shocked everybody had been when she danced at the bazaar. And the infuriating way people lifted their eyebrows every time she did or said anything the least bit different from what every other young woman did and said. But still, she was jarred at hearing him attack the very traditions that irked her most. She had lived too long among people who dissembled politely not to feel disturbed at hearing her own thoughts put into words.
"Mercenary? No, I'm only farsighted. Though perhaps that is merely a synonym for mercenary. At least, people who were not as farsighted as I will call it that. Any loyal Confederate who had a thousand dollars in cash in 1861 could have done what I did, but how few were mercenary enough to take advantage of their opportunities! As for instance, right after Fort Sumter fell and before the blockade was established, I bought up several thousand bales of cotton at dirt cheap prices and ran them to England. They are still there in warehouses in Liverpool. I've never sold them. I'm holding them until the English mills have to have cotton and will give me any price I ask. I wouldn't be surprised if I got a dollar a pound."
"You'll get a dollar a pound when elephants roost in trees!"
"I'll believe I'll get it. Cotton is at seventy two cents a pound already. I'm going to be a rich man when this war is over, Scarlett, because I was farsighted pardon me, mercenary. I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the upbuilding of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the upbuilding, fast money in the crack up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you some day."
"I do appreciate good advice so much," said Scarlett, with all the sarcasm she could muster. "But I don't need your advice. Do you think Pa is a pauper? He's got all the money I'll ever need and then I have Charles' property besides."
"I imagine the French aristocrats thought practically the same thing until the very moment when they climbed into the tumbrils."
Frequently Rhett pointed out to Scarlett the inconsistency of her wearing black mourning clothes when she was participating in all social activities. He liked bright colors and Scarlett's funeral dresses and the crepe veil that hung from her bonnet to her heels both amused him and offended him. But she clung to her dull black dresses and her veil, knowing that if she changed them for colors without waiting several more years, the town would buzz even more than it was already buzzing. And besides, how would she ever explain to her mother?
Rhett said frankly that the crepe veil made her look like a crow and the black dresses added ten years to her age. This ungallant statement sent her flying to the mirror to see if she really did look twenty eight instead of eighteen.
"I should think you'd have more pride than to try to look like Mrs. Merriwether," he taunted. "And better taste than to wear that veil to advertise a grief I'm sure you never felt. I'll lay a wager with you. I'll have that bonnet and veil off your head and a Paris creation on it within two months."
"Indeed, no, and don't let's discuss it any further," said Scarlett, annoyed by his reference to Charles. Rhett, who was preparing to leave for Wilmington for another trip abroad, departed with a grin on his face.
One bright summer morning some weeks later, he reappeared with a brightly trimmed hatbox in his hand and, after finding that Scarlett was alone in the house, he opened it. Wrapped in layers of tissue was a bonnet, a creation that made her cry: "Oh, the darling thing!" as she reached for it. Starved for the sight, much less the touch, of new clothes, it seemed the loveliest bonnet she had ever seen. It was of dark green taffeta, lined with water silk of a pale jade color. The ribbons that tied under the chin were as wide as her hand and they, too, were pale green. And, curled about the brim of this confection was the perkiest of green ostrich plumes.
"Put it on," said Rhett, smiling.
She flew across the room to the mirror and plopped it on her head, pushing back her hair to show her earrings and tying the ribbon under her chin.
"How do I look?" she cried, pirouetting for his benefit and tossing her head so that the plume danced. But she knew she looked pretty even before she saw confirmation in his eyes. She looked attractively saucy and the green of the lining made her eyes dark emerald and sparkling.
"Oh, Rhett, whose bonnet is it? I'll buy it. I'll give you every cent I've got for it."
"It's your bonnet," he said. "Who else could wear that shade of green? Don't you think I carried the color of your eyes well in my mind?"
"Did you really have it trimmed just for me?"
"Yes, and there's 'Rue de la Paix' on the box, if that means anything to you."
It meant nothing to her, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. Just at this moment, nothing mattered to her except that she looked utterly charming in the first pretty hat she had put on her head in two years. What she couldn't do with this hat! And then her smile faded.
"Don't you like it?"
"Oh, it's a dream but Oh, I do hate to have to cover this lovely green with crepe and dye the feather black."
He was beside her quickly and his deft fingers untied the wide bow under her chin. In a moment the hat was back in its box.
"What are you doing? You said it was mine."
"But not to change to a mourning bonnet. I shall find some other charming lady with green eyes who appreciates my taste."
"Oh, you shan't! I'll die if I don't have it! Oh, please, Rhett, don't be mean! Let me have it."
"And turn it into a fright like your other hats? No."
She clutched at the box. That sweet thing that made her look so young and enchanting to be given to some other girl? Oh, never! For a moment she thought of the horror of Pitty and Melanie. She thought of Ellen and what she would say, and she shivered. But vanity was stronger.
"I won't change it. I promise. Now, do let me have it."
He gave her the box with a slightly sardonic smile and watched her while she put it on again and preened herself.
"How much is it?" she asked suddenly, her face falling. "I have only fifty dollars but next month "
"It would cost about two thousand dollars, Confederate money," he said with a grin at her woebegone expression.
"Oh, dear Well, suppose I give you the fifty now and then when I get "
"I don't want any money for it," he said. "It's a gift."
Scarlett's mouth dropped open. The line was so closely, so carefully drawn where gifts from men were concerned.
"Candy and flowers, dear," Ellen had said time and again, "and perhaps a book of poetry or an album or a small bottle of Florida water are the only things a lady may accept from a gentleman. Never, never any expensive gift, even from your fiance. And never any gift of jewelry or wearing apparel, not even gloves or handkerchiefs. Should you accept such gifts, men would know you were no lady and would try to take liberties."
"Oh, dear," thought Scarlett, looking first at herself in the mirror and then at Rhett's unreadable face. "I simply can't tell him I won't accept it. It's too darling. I'd I'd almost rather he took a liberty, if it was a very small one." Then she was horrified at herself for having such a thought and she turned pink.
"I'll I'll give you the fifty dollars "
"If you do I will throw it in the gutter. Or, better still buy masses for your soul. I'm sure your soul could do with a few masses."
She laughed unwillingly, and the laughing reflection under the green brim decided her instantly.
"Whatever are you trying to do to me?"
"I'm tempting you with fine gifts until your girlish ideals are quite worn away and you are at my mercy," he said. "'Accept only candy and flowers from gentlemen, dearie,'" he mimicked, and she burst into a giggle.
"You are a clever, black hearted wretch, Rhett Butler, and you know very well this bonnet's too pretty to be refused."
His eyes mocked her, even while they complimented her beauty.
"Of course, you can tell Miss Pitty that you gave me a sample of taffeta and green silk and drew a picture of the bonnet and I extorted fifty dollars from you for it."
"No. I shall say one hundred dollars and she 'll tell everybody in town and everybody will be green with envy and talk about my extravagance. But Rhett, you mustn't bring me anything else so expensive. It's awfully kind of you, but I really couldn't accept anything else."
"Indeed? Well, I shall bring you presents so long as it pleases me and so long as I see things that will enhance your charms. I shall bring you dark green watered silk for a frock to match the bonnet. And I warn you that I am not kind. I am tempting you with bonnets and bangles and leading you into a pit. Always remember I never do anything without reason and I never give anything without expecting something in return. I always get paid."
His black eyes sought her face and traveled to her lips.
Scarlett cast down her eyes, excitement filling her. Now, he was going to try to take liberties, just as Ellen predicted. He was going to kiss her, or try to kiss her, and she couldn't quite make up her flurried mind which it should be. If she refused, he might jerk the bonnet right off her head and give it to some other girl. On the other hand, if she permitted one chaste peck, he might bring her other lovely presents in the hope of getting another kiss. Men set such a store by kisses, though Heaven alone knew why. And lots of times, after one kiss they fell completely in love with a girl and made most entertaining spectacles of themselves, provided the girl was clever and withheld her kisses after the first one. It would be exciting to have Rhett Butler in love with her and admitting it and begging for a kiss or a smile. Yes, she would let him kiss her.
But he made no move to kiss her. She gave him a sidelong glance from under her lashes and murmured encouragingly.
"So you always get paid, do you? And what do you expect to get from me?"
"That remains to be seen."
"Well, if you think I'll marry you to pay for the bonnet, I won't," she said daringly and gave her head a saucy flirt that set the plume to bobbing.
His white teeth gleamed under his little mustache.
"Madam, you flatter yourself, I do not want to marry you or anyone else. I am not a marrying man."
"Indeed!" she cried, taken aback and now determined that he should take some liberty. "I don't even intend to kiss you, either."
"Then why is your mouth all pursed up in that ridiculous way?"
"Oh!" she cried as she caught a glimpse of herself and saw that her red lips were indeed in the proper pose for a kiss. "Oh!" she cried again, losing her temper and stamping her foot. "You are the horridest man I have ever seen and I don't care if I never lay eyes on you again!"
"If you really felt that way, you'd stamp on the bonnet. My, what a passion you are in and it's quite becoming, as you probably know. Come, Scarlett, stamp on the bonnet to show me what you think of me and my presents."
"Don't you dare touch this bonnet," she said, clutching it by the bow and retreating. He came after her, laughing softly and took her hands in his.
"Oh, Scarlett, you are so young you wring my heart," he said. "And I shall kiss you, as you seem to expect it," and leaning down carelessly, his mustache just grazed her cheek. "Now, do you feel that you must slap me to preserve the proprieties?"
Her lips mutinous, she looked up into his eyes and saw so much amusement in their dark depths that she burst into laughter. What a tease he was and how exasperating! If he didn't want to marry her and didn't even want to kiss her, what did he want? If he wasn't in love with her, why did he call so often and bring her presents?
"That's better," he said. "Scarlett, I'm a bad influence on you and if you have any sense you will send me packing if you can. I'm very hard to get rid of. But I'm bad for you."
"Can't you see it? Ever since I met you at the bazaar, your career has been most shocking and I'm to blame for most of it. Who encouraged you to dance? Who forced you to admit that you thought our glorious Cause was neither glorious nor sacred? Who goaded you into admitting that you thought men were fools to die for high sounding principles? Who has aided you in giving the old ladies plenty to gossip about? Who is getting you out of mourning several years too soon? And who, to end all this, has lured you into accepting a gift which no lady can accept and still remain a lady?"
"You flatter yourself, Captain Butler. I haven't done anything so scandalous and I'd have done everything you mentioned without your aid anyway."
"I doubt that," he said and his face went suddenly quiet and somber. "You'd still be the broken hearted widow of Charles Hamilton and famed for your good deeds among the wounded. Eventually, however "
But she was not listening, for she was regarding herself pleasedly in the mirror again, thinking she would wear the bonnet to the hospital this very afternoon and take flowers to the convalescent officers.
That there was truth in his last words did not occur to her. She did not see that Rhett had pried open the prison of her widowhood and set her free to queen it over unmarried girls when her days as a belle should have been long past. Nor did she see that under his influence she had come a long way from Ellen's teachings. The change had been so gradual, the flouting of one small convention seeming to have no connection with the flouting of another, and none of them any connection with Rhett. She did not realize that, with his encouragement, she had disregarded many of the sternest injunctions of her mother concerning the proprieties, forgotten the difficult lessons in being a lady.
She only saw that the bonnet was the most becoming one she ever had, that it had not cost her a penny and that Rhett must be in love with her, whether he admitted it or not. And she certainly intended to find a way to make him admit it.
The next day, Scarlett was standing in front of the mirror with a comb in her hand and her mouth full of hairpins, attempting a new coiffure which Maybelle, fresh from a visit to her husband in Richmond, had said was the rage at the Capital. It was called "Cats, Rats and Mice" and presented many difficulties. The hair was parted in the middle and arranged in three rolls of graduating size on each side of the head, the largest, nearest the part, being the "cat." The "cat" and the "rat" were easy to fix but the "mice" kept slipping out of her hairpins in an exasperating manner. However, she was determined to accomplish it, for Rhett was coming to supper and he always noticed and commented upon any innovation of dress or hair.
As she struggled with her bushy, obstinate locks, perspiration beading her forehead, she heard light running feet in the downstairs hall and knew that Melanie was home from the hospital. As she heard her fly up the stairs, two at a time, she paused, hairpin in mid air, realizing that something must be wrong, for Melanie always moved as decorously as a dowager. She went to the door and threw it open, and Melanie ran in, her face flush ed and frightened, looking like a guilty child.
There were tears on her cheeks, her bonnet was hanging on her neck by the ribbons and her hoops swaying violently. She was clutching something in her hand, and the reek of heavy cheap perfume came into the room with her.
"Oh, Scarlett!" she cried, shutting the door and sinking on the bed. "Is Auntie home yet? She isn't? Oh, thank the Lord! Scarlett, I'm so mortified I could die! I nearly swooned and, Scarlett, Uncle Peter is threatening to tell Aunt Pitty!"
"That I was talking to that to Miss Mrs. " Melanie fanned her hot face with her handkerchief. "That woman with red hair, named Belle Watling!"
"Why, Melly!" cried Scarlett, so shocked she could only stare.
Belle Watling was the red haired woman she had seen on the street the first day she came to Atlanta and by now, she was easily the most notorious woman in town. Many prostitutes had flocked into Atlanta, following the soldiers, but Belle stood out above the rest, due to her flaming hair and the gaudy, overly fashionable dresses she wore. She was seldom seen on Peachtree Street or in any nice neighborhood, but when she did appear respectable women made haste to cross the street to remove themselves from her vicinity. And Melanie had been talking with her. No wonder Uncle Peter was outraged.
"I shall die if Aunt Pitty finds out! You know she 'll cry and tell everybody in town and I'll be disgraced," sobbed Melanie. "And it wasn't my fault. I I couldn't run away from her. It would have been so rude. Scarlett, I I felt sorry for her. Do you think I'm bad for feeling that way?"
But Scarlett was not concerned with the ethics of the matter. Like most innocent and well bred young women, she had a devouring curiosity about prostitutes.
"What did she want? What does she talk like?"
"Oh, she used awful grammar but I could see she was trying so hard to be elegant, poor thing. I came out of the hospital and Uncle Peter and the carriage weren't waiting, so I thought I'd walk home. And when I went by the Emersons' yard, there she was hiding behind the hedge! Oh, thank Heaven, the Emersons are in Macon! And she said, 'Please, Mrs. Wilkes, do speak a minute with me.' I don't know how she knew my name. I knew I ought to run as hard as I could but well, Scarlett, she looked so sad and well, sort of pleading. And she had on a black dress and black bonnet and no paint and really looked decent but for that red hair. And before I could answer she said. 'I know I shouldn't speak to you but I tried to talk to that old peahen, Mrs. Elsing, and she ran me away from the hospital.'"
"Did she really call her a peahen?" said Scarlett pleasedly and laughed.
"Oh, don't laugh. It isn't funny. It seems that Miss this woman, wanted to do something for the hospital can you imagine it? She offered to nurse every morning and, of course, Mrs. Elsing must have nearly died at the idea and ordered her out of the hospital. And then she said, 'I want to do something, too. Ain't I a Confedrut, good as you?' And, Scarlett, I was right touched at her wanting to help. You know, she can't be all bad if she wants to help the Cause. Do you think I'm bad to feel that way?"
"For Heaven's sake, Melly, who cares if you're bad? What else did she say?"
"She said she 'd been watching the ladies go by to the hospital and thought I had a a kind face and so she stopped me. She had some money and she wanted me to take it and use it for the hospital and not tell a soul where it came from. She said Mrs. Elsing wouldn't let it be used if she knew what kind of money it was. What kind of money! That's when I thought I'd swoon! And I was so upset and anxious to get away, I just said: 'Oh, yes, indeed, how sweet of you' or something idiotic, and she smiled and said: 'That's right Christian of you' and shoved this dirty handkerchief into my hand. Ugh, can you smell the perfume?"
Melanie held out a man's handkerchief, soiled and highly perfumed, in which some coins were knotted.
"She was saying thank you and something about bringing me some money every week and just then Uncle Peter drove up and saw me!" Melly collapsed into tears and laid her head on the pillow. "And when he saw who was with me, he Scarlett, he HOLLERED at me! Nobody has ever hollered at me before in my whole life. And he said, 'You git in dis hyah cah'ige dis minute!' Of course, I did, and all the way home he blessed me out and wouldn't let me explain and said he was going to tell Aunt Pitty. Scarlett, do go down and beg him not to tell her. Perhaps he will listen to you. It will kill Auntie if she knows I ever even looked that woman in the face. Will you?"
"Yes, I will. But let's see how much money is in here. It feels heavy."
She untied the knot and a handful of gold coins rolled out on the bed.
"Scarlett, there's fifty dollars here! And in gold!" cried Melanie, awed, as she counted the bright pieces. "Tell me, do you think it's all right to use this kind well, money made er this way for the boys? Don't you think that maybe God will understand that she wanted to help and won't care if it is tainted? When I think of how many things the hospital needs "
But Scarlett was not listening. She was looking at the dirty handkerchief, and humiliation and fury were filling her. There was a monogram in the corner in which were the initials "R. K. B." In her top drawer was a handkerchief just like this, one that Rhett Butler had lent her only yesterday to wrap about the stems of wild flowers they had picked. She had planned to return it to him when he came to supper tonight.
So Rhett consorted with that vile Watling creature and gave her money. That was where the contribution to the hospital came from. Blockade gold. And to think that Rhett would have the gall to look a decent woman in the face after being with that creature! And to think that she could have believed he was in love with her! This proved he couldn't be.
Bad women and all they involved were mysterious and revolting matters to her. She knew that men patronized these women for purposes which no lady should mention or, if she did mention them, in whispers and by indirection and euphemism. She had always thought that only common vulgar men visited such women. Before this moment, it had never occurred to her that nice men that is, men she met at nice homes and with whom she danced could possibly do such things. It opened up an entirely new field of thought and one that was horrifying. Perhaps all men did this! It was bad enough that they forced their wives to go through such indecent performances but to actually seek out low women and pay them for such accommodation! Oh, men were so vile, and Rhett Butler was the worst of them all!
She would take this handkerchief and fling it in his face and show him the door and never, never speak to him again. But no, of course she couldn't do that. She could never, never let him know she even realized that bad women existed, much less that he visited them. A lady could never do that.
"Oh," she thought in fury. "If I just wasn't a lady, what wouldn't I tell that varmint!"
And, crumbling the handkerchief in her hand, she went down the stairs to the kitchen in search of Uncle Peter. As she passed the stove, she shoved the handkerchief into the flames and with impotent anger watched it burn.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
Hope was rolling high in every Southern heart as the summer of 1863 came in. Despite privation and hardships, despite food speculators and kindred scourges, despite death and sickness and suffering which had now left their mark on nearly every family, the South was again saying "One more victory and the war is over," saying it with even more happy assurance than in the summer before. The Yankees were proving a hard nut to crack but they were cracking at last.
Christmas of 1862 had been a happy one for Atlanta, for the whole South. The Confederacy had scored a smashing victory, at Fredericksburg and the Yankee dead and wounded were counted in the thousands. There was universal rejoicing in that holiday season, rejoicing and thankfulness that the tide was turning. The army in butternut were now seasoned fighters, their generals had proven their mettle, and everyone knew that when the campaign reopened in the spring, the Yankees would be crushed for good and all.
Spring came and the fighting recommenced. May came and the Confederacy won another great victory at Chancellorsville. The South roared with elation.
Closer at home, a Union cavalry dash into Georgia had been turned into a Confederate triumph. Folks were still laughing and slapping each other on the back and saying: "Yes, sir! When old Nathan Bedford Forrest gets after them, they better git!" Late in April, Colonel Streight and eighteen hundred Yankee cavalry had made a surprise raid into Georgia, aiming at Rome, only a little more than sixty miles north of Atlanta. They had ambitious plans to cut the vitally important railroad between Atlanta and Tennessee and then swing southward into Atlanta to destroy the factories and the war supplies concentrated there in that key city of the Confederacy.
It was a bold stroke and it would have cost the South dearly, except for Forrest. With only one third as many men but what men and what riders! he had started after them, engaged them before they even reached Rome, harassed them day and night and finally captured the entire force!
The news reached Atlanta almost simultaneously with the news of the victory at Chancellorsville, and the town fairly rocked with exultation and with laughter. Chancellorsville might be a more important victory but the capture of Streight's raiders made the Yankees positively ridiculous.
"No, sir, they'd better not fool with old Forrest," Atlanta said gleefully as the story was told over and over.
The tide of the Confederacy's fortune was running strong and full now, sweeping the people jubilantly along on its flood. True, the Yankees under Grant had been besieging Vicksburg since the middle of May. True, the South had suffered a sickening loss when Stonewall Jackson had been fatally wounded at Chancellorsville. True, Georgia had lost one of her bravest and most brilliant sons when General T. R. R. Cobb had been killed at Fredericksburg. But the Yankees just couldn't stand any more defeats like Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. They'd have to give in, and then this cruel war would be over.
The first days of July came and with them the rumor, later confirmed by dispatches, that Lee was marching into Pennsylvania. Lee in the enemy's territory! Lee forcing battle! This was the last fight of the war!
Atlanta was wild with excitement, pleasure and a hot thirst for vengeance. Now the Yankees would know what it meant to have the war carried into their own country. Now they'd know what it meant to have fertile fields stripped, horses and cattle stolen, houses burned, old men and boys dragged off to prison and women and children turned out to starve.
Everyone knew what the Yankees had done in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Even small children could recite with hate and fear the horrors the Yankees had inflicted upon the conquered territory. Already Atlanta was full of refugees from east Tennessee, and the town had heard firsthand stories from them of what suffering they had gone through. In that section, the Confederate sympathizers were in the minority and the hand of war fell heavily upon them, as it did on all the border states, neighbor informing against neighbor and brother killing brother. These refugees cried out to see Pennsylvania one solid sheet of flame, and even the gentlest of old ladies wore expressions of grim pleasure.
But when the news trickled back that Lee had issued orders that no private property in Pennsylvania should be touched, that looting would be punished by death and that the army would pay for every article it requisitioned then it needed all the reverence the General had earned to save his popularity. Not turn the men loose in the rich storehouses of that prosperous state? What was General Lee thinking of? And our boys so hungry and needing shoes and clothes and horses!
A hasty note from Darcy Meade to the doctor, the only first hand information Atlanta received during those first days of July, was passed from hand to hand, with mounting indignation.
"Pa, could you manage to get me a pair of boots? I've been barefooted for two weeks now and I don't see any prospects of getting another pair. If I didn't have such big feet I could get them off dead Yankees like the other boys, but I've never yet found a Yankee whose feet were near as big as mine. If you can get me some, don't mail them. Somebody would steal them on the way and I wouldn't blame them. Put Phil on the train and send him up with them. I'll write you soon, where we'll be. Right now I don't know, except that we're marching north. We're in Maryland now and everybody says we're going on into Pennsylvania. . . .
"Pa, I thought that we'd give the Yanks a taste of their own medicine but the General says No, and personally I don't care to get shot just for the pleasure of burning some Yank's house. Pa, today we marched through the grandest cornfields you ever saw. We don't have corn like this down home. Well, I must admit we did a bit of private looting in that corn, for we were all pretty hungry and what the General don't know won't hurt him. But that green corn didn't do us a bit of good. All the boys have got dysentery anyway, and that corn made it worse. It's easier to walk with a leg wound than with dysentery. Pa, do try to manage some boots for me. I'm a captain now and a captain ought to have boots, even if he hasn't got a new uniform or epaulets."
But the army was in Pennsylvania that was all that mattered. One more victory and the war would be over, and then Darcy Meade could have all the boots he wanted, and the boys would come marching home and everybody would be happy again. Mrs. Meade's eyes grew wet as she pictured her soldier son home at last, home to stay.
On the third of July, a sudden silence fell on the wires from the north, a silence that lasted till midday of the fourth when fragmentary and garbled reports began to trickle into headquarters in Atlanta. There had been hard fighting in Pennsylvania, near a little town named Gettysburg, a great battle with all Lee's army massed. The news was uncertain, slow in coming, for the battle had been fought in the enemy's territory and the reports came first through Maryland, were relayed to Richmond and then to Atlanta.
Suspense grew and the beginnings of dread slowly crawled over the town. Nothing was so bad as not knowing what was happening. Families with sons at the front prayed fervently that their boys were not in Pennsylvania, but those who knew their relatives were in the same regiment with Darcy Meade clamped their teeth and said it was an honor for them to be in the big fight that would lick the Yankees for good and all.
In Aunt Pitty's house, the three women looked into one another's eyes with fear they could not conceal. Ashley was in Darcy's regiment.
On the fifth came evil tidings, not from the North but from the West. Vicksburg had fallen, fallen after a long and bitter siege, and practically all the Mississippi River, from St. Louis to New Orleans was in the hands of the Yankees. The Confederacy had been cut in two. At any other time, the news of this disaster would have brought fear and lamentation to Atlanta. But now they could give little thought to Vicksburg. They were thinking of Lee in Pennsylvania, forcing battle. Vicksburg's loss would be no catastrophe if Lee won in the East. There lay Philadelphia, New York, Washington. Their capture would paralyze the North and more than cancel off the defeat on the Mississippi.
The hours dragged by and the black shadow of calamity brooded over the town, obscuring the hot sun until people looked up startled into the sky as if incredulous that it was clear and blue instead of murky and heavy with scudding clouds. Everywhere, women gathered in knots, huddled in groups on front porches, on sidewalks, even in the middle of the streets, telling each other that no news is good news, trying to comfort each other, trying to present a brave appearance. But hideous rumors that Lee was killed, the battle lost, and enormous casualty lists coming in, fled up and down the quiet streets like darting bats. Though they tried not to believe, whole neighborhoods, swayed by panic, rushed to town, to the newspapers, to headquarters, pleading for news, any news, even bad news.
Crowds formed at the depot, hoping for news from incoming trains, at the telegraph office, in front of the harried headquarters, before the locked doors of the newspapers. They were oddly still crowds, crowds that quietly grew larger and larger. There was no talking. Occasionally an old man's treble voice begged for news, and instead of inciting the crowd to babbling it only intensified the hush as they heard the oft repeated: "Nothing on the wires yet from the North except that there's been fighting." The fringe of women on foot and in carriages grew greater and greater, and the heat of the close packed bodies and dust rising from restless feet were suffocating. The women did not speak, but their pale set faces pleaded with a mute eloquence that was louder than wailing.
There was hardly a house in town that had not sent away a son, a brother, a father, a lover, a husband, to this battle. They all waited to hear the news that death had come to their homes. They expected death. They did not expect defeat. That thought they dismissed. Their men might be dying, even now, on the sun parched grass of the Pennsylvania hills. Even now the Southern ranks might be falling like grain before a hailstorm, but the Cause for which they fought could never fall. They might be dying in thousands but, like the fruit of the dragon's teeth, thousands of fresh men in gray and butternut with the Rebel yell on their lips would spring up from the earth to take their places. Where these men would come from, no one knew. They only knew, as surely as they knew there was a just and jealous God in Heaven, that Lee was miraculous and the Army of Virginia invincible.
Scarlett, Melanie and Miss Pittypat sat in front of the Daily Examiner office in the carriage with the top back, sheltered beneath their parasols. Scarlett's hands shook so that her parasol wobbled above her head, Pitty was so excited her nose quivered in her round face like a rabbit's, but Melanie sat as though carved of stone, her dark eyes growing larger and larger as time went by. She made only one remark in two hours, as she took a vial of smelling salts from her reticule and handed it to her aunt, the only time she had ever spoken to her, in her whole life, with anything but tenderest affection.
"Take this, Auntie, and use it if you feel faint. I warn you if you do faint you'll just have to faint and let Uncle Peter take you home, for I'm not going to leave this place till I hear about till I hear. And I'm not going to let Scarlett leave me, either."
Scarlett had no intention of leaving, no intention of placing herself where she could not have the first news of Ashley. No, even if Miss Pitty died, she wouldn't leave this spot. Somewhere, Ashley was fighting, perhaps dying, and the newspaper office was the only place where she could learn the truth.
She looked about the crowd, picking out friends and neighbors, Mrs. Meade with her bonnet askew and her arm through that of fifteen year old Phil; the Misses McLure trying to make their trembling upper lips cover their buck teeth; Mrs. Elsing, erect as a Spartan mother, betraying her inner turmoil only by the straggling gray locks that hung from her chignon; and Fanny Elsing white as a ghost. [Surely Fanny wouldn't be so worried about her brother Hugh. Had she a real beau at the front that no one suspected?] Mrs. Merriwether sat in her carriage patting Maybelle's hand. Maybelle looked so very pregnant it was a disgrace for her to be out in public, even if she did have her shawl carefully draped over her. Why should she be so worried? Nobody had heard that the Louisiana troops were in Pennsylvania. Probably her hairy little Zouave was safe in Richmond this very minute.
There was a movement on the outskirts of the crowd and those on foot gave way as Rhett Butler carefully edged his horse toward Aunt Pitty's carriage. Scarlett thought: He's got courage, coming here at this time when it wouldn't take anything to make this mob tear him to pieces because he isn't in uniform. As he came nearer, she thought she might be the first to rend him. How dared he sit there on that fine horse, in shining boots and handsome white linen suit, so sleek and well fed, smoking an expensive cigar, when Ashley and all the other boys were fighting the Yankees, barefooted, sweltering in the heat, hungry, their bellies rotten with disease?
Bitter looks were thrown at him as he came slowly through the press. Old men growled in their beards, and Mrs. Merriwether who feared nothing rose slightly in her carriage and said clearly: "Speculator!" in a tone that made the word the foulest and most venomous of epithets. He paid no heed to anyone but raised his hat to Melly and Aunt Pitty and, riding to Scarlett's side, leaned down and whispered: "Don't you think this would be the time for Dr. Meade to give us his familiar speech about victory perching like a screaming eagle on our banners?"
Her nerves taut with suspense, she turned on him as swiftly as an angry cat, hot words bubbling to her lips, but he stopped them with a gesture.
"I came to tell you ladies," he said loudly, "that I have been to headquarters and the first casualty lists are coming in."
At these words a hum rose among those near enough to hear his remark, and the crowd surged, ready to turn and run down Whitehall Street toward headquarters.
"Don't go," he called, rising in his saddle and holding up his hand. "The lists have been sent to both newspapers and are now being printed. Stay where you are!"
"Oh, Captain Butler," cried Melly, turning to him with tears in her eyes. "How kind of you to come and tell us! When will they be posted?"
"They should be out any minute, Madam. The reports have been in the offices for half an hour now. The major in charge didn't want to let that out until the printing was done, for fear the crowd would wreck the offices trying to get news. Ah! Look!"
The side window of the newspaper office opened and a hand was extended, bearing a sheaf of long narrow galley proofs, smeared with fresh ink and thick with names closely printed. The crowd fought for them, tearing the slips in half, those obtaining them trying to back out through the crowd to read, those behind pushing forward, crying: "Let me through!"
"Hold the reins," said Rhett shortly, swinging to the ground and tossing the bridle to Uncle Peter. They saw his heavy shoulders towering above the crowd as he went through, brutally pushing and shoving. In a while he was back, with half a dozen in his hands. He tossed one to Melanie and distributed the others among the ladies in the nearest carriages, the Misses McLure, Mrs. Meade, Mrs. Merriwether, Mrs. Elsing.
"Quick, Melly," cried Scarlett, her heart in her throat, exasperation sweeping her as she saw that Melly's hands were shaking so that it was impossible for her to read.
"Take it," whispered Melly, and Scarlett snatched it from her. The Ws. Where were the Ws? Oh, there they were at the bottom and all smeared up. "White," she read and her voice shook, "Wilkens . . . Winn . . . Zebulon . . . Oh, Melly, he's not on it! He's not on it! Oh, for God's sake, Auntie, Melly, pick up the salts! Hold her up, Melly."
Melly, weeping openly with happiness, steadied Miss Pitty's rolling head and held the smelling salts under her nose. Scarlett braced the fat old lady on the other side, her heart singing with joy. Ashley was alive. He wasn't even wounded. How good God was to pass him by! How
She heard a low moan and, turning, saw Fanny Elsing lay her head on her mother's bosom, saw the casualty list flutter to the floor of the carriage, saw Mrs. Elsing's thin lips quiver as she gathered her daughter in her arms and said quietly to the coachman: "Home. Quickly." Scarlett took a quick glance at the lists. Hugh Elsing was not listed. Fanny must have had a beau and now he was dead. The crowd made way in sympathetic silence for the Elsings' carriage, and after them followed the little wicker pony cart of the McLure girls. Miss Faith was driving, her face like a rock, and for once, her teeth were covered by her lips. Miss Hope, death in her face, sat erect beside her, holding her sister's skirt in a tight grasp. They looked like very old women. Their young brother Dallas was their darling and the only relative the maiden ladies had in the world. Dallas was gone.
"Melly! Melly!" cried Maybelle, joy in her voice, "Rene is safe! And Ashley, too! Oh, thank God!" The shawl had slipped from her shoulders and her condition was most obvious but, for once, neither she nor Mrs. Merriwether cared. "Oh, Mrs. Meade! Rene " Her voice changed, swiftly, "Melly, look! Mrs. Meade, please! Darcy isn't ?"
Mrs. Meade was looking down into her lap and she did not raise her head when her name was called, but the face of little Phil beside her was an open book that all might read.
"There, there, Mother," he said, helplessly. Mrs. Meade looked up, meeting Melanie's eyes.
"He won't need those boots now," she said.
"Oh, darling!" cried Melly, beginning to sob, as she shoved Aunt Pitty onto Scarlett's shoulder and scrambled out of the carriage and toward that of the doctor's wife.
"Mother, you've still got me," said Phil, in a forlorn effort at comforting the white faced woman beside him. "And if you'll just let me, I'll go kill all the Yank "
Mrs. Meade clutched his arm as if she would never let it go, said "No!" in a strangled voice and seemed to choke.
"Phil Meade, you hush your mouth!" hissed Melanie, climbing in beside Mrs. Meade and taking her in her arms. "Do you think it'll help your mother to have you off getting shot too? I never heard anything so silly. Drive us home, quick!"
She turned to Scarlett as Phil picked up the reins.
"As soon as you take Auntie home, come over to Mrs. Meade's. Captain Butler, can you get word to the doctor? He's at the hospital."
The carriage moved off through the dispersing crowd. Some of the women were weeping with joy, but most looked too stunned to realize the heavy blows that had fallen upon them. Scarlett bent her head over the blurred lists, reading rapidly, to find names of friends. Now that Ashley was safe she could think of other people. Oh, how long the list was! How heavy the toll from Atlanta, from all of Georgia.
Good Heavens! "Calvert Raiford, Lieutenant." Raif! Suddenly she remembered the day, so long ago, when they had run away together but decided to come home at nightfall because they were hungry and afraid of the dark.
"Fontaine Joseph K., private." Little bad tempered Joe! And Sally hardly over having her baby!
"Munroe LaFayette, Captain." And Lafe had been engaged to Cathleen Calvert. Poor Cathleen! Hers had been a double loss, a brother and a sweetheart. But Sally's loss was greater a brother and a husband.
Oh, this was too terrible. She was almost afraid to read further. Aunt Pitty was heaving and sighing on her shoulder and, with small ceremony, Scarlett pushed her over into a corner of the carriage and continued her reading.
Surely, surely there couldn't be three "Tarleton" names on that list. Perhaps perhaps the hurried printer had repeated the name by error. But no. There they were. "Tarleton Brenton, Lieutenant." "Tarleton Stuart, Corporal." "Tarleton Thomas, private." And Boyd, dead the first year of the war, was buried God knew where in Virginia. All the Tarleton boys gone. Tom and the lazy long legged twins with their love of gossip and their absurd practical jokes and Boyd who had the grace of a dancing master and the tongue of a wasp.
She could not read any more. She could not know if any other of those boys with whom she had grown up, danced, flirted, kissed were on that list. She wished that she could cry, do something to ease the iron fingers that were digging into her throat.
"I'm sorry, Scarlett," said Rhett. She looked up at him. She had forgotten he was still there. "Many of your friends?"
She nodded and struggled to speak: "About every family in the County and all all three of the Tarleton boys."
His face was quiet, almost somber, and there was no mocking in his eyes.
"And the end is not yet," he said. "These are just the first lists and they're incomplete. There'll be a longer list tomorrow." He lowered his voice so that those in the near by carriages could not hear. "Scarlett, General Lee must have lost the battle. I heard at headquarters that he had retreated back into Maryland."
She raised frightened eyes to his, but her fear did not spring from Lee's defeat. Longer casualty lists tomorrow! Tomorrow. She had not thought of tomorrow, so happy was she at first that Ashley's name was not on that list. Tomorrow. Why, right this minute he might be dead and she would not know it until tomorrow, or perhaps a week from tomorrow.
"Oh, Rhett, why do there have to be wars? It would have been so much better for the Yankees to pay for the darkies or even for us to give them the darkies free of charge than to have this happen."
"It isn't the darkies, Scarlett. They're just the excuse. There'll always be wars because men love wars. Women don't, but men do yea, passing the love of women."
His mouth twisted in his old smile and the seriousness was gone from his face. He lifted his wide Panama hat.
"Good by. I'm going to find Dr. Meade. I imagine the irony of me being the one to tell him of his son's death will be lost on him, just now. But later, he'll probably hate to think that a speculator brought the news of a hero's death."
Scarlett put Miss Pitty to bed with a toddy, left Prissy and Cookie in attendance and went down the street to the Meade house. Mrs. Meade was upstairs with Phil, waiting her husband's return, and Melanie sat in the parlor, talking in a low voice to a group of sympathetic neighbors. She was busy with needle and scissors, altering a mourning dress that Mrs. Elsing had lent to Mrs. Meade. Already the house was full of the acrid smell of clothes boiling in homemade black dye for, in the kitchen, the sobbing cook was stirring all of Mrs. Meade's dresses in the huge wash pot.
"How is she ?" questioned Scarlett softly.
"Not a tear," said Melanie. "It's terrible when women can't cry. I don't know how men stand things without crying. I guess it's because they're stronger and braver than women. She says she 's going to Pennsylvania by herself to bring him home. The doctor can't leave the hospital."
"It will be dreadful for her! Why can't Phil go?"
"She's afraid he'll join the army if he gets out of her sight. You know he's so big for his age and they're taking them at sixteen now."
One by one the neighbors slipped away, reluctant to be present when the doctor came home, and Scarlett and Melanie were left alone, sewing in the parlor. Melanie looked sad but tranquil, though tears dropped down on the cloth she held in her hands. Evidently she had not thought that the battle might still be going on and Ashley perhaps dead at this very moment. With panic in her heart, Scarlett did not know whether to tell Melanie of Rhett's words and have the dubious comfort of her misery or keep it to herself. Finally she decided to remain quiet. It would never do for Melanie to think her too worried about Ashley. She thanked God that everyone, Melly and Pitty included, had been too engrossed in her own worries that morning to notice her conduct.
After an interval of silent sewing, they heard sounds outside and, peering through the curtains, they saw Dr. Meade alighting from his horse. His shoulders were sagging and his head bowed until his gray beard spread out fanlike on his chest. He came slowly into the house and, laying down his hat and bag, kissed both the girls silently. Then he went tiredly up the stairs. In a moment Phil came down, all long legs and arms and awkwardness. The two girls looked an invitation to join them, but he went onto the front porch and, seating himself on the top step, dropped his head on his cupped palm.
"He's mad because they won't let him go fight the Yankees. Fifteen years old! Oh, Scarlett, it would be Heaven to have a son like that!"
"And have him get killed," said Scarlett shortly, thinking of Darcy.
"It would be better to have a son even if he did get killed than to never have one," said Melanie and gulped. "You can't understand, Scarlett, because you've got little Wade, but I Oh, Scarlett, I want a baby so bad! I know you think I'm horrid to say it right out, but it's true and only what every woman wants and you know it."
Scarlett restrained herself from sniffing.
"If God should will that Ashley should be taken, I suppose I could bear it, though I'd rather die if he died. But God would give me strength to bear it. But I could not bear having him dead and not having not having a child of his to comfort me. Oh, Scarlett, how lucky you are! Though you lost Charlie, you have his son. And if Ashley goes, I'll have nothing. Scarlett, forgive me, but sometimes I've been so jealous of you "
"Jealous of me?" cried Scarlett, stricken with guilt.
"Because you have a son and I haven't. I've even pretended sometimes that Wade was mine because it's so awful not to have a child."
"Fiddle dee dee!" said Scarlett in relief. She cast a quick glance at the slight figure with blush ing face bent over the sewing. Melanie might want children but she certainly did not have the figure for bearing them. She was hardly taller than a twelve year old child, her hips were as narrow as a child's and her breasts were very flat. The very thought of Melanie having a child was repellent to Scarlett. It brought up too many thoughts she couldn't bear thinking. If Melanie should have a child of Ashley's, it would be as though something were taken from Scarlett that was her own.
"Do forgive me for saying that about Wade. You know I love him so. You aren't mad at me, are you?"
"Don't be silly," said Scarlett shortly. "And go out on the porch and do something for Phil. He's crying."
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
The army, driven back into Virginia, went into winter quarters on the Rapidan a tired, depleted army since the defeat at Gettysburg and as the Christmas season approached, Ashley came home on furlough. Scarlett, seeing him for the first time in more than two years, was frightened by the violence of her feelings. When she had stood in the parlor at Twelve Oaks and seen him married to Melanie, she had thought she could never love him with a more heartbreaking intensity than she did at that moment. But now she knew her feelings of that long past night were those of a spoiled child thwarted of a toy. Now, her emotions were sharpened by her long dreams of him, heightened by the repression she had been forced to put on her tongue.
This Ashley Wilkes in his faded, patched uniform, his blond hair bleached tow by summer suns, was a different man from the easy going, drowsy eyed boy she had loved to desperation before the war. And he was a thousand times more thrilling. He was bronzed and lean now, where he had once been fair and slender, and the long golden mustache drooping about his mouth, cavalry style, was the last touch needed to make him the perfect picture of a soldier.
He stood with military straightness in his old uniform, his pistol in its worn holster, his battered scabbard smartly slapping his high boots, his tarnished spurs dully gleaming Major Ashley Wilkes, C.S.A. The habit of command sat upon him now, a quiet air of self reliance and authority, and grim lines were beginning to emerge about his mouth. There was something new and strange about the square set of his shoulders and the cool bright gleam of his eyes. Where he had once been lounging and indolent, he was now as alert as a prowling cat, with the tense alertness of one whose nerves are perpetually drawn as tight as the strings of a violin. In his eyes, there was a fagged, haunted look, and the sunburned skin was tight across the fine bones of his face her same handsome Ashley, yet so very different.
Scarlett had made her plans to spend Christmas at Tara, but after Ashley's telegram came no power on earth, not even a direct command from the disappointed Ellen, could drag her away from Atlanta. Had Ashley intended going to Twelve Oaks, she would have hastened to Tara to be near him; but he had written his family to join him in Atlanta, and Mr. Wilkes and Honey and India were already in town. Go home to Tara and miss seeing him, after two long years? Miss the heart quickening sound of his voice, miss reading in his eyes that he had not forgotten her? Never! Not for all the mothers in the world.
Ashley came home four days before Christmas, with a group of the County boys also on furlough, a sadly diminished group since Gettysburg. Cade Calvert was among them, a thin, gaunt Cade, who coughed continually, two of the Munroe boys, bubbling with the excitement of their first leave since 1861, and Alex and Tony Fontaine, splendidly drunk, boisterous and quarrelsome. The group had two hours to wait between trains and, as it was taxing the diplomacy of the sober members of the party to keep the Fontaines from fighting each other and perfect strangers in the depot, Ashley brought them all home to Aunt Pittypat's.
"You'd think they'd had enough fighting in Virginia," said Cade bitterly, as he watched the two bristle like game cocks over who should be the first to kiss the fluttering and flattered Aunt Pitty. "But no. They've been drunk and picking fights ever since we got to Richmond. The provost guard took them up there and if it hadn't been for Ashley's slick tongue, they'd have spent Christmas in jail."
But Scarlett hardly heard a word he said, so enraptured was she at being in the same room with Ashley again. How could she have thought during these two years that other men were nice or handsome or exciting? How could she have even endured hearing them make love to her when Ashley was in the world? He was home again, separated from her only by the width of the parlor rug, and it took all her strength not to dissolve in happy tears every time she looked at him sitting there on the sofa with Melly on one side and India on the other and Honey hanging over his shoulder. If only she had the right to sit there beside him, her arm through his! If only she could pat his sleeve every few minutes to make sure he was really there, hold his hand and use his handkerchief to wipe away her tears of joy. For Melanie was doing all these things, unashamedly. Too happy to be shy and reserved, she hung on her husband's arm and adored him openly with her eyes, with her smiles, her tears. And Scarlett was too happy to resent this, too glad to be jealous. Ashley was home at last!
Now and then she put her hand up to her cheek where he had kissed her and felt again the thrill of his lips and smiled at him. He had not kissed her first, of course. Melly had hurled herself into his arms crying incoherently, holding him as though she would never let him go. And then, India and Honey had hugged him, fairly tearing him from Melanie's arms. Then he had kissed his father, with a dignified affectionate embrace that showed the strong quiet feeling that lay between them. And then Aunt Pitty, who was jumping up and down on her inadequate little feet with excitement. Finally he turned to her, surrounded by all the boys who were claiming their kisses, and said: "Oh, Scarlett! You pretty, pretty thing!" and kissed her on the cheek.
With that kiss, everything she had intended to say in welcome took wings. Not until hours later did she recall that he had not kissed her on the lips. Then she wondered feverishly if he would have done it had she met him alone, bending his tall body over hers, pulling her up on tiptoe, holding her for a long, long time. And because it made her happy to think so, she believed that he would. But there would be time for all things, a whole week! Surely she could maneuver to get him alone and say: "Do you remember those rides we used to take down our secret bridle paths?" "Do you remember how the moon looked that night when we sat on the steps at Tara and you quoted that poem?" [Good Heavens! What was the name of that poem, anyway?] "Do you remember that afternoon when I sprained my ankle and you carried me home in your arms in the twilight?"
Oh, there were so many things she would preface with "Do you remember?" So many dear memories that would bring back to him those lovely days when they roamed the County like care free children, so many things that would call to mind the days before Melanie Hamilton entered on the scene. And while they talked she could perhaps read in his eyes some quickening of emotion, some hint that behind the barrier of husbandly affection for Melanie he still cared, cared as passionate sexyly as on that day of the barbecue when he burst forth with the truth. It did not occur to her to plan just what they would do if Ashley should declare his love for her in unmistakable words. It would be enough to know that he did care. . . . Yes, she could wait, could let Melanie have her happy hour of squeezing his arm and crying. Her time would come. After all, what did a girl like Melanie know of love?
"Darling, you look like a ragamuffin," said Melanie when the first excitement of homecoming was over. "Who did mend your uniform and why did they use blue patches?"
"I thought I looked perfectly dashing," said Ashley, considering his appearance. "Just compare me with those rag tags over there and you'll appreciate me more. Mose mended the uniform and I thought he did very well, considering that he'd never had a needle in his hand before the war. About the blue cloth, when it comes to a choice between having holes in your britches or patching them with pieces of a captured Yankee uniform well, there just isn't any choice. And as for looking like a ragamuffin, you should thank your stars your husband didn't come home barefooted. Last week my old boots wore completely out, and I would have come home with sacks tied on my feet if we hadn't had the good luck to shoot two Yankee scouts. The boots of one of them fitted me perfectly."
He stretched out his long legs in their scarred high boots for them to admire.
"And the boots of the other scout didn't fit me," said Cade. "They're two sizes too small and they're killing me this minute. But I'm going home in style just the same."
"And the selfish swine won't give them to either of us," said Tony. "And they'd fit our small, aristocratic Fontaine feet perfectly. Hell's afire, I'm ashamed to face Mother in these brogans. Before the war she wouldn't have let one of our darkies wear them."
"Don't worry," said Alex, eyeing Cade's boots. "We'll take them off of him on the train going home. I don't mind facing Mother but I'm da I mean I don't intend for Dimity Munroe to see my toes sticking out."
"Why, they're my boots. I claimed them first," said Tony, beginning to scowl at his brother; and Melanie, fluttering with fear at the possibility of one of the famous Fontaine quarrels, interposed and made peace.
"I had a full beard to show you girls," said Ashley, ruefully rubbing his face where half healed razor nicks still showed. "It was a beautiful beard and if I do say it myself, neither Jeb Stuart nor Nathan Bedford Forrest had a handsomer one. But when we got to Richmond, those two scoundrels," indicating the Fontaines, "decided that as they were shaving their beards, mine should come off too. They got me down and shaved me, and it's a wonder my head didn't come off along with the beard. It was only by the intervention of Evan and Cade that my mustache was saved."
"Snakes, Mrs. Wilkes! You ought to thank me. You'd never have recognized him and wouldn't have let him in the door," said Alex. "We did it to show our appreciation of his talking the provost guard out of putting us in jail. If you say the word, we'll take the mustache off for you, right now."
"Oh, no, thank you!" said Melanie hastily, clutching Ashley in a frightened way, for the two swarthy little men looked capable of any violence. "I think it's perfectly lovely."
"That's love," said the Fontaines, nodding gravely at each other.
When Ashley went into the cold to see the boys off to the depot in Aunt Pitty's carriage, Melanie caught Scarlett's arm.
"Isn't his uniform dreadful? Won't my coat be a surprise? Oh, if only I had enough cloth for britches too!"
That coat for Ashley was a sore subject with Scarlett, for she wished so ardently that she and not Melanie were bestowing it as a Christmas gift. Gray wool for uniforms was now almost literally more priceless than rubies, and Ashley was wearing the familiar homespun. Even butternut was now none too plentiful, and many of the soldiers were dressed in captured Yankee uniforms which had been turned a dark brown color with walnut shell dye. But Melanie, by rare luck, had come into possession of enough gray broadcloth to make a coat a rather short coat but a coat just the same. She had nursed a Charleston boy in the hospital and when he died had clipped a lock of his hair and sent it to his mother, along with the scant contents of his pockets and a comforting account of his last hours which made no mention of the torment in which he died. A correspondence had sprung up between them and, learning that Melanie had a husband at the front, the mother had sent her the length of gray cloth and brass buttons which she had bought for her dead son. It was a beautiful piece of material, thick and warm and with a dull sheen to it, undoubtedly blockade goods and undoubtedly very expensive. It was now in the hands of the tailor and Melanie was hurrying him to have it ready by Christmas morning. Scarlett would have given anything to be able to provide the rest of the uniform, but the necessary materials were simply not to be had in Atlanta.
She had a Christmas present for Ashley, but it paled in insignificance beside the glory of Melanie's gray coat. It was a small "housewife," made of flannel, containing the whole precious pack of needles Rhett had brought her from Nassau, three of her linen handkerchiefs, obtained from the same source, two spools of thread and a small pair of scissors. But she wanted to give him something more personal, something a wife could give a husband, a shirt, a pair of gauntlets, a hat. Oh, yes, a hat by all means. That little flat topped forage cap Ashley was wearing looked ridiculous. Scarlett had always hated them. What if Stonewall Jackson had worn one in preference to a slouch felt? That didn't make them any more dignified looking. But the only hats obtainable in Atlanta were crudely made wool hats, and they were tackier than the monkey hat forage caps.
When she thought of hats, she thought of Rhett Butler. He had so many hats, wide Panamas for summer, tall beavers for formal occasions, hunting hats, slouch hats of tan and black and blue. What need had he for so many when her darling Ashley rode in the rain with moisture dripping down his collar from the back of his cap?
"I'll make Rhett give me that new black felt of his," she decided. "And I'll put a gray ribbon around the brim and sew Ashley's wreath on it and it will look lovely."
She paused and thought it might be difficult to get the hat without some explanation. She simply could not tell Rhett she wanted it for Ashley. He would raise his brows in that nasty way he always had when she even mentioned Ashley's name and, like as not, would refuse to give her the hat. Well, she 'd make up some pitiful story about a soldier in the hospital who needed it and Rhett need never know the truth.
All that afternoon, she maneuvered to be alone with Ashley, even for a few minutes, but Melanie was beside him constantly, and India and Honey, their pale lashless eyes glowing, followed him about the house. Even John Wilkes, visibly proud of his son, had no opportunity for quiet conversation with him.
It was the same at supper where they all plied him with questions about the war. The war! Who cared about the war? Scarlett didn't think Ashley cared very much for that subject either. He talked at length, laughed frequently and dominated the conversation more completely than she had ever seen him do before, but he seemed to say very little. He told them jokes and funny stories about friends, talked gaily about makeshifts, making light of hunger and long marches in the rain, and described in detail how General Lee had looked when he rode by on the retreat from Gettysburg and questioned: "Gentlemen, are you Georgia troops? Well, we can't get along without you Georgians!"
It seemed to Scarlett that he was talking fervishly to keep them from asking questions he did not want to answer. When she saw his eyes falter and drop before the long, troubled gaze of his father, a faint worry and bewilderment rose in her as to what was hidden in Ashley's heart. But it soon passed, for there was no room in her mind for anything except a radiant happiness and a driving desire to be alone with him.
That radiance lasted until everyone in the circle about the open fire began to yawn, and Mr. Wilkes and the girls took their departure for the hotel. Then as Ashley and Melanie and Pittypat and Scarlett mounted the stairs, lighted by Uncle Peter, a chill fell on her spirit. Until that moment when they stood in the upstairs hall, Ashley had been hers, only hers, even if she had not had a private word with him that whole afternoon. But now, as she said good night, she saw that Melanie's cheeks were suddenly crimson and she was trembling. Her eyes were on the carpet and, though she seemed overcome with some frightening emotion, she seemed shyly happy. Melanie did not even look up when Ashley opened the bedroom door, but sped inside. Ashley said good night abruptly, and he did not meet Scarlett's eyes either.
The door closed behind them, leaving Scarlett open mouthed and suddenly desolate. Ashley was no longer hers. He was Melanie's. And as long as Melanie lived, she could go into rooms with Ashley and close the door and close out the rest of the world.
Now Ashley was going away, back to Virginia, back to the long marches in the sleet, to hungry bivouacs in the snow, to pain and hardship and to the risk of all the bright beauty of his golden head and proud slender body being blotted out in an instant, like an ant beneath a careless heel. The past week with its shimmering, dreamlike beauty, its crowded hours of happiness, was gone.
The week had passed swiftly, like a dream, a dream fragrant with the smell of pine boughs and Christmas trees, bright with little candles and home made tinsel, a dream where minutes flew as rapidly as heartbeats. Such a breathless week when something within her drove Scarlett with mingled pain and pleasure to pack and cram every minute with incidents to remember after he was gone, happenings which she could examine at leisure in the long months ahead, extracting every morsel of comfort from them dance, sing, laugh, fetch and carry for Ashley, anticipate his wants, smile when he smiles, be silent when he talks, follow him with your eyes so that each line of his erect body, each lift of his eyebrows, each quirk of his mouth, will be indelibly printed on your mind for a week goes by so fast and the war goes on forever.
She sat on the divan in the parlor, holding her going away gift for him in her lap, waiting while he said good by to Melanie, praying that when he did come down the stairs he would be alone and she might be granted by Heaven a few moments alone with him. Her ears strained for sounds from upstairs, but the house was oddly still, so still that even the sound of her breathing seemed loud. Aunt Pittypat was crying into her pillows in her room, for Ashley had told her good by half an hour before. No sounds of murmuring voices or of tears came from behind the closed door of Melanie's bedroom. It seemed to Scarlett that he had been in that room for hours, and she resented bitterly each moment that he stayed, saying good by to his wife, for the moments were slipping by so fast and his time was so short.
She thought of all the things she had intended to say to him during this week. But there had been no opportunity to say them, and she knew now that perhaps she would never have the chance to say them.
Such foolish little things, some of them: "Ashley, you will be careful, won't you?" "Please don't get your feet wet. You take cold so easily." "Don't forget to put a newspaper across your chest under your shirt. It keeps out the wind so well." But there were other things, more important things she had wanted to say, much more important things she had wanted to hear him say, things she had wanted to read in his eyes, even if he did not speak them.
So many things to say and now there was no time! Even the few minutes that remained might be snatched away from her if Melanie followed him to the door, to the carriage block. Why hadn't she made the opportunity during this last week? But always, Melanie was at his side, her eyes caressing him adoringly, always friends and neighbors and relatives were in the house and, from morning till night, Ashley was never alone. Then, at night, the door of the bedroom closed and he was alone with Melanie. Never once during these last days had he betrayed to Scarlett by one look, one word, anything but the affection a brother might show a sister or a friend, a lifelong friend. She could not let him go away, perhaps forever, without knowing whether he still loved her. Then, even if he died, she could nurse the warm comfort of his secret love to the end of her days.
After what seemed an eternity of waiting, she heard the sound of his boots in the bedroom above and the door opening and closing. She heard him coming down the steps. Alone! Thank God for that! Melanie must be too overcome by the grief of parting to leave her room. Now she would have him for herself for a few precious minutes.
He came down the steps slowly, his spurs clinking, and she could hear the slap slap of his saber against his high boots. When he came into the parlor, his eyes were somber. He was trying to smile but his face was as white and drawn as a man bleeding from an internal wound. She rose as he entered, thinking with proprietary pride that he was the handsomest soldier she had ever seen. His long holster and belt glistened and his silver spurs and scabbard gleamed, from the industrious polishing Uncle Peter had given them. His new coat did not fit very well, for the tailor had been hurried and some of the seams were awry. The bright new sheen of the gray coat was sadly at variance with the worn and patched butternut trousers and the scarred boots, but if he had been clothed in silver armor he could not have looked more the shining knight to her.
"Ashley," she begged abruptly, "may I go to the train with you?"
"Please don't. Father and the girls will be there. And anyway, I'd rather remember you saying good by to me here than shivering at the depot. There's so much to memories."
Instantly she abandoned her plan. If India and Honey who disliked her so much were to be present at the leave taking, she would have no chance for a private word.
"Then I won't go," she said. "See, Ashley! I've another present for you."
A little shy, now that the time had come to give it to him, she unrolled the package. It was a long yellow sash, made of thick China silk and edged with heavy fringe. Rhett Butler had brought her a yellow shawl from Havana several months before, a shawl gaudily embroidered with birds and flowers in magenta and blue. During this last week, she had patiently picked out all the embroidery and cut up the square of silk and stitched it into a sash length.
"Scarlett, it's beautiful! Did you make it yourself? Then I'll value it all the more. Put it on me, my dear. The boys will be green with envy when they see me in the glory of my new coat and sash."
She wrapped the bright lengths about his slender waist, above his belt, and tied the ends in a lover's knot. Melanie might have given him his new coat but this sash was her gift, her own secret guerdon for him to wear into battle, something that would make him remember her every time he looked at it. She stood back and viewed him with pride, thinking that even Jeb Stuart with his flaunting sash and plume could not look so dashing as her cavalier.
"It's beautiful," he repeated, fingering the fringe. "But I know you've cut up a dress or a shawl to make it. You shouldn't have done it, Scarlett. Pretty things are too hard to get these days."
"Oh, Ashley, I'd "
She had started to say: "I'd cut up my heart for you to wear if you wanted it," but she finished, "I'd do anything for you!"
"Would you?" he questioned and some of the somberness lifted from his face. "Then, there's something you can do for me, Scarlett, something that will make my mind easier when I'm away."
"What is it?" she asked joyfully, ready to promise prodigies.
"Scarlett, will you look after Melanie for me?"
"Look after Melly?"
Her heart sank with bitter disappointment. So this was something beautiful, something spectacular! And then anger flared. This moment was her moment with Ashley, hers alone. And yet, though Melanie was absent, her pale shadow lay between them. How could he bring up her name in their moment of farewell? How could he ask such a thing of her?
He did not notice the disappointment on her face. As of old, his eyes were looking through her and beyond her, at something else, not seeing her at all.
"Yes, keep an eye on her, take care of her. She's so frail and she doesn't realize it. She'll wear herself out nursing and sewing. And she 's so gentle and timid. Except for Aunt Pittypat and Uncle Henry and you, she hasn't a close relative in the world, except the Burrs in Macon and they're third cousins. And Aunt Pitty Scarlett, you know she 's like a child. And Uncle Henry is an old man. Melanie loves you so much, not just because you were Charlie's wife, but because well, because you're you and she loves you like a sister. Scarlett, I have nightmares when I think what might happen to her if I were killed and she had no one to turn to. Will you promise?"
She did not even hear his last request, so terrified was she by those ill omened words, "if I were killed."
Every day she had read the casualty lists, read them with her heart in her throat, knowing that the world would end if anything should happen to him. But always, always, she had an inner feeling that even if the Confederate Army were entirely wiped out, Ashley would be spared. And now he had spoken the frightful words! Goose bumps came out all over her and fear swamped her, a superstitious fear she could not combat with reason. She was Irish enough to believe in second sight, especially where death premonitions were concerned, and in his wide gray eyes she saw some deep sadness which she could only interpret as that of a man who has felt the cold finger on his shoulder, has heard the wail of the Banshee.
"You mustn't say it! You mustn't even think it. It's bad luck to speak of death! Oh, say a prayer, quickly!"
"You say it for me and light some candles, too," he said, smiling at the frightened urgency in her voice.
But she could not answer, so stricken was she by the pictures her mind was drawing, Ashley lying dead in the snows of Virginia, so far away from her. He went on speaking and there was a quality in his voice, a sadness, a resignation, that increased her fear until every vestige of anger and disappointment was blotted out.
"I'm asking you for this reason, Scarlett. I cannot tell what will happen to me or what will happen to any of us. But when the end comes, I shall be far away from here, even if I am alive, too far away to look out for Melanie."
"The the end?"
"The end of the war and the end of the world."
"But Ashley, surely you can't think the Yankees will beat us? All this week you've talked about how strong General Lee "
"All this week I've talked lies, like all men talk when they're on furlough. Why should I frighten Melanie and Aunt Pitty before there's any need for them to be frightened? Yes, Scarlett, I think the Yankees have us. Gettysburg was the beginning of the end. The people back home don't know it yet. They can't realize how things stand with us, but Scarlett, some of my men are barefooted now and the snow is deep in Virginia. And when I see their poor frozen feet, wrapped in rags and old sacks, and I see the blood prints they leave in the snow, and know that I've got a whole pair of boots well, I feel like I should give mine away and be barefooted too."
"Oh, Ashley, promise me you won't give them away!"
"When I see things like that and then look at the Yankees then I see the end of everything. Why Scarlett, the Yankees are buying soldiers from Europe by the thousands! Most of the prisoners we've taken recently can't even speak English. They're Germans and Poles and wild Irishmen who talk Gaelic. But when we lose a man, he can't be replaced. When our shoes wear out, there are no more shoes. We're bottled up, Scarlett. And we can't fight the whole world."
She thought wildly: Let the whole Confederacy crumble in the dust. Let the world end, but you must not die! I couldn't live if you were dead!
"I hope you will not repeat what I have said, Scarlett. I do not want to alarm the others. And, my dear, I would not have alarmed you by saying these things, were it not that I had to explain why I ask you to look after Melanie. She's so frail and weak and you're so strong, Scarlett. It will be a comfort to me to know that you are together if anything happens to me. You will promise, won't you?"
"Oh, yes!" she cried, for at that moment, seeing death at his elbow, she would have promised anything. "Ashley, Ashley! I can't let you go away! I simply can't be brave about it!"
"You must be brave," he said, and his voice changed subtly. It was resonant, deeper, and his words fell swiftly as though hurried with some inner urgency. "You must be brave. For how else can I stand it?"
Her eyes sought his face quickly and with joy, wondering if he meant that leaving her was breaking his heart, even as it was breaking hers. His face was as drawn as when he came down from bidding Melanie good by, but she could read nothing in his eyes. He leaned down, took her face in his hands, and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
"Scarlett! Scarlett! You are so fine and strong and good. So beautiful, not just your sweet face, my dear, but all of you, your body and your mind and your soul."
"Oh, Ashley," she whispered happily, thrilling at his words and his touch on her face. "Nobody else but you ever "
"I like to think that perhaps I know you better than most people and that I can see beautiful things buried deep in you that others are too careless and too hurried to notice."
He stopped speaking and his hands dropped from her face, but his eyes still clung to her eyes. She waited a moment, breathless for him to continue, a tiptoe to hear him say the magic three words. But they did not come. She searched his face frantically, her lips quivering, for she saw he had finished speaking.
This second blighting of her hopes was more than heart could bear and she cried "Oh!" in a childish whisper and sat down, tears stinging her eyes. Then she heard an ominous sound in the driveway, outside the window, a sound that brought home to her even more sharply the imminence of Ashley's departure. A pagan hearing the lapping of the waters around Charon's boat could not have felt more desolate. Uncle Peter, muffled in a quilt, was bringing out the carriage to take Ashley to the train.
Ashley said "Good by," very softly, caught up from the table the wide felt hat she had inveigled from Rhett and walked into the dark front hall. His hand on the doorknob, he turned and looked at her, a long, desperate look, as if he wanted to carry away with him every detail of her face and figure. Through a blinding mist of tears she saw his face and with a strangling pain in her throat she knew that he was going away, away from her care, away from the safe haven of this house, and out of her life, perhaps forever, without having spoken the words she so yearned to hear. Time was going by like a mill race, and now it was too late. She ran stumbling across the parlor and into the hall and clutched the ends of his sash.
"Kiss me," she whispered. "Kiss me good by."
His arms went around her gently, and he bent his head to her face. At the first touch of his lips on hers, her arms were about his neck in a strangling grip. For a fleeting immeasurable instant, he pressed her body close to his. Then she felt a sudden tensing of all his muscles. Swiftly, he dropped the hat to the floor and, reaching up, detached her arms from his neck.
"No, Scarlett, no," he said in a low voice, holding her crossed wrists in a grip that hurt.
"I love you," she said choking. "I've always loved you. I've never loved anybody else. I just married Charlie to to try to hurt you. Oh, Ashley, I love you so much I'd walk every step of the way to Virginia just to be near you! And I'd cook for you and polish your boots and groom your horse Ashley, say you love me! I'll live on it for the rest of my life!"
He bent suddenly to retrieve his hat and she had one glimpse of his face. It was the unhappiest face she was ever to see, a face from which all aloofness had fled. Written on it were his love for and joy that she loved him, but battling them both were shame and despair.
"Good by," he said hoarsely.
The door clicked open and a gust of cold wind swept the house, fluttering the curtains. Scarlett shivered as she watched him run down the walk to the carriage, his saber glinting in the feeble winter sunlight, the fringe of his sash dancing jauntily.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
January and February of 1864 passed, full of cold rains and wild winds, clouded by pervasive gloom and depression. In addition to the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the center of the Southern line had caved. After hard fighting, nearly all of Tennessee was now held by the Union troops. But even with this loss on the top of the others, the South's spirit was not broken. True, grim determination had taken the place of high hearted hopes, but people could still find a silver lining in the cloud. For one thing, the Yankees had been stoutly repulsed in September when they had tried to follow up their victories in Tennessee by an advance into Georgia.
Here in the northwesternmost corner of the state, at Chickamauga, serious fighting had occurred on Georgia soil for the first time since the war began. The Yankees had taken Chattanooga and then had marched through the mountain passes into Georgia, but they had been driven back with heavy losses.
Atlanta and its railroads had played a big part in making Chickamauga a great victory for the South. Over the railroads that led down from Virginia to Atlanta and then northward to Tennessee, General Longstreet's corps had been rushed to the scene of the battle. Along the entire route of several hundred miles, the tracks had been cleared and all the available rolling stock in the Southeast had been assembled for the movement.
Atlanta had watched while train after train rolled through the town, hour after hour, passenger coaches, box cars, flat cars, filled with shouting men. They had come without food or sleep, without their horses, ambulances or supply trains and, without waiting for the rest, they had leaped from the trains and into the battle. And the Yankees had been driven out of Georgia, back into Tennessee.
It was the greatest feat of the war, and Atlanta took pride and personal satisfaction in the thought that its railroads had made the victory possible.
But the South had needed the cheering news from Chickamauga to strengthen its morale through the winter. No one denied now that the Yankees were good fighters and, at last, they had good generals. Grant was a butcher who did not care how many men he slaughtered for a victory, but victory he would have. Sheridan was a name to bring dread to Southern hearts. And, then, there was a man named Sherman who was being mentioned more and more often. He had risen to prominence in the campaigns in Tennessee and the West, and his reputation as a determined and ruthless fighter was growing.
None of them, of course, compared with General Lee. Faith in the General and the army was still strong. Confidence in ultimate victory never wavered. But the war was dragging out so long. There were so many dead, so many wounded and maimed for life, so many widowed, so many orphaned. And there was still a long struggle ahead, which meant more dead, more wounded, more widows and orphans.
To make matters worse, a vague distrust of those in high places had begun to creep over the civilian population. Many newspapers were outspoken in their denunciation of President Davis himself and the manner in which he prosecuted the war. There were dissensions within the Confederate cabinet, disagreements between President Davis and his generals. The currency was falling rapidly. Shoes and clothing for the army were scarce, ordnance supplies and drugs were scarcer. The railroads needed new cars to take the place of old ones and new iron rails to replace those torn up by the Yankees. The generals in the field were crying out for fresh troops, and there were fewer and fewer fresh troops to be had. Worst of all, some of the state governors, Governor Brown of Georgia among them, were refusing to send state militia troops and arms out of their borders. There were thousands of able bodied men in the state troops for whom the army was frantic, but the government pleaded for them in vain.
With the new fall of currency, prices soared again. Beef, pork and butter cost thirty five dollars a pound, flour fourteen hundred dollars a barrel, soda one hundred dollars a pound, tea five hundred dollars a pound. Warm clothing, when it was obtainable at all, had risen to such prohibitive prices that Atlanta ladies were lining their old dresses with rags and reinforcing them with newspapers to keep out the wind. Shoes cost from two hundred to eight hundred dollars a pair, depending on whether they were made of "cardboard" or real leather. Ladies now wore gaiters made of their old wool shawls and cut up carpets. The soles were made of wood.
The truth was that the North was holding the South in a virtual state of siege, though many did not realize it. The Yankee gunboats had tightened the mesh at the ports and very few ships were now able to slip past the blockade.
The South had always lived by selling cotton and buying the things it did not produce, but now it could neither sell nor buy. Gerald O'Hara had three years' crops of cotton stored under the shed near the gin house at Tara, but little good it did him. In Liverpool it would bring one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, but there was no hope of getting it to Liverpool. Gerald had changed from a wealthy man to a man who was wondering how he would feed his family and his negroes through the winter.
Throughout the South, most of the cotton planters were in the same fix. With the blockade closing tighter and tighter, there was no way to get the South's money crop to its market in England, no way to bring in the necessaries which cotton money had brought in years gone by. And the agricultural South, waging war with the industrial North, was needing so many things now, things it had never thought of buying in times of peace.
It was a situation made to order for speculators and profiteers, and men were not lacking to take advantage of it. As food and clothing grew scarcer and prices rose higher and higher, the public outcry against the speculators grew louder and more venomous. In those early days of 1864, no newspaper could be opened that did not carry scathing editorials denouncing the speculators as vultures and bloodsucking leeches and calling upon the government to put them down with a hard hand. The government did its best, but the efforts came to nothing, for the government was harried by many things.
Against no one was feeling more bitter than against Rhett Butler. He had sold his boats when blockading grew too hazardous, and he was now openly engaged in food speculation. The stories about him that came back to Atlanta from Richmond and Wilmington made those who had received him in other days writhe with shame.
In spite of all these trials and tribulations, Atlanta's ten thousand population had grown to double that number during the war. Even the blockade had added to Atlanta's prestige. From time immemorial, the coast cities had dominated the South, commercially and otherwise. But now with the ports closed and many of the port cities captured or besieged, the South's salvation depended upon itself. The interior section was what counted, if the South was going to win the war, and Atlanta was now the center of things. The people of the town were suffering hardship, privation, sickness and death as severely as the rest of the Confederacy; but Atlanta, the city, had gained rather than lost as a result of the war. Atlanta, the heart of the Confederacy, was still beating full and strong, the railroads that were its arteries throbbing with the never ending flow of men, munitions and supplies.
In other days, Scarlett would have been bitter about her shabby dresses and patched shoes but now she did not care, for the one person who mattered was not there to see her. She was happy those two months, happier than she had been in years. Had she not felt the start of Ashley's heart when her arms went round his neck? seen that despairing look on his face which was more open an avowal than any words could be? He loved her. She was sure of that now, and this conviction was so pleasant she could even be kinder to Melanie. She could be sorry for Melanie now, sorry with a faint contempt for her blindness, her stupidity.
"When the war is over!" she thought. "When it's over then . . ."
Sometimes she thought with a small dart of fear: "What then?" But she put the thought from her mind. When the war was over, everything would be settled, somehow. If Ashley loved her, he simply couldn't go on living with Melanie.
But then, a divorce was unthinkable; and Ellen and Gerald, staunch Catholics that they were, would never permit her to marry a divorced man. It would mean leaving the Church! Scarlett thought it over and decided that, in a choice between the Church and Ashley, she would choose Ashley. But, oh, it would make such a scandal! Divorced people were under the ban not only of the Church but of society. No divorced person was received. However, she would dare even that for Ashley. She would sacrifice anything for Ashley.
Somehow it would come out all right when the war was over. If Ashley loved her so much, he'd find a way. She'd make him find a way. And with every day that passed, she became more sure in her own mind of his devotion, more certain he would arrange matters satisfactorily when the Yankees were finally beaten. Of course, he had said the Yankees "had" them. Scarlett thought that was just foolishness. He had been tired and upset when he said it. But she hardly cared whether the Yankees won or not. The thing that mattered was for the war to finish quickly and for Ashley to come home.
Then, when the sleets of March were keeping everyone indoors, the hideous blow fell. Melanie, her eyes shining with joy, her head ducked with embarrassed pride, told her she was going to have a baby.
"Dr. Meade says it will be here in late August or September," she said. "I've thought but I wasn't sure till today. Oh, Scarlett, isn't it wonderful? I've so envied you Wade and so wanted a baby. And I was so afraid that maybe I wasn't ever going to have one and, darling, I want a dozen!"
Scarlett had been combing her hair, preparing for bed, when Melanie spoke and she stopped, the comb in mid air.
"Dear God!" she said and, for a moment, realization did not come. Then there suddenly leaped to her mind the closed door of Melanie's bedroom and a knifelike pain went through her, a pain as fierce as though Ashley had been her own husband and had been unfaithful to her. A baby. Ashley's baby. Oh, how could he, when he loved her and not Melanie?
"I know you're surprised," Melanie rattled on, breathlessly. "And isn't it too wonderful? Oh, Scarlett, I don't know how I shall ever write Ashley! It wouldn't be so embarrassing if I could tell him or or well, not say anything and just let him notice gradually, you know "
"Dear God!" said Scarlett, almost sobbing, as she dropped the comb and caught at the marble top of the dresser for support.
"Darling, don't look like that! You know having a baby isn't so bad. You said so yourself. And you mustn't worry about me, though you are sweet to be so upset. Of course, Dr. Meade said I was was," Melanie blush ed, "quite narrow but that perhaps I shouldn't have any trouble and Scarlett, did you write Charlie and tell him when you found out about Wade, or did your mother do it or maybe Mr. O'Hara? Oh, dear, if I only had a mother to do it! I just don't see how "
"Hush!" said Scarlett, violently. "Hush!"
"Oh, Scarlett, I'm so stupid! I'm sorry. I guess all happy people are selfish. I forgot about Charlie, just for the moment "
"Hush!" said Scarlett again, fighting to control her face and make her emotions quiet. Never, never must Melanie see or suspect how she felt.
Melanie, the most tactful of women, had tears in her eyes at her own cruelty. How could she have brought back to Scarlett the terrible memories of Wade being born months after poor Charlie was dead? How could she have been so thoughtless?
"Let me help you undress, dearest," she said humbly. "And I'll rub your head for you."
"You leave me alone," said Scarlett, her face like stone. And Melanie, bursting into tears of self condemnation, fled the room, leaving Scarlett to a tearless bed, with wounded pride, disillusionment and jealousy for bedfellows.
She thought that she could not live any longer in the same house with the woman who was carrying Ashley's child, thought that she would go home to Tara, home, where she belonged. She did not see how she could ever look at Melanie again and not have her secret read in her face. And she arose the next morning with the fixed intention of packing her trunk immediately after breakfast. But, as they sat at the table, Scarlett silent and gloomy, Pitty bewildered and Melanie miserable, a telegram came.
It was to Melanie from Ashley's body servant, Mose.
"I have looked everywhere and I can't find him. Must I come home?"
No one knew what it meant but the eyes of the three women went to one another, wide with terror, and Scarlett forgot all thoughts of going home. Without finishing their breakfasts they drove down to telegraph Ashley's colonel, but even as they entered the office, there was a telegram from him.
"Regret to inform you Major Wilkes missing since scouting expedition three days ago. Will keep you informed."
It was a ghastly trip home, with Aunt Pitty crying into her handkerchief, Melanie sitting erect and white and Scarlett slumped, stunned in the corner of the carriage. Once in the house, Scarlett stumbled up the stairs to her bedroom and, clutching her Rosary from the table, dropped to her knees and tried to pray. But the prayers would not come. There only fell on her an abysmal fear, a certain knowledge that God had turned His face from her for her sin. She had loved a married man and tried to take him from his wife, and God had punished her by killing him. She wanted to pray but she could not raise her eyes to Heaven. She wanted to cry but the tears would not come. They seemed to flood her chest, and they were hot tears that burned under her bosom, but they would not flow.
Her door opened and Melanie entered. Her face was like a heart cut from white paper, framed against black hair, and her eyes were wide, like those of a frightened child lost in the dark.
"Scarlett," she said, putting out her hands. "You must forgive me for what I said yesterday, for you're all I've got now. Oh, Scarlett, I know my darling is dead!"
Somehow, she was in Scarlett's arms, her small breasts heaving with sobs, and somehow they were lying on the bed, holding each other close, and Scarlett was crying too, crying with her face pressed close against Melanie's, the tears of one wetting the cheeks of the other. It hurt so terribly to cry, but not so much as not being able to cry. Ashley is dead dead, she thought, and I have killed him by loving him! Fresh sobs broke from her, and Melanie somehow feeling comfort in her tears tightened her arms about her neck.
"At least," she whispered, "at least I've got his baby."
"And I," thought Scarlett, too stricken now for anything so petty as jealousy, "I've got nothing nothing nothing except the look on his face when he told me good by."
The first reports were "Missing believed killed" and so they appeared on the casualty list. Melanie telegraphed Colonel Sloan a dozen times and finally a letter arrived, full of sympathy, explaining that Ashley and a squad had ridden out on a scouting expedition and had not returned. There had been reports of a slight skirmish within the Yankee lines and Mose, frantic with grief, had risked his own life to search for Ashley's body but had found nothing. Melanie, strangely calm now, telegraphed him money and instructions to come home.
When "Missing believed captured" appeared on the casualty lists, joy and hope reanimated the sad household. Melanie could hardly be dragged away from the telegraph office and she met every train hoping for letters. She was sick now, her pregnancy making itself felt in many unpleasant ways, but she refused to obey Dr. Meade's commands and stay in bed. A feverish energy possessed her and would not let her be still; and at night, long after Scarlett had gone to bed, she could hear her walking the floor in the next room.
One afternoon, she came home from town, driven by the frightened Uncle Peter and supported by Rhett Butler. She had fainted at the telegraph office and Rhett, passing by and observing the excitement, had escorted her home. He carried her up the stairs to her bedroom and while the alarmed household fled hither and yon for hot bricks, blankets and whisky, he propped her on the pillows of her bed.
"Mrs. Wilkes," he questioned abruptly, "you are going to have a baby, are you not?"
Had Melanie not been so faint, so sick, so heartsore, she would have collapsed at his question. Even with women friends she was embarrassed by any mention of her condition, while visits to Dr. Meade were agonizing experiences. And for a man, especially Rhett Butler, to ask such a question was unthinkable. But lying weak and forlorn in the bed, she could only nod. After she had nodded, it did not seem so dreadful, for he looked so kind and so concerned.
"Then you must take better care of yourself. All this running about and worry won't help you and may harm the baby. If you will permit me, Mrs. Wilkes, I will use what influence I have in Washington to learn about Mr. Wilkes' fate. If he is a prisoner, he will be on the Federal lists, and if he isn't well, there's nothing worse than uncertainty. But I must have your promise. Take care of yourself or, before God, I won't turn a hand."
"Oh, you are so kind," cried Melanie. "How can people say such dreadful things about you?" Then overcome with the knowledge of her tactlessness and also with horror at having discussed her condition with a man, she began to cry weakly. And Scarlett, flying up the stairs with a hot brick wrapped in flannel, found Rhett patting her hand.
He was as good as his word. They never knew what wires he pulled. They feared to ask, knowing it might involve an admission of his too close affiliations with the Yankees. It was a month before he had news, news that raised them to the heights when they first heard it, but later created a gnawing anxiety in their hearts.
Ashley was not dead! He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and the records showed that he was at Rock Island, a prison camp in Illinois. In their first joy, they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But, when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said "Rock Island!" in the same voice they would have said "In Hell!" For even as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, so was Rock Island one to bring terror to the heart of any Southerner who had relatives imprisoned there.
When Lincoln refused to exchange prisoners, believing it would hasten the end of the war to burden the Confederacy with the feeding and guarding of Union prisoners, there were thousands of bluecoats at Andersonville, Georgia. The Confederates were on scant rations and practically without drugs or bandages for their own sick and wounded. They had little to share with the prisoners. They fed their prisoners on what the soldiers in the field were eating, fat pork and dried peas, and on this diet the Yankees died like flies, sometimes a hundred a day. Inflamed by the reports, the North resorted to harsher treatment of Confederate prisoners and at no place were conditions worse than at Rock Island. Food was scanty, one blanket for three men, and the ravages of smallpox, pneumonia and typhoid gave the place the name of a pest house. Three fourths of all the men sent there never came out alive.
And Ashley was in that horrible place! Ashley was alive but he was wounded and at Rock Island, and the snow must have been deep in Illinois when he was taken there. Had he died of his wound, since Rhett had learned his news? Had he fallen victim to smallpox? Was he delirious with pneumonia and no blanket to cover him?
"Oh, Captain Butler, isn't there some way Can't you use your influence and have him exchanged?" cried Melanie.
"Mr. Lincoln, the merciful and just, who cries large tears over Mrs. Bixby's five boys, hasn't any tears to shed about the thousands of Yankees dying at Andersonville," said Rhett, his mouth twisting. "He doesn't care if they all die. The order is out. No exchanges. I I hadn't told you before, Mrs. Wilkes, but your husband had a chance to get out and refused it."
"Oh, no!" cried Melanie in disbelief.
"Yes, indeed. The Yankees are recruiting men for frontier service to fight the Indians, recruiting them from among Confederate prisoners. Any prisoner who will take the oath of allegiance and enlist for Indian service for two years will be released and sent West. Mr. Wilkes refused."
"Oh, how could he?" cried Scarlett. "Why didn't he take the oath and then desert and come home as soon as he got out of jail?"
Melanie turned on her like a small fury.
"How can you even suggest that he would do such a thing? Betray his own Confederacy by taking that vile oath and then betray his word to the Yankees! I would rather know he was dead at Rock Island than hear he had taken that oath. I'd be proud of him if he died in prison. But if he did THAT, I would never look on his face again. Never! Of course, he refused."
When Scarlett was seeing Rhett to the door, she asked indignantly: "If it were you, wouldn't you enlist with the Yankees to keep from dying in that place and then desert?"
"Of course," said Rhett, his teeth showing beneath his mustache.
"Then why didn't Ashley do it?"
"He's a gentleman," said Rhett, and Scarlett wondered how it was possible to convey such cynicism and contempt in that one honorable word.
|Femme Classic Art||Part 3||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell|
May of 1864 came a hot dry May that wilted the flowers in the buds and the Yankees under General Sherman were in Georgia again, above Dalton, one hundred miles northwest of Atlanta. Rumor had it that there would be heavy fighting up there near the boundary between Georgia and Tennessee. The Yankees were massing for an attack on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, the line which connected Atlanta with Tennessee and the West, the same line over which the Southern troops had been rushed last fall to win the victory at Chickamauga.
But, for the most part, Atlanta was not disturbed by the prospect of fighting near Dalton. The place where the Yankees were concentrating was only a few miles southeast of the battle field of Chickamauga. They had been driven back once when they had tried to break through the mountain passes of that region, and they would be driven back again.
Atlanta and all of Georgia knew that the state was far too important to the Confederacy for General Joe Johnston to let the Yankees remain inside the state's borders for long. Old Joe and his army would not let even one Yankee get south of Dalton, for too much depended on the undisturbed functioning of Georgia. The unravaged state was a vast granary, machine shop and storehouse for the Confederacy. It manufactured much of the powder and arms used by the army and most of the cotton and woolen goods. Lying between Atlanta and Dalton was the city of Rome with its cannon foundry and its other industries, and Etowah and Allatoona with the largest ironworks south of Richmond. And, in Atlanta, were not only the factories for making pistols and saddles, tents and ammunition, but also the most extensive rolling mills in the South, the shops of the principal railroads and the enormous hospitals. And in Atlanta was the junction of the four railroads on which the very life of the Confederacy depended.
So no one worried particularly. After all, Dalton was a long way off, up near the Tennessee line. There had been fighting in Tennessee for three years and people were accustomed to the thought of that state as a far away battle field, almost as far away as Virginia or the Mississippi River. Moreover, Old Joe and his men were between the Yankees and Atlanta, and everyone knew that, next to General Lee himself, there was no greater general than Johnston, now that Stonewall Jackson was dead.
Dr. Meade summed up the civilian point of view on the matter, one warm May evening on the veranda of Aunt Pitty's house, when he said that Atlanta had nothing to fear, for General Johnston was standing in the mountains like an iron rampart. His audience heard him with varying emotions, for all who sat there rocking quietly in the fading twilight, watching the first fireflies of the season moving magically through the dusk, had weighty matters on their minds. Mrs. Meade, her hand upon Phil's arm, was hoping the doctor was right. If the war came closer, she knew that Phil would have to go. He was sixteen now and in the Home Guard. Fanny Elsing, pale and hollow eyed since Gettysburg, was trying to keep her mind from the torturing picture which had worn a groove in her tired mind these past several months Lieutenant Dallas McLure dying in a jolting ox cart in the rain on the long, terrible retreat into Maryland.
Captain Carey Ashburn's useless arm was hurting him again and moreover he was depressed by the thought that his courtship of Scarlett was at a standstill. That had been the situation ever since the news of Ashley Wilkes' capture, though the connection between the two events did not occur to him. Scarlett and Melanie both were thinking of Ashley, as they always did when urgent tasks or the necessity of carrying on a conversation did not divert them. Scarlett was thinking bitterly, sorrowfully: He must be dead or else we would have heard. Melanie, stemming the tide of fear again and again, through endless hours, was telling herself: "He can't be dead. I'd know it I'd feel it if he were dead." Rhett Butler lounged in the shadows, his long legs in their elegant boots crossed negligently, his dark face an unreadable blank. In his arms Wade slept contentedly, a cleanly picked wishbone in his small hand. Scarlett always permitted Wade to sit up late when Rhett called because the shy child was fond of him, and Rhett oddly enough seemed to be fond of Wade. Generally Scarlett was annoyed by the child's presence, but he always behaved nicely in Rhett's arms. As for Aunt Pitty, she was nervously trying to stifle a belch, for the rooster they had had for supper was a tough old bird.
That morning Aunt Pitty had reached the regretful decision that she had better kill the patriarch before he died of old age and pining for his harem which had long since been eaten. For days he had drooped about the empty chicken run, too dispirited to crow. After Uncle Peter had wrung his neck, Aunt Pitty had been beset by conscience at the thought of enjoying him, en famille, when so many of her friends had not tasted chicken for weeks, so she suggested company for dinner. Melanie, who was now in her fifth month, had not been out in public or received guests for weeks, and she was appalled at the idea. But Aunt Pitty, for once, was firm. It would be selfish to eat the rooster alone, and if Melanie would only move her top hoop a little higher no one would notice anything and she was so flat in the bust anyway.
"Oh, but Auntie I don't want to see people when Ashley "
"It isn't as if Ashley were had passed away," said Aunt Pitty, her voice quavering, for in her heart she was certain Ashley was dead. "He's just as much alive as you are and it will do you good to have company. And I'm going to ask Fanny Elsing, too. Mrs. Elsing begged me to try to do something to arouse her and make her see people "
"Oh, but Auntie, it's cruel to force her when poor Dallas has only been dead "
"Now, Melly, I shall cry with vexation if you argue with me. I guess I'm your auntie and I know what's what. And I want a party."
So Aunt Pitty had her party, and, at the last minute, a guest she did not expect, or desire, arrived. Just when the smell of roast rooster was filling the house, Rhett Butler, back from one of his mysterious trips, knocked at the door, with a large box of bonbons packed in paper lace under his arm and a mouthful of two edged compliments for her. There was nothing to do but invite him to stay, although Aunt Pitty knew how the doctor and Mrs. Meade felt about him and how bitter Fanny was against any man not in uniform. Neither the Meades nor the Elsings would have spoken to him on the street, but in a friend's home they would, of course, have to be polite to him. Besides, he was now more firmly than ever under the protection of the fragile Melanie. After he had intervened for her to get the news about Ashley, she had announced publicly that her home was open to him as long as he lived and no matter what other people might say about him.
Aunt Pitty's apprehensions quieted when she saw that Rhett was on his best behavior. He devoted himself to Fanny with such sympathetic deference she even smiled at him, and the meal went well. It was a princely feast. Carey Ashburn had brought a little tea, which he had found in the tobacco pouch of a captured Yankee en route to Andersonville, and everyone had a cup, faintly flavored with tobacco. There was a nibble of the tough old bird for each, an adequate amount of dressing made of corn meal and seasoned with onions, a bowl of dried peas, and plenty of rice and gravy, the latter somewhat watery, for there was no flour with which to thicken it. For dessert, there was a sweet potato pie followed by Rhett's bonbons, and when Rhett produced real Havana cigars for the gentlemen to enjoy over their glass of blackberry wine, everyone agreed it was indeed a Lucullan banquet.
When the gentlemen joined the ladies on the front porch, the talk turned to war. Talk always turned to war now, all conversations on any topic led from war or back to war sometimes sad, often gay, but always war. War romances, war weddings, deaths in hospitals and on the field, incidents of camp and battle and march, gallantry, cowardice, humor, sadness, deprivation and hope. Always, always hope. Hope firm, unshaken despite the defeats of the summer before.
When Captain Ashburn announced he had applied for and been granted transfer from Atlanta to the army at Dalton, the ladies kissed his stiffened arm with their eyes and covered their emotions of pride by declaring he couldn't go, for then who would beau them about?
Young Carey looked confused and pleased at hearing such statements from settled matrons and spinsters like Mrs. Meade and Melanie and Aunt Pitty and Fanny, and tried to hope that Scarlett really meant it.
"Why, he'll be back in no time," said the doctor, throwing an arm over Carey's shoulder. "There'll be just one brief skirmish and the Yankees will skedaddle back into Tennessee. And when they get there, General Forrest will take care of them. You ladies need have no alarm about the proximity of the Yankees, for General Johnston and his army stands there in the mountains like an iron rampart. Yes, an iron rampart," he repeated, relishing his phrase. "Sherman will never pass. He'll never dislodge Old Joe."
The ladies smiled approvingly, for his lightest utterance was regarded as incontrovertible truth. After all, men understood these matters much better than women, and if he said General Johnston was an iron rampart, he must be one. Only Rhett spoke. He had been silent since supper and had sat in the twilight listening to the war talk with a down twisted mouth, holding the sleeping child against his shoulder.
"I believe that rumor has it that Sherman has over one hundred thousand men, now that his reinforcements have come up?"
The doctor answered him shortly. He had been under considerable strain ever since he first arrived and found that one of his fellow diners was this man whom he disliked so heartily. Only the respect due Miss Pittypat and his presence under her roof as a guest had restrained him from showing his feelings more obviously.
"Well, sir?" the doctor barked in reply.
"I believe Captain Ashburn said just a while ago that General Johnston had only about forty thousand, counting the deserters who were encouraged to come back to the colors by the last victory."
"Sir," said Mrs. Meade indignantly. "There are no deserters in the Confederate army."
"I beg your pardon," said Rhett with mock humility. "I meant those thousands on furlough who forgot to rejoin their regiments and those who have been over their wounds for six months but who remain at home, going about their usual business or doing the spring plowing."
His eyes gleamed and Mrs. Meade bit her lip in a huff. Scarlett wanted to giggle at her discomfiture, for Rhett had caught her fairly. There were hundreds of men skulking in the swamps and the mountains, defying the provost guard to drag them back to the army. They were the ones who declared it was a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight" and they had had enough of it. But outnumbering these by far were men who, though carried on company rolls as deserters, had no intention of deserting permanently. They were the ones who had waited three years in vain for furloughs and while they waited received ill spelled letters from home: "We air hungry" "There won't be no crop this year there ain't nobody to plow." "We air hungry." "The commissary took the shoats, and we ain't had no money from you in months. We air livin' on dried peas."
Always the rising chorus swelled: "We are hungry, your wife, your babies, your parents. When will it be over? When will you come home? We are hungry, hungry." When furloughs from the rapidly thinning army were denied, these soldiers went home without them, to plow their land and plant their crops, repair their houses and build up their fences. When regimental officers, understanding the situation, saw a hard fight ahead, they wrote these men, telling them to rejoin their companies and no questions would be asked. Usually the men returned when they saw that hunger at home would be held at bay for a few months longer. "Plow furloughs" were not looked upon in the same light as desertion in the face of the enemy, but they weakened the army just the same.
Dr. Meade hastily bridged over the uncomfortable pause, his voice cold: "Captain Butler, the numerical difference between our troops and those of the Yankees has never mattered. One Confederate is worth a dozen Yankees."
The ladies nodded. Everyone knew that.
"That was true at the first of the war," said Rhett. "Perhaps it's still true, provided the Confederate soldier has bullets for his gun and shoes on his feet and food in his stomach. Eh, Captain Ashburn?"
His voice was still soft and filled with specious humility. Carey Ashburn looked unhappy, for it was obvious that he, too, disliked Rhett intensely. He gladly would have sided with the doctor but he could not lie. The reason he had applied for transfer to the front, despite his useless arm, was that he realized, as the civilian population did not, the seriousness of the situation. There were many other men, stumping on wooden pegs, blind in one eye, fingers blown away, one arm gone, who were quietly transferring from the commissariat, hospital duties, mail and railroad service back to their old fighting units. They knew Old Joe needed every man.
He did not speak and Dr. Meade thundered, losing his temper: "Our men have fought without shoes before and without food and won victories. And they will fight again and win! I tell you General Johnston cannot be dislodged! The mountain fastnesses have always been the refuge and the strong forts of invaded peoples from ancient times. Think of think of Thermopylae!"
Scarlett thought hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her.
"They died to the last man at Thermopylae, didn't they, Doctor?" Rhett asked, and his lips twitched with suppressed laughter.
"Are you being insulting, young man?"
"Doctor! I beg of you! You misunderstood me! I merely asked for information. My memory of ancient history is poor."
"If need be, our army will die to the last man before they permit the Yankees to advance farther into Georgia," snapped the doctor. "But it will not be. They will drive them out of Georgia in one skirmish."
Aunt Pittypat rose hastily and asked Scarlett to favor them with a piano selection and a song. She saw that the conversation was rapidly getting into deep and stormy water. She had known very well there would be trouble if she invited Rhett to supper. There was always trouble when he was present. Just how he started it, she never exactly understood. Dear! Dear! What did Scarlett see in the man? And how could dear Melly defend him?
As Scarlett went obediently into the parlor, a silence fell on the porch, a silence that pulsed with resentment toward Rhett. How could anyone not believe with heart and soul in the invincibility of General Johnston and his men? Believing was a sacred duty. And those who were so traitorous as not to believe should, at least, have the decency to keep their mouths shut.
Scarlett struck a few chords and her voice floated out to them from the parlor, sweetly, sadly, in the words of a popular song:
"Into a ward of whitewashed walls Where the dead and dying lay Wounded with bayonets, shells and balls Somebody's darling was borne one day.
"Somebody's darling! so young and so brave! Wearing still on his pale, sweet face Soon to be hid by the dust of the grave The lingering light of his boyhood's grace."
"Matted and damp are the curls of gold," mourned Scarlett's faulty soprano, and Fanny half rose and said in a faint, strangled voice: "Sing something else!"
The piano was suddenly silent as Scarlett was overtaken with surprise and embarrassment. Then she hastily blundered into the opening bars of "Jacket of Gray" and stopped with a discord as she remembered how heartrending that selection was too. The piano was silent again for she was utterly at a loss. All the songs had to do with death and parting and sorrow.
Rhett rose swiftly, deposited Wade in Fanny's lap, and went into the parlor.
"Play 'My Old Kentucky Home,'" he suggested smoothly, and Scarlett gratefully plunged into it. Her voice was joined by Rhett's excellent bass, and as they went into the second verse those on the porch breathed more easily, though Heaven knew it was none too cheery a song, either.
"Just a few more days for to tote the weary load! No matter, 'twill never be light! Just a few more days, till we totter in the road! Then, my old Kentucky home, good night!"
Dr. Meade's prediction was right as far as it went. Johnston did stand like an iron rampart in the mountains above Dalton, one hundred miles away. So firmly did he stand and so bitterly did he contest Sherman's desire to pass down the valley toward Atlanta that finally the Yankees drew back and took counsel with themselves. They could not break the gray lines by direct assault and so, under cover of night, they marched through the mountain passes in a semicircle, hoping to come upon Johnston's rear and cut the railroad behind him at Resaca, fifteen miles below Dalton.
With those precious twin lines of iron in danger, the Confederates left their desperately defended rifle pits and, under the starlight, made a forced march to Resaca by the short, direct road. When the Yankees, swarming out of the hills, came upon them, the Southern troops were waiting for them, entrenched behind breastworks, batteries planted, bayonets gleaming, even as they had been at Dalton.
When the wounded from Dalton brought in garbled accounts of Old Joe's retreat to Resaca, Atlanta was surprised and a little disturbed. It was as though a small, dark cloud had appeared in the northwest, the first cloud of a summer storm. What was the General thinking about, letting the Yankees penetrate eighteen miles farther into Georgia? The mountains were natural fortresses, even as Dr. Meade had said. Why hadn't Old Joe held the Yankees there?
Johnston fought desperately at Resaca and repulsed the Yankees again, but Sherman, employing the same flanking movement, swung his vast army in another semicircle, crossed the Oostanaula River and again struck at the railroad in the Confederate rear. Again the gray lines were summoned swiftly from their red ditches to defend the railroad, and, weary for sleep, exhausted from marching and fighting, and hungry, always hungry, they made another rapid march down the valley. They reached the little town of Calhoun, six miles below Resaca, ahead of the Yankees, entrenched and were again ready for the attack when the Yankees came up. The attack came, there was fierce skirmishing and the Yankees were beaten back. Wearily the Confederates lay on their arms and prayed for respite and rest. But there was no rest. Sherman inexorably advanced, step by step, swinging his army about them in a wide curve, forcing another retreat to defend the railroad at their back.
The Confederates marched in their sleep, too tired to think for the most part. But when they did think, they trusted old Joe. They knew they were retreating but they knew they had not been beaten. They just didn't have enough men to hold their entrenchments and defeat Sherman's flanking movements, too. They could and did lick the Yankees every time the Yankees would stand and fight. What would be the end of this retreat, they did not know. But Old Joe knew what he was doing and that was enough for them. He had conducted the retreat in masterly fashion, for they had lost few men and the Yankees killed and captured ran high. They hadn't lost a single wagon and only four guns. And they hadn't lost the railroad at their back, either. Sherman hadn't laid a finger on it for all his frontal attacks, cavalry dashes and flank movements.
The railroad. It was still theirs, that slender iron line winding through the sunny valley toward Atlanta. Men lay down to sleep where they could see the rails gleaming faintly in the starlight. Men lay down to die, and the last sight that met their puzzled eyes was the rails shining in the merciless sun, heat shimmering along them.
As they fell back down the valley, an army of refugees fell back before them. Planters and Crackers, rich and poor, black and white, women and children, the old, the dying, the crippled, the wounded, the women far gone in pregnancy, crowded the road to Atlanta on trains, afoot, on horseback, in carriages and wagons piled high with trunks and household goods. Five miles ahead of the retreating army went the refugees, halting at Resaca, at Calhoun, at Kingston, hoping at each stop to hear that the Yankees had been driven back so they could return to their homes. But there was no retracing that sunny road. The gray troops passed by empty mansions, deserted farms, lonely cabins with doors ajar. Here and there some lone woman remained with a few frightened slaves, and they came to the road to cheer the soldiers, to bring buckets of well water for the thirsty men, to bind up the wounds and bury the dead in their own family burying grounds. But for the most part the sunny valley was abandoned and desolate and the untended crops stood in parching fields.
Flanked again at Calhoun, Johnston fell back to Adairsville, where there was sharp skirmishing, then to Cassville, then south of Cartersville. And the enemy had now advanced fifty five miles from Dalton. At New Hope Church, fifteen miles farther along the hotly fought way, the gray ranks dug in for a determined stand. On came the blue lines, relentlessly, like a monster serpent, coiling, striking venomously, drawing its injured lengths back, but always striking again. There was desperate fighting at New Hope Church, eleven days of continuous fighting, with every Yankee assault bloodily repulsed. Then Johnston, flanked again, withdrew his thinning lines a few miles farther.
The Confederate dead and wounded at New Hope Church ran high. The wounded flooded Atlanta in train loads and the town was appalled. Never, even after the battle of Chickamauga, had the town seen so many wounded. The hospitals overflowed and wounded lay on the floors of empty stores and upon cotton bales in the warehouses. Every hotel, boarding house and private residence was crowded with sufferers. Aunt Pitty had her share, although she protested that it was most unbecoming to have strange men in the house when Melanie was in a delicate condition and when gruesome sights might bring on premature birth. But Melanie reefed up her top hoop a little higher to hide her thickening figure and the wounded invaded the brick house. There was endless cooking and lifting and turning and fanning, endless hours of washing and rerolling bandages and picking lint, and endless warm nights made sleepless by the babbling delirium of men in the next room. Finally the choked town could take care of no more and the overflow of wounded was sent on to the hospitals at Macon and Augusta.
With this backwash of wounded bearing conflicting reports and the increase of frightened refugees crowding into the already crowded town, Atlanta was in an uproar. The small cloud on the horizon had blown up swiftly into a large, sullen storm cloud and it was as though a faint, chilling wind blew from it.
No one had lost faith in the invincibility of the troops but everyone, the civilians at least, had lost faith in the General. New Hope Church was only thirty five miles from Atlanta! The General had let the Yankees push him back sixty five miles in three weeks! Why didn't he hold the Yankees instead of everlastingly retreating? He was a fool and worse than a fool. Graybeards in the Home Guard and members of the state militia, safe in Atlanta, insisted they could have managed the campaign better and drew maps on tablecloths to prove their contentions. As his lines grew thinner and he was forced back farther, the General called desperately on Governor Brown for these very men, but the state troops felt reasonably safe. After all, the Governor had defied Jeff Davis' demand for them. Why should he accede to General Johnston?
Fight and fall back! Fight and fall back! For seventy miles and twenty five days the Confederates had fought almost daily. New Hope Church was behind the gray troops now, a memory in a mad haze of like memories, heat, dust, hunger, weariness, tramp tramp on the red rutted roads, slop slop through the red mud, retreat, entrench, fight retreat, entrench, fight. New Hope Church was a nightmare of another life and so was Big Shanty, where they turned and fought the Yankees like demons. But, fight the Yankees till the fields were blue with dead, there were always more Yankees, fresh Yankees; there was always that sinister southeast curving of the blue lines toward the Confederate rear, toward the railroad and toward Atlanta!
From Big Shanty, the weary sleepless lines retreated down the road to Kennesaw Mountain, near the little town of Marietta, and here they spread their lines in a ten mile curve. On the steep sides of the mountain they dug their rifle pits and on the towering heights they planted their batteries. Swearing, sweating men hauled the heavy guns up the precipitous slopes, for mules could not climb the hillsides. Couriers and wounded coming into Atlanta gave reassuring reports to the frightened townspeople. The heights of Kennesaw were impregnable. So were Pine Mountain and Lost Mountain near by which were also fortified. The Yankees couldn't dislodge Old Joe's men and they could hardly flank them now for the batteries on the mountain tops commanded all the roads for miles. Atlanta breathed more easily, but
But Kennesaw Mountain was only twenty two miles away!
On the day when the first wounded from Kennesaw Mountain were coming in, Mrs. Merriwether's carriage was at Aunt Pitty's house at the unheard of hour of seven in the morning, and black Uncle Levi sent up word that Scarlett must dress immediately and come to the hospital. Fanny Elsing and the Bonnell girls, roused early from slumber, were yawning on the back seat and the Elsings' mammy sat grumpily on the box, a basket of freshly laundered bandages on her lap. Off Scarlett went, unwillingly for she had danced till dawn the night before at the Home Guard's party and her feet were tired. She silently cursed the efficient and indefatigable Mrs. Merriwether, the wounded and the whole Southern Confederacy, as Prissy buttoned her in her oldest and raggedest calico frock which she used for hospital work. Gulping down the bitter brew of parched corn and dried sweet potatoes that passed for coffee, she went out to join the girls.
She was sick of all this nursing. This very day she would tell Mrs. Merriwether that Ellen had written her to come home for a visit. Much good this did her, for that worthy matron, her sleeves rolled up, her stout figure swathed in a large apron, gave her one sharp look and said: "Don't let me hear any more such foolishness, Scarlett Hamilton. I'll write your mother today and tell her how much we need you, and I'm sure she 'll understand and let you stay. Now, put on your apron and trot over to Dr. Meade. He needs someone to help with the dressings."
"Oh, God," thought Scarlett drearily, "that's just the trouble. Mother will make me stay here and I shall die if I have to smell these stinks any longer! I wish I was an old lady so I could bully the young ones, instead of getting bullied and tell old cats like Mrs. Merriwether to go to Halifax!"
Yes, she was sick of the hospital, the foul smells, the lice, the aching, unwashed bodies. If there had ever been any novelty and romance about nursing, that had worn off a year ago. Besides, these men wounded in the retreat were not so attractive as the earlier ones had been. They didn't show the slightest interest in her and they had very little to say beyond: "How's the fightin' goin'? What's Old Joe doin' now? Mighty clever fellow, Old Joe." She didn't think Old Joe a mighty clever fellow. All he had done was let the Yankees penetrate eighty eight miles into Georgia. No, they were not an attractive lot. Moreover, many of them were dying, dying swiftly, silently, having little strength left to combat the blood poisoning, gangrene, typhoid and pneumonia which had set in before they could reach Atlanta and a doctor.
The day was hot and the flies came in the open windows in swarms, fat lazy flies that broke the spirits of the men as pain could not. The tide of smells and pain rose and rose about her. Perspiration soaked through her freshly starched dress as she followed Dr. Meade about, a basin in her hand.
Oh, the nausea of standing by the doctor, trying not to vomit when his bright knife cut into mortifying flesh! And oh, the horror of hearing the screams from the operating ward where amputations were going on! And the sick, helpless sense of pity at the sight of tense, white faces of mangled men waiting for the doctor to get to them, men whose ears were filled with screams, men waiting for the dreadful words: "I'm sorry, my boy, but that hand will have to come off. Yes, yes, I know; but look, see those red streaks? It'll have to come off."
Chloroform was so scarce now it was used only for the worst amputations and opium was a precious thing, used only to ease the dying out of life, not the living out of pain. There was no quinine and no iodine at all. Yes, Scarlett was sick of it all, and that morning she wished that she , like Melanie, had the excuse of pregnancy to offer. That was about the only excuse that was socially acceptable for not nursing these days.
When noon came, she put off her apron and sneaked away from the hospital while Mrs. Merriwether was busy writing a letter for a gangling, illiterate mountaineer. Scarlett felt that she could stand it no longer. It was an imposition on her and she knew that when the wounded came in on the noon train there would be enough work to keep her busy until night fall and probably without anything to eat.
She went hastily up the two short blocks to Peachtree Street, breathing the unfouled air in as deep gulps as her tightly laced corset would permit. She was standing on the corner, uncertain as to what she would do next, ashamed to go home to Aunt Pitty's but determined not to go back to the hospital, when Rhett Butler drove by.
"You look like the ragpicker's child," he observed, his eyes taking in the mended lavender calico, streaked with perspiration and splotched here and there with water which had slopped from the basin. Scarlett was furious with embarrassment and indignation. Why did he always notice clothing and why was he so rude as to remark upon her present untidiness?
"I don't want to hear a word out of you. You get out and help me in and drive me somewhere where nobody will see me. I won't go back to the hospital if they hang me! My goodness, I didn't start this war and I don't see any reason why I should be worked to death and "
"A traitor to Our Glorious Cause!"
"The pot's calling the kettle black. You help me in. I don't care where you were going. You're going to take me riding now."
He swung himself out of the carriage to the ground and she suddenly thought how nice it was to see a man who was whole, who was not minus eyes or limbs, or white with pain or yellow with malaria, and who looked well fed and healthy. He was so well dressed too. His coat and trousers were actually of the same material and they fitted him, instead of hanging in folds or being almost too tight for movement. And they were new, not ragged, with dirty bare flesh and hairy legs showing through. He looked as if he had not a care in the world and that in itself was startling these days, when other men wore such worried, preoccupied, grim looks. His brown face was bland and his mouth, red lipped, clear cut as a woman's, frankly sensual, smiled carelessly as he lifted her into the carriage.
The muscles of his big body rippled against his well tailored clothes, as he got in beside her, and, as always, the sense of his great physical power struck her like a blow. She watched the swell of his powerful shoulders against the cloth with a fascination that was disturbing, a little frightening. His body seemed so tough and hard, as tough and hard as his keen mind. His was such an easy, graceful strength, lazy as a panther stretching in the sun, alert as a panther to spring and strike.
"You little fraud," he said, clucking to the horse. "You dance all night with the soldiers and give them roses and ribbons and tell them how you'd die for the Cause, and when it comes to bandaging a few wounds and picking off a few lice, you decamp hastily."
"Can't you talk about something else and drive faster? It would be just my luck for Grandpa Merriwether to come out of his store and see me and tell old lady I mean, Mrs. Merriwether."
He touched up the mare with the whip and she trotted briskly across Five Points and across the railroad tracks that cut the town in two. The train bearing the wounded had already come in and the litter bearers were working swiftly in the hot sun, transferring wounded into ambulances and covered ordnance wagons. Scarlett had no qualm of conscience as she watched them but only a feeling of vast relief that she had made her escape.
"I'm just sick and tired of that old hospital," she said, settling her billowing skirts and tying her bonnet bow more firmly under her chin. "And every day more and more wounded come in. It's all General Johnston's fault. If he'd just stood up to the Yankees at Dalton, they'd have "
"But he did stand up to the Yankees, you ignorant child. And if he'd kept on standing there, Sherman would have flanked him and crushed him between the two wings of his army. And he'd have lost the railroad and the railroad is what Johnston is fighting for."
"Oh, well," said Scarlett, on whom military strategy was utterly lost. "It's his fault anyway. He ought to have done something about it and I think he ought to be removed. Why doesn't he stand and fight instead of retreating?"
"You are like everyone else, screaming 'Off with his head' because he can't do the impossible. He was Jesus the Savior at Dalton, and now he's Judas the Betrayer at Kennesaw Mountain, all in six weeks. Yet, just let him drive the Yankees back twenty miles and he'll be Jesus again. My child, Sherman has twice as many men as Johnston, and he can afford to lose two men for every one of our gallant laddies. And Johnston can't afford to lose a single man. He needs reinforcements badly and what is he getting? 'Joe Brown's Pets.' What a help they'll be!"
"Is the militia really going to be called out? The Home Guard, too? I hadn't heard. How do you know?"
"There's a rumor floating about to that effect. The rumor arrived on the train from Milledgeville this morning. Both the militia and the Home Guards are going to be sent in to reinforce General Johnston. Yes, Governor Brown's darlings are likely to smell powder at last, and I imagine most of them will be much surprised. Certainly they never expected to see action. The Governor as good as promised them they wouldn't. Well, that's a good joke on them. They thought they had bomb proofs because the Governor stood up to even Jeff Davis and refused to send them to Virginia. Said they were needed for the defense of their state. Who'd have ever thought the war would come to their own back yard and they'd really have to defend their state?"
"Oh, how can you laugh, you cruel thing! Think of the old gentlemen and the little boys in the Home Guard! Why, little Phil Meade will have to go and Grandpa Merriwether and Uncle Henry Hamilton."
"I'm not talking about the little boys and the Mexican War veterans. I'm talking about brave young men like Willie Guinan who like to wear pretty uniforms and wave swords "
"My dear, that didn't hurt a bit! I wear no uniform and wave no sword and the fortunes of the Confederacy mean nothing at all to me. Moreover, I wouldn't be caught dead in the Home Guard or in any army, for that matter. I had enough of things military at West Point to do me the rest of my life. . . . Well, I wish Old Joe luck. General Lee can't send him any help because the Yankees are keeping him busy in Virginia. So the Georgia state troops are the only reinforcements Johnston can get. He deserves better, for he's a great strategist. He always manages to get places before the Yankees do. But he'll have to keep falling back if he wants to protect the railroad; and mark my words, when they push him out of the mountains and onto the flatter land around here, he's going to be butchered."
"Around here?" cried Scarlett. "You know mighty well the Yankees will never get this far!"
"Kennesaw is only twenty two miles away and I'll wager you "
"Rhett, look, down the street! That crowd of men! They aren't soldiers. What on earth . . . ? Why, they're darkies!"
There was a great cloud of red dust coming up the street and from the cloud came the sound of the tramping of many feet and a hundred or more negro voices, deep throated, careless, singing a hymn. Rhett pulled the carriage over to the curb, and Scarlett looked curiously at the sweating black men, picks and shovels over their shoulders, shepherded along by an officer and a squad of men wearing the insignia of the engineering corps.
"What on earth . . . ?" she began again.
Then her eyes lighted on a singing black buck in the front rank. He stood nearly six and a half feet tall, a giant of a man, ebony black, stepping along with the lithe grace of a powerful animal, his white teeth flashing as he led the gang in "Go Down, Moses." Surely there wasn't a negro on earth as tall and loud voiced as this one except Big Sam, the foreman of Tara. But what was Big Sam doing here, so far away from home, especially now that there was no overseer on the plantation and he was Gerald's right hand man?
As she half rose from her seat to look closer, the giant caught sight of her and his black face split in a grin of delighted recognition. He halted, dropped his shovel and started toward her, calling to the negroes nearest him: "Gawdlmighty! It's Miss Scarlett! You, 'Lige! 'Postle! Prophet! Dar's Miss Scarlett!"
There was confusion in the ranks. The crowd halted uncertainly, grinning, and Big Sam, followed by three other large negroes, ran across the road to the carriage, closely followed by the harried, shouting officer.
"Get back in line, you fellows! Get back, I tell you or I'll Why it's Mrs. Hamilton. Good morning, Ma'm, and you, too, sir. What are you up to inciting mutiny and insubordination? God knows, I've had trouble enough with these boys this morning."
"Oh, Captain Randall, don't scold them! They are our people. This is Big Sam our foreman, and Elijah and Apostle and Prophet from Tara. Of course, they had to speak to me. How are you, boys?"
She shook hands all around, her small white hand disappearing into their huge black paws and the four capered with delight at the meeting and with pride at displaying before their comrades what a pretty Young Miss they had.
"What are you boys doing so far from Tara? You've run away, I'll be bound. Don't you know the patterollers will get you sure?"
They bellowed pleasedly at the badinage.
"Runned away?" answered Big Sam. "No'm, us ain' runned away. Dey done sont an' tuck us, kase us wuz de fo' bigges' an' stronges' han's at Tara." His white teeth showed proudly. "Dey specially sont fer me, kase Ah could sing so good. Yas'm, Mist' Frank Kennedy, he come by an' tuck us."
"But why, Big Sam?"
"Lawd, Miss Scarlett! Ain' you heerd? Us is ter dig de ditches fer de wite gempmums ter hide in w'en de Yankees comes."
Captain Randall and the occupants of the carriage smothered smiles at this naive explanation of rifle pits.
"Cose, Mis' Gerald might' nigh had a fit w'en dey tuck me, an' he say he kain run de place widout me. But Miss Ellen she say: 'Tek him, Mist' Kennedy. De Confedrutsy need Big Sam mo' dan us do.' An' she gib me a dollar an' tell me ter do jes' whut de w'ite gempmums tell me. So hyah us is."
"What does it all mean, Captain Randall?"
"Oh, it's quite simple. We have to strengthen the fortifications of Atlanta with more miles of rifle pits, and the General can't spare any men from the front to do it. So we've been impressing the strongest bucks in the countryside for the work."
A cold little fear was beginning to throb in Scarlett's breast. More miles of rifle pits! Why should they need more? Within the last year, a series of huge earth redoubts with battery emplacements had been built all around Atlanta, one mile from the center of town. These great earth works were connected with rifle pits and they ran, mile after mile, completely encircling the city. More rifle pits!
"But why should we be fortified any more than we are already fortified? We won't need what we've got. Surely, the General won't let "
"Our present fortifications are only a mile from town," said Captain Randall shortly. "And that's too close for comfort or safety. These new ones are going to be farther away. You see, another retreat may bring our men into Atlanta."
Immediately he regretted his last remark, as her eyes widened with fear.
"But, of course there won't be another retreat," he added hastily. "The lines around Kennesaw Mountain are impregnable. The batteries are planted all up the mountain sides and they command the roads, and the Yankees can't possibly get by."
But Scarlett saw him drop his eyes before the lazy, penetrating look Rhett gave him, and she was frightened. She remembered Rhett's remark: "When the Yankees push him out of the mountains and onto the flatter land, he'll be butchered."
"Oh, Captain, do you think "
"Why, of course not! Don't fret your mind one minute. Old Joe just believes in taking precautions. That's the only reason we're digging more entrenchments. . . . But I must be going now. It's been pleasant, talking to you. . . . Say good by to your mistress, boys, and let's get going."
"Good by, boys. Now, if you get sick or hurt or in trouble, let me know. I live right down Peachtree Street, down there in almost the last house at the end of town. Wait a minute " She fumbled in her reticule. "Oh, dear, I haven't a cent. Rhett, give me a few shinplasters. Here, Big Sam, buy some tobacco for yourself and the boys. And be good and do what Captain Randall tells you."
The straggling line re formed, the dust arose again in a red cloud as they moved off and Big Sam started up the singing again.
"Go do ow, Mos es! Waaa ay, do own, in Eeejup laa an! An' te el O le Faa ro o Ter let mah peee pul go!"
"Rhett, Captain Randall was lying to me, just like all the men do trying to keep the truth from us women for fear we'll faint. Or was he lying? Oh, Rhett, if there's no danger, why are they digging these new breastworks? Is the army so short of men they've got to use darkies?"
Rhett clucked to the mare.
"The army is damned short of men. Why else would the Home Guard be called out? And as for the entrenchments, well, fortifications are supposed to be of some value in case of a siege. The General is preparing to make his final stand here."
"A siege! Oh, turn the horse around. I'm going home, back home to Tara, right away."
"What ails you?"
"A siege! Name of God, a siege! I've heard about sieges! Pa was in one or maybe it was his Pa, and Pa told me "
"The siege at Drogheda when Cromwell had the Irish, and they didn't have anything to eat and Pa said they starved and died in the streets and finally they ate all the cats and rats and even things like cockroaches. And he said they ate each other too, before they surrendered, though I never did know whether to believe that or not. And when Cromwell took the town all the women were A siege! Mother of God!"
"You are the most barbarously ignorant young person I ever saw. Drogheda was in sixteen hundred and something and Mr. O'Hara couldn't possibly have been alive then. Besides, Sherman isn't Cromwell."
"No, but he's worse! They say "
"And as for the exotic viands the Irish ate at the siege personally I'd as soon eat a nice juicy rat as some of the victuals they've been serving me recently at the hotel. I think I shall have to go back to Richmond. They have good food there, if you have the money to pay for it." His eyes mocked the fear in her face.
Annoyed that she had shown her trepidation, she cried: "I don't see why you've stayed here this long! All you think about is being comfortable and eating and and things like that."
"I know no more pleasant way to pass the time than in eating and er things like that," he said. "And as for why I stay here well, I've read a good deal about sieges, beleaguered cities and the like, but I've never seen one. So I think I'll stay here and watch. I won't get hurt because I'm a noncombatant and besides I want the experience. Never pass up new experiences, Scarlett. They enrich the mind."
"My mind's rich enough."
"Perhaps you know best about that, but I should say But that would be ungallant. And perhaps, I'm staying here to rescue you when the siege does come. I've never rescued a maiden in distress. That would be a new experience, too."
She knew he was teasing her but she sensed a seriousness behind his words. She tossed her head.
"I won't need you to rescue me. I can take care of myself, thank you."
"Don't say that, Scarlett! Think of it, if you like, but never, never say it to a man. That's the trouble with Yankee girls. They'd be most charming if they weren't always telling you that they can take care of themselves, thank you. Generally they are telling the truth, God help them. And so men let them take care of themselves."
"How you do run on," she said coldly, for there was no insult worse than being likened to a Yankee girl. "I believe you're lying about a siege. You know the Yankees will never get to Atlanta."
"I'll bet you they will be here within the month. I'll bet you a box of bonbons against " His dark eyes wandered to her lips. "Against a kiss."
For a last brief moment, fear of a Yankee invasion clutched her heart but at the word "kiss," she forgot about it. This was familiar ground and far more interesting than military operations. With difficulty she restrained a smile of glee. Since the day when he gave her the green bonnet, Rhett had made no advances which could in any way be construed as those of a lover. He could never be inveigled into personal conversations, try though she might, but now with no angling on her part, he was talking about kissing.
"I don't care for such personal conversation," she said coolly and managed a frown. "Besides, I'd just as soon kiss a pig."
"There's no accounting for tastes and I've always heard the Irish were partial to pigs kept them under their beds, in fact. But, Scarlett, you need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. All your beaux have respected you too much, though God knows why, or they have been too afraid of you to really do right by you. The result is that you are unendurably uppity. You should be kissed and by someone who knows how."
The conversation was not going the way she wanted it. It never did when she was with him. Always, it was a duel in which she was worsted.
"And I suppose you think you are the proper person?" she asked with sarcasm, holding her temper in check with difficulty.
"Oh, yes, if I cared to take the trouble," he said carelessly. "They say I kiss very well."
"Oh," she began, indignant at the slight to her charms. "Why, you . . ." But her eyes fell in sudden confusion. He was smiling, but in the dark depths of his eyes a tiny light flickered for a brief moment, like a small raw flame.
"Of course, you've probably wondered why I never tried to follow up that chaste peck I gave you, the day I brought you that bonnet "
"I have never "
"Then you aren't a nice girl, Scarlett, and I'm sorry to hear it. All really nice girls wonder when men don't try to kiss them. They know they shouldn't want them to and they know they must act insulted if they do, but just the same, they wish the men would try. . . . Well, my dear, take heart. Some day, I will kiss you and you will like it. But not now, so I beg you not to be too impatient."
She knew he was teasing but, as always, his teasing maddened her. There was always too much truth in the things he said. Well, this finished him. If ever, ever he should be so ill bred as to try to take any liberties with her, she would show him.
"Will you kindly turn the horse around, Captain Butler? I wish to go back to the hospital."
"Do you indeed, my ministering angel? Then lice and slops are preferable to my conversation? Well, far be it from me to keep a pair of willing hands from laboring for Our Glorious Cause." He turned the horse's head and they started back toward Five Points.
"As to why I have made no further advances," he pursued blandly, as though she had not signified that the conversation was at an end, "I'm waiting for you to grow up a little more. You see, it wouldn't be much fun for me to kiss you now and I'm quite selfish about my pleasures. I never fancied kissing children."
He smothered a grin, as from the corner of his eye he saw her bosom heave with silent wrath.
"And then, too," he continued softly, "I was waiting for the memory of the estimable Ashley Wilkes to fade."
At the mention of Ashley's name, sudden pain went through her, sudden hot tears stung her lids. Fade? The memory of Ashley would never fade, not if he were dead a thousand years. She thought of Ashley wounded, dying in a far off Yankee prison, with no blankets over him, with no one who loved him to hold his hand, and she was filled with hate for the well fed man who sat beside her, jeers just beneath the surface of his drawling voice.
She was too angry to speak and they rode along in silence for some while.
"I understand practically everything about you and Ashley, now," Rhett resumed. "I began with your inelegant scene at Twelve Oaks and, since then, I've picked up many things by keeping my eyes open. What things? Oh, that you still cherish a romantic schoolgirl passion for him which he reciprocates as well as his honorable nature will permit him. And that Mrs. Wilkes knows nothing and that, between the two of you, you've done her a pretty trick. I understand practically everything, except one thing that piques my curiosity. Did the honorable Ashley ever jeopardize his immortal soul by kissing you?"
A stony silence and an averted head were his answers.
"Ah, well, so he did kiss you. I suppose it was when he was here on furlough. And now that he's probably dead you are cherishing it to your heart. But I'm sure you'll get over it and when you've forgotten his kiss, I'll "
She turned in fury.
"You go to Halifax," she said tensely, her green eyes slits of rage. "And let me out of this carriage before I jump over the wheels. And I don't ever want to speak to you again."
He stopped the carriage, but before he could alight and assist her she sprang down. Her hoop caught on the wheel and for a moment the crowd at Five Points had a flashing view of petticoats and pantalets. Then Rhett leaned over and swiftly released it. She flounced off without a word, without even a backward look, and he laughed softly and clicked to the horse.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
For the first time since the war began, Atlanta could hear the sound of battle. In the early morning hours before the noises of the town awoke, the cannon at Kennesaw Mountain could be heard faintly, far away, a low dim booming that might have passed for summer thunder. Occasionally it was loud enough to be heard even above the rattle of traffic at noon. People tried not to listen to it, tried to talk, to laugh, to carry on their business, just as though the Yankees were not there, twenty two miles away, but always ears were strained for the sound. The town wore a preoccupied look, for no matter what occupied their hands, all were listening, listening, their hearts leaping suddenly a hundred times a day. Was the booming louder? Or did they only think it was louder? Would General Johnston hold them this time? Would he?
Panic lay just beneath the surface. Nerves which had been stretched tighter and tighter each day of the retreat began to reach the breaking point. No one spoke of fears. That subject was taboo, but strained nerves found expression in loud criticism of the General. Public feeling was at fever heat. Sherman was at the very doors of Atlanta. Another retreat might bring the Confederates into the town.
Give us a general who won't retreat! Give us a man who will stand and fight!
With the far off rumbling of cannon in their ears, the state militia, "Joe Brown's Pets," and the Home Guard marched out of Atlanta, to defend the bridges and ferries of the Chattahoochee River at Johnston's back. It was a gray, overcast day and, as they marched through Five Points and out the Marietta road, a fine rain began to fall. The whole town had turned out to see them off and they stood, close packed, under the wooden awnings of the stores on Peachtree Street and tried to cheer.
Scarlett and Maybelle Merriwether Picard had been given permission to leave the hospital and watch the men go out, because Uncle Henry Hamilton and Grandpa Merriwether were in the Home Guard, and they stood with Mrs. Meade, pressed in the crowd, tiptoeing to get a better view. Scarlett, though filled with the universal Southern desire to believe only the pleasantest and most reassuring things about the progress of the fighting, felt cold as she watched the motley ranks go by. Surely, things must be in a desperate pass if this rabble of bombproofers, old men and little boys were being called out! To be sure there were young and able bodied men in the passing lines, tricked out in the bright uniforms of socially select militia units, plumes waving, sashes dancing. But there were so many old men and young boys, and the sight of them made her heart contract with pity and with fear. There were graybeards older than her father trying to step jauntily along in the needle fine rain to the rhythm of the fife and drum corps. Grandpa Merriwether, with Mrs. Merriwether's best plaid shawl laid across his shoulders to keep out the rain, was in the first rank and he saluted the girls with a grin. They waved their handkerchiefs and cried gay good bys to him; but Maybelle, gripping Scarlett's arm, whispered: "Oh, the poor old darling! A real good rainstorm will just about finish him! His lumbago "
Uncle Henry Hamilton marched in the rank behind Grandpa Merriwether, the collar of his long black coat turned up about his ears, two Mexican War pistols in his belt and a small carpetbag in his hand. Beside him marched his black valet who was nearly as old as Uncle Henry, with an open umbrella held over them both. Shoulder to shoulder with their elders came the young boys, none of them looking over sixteen. Many of them had run away from school to join the army, and here and there were clumps of them in the cadet uniforms of military academies, the black cock feathers on their tight gray caps wet with rain, the clean white canvas straps crossing their chests sodden. Phil Meade was among them, proudly wearing his dead brother's saber and horse pistols, his hat bravely pinned up on one side. Mrs. Meade managed to smile and wave until he had passed and then she leaned her head on the back of Scarlett's shoulder for a moment as though her strength had suddenly left her.
Many of the men were totally unarmed, for the Confederacy had neither rifles nor ammunition to issue to them. These men hoped to equip themselves from killed and captured Yankees. Many carried bowie knives in their boots and bore in their hands long thick poles with iron pointed tips known as "Joe Brown pikes." The lucky ones had old flintlock muskets slung over their shoulders and powder horns at their belts.
Johnston had lost around ten thousand men in his retreat. He needed ten thousand more fresh troops. And this, thought Scarlett frightened, is what he is getting!
As the artillery rumbled by, splashing mud into the watching crowds, a negro on a mule, riding close to a cannon caught her eye. He was a young, saddle colored negro with a serious face, and when Scarlett saw him she cried: "It's Mose! Ashley's Mose! Whatever is he doing here?" She fought her way through the crowd to the curb and called: "Mose! Stop!"
The boy seeing her, drew rein, smiled delightedly and started to dismount. A soaking sergeant, riding behind him, called: "Stay on that mule, boy, or I'll light a fire under you! We got to git to the mountain some time."
Uncertainly, Mose looked from the sergeant to Scarlett and she , splashing through the mud, close to the passing wheels, caught at Moses' stirrup strap.
"Oh, just a minute, Sergeant! Don't get down, Mose. What on earth are you doing here?"
"Ah's off ter de war, agin, Miss Scarlett. Dis time wid Ole Mist' John 'stead ob Mist' Ashley."
"Mr. Wilkes!" Scarlett was stunned. Mr. Wilkes was nearly seventy. "Where is he?"
"Back wid de las' cannon, Miss Scarlett. Back dar!"
"Sorry, lady. Move on, boy!"
Scarlett stood for a moment, ankle deep in mud as the guns lurched by. Oh, no! She thought. It can't be. He's too old. And he doesn't like war any more than Ashley did! She retreated back a few paces toward the curb and scanned each face that passed. Then, as the last cannon and limber chest came groaning and splashing up, she saw him, slender, erect, his long silver hair wet upon his neck, riding easily upon a little strawberry mare that picked her way as daintily through the mud holes as a lady in a satin dress. Why that mare was Nellie! Mrs. Tarleton's Nellie! Beatrice Tarleton's treasured darling!
When he saw her standing in the mud, Mr. Wilkes drew rein with a smile of pleasure and, dismounting, came toward her.
"I had hoped to see you, Scarlett. I was charged with so many messages from your people. But there was no time. We just got in this morning and they are rushing us out immediately, as you see."
"Oh, Mr. Wilkes," she cried desperately, holding his hand. "Don't go! Why must you go?"
"Ah, so you think I'm too old!" he smiled, and it was Ashley's smile in an older face. "Perhaps I am too old to march but not to ride and shoot. And Mrs. Tarleton so kindly lent me Nellie, so I am well mounted. I hope nothing happens to Nellie, for if something should happen to her, I could never go home and face Mrs. Tarleton. Nellie was the last horse she had left." He was laughing now, turning away her fears. "Your mother and father and the girls are well and they sent you their love. Your father nearly came up with us today!"
"Oh, not Pa!" cried Scarlett in terror. "Not Pa! He isn't going to the war, is he?"
"No, but he was. Of course, he can't walk far with his stiff knee, but he was all for riding away with us. Your mother agreed, providing he was able to jump the pasture fence, for, she said, there would be a lot of rough riding to be done in the army. Your father thought that easy, but would you believe it? When his horse came to the fence, he stopped dead and over his head went your father! It's a wonder it didn't break his neck! You know how obstinate he is. He got right up and tried it again. Well, Scarlett, he came off three times before Mrs. O'Hara and Pork assisted him to bed. He was in a taking about it, swearing that your mother had 'spoken a wee word in the beast's ear.' He just isn't up to active service, Scarlett. You need have no shame about it. After all, someone must stay home and raise crops for the army."
Scarlett had no shame at all, only an active feeling of relief.
"I've sent India and Honey to Macon to stay with the Burrs and Mr. O'Hara is looking after Twelve Oaks as well as Tara. . . . I must go, my dear. Let me kiss your pretty face."
Scarlett turned up her lips and there was a choking pain in her throat. She was so fond of Mr. Wilkes. Once, long ago, she had hoped to be his daughter in law.
"And you must deliver this kiss to Pittypat and this to Melanie," he said, kissing her lightly two more times. "And how is Melanie?"
"She is well."
"Ah!" His eyes looked at her but through her, past her as Ashley's had done, remote gray eyes looking on another world. "I should have liked to see my first grandchild. Good by, my dear."
He swung onto Nellie and cantered off, his hat in his hand, his silver hair bare to the rain. Scarlett had rejoined Maybelle and Mrs. Meade before the import of his last words broke upon her. Then in superstitious terror she crossed herself and tried to say a prayer. He had spoken of death, just as Ashley had done, and now Ashley No one should ever speak of death! It was tempting Providence to mention death. As the three women started silently back to the hospital in the rain, Scarlett was praying: "Not him, too, God. Not him and Ashley, too!"
The retreat from Dalton to Kennesaw Mountain had taken from early May to mid June and as the hot rainy days of June passed and Sherman failed to dislodge the Confederates from the steep slippery slopes, hope again raised its head. Everyone grew more cheerful and spoke more kindly of General Johnston. As wet June days passed into a wetter July and the Confederates, fighting desperately around the entrenched heights, still held Sherman at bay, a wild gaiety took hold of Atlanta. Hope went to their heads like champagne. Hurrah! Hurrah! We're holding them! An epidemic of parties and dances broke out. Whenever groups of men from the fighting were in town for the night, dinners were given for them and afterwards there was dancing and the girls, outnumbering the men ten to one, made much of them and fought to dance with them.
Atlanta was crowded with visitors, refugees, families of wounded men in the hospitals, wives and mothers of soldiers fighting at the mountain who wished to be near them in case of wounds. In addition, bevies of belles from the country districts, where all remaining men were under sixteen or over sixty, descended upon the town. Aunt Pitty disapproved highly of these last, for she felt they had come to Atlanta for no reason at all except to catch husbands, and the shamelessness of it made her wonder what the world was coming to. Scarlett disapproved, too. She did not care for the eager competition furnished by the sixteen year olds whose fresh cheeks and bright smiles made one forget their twice turned frocks and patched shoes. Her own clothes were prettier and newer than most, thanks to the material Rhett Butler had brought her on the last boat he ran in, but, after all, she was nineteen and getting along and men had a way of chasing silly young things.
A widow with a child was at a disadvantage with these pretty minxes, she thought. But in these exciting days her widowhood and her motherhood weighed less heavily upon her than ever before. Between hospital duties in the day time and parties at night, she hardly ever saw Wade. Sometimes she actually forgot, for long stretches, that she had a child.
In the warm wet summer nights, Atlanta's homes stood open to the soldiers, the town's defenders. The big houses from Washington Street to Peachtree Street blazed with lights, as the muddy fighters in from the rifle pits were entertained, and the sound of banjo and fiddle and the scrape of dancing feet and light laughter carried far on the night air. Groups hung over pianos and voices sang lustily the sad words of "Your Letter Came but Came Too Late" while ragged gallants looked meaningly at girls who laughed from behind turkey tail fans, begging them not to wait until it was too late. None of the girls waited, if they could help it. With the tide of hysterical gaiety and excitement flooding the city, they rushed into matrimony. There were so many marriages that month while Johnston was holding the enemy at Kennesaw Mountain, marriages with the bride turned out in blush ing happiness and the hastily borrowed finery of a dozen friends and the groom with saber banging at patched knees. So much excitement, so many parties, so many thrills! Hurrah! Johnston is holding the Yanks twenty two miles away!
Yes, the lines around Kennesaw Mountain were impregnable. After twenty five days of fighting, even General Sherman was convinced of this, for his losses were enormous. Instead of continuing the direct assault, he swung his army in a wide circle again and tried to come between the Confederates and Atlanta. Again, the strategy worked. Johnston was forced to abandon the heights he had held so well, in order to protect his rear. He had lost a third of his men in that fight and the remainder slogged tiredly through the rain across the country toward the Chattahoochee River. The Confederates could expect no more reinforcements, whereas the railroad, which the Yankees now held from Tennessee south to the battle line, brought Sherman fresh troops and supplies daily. So the gray lines went back through the muddy fields, back toward Atlanta.
With the loss of the supposedly unconquerable position, a fresh wave of terror swept the town. For twenty five wild, happy days, everyone had assured everyone else that this could not possibly happen. And now it had happened! But surely the General would hold the Yankees on the opposite bank of the river. Though God knows the river was close enough, only seven miles away!
But Sherman flanked them again, crossing the stream above them, and the weary gray files were forced to hurry across the yellow water and throw themselves again between the invaders and Atlanta. They dug in hastily in shallow pits to the north of the town in the valley of Peachtree Creek. Atlanta was in agony and panic.
Fight and fall back! Fight and fall back! And every retreat was bringing the Yankees closer to the town. Peachtree Creek was only five miles away! What was the General thinking about?
The cries of "Give us a man who will stand and fight!" penetrated even to Richmond. Richmond knew that if Atlanta was lost, the war was lost, and after the army had crossed the Chattahoochee, General Johnston was removed from command. General Hood, one of his corps commanders, took over the army, and the town breathed a little easier. Hood wouldn't retreat. Not that tall Kentuckian, with his flowing beard and flashing eye! He had the reputation of a bulldog. He'd drive the Yankees back from the creek, yes, back across the river and on up the road every step of the way back to Dalton. But the army cried: "Give us back Old Joe!" for they had been with Old Joe all the weary miles from Dalton and they knew, as the civilians could not know, the odds that had opposed them.
Sherman did not wait for Hood to get himself in readiness to attack. On the day after the change in command, the Yankee general struck swiftly at the little town of Decatur, six miles beyond Atlanta, captured it and cut the railroad there. This was the railroad connecting Atlanta with Augusta, with Charleston, and Wilmington and with Virginia. Sherman had dealt the Confederacy a crippling blow. The time had come for action! Atlanta screamed for action!
Then, on a July afternoon of steaming heat, Atlanta had its wish. General Hood did more than stand and fight. He assaulted the Yankees fiercely at Peachtree Creek, hurling his men from their rifle pits against the blue lines where Sherman's men outnumbered him more than two to one.
Frightened, praying that Hood's attack would drive the Yankees back, everyone listened to the sound of booming cannon and the crackling of thousands of rifles which, though five miles away from the center of town, were so loud as to seem almost in the next block. They could hear the rumblings of the batteries, see the smoke which rolled like low hanging clouds above the trees, but for hours no one knew how the battle was going.
By late afternoon the first news came, but it was uncertain, contradictory, frightening, brought as it was by men wounded in the early hours of the battle. These men began straggling in, singly and in groups, the less seriously wounded supporting those who limped and staggered. Soon a steady stream of them was established, making their painful way into town toward the hospitals, their faces black as negroes' from powder stains, dust and sweat, their wounds unbandaged, blood drying, flies swarming about them.
Aunt Pitty's was one of the first houses which the wounded reached as they struggled in from the north of the town, and one after another, they tottered to the gate, sank down on the green lawn and croaked:
All that burning afternoon, Aunt Pitty and her family, black and white, stood in the sun with buckets of water and bandages, ladling drinks, binding wounds until the bandages gave out and even the torn sheets and towels were exhausted. Aunt Pitty completely forgot that the sight of blood always made her faint and she worked until her little feet in their too small shoes swelled and would no longer support her. Even Melanie, now great with child, forgot her modesty and worked feverishly side by side with Prissy, Cookie and Scarlett, her face as tense as any of the wounded. When at last she fainted, there was no place to lay her except on the kitchen table, as every bed, chair and sofa in the house was filled with wounded.
Forgotten in the tumult, little Wade crouched behind the banisters on the front porch, peering out onto the lawn like a caged, frightened rabbit, his eyes wide with terror, sucking his thumb and hiccoughing. Once Scarlett saw him and cried sharply: "Go play in the back yard, Wade Hampton!" but he was too terrified, too fascinated by the mad scene before him to obey.
The lawn was covered with prostrate men, too tired to walk farther, too weak from wounds to move. These Uncle Peter loaded into the carriage and drove to the hospital, making trip after trip until the old horse was lathered. Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether sent their carriages and they, too, drove off, springs sagging beneath the weight of the wounded.
Later, in the long, hot summer twilight, the ambulances came rumbling down the road from the battle field and commissary wagons, covered with muddy canvas. Then farm wagons, ox carts and even private carriages commandeered by the medical corps. They passed Aunt Pitty's house, jolting over the bumpy road, packed with wounded and dying men, dripping blood into the red dust. At the sight of the women with buckets and dippers, the conveyances halted and the chorus went up in cries, in whispers:
Scarlett held wobbling heads that parched lips might drink, poured buckets of water over dusty, feverish bodies and into open wounds that the men might enjoy a brief moment's relief. She tiptoed to hand dippers to ambulance drivers and of each she questioned, her heart in her throat: "What news? What news?"
From all came back the answer: "Don't know fer sartin, lady. It's too soon to tell."
Night came and it was sultry. No air moved and the flaring pine knots the negroes held made the air hotter. Dust clogged Scarlett's nostrils and dried her lips. Her lavender calico dress, so freshly clean and starched that morning, was streaked with blood, dirt and sweat. This, then, was what Ashley had meant when he wrote that war was not glory but dirt and misery.
Fatigue gave an unreal, nightmarish cast to the whole scene. It couldn't be real or it was real, then the world had gone mad. If not, why should she be standing here in Aunt Pitty's peaceful front yard, amid wavering lights, pouring water over dying beaux? For so many of them were her beaux and they tried to smile when they saw her. There were so many men jolting down this dark, dusty road whom she knew so well, so many men dying here before her eyes, mosquitoes and gnats swarming their bloody faces, men with whom she had danced and laughed, for whom she had played music and sung songs, teased, comforted and loved a little.
She found Carey Ashburn on the bottom layer of wounded in an ox cart, barely alive from a bullet wound in his head. But she could not extricate him without disturbing six other wounded men, so she let him go on to the hospital. Later she heard he had died before a doctor ever saw him and was buried somewhere, no one knew exactly. So many men had been buried that month, in shallow, hastily dug graves at Oakland Cemetery. Melanie felt it keenly that they had not been able to get a lock of Carey's hair to send to his mother in Alabama.
As the hot night wore on and their backs were aching and their knees buckling from weariness, Scarlett and Pitty cried to man after man: "What news? What news?"
And as the long hours dragged past, they had their answer, an answer that made them look whitely into each other's eyes.
"We're falling back." "We've got to fall back." "They outnumber us by thousands." "The Yankees have got Wheeler's cavalry cut off near Decatur. We got to reenforce them." "Our boys will all be in town soon."
Scarlett and Pitty clutched each other's arms for support.
"Are are the Yankees coming?"
"Yes'm, they're comin' all right but they ain't goin' ter git fer, lady." "Don't fret, Miss, they can't take Atlanta." "No, Ma'm, we got a million miles of breastworks 'round this town." "I heard Old Joe say it myself: 'I can hold Atlanta forever.'" "But we ain't got Old Joe. We got " "Shut up, you fool! Do you want to scare the ladies?" "The Yankees will never take this place, Ma'm." "Whyn't you ladies go ter Macon or somewheres that's safer? Ain't you got no kinfolks there?" "The Yankees ain't goin' ter take Atlanta but still it ain't goin' ter be so healthy for ladies whilst they're tryin' it." "There's goin' ter be a powerful lot of shellin'."
In a warm steaming rain the next day, the defeated army poured though Atlanta by thousands, exhausted by hunger and weariness, depleted by seventy six days of battle and retreat, their horses starved scarecrows, their cannon and caissons harnessed with odds and ends of rope and strips of rawhide. But they did not come in as disorderly rabble, in full rout. They marched in good order, jaunty for all their rags, their torn red battle flags flying in the rain. They had learned retreating under Old Joe, who had made it as great a feat of strategy as advancing. The bearded, shabby files swung down Peachtree Street to the tune of "Maryland! My Maryland!" and all the town turned out to cheer them. In victory or defeat, they were their boys.
The state militia who had gone out so short a time before, resplendent in new uniforms, could hardly be distinguished from the seasoned troops, so dirty and unkempt were they. There was a new look in their eyes. Three years of apologizing, of explaining why they were not at the front was behind them now. They had traded security behind the lines for the hardships of battle. Many of their number had traded easy living for hard death. They were veterans now, veterans of brief service, but veterans just the same, and they had acquitted themselves well. They searched out the faces of friends in the crowd and stared at them proudly, defiantly. They could hold up their heads now.
The old men and boys of the Home Guard marched by, the graybeards almost too weary to lift their feet, the boys wearing the faces of tired children, confronted too early with adult problems. Scarlett caught sight of Phil Meade and hardly recognized him, so black was his face with powder and grime, so taut with strain and weariness. Uncle Henry went limping by, hatless in the rain, his head stuck through a hole in a piece of old oilcloth. Grandpa Merriwether rode in on a gun carriage, his bare feet tied in quilt scraps. But search though she might, she saw no sign of John Wilkes.
Johnston's veterans, however, went by with the tireless, careless step which had carried them for three years, and they still had the energy to grin and wave at pretty girls and to call rude gibes to men not in uniform. They were on their way to the entrenchments that ringed the town no shallow, hastily dug trenches, these, but earthworks, breast high, reinforced with sandbags and tipped with sharpened staves of wood. For mile after mile the trenches encircled the town, red gashes surmounted by red mounds, waiting for the men who would fill them.
The crowd cheered the troops as they would have cheered them in victory. There was fear in every heart but, now that they knew the truth, now that the worst had happened, now that the war was in their front yard, a change came over the town. There was no panic now, no hysteria. Whatever lay in hearts did not show on faces. Everyone looked cheerful even if the cheer was strained. Everyone tried to show brave, confident faces to the troops. Everyone repeated what Old Joe had said, just before he was relieved of command: "I can hold Atlanta forever."
Now that Hood had had to retreat, quite a number wished, with the soldiers, that they had Old Joe back, but they forebore saying it and took courage from Old Joe's remark:
"I can hold Atlanta forever!"
Not for Hood the cautious tactics of General Johnston. He assaulted the Yankees on the east, he assaulted them on the west. Sherman was circling the town like a wrestler seeking a fresh hold on an opponent's body, and Hood did not remain behind his rifle pits waiting for the Yankees to attack. He went out boldly to meet them and savagely fell upon them. Within the space of a few days the battles of Atlanta and of Ezra Church were fought, and both of them were major engagements which made Peachtree Creek seem like a skirmish.
But the Yankees kept coming back for more. They had suffered heavy losses but they could afford to lose. And all the while their batteries poured shells into Atlanta, killing people in their homes, ripping roofs off buildings, tearing huge craters in the streets. The townsfolk sheltered as best they could in cellars, in holes in the ground and in shallow tunnels dug in railroad cuts. Atlanta was under siege.
Within eleven days after he had taken command, General Hood had lost almost as many men as Johnston had lost in seventy four days of battle and retreat, and Atlanta was hemmed in on three sides.
The railroad from Atlanta to Tennessee was now in Sherman's hands for its full length. His army was across the railroad to the east and he had cut the railroad running southwest to Alabama. Only the one railroad to the south, to Macon and Savannah, was still open. The town was crowded with soldiers, swamped with wounded, jammed with refugees, and this one line was inadequate for the crying needs of the stricken city. But as long as this railroad could be held, Atlanta could still stand.
Scarlett was terrified when she realized how important this line had become, how fiercely Sherman would fight to take it, how desperately Hood would fight to defend it. For this was the railroad which ran through the County, through Jonesboro. And Tara was only five miles from Jonesboro! Tara seemed like a haven of refuge by comparison with the screaming hell of Atlanta, but Tara was only five miles from Jonesboro!
Scarlett and many other ladies sat on the flat roofs of stores, shaded by their tiny parasols, and watched the fighting on the day of the battle of Atlanta. But when shells began falling in the streets for the first time, they fled to the cellars, and that night the exodus of women, children and old people from the city began. Macon was their destination and many of those who took the train that night had already refugeed five and six times before, as Johnston fell back from Dalton. They were traveling lighter now than when they arrived in Atlanta. Most of them carried only a carpetbag and a scanty lunch done up in a bandana handkerchief. Here and there, frightened servants carried silver pitchers, knives and forks and a family portrait or two which had been salvaged in the first fight.
Mrs. Merriwether and Mrs. Elsing refused to leave. They were needed at the hospital and furthermore, they said proudly, they weren't afraid and no Yankees were going to run them out of their homes. But Maybelle and her baby and Fanny Elsing went to Macon. Mrs. Meade was disobedient for the first time in her married life and flatly refused to yield to the doctor's command that she take the train to safety. The doctor needed her, she said. Moreover, Phil was somewhere in the trenches and she wanted to be near by in case . . .
But Mrs. Whiting went and many other ladies of Scarlett's circle. Aunt Pitty, who had been the first to denounce Old Joe for his policy of retreat, was among the first to pack her trunks. Her nerves, she said, were delicate and she could not endure noises. She feared she might faint at an explosion and not be able to reach the cellar. No, she was not afraid. Her baby mouth tried to set in martial lines but failed. She'd go to Macon and stay with her cousin, old Mrs. Burr, and the girls should come with her.
Scarlett did not want to go to Macon. Frightened as she was of the shells, she 'd rather stay in Atlanta than go to Macon, for she hated old Mrs. Burr cordially. Years ago, Mrs. Burr had said she was "fast" after catching her kissing her son Willie at one of the Wilkes' house parties. No, she told Aunt Pitty, I'll go home to Tara and Melly can go to Macon with you.
At this Melanie began to cry in a frightened, heartbroken way. When Aunt Pitty fled to get Dr. Meade, Melanie caught Scarlett's hand in hers, pleading:
"Dear, don't go to Tara and leave me! I'll be so lonely without you. Oh, Scarlett, I'd just die if you weren't with me when the baby came! Yes Yes, I know I've got Aunt Pitty and she is sweet. But after all, she 's never had a baby, and sometimes she makes me so nervous I could scream. Don't desert me, darling. You've been just like a sister to me, and besides," she smiled wanly, "you promised Ashley you'd take care of me. He told me he was going to ask you."
Scarlett stared down at her in wonderment. With her own dislike of this woman so strong she could barely conceal it, how could Melly love her so? How could Melly be so stupid as not to guess the secret of her love of Ashley? She had given herself away a hundred times during these months of torment, waiting for news of him. But Melanie saw nothing, Melanie who could see nothing but good in anyone she loved. . . . Yes, she had promised Ashley she would look out for Melanie. Oh, Ashley! Ashley! you must be dead, dead these many months! And now your promise reaches out and clutches me!
"Well," she said shortly, "I did promise him that and I don't go back on my promises. But I won't go to Macon and stay with that old Burr cat. I'd claw her eyes out in five minutes. I'm going home to Tara and you can come with me. Mother would love to have you."
"Oh, I'd like that! Your mother is so sweet. But you know Auntie would just die if she wasn't with me when the baby came, and I know she won't go to Tara. It's too close to the fighting, and Auntie wants to be safe."
Dr. Meade, who had arrived out of breath, expecting to find Melanie in premature labor at least, judging by Aunt Pitty's alarmed summoning, was indignant and said as much. And upon learning the cause of the upset, he settled the matter with words that left no room for argument.
"It's out of the question for you to go to Macon, Miss Melly. I won't answer for you if you move. The trains are crowded and uncertain and the passengers are liable to be put off in the woods at any time, if the trains are needed for the wounded or troops and supplies. In your condition "
"But if I went to Tara with Scarlett "
"I tell you I won't have you moved. The train to Tara is the train to Macon and the same conditions prevail. Moreover, no one knows just where the Yankees are now, but they are all over everywhere. Your train might even be captured. And even if you reached Jonesboro safely, there'd be a five mile ride over a rough road before you ever reached Tara. It's no trip for a woman in a delicate condition. Besides, there's not a doctor in the County since old Dr. Fontaine joined the army."
"But there are midwives "
"I said a doctor," he answered brusquely and his eyes unconsciously went over her tiny frame. "I won't have you moved. It might be dangerous. You don't want to have the baby on the train or in a buggy, do you?"
This medical frankness reduced the ladies to embarrassed blush es and silence.
"You've got to stay right here where I can watch you, and you must stay in bed. No running up and down stairs to cellars. No, not even if shells come right in the window. After all, there's not so much danger here. We'll have the Yankees beaten back in no time. . . . Now, Miss Pitty, you go right on to Macon and leave the young ladies here."
"Unchaperoned?" she cried, aghast.
"They are matrons," said the doctor testily. "And Mrs. Meade is just two houses away. They won't be receiving any male company anyway with Miss Melly in her condition. Good Heavens, Miss Pitty! This is war time. We can't think of the proprieties now. We must think of Miss Melly."
He stamped out of the room and waited on the front porch until Scarlett joined him.
"I shall talk frankly to you, Miss Scarlett," he began, jerking at his gray beard. "You seem to be a young woman of common sense, so spare me your blush es. I do not want to hear any further talk about Miss Melly being moved. I doubt if she could stand the trip. She is going to have a difficult time, even in the best of circumstances very narrow in the hips, as you know, and probably will need forceps for her delivery, so I don't want any ignorant darky midwife meddling with her. Women like her should never have children, but Anyway, you pack Miss Pitty's trunk and send her to Macon. She's so scared she 'll upset Miss Melly and that won't do any good. And now, Miss," he fixed her with a piercing glance, "I don't want to hear about you going home, either. You stay with Miss Melly till the baby comes. Not afraid, are you?"
"Oh, no!" lied Scarlett, stoutly.
"That's a brave girl. Mrs. Meade will give you whatever chaperonage you need and I'll send over old Betsy to cook for you, if Miss Pitty wants to take her servants with her. It won't be for long. The baby ought to be here in another five weeks, but you never can tell with first babies and all this shelling going on. It may come any day."
So Aunt Pittypat went to Macon, in floods of tears, taking Uncle Peter and Cookie with her. The carriage and horse she donated to the hospital in a burst of patriotism which she immediately regretted and that brought on more tears. And Scarlett and Melanie were left alone with Wade and Prissy in a house that was much quieter, even though the cannonading continued.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
In those first days of the siege, when the Yankees crashed here and there against the defenses of the city, Scarlett was so frightened by the bursting shells she could only cower helplessly, her hands over her ears, expecting every moment to be blown into eternity. When she heard the whistling screams that heralded their approach, she rushed to Melanie's room and flung herself on the bed beside her, and the two clutched each other, screaming "Oh! Oh!" as they buried their heads in the pillows. Prissy and Wade scurried for the cellar and crouched in the cobwebbed darkness, Prissy squalling at the top of her voice and Wade sobbing and hiccoughing.
Suffocating under feather pillows while death screamed overhead, Scarlett silently cursed Melanie for keeping her from the safer regions below stairs. But the doctor had forbidden Melanie to walk and Scarlett had to stay with her. Added to her terror of being blown to pieces was her equally active terror that Melanie's baby might arrive at any moment. Sweat broke out on Scarlett with clammy dampness, whenever this thought entered her mind. What would she do if the baby started coming? She knew she 'd rather let Melanie die than go out on the streets to hunt for the doctor when the shells were falling like April rain. And she knew Prissy could be beaten to death before she would venture forth. What would she do if the baby came?
These matters she discussed with Prissy in whispers one evening, as they prepared Melanie's supper tray, and Prissy, surprisingly enough, calmed her fears.
"Miss Scarlett, effen we kain git de doctah w'en Miss Melly's time come, doan you bodder. Ah kin manage. Ah knows all 'bout birthin'. Ain' mah ma a midwife? Ain' she raise me ter be a midwife, too? Jes' you leave it ter me."
Scarlett breathed more easily knowing that experienced hands were near, but she nevertheless yearned to have the ordeal over and done with. Mad to be away from exploding shells, desperate to get home to the quiet of Tara, she prayed every night that the baby would arrive the next day, so she would be released from her promise and could leave Atlanta. Tara seemed so safe, so far away from all this misery.
Scarlett longed for home and her mother as she had never longed for anything in all her life. If she were just near Ellen she wouldn't be afraid, no matter what happened. Every night after a day of screeching ear splitting shells, she went to bed determined to tell Melanie the next morning that she could not stand Atlanta another day, that she would have to go home and Melanie would have to go to Mrs. Meade's. But, as she lay on her pillow, there always rose the memory of Ashley's face as it had looked when she last saw him, drawn as with an inner pain but with a little smile on his lips: "You'll take care of Melanie, won't you? You're so strong. . . . Promise me." And she had promised. Somewhere, Ashley lay dead. Wherever he was, he was watching her, holding her to that promise. Living or dead, she could not fail him, no matter what the cost. So she remained day after day.
In response to Ellen's letters, pleading with her to come home, she wrote minimizing the dangers of the siege, explaining Melanie's predicament and promising to come as soon as the baby was born. Ellen, sensitive to the bonds of kin, be they blood or marriage, wrote back reluctantly agreeing that she must stay but demanding Wade and Prissy be sent home immediately. This suggestion met with the complete approval of Prissy, who was now reduced to teeth chattering idiocy at every unexpected sound. She spent so much time crouching in the cellar that the girls would have fared badly but for Mrs. Meade's stolid old Betsy.
Scarlett was as anxious as her mother to have Wade out of Atlanta, not only for the child's safety, but because his constant fear irritated her. Wade was terrified to speechlessness by the shelling, and even when lulls came he clung to Scarlett's skirts, too terrified to cry. He was afraid to go to bed at night, afraid of the dark, afraid to sleep lest the Yankees should come and get him, and the sound of his soft nervous whimpering in the night grated unendurably on her nerves. Secretly she was just as frightened as he was, but it angered her to be reminded of it every minute by his tense, drawn face. Yes, Tara was the place for Wade. Prissy should take him there and return immediately to be present when the baby came.
But before Scarlett could start the two on their homeward journey, news came that the Yankees had swung to the south and were skirmishing along the railroad between Atlanta and Jonesboro. Suppose the Yankees should capture the train on which Wade and Prissy were riding Scarlett and Melanie turned pale at the thought, for everyone knew that Yankee atrocities on helpless children were even more dreadful than on women. So she feared to send him home and he remained in Atlanta, a frightened, silent little ghost, pattering about desperately after his mother, fearing to have her skirt out of his hand for even a minute.
The siege went on through the hot days of July, thundering days following nights of sullen, ominous stillness, and the town began to adjust itself. It was as though, the worst having happened, they had nothing more to fear. They had feared a siege and now they had a siege and, after all, it wasn't so bad. Life could and did go on almost as usual. They knew they were sitting on a volcano, but until that volcano erupted there was nothing they could do. So why worry now? And probably it wouldn't erupt anyway. Just look how General Hood is holding the Yankees out of the city! And see how the cavalry is holding the railroad to Macon! Sherman will never take it!
But for all their apparent insouciance in the face of falling shells and shorter rations, for all their ignoring the Yankees, barely half a mile away, and for all their boundless confidence in the ragged line of gray men in the rifle pits, there pulsed, just below the skin of Atlanta, a wild uncertainty over what the next day would bring. Suspense, worry, sorrow, hunger and the torment of rising, falling, rising hope was wearing that skin thin.
Gradually, Scarlett drew courage from the brave faces of her friends and from the merciful adjustment which nature makes when what cannot be cured must be endured. To be sure, she still jumped at the sound of explosions but she did not run screaming to burrow her head under Melanie's pillow. She could now gulp and say weakly: "That was close, wasn't it?"
She was less frightened also because life had taken on the quality of a dream, a dream too terrible to be real. It wasn't possible that she , Scarlett O'Hara, should be in such a predicament, with the danger of death about her every hour, every minute. It wasn't possible that the quiet tenor of life could have changed so completely in so short a time.
It was unreal, grotesquely unreal, that morning skies which dawned so tenderly blue could be profaned with cannon smoke that hung over the town like low thunder clouds, that warm noontides filled with the piercing sweetness of massed honeysuckle and climbing roses could be so fearful, as shells screamed into the streets, bursting like the crack of doom, throwing iron splinters hundreds of yards, blowing people and animals to bits.
Quiet, drowsy afternoon siestas had ceased to be, for though the clamor of battle might lull from time to time, Peachtree Street was alive and noisy at all hours, cannon and ambulances rumbling by, wounded stumbling in from the rifle pits, regiments hurrying past at double quick, ordered from the ditches on one side of town to the defense of some hard pressed earthworks on the other, and couriers dashing headlong down the street toward headquarters as though the fate of the Confederacy hung on them.
The hot nights brought a measure of quiet but it was a sinister quiet. When the night was still, it was too still as though the tree frogs, katydids and sleepy mockingbirds were too frightened to raise their voices in the usual summer night chorus. Now and again, the quiet was broken sharply by the crack cracking of musket fire in the last line of defenses.
Often in the late night hours, when the lamps were out and Melanie asleep and deathly silence pressed over the town, Scarlett, lying awake, heard the latch of the front gate click and soft urgent tappings on the front door.
Always, faceless soldiers stood on the dark porch and from the darkness many different voices spoke to her. Sometimes a cultured voice came from the shadows: "Madam, my abject apologies for disturbing you, but could I have water for myself and my horse?" Sometimes it was the hard burring of a mountain voice, sometimes the odd nasals of the flat Wiregrass country to the far south, occasionally the lulling drawl of the Coast that caught at her heart, reminding her of Ellen's voice.
"Missy, I got a pardner here who I wuz aimin' ter git ter the horsepittle but looks like he ain't goin' ter last that fer. Kin you take him in?"
"Lady, I shore could do with some vittles. I'd shore relish a corn pone if it didn't deprive you none."
"Madam, forgive my intrusion but could I spend the night on your porch? I saw the roses and smelled the honeysuckle and it was so much like home that I was emboldened "
No, these nights were not real! They were a nightmare and the men were part of that nightmare, men without bodies or faces, only tired voices speaking to her from the warm dark. Draw water, serve food, lay pillows on the front porch, bind wounds, hold the dirty heads of the dying. No, this could not be happening to her!
Once, late in July, it was Uncle Henry Hamilton who came tapping in the night. Uncle Henry was minus his umbrella and carpetbag now, and his fat stomach as well. The skin of his pink fat face hung down in loose folds like the dewlaps of a bulldog and his long white hair was indescribably dirty. He was almost barefoot, crawling with lice, and he was hungry, but his irascible spirit was unimpaired.
Despite his remark: "It's a foolish war when old fools like me are out toting guns," the girls received the impression that Uncle Henry was enjoying himself. He was needed, like the young men, and he was doing a young man's work. Moreover, he could keep up with the young men, which was more than Grandpa Merriwether could do, he told them gleefully. Grandpa's lumbago was troubling him greatly and the Captain wanted to discharge him. But Grandpa wouldn't go home. He said frankly that he preferred the Captain's swearing and bullying to his daughter in law's coddling, and her incessant demands that he give up chewing tobacco and launder his beard every day.
Uncle Henry's visit was brief, for he had only a four hour furlough and he needed half of it for the long walk in from the breastworks and back.
"Girls, I'm not going to see you all for a while," he announced as he sat in Melanie's bedroom, luxuriously wriggling his blistered feet in the tub of cold water Scarlett had set before him. "Our company is going out in the morning."
"Where?" questioned Melanie frightened, clutching his arm.
"Don't put your hand on me," said Uncle Henry irritably. "I'm crawling with lice. War would be a picnic if it wasn't for lice and dysentery. Where'm I going? Well, I haven't been told but I've got a good idea. We're marching south, toward Jonesboro, in the morning, unless I'm greatly in error."
"Oh, why toward Jonesboro?"
"Because there's going to be big fighting there, Missy. The Yankees are going to take the railroad if they possibly can. And if they do take it, it's good by Atlanta!"
"Oh, Uncle Henry, do you think they will?"
"Shucks, girls! No! How can they when I'm there?" Uncle Henry grinned at their frightened faces and then, becoming serious again: "It's going to be a hard fight, girls. We've got to win it. You know, of course, that the Yankees have got all the railroads except the one to Macon, but that isn't all they've got. Maybe you girls didn't know it, but they've got every road, too, every wagon lane and bridle path, except the McDonough road. Atlanta's in a bag and the strings of the bag are at Jonesboro. And if the Yankees can take the railroad there, they can pull up the strings and have us, just like a possum in a poke. So, we don't aim to let them get that railroad. . . . I may be gone a while, girls. I just came in to tell you all good by and to make sure Scarlett was still with you, Melly."
"Of course, she 's with me," said Melanie fondly. "Don't you worry about us, Uncle Henry, and do take care of yourself."
Uncle Henry wiped his wet feet on the rag rug and groaned as he drew on his tattered shoes.
"I got to be going," he said. "I've got five miles to walk. Scarlett, you fix me up some kind of lunch to take. Anything you've got."
After he had kissed Melanie good by, he went down to the kitchen where Scarlett was wrapping a corn pone and some apples in a napkin.
"Uncle Henry is it is it really so serious?"
"Serious? God'lmighty, yes! Don't be a goose. We're in the last ditch."
"Do you think they'll get to Tara?"
"Why " began Uncle Henry, irritated at the feminine mind which thought only of personal things when broad issues were involved. Then, seeing her frightened, woebegone face, he softened.
"Of course they won't. Tara's five miles from the railroad and it's the railroad the Yankees want. You've got no more sense than a June bug, Missy." He broke off abruptly. "I didn't walk all this way here tonight just to tell you all good by. I came to bring Melly some bad news, but when I got up to it I just couldn't tell her. So I'm going to leave it to you to do."
"Ashley isn't you haven't heard anything that he's dead?"
"Now, how would I be hearing about Ashley when I've been standing in rifle pits up to the seat of my pants in mud?" the old gentleman asked testily. "No. It's about his father. John Wilkes is dead."
Scarlett sat down suddenly, the half wrapped lunch in her hand.
"I came to tell Melly but I couldn't. You must do it. And give her these."
He hauled from his pockets a heavy gold watch with dangling seals, a small miniature of the long dead Mrs. Wilkes and a pair of massive cuff buttons. At the sight of the watch which she had seen in John Wilkes' hands a thousand times, the full realization came over Scarlett that Ashley's father was really dead. And she was too stunned to cry or to speak. Uncle Henry fidgeted, coughed and did not look at her, lest he catch sight of a tear that would upset him.
"He was a brave man, Scarlett. Tell Melly that. Tell her to write it to his girls. And a good soldier for all his years. A shell got him. Came right down on him and his horse. Tore the horse's I shot the horse myself, poor creature. A fine little mare she was. You'd better write Mrs. Tarleton about that, too. She set a store on that mare. Wrap up my lunch, child. I must be going. There, dear, don't take it so hard. What better way can an old man die than doing a young man's work?"
"Oh, he shouldn't have died! He shouldn't have ever gone to the war. He should have lived and seen his grandchild grow up and died peacefully in bed. Oh, why did he go? He didn't believe in secession and he hated the war and "
"Plenty of us think that way, but what of it?" Uncle Henry blew his nose grumpily. "Do you think I enjoy letting Yankee riflemen use me for a target at my age? But there's no other choice for a gentleman these days. Kiss me good by, child, and don't worry about me. I'll come through this war safely."
Scarlett kissed him and heard him go down the steps into the dark, heard the latch click on the front gate. She stood for a minute looking at the keepsakes in her hand. And then she went up the stairs to tell Melanie.
At the end of July came the unwelcome news, predicted by Uncle Henry, that the Yankees had swung around again toward Jonesboro. They had cut the railroad four miles below the town, but they had been beaten off by the Confederate cavalry; and the engineering corps, sweating in the broiling sun, had repaired the line.
Scarlett was frantic with anxiety. For three days she waited, fear growing in her heart. Then a reassuring letter came from Gerald. The enemy had not reached Tara. They had heard the sound of the fight but they had seen no Yankees.
Gerald's letter was so full of brag and bluster as to how the Yankees had been driven from the railroad that one would have thought he personally had accomplished the feat, single handed. He wrote for three pages about the gallantry of the troops and then, at the end of his letter, mentioned briefly that Carreen was ill. The typhoid, Mrs. O'Hara said it was. She was not very ill and Scarlett was not to worry about her, but on no condition must she come home now, even if the railroad should become safe. Mrs. O'Hara was very glad now that Scarlett and Wade had not come home when the siege began. Mrs. O'Hara said Scarlett must go to church and say some Rosaries for Carreen's recovery.
Scarlett's conscience smote her at this last, for it had been months since she had been to church. Once she would have thought this omission a mortal sin but, somehow, staying away from church did not seem so sinful now as it formerly had. But she obeyed her mother and going to her room gabbled a hasty Rosary. When she rose from her knees she did not feel as comforted as she had formerly felt after prayer. For some time she had felt that God was not watching out for her, the Confederates or the South, in spite of the millions of prayers ascending to Him daily.
That night she sat on the front porch with Gerald's letter in her bosom where she could touch it occasionally and bring Tara and Ellen closer to her. The lamp in the parlor window threw odd golden shadows onto the dark vine shrouded porch, and the matted tangle of yellow climbing roses and honeysuckle made a wall of mingled fragrance about her. The night was utterly still. Not even the crack of a rifle had sounded since sunset and the world seemed far away. Scarlett rocked back and forth, lonely, miserable since reading the news from Tara, wishing that someone, anyone, even Mrs. Merriwether, were with her. But Mrs. Merriwether was on night duty at the hospital, Mrs. Meade was at home making a feast for Phil, who was in from the front lines, and Melanie was asleep. There was not even the hope of a chance caller. Visitors had fallen off to nothing this last week, for every man who could walk was in the rifle pits or chasing the Yankees about the countryside near Jonesboro.
It was not often that she was alone like this and she did not like it. When she was alone she had to think and, these days, thoughts were not so pleasant. Like everyone else, she had fallen into the habit of thinking of the past, the dead.
Tonight when Atlanta was so quiet, she could close her eyes and imagine she was back in the rural stillness of Tara and that life was unchanged, unchanging. But she knew that life in the County would never be the same again. She thought of the four Tarletons, the red haired twins and Tom and Boyd, and a passionate sexy sadness caught at her throat. Why, either Stu or Brent might have been her husband. But now, when the war was over and she went back to Tara to live, she would never again hear their wild halloos as they dashed up the avenue of cedars. And Raiford Calvert, who danced so divinely, would never again choose her to be his partner. And the Munroe boys and little Joe Fontaine and
"Oh, Ashley!" she sobbed, dropping her head into her hands. "I'll never get used to you being gone!"
She heard the front gate click and she hastily raised her head and dashed her hand across her wet eyes. She rose and saw it was Rhett Butler coming up the walk, carrying his wide Panama hat in his hand. She had not seen him since the day when she had alighted from his carriage so precipitously at Five Points. On that occasion, she had expressed the desire never to lay eyes on him again. But she was so glad now to have someone to talk to, someone to divert her thoughts from Ashley, that she hastily put the memory from her mind. Evidently he had forgotten the contretemps, or pretended to have forgotten it, for he settled himself on the top step at her feet without mention of their late difference.
"So you didn't refugee to Macon! I heard that Miss Pitty had retreated and, of course, I thought you had gone too. So, when I saw your light I came here to investigate. Why did you stay?"
"To keep Melanie company. You see, she well, she can't refugee just now."
"Thunderation," he said, and in the lamplight she saw that he was frowning. "You don't mean to tell me Mrs. Wilkes is still here? I never heard of such idiocy. It's quite dangerous for her in her condition."
Scarlett was silent, embarrassed, for Melanie's condition was not a subject she could discuss with a man. She was embarrassed, too, that Rhett should know it was dangerous for Melanie. Such knowledge sat ill upon a bachelor.
"It's quite ungallant of you not to think that I might get hurt too," she said tartly.
His eyes flickered with amusement.
"I'd back you against the Yankees any day."
"I'm not sure that that's a compliment," she said uncertainly.
"It isn't," he answered. "When will you stop looking for compliments in men's lightest utterances?"
"When I'm on my deathbed," she replied and smiled, thinking that there would always be men to compliment her, even if Rhett never did.
"Vanity, vanity," he said. "At least, you are frank about it."
He opened his cigar case, extracted a black cigar and held it to his nose for a moment. A match flared, he leaned back against a post and, clasping his hands about his knees, smoked a while in silence. Scarlett resumed her rocking and the still darkness of the warm night closed about them. The mockingbird, which nested in the tangle of roses and honeysuckle, roused from slumber and gave one timid, liquid note. Then, as if thinking better of the matter, it was silent again.
From the shadow of the porch, Rhett suddenly laughed, a low, soft laugh.
"So you stayed with Mrs. Wilkes! This is the strangest situation I ever encountered!"
"I see nothing strange about it," she answered uncomfortably, immediately on the alert.
"No? But then you lack the impersonal viewpoint. My impression has been for some time past that you could hardly endure Mrs. Wilkes. You think her silly and stupid and her patriotic notions bore you. You seldom pass by the opportunity to slip in some belittling remark about her, so naturally it seems strange to me that you should elect to do the unselfish thing and stay here with her during this shelling. Now, just why did you do it?"
"Because she 's Charlie's sister and like a sister to me," answered Scarlett with as much dignity as possible though her cheeks were growing hot.
"You mean because she 's Ashley's Wilkes' widow."
Scarlett rose quickly, struggling with her anger.
"I was almost on the point of forgiving you for your former boorish conduct but now I shan't do it. I wouldn't have ever let you come upon this porch at all, if I hadn't been feeling so blue and "
"Sit down and smooth your ruffled fur," he said, and his voice changed. He reached up and taking her hand pulled her back into her chair. "Why are you blue?"
"Oh, I had a letter from Tara today. The Yankees are close to home and my little sister is ill with typhoid and and so now, even if I could go home, like I want to, Mother wouldn't let me for fear I'd catch it too. Oh, dear, and I do so want to go home!"
"Well, don't cry about it," he said, but his voice was kinder. "You are much safer here in Atlanta even if the Yankees do come than you'd be at Tara. The Yankees won't hurt you and typhoid would."
"The Yankees wouldn't hurt me! How can you say such a lie?"
"My dear girl, the Yankees aren't fiends. They haven't horns and hoofs, as you seem to think. They are pretty much like Southerners except with worse manners, of course, and terrible accents."
"Why, the Yankees would "
"Rape you? I think not. Though, of course, they'd want to."
"If you are going to talk vilely I shall go into the house," she cried, grateful that the shadows hid her crimson face.
"Be frank. Wasn't that what you were thinking?"
"Oh, certainly not!"
"Oh, but it was! No use getting mad at me for reading your thoughts. That's what all our delicately nurtured and pure minded Southern ladies think. They have it on their minds constantly. I'll wager even dowagers like Mrs. Merriwether . . ."
Scarlett gulped in silence, remembering that wherever two or more matrons were gathered together, in these trying days, they whispered of such happenings, always in Virginia or Tennessee or Lousiana, never close to home. The Yankees raped women and ran bayonets through children's stomachs and burned houses over the heads of old people. Everyone knew these things were true even if they didn't shout them on the street corners. And if Rhett had any decency he would realize they were true. And not talk about them. And it wasn't any laughing matter either.
She could hear him chuckling softly. Sometimes he was odious. In fact, most of the time he was odious. It was awful for a man to know what women really thought about and talked about. It made a girl feel positively undressed. And no man ever learned such things from good women either. She was indignant that he had read her mind. She liked to believe herself a thing of mystery to men, but she knew Rhett thought her as transparent as glass.
"Speaking of such matters," he continued, "have you a protector or chaperon in the house? The admirable Mrs. Merriwether or Mrs. Meade? They always look at me as if they knew I was here for no good purpose."
"Mrs. Meade usually comes over at night," answered Scarlett, glad to change the subject. "But she couldn't tonight. Phil, her boy, is home."
"What luck," he said softly, "to find you alone."
Something in his voice made her heart beat pleasantly faster and she felt her face flush . She had heard that note in men's voices often enough to know that it presaged a declaration of love. Oh, what fun! If he would just say he loved her, how she would torment him and get even with him for all the sarcastic remarks he had flung at her these past three years. She would lead him a chase that would make up for even that awful humiliation of the day he witnessed her slapping Ashley. And then she 'd tell him sweetly she could only be a sister to him and retire with the full honors of war. She laughed nervously in pleasant anticipation.
"Don't giggle," he said, and taking her hand, he turned it over and pressed his lips into the palm. Something vital, electric, leaped from him to her at the touch of his warm mouth, something that caressed her whole body thrillingly. His lips traveled to her wrist and she knew he must feel the leap of her pulse as her heart quickened and she tried to draw back her hand. She had not bargained on this this treacherous warm tide of feeling that made her want to run her hands through his hair, to feel his lips upon her mouth.
She wasn't in love with him, she told herself confusedly. She was in love with Ashley. But how to explain this feeling that made her hands shake and the pit of her stomach grow cold?
He laughed softly.
"Don't pull away! I won't hurt you!"
"Hurt me? I'm not afraid of you, Rhett Butler, or of any man in shoe leather!" she cried, furious that her voice shook as well as her hands.
"An admirable sentiment, but do lower your voice. Mrs. Wilkes might hear you. And pray compose yourself." He sounded as though delighted at her flurry.
"Scarlett, you do like me, don't you?"
That was more like what she was expecting.
"Well, sometimes," she answered cautiously. "When you aren't acting like a varmint."
He laughed again and held the palm of her hand against his hard cheek.
"I think you like me because I am a varmint. You've known so few dyed in the wool varmints in your sheltered life that my very difference holds a quaint charm for you."
This was not the turn she had anticipated and she tried again without success to pull her hand free.
"That's not true! I like nice men men you can depend on to always be gentlemanly."
"You mean men you can always bully. It's merely a matter of definition. But no matter."
He kissed her palm again, and again the skin on the back of her neck crawled excitingly.
"But you do like me. Could you ever love me, Scarlett?"
"Ah!" she thought, triumphantly. "Now I've got him!" And she answered with studied coolness: "Indeed, no. That is not unless you mended your manners considerably."
"And I have no intention of mending them. So you could not love me? That is as I hoped. For while I like you immensely, I do not love you and it would be tragic indeed for you to suffer twice from unrequited love, wouldn't it, dear? May I call you 'dear,' Mrs. Hamilton? I shall call you 'dear' whether you like it or not, so no matter, but the proprieties must be observed."
"You don't love me?"
"No, indeed. Did you hope that I did?"
"Don't be so presumptuous!"
"You hoped! Alas, to blight your hopes! I should love you, for you are charming and talented at many useless accomplishments. But many ladies have charm and accomplishments and are just as useless as you are. No, I don't love you. But I do like you tremendously for the elasticity of your conscience, for the selfishness which you seldom trouble to hide, and for the shrewd practicality in you which, I fear, you get from some not too remote Irish peasant ancestor."
Peasant! Why, he was insulting her! She began to splutter wordlessly.
"Don't interrupt," he begged, squeezing her hand. "I like you because I have those same qualities in me and like begets liking. I realize you still cherish the memory of the godlike and wooden headed Mr. Wilkes, who's probably been in his grave these six months. But there must be room in your heart for me too. Scarlett, do stop wriggling! I am making you a declaration. I have wanted you since the first time I laid eyes on you, in the hall of Twelve Oaks, when you were bewitching poor Charlie Hamilton. I want you more than I have ever wanted any woman and I've waited longer for you than I've ever waited for any woman."
She was breathless with surprise at his last words. In spite of all his insults, he did love her and he was just so contrary he didn't want to come out frankly and put it into words, for fear she 'd laugh. Well, she 'd show him and right quickly.
"Are you asking me to marry you?"
He dropped her hand and laughed so loudly she shrank back in her chair.
"Good Lord, no! Didn't I tell you I wasn't a marrying man?"
"But but what "
He rose to his feet and, hand on heart, made her a burlesque bow.
"Dear," he said quietly, "I am complimenting your intelligence by asking you to be my mistress without having first seduced you."
Her mind shouted the word, shouted that she had been vilely insulted. But in that first startled moment she did not feel insulted. She only felt a furious surge of indignation that he should think her such a fool. He must think her a fool if he offered her a proposition like that, instead of the proposal of matrimony she had been expecting. Rage, punctured vanity and disappointment threw her mind into a turmoil and, before she even thought of the high moral grounds on which she should upbraid him, she blurted out the first words which came to her lips
"Mistress! What would I get out of that except a passel of brats?"
And then her jaw dropped in horror as she realized what she had said. He laughed until he choked, peering at her in the shadows as she sat, stricken dumb, pressing her handkerchief to her mouth.
"That's why I like you! You are the only frank woman I know, the only woman who looks on the practical side of matters without beclouding the issue with mouthings about sin and morality. Any other woman would have swooned first and then shown me the door."
Scarlett leaped to her feet, her face red with shame. How could she have said such a thing! How could she , Ellen's daughter, with her upbringing, have sat there and listened to such debasing words and then made such a shameless reply? She should have screamed. She should have fainted. She should have turned coldly away in silence and swept from the porch. Too late now!
"I will show you the door," she shouted, not caring if Melanie or the Meades, down the street, did bear her. "Get out! How dare you say such things to me! What have I ever done to encourage you to make you suppose. . . . Get out and don't ever come back here. I mean it this time. Don't you ever come back here with any of your piddling papers of pins and ribbons, thinking I'll forgive you. I'll I'll tell my father and he'll kill you!"
He picked up his hat and bowed and she saw in the light of the lamp that his teeth were showing in a smile beneath his mustache. He was not ashamed, he was amused at what she had said, and he was watching her with alert interest.
Oh, he was detestable! She swung round on her heel and marched into the house. She grabbed hold of the door to shut it with a bang, but the hook which held it open was too heavy for her. She struggled with it, panting.
"May I help you?" he asked.
Feeling that she would burst a blood vessel if she stayed another minute, she stormed up the stairs. And as she reached the upper floor, she heard him obligingly slam the door for her.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
As the hot noisy days of August were drawing to a close the bombardment abruptly ceased. The quiet that fell on the town was startling. Neighbors met on the streets and stared at one another, uncertain, uneasy, as to what might be impending. The stillness, after the screaming days, brought no surcease to strained nerves but, if possible, made the strain even worse. No one knew why the Yankee batteries were silent; there was no news of the troops except that they had been withdrawn in large numbers from the breastworks about the town and had marched off toward the south to defend the railroad. No one knew where the fighting was, if indeed there was any fighting, or how the battle was going if there was a battle.
Nowadays the only news was that which passed from mouth to mouth. Short of paper, short of ink, short of men, the newspapers had suspended publication after the siege began, and the wildest rumors appeared from nowhere and swept through the town. Now, in the anxious quiet, crowds stormed General Hood's headquarters demanding information, crowds massed about the telegraph office and the depot hoping for tidings, good tidings, for everyone hoped that the silence of Sherman's cannon meant that the Yankees were in full retreat and the Confederates chasing them back up the road to Dalton. But no news came. The telegraph wires were still, no trains came in on the one remaining railroad from the south and the mail service was broken.
Autumn with its dusty, breathless heat was slipping in to choke the suddenly quiet town, adding its dry, panting weight to tired, anxious hearts. To Scarlett, mad to hear from Tara, yet trying to keep up a brave face, it seemed an eternity since the siege began, seemed as though she had always lived with the sound of cannon in her ears until this sinister quiet had fallen. And yet, it was only thirty days since the siege began. Thirty days of siege! The city ringed with red clay rifle pits, the monotonous booming of cannon that never rested, the long lines of ambulances and ox carts dripping blood down the dusty streets toward the hospitals, the overworked burial squads dragging out men when they were hardly cold and dumping them like so many logs in endless rows of shallow ditches. Only thirty days!
And it was only four months since the Yankees moved south from Dalton! Only four months! Scarlett thought, looking back on that far day, that it had occurred in another life. Oh, no! Surely not just four months. It had been a lifetime.
Four months ago! Why, four months ago Dalton, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain had been to her only names of places on the railroad. Now they were battles, battles desperately, vainly fought as Johnston fell back toward Atlanta. And now, Peachtree Creek, Decatur, Ezra Church and Utoy Creek were no longer pleasant names of pleasant places. Never again could she think of them as quiet villages full of welcoming friends, as green places where she picnicked with handsome officers on the soft banks of slow moving streams. These names meant battles too, and the soft green grasses where she had sat were cut to bits by heavy cannon wheels, trampled by desperate feet when bayonet met bayonet and flattened where bodies threshed in agonies. . . . And the lazy streams were redder now than ever Georgia clay could make them. Peachtree Creek was crimson, so they said, after the Yankees crossed it. Peachtree Creek, Decatur, Ezra Church, Utoy Creek. Never names of places any more. Names of graves where friends lay buried, names of tangled underbrush and thick woods where bodies rotted unburied, names of the four sides of Atlanta where Sherman had tried to force his army in and Hood's men had doggedly beaten him back.
At last, news came from the south to the strained town and it was alarming news, especially to Scarlett. General Sherman was trying the fourth side of the town again, striking again at the railroad at Jonesboro. Yankees in large numbers were on that fourth side of the town now, no skirmishing units or cavalry detachments but the massed Yankee forces. And thousands of Confederate troops had been withdrawn from the lines close about the city to hurl themselves against them. And that explained the sudden silence.
"Why Jonesboro?" thought Scarlett, terror striking at her heart at the thought of Tara's nearness. "Why must they always hit Jonesboro? Why can't they find some other place to attack the railroad?"
For a week she had not heard from Tara and the last brief note from Gerald had added to her fears. Carreen had taken a turn for the worse and was very, very sick. Now it might be days before the mails came through, days before she heard whether Carreen was alive or dead. Oh, if she had only gone home at the beginning of the siege, Melanie or no Melanie!
There was fighting at Jonesboro that much Atlanta knew, but how the battle went no one could tell and the most insane rumors tortured the town. Finally a courier came up from Jonesboro with the reassuring news that the Yankees had been beaten back. But they had made a sortie into Jonesboro, burned the depot, cut the telegraph wires and torn up three miles of track before they retreated. The engineering corps was working like mad, repairing the line, but it would take some time because the Yankees had torn up the crossties, made bonfires of them, laid the wrenched up rails across them until they were red hot and then twisted them around telegraph poles until they looked like giant corkscrews. These days it was so hard to replace iron rails, to replace anything made of iron.
No, the Yankees hadn't gotten to Tara. The same courier who brought the dispatches to General Hood assured Scarlett of that. He had met Gerald in Jonesboro after the battle, just as he was starting to Atlanta, and Gerald had begged him to bring a letter to her.
But what was Pa doing in Jonesboro? The young courier looked ill at ease as he made answer. Gerald was hunting for an army doctor to go to Tara with him.
As she stood in the sunshine on the front porch, thanking the young man for his trouble, Scarlett felt her knees go weak. Carreen must be dying if she was so far beyond Ellen's medical skill that Gerald was hunting a doctor! As the courier went off in a small whirlwind of red dust, Scarlett tore open Gerald's letter with fingers that trembled. So great was the shortage of paper in the Confederacy now that Gerald's note was written between the lines of her last letter to him and reading it was difficult.
"Dear Daughter, Your Mother and both girls have the typhoid. They are very ill but we must hope for the best. When your mother took to her bed she bade me write you that under no condition were you to come home and expose yourself and Wade to the disease. She sends her love and bids you pray for her."
"Pray for her!" Scarlett flew up the stairs to her room and, dropping on her knees by the bed, prayed as she had never prayed before. No formal Rosaries now but the same words over and over: "Mother of God, don't let her die! I'll be so good if you don't let her die! Please, don't let her die!"
For the next week Scarlett crept about the house like a stricken animal, waiting for news, starting at every sound of horses' hooves, rushing down the dark stair at night when soldiers came tapping at the door, but no news came from Tara. The width of the continent might have spread between her and home instead of twenty five miles of dusty road.
The mails were still disrupted, no one knew where the Confederates were or what the Yankees were up to. No one knew anything except that thousands of soldiers, gray and blue, were somewhere between Atlanta and Jonesboro. Not a word from Tara in a week.
Scarlett had seen enough typhoid in the Atlanta hospital to know what a week meant in that dread disease. Ellen was ill, perhaps dying, and here was Scarlett helpless in Atlanta with a pregnant woman on her hands and two armies between her and home. Ellen was ill perhaps dying. But Ellen couldn't be ill! She had never been ill. The very thought was incredible and it struck at the very foundations of the security of Scarlett's life. Everyone else got sick, but never Ellen. Ellen looked after sick people and made them well again. She couldn't be sick. Scarlett wanted to be home. She wanted Tara with the desperate desire of a frightened child frantic for the only haven it had ever known.
Home! The sprawling white house with fluttering white curtains at the windows, the thick clover on the lawn with the bees busy in it, the little black boy on the front steps shooing the ducks and turkeys from the flower beds, the serene red fields and the miles and miles of cotton turning white in the sun! Home!
If she had only gone home at the beginning of the siege, when everyone else was refugeeing! She could have taken Melanie with her in safety with weeks to spare.
"Oh, damn Melanie!" she thought a thousand times. "Why couldn't she have gone to Macon with Aunt Pitty? That's where she belongs, with her own kinfolks, not with me. I'm none of her blood. Why does she hang onto me so hard? If she 'd only gone to Macon, then I could have gone home to Mother. Even now even now, I'd take a chance on getting home in spite of the Yankees, if it wasn't for this baby. Maybe General Hood would give me an escort. He's a nice man, General Hood, and I know I could make him give me an escort and a flag of truce to get me through the lines. But I have to wait for this baby! . . . Oh, Mother! Mother! Don't die! . . . Why don't this baby ever come? I'll see Dr. Meade today and ask him if there's any way to hurry babies up so I can go home if I can get an escort. Dr. Meade said she 'd have a bad time. Dear God! Suppose she should die! Melanie dead. Melanie dead. And Ashley No, I mustn't think about that, it isn't nice. But Ashley No, I mustn't think about that because he's probably dead, anyway. But he made me promise I'd take care of her. But if I didn't take care of her and she died and Ashley is still alive No, I mustn't think about that. It's sinful. And I promised God I'd be good if He would just not let Mother die. Oh, if the baby would only come. If I could only get away from here get home get anywhere but here."
Scarlett hated the sight of the ominously still town now and once she had loved it. Atlanta was no longer the gay, the desperately gay place she had loved. It was a hideous place like a plague stricken city so quiet, so dreadfully quiet after the din of the siege. There had been stimulation in the noise and the danger of the shelling. There was only horror in the quiet that followed. The town seemed haunted, haunted with fear and uncertainty and memories. People's faces looked pinched and the few soldiers Scarlett saw wore the exhausted look of racers forcing themselves on through the last lap of a race already lost.
The last day of August came and with it convincing rumors that the fiercest fighting since the battle of Atlanta was taking place. Somewhere to the south. Atlanta, waiting for news of the turn of battle, stopped even trying to laugh and joke. Everyone knew now what the soldiers had known two weeks before that Atlanta was in the last ditch, that if the Macon railroad fell, Atlanta would fall too.
On the morning of the first of September, Scarlett awoke with a suffocating sense of dread upon her, a dread she had taken to her pillow the night before. She thought, dulled with sleep: "What was it I was worrying about when I went to bed last night? Oh, yes, the fighting. There was a battle, somewhere, yesterday! Oh, who won?" She sat up hastily, rubbing her eyes, and her worried heart took up yesterday's load again.
The air was oppressive even in the early morning hour, hot with the scorching promise of a noon of glaring blue sky and pitiless bronze sun. The road outside lay silent. No wagons creaked by. No troops raised the red dust with their tramping feet. There were no sounds of negroes' lazy voices in neighboring kitchens, no pleasant sounds of breakfasts being prepared, for all the near neighbors except Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether had refugeed to Macon. And she could hear nothing from their houses either. Farther down the street the business section was quiet and many of the stores and offices were locked and boarded up, while their occupants were somewhere about the countryside with rifles in their hands.
The stillness that greeted her seemed even more sinister this morning than on any of the mornings of the queer quiet week preceding it. She rose hastily, without her usual preliminary burrowings and stretchings, and went to the window, hoping to see some neighbor's face, some heartening sight. But the road was empty. She noted how the leaves on the trees were still dark green but dry and heavily coated with red dust, and how withered and sad the untended flowers in the front yard looked.
As she stood, looking out of the window, there came to her ears a far off sound, faint and sullen as the first distant thunder of an approaching storm.
"Rain," she thought in the first moment, and her country bred mind added, "we certainly need it." But, in a split instant: "Rain? No! Not rain! Cannon!"
Her heart racing, she leaned from the window, her ear cocked to the far off roaring, trying to discover from which direction it came. But the dim thundering was so distant that, for a moment, she could not tell. "Make it from Marietta, Lord!" she prayed. "Or Decatur. Or Peachtree Creek. But not from the south! Not from the south!" She gripped the window still tighter and strained her ears and the far away booming seemed louder. And it was coming from the south.
Cannon to the south! And to the south lay Jonesboro and Tara and Ellen.
Yankees perhaps at Tara, now, this minute! She listened again but the blood thudding in her ears all but blurred out the sound of far off firing. No, they couldn't be at Jonesboro yet. If they were that far away, the sound would be fainter, more indistinct. But they must be at least ten miles down the road toward Jonesboro, probably near the little settlement of Rough and Ready. But Jonesboro was scarcely more than ten miles below Rough and Ready.
Cannon to the south, and they might be tolling the knell of Atlanta's fall. But to Scarlett, sick for her mother's safety, fighting to the south only meant fighting near Tara. She walked the floor and wrung her hands and for the first time the thought in all its implications came to her that the gray army might be defeated. It was the thought of Sherman's thousands so close to Tara that brought it all home to her, brought the full horror of the war to her as no sound of siege guns shattering windowpanes, no privations of food and clothing and no endless rows of dying men had done. Sherman's army within a few miles of Tara! And even if the Yankees should be defeated, they might fall back down the road to Tara. And Gerald couldn't possibly refugee out of their way with three sick women.
Oh, if she were only there now, Yankees or not. She paced the floor in her bare feet, her nightgown clinging to her legs and the more she walked the stronger became her foreboding. She wanted to be at home. She wanted to be near Ellen.
From the kitchen below, she heard the rattle of china as Prissy prepared breakfast, but no sound of Mrs. Meade's Betsy. The shrill, melancholy minor of Prissy was raised, "Jes' a few mo' days, ter tote de wee ry load . . ." The song grated on Scarlett, its sad implications frightening her, and slipping on a wrapper she pattered out into the hall and to the back stairs and shouted: "Shut up that singing, Prissy!"
A sullen "Yas'm" drifted up to her and she drew a deep breath, feeling suddenly ashamed of herself.
"Ah doan know. She ain' came."
Scarlett walked to Melanie's door and opened it a crack, peering into the sunny room. Melanie lay in bed in her nightgown, her eyes closed and circled with black, her heart shaped face bloated, her slender body hideous and distorted. Scarlett wished viciously that Ashley could see her now. She looked worse than any pregnant woman she had ever seen. As she looked, Melanie's eyes opened and a soft warm smile lit her face.
"Come in," she invited, turning awkwardly on her side. "I've been awake since sun up thinking, and, Scarlett, there's something I want to ask you."
She entered the room and sat down on the bed that was glaring with harsh sunshine.
Melanie reached out and took Scarlett's hand in a gentle confiding clasp.
"Dear," she said, "I'm sorry about the cannon. It's toward Jonesboro, isn't it?"
Scarlett said "Um," her heart beginning to beat faster as the thought recurred.
"I know how worried you are. I know you'd have gone home last week when you heard about your mother, if it hadn't been for me. Wouldn't you?"
"Yes," said Scarlett ungraciously.
"Scarlett, darling. You've been so good to me. No sister could have been sweeter or braver. And I love you for it. I'm so sorry I'm in the way."
Scarlett stared. Loved her, did she ? The fool!
"And Scarlett, I've been lying here thinking and I want to ask a very great favor of you." Her clasp tightened. "If I should die, will you take my baby?"
Melanie's eyes were wide and bright with soft urgency.
Scarlett jerked away her hand as fear swamped her. Fear roughened her voice as she spoke.
"Oh, don't be a goose, Melly. You aren't going to die. Every woman thinks she 's going to die with her first baby. I know I did."
"No, you didn't. You've never been afraid of anything. You are just saying that to try to cheer me up. I'm not afraid to die but I'm so afraid to leave the baby, if Ashley is Scarlett, promise me that you'll take my baby if I should die. Then I won't be afraid. Aunt Pittypat is too old to raise a child and Honey and India are sweet but I want you to have my baby. Promise me, Scarlett. And if it's a boy, bring him up like Ashley, and if it's a girl dear, I'd like her to be like you."
"God's nightgown!" cried Scarlett, leaping from the bed. "Aren't things bad enough without you talking about dying?"
"I'm sorry, dear. But promise me. I think it'll be today. I'm sure it'll be today. Please promise me."
"Oh, all right, I promise," said Scarlett, looking down at her in bewilderment.
Was Melanie such a fool she really didn't know how she cared for Ashley? Or did she know everything and feel that because of that love, Scarlett would take good care of Ashley's child? Scarlett had a wild impulse to cry out questions, but they died on her lips as Melanie took her hand and held it for an instant against her cheek. Tranquillity had come back into her eyes.
"Why do you think it will be today, Melly?"
"I've been having pains since dawn but not very bad ones."
"You have? Well, why didn't you call me? I'll send Prissy for Dr. Meade."
"No, don't do that yet, Scarlett. You know how busy he is, how busy they all are. Just send word to him that we'll need him some time today. Send over to Mrs. Meade's and tell her and ask her to come over and sit with me. She'll know when to really send for him."
"Oh, stop being so unselfish. You know you need a doctor as much as anybody in the hospital. I'll send for him right away."
"No, please don't. Sometimes it takes all day having a baby and I just couldn't let the doctor sit here for hours when all those poor boys need him so much. Just send for Mrs. Meade. She'll know."
"Oh, all right," said Scarlett.
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