Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell Page 7
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When she was finally able to go out again, Scarlett had Lou lace her into stays as tightly as the strings would pull. Then she passed the tape measure about her waist. Twenty inches! She groaned aloud. That was what having babies did to your figure! Her waist was a large as Aunt Pitty's, as large as Mammy's.
"Pull them tighter, Lou. See if you can't make it eighteen and a half inches or I can't get into any of my dresses."
"It'll bust de strings," said Lou. "Yo' wais' jes' done got bigger, Miss Scarlett, an' dar ain' nuthin' ter do 'bout it."
"There is something to do about it," thought Scarlett as she ripped savagely at the seams of her dress to let out the necessary inches. "I just won't have any more babies."
Of course, Bonnie was pretty and a credit to her and Rhett adored the child, but she would not have another baby. Just how she would manage this she did not know, for she couldn't handle Rhett as she had Frank. Rhett wasn't afraid of her. It would probably be difficult with Rhett acting so foolishly about Bonnie and probably wanting a son next year, for all that he said he'd drown any boy she gave him. Well, she wouldn't give him a boy or girl either. Three children were enough for any woman to have.
When Lou had stitched up the ripped seams, pressed them smooth and buttoned Scarlett into the dress, she called the carriage and Scarlett set out for the lumber yard. Her spirits rose as she went and she forgot about her waist line, for she was going to meet Ashley at the yard to go over the books with him. And, if she was lucky, she might see him alone. She hadn't seen him since long before Bonnie was born. She hadn't wanted to see him at all when she was so obviously pregnant. And she had missed the daily contact with him, even if there was always someone around. She had missed the importance and activity of her lumber business while she was immured. Of course, she did not have to work now. She could easily sell the mills and invest the money for Wade and Ella. But that would mean she would hardly ever see Ashley, except in a formal social way with crowds of people around. And working by Ashley's side was her greatest pleasure.
When she drove up to the yard she saw with interest how high the piles of lumber were and how many customers were standing among them, talking to Hugh Elsing. And there were six mule teams and wagons being loaded by the negro drivers. Six teams, she thought, with pride. And I did all this by myself!
Ashley came to the door of the little office, his eyes joyful with the pleasure of seeing her again and he handed her out of her carriage and into the office as if she were a queen.
But some of her pleasure was dimmed when she went over the books of his mill and compared them with Johnnie Gallegher's books. Ashley had barely made expenses and Johnnie had a remarkable sum to his credit. She forbore to say anything as she looked at the two sheets but Ashley read her face.
"Scarlett, I'm sorry. All I can say is that I wish you'd let me hire free darkies instead of using convicts. I believe I could do better."
"Darkies! Why, their pay would break us. Convicts are dirt cheap. If Johnnie can make this much with them "
Ashley's eyes went over her shoulder, looking at something she could not see, and the glad light went out of his eyes.
"I can't work convicts like Johnnie Gallegher. I can't drive men."
"God's nightgown! Johnnie's a wonder at it. Ashley, you are just too soft hearted. You ought to get more work out of them. Johnnie told me that any time a malingerer wanted to get out of work he told you he was sick and you gave him a day off. Good Lord, Ashley! That's no way to make money. A couple of licks will cure most any sickness short of a broken leg "
"Scarlett! Scarlett! Stop! I can't bear to hear you talk that way," cried Ashley, his eyes coming back to her with a fierceness that stopped her short. "Don't you realize that they are men some of them sick, underfed, miserable and Oh, my dear, I can't bear to see the way he has brutalized you, you who were always so sweet "
"Who has whatted me?"
"I've got to say it and I haven't any right. But I've got to say it. Your Rhett Butler. Everything he touches he poisons. And he has taken you who were so sweet and generous and gentle, for all your spirited ways, and he has done this to you hardened you, brutalized you by his contact."
"Oh," breathed Scarlett, guilt struggling with joy that Ashley should feel so deeply about her, should still think her sweet. Thank God, he thought Rhett to blame for her penny pinching ways. Of course, Rhett had nothing to do with it and the guilt was hers but, after all, another black mark on Rhett could do him no harm.
"If it were any other man in the world, I wouldn't care so much but Rhett Butler! I've seen what he's done to you. Without your realizing it, he's twisted your thoughts into the same hard path his own run in. Oh, yes, I know I shouldn't say this He saved my life and I am grateful but I wish to God it had been any other man but him! And I haven't the right to talk to you like "
"Oh, Ashley, you have the right no, one else has!"
"I tell you I can't bear it, seeing your fineness coarsened by him, knowing that your beauty and your charm are in the keeping of a man who When I think of him touching you, I "
"He's going to kiss me!" thought Scarlett ecstatically. "And it won't be my fault!" She swayed toward him. But he drew back suddenly, as if realizing he had said too much said things he never intended to say.
"I apologize most humbly, Scarlett. I I've been insinuating that your husband is not a gentleman and my own words have proved that I'm not one. No one has a right to criticize a husband to a wife. I haven't any excuse except except " He faltered and his face twisted. She waited breathless.
"I haven't any excuse at all."
All the way home in the carriage Scarlett's mind raced. No excuse at all except except that he loved her! And the thought of her lying in Rhett's arms roused a fury in him that she did not think possible. Well, she could understand that. If it wasn't for the knowledge that his relations with Melanie were, necessarily, those of brother and sister, her own life would be a torment. And Rhett's embraces coarsened her, brutalized her! Well, if Ashley thought that, she could do very well without those embraces. She thought how sweet and romantic it would be for them both to be physically true to each other, even though married to other people. The idea possessed her imagination and she took pleasure in it. And then, too, there was the practical side of it. It would mean that she would not have to have any more children.
When she reached home and dismissed the carriage, some of the exaltation which had filled her at Ashley's words began to fade as she faced the prospect of telling Rhett that she wanted separate bedrooms and all which that implied. It would be difficult. Moreover, how could she tell Ashley that she had denied herself to Rhett, because of his wishes? What earthly good was a sacrifice if no one knew about it? What a burden modesty and delicacy were! If she could only talk to Ashley as frankly as she could to Rhett! Well, no matter. She'd insinuate the truth to Ashley somehow.
She went up the stairs and, opening the nursery door, found Rhett sitting beside Bonnie's crib with Ella upon his lap and Wade displaying the contents of his pocket to him. What a blessing Rhett liked children and made much of them! Some stepfathers were so bitter about children of former marriages.
"I want to talk to you," she said and passed on into their bedroom. Better have this over now while her determination not to have any more children was hot within her and while Ashley's love was giving her strength.
"Rhett," she said abruptly when he had closed the bedroom door behind him, "I've decided that I don't want any more children."
If he was startled at her unexpected statement he did not show it. He lounged to a chair and sitting down, tilted it back.
"My pet, as I told you before Bonnie was born, it is immaterial to me whether you have one child or twenty."
How perverse of him to evade the issue so neatly, as if not caring whether children came had anything to do with their actual arrival.
"I think three are enough. I don't intend to have one every year."
"Three seems an adequate number."
"You know very well " she began, embarrassment making her cheeks red. "You know what I mean?"
"I do. Do you realize that I can divorce you for refusing me my marital rights?"
"You are just low enough to think of something like that," she cried, annoyed that nothing was going as she planned it. "If you had any chivalry you'd you'd be nice like Well, look at Ashley Wilkes. Melanie can't have any children and he "
"Quite the little gentleman, Ashley," said Rhett and his eyes began to gleam oddly. "Pray go on with your discourse."
Scarlett choked, for her discourse was at its end and she had nothing more to say. Now she saw how foolish had been her hope of amicably settling so important a matter, especially with a selfish swine like Rhett.
"You've been to the lumber office this afternoon, haven't you?"
"What has that to do with it?"
"You like dogs, don't you, Scarlett? Do you prefer them in kennels or mangers?"
The allusion was lost on her as the tide of her anger and disappointment rose.
He got lightly to his feet and coming to her put his hand under her chin and jerked her face up to his.
"What a child you are! You have lived with three men and still know nothing of men's natures. You seem to think they are like old ladies past the change of life."
He pinched her chin playfully and his hand dropped away from her. One black eyebrow went up as he bent a cool long look on her.
"Scarlett, understand this. If you and your bed still held any charms for me, no looks and no entreaties could keep me away. And I would have no sense of shame for anything I did, for I made a bargain with you a bargain which I have kept and you are now breaking. Keep your chaste bed, my dear."
"Do you mean to tell me," cried Scarlett indignantly, "that you don't care "
"You have tired of me, haven't you? Well, men tire more easily than women. Keep your sanctity, Scarlett. It will work no hardship on me. It doesn't matter," he shrugged and grinned. "Fortunately the world is full of beds and most of the beds are full of women."
"You mean you'd actually be so "
"My dear innocent! But, of course. It's a wonder I haven't strayed long ere this. I never held fidelity to be a Virtue."
"I shall lock my door every night!"
"Why bother? If I wanted you, no lock would keep me out."
He turned, as though the subject were closed, and left the room. Scarlett heard him going back to the nursery where he was welcomed by the children. She sat down abruptly. She had had her way. This was what she wanted and Ashley wanted. But it was not making her happy. Her vanity was sore and she was mortified at the thought that Rhett had taken it all so lightly, that he didn't want her, that he put her on the level of other women in other beds.
She wished she could think of some delicate way to tell Ashley that she and Rhett were no longer actually man and wife. But she knew now she could not. It all seemed a terrible mess now and she half heartedly wished she had said nothing about it. She would miss the long amusing conversations in bed with Rhett when the ember of his cigar glowed in the dark. She would miss the comfort of his arms when she woke terrified from the dreams that she was running through cold mist.
Suddenly she felt very unhappy and leaning her head on the arm of the chair, she cried.
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|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
One rainy afternoon when Bonnie was barely past her first birthday, Wade moped about the sitting room, occasionally going to the window and flattening his nose on the dripping pane. He was a slender, weedy boy, small for his eight years, quiet almost to shyness, never speaking unless spoken to. He was bored and obviously at loss for entertainment, for Ella was busy in the corner with her dolls, Scarlett was at her secretary muttering to herself as she added a long column of figures, and Rhett was lying on the floor, swinging his watch by its chain, just out of Bonnie's reach.
After Wade had picked up several books and let them drop with bangs and sighed deeply, Scarlett turned to him in irritation.
"Heavens, Wade! Run out and play."
"I can't. It's raining."
"Is it? I hadn't noticed. Well, do something. You make me nervous, fidgeting about. Go tell Pork to hitch up the carriage and take you over to play with Beau."
"He isn't home," sighed Wade. "He's at Raoul Picard's birthday party."
Raoul was the small son of Maybelle and Rene Picard a detestable little brat, Scarlett thought, more like an ape than a child.
"Well, you can go to see anyone you want to. Run tell Pork."
"Nobody's at home," answered Wade. "Everybody's at the party."
The unspoken words "everybody but me" hung in the air; but Scarlett, her mind on her account books, paid no heed.
Rhett raised himself to a sitting posture and said: "Why aren't you at the party too, son?"
Wade edged closer to him, scuffing one foot and looking unhappy.
"I wasn't invited, sir."
Rhett handed his watch into Bonnie's destructive grasp and rose lightly to his feet.
"Leave those damned figures alone, Scarlett. Why wasn't Wade invited to this party?"
"For Heaven's sake, Rhett! Don't bother me now. Ashley has gotten these accounts in an awful snarl Oh, that party? Well, I think it's nothing unusual that Wade wasn't invited and I wouldn't let him go if he had been. Don't forget that Raoul is Mrs. Merriwether's grandchild and Mrs. Merriwether would as soon have a free issue nigger in her sacred parlor as one of us."
Rhett, watching Wade's face with meditative eyes, saw the boy flinch.
"Come here, son," he said, drawing the boy to him. "Would you like to be at that party?"
"No, sir," said Wade bravely but his eyes fell.
"Hum. Tell me, Wade, do you go to little Joe Whiting's parties or Frank Bonnell's or well, any of your playmates?"
"No, sir. I don't get invited to many parties."
"Wade, you are lying!" cried Scarlett, turning. "You went to three last week, the Bart children's party and the Gelerts' and the Hundons'."
"As choice a collection of mules in horse harness as you could group together," said Rhett, his voice going into a soft drawl. "Did you have a good time at those parties? Speak up."
"I I dunno, sir. Mammy Mammy says they're white trash."
"I'll skin Mammy this minute!" cried Scarlett, leaping to her feet. "And as for you, Wade, talking so about Mother's friends "
"The boy's telling the truth and so is Mammy," said Rhett. "But, of course, you've never been able to know the truth if you met it in the road. . . . Don't bother, son. You don't have to go to any more parties you don't want to go to. Here," he pulled a bill from his pocket, "tell Pork to harness the carriage and take you downtown. Buy yourself some candy a lot, enough to give you a wonderful stomach ache."
Wade, beaming, pocketed the bill and looked anxiously toward his mother for confirmation. But she, with a pucker in her brows, was watching Rhett. He had picked Bonnie from the floor and was cradling her to him, her small face against his cheek. She could not read his face but there was something in his eyes almost like fear fear and self accusation.
Wade, encouraged by his stepfather's generosity, came shyly toward him.
"Uncle Rhett, can I ask you sumpin'?"
"Of course." Rhett's look was anxious, absent, as he held Bonnie's head closer. "What is it, Wade?"
"Uncle Rhett, were you did you fight in the war?"
Rhett's eyes came alertly back and they were sharp, but his voice was casual.
"Why do you ask, son?"
"Well, Joe Whiting said you didn't and so did Frankie Bonnell."
"Ah," said Rhett, "and what did you tell them?"
Wade looked unhappy.
"I I said I told them I didn't know." And with a rush, "But I didn't care and I hit them. Were you in the war, Uncle Rhett?"
"Yes," said Rhett, suddenly violent. "I was in the war. I was in the army for eight months. I fought all the way from Lovejoy up to Franklin, Tennessee. And I was with Johnston when he surrendered."
Wade wriggled with pride but Scarlett laughed.
"I thought you were ashamed of your war record," she said. "Didn't you tell me to keep it quiet?"
"Hush," he said briefly. "Does that satisfy you, Wade?"
"Oh, yes, sir! I knew you were in the war. I knew you weren't scared like they said. But why weren't you with the other little boys' fathers?"
"Because the other little boys' fathers were such fools they had to put them in the infantry. I was a West Pointer and so I was in the artillery. In the regular artillery, Wade, not the Home Guard. It takes a pile of sense to be in the artillery, Wade."
"I bet," said Wade, his face shining. "Did you get wounded, Uncle Rhett?"
"Tell him about your dysentery," jeered Scarlett.
Rhett carefully set the baby on the floor and pulled his shirt and undershirt out of his trouser band.
"Come here, Wade, and I'll show you where I was wounded."
Wade advanced, excited, and gazed where Rhett's finger pointed. A long raised scar ran across his brown chest and down into his heavily muscled abdomen. It was the souvenir of a knife fight in the California gold fields but Wade did not know it. He breathed heavily and happily.
"I guess you're 'bout as brave as my father, Uncle Rhett."
"Almost but not quite," said Rhett, stuffing his shirt into his trousers. "Now, go on and spend your dollar and whale hell out of any boy who says I wasn't in the army."
Wade went dancing out happily, calling to Pork, and Rhett picked up the baby again.
"Now why all these lies, my gallant soldier laddie?" asked Scarlett.
"A boy has to be proud of his father or stepfather. I can't let him be ashamed before the other little brutes. Cruel creatures, children."
"Oh, fiddle dee dee!"
"I never thought about what it meant to Wade," said Rhett slowly. "I never thought how he's suffered. And it's not going to be that way for Bonnie."
"Do you think I'm going to have my Bonnie ashamed of her father? Have her left out of parties when she's nine or ten? Do you think I'm going to have her humiliated like Wade for things that aren't her fault but yours and mine?"
"Oh, children's parties!"
"Out of children's parties grow young girls' debut parties. Do you think I'm going to let my daughter grow up outside of everything decent in Atlanta? I'm not going to send her North to school and to visit because she won't be accepted here or in Charleston or Savannah or New Orleans. And I'm not going to see her forced to marry a Yankee or a foreigner because no decent Southern family will have her because her mother was a fool and her father a blackguard."
Wade, who had come back to the door, was an interested but puzzled listener.
"Bonnie can marry Beau, Uncle Rhett."
The anger went from Rhett's face as he turned to the little boy, and he considered his words with apparent seriousness as he always did when dealing with the children.
"That's true, Wade. Bonnie can marry Beau Wilkes, but who will you marry?"
"Oh, I shan't marry anyone," said Wade confidently, luxuriating in a man to man talk with the one person, except Aunt Melly, who never reproved and always encouraged him. "I'm going to go to Harvard and be a lawyer, like my father, and then I'm going to be a brave soldier just like him."
"I wish Melly would keep her mouth shut," cried Scarlett. "Wade, you are not going to Harvard. It's a Yankee school and I won't have you going to a Yankee school. You are going to the University of Georgia and after you graduate you are going to manage the store for me. And as for your father being a brave soldier "
"Hush," said Rhett curtly, not missing the shining light in Wade's eyes when he spoke of the father he had never known. "You grow up and be a brave man like your father, Wade. Try to be just like him, for he was a hero and don't let anyone tell you differently. He married your mother, didn't he? Well, that's proof enough of heroism. And I'll see that you go to Harvard and become a lawyer. Now, run along and tell Pork to take you to town."
"I'll thank you to let me manage my children," cried Scarlett as Wade obediently trotted from the room.
"You're a damned poor manager. You've wrecked whatever chances Ella and Wade had, but I won't permit you to do Bonnie that way. Bonnie's going to be a little princess and everyone in the world is going to want her. There's not going to be any place she can't go. Good God, do you think I'm going to let her grow up and associate with the riffraff that fills this house?"
"They are good enough for you "
"And a damned sight too good for you, my pet. But not for Bonnie. Do you think I'd let her marry any of this runagate gang you spend your time with? Irishmen on the make, Yankees, white trash, Carpetbag parvenus My Bonnie with her Butler blood and her Robillard strain "
"The O'Haras "
"The O'Haras might have been kings of Ireland once but your father was nothing but a smart Mick on the make. And you are no better But then, I'm at fault too. I've gone through life like a bat out of hell, never caring what I did, because nothing ever mattered to me. But Bonnie matters. God, what a fool I've been! Bonnie wouldn't be received in Charleston, no matter what my mother or your Aunt Eulalie or Aunt Pauline did and it's obvious that she won't be received here unless we do something quickly "
"Oh, Rhett, you take it so seriously you're funny. With our money "
"Damn our money! All our money can't buy what I want for her. I'd rather Bonnie was invited to eat dry bread in the Picards' miserable house or Mrs. Elsing's rickety barn than to be the belle of a Republican inaugural ball. Scarlett, you've been a fool. You should have insured a place for your children in the social scheme years ago but you didn't. You didn't even bother to keep what position you had. And it's too much to hope that you'll mend your ways at this late date. You're too anxious to make money and too fond of bullying people."
"I consider this whole affair a tempest in a teapot," said Scarlett coldly, rattling her papers to indicate that as far as she was concerned the discussion was finished.
"We have only Mrs. Wilkes to help us and you do your best to alienate and insult her. Oh, spare me your remarks about her poverty and her tacky clothes. She's the soul and the center of everything in Atlanta that's sterling. Thank God for her. She'll help me do something about it."
"And what are you going to do?"
"Do? I'm going to cultivate every female dragon of the Old Guard in this town, especially Mrs. Merriwether, Mrs. Elsing, Mrs. Whiting and Mrs. Meade. If I have to crawl on my belly to every fat old cat who hates me, I'll do it. I'll be meek under their coldness and repentant of my evil ways. I'll contribute to their damned charities and I'll go to their damned churches. I'll admit and brag about my services to the Confederacy and, if worst comes to worst, I'll join their damned Klan though a merciful God could hardly lay so heavy a penance on my shoulders as that. And I shall not hesitate to remind the fools whose necks I saved that they owe me a debt. And you, Madam, will kindly refrain from undoing my work behind my back and foreclosing mortgages on any of the people I'm courting or selling them rotten lumber or in other ways insulting them. And Governor Bullock never sets foot in this house again. Do you hear? And none of this gang of elegant thieves you've been associating with, either. If you do invite them, over my request, you will find yourself in the embarrassing position of having no host in your home. If they come in this house, I will spend the time in Belle Watling's bar telling anyone who cares to hear that I won't stay under the same roof with them."
Scarlett, who had been smarting under his words, laughed shortly.
"So the river boat gambler and the speculator is going to be respectable! Well, your first move toward respectability had better be the sale of Belle Watling's house."
That was a shot in the dark. She had never been absolutely certain that Rhett owned the house. He laughed suddenly, as though he read her mind.
"Thanks for the suggestion."
Had he tried, Rhett could not have chosen a more difficult time to beat his way back to respectability. Never before or after did the names Republican and Scallawag carry such odium, for now the corruption of the Carpet bag regime was at its height. And, since the surrender, Rhett's name had been inextricably linked with Yankees, Republicans and Scallawags.
Atlanta people had thought, with helpless fury, in 1866, that nothing could be worse than the harsh military rule they had then, but now, under Bullock, they were learning the worst. Thanks to the negro vote, the Republicans and their allies were firmly entrenched and they were riding rough shod over the powerless but still protesting minority.
Word had been spread among the negroes that there were only two political parties mentioned in the Bible, the Publicans and the Sinners. No negro wanted to join a party made up entirely of sinners, so they hastened to join the Republicans. Their new masters voted them over and over again, electing poor whites and Scallawags to high places, electing even some negroes. These negroes sat in the legislature where they spent most of their time eating goobers and easing their unaccustomed feet into and out of new shoes. Few of them could read or write. They were fresh from cotton patch and canebrake, but it was within their power to vote taxes and bonds as well as enormous expense accounts to themselves and their Republican friends. And they voted them. The state staggered under taxes which were paid in fury, for the taxpayers knew that much of the money voted for public purposes was finding its way into private pockets.
Completely surrounding the state capitol was a host of promoters, speculators, seekers after contracts and others hoping to profit from the orgy of spending, and many were growing shamelessly rich. They had no difficulty at all in obtaining the state's money for building railroads that were never built, for buying cars and engines that were never bought, for erecting public buildings that never existed except in the minds of their promoters.
Bonds were issued running into the millions. Most of them were illegal and fraudulent but they were issued just the same. The state treasurer, a Republican but an honest man, protested against the illegal issues and refused to sign them, but he and others who sought to check the abuses could do nothing against the tide that was running.
The state owned railroad had once been an asset to the state but now it was a liability and its debts had piled up to the million mark. It was no longer a railroad. It was an enormous bottomless trough in which the hogs could swill and wallow. Many of its officials were appointed for political reasons, regardless of their knowledge of the operation of railroads, there were three times as many people employed as were necessary, Republicans rode free on passes, carloads of negroes rode free on their happy jaunts about the state to vote and revote in the same elections.
The mismanagement of the state road especially infuriated the taxpayers for, out of the earnings of the road, was to come the money for free schools. But there were no earnings, there were only debts, and so there were no free schools and there was a generation of children growing up in ignorance who would spread the seeds of illiteracy down the years.
But far and above their anger at the waste and mismanagement and graft was the resentment of the people at the bad light in which the governor represented them in the North. When Georgia howled against corruption, the governor hastily went North, appeared before Congress and told of white outrages against negroes, of Georgia's preparation for another rebellion and the need for a stern military rule in the state. No Georgian wanted trouble with the negroes and they tried to avoid trouble. No one wanted another war, no one wanted or needed bayonet rule. All Georgia wanted was to be let alone so the state could recuperate. But with the operation of what came to be known as the governor's "slander mill," the North saw only a rebellious state that needed a heavy hand, and a heavy hand was laid upon it.
It was a glorious spree for the gang which had Georgia by the throat. There was an orgy of grabbing and over all there was a cold cynicism about open theft in high places that was chilling to contemplate. Protests and efforts to resist accomplished nothing, for the state government was being upheld and supported by the power of the United States Army.
Atlanta cursed the name of Bullock and his Scallawags and Republicans and they cursed the name of anyone connected with them. And Rhett was connected with them. He had been in with them, so everyone said, in all their schemes. But now, he turned against the stream in which he had drifted so short a while before, and began swimming arduously back against the current.
He went about his campaign slowly, subtly, not arousing the suspicions of Atlanta by the spectacle of a leopard trying to change his spots overnight. He avoided his dubious cronies and was seen no more in the company of Yankee officers, Scallawags and Republicans. He attended Democratic rallies and he ostentatiously voted the Democratic ticket. He gave up high stake card games and stayed comparatively sober. If he went to Belle Watling's house at all, he went by night and by stealth as did more respectable townsmen, instead of leaving his horse hitched in front of her door in the afternoons as an advertisement of his presence within.
And the congregation of the Episcopal Church almost fell out of their pews when he tiptoed in, late for services, with Wade's hand held in his. The congregation was as much stunned by Wade's appearance as by Rhett's, for the little boy was supposed to be a Catholic. At least, Scarlett was one. Or she was supposed to be one. But she had not put foot in the church in years, for religion had gone from her as many of Ellen's other teachings had gone. Everyone thought she had neglected her boy's religious education and thought more of Rhett for trying to rectify the matter, even if he did take the boy to the Episcopal Church instead of the Catholic.
Rhett could be grave of manner and charming when he chose to restrain his tongue and keep his black eyes from dancing maliciously. It had been years since he had chosen to do this but he did it now, putting on gravity and charm, even as he put on waistcoats of more sober hues. It was not difficult to gain a foothold of friendliness with the men who owed their necks to him. They would have showed their appreciation long ago, had Rhett not acted as if their appreciation were a matter of small moment. Now, Hugh Elsing, Rene, the Simmons boys, Andy Bonnell and the others found him pleasant, diffident about putting himself forward and embarrassed when they spoke of the obligation they owed him.
"It was nothing," he would protest. "In my place you'd have all done the same thing."
He subscribed handsomely to the fund for the repairs of the Episcopal Church and he gave a large, but not vulgarly large, contribution to the Association for the Beautification of the Graves of Our Glorious Dead. He sought out Mrs. Elsing to make this donation and embarrassedly begged that she keep his gift a secret, knowing very well that this would spur her to spreading the news. Mrs. Elsing hated to take his money "speculator money" but the Association needed money badly.
"I don't see why you of all people should be subscribing," she said acidly.
When Rhett told her with the proper sober mien that he was moved to contribute by the memories of former comrades in arms, braver than he but less fortunate, who now lay in unmarked graves, Mrs. Elsing's aristocratic jaw dropped. Dolly Merriwether had told her Scarlett had said Captain Butler was in the army but, of course, she hadn't believed it. Nobody had believed it.
"You in the army? What was your company your regiment?"
Rhett gave them.
"Oh, the artillery! Everyone I knew was either in the cavalry or the infantry. Then, that explains " She broke off, disconcerted, expecting to see his eyes snap with malice. But he only looked down and toyed with his watch chain.
"I would have liked the infantry," he said, passing completely over her insinuation, "but when they found that I was a West Pointer though I did not graduate, Mrs. Elsing, due to a boyish prank they put me in the artillery, the regular artillery, not the militia. They needed men with specialized knowledge in that last campaign. You know how heavy the losses had been, so many artillerymen killed. It was pretty lonely in the artillery. I didn't see a soul I knew. I don't believe I saw a single man from Atlanta during my whole service."
"Well!" said Mrs. Elsing, confused. If he had been in the army then she was wrong. She had made many sharp remarks about his cowardice and the memory of them made her feel guilty. "Well! And why haven't you ever told anybody about your service? You act as though you were ashamed of it."
Rhett looked her squarely in the eyes, his face blank.
"Mrs. Elsing," he said earnestly, "believe me when I say that I am prouder of my services to the Confederacy than of anything I have ever done or will do. I feel I feel "
"Well, why did you keep it hidden?"
"I was ashamed to speak of it, in the light of of some of my former actions."
Mrs. Elsing reported the contribution and the conversation in detail to Mrs. Merriwether.
"And, Dolly, I give you my word that when he said that about being ashamed, tears came into his eyes! Yes, tears! I nearly cried myself."
"Stuff and nonsense!" cried Mrs. Merriwether in disbelief. "I don't believe tears came into his eyes any more than I believe he was in the army. And I can find out mighty quick. If he was in that artillery outfit, I can get at the truth, for Colonel Carleton who commanded it married the daughter of one of my grandfather's sisters and I'll write him."
She wrote Colonel Carlton and to her consternation received a reply praising Rhett's services in no uncertain terms. A born artilleryman, a brave soldier and an uncomplaining gentleman, a modest man who wouldn't even take a commission when it was offered him.
"Well!" said Mrs. Merriwether showing the letter to Mrs. Elsing. "You can knock me down with a feather! Maybe we did misjudge the scamp about not being a soldier. Maybe we should have believed what Scarlett and Melanie said about him enlisting the day the town fell. But, just the same, he's a Scallawag and a rascal and I don't like him!"
"Somehow," said Mrs. Elsing uncertainly, "somehow, I don't think he's so bad. A man who fought for the Confederacy can't be all bad. It's Scarlett who is the bad one. Do you know, Dolly, I really believe that he well, he's ashamed of Scarlett but is too much of a gentleman to let on."
"Ashamed! Pooh! They're both cut out of the same piece of cloth. Where did you ever get such a silly notion?"
"It isn't silly," said Mrs. Elsing indignantly. "Yesterday, in the pouring rain, he had those three children, even the baby, mind you, out in his carriage riding them up and down Peachtree Street and he gave me a lift home. And when I said: 'Captain Butler, have you lost your mind keeping these children out in the damp? Why don't you take them home?' And he didn't say a word but just looked embarrassed. But Mammy spoke up and said: 'De house full of w'ite trash an' it healthier fer de chillun in de rain dan at home!'"
"What did he say?"
"What could he say? He just scowled at Mammy and passed it over. You know Scarlett was giving a big whist party yesterday afternoon with all those common ordinary women there. I guess he didn't want them kissing his baby."
"Well!" said Mrs. Merriwether, wavering but still obstinate. But the next week she, too, capitulated.
Rhett now had a desk in the bank. What he did at this desk the bewildered officials of the bank did not know, but he owned too large a block of the stock for them to protest his presence there. After a while they forgot that they had objected to him for he was quiet and well mannered and actually knew something about banking and investments. At any rate he sat at his desk all day, giving every appearance of industry, for he wished to be on equal terms with his respectable fellow townsmen who worked and worked hard.
Mrs. Merriwether, wishing to expand her growing bakery, had tried to borrow two thousand dollars from the bank with her house as security. She had been refused because there were already two mortgages on the house. The stout old lady was storming out of the bank when Rhett stopped her, learned the trouble and said, worriedly: "But there must be some mistake, Mrs. Merriwether. Some dreadful mistake. You of all people shouldn't have to bother about collateral. Why, I'd lend you money just on your word! Any lady who could build up the business you've built up is the best risk in the world. The bank wants to lend money to people like you. Now, do sit down right here in my chair and I will attend to it for you."
When he came back he was smiling blandly, saying that there had been a mistake, just as he had thought. The two thousand dollars was right there waiting for her whenever she cared to draw against it. Now, about her house would she just sign right here?
Mrs. Merriwether, torn with indignation and insult, furious that she had to take this favor from a man she disliked and distrusted, was hardly gracious in her thanks.
But he failed to notice it. As he escorted her to the door, he said: "Mrs. Merriwether, I have always had a great regard for your knowledge and I wonder if you could tell me something?"
The plumes on her bonnet barely moved as she nodded.
"What did you do when your Maybelle was little and she sucked her thumb?"
"My Bonnie sucks her thumb. I can't make her stop it."
"You should make her stop it," said Mrs. Merriwether vigorously. "It will ruin the shape of her mouth."
"I know! I know! And she has a beautiful mouth. But I don't know what to do."
"Well, Scarlett ought to know," said Mrs. Merriwether shortly. "She's had two other children."
Rhett looked down at his shoes and sighed.
"I've tried putting soap under her finger nails," he said, passing over her remark about Scarlett.
"Soap! Bah! Soap is no good at all. I put quinine on Maybelle's thumb and let me tell you, Captain Butler, she stopped sucking that thumb mighty quick."
"Quinine! I would never have thought of it! I can't thank you enough, Mrs. Merriwether. It was worrying me."
He gave her a smile, so pleasant, so grateful that Mrs. Merriwether stood uncertainly for a moment. But as she told him good by she was smiling too. She hated to admit to Mrs. Elsing that she had misjudged the man but she was an honest person and she said there had to be something good about a man who loved his child. What a pity Scarlett took no interest in so pretty a creature as Bonnie! There was something pathetic about a man trying to raise a little girl all by himself! Rhett knew very well the pathos of the spectacle, and if it blackened Scarlett's reputation he did not care.
From the time the child could walk he took her about with him constantly, in the carriage or in front of his saddle. When he came home from the bank in the afternoon, he took her walking down Peachtree Street, holding her hand, slowing his long strides to her toddling steps, patiently answering her thousand questions. People were always in their front yards or on their porches at sunset and, as Bonnie was such a friendly, pretty child, with her tangle of black curls and her bright blue eyes, few could resist talking to her. Rhett never presumed on these conversations but stood by, exuding fatherly pride and gratification at the notice taken of his daughter.
Atlanta had a long memory and was suspicious and slow to change. Times were hard and feeling was bitter against anyone who had had anything to do with Bullock and his crowd. But Bonnie had the combined charm of Scarlett and Rhett at their best and she was the small opening wedge Rhett drove into the wall of Atlanta's coldness.
Bonnie grew rapidly and every day it became more evident that Gerald O'Hara had been her grandfather. She had short sturdy legs and wide eyes of Irish blue and a small square jaw that went with a determination to have her own way. She had Gerald's sudden temper to which she gave vent in screaming tantrums that were forgotten as soon as her wishes were gratified. And as long as her father was near her, they were always gratified hastily. He spoiled her despite all the efforts of Mammy and Scarlett, for in all things she pleased him, except one. And that was her fear of the dark.
Until she was two years old she went to sleep readily in the nursery she shared with Wade and Ella. Then, for no apparent reason, she began to sob whenever Mammy waddled out of the room, carrying the lamp. From this she progressed to wakening in the late night hours, screaming with terror, frightening the other two children and alarming the house. Once Dr. Meade had to be called and Rhett was short with him when he diagnosed only bad dreams. All anyone could get from her was one word, "Dark."
Scarlett was inclined to be irritated with the child and favored a spanking. She would not humor her by leaving a lamp burning in the nursery, for then Wade and Ella would be unable to sleep. Rhett, worried but gentle, attempting to extract further information from his daughter, said coldly that if any spanking were done, he would do it personally and to Scarlett.
The upshot of the situation was that Bonnie was removed from the nursery to the room Rhett now occupied alone. Her small bed was placed beside his large one and a shaded lamp burned on the table all night long. The town buzzed when this story got about. Somehow, there was something indelicate about a girl child sleeping in her father's room, even though the girl was only two years old. Scarlett suffered from this gossip in two ways. First, it proved indubitably that she and her husband occupied separate rooms, in itself a shocking enough state of affairs. Second, everyone thought that if the child was afraid to sleep alone, her place was with her mother. And Scarlett did not feel equal to explaining that she could not sleep in a lighted room nor would Rhett permit the child to sleep with her.
"You'd never wake up unless she screamed and then you'd probably slap her," he said shortly.
Scarlett was annoyed at the weight he attached to Bonnie's night terrors but she thought she could eventually remedy the state of affairs and transfer the child back to the nursery. All children were afraid of the dark and the only cure was firmness. Rhett was just being perverse in the matter, making her appear a poor mother, just to pay her back for banishing him from her room.
He had never put foot in her room or even rattled the door knob since the night she told him she did not want any more children. Thereafter and until he began staying at home on account of Bonnie's fears, he had been absent from the supper table more often than he had been present. Sometimes he had stayed out all night and Scarlett, lying awake behind her locked door, hearing the clock count off the early morning hours, wondered where he was. She remembered: "There are other beds, my dear!" Though the thought made her writhe, there was nothing she could do about it. There was nothing she could say that would not precipitate a scene in which he would be sure to remark upon her locked door and the probable connection Ashley had with it. Yes, his foolishness about Bonnie sleeping in a lighted room in his lighted room was just a mean way of paying her back.
She did not realize the importance he attached to Bonnie's foolishness nor the completeness of his devotion to the child until one dreadful night. The family never forgot that night.
That day Rhett had met an ex blockade runner and they had had much to say to each other. Where they had gone to talk and drink, Scarlett did not know but she suspected, of course, Belle Watling's house. He did not come home in the afternoon to take Bonnie walking nor did he come home to supper. Bonnie, who had watched from the window impatiently all afternoon, anxious to display a mangled collection of beetles and roaches to her father, had finally been put to bed by Lou, amid wails and protests.
Either Lou had forgotten to light the lamp or it had burned out. No one ever knew exactly what happened but when Rhett finally came home, somewhat the worse for drink, the house was in an uproar and Bonnie's screams reached him even in the stables. She had waked in darkness and called for him and he had not been there. All the nameless horrors that peopled her small imagination clutched her. All the soothing and bright lights brought by Scarlett and the servants could not quiet her and Rhett, coming up the stairs three at a jump, looked like a man who has seen Death.
When he finally had her in his arms and from her sobbing gasps had recognized only one word, "Dark," he turned on Scarlett and the negroes in fury.
"Who put out the light? Who left her alone in the dark? Prissy, I'll skin you for this, you "
"Gawdlmighty, Mist' Rhett! 'Twarn't me! 'Twuz Lou!"
"Fo' Gawd, Mist' Rhett, Ah "
"Shut up. You know my orders. By God, I'll get out. Don't come back. Scarlett, give her some money and see that she's gone before I come down stairs. Now, everybody get out, everybody!"
The negroes fled, the luckless Lou wailing into her apron. But Scarlett remained. It was hard to see her favorite child quieting in Rhett's arms when she had screamed so pitifully in her own. It was hard to see the small arms going around his neck and hear the choking voice relate what had frightened her, when she, Scarlett, had gotten nothing coherent out of her.
"So it sat on your chest," said Rhett softly. "Was it a big one?"
"Oh, yes! Dretfull big. And claws."
"Ah, claws, too. Well, now. I shall certainly sit up all night and shoot him if he comes back." Rhett's voice was interested and soothing and Bonnie's sobs died away. Her voice became less choked as she went into detailed description of her monster guest in a language which only he could understand. Irritation stirred in Scarlett as Rhett discussed the matter as if it had been something real.
"For Heaven's sake, Rhett "
But he made a sign for silence. When Bonnie was at last asleep, he laid her in her bed and pulled up the sheet.
"I'm going to skin that nigger alive," he said quietly. "It's your fault too. Why didn't you come up here to see if the light was burning?"
"Don't be a fool, Rhett," she whispered. "She gets this way because you humor her. Lots of children are afraid of the dark but they get over it. Wade was afraid but I didn't pamper him. If you'd just let her scream for a night or two "
"Let her scream!" For a moment Scarlett thought he would hit her. "Either you are a fool or the most inhuman woman I've ever seen."
"I don't want her to grow up nervous and cowardly."
"Cowardly? Hell's afire! There isn't a cowardly bone in her body! But you haven't any imagination and, of course, you can't appreciate the tortures of people who have one especially a child. If something with claws and horns came and sat on your chest, you'd tell it to get the hell off you, wouldn't you? Like hell you would. Kindly remember, Madam, that I've seen you wake up squalling like a scalded cat simply because you dreamed of running in a fog. And that's not been so long ago either!"
Scarlett was taken aback, for she never liked to think of that dream. Moreover, it embarrassed her to remember that Rhett had comforted her in much the same manner he comforted Bonnie. So she swung rapidly to a different attack.
"You are just humoring her and "
"And I intend to keep on humoring her. If I do, she'll outgrow it and forget about it."
"Then," said Scarlett acidly, "if you intend to play nursemaid, you might try coming home nights and sober too, for a change."
"I shall come home early but drunk as a fiddler's bitch if I please."
He did come home early thereafter, arriving long before time for Bonnie to be put to bed. He sat beside her, holding her hand until sleep loosened her grasp. Only then did he tiptoe downstairs, leaving the lamp burning brightly and the door ajar so he might hear her should she awake and become frightened. Never again did he intend her to have a recurrence of fear of the dark. The whole household was acutely conscious of the burning light, Scarlett, Mammy, Prissy and Pork, frequently tiptoeing upstairs to make sure that it still burned.
He came home sober too, but that was none of Scarlett's doing. For months he had been drinking heavily, though he was never actually drunk, and one evening the smell of whisky was especially strong upon his breath. He picked up Bonnie, swung her to his shoulder and asked her: "Have you a kiss for your sweetheart?"
She wrinkled her small upturned nose and wriggled to get down from his arms.
"No," she said frankly. "Nasty."
"Smell nasty. Uncle Ashley don't smell nasty."
"Well, I'll be damned," he said ruefully, putting her on the floor. "I never expected to find a temperance advocate in my own home, of all places!"
But, thereafter, he limited his drinking to a glass of wine after supper. Bonnie, who was always permitted to have the last drops in the glass, did not think the smell of wine nasty at all. As the result, the puffiness which had begun to obscure the hard lines of his cheeks slowly disappeared and the circles beneath his black eyes were not so dark or so harshly cut. Because Bonnie liked to ride on the front of his saddle, he stayed out of doors more and the sunburn began to creep across his dark face, making him swarthier than ever. He looked healthier and laughed more and was again like the dashing young blockader who had excited Atlanta early in the war.
People who had never liked him came to smile as he went by with the small figure perched before him on his saddle. Women who had heretofore believed that no woman was safe with him, began to stop and talk with him on the streets, to admire Bonnie. Even the strictest old ladies felt that a man who could discuss the ailments and problems of childhood as well as he did could not be altogether bad.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
It was Ashley's birthday and Melanie was giving him a surprise reception that night. Everyone knew about the reception, except Ashley. Even Wade and little Beau knew and were sworn to secrecy that puffed them up with pride. Everyone in Atlanta who was nice had been invited and was coming. General Gordon and his family had graciously accepted, Alexander Stephens would be present if his ever uncertain health permitted and even Bob Toombs, the stormy petrel of the Confederacy, was expected.
All that morning, Scarlett, with Melanie, India and Aunt Pitty flew about the little house, directing the negroes as they hung freshly laundered curtains, polished silver, waxed the floor and cooked, stirred and tasted the refreshments. Scarlett had never seen Melanie so excited or so happy.
"You see, dear, Ashley hasn't had a birthday party since since, you remember the barbecue at Twelve Oaks? The day we heard about Mr. Lincoln's call for volunteers? Well, he hasn't had a birthday party since then. And he works so hard and he's so tired when he gets home at night that he really hasn't thought about today being his birthday. And won't he be surprised after supper when everybody troops in!"
"How you goin' to manage them lanterns on the lawn without Mr. Wilkes seein' them when he comes home to supper?" demanded Archie grumpily.
He had sat all morning watching the preparations, interested but unwilling to admit it. He had never been behind the scenes at a large town folks' party and it was a new experience. He made frank remarks about women running around like the house was afire, just because they were having company, but wild horses could not have dragged him from the scene. The colored paper lanterns which Mrs. Elsing and Fanny had made and painted for the occasion held a special interest for him, as he had never seen "sech contraptions" before. They had been hidden in his room in the cellar and he had examined them minutely.
"Mercy! I hadn't thought of that!" cried Melanie. "Archie, how fortunate that you mentioned it. Dear, dear! What shall I do? They've got to be strung on the bushes and trees and little candles put in them and lighted just at the proper time when the guests are arriving. Scarlett, can you send Pork down to do it while we're eating supper?"
"Miz Wilkes, you got more sense than most women but you gits flurried right easy," said Archie. "And as for that fool nigger, Pork, he ain't got no bizness with them thar contraptions. He'd set them afire in no time. They are right pretty," he conceded. "I'll hang them for you, whilst you and Mr. Wilkes are eatin'."
"Oh, Archie, how kind of you!" Melanie turned childlike eyes of gratitude and dependence upon him. "I don't know what I should do without you. Do you suppose you could go put the candles in them now, so we'd have that much out of the way?"
"Well, I could, p'raps," said Archie ungraciously and stumped off toward the cellar stairs.
"There's more ways of killing a cat than choking him to death with butter," giggled Melanie when the whiskered old man had thumped down the stairs. "I had intended all along for Archie to put up those lanterns but you know how he is. He won't do a thing if you ask him to. And now we've got him out from underfoot for a while. The darkies are so scared of him they just won't do any work when he's around, breathing down their necks."
"Melly, I wouldn't have that old desperado in my house," said Scarlett crossly. She hated Archie as much as he hated her and they barely spoke. Melanie's was the only house in which he would remain if she were present. And even in Melanie's house, he stared at her with suspicion and cold contempt. "He'll cause you trouble, mark my words."
"Oh, he's harmless if you flatter him and act like you depend on him," said Melanie. "And he's so devoted to Ashley and Beau that I always feel safe having him around."
"You mean he's so devoted to you, Melly," said India, her cold face relaxing into a faintly warm smile as her gaze rested fondly on her sister in law. "I believe you're the first person that old ruffian has loved since his wife er since his wife. I think he'd really like for somebody to insult you, so he could kill them to show his respect for you."
"Mercy! How you run on, India!" said Melanie blush ing. "He thinks I'm a terrible goose and you know it."
"Well, I don't see that what that smelly old hill billy thinks is of any importance," said Scarlett abruptly. The very thought of how Archie had sat in judgment upon her about the convicts always enraged her. "I have to go now. I've got to go get dinner and then go by the store and pay off the clerks and go by the lumber yard and pay the drivers and Hugh Elsing."
"Oh, are you going to the lumber yard?" asked Melanie. "Ashley is coming in to the yard in the late afternoon to see Hugh. Can you possibly hold him there till five o'clock? If he comes home earlier he'll be sure to catch us finishing up a cake or something and then he won't be surprised at all."
Scarlett smiled inwardly, good temper restored.
"Yes, I'll hold him," she said.
As she spoke, India's pale lashless eyes met hers piercingly. She always looks at me so oddly when I speak of Ashley, thought Scarlett.
"Well, hold him there as long as you can after five o'clock," said Melanie. "And then India will drive down and pick him up. . . . Scarlett, do come early tonight. I don't want you to miss a minute of the reception."
As Scarlett rode home she thought sullenly: "She doesn't want me to miss a minute of the reception, eh? Well then, why didn't she invite me to receive with her and India and Aunt Pitty?"
Generally, Scarlett would not have cared whether she received at Melly's piddling parties or not. But this was the largest party Melanie had ever given and Ashley's birthday party too, and Scarlett longed to stand by Ashley's side and receive with him. But she knew why she had not been invited to receive. Even had she not known it, Rhett's comment on the subject had been frank enough.
"A Scallawag receive when all the prominent ex Confederates and Democrats are going to be there? Your notions are as enchanting as they are muddle headed. It's only because of Miss Melly's loyalty that you are invited at all."
Scarlett dressed with more than usual care that afternoon for her trip to the store and the lumber yard, wearing the new dull green changeable taffeta frock that looked lilac in some lights and the new pale green bonnet, circled about with dark green plumes. If only Rhett would let her cut bangs and frizzle them on her forehead, how much better this bonnet would look! But he had declared that he would shave her whole head if she banged her forelocks. And these days he acted so atrociously he really might do it.
It was a lovely afternoon, sunny but not too hot, bright but not glaring, and the warm breeze that rustled the trees along Peachtree Street made the plumes on Scarlett's bonnet dance. Her heart danced too, as always when she was going to see Ashley. Perhaps, if she paid off the team drivers and Hugh early, they would go home and leave her and Ashley alone in the square little office in the middle of the lumber yard. Chances to see Ashley alone were all too infrequent these days. And to think that Melanie had asked her to hold him! That was funny!
Her heart was merry when she reached the store, and she paid off Willie and the other counter boys without even asking what the day's business had been. It was Saturday, the biggest day of the week for the store, for all the farmers came to town to shop that day, but she asked no questions.
Along the way to the lumber yard she stopped a dozen times to speak with Carpetbagger ladies in splendid equipages not so splendid as her own, she thought with pleasure and with many men who came through the red dust of the street to stand hat in hand and compliment her. It was a beautiful afternoon, she was happy, she looked pretty and her progress was a royal one. Because of these delays she arrived at the lumber yard later than she intended and found Hugh and the team drivers sitting on a low pile of lumber waiting for her.
"Is Ashley here?"
"Yes, he's in the office," said Hugh, the habitually worried expression leaving his face at the sight of her happy, dancing eyes. "He's trying to I mean, he's going over the books."
"Oh, he needn't bother about that today," she said and then lowering her voice: "Melly sent me down to keep him here till they get the house straight for the reception tonight."
Hugh smiled for he was going to the reception. He liked parties and he guessed Scarlett did too from the way she looked this afternoon. She paid off the teamsters and Hugh and, abruptly leaving them, walked toward the office, showing plainly by her manner that she did not care to be accompanied. Ashley met her at the door and stood in the afternoon sunshine, his hair bright and on his lips a little smile that was almost a grin.
"Why, Scarlett, what are you doing downtown this time of the day? Why aren't you out at my house helping Melly get ready for the surprise party?"
"Why, Ashley Wilkes!" she cried indignantly. "You weren't supposed to know a thing about it. Melly will be so disappointed if you aren't surprised."
"Oh, I won't let on. I'll be the most surprised man in Atlanta," said Ashley, his eyes laughing.
"Now, who was mean enough to tell you?"
"Practically every man Melly invited. General Gordon was the first. He said it had been his experience that when women gave surprise parties they usually gave them on the very nights men had decided to polish and clean all the guns in the house. And then Grandpa Merriwether warned me. He said Mrs. Merriwether gave him a surprise party once and she was the most surprised person there, because Grandpa had been treating his rheumatism, on the sly, with a bottle of whisky and he was too drunk to get out of bed and oh, every man who's ever had a surprise party given him told me."
"The mean things!" cried Scarlett but she had to smile.
He looked like the old Ashley she knew at twelve Oaks when he smiled like this. And he smiled so seldom these days. The air was so soft, the sun so gentle, Ashley's face so gay, his talk so unconstrained that her heart leaped with happiness. It swelled in her bosom until it positively ached with pleasure, ached as with a burden of joyful, hot, unshed tears. Suddenly she felt sixteen again and happy, a little breathless and excited. She had a mad impulse to snatch off her bonnet and toss it into the air and cry "Hurray!" Then she thought how startled Ashley would be if she did this, and she suddenly laughed, laughed until tears came to her eyes. He laughed, too, throwing back his head as though he enjoyed laughter, thinking her mirth came from the friendly treachery of the men who had given Melly's secret away.
"Come in, Scarlett. I'm going over the books."
She passed into the small room, blazing with the afternoon sun, and sat down in the chair before the roll topped desk. Ashley, following her, seated himself on the corner of the rough table, his long legs dangling easily.
"Oh, don't let's fool with any books this afternoon, Ashley! I just can't be bothered. When I'm wearing a new bonnet, it seems like all the figures I know leave my head."
"Figures are well lost when the bonnet's as pretty as that one," he said. "Scarlett, you get prettier all the time!"
He slipped from the table and, laughing, took her hands, spreading them wide so he could see her dress. "You are so pretty! I don't believe you'll ever get old!"
At his touch she realized that, without being conscious of it, she had hoped that just this thing would happen. All this happy afternoon, she had hoped for the warmth of his hands, the tenderness of his eyes, a word that would show he cared. This was the first time they had been utterly alone since the cold day in the orchard at Tara, the first time their hands had met in any but formal gestures, and through the long months she had hungered for closer contact. But now
How odd that the touch of his hands did not excite her! Once his very nearness would have set her a tremble. Now she felt a curious warm friendliness and content. No fever leaped from his hands to hers and in his hands her heart hushed to happy quietness. This puzzled her, made her a little disconcerted. He was still her Ashley, still her bright, shining darling and she loved him better than life. Then why
But she pushed the thought from her mind. It was enough that she was with him and he was holding her hands and smiling, completely friendly, without strain or fever. It seemed miraculous that this could be when she thought of all the unsaid things that lay between them. His eyes looked into hers, clear and shining, smiling in the old way she loved, smiling as though there had never been anything between them but happiness. There was no barrier between his eyes and hers now, no baffling remoteness. She laughed.
"Oh, Ashley, I'm getting old and decrepit."
"Ah, that's very apparent! No, Scarlett, when you are sixty, you'll look the same to me. I'll always remember you as you were that day of our last barbecue, sitting under an oak with a dozen boys around you. I can even tell you just how you were dressed, in a white dress covered with tiny green flowers and a white lace shawl about your shoulders. You had on little green slippers with black lacings and an enormous leghorn hat with long green streamers. I know that dress by heart because when I was in prison and things got too bad, I'd take out my memories and thumb them over like pictures, recalling every little detail "
He stopped abruptly and the eager light faded from his face. He dropped her hands gently and she sat waiting, waiting for his next words.
"We've come a long way, both of us, since that day, haven't we, Scarlett? We've traveled roads we never expected to travel. You've come swiftly, directly, and I, slowly and reluctantly."
He sat down on the table again and looked at her and a small smile crept back into his face. But it was not the smile that had made her so happy so short a while before. It was a bleak smile.
"Yes, you came swiftly, dragging me at your chariot wheels. Scarlett, sometimes I have an impersonal curiosity as to what would have happened to me without you."
Scarlett went quickly to defend him from himself, more quickly because treacherously there rose to her mind Rhett's words on this same subject.
"But I've never done anything for you, Ashley. Without me, you'd have been just the same. Some day, you'd have been a rich man, a great man like you are going to be."
"No, Scarlett, the seeds of greatness were never in me. I think that if it hadn't been for you, I'd have gone down into oblivion like poor Cathleen Calvert and so many other people who once had great names, old names."
"Oh, Ashley, don't talk like that. You sound so sad."
"No, I'm not sad. Not any longer. Once once I was sad. Now, I'm only "
He stopped and suddenly she knew what he was thinking. It was the first time she had ever known what Ashley was thinking when his eyes went past her, crystal clear, absent. When the fury of love had beaten in her heart, his mind had been closed to her. Now, in the quiet friendliness that lay between them, she could walk a little way into his mind, understand a little. He was not sad any longer. He had been sad after the surrender, sad when she begged him to come to Atlanta. Now, he was only resigned.
"I hate to hear you talk like that, Ashley," she said vehemently. "You sound just like Rhett. He's always harping on things like that and something he calls the survival of the fitting till I'm so bored I could scream."
"Did you ever stop to think, Scarlett, that Rhett and I are fundamentally alike?"
"Oh, no! You are so fine, so honorable and he " She broke off, confused.
"But we are. We came of the same kind of people, we were raised in the same pattern, brought up to think the same things. And somewhere along the road we took different turnings. We still think alike but we react differently. As, for instance, neither of us believed in the war but I enlisted and fought and he stayed out till nearly the end. We both knew the war was all wrong. We both knew it was a losing fight. I was willing to fight a losing fight. He wasn't. Sometimes I think he was right and then, again "
"Oh, Ashley, when will you stop seeing both sides of questions?" she asked. But she did not speak impatiently as she once would have done. "No one ever gets anywhere seeing both sides."
"That's true but Scarlett, just where do you want to get? I've often wondered. You see, I never wanted to get anywhere at all. I've only wanted to be myself."
Where did she want to get? That was a silly question. Money and security, of course. And yet Her mind fumbled. She had money and as much security as one could hope for in an insecure world. But, now that she thought about it, they weren't quite enough. Now that she thought about it, they hadn't made her particularly happy, though they made her less harried, less fearful of the morrow. If I'd had money and security and you, that would have been where I wanted to get, she thought, looking at him yearningly. But she did not speak the words, fearful of breaking the spell that lay between them, fearful that his mind would close against her.
"You only want to be yourself?" she laughed, a little ruefully. "Not being myself has always been my hardest trouble! As to where I want to get, well, I guess I've gotten there. I wanted to be rich and safe and "
"But, Scarlett, did it ever occur to you that I don't care whether I'm rich or not?"
No, it had never occurred to her that anyone would not want to be rich.
"Then, what do you want?"
"I don't know, now. I knew once but I've half forgotten. Mostly to be left alone, not to be harried by people I don't like, driven to do things I don't want to do. Perhaps I want the old days back again and they'll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears."
Scarlett set her mouth obstinately. It was not that she did not know what he meant. The very tones of his voice called up other days as nothing else could, made her heart hurt suddenly, as she too remembered. But since the day she had lain sick and desolate in the garden at Twelve Oaks and said: "I won't look back," she had set her face against the past.
"I like these days better," she said. But she did not meet his eyes as she spoke. "There's always something exciting happening now, parties and so on. Everything's got a glitter to it. The old days were so dull." [Oh, lazy days and warm still country twilights! The high soft laughter from the quarters! The golden warmth life had then and the comforting knowledge of what all tomorrows would bring! How can I deny you?]
"I like these days better," she said but her voice was tremulous.
He slipped from the table, laughing softly in unbelief. Putting his hand under her chin, he turned her face up to his.
"Ah, Scarlett, what a poor liar you are! Yes, life has a glitter now of a sort. That's what's wrong with it. The old days had no glitter but they had a charm, a beauty, a slow paced glamour."
Her mind pulled two ways, she dropped her eyes. The sound of his voice, the touch of his hand were softly unlocking doors that she had locked forever. Behind those doors lay the beauty of the old days, and a sad hunger for them welled up within her. But she knew that no matter what beauty lay behind, it must remain there. No one could go forward with a load of aching memories.
His hand dropped from her chin and he took one of her hands between his two and held it gently.
"Do you remember," he said and a warning bell in her mind rang: Don't look back! Don't look back!
But she swiftly disregarded it, swept forward on a tide of happiness. At last she was understanding him, at last their minds had met. This moment was too precious to be lost, no matter what pain came after.
"Do you remember," he said and under the spell of his voice the bare walls of the little office faded and the years rolled aside and they were riding country bridle paths together in a long gone spring. As he spoke, his light grip tightened on her hand and in his voice was the sad magic of old half forgotten songs. She could hear the gay jingle of bridle bits as they rode under the dogwood trees to the Tarletons' picnic, hear her own careless laughter, see the sun glinting on his silver gilt hair and note the proud easy grace with which he sat his horse. There was music in his voice, the music of fiddles and banjos to which they had danced in the white house that was no more. There was the far off yelping of possum dogs in the dark swamp under cool autumn moons and the smell of eggnog bowls, wreathed with holly at Christmas time and smiles on black and white faces. And old friends came trooping back, laughing as though they had not been dead these many years: Stuart and Brent with their long legs and their red hair and their practical jokes, Tom and Boyd as wild as young horses, Joe Fontaine with his hot black eyes, and Cade and Raiford Calvert who moved with such languid grace. There was John Wilkes, too; and Gerald, red with brandy; and a whisper and a fragrance that was Ellen. Over it all rested a sense of security, a knowledge that tomorrow could only bring the same happiness today had brought.
His voice stopped and they looked for a long quiet moment into each other's eyes and between them lay the sunny lost youth that they had so unthinkingly shared.
"Now I know why you can't be happy," she thought sadly. "I never understood before. I never understood before why I wasn't altogether happy either. But why, we are talking like old people talk!" she thought with dreary surprise. "Old people looking back fifty years. And we're not old! It's just that so much has happened in between. Everything's changed so much that it seems like fifty years ago. But we're not old!"
But when she looked at Ashley he was no longer young and shining. His head was bowed as he looked down absently at her hand which he still held and she saw that his once bright hair was very gray, silver gray as moonlight on still water. Somehow the bright beauty had gone from the April afternoon and from her heart as well and the sad sweetness of remembering was as bitter as gall.
"I shouldn't have let him make me look back," she thought despairingly. "I was right when I said I'd never look back. It hurts too much, it drags at your heart till you can't ever do anything else except look back. That's what's wrong with Ashley. He can't look forward any more. He can't see the present, he fears the future, and so he looks back. I never understood it before. I never understood Ashley before. Oh, Ashley, my darling, you shouldn't look back! What good will it do? I shouldn't have let you tempt me into talking of the old days. This is what happens when you look back to happiness, this pain, this heartbreak, this discontent."
She rose to her feet, her hand still in his. She must go. She could not stay and think of the old days and see his face, tired and sad and bleak as it now was.
"We've come a long way since those days, Ashley," she said, trying to steady her voice, trying to fight the constriction in her throat. "We had fine notions then, didn't we?" And then, with a rush, "Oh, Ashley, nothing has turned out as we expected!"
"It never does," he said. "Life's under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it's no worse than it is."
Her heart was suddenly dull with pain, with weariness, as she thought of the long road she had come since those days. There rose up in her mind the memory of Scarlett O'Hara who loved beaux and pretty dresses and who intended, some day, when she had the time, to be a great lady like Ellen.
Without warning, tears started in her eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks and she stood looking at him dumbly, like a hurt bewildered child. He said no word but took her gently in his arms, pressed her head against his shoulder and, leaning down, laid his cheek against hers. She relaxed against him and her arms went round his body. The comfort of his arms helped dry her sudden tears. Ah, it was good to be in his arms, without passion, without tenseness, to be there as a loved friend. Only Ashley who shared her memories and her youth, who knew her beginnings and her present could understand.
She heard the sound of feet outside but paid little heed, thinking it was the teamsters going home. She stood for a moment, listening to the slow beat of Ashley's heart. Then suddenly he wrenched himself from her, confusing her by his violence. She looked up into his face in surprise but he was not looking at her. He was looking over her shoulder at the door.
She turned and there stood India, white faced, her pale eyes blazing, and Archie, malevolent as a one eyed parrot. Behind them stood Mrs. Elsing.
How she got out of the office she never remembered. But she went instantly, swiftly, by Ashley's order, leaving Ashley and Archie in grim converse in the little room and India and Mrs. Elsing outside with their backs to her. Shame and fear sped her homeward and, in her mind, Archie with his patriarch's beard assumed the proportions of an avenging angel straight from the pages of the Old Testament.
The house was empty and still in the April sunset. All the servants had gone to a funeral and the children were playing in Melanie's back yard. Melanie
Melanie! Scarlett went cold at the thought of her as she climbed the stairs to her room. Melanie would hear of this. India had said she would tell her. Oh, India would glory in telling her, not caring if she blackened Ashley's name, not caring if she hurt Melanie, if by so doing she could injure Scarlett! And Mrs. Elsing would talk too, even though she had really seen nothing, because she was behind India and Archie in the door of the lumber office. But she would talk, just the same. The news would be all over town by supper time. Everyone, even the negroes, would know by tomorrow's breakfast. At the party tonight, women would gather in corners and whisper discreetly and with malicious pleasure. Scarlett Butler tumbled from her high and mighty place! And the story would grow and grow. There was no way of stopping it. It wouldn't stop at the bare facts, that Ashley was holding her in his arms while she cried. Before nightfall people would be saying she had been taken in adultery. And it had been so innocent, so sweet! Scarlett thought wildly: If we had been caught that Christmas of his furlough when I kissed him good by if we had been caught in the orchard at Tara when I begged him to run away with me oh, if we'd been caught any of the times when we were really guilty, it wouldn't be so bad! But now! Now! When I went to his arms as a friend
But no one would believe that. She wouldn't have a single friend to take her part, not a single voice would be raised to say: "I don't believe she was doing anything wrong." She had outraged old friends too long to find a champion among them now. Her new friends, suffering in silence under her insolences, would welcome a chance to blackguard her. No, everybody would believe anything about her, though they might regret that so fine a man as Ashley Wilkes was mixed up in so dirty an affair. As usual they would cast the blame upon the woman and shrug at the man's guilt. And in this case they would be right. She had gone into his arms.
Oh, she could stand the cuts, the slights, the covert smiles, anything the town might say, if she had to stand them but not Melanie! Oh, not Melanie! She did not know why she should mind Melanie knowing, more than anyone else. She was too frightened and weighed down by a sense of past guilt to try to understand it. But she burst into tears at the thought of what would be in Melanie's eyes when India told her that she had caught Ashley fondling Scarlett. And what would Melanie do when she knew? Leave Ashley? What else could she do, with any dignity? And what will Ashley and I do then? she thought frenziedly, the tears streaming down her face. Oh, Ashley will die of shame and hate me for bringing this on him. Suddenly her tears stopped short as a deadly fear went through her heart. What of Rhett? What would he do?
Perhaps he'd never know. What was that old saying, that cynical saying? "The husband is always the last to find out." Perhaps no one would tell him. It would take a brave man to break such news to Rhett, for Rhett had the reputation for shooting first and asking questions afterwards. Please, God, don't let anybody be brave enough to tell him! But she remembered the face of Archie in the lumber office, the cold, pale eye, remorseless, full of hate for her and all women. Archie feared neither God nor man and he hated loose women. He had hated them enough to kill one. And he had said he would tell Rhett. And he'd tell him in spite of all Ashley could do to dissuade him. Unless Ashley killed him, Archie would tell Rhett, feeling it his Christian duty.
She pulled off her clothes and lay down on the bed, her mind whirling round and round. If she could only lock her door and stay in this safe place forever and ever and never see anyone again. Perhaps Rhett wouldn't find out tonight. She'd say she had a headache and didn't feel like going to the reception. By morning she would have thought up some excuse to offer, some defense that might hold water.
"I won't think of it now," she said desperately, burying her face in the pillow. "I won't think of it now. I'll think of it later when I can stand it."
She heard the servants come back as night fell and it seemed to her that they were very silent as they moved about preparing supper. Or was it her guilty conscience? Mammy came to the door and knocked but Scarlett sent her away, saying she did not want any supper. Time passed and finally she heard Rhett coming up the steps. She held herself tensely as he reached the upper hall, gathered all her strength for a meeting but he passed into his room. She breathed easier. He hadn't heard. Thank God, he still respected her icy request that he never put foot in her bedroom again, for if he saw her now, her face would give her away. She must gather herself together enough to tell him that she felt too ill to go to the reception. Well, there was time enough for her to calm herself. Or was there time? Since the awful moment that afternoon, life had seemed timeless. She heard Rhett moving about in his room for a long time, speaking occasionally to Pork. Still she could not find courage to call to him. She lay still on the bed in the darkness, shaking.
After a long time, he knocked on her door and she said, trying to control her voice: "Come in."
"Am I actually being invited into the sanctuary?" he questioned, opening the door. It was dark and she could not see his face. Nor could she make anything of his voice. He entered and closed the door.
"Are you ready for the reception?"
"I'm so sorry but I have a headache." How odd that her voice sounded natural! Thank God for the dark! "I don't believe I'll go. You go, Rhett, and give Melanie my regrets."
There was a long pause and he spoke drawlingly, bitingly in the dark.
"What a white livered, cowardly little bitch you are."
He knew! She lay shaking, unable to speak. She heard him fumble in the dark, strike a match and the room sprang into light. He walked over to the bed and looked down at her. She saw that he was in evening clothes.
"Get up," he said and there was nothing in his voice. "We are going to the reception. You will have to hurry."
"Oh, Rhett, I can't. You see "
"I can see. Get up."
"Rhett, did Archie dare "
"Archie dared. A very brave man, Archie."
"You should have killed him for telling lies "
"I have a strange way of not killing people who tell the truth. There's no time to argue now. Get up."
She sat up, hugging her wrapper close to her, her eyes searching his face. It was dark and impassive.
"I won't go, Rhett. I can't until this misunderstanding is cleared up."
"If you don't show your face tonight, you'll never be able to show it in this town as long as you live. And while I may endure a trollop for a wife, I won't endure a coward. You are going tonight, even if everyone, from Alex Stephens down, cuts you and Mrs. Wilkes asks us to leave the house."
"Rhett, let me explain."
"I don't want to hear. There isn't time. Get on your clothes."
"They misunderstood India and Mrs. Elsing and Archie. And they hate me so. India hates me so much that she'd even tell lies about her own brother to make me appear in a bad light. If you'll only let me explain "
Oh, Mother of God, she thought in agony, suppose he says: "Pray do explain!" What can I say? How can I explain?
"They'll have told everybody lies. I can't go tonight."
"You will go," he said, "if I have to drag you by the neck and plant my boot on your ever so charming bottom every step of the way."
There was a cold glitter in his eyes as he jerked her to her feet. He picked up her stays and threw them at her.
"Put them on. I'll lace you. Oh yes, I know all about lacing. No, I won't call Mammy to help you and have you lock the door and skulk here like the coward you are."
"I'm not a coward," she cried, stung out of her fear. "I "
"Oh, spare me your saga about shooting Yankees and facing Sherman's army. You're a coward among other things. If not for your own sake, you are going tonight for Bonnie's sake. How could you further ruin her chances? Put on your stays, quick."
Hastily she slipped off her wrapper and stood clad only in her chemise. If only he would look at her and see how nice she looked in her chemise, perhaps that frightening look would leave his face. After all, he hadn't seen her in her chemise for ever and ever so long. But he did not look. He was in her closet, going through her dresses swiftly. He fumbled and drew out her new jade green watered silk dress. It was cut low over the bosom and the skirt was draped back over an enormous bustle and on the bustle was a huge bunch of pink velvet roses.
"Wear that," he said, tossing it on the bed and coming toward her. "No modest, matronly dove grays and lilacs tonight. Your flag must be nailed to the mast, for obviously you'd run it down if it wasn't. And plenty of rouge. I'm sure the woman the Pharisees took in adultery didn't look half so pale. Turn around."
He took the strings of the stays in his hands and jerked them so hard that she cried out, frightened, humiliated, embarrassed at such an untoward performance.
"Hurts, does it?" He laughed shortly and she could not see his face. "Pity it isn't around your neck."
Melanie's house blazed lights from every room and they could hear the music far up the street. As they drew up in front, the pleasant exciting sounds of many people enjoying themselves floated out. The house was packed with guests. They overflowed on verandas and many were sitting on benches in the dim lantern hung yard.
I can't go in I can't, thought Scarlett, sitting in the carriage, gripping her balled up handkerchief. I can't. I won't. I will jump out and run away, somewhere, back home to Tara. Why did Rhett force me to come here? What will people do? What will Melanie do? What will she look like? Oh, I can't face her. I will run away.
As though he read her mind, Rhett's hand closed upon her arm in a grip that would leave a bruise, the rough grip of a careless stranger.
"I've never known an Irishman to be a coward. Where's your much vaunted courage?"
"Rhett, do please, let me go home and explain."
"You have eternity in which to explain and only one night to be a martyr in the amphitheater. Get out, darling, and let me see the lions eat you. Get out."
She went up the walk somehow, the arm she was holding as hard and steady as granite, communicating to her some courage. By God, she could face them and she would. What were they but a bunch of howling, clawing cats who were jealous of her? She'd show them. She didn't care what they thought. Only Melanie only Melanie.
They were on the porch and Rhett was bowing right and left, his hat in his hand, his voice cool and soft. The music stopped as they entered and the crowd of people seemed to her confused mind to surge up to her like the roar of the sea and then ebb away, with lessening, ever lessening sound. Was everyone going to cut her? Well, God's nightgown, let them do it! Her chin went up and she smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling.
Before she could turn to speak to those nearest the door, someone came through the press of people. There was an odd hush that caught Scarlett's heart. Then through the lane came Melanie on small feet that hurried, hurried to meet Scarlett at the door, to speak to her before anyone else could speak. Her narrow shoulders were squared and her small jaw set indignantly and, for all her notice, she might have had no other guest but Scarlett. She went to her side and slipped an arm about her waist.
"What a lovely dress, darling," she said in her small, clear voice. "Will you be an angel? India was unable to come tonight and assist me. Will you receive with me?"
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
Safe in her room again, Scarlett fell on the bed, careless of her moire dress, bustle and roses. For a time she could only lie still and think of standing between Melanie and Ashley, greeting guests. What a horror! She would face Sherman's army again rather than repeat that performance! After a time, she rose from the bed and nervously paced the floor, shedding garments as she walked.
Reaction from strain set in and she began to shake. Hairpins slipped out of her fingers and tinkled to the floor and when she tried to give her hair its customary hundred strokes, she banged the back of the brush hurtingly against her temple. A dozen times she tiptoed to the door to listen for noises downstairs but the hall below lay like a black silent pit.
Rhett had sent her home alone in the carriage when the party was over and she had thanked God for the reprieve. He had not come in yet. Thank God, he had not come in. She could not face him tonight, shamed, frightened, shaking. But where was he? Probably at that creature's place. For the first time, Scarlett was glad there was such a person as Belle Watling. Glad there was some other place than this house to shelter Rhett until his glittering, murderous mood had passed. That was wrong, being glad a husband was at the house of a prostitute, but she could not help it. She would be almost glad if he were dead, if it meant she would not have to see him tonight.
Tomorrow well, tomorrow was another day. Tomorrow she would think of some excuse, some counter accusations, some way of putting Rhett in the wrong. Tomorrow the memory of this hideous night would not be driving her so fiercely that she shook. Tomorrow she would not be so haunted by the memory of Ashley's face, his broken pride and his shame shame that she had caused, shame in which he had so little part. Would he hate her now, her darling honorable Ashley, because she had shamed him? Of course he would hate her now now that they had both been saved by the indignant squaring of Melanie's thin shoulders and the love and outspoken trust which had been in her voice as she crossed the glassy floor to slip her arm through Scarlett's and face the curious, malicious, covertly hostile crowd. How neatly Melanie had scotched the scandal, keeping Scarlett at her side all through the dreadful evening! People had been a bit cool, somewhat bewildered, but they had been polite.
Oh, the ignominy of it all, to be sheltered behind Melanie's skirts from those who hated her, who would have torn her to bits with their whispers! To be sheltered by Melanie's blind trust, Melanie of all people!
Scarlett shook as with a chill at the thought. She must have a drink, a number of drinks before she could lie down and hope to sleep. She threw a wrapper about her gown and went hastily out into the dark hall, her backless slippers making a great clatter in the stillness. She was halfway down the stairs before she looked toward the closed door of the dining room and saw a narrow line of light streaming from under it. Her heart stopped for a moment. Had that light been burning when she came home and had she been too upset to notice it? Or was Rhett home after all? He could have come in quietly through the kitchen door. If Rhett were home, she would tiptoe back to bed without her brandy, much as she needed it. Then she wouldn't have to face him. Once in her room she would be safe, for she could lock the door.
She was leaning over to pluck off her slippers, so she might hurry back in silence, when the dining room door swung open abruptly and Rhett stood silhouetted against the dim candlelight behind him. He looked huge, larger than she had ever seen him, a terrifying faceless black bulk that swayed slightly on its feet.
"Pray join me, Mrs. Butler," he said and his voice was a little thick.
He was drunk and showing it and she had never before seen him show his liquor, no matter how much he drank. She paused irresolutely, saying nothing and his arm went up in gesture of command.
"Come here, damn you!" he said roughly.
He must be very drunk, she thought with a fluttering heart. Usually, the more he drank, the more polished became his manners. He sneered more, his words were apt to be more biting, but the manner that accompanied them was always punctilious too punctilious.
"I must never let him know I'm afraid to face him," she thought, and, clutching the wrapper closer to her throat, she went down the stairs with her head up and her heels clacking noisily.
He stood aside and bowed her through the door with a mockery that made her wince. She saw that he was coatless and his cravat hung down on either side of his open collar. His shirt was open down to the thick mat of black hair on his chest. His hair was rumpled and his eyes bloodshot and narrow. One candle burned on the table, a tiny spark of light that threw monstrous shadows about the high ceilinged room and made the massive sideboards and buffet look like still, crouching beasts. On the table on the silver tray stood the decanter with cut glass stopper out, surrounded by glasses.
"Sit down," he said curtly, following her into the room.
Now a new kind of fear crept into her, a fear that made her alarm at facing him seem very small. He looked and talked and acted like a stranger. This was an ill mannered Rhett she had never seen before. Never at any time, even in most intimate moments, had he been other than nonchalant. Even in anger, he was suave and satirical, and whisky usually served to intensify these qualities. At first it had annoyed her and she had tried to break down that nonchalance but soon she had come to accept it as a very convenient thing. For years she had thought that nothing mattered very much to him, that he thought everything in life, including her, an ironic joke. But as she faced him across the table, she knew with a sinking feeling in her stomach that at last something was mattering to him, mattering very much.
"There is no reason why you should not have your nightcap, even if I am ill bred enough to be at home," he said. "Shall I pour it for you?"
"I did not want a drink," she said stiffly. "I heard a noise and came "
"You heard nothing. You wouldn't have come down if you'd thought I was home. I've sat here and listened to you racing up and down the floor upstairs. You must need a drink badly. Take it."
"I do not "
He picked up the decanter and sloshed a glassful, untidily.
"Take it," he said, shoving it into her hand. "You are shaking all over. Oh, don't give yourself airs. I know you drink on the quiet and I know how much you drink. For some time I've been intending to tell you to stop your elaborate pretenses and drink openly if you want to. Do you think I give a damn if you like your brandy?"
She took the wet glass, silently cursing him. He read her like a book. He had always read her and he was the one man in the world from whom she would like to hide her real thoughts.
"Drink it, I say."
She raised the glass and bolted the contents with one abrupt motion of her arm, wrist stiff, just as Gerald had always taken his neat whisky, bolted it before she thought how practiced and unbecoming it looked. He did not miss the gesture and his mouth went down at the corner.
"Sit down and we will have a pleasant domestic discussion of the elegant reception we have just attended."
"You are drunk," she said coldly, "and I am going to bed."
"I am very drunk and I intend to get still drunker before the evening's over. But you aren't going to bed not yet. Sit down."
His voice still held a remnant of its wonted cool drawl but beneath the words she could feel violence fighting its way to the surface, violence as cruel as the crack of a whip. She wavered irresolutely and he was at her side, his hand on her arm in a grip that hurt. He gave it a slight wrench and she hastily sat down with a little cry of pain. Now, she was afraid, more afraid than she had ever been in her life. As he leaned over her, she saw that his face was dark and flush ed and his eyes still held their frightening glitter. There was something in their depths she did not recognize, could not understand, something deeper than anger, stronger than pain, something driving him until his eyes glowed redly like twin coals. He looked down at her for a long time, so long that her defiant gaze wavered and fell, and then he slumped into a chair opposite her and poured himself another drink. She thought rapidly, trying to lay a line of defenses. But until he spoke, she would not know what to say for she did not know exactly what accusation he intended to make.
He drank slowly, watching her over the glass and she tightened her nerves, trying to keep from trembling. For a time his face did not change its expression but finally he laughed, still keeping his eyes on her, and at the sound she could not still her shaking.
"It was an amusing comedy, this evening, wasn't it?"
She said nothing, curling her toes in the loose slippers in an effort at controlling her quivering.
"A pleasant comedy with no character missing. The village assembled to stone the erring woman, the wronged husband supporting his wife as a gentleman should, the wronged wife stepping in with Christian spirit and casting the garments of her spotless reputation over it all. And the lover "
"I don't please. Not tonight. It's too amusing. And the lover looking like a damned fool and wishing he were dead. How does it feel, my dear, to have the woman you hate stand by you and cloak your sins for you? Sit down."
She sat down.
"You don't like her any better for it, I imagine. You are wondering if she knows all about you and Ashley wondering why she did this if she does know if she just did it to save her own face. And you are thinking she's a fool for doing it, even if it did save your hide but "
"I will not listen "
"Yes, you will listen. And I'll tell you this to ease your worry. Miss Melly is a fool but not the kind you think. It was obvious that someone had told her but she didn't believe it. Even if she saw, she wouldn't believe. There's too much honor in her to conceive of dishonor in anyone she loves. I don't know what lie Ashley Wilkes told her but any clumsy one would do, for she loves Ashley and she loves you. I'm sure I can't see why she loves you but she does. Let that be one of your crosses."
"If you were not so drunk and insulting, I would explain everything," said Scarlett, recovering some dignity. "But now "
"I am not interested in your explanations. I know the truth better than you do. By God, if you get up out of that chair just once more
"And what I find more amusing than even tonight's comedy is the fact that while you have been so virtuously denying me the pleasures of your bed because of my many sins, you have been lusting in your heart after Ashley Wilkes. 'Lusting in your heart.' That's a good phrase, isn't it? There are a number of good phrases in that Book, aren't there?"
"What book? What book?" her mind ran on, foolishly, irrelevantly as she cast frantic eyes about the room, noting how dully the massive silver gleamed in the dim light, how frighteningly dark the corners were.
"And I was cast out because my coarse ardors were too much for your refinement because you didn't want any more children. How bad that made me feel, dear heart! How it cut me! So I went out and found pleasant consolation and left you to your refinements. And you spent that time tracking the long suffering Mr. Wilkes. God damn him, what ails him? He can't be faithful to his wife with his mind or unfaithful with his body. Why doesn't he make up his mind? You wouldn't object to having his children, would you and passing them off as mine?"
She sprang to her feet with a cry and he lunged from his seat, laughing that soft laugh that made her blood cold. He pressed her back into her chair with large brown hands and leaned over her.
"Observe my hands, my dear," he said, flexing them before her eyes. "I could tear you to pieces with them with no trouble whatsoever and I would do it if it would take Ashley out of your mind. But it wouldn't. So I think I'll remove him from your mind forever, this way. I'll put my hands, so, on each side of your head and I'll smash your skull between them like a walnut and that will blot him out."
His hands were on her head, under her flowing hair, caressing, hard, turning her face up to his. She was looking into the face of a stranger, a drunken drawling voiced stranger. She had never lacked animal courage and in the face of danger it flooded back hotly into her veins, stiffening her spine, narrowing her eyes.
"You drunken fool," she said. "Take your hands off me."
To her surprise, he did so and seating himself on the edge of the table he poured himself another drink.
"I have always admired your spirit, my dear. Never more than now when you are cornered."
She drew her wrapper close about her body. Oh, if she could only reach her room and turn the key in the stout door and be alone. Somehow, she must stand him off, bully him into submission, this Rhett she had never seen before. She rose without haste, though her knees shook, tightened the wrapper across her hips and threw back her hair from her face.
"I'm not cornered," she said cuttingly. "You'll never corner me, Rhett Butler, or frighten me. You are nothing but a drunken beast who's been with bad women so long that you can't understand anything else but badness. You can't understand Ashley or me. You've lived in dirt too long to know anything else. You are jealous of something you can't understand. Good night."
She turned casually and started toward the door and a burst of laughter stopped her. She turned and he swayed across the room toward her. Name of God, if he would only stop that terrible laugh! What was there to laugh about in all of this? As he came toward her, she backed toward the door and found herself against the wall. He put his hands heavily upon her and pinned her shoulders to the wall.
"I am laughing because I am so sorry for you."
"Sorry for me? Be sorry for yourself."
"Yes, by God, I'm sorry for you, my dear, my pretty little fool. That hurts, doesn't it? You can't stand either laughter or pity, can you?"
He stopped laughing, leaning so heavily against her shoulders that they ached. His face changed and he leaned so close to her that the heavy whisky smell of his breath made her turn her head.
"Jealous, am I?" he said. "And why not? Oh, yes, I'm jealous of Ashley Wilkes. Why not? Oh, don't try to talk and explain. I know you've been physically faithful to me. Was that what you were trying to say? Oh, I've known that all along. All these years. How do I know? Oh, well, I know Ashley Wilkes and his breed. I know he is honorable and a gentleman. And that, my dear, is more than I can say for you or for me, for that matter. We are not gentlemen and we have no honor, have we? That's why we flourish like green bay trees."
"Let me go. I won't stand here and be insulted."
"I'm not insulting you. I'm praising your physical virtue. And it hasn't fooled me one bit. You think men are such fools, Scarlett. It never pays to underestimate your opponent's strength and intelligence. And I'm not a fool. Don't you suppose I know that you've lain in my arms and pretended I was Ashley Wilkes?"
Her jaw dropped and fear and astonishment were written plainly in her face.
"Pleasant thing, that. Rather ghostly, in fact. Like having three in a bed where there ought to be just two." He shook her shoulders, ever so slightly, hiccoughed and smiled mockingly.
"Oh, yes, you've been faithful to me because Ashley wouldn't have you. But, hell, I wouldn't have grudged him your body. I know how little bodies mean especially bodies. But I do grudge him your heart and your dear, hard, unscrupulous, stubborn mind. He doesn't want your mind, the fool, and I don't want your body. I can buy women cheap. But I do want your mind and your heart, and I'll never have them, any more than you'll ever have Ashley's mind. And that's why I'm sorry for you."
Even through her fear and bewilderment, his sneer stung.
"Sorry for me?"
"Yes, sorry because you're such a child, Scarlett. A child crying for the moon. What would a child do with the moon if it got it? And what would you do with Ashley? Yes, I'm sorry for you sorry to see you throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make you happy. I'm sorry because you are such a fool you don't know there can't ever be happiness except when like mates like. If I were dead, if Miss Melly were dead and you had your precious honorable lover, do you think you'd be happy with him? Hell, no! You would never know him, never know what he was thinking about, never understand him any more than you understand music and poetry and books or anything that isn't dollars and cents. Whereas, we, dear wife of my bosom, could have been perfectly happy if you had ever given us half a chance, for we are so much alike. We are both scoundrels, Scarlett, and nothing is beyond us when we want something. We could have been happy, for I loved you and I know you, Scarlett, down to your bones, in a way that Ashley could never know you. And he would despise you if he did know. . . . But no, you must go mooning all your life after a man you cannot understand. And I, my darling, will continue to moon after whores. And, I dare say we'll do better than most couples."
He released her abruptly and made a weaving way back toward the decanter. For a moment, Scarlett stood rooted, thoughts tearing in and out of her mind so swiftly that she could seize none of them long enough to examine them. Rhett had said he loved her. Did he mean it? Or was he merely drunk? Or was this one of his horrible jokes? And Ashley the moon crying for the moon. She ran swiftly into the dark hall, fleeing as though demons were upon her. Oh, if she could only reach her room! She turned her ankle and the slipper fell half off. As she stopped to kick it loose frantically, Rhett, running lightly as an Indian, was beside her in the dark. His breath was not on her face and his hands went round her roughly, under the wrapper, against her bare skin.
"You turned me out on the town while you chased him. By God, this is one night when there are only going to be two in my bed."
He swung her off her feet into his arms and started up the stairs. Her head was crushed against his chest and she heard the hard hammering of his heart beneath her ears. He hurt her and she cried out, muffled, frightened. Up the stairs he went in the utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. He was shaking, as though he stood in a strong wind, and his lips, traveling from her mouth downward to where the wrapper had fallen from her body, fell on her soft flesh. He was muttering things she did not hear, his lips were evoking feelings never felt before. She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.
When she awoke the next morning, he was gone and had it not been for the rumpled pillow beside her, she would have thought the happenings of the night before a wild preposterous dream. She went crimson at the memory and, pulling the bed covers up about her neck, lay bathed in sunlight, trying to sort out the jumbled impressions in her mind.
Two things stood to the fore. She had lived for years with Rhett, slept with him, eaten with him, quarreled with him and borne his child and yet, she did not know him. The man who had carried her up the dark stairs was a stranger of whose existence she had not dreamed. And now, though she tried to make herself hate him, tried to be indignant, she could not. He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it.
Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee.
Rhett loved her! At least, he said he loved her and how could she doubt it now? How odd and bewildering and how incredible that he loved her, this savage stranger with whom she had lived in such coolness. She was not altogether certain how she felt about this revelation but as an idea came to her she suddenly laughed aloud. He loved her and so she had him at last. She had almost forgotten her early desire to entrap him into loving her, so she could hold the whip over his insolent black head. Now, it came back and it gave her great satisfaction. For one night, he had had her at his mercy but now she knew the weakness of his armor. From now on she had him where she wanted him. She had smarted under his jeers for a long time, but now she had him where she could make him jump through any hoops she cared to hold.
When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.
"I'm nervous as a bride," she thought. "And about Rhett!" And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.
But Rhett did not appear for dinner, nor was he at his place at the supper table. The night passed, a long night during which she lay awake until dawn, her ears strained to hear his key in the latch. But he did not come. When the second day passed with no word from him, she was frantic with disappointment and fear. She went by the bank but he was not there. She went to the store and was very sharp with everyone, for every time the door opened to admit a customer she looked up with a flutter, hoping it was Rhett. She went to the lumber yard and bullied Hugh until he hid himself behind a pile of lumber. But Rhett did not seek her there.
She could not humble herself to ask friends if they had seen him. She could not make inquiries among the servants for news of him. But she felt they knew something she did not know. Negroes always knew everything. Mammy was unusually silent those two days. She watched Scarlett out of the corner of her eye and said nothing. When the second night had passed Scarlett made up her mind to go to the police. Perhaps he had had an accident, perhaps his horse had thrown him and he was lying helpless in some ditch. Perhaps oh, horrible thought perhaps he was dead.
The next morning when she had finished her breakfast and was in her room putting on her bonnet, she heard swift feet on the stairs. As she sank to the bed in weak thankfulness, Rhett entered the room. He was freshly barbered, shaved and massaged and he was sober, but his eyes were bloodshot and his face puffy from drink. He waved an airy hand at her and said: "Oh, hello."
How could a man say "Oh, hello," after being gone without explanation for two days? How could he be so nonchalant with the memory of such a night as they had spent? He couldn't unless unless the terrible thought leaped into her mind. Unless such nights were the usual thing to him. For a moment she could not speak and all the pretty gestures and smiles she had thought to use upon him were forgotten. He did not even come to her to give her his usual offhand kiss but stood looking at her, with a grin, a smoking cigar in his hand.
"Where where have you been?"
"Don't tell me you don't know! I thought surely the whole town knew by now. Perhaps they all do, except you. You know the old adage: 'The wife is always the last one to find out.'"
"What do you mean?"
"I thought that after the police called at Belle's night before last "
"Belle's that that woman! You have been with "
"Of course. Where else would I be? I hope you haven't worried about me."
"You went from me to oh!"
"Come, come, Scarlett! Don't play the deceived wife. You must have known about Belle long ago."
"You went to her from me, after after "
"Oh, that." He made a careless gesture. "I will forget my manners. My apologies for my conduct at our last meeting. I was very drunk, as you doubtless know, and quite swept off my feet by your charms need I enumerate them?"
Suddenly she wanted to cry, to lie down on the bed and sob endlessly. He hadn't changed, nothing had changed, and she had been a fool, a stupid, conceited, silly fool, thinking he loved her. It had all been one of his repulsive drunken jests. He had taken her and used her when he was drunk, just as he would use any woman in Belle's house. And now he was back, insulting, sardonic, out of reach. She swallowed her tears and rallied. He must never, never know what she had thought. How he would laugh if he knew! Well, he'd never know. She looked up quickly at him and caught that old, puzzling, watchful glint in his eyes keen, eager as though he hung on her next words, hoping they would be what was he hoping? That she'd make a fool out of herself and bawl and give him something to laugh about? Not she! Her slanting brows rushed together in a cold frown.
"I had naturally suspected what your relations with that creature were."
"Only suspected? Why didn't you ask me and satisfy your curiosity? I'd have told you. I've been living with her ever since the day you and Ashley Wilkes decided that we should have separate bedrooms."
"You have the gall to stand there and boast to me, your wife, that "
"Oh, spare me your moral indignation. You never gave a damn what I did as long as I paid the bills. And you know I've been no angel recently. And as for you being my wife you haven't been much of a wife since Bonnie came, have you? You've been a poor investment, Scarlett. Belle's been a better one."
"Investment? You mean you gave her ?"
"'Set her up in business' is the correct term, I believe. Belle's a smart woman. I wanted to see her get ahead and all she needed was money to start a house of her own. You ought to know what miracles a woman can perform when she has a bit of cash. Look at yourself."
"You compare me "
"Well, you are both hard headed business women and both successful. Belle's got the edge on you, of course, because she's a kind hearted, good natured soul "
"Will you get out of this room?"
He lounged toward the door, one eyebrow raised quizzically. How could he insult her so, she thought in rage and pain. He was going out of his way to hurt and humiliate her and she writhed as she thought how she had longed for his homecoming, while all the time he was drunk and brawling with police in a bawdy house.
"Get out of this room and don't ever come back in it. I told you that once before and you weren't enough of a gentleman to understand. Hereafter I will lock my door."
"I will lock it. After the way you acted the other night so drunk, so disgusting "
"Come now, darling! Not disgusting, surely!"
"Don't worry. I'm going. And I promise I'll never bother you again. That's final. And I just thought I'd tell you that if my infamous conduct was too much for you to bear, I'll let you have a divorce. Just give me Bonnie and I won't contest it."
"I would not think of disgracing the family with a divorce."
"You'd disgrace it quick enough if Miss Melly was dead, wouldn't you? It makes my head spin to think how quickly you'd divorce me."
"Will you go?"
"Yes, I'm going. That's what I came home to tell you. I'm going to Charleston and New Orleans and oh, well, a very extended trip. I'm leaving today."
"And I'm taking Bonnie with me. Get that foolish Prissy to pack her little duds. I'll take Prissy too."
"You'll never take my child out of this house."
"My child too, Mrs. Butler. Surely you do not mind me taking her to Charleston to see her grandmother?"
"Her grandmother, my foot! Do you think I'll let you take that baby out of here when you'll be drunk every night and most likely taking her to houses like that Belle's "
He threw down the cigar violently and it smoked acridly on the carpet, the smell of scorching wool rising to their nostrils. In an instant he was across the floor and by her side, his face black with fury.
"If you were a man, I would break your neck for that. As it is, all I can say is for you to shut your God damn mouth. Do you think I do not love Bonnie, that I would take her where my daughter! Good God, you fool! And as for you, giving yourself pious airs about your motherhood, why, a cat's a better mother than you! What have you ever done for the children? Wade and Ella are frightened to death of you and if it wasn't for Melanie Wilkes, they'd never know what love and affection are. But Bonnie, my Bonnie! Do you think I can't take better care of her than you? Do you think I'll ever let you bully her and break her spirit, as you've broken Wade's and Ella's? Hell, no! Have her packed up and ready for me in an hour or I warn you what happened the other night will be mild beside what will happen. I've always thought a good lashing with a buggy whip would benefit you immensely."
He turned on his heel before she could speak and went out of the room on swift feet. She heard him cross the floor of the hall to the children's play room and open the door. There was a glad, quick treble of childish voices and she heard Bonnie's tones rise over Ella's.
"Daddy, where you been?"
"Hunting for a rabbit's skin to wrap my little Bonnie in. Give your best sweetheart a kiss, Bonnie and you too, Ella."
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
"Darling, I don't want any explanation from you and I won't listen to one," said Melanie firmly as she gently laid a small hand across Scarlett's tortured lips and stilled her words. "You insult yourself and Ashley and me by even thinking there could be need of explanations between us. Why, we three have been have been like soldiers fighting the world together for so many years that I'm ashamed of you for thinking idle gossip could come between us. Do you think I'd believe that you and my Ashley Why, the idea! Don't you realize I know you better than anyone in the world knows you? Do you think I've forgotten all the wonderful, unselfish things you've done for Ashley and Beau and me everything from saving my life to keeping us from starving! Do you think I could remember you walking in a furrow behind that Yankee's horse almost barefooted and with your hands blistered just so the baby and I could have something to eat and then believe such dreadful things about you? I don't want to hear a word out of you, Scarlett O'Hara. Not a word."
"But " Scarlett fumbled and stopped.
Rhett had left town the hour before with Bonnie and Prissy, and desolation was added to Scarlett's shame and anger. The additional burden of her guilt with Ashley and Melanie's defense was more than she could bear. Had Melanie believed India and Archie, cut her at the reception or even greeted her frigidly, then she could have held her head high and fought back with every weapon in her armory. But now, with the memory of Melanie standing between her and social ruin, standing like a thin, shining blade, with trust and a fighting light in her eyes, there seemed nothing honest to do but confess. Yes, blurt out everything from that far off beginning on the sunny porch at Tara.
She was driven by a conscience which, though long suppressed, could still rise up, an active Catholic conscience. "Confess your sins and do penance for them in sorrow and contrition," Ellen had told her a hundred times and, in this crisis, Ellen's religious training came back and gripped her. She would confess yes, everything, every look and word, those few caresses and then God would ease her pain and give her peace. And, for her penance, there would be the dreadful sight of Melanie's face changing from fond love and trust to incredulous horror and repulsion. Oh, that was too hard a penance, she thought in anguish, to have to live out her life remembering Melanie's face, knowing that Melanie knew all the pettiness, the meanness, the two faced disloyalty and the hypocrisy that were in her.
Once, the thought of flinging the truth tauntingly in Melanie's face and seeing the collapse of her fool's paradise had been an intoxicating one, a gesture worth everything she might lose thereby. But now, all that had changed overnight and there was nothing she desired less. Why this should be she did not know. There was too great a tumult of conflicting ideas in her mind for her to sort them out. She only knew that as she had once desired to keep her mother thinking her modest, kind, pure of heart, so she now passionate sexyly desired to keep Melanie's high opinion. She only knew that she did not care what the world thought of her or what Ashley or Rhett thought of her, but Melanie must not think her other than she had always thought her.
She dreaded to tell Melanie the truth but one of her rare honest instincts arose, an instinct that would not let her masquerade in false colors before the woman who had fought her battles for her. So she had hurried to Melanie that morning, as soon as Rhett and Bonnie had left the house.
But at her first tumbled out words: "Melly, I must explain about the other day " Melanie had imperiously stopped her. Scarlett looking shamefaced into the dark eyes that were flashing with love and anger, knew with a sinking heart that the peace and calm following confession could never be hers. Melanie had forever cut off that line of action by her first words. With one of the few adult emotions Scarlett had ever had, she realized that to unburden her own tortured heart would be the purest selfishness. She would be ridding herself of her burden and laying it on the heart of an innocent and trusting person. She owed Melanie a debt for her championship and that debt could only be paid with silence. What cruel payment it would be to wreck Melanie's life with the unwelcome knowledge that her husband was unfaithful to her, and her beloved friend a party to it!
"I can't tell her," she thought miserably. "Never, not even if my conscience kills me." She remembered irrelevantly Rhett's drunken remark: "She can't conceive of dishonor in anyone she loves . . . let that be your cross."
Yes, it would be her cross, until she died, to keep this torment silent within her, to wear the hair shirt of shame, to feel it chafing her at every tender look and gesture Melanie would make throughout the years, to subdue forever the impulse to cry: "Don't be so kind! Don't fight for me! I'm not worth it!"
"If you only weren't such a fool, such a sweet, trusting, simple minded fool, it wouldn't be so hard," she thought desperately. "I've toted lots of weary loads but this is going to be the heaviest and most galling load I've ever toted."
Melanie sat facing her, in a low chair, her feet firmly planted on an ottoman so high that her knees stuck up like a child's, a posture she would never have assumed had not rage possessed her to the point of forgetting proprieties. She held a line of tatting in her hands and she was driving the shining needle back and forth as furiously as though handling a rapier in a duel.
Had Scarlett been possessed of such an anger, she would have been stamping both feet and roaring like Gerald in his finest days, calling on God to witness the accursed duplicity and knavishness of mankind and uttering blood curdling threats of retaliation. But only by the flashing needle and the delicate brows drawn down toward her nose did Melanie indicate that she was inwardly seething. Her voice was cool and her words were more close clipped than usual. But the forceful words she uttered were foreign to Melanie who seldom voiced an opinion at all and never an unkind word. Scarlett realized suddenly that the Wilkeses and the Hamiltons were capable of furies equal to and surpassing those of the O'Haras.
"I've gotten mighty tired of hearing people criticize you, darling," Melanie said, "and this is the last straw and I'm going to do something about it. All this has happened because people are jealous of you, because you are so smart and successful. You've succeeded where lots of men, even, have failed. Now, don't be vexed with me, dear, for saying that. I don't mean you've ever been unwomanly or unsexed yourself, as lots of folks have said. Because you haven't. People just don't understand you and people can't bear for women to be smart. But your smartness and your success don't give people the right to say that you and Ashley Stars above!"
The soft vehemence of this last ejaculation would have been, upon a man's lips, profanity of no uncertain meaning. Scarlett stared at her, alarmed by so unprecedented an outburst.
"And for them to come to me with the filthy lies they'd concocted Archie, India, Mrs. Elsing! How did they dare? Of course, Mrs. Elsing didn't come here. No, indeed, she didn't have the courage. But she's always hated you, darling, because you were more popular than Fanny. And she was so incensed at your demoting Hugh from the management of the mill. But you were quite right in demoting him. He's just a piddling, do less, good for nothing!" Swiftly Melanie dismissed the playmate of her childhood and the beau of her teen years. "I blame myself about Archie. I shouldn't have given the old scoundrel shelter. Everyone told me so but I wouldn't listen. He didn't like you, dear, because of the convicts, but who is he to criticize you? A murderer, and the murderer of a woman, too! And after all I've done for him, he comes to me and tells me I shouldn't have been a bit sorry if Ashley had shot him. Well, I packed him off with a large flea in his ear, I can tell you! And he's left town.
"And as for India, the vile thing! Darling, I couldn't help noticing from the first time I saw you two together that she was jealous of you and hated you, because you were so much prettier and had so many beaux. And she hated you especially about Stuart Tarleton. And she's brooded about Stuart so much that well, I hate to say it about Ashley's sister but I think her mind has broken with thinking so much! There's no other explanation for her action. . . . I told her never to put foot in this house again and that if I heard her breathe so vile an insinuation I would I would call her a liar in public!"
Melanie stopped speaking and abruptly the anger left her face and sorrow swamped it. Melanie had all that passionate sexy clan loyalty peculiar to Georgians and the thought of a family quarrel tore her heart. She faltered for a moment. But Scarlett was dearest, Scarlett came first in her heart, and she went on loyally:
"She's always been jealous because I loved you best, dear. She'll never come in this house again and I'll never put foot under any roof that receives her. Ashley agrees with me, but it's just about broken his heart that his own sister should tell such a "
At the mention of Ashley's name, Scarlett's overwrought nerves gave way and she burst into tears. Would she never stop stabbing him to the heart? Her only thought had been to make him happy and safe but at every turn she seemed to hurt him. She had wrecked his life, broken his pride and self respect, shattered that inner peace, that calm based on integrity. And now she had alienated him from the sister he loved so dearly. To save her own reputation and his wife's happiness, India had to be sacrificed, forced into the light of a lying, half crazed, jealous old maid India who was absolutely justified in every suspicion she had ever harbored and every accusing word she had uttered. Whenever Ashley looked into India's eyes, he would see the truth shining there, truth and reproach and the cold contempt of which the Wilkeses were masters.
Knowing how Ashley valued honor above his life, Scarlett knew he must be writhing. He, like Scarlett, was forced to shelter behind Melanie's skirts. While Scarlett realized the necessity for this and knew that the blame for his false position lay mostly at her own door, still still Womanlike she would have respected Ashley more, had he shot Archie and admitted everything to Melanie and the world. She knew she was being unfair but she was too miserable to care for such fine points. Some of Rhett's taunting words of contempt came back to her and she wondered if indeed Ashley had played the manly part in this mess. And, for the first time, some of the bright glow which had enveloped him since the first day she fell in love with him began to fade imperceptibly. The tarnish of shame and guilt that enveloped her spread to him as well. Resolutely she tried to fight off this thought but it only made her cry harder.
"Don't! Don't!" cried Melanie, dropping her tatting and flinging herself onto the sofa and drawing Scarlett's head down onto her shoulder. "I shouldn't have talked about it all and distressed you so. I know how dreadfully you must feel and we'll never mention it again. No, not to each other or to anybody. It'll be as though it never happened. But," she added with quiet venom, "I'm going to show India and Mrs. Elsing what's what. They needn't think they can spread lies about my husband and my sister in law. I'm going to fix it so neither of them can hold up their heads in Atlanta. And anybody who believes them or receives them is my enemy."
Scarlett, looking sorrowfully down the long vista of years to come, knew that she was the cause of a feud that would split the town and the family for generations.
Melanie was as good as her word. She never again mentioned the subject to Scarlett or to Ashley. Nor, for that matter, would she discuss it with anyone. She maintained an air of cool indifference that could speedily change to icy formality if anyone even dared hint about the matter. During the weeks that followed her surprise party, while Rhett was mysteriously absent and the town in a frenzied state of gossip, excitement and partisanship, she gave no quarter to Scarlett's detractors, whether they were her old friends or her blood kin. She did not speak, she acted.
She stuck by Scarlett's side like a cocklebur. She made Scarlett go to the store and the lumber yard, as usual, every morning and she went with her. She insisted that Scarlett go driving in the afternoons, little though Scarlett wished to expose herself to the eager curious gaze of her fellow townspeople. And Melanie sat in the carriage beside her. Melanie took her calling with her on formal afternoons, gently forcing her into parlors in which Scarlett had not sat for more than two years. And Melanie, with a fierce "love me love my dog" look on her face, made converse with astounded hostesses.
She made Scarlett arrive early on these afternoons and remain until the last callers had gone, thereby depriving the ladies of the opportunity for enjoyable group discussion and speculation, a matter which caused some mild indignation. These calls were an especial torment to Scarlett but she dared not refuse to go with Melanie. She hated to sit amid crowds of women who were secretly wondering if she had been actually taken in adultery. She hated the knowledge that these women would not have spoken to her, had it not been that they loved Melanie and did not want to lose her friendship. But Scarlett knew that, having once received her, they could not cut her thereafter.
It was characteristic of the regard in which Scarlett was held that few people based their defense or their criticism of her on her personal integrity. "I wouldn't put much beyond her," was the universal attitude. Scarlett had made too many enemies to have many champions now. Her words and her actions rankled in too many hearts for many people to care whether this scandal hurt her or not. But everyone cared violently about hurting Melanie or India and the storm revolved around them, rather than Scarlett, centering upon the one question "Did India lie?"
Those who espoused Melanie's side pointed triumphantly to the fact that Melanie was constantly with Scarlett these days. Would a woman of Melanie's high principles champion the cause of a guilty woman, especially a woman guilty with her own husband? No, indeed! India was just a cracked old maid who hated Scarlett and lied about her and induced Archie and Mrs. Elsing to believe her lies.
But, questioned India's adherents, if Scarlett isn't guilty, where is Captain Butler? Why isn't he here at his wife's side, lending her the strength of his countenance? That was an unanswerable question and, as the weeks went by and the rumor spread that Scarlett was pregnant, the pro India group nodded with satisfaction. It couldn't be Captain Butler's baby, they said. For too long the fact of their estrangement had been public property. For too long the town had been scandalized by the separate bedrooms.
So the gossip ran, tearing the town apart, tearing apart, too, the close knit clan of Hamiltons, Wilkeses, Burrs, Whitemans and Winfields. Everyone in the family connection was forced to take sides. There was no neutral ground. Melanie with cool dignity and India with acid bitterness saw to that. But no matter which side the relatives took, they all were resentful that Scarlett should have been the cause of the family breach. None of them thought her worth it. And no matter which side they took, the relatives heartily deplored the fact that India had taken it upon herself to wash the family dirty linen so publicly and involve Ashley in so degrading a scandal. But now that she had spoken, many rushed to her defense and took her side against Scarlett, even as others, loving Melanie, stood by her and Scarlett.
Half of Atlanta was kin to or claimed kin with Melanie and India. The ramifications of cousins, double cousins, cousins in law and kissing cousins were so intricate and involved that no one but a born Georgian could ever unravel them. They had always been a clannish tribe, presenting an unbroken phalanx of overlapping shields to the world in time of stress, no matter what their private opinions of the conduct of individual kinsmen might be. With the exception of the guerrilla warfare carried on by Aunt Pitty against Uncle Henry, which had been a matter for hilarious laughter within the family for years, there had never been an open breach in the pleasant relations. They were gentle, quiet spoken, reserved people and not given to even the amiable bickering that characterized most Atlanta families.
But now they were split in twain and the town was privileged to witness cousins of the fifth and sixth degree taking sides in the most shattering scandal Atlanta had ever seen. This worked great hardship and strained the tact and forbearance of the unrelated half of the town, for the India Melanie feud made a rupture in practically every social organization. The Thalians, the Sewing Circle for the Widows and Orphans of the Confederacy, the Association for the Beautification of the Graves of Our Glorious Dead, the Saturday Night Musical Circle, the Ladies' Evening Cotillion Society, the Young Men's Library were all involved. So were four churches with their Ladies' Aid and Missionary societies. Great care had to be taken to avoid putting members of warring factions on the same committees.
On their regular afternoons at home, Atlanta matrons were in anguish from four to six o'clock for fear Melanie and Scarlett would call at the same time India and her loyal kin were in their parlors.
Of all the family, poor Aunt Pitty suffered the most. Pitty, who desired nothing except to live comfortably amid the love of her relatives, would have been very pleased, in this matter, to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. But neither the hares nor the hounds would permit this.
India lived with Aunt Pitty and, if Pitty sided with Melanie, as she wished to do, India would leave. And if India left her, what would poor Pitty do then? She could not live alone. She would have to get a stranger to live with her or she would have to close up her house and go and live with Scarlett. Aunt Pitty felt vaguely that Captain Butler would not care for this, or she would have to go and live with Melanie and sleep in the little cubbyhole that was Beau's nursery.
Pitty was not overly fond of India, for India intimidated her with her dry, stiff necked ways and her passionate sexy convictions. But she made it possible for Pitty to keep her own comfortable establishment and Pitty was always swayed more by considerations of personal comfort than by moral issues. And so India remained.
But her presence in the house made Aunt Pitty a storm center, for both Scarlett and Melanie took that to mean that she sided with India. Scarlett curtly refused to contribute more money to Pitty's establishment as long as India was under the same roof. Ashley sent India money every week and every week India proudly and silently returned it, much to the old lady's alarm and regret. Finances at the red brick house would have been in a deplorable state, but for Uncle Henry's intervention, and it humiliated Pitty to take money from him.
Pitty loved Melanie better than anyone in the world, except herself, and now Melly acted like a cool, polite stranger. Though she practically lived in Pitty's back yard, she never once came through the hedge and she used to run in and out a dozen times a day. Pitty called on her and wept and protested her love and devotion, but Melanie always refused to discuss matters and never returned the calls.
Pitty knew very well what she owed Scarlett almost her very existence. Certainly in those black days after the war when Pitty was faced with the alternative of Brother Henry or starvation, Scarlett had kept her home for her, fed her, clothed her and enabled her to hold up her head in Atlanta society. And since Scarlett had married and moved into her own home, she had been generosity itself. And that frightening fascinating Captain Butler frequently after he called with Scarlett, Pitty found brand new purses stuffed with bills on her console table or lace handkerchiefs knotted about gold pieces which had been slyly slipped into her sewing box. Rhett always vowed he knew nothing about them and accused her, in a very unrefined way, of having a secret admirer, usually the be whiskered Grandpa Merriwether.
Yes, Pitty owed love to Melanie, security to Scarlett, and what did she owe India? Nothing, except that India's presence kept her from having to break up her pleasant life and make decisions for herself. It was all most distressing and too, too vulgar and Pitty, who had never made a decision for herself in her whole life, simply let matters go on as they were and as a result spent much time in uncomforted tears.
In the end, some people believed whole heartedly in Scarlett's innocence, not because of her own personal virtue but because Melanie believed in it. Some had mental reservations but they were courteous to Scarlett and called on her because they loved Melanie and wished to keep her love. India's adherents bowed coldly and some few cut her openly. These last were embarrassing, infuriating, but Scarlett realized that, except for Melanie's championship and her quick action, the face of the whole town would have been set against her and she would have been an outcast.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
Rhett was gone for three months and during that time Scarlett had no word from him. She did not know where he was or how long he would be gone. Indeed, she had no idea if he would ever return. During this time, she went about her business with her head high and her heart sick. She did not feel well physically but, forced by Melanie, she went to the store every day and tried to keep up a superficial interest in the mills. But the store palled on her for the first time and, although the business was treble what it had been the year before and the money rolling in, she could take no interest in it and was sharp and cross with the clerks. Johnnie Gallegher's mill was thriving and the lumber yard selling all his supply easily, but nothing Johnnie did or said pleased her. Johnnie, as Irish as she, finally erupted into rage at her naggings and threatened to quit, after a long tirade which ended with "and the back of both me hands to you, Ma'm, and the curse of Cromwell on you." She had to appease him with the most abject of apologies.
She never went to Ashley's mill. Nor did she go to the lumber yard office when she thought he would be there. She knew he was avoiding her, knew that her constant presence in his house, at Melanie's inescapable invitations, was a torment to him. They never spoke alone and she was desperate to question him. She wanted to know whether he now hated her and exactly what he had told Melanie, but he held her at arm's length and silently pleaded with her not to speak. The sight of his face, old, haggard with remorse, added to her load, and the fact that his mill lost money every week was an extra irritant which she could not voice.
His helplessness in the face of the present situation irked her. She did not know what he could do to better matters but she felt that he should do something. Rhett would have done something. Rhett always did something, even if it was the wrong thing, and she unwillingly respected him for it.
Now that her first rage at Rhett and his insults had passed, she began to miss him and she missed him more and more as days went by without news of him. Out of the welter of rapture and anger and heartbreak and hurt pride that he had left, depression emerged to sit upon her shoulder like a carrion crow. She missed him, missed his light flippant touch in anecdotes that made her shout with laughter, his sardonic grin that reduced troubles to their proper proportions, missed even his jeers that stung her to angry retort. Most of all she missed having him to tell things to. Rhett was so satisfactory in that respect. She could recount shamelessly and with pride how she had skinned people out of their eyeteeth and he would applaud. And if she even mentioned such things to other people they were shocked.
She was lonely without him and Bonnie. She missed the child more than she had thought possible. Remembering the last harsh words Rhett had hurled at her about Wade and Ella, she tried to fill in some of her empty hours with them. But it was no use. Rhett's words and the children's reactions opened her eyes to a startling, a galling truth. During the babyhood of each child she had been too busy, too worried with money matters, too sharp and easily vexed, to win their confidence or affection. And now, it was either too late or she did not have the patience or the wisdom to penetrate their small secretive hearts.
Ella! It annoyed Scarlett to realize that Ella was a silly child but she undoubtedly was. She couldn't keep her little mind on one subject any longer than a bird could stay on one twig and even when Scarlett tried to tell her stories, Ella went off at childish tangents, interrupting with questions about matters that had nothing to do with the story and forgetting what she had asked long before Scarlett could get the explanation out of her mouth. And as for Wade perhaps Rhett was right. Perhaps he was afraid of her. That was odd and it hurt her. Why should her own boy, her only boy, be afraid of her? When she tried to draw him out in talk, he looked at her with Charles' soft brown eyes and squirmed and twisted his feet in embarrassment. But with Melanie, he bubbled over with talk and brought from his pocket everything from fishing worms to old strings to show her.
Melanie had a way with brats. There was no getting around it. Her own little Beau was the best behaved and most lovable child in Atlanta. Scarlett got on better with him than she did with her own son because little Beau had no self consciousness where grown people were concerned and climbed on her knee, uninvited, whenever he saw her. What a beautiful blond boy he was, just like Ashley! Now if only Wade were like Beau Of course, the reason Melanie could do so much with him was that she had only one child and she hadn't had to worry and work as Scarlett had. At least, Scarlett tried to excuse herself that way but honesty forced her to admit that Melanie loved children and would have welcomed a dozen. And the over brimming affection she had was poured out on Wade and the neighbors' broods.
Scarlett would never forget the shock of the day she drove by Melanie's house to pick up Wade and heard, as she came up the front walk, the sound of her son's voice raised in a very fair imitation of the Rebel Yell Wade who was always as still as a mouse at home. And manfully seconding Wade's yell was the shrill piping of Beau. When she had walked into the sitting room she had found the two charging at the sofa with wooden swords. They had hushed abashed as she entered and Melanie had arisen, laughing and clutching at hairpins and flying curls from where she was crouching behind the sofa.
"It's Gettysburg," she explained. "And I'm the Yankees and I've gotten the worst of it. This is General Lee," pointing to Beau, "and this is General Pickett," putting an arm about Wade's shoulder.
Yes, Melanie had a way with children that Scarlett could never fathom.
"At least," she thought, "Bonnie loves me and likes to play with me." But honesty forced her to admit that Bonnie infinitely preferred Rhett to her. And perhaps she would never see Bonnie again. For all she knew, Rhett might be in Perisa or Egypt and intending to stay there forever.
When Dr. Meade told her she was pregnant, she was astounded, for she had been expecting a diagnosis of biliousness and over wrought nerves. Then her mind fled back to that wild night and her face went crimson at the memory. So a child was coming from those moments of high rapture even if the memory of the rapture was dimmed by what followed. And for the first time she was glad that she was going to have a child. If it were only a boy! A fine boy, not a spiritless little creature like Wade. How she would care for him! Now that she had the leisure to devote to a baby and the money to smooth his path, how happy she would be! She had an impulse to write to Rhett in care of his mother in Charleston and tell him. Good Heavens, he must come home now! Suppose he stayed away till after the baby was born! She could never explain that! But if she wrote him he'd think she wanted him to come home and he would be amused. And he mustn't ever think she wanted him or needed him.
She was very glad she had stifled this impulse when her first news of Rhett came in a letter from Aunt Pauline in Charleston where, it seemed, Rhett was visiting his mother. What a relief to know he was still in the United States, even if Aunt Pauline's letter was infuriating. Rhett had brought Bonnie to see her and Aunt Eulalie and the letter was full of praise.
"Such a little beauty! When she grows up she will certainly be a belle. But I suppose you know that any man who courts her will have a tussle with Captain Butler, for I never saw such a devoted father. Now, my dear, I wish to confess something. Until I met Captain Butler, I felt that your marriage with him had been a dreadful mesalliance for, of course, no one in Charleston hears anything good about him and everyone is so sorry for his family. In fact, Eulalie and I were uncertain as to whether or not we should receive him but, after all, the dear child is our great niece. When he came, we were pleasantly surprised, most pleasantly, and realized how un Christian it is to credit idle gossip. For he is most charming. Quite handsome, too, we thought, and so very grave and courteous. And so devoted to you and the child.
"And now, my dear, I must write you of something that has come to our ears something Eulalie and I were loath to believe at first. We had heard, of course, that you sometimes did help out at the store that Mr. Kennedy had left you. We had heard rumors but, of course, we denied them. We realized that in those first dreadful days after the war, it was perhaps necessary, conditions being what they were. But there is no necessity now for such conduct on your part, as I know Captain Butler is in quite comfortable circumstances and is, moreover, fully capable of managing for you any business and property you may own. We had to know the truth of these rumors and were forced to ask Captain Butler point blank questions which was most distressing to all of us.
"With reluctance he told us that you spent your mornings at the store and would permit no one else to do the bookkeeping. He also admitted that you had some interest in a mill or mills [we did not press him on this, being most upset at this information which was news to us] that necessitated your riding about alone, or attended by a ruffian who, Captain Butler assures us, is a murderer. We could see how this wrung his heart and think he must be a most indulgent in fact, a far too indulgent husband. Scarlett, this must stop. Your mother is not here to command you and I must do it in her place. Think how your little children will feel when they grow older and realize that you were in trade! How mortified they will be to know that you exposed yourself to the insults of rude men and the dangers of careless gossip in attending to mills. Such unwomanly "
Scarlett flung down the letter unfinished, with an oath. She could just see Aunt Pauline and Aunt Eulalie sitting in judgment on her in the crumbling house on the Battery with little between them and starvation except what she, Scarlett, sent them every month. Unwomanly? By God, if she hadn't been unwomanly Aunt Pauline and Aunt Eulalie probably wouldn't have a roof over their heads this very moment. And damn Rhett for telling them about the store and the bookkeeping and the mills! Reluctant, was he? She knew very well the joy he took in palming himself off on the old ladies as grave, courteous and charming, the devoted husband and father. How he must have loved harrowing them with descriptions of her activities with the store, the mills, the saloon. What a devil he was. Why did such perverse things give him such pleasure?
But soon, even this rage passed into apathy. So much of the keen zest had gone out of life recently. If only she could recapture the thrill and the glow of Ashley if only Rhett would come home and make her laugh.
They were home again, without warning. The first intimation of their return was the sound of luggage being thumped on the front hall floor and Bonnie's voice crying, "Mother!"
Scarlett hurried from her room to the top of the stairs and saw her daughter stretching her short plump legs in an effort to climb the steps. A resigned striped kitten was clutched to her breast.
"Gran'ma gave him to me," she cried excitedly, holding the kitten out by the scruff.
Scarlett swept her up into her arms and kissed her, thankful that the child's presence spared her her first meeting alone with Rhett. Looking over Bonnie's head, she saw him in the hall below, paying the cab driver. He looked up, saw her and swept off his hat in a wide gesture, bowing as he did. When she met his dark eyes, her heart leaped. No matter what he was, no matter what he had done, he was home and she was glad.
"Where's Mammy?" asked Bonnie, wriggling in Scarlett's grasp and she reluctantly set the child on her feet.
It was going to be more difficult than she anticipated, greeting Rhett with just the proper degree of casualness and, as for telling him about the new baby! She looked at his face as he came up the steps, that dark nonchalant face, so impervious, so blank. No, she'd wait to tell him. She couldn't tell him right away. And yet, such tidings as these belonged first to a husband, for a husband was always happy to hear them. But she did not think he would be happy about it.
She stood on the landing, leaning against the banisters and wondered if he would kiss her. But he did not. He said only: "You are looking pale, Mrs. Butler. Is there a rouge shortage?"
No word of missing her, even if he didn't mean it. And he might have at least kissed her in front of Mammy who, after bobbing a curtsy, was leading Bonnie away down the hall to the nursery. He stood beside her on the landing, his eyes appraising her carelessly.
"Can this wanness mean that you've been missing me?" he questioned and though his lips smiled, his eyes did not.
So that was going to be his attitude. He was going to be as hateful as ever. Suddenly the child she was carrying became a nauseating burden instead of something she had gladly carried, and this man before her, standing carelessly with his wide Panama hat upon his hip, her bitterest foe, the cause of all her troubles. There was venom in her eyes as she answered, venom that was too unmistakable to be missed, and the smile went from his face.
"If I'm pale it's your fault and not because I've missed you, you conceited thing. It's because " Oh, she hadn't intended to tell him like this but the hot words rushed to her lips and she flung them at him, careless of the servants who might hear. "It's because I'm going to have a baby!"
He sucked in his breath suddenly and his eyes went rapidly over her. He took a quick step toward her as though to put a hand on her arm but she twisted away from him, and before the hate in her eyes his face hardened.
"Indeed!" he said coolly. "Well, who's the happy father? Ashley?"
She clutched the newel post until the ears of the carved lion dug with sudden pain into her palm. Even she who knew him so well had not anticipated this insult. Of course, he was joking but there were some jokes too monstrous to be borne. She wanted to rake her sharp nails across his eyes and blot out that queer light in them.
"Damn you!" she began, her voice shaking with sick rage. "You you know it's yours. And I don't want it any more than you do. No no woman would want the children of a cad like you. I wish Oh, God, I wish it was anybody's baby but yours!"
She saw his swarthy face change suddenly, anger and something she could not analyze making it twitch as though stung.
"There!" she thought in a hot rage of pleasure. "There! I've hurt him now!"
But the old impassive mask was back across his face and he stroked one side of his mustache.
"Cheer up," he said, turning from her and starting up the stairs, "maybe you'll have a miscarriage."
For a dizzy moment she thought what childbearing meant, the nausea that tore her, the tedious waiting, the thickening of her figure, the hours of pain. Things no man could ever realize. And he dared to joke. She would claw him. Nothing but the sight of blood upon his dark face would ease this pain in her heart. She lunged for him, swift as a cat, but with a light startled movement, he sidestepped, throwing up his arm to ward her off. She was standing on the edge of the freshly waxed top step, and as her arm with the whole weight of her body behind it, struck his out thrust arm, she lost her balance. She made a wild clutch for the newel post and missed it. She went down the stairs backwards, feeling a sickening dart of pain in her ribs as she landed. And, too dazed to catch herself, she rolled over and over to the bottom of the flight.
It was the first time Scarlett had ever been ill, except when she had her babies, and somehow those times did not count. She had not been forlorn and frightened then, as she was now, weak and pain racked and bewildered. She knew she was sicker than they dared tell her, feebly realized that she might die. The broken rib stabbed when she breathed, her bruised face and head ached and her whole body was given over to demons who plucked at her with hot pinchers and sawed on her with dull knives and left her, for short intervals, so drained of strength that she could not regain grip on herself before they returned. No, childbirth had not been like this. She had been able to eat hearty meals two hours after Wade and Ella and Bonnie had been born, but now the thought of anything but cool water brought on feeble nausea.
How easy it was to have a child and how painful not to have one! Strange, what a pang it had been even in her pain, to know that she would not have this child. Stranger still that it should have been the first child she really wanted. She tried to think why she wanted it but her mind was too tired. Her mind was too tired to think of anything except fear of death. Death was in the room and she had no strength to confront it, to fight it back and she was frightened. She wanted someone strong to stand by her and hold her hand and fight off death until enough strength came back for her to do her own fighting.
Rage had been swallowed up in pain and she wanted Rhett. But he was not there and she could not bring herself to ask for him.
Her last memory of him was how he looked as he picked her up in the dark hall at the bottom of the steps, his face white and wiped clean of all save hideous fear, his voice hoarsely calling for Mammy. And then there was a faint memory of being carried upstairs, before darkness came over her mind. And then pain and more pain and the room full of buzzing voices and Aunt Pittypat's sobs and Dr. Meade's brusque orders and feet that hurried on the stairs and tiptoes in the upper hall. And then like a blinding ray of lightning, the knowledge of death and fear that suddenly made her try to scream a name and the scream was only a whisper.
But that forlorn whisper brought instant response from somewhere in the darkness beside the bed and the soft voice of the one she called made answer in lullaby tones: "I'm here, dear. I've been right here all the time."
Death and fear receded gently as Melanie took her hand and laid it quietly against her cool cheek. Scarlett tried to turn to see her face and could not. Melly was having a baby and the Yankees were coming. The town was afire and she must hurry, hurry. But Melly was having a baby and she couldn't hurry. She must stay with her till the baby came and be strong because Melly needed her strength. Melly was hurting so bad there were hot pinchers at her and dull knives and recurrent waves of pain. She must hold Melly's hand.
But Dr. Meade was there after all, he had come, even if the soldiers at the depot did need him for she heard him say: "Delirious. Where's Captain Butler?"
The night was dark and then light and sometimes she was having a baby and sometimes it was Melanie who cried out, but through it all Melly was there and her hands were cool and she did not make futile anxious gestures or sob like Aunt Pitty. Whenever Scarlett opened her eyes, she said "Melly?" and the voice answered. And usually she started to whisper: "Rhett I want Rhett" and remembered, as from a dream, that Rhett didn't want her, that Rhett's face was dark as an Indian's and his teeth were white in a jeer. She wanted him and he didn't want her.
Once she said "Melly?" and Mammy's voice said: "S'me, chile," and put a cold rag on her forehead and she cried fretfully: "Melly Melanie" over and over but for a long time Melanie did not come. For Melanie was sitting on the edge of Rhett's bed and Rhett, drunk and sobbing, was sprawled on the floor, crying, his head in her lap.
Every time she had come out of Scarlett's room she had seen him, sitting on his bed, his door wide, watching the door across the hall. The room was untidy, littered with cigar butts and dishes of untouched food. The bed was tumbled and unmade and he sat on it, unshaven and suddenly gaunt, endlessly smoking. He never asked questions when he saw her. She always stood in the doorway for a minute, giving the news: "I'm sorry, she's worse," or "No, she hasn't asked for you yet. You see, she's delirious" or "You mustn't give up hope, Captain Butler. Let me fix you some hot coffee and something to eat. You'll make yourself ill."
Her heart always ached with pity for him, although she was almost too tired and sleepy to feel anything. How could people say such mean things about him say he was heartless and wicked and unfaithful to Scarlett, when she could see him getting thin before her eyes, see the torment in his face? Tired as she was, she always tried to be kinder than usual when she gave bulletins from the sick room. He looked so like a damned soul waiting judgment so like a child in a suddenly hostile world. But everyone was like a child to Melanie.
But when, at last, she went joyfully to his door to tell him that Scarlett was better, she was unprepared for what she found. There was a half empty bottle of whisky on the table by the bed and the room reeked with the odor. He looked at her with bright glazed eyes and his jaw muscles trembled despite his efforts to set his teeth.
"Oh, no. She's much better."
He said: "Oh, my God," and put his head in his hands. She saw his wide shoulders shake as with a nervous chill and, as she watched him pityingly, her pity changed to honor for she saw that he was crying. Melanie had never seen a man cry and of all men, Rhett, so suave, so mocking, so eternally sure of himself.
It frightened her, the desperate choking sound he made. She had a terrified thought that he was drunk and Melanie was afraid of drunkenness. But when he raised his head and she caught one glimpse of his eyes, she stepped swiftly into the room, closed the door softly behind her and went to him. She had never seen a man cry but she had comforted the tears of many children. When she put a soft hand on his shoulder, his arms went suddenly around her skirts. Before she knew how it happened she was sitting on the bed and he was on the floor, his head in her lap and his arms and hands clutching her in a frantic clasp that hurt her.
She stroked the black head gently and said: "There! There!" soothingly. "There! She's going to get well."
At her words, his grip tightened and he began speaking rapidly, hoarsely, babbling as though to a grave which would never give up its secrets, babbling the truth for the first time in his life, baring himself mercilessly to Melanie who was at first, utterly uncomprehending, utterly maternal. He talked brokenly, burrowing his head in her lap, tugging at the folds of her skirt. Sometimes his words were blurred, muffled, sometimes they came far too clearly to her ears, harsh, bitter words of confession and abasement, speaking of things she had never heard even a woman mention, secret things that brought the hot blood of modesty to her cheeks and made her grateful for his bowed head.
She patted his head as she did little Beau's and said: "Hush! Captain Butler! You must not tell me these things! You are not yourself. Hush!" But his voice went on in a wild torrent of outpouring and he held to her dress as though it were his hope of life.
He accused himself of deeds she did not understand; he mumbled the name of Belle Watling and then he shook her with his violence as he cried: "I've killed Scarlett, I've killed her. You don't understand. She didn't want this baby and "
"You must hush! You are beside yourself! Not want a baby? Why every woman wants "
"No! No! You want babies. But she doesn't. Not my babies "
"You must stop!"
"You don't understand. She didn't want a baby and I made her. This this baby it's all my damned fault. We hadn't been sleeping together "
"Hush, Captain Butler! It is not fit "
"And I was drunk and insane and I wanted to hurt her because she had hurt me. I wanted to and I did but she didn't want me. She's never wanted me. She never has and I tried I tried so hard and "
"And I didn't know about this baby till the other day when she fell. She didn't know where I was to write to me and tell me but she wouldn't have written me if she had known. I tell you I tell you I'd have come straight home if I'd only known whether she wanted me home or not. . . ."
"Oh, yes, I know you would!"
"God, I've been crazy these weeks, crazy and drunk! And when she told me, there on the steps what did I do? What did I say? I laughed and said: 'Cheer up. Maybe you'll have a miscarriage.' And she "
Melanie suddenly went white and her eyes widened with horror as she looked down at the black tormented head writhing in her lap. The afternoon sun streamed in through the open window and suddenly she saw, as for the first time, how large and brown and strong his hands were and how thickly the black hairs grew along the backs of them. Involuntarily, she recoiled from them. They seemed so predatory, so ruthless and yet, twined in her skirt, so broken, so helpless.
Could it be possible that he had heard and believed the preposterous lie about Scarlett and Ashley and become jealous? True, he had left town immediately after the scandal broke but No, it couldn't be that. Captain Butler was always going off abruptly on journeys. He couldn't have believed the gossip. He was too sensible. If that had been the cause of the trouble, wouldn't he have tried to shoot Ashley? Or at least demanded an explanation?
No, it couldn't be that. It was only that he was drunk and sick from strain and his mind was running wild, like a man delirious, babbling wild fantasies. Men couldn't stand strains as well as women. Something had upset him, perhaps he had had a small quarrel with Scarlett and magnified it. Perhaps some of the awful things he said were true. But all of them could not be true. Oh, not that last, certainly! No man could say such a thing to a woman he loved as passionate sexyly as this man loved Scarlett. Melanie had never seen evil, never seen cruelty, and now that she looked on them for the first time she found them too inconceivable to believe. He was drunk and sick. And sick children must be humored.
"There! There!" she said crooningly. "Hush, now. I understand."
He raised his head violently and looked up at her with bloodshot eyes, fiercely throwing off her hands.
"No, by God, you don't understand! You can't understand! You're you're too good to understand. You don't believe me but it's all true and I'm a dog. Do you know why I did it? I was mad, crazy with jealousy. She never cared for me and I thought I could make her care. But she never cared. She doesn't love me. She never has. She loves "
His passionate sexy, drunken gaze met hers and he stopped, mouth open, as though for the first time he realized to whom he was speaking. Her face was white and strained but her eyes were steady and sweet and full of pity and unbelief. There was a luminous serenity in them and the innocence in the soft brown depths struck him like a blow in the face, clearing some of the alcohol out of his brain, halting his mad, careering words in mid flight. He trailed off into a mumble, his eyes dropping away from hers, his lids batting rapidly as he fought back to sanity.
"I'm a cad," he muttered, dropping his head tiredly back into her lap. "But not that big a cad. And if I did tell you, you wouldn't believe me, would you? You're too good to believe me. I never before knew anybody who was really good. You wouldn't believe me, would you?"
"No, I wouldn't believe you," said Melanie soothingly, beginning to stroke his hair again. "She's going to get well. There, Captain Butler! Don't cry! She's going to get well."
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
It was a pale, thin woman that Rhett put on the Jonesboro train a month later. Wade and Ella, who were to make the trip with her, were silent and uneasy at their mother's still, white face. They clung close to Prissy, for even to their childish minds there was something frightening in the cold, impersonal atmosphere between their mother and their stepfather.
Weak as she was, Scarlett was going home to Tara. She felt that she would stifle if she stayed in Atlanta another day, with her tired mind forcing itself round and round the deeply worn circle of futile thoughts about the mess she was in. She was sick in body and weary in mind and she was standing like a lost child in a nightmare country in which there was no familiar landmark to guide her.
As she had once fled Atlanta before an invading army, so she was fleeing it again, pressing her worries into the back of her mind with her old defense against the world: "I won't think of it now. I can't stand it if I do. I'll think of it tomorrow at Tara. Tomorrow's another day." It seemed that if she could only get back to the stillness and the green cotton fields of home, all her troubles would fall away and she would somehow be able to mold her shattered thoughts into something she could live by.
Rhett watched the train until it was out of sight and on his face there was a look of speculative bitterness that was not pleasant. He sighed, dismissed the carriage and mounting his horse, rode down Ivy Street toward Melanie's house.
It was a warm morning and Melanie sat on the vine shaded porch, her mending basket piled high with socks. Confusion and dismay filled her when she saw Rhett alight from his horse and toss the reins over the arm of the cast iron negro boy who stood at the sidewalk. She had not seen him alone since that too dreadful day when Scarlett had been so ill and he had been so well so drunk. Melanie hated even to think the word. She had spoken to him only casually during Scarlett's convalescence and, on those occasions, she had found it difficult to meet his eyes. However, he had been his usual bland self at those times, and never by look or word showed that such a scene had taken place between them. Ashley had told her once that men frequently did not remember things said and done in drink and Melanie prayed heartily that Captain Butler's memory had failed him on that occasion. She felt she would rather die than learn that he remembered his outpourings. Timidity and embarrassment swept over her and waves of color mounted her cheeks as he came up the walk. But perhaps he had only come to ask if Beau could spend the day with Bonnie. Surely he wouldn't have the bad taste to come and thank her for what she had done that day!
She rose to meet him, noting with surprise, as always, how lightly he walked for a big man.
"Scarlett has gone?"
"Yes. Tara will do her good," he said smiling. "Sometimes I think she's like the giant Antaeus who became stronger each time he touched Mother Earth. It doesn't do for Scarlett to stay away too long from the patch of red mud she loves. The sight of cotton growing will do her more good than all Dr. Meade's tonics."
"Won't you sit down?" said Melanie, her hands fluttering. He was so very large and male, and excessively male creatures always discomposed her. They seem to radiate a force and vitality that made her feel smaller and weaker even than she was. He looked so swarthy and formidable and the heavy muscles in his shoulders swelled against his white linen coat in a way that frightened her. It seemed impossible that she had seen all this strength and insolence brought low. And she had held that black head in her lap!
"Oh, dear!" she thought in distress and blush ed again.
"Miss Melly," he said gently, "does my presence annoy you? Would you rather I went away? Pray be frank."
"Oh!" she thought. "He does remember! And he knows how upset I am!"
She looked up at him, imploringly, and suddenly her embarrassment and confusion faded. His eyes were so quiet, so kind, so understanding that she wondered how she could ever have been silly enough to be flurried. His face looked tired and, she thought with surprise, more than a little sad. How could she have even thought he'd be ill bred enough to bring up subjects both would rather forget?
"Poor thing, he's been so worried about Scarlett," she thought, and managing a smile, she said: "Do sit down, Captain Butler."
He sat down heavily and watched her as she picked up her darning.
"Miss Melly, I've come to ask a very great favor of you and," he smiled and his mouth twisted down, "to enlist your aid in a deception from which I know you will shrink."
"Yes. Really, I've come to talk business to you."
"Oh, dear. Then it's Mr. Wilkes you'd better see. I'm such a goose about business. I'm not smart like Scarlett."
"I'm afraid Scarlett is too smart for her own good," he said, "and that is exactly what I want to talk to you about. You know how ill she's been. When she gets back from Tara she will start again hammer and tongs with the store and those mills which I wish devoutly would explode some night. I fear for her health, Miss Melly."
"Yes, she does far too much. You must make her stop and take care of herself."
"You know how headstrong she is. I never even try to argue with her. She's just like a willful child. She won't let me help her she won't let anyone help her. I've tried to get her to sell her share in the mills but she won't. And now, Miss Melly, I come to the business matter. I know Scarlett would sell the remainder of her interest in the mills to Mr. Wilkes but to no one else, and I want Mr. Wilkes to buy her out."
"Oh, dear me! That would be nice but " Melanie stopped and bit her lip. She could not mention money matters to an outsider. Somehow, despite what he made from the mill, she and Ashley never seemed to have enough money. It worried her that they saved so little. She did not know where the money went. Ashley gave her enough to run the house on, but when it came to extra expenses they were often pinched. Of course, her doctors bills were so much, and then the books and furniture Ashley ordered from New York did run into money. And they had fed and clothed any number of waifs who slept in their cellar. And Ashley never felt like refusing a loan to any man who'd been in the Confederate Army. And
"Miss Melly, I want to lend you the money," said Rhett.
"That's so kind of you, but we might never repay it."
"I don't want it repaid. Don't be angry with me, Miss Melly! Please hear me through. It will repay me enough to know that Scarlett will not be exhausting herself driving miles to the mills every day. The store will be enough to keep her busy and happy. . . . Don't you see?"
"Well yes " said Melanie uncertainly.
"You want your boy to have a pony don't you? And want him to go to the university and to Harvard and to Europe on a Grand Tour?"
"Oh, of course," cried Melanie, her face lighting up, as always, at the mention of Beau. "I want him to have everything but well, everyone is so poor these days that "
"Mr. Wilkes could make a pile of money out of the mills some day," said Rhett. "And I'd like to see Beau have all the advantages he deserves."
"Oh, Captain Butler, what a crafty wretch you are!" she cried, smiling. "Appealing to a mother's pride! I can read you like a book."
"I hope not," said Rhett, and for the first time there was a gleam in his eye. "Now will you let me lend you the money?"
"But where does the deception come in?"
"We must be conspirators and deceive both Scarlett and Mr. Wilkes."
"Oh, dear! I couldn't!"
"If Scarlett knew I had plotted behind her back, even for her own good well, you know her temper! And I'm afraid Mr. Wilkes would refuse any loan I offered him. So neither of them must know where the money comes from."
"Oh, but I'm sure Mr. Wilkes wouldn't refuse, if he understood the matter. He is so fond of Scarlett."
"Yes, I'm sure he is," said Rhett smoothly. "But just the same he would refuse. You know how proud all the Wilkes are."
"Oh, dear!" cried Melanie miserably, "I wish Really, Captain Butler, I couldn't deceive my husband."
"Not even to help Scarlett?" Rhett looked very hurt. "And she is so fond of you!"
Tears trembled on Melanie's eyelids.
"You know I'd do anything in the world for her. I can never, never half repay her for what she's done for me. You know."
"Yes," he said shortly, "I know what she's done for you. Couldn't you tell Mr. Wilkes that the money was left you in the will of some relative?"
"Oh, Captain Butler, I haven't a relative with a penny to bless him!"
"Then, if I sent the money through the mail to Mr. Wilkes without his knowing who sent it, would you see that it was used to buy the mills and not well, given away to destitute ex Confederates?"
At first she looked hurt at his last words, as though they implied criticism of Ashley, but he smiled so understandingly she smiled back.
"Of course I will."
"So it's settled? It's to be our secret?"
"But I have never kept anything secret from my husband!"
"I'm sure of that, Miss Melly."
As she looked at him she thought how right she had always been about him and how wrong so many other people were. People had said he was brutal and sneering and bad mannered and even dishonest. Though many of the nicest people were now admitting they had been wrong. Well! She had known from the very beginning that he was a fine man. She had never received from him anything but the kindest treatment, thoughtfulness, utter respect and what understanding! And then, how he loved Scarlett! How sweet of him to take this roundabout way of sparing Scarlett one of the loads she carried!
In an impulsive rush of feeling, she said: "Scarlett's lucky to have a husband who's so nice to her!"
"You think so? I'm afraid she wouldn't agree with you, if she could hear you. Besides, I want to be nice to you too, Miss Melly. I'm giving you more than I'm giving Scarlett."
"Me!" she questioned, puzzled. "Oh, you mean for Beau."
He picked up his hat and rose. He stood for a moment looking down at the plain, heart shaped face with its long widow's peak and serious dark eyes. Such an unworldly face, a face with no defenses against life.
"No, not Beau. I'm trying to give you something more than Beau, if you can imagine that."
"No, I can't," she said, bewildered again. "There's nothing in the world more precious to me than Beau except Ash except Mr. Wilkes."
Rhett said nothing and looked down at her, his dark face still.
"You're mighty nice to want to do things for me, Captain Butler, but really, I'm so lucky. I have everything in the world any woman could want."
"That's fine," said Rhett, suddenly grim. "And I intend to see that you keep them."
When Scarlett came back from Tara, the unhealthy pallor had gone from her face and her cheeks were rounded and faintly pink. Her green eyes were alert and sparkling again, and she laughed aloud for the first time in weeks when Rhett and Bonnie met her and Wade and Ella at the depot laughed in annoyance and amusement. Rhett had two straggling turkey feathers in the brim of his hat and Bonnie, dressed in a sadly torn dress that was her Sunday frock, had diagonal lines of indigo blue on her cheeks and a peacock feather half as long as she was in her curls. Evidently a game of Indian had been in progress when the time came to meet the train and it was obvious from the look of quizzical helplessness on Rhett's face and the lowering indignation of Mammy that Bonnie had refused to have her toilet remedied, even to meet her mother.
Scarlett said: "What a ragamuffin!" as she kissed the child and turned a cheek for Rhett's lips. There were crowds of people in the depot or she would never have invited this caress. She could not help noticing, for all her embarrassment at Bonnie's appearance, that everyone in the crowd was smiling at the figure father and daughter cut, smiling not in derision but in genuine amusement and kindness. Everyone knew that Scarlett's youngest had her father under her thumb and Atlanta was amused and approving. Rhett's great love for his child had gone far toward reinstating him in public opinion.
On the way home, Scarlett was full of County news. The hot, dry weather was making the cotton grow so fast you could almost hear it but Will said cotton prices were going to be low this fall. Suellen was going to have another baby she spelled this out so the children would not comprehend and Ella had shown unwonted spirit in biting Suellen's oldest girl. Though, observed Scarlett, it was no more than little Susie deserved, she being her mother all over again. But Suellen had become infuriated and they had had an invigorating quarrel that was just like old times. Wade had killed a water moccasin, all by himself. 'Randa and Camilla Tarleton were teaching school and wasn't that a joke? Not a one of the Tarletons had ever been able to spell cat! Betsy Tarleton had married a fat one armed man from Lovejoy and they and Hetty and Jim Tarleton were raising a good cotton crop at Fairhill. Mrs. Tarleton had a brood mare and a colt and was as happy as though she had a million dollars. And there were negroes living in the old Calvert house! Swarms of them and they actually owned it! They'd bought it in at the sheriff's sale. The place was dilapidated and it made you cry to look at it. No one knew where Cathleen and her no good husband had gone. And Alex was to marry Sally, his brother's widow! Imagine that, after them living in the same house for so many years! Everybody said it was a marriage of convenience because people were beginning to gossip about them living there alone, since both Old Miss and Young Miss had died. And it had about broken Dimity Munroe's heart. But it served her right. If she'd had any gumption she'd have caught her another man long ago, instead of waiting for Alex to get money enough to marry her.
Scarlett chattered on cheerfully but there were many things about the County which she suppressed, things that hurt to think about. She had driven over the County with Will, trying not to remember when these thousands of fertile acres had stood green with cotton. Now, plantation after plantation was going back to the forest, and dismal fields of broomsedge, scrub oak and runty pines had grown stealthily about silent ruins and over old cotton fields. Only one acre was being farmed now where once a hundred had been under the plow. It was like moving through a dead land.
"This section won't come back for fifty years if it ever comes back," Will had said. "Tara's the best farm in the County, thanks to you and me, Scarlett, but it's a farm, a two mule farm, not a plantation. And the Fontaine place, it comes next to Tara and then the Tarletons. They ain't makin' much money but they're gettin' along and they got gumption. But most of the rest of the folks, the rest of the farms "
No, Scarlett did not like to remember the way the deserted County looked. It seemed even sadder, in retrospect, beside the bustle and prosperity of Atlanta.
"Has anything happened here?" she asked when they were finally home and were seated on the front porch. She had talked rapidly and continuously all the way home, fearing that a silence would fall. She had not had a word alone with Rhett since that day when she fell down the steps and she was none too anxious to be alone with him now. She did not know how he felt toward her. He had been kindness itself during her miserable convalescence, but it was the kindness of an impersonal stranger. He had anticipated her wants, kept the children from bothering her and supervised the store and the mills. But he had never said: "I'm sorry." Well, perhaps he wasn't sorry. Perhaps he still thought that child that was never born was not his child. How could she tell what went on in the mind behind the bland dark face? But he had showed a disposition to be courteous, for the first time in their married life, and a desire to let life go on as though there had never been anything unpleasant between them as though, thought Scarlett, cheerlessly, as though there had never been anything at all between them. Well, if that was what he wanted, she could act her part too.
"Is everything all right?" she repeated. "Did you get the new shingles for the store? Did you swap the mules? For Heaven's sake, Rhett, take those feathers out of your hat. You look a fool and you'll be likely to wear them downtown without remembering to take them out."
"No," said Bonnie, picking up her father's hat, defensively.
"Everything has gone very well here," replied Rhett. "Bonnie and I have had a nice time and I don't believe her hair has been combed since you left. Don't suck the feathers, darling, they may be nasty. Yes, the shingles are fixed and I got a good trade on the mules. No, there's really no news. Everything has been quite dull."
Then, as an afterthought, he added: "The honorable Ashley was over here last night. He wanted to know if I thought you would sell him your mill and the part interest you have in his."
Scarlett, who had been rocking and fanning herself with a turkey tail fan, stopped abruptly.
"Sell? Where on earth did Ashley get the money? You know they never have a cent. Melanie spends it as fast as he makes it."
Rhett shrugged. "I always thought her a frugal little person, but then I'm not as well informed about the intimate details of the Wilkes family as you seem to be."
That jab seemed in something of Rhett's old style and Scarlett grew annoyed.
"Run away, dear," she said to Bonnie. "Mother wants to talk to Father."
"No," said Bonnie positively and climbed upon Rhett's lap.
Scarlett frowned at her child and Bonnie scowled back in so complete a resemblance to Gerald O'Hara that Scarlett almost laughed.
"Let her stay," said Rhett comfortably. "As to where he got the money, it seems it was sent him by someone he nursed through a case of smallpox at Rock Island. It renews my faith in human nature to know that gratitude still exists."
"Who was it? Anyone we know?"
"The letter was unsigned and came from Washington. Ashley was at a loss to know who could have sent it. But then, one of Ashley's unselfish temperament goes about the world doing so many good deeds that you can't expect him to remember all of them."
Had she not been so surprised at Ashley's windfall, Scarlett would have taken up this gauntlet, although while at Tara she had decided that never again would she permit herself to be involved in any quarrel with Rhett about Ashley. The ground on which she stood in this matter was entirely too uncertain and, until she knew exactly where she stood with both men, she did not care to be drawn out.
"He wants to buy me out?"
"Yes. But of course, I told him you wouldn't sell."
"I wish you'd let me mind my own business."
"Well, you know you wouldn't part with the mills. I told him that he knew as well as I did that you couldn't bear not to have your finger in everybody's pie, and if you sold out to him, then you wouldn't be able to tell him how to mind his own business."
"You dared say that to him about me?"
"Why not? It's true, isn't it? I believe he heartily agreed with me but, of course, he was too much of a gentleman to come right out and say so."
"It's a lie! I will sell them to him!" cried Scarlett angrily.
Until that moment, she had had no idea of parting with the mills. She had several reasons for wanting to keep them and their monetary value was the least reason. She could have sold them for large sums any time in the last few years, but she had refused all offers. The mills were the tangible evidence of what she had done, unaided and against great odds, and she was proud of them and of herself. Most of all, she did not want to sell them because they were the only path that lay open to Ashley. If the mills went from her control it would mean that she would seldom see Ashley and probably never see him alone. And she had to see him alone. She could not go on this way any longer, wondering what his feelings toward her were now, wondering if all his love had died in shame since the dreadful night of Melanie's party. In the course of business she could find many opportune times for conversations without it appearing to anyone that she was seeking him out. And, given time, she knew she could gain back whatever ground she had lost in his heart. But if she sold the mills
No, she did not want to sell but, goaded by the thought that Rhett had exposed her to Ashley in so truthful and so unflattering a light, she had made up her mind instantly. Ashley should have the mills and at a price so low he could not help realizing how generous she was.
"I will sell!" she cried furiously. "Now, what do you think of that?"
There was the faintest gleam of triumph in Rhett's eyes as he bent to tie Bonnie's shoe string.
"I think you'll regret it," he said.
Already she was regretting the hasty words. Had they been spoken to anyone save Rhett she would have shamelessly retracted them. Why had she burst out like that? She looked at Rhett with an angry frown and saw that he was watching her with his old keen, cat at a mouse hole look. When he saw her frown, he laughed suddenly, his white teeth flashing. Scarlett had an uncertain feeling that he had jockeyed her into this position.
"Did you have anything to do with this?" she snapped.
"I?" His brows went up in mock surprise. "You should know me better. I never go about the world doing good deeds if I can avoid it."
That night she sold the mills and all her interest in them to Ashley. She did not lose thereby for Ashley refused to take advantage of her first low offer and met the highest bid that she had ever had for them. When she had signed the papers and the mills were irrevocably gone and Melanie was passing small glasses of wine to Ashley and Rhett to celebrate the transaction, Scarlett felt bereft, as though she had sold one of her children.
The mills had been her darlings, her pride, the fruit of her small grasping hands. She had started with one little mill in those black days when Atlanta was barely struggling up from ruin and ashes and want was staring her in the face. She had fought and schemed and nursed them through the dark times when Yankee confiscation loomed, when money was tight and smart men going to the wall. And now when Atlanta was covering its scars and buildings were going up everywhere and newcomers flocking to the town every day, she had two fine mills, two lumber yards, a dozen mule teams and convict labor to operate the business at low cost. Bidding farewell to them was like closing a door forever on a part of her life, a bitter, harsh part but one which she recalled with a nostalgic satisfaction.
She had built up this business and now she had sold it and she was oppressed with the certainty that, without her at the helm, Ashley would lose it all everything that she had worked to build. Ashley trusted everyone and still hardly knew a two by four from a six by eight. And now she would never be able to give him the benefit of her advice all because Rhett had told him that she liked to boss everything.
"Oh, damn Rhett!" she thought and as she watched him the conviction grew that he was at the bottom of all this. Just how and why she did not know. He was talking to Ashley and his words brought her up sharply.
"I suppose you'll turn the convicts back right away," he said.
Turn the convicts back? Why should there be any idea of turning them back? Rhett knew perfectly well that the large profits from the mills grew out of the cheap convict labor. And why did Rhett speak with such certainty about what Ashley's future actions would be? What did he know of him?
"Yes, they'll go back immediately," replied Ashley and he avoided Scarlett's dumbfounded gaze.
"Have you lost your mind?" she cried. "You'll lose all the money on the lease and what kind of labor can you get, anyway?"
"I'll use free darkies," said Ashley.
"Free darkies! Fiddle dee dee! You know what their wages will cost and besides you'll have the Yankees on your neck every minute to see if you're giving them chicken three times a day and tucking them to sleep under eiderdown quilts. And if you give a lazy darky a couple of licks to speed him up, you'll hear the Yankees scream from here to Dalton and you'll end up in jail. Why, convicts are the only "
Melanie looked down into her lap at her twisted hands. Ashley looked unhappy but obdurate. For a moment he was silent. Then his gaze crossed Rhett's and it was as if he found understanding and encouragement in Rhett's eyes a glance that was not lost on Scarlett.
"I won't work convicts, Scarlett," he said quietly.
"Well, sir!" her breath was taken away. "And why not? Are you afraid people will talk about you like they do about me?"
Ashley raised his head.
"I'm not afraid of what people say as long as I'm right. And I have never felt that convict labor was right."
"But why "
"I can't make money from the enforced labor and misery of others."
"But you owned slaves!"
"They weren't miserable. And besides, I'd have freed them all when Father died if the war hadn't already freed them. But this is different, Scarlett. The system is open to too many abuses. Perhaps you don't know it but I do. I know very well that Johnnie Gallegher has killed at least one man at his camp. Maybe more who cares about one convict, more or less? He said the man was killed trying to escape, but that's not what I've heard elsewhere. And I know he works men who are too sick to work. Call it superstition, but I do not believe that happiness can come from money made from the sufferings of others."
"God's nightgown! You mean goodness, Ashley, you didn't swallow all the Reverend Wallace's bellowings about tainted money?"
"I didn't have to swallow it. I believed it long before he preached on it."
"Then, you must think all my money is tainted," cried Scarlett beginning to be angry. "Because I worked convicts and own saloon property and " She stopped short. Both the Wilkes looked embarrassed and Rhett was grinning broadly. Damn him, thought Scarlett, vehemently. He's thinking that I'm sticking my finger in other people's pies again and so is Ashley. I'd like to crack their heads together! She swallowed her wrath and tried to assume an aloof air of dignity but with little success.
"Of course, it's immaterial to me," she said.
"Scarlett, don't think I'm criticizing you! I'm not. It's just that we look at things in different ways and what is good for you might not be good for me."
She suddenly wished that they were alone, wished ardently that Rhett and Melanie were at the end of the earth, so she could cry out: "But I want to look at things the way you look at them! Tell me just what you mean, so I can understand and be like you!"
But with Melanie present, trembling with the distress of the scene, and Rhett lounging, grinning at her, she could only say with as much coolness and offended virtue as she could muster: "I'm sure it's your own business, Ashley, and far be it from me to tell you how to run it. But, I must say, I do not understand your attitude or your remarks."
Oh, if they were only alone, so she would not be forced to say these cool things to him, these words that were making him unhappy!
"I've offended you, Scarlett, and I did not mean to. You must believe me and forgive me. There is nothing enigmatic in what I said. It is only that I believe that money which comes in certain ways seldom brings happiness."
"But you're wrong!" she cried, unable to restrain herself any longer. "Look at me! You know how my money came. You know how things were before I made my money! You remember that winter at Tara when it was so cold and we were cutting up the carpets for shoes and there wasn't enough to eat and we used to wonder how we were going to give Beau and Wade an education. You remem "
"I remember," said Ashley tiredly, "but I'd rather forget."
"Well, you can't say any of us were happy then, can you? And look at us now! You've a nice home and a good future. And has anyone a prettier house than mine or nicer clothes or finer horses? Nobody sets as fine a table as me or gives nicer receptions and my children have everything they want. Well, how did I get the money to make it possible? Off trees? No, sir! Convicts and saloon rentals and "
"And don't forget murdering that Yankee," said Rhett softly. "He really gave you your start."
Scarlett swung on him, furious words on her lips.
"And the money has made you very, very happy, hasn't it, darling?" he asked, poisonously sweet.
Scarlett stopped short, her mouth open, and her eyes went swiftly to the eyes of the other three. Melanie was almost crying with embarrassment, Ashley was suddenly bleak and withdrawn and Rhett was watching her over his cigar with impersonal amusement. She started to cry out: "But of course, it's made me happy!"
But somehow, she could not speak.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
In the time that followed her illness Scarlett noticed a change in Rhett and she was not altogether certain that she liked it. He was sober and quiet and preoccupied. He was at home more often for supper now and he was kinder to the servants and more affectionate to Wade and Ella. He never referred to anything in their past, pleasant or otherwise, and silently seemed to dare her to bring up such subjects. Scarlett held her peace, for it was easier to let well enough alone, and life went on smoothly enough, on the surface. His impersonal courtesy toward her that had begun during her convalescence continued and he did not fling softly drawled barbs at her or sting her with sarcasm. She realized now that though he had infuriated her with his malicious comments and roused her to heated rejoinders, he had done it because he cared what she did and said. Now she wondered if he cared about anything she did. He was polite and disinterested and she missed his interest, perverse though it had been, missed the old days of bickering and retort.
He was pleasant to her now, almost as though she were a stranger; but, as his eyes had once followed her, they now followed Bonnie. It was as though the swift flood of his life had been diverted into one narrow channel. Sometimes Scarlett thought that if Rhett had given her one half the attention and tenderness he lavished on Bonnie, life would have been different. Sometimes it was hard to smile when people said: "How Captain Butler idolizes that child!" But, if she did not smile, people would think it strange and Scarlett hated to acknowledge, even to herself, that she was jealous of a little girl, especially when that little girl was her favorite child. Scarlett always wanted to be first in the hearts of those around her and it was obvious now that Rhett and Bonnie would always be first with each other.
Rhett was out late many nights but he came home sober on these nights. Often she heard him whistling softly to himself as he went down the hall past her closed door. Sometimes men came home with him in the late hours and sat talking in the dining room around the brandy decanter. They were not the same men with whom he had drunk the first year they were married. No rich Carpetbaggers, no Scallawags, no Republicans came to the house now at his invitation. Scarlett, creeping on tiptoe to the banister of the upstairs hall, listened and, to her amazement, frequently heard the voices of Rene Picard, Hugh Elsing, the Simmons boys and Andy Bonnell. And always Grandpa Merriwether and Uncle Henry were there. Once, to her astonishment, she heard the tones of Dr. Meade. And these men had once thought hanging too good for Rhett!
This group was always linked in her mind with Frank's death, and the late hours Rhett kept these days reminded her still more of the times preceding the Klan foray when Frank lost his life. She remembered with dread Rhett's remark that he would even join their damned Klan to be respectable, though he hoped God would not lay so heavy a penance on his shoulders. Suppose Rhett, like Frank
One night when he was out later than usual she could stand the strain no longer. When she heard the rasp of his key in the lock, she threw on a wrapper and, going into the gas lit upper hall, met him at the top of the stairs. His expression, absent, thoughtful, changed to surprise when he saw her standing there.
"Rhett, I've got to know! I've got to know if you if it's the Klan is that why you stay out so late? Do you belong "
In the flaring gas light he looked at her incuriously and then he smiled.
"You are way behind the times," he said. "There is no Klan in Atlanta now. Probably not in Georgia. You've been listening to the Klan outrage stories of your Scallawag and Carpetbagger friends."
"No Klan? Are you lying to try to soothe me?"
"My dear, when did I ever try to soothe you? No, there is no Klan now. We decided that it did more harm than good because it just kept the Yankees stirred up and furnished more grist for the slander mill of his excellency, Governor Bullock. He knows he can stay in power just so long as he can convince the Federal government and the Yankee newspapers that Georgia is seething with rebellion and there's a Klansman hiding behind every bush. To keep in power he's been desperately manufacturing Klan outrage stories where none exist, telling of loyal Republicans being hung up by the thumbs and honest darkies lynched for rape. But he's shooting at a nonexistent target and he knows it. Thank you for your apprehensions, but there hasn't been an active Klan since shortly after I stopped being a Scallawag and became an humble Democrat."
Most of what he said about Governor Bullock went in one ear and out the other for her mind was mainly occupied with relief that there was no Klan any longer. Rhett would not be killed as Frank was killed; she wouldn't lose her store or his money. But one word of his conversation swam to the top of her mind. He had said "we," linking himself naturally with those he had once called the "Old Guard."
"Rhett," she asked suddenly, "did you have anything to do with the breaking up of the Klan?"
He gave her a long look and his eyes began to dance.
"My love, I did. Ashley Wilkes and I are mainly responsible."
"Ashley and you?"
"Yes, platitudinously but truly, politics make strange bedfellows. Neither Ashley nor I cared much for each other as bedfellows but Ashley never believed in the Klan because he's against violence of any sort. And I never believed in it because it's damned foolishness and not the way to get what we want. It's the one way to keep the Yankees on our necks till Kingdom Come. And between Ashley and me, we convinced the hot heads that watching, waiting and working would get us further than nightshirts and fiery crosses."
"You don't mean the boys actually took your advice when you "
"When I was a speculator? A Scallawag? A consorter with Yankees? You forget, Mrs. Butler, that I am now a Democrat in good standing, devoted to my last drop of blood to recovering our beloved state from the hands of her ravishers! My advice was good advice and they took it. My advice in other political matters is equally good. We have a Democratic majority in the legislature now, haven't we? And soon, my love, we will have some of our good Republican friends behind the bars. They are a bit too rapacious these days, a bit too open."
"You'd help put them in jail? Why, they were your friends! They let you in on that railroad bond business that you made thousands out of!"
Rhett grinned suddenly, his old mocking grin.
"Oh, I bear them no ill will. But I'm on the other side now and if I can assist in any way in putting them where they belong, I'll do it. And how that will redound to my credit! I know just enough about the inside of some of these deals to be very valuable when the legislature starts digging into them and that won't be far off, from the way things look now. They're going to investigate the governor, too, and they'll put him in jail if they can. Better tell your good friends the Gelerts and the Hundons to be ready to leave town on a minute's notice, because if they can nab the governor, they'll nab them too."
For too many years Scarlett had seen the Republicans, backed up by the force of the Yankee Army, in power in Georgia to believe Rhett's light words. The governor was too strongly entrenched for any legislature to do anything to him, much less put him in jail.
"How you do run on," she observed.
"If he isn't put in jail, at least he won't be reelected. We're going to have a Democratic governor next time, for a change."
"And I suppose you'll have something to do with it?" she questioned sarcastically.
"My pet, I will. I am having something to do with it now. That's why I stay out so late at nights. I'm working harder than I ever worked with a shovel in the gold rush, trying to help get the election organized. And I know this will hurt you, Mrs. Butler, but I am contributing plenty of money to the organization, too. Do you remember telling me, years ago, in Frank's store, that it was dishonest for me to keep the Confederate gold? At last I've come to agree with you and the Confederate gold is being spent to get the Confederates back into power."
"You're pouring money down a rat hole!"
"What! You call the Democratic party a rat hole?" His eyes mocked her and then were quiet, expressionless. "It doesn't matter a damn to me who wins this election. What does matter is that everyone knows I've worked for it and that I've spent money on it. And that'll be remembered in Bonnie's favor in years to come."
"I was almost afraid from your pious talk that you'd had a change of heart, but I see you've got no more sincerity about the Democrats than about anything else."
"Not a change of heart at all. Merely a change of hide. You might possibly sponge the spots off a leopard but he'd remain a leopard, just the same."
Bonnie, awakened by the sound of voices in the hall, called sleepily but imperiously: "Daddy!" and Rhett started past Scarlett.
"Rhett, wait a minute. There's something else I want to tell you. You must stop taking Bonnie around with you in the afternoons to political meetings. It just doesn't look well. The idea of a little girl at such places! And it makes you look so silly. I never dreamed that you took her until Uncle Henry mentioned it, as though he thought I knew and "
He swung round on her and his face was hard.
"How can you read wrong in a little girl sitting on her father's lap while he talks to friends? You may think it looks silly but it isn't silly. People will remember for years that Bonnie sat on my lap while I helped run the Republicans out of this state. People will remember for years " The hardness went out of his face and a malicious light danced in his eyes. "Did you know that when people ask her who she loves best, she says 'Daddy and the Demiquats,' and who she hates most, she says: 'The Scallywags.' People, thank God, remember things like that."
Scarlett's voice rose furiously. "And I suppose you tell her I'm a Scallawag!"
"Daddy!" said the small voice, indignant now, and Rhett, still laughing, went down the hall to his daughter.
That October Governor Bullock resigned his office and fled from Georgia. Misuse of public funds, waste and corruption had reached such proportions during his administration that the edifice was toppling of its own weight. Even his own party was split, so great had public indignation become. The Democrats had a majority in the legislature now, and that meant just one thing. Knowing that he was going to be investigated and fearing impeachment, Bullock did not wait. He hastily and secretly decamped, arranging that his resignation would not become public until he was safely in the North.
When it was announced, a week after his flight, Atlanta was wild with excitement and joy. People thronged the streets, men laughing and shaking hands in congratulation, ladies kissing each other and crying. Everybody gave parties in celebration and the fire department was kept busy fighting the flames that spread from the bonfires of jubilant small boys.
Almost out of the woods! Reconstruction's almost over! to be sure, the acting governor was a Republican too, but the election was coming up in December and there was no doubt in anyone's mind as to what the result would be. And when the election came, despite the frantic efforts of the Republicans, Georgia once more had a Democratic governor.
There was joy then, excitement too, but of a different sort from that which seized the town when Bullock took to his heels. This was a more sober heartfelt joy, a deep souled feeling of thanksgiving, and the churches were filled as ministers reverently thanked God for the deliverance of the state. There was pride too, mingled with the elation and joy, pride that Georgia was back in the hands of her own people again, in spite of all the administration in Washington could do, in spite of the army, the Carpetbaggers, the Scallawags and the native Republicans.
Seven times Congress had passed crushing acts against the state to keep it a conquered province, three times the army had set aside civil law. The negroes had frolicked through the legislature, grasping aliens had mismanaged the government, private individuals had enriched themselves from public funds. Georgia had been helpless, tormented, abused, hammered down. But now, in spite of them all, Georgia belonged to herself again and through the efforts of her own people.
The sudden overturn of the Republicans did not bring joy to everyone. There was consternation in the ranks of the Scallawags, the Carpetbaggers and the Republicans. The Gelerts and Hundons, evidently apprised of Bullock's departure before his resignation became public, left town abruptly, disappearing into that oblivion from which they had come. The other Carpetbaggers and Scallawags who remained were uncertain, frightened, and they hovered together for comfort, wondering what the legislative investigation would bring to light concerning their own private affairs. They were not insolent now. They were stunned, bewildered, afraid. And the ladies who called on Scarlett said over and over:
"But who would have thought it would turn out this way? We thought the governor was too powerful. We thought he was here to stay. We thought "
Scarlett was equally bewildered by the turn of events, despite Rhett's warning as to the direction it would take. It was not that she was sorry Bullock had gone and the Democrats were back again. Though no one would have believed it she, too, felt a grim happiness that the Yankee rule was at last thrown off. She remembered all too vividly her struggles during those first days of Reconstruction, her fears that the soldiers and the Carpetbaggers would confiscate her money and her property. She remembered her helplessness and her panic at her helplessness and her hatred of the Yankees who had imposed this galling system upon the South. And she had never stopped hating them. But, in trying to make the best of things, in trying to obtain complete security, she had gone with the conquerors. No matter how much she disliked them, she had surrounded herself with them, cut herself off from her old friends and her old ways of living. And now the power of the conquerors was at an end. She had gambled on the continuance of the Bullock regime and she had lost.
As she looked about her, that Christmas of 1871, the happiest Christmas the state had known in over ten years, she was disquieted. She could not help seeing that Rhett, once the most execrated man in Atlanta, was now one of the most popular, for he had humbly recanted his Republican heresies and given his time and money and labor and thought to helping Georgia fight her way back. When he rode down the streets, smiling, tipping his hat, the small blue bundle that was Bonnie perched before him on his saddle, everyone smiled back, spoke with enthusiasm and looked with affection on the little girl. Whereas, she, Scarlett
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Bonnie Butler was running wild and needed a firm hand but she was so general a favorite that no one had the heart to attempt the necessary firmness. She had first gotten out of control the months when she traveled with her father. When she had been with Rhett in New Orleans and Charleston she had been permitted to sit up as late as she pleased and had gone to sleep in his arms in theaters, restaurants and at card tables. Thereafter, nothing short of force would make her go to bed at the same time as the obedient Ella. While she had been away with him, Rhett had let her wear any dress she chose and, since that time, she had gone into tantrums when Mammy tried to dress her in dimity frocks and pinafores instead of blue taffeta and lace collars.
There seemed no way to regain the ground which had been lost when the child was away from home and later when Scarlett had been ill and at Tara. As Bonnie grew older Scarlett tried to discipline her, tried to keep her from becoming too headstrong and spoiled, but with little success. Rhett always sided with the child, no matter how foolish her desires or how outrageous her behavior. He encouraged her to talk and treated her as an adult, listening to her opinions with apparent seriousness and pretending to be guided by them. As a result, Bonnie interrupted her elders whenever she pleased and contradicted her father and put him in his place. He only laughed and would not permit Scarlett even to slap the little girl's hand by way of reprimand.
"If she wasn't such a sweet, darling thing, she'd be impossible," thought Scarlett ruefully, realizing that she had a child with a will equal to her own. "She adores Rhett and he could make her behave better if he wanted to."
But Rhett showed no inclination to make Bonnie behave. Whatever she did was right and if she wanted the moon she could have it, if he could reach it for her. His pride in her beauty, her curls, her dimples, her graceful little gestures was boundless. He loved her pertness, her high spirits and the quaint sweet manner she had of showing her love for him. For all her spoiled and willful ways she was such a lovable child that he lacked the heart to try to curb her. He was her god, the center of her small world, and that was too precious for him to risk losing by reprimands.
She clung to him like a shadow. She woke him earlier than he cared to wake, sat beside him at the table, eating alternately from his plate and her own, rode in front of him on his horse and permitted no one but Rhett to undress her and put her to sleep in the small bed beside his.
It amused and touched Scarlett to see the iron hand with which her small child ruled her father. Who would have thought that Rhett, of all people, would take fatherhood so seriously? But sometimes a dart of jealousy went through Scarlett because Bonnie, at the age of four, understood Rhett better than she had ever understood him and could manage him better than she had ever managed him.
When Bonnie was four years old, Mammy began to grumble about the impropriety of a girl child riding "a straddle in front of her pa wid her dress flyin' up." Rhett lent an attentive ear to this remark, as he did to all Mammy's remarks about the proper raising of little girls. The result was a small brown and white Shetland pony with a long silky mane and tail and a tiny sidesaddle with silver trimmings. Ostensibly the pony was for all three children and Rhett bought a saddle for Wade too. But Wade infinitely preferred his St. Bernard dog and Ella was afraid of all animals. So the pony became Bonnie's own and was named "Mr. Butler." The only flaw in Bonnie's possessive joy was that she could not still ride astride like her father, but after he had explained how much more difficult it was to ride on the sidesaddle, she was content and learned rapidly. Rhett's pride in her good seat and her good hands was enormous.
"Wait till she's old enough to hunt," he boasted. "There'll be no one like her on any field. I'll take her to Virginia then. That's where the real hunting is. And Kentucky where they appreciate good riders."
When it came to making her riding habit, as usual she had her choice of colors and as usual chose blue.
"But, my darling! Not that blue velvet! The blue velvet is for a party dress for me," laughed Scarlett. "A nice black broadcloth is what little girls wear." Seeing the small black brows coming together: "For Heaven's sake, Rhett, tell her how unsuitable it would be and how dirty it will get."
"Oh, let her have the blue velvet. If it gets dirty, we'll make her another one," said Rhett easily.
So Bonnie had her blue velvet habit with a skirt that trailed down the pony's side and a black hat with a red plume in it, because Aunt Melly's stories of Jeb Stuart's plume had appealed to her imagination. On days that were bright and clear the two could be seen riding down Peachtree Street, Rhett reining in his big black horse to keep pace with the fat pony's gait. Sometimes they went tearing down the quiet roads about the town, scattering chickens and dogs and children, Bonnie beating Mr. Butler with her crop, her tangled curls flying, Rhett holding in his horse with a firm hand that she might think Mr. Butler was winning the race.
When he had assured himself of her seat, her hands, her utter fearlessness, Rhett decided that the time had come for her to learn to make the low jumps that were within the reach of Mr. Butler's short legs. To this end, he built a hurdle in the back yard and paid Wash, one of Uncle Peter's small nephews, twenty five cents a day to teach Mr. Butler to jump. He began with a bar two inches from the ground and gradually worked up the height to a foot.
This arrangement met with the disapproval of the three parties concerned, Wash, Mr. Butler and Bonnie. Wash was afraid of horses and only the princely sum offered induced him to take the stubborn pony over the bar dozens of times a day; Mr. Butler, who bore with equanimity having his tail pulled by his small mistress and his hooves examined constantly, felt that the Creator of ponies had not intended him to put his fat body over the bar; Bonnie, who could not bear to see anyone else upon her pony, danced with impatience while Mr. Butler was learning his lessons.
When Rhett finally decided that the pony knew his business well enough to trust Bonnie upon him, the child's excitement was boundless. She made her first jump with flying colors and, thereafter, riding abroad with her father held no charms for her. Scarlett could not help laughing at the pride and enthusiasm of father and daughter. She thought, however, that once the novelty had passed, Bonnie would turn to other things and the neighborhood would have some peace. But this sport did not pall. There was a bare track worn from the arbor at the far end of the yard to the hurdle, and all morning long the yard resounded with excited yells. Grandpa Merriwether, who had made the overland trip in 1849, said that the yells sounded just like an Apache after a successful scalping.
After the first week, Bonnie begged for a higher bar, a bar that was a foot and a half from the ground.
"When you are six years old," said Rhett. "Then you'll be big enough for a higher jump and I'll buy you a bigger horse. Mr. Butler's legs aren't long enough."
"They are, too, I jumped Aunt Melly's rose bushes and they are 'normously high!"
"No, you must wait," said Rhett, firm for once. But the firmness gradually faded away before her incessant importunings and tantrums.
"Oh, all right," he said with a laugh one morning and moved the narrow white cross bar higher. "If you fall off, don't cry and blame me!"
"Mother!" screamed Bonnie, turning her head up toward Scarlett's bedroom. "Mother! Watch me! Daddy says I can!"
Scarlett, who was combing her hair, came to the window and smiled down at the tiny excited figure, so absurd in the soiled blue habit.
"I really must get her another habit," she thought. "Though Heaven only knows how I'll make her give up that dirty one."
"I'm watching dear," said Scarlett smiling.
As Rhett lifted the child and set her on the pony, Scarlett called with a swift rush of pride at the straight back and the proud set of the head,
"You're mighty pretty, precious!"
"So are you," said Bonnie generously and, hammering a heel into Mr. Butler's ribs, she galloped down the yard toward the arbor.
"Mother, watch me take this one!" she cried, laying on the crop.
WATCH ME TAKE THIS ONE!
Memory rang a bell far back in Scarlett's mind. There was something ominous about those words. What was it? Why couldn't she remember? She looked down at her small daughter, so lightly poised on the galloping pony and her brow wrinkled as a chill swept swiftly through her breast. Bonnie came on with a rush, her crisp black curls jerking, her blue eyes blazing.
"They are like Pa's eyes," thought Scarlett, "Irish blue eyes and she's just like him in every way."
And, as she thought of Gerald, the memory for which she had been fumbling came to her swiftly, came with the heart stopping clarity of summer lightning, throwing, for an instant, a whole countryside into unnatural brightness. She could hear an Irish voice singing, hear the hard rapid pounding of hooves coming up the pasture hill at Tara, hear a reckless voice, so like the voice of her child: "Ellen! Watch me take this one!"
"No!" she cried. "No! Oh, Bonnie, stop!"
Even as she leaned from the window there was a fearful sound of splintering wood, a hoarse cry from Rhett, a melee of blue velvet and flying hooves on the ground. Then Mr. Butler scrambled to his feet and trotted off with an empty saddle.
On the third night after Bonnie's death, Mammy waddled slowly up the kitchen steps of Melanie's house. She was dressed in black from her huge men's shoes, slashed to permit freedom for her toes, to her black head rag. Her blurred old eyes were bloodshot and red rimmed, and misery cried out in every line of her mountainous figure. Her face was puckered in the sad bewilderment of an old ape but there was determination in her jaw.
She spoke a few soft words to Dilcey who nodded kindly, as though an unspoken armistice existed in their old feud. Dilcey put down the supper dishes she was holding and went quietly through the pantry toward the dining room. In a minute Melanie was in the kitchen, her table napkin in her hand, anxiety in her face.
"Miss Scarlet isn't "
"Miss Scarlett bearin' up, same as allus," said Mammy heavily. "Ah din' ten ter 'sturb yo' supper, Miss Melly. Ah kin wait tell you thoo ter tell you whut Ah got on mah mine."
"Supper can wait," said Melanie. "Dilcey, serve the rest of the supper. Mammy, come with me."
Mammy waddled after her, down the hall past the dining room where Ashley sat at the head of the table, his own little Beau beside him and Scarlett's two children opposite, making a great clatter with their soup spoons. The happy voices of Wade and Ella filled the room. It was like a picnic for them to spend so long a visit with Aunt Melly. Aunt Melly was always so kind and she was especially so now. The death of their younger sister had affected them very little. Bonnie had fallen off her pony and Mother had cried a long time and Aunt Melly had taken them home with her to play in the back yard with Beau and have tea cakes whenever they wanted them.
Melanie led the way to the small book lined sitting room, shut the door and motioned Mammy to the sofa.
"I was going over right after supper," she said. "Now that Captain Butler's mother has come, I suppose the funeral will be tomorrow morning."
"De fune'l. Dat's jes' it," said Mammy. "Miss Melly, we's all in deep trouble an' Ah's come ter you fer he'p. Ain' nuthin' but weery load, honey, nuthin' but weery load."
"Has Miss Scarlett collapsed?" questioned Melanie worriedly. "I've hardly seen her since Bonnie She has been in her room and Captain Butler has been out of the house and "
Suddenly tears began to flow down Mammy's black face. Melanie sat down beside her and patted her arm and, after a moment, Mammy lifted the hem of her black skirt and dried her eyes.
"You got ter come he'p us, Miss Melly. Ah done de bes' Ah kin but it doan do no good."
"Miss Scarlett "
"Miss Melly, you knows Miss Scarlett well's Ah does. Whut dat chile got ter stan', de good Lawd give her strent ter stan'. Disyere done broke her heart but she kin stan' it. It's Mist' Rhett Ah come 'bout."
"I have so wanted to see him but whenever I've been there, he has either been downtown or locked in his room with And Scarlett has looked like a ghost and wouldn't speak Tell me quickly, Mammy. You know I'll help if I can."
Mammy wiped her nose on the back of her hand.
"Ah say Miss Scarlett kin stan' whut de Lawd sen', kase she done had ter stan' a plen'y, but Mist' Rhett Miss Melly, he ain' never had ter stan' nuthin' he din' wanter stan', not nuthin'. It's him Ah come ter see you 'bout."
"Miss Melly, you got ter come home wid me, dis evenin'." There was urgency in Mammy's voice. "Maybe Mist' Rhett lissen ter you. He allus did think a heap of yo' 'pinion."
"Oh, Mammy, what is it? What do you mean?"
Mammy squared her shoulders.
"Miss Melly, Mist' Rhett done done los' his mine. He woan let us put Lil Miss away."
"Lost his mind? Oh, Mammy, no!"
"Ah ain' lyin'. It's de Gawd's truff. He ain' gwine let us buhy dat chile. He done tole me so hisseff, not mo'n an hour ago."
"But he can't he isn't "
"Dat's huccome Ah say he los' his mine."
"But why "
"Miss Melly, Ah tell you eve'ything. Ah oughtn' tell nobody, but you is our fambly an' you is de onlies' one Ah kin tell. Ah tell you eve'ything. You knows whut a sto' he set by dat chile. Ah ain' never seed no man, black or w'ite, set sech a sto' by any chile. Look lak he go plumb crazy w'en Doctah Meade say her neck broke. He grab his gun an' he run right out an' shoot dat po' pony an', fo' Gawd, Ah think he gwine shoot hisseff. Ah wuz plumb 'stracted whut wid Miss Scarlett in a swoon an' all de neighbors in an' outer de house an' Mist' Rhett cahyin' on an' jes' holin' dat chile an' not even lettin' me wash her lil face whar de grabble cut it. An' w'en Miss Scarlett come to, Ah think, bress Gawd! Now dey kin comfo't each other."
Again the tears began to fall but this time Mammy did not even wipe them away.
"But w'en she come to, she go inter de room whar he settin', holin' Miss Bonnie, an' she say: 'Gimme mah baby whut you kilt.'"
"Oh, no! She couldn't!"
"Yas'm. Dat whut she say. She say: 'You kilt her.' An' Ah felt so sorry fer Mist' Rhett Ah bust out cryin', kase he look lak a whup houn'. An' Ah say: 'Give dat chile ter its mammy. Ah ain' gwine have no sech goin's on over mah Lil Miss.' An' Ah tek de chile away frum him an' tek her inter her room an' wash her face. An' Ah hear dem talkin' an' it lak ter tuhn mah blood cole, whut dey say. Miss Scarlett wuz callin' him a mudderer fer lettin' her try ter jump dat high, an' him sayin' Miss Scarlett hadn' never keered nuthin' 'bout Miss Bonnie nor none of her chillun. . . ."
"Stop, Mammy! Don't tell me any more. It isn't right for you to tell me this!" cried Melanie, her mind shrinking away from the picture Mammy's words evoked.
"Ah knows Ah got no bizness tellin' you, but mah heart too full ter know jes' whut not ter say. Den he tuck her ter de unnertaker's hisseff an' he bring her back an' he put her in her baid in his room. An' w'en Miss Scarlett say she b'long in de pahlor in de coffin, Ah thought Mist' Rhett gwine hit her. An' he say, right cole lak: 'She b'long in mah room.' An' he tuhn ter me an' he say: 'Mammy, you see dat she stay right hyah tell Ah gits back.' Den he light outer de house on de hawse an' he wuz gone tell 'bout sundown. W'en he come t'arin' home, Ah seed dat he'd been drinkin' an' drinkin' heavy, but he wuz cahyin' it well's usual. He fling inter de house an' not even speak ter Miss Scarlett or Miss Pitty or any of de ladies as wuz callin', but he fly up de steps an' th'ow open de do' of his room an' den he yell for me. W'en Ah comes runnin' as fas' as Ah kin, he wuz stan'in' by de baid an' it wuz so dahk in de room Ah couldn' sceercely see him, kase de shutters wuz done drawed.
"An' he say ter me, right fierce lak: 'Open dem shutters. It's dahk in hyah.' An' Ah fling dem open an' he look at me an', fo' Gawd, Miss Melly, mah knees 'bout give way, kase he look so strange. Den he say: 'Bring lights. Bring lots of lights. An' keep dem buhnin'. An' doan draw no shades an' no shutters. Doan you know Miss Bonnie's 'fraid of de dahk?'"
Melanie's horror struck eyes met Mammy's and Mammy nodded ominously.
"Dat's whut he say. 'Miss Bonnie's 'fraid of de dahk.'"
"W'en Ah gits him a dozen candles, he say 'Git!' An' den he lock de do' an' dar he set wid Lil Miss, an' he din' open de do' fer Miss Scarlett even w'en she beat an' hollered ter him. An' dat's de way it been fer two days. He woan say nuthin' 'bout de fune'l, an' in de mawnin' he lock de do' an' git on his hawse an' go off ter town. An' he come back at sundown drunk an' lock hisseff in agin, an' he ain' et nuthin' or slept none. An' now his ma, Ole Miss Butler, she come frum Cha'ston fer de fune'l an' Miss Suellen an' Mist' Will, dey come frum Tara, but Mist' Rhett woan talk ter none of dem. Oh, Miss Melly, it been awful! An' it's gwine be wuss, an' folks gwine talk sumpin' scan'lous.
"An' den, dis evenin'," Mammy paused and again wiped her nose on her hand. "Dis evenin' Miss Scarleft ketch him in de upstairs hall w'en he come in, an' she go in de room wid him an' she say: 'De fune'l set fer termorrer mawnin'.' An' he say: 'Do dat an' Ah kills you termorrer.'"
"Oh, he must have lost his mind!"
"Yas'm. An' den dey talks kinder low an' Ah doan hear all whut dey say, 'cept he say agin 'bout Miss Bonnie bein' sceered of de dahk an' de grabe pow'ful dahk. An' affer aw'ile, Miss Scarlett say: 'You is a fine one ter tek on so, affer killin' her ter please yo' pride.' An' he say: 'Ain' you got no mercy?' An' she say: 'No. An' Ah ain' got no chile, needer. An' Ah'm wo'out wid de way you been ackin' sence Bonnie wuz kilt. You is a scan'al ter de town. You been drunk all de time an' ef you doan think Ah knows whar you been spendin' yo' days, you is a fool. Ah knows you been down ter dat creeter's house, dat Belle Watling.'"
"Oh, Mammy, no!"
"Yas'm. Dat whut she said. An', Miss Melly, it's de truff. Niggers knows a heap of things quicker dan w'ite folks, an' Ah knowed dat's whar he been but Ah ain' said nuthin' 'bout it. An' he doan deny it. He say: 'Yas'm, dat's whar Ah been an' you neen tek on, kase you doan give a damn. A bawdy house is a haben of refuge affer dis house of hell. An' Belle is got one of de worl's kines' hearts. She doan th'ow it up ter me dat Ah done kilt mah chile.'"
"Oh," cried Melanie, stricken to the heart.
Her own life was so pleasant, so sheltered, so wrapped about with people who loved her, so full of kindness that what Mammy told her was almost beyond comprehension or belief. Yet there crawled into her mind a memory, a picture which she hastily put from her, as she would put from her the thought of another's nudity. Rhett had spoken of Belle Watling the day he cried with his head on her knees. But he loved Scarlett. She could not have been mistaken that day. And of course, Scarlett loved him. What had come between them? How could a husband and a wife cut each other to pieces with such sharp knives?
Mammy took up her story heavily.
"Affer a w'ile, Miss Scarlett come outer de room, w'ite as a sheet but her jaw set, an' she see me stan'in' dar an' she say: 'De fune'l be termorrer, Mammy.' An' she pass me by lak a ghos'. Den mah heart tuhn over, kase whut Miss Scarlett say, she mean. An' whut Mist' Rhett say, he mean too. An' he say he kill her ef she do dat. Ah wuz plumb 'stracted, Miss Melly, kase Ah done had sumpin' on mah conscience all de time an' it weighin' me down. Miss Melly, it wuz me as sceered Lil Miss of de dahk."
"Oh, but Mammy, it doesn't matter not now."
"Yas'm, it do. Dat whut de whole trouble. An' it come ter me Ah better tell Mist' Rhett even ef he kill me, kase it on mah conscience. So Ah slip in de do' real quick, fo' he kin lock it, an' Ah say: 'Mist' Rhett, Ah's come ter confess.' An' he swung roun' on me lak a crazy man an' say: 'Git!' An', fo' Gawd, Ah ain' never been so sceered! But Ah say: 'Please, suh, Mist' Rhett, let me tell you. It's 'bout ter kill me. It wuz me as sceered Lil Miss of de dahk.' An' den, Miss Melly, Ah put mah haid down an' waited fer him ter hit me. But he din' say nuthin'. An' An say: 'Ah din' mean no hahm. But, Mist' Rhett, dat chile din' have no caution an' she wuzn' sceered of nuthin'. An' she wuz allus gittin' outer baid affer eve'ybody sleep an runnin' roun' de house barefoot. An' it worrit me, kase Ah 'fraid she hu't herseff. So Ah tells her dar's ghos'es an' buggerboos in de dahk.'
"An' den Miss Melly, you know whut he done? His face got right gentle lak an' he come ter me an' put his han' on mah arm. Dat's de fust time he ever done dat. An' he say: 'She wuz so brave, wuzn' she? 'Cept fer de dahk, she wuzn' sceered of nuthin'.' An' wen Ah bust out cryin' he say: 'Now, Mammy,' an' he pat me. 'Now, Mammy, doan you cahy on so. Ah's glad you tole me. Ah knows you love Miss Bonnie an' kase you love her, it doan matter. It's whut de heart is dat matter.' Well'm dat kinder cheered me up, so Ah ventu' ter say: 'Mist Rhett, suh, what 'bout de fune'l?' Den he tuhn on me lak a wile man an' his eyes glitter an' he say: 'Good Gawd, Ah thought you'd unnerstan' even ef nobody else din'! Does you think Ah'm gwine ter put mah chile away in de dahk w'en she so sceered of it? Right now Ah kin hear de way she uster scream w'en she wake up in de dahk. Ah ain' gwine have her sceered.' Miss Melly, den Ah know he los' his mine. He drunk an' he need sleep an' sumpin' ter eat but dat ain' all. He plumb crazy. He jes' push me outer de do' an' say: 'Git de hell outer hyah!'
"Ah goes downstairs an' Ah gits ter thinkin' dat he say dar ain' gwine be no fune'l an' Miss Scarlett say it be termorrer mawnin' an' he say dar be shootin'. An' all de kin folks in de house an' all de neighbors already gabblin' 'bout it lak a flock of guinea hens, an' Ah thought of you, Miss Melly. You got ter come he'p us."
"Oh, Mammy, I couldn't intrude!"
"Ef you kain, who kin?"
"But what could I do, Mammy?"
"Miss Melly, Ah doan know. But you kin do sumpin'. You kin talk ter Mist' Rhett an' maybe he lissen ter you. He set a gret sto' by you, Miss Melly. Maybe you doan know it, but he do. Ah done hear him say time an' agin, you is de onlies' gret lady he knows."
Melanie rose to her feet, confused, her heart quailing at the thought of confronting Rhett. The thought of arguing with a man as grief crazed as the one Mammy depicted made her go cold. The thought of entering that brightly lighted room where lay the little girl she loved so much wrung her heart. What could she do? What could she say to Rhett that would ease his grief and bring him back to reason? For a moment she stood irresolute and through the closed door came the sound of her boy's treble laughter. Like a cold knife in her heart came the thought of him dead. Suppose her Beau were lying upstairs, his little body cold and still, his merry laughter hushed.
"Oh," she cried aloud, in fright, and in her mind she clutched him close to her heart. She knew how Rhett felt. If Beau were dead, how could she put him away, alone with the wind and the rain and the darkness?
"Oh! Poor, poor Captain Butler!" she cried. "I'll go to him now, right away."
She sped back to the dining room, said a few soft words to Ashley and surprised her little boy by hugging him close to her and kissing his blond curls passionate sexyly.
She left the house without a hat, her dinner napkin still clutched in her hand, and the pace she set was hard for Mammy's old legs. Once in Scarlett's front hall, she bowed briefly to the gathering in the library, to the frightened Miss Pittypat, the stately old Mrs. Butler, Will and Suellen. She went up the stairs swiftly, with Mammy panting behind her. For a moment, she paused before Scarlett's closed door but Mammy hissed, "No'm, doan do dat."
Down the hall Melly went, more slowly now, and stopped in front of Rhett's room. She stood irresolutely for a moment as though she longed to take flight. Then, bracing herself, like a small soldier going into battle, she knocked on the door and called softly: "Please let me in, Captain Butler. It's Mrs. Wilkes. I want to see Bonnie."
The door opened quickly and Mammy, shrinking back into the shadows of the hall, saw Rhett huge and dark against the blazing background of candles. He was swaying on his feet and Mammy could smell the whisky on his breath. He looked down at Melly for a moment and then, taking her by the arm, he pulled her into the room and shut the door.
Mammy edged herself stealthily to a chair beside the door and sank into it wearily, her shapeless body overflowing it. She sat still, weeping silently and praying. Now and then she lifted the hem of her dress and wiped her eyes. Strain her ears as hard as she might, she could hear no words from the room, only a low broken humming sound.
Alter an interminable period, the door cracked open and Melly's face white and strained, appeared.
"Bring me a pot of coffee, quickly, and some sandwiches."
When the devil drove, Mammy could be as swift as a lithe black sixteen year old and her curiosity to get into Rhett's room made her work faster. But her hope turned to disappointment when Melly merely opened the door a crack and took the tray. For a long time Mammy strained her sharp ears but she could distinguish nothing except the clatter of silver on china, and the muffled soft tones of Melanie's voice. Then she heard the creaking of the bed as a heavy body fell upon it and, soon after, the sound of boots dropping to the floor. After an interval, Melanie appeared in the doorway but, strive though she might, Mammy could not see past her into the room. Melanie looked tired and there were tears glistening on her lashes but her face was serene again.
"Go tell Miss Scarlett that Captain Butler is quite willing for the funeral to take place tomorrow morning," she whispered.
"Bress Gawd!" ejaculated Mammy. "How on uth "
"Don't talk so loud. He's going to sleep. And, Mammy, tell Miss Scarlett, too, that I'll be here all night and you bring me some coffee. Bring it here."
"Ter disyere room?"
"Yes, I promised Captain Butler that if he would go to sleep I would sit up by her all night. Now go tell Miss Scarlett, so she won't worry any more."
Mammy started off down the hall, her weight shaking the floor, her relieved heart singing "Halleluja! Hallelujah!" She paused thoughtfully outside of Scarlett's door, her mind in a ferment of thankfulness and curiosity.
"How Miss Melley done it beyon' me. De angels fight on her side, Ah specs. Ah'll tell Miss Scarlett de fune'l termorrer but Ah specs Ah better keep hid dat Miss Melly settin' up wid Lil Miss. Miss Scarlett ain' gwine lak dat a tall."
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
Something was wrong with the world, a somber, frightening wrongness that pervaded everything like a dark impenetrable mist, stealthily closing around Scarlett. This wrongness went even deeper than Bonnie's death, for now the first unbearable anguish was fading into resigned acceptance of her loss. Yet this eerie sense of disaster to come persisted, as though something black and hooded stood just at her shoulder, as though the ground beneath her feet might turn to quicksand as she trod upon it.
She had never before known this type of fear. All her life her feet had been firmly planted in common sense and the only things she had ever feared had been the things she could see, injury, hunger, poverty, loss of Ashley's love. Unanalytical she was trying to analyze now and with no success. She had lost her dearest child but she could stand that, somehow, as she had stood other crushing losses. She had her health, she had as much money as she could wish and she still had Ashley, though she saw less and less of him these days. Even the constraint which had been between them since the day of Melanie's ill starred surprise party did not worry her, for she knew it would pass. No, her fear was not of pain or hunger or loss of love. Those fears had never weighed her down as this feeling of wrongness was doing this blighting fear that was oddly like that which she knew in her old nightmare, a thick, swimming mist through which she ran with bursting heart, a lost child seeking a haven that was hidden from her.
She remembered how Rhett had always been able to laugh her out of her fears. She remembered the comfort of his broad brown chest and his strong arms. And so she turned to him with eyes that really saw him for the first time in weeks. And the change she saw shocked her. This man was not going to laugh, nor was he going to comfort her.
For some time after Bonnie's death she had been too angry with him, too preoccupied with her own grief to do more than speak politely in front of the servants. She had been too busy remembering the swift running patter of Bonnie's feet and her bubbling laugh to think that he, too, might be remembering and with pain even greater than her own. Throughout these weeks they had met and spoken as courteously as strangers meeting in the impersonal walls of a hotel, sharing the same roof, the same table, but never sharing the thoughts of each other.
Now that she was frightened and lonely, she would have broken through this barrier if she could, but she found that he was holding her at arm's length, as though he wished to have no words with her that went beneath the surface. Now that her anger was fading she wanted to tell him that she held him guiltless of Bonnie's death. She wanted to cry in his arms and say that she, too, had been overly proud of the child's horsemanship, overly indulgent to her wheedlings. Now she would willingly have humbled herself and admitted that she had only hurled that accusation at him out of her misery, hoping by hurting him to alleviate her own hurt. But there never seemed an opportune moment. He looked at her out of black blank eyes that made no opportunity for her to speak. And apologies, once postponed, became harder and harder to make, and finally impossible.
She wondered why this should be. Rhett was her husband and between them there was the unbreakable bond of two people who have shared the same bed, begotten and borne a loved child and seen that child, too soon, laid away in the dark. Only in the arms of the father of that child could she find comfort, in the exchange of memories and grief that might hurt at first but would help to heal. But, now, as matters stood between them, she would as soon go to the arms of a complete stranger.
He was seldom at home. When they did sit down to supper together, he was usually drunk. He was not drinking as he had formerly, becoming increasingly more polished and biting as the liquor took hold of him, saying amusing, malicious things that made her laugh in spite of herself. Now he was silently, morosely drunk and, as the evenings progressed, soddenly drunk. Sometimes, in the early hours of the dawn, she heard him ride into the back yard and beat on the door of the servants' house so that Pork might help him up the back stairs and put him to bed. Put him to bed! Rhett who had always drunk others under the table without turning a hair and then put them to bed.
He was untidy now, where once he had been well groomed, and it took all Pork's scandalized arguing even to make him change his linen before supper. Whisky was showing in his face and the hard line of his long jaw was being obscured under an unhealthy bloat and puffs rising under his bloodshot eyes. His big body with its hard swelling muscles looked soft and slack and his waist line began to thicken.
Often he did not come home at all or even send word that he would be away overnight. Of course, he might be snoring drunkenly in some room above a saloon, but Scarlett always believed that he was at Belle Watling's house on these occasions. Once she had seen Belle in a store, a coarse overblown woman now, with most of her good looks gone. But, for all her paint and flashy clothes, she was buxom and almost motherly looking. Instead of dropping her eyes or glaring defiantly, as did other light women when confronted by ladies, Belle gave her stare for stare, searching her face with an intent, almost pitying look that brought a flush to Scarlett's cheek.
But she could not accuse him now, could not rage at him, demand fidelity or try to shame him, any more than she could bring herself to apologize for accusing him of Bonnie's death. She was clutched by a bewildered apathy, an unhappiness that she could not understand, an unhappiness that went deeper than anything she had ever known. She was lonely and she could never remember being so lonely before. Perhaps she had never had the time to be very lonely until now. She was lonely and afraid and there was no one to whom she could turn, no one except Melanie. For now, even Mammy, her mainstay, had gone back to Tara. Gone permanently.
Mammy gave no explanation for her departure. Her tired old eyes looked sadly at Scarlett when she asked for the train fare home. To Scarlett's tears and pleading that she stay, Mammy only answered: "Look ter me lak Miss Ellen say ter me: 'Mammy, come home. Yo' wuk done finish.' So Ah's gwine home."
Rhett, who had listened to the talk, gave Mammy the money and patted her arm.
"You're right, Mammy. Miss Ellen is right. Your work here is done. Go home. Let me know if you ever need anything." And as Scarlett broke into renewed indignant commands: "Hush, you fool! Let her go! Why should anyone want to stay in this house now?"
There was such a savage bright glitter in his eyes when he spoke that Scarlett shrank from him, frightened.
"Dr. Meade, do you think he can can have lost his mind?" she questioned afterwards, driven to the doctor by her own sense of helplessness.
"No," said the doctor, "but he's drinking like a fish and will kill himself if he keeps it up. He loved the child, Scarlett, and I guess he drinks to forget about her. Now, my advice to you, Miss, is to give him another baby just as quickly as you can."
"Hah!" thought Scarlett bitterly, as she left his office. That was easier said than done. She would gladly have another child, several children, if they would take that look out of Rhett's eyes and fill up the aching spaces in her own heart. A boy who had Rhett's dark handsomeness and another little girl. Oh, for another girl, pretty and gay and willful and full of laughter, not like the giddy brained Ella. Why, oh, why couldn't God have taken Ella if He had to take one of her children? Ella was no comfort to her, now that Bonnie was gone. But Rhett did not seem to want any other children. At least he never came to her bedroom though now the door was never locked and usually invitingly ajar. He did not seem to care. He did not seem to care for anything now except whisky and that blowzy red haired woman.
He was bitter now, where he had been pleasantly jeering, brutal where his thrusts had once been tempered with humor. After Bonnie died, many of the good ladies of the neighborhood who had been won over to him by his charming manners with his daughter were anxious to show him kindness. They stopped him on the street to give him their sympathy and spoke to him from over their hedges, saying that they understood. But now that Bonnie, the reason for his good manners, was gone the manners went to. He cut the ladies and their well meant condolences off shortly, rudely.
But, oddly enough, the ladies were not offended. They understood, or thought they understood. When he rode home in the twilight almost too drunk to stay in the saddle, scowling at those who spoke to him, the ladies said "Poor thing!" and redoubled their efforts to be kind and gentle. They felt very sorry for him, broken hearted and riding home to no better comfort than Scarlett.
Everybody knew how cold and heartless she was. Everybody was appalled at the seeming ease with which she had recovered from Bonnie's death, never realizing or caring to realize the effort that lay behind that seeming recovery. Rhett had the town's tenderest sympathy and he neither knew nor cared. Scarlett had the town's dislike and, for once, she would have welcomed the sympathy of old friends.
Now, none of her old friends came to the house, except Aunt Pitty, Melanie and Ashley. Only the new friends came calling in their shining carriages, anxious to tell her of their sympathy, eager to divert her with gossip about other new friends in whom she was not at all interested. All these "new people," strangers, every one! They didn't know her. They would never know her. They had no realization of what her life had been before she reached her present safe eminence in her mansion on Peachtree Street. They didn't care to talk about what their lives had been before they attained stiff brocades and victorias with fine teams of horses. They didn't know of her struggles, her privations, all the things that made this great house and pretty clothes and silver and receptions worth having. They didn't know. They didn't care, these people from God knows where who seemed to live always on the surface of things, who had no common memories of war and hunger and fighting, who had no common roots going down into the same red earth.
Now in her loneliness, she would have liked to while away the afternoons with Maybelle or Fanny or Mrs. Elsing or Mrs. Whiting or even that redoubtable old warrior, Mrs. Merriwether. Or Mrs. Bonnell or or any of her old friends and neighbors. For they knew. They had known war and terror and fire, had seen dear ones dead before their time; they had hungered and been ragged, had lived with the wolf at the door. And they had rebuilt fortune from ruin.
It would be a comfort to sit with Maybelle, remembering that Maybelle had buried a baby, dead in the mad flight before Sherman. There would be solace in Fanny's presence, knowing that she and Fanny both had lost husbands in the black days of martial law. It would be grim fun to laugh with Mrs. Elsing, recalling the old lady's face as she flogged her horse through Five Points the day Atlanta fell, her loot from the commissary jouncing from her carriage. It would be pleasant to match stories with Mrs. Merriwether, now secure on the proceeds of her bakery, pleasant to say: "Do you remember how bad things were right after the surrender? Do you remember when we didn't know where our next pair of shoes was coming from? And look at us now!"
Yes, it would be pleasant. Now she understood why when two ex Confederates met, they talked of the war with so much relish, with pride, with nostalgia. Those had been days that tried their hearts but they had come through them. They were veterans. She was a veteran too, but she had no cronies with whom she could refight old battles. Oh, to be with her own kind of people again, those people who had been through the same things and knew how they hurt and yet how great a part of you they were!
But, somehow, these people had slipped away. She realized that it was her own fault. She had never cared until now now that Bonnie was dead and she was lonely and afraid and she saw across her shining dinner table a swarthy sodden stranger disintegrating under her eyes.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
Scarlett was in Marietta when Rhett's urgent telegram came. There was a train leaving for Atlanta in ten minutes and she caught it, carrying no baggage except her reticule and leaving Wade and Ella at the hotel with Prissy.
Atlanta was only twenty miles away but the train crawled interminably through the wet early autumn afternoon, stopping at every bypath for passengers. Panic stricken at Rhett's message, mad for speed, Scarlett almost screamed at every halt. Down the road lumbered the train through forests faintly, tiredly gold, past red hillsides still scarred with serpentine breastworks, past old battery emplacements and weed grown craters, down the road over which Johnston's men had retreated so bitterly, fighting every step of the way. Each station, each crossroad the conductor called was the name of a battle, the site of a skirmish. Once they would have stirred Scarlett to memories of terror but now she had no thought for them.
Rhett's message had been:
"Mrs. Wilkes ill. Come home immediately."
Twilight had fallen when the train pulled into Atlanta and a light misting rain obscured the town. The gas street lamps glowed dully, blobs of yellow in the fog. Rhett was waiting for her at the depot with the carriage. The very sight of his face frightened her more than his telegram. She had never seen it so expressionless before.
"She isn't " she cried.
"No. She's still alive." Rhett assisted her into the carriage. "To Mrs. Wilkes' house and as fast as you can go," he ordered the coachman.
"What's the matter with her? I didn't know she was ill. She looked all right last week. Did she have an accident? Oh, Rhett, it isn't really as serious as you "
"She's dying," said Rhett and his voice had no more expression than his face. "She wants to see you."
"Not Melly! Oh, not Melly! What's happened to her?"
"She's had a miscarriage."
"A a mis but, Rhett, she " Scarlett floundered. This information on top of the horror of his announcement took her breath away.
"You did not know she was going to have a baby?"
She could not even shake her head.
"Ah, well. I suppose not. I don't think she told anyone. She wanted it to be a surprise. But I knew."
"You knew? But surely she didn't tell you!"
"She didn't have to tell me. I knew. She's been so happy these last two months I knew it couldn't mean anything else."
"But Rhett, the doctor said it would kill her to have another baby!"
"It has killed her," said Rhett. And to the coachman: "For God's sake, can't you drive faster?"
"But, Rhett, she can't be dying! I I didn't and I "
"She hasn't your strength. She's never had any strength. She's never had anything but heart."
The carriage rocked to a standstill in front of the flat little house and Rhett handed her out. Trembling, frightened, a sudden feeling of loneliness upon her, she clasped his arm.
"You're coming in, Rhett?"
"No," he said and got back into the carriage.
She flew up the front steps, across the porch and threw open the door. There, in the yellow lamplight were Ashley, Aunt Pitty and India. Scarlett thought: "What's India doing here? Melanie told her never to set foot in this house again." The three rose at the sight of her, Aunt Pitty biting her trembling lips to still them, India staring at her, grief stricken and without hate. Ashley looked dull as a sleepwalker and, as he came to her and put his hand upon her arm, he spoke like a sleepwalker.
"She asked for you," he said. "She asked for you."
"Can I see her now?" She turned toward the closed door of Melanie's room.
"No. Dr. Meade is in there now. I'm glad you've come, Scarlett."
"I came as quickly as I could." Scarlett shed her bonnet and her cloak. "The train She isn't really Tell me, she's better, isn't she, Ashley? Speak to me! Don't look like that! She isn't really "
"She kept asking for you," said Ashley and looked her in the eyes. And, in his eyes she saw the answer to her question. For a moment, her heart stood still and then a queer fear, stronger than anxiety, stronger than grief, began to beat in her breast. It can't be true, she thought vehemently, trying to push back the fear. Doctors make mistakes. I won't think it's true. I can't let myself think it's true. I'll scream if I do. I must think of something else.
"I don't believe it!" she cried stormily, looking into the three drawn faces as though defying them to contradict her. "And why didn't Melanie tell me? I'd never have gone to Marietta if I'd known!"
Ashley's eyes awoke and were tormented.
"She didn't tell anyone, Scarlett, especially not you. She was afraid you'd scold her if you knew. She wanted to wait three till she thought it safe and sure and then surprise you all and laugh and say how wrong the doctors had been. And she was so happy. You know how she was about babies how much she's wanted a little girl. And everything went so well until and then for no reason at all "
The door of Melanie's room opened quietly and Dr. Meade came out into the hall, shutting the door behind him. He stood for a moment, his gray beard sunk on his chest, and looked at the suddenly frozen four. His gaze fell last on Scarlett. As he came toward her, she saw that there was grief in his eyes and also dislike and contempt that flooded her frightened heart with guilt.
"So you finally got here," he said.
Before she could answer, Ashley started toward the closed door.
"Not you, yet," said the doctor. "She wants to speak to Scarlett."
"Doctor," said India, putting a hand on his sleeve. Though her voice was toneless, it plead more loudly than words. "Let me see her for a moment. I've been here since this morning, waiting, but she Let me see her for a moment. I want to tell her must tell her that I was wrong about something."
She did not look at Ashley or Scarlett as she spoke, but Dr. Meade allowed his cold glance to fall on Scarlett.
"I'll see, Miss India," he said briefly. "But only if you'll give me your word not to use up her strength telling her you were wrong. She knows you were wrong and it will only worry her to hear you apologize."
Pitty began, timidly: "Please, Dr. Meade "
"Miss Pitty, you know you'd scream and faint."
Pitty drew up her stout little body and gave the doctor glance for glance. Her eyes were dry and there was dignity in every curve.
"Well, all right, honey, a little later," said the doctor, more kindly. "Come, Scarlett."
They tiptoed down the hall to the closed door and the doctor put his hand on Scarlett's shoulder in a hard grip.
"Now, Miss," he whispered briefly, "no hysterics and no deathbed confessions from you or, before God, I will wring your neck! Don't give me any of your innocent stares. You know what I mean. Miss Melly is going to die easily and you aren't going to ease your own conscience by telling her anything about Ashley. I've never harmed a woman yet, but if you say anything now you'll answer to me."
He opened the door before she could answer, pushed her into the room and closed the door behind her. The little room, cheaply furnished in black walnut, was in semidarkness, the lamp shaded with a newspaper. It was as small and prim a room as a schoolgirl's, the narrow little low backed bed, the plain net curtains looped back, the clean faded rag rugs on the floor, were so different from the lavishness of Scarlett's own bedroom with its towering carved furniture, pink brocade draperies and rose strewn carpet.
Melanie lay in the bed, her figure under the counterpane shrunken and flat like a little girl's. Two black braids fell on either side of her face and her closed eyes were sunken in twin purple circles. At the sight of her Scarlett stood transfixed, leaning against the door. Despite the gloom of the room, she could see that Melanie's face was of a waxy yellow color. It was drained of life's blood and there was a pinched look about the nose. Until that moment, Scarlett had hoped Dr. Meade was mistaken. But now she knew. In the hospitals during the war she had seen too many faces wearing this pinched look not to know what it inevitably presaged.
Melanie was dying, but for a moment Scarlett's mind refused to take it in. Melanie could not die. It was impossible for her to die. God wouldn't let her die when she, Scarlett, needed her so much. Never before had it occurred to her that she needed Melanie. But now, the truth surged in, down to the deepest recesses of her soul. She had relied on Melanie, even as she had relied upon herself, and she had never known it. Now, Melanie was dying and Scarlett knew she could not get along without her. Now, as she tiptoed across the room toward the quiet figure, panic clutching at her heart, she knew that Melanie had been her sword and her shield, her comfort and her strength.
"I must hold her! I can't let her get away!" she thought and sank beside the bed with a rustle of skirts. Hastily she grasped the limp hand lying on the coverlet and was frightened anew by its chill.
"It's me, Melly," she said.
Melanie's eyes opened a slit and then, as if having satisfied herself that it was really Scarlett, she closed them again. After a pause she drew a breath and whispered:
"Beau look after him."
Scarlett could only nod, a strangled feeling in her throat, and she gently pressed the hand she held by way of assent.
"I give him to you." There was the faintest trace of a smile. "I gave him to you, once before 'member? before he was born."
Did she remember? Could she ever forget that time? Almost as clearly as if that dreadful day had returned, she could feel the stifling heat of the September noon, remembering her terror of the Yankees, hear the tramp of the retreating troops, recall Melanie's voice begging her to take the baby should she die remember, too, how she had hated Melanie that day and hoped that she would die.
"I've killed her," she thought, in superstitious agony. "I wished so often she would die and God heard me and is punishing me."
"Oh, Melly, don't talk like that! You know you'll pull through this "
"You know I promise. I'll treat him like he was my own boy."
"College?" asked Melanie's faint flat voice.
"Oh, yes! The university and Harvard and Europe and anything he wants and and a pony and music lessons Oh, please, Melly, do try! Do make an effort!"
The silence fell again and on Melanie's face there were signs of a struggle to gather strength to speak.
"Ashley," she said. "Ashley and you " Her voice faltered into stillness.
At the mention of Ashley's name, Scarlett's heart stood still, cold as granite within her. Melanie had known all the time. Scarlett dropped her head on the coverlet and a sob that would not rise caught her throat with a cruel hand. Melanie knew. Scarlett was beyond shame now, beyond any feeling save a wild remorse that she had hurt this gentle creature throughout the long years. Melanie had known and yet, she had remained her loyal friend. Oh, if she could only live those years over again! She would never even let her eyes meet those of Ashley.
"O God," she prayed rapidly, "do, please, let her live! I'll make it up to her. I'll be so good to her. I'll never even speak to Ashley again as long as I live, if You'll only let her get well!"
"Ashley," said Melanie feebly and her fingers reached out to touch Scarlett's bowed head. Her thumb and forefinger tugged with no more strength than that of a baby at Scarlett's hair. Scarlett knew what that meant, knew Melanie wanted her to look up. But she could not, could not meet Melanie's eyes and read that knowledge in them.
"Ashley," Melanie whispered again and Scarlett gripped herself. When she looked God in the face on the Day of Judgment and read her sentence in His eyes, it would not be as bad as this. Her soul cringed but she raised her head.
She saw only the same dark loving eyes, sunken and drowsy with death, the same tender mouth tiredly fighting pain for breath. No reproach was there, no accusation and no fear only an anxiety that she might not find strength for words.
For a moment Scarlett was too stunned to even feel relief. Then, as she held Melanie's hand more closely, a flood of warm gratitude to God swept over her and, for the first time since her childhood, she said a humble, unselfish prayer.
"Thank You, God. I know I'm not worth it but thank You for not letting her know."
"What about Ashley, Melly?"
"You'll look after him?"
"He catches cold so easily."
There was a pause.
"Look after his business you understand?"
"Yes, I understand. I will."
She made a great effort.
"Ashley isn't practical."
Only death could have forced that disloyalty from Melanie.
"Look after him, Scarlett but don't ever let him know."
"I'll look after him and the business too, and I'll never let him know. I'll just kind of suggest things to him."
Melanie managed a small smile but it was a triumphant one as her eyes met Scarlett's again. Their glance sealed the bargain that the protection of Ashley Wilkes from a too harsh world was passing from one woman to another and that Ashley's masculine pride should never be humbled by this knowledge.
Now the struggle went out of the tired face as though with Scarlett's promise, ease had come to her.
"You're so smart so brave always been so good to me "
At these words, the sob came freely to Scarlett's throat and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Now, she was going to bawl like a child and cry out: "I've been a devil! I've wronged you so! I never did anything for you! It was all for Ashley."
She rose to her feet abruptly, sinking her teeth into her thumb to regain her control. Rhett's words came back to her again, "She loves you. Let that be your cross." Well, the cross was heavier now. It was bad enough that she had tried by every art to take Ashley from her. But now it was worse that Melanie, who had trusted her blindly through life, was laying the same love and trust on her in death. No, she could not speak. She could not even say again: "Make an effort to live." She must let her go easily, without a struggle, without tears, without sorrow.
The door opened slightly and Dr. Meade stood on the threshold, beckoning imperiously. Scarlett bent over the bed, choking back her tears and taking Melanie's hand, laid it against her cheek.
"Good night," she said, and her voice was steadier than she thought it possibly could be.
"Promise me " came the whisper, very softly now.
"Captain Butler be kind to him. He loves you so."
"Rhett?" thought Scarlett, bewildered, and the words meant nothing to her.
"Yes, indeed," she said automatically and, pressing a light kiss on the hand, laid it back on the bed.
"Tell the ladies to come in immediately," whispered the doctor as she passed through the door.
Through blurred eyes she saw India and Pitty follow the doctor into the room, holding their skirts close to their sides to keep them from rustling. The door closed behind them and the house was still. Ashley was nowhere to be seen. Scarlett leaned her head against the wall, like a naughty child in a corner, and rubbed her aching throat.
Behind that door, Melanie was going and, with her, the strength upon which she had relied unknowingly for so many years. Why, oh, why, had she not realized before this how much she loved and needed Melanie? But who would have thought of small plain Melanie as a tower of strength? Melanie who was shy to tears before strangers, timid about raising her voice in an opinion of her own, fearful of the disapproval of old ladies, Melanie who lacked the courage to say Boo to a goose? And yet
Scarlett's mind went back through the years to the still, hot noon at Tara when gray smoke curled above a blue clad body and Melanie stood at the top of the stairs with Charles' saber in her hand. Scarlett remembered that she had thought at the time: "How silly! Melly couldn't even heft that sword!" But now she knew that had the necessity arisen, Melanie would have charged down those stairs and killed the Yankee or been killed herself.
Yes, Melanie had been there that day with a sword in her small hand, ready to do battle for her. And now, as Scarlett looked sadly back, she realized that Melanie had always been there beside her with a sword in her hand, unobtrusive as her own shadow, loving her, fighting for her with blind passionate sexy loyalty, fighting Yankees, fire, hunger, poverty, public opinion and even her beloved blood kin.
Scarlett felt her courage and self confidence ooze from her as she realized that the sword which had flashed between her and the world was sheathed forever.
"Melly is the only woman friend I ever had," she thought forlornly, "the only woman except Mother who really loved me. She's like Mother, too. Everyone who knew her has clung to her skirts."
Suddenly it was as if Ellen were lying behind that closed door, leaving the world for a second time. Suddenly she was standing at Tara again with the world about her ears, desolate with the knowledge that she could not face life without the terrible strength of the weak, the gentle, the tender hearted.
She stood in the hall, irresolute, frightened, and the glaring light of the fire in the sitting room threw tall dim shadows on the walls about her. The house was utterly still and the stillness soaked into her like a fine chill rain. Ashley! Where was Ashley?
She went toward the sitting room seeking him like a cold animal seeking the fire but he was not there. She must find him. She had discovered Melanie's strength and her dependence on it only to lose it in the moment of discovery but there was still Ashley left. There was Ashley who was strong and wise and comforting. In Ashley and his love lay strength upon which to lay her weakness, courage to bolster her fear, ease for her sorrow.
He must be in his room, she thought, and tiptoeing down the hall, she knocked softly. There was no answer, so she pushed the door open. Ashley was standing in front of the dresser, looking at a pair of Melanie's mended gloves. First he picked up one and looked at it, as though he had never seen it before. Then he laid it down gently, as though it were made of glass, and picked up the other one.
She said: "Ashley!" in a trembling voice and he turned slowly and looked at her. The drowsy aloofness had gone from his gray eyes and they were wide and unmasked. In them she saw fear that matched her own fear, helplessness weaker than her own, bewilderment more profound than she would ever know. The feeling of dread which had possessed her in the hall deepened as she saw his face. She went toward him.
"I'm frightened," she said. "Oh, Ashley, hold me. I'm so frightened!"
He made no move to her but stared, gripping the glove tightly in both hands. She put a hand on his arm and whispered: "What is it?"
His eyes searched her intently, hunting, hunting desperately for something he did not find. Finally he spoke and his voice was not his own.
"I was wanting you," he said. "I was going to run and find you run like a child wanting comfort and I find a child, more frightened, running to me."
"Not you you can't be frightened," she cried. "Nothing has ever frightened you. But I You've always been so strong "
"If I've ever been strong, it was because she was behind me," he said, his voice breaking, and he looked down at the glove and smoothed the fingers. "And and all the strength I ever had is going with her."
There was such a note of wild despair in his low voice that she dropped her hand from his arm and stepped back. And in the heavy silence that fell between them, she felt that she really understood him for the first time in her life.
"Why " she said slowly, "why, Ashley, you love her, don't you?"
He spoke as with an effort.
"She is the only dream I ever had that lived and breathed and did not die in the face of reality."
"Dreams!" she thought, an old irritation stirring. "Always dreams with him! Never common sense!"
With a heart that was heavy and a little bitter, she said: "You've been such a fool, Ashley. Why couldn't you see that she was worth a million of me?"
"Scarlett, please! If you only knew what I've gone through since the doctor "
"What you've gone through! Don't you think that I Oh, Ashley, you should have known, years ago, that you loved her and not me! Why didn't you! Everything would have been so different, so Oh, you should have realized and not kept me dangling with all your talk about honor and sacrifice! If you'd told me, years ago, I'd have It would have killed me but I could have stood it somehow. But you wait till now, till Melly's dying, to find it out and now it's too late to do anything. Oh, Ashley, men are supposed to know such things not women! You should have seen so clearly that you loved her all the time and only wanted me like like Rhett wants that Watling woman!"
He winced at her words but his eyes still met hers, imploring silence, comfort. Every line of his face admitted the truth of her words. The very droop of his shoulders showed that his own self castigation was more cruel than any she could give. He stood silent before her, clutching the glove as though it were an understanding hand and, in the stillness that followed her words, her indignation fell away and pity, tinged with contempt, took its place. Her conscience smote her. She was kicking a beaten and defenseless man and she had promised Melanie that she would look after him.
"And just as soon as I promised her, I said mean, hurting things to him and there's no need for me to say them or for anyone to say them. He knows the truth and it's killing him," she thought desolately. "He's not grown up. He's a child, like me, and he's sick with fear at losing her. Melly knew how it would be Melly knew him far better than I do. That's why she said look after him and Beau, in the same breath. How can Ashley ever stand this? I can stand it. I can stand anything. I've had to stand so much. But he can't he can't stand anything without her."
"Forgive me, darling," she said gently, putting out her arms. "I know what you must be suffering. But remember, she doesn't know anything she never even suspected God was that good to us."
He came to her quickly and his arms went round her blindly. She tiptoed to bring her warm cheek comfortingly against his and with one hand she smoothed the back of his hair.
"Don't cry, sweet. She'd want you to be brave. She'll want to see you in a moment and you must be brave. She mustn't see that you've been crying. It would worry her."
He held her in a grip that made breathing difficult and his choking voice was in her ear.
"What will I do? I can't I can't live without her!"
"I can't either," she thought, shuddering away from the picture of the long years to come, without Melanie. But she caught herself in a strong grasp. Ashley was depending on her, Melanie was depending on her. As once before, in the moonlight at Tara, drunk, exhausted, she had thought: "Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them." Well, her shoulders were strong and Ashley's were not. She squared her shoulders for the load and with a calmness she was far from feeling, kissed his wet cheek without fever or longing or passion, only with cool gentleness.
"We shall manage somehow," she said.
A door opened with sudden violence into the hall and Dr. Meade called with sharp urgency:
"My God! She's gone!" thought Scarlett. "And Ashley didn't get to tell her good by! But maybe "
"Hurry!" she cried aloud, giving him a push, for he stood staring like one stunned. "Hurry!"
She pulled open the door and motioned him through. Galvanized by her words, he ran into the hall, the glove still clasped closely in his hand. She heard his rapid steps for a moment and then the closing of a door.
She said, "My God!" again and walking slowly to the bed, sat down upon it and dropped her head in her hands. She was suddenly tired, more tired than she had ever been in all her life. With the sound of the closing door, the strain under which she had been laboring, the strain which had given her strength, suddenly snapped. She felt exhausted in body and drained of emotions. Now she felt no sorrow or remorse, no fear or amazement. She was tired and her mind ticked away dully, mechanically, as the clock on the mantel.
Out of the dullness, one thought arose. Ashley did not love her and had never really loved her and the knowledge did not hurt. It should hurt. She should be desolate, broken hearted, ready to scream at fate. She had relied upon his love for so long. It had upheld her through so many dark places. Yet, there the truth was. He did not love her and she did not care. She did not care because she did not love him. She did not love him and so nothing he could do or say could hurt her.
She lay down on the bed and put her head on the pillow tiredly. Useless to try to combat the idea, useless to say to herself: "But I do love him. I've loved him for years. Love can't change to apathy in a minute."
But it could change and it had changed.
"He never really existed at all, except in my imagination," she thought wearily. "I loved something I made up, something that's just as dead as Melly is. I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it. And when Ashley came riding along, so handsome, so different, I put that suit on him and made him wear it whether it fitted him or not. And I wouldn't see what he really was. I kept on loving the pretty clothes and not him at all."
Now she could look back down the long years and see herself in green flowered dimity, standing in the sunshine at Tara, thrilled by the young horseman with his blond hair shining like a silver helmet. She could see so clearly now that he was only a childish fancy, no more important really than her spoiled desire for the aquamarine earbobs she had coaxed out of Gerald. For, once she owned the earbobs, they had lost their value, as everything except money lost its value once it was hers. And so he, too, would have become cheap if, in those first far away days, she had ever had the satisfaction of refusing to marry him. If she had ever had him at her mercy, seen him grown passionate sexy, importunate, jealous, sulky, pleading, like the other boys, the wild infatuation which had possessed her would have passed, blowing away as lightly as mist before sunshine and light wind when she met a new man.
"What a fool I've been," she thought bitterly. "And now I've got to pay for it. What I've wished for so often has happened. I've wished Melly was dead so I could have him. And now she's dead and I've got him and I don't want him. His damned honor will make him ask me if I want to divorce Rhett and marry him. Marry him? I wouldn't have him on a silver platter! But, just the same I've got him round my neck for the rest of my life. As long as I live I'll have to look after him and see that he doesn't starve and that people don't hurt his feelings. He'll be just another child, clinging to my skirts. I've lost my lover and I've got another child. And if I hadn't promised Melly, I'd I wouldn't care if I never saw him again."
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
She heard whispering voices outside, and going to the door she saw the frightened negroes standing in the back hall, Dilcey with her arms sagging under the heavy weight of the sleeping Beau, Uncle Peter crying, and Cookie wiping her wide wet face on her apron. All three looked at her, dumbly asking what they were to do now. She looked up the hall toward the sitting room and saw India and Aunt Pitty standing speechless, holding each other's hands and, for once, India had lost her stiff necked look. Like the negroes, they looked imploringly at her, expecting her to give instructions. She walked into the sitting room and the two women closed about her.
"Oh, Scarlett, what " began Aunt Pitty, her fat, child's mouth shaking.
"Don't speak to me or I'll scream," said Scarlett. Overwrought nerves brought sharpness to her voice and her hands clenched at her sides. The thought of speaking of Melanie now, of making the inevitable arrangements that follow a death made her throat tighten. "I don't want a word out of either of you."
At the authoritative note in her voice, they fell back, helpless hurt looks on their faces. "I mustn't cry in front of them," she thought. "I mustn't break now or they'll begin crying too, and then the darkies will begin screaming and we'll all go mad. I must pull myself together. There's so much I'll have to do. See the undertaker and arrange the funeral and see that the house is clean and be here to talk to people who'll cry on my neck. Ashley can't do them. I've got to do them. Oh, what a weary load! It's always been a weary load and always some one else's load!"
She looked at the dazed hurt faces of India and Pitty and contrition swept her. Melanie would not like her to be so sharp with those who loved her.
"I'm sorry I was cross," she said, speaking with difficulty. "It's just that I I'm sorry I was cross, Auntie. I'm going out on the porch for a minute. I've got to be alone. Then I'll come back and we'll "
She patted Aunt Pitty and went swiftly by her to the front door, knowing if she stayed in this room another minute her control would crack. She had to be alone. And she had to cry or her heart would break.
She stepped onto the dark porch and closed the door behind her and the moist night air was cool upon her face. The rain had ceased and there was no sound except for the occasional drip of water from the eaves. The world was wrapped in a thick mist, a faintly chill mist that bore on its breath the smell of the dying year. All the houses across the street were dark except one, and the light from a lamp in the window, falling into the street, struggled feebly with the fog, golden particles floating in its rays. It was as if the whole world were enveloped in an unmoving blanket of gray smoke. And the whole world was still.
She leaned her head against one of the uprights of the porch and prepared to cry but no tears came. This was a calamity too deep for tears. Her body shook. There still reverberated in her mind the crashes of the two impregnable citadels of her life, thundering to dust about her ears. She stood for a while, trying to summon up her old charm: "I'll think of all this tomorrow when I can stand it better." But the charm had lost its potency. She had to think of two things, now Melanie and how much she loved and needed her; Ashley and the obstinate blindness that had made her refuse to see him as he really was. And she knew that thoughts of them would hurt just as much tomorrow and all the tomorrows of her life.
"I can't go back in there and talk to them now," she thought. "I can't face Ashley tonight and comfort him. Not tonight! Tomorrow morning I'll come early and do the things I must do, say the comforting things I must say. But not tonight. I can't. I'm going home."
Home was only five blocks away. She would not wait for the sobbing Peter to harness the buggy, would not wait for Dr. Meade to drive her home. She could not endure the tears of the one, the silent condemnation of the other. She went swiftly down the dark front steps without her coat or bonnet and into the misty night. She rounded the corner and started up the long hill toward Peachree Street, walking in a still wet world, and even her footsteps were as noiseless as a dream.
As she went up the hill, her chest tight with tears that would not come, there crept over her an unreal feeling, a feeling that she had been in this same dim chill place before, under a like set of circumstances not once but many times before. How silly, she thought uneasily, quickening her steps. Her nerves were playing her tricks. But the feeling persisted, stealthily pervading her mind. She peered about her uncertainly and the feeling grew, eerie but familiar, and her head went up sharply like an animal scenting danger. It's just that I'm worn out, she tried to soothe herself. And the night's so queer, so misty. I never saw such thick mist before except except!
And then she knew and fear squeezed her heart. She knew now. In a hundred nightmares, she had fled through fog like this, through a haunted country without landmarks, thick with cold cloaking mist, peopled with clutching ghosts and shadows. Was she dreaming again or was this her dream come true?
For an instant, reality went out of her and she was lost. The old nightmare feeling was sweeping her, stronger than ever, and her heart began to race. She was standing again amid death and stillness, even as she had once stood at Tara. All that mattered in the world had gone out of it, life was in ruins and panic howled through her heart like a cold wind. The horror that was in the mist and was the mist laid hands upon her. And she began to run. As she had run a hundred times in dreams, she ran now, flying blindly she knew not where, driven by a nameless dread, seeking in the gray mist for the safety that lay somewhere.
Up the dim street she fled, her head down, her heart hammering, the night air wet on her lips, the trees overhead menacing. Somewhere, somewhere in this wild land of moist stillness, there was a refuge! She sped gasping up the long hill, her wet skirts wrapping coldly about her ankles, her lungs bursting, the tight laced stays pressing her ribs into her heart.
Then before her eyes there loomed a light, a row of lights, dim and flickering but none the less real. In her nightmare, there had never been any lights, only gray fog. Her mind seized on those lights. Lights meant safety, people, reality. Suddenly she stopped running, her hands clenching, struggling to pull herself out of her panic, staring intently at the row of gas lamps which had signaled to her brain that this was Peachtree Street, Atlanta, and not the gray world of sleep and ghosts.
She sank down panting on a carriage block, clutching at her nerves as though they were ropes slipping swiftly through her hands.
"I was running running like a crazy person!" she thought, her body shaking with lessening fear, her thudding heart making her sick. "But where was I running?"
Her breath came more easily now and she sat with her hand pressed to her side and looked up Peachtree Street. There, at the top of the hill, was her own house. It looked as though every window bore lights, lights defying the mist to dim their brilliance. Home! It was real! She looked at the dim far off bulk of the house thankfully, longingly, and something like calm fell on her spirit.
Home! That was where she wanted to go. That was where she was running. Home to Rhett!
At this realization it was as though chains fell away from her and with them the fear which had haunted her dreams since the night she stumbled to Tara to find the world ended. At the end of the road to Tara she had found security gone, all strength, all wisdom, all loving tenderness, all understanding gone all those things which, embodied in Ellen, had been the bulwark of her girlhood. And, though she had won material safety since that night, in her dreams she was still a frightened child, searching for the lost security of that lost world.
Now she knew the haven she had sought in dreams, the place of warm safety which had always been hidden from her in the mist. It was not Ashley oh, never Ashley! There was no more warmth in him than in a marsh light, no more security than in quicksand. It was Rhett Rhett who had strong arms to hold her, a broad chest to pillow her tired head, jeering laughter to pull her affairs into proper perspective. And complete understanding, because he, like her, saw truth as truth, unobstructed by impractical notions of honor, sacrifice, or high belief in human nature. He loved her! Why hadn't she realized that he loved her, for all his taunting remarks to the contrary? Melanie had seen it and with her last breath had said, "Be kind to him."
"Oh," she thought, "Ashley's not the only stupidly blind person. I should have seen."
For years she had had her back against the stone wall of Rhett's love and had taken it as much for granted as she had taken Melanie's love, flattering herself that she drew her strength from herself alone. And even as she had realized earlier in the evening that Melanie bad been beside her in her bitter campaigns against life, now she knew that silent in the background, Rhett had stood, loving her, understanding her, ready to help. Rhett at the bazaar, reading her impatience in her eyes and leading her out in the reel, Rhett helping her out of the bondage of mourning, Rhett convoying her through the fire and explosions the night Atlanta fell, Rhett lending her the money that gave her her start, Rhett who comforted her when she woke in the nights crying with fright from her dreams why, no man did such things without loving a woman to distraction!
The trees dripped dampness upon her but she did not feel it. The mist swirled about her and she paid it no heed. For when she thought of Rhett, with his swarthy face, flashing teeth and dark alert eyes, a trembling came over her.
"I love him," she thought and, as always, she accepted the truth with little wonder, as a child accepting a gift. "I don't know how long I've loved him but it's true. And if it hadn't been for Ashley, I'd have realized it long ago. I've never been able to see the world at all, because Ashley stood in the way."
She loved him, scamp, blackguard, without scruple or honor at least, honor as Ashley saw it. "Damn Ashley's honor!" she thought. "Ashley's honor has always let me down. Yes, from the very beginning when he kept on coming to see me, even though he knew his family expected him to marry Melanie. Rhett has never let me down, even that dreadful night of Melly's reception when he ought to have wrung my neck. Even when he left me on the road the night Atlanta fell, he knew I'd be safe. He knew I'd get through somehow. Even when he acted like he was going to make me pay to get that money from him at the Yankee camp. He wouldn't have taken me. He was just testing me. He's loved me all along and I've been so mean to him. Time and again, I've hurt him and he was too proud to show it. And when Bonnie died Oh, how could I?"
She stood up straight and looked at the house on the hill. She had thought, half an hour ago, that she had lost everything in the world, except money, everything that made life desirable, Ellen, Gerald, Bonnie, Mammy, Melanie and Ashley. She had to lose them all to realize that she loved Rhett loved him because he was strong and unscrupulous, passionate sexy and earthy, like herself.
"I'll tell him everything," she thought. "He'll understand. He's always understood. I'll tell him what a fool I've been and how much I love him and I'll make it up to him."
Suddenly she felt strong and happy. She was not afraid of the darkness or the fog and she knew with a singing in her heart that she would never fear them again. No matter what mists might curl around her in the future, she knew her refuge. She started briskly up the street toward home and the blocks seemed very long. Far, far too long. She caught up her skirts to her knees and began to run lightly. But this time she was not running from fear. She was running because Rhett's arms were at the end of the street.
|Femme Classic Art||Femme Classic Art|
|Gone With The Wind Margaret Mitchell||
The front door was slightly ajar and she trotted, breathless, into the hall and paused for a moment under the rainbow prisms of the chandelier. For all its brightness the house was very still, not with the serene stillness of sleep but with a watchful, tired silence that was faintly ominous. She saw at a glance that Rhett was not in the parlor or the library and her heart sank. Suppose he should be out out with Belle or wherever it was he spent the many evenings when he did not appear at the supper table? She had not bargained on this.
She had started up the steps in search of him when she saw that the door of the dining room was closed. Her heart contracted a little with shame at the sight of that closed door, remembering the many nights of this last summer when Rhett had sat there alone, drinking until he was sodden and Pork came to urge him to bed. That had been her fault but she'd change it all. Everything was to be different from now on but, please God, don't let him be too drunk tonight. If he's too drunk he won't believe me and he'll laugh at me and that will break my heart.
She quietly opened the dining room door a crack and peered in. He was seated before the table, slumped in his chair, and a full decanter stood before him with the stopper in place, the glass unused. Thank God, he was sober! She pulled open the door, holding herself back from running to him. But when he looked up at her, something in his gaze stopped her dead on the threshold, stilled the words on her lips.
He looked at her steadily with dark eyes that were heavy with fatigue and there was no leaping light in them. Though her hair was tumbling about her shoulders, her bosom heaving breathlessly and her skirts mud splattered to the knees, his face did not change with surprise or question or his lips twist with mockery. He was sunken in his chair, his suit wrinkling untidily against his thickening waist, every line of him proclaiming the ruin of a fine body and the coarsening of a strong face. Drink and dissipation had done their work on the coin clean profile and now it was no longer the head of a young pagan prince on new minted gold but a decadent, tired Caesar on copper debased by long usage. He looked up at her as she stood there, hand on heart, looked quietly, almost in a kindly way, that frightened her.
"Come and sit down," he said. "She is dead?"
She nodded and advanced hesitantly toward him, uncertainty taking form in her mind at this new expression on his face. Without rising, he pushed back a chair with his foot and she sank into it. She wished he had not spoken of Melanie so soon. She did not want to talk of her now, to re live the agony of the last hour. There was all the rest of her life in which to speak of Melanie. But it seemed to her now, driven by a fierce desire to cry: "I love you," that there was only this night, this hour, in which to tell Rhett what was in her mind. But there was something in his face that stopped her and she was suddenly ashamed to speak of love when Melanie was hardly cold.
"Well, God rest her," he said heavily. "She was the only completely kind person I ever knew."
"Oh, Rhett!" she cried miserably, for his words brought up too vividly all the kind things Melanie had ever done for her. "Why didn't you come in with me? It was dreadful and I needed you so!"
"I couldn't have borne it," he said simply and for a moment he was silent. Then he spoke with an effort and said, softly: "A very great lady."
His somber gaze went past her and in his eyes was the same look she had seen in the light of the flames the night Atlanta fell, when he told her he was going off with the retreating army the surprise of a man who knows himself utterly, yet discovers in himself unexpected loyalties and emotions and feels a faint self ridicule at the discovery.
His moody eyes went over her shoulder as though he saw Melanie silently passing through the room to the door. In the look of farewell on his face there was no sorrow, no pain, only a speculative wonder at himself, only a poignant stirring of emotions dead since boyhood, as he said again: "A very great lady."
Scarlett shivered and the glow went from her heart, the fine warmth, the splendor which had sent her home on winged feet. She half grasped what was in Rhett's mind as he said farewell to the only person in the world he respected and she was desolate again with a terrible sense of loss that was no longer personal. She could not wholly understand or analyze what he was feeling, but it seemed almost as if she too had been brushed by whispering skirts, touching her softly in a last caress. She was seeing through Rhett's eyes the passing, not of a woman but of a legend the gentle, self effacing but steel spined women on whom the South had builded its house in war and to whose proud and loving arms it had returned in defeat.
His eyes came back to her and his voice changed. Now it was light and cool.
"So she's dead. That makes it nice for you, doesn't it?"
"Oh, how can you say such things," she cried, stung, the quick tears coming to her eyes. "You know how I loved her!"
"No, I can't say I did. Most unexpected and it's to your credit, considering your passion for white trash, that you could appreciate her at last."
"How can you talk so? Of course I appreciated her! You didn't. You didn't know her like I did! It isn't in you to understand her how good she was "
"Indeed? Perhaps not."
"She thought of everybody except herself why, her last words were about you."
There was a flash of genuine feeling in his eyes as he turned to her.
"What did she say?"
"Oh, not now, Rhett."
His voice was cool but the hand he put on her wrist hurt. She did not want to tell, this was not the way she had intended to lead up to the subject of her love but his hand was urgent.
"She said she said 'Be kind to Captain Butler. He loves you so much.'"
He stared at her and dropped her wrist. His eyelids went down, leaving his face dark and blank. Suddenly he rose and going to the window, he drew the curtains and looked out intently as if there were something to see outside except blinding mist.
"Did she say anything else?" he questioned, not turning his head.
"She asked me to take care of little Beau and I said I would, like he was my own boy."
"She said Ashley she asked me to look after Ashley, too."
He was silent for a moment and then he laughed softly. "It's convenient to have the first wife's permission, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
He turned and even in her confusion she was surprised that there was no mockery in his face. Nor was there any more interest in it than in the face of a man watching the last act of a none too amusing comedy.
"I think my meaning's plain enough. Miss Melly is dead. You certainly have all the evidence you want to divorce me and you haven't enough reputation left for a divorce to hurt you. And you haven't any religion left, so the Church won't matter. Then Ashley and dreams come true with the blessings of Miss Melly."
"Divorce?" she cried. "No! No!" Incoherent for a moment she leaped to her feet and running to him caught his arm. "Oh, you're all wrong! Terribly wrong. I don't want a divorce I " She stopped for she could find no other words.
He put his hand under her chin, quietly turned her face up to the light and looked for an intent moment into her eyes. She looked up at him, her heart in her eyes, her lips quivering as she tried to speak. But she could marshal no words because she was trying to find in his face some answering emotions, some leaping light of hope, of joy. Surely he must know, now! But the smooth dark blankness which had baffled her so often was all that her frantic, searching eyes could find. He dropped her chin and, turning, walked back to his chair and sprawled tiredly again, his chin on his breast, his eyes looking up at her from under black brows in an impersonal speculative way.
She followed him back to his chair, her hands twisting, and stood before him.
"You are wrong," she began again, finding words. "Rhett, tonight, when I knew, I ran every step of the way home to tell you. Oh, darling, I "
"You are tired," he said, still watching her. "You'd better go to bed."
"But I must tell you!"
"Scarlett," he said heavily, "I don't want to hear anything."
"But you don't know what I'm going to say!"
"My pet, it's written plainly on your face. Something, someone has made you realize that the unfortunate Mr. Wilkes is too large a mouthful of Dead Sea fruit for even you to chew. And that same something has suddenly set my charms before you in a new and attractive light," he sighed slightly. "And it's no use to talk about it."
She drew a sharp surprised breath. Of course, he had always read her easily. Heretofore she had resented it but now, after the first shock at her own transparency, her heart rose with gladness and relief. He knew, he understood and her task was miraculously made easy. No use to talk about it! Of course he was bitter at her long neglect, of course he was mistrustful of her sudden turnabout. She would have to woo him with kindness, convince him with a rich outpouring of love, and what a pleasure it would be to do it!
"Darling, I'm going to tell you everything," she said, putting her hands on the arm of his chair and leaning down to him. "I've been so wrong, such a stupid fool "
"Scarlett, don't go on with this. Don't be humble before me. I can't bear it. Leave us some dignity, some reticence to remember out of our marriage. Spare us this last."
She straightened up abruptly. Spare us this last? What did he mean by "this last"? Last? This was their first, their beginning.
"But I will tell you," she began rapidly, as if fearing his hand upon her mouth, silencing her. "Oh, Rhett, I love you so, darling! I must have loved you for years and I was such a fool I didn't know it. Rhett, you must believe me!"
He looked at her, standing before him, for a moment, a long look that went to the back of her mind. She saw there was belief in his eyes but little interest. Oh, was he going to be mean, at this of all times? To torment her, pay her back in her own coin?
"Oh, I believe you," he said at last. "But what of Ashley Wilkes?"
"Ashley!" she said, and made an impatient gesture. "I I don't believe I've cared anything about him for ages. It was well, a sort of habit I hung onto from when I was a little girl. Rhett, I'd never even thought I cared about him if I'd ever known what he was really like. He's such a helpless, poor spirited creature, for all his prattle about truth and honor and "
"No," said Rhett. "If you must see him as he really is, see him straight. He's only a gentleman caught in a world he doesn't belong in, trying to make a poor best of it by the rules of the world that's gone."
"Oh, Rhett, don't let's talk of him! What does he matter now? Aren't you glad to know I mean, now that I "
As his tired eyes met hers, she broke off in embarrassment, shy as a girl with her first beau. If he'd only make it easier for her! If only he would hold out his arms, so she could crawl thankfully into his lap and lay her head on his chest. Her lips on his could tell him better than all her stumbling words. But as she looked at him, she realized that he was not holding her off just to be mean. He looked drained and as though nothing she had said was of any moment.
"Glad?" he said. "Once I would have thanked God, fasting, to hear you say all this. But, now, it doesn't matter."
"Doesn't matter? What are you talking about? Of course, it matters! Rhett, you do care, don't you? You must care. Melly said you did."
"Well, she was right, as far as she knew. But, Scarlett, did it ever occur to you that even the most deathless love could wear out?"
She looked at him speechless, her mouth a round O.
"Mine wore out," he went on, "against Ashley Wilkes and your insane obstinacy that makes you hold on like a bulldog to anything you think you want. . . . Mine wore out."
"But love can't wear out!"
"Yours for Ashley did."
"But I never really loved Ashley!"
"Then, you certainly gave a good imitation of it up till tonight. Scarlett, I'm not upbraiding you, accusing you, reproaching you. That time has passed. So spare me your defenses and your explanations. If you can manage to listen to me for a few minutes without interrupting, I can explain what I mean. Though God knows, I see no need for explanations. The truth's so plain."
She sat down, the harsh gas light falling on her white bewildered face. She looked into the eyes she knew so well and knew so little listened to his quiet voice saying words which at first meant nothing. This was the first time he had ever talked to her in this manner, as one human being to another, talked as other people talked, without flippancy, mockery or riddles.
"Did it ever occur to you that I loved you as much as a man can love a woman? Loved you for years before I finally got you? During the war I'd go away and try to forget you, but I couldn't and I always had to come back. After the war I risked arrest, just to come back and find you. I cared so much I believe I would have killed Frank Kennedy if he hadn't died when he did. I loved you but I couldn't let you know it. You're so brutal to those who love you, Scarlett. You take their love and hold it over their heads like a whip."
Out of it all only the fact that he loved her meant anything. At the faint echo of passion in his voice, pleasure and excitement crept back into her. She sat, hardly breathing, listening, waiting.
"I knew you didn't love me when I married you. I knew about Ashley, you see. But, fool that I was, I thought I could make you care. Laugh, if you like, but I wanted to take care of you, to pet you, to give you everything you wanted. I wanted to marry you and protect you and give you a free rein in anything that would make you happy just as I did Bonnie. You'd had such a struggle, Scarlett. No one knew better than I what you'd gone through and I wanted you to stop fighting and let me fight for you. I wanted you to play, like a child for you were a child, a brave, frightened, bullheaded child. I think you are still a child. No one but a child could be so headstrong and so insensitive."
His voice was calm and tired but there was something in the quality of it that raised a ghost of memory in Scarlett. She had heard a voice like this once before and at some other crisis of her life. Where had it been? The voice of a man facing himself and his world without feeling, without flinching, without hope.
Why why it had been Ashley in the wintry, windswept orchard at Tara, talking of life and shadow shows with a tired calmness that had more finality in its timbre than any desperate bitterness could have revealed. Even as Ashley's voice then had turned her cold with dread of things she could not understand, so now Rhett's voice made her heart sink. His voice, his manner, more than the content of his words, disturbed her, made her realize that her pleasurable excitement of a few moments ago had been untimely. Something was wrong, badly wrong. What it was she did not know but she listened desperately, her eyes on his brown face, hoping to hear words that would dissipate her fears.
"It was so obvious that we were meant for each other. So obvious that I was the only man of your acquaintance who could love you after knowing you as you really are hard and greedy and unscrupulous, like me. I loved you and I took the chance. I thought Ashley would fade out of your mind. But," he shrugged, "I tried everything I knew and nothing worked. And I loved you so, Scarlett. If you had only let me, I could have loved you as gently and as tenderly as ever a man loved a woman. But I couldn't let you know, for I knew you'd think me weak and try to use my love against me. And always always there was Ashley. It drove me crazy. I couldn't sit across the table from you every night, knowing you wished Ashley was sitting there in my place. And I couldn't hold you in my arms at night and know that well, it doesn't matter now. I wonder, now, why it hurt. That's what drove me to Belle. There is a certain swinish comfort in being with a woman who loves you utterly and respects you for being a fine gentleman even if she is an illiterate whore. It soothed my vanity. You've never been very soothing, my dear."
"Oh, Rhett . . ." she began, miserable at the very mention of Belle's name, but he waved her to silence and went on.
"And then, that night when I carried you upstairs I thought I hoped I hoped so much I was afraid to face you the next morning, for fear I'd been mistaken and you didn't love me. I was so afraid you'd laugh at me I went off and got drunk. And when I came back, I was shaking in my boots and if you had come even halfway to meet me, had given me some sign, I think I'd have kissed your feet. But you didn't."
"Oh, but Rhett, I did want you then but you were so nasty! I did want you! I think yes, that must have been when I first knew I cared about you. Ashley I never was happy about Ashley after that, but you were so nasty that I "
"Oh, well," he said. "It seems we've been at cross purposes, doesn't it? But it doesn't matter now. I'm only telling you, so you won't ever wonder about it all. When you were sick and it was all my fault, I stood outside your door, hoping you'd call for me, but you didn't, and then I knew what a fool I'd been and that it was all over."
He stopped and looked through her and beyond her, even as Ashley had often done, seeing something she could not see. And she could only stare speechless at his brooding face.
"But then, there was Bonnie and I saw that everything wasn't over, after all. I liked to think that Bonnie was you, a little girl again, before the war and poverty had done things to you. She was so like you, so willful, so brave and gay and full of high spirits, and I could pet her and spoil her just as I wanted to pet you. But she wasn't like you she loved me. It was a blessing that I could take the love you didn't want and give it to her. . . . When she went, she took everything."
Suddenly she was sorry for him, sorry with a completeness that wiped out her own grief and her fear of what his words might mean. It was the first time in her life she had been sorry for anyone without feeling contemptuous as well, because it was the first time she had ever approached understanding any other human being. And she could understand his shrewd caginess, so like her own, his obstinate pride that kept him from admitting his love for fear of a rebuff.
"Ah, darling," she said coming forward, hoping he would put out his arms and draw her to his knees. "Darling, I'm so sorry but I'll make it all up to you! We can be so happy, now that we know the truth and Rhett look at me, Rhett! There there can be other babies not like Bonnie but "
"Thank you, no," said Rhett, as if he were refusing a piece of bread. "I'll not risk my heart a third time."
"Rhett, don't say such things! Oh, what can I say to make you understand? I've told you how sorry I am "
"My darling, you're such a child. You think that by saying, 'I'm sorry,' all the errors and hurts of years past can be remedied, obliterated from the mind, all the poison drawn from old wounds. . . . Take my handkerchief, Scarlett. Never, at any crisis of your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief."
She took the handkerchief, blew her nose and sat down. It was obvious that he was not going to take her in his arms. It was beginning to be obvious that all his talk about loving her meant nothing. It was a tale of a time long past, and he was looking at it as though it had never happened to him. And that was frightening. He looked at her in an almost kindly way, speculation in his eyes.
"How old are you, my dear? You never would tell me."
"Twenty eight," she answered dully, muffled in the handkerchief.
"That's not a vast age. It's a young age to have gained the whole world and lost your own soul, isn't it? Don't look frightened. I'm not referring to hell fire to come for your affair with Ashley. I'm merely speaking metaphorically. Ever since I've known you, you've wanted two things. Ashley and to be rich enough to tell the world to go to hell. Well, you are rich enough and you've spoken sharply to the world and you've got Ashley, if you want him. But all that doesn't seem to be enough now."
She was frightened but not at the thought of hell fire. She was thinking: "But Rhett is my soul and I'm losing him. And if I lose him, nothing else matters! No, not friends or money or or anything. If only I had him I wouldn't even mind being poor again. No, I wouldn't mind being cold again or even hungry. But he can't mean Oh, he can't!"
She wiped her eyes and said desperately:
"Rhett, if you once loved me so much, there must be something left for me."
"Out of it all I find only two things that remain and they are the two things you hate the most pity and an odd feeling of kindness."
Pity! Kindness! "Oh, my God," she thought despairingly. Anything but pity and kindness. Whenever she felt these two emotions for anyone, they went hand in hand with contempt. Was he contemptuous of her too? Anything would be preferable to that. Even the cynical coolness of the war days, the drunken madness that drove him the night he carried her up the stairs, his hard fingers bruising her body, or the barbed drawling words that she now realized had covered a bitter love. Anything except this impersonal kindness that was written so plainly in his face.
"Then then you mean I've ruined it all that you don't love me any more?"
"But," she said stubbornly, like a child who still feels that to state a desire is to gain that desire, "but I love you!"
"That's your misfortune."
She looked up quickly to see if there was a jeer behind those words but there was none. He was simply stating a fact. But it was a fact she still would not believe could not believe. She looked at him with slanting eyes that burned with a desperate obstinacy and the sudden hard line of jaw that sprang out through her soft cheek was Gerald's jaw.
"Don't be a fool, Rhett! I can make "
He flung up a hand in mock horror and his black brows went up in the old sardonic crescents.
"Don't look so determined, Scarlett! You frighten me. I see you are contemplating the transfer of your tempestuous affections from Ashley to me and I fear for my liberty and my peace of mind. No, Scarlett, I will not be pursued as the luckless Ashley was pursued. Besides, I am going away."
Her jaw trembled before she clenched her teeth to steady it. Go away? No, anything but that! How could life go on without him? Everyone had gone from her, everyone who mattered except Rhett. He couldn't go. But how could she stop him? She was powerless against his cool mind, his disinterested words.
"I am going away. I intended to tell you when you came home from Marietta."
"You are deserting me?"
"Don't be the neglected, dramatic wife, Scarlett. The role isn't becoming. I take it, then, you do not want a divorce or even a separation? Well, then, I'll come back often enough to keep gossip down."
"Damn gossip!" she said fiercely. "It's you I want. Take me with you!"
"No," he said, and there was finality in his voice. For a moment she was on the verge of an outburst of childish wild tears. She could have thrown herself on the floor, cursed and screamed and drummed her heels. But some remnant of pride, of common sense stiffened her. She thought, if I did, he'd only laugh, or just look at me. I mustn't bawl; I mustn't beg. I mustn't do anything to risk his contempt. He must respect me even even if he doesn't love me.
She lifted her chin and managed to ask quietly:
"Where will you go?"
There was a faint gleam of admiration in his eyes as he answered.
"Perhaps to England or to Paris. Perhaps to Charleston to try to make peace with my people."
"But you hate them! I've heard you laugh at them so often and "
"I still laugh but I've reached the end of roaming, Scarlett. I'm forty five the age when a man begins to value some of the things he's thrown away so lightly in youth, the clannishness of families, honor and security, roots that go deep Oh, no! I'm not recanting, I'm not regretting anything I've ever done. I've had a hell of a good time such a hell of a good time that it's begun to pall and now I want something different. No, I never intend to change more than my spots. But I want the outer semblance of the things I used to know, the utter boredom of respectability other people's respectability, my pet, not my own the calm dignity life can have when it's lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days I didn't realize the slow charm of them "
Again Scarlett was back in the windy orchard of Tara and there was the same look in Rhett's eyes that had been in Ashley's eyes that day. Ashley's words were as clear in her ears as though he and not Rhett were speaking. Fragments of words came back to her and she quoted parrot like: "A glamor to it a perfection, a symmetry like Grecian art."
Rhett said sharply: "Why did you say that? That's what I meant."
"It was something that that Ashley said once, about the old days."
He shrugged and the light went out of his eyes.
"Always Ashley," he said and was silent for a moment.
"Scarlett, when you are forty five, perhaps you will know what I'm talking about and then perhaps you, too, will be tired of imitation gentry and shoddy manners and cheap emotions. But I doubt it. I think you'll always be more attracted by glister than by gold. Anyway, I can't wait that long to see. And I have no desire to wait. It just doesn't interest me. I'm going to hunt in old towns and old countries where some of the old times must still linger. I'm that sentimental. Atlanta's too raw for me, too new."
"Stop," she said suddenly. She had hardly heard anything he had said. Certainly her mind had not taken it in. But she knew she could no longer endure with any fortitude the sound of his voice when there was no love in it.
He paused and looked at her quizzically.
"Well, you get my meaning, don't you?" he questioned, rising to his feet.
She threw out her hands to him, palms up, in the age old gesture of appeal and her heart, again, was in her face.
"No," she cried. "All I know is that you do not love me and you are going away! Oh, my darling, if you go, what shall I do?"
For a moment he hesitated as if debating whether a kind lie were kinder in the long run than the truth. Then he shrugged.
"Scarlett, I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken and I'd rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived. Perhaps, if I were younger " he sighed. "But I'm too old to believe in such sentimentalities as clean slates and starting all over. I'm too old to shoulder the burden of constant lies that go with living in polite disillusionment. I couldn't live with you and lie to you and I certainly couldn't lie to myself. I can't even lie to you now. I wish I could care what you do or where you go, but I can't."
He drew a short breath and said lightly but softly:
"My dear, I don't give a damn."
She silently watched him go up the stairs, feeling that she would strangle at the pain in her throat. With the sound of his feet dying away in the upper hall was dying the last thing in the world that mattered. She knew now that there was no appeal of emotion or reason which would turn that cool brain from its verdict. She knew now that he had meant every word he said, lightly though some of them had been spoken. She knew because she sensed in him something strong, unyielding, implacable all the qualities she had looked for in Ashley and never found.
She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that, had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him. She wondered forlornly if she had ever really understood anyone in the world.
There was a merciful dullness in her mind now, a dullness that she knew from long experience would soon give way to sharp pain, even as severed tissues, shocked by the surgeon's knife, have a brief instant of insensibility before their agony begins.
"I won't think of it now," she thought grimly, summoning up her old charm. "I'll go crazy if I think about losing him now. I'll think of it tomorrow."
"But," cried her heart, casting aside the charm and beginning to ache, "I can't let him go! There must be some way!"
"I won't think of it now," she said again, aloud, trying to push her misery to the back of her mind, trying to find some bulwark against the rising tide of pain. "I'll why, I'll go home to Tara tomorrow," and her spirits lifted faintly.
She had gone back to Tara once in fear and defeat and she had emerged from its sheltering walls strong and armed for victory. What she had done once, somehow please God, she could do again! How, she did not know. She did not want to think of that now. All she wanted was a breathing space in which to hurt, a quiet place to lick her wounds, a haven in which to plan her campaign. She thought of Tara and it was as if a gentle cool hand were stealing over her heart. She could see the white house gleaming welcome to her through the reddening autumn leaves, feel the quiet hush of the country twilight coming down over her like a benediction, feel the dews falling on the acres of green bushes starred with fleecy white, see the raw color of the red earth and the dismal dark beauty of the pines on the rolling hills.
She felt vaguely comforted, strengthened by the picture, and some of her hurt and frantic regret was pushed from the top of her mind. She stood for a moment remembering small things, the avenue of dark cedars leading to Tara, the banks of cape jessamine bushes, vivid green against the white walls, the fluttering white curtains. And Mammy would be there. Suddenly she wanted Mammy desperately, as she had wanted her when she was a little girl, wanted the broad bosom on which to lay her head, the gnarled black hand on her hair. Mammy, the last link with the old days.
With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, she raised her chin. She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn't get, once she set her mind upon him.
"I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."
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