Gone with the wind (Chapter 6)
They crossed the river and the carriage mounted the hill. Even before Twelve Oaks came into view Scarlett saw a haze of smoke hanging lazily in the tops of the tall trees and smelled the mingled savory odors of burning hickory logs and roasting pork and mutton.
The barbecue pits, which had been slowly burning since last night, would now be long troughs of rose-red embers, with the meats turning on spits above them and the juices trickling down and hissing into the coals. Scarlett knew that the fragrance carried on the faint breeze came from the grove of great oaks in the rear of the big house. John Wilkes always held his barbecues there, on the gentle slope leading down to the rose garden, a pleasant shady place and a far pleasanter place, for instance, than that used by the Calverts. Mrs. Calvert did not like barbecue food and declared that the smells remained in the house for days, so her guests always sweltered on a flat unshaded spot a quarter of a mile from the house. But John Wilkes, famed throughout the state for his hospitality, really knew how to give a barbecue.
The long trestled picnic tables, covered with the finest of the Wilkeses’ linen, always stood under the thickest shade, with backless benches on either side; and chairs, hassocks and cushions from the house were scattered about the glade for those who did not fancy the benches. At a distance great enough to keep the smoke away from the guests were the long pits where the meats cooked and the huge iron wash-pots from which the succulent odors of barbecue sauce and Brunswick stew floated. Mr. Wilkes always had at least a dozen darkies busy running back and forth with trays to serve the guests. Over behind the barns there was always another barbecue pit, where the house servants and the coachmen and maids of the guests had their own feast of hoecakes and yams and chitterlings, that dish of hog entrails so dear to negro hearts, and, in season, watermelons enough to satiate.
As the smell of crisp fresh pork came to her, Scarlett wrinkled her nose appreciatively, hoping that by the time it was cooked she would feel some appetite. As it was she was so full of food and so tightly laced that she feared every moment she was going to belch. That would be fatal, as only old men and very old ladies could belch without fear of social disapproval.
They topped the rise and the white house reared its perfect symmetry before her, tall of columns, wide of verandas, flat of roof, beautiful as a woman is beautiful who is so sure of her charm that she can be generous and gracious to all. Scarlett loved Twelve Oaks even more than Tara, for it had a stately beauty, a mellowed dignity that Gerald’s house did not possess.
The wide curving driveway was full of saddle horses and carriages and guests alighting and calling greetings to friends. Grinning negroes, excited as always at a party, were leading the animals to the barnyard to be unharnessed and unsaddled for the day. Swarms of children, black and white, ran yelling about the newly green lawn, playing hopscotch and tag and boasting how much they were going to eat. The wide hall which ran from front to back of the house was swarming with people, and as the O’Hara carriage drew up at the front steps, Scarlett saw girls in crinolines, bright as butterflies, going up and coming down the stairs from the second floor, arms about each other’s waists, stopping to lean over the delicate handrail of the banisters, laughing and calling to young men in the hall below them.
Through the open French windows, she caught glimpses of the older women seated in the drawing room, sedate in dark silks as they sat fanning themselves and talking of babies and sicknesses and who had married whom and why. The Wilkes butler, Tom, was hurrying through the halls, a silver tray in his hands, bowing and grinning, as he offered tall glasses to young men in fawn and gray trousers and fine ruffled linen shirts.
The sunny front veranda was thronged with guests. Yes, the whole County was here, thought Scarlett. The four Tarleton boys and their father leaned against the tall columns, the twins, Stuart and Brent, side by side inseparable as usual, Boyd and Tom with their father, James Tarleton. Mr. Calvert was standing close by the side of his Yankee wife, who even after fifteen years in Georgia never seemed to quite belong anywhere. Everyone was very polite and kind to her because he felt sorry for her, but no one could forget that she had compounded her initial error of birth by being the governess of Mr. Calvert’s children. The two Calvert boys, Raiford and Cade, were there with their dashing blonde sister, Cathleen, teasing the dark-faced Joe Fontaine and Sally Munroe, his pretty bride-to-be. Alex and Tony Fontaine were whispering in the ears of Dimity Munroe and sending her into gales of giggles. There were families from as far as Lovejoy, ten miles away, and from Fayetteville and Jonesboro, a few even from Atlanta and Macon. The house seemed bursting with the crowd, and a ceaseless babble of talking and laughter and giggles and shrill feminine squeaks and screams rose and fell.
On the porch steps stood John Wilkes, silver-haired, erect, radiating the quiet charm and hospitality that was as warm and never failing as the sun of Georgia summer. Beside him Honey Wilkes, so called because she indiscriminately addressed everyone from her father to the field hands by that endearment, fidgeted and giggled as she called greetings to the arriving guests.
Honey’s nervously obvious desire to be attractive to every man in sight contrasted sharply with her father’s poise, and Scarlett had the thought that perhaps there was something in what Mrs. Tarleton said, after all. Certainly the Wilkes men got the family looks. The thick deep-gold lashes that set off the gray eyes of John Wilkes and Ashley were sparse and colorless in the faces of Honey and her sister India. Honey had the odd lashless look of a rabbit, and India could be described by no other word than plain.
India was nowhere to be seen, but Scarlett knew she probably was in the kitchen giving final instructions to the servants. Poor India, thought Scarlett, she’s had so much trouble keeping house since her mother died that she’s never had the chance to catch any beau except Stuart Tarleton, and it certainly wasn’t my fault if he thought I was prettier than she.
John Wilkes came down the steps to offer his arm to Scarlett. As she descended from the carriage, she saw Suellen smirk and knew that she must have picked out Frank Kennedy in the crowd.
If I couldn’t catch a better beau than that old maid in britches! she thought contemptuously, as she stepped to the ground and smiled her thanks to John Wilkes.
Frank Kennedy was hurrying to the carriage to assist Suellen, and Suellen was bridling in a way that made Scarlett want to slap her. Frank Kennedy might own more land than anyone in the County and he might have a very kind heart, but these things counted for nothing against the fact that he was forty, slight and nervous and had a thin ginger-colored beard and an old-maidish, fussy way about him. However, remembering her plan, Scarlett smothered her contempt and cast such a flashing smile of greeting at him that he stopped short, his arm outheld to Suellen and goggled at Scarlett in pleased bewilderment.
Scarlett’s eyes searched the crowd for Ashley, even while she made pleasant small talk with John Wilkes, but he was not on the porch. There were cries of greeting from a dozen voices and Stuart and Brent Tarleton moved toward her. The Munroe girls rushed up to exclaim over her dress, and she was speedily the center of a circle of voices that rose higher and higher in efforts to be heard above the din. But where was Ashley? And Melanie and Charles? She tried not to be obvious as she looked about and peered down the hall into the laughing group inside.
As she chattered and laughed and cast quick glances into the house and the yard, her eyes fell on a stranger, standing alone in the hall, staring at her in a cool impertinent way that brought her up sharply with a mingled feeling of feminine pleasure that she had attracted a man and an embarrassed sensation that her dress was too low in the bosom. He looked quite old, at least thirty-five. He was a tall man and powerfully built. Scarlett thought she had never seen a man with such wide shoulders, so heavy with muscles, almost too heavy for gentility. When her eye caught his, he smiled, showing animal-white teeth below a close-clipped black mustache. He was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate’s appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished. There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humor in his mouth as he smiled at her, and Scarlett caught her breath. She felt that she should be insulted by such a look and was annoyed with herself because she did not feel insulted. She did not know who he could be, but there was undeniably a look of good blood in his dark face. It showed in the thin hawk nose over the full red lips, the high forehead and the wide-set eyes.
She dragged her eyes away from his without smiling back, and he turned as someone called: “Rhett! Rhett Butler! Come here! I want you to meet the most hardhearted girl in Georgia.”
Rhett Butler? The name had a familiar sound, somehow connected with something pleasantly scandalous, but her mind was on Ashley and she dismissed the thought.
“I must run upstairs and smooth my hair,” she told Stuart and Brent, who were trying to get her cornered from the crowd. “You boys wait for me and don’t run off with any other girl or I’ll be furious.”
She could see that Stuart was going to be difficult to handle today if she flirted with anyone else. He had been drinking and wore the arrogant looking-for-a-fight expression that she knew from experience meant trouble. She paused in the hall to speak to friends and to greet India who was emerging from the back of the house, her hair untidy and tiny beads of perspiration on her forehead. Poor India! It would be bad enough to have pale hair and eyelashes and a jutting chin that meant a stubborn disposition, without being twenty years old and an old maid in the bargain. She wondered if India resented very much her taking Stuart away from her. Lots of people said she was still in love with him, but then you could never tell what a Wilkes was thinking about. If she did resent it, she never gave any sign of it, treating Scarlett with the same slightly aloof, kindly courtesy she had always shown her.
Scarlett spoke pleasantly to her and started up the wide stairs. As she did, a shy voice behind her called her name and, turning, she saw Charles Hamilton. He was a nice-looking boy with a riot of soft brown curls on his white forehead and eyes as deep brown, as clean and as gentle as a collie dog’s. He was well turned out in mustard-colored trousers and black coat and his pleated shirt was topped by the widest and most fashionable of black cravats. A faint blush was creeping over his face as she turned for he was timid with girls. Like most shy men he greatly admired airy, vivacious, always-at-ease girls like Scarlett. She had never given him more than perfunctory courtesy before, and so the beaming smile of pleasure with which she greeted him and the two hands outstretched to his almost took his breath away.
“Why Charles Hamilton, you handsome old thing, you! I’ll bet you came all the way down here from Atlanta just to break my poor heart!”
Charles almost stuttered with excitement, holding her warm little hands in his and looking into the dancing green eyes. This was the way girls talked to other boys but never to him. He never knew why but girls always treated him like a younger brother and were very kind, but never bothered to tease him. He had always wanted girls to flirt and frolic with him as they did with boys much less handsome and less endowed with this world’s goods than he. But on the few occasions when this had happened he could never think of anything to say and he suffered agonies of embarrassment at his dumbness. Then he lay awake at night thinking of all the charming gallantries he might have employed; but he rarely got a second chance, for the girls left him alone after a trial or two.
Even with Honey, with whom he had an unspoken understanding of marriage when he came into his property next fall, he was diffident and silent. At times, he had an ungallant feeling that Honey’s coquetries and proprietary airs were no credit to him, for she was so boy-crazy he imagined she would use them on any man who gave her the opportunity. Charles was not excited over the prospect of marrying her, for she stirred in him none of the emotions of wild romance that his beloved books had assured him were proper for a lover. He had always yearned to be loved by some beautiful, dashing creature full of fire and mischief.
And here was Scarlett O’Hara teasing him about breaking her heart!
He tried to think of something to say and couldn’t, and silently he blessed her because she kept up a steady chatter which relieved him of any necessity for conversation. It was too good to be true.
“Now, you wait right here till I come back, for I want to eat barbecue with you. And don’t you go off philandering with those other girls, because I’m mighty jealous,” came the incredible words from red lips with a dimple on each side; and briskly black lashes swept demurely over green eyes.
“I won’t,” he finally managed to breathe, never dreaming that she was thinking he looked like a calf waiting for the butcher.
Tapping him lightly on the arm with her folded fan, she turned to start up the stairs and her eyes again fell on the man called Rhett Butler who stood alone a few feet away from Charles. Evidently he had overheard the whole conversation, for he grinned up at her as maliciously as a tomcat, and again his eyes went over her, in a gaze totally devoid of the deference she was accustomed to.
“God’s nightgown!” said Scarlett to herself in indignation, using Gerald’s favorite oath. “He looks as if — as if he knew what I looked like without my shimmy,” and, tossing her head, she went up the steps.
In the bedroom where the wraps were laid, she found Cathleen Calvert preening before the mirror and biting her lips to make them look redder. There were fresh roses in her sash that matched her cheeks, and her cornflower-blue eyes were dancing with excitement.
“Cathleen,” said Scarlett, trying to pull the corsage of her dress higher, “who is that nasty man downstairs named Butler?”
“My dear, don’t you know?” whispered Cathleen excitedly, a weather eye on the next room where Dilcey and the Wilkes girls’ mammy were gossiping. “I can’t imagine how Mr. Wilkes must feel having him here, but he was visiting Mr. Kennedy in Jonesboro — something about buying cotton — and, of course, Mr. Kennedy had to bring him along with him. He couldn’t just go off and leave him.”
“What is the matter with him?”
“My dear, he isn’t received!”
Scarlett digested this in silence, for she had never before been under the same roof with anyone who was not received. It was very exciting.
“What did he do?”
“Oh, Scarlett, he has the most terrible reputation. His name is Rhett Butler and he’s from Charleston and his folks are some of the nicest people there, but they won’t even speak to him. Caro Rhett told me about him last summer. He isn’t any kin to her family, but she knows all about him, everybody does. He was expelled from West Point. Imagine! And for things too bad for Caro to know. And then there was that business about the girl he didn’t marry.”
“Do tell me!”
“Darling, don’t you know anything? Caro told me all about it last summer and her mama would die if she thought Caro even knew about it. Well, this Mr. Butler took a Charleston girl out buggy riding. I never did know who she was, but I’ve got my suspicions. She couldn’t have been very nice or she wouldn’t have gone out with him in the late afternoon without a chaperon. And, my dear, they stayed out nearly all night and walked home finally, saying the horse had run away and smashed the buggy and they had gotten lost in the woods. And guess what —”
“I can’t guess. Tell me,” said Scarlett enthusiastically, hoping for the worst.
“He refused to marry her the next day!”
“Oh,” said Scarlett, her hopes dashed.
“He said he hadn’t — er — done anything to her and he didn’t see why he should marry her. And, of course, her brother called him out, and Mr. Butler said he’d rather be shot than marry a stupid fool. And so they fought a duel and Mr. Butler shot the girl’s brother and he died, and Mr. Butler had to leave Charleston and now nobody receives him,” finished Cathleen triumphantly, and just in time, for Dilcey came back into the room to oversee the toilet of her charge.
“Did she have a baby?” whispered Scarlett in Cathleen’s ear.
Cathleen shook her head violently. “But she was ruined just the same,” she hissed back.
I wish I had gotten Ashley to compromise me, thought Scarlett suddenly. He’d be too much of a gentleman not to marry me. But somehow, unbidden, she had a feeling of respect for Rhett Butler for refusing to marry a girl who was a fool.
Scarlett sat on a high rosewood ottoman, under the shade of a huge oak in the rear of the house, her flounces and ruffles billowing about her and two inches of green morocco slippers — all that a lady could show and still remain a lady — peeping from beneath them. She had scarcely touched plate in her hands and seven cavaliers about her. The barbecue had reached its peak and the warm air was full of laughter and talk, the click of silver on porcelain and the rich heavy smells of roasting meats and redolent gravies. Occasionally when the slight breeze veered, puffs of smoke from the long barbecue pits floated over the crowd and were greeted with squeals of mock dismay from the ladies and violent flappings of palmetto fans.
Most of the young ladies were seated with partners on the long benches that faced the tables, but Scarlett, realizing that a girl has only two sides and only one man can sit on each of these sides, had elected to sit apart so she could gather about her as many men as possible.
Under the arbor sat the married women, their dark dresses decorous notes in the surrounding color and gaiety. Matrons, regardless of their ages, always grouped together apart from the bright-eyed girls, beaux and laughter, for there were no married belles in the South. From Grandma Fontaine, who was belching frankly with the privilege of her age, to seventeen-year-old Alice Munroe, struggling against the nausea of a first pregnancy, they had their heads together in the endless genealogical and obstetrical discussions that made such gatherings very pleasant and instructive affairs.
Casting contemptuous glances at them, Scarlett thought that they looked like a clump of fat crows. Married women never had any fun. It did not occur to her that if she married Ashley she would automatically be relegated to arbors and front parlors with staid matrons in dull silks, as staid and dull as they and not a part of the fun and frolicking. Like most girls, her imagination carried her just as far as the altar and no further. Besides, she was too unhappy now to pursue an abstraction.
She dropped her eyes to her plate and nibbled daintily on a beaten biscuit with an elegance and an utter lack of appetite that would have won Mammy’s approval. For all that she had a superfluity of beaux, she had never been more miserable in her life. In some way that she could not understand, her plans of last night had failed utterly so far as Ashley was concerned. She had attracted other beaux by the dozens, but not Ashley, and all the fears of yesterday afternoon were sweeping back upon her, making her heart beat fast and then slow, and color flame and whiten in her cheeks.
Ashley had made no attempt to join the circle about her, in fact she had not had a word alone with him since arriving, or even spoken to him since their first greeting. He had come forward to welcome her when she came into the back garden, but Melanie had been on his arm then, Melanie who hardly came up to his shoulder.
She was a tiny, frailly built girl, who gave the appearance of a child masquerading in her mother’s enormous hoop skirts — an illusion that was heightened by the shy, almost frightened look in her too large brown eyes. She had a cloud of curly dark hair which was so sternly repressed beneath its net that no vagrant tendrils escaped, and this dark mass, with its long widow’s peak, accentuated the heart shape of her face. Too wide across the cheek bones, too pointed at the chin, it was a sweet, timid face but a plain face, and she had no feminine tricks of allure to make observers forget its plainness. She looked — and was — as simple as earth, as good as bread, as transparent as spring water. But for all her plainness of feature and smallness of stature, there was a sedate dignity about her movements that was oddly touching and far older than her seventeen years.
Her gray organdie dress, with its cherry-colored satin sash, disguised with its billows and ruffles how childishly undeveloped her body was, and the yellow hat with long cherry streamers made her creamy skin glow. Her heavy earbobs with their long gold fringe hung down from loops of tidily netted hair, swinging close to her brown eyes, eyes that had the still gleam of a forest pool in winter when brown leaves shine up through quiet water.
She had smiled with timid liking when she greeted Scarlett and told her how pretty her green dress was, and Scarlett had been hard put to be even civil in reply, so violently did she want to speak alone with Ashley. Since then, Ashley had sat on a stool at Melanie’s feet, apart from the other guests, and talked quietly with her, smiling the slow drowsy smile that Scarlett loved. What made matters worse was that under his smile a little sparkle had come into Melanie’s eyes, so that even Scarlett had to admit that she looked almost pretty. As Melanie looked at Ashley, her plain face lit up as with an inner fire, for if ever a loving heart showed itself upon a face, it was showing now on Melanie Hamilton’s.
Scarlett tried to keep her eyes from these two but could not, and after each glance she redoubled her gaiety with her cavaliers, laughing, saying daring things, teasing, tossing her head at their compliments until her earrings danced. She said “fiddle-dee-dee” many times, declared that the truth wasn’t in any of them, and vowed that she’d never believe anything any man told her. But Ashley did not seem to notice her at all. He only looked up at Melanie and talked on, and Melanie looked down at him with an expression that radiated the fact that she belonged to him.
So, Scarlett was miserable.
To the outward eye, never had a girl less cause to be miserable. She was undoubtedly the belle of the barbecue, the center of attention. The furore she was causing among the men, coupled with the heart burnings of the other girls, would have pleased her enormously at any other time.
Charles Hamilton, emboldened by her notice, was firmly planted on her right, refusing to be dislodged by the combined efforts of the Tarleton twins. He held her fan in one hand and his untouched plate of barbecue in the other and stubbornly refused to meet the eyes of Honey, who seemed on the verge of an outburst of tears. Cade lounged gracefully on her left, plucking at her skirt to attract her attention and staring up with smoldering eyes at Stuart. Already the air was electric between him and the twins and rude words had passed. Frank Kennedy fussed about like a hen with one chick, running back and forth from the shade of the oak to the tables to fetch dainties to tempt Scarlett, as if there were not a dozen servants there for that purpose. As a result, Suellen’s sullen resentment had passed beyond the point of ladylike concealment and she glowered at Scarlett. Small Carreen could have cried because, for all Scarlett’s encouraging words that morning, Brent had done no more than say “Hello, Sis” and jerk her hair ribbon before turning his full attention to Scarlett. Usually he was so kind and treated her with a careless deference that made her feel grown up, and Carreen secretly dreamed of the day when she would put her hair up and her skirts down and receive him as a real beau. And now it seemed that Scarlett had him. The Munroe girls were concealing their chagrin at the defection of the swarthy Fontaine boys, but they were annoyed at the way Tony and Alex stood about the circle, jockeying for a position near Scarlett should any of the others arise from their places.
They telegraphed their disapproval of Scarlett’s conduct to Hetty Tarleton by delicately raised eyebrows. “Fast” was the only word for Scarlett. Simultaneously, the three young ladies raised lacy parasols, said they had had quite enough to eat, thank you, and, laying light fingers on the arms of the men nearest them, clamored sweetly to see the rose garden, the spring and the summerhouse. This strategic retreat in good order was not lost on a woman present or observed by a man.
Scarlett giggled as she saw three men dragged out of the line of her charms to investigate landmarks familiar to the girls from childhood, and cut her eye sharply to see if Ashley had taken note. But he was playing with the ends of Melanie’s sash and smiling up at her. Pain twisted Scarlett’s heart. She felt that she could claw Melanie’s ivory skin till the blood ran and take pleasure in doing it.
As her eyes wandered from Melanie, she caught the gaze of Rhett Butler, who was not mixing with the crowd but standing apart talking to John Wilkes. He had been watching her and when she looked at him he laughed outright. Scarlett had an uneasy feeling that this man who was not received was the only one present who knew what lay behind her wild gaiety and that it was affording him sardonic amusement. She could have clawed him with pleasure too.
“If I can just live through this barbecue till this afternoon,” she thought, “all the girls will go upstairs to take naps to be fresh for tonight and I’ll stay downstairs and get to talk to Ashley. Surely he must have noticed how popular I am.” She soothed her heart with another hope: “Of course, he has to be attentive to Melanie because, after all, she is his cousin and she isn’t popular at all, and if he didn’t look out for her she’d just be a wallflower.”
She took new courage at this thought and redoubled her efforts in the direction of Charles, whose brown eyes glowed down eagerly at her. It was a wonderful day for Charles, a dream day, and he had fallen in love with Scarlett with no effort at all. Before this new emotion, Honey receded into a dim haze. Honey was a shrill-voiced sparrow and Scarlett a gleaming hummingbird. She teased him and favored him and asked him questions and answered them herself, so that he appeared very clever without having to say a word. The other boys were puzzled and annoyed by her obvious interest in him, for they knew Charles was too shy to hitch two consecutive words together, and politeness was being severely strained to conceal their growing rage. Everyone was smoldering, and it would have been a positive triumph for Scarlett, except for Ashley.
When the last forkful of pork and chicken and mutton had been eaten, Scarlett hoped the time had come when India would rise and suggest that the ladies retire to the house. It was two o’clock and the sun was warm overhead, but India, wearied with the three-day preparations for the barbecue, was only too glad to remain sitting beneath the arbor, shouting remarks to a deaf old gentleman from Fayetteville.
A lazy somnolence descended on the crowd. The negroes idled about, clearing the long tables on which the food had been laid. The laughter and talking became less animated and groups here and there fell silent. All were waiting for their hostess to signal the end of the morning’s festivities. Palmetto fans were wagging more slowly, and several gentlemen were nodding from the heat and overloaded stomachs. The barbecue was over and all were content to take their ease while sun was at its height.
In this interval between the morning party and the evening’s ball, they seemed a placid, peaceful lot. Only the young men retained the restless energy which had filled the whole throng a short while before. Moving from group to group, drawling in their soft voices, they were as handsome as blooded stallions and as dangerous. The languor of midday had taken hold of the gathering, but underneath lurked tempers that could rise to killing heights in a second and flare out as quickly. Men and women, they were beautiful and wild, all a little violent under their pleasant ways and only a little tamed.
Some time dragged by while the sun grew hotter, and Scarlett and others looked again toward India. Conversation was dying out when, in the lull, everyone in the grove heard Gerald’s voice raised in furious accents. Standing some little distance away from the barbecue tables, he was at the peak of an argument with John Wilkes.
“God’s nightgown, man! Pray for a peaceable settlement with the Yankees after we’ve fired on the rascals at Fort Sumter? Peaceable? The South should show by arms that she cannot be insulted and that she is not leaving the Union by the Union’s kindness but by her own strength!”
“Oh, my God!” thought Scarlett. “He’s done it! Now, we’ll all sit here till midnight.”
In an instant, the somnolence had fled from the lounging throng and something electric went snapping through the air. The men sprang from benches and chairs, arms in wide gestures, voices clashing for the right to be heard above other voices. There had been no talk of politics or impending war all during the morning, because of Mr. Wilkes’ request that the ladies should not be bored. But now Gerald had bawled the words “Fort Sumter,” and every man present forgot his host’s admonition.
“Of course we’ll fight —” “Yankee thieves —” “We could lick them in a month —” “Why, one Southerner can lick twenty Yankees —” “Teach them a lesson they won’t soon forget —” “Peaceably? They won’t let us go in peace —” “No, look how Mr. Lincoln insulted our Commissioners!” “Yes, kept them hanging around for weeks — swearing he’d have Sumter evacuated!” “They want war; we’ll make them sick of war —” And above all the voices, Gerald’s boomed. All Scarlett could hear was “States’ rights, by God!” shouted over and over. Gerald was having an excellent time, but not his daughter.
Secession, war — these words long since had become acutely boring to Scarlett from much repetition, but now she hated the sound of them, for they meant that the men would stand there for hours haranguing one another and she would have no chance to corner Ashley. Of course there would be no war and the men all knew it. They just loved to talk and hear themselves talk.
Charles Hamilton had not risen with the others and, finding himself comparatively alone with Scarlett, he leaned closer and, with the daring born of new love, whispered a confession.
“Miss O’Hara — I— I had already decided that if we did fight, I’d go over to South Carolina and join a troop there. It’s said that Mr. Wade Hampton is organizing a cavalry troop, and of course I would want to go with him. He’s a splendid person and was my father’s best friend.”
Scarlett thought, “What am I supposed to do — give three cheers?” for Charles’ expression showed that he was baring his heart’s secrets to her. She could think of nothing to say and so merely looked at him, wondering why men were such fools as to think women interested in such matters. He took her expression to mean stunned approbation and went on rapidly, daringly —
“If I went — would — would you be sorry, Miss O’Hara?”
“I should cry into my pillow every night,” said Scarlett, meaning to be flippant, but he took the statement at face value and went red with pleasure. Her hand was concealed in the folds of her dress and he cautiously wormed his hand to it and squeezed it, overwhelmed at his own boldness and at her acquiescence.
“Would you pray for me?”
“What a fool!” thought Scarlett bitterly, casting a surreptitious glance about her in the hope of being rescued from the conversation.
“Oh — yes, indeed, Mr. Hamilton. Three Rosaries a night, at least!”
Charles gave a swift look about him, drew in his breath, stiffened the muscles of his stomach. They were practically alone and he might never get another such opportunity. And, even given another such Godsent occasion, his courage might fail him.
“Miss O’Hara — I must tell you something. I— I love you!”
“Um?” said Scarlett absently, trying to peer through the crowd of arguing men to where Ashley still sat talking at Melanie’s feet.
“Yes!” whispered Charles, in a rapture that she had neither laughed, screamed nor fainted, as he had always imagined young girls did under such circumstances. “I love you! You are the most — the most —” and he found his tongue for the first time in his life. “The most beautiful girl I’ve ever known and the sweetest and the kindest, and you have the dearest ways and I love you with all my heart. I cannot hope that you could love anyone like me but, my dear Miss O’Hara, if you can give me any encouragement, I will do anything in the world to make you love me. I will —”
Charles stopped, for he couldn’t think of anything difficult enough of accomplishment to really prove to Scarlett the depth of his feeling, so he said simply: “I want to marry you.”
Scarlett came back to earth with a jerk, at the sound of the word “marry.” She had been thinking of marriage and of Ashley, and she looked at Charles with poorly concealed irritation. Why must this calf-like fool intrude his feelings on this particular day when she was so worried she was about to lose her mind? She looked into the pleading brown eyes and she saw none of the beauty of a shy boy’s first love, of the adoration of an ideal come true or the wild happiness and tenderness that were sweeping through him like a flame. Scarlett was used to men asking her to marry them, men much more attractive than Charles Hamilton, and men who had more finesse than to propose at a barbecue when she had more important matters on her mind. She only saw a boy of twenty, red as a beet and looking very silly. She wished that she could tell him how silly he looked. But automatically, the words Ellen had taught her to say in such emergencies rose to her lips and casting down her eyes, from force of long habit, she murmured: “Mr. Hamilton, I am not unaware of the honor you have bestowed on me in wanting me to become your wife, but this is all so sudden that I do not know what to say.”
That was a neat way of smoothing a man’s vanity and yet keeping him on the string, and Charles rose to it as though such bait were new and he the first to swallow it.
“I would wait forever! I wouldn’t want you unless you were quite sure. Please, Miss O’Hara, tell me that I may hope!”
“Um,” said Scarlett, her sharp eyes noting that Ashley, who had not risen to take part in the war talk, was smiling up at Melanie. If this fool who was grappling for her hand would only keep quiet for a moment, perhaps she could hear what they were saying. She must hear what they said. What did Melanie say to him that brought that look of interest to his eyes?
Charles’ words blurred the voices she strained to hear.
“Oh, hush!” she hissed at him, pinching his hand and not even looking at him.
Startled, at first abashed, Charles blushed at the rebuff and then, seeing how her eyes were fastened on his sister, he smiled. Scarlett was afraid someone might hear his words. She was naturally embarrassed and shy, and in agony lest they be overheard. Charles felt a surge of masculinity such as he had never experienced, for this was the first time in his life that he had ever embarrassed any girl. The thrill was intoxicating. He arranged his face in what he fancied was an expression of careless unconcern and cautiously returned Scarlett’s pinch to show that he was man of the world enough to understand and accept her reproof.
She did not even feel his pinch, for she could hear clearly the sweet voice that was Melanie’s chief charm: “I fear I cannot agree with you about Mr. Thackeray’s works. He is a cynic. I fear he is not the gentleman Mr. Dickens is.”
What a silly thing to say to a man, thought Scarlett, ready to giggle with relief. Why, she’s no more than a bluestocking and everyone knows what men think of bluestockings. . . . The way to get a man interested and to hold his interest was to talk about him, and then gradually lead the conversation around to yourself — and keep it there. Scarlett would have felt some cause for alarm if Melanie had been saying: “How wonderful you are!” or “How do you ever think of such things? My little ole brain would bust if I even tried to think about them!” But here she was, with a man at her feet, talking as seriously as if she were in church. The prospect looked brighter to Scarlett, so bright in fact that she turned beaming eyes on Charles and smiled from pure joy. Enraptured at this evidence of her affection, he grabbed up her fan and plied it so enthusiastically her hair began to blow about untidily.
“Ashley, you have not favored us with your opinion,” said Jim Tarleton, turning from the group of shouting men, and with an apology Ashley excused himself and rose. There was no one there so handsome, thought Scarlett, as she marked how graceful was his negligent pose and how the sun gleamed on his gold hair and mustache. Even the older men stopped to listen to his words.
“Why, gentlemen, if Georgia fights, I’ll go with her. Why else would I have joined the Troop?” he said. His gray eyes opened wide and their drowsiness disappeared in an intensity that Scarlett had never seen before. “But, like Father, I hope the Yankees will let us go in peace and that there will be no fighting —” He held up his hand with a smile, as a babel of voices from the Fontaine and Tarleton boys began. “Yes, yes, I know we’ve been insulted and lied to — but if we’d been in the Yankees’ shoes and they were trying to leave the Union, how would we have acted? Pretty much the same. We wouldn’t have liked it.”
“There he goes again,” thought Scarlett. “Always putting himself in the other fellow’s shoes.” To her, there was never but one fair side to an argument. Sometimes, there was no understanding Ashley.
“Let’s don’t be too hot headed and let’s don’t have any war. Most of the misery of the world has been caused by wars. And when the wars were over, no one ever knew what they were all about.”
Scarlett sniffed. Lucky for Ashley that he had an unassailable reputation for courage, or else there’d be trouble. As she thought this, the clamor of dissenting voices rose up about Ashley, indignant, fiery.
Under the arbor, the deaf old gentleman from Fayetteville punched India.
“What’s it all about? What are they saying?”
“War!” shouted India, cupping her hand to his ear. “They want to fight the Yankees!”
“War, is it?” he cried, fumbling about him for his cane and heaving himself out of his chair with more energy than he had shown in years. “I’ll tell ‘um about war. I’ve been there.” It was not often that Mr. McRae had the opportunity to talk about war, the way his women folks shushed him.
He stumped rapidly to the group, waving his cane and shouting and, because he could not hear the voices about him, he soon had undisputed possession of the field.
“You fire-eating young bucks, listen to me. You don’t want to fight. I fought and I know. Went out in the Seminole War and was a big enough fool to go to the Mexican War, too. You all don’t know what war is. You think it’s riding a pretty horse and having the girls throw flowers at you and coming home a hero. Well, it ain’t. No, sir! It’s going hungry, and getting the measles and pneumonia from sleeping in the wet. And if it ain’t measles and pneumonia, it’s your bowels. Yes sir, what war does to a man’s bowels — dysentery and things like that —”
The ladies were pink with blushes. Mr. McRae was a reminder of a cruder era, like Grandma Fontaine and her embarrassingly loud belches, an era everyone would like to forget.
“Run get your grandpa,” hissed one of the old gentleman’s daughters to a young girl standing near by. “I declare,” she whispered to the fluttering matrons about her, “he gets worse every day. Would you believe it, this very morning he said to Mary — and she’s only sixteen: ‘Now, Missy . . .’” And the voice went off into a whisper as the granddaughter slipped out to try to induce Mr. McRae to return to his seat in the shade.
Of all the group that milled about under the trees, girls smiling excitedly, men talking impassionedly, there was only one who seemed calm. Scarlett’s eyes turned to Rhett Butler, who leaned against a tree, his hands shoved deep in his trouser pockets. He stood alone, since Mr. Wilkes had left his side, and had uttered no word as the conversation grew hotter. The red lips under the close-clipped black mustache curled down and there was a glint of amused contempt in his black eyes — contempt, as if he listened to the braggings of children. A very disagreeable smile, Scarlett thought. He listened quietly until Stuart Tarleton, his red hair tousled and his eyes gleaming, repeated: “Why, we could lick them in a month! Gentlemen always fight better than rabble. A month — why, one battle —”
“Gentlemen,” said Rhett Butler, in a flat drawl that bespoke his Charleston birth, not moving from his position against the tree or taking his hands from his pockets, “may I say a word?”
There was contempt in his manner as in his eyes, contempt overlaid with an air of courtesy that somehow burlesqued their own manners.
The group turned toward him and accorded him the politeness always due an outsider.
“Has any one of you gentlemen ever thought that there’s not a cannon factory south of the Mason–Dixon Line? Or how few iron foundries there are in the South? Or woolen mills or cotton factories or tanneries? Have you thought that we would not have a single warship and that the Yankee fleet could bottle up our harbors in a week, so that we could not sell our cotton abroad? But — of course — you gentlemen have thought of these things.”
“Why, he means the boys are a passel of fools!” thought Scarlett indignantly, the hot blood coming to her cheeks.
Evidently, she was not the only one to whom this idea occurred, for several of the boys were beginning to stick out their chins. John Wilkes casually but swiftly came back to his place beside the speaker, as if to impress on all present that this man was his guest and that, moreover, there were ladies present.
“The trouble with most of us Southerners,” continued Rhett Butler, “is that we either don’t travel enough or we don’t profit enough by our travels. Now, of course, all you gentlemen are well traveled. But what have you seen? Europe and New York and Philadelphia and, of course, the ladies have been to Saratoga” (he bowed slightly to the group under the arbor). “You’ve seen the hotels and the museums and the balls and the gambling houses. And you’ve come home believing that there’s no place like the South. As for me, I was Charleston born, but I have spent the last few years in the North.” His white teeth showed in a grin, as though he realized that everyone present knew just why he no longer lived in Charleston, and cared not at all if they did know. “I have seen many things that you all have not seen. The thousands of immigrants who’d be glad to fight for the Yankees for food and a few dollars, the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines — all the things we haven’t got. Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They’d lick us in a month.”
For a tense moment, there was silence. Rhett Butler removed a fine linen handkerchief from his coat pocket and idly flicked dust from his sleeve. Then an ominous murmuring arose in the crowd and from under the arbor came a humming as unmistakable as that of a hive of newly disturbed bees. Even while she felt the hot blood of wrath still in her cheeks, something in Scarlett’s practical mind prompted the thought that what this man said was right, and it sounded like common sense. Why, she’d never even seen a factory, or known anyone who had seen a factory. But, even if it were true, he was no gentleman to make such a statement — and at a party, too, where everyone was having a good time.
Stuart Tarleton, brows lowering, came forward with Brent close at his heels. Of course, the Tarleton twins had nice manners and they wouldn’t make a scene at a barbecue, even though tremendously provoked. Just the same, all the ladies felt pleasantly excited, for it was so seldom that they actually saw a scene or a quarrel. Usually they had to hear of it third-hand.
“Sir,” said Stuart heavily, “what do you mean?”
Rhett looked at him with polite but mocking eyes.
“I mean,” he answered, “what Napoleon — perhaps you’ve heard of him?— remarked once, ‘God is on the side of the strongest battalion!’” and, turning to John Wilkes, he said with courtesy that was unfeigned: “You promised to show me your library, sir. Would it be too great a favor to ask to see it now? I fear I must go back to Jonesboro early this afternoon where a bit of business calls me.”
He swung about, facing the crowd, clicked his heels together and bowed like a dancing master, a bow that was graceful for so powerful a man, and as full of impertinence as a slap in the face. Then he walked across the lawn with John Wilkes, his black head in the air, and the sound of his discomforting laughter floated back to the group about the tables.
There was a startled silence and then the buzzing broke out again. India rose tiredly from her seat beneath the arbor and went toward the angry Stuart Tarleton. Scarlett could not hear what she said, but the look in her eyes as she gazed up into his lowering face gave Scarlett something like a twinge of conscience. It was the same look of belonging that Melanie wore when she looked at Ashley, only Stuart did not see it. So India did love him. Scarlett thought for an instant that if she had not flirted so blatantly with Stuart at that political speaking a year ago, he might have married India long ere this. But then the twinge passed with the comforting thought that it wasn’t her fault if other girls couldn’t keep their men.
Finally Stuart smiled down at India, an unwilling smile, and nodded his head. Probably India had been pleading with him not to follow Mr. Butler and make trouble. A polite tumult broke out under the trees as the guests arose, shaking crumbs from laps. The married women called to nurses and small children and gathered their broods together to take their departure, and groups of girls started off, laughing and talking, toward the house to exchange gossip in the upstairs bedrooms and to take their naps.
All the ladies except Mrs. Tarleton moved out of the back yard, leaving the shade of oaks and arbor to the men. She was detained by Gerald, Mr. Calvert and the others who wanted an answer from her about the horses for the Troop.
Ashley strolled over to where Scarlett and Charles sat, a thoughtful and amused smile on his face.
“Arrogant devil, isn’t he?” he observed, looking after Butler. “He looks like one of the Borgias.”
Scarlett thought quickly but could remember no family in the County or Atlanta or Savannah by that name.
“I don’t know them. Is he kin to them? Who are they?”
An odd look came over Charles’ face, incredulity and shame struggling with love. Love triumphed as he realized that it was enough for a girl to be sweet and gentle and beautiful, without having an education to hamper her charms, and he made swift answer: “The Borgias were Italians.”
“Oh,” said Scarlett, losing interest, “foreigners.”
She turned her prettiest smile on Ashley, but for some reason he was not looking at her. He was looking at Charles, and there was understanding in his face and a little pity.
Scarlett stood on the landing and peered cautiously over the banisters into the hall below. It was empty. From the bedrooms on the floor above came an unending hum of low voices, rising and falling, punctuated with squeaks of laughter and, “Now, you didn’t, really!” and “What did he say then?” On the beds and couches of the six great bedrooms, the girls were resting, their dresses off, their stays loosed, their hair flowing down their backs. Afternoon naps were a custom of the country and never were they so necessary as on the all-day parties, beginning early in the morning and culminating in a ball. For half an hour, the girls would chatter and laugh, and then servants would pull the shutters and in the warm half-gloom the talk would die to whispers and finally expire in silence broken only by soft regular breathing.
Scarlett had made certain that Melanie was lying down on the bed with Honey and Hetty Tarleton before she slipped into the hall and started down the stairs. From the window on the landing, she could see the group of men sitting under the arbor, drinking from tall glasses, and she knew they would remain there until late afternoon. Her eyes searched the group but Ashley was not among them. Then she listened and she heard his voice. As she had hoped, he was still in the front driveway bidding good-by to departing matrons and children.
Her heart in her throat, she went swiftly down the stairs. What if she should meet Mr. Wilkes? What excuse could she give for prowling about the house when all the other girls were getting their beauty naps? Well, that had to be risked.
As she reached the bottom step, she heard the servants moving about in the dining room under the butler’s orders, lifting out the table and chairs in preparation for the dancing. Across the wide hall was the open door of the library and she sped into it noiselessly. She could wait there until Ashley finished his adieux and then call to him when he came into the house.
The library was in semidarkness, for the blinds had been drawn against the sun. The dim room with towering walls completely filled with dark books depressed her. It was not the place which she would have chosen for a tryst such as she hoped this one would be. Large numbers of books always depressed her, as did people who liked to read large numbers of books. That is — all people except Ashley. The heavy furniture rose up at her in the half-light, high-backed chairs with deep seats and wide arms, made for the tall Wilkes men, squatty soft chairs of velvet with velvet hassocks before them for the girls. Far across the long room before the hearth, the seven-foot sofa, Ashley’s favorite seat, reared its high back, like some huge sleeping animal.
She closed the door except for a crack and tried to make her heart beat more slowly. She tried to remember just exactly what she had planned last night to say to Ashley, but she couldn’t recall anything. Had she thought up something and forgotten it — or had she only planned that Ashley should say something to her? She couldn’t remember, and a sudden cold fright fell upon her. If her heart would only stop pounding in her ears, perhaps she could think of what to say. But the quick thudding only increased as she heard him call a final farewell and walk into the front hall.
All she could think of was that she loved him — everything about him, from the proud lift of his gold head to his slender dark boots, loved his laughter even when it mystified her, loved his bewildering silences. Oh, if only he would walk in on her now and take her in his arms, so she would be spared the need of saying anything. He must love her —“Perhaps if I prayed —” She squeezed her eyes tightly and began gabbling to herself “Hail Mary, full of grace —”
“Why, Scarlett!” said Ashley’s voice, breaking in through the roaring in her ears and throwing her into utter confusion. He stood in the hall peering at her through the partly opened door, a quizzical smile on his face.
“Who are you hiding from — Charles or the Tarletons?”
She gulped. So he had noticed how the men had swarmed about her! How unutterably dear he was standing there with his eyes twinkling, all unaware of her excitement. She could not speak, but she put out a hand and drew him into the room. He entered, puzzled but interested. There was a tenseness about her, a glow in her eyes that he had never seen before, and even in the dim light he could see the rosy flush on her cheeks. Automatically he closed the door behind him and took her hand.
“What is it?” he said, almost in a whisper.
At the touch of his hand, she began to tremble. It was going to happen now, just as she had dreamed it. A thousand incoherent thoughts shot through her mind, and she could not catch a single one to mold into a word. She could only shake and look up into his face. Why didn’t he speak?
“What is it?” he repeated. “A secret to tell me?”
Suddenly she found her tongue and just as suddenly all the years of Ellen’s teachings fell away, and the forthright Irish blood of Gerald spoke from his daughter’s lips.
“Yes — a secret. I love you.”
For an instance there was a silence so acute it seemed that neither of them even breathed. Then the trembling fell away from her, as happiness and pride surged through her. Why hadn’t she done this before? How much simpler than all the ladylike maneuverings she had been taught. And then her eyes sought his.
There was a look of consternation in them, of incredulity and something more — what was it? Yes, Gerald had looked that way the day his pet hunter had broken his leg and he had had to shoot him. Why did she have to think of that now? Such a silly thought. And why did Ashley look so oddly and say nothing? Then something like a well-trained mask came down over his face and he smiled gallantly.
“Isn’t it enough that you’ve collected every other man’s heart here today?” he said, with the old, teasing, caressing note in his voice. “Do you want to make it unanimous? Well, you’ve always had my heart, you know. You cut your teeth on it.”
Something was wrong — all wrong! This was not the way she had planned it. Through the mad tearing of ideas round and round in her brain, one was beginning to take form. Somehow — for some reason — Ashley was acting as if he thought she was just flirting with him. But he knew differently. She knew he did.
“Ashley — Ashley — tell me — you must — oh, don’t tease me now! Have I your heart? Oh, my dear, I lo —”
His hand went across her lips, swiftly. The mask was gone.
“You must not say these things, Scarlett! You mustn’t. You don’t mean them. You’ll hate yourself for saying them, and you’ll hate me for hearing them!”
She jerked her head away. A hot swift current was running through her.
“I couldn’t ever hate you. I tell you I love you and I know you must care about me because —” She stopped. Never before had she seen so much misery in anyone’s face. “Ashley, do you care — you do, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he said dully. “I care.”
If he had said he loathed her, she could not have been more frightened. She plucked at his sleeve, speechless.
“Scarlett,” he said, “can’t we go away and forget that we have ever said these things?”
“No,” she whispered. “I can’t. What do you mean? Don’t you want to — to marry me?”
He replied, “I’m going to marry Melanie.”
Somehow she found that she was sitting on the low velvet chair and Ashley, on the hassock at her feet, was holding both her hands in his, in a hard grip. He was saying things — things that made no sense. Her mind was quite blank, quite empty of all the thoughts that had surged through it only a moment before, and his words made no more impression than rain on glass. They fell on unhearing ears, words that were swift and tender and full of pity, like a father speaking to a hurt child.
The sound of Melanie’s name caught in her consciousness and she looked into his crystal-gray eyes. She saw in them the old remoteness that had always baffled her — and a look of self-hatred.
“Father is to announce the engagement tonight. We are to be married soon. I should have told you, but I thought you knew. I thought everyone knew — had known for years. I never dreamed that you — You’ve so many beaux. I thought Stuart —”
Life and feeling and comprehension were beginning to flow back into her.
“But you just said you cared for me.”
His warm hands hurt hers.
“My dear, must you make me say things that will hurt you?”
Her silence pressed him on.
“How can I make you see these things, my dear. You who are so young and unthinking that you do not know what marriage means.”
“I know I love you.”
“Love isn’t enough to make a successful marriage when two people are as different as we are. You would want all of a man, Scarlett, his body, his heart, his soul, his thoughts. And if you did not have them, you would be miserable. And I couldn’t give you all of me. I couldn’t give all of me to anyone. And I would not want all of your mind and your soul. And you would be hurt, and then you would come to hate me — how bitterly! You would hate the books I read and the music I loved, because they took me away from you even for a moment. And I— perhaps I—”
“Do you love her?”
“She is like me, part of my blood, and we understand each other. Scarlett! Scarlett! Can’t I make you see that a marriage can’t go on in any sort of peace unless the two people are alike?”
Some one else had said that: “Like must marry like or there’ll be no happiness.” Who was it? It seemed a million years since she had heard that, but it still did not make sense.
“But you said you cared.”
“I shouldn’t have said it.”
Somewhere in her brain, a slow fire rose and rage began to blot out everything else.
“Well, having been cad enough to say it —”
His face went white.
“I was a cad to say it, as I’m going to marry Melanie. I did you a wrong and Melanie a greater one. I should not have said it, for I knew you wouldn’t understand. How could I help caring for you — you who have all the passion for life that I have not? You who can love and hate with a violence impossible to me? Why you are as elemental as fire and wind and wild things and I—”
She thought of Melanie and saw suddenly her quiet brown eyes with their far-off look, her placid little hands in their black lace mitts, her gentle silences. And then her rage broke, the same rage that drove Gerald to murder and other Irish ancestors to misdeeds that cost them their necks. There was nothing in her now of the well-bred Robillards who could bear with white silence anything the world might cast.
“Why don’t you say it, you coward! You’re afraid to marry me! You’d rather live with that stupid little fool who can’t open her mouth except to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and raise a passel of mealy-mouthed brats just like her! Why —”
“You must not say these things about Melanie!”
“‘I mustn’t’ be damned to you! Who are you to tell me I mustn’t? You coward, you cad, you — You made me believe you were going to marry me —”
“Be fair,” his voice pleaded. “Did I ever —”
She did not want to be fair, although she knew what he said was true. He had never once crossed the borders of friendliness with her and, when she thought of this fresh anger rose, the anger of hurt pride and feminine vanity. She had run after him and he would have none of her. He preferred a whey-faced little fool like Melanie to her. Oh, far better that she had followed Ellen and Mammy’s precepts and never, never revealed that she even liked him — better anything than to be faced with this scorching shame!
She sprang to her feet, her hands clenched and he rose towering over her, his face full of the mute misery of one forced to face realities when realities are agonies.
“I shall hate you till I die, you cad — you lowdown — lowdown —” What was the word she wanted? She could not think of any word bad enough.
“Scarlett — please —”
He put out his hand toward her and, as he did, she slapped him across the face with all the strength she had. The noise cracked like a whip in the still room and suddenly her rage was gone, and there was desolation in her heart.
The red mark of her hand showed plainly on his white tired face. He said nothing but lifted her limp hand to his lips and kissed it. Then he was gone before she could speak again, closing the door softly behind him.
She sat down again very suddenly, the reaction from her rage making her knees feel weak. He was gone and the memory of his stricken face would haunt her till she died.
She heard the soft muffled sound of his footsteps dying away down the long hall, and the complete enormity of her actions came over her. She had lost him forever. Now he would hate her and every time he looked at her he would remember how she threw herself at him when he had given her no encouragement at all.
“I’m as bad as Honey Wilkes,” she thought suddenly, and remembered how everyone, and she more than anyone else, had laughed contemptuously at Honey’s forward conduct. She saw Honey’s awkward wigglings and heard her silly titters as she hung onto boys’ arms, and the thought stung her to new rage, rage at herself, at Ashley, at the world. Because she hated herself, she hated them all with the fury of the thwarted and humiliated love of sixteen. Only a little true tenderness had been mixed into her love. Mostly it had been compounded out of vanity and complacent confidence in her own charms. Now she had lost and, greater than her sense of loss, was the fear that she had made a public spectacle of herself. Had she been as obvious as Honey? Was everyone laughing at her? She began to shake at the thought.
Her hand dropped to a little table beside her, fingering a tiny china rose-bowl on which two china cherubs smirked. The room was so still she almost screamed to break the silence. She must do something or go mad. She picked up the bowl and hurled it viciously across the room toward the fireplace. It barely cleared the tall back of the sofa and splintered with a little crash against the marble mantelpiece.
“This,” said a voice from the depths of the sofa, “is too much.”
Nothing had ever startled or frightened her so much, and her mouth went too dry for her to utter a sound. She caught hold of the back of the chair, her knees going weak under her, as Rhett Butler rose from the sofa where he had been lying and made her a bow of exaggerated politeness.
“It is bad enough to have an afternoon nap disturbed by such a passage as I’ve been forced to hear, but why should my life be endangered?”
He was real. He wasn’t a ghost. But, saints preserve us, he had heard everything! She rallied her forces into a semblance of dignity.
“Sir, you should have made known your presence.”
“Indeed?” His white teeth gleamed and his bold dark eyes laughed at her. “But you were the intruder. I was forced to wait for Mr. Kennedy, and feeling that I was perhaps persona non grata in the back yard, I was thoughtful enough to remove my unwelcome presence here where I thought I would be undisturbed. But, alas!” he shrugged and laughed softly.
Her temper was beginning to rise again at the thought that this rude and impertinent man had heard everything — heard things she now wished she had died before she ever uttered.
“Eavesdroppers —” she began furiously.
“Eavesdroppers often hear highly entertaining and instructive things,” he grinned. “From a long experience in eavesdropping, I—”
“Sir,” she said, “you are no gentleman!”
“An apt observation,” he answered airily. “And, you, Miss, are no lady.” He seemed to find her very amusing, for he laughed softly again. “No one can remain a lady after saying and doing what I have just overheard. However, ladies have seldom held any charms for me. I know what they are thinking, but they never have the courage or lack of breeding to say what they think. And that, in time, becomes a bore. But you, my dear Miss O’Hara, are a girl of rare spirit, very admirable spirit, and I take off my hat to you. I fail to understand what charms the elegant Mr. Wilkes can hold for a girl of your tempestuous nature. He should thank God on bended knee for a girl with your — how did he put it?—‘passion for living,’ but being a poor-spirited wretch —”
“You aren’t fit to wipe his boots!” she shouted in rage.
“And you were going to hate him all your life!” He sank down on the sofa and she heard him laughing.
If she could have killed him, she would have done it. Instead, she walked out of the room with such dignity as she could summon and banged the heavy door behind her.
She went up the stairs so swiftly that when she reached the landing, she thought she was going to faint. She stopped, clutching the banisters, her heart hammering so hard from anger, insult and exertion that it seemed about to burst through her basque. She tried to draw deep breaths but Mammy’s lacings were too tight. If she should faint and they should find her here on the landing, what would they think? Oh, they’d think everything. Ashley and that vile Butler man and those nasty girls who were so jealous! For once in her life, she wished that she carried smelling salts, like the other girls, but she had never even owned a vinaigrette. She had always been so proud of never feeling giddy. She simply could not let herself faint now!
Gradually the sickening feeling began to depart. In a minute, she’d feel all right and then she’d slip quietly into the little dressing room adjoining India’s room, unloose her stays and creep in and lay herself on one of the beds beside the sleeping girls. She tried to quiet her heart and fix her face into more composed lines, for she knew she must look like a crazy woman. If any of the girls were awake, they’d know something was wrong. And no one must ever, ever know that anything had happened.
Through the wide bay window on the lawn she could see the men still lounging in their chairs under the trees and in the shade of the arbor. How she envied them! How wonderful to be a man and never have to undergo miseries such as she had just passed through. As she stood watching them, hot eyed and dizzy, she heard the rapid pounding of a horse’s hooves on the front drive, the scattering of gravel and the sound of an excited voice calling a question to one of the negroes. The gravel flew again and across her vision a man on horseback galloped over the green lawn toward the lazy group under the trees.
Some late-come guest, but why did he ride his horse across the turf that was India’s pride? She could not recognize him, but as he flung himself from the saddle and clutched John Wilkes’ arm, she could see that there was excitement in every line of him. The crowd swarmed about him, tall glasses and palmetto fans abandoned on tables and on the ground. In spite of the distance, she could hear the hubbub of voices, questioning, calling, feel the fever-pitch tenseness of the men. Then above the confused sounds Stuart Tarleton’s voice rose, in an exultant shout “Yee-aay-ee!” as if he were on the hunting field. And she heard for the first time, without knowing it, the Rebel yell.
As she watched, the four Tarletons followed by the Fontaine boys broke from the group and began hurrying toward the stable, yelling as they ran, “Jeems! You, Jeems! Saddle the horses!”
“Somebody’s house must have caught fire,” Scarlett thought. But fire or no fire, her job was to get herself back into the bedroom before she was discovered.
Her heart was quieter now and she tiptoed up the steps into the silent hall. A heavy warm somnolence lay over the house, as if it slept at ease like the girls, until night when it would burst into its full beauty with music and candle flames. Carefully, she eased open the door of the dressing room and slipped in. Her hand was behind her, still holding the knob, when Honey Wilkes’ voice, low pitched, almost in a whisper, came to her through the crack of the opposite door leading into the bedroom.
“I think Scarlett acted as fast as a girl could act today.”
Scarlett felt her heart begin its mad racing again and she clutched her hand against it unconsciously, as if she would squeeze it into submission. “Eavesdroppers often hear highly instructive things,” jibed a memory. Should she slip out again? Or make herself known and embarrass Honey as she deserved? But the next voice made her pause. A team of mules could not have dragged her away when she heard Melanie’s voice.
“Oh, Honey, no! Don’t be unkind. She’s just high spirited and vivacious. I thought her most charming.”
“Oh,” thought Scarlett, clawing her nails into her basque. “To have that mealymouthed little mess take up for me!”
It was harder to bear than Honey’s out-and-out cattiness. Scarlett had never trusted any woman and had never credited any woman except her mother with motives other than selfish ones. Melanie knew she had Ashley securely, so she could well afford to show such a Christian spirit. Scarlett felt it was just Melanie’s way of parading her conquest and getting credit for being sweet at the same time. Scarlett had frequently used the same trick herself when discussing other girls with men, and it had never failed to convince foolish males of her sweetness and unselfishness.
“Well, Miss,” said Honey tartly, her voice rising, “you must be blind.”
“Hush, Honey,” hissed the voice of Sally Munroe. “They’ll hear you all over the house!”
Honey lowered her voice but went on.
“Well, you saw how she was carrying on with every man she could get hold of — even Mr. Kennedy and he’s her own sister’s beau. I never saw the like! And she certainly was going after Charles.” Honey giggled self-consciously. “And you know, Charles and I—”
“Are you really?” whispered voices excitedly.
“Well, don’t tell anybody, girls — not yet!”
There were more gigglings and the bed springs creaked as someone squeezed Honey. Melanie murmured something about how happy she was that Honey would be her sister.
“Well, I won’t be happy to have Scarlett for my sister, because she’s a fast piece if ever I saw one,” came the aggrieved voice of Hefty Tarleton. “But she’s as good as engaged to Stuart. Brent says she doesn’t give a rap about him, but, of course, Brent’s crazy about her, too.”
“If you should ask me,” said Honey with mysterious importance, “there’s only one person she does give a rap about. And that’s Ashley!”
As the whisperings merged together violently, questioning, interrupting, Scarlett felt herself go cold with fear and humiliation. Honey was a fool, a silly, a simpleton about men, but she had a feminine instinct about other women that Scarlett had underestimated. The mortification and hurt pride that she had suffered in the library with Ashley and with Rhett Butler were pin pricks to this. Men could be trusted to keep their mouths shut, even men like Mr. Butler, but with Honey Wilkes giving tongue like a hound in the field, the entire County would know about it before six o’clock. And Gerald had said only last night that he wouldn’t be having the County laughing at his daughter. And how they would all laugh now! Clammy perspiration, starting under her armpits, began to creep down her ribs.
Melanie’s voice, measured and peaceful, a little reproving, rose above the others.
“Honey, you know that isn’t so. And it’s so unkind.”
“It is too, Melly, and if you weren’t always so busy looking for the good in people that haven’t got any good in them, you’d see it. And I’m glad it’s so. It serves her right. All Scarlett O’Hara has ever done has been to stir up trouble and try to get other girls’ beaux. You know mighty well she took Stuart from India and she didn’t want him. And today she tried to take Mr. Kennedy and Ashley and Charles —”
“I must get home!” thought Scarlett. “I must get home!”
If she could only be transferred by magic to Tara and to safety. If she could only be with Ellen, just to see her, to hold onto her skirt, to cry and pour out the whole story in her lap. If she had to listen to another word, she’d rush in and pull out Honey’s straggly pale hair in big handfuls and spit on Melanie Hamilton to show her just what she thought of her charity. But she’d already acted common enough today, enough like white trash — that was where all her trouble lay.
She pressed her hands hard against her skirts, so they would not rustle and backed out as stealthily as an animal. Home, she thought, as she sped down the hall, past the closed doors and still rooms, I must go home.
She was already on the front porch when a new thought brought her up sharply — she couldn’t go home! She couldn’t run away! She would have to see it through, bear all the malice of the girls and her own humiliation and heartbreak. To run away would only give them more ammunition.
She pounded her clenched fist against the tall white pillar beside her, and she wished that she were Samson, so that she could pull down all of Twelve Oaks and destroy every person in it. She’d make them sorry. She’d show them. She didn’t quite see how she’d show them, but she’d do it all the same. She’d hurt them worse than they hurt her.
For the moment, Ashley as Ashley was forgotten. He was not the tall drowsy boy she loved but part and parcel of the Wilkeses, Twelve Oaks, the County — and she hated them all because they laughed. Vanity was stronger than love at sixteen and there was no room in her hot heart now for anything but hate.
“I won’t go home,” she thought. “I’ll stay here and I’ll make them sorry. And I’ll never tell Mother. No, I’ll never tell anybody.” She braced herself to go back into the house, to reclimb the stairs and go into another bedroom.
As she turned, she saw Charles coming into the house from the other end of the long hall. When he saw her, he hurried toward her. His hair was tousled and his face near geranium with excitement.
“Do you know what’s happened?” he cried, even before he reached her. “Have you heard? Paul Wilson just rode over from Jonesboro with the news!”
He paused, breathless, as he came up to her. She said nothing and only stared at him.
“Mr. Lincoln has called for men, soldiers — I mean volunteers — seventy-five thousand of them!”
Mr. Lincoln again! Didn’t men ever think about anything that really mattered? Here was this fool expecting her to be excited about Mr. Lincoln’s didoes when her heart was broken and her reputation as good as ruined.
Charles stared at her. Her face was paper white and her narrow eyes blazing like emeralds. He had never seen such fire in any girl’s face, such a glow in anyone’s eyes.
“I’m so clumsy,” he said. “I should have told you more gently. I forgot how delicate ladies are. I’m sorry I’ve upset you so. You don’t feel faint, do you? Can I get you a glass of water?”
“No,” she said, and managed a crooked smile.
“Shall we go sit on the bench?” he asked, taking her arm.
She nodded and he carefully handed her down the front steps and led her across the grass to the iron bench beneath the largest oak in the front yard. How fragile and tender women are, he thought, the mere mention of war and harshness makes them faint. The idea made him feel very masculine and he was doubly gentle as he seated her. She looked so strangely, and there was a wild beauty about her white face that set his heart leaping. Could it be that she was distressed by the thought that he might go to the war? No, that was too conceited for belief. But why did she look at him so oddly? And why did her hands shake as they fingered her lace handkerchief. And her thick sooty lashes — they were fluttering just like the eyes of girls in romances he had read, fluttering with timidity and love.
He cleared his throat three times to speak and failed each time. He dropped his eyes because her own green ones met his so piercingly, almost as if she were not seeing him.
“He has a lot of money,” she was thinking swiftly, as a thought and a plan went through her brain. “And he hasn’t any parents to bother me and he lives in Atlanta. And if I married him right away, it would show Ashley that I didn’t care a rap — that I was only flirting with him. And it would just kill Honey. She’d never, never catch another beau and everybody’d laugh fit to die at her. And it would hurt Melanie, because she loves Charles so much. And it would hurt Stu and Brent —” She didn’t quite know why she wanted to hurt them, except that they had catty sisters. “And they’d all be sorry when I came back here to visit in a fine carriage and with lots of pretty clothes and a house of my own. And they would never, never laugh at me.”
“Of course, it will mean fighting,” said Charles, after several more embarrassed attempts. “But don’t you fret, Miss Scarlett, it’ll be over in a month and we’ll have them howling. Yes, sir! Howling! I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I’m afraid there won’t be much of a ball tonight, because the Troop is going to meet at Jonesboro. The Tarleton boys have gone to spread the news. I know the ladies will be sorry.”
She said, “Oh,” for want of anything better, but it sufficed.
Coolness was beginning to come back to her and her mind was collecting itself. A frost lay over all her emotions and she thought that she would never feel anything warmly again. Why not take this pretty, flushed boy? He was as good as anyone else and she didn’t care. No, she could never care about anything again, not if she lived to be ninety.
“I can’t decide now whether to go with Mr. Wade Hampton’s South Carolina Legion or with the Atlanta Gate City Guard.”
She said, “Oh,” again and their eyes met and the fluttering lashes were his undoing.
“Will you wait for me, Miss Scarlett? It — it would be Heaven just knowing that you were waiting for me until after we licked them!” He hung breathless on her words, watching the way her lips curled up at the corners, noting for the first time the shadows about these corners and thinking what it would mean to kiss them. Her hand, with palm clammy with perspiration, slid into his.
“I wouldn’t want to wait,” she said and her eyes were veiled.
He sat clutching her hand, his mouth wide open. Watching him from under her lashes, Scarlett thought detachedly that he looked like a gigged frog. He stuttered several times, closed his mouth and opened it again, and again became geranium colored.
“Can you possibly love me?”
She said nothing but looked down into her lap, and Charles was thrown into new states of ecstasy and embarrassment. Perhaps a man should not ask a girl such a question. Perhaps it would be unmaidenly for her to answer it. Having never possessed the courage to get himself into such a situation before, Charles was at a loss as to how to act. He wanted to shout and to sing and to kiss her and to caper about the lawn and then run tell everyone, black and white, that she loved him. But he only squeezed her hand until he drove her rings into the flesh.
“You will marry me soon, Miss Scarlett?”
“Um,” she said, fingering a fold of her dress.
“Shall we make it a double wedding with Mel —”
“No,” she said quickly, her eyes glinting up at him ominously. Charles knew again that he had made an error. Of course, a girl wanted her own wedding — not shared glory. How kind she was to overlook his blunderings. If it were only dark and he had the courage of shadows and could kiss her hand and say the things he longed to say.
“When may I speak to your father?”
“The sooner the better,” she said, hoping that perhaps he would release the crushing pressure on her rings before she had to ask him to do it.
He leaped up and for a moment she thought he was going to cut a caper, before dignity claimed him. He looked down at her radiantly, his whole clean simple heart in his eyes. She had never had anyone look at her thus before and would never have it from any other man, but in her queer detachment she only thought that he looked like a calf.
“I’ll go now and find your father,” he said, smiling all over his face. “I can’t wait. Will you excuse me — dear?” The endearment came hard but having said it once, he repeated it again with pleasure.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll wait here. It’s so cool and nice here.”
He went off across the lawn and disappeared around the house, and she was alone under the rustling oak. From the stables, men were streaming out on horseback, negro servants riding hard behind their masters. The Munroe boys tore past waving their hats, and the Fontaines and Calverts went down the road yelling. The four Tarletons charged across the lawn by her and Brent shouted: “Mother’s going to give us the horses! Yee-aay-ee!” Turf flew and they were gone, leaving her alone again.
The white house reared its tall columns before her, seeming to withdraw with dignified aloofness from her. It would never be her house now. Ashley would never carry her over the threshold as his bride. Oh, Ashley, Ashley! What have I done? Deep in her, under layers of hurt pride and cold practicality, something stirred hurtingly. An adult emotion was being born, stronger than her vanity or her willful selfishness. She loved Ashley and she knew she loved him and she had never cared so much as in that instant when she saw Charles disappearing around the curved graveled walk.