Gone with the wind (Chapter 7)
Within two weeks Scarlett had become a wife, and within two months more she was a widow. She was soon released from the bonds she had assumed with so much haste and so little thought, but she was never again to know the careless freedom of her unmarried days. Widowhood had crowded closely on the heels of marriage but, to her dismay, motherhood soon followed.
In after years when she thought of those last days of April, 1861, Scarlett could never quite remember details. Time and events were telescoped, jumbled together like a nightmare that had no reality or reason. Till the day she died there would be blank spots in her memories of those days. Especially vague were her recollections of the time between her acceptance of Charles and her wedding. Two weeks! So short an engagement would have been impossible in times of peace. Then there would have been a decorous interval of a year or at least six months. But the South was aflame with war, events roared along as swiftly as if carried by a mighty wind and the slow tempo of the old days was gone. Ellen had wrung her hands and counseled delay, in order that Scarlett might think the matter over at greater length. But to her pleadings, Scarlett turned a sullen face and a deaf ear. Marry she would! and quickly too. Within two weeks.
Learning that Ashley’s wedding had been moved up from the autumn to the first of May, so he could leave with the Troop as soon as it was called into service, Scarlett set the date of her wedding for the day before his. Ellen protested but Charles pleaded with new-found eloquence, for he was impatient to be off to South Carolina to join Wade Hampton’s Legion, and Gerald sided with the two young people. He was excited by the war fever and pleased that Scarlett had made so good a match, and who was he to stand in the way of young love when there was a war? Ellen, distracted, finally gave in as other mothers throughout the South were doing. Their leisured world had been turned topsy-turvy, and their pleadings, prayers and advice availed nothing against the powerful forces sweeping them along.
The South was intoxicated with enthusiasm and excitement. Everyone knew that one battle would end the war and every young man hastened to enlist before the war should end — hastened to marry his sweetheart before he rushed off to Virginia to strike a blow at the Yankees. There were dozens of war weddings in the County and there was little time for the sorrow of parting, for everyone was too busy and excited for either solemn thoughts or tears. The ladies were making uniforms, knitting socks and rolling bandages, and the men were drilling and shooting. Train loads of troops passed through Jonesboro daily on their way north to Atlanta and Virginia. Some detachments were gaily uniformed in the scarlets and light blues and greens of select social-militia companies; some small groups were in homespun and coonskin caps; others, ununiformed, were in broadcloth and fine linen; all were half-drilled, half-armed, wild with excitement and shouting as though en route to a picnic. The sight of these men threw the County boys into a panic for fear the war would be over before they could reach Virginia, and preparations for the Troop’s departure were speeded.
In the midst of this turmoil, preparations went forward for Scarlett’s wedding and, almost before she knew it, she was clad in Ellen’s wedding dress and veil, coming down the wide stairs of Tara on her father’s arm, to face a house packed full with guests. Afterward she remembered, as from a dream, the hundreds of candles flaring on the walls, her mother’s face, loving, a little bewildered, her lips moving in a silent prayer for her daughter’s happiness, Gerald flushed with brandy and pride that his daughter was marrying both money, a fine name and an old one — and Ashley, standing at the bottom of the steps with Melanie’s arm through his.
When she saw the look on his face, she thought: “This can’t be real. It can’t be. It’s a nightmare. I’ll wake up and find it’s all been a nightmare. I mustn’t think of it now, or I’ll begin screaming in front of all these people. I can’t think now. I’ll think later, when I can stand it — when I can’t see his eyes.”
It was all very dreamlike, the passage through the aisle of smiling people, Charles’ scarlet face and stammering voice and her own replies, so startlingly clear, so cold. And the congratulations afterward and the kissing and the toasts and the dancing — all, all like a dream. Even the feel of Ashley’s kiss upon her cheek, even Melanie’s soft whisper, “Now, we’re really and truly sisters,” were unreal. Even the excitement caused by the swooning spell that overtook Charles’ plump emotional aunt, Miss Pittypat Hamilton, had the quality of a nightmare.
But when the dancing and toasting were finally ended and the dawn was coming, when all the Atlanta guests who could be crowded into Tara and the overseer’s house had gone to sleep on beds, sofas and pallets on the floor and all the neighbors had gone home to rest in preparation for the wedding at Twelve Oaks the next day, then the dreamlike trance shattered like crystal before reality. The reality was the blushing Charles, emerging from her dressing room in his nightshirt, avoiding the startled look she gave him over the high-pulled sheet.
Of course, she knew that married people occupied the same bed but she had never given the matter a thought before. It seemed very natural in the case of her mother and father, but she had never applied it to herself. Now for the first time since the barbecue she realized just what she had brought on herself. The thought of this strange boy whom she hadn’t really wanted to marry getting into bed with her, when her heart was breaking with an agony of regret at her hasty action and the anguish of losing Ashley forever, was too much to be borne. As he hesitatingly approached the bed she spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“I’ll scream out loud if you come near me. I will! I will — at the top of my voice! Get away from me! Don’t you dare touch me!”
So Charles Hamilton spent his wedding night in an armchair in the corner, not too unhappily, for he understood, or thought he understood, the modesty and delicacy of his bride. He was willing to wait until her fears subsided, only — only — He sighed as he twisted about seeking a comfortable position, for he was going away to the war so very soon.
Nightmarish as her own wedding had been, Ashley’s wedding was even worse. Scarlett stood in her apple-green “second-day” dress in the parlor of Twelve Oaks amid the blaze of hundreds of candles, jostled by the same throng as the night before, and saw the plain little face of Melanie Hamilton glow into beauty as she became Melanie Wilkes. Now, Ashley was gone forever. Her Ashley. No, not her Ashley now. Had he ever been hers? It was all so mixed up in her mind and her mind was so tired, so bewildered. He had said he loved her, but what was it that had separated them? If she could only remember. She had stilled the County’s gossiping tongue by marrying Charles, but what did that matter now? It had seemed so important once, but now it didn’t seem important at all. All that mattered was Ashley. Now he was gone and she was married to a man she not only did not love but for whom she had an active contempt.
Oh, how she regretted it all. She had often heard of people cutting off their noses to spite their faces but heretofore it had been only a figure of speech. Now she knew just what it meant. And mingled with her frenzied desire to be free of Charles and safely back at Tara, an unmarried girl again, ran the knowledge that she had only herself to blame. Ellen had tried to stop her and she would not listen.
So she danced through the night of Ashley’s wedding in a daze and said things mechanically and smiled and irrelevantly wondered at the stupidity of people who thought her a happy bride and could not see that her heart was broken. Well, thank God, they couldn’t see!
That night after Mammy had helped her undress and had departed and Charles had emerged shyly from the dressing room, wondering if he was to spend a second night in the horsehair chair, she burst into tears. She cried until Charles climbed into bed beside her and tried to comfort her, cried without words until no more tears would come and at last she lay sobbing quietly on his shoulder.
If there had not been a war, there would have been a week of visiting about the County, with balls and barbecues in honor of the two newly married couples before they set off to Saratoga or White Sulphur for wedding trips. If there had not been a war, Scarlett would have had third-day and fourth-day and fifth-day dresses to wear to the Fontaine and Calvert and Tarleton parties in her honor. But there were no parties now and no wedding trips. A week after the wedding Charles left to join Colonel Wade Hampton, and two weeks later Ashley and the Troop departed, leaving the whole County bereft.
In those two weeks, Scarlett never saw Ashley alone, never had a private word with him. Not even at the terrible moment of parting, when he stopped by Tara on his way to the train, did she have a private talk. Melanie, bonneted and shawled, sedate in newly acquired matronly dignity, hung on his arm and the entire personnel of Tara, black and white, turned out to see Ashley off to the war.
Melanie said: “You must kiss Scarlett, Ashley. She’s my sister now,” and Ashley bent and touched her cheek with cold lips, his face drawn and taut. Scarlett could hardly take any joy from that kiss, so sullen was her heart at Melly’s prompting it. Melanie smothered her with an embrace at parting.
“You will come to Atlanta and visit me and Aunt Pittypat, won’t you? Oh, darling, we want to have you so much! We want to know Charlie’s wife better.”
Five weeks passed during which letters, shy, ecstatic, loving, came from Charles in South Carolina telling of his love, his plans for the future when the war was over, his desire to become a hero for her sake and his worship of his commander, Wade Hampton. In the seventh week, there came a telegram from Colonel Hampton himself, and then a letter, a kind, dignified letter of condolence. Charles was dead. The colonel would have wired earlier, but Charles, thinking his illness a trifling one, did not wish to have his family worried. The unfortunate boy had not only been cheated of the love he thought he had won but also of his high hopes of honor and glory on the field of battle. He had died ignominiously and swiftly of pneumonia, following measles, without ever having gotten any closer to the Yankees than the camp in South Carolina.
In due time, Charles’ son was born and, because it was fashionable to name boys after their fathers’ commanding officers, he was called Wade Hampton Hamilton. Scarlett had wept with despair at the knowledge that she was pregnant and wished that she were dead. But she carried the child through its time with a minimum of discomfort, bore him with little distress and recovered so quickly that Mammy told her privately it was downright common — ladies should suffer more. She felt little affection for the child, hide the fact though she might. She had not wanted him and she resented his coming and, now that he was here, it did not seem possible that he was hers, a part of her.
Though she recovered physically from Wade’s birth in a disgracefully short time, mentally she was dazed and sick. Her spirits drooped, despite the efforts of the whole plantation to revive them. Ellen went about with a puckered, worried forehead and Gerald swore more frequently than usual and brought her useless gifts from Jonesboro. Even old Dr. Fontaine admitted that he was puzzled, after his tonic of sulphur, molasses and herbs failed to perk her up. He told Ellen privately that it was a broken heart that made Scarlett so irritable and listless by turns. But Scarlett, had she wished to speak, could have told them that it was a far different and more complex trouble. She did not tell them that it was utter boredom, bewilderment at actually being a mother and, most of all, the absence of Ashley that made her look so woebegone.
Her boredom was acute and ever present. The County had been devoid of any entertainment or social life ever since the Troop had gone away to war. All of the interesting young men were gone — the four Tarletons, the two Calverts, the Fontaines, the Munroes and everyone from Jonesboro, Fayetteville and Lovejoy who was young and attractive. Only the older men, the cripples and the women were left, and they spent their time knitting and sewing, growing more cotton and corn, raising more hogs and sheep and cows for the army. There was never a sight of a real man except when the commissary troop under Suellen’s middle-aged beau, Frank Kennedy, rode by every month to collect supplies. The men in the commissary were not very exciting, and the sight of Frank’s timid courting annoyed her until she found it difficult to be polite to him. If he and Suellen would only get it over with!
Even if the commissary troop had been more interesting, it would not have helped her situation any. She was a widow and her heart was in the grave. At least, everyone thought it was in the grave and expected her to act accordingly. This irritated her for, try as she would, she could recall nothing about Charles except the dying-calf look on his face when she told him she would marry him. And even that picture was fading. But she was a widow and she had to watch her behavior. Not for her the pleasures of unmarried girls. She had to be grave and aloof. Ellen had stressed this at great length after catching Frank’s lieutenant swinging Scarlett in the garden swing and making her squeal with laughter. Deeply distressed, Ellen had told her how easily a widow might get herself talked about. The conduct of a widow must be twice as circumspect as that of a matron.
“And God only knows,” thought Scarlett, listening obediently to her mother’s soft voice, “matrons never have any fun at all. So widows might as well be dead.”
A widow had to wear hideous black dresses without even a touch of braid to enliven them, no flower or ribbon or lace or even jewelry, except onyx mourning brooches or necklaces made from the deceased’s hair. And the black crepe veil on her bonnet had to reach to her knees, and only after three years of widowhood could it be shortened to shoulder length. Widows could never chatter vivaciously or laugh aloud. Even when they smiled, it must be a sad, tragic smile. And, most dreadful of all, they could in no way indicate an interest in the company of gentlemen. And should a gentleman be so ill bred as to indicate an interest in her, she must freeze him with a dignified but well-chosen reference to her dead husband. Oh, yes, thought Scarlett, drearily, some widows do remarry eventually, when they are old and stringy. Though Heaven knows how they manage it, with their neighbors watching. And then it’s generally to some desperate old widower with a large plantation and a dozen children.
Marriage was bad enough, but to be widowed — oh, then life was over forever! How stupid people were when they talked about what a comfort little Wade Hampton must be to her, now that Charles was gone. How stupid of them to say that now she had something to live for! Everyone talked about how sweet it was that she had this posthumous token of her love and she naturally did not disabuse their minds. But that thought was farthest from her mind. She had very little interest in Wade and sometimes it was difficult to remember that he was actually hers.
Every morning she woke up and for a drowsy moment she was Scarlett O’Hara again and the sun was bright in the magnolia outside her window and the mockers were singing and the sweet smell of frying bacon was stealing to her nostrils. She was carefree and young again. Then she heard the fretful hungry wail and always — always there was a startled moment when she thought: “Why, there’s a baby in the house!” Then she remembered that it was her baby. It was all very bewildering.
And Ashley! Oh, most of all Ashley! For the first time in her life, she hated Tara, hated the long red road that led down the hill to the river, hated the red fields with springing green cotton. Every foot of ground, every tree and brook, every lane and bridle path reminded her of him. He belonged to another woman and he had gone to the war, but his ghost still haunted the roads in the twilight, still smiled at her from drowsy gray eyes in the shadows of the porch. She never heard the sound of hooves coming up the river road from Twelve Oaks that for a sweet moment she did not think — Ashley!
She hated Twelve Oaks now and once she had loved it. She hated it but she was drawn there, so she could hear John Wilkes and the girls talk about him — hear them read his letters from Virginia. They hurt her but she had to hear them. She disliked the stiff-necked India and the foolish prattling Honey and knew they disliked her equally, but she could not stay away from them. And every time she came home from Twelve Oaks, she lay down on her bed morosely and refused to get up for supper.
It was this refusal of food that worried Ellen and Mammy more than anything else. Mammy brought up tempting trays, insinuating that now she was a widow she might eat as much as she pleased, but Scarlett had no appetite.
When Dr. Fontaine told Ellen gravely that heartbreak frequently led to a decline and women pined away into the grave, Ellen went white, for that fear was what she had carried in her heart.
“Isn’t there anything to be done, Doctor?”
“A change of scene will be the best thing in the world for her,” said the doctor, only too anxious to be rid of an unsatisfactory patient.
So Scarlett, unenthusiastic, went off with her child, first to visit her O’Hara and Robillard relatives in Savannah and then to Ellen’s sisters, Pauline and Eulalie, in Charleston. But she was back at Tara a month before Ellen expected her, with no explanation of her return. They had been kind in Savannah, but James and Andrew and their wives were old and content to sit quietly and talk of a past in which Scarlett had no interest. It was the same with the Robillards, and Charleston was terrible, Scarlett thought.
Aunt Pauline and her husband, a little old man, with a formal, brittle courtesy and the absent air of one living in an older age, lived on a plantation on the river, far more isolated than Tara. Their nearest neighbor was twenty miles away by dark roads through still jungles of cypress swamp and oak. The live oaks with their waving curtains of gray moss gave Scarlett the creeps and always brought to her mind Gerald’s stories of Irish ghosts roaming in shimmering gray mists. There was nothing to do but knit all day and at night listen to Uncle Carey read aloud from the improving works of Mr. Bulwer–Lytton.
Eulalie, hidden behind a high-walled garden in a great house on the Battery in Charleston, was no more entertaining. Scarlett, accustomed to wide vistas of rolling red hills, felt that she was in prison. There was more social life here than at Aunt Pauline’s, but Scarlett did not like the people who called, with their airs and their traditions and their emphasis on family. She knew very well they all thought she was a child of a mesalliance and wondered how a Robillard ever married a newly come Irishman. Scarlett felt that Aunt Eulalie apologized for her behind her back. This aroused her temper, for she cared no more about family than her father. She was proud of Gerald and what he had accomplished unaided except by his shrewd Irish brain.
And the Charlestonians took so much upon themselves about Fort Sumter! Good Heavens, didn’t they realize that if they hadn’t been silly enough to fire the shot that started the war some other fools would have done it? Accustomed to the brisk voices of upland Georgia, the drawling flat voices of the low country seemed affected to her. She thought if she ever again heard voices that said “paams” for “palms” and “hoose” for “house” and “woon’t” for “won’t” and “Maa and Paa” for “Ma and Pa,” she would scream. It irritated her so much that during one formal call she aped Gerald’s brogue to her aunt’s distress. Then she went back to Tara. Better to be tormented with memories of Ashley than Charleston accents.
Ellen, busy night and day, doubling the productiveness of Tara to aid the Confederacy, was terrified when her eldest daughter came home from Charleston thin, white and sharp tongued. She had known heartbreak herself, and night after night she lay beside the snoring Gerald, trying to think of some way to lessen Scarlett’s distress. Charles’ aunt, Miss Pittypat Hamilton, had written her several times, urging her to permit Scarlett to come to Atlanta for a long visit, and now for the first time Ellen considered it seriously.
She and Melanie were alone in a big house “and without male protection,” wrote Miss Pittypat, “now that dear Charlie has gone. Of course, there is my brother Henry but he does not make his home with us. But perhaps Scarlett has told you of Henry. Delicacy forbids my putting more concerning him on paper. Melly and I would feel so much easier and safer if Scarlett were with us. Three lonely women are better than two. And perhaps dear Scarlett could find some ease for her sorrow, as Melly is doing, by nursing our brave boys in the hospitals here — and, of course, Melly and I are longing to see the dear baby. . . .”
So Scarlett’s trunk was packed again with her mourning clothes and off she went to Atlanta with Wade Hampton and his nurse Prissy, a headful of admonitions as to her conduct from Ellen and Mammy and a hundred dollars in Confederate bills from Gerald. She did not especially want to go to Atlanta. She thought Aunt Pitty the silliest of old ladies and the very idea of living under the same roof with Ashley’s wife was abhorrent. But the County with its memories was impossible now, and any change was welcome.