Gone with the wind (Chapter 8)
As the train carried Scarlett northward that May morning in 1862, she thought that Atlanta couldn’t possibly be so boring as Charleston and Savannah had been and, in spite of her distaste for Miss Pittypat and Melanie, she looked forward with some curiosity toward seeing how the town had fared since her last visit, in the winter before the war began.
Atlanta had always interested her more than any other town because when she was a child Gerald had told her that she and Atlanta were exactly the same age. She discovered when she grew older that Gerald had stretched the truth somewhat, as was his habit when a little stretching would improve a story; but Atlanta was only nine years older than she was, and that still left the place amazingly young by comparison with any other town she had ever heard of. Savannah and Charleston had the dignity of their years, one being well along in its second century and the other entering its third, and in her young eyes they had always seemed like aged grandmothers fanning themselves placidly in the sun. But Atlanta was of her own generation, crude with the crudities of youth and as headstrong and impetuous as herself.
The story Gerald had told her was based on the fact that she and Atlanta were christened in the same year. In the nine years before Scarlett was born, the town had been called, first, Terminus and then Marthasville, and not until the year of Scarlett’s birth had it become Atlanta.
When Gerald first moved to north Georgia, there had been no Atlanta at all, not even the semblance of a village, and wilderness rolled over the site. But the next year, in 1836, the State had authorized the building of a railroad northwestward through the territory which the Cherokees had recently ceded. The destination of the proposed railroad, Tennessee and the West, was clear and definite, but its beginning point in Georgia was somewhat uncertain until, a year later, an engineer drove a stake in the red clay to mark the southern end of the line, and Atlanta, born Terminus, had begun.
There were no railroads then in north Georgia, and very few anywhere else. But during the years before Gerald married Ellen, the tiny settlement, twenty-five miles north of Tara, slowly grew into a village and the tracks slowly pushed northward. Then the railroad building era really began. From the old city of Augusta, a second railroad was extended westward across the state to connect with the new road to Tennessee. From the old city of Savannah, a third railroad was built first to Macon, in the heart of Georgia, and then north through Gerald’s own county to Atlanta, to link up with the other two roads and give Savannah’s harbor a highway to the West. From the same junction point, the young Atlanta, a fourth railroad was constructed southwestward to Montgomery and Mobile.
Born of a railroad, Atlanta grew as its railroads grew. With the completion of the four lines, Atlanta was now connected with the West, with the South, with the Coast and, through Augusta, with the North and East. It had become the crossroads of travel north and south and east and west, and the little village leaped to life.
In a space of time but little longer than Scarlett’s seventeen years, Atlanta had grown from a single stake driven in the ground into a thriving small city of ten thousand that was the center of attention for the whole state. The older, quieter cities were wont to look upon the bustling new town with the sensations of a hen which has hatched a duckling. Why was the place so different from the other Georgia towns? Why did it grow so fast? After all, they thought, it had nothing whatever to recommend it — only its railroads and a bunch of mighty pushy people.
The people who settled the town called successively Terminus, Marthasville and Atlanta, were a pushy people. Restless, energetic people from the older sections of Georgia and from more distant states were drawn to this town that sprawled itself around the junction of the railroads in its center. They came with enthusiasm. They built their stores around the five muddy red roads that crossed near the depot. They built their fine homes on Whitehall and Washington streets and along the high ridge of land on which countless generations of moccasined Indian feet had beaten a path called the Peachtree Trail. They were proud of the place, proud of its growth, proud of themselves for making it grow. Let the older towns call Atlanta anything they pleased. Atlanta did not care.
Scarlett had always liked Atlanta for the very same reasons that made Savannah, Augusta and Macon condemn it. Like herself, the town was a mixture of the old and new in Georgia, in which the old often came off second best in its conflicts with the self-willed and vigorous new. Moreover, there was something personal, exciting about a town that was born — or at least christened — the same year she was christened.
The night before had been wild and wet with rain, but when Scarlett arrived in Atlanta a warm sun was at work, bravely attempting to dry the streets that were winding rivers of red mud. In the open space around the depot, the soft ground had been cut and churned by the constant flow of traffic in and out until it resembled an enormous hog wallow, and here and there vehicles were mired to the hubs in the ruts. A never-ceasing line of army wagons and ambulances, loading and unloading supplies and wounded from the trains, made the mud and confusion worse as they toiled in and struggled out, drivers swearing, mules plunging and mud spattering for yards.
Scarlett stood on the lower step of the train, a pale pretty figure in her black mourning dress, her crepe veil fluttering almost to her heels. She hesitated, unwilling to soil her slippers and hems, and looked about in the shouting tangle of wagons, buggies and carriages for Miss Pittypat. There was no sign of that chubby pink-cheeked lady, but as Scarlett searched anxiously a spare old negro, with grizzled kinks and an air of dignified authority, came toward her through the mud, his hat in his hand.
“Dis Miss Scarlett, ain’ it? Dis hyah Peter, Miss Pitty’s coachman. Doan step down in dat mud,” he ordered severely, as Scarlett gathered up her skirts preparatory to descending. “You is as bad as Miss Pitty an’ she lak a chile ‘bout gittin’ her feets wet. Lemme cahy you.”
He picked Scarlett up with ease despite his apparent frailness and age and, observing Prissy standing on the platform of the train, the baby in her arms, he paused: “Is dat air chile yo’ nuss? Miss Scarlett, she too young ter be handlin’ Mist’ Charles’ onlies’ baby! But we ten’ to dat later. You gal, foller me, an’ doan you go drappin’ dat baby.”
Scarlett submitted meekly to being carried toward the carriage and also to the peremptory manner in which Uncle Peter criticized her and Prissy. As they went through the mud with Prissy sloshing, pouting, after them, she recalled what Charles had said about Uncle Peter.
“He went through all the Mexican campaigns with Father, nursed him when he was wounded — in fact, he saved his life. Uncle Peter practically raised Melanie and me, for we were very young when Father and Mother died. Aunt Pitty had a falling out with her brother, Uncle Henry, about that time, so she came to live with us and take care of us. She is the most helpless soul — just like a sweet grown-up child, and Uncle Peter treats her that way. To save her life, she couldn’t make up her mind about anything, so Peter makes it up for her. He was the one who decided I should have a larger allowance when I was fifteen, and he insisted that I should go to Harvard for my senior year, when Uncle Henry wanted me to take my degree at the University. And he decided when Melly was old enough to put up her hair and go to parties. He tells Aunt Pitty when it’s too cold or too wet for her to go calling and when she should wear a shawl. . . . He’s the smartest old darky I’ve ever seen and about the most devoted. The only trouble with him is that he owns the three of us, body and soul, and he knows it.”
Charles’ words were confirmed as Peter climbed onto the box and took the whip.
“Miss Pitty in a state bekase she din’ come ter meet you. She’s feared you mout not unnerstan’ but Ah tole her she an’ Miss Melly jes’ git splashed wid mud an’ ruin dey new dresses an’ Ah’d ‘splain ter you. Miss Scarlett, you better tek dat chile. Dat lil pickaninny gwine let it drap.”
Scarlett looked at Prissy and sighed. Prissy was not the most adequate of nurses. Her recent graduation from a skinny pickaninny with brief skirts and stiffly wrapped braids into the dignity of a calico dress and starched white turban was an intoxicating affair. She would never have arrived at this eminence so early in life had not the exigencies of war and the demands of the commissary department on Tara made it impossible for Ellen to spare Mammy or Dilcey or even Rosa or Teena. Prissy had never been more than a mile away from Twelve Oaks or Tara before, and the trip on the train plus her elevation to nurse was almost more than the brain in her little black skull could bear. The twenty-mile journey from Jonesboro to Atlanta had so excited her that Scarlett had been forced to hold the baby all the way. Now, the sight of so many buildings and people completed Prissy’s demoralization. She twisted from side to side, pointed, bounced about and so jounced the baby that he wailed miserably.
Scarlett longed for the fat old arms of Mammy. Mammy had only to lay hands on a child and it hushed crying. But Mammy was at Tara and there was nothing Scarlett could do. It was useless for her to take little Wade from Prissy. He yelled just as loudly when she held him as when Prissy did. Besides, he would tug at the ribbons of her bonnet and, no doubt, rumple her dress. So she pretended she had not heard Uncle Peter’s suggestion.
“Maybe I’ll learn about babies sometime,” she thought irritably, as the carriage jolted and swayed out of the morass surrounding the station, “but I’m never going to like fooling with them.” And as Wade’s face went purple with his squalling, she snapped crossly: “Give him that sugar-tit in your pocket, Priss. Anything to make him hush. I know he’s hungry, but I can’t do anything about that now.”
Prissy produced the sugar-tit, given her that morning by Mammy, and the baby’s wails subsided. With quiet restored and with the new sights that met her eyes, Scarlest’s spirits began to rise a little. When Uncle Peter finally maneuvered the carriage out of the mudholes and onto Peachtree Street, she felt the first surge of interest she had known in months. How the town had grown! It was not much more than a year since she had last been here, and it did not seem possible that the little Atlanta she knew could have changed so much.
For the past year, she had been so engrossed in her own woes, so bored by any mention of war, she did not know that from the minute the fighting first began, Atlanta had been transformed. The same railroads which had made the town the crossroads of commerce in time of peace were now of vital strategic importance in time of war. Far from the battle lines, the town and its railroads provided the connecting link between the two armies of the Confederacy, the army in Virginia and the army in Tennessee and the West. And Atlanta likewise linked both of the armies with the deeper South from which they drew their supplies. Now, in response to the needs of war, Atlanta had become a manufacturing center, a hospital base and one of the South’s chief depots for the collecting of food and supplies for the armies in the field.
Scarlett looked about her for the little town she remembered so well. It was gone. The town she was now seeing was like a baby grown overnight into a busy, sprawling giant.
Atlanta was humming like a beehive, proudly conscious of its importance to the Confederacy, and work was going forward night and day toward turning an agricultural section into an industrial one. Before the war there had been few cotton factories, woolen mills, arsenals and machine shops south of Maryland — a fact of which all Southerners were proud. The South produced statesmen and soldiers, planters and doctors, lawyers and poets, but certainly not engineers or mechanics. Let the Yankees adopt such low callings. But now the Confederate ports were stoppered with Yankee gunboats, only a trickle of blockade-run goods was slipping in from Europe, and the South was desperately trying to manufacture her own war materials. The North could call on the whole world for supplies and for soldiers, and thousands of Irish and Germans were pouring into the Union Army, lured by the bounty money offered by the North. The South could only turn in upon itself.
In Atlanta, there were machine factories tediously turning out machinery to manufacture war materials — tediously, because there were few machines in the South from which they could model and nearly every wheel and cog had to be made from drawings that came through the blockade from England. There were strange faces on the streets of Atlanta now, and citizens who a year ago would have pricked up their ears at the sound of even a Western accent paid no heed to the foreign tongues of Europeans who had run the blockade to build machines and turn out Confederate munitions. Skilled men these, without whom the Confederacy would have been hard put to make pistols, rifles, cannon and powder.
Almost the pulsing of the town’s heart could be felt as the work went forward night and day, pumping the materials of war up the railway arteries to the two battle fronts. Trains roared in and out of the town at all hours. Soot from the newly erected factories fell in showers on the white houses. By night, the furnaces glowed and the hammers clanged long after townsfolk were abed. Where vacant lots had been a year before, there were now factories turning out harness, saddles and shoes, ordnance-supply plants making rifles and cannon, rolling mills and foundries producing iron rails and freight cars to replace those destroyed by the Yankees, and a variety of industries manufacturing spurs, bridle bits, buckles, tents, buttons, pistols and swords. Already the foundries were beginning to feel the lack of iron, for little or none came through the blockade, and the mines in Alabama were standing almost idle while the miners were at the front. There were no iron picket fences, iron summerhouses, iron gates or even iron statuary on the lawns of Atlanta now, for they had early found their way into the melting pots of the rolling mills.
Here along Peachtree Street and near-by streets were the headquarters of the various army departments, each office swarming with uniformed men, the commissary, the signal corps, the mail service, the railway transport, the provost marshal. On the outskirts of town were the remount depots where horses and mules milled about in large corrals, and along side streets were the hospitals. As Uncle Peter told her about them, Scarlett felt that Atlanta must be a city of the wounded, for there were general hospitals, contagious hospitals, convalescent hospitals without number. And every day the trains just below Five Points disgorged more sick and more wounded.
The little town was gone and the face of the rapidly growing city was animated with never-ceasing energy and bustle. The sight of so much hurrying made Scarlett, fresh from rural leisure and quiet, almost breathless, but she liked it. There was an exciting atmosphere about the place that uplifted her. It was as if she could actually feel the accelerated steady pulse of the town’s heart beating in time with her own.
As they slowly made their way through the mudholes of the town’s chief street, she noted with interest all the new buildings and the new faces. The sidewalks were crowded with men in uniform, bearing the insignia of all ranks and all service branches; the narrow street was jammed with vehicles — carriages, buggies, ambulances, covered army wagons with profane drivers swearing as the mules struggled through the ruts; gray-clad couriers dashed spattering through the streets from one headquarters to another, bearing orders and telegraphic dispatches; convalescents limped about on crutches, usually with a solicitous lady at either elbow; bugle and drum and barked orders sounded from the drill fields where the recruits were being turned into soldiers; and with her heart in her throat, Scarlett had her first sight of Yankee uniforms, as Uncle Peter pointed with his whip to a detachment of dejected-looking bluecoats being shepherded toward the depot by a squad of Confederates with fixed bayonets, to entrain for the prison camp.
“Oh,” thought Scarlett, with the first feeling of real pleasure she had experienced since the day of the barbecue, “I’m going to like it here! It’s so alive and exciting!”
The town was even more alive than she realized, for there were new barrooms by the dozens; prostitutes, following the army, swarmed the town and bawdy houses were blossoming with women to the consternation of the church people. Every hotel, boarding house and private residence was crammed with visitors who had come to be near wounded relatives in the big Atlanta hospitals. There were parties and balls and bazaars every week and war weddings without number, with the grooms on furlough in bright gray and gold braid and the brides in blockade-run finery, aisles of crossed swords, toasts drunk in blockaded champagne and tearful farewells. Nightly the dark tree-lined streets resounded with dancing feet, and from parlors tinkled pianos where soprano voices blended with those of soldier guests in the pleasing melancholy of “The Bugles Sang Truce” and “Your Letter Came, but Came Too Late”— plaintive ballads that brought exciting tears to soft eyes which had never known the tears of real grief.
As they progressed down the street, through the sucking mud, Scarlett bubbled over with questions and Peter answered them, pointing here and there with his whip, proud to display his knowledge.
“Dat air de arsenal. Yas’m, dey keeps guns an’ sech lak dar. No’m, dem air ain’ sto’s, dey’s blockade awfisses. Law, Miss Scarlett, doan you know whut blockade awfisses is? Dey’s awfisses whar furriners stays dat buy us Confedruts’ cotton an’ ship it outer Cha’ston and Wilmin’ton an’ ship us back gunpowder. No’m, Ah ain’ sho whut kine of furriners dey is. Miss Pitty, she say dey is Inlish but kain nobody unnerstan a’ wud dey says. Yas’m ’tis pow’ful smoky an’ de soot jes’ ruinin’ Miss Pitty’s silk cuttins. It’ frum de foun’ry an’ de rollin’ mills. An’ de noise dey meks at night! Kain nobody sleep. No’m, Ah kain stop fer you ter look around. Ah done promise Miss Pitty Ah bring you straight home. . . . Miss Scarlett, mek yo’ cu’tsy. Dar’s Miss Merriwether an’ Miss Elsing a-bowin’ to you.”
Scarlett vaguely remembered two ladies of those names who came from Atlanta to Tara to attend her wedding and she remembered that they were Miss Pittypat’s best friends. So she turned quickly where Uncle Peter pointed and bowed. The two were sitting in a carriage outside a drygoods store. The proprietor and two clerks stood on the sidewalk with armfuls of bolts of cotton cloth they had been displaying. Mrs. Merriwether was a tall, stout woman and so tightly corseted that her bust jutted forward like the prow of a ship. Her iron-gray hair was eked out by a curled false fringe that was proudly brown and disdained to match the rest of her hair. She had a round, highly colored face in which was combined good-natured shrewdness and the habit of command. Mrs. Elsing was younger, a thin frail woman, who had been a beauty, and about her there still clung a faded freshness, a dainty imperious air.
These two ladies with a third, Mrs. Whiting, were the pillars of Atlanta. They ran the three churches to which they belonged, the clergy, the choirs and the parishioners. They organized bazaars and presided over sewing circles, they chaperoned balls and picnics, they knew who made good matches and who did not, who drank secretly, who were to have babies and when. They were authorities on the genealogies of everyone who was anyone in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia and did not bother their heads about the other states, because they believed that no one who was anybody ever came from states other than these three. They knew what was decorous behavior and what was not and they never failed to make their opinions known — Mrs. Merriwether at the top of her voice, Mrs. Elsing in an elegant die-away drawl and Mrs. Whiting in a distressed whisper which showed how much she hated to speak of such things. These three ladies disliked and distrusted one another as heartily as the First Triumvirate of Rome, and their close alliance was probably for the same reason.
“I told Pitty I had to have you in my hospital,” called Mrs. Merriweather, smiling. “Don’t you go promising Mrs. Meade or Mrs. Whiting!”
“I won’t,” said Scarlett, having no idea what Mrs. Merriwether was talking about but feeling a glow of warmth at being welcomed and wanted. “I hope to see you again soon.”
The carriage plowed its way farther and halted for a moment to permit two ladies with baskets of bandages on their arms to pick precarious passages across the sloppy street on stepping stones. At the same moment, Scarlett’s eye was caught by a figure on the sidewalk in a brightly colored dress — too bright for street wear — covered by a Paisley shawl with fringes to the heels. Turning she saw a tall handsome woman with a bold face and a mass of red hair, too red to be true. It was the first time she had ever seen any woman who she knew for certain had “done something to her hair” and she watched her, fascinated.
“Uncle Peter, who is that?” she whispered.
“Ah doan know.”
“You do, too. I can tell. Who is she?”
“Her name Belle Watling,” said Uncle Peter, his lower lip beginning to protrude.
Scarlett was quick to catch the fact that he had not preceded the name with “Miss” or “Mrs.”
“Who is she?”
“Miss Scarlett,” said Peter darkly, laying the whip on the startled horse, “Miss Pitty ain’ gwine ter lak it you astin’ questions dat ain’ none of yo’ bizness. Dey’s a passel of no-count folks in dis town now dat it ain’ no use talkin’ about.”
“Good Heavens!” thought Scarlett, reproved into silence. “That must be a bad woman!”
She had never seen a bad woman before and she twisted her head and stared after her until she was lost in the crowd.
The stores and the new war buildings were farther apart now, with vacant lots between. Finally the business section fell behind and the residences came into view. Scarlett picked them out as old friends, the Leyden house, dignified and stately; the Bonnells’, with little white columns and green blinds; the close-lipped red-brick Georgian home of the McLure family, behind its low box hedges. Their progress was slower now, for from porches and gardens and sidewalks ladies called to her. Some she knew slightly, others she vaguely remembered, but most of them she knew not at all. Pittypat had certainly broadcast her arrival. Little Wade had to be held up time and again, so that ladies who ventured as far through the ooze as their carriage blocks could exclaim over him. They all cried to her that she must join their knitting and sewing circles and their hospital committees, and no one else’s, and she promised recklessly to right and left.
As they passed a rambling green clapboard house, a little black girl posted on the front steps cried, “Hyah she come,” and Dr. Meade and his wife and little thirteen-year-old Phil emerged, calling greetings. Scarlett recalled that they too had been at her wedding. Mrs. Meade mounted her carriage block and craned her neck for a view of the baby, but the doctor, disregarding the mud, plowed through to the side of the carriage. He was tall and gaunt and wore a pointed beard of iron gray, and his clothes hung on his spare figure as though blown there by a hurricane. Atlanta considered him the root of all strength and all wisdom and it was not strange that he had absorbed something of their belief. But for all his habit of making oracular statements and his slightly pompous manner, he was as kindly a man as the town possessed.
After shaking her hand and prodding Wade in the stomach and complimenting him, the doctor announced that Aunt Pittypat had promised on oath that Scarlett should be on no other hospital and bandage-rolling committee save Mrs. Meade’s.
“Oh, dear, but I’ve promised a thousand ladies already!” said Scarlett.
“Mrs. Merriwether, I’ll be bound!” cried Mrs. Meade indignantly. “Drat the woman! I believe she meets every train!”
“I promised because I hadn’t a notion what it was all about,” Scarlett confessed. “What are hospital committees anyway?”
Both the doctor and his wife looked slightly shocked at her ignorance.
“But, of course, you’ve been buried in the country and couldn’t know,” Mrs. Meade apologized for her. “We have nursing committees for different hospitals and for different days. We nurse the men and help the doctors and make bandages and clothes and when the men are well enough to leave the hospitals we take them into our homes to convalesce till they are able to go back in the army. And we look after the wives and families of some of the wounded who are destitute — yes, worse than destitute. Dr. Meade is at the Institute hospital where my committee works, and everyone says he’s marvelous and —”
“There, there, Mrs. Meade,” said the doctor fondly. “Don’t go bragging on me in front of folks. It’s little enough I can do, since you wouldn’t let me go in the army.”
“‘Wouldn’t let!’” she cried indignantly. “Me? The town wouldn’t let you and you know it. Why, Scarlett, when folks heard he was intending to go to Virginia as an army surgeon, all the ladies signed a petition begging him to stay here. Of course, the town couldn’t do without you.”
“There, there, Mrs. Meade,” said the doctor, basking obviously in the praise. “Perhaps with one boy at the front, that’s enough for the time being.”
“And I’m going next year!” cried little Phil hopping about excitedly. “As a drummer boy. I’m learning how to drum now. Do you want to hear me? I’ll run get my drum.”
“No, not now,” said Mrs. Meade, drawing him closer to her, a sudden look of strain coming over her face. “Not next year, darling. Maybe the year after.”
“But the war will be over then!” he cried petulantly, pulling away from her. “And you promised!”
Over his head the eyes of the parents met and Scarlett saw the look. Darcy Meade was in Virginia and they were clinging closer to the little boy that was left.
Uncle Peter cleared his throat.
“Miss Pitty were in a state when Ah lef’ home an’ ef Ah doan git dar soon, she’ll done swooned.”
“Good-by. I’ll be over this afternoon,” called Mrs. Meade. “And you tell Pitty for me that if you aren’t on my committee, she’s going to be in a worse state.”
The carriage slipped and slid down the muddy road and Scarlett leaned back on the cushions and smiled. She felt better now than she had felt in months. Atlanta, with its crowds and its hurry and its undercurrent of driving excitement, was very pleasant, very exhilarating, so very much nicer than the lonely plantation out from Charleston, where the bellow of alligators broke the night stillness; better than Charleston itself, dreaming in its gardens behind its high walls; better than Savannah with its wide streets lined with palmetto and the muddy river beside it. Yes, and temporarily even better than Tara, dear though Tara was.
There was something exciting about this town with its narrow muddy streets, lying among rolling red hills, something raw and crude that appealed to the rawness and crudeness underlying the fine veneer that Ellen and Mammy had given her. She suddenly felt that this was where she belonged, not in serene and quiet old cities, flat beside yellow waters.
The houses were farther and farther apart now, and leaning out Scarlett saw the red brick and slate roof of Miss Pittypat’s house. It was almost the last house on the north side of town. Beyond it, Peachtree road narrowed and twisted under great trees out of sight into thick quiet woods. The neat wooden-paneled fence had been newly painted white and the front yard it inclosed was yellow starred with the last jonquils of the season. On the front steps stood two women in black and behind them a large yellow woman with her hands under her apron and her white teeth showing in a wide smile. Plump Miss Pittypat was teetering excitedly on tiny feet, one hand pressed to her copious bosom to still her fluttering heart. Scarlett saw Melanie standing by her and, with a surge of dislike, she realized that the fly in the ointment of Atlanta would be this slight little person in black mourning dress, her riotous dark curls subdued to matronly smoothness and a loving smile of welcome and happiness on her heart-shaped face.
When a Southerner took the trouble to pack a trunk and travel twenty miles for a visit, the visit was seldom of shorter duration than a month, usually much longer. Southerners were as enthusiastic visitors as they were hosts, and there was nothing unusual in relatives coming to spend the Christmas holidays and remaining until July. Often when newly married couples went on the usual round of honeymoon visits, they lingered in some pleasant home until the birth of their second child. Frequently elderly aunts and uncles came to Sunday dinner and remained until they were buried years later. Visitors presented no problem, for houses were large, servants numerous and the feeding of several extra mouths a minor matter in that land of plenty. All ages and sexes went visiting, honeymooners, young mothers showing off new babies, convalescents, the bereaved, girls whose parents were anxious to remove them from the dangers of unwise matches, girls who had reached the danger age without becoming engaged and who, it was hoped, would make suitable matches under the guidance of relatives in other places. Visitors added excitement and variety to the slow-moving Southern life and they were always welcome.
So Scarlett had come to Atlanta with no idea as to how long she would remain. If her visit proved as dull as those in Savannah and Charleston, she would return home in a month. If her stay was pleasant, she would remain indefinitely. But no sooner had she arrived than Aunt Pitty and Melanie began a campaign to induce her to make her home permanently with them. They brought up every possible argument. They wanted her for her own self because they loved her. They were lonely and often frightened at night in the big house, and she was so brave she gave them courage. She was so charming that she cheered them in their sorrow. Now that Charles was dead, her place and her son’s place were with his kindred. Besides, half the house now belonged to her, through Charles’ will. Last, the Confederacy needed every pair of hands for sewing, knitting, bandage rolling and nursing the wounded.
Charles’ Uncle Henry Hamilton, who lived in bachelor state at the Atlanta Hotel near the depot, also talked seriously to her on this subject. Uncle Henry was a short, pot-bellied, irascible old gentleman with a pink face, a shock of long silver hair and an utter lack of patience with feminine timidities and vaporings. It was for the latter reason that he was barely on speaking terms with his sister, Miss Pittypat. From childhood, they had been exact opposites in temperament and they had been further estranged by his objections to the manner in which she had reared Charles — “Making a damn sissy out of a soldier’s son!” Years before, he had so insulted her that now Miss Pitty never spoke of him except in guarded whispers and with so great reticence that a stranger would have thought the honest old lawyer a murderer, at the least. The insult had occurred on a day when Pitty wished to draw five hundred dollars from her estate, of which he was trustee, to invest in a non-existent gold mine. He had refused to permit it and stated heatedly that she had no more sense than a June bug and furthermore it gave him the fidgets to be around her longer than five minutes. Since that day, she only saw him formally, once a month, when Uncle Peter drove her to his office to get the housekeeping money. After these brief visits, Pitty always took to her bed for the rest of the day with tears and smelling salts. Melanie and Charles, who were on excellent terms with their uncle, had frequently offered to relieve her of this ordeal, but Pitty always set her babyish mouth firmly and refused. Henry was her cross and she must bear him. From this, Charles and Melanie could only infer that she took a profound pleasure in this occasional excitement, the only excitement in her sheltered life.
Uncle Henry liked Scarlett immediately because, he said, he could see that for all her silly affectations she had a few grains of sense. He was trustee, not only of Pitty’s and Melanie’s estates, but also of that left Scarlett by Charles. It came to Scarlett as a pleasant surprise that she was now a well-to-do young woman, for Charles had not only left her half of Aunt Pitty’s house but farm lands and town property as well. And the stores and warehouses along the railroad track near the depot, which were part of her inheritance, had tripled in value since the war began. It was when Uncle Henry was giving her an account of her property that he broached the matter of her permanent residence in Atlanta.
“When Wade Hampton comes of age, he’s going to be a rich young man,” he said. “The way Atlanta is growing his property will be ten times more valuable in twenty years, and it’s only right that the boy should be raised where his property is, so he can learn to take care of it — yes, and of Pitty’s and Melanie’s, too. He’ll be the only man of the Hamilton name left before long, for I won’t be here forever.”
As for Uncle Peter, he took it for granted that Scarlett had come to stay. It was inconceivable to him that Charles’ only son should be reared where he could not supervise the rearing. To all these arguments, Scarlett smiled but said nothing, unwilling to commit herself before learning how she would like Atlanta and constant association with her inlaws. She knew, too, that Gerald and Ellen would have to be won over. Moreover, now that she was away from Tara, she missed it dreadfully, missed the red fields and the springing green cotton and the sweet twilight silences. For the first time, she realized dimly what Gerald had meant when he said that the love of the land was in her blood.
So she gracefully evaded, for the time being, a definite answer as to the duration of her visit and slipped easily into the life of the red-brick house at the quiet end of Peachtree Street.
Living with Charles’ blood kin, seeing the home from which he came. Scarlett could now understand a little better the boy who had made her wife, widow and mother in such rapid succession. It was easy to see why he had been so shy, so unsophisticated, so idealistic. If Charles had inherited any of the qualities of the stern, fearless, hot-tempered soldier who had been his father, they had been obliterated in childhood by the ladylike atmosphere in which he had been reared. He had been devoted to the childlike Pitty and closer than brothers usually are to Melanie, and two more sweet, unworldly women could not be found.
Aunt Pittypat had been christened Sarah Jane Hamilton sixty years before, but since the long-past day when her doting father had fastened his nickname upon her, because of her airy, restless, pattering little feet, no one had called her anything else. In the years that followed that second christening, many changes had taken place in her that made the pet name incongruous. Of the swiftly scampering child, all that now remained were two tiny feet, inadequate to her weight, and a tendency to prattle happily and aimlessly. She was stout, pink-cheeked and silver-haired and always a little breathless from too tightly laced stays. She was unable to walk more than a block on the tiny feet which she crammed into too small slippers. She had a heart which fluttered at any excitement and she pampered it shamelessly, fainting at any provocation. Everyone knew that her swoons were generally mere ladylike pretenses but they loved her enough to refrain from saying so. Everyone loved her, spoiled her like a child and refused to take her seriously — everyone except her brother Henry.
She liked gossip better than anything else in the world, even more than she liked the pleasures of the table, and she prattled on for hours about other people’s affairs in a harmless kindly way. She had no memory for names, dates or places and frequently confused the actors in one Atlanta drama with the actors in another, which misled no one for no one was foolish enough to take seriously anything she said. No one ever told her anything really shocking or scandalous, for her spinster state must be protected even if she was sixty years old, and her friends were in a kindly conspiracy to keep her a sheltered and petted old child.
Melanie was like her aunt in many ways. She had her shyness, her sudden blushes, her modesty, but she did have common sense —“Of a sort, I’ll admit that,” Scarlett thought grudgingly. Like Aunt Pitty, Melanie had the face of a sheltered child who had never known anything but simplicity and kindness, truth and love, a child who had never looked upon harshness or evil and would not recognize them if she saw them. Because she had always been happy, she wanted everyone about her to be happy or, at least, pleased with themselves. To this end, she always saw the best in everyone and remarked kindly upon it. There was no servant so stupid that she did not find some redeeming trait of loyalty and kind-heartedness, no girl so ugly and disagreeable that she could not discover grace of form or nobility of character in her, and no man so worthless or so boring that she did not view him in the light of his possibilities rather than his actualities.
Because of these qualities that came sincerely and spontaneously from a generous heart, everyone flocked about her, for who can resist the charm of one who discovers in others admirable qualities undreamed of even by himself? She had more girl friends than anyone in town and more men friends too, though she had few beaux for she lacked the willfulness and selfishness that go far toward trapping men’s hearts.
What Melanie did was no more than all Southern girls were taught to do — to make those about them feel at ease and pleased with themselves. It was this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant. Women knew that a land where men were contented, uncontradicted and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live. So, from the cradle to the grave, women strove to make men pleased with themselves, and the satisfied men repaid lavishly with gallantry and adoration. In fact, men willingly gave the ladies everything in the world except credit for having intelligence. Scarlett exercised the same charms as Melanie but with a studied artistry and consummate skill. The difference between the two girls lay in the fact that Melanie spoke kind and flattering words from a desire to make people happy, if only temporarily, and Scarlett never did it except to further her own aims.
From the two he loved best, Charles had received no toughening influences, learned nothing of harshness or reality, and the home in which he grew to manhood was as soft as a bird’s nest. It was such a quiet, old-fashioned, gentle home compared with Tara. To Scarlett, this house cried out for the masculine smells of brandy, tobacco and Macassar oil, for hoarse voices and occasional curses, for guns, for whiskers, for saddles and bridles and for hounds underfoot. She missed the sounds of quarreling voices that were always heard at Tara when Ellen’s back was turned, Mammy quarreling with Pork, Rosa and Teena bickering, her own acrimonious arguments with Suellen, Gerald’s bawling threats. No wonder Charles had been a sissy, coming from a home like this. Here, excitement never entered in, voices were never raised, everyone deferred gently to the opinions of others, and, in the end, the black grizzled autocrat in the kitchen had his way. Scarlett, who had hoped for a freer rein when she escaped Mammy’s supervision, discovered to her sorrow that Uncle Peter’s standards of ladylike conduct, especially for Mist’ Charles’ widow, were even stricter than Mammy’s.
In such a household, Scarlett came back to herself, and almost before she realized it her spirits rose to normal. She was only seventeen, she had superb health and energy, and Charles’ people did their best to make her happy. If they fell a little short of this, it was not their fault, for no one could take out of her heart the ache that throbbed whenever Ashley’s name was mentioned. And Melanie mentioned it so often! But Melanie and Pitty were tireless in planning ways to soothe the sorrow under which they thought she labored. They put their own grief into the background in order to divert her. They fussed about her food and her hours for taking afternoon naps and for taking carriage rides. They not only admired her extravagantly, her high-spiritedness, her figure, her tiny hands and feet, her white skin, but they said so frequently, petting, hugging and kissing her to emphasize their loving words.
Scarlett did not care for the caresses, but she basked in the compliments. No one at Tara had ever said so many charming things about her. In fact, Mammy had spent her time deflating her conceit. Little Wade was no longer an annoyance, for the family, black and white, and the neighbors idolized him and there was a never-ceasing rivalry as to whose lap he should occupy. Melanie especially doted on him. Even in his worst screaming spells, Melanie thought him adorable and said so, adding, “Oh, you precious darling! I just wish you were mine!”
Sometimes Scarlett found it hard to dissemble her feelings, for she still thought Aunt Pitty the silliest of old ladies and her vagueness and vaporings irritated her unendurably. She disliked Melanie with a jealous dislike that grew as the days went by, and sometimes she had to leave the room abruptly when Melanie, beaming with loving pride, spoke of Ashley or read his letters aloud. But, all in all, life went on as happily as was possible under the circumstances. Atlanta was more interesting than Savannah or Charleston or Tara and it offered so many strange war-time occupations she had little time to think or mope. But, sometimes, when she blew out the candle and burrowed her head into the pillow, she sighed and thought: “If only Ashley wasn’t married! If only I didn’t have to nurse in that plagued hospital! Oh, if only I could have some beaux!”
She had immediately loathed nursing but she could not escape this duty because she was on both Mrs. Meade’s and Mrs. Merriwether’s committees. That meant four mornings a week in the sweltering, stinking hospital with her hair tied up in a towel and a hot apron covering her from neck to feet. Every matron, old or young, in Atlanta nursed and did it with an enthusiasm that seemed to Scarlett little short of fanatic. They took it for granted that she was imbued with their own patriotic fervor and would have been shocked to know how slight an interest in the war she had. Except for the ever-present torment that Ashley might be killed, the war interested her not at all, and nursing was something she did simply because she didn’t know how to get out of it.
Certainly there was nothing romantic about nursing. To her, it meant groans, delirium, death and smells. The hospitals were filled with dirty, bewhiskered, verminous men who smelled terribly and bore on their bodies wounds hideous enough to turn a Christian’s stomach. The hospitals stank of gangrene, the odor assaulting her nostrils long before the doors were reached, a sickish sweet smell that clung to her hands and hair and haunted her in her dreams. Flies, mosquitoes and gnats hovered in droning, singing swarms over the wards, tormenting the men to curses and weak sobs; and Scarlett, scratching her own mosquito bites, swung palmetto fans until her shoulders ached and she wished that all the men were dead.
Melanie, however, did not seem to mind the smells, the wounds or the nakedness, which Scarlett thought strange in one who was the most timorous and modest of women. Sometimes when holding basins and instruments while Dr. Meade cut out gangrened flesh, Melanie looked very white. And once, alter such an operation, Scarlett found her in the linen closet vomiting quietly into a towel. But as long as she was where the wounded could see her, she was gentle, sympathetic and cheerful, and the men in the hospitals called her an angel of mercy. Scarlett would have liked that title too, but it involved touching men crawling with lice, running fingers down throats of unconscious patients to see if they were choking on swallowed tobacco quids, bandaging stumps and picking maggots out of festering flesh. No, she did not like nursing!
Perhaps it might have been endurable if she had been permitted to use her charms on the convalescent men, for many of them were attractive and well born, but this she could not do in her widowed state. The young ladies of the town, who were not permitted to nurse for fear they would see sights unfit for virgin eyes, had the convalescent wards in their charge. Unhampered by matrimony or widowhood, they made vast inroads on the convalescents, and even the least attractive girls, Scarlett observed gloomily, had no difficulty in getting engaged.
With the exception of desperately ill and severely wounded men, Scarlett’s was a completely feminized world and this irked her, for she neither liked nor trusted her own sex and, worse still, was always bored by it. But on three afternoons a week she had to attend sewing circles and bandage-rolling committees of Melanie’s friends. The girls who had all known Charles were very kind and attentive to her at these gatherings, especially Fanny Elsing and Maybelle Merriwether, the daughters of the town dowagers. But they treated her deferentially, as if she were old and finished, and their constant chatter of dances and beaux made her both envious of their pleasures and resentful that her widowhood barred her from such activities. Why, she was three times as attractive as Fanny and Maybelle! Oh, how unfair life was! How unfair that everyone should think her heart was in the grave when it wasn’t at all! It was in Virginia with Ashley!
But in spite of these discomforts, Atlanta pleased her very well. And her visit lengthened as the weeks slipped by.