Gone with the wind (Chapter 9)
Scarlett sat in the window of her bedroom that midsummer morning and disconsolately watched the wagons and carriages full of girls, soldiers and chaperons ride gaily out Peachtree road in search of woodland decorations for the bazaar which was to be held that evening for the benefit of the hospitals. The red road lay checkered in shade and sun glare beneath the over-arching trees and the many hooves kicked up little red clouds of dust. One wagon, ahead of the others, bore four stout negroes with axes to cut evergreens and drag down the vines, and the back of this wagon was piled high with napkin-covered hampers, split-oak baskets of lunch and a dozen watermelons. Two of the black bucks were equipped with banjo and harmonica and they were rendering a spirited version of “If You Want to Have a Good Time, Jine the Cavalry.” Behind them streamed the merry cavalcade, girls cool in flowered cotton dresses, with light shawls, bonnets and mitts to protect their skins and little parasols held over their heads; elderly ladies placid and smiling amid the laughter and carriage-to-carriage calls and jokes; convalescents from the hospitals wedged in between stout chaperons and slender girls who made great fuss and to-do over them; officers on horseback idling at snail’s pace beside the carriages — wheels creaking, spurs jingling, gold braid gleaming, parasols bobbing, fans swishing, negroes singing. Everybody was riding out Peachtree road to gather greenery and have a picnic and melon cutting. Everybody, thought Scarlett, morosely, except me.
They all waved and called to her as they went by and she tried to respond with a good grace, but it was difficult. A hard little pain had started in her heart and was traveling slowly up toward her throat where it would become a lump and the lump would soon become tears. Everybody was going to the picnic except her. And everybody was going to the bazaar and the ball tonight except her. That is everybody except her and Pittypat and Melly and the other unfortunates in town who were in mourning. But Melly and Pittypat did not seem to mind. It had not even occurred to them to want to go. It had occurred to Scarlett. And she did want to go, tremendously.
It simply wasn’t fair. She had worked twice as hard as any girl in town, getting things ready for the bazaar. She had knitted socks and baby caps and afghans and mufflers and tatted yards of lace and painted china hair receivers and mustache cups. And she had embroidered half a dozen sofa-pillow cases with the Confederate flag on them. (The stars were a bit lopsided, to be sure, some of them being almost round and others having six or even seven points, but the effect was good.) Yesterday she had worked until she was worn out in the dusty old barn of an Armory draping yellow and pink and green cheesecloth on the booths that lined the walls. Under the supervision of the Ladies’ Hospital Committee, this was plain hard work and no fun at all. It was never fun to be around Mrs. Merriwether and Mrs. Elsing and Mrs. Whiting and have them boss you like you were one of the darkies. And have to listen to them brag about how popular their daughters were. And, worst of all, she had burned two blisters on her fingers helping Pittypat and Cookie make layer cakes for raffling.
And now, having worked like a field hand, she had to retire decorously when the fun was just beginning. Oh, it wasn’t fair that she should have a dead husband and a baby yelling in the next room and be out of everything that was pleasant. Just a little over a year ago, she was dancing and wearing bright clothes instead of this dark mourning and was practically engaged to three boys. She was only seventeen now and there was still a lot of dancing left in her feet. Oh, it wasn’t fair! Life was going past her, down a hot shady summer road, life with gray uniforms and jingling spurs and flowered organdie dresses and banjos playing. She tried not to smile and wave too enthusiastically to the men she knew best, the ones she’d nursed in the hospital, but it was hard to subdue her dimples, hard to look as though her heart were in the grave — when it wasn’t.
Her bowing and waving were abruptly halted when Pittypat entered the room, panting as usual from climbing the stairs, and jerked her away from the window unceremoniously.
“Have you lost your mind, honey, waving at men out of your bedroom window? I declare, Scarlett, I’m shocked! What would your mother say?”
“Well, they didn’t know it was my bedroom.”
“But they’d suspect it was your bedroom and that’s just as bad. Honey, you mustn’t do things like that. Everybody will be talking about you and saying you are fast — and anyway, Mrs. Merriwether knew it was your bedroom.”
“And I suppose she’ll tell all the boys, the old cat.”
“Honey, hush! Dolly Merriwether’s my best friend.”
“Well, she’s a cat just the same — oh, I’m sorry, Auntie, don’t cry! I forgot it was my bedroom window. I won’t do it again — I— I just wanted to see them go by. I wish I was going.”
“Well, I do. I’m so tired of sitting at home.”
“Scarlett, promise me you won’t say things like that. People would talk so. They’d say you didn’t have the proper respect for poor Charlie —”
“Oh, Auntie, don’t cry!”
“Oh, now I’ve made you cry, too,” sobbed Pittypat, in a pleased way, fumbling in her skirt pocket for her handkerchief.
The hard little pain had at last reached Scarlett’s throat and she wailed out loud — not, as Pittypat thought, for poor Charlie but because the last sounds of the wheels and the laughter were dying away. Melanie rustled in from her room, a worried frown puckering her forehead, a brush in her hands, her usually tidy black hair, freed of its net, fluffing about her face in a mass of tiny curls and waves.
“Darlings! What is the matter?”
“Charlie!” sobbed Pittypat, surrendering utterly to the pleasure of her grief and burying her head on Melly’s shoulder.
“Oh,” said Melly, her lip quivering at the mention of her brother’s name. “Be brave, dear. Don’t cry. Oh, Scarlett!”
Scarlett had thrown herself on the bed and was sobbing at the top of her voice, sobbing for her lost youth and the pleasures of youth that were denied her, sobbing with the indignation and despair of a child who once could get anything she wanted by sobbing and now knows that sobbing can no longer help her. She burrowed her head in the pillow and cried and kicked her feet at the tufted counterpane.
“I might as well be dead!” she sobbed passionately. Before such an exhibition of grief, Pittypat’s easy tears ceased and Melly flew to the bedside to comfort her sister-inlaw.
“Dear, don’t cry! Try to think how much Charlie loved you and let that comfort you! Try to think of your darling baby.”
Indignation at being misunderstood mingled with Scarlett’s forlorn feeling of being out of everything and strangled all utterance. That was fortunate, for if she could have spoken she would have cried out truths couched in Gerald’s forthright words. Melanie patted her shoulder and Pittypat tiptoed heavily about the room pulling down the shades.
“Don’t do that!” shouted Scarlett, raising a red and swollen face from the pillow. “I’m not dead enough for you to pull down the shades — though I might as well be. Oh, do go away and leave me alone!”
She sank her face into the pillow again and, after a whispered conference, the two standing over her tiptoed out. She heard Melanie say to Pittypat in a low voice as they went down the stairs:
“Aunt Pitty, I wish you wouldn’t speak of Charles to her. You know how it always affects her. Poor thing, she gets that queer look and I know she’s trying not to cry. We mustn’t make it harder for her.”
Scarlett kicked the coverlet in impotent rage, trying to think of something bad enough to say.
“God’s nightgown!” she cried at last, and felt somewhat relieved. How could Melanie be content to stay at home and never have any fun and wear crepe for her brother when she was only eighteen years old? Melanie did not seem to know, or care, that life was riding by with jingling spurs.
“But she’s such a stick,” thought Scarlett, pounding the pillow. “And she never was popular like me, so she doesn’t miss the things I miss. And — and besides she’s got Ashley and I— I haven’t got anybody!” And at this fresh woe, she broke into renewed outcries.
She remained gloomily in her room until afternoon and then the sight of the returning picnickers with wagons piled high with pine boughs, vines and ferns did not cheer her. Everyone looked happily tired as they waved to her again and she returned their greetings drearily. Life was a hopeless affair and certainly not worth living.
Deliverance came in the form she least expected when, during the after-dinner-nap period, Mrs. Merriwether and Mrs. Elsing drove up. Startled at having callers at such an hour, Melanie, Scarlett and Aunt Pittypat roused themselves, hastily hooked their basques, smoothed their hair and descended to the parlor.
“Mrs. Bonnell’s children have the measles,” said Mrs. Merriwether abruptly, showing plainly that she held Mrs. Bonnell personally responsible for permitting such a thing to happen.
“And the McLure girls have been called to Virginia,” said Mrs. Elsing in her die-away voice, fanning herself languidly as if neither this nor anything else mattered very much. “Dallas McLure is wounded.”
“How dreadful!” chorused their hostesses. “Is poor Dallas —”
“No. Just through the shoulder,” said Mrs. Merriwether briskly. “But it couldn’t possibly have happened at a worse time. The girls are going North to bring him home. But, skies above, we haven’t time to sit here talking. We must hurry back to the Armory and get the decorating done. Pitty, we need you and Melly tonight to take Mrs. Bonnell’s and the McLure girls’ places.”
“Oh, but, Dolly, we can’t go.”
“Don’t say ‘can’t’ to me, Pittypat Hamilton,” said Mrs. Merriwether vigorously. “We need you to watch the darkies with the refreshments. That was what Mrs. Bonnell was to do. And Melly, you must take the McLure girls’ booth.”
“Oh, we just couldn’t — with poor Charlie dead only a —”
“I know how you feel but there isn’t any sacrifice too great for the Cause,” broke in Mrs. Elsing in a soft voice that settled matters.
“Oh, we’d love to help but — why can’t you get some sweet pretty girls to take the booths?”
Mrs. Merriwether snorted a trumpeting snort.
“I don’t know what’s come over the young people these days. They have no sense of responsibility. All the girls who haven’t already taken booths have more excuses than you could shake a stick at. Oh, they don’t fool me! They just don’t want to be hampered in making up to the officers, that’s all. And they’re afraid their new dresses won’t show off behind booth counters. I wish to goodness that blockade runner — what’s his name?”
“Captain Butler,” supplied Mrs. Elsing.
“I wish he’d bring in more hospital supplies and less hoop skirts and lace. If I’ve had to look at one dress today I’ve had to look at twenty dresses that he ran in. Captain Butler — I’m sick of the name. Now, Pitty, I haven’t time to argue. You must come. Everybody will understand. Nobody will see you in the back room anyway, and Melly won’t be conspicuous. The poor McLure girls’ booth is way down at the end and not very pretty so nobody will notice you.”
“I think we should go,” said Scarlett, trying to curb her eagerness and to keep her face earnest and simple. “It is the least we can do for the hospital.”
Neither of the visiting ladies had even mentioned her name, and they turned and looked sharply at her. Even in their extremity, they had not considered asking a widow of scarcely a year to appear at a social function. Scarlett bore their gaze with a wide-eyed childlike expression.
“I think we should go and help to make it a success, all of us. I think I should go in the booth with Melly because — well, I think it would look better for us both to be there instead of just one. Don’t you think so, Melly?”
“Well,” began Melly helplessly. The idea of appearing publicly at a social gathering while in mourning was so unheard of she was bewildered.
“Scarlett’s right,” said Mrs. Merriwether, observing signs of weakening. She rose and jerked her hoops into place. “Both of you — all of you must come. Now, Pitty, don’t start your excuses again. Just think how much the hospital needs money for new beds and drugs. And I know Charlie would like you to help the Cause he died for.”
“Well,” said Pittypat, helpless as always in the presence of a stronger personality, “if you think people will understand.”
“Too good to be true! Too good to be true!” said Scarlett’s joyful heart as she slipped unobtrusively into the pink-and-yellow-draped booth that was to have been the McLure girls’. Actually she was at a party! After a year’s seclusion, after crepe and hushed voices and nearly going crazy with boredom, she was actually at a party, the biggest party Atlanta had ever seen. And she could see people and many lights and hear music and view for herself the lovely laces and frocks and frills that the famous Captain Butler had run through the blockade on his last trip.
She sank down on one of the little stools behind the counter of the booth and looked up and down the long hall which, until this afternoon, had been a bare and ugly drill room. How the ladies must have worked today to bring it to its present beauty. It looked lovely. Every candle and candlestick in Atlanta must be in this hall tonight, she thought, silver ones with a dozen sprangling arms, china ones with charming figurines clustering their bases, old brass stands, erect and dignified, laden with candles of all sizes and colors, smelling fragrantly of bayberries, standing on the gun racks that ran the length of the hall, on the long flower-decked tables, on booth counters, even on the sills of the open windows where the draughts of warm summer air were just strong enough to make them flare.
In the center of the hall the huge ugly lamp, hanging from the ceiling by rusty chains, was completely transformed by twining ivy and wild grapevines that were already withering from the heat. The walls were banked with pine branches that gave out a spicy smell, making the corners of the room into pretty bowers where the chaperons and old ladies would sit. Long graceful ropes of ivy and grapevine and smilax were hung everywhere, in looping festoons on the walls, draped above the windows, twined in scallops all over the brightly colored cheesecloth booths. And everywhere amid the greenery, on flags and bunting, blazed the bright stars of the Confederacy on their background of red and blue.
The raised platform for the musicians was especially artistic. It was completely hidden from view by the banked greenery and starry bunting and Scarlett knew that every potted and tubbed plant in town was there, coleus, geranium, hydrangea, oleander, elephant ear — even Mrs. Elsing’s four treasured rubber plants, which were given posts of honor at the four corners.
At the other end of the hall from the platform, the ladies had eclipsed themselves. On this wall hung large pictures of President Davis and Georgia’s own “Little Alec” Stephens, Vice–President of the Confederacy. Above them was an enormous flag and, beneath, on long tables was the loot of the gardens of the town, ferns, banks of roses, crimson and yellow and white, proud sheaths of golden gladioli, masses of varicolored nasturtiums, tall stiff hollyhocks rearing deep maroon and creamy heads above the other flowers. Among them, candles burned serenely like altar fires. The two faces looked down on the scene, two faces as different as could be possible in two men at the helm of so momentous an undertaking: Davis with the flat cheeks and cold eyes of an ascetic, his thin proud lips set firmly; Stephens with dark burning eyes deep socketed in a face that had known nothing but sickness and pain and had triumphed over them with humor and with fire — two faces that were greatly loved.
The elderly ladies of the committee in whose hands rested the responsibility for the whole bazaar rustled in as importantly as full-rigged ships, hurried the belated young matrons and giggling girls into their booths, and then swept through the doors into the back rooms where the refreshments were being laid out. Aunt Pitty panted out after them.
The musicians clambered upon their platform, black, grinning, their fat cheeks already shining with perspiration, and began tuning their fiddles and sawing and whanging with their bows in anticipatory importance. Old Levi, Mrs. Merriwether’s coachman, who had led the orchestras for every bazaar, ball and wedding since Atlanta was named Marthasville, rapped with his bow for attention. Few except the ladies who were conducting the bazaar had arrived yet, but all eyes turned toward him. Then the fiddles, bull fiddles, accordions, banjos and knuckle-bones broke into a slow rendition of “Lorena”— too slow for dancing, the dancing would come later when the booths were emptied of their wares. Scarlett felt her heart beat faster as the sweet melancholy of the waltz came to her:
“The years creep slowly by, Lorena! The snow is on the grass again. The sun’s far down the sky, Lorena . . .”
One-two-three, one-two-three, dip-sway — three, turn — two-three. What a beautiful waltz! She extended her hands slightly, closed her eyes and swayed with the sad haunting rhythm. There was something about the tragic melody and Lorena’s lost love that mingled with her own excitement and brought a lump into her throat.
Then, as if brought into being by the waltz music, sounds floated in from the shadowy moonlit street below, the trample of horses’ hooves and the sound of carriage wheels, laughter on the warm sweet air and the soft acrimony of negro voices raised in argument over hitching places for the horses. There was confusion on the stairs and light-hearted merriment, the mingling of girls’ fresh voices with the bass notes of their escorts, airy cries of greeting and squeals of joy as girls recognized friends from whom they had parted only that afternoon.
Suddenly the hall burst into life. It was full of girls, girls who floated in butterfly bright dresses, hooped out enormously, lace pantalets peeping from beneath; round little white shoulders bare, and faintest traces of soft little bosoms showing above lace flounces; lace shawls carelessly hanging from arms; fans spangled and painted, fans of swan’s-down and peacock feathers, dangling at wrists by tiny velvet ribbons; girls with masses of golden curls about their necks and fringed gold earbobs that tossed and danced with their dancing curls. Laces and silks and braid and ribbons, all blockade run, all the more precious and more proudly worn because of it, finery flaunted with an added pride as an extra affront to the Yankees.
Not all the flowers of the town were standing in tribute to the leaders of the Confederacy. The smallest, the most fragrant blossoms bedecked the girls. Tea roses tucked behind pink ears, cape jessamine and bud roses in round little garlands over cascades of side curls, blossoms thrust demurely into satin sashes, flowers that before the night was over would find their way into the breast pockets of gray uniforms as treasured souvenirs.
There were so many uniforms in the crowd — so many uniforms on so many men whom Scarlett knew, men she had met on hospital cots, on the streets, at the drill ground. They were such resplendent uniforms, brave with shining buttons and dazzling with twined gold braid on cuffs and collars, the red and yellow and blue stripes on the trousers, for the different branches of the service, setting off the gray to perfection. Scarlet and gold sashes swung to and fro, sabers glittered and banged against shining boots, spurs rattled and jingled.
Such handsome men, thought Scarlett, with a swell of pride in her heart, as the men called greetings, waved to friends, bent low over the hands of elderly ladies. All of them were so young looking, even with their sweeping yellow mustaches and full black and brown beards, so handsome, so reckless, with their arms in slings, with head bandages startlingly white across sun-browned faces. Some of them were on crutches and how proud were the girls who solicitously slowed their steps to their escorts’ hopping pace! There was one gaudy splash of color among the uniforms that put the girls’ bright finery to shame and stood out in the crowd like a tropical bird — a Louisiana Zouave, with baggy blue and white striped pants, cream gaiters and tight little red jacket, a dark, grinning little monkey of a man, with his arm in a black silk sling. He was Maybelle Merriwether’s especial beau, Rene Picard. The whole hospital must have turned out, at least everybody who could walk, and all the men on furlough and sick leave and all the railroad and mail service and hospital and commissary departments between here and Macon. How pleased the ladies would be! The hospital should make a mint of money tonight.
There was a ruffle of drums from the street below, the tramp of feet, the admiring cries of coachmen. A bugle blared and a bass voice shouted the command to break ranks. In a moment, the Home Guard and the militia unit in their bright uniforms shook the narrow stairs and crowded into the room, bowing, saluting, shaking hands. There were boys in the Home Guard, proud to be playing at war, promising themselves they would be in Virginia this time next year, if the war would just last that long; old men with white beards, wishing they were younger, proud to march in uniform in the reflected glory of sons at the front. In the militia, there were many middle-aged men and some older men but there was a fair sprinkling of men of military age who did not carry themselves quite so jauntily as their elders or their juniors. Already people were beginning to whisper, asking why they were not with Lee.
How would they all get into the hall! It had seemed such a large place a few minutes before, and now it was packed, warm with summer-night odors of sachet and cologne water and hair pomade and burning bayberry candles, fragrant with flowers, faintly dusty as many feet trod the old drill floors. The din and hubbub of voices made it almost impossible to hear anything and, as if feeling the joy and excitement of the occasion, old Levi choked off “Lorena” in mid-bar, rapped sharply with his bow and, sawing away for dear life, the orchestra burst into “Bonnie Blue Flag.”
A hundred voices took it up, sang it, shouted it like a cheer. The Home Guard bugler, climbing onto the platform, caught up with the music just as the chorus began, and the high silver notes soared out thrillingly above the massed singing, causing goose bumps to break out on bare arms and cold chills of deeply felt emotion to fly down spines:
“Hurrah! Hurrah! For the Southern Rights, hurrah! Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag That bears a single star!”
They crashed into the second verse and Scarlett, singing with the rest, heard the high sweet soprano of Melanie mounting behind her, clear and true and thrilling as the bugle notes. Turning, she saw that Melly was standing with her hands clasped to her breast, her eyes closed, and tiny tears oozing from the corners. She smiled at Scarlett, whimsically, as the music ended, making a little moue of apology as she dabbed with her handkerchief.
“I’m so happy,” she whispered, “and so proud of the soldiers that I just can’t help crying about it.”
There was a deep, almost fanatic glow in her eyes that for a moment lit up her plain little face and made it beautiful.
The same look was on the faces of all the women as the song ended, tears of pride on cheeks, pink or wrinkled, smiles on lips, a deep hot glow in eyes, as they turned to their men, sweetheart to lover, mother to son, wife to husband. They were all beautiful with the blinding beauty that transfigures even the plainest woman when she is utterly protected and utterly loved and is giving back that love a thousandfold.
They loved their men, they believed in them, they trusted them to the last breaths of their bodies. How could disaster ever come to women such as they when their stalwart gray line stood between them and the Yankees? Had there ever been such men as these since the first dawn of the world, so heroic, so reckless, so gallant, so tender? How could anything but overwhelming victory come to a Cause as just and right as theirs? A Cause they loved as much as they loved their men, a Cause they served with their hands and their hearts, a Cause they talked about, thought about, dreamed about — a Cause to which they would sacrifice these men if need be, and bear their loss as proudly as the men bore their battle flags.
It was high tide of devotion and pride in their hearts, high tide of the Confederacy, for final victory was at hand. Stonewall Jackson’s triumphs in the Valley and the defeat of the Yankees in the Seven Days’ Battle around Richmond showed that clearly. How could it be otherwise with such leaders as Lee and Jackson? One more victory and the Yankees would be on their knees yelling for peace and the men would be riding home and there would be kissing and laughter. One more victory and the war was over!
Of course, there were empty chairs and babies who would never see their fathers’ faces and unmarked graves by lonely Virginia creeks and in the still mountains of Tennessee, but was that too great a price to pay for such a Cause? Silks for the ladies and tea and sugar were hard to get, but that was something to joke about. Besides, the dashing blockade runners were bringing in these very things under the Yankees’ disgruntled noses, and that made the possession of them many times more thrilling. Soon Raphael Semmes and the Confederate Navy would tend to those Yankee gunboats and the ports would be wide open. And England was coming in to help the Confederacy win the war, because the English mills were standing idle for want of Southern cotton. And naturally the British aristocracy sympathized with the Confederacy, as one aristocrat with another, against a race of dollar lovers like the Yankees.
So the women swished their silks and laughed and, looking on their men with hearts bursting with pride, they knew that love snatched in the face of danger and death was doubly sweet for the strange excitement that went with it.
When first she looked at the crowd, Scarlett’s heart had thump-thumped with the unaccustomed excitement of being at a party, but as she half-comprehendingly saw the high-hearted look on the faces about her, her joy began to evaporate. Every woman present was blazing with an emotion she did not feel. It bewildered and depressed her. Somehow, the ball did not seem so pretty nor the girls so dashing, and the white heat of devotion to the Cause that was still shining on every face seemed — why, it just seemed silly!
In a sudden flash of self-knowledge that made her mouth pop open with astonishment, she realized that she did not share with these women their fierce pride, their desire to sacrifice themselves and everything they had for the Cause. Before horror made her think: “No — no! I mustn’t think such things! They’re wrong — sinful,” she knew the Cause meant nothing at all to her and that she was bored with hearing other people talk about it with that fanatic look in their eyes. The Cause didn’t seem sacred to her. The war didn’t seem to be a holy affair, but a nuisance that killed men senselessly and cost money and made luxuries hard to get. She saw that she was tired of the endless knitting and the endless bandage rolling and lint picking that roughened the cuticle of her nails. And oh, she was so tired of the hospital! Tired and bored and nauseated with the sickening gangrene smells and the endless moaning, frightened by the look that coming death gave to sunken faces.
She looked furtively around her, as the treacherous, blasphemous thoughts rushed through her mind, fearful that someone might find them written clearly upon her face. Oh, why couldn’t she feel like those other women! They were whole hearted and sincere in their devotion to the Cause. They really meant everything they said and did. And if anyone should ever suspect that she — No, no one must ever know! She must go on making a pretense of enthusiasm and pride in the Cause which she could not feel, acting out her part of the widow of a Confederate officer who bears her grief bravely, whose heart is in the grave, who feels that her husband’s death meant nothing if it aided the Cause to triumph.
Oh, why was she different, apart from these loving women? She could never love anything or anyone so selflessly as they did. What a lonely feeling it was — and she had never been lonely either in body or spirit before. At first she tried to stifle the thoughts, but the hard self-honesty that lay at the base of her nature would not permit it. And so, while the bazaar went on, while she and Melanie waited on the customers who came to their booth, her mind was busily working, trying to justify herself to herself — a task which she seldom found difficult.
The other women were simply silly and hysterical with their talk of patriotism and the Cause, and the men were almost as bad with their talk of vital issues and States’ Rights. She, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton, alone had good hard-headed Irish sense. She wasn’t going to make a fool out of herself about the Cause, but neither was she going to make a fool out of herself by admitting her true feelings. She was hard-headed enough to be practical about the situation, and no one would ever know how she felt. How surprised the bazaar would be if they knew what she really was thinking! How shocked if she suddenly climbed on the bandstand and declared that she thought the war ought to stop, so everybody could go home and tend to their cotton and there could be parties and beaux again and plenty of pale green dresses.
For a moment, her self-justification buoyed her up but still she looked about the hall with distaste. The McLure girls’ booth was inconspicuous, as Mrs. Merriwether had said, and there were long intervals when no one came to their corner and Scarlett had nothing to do but look enviously on the happy throng. Melanie sensed her moodiness but, crediting it to longing for Charlie, did not try to engage her in conversation. She busied herself arranging the articles in the booth in more attractive display, while Scarlett sat and looked glumly around the room. Even the banked flowers below the pictures of Mr. Davis and Mr. Stephens displeased her.
“It looks like an altar,” she sniffed. “And the way they all carry on about those two, they might as well be the Father and the Son!” Then smitten with sudden fright at her irreverence she began hastily to cross herself by way of apology but caught herself in time.
“Well, it’s true,” she argued with her conscience. “Everybody carries on like they were holy and they aren’t anything but men, and mighty unattractive looking ones at that.”
Of course, Mr. Stephens couldn’t help how he looked for he had been an invalid all his life, but Mr. Davis — She looked up at the cameo clean, proud face. It was his goatee that annoyed her the most. Men should either be clean shaven, mustached or wear full beards.
“That little wisp looks like it was just the best he could do,” she thought, not seeing in his face the cold hard intelligence that was carrying the weight of a new nation.
No, she was not happy now, and at first she had been radiant with the pleasure of being in a crowd. Now just being present was not enough. She was at the bazaar but not a part of it. No one paid her any attention and she was the only young unmarried woman present who did not have a beau. And all her life she had enjoyed the center of the stage. It wasn’t fair! She was seventeen years old and her feet were patting the floor, wanting to skip and dance. She was seventeen years old and she had a husband lying at Oakland Cemetery and a baby in his cradle at Aunt Pittypat’s and everyone thought she should be content with her lot. She had a whiter bosom and a smaller waist and a tinier foot than any girl present, but for all they mattered she might just as well be lying beside Charles with “Beloved Wife of” carved over her.
She wasn’t a girl who could dance and flirt and she wasn’t a wife who could sit with other wives and criticize the dancing and flirting girls. And she wasn’t old enough to be a widow. Widows should be old — so terribly old they didn’t want to dance and flirt and be admired. Oh, it wasn’t fair that she should have to sit here primly and be the acme of widowed dignity and propriety when she was only seventeen. It wasn’t fair that she must keep her voice low and her eyes cast modestly down, when men, attractive ones, too, came to their booth.
Every girl in Atlanta was three deep in men. Even the plainest girls were carrying on like belles — and, oh, worst of all, they were carrying on in such lovely, lovely dresses!
Here she sat like a crow with hot black taffeta to her wrists and buttoned up to her chin, with not even a hint of lace or braid, not a jewel except Ellen’s onyx mourning brooch, watching tacky-looking girls hanging on the arms of good-looking men. All because Charles Hamilton had had the measles. He didn’t even die in a fine glow of gallantry in battle, so she could brag about him.
Rebelliously she leaned her elbows on the counter and looked at the crowd, flouting Mammy’s oft-repeated admonition against leaning on elbows and making them ugly and wrinkled. What did it matter if they did get ugly? She’d probably never get a chance to show them again. She looked hungrily at the frocks floating by, butter-yellow watered silks with garlands of rosebuds; pink satins with eighteen flounces edged with tiny black velvet ribbons; baby blue taffeta, ten yards in the skirt and foamy with cascading lace; exposed bosoms; seductive flowers. Maybelle Merriwether went toward the next booth on the arm of the Zouave, in an apple-green tarlatan so wide that it reduced her waist to nothingness. It was showered and flounced with cream-colored Chantilly lace that had come from Charleston on the last blockader, and Maybelle was flaunting it as saucily as if she and not the famous Captain Butler had run the blockade.
“How sweet I’d look in that dress,” thought Scarlett, a savage envy in her heart. “Her waist is as big as a cow’s. That green is just my color and it would make my eyes look — Why will blondes try to wear that color? Her skin looks as green as an old cheese. And to think I’ll never wear that color again, not even when I do get out of mourning. No, not even if I do manage to get married again. Then I’ll have to wear tacky old grays and tans and lilacs.”
For a brief moment she considered the unfairness of it all. How short was the time for fun, for pretty clothes, for dancing, for coquetting! Only a few, too few years! Then you married and wore dull-colored dresses and had babies that ruined your waist line and sat in corners at dances with other sober matrons and only emerged to dance with your husband or with old gentlemen who stepped on your feet. If you didn’t do these things, the other matrons talked about you and then your reputation was ruined and your family disgraced. It seemed such a terrible waste to spend all your little girlhood learning how to be attractive and how to catch men and then only use the knowledge for a year or two. When she considered her training at the hands of Ellen and Mammy, she knew it had been thorough and good because it had always reaped results. There were set rules to be followed, and if you followed them success crowned your efforts.
With old ladies you were sweet and guileless and appeared as simple minded as possible, for old ladies were sharp and they watched girls as jealously as cats, ready to pounce on any indiscretion of tongue or eye. With old gentlemen, a girl was pert and saucy and almost, but not quite, flirtatious, so that the old fools’ vanities would be tickled. It made them feel devilish and young and they pinched your cheek and declared you were a minx. And, of course, you always blushed on such occasions, otherwise they would pinch you with more pleasure than was proper and then tell their sons that you were fast.
With young girls and young married women, you slopped over with sugar and kissed them every time you met them, even if it was ten times a day. And you put your arms about their waists and suffered them to do the same to you, no matter how much you disliked it. You admired their frocks or their babies indiscriminately and teased about beaux and complimented husbands and giggled modestly and denied that you had any charms at all compared with theirs. And, above all, you never said what you really thought about anything, any more than they said what they really thought.
Other women’s husbands you let severely alone, even if they were your own discarded beaux, and no matter how temptingly attractive they were. If you were too nice to young husbands, their wives said you were fast and you got a bad reputation and never caught any beaux of your own.
But with young bachelors — ah, that was a different matter! You could laugh softly at them and when they came flying to see why you laughed, you could refuse to tell them and laugh harder and keep them around indefinitely trying to find out. You could promise, with your eyes, any number of exciting things that would make a man maneuver to get you alone. And, having gotten you alone, you could be very, very hurt or very, very angry when he tried to kiss you. You could make him apologize for being a cur and forgive him so sweetly that he would hang around trying to kiss you a second time. Sometimes, but not often, you did let him kiss you. (Ellen and Mammy had not taught her that but she learned it was effective.) Then you cried and declared you didn’t know what had come over you and that he couldn’t ever respect you again. Then he had to dry your eyes and usually he proposed, to show just how much he did respect you. And then there were — Oh, there were so many things to do to bachelors and she knew them all, the nuance of the sidelong glance, the half-smile behind the fan, the swaying of the hips so that skirts swung like a bell, the tears, the laughter, the flattery, the sweet sympathy. Oh, all the tricks that never failed to work — except with Ashley.
No, it didn’t seem right to learn all these smart tricks, use them so briefly and then put them away forever. How wonderful it would be never to marry but to go on being lovely in pale green dresses and forever courted by handsome men. But, if you went on too long, you got to be an old maid like India Wilkes and everyone said “poor thing” in that smug hateful way. No, after all it was better to marry and keep your self-respect even if you never had any more fun.
Oh, what a mess life was! Why had she been such an idiot as to marry Charles of all people and have her life end at sixteen?
Her indignant and hopeless reverie was broken when the crowd began pushing back against the walls, the ladies carefully holding their hoops so that no careless contact should turn them up against their bodies and show more pantalets than was proper. Scarlett tiptoed above the crowd and saw the captain of the militia mounting the orchestra platform. He shouted orders and half of the Company fell into line. For a few minutes they went through a brisk drill that brought perspiration to their foreheads and cheers and applause from the audience. Scarlett clapped her hands dutifully with the rest and, as the soldiers pushed forward toward the punch and lemonade booths after they were dismissed, she turned to Melanie, feeling that she had better begin her deception about the Cause as soon as possible.
“They looked fine, didn’t they?” she said.
Melanie was fussing about with the knitted things on the counter.
“Most of them would look a lot finer in gray uniforms and in Virginia,” she said, and she did not trouble to lower her voice.
Several of the proud mothers of members of the militia were standing close by and overheard the remark. Mrs. Guinan turned scarlet and then white, for her twenty-five-year-old Willie was in the company.
Scarlett was aghast at such words coming from Melly of all people.
“You know it’s true, Scarlet. I don’t mean the little boys and the old gentlemen. But a lot of the militia are perfectly able to tote a rifle and that’s what they ought to be doing this minute.”
“But — but —” began Scarlett, who had never considered the matter before. “Somebody’s got to stay home to —” What was it Willie Guinan had told her by way of excusing his presence in Atlanta? “Somebody’s got to stay home to protect the state from invasion.”
“Nobody’s invading us and nobody’s going to,” said Melly coolly, looking toward a group of the militia. “And the best way to keep out invaders is to go to Virginia and beat the Yankees there. And as for all this talk about the militia staying here to keep the darkies from rising — why, it’s the silliest thing I ever heard of. Why should our people rise? It’s just a good excuse for cowards. I’ll bet we could lick the Yankees in a month if all the militia of all the states went to Virginia. So there!”
“Why, Melly!” cried Scarlett again, staring.
Melly’s soft dark eyes were flashing angrily. “My husband wasn’t afraid to go and neither was yours. And I’d rather they’d both be dead than here at home — Oh, darling, I’m sorry. How thoughtless and cruel of me!”
She stroked Scarlett’s arm appealingly and Scarlett stared at her. But it was not of dead Charles she was thinking. It was of Ashley. Suppose he too were to die? She turned quickly and smiled automatically as Dr. Meade walked up to their booth.
“Well, girls,” he greeted them, “it was nice of you to come. I know what a sacrifice it must have been for you to come out tonight. But it’s all for the Cause. And I’m going to tell you a secret. I’ve a surprise way for making some more money tonight for the hospital, but I’m afraid some of the ladies are going to be shocked about it.”
He stopped and chuckled as he tugged at his gray goatee.
“Oh, what? Do tell!”
“On second thought I believe I’ll keep you guessing, too. But you girls must stand up for me if the church members want to run me out of town for doing it. However, it’s for the hospital. You’ll see. Nothing like this has ever been done before.”
He went off pompously toward a group of chaperons in one corner, and just as the two girls had turned to each other to discuss the possibilities of the secret, two old gentlemen bore down on the booth, declaring in loud voices that they wanted ten miles of tatting. Well, after all, old gentlemen were better than no gentlemen at all, thought Scarlett, measuring out the tatting and submitting demurely to being chucked under the chin. The old blades charged off toward the lemonade booth and others took their places at the counter. Their booth did not have so many customers as did the other booths where the tootling laugh of Maybelle Merriwether sounded and Fanny Elsing’s giggles and the Whiting girls’ repartee made merriment. Melly sold useless stuff to men who could have no possible use for it as quietly and serenely as a shopkeeper, and Scarlett patterned her conduct on Melly’s.
There were crowds in front of every other counter but theirs, girls chattering, men buying. The few who came to them talked about how they went to the university with Ashley and what a fine soldier he was or spoke in respectful tones of Charles and how great a loss to Atlanta his death had been.
Then the music broke into the rollicking strains of “Johnny Booker, he’p dis Nigger!” and Scarlett thought she would scream. She wanted to dance. She wanted to dance. She looked across the floor and tapped her foot to the music and her green eyes blazed so eagerly that they fairly snapped. All the way across the floor, a man, newly come and standing in the doorway, saw them, started in recognition and watched closely the slanting eyes in the sulky, rebellious face. Then he grinned to himself as he recognized the invitation that any male could read.
He was dressed in black broadcloth, a tall man, towering over the officers who stood near him, bulky in the shoulders but tapering to a small waist and absurdly small feet in varnished boots. His severe black suit, with fine ruffled shirt and trousers smartly strapped beneath high insteps, was oddly at variance with his physique and face, for he was foppishly groomed, the clothes of a dandy on a body that was powerful and latently dangerous in its lazy grace. His hair was jet black, and his black mustache was small and closely clipped, almost foreign looking compared with the dashing, swooping mustaches of the cavalrymen near by. He looked, and was, a man of lusty and unashamed appetites. He had an air of utter assurance, of displeasing insolence about him, and there was a twinkle of malice in his bold eyes as he stared at Scarlett, until finally, feeling his gaze, she looked toward him.
Somewhere in her mind, the bell of recognition rang, but for the moment she could not recall who he was. But he was the first man in months who had displayed an interest in her, and she threw him a gay smile. She made a little curtsy as he bowed, and then, as he straightened and started toward her with a peculiarly lithe Indian-like gait, her hand went to her mouth in horror, for she knew who he was.
Thunderstruck, she stood as if paralyzed while he made his way through the crowd. Then she turned blindly, bent on flight into the refreshment rooms, but her skirt caught on a nail of the booth. She jerked furiously at it, tearing it and, in an instant, he was beside her.
“Permit me,” he said bending over and disentangling the flounce. “I hardly hoped that you would recall me, Miss O’Hara.”
His voice was oddly pleasant to the ear, the well-modulated voice of a gentleman, resonant and overlaid with the flat slow drawl of the Charlestonian.
She looked up at him imploringly, her face crimson with the shame of their last meeting, and met two of the blackest eyes she had ever seen, dancing in merciless merriment. Of all the people in the world to turn up here, this terrible person who had witnessed that scene with Ashley which still gave her nightmares; this odious wretch who ruined girls and was not received by nice people; this despicable man who had said, and with good cause, that she was not a lady.
At the sound of his voice, Melanie turned and for the first time in her life Scarlett thanked God for the existence of her sister-inlaw.
“Why — it’s — it’s Mr. Rhett Butler, isn’t it?” said Melanie with a little smile, putting out her hand. “I met you —”
“On the happy occasion of the announcement of your betrothal,” he finished, bending over her hand. “It is kind of you to recall me.”
“And what are you doing so far from Charleston, Mr. Butler?”
“A boring matter of business, Mrs. Wilkes. I will be in and out of your town from now on. I find I must not only bring in goods but see to the disposal of them.”
“Bring in-” began Melly, her brow wrinkling, and then she broke into a delighted smile. “Why, you — you must be the famous Captain Butler we’ve been hearing so much about — the blockade runner. Why, every girl here is wearing dresses you brought in. Scarlett, aren’t you thrilled — what’s the matter, dear? Are you faint? Do sit down.”
Scarlett sank to the stool, her breath coming so rapidly she feared the lacings of her stays would burst. Oh, what a terrible thing to happen! She had never thought to meet this man again. He picked up her black fan from the counter and began fanning her solicitously, too solicitously, his face grave but his eyes still dancing.
“It is quite warm in here,” he said. “No wonder Miss O’Hara is faint. May I lead you to a window?”
“No,” said Scarlett, so rudely that Melly stared.
“She is not Miss O’Hara any longer,” said Melly. “She is Mrs. Hamilton. She is my sister now,” and Melly bestowed one of her fond little glances on her. Scarlett felt that she would strangle at the expression on Captain Butler’s swarthy piratical face.
“I am sure that is a great gain to two charming ladies,” said he, making a slight bow. That was the kind of remark all men made, but when he said it it seemed to her that he meant just the opposite.
“Your husbands are here tonight, I trust, on this happy occasion? It would be a pleasure to renew acquaintances.”
“My husband is in Virginia,” said Melly with a proud lift of her head. “But Charles —” Her voice broke.
“He died in camp,” said Scarlett flatly. She almost snapped the words. Would this creature never go away? Melly looked at her, startled, and the Captain made a gesture of self-reproach.
“My dear ladies — how could I! You must forgive me. But permit a stranger to offer the comfort of saying that to die for one’s country is to live forever.”
Melanie smiled at him through sparkling tears while Scarlett felt the fox of wrath and impotent hate gnaw at her vitals. Again he had made a graceful remark, the kind of compliment any gentleman would pay under such circumstances, but he did not mean a word of it. He was jeering at her. He knew she hadn’t loved Charles. And Melly was just a big enough fool not to see through him. Oh, please God, don’t let anybody else see through him, she thought with a start of terror. Would he tell what he knew? Of course he wasn’t a gentleman and there was no telling what men would do when they weren’t gentlemen. There was no standard to judge them by. She looked up at him and saw that his mouth was pulled down at the corners in mock sympathy, even while he swished the fan. Something in his look challenged her spirit and brought her strength back in a surge of dislike. Abruptly she snatched the fan from his hand.
“I’m quite all right,” she said tartly. “There’s no need to blow my hair out of place.”
“Scarlett, darling! Captain Butler, you must forgive her. She — she isn’t herself when she hears poor Charlie’s name spoken — and perhaps, after all, we shouldn’t have come here tonight. We’re still in mourning, you see, and it’s quite a strain on her — all this gaiety and music, poor child.”
“I quite understand,” he said with elaborate gravity, but as he turned and gave Melanie a searching look that went to the bottom of her sweet worried eyes, his expression changed, reluctant respect and gentleness coming over his dark face. “I think you’re a courageous little lady, Mrs. Wilkes.”
“Not a word about me!” thought Scarlett indignantly, as Melly smiled in confusion and answered,
“Dear me, no, Captain Butler! The hospital committee just had to have us for this booth because at the last minute — A pillow case? Here’s a lovely one with a flag on it.”
She turned to three cavalrymen who appeared at her counter. For a moment, Melanie thought how nice Captain Butler was. Then she wished that something more substantial than cheesecloth was between her skirt and the spittoon that stood just outside the booth, for the aim of the horsemen with amber streams of tobacco juice was not so unerring as with their long horse pistols. Then she forgot about the Captain, Scarlett and the spittoons as more customers crowded to her.
Scarlett sat quietly on the stool fanning herself, not daring to look up, wishing Captain Butler back on the deck of his ship where he belonged.
“Your husband has been dead long?”
“Oh, yes, a long time. Almost a year.”
“An aeon, I’m sure.”
Scarlett was not sure what an aeon was, but there was no mistaking the baiting quality of his voice, so she said nothing.
“Had you been married long? Forgive my questions but I have been away from this section for so long.”
“Two months,” said Scarlett, unwillingly.
“A tragedy, no less,” his easy voice continued.
Oh, damn him, she thought violently. If he was any other man in the world I could simply freeze up and order him off. But he knows about Ashley and he knows I didn’t love Charlie. And my hands are tied. She said nothing, still looking down at her fan.
“And this is your first social appearance?”
“I know it looks quite odd,” she explained rapidly. “But the McLure girls who were to take this booth were called away and there was no one else, so Melanie and I—”
“No sacrifice is too great for the Cause.”
Why, that was what Mrs. Elsing had said, but when she said it it didn’t sound the same way. Hot words started to her lips but she choked them back. After all, she was here, not for the Cause, but because she was tired of sitting home.
“I have always thought,” he said reflectively, “that the system of mourning, of immuring women in crepe for the rest of their lives and forbidding them normal enjoyment is just as barbarous as the Hindu suttee.”
He laughed and she blushed for her ignorance. She hated people who used words unknown to her.
“In India, when a man dies he is burned, instead of buried, and his wife always climbs on the funeral pyre and is burned with him.”
“How dreadful! Why do they do it? Don’t the police do anything about it?”
“Of course not. A wife who didn’t burn herself would be a social outcast. All the worthy Hindu matrons would talk about her for not behaving as a well-bred lady should — precisely as those worthy matrons in the corner would talk about you, should you appear tonight in a red dress and lead a reel. Personally, I think suttee much more merciful than our charming Southern custom of burying widows alive!”
“How dare you say I’m buried alive!”
“How closely women crutch the very chains that bind them! You think the Hindu custom barbarous — but would you have had the courage to appear here tonight if the Confederacy hadn’t needed you?”
Arguments of this character were always confusing to Scarlett. His were doubly confusing because she had a vague idea there was truth in them. But now was the time to squelch him.
“Of course, I wouldn’t have come. It would have been — well, disrespectful to — it would have seemed as if I hadn’t lov —”
His eyes waited on her words, cynical amusement in them, and she could not go on. He knew she hadn’t loved Charlie and he wouldn’t let her pretend to the nice polite sentiments that she should express. What a terrible, terrible thing it was to have to do with a man who wasn’t a gentleman. A gentleman always appeared to believe a lady even when he knew she was lying. That was Southern chivalry. A gentleman always obeyed the rules and said the correct things and made life easier for a lady. But this man seemed not to care for rules and evidently enjoyed talking of things no one ever talked about.
“I am waiting breathlessly.”
“I think you are horrid,” she said, helplessly, dropping her eyes.
He leaned down across the counter until his mouth was near her ear and hissed, in a very creditable imitation of the stage villains who appeared infrequently at the Athenaeum Hall: “Fear not, fair lady! Your guilty secret is safe with me!”
“Oh,” she whispered, feverishly, “how can you say such things!”
“I only thought to ease your mind. What would you have me say? ‘Be mine, beautiful female, or I will reveal all?’”
She met his eyes unwillingly and saw they were as teasing as a small boy’s. Suddenly she laughed. It was such a silly situation, after all. He laughed too, and so loudly that several of the chaperons in the corner looked their way. Observing how good a time Charles Hamilton’s widow appeared to be having with a perfect stranger, they put their heads together disapprovingly.
There was a roll of drums and many voices cried “Sh!” as Dr. Meade mounted the platform and spread out his arms for quiet.
“We must all give grateful thanks to the charming ladies whose indefatigable and patriotic efforts have made this bazaar not only a pecuniary success,” he began, “but have transformed this rough hall into a bower of loveliness, a fit garden for the charming rosebuds I see about me.”
Everyone clapped approvingly.
“The ladies have given their best, not only of their time but of the labor of their hands, and these beautiful objects in the booths are doubly beautiful, made as they are by the fair hands of our charming Southern women.”
There were more shouts of approval, and Rhett Butler who had been lounging negligently against the counter at Scarlett’s side whispered: “Pompous goat, isn’t he?”
Startled, at first horrified, at this lese majesty toward Atlanta’s most beloved citizen, she stared reprovingly at him. But the doctor did look like a goat with his gray chin whiskers wagging away at a great rate, and with difficulty she stifled a giggle.
“But these things are not enough. The good ladies of the hospital committee, whose cool hands have soothed many a suffering brow and brought back from the jaws of death our brave men wounded in the bravest of all Causes, know our needs. I will not enumerate them. We must have more money to buy medical supplies from England, and we have with us tonight the intrepid captain who has so successfully run the blockade for a year and who will run it again to bring us the drugs we need. Captain Rhett Butler!”
Though caught unawares, the blockader made a graceful bow — too graceful, thought Scarlett, trying to analyze it. It was almost as if he overdid his courtesy because his contempt for everybody present was so great. There was a loud burst of applause as he bowed and a craning of necks from the ladies in the corner. So that was who poor Charles Hamilton’s widow was carrying on with! And Charlie hardly dead a year!
“We need more gold and I am asking you for it,” the doctor continued. “I am asking a sacrifice but a sacrifice so small compared with the sacrifices our gallant men in gray are making that it will seem laughably small. Ladies, I want your jewelry. I want your jewelry? No, the Confederacy wants your jewelry, the Confederacy calls for it and I know no one will hold back. How fair a gem gleams on a lovely wrist! How beautifully gold brooches glitter on the bosoms of our patriotic women! But how much more beautiful is sacrifice than all the gold and gems of the Ind. The gold will be melted and the stones sold and the money used to buy drugs and other medical supplies. Ladies, there will pass among you two of our gallant wounded, with baskets and —” But the rest of his speech was lost in the storm and tumult of clapping hands and cheering voices.
Scarlett’s first thought was one of deep thankfulness that mourning forbade her wearing her precious earbobs and the heavy gold chain that had been Grandma Robillard’s and the gold and black enameled bracelets and the garnet brooch. She saw the little Zouave, a split-oak basket over his unwounded arm, making the rounds of the crowd on her side of the hall and saw women, old and young, laughing, eager, tugging at bracelets, squealing in pretended pain as earrings came from pierced flesh, helping each other undo stiff necklace clasps, unpinning brooches from bosoms. There was a steady little clink-clink of metal on metal and cries of “Wait — wait! I’ve got it unfastened now. There!” Maybelle Merriwether was pulling off her lovely twin bracelets from above and below her elbows. Fanny Elsing, crying “Mamma, may I?” was tearing from her curls the seed-pearl ornament set in heavy gold which had been in the family for generations. As each offering went into the basket, there was applause and cheering.
The grinning little man was coming to their booth now, his basket heavy on his arm, and as he passed Rhett Butler a handsome gold cigar case was thrown carelessly into the basket. When he came to Scarlett and rested his basket upon the counter, she shook her head throwing wide her hands to show that she had nothing to give. It was embarrassing to be the only person present who was giving nothing. And then she saw the bright gleam of her wide gold wedding ring.
For a confused moment she tried to remember Charles’ face — how he had looked when he slipped it on her finger. But the memory was blurred, blurred by the sudden feeling of irritation that memory of him always brought to her. Charles — he was the reason why life was over for her, why she was an old woman.
With a sudden wrench she seized the ring but it stuck. The Zouave was moving toward Melanie.
“Wait!” cried Scarlett. “I have something for you!” The ring came off and, as she started to throw it into the basket, heaped up with chains, watches, rings, pins and bracelets, she caught Rhett Butler’s eye. His lips were twisted in a slight smile. Defiantly, she tossed the ring onto the top of the pile.
“Oh, my darling!” whispered Molly, clutching her arm, her eyes blazing with love and pride. “You brave, brave girl! Wait — please, wait, Lieutenant Picard! I have something for you, too!”
She was tugging at her own wedding ring, the ring Scarlett knew had never once left that finger since Ashley put it there. Scarlett knew, as no one did, how much it meant to her. It came off with difficulty and for a brief instant was clutched tightly in the small palm. Then it was laid gently on the pile of jewelry. The two girls stood looking after the Zouave who was moving toward the group of elderly ladies in the corner, Scarlett defiant, Melanie with a look more pitiful than tears. And neither expression was lost on the man who stood beside them.
“If you hadn’t been brave enough to do it, I would never have been either,” said Melly, putting her arm about Scarlett’s waist and giving her a gentle squeeze. For a moment Scarlett wanted to shake her off and cry “Name of God!” at the top of her lungs, as Gerald did when he was irritated, but she caught Rhett Butler’s eye and managed a very sour smile. It was annoying the way Melly always misconstrued her motives — but perhaps that was far preferable to having her suspect the truth.
“What a beautiful gesture,” said Rhett Butler, softly. “It is such sacrifices as yours that hearten our brave lads in gray.”
Hot words bubbled to her lips and it was with difficulty that she checked them. There was mockery in everything he said. She disliked him heartily, lounging there against the booth. But there was something stimulating about him, something warm and vital and electric. All that was Irish in her rose to the challenge of his black eyes. She decided she was going to take this man down a notch or two. His knowledge of her secret gave him an advantage over her that was exasperating, so she would have to change that by putting him at a disadvantage somehow. She stifled her impulse to tell him exactly what she thought of him. Sugar always caught more flies than vinegar, as Mammy often said, and she was going to catch and subdue this fly, so he could never again have her at his mercy.
“Thank you,” she said sweetly, deliberately misunderstanding his jibe. “A compliment like that coming from so famous a man as Captain Butler is appreciated.”
He threw back his head and laughed freely — yelped, was what Scarlett thought fiercely, her face becoming pink again.
“Why don’t you say what you really think?” he demanded, lowering his voice so that in the clatter and excitement of the collection, it came only to her ears. “Why don’t you say I’m a damned rascal and no gentleman and that I must take myself off or you’ll have one of these gallant boys in gray call me out?”
It was on the tip of her tongue to answer tartly, but she managed by heroic control to say: “Why, Captain Butler! How you do run on! As if everybody didn’t know how famous you are and how brave and what a — what a —
“I am disappointed in you,” he said.
“Yes. On the occasion of our first eventful meeting I thought to myself that I had at last met a girl who was not only beautiful but who had courage. And now I see that you are only beautiful.”
“Do you mean to call me a coward?” She was ruffling like a hen.
“Exactly. You lack the courage to say what you really think. When I first met you, I thought: There is a girl in a million. She isn’t like these other silly little fools who believe everything their mammas tell them and act on it, no matter how they feel. And conceal all their feelings and desires and little heartbreaks behind a lot of sweet words. I thought: Miss O’Hara is a girl of rare spirit. She knows what she wants and she doesn’t mind speaking her mind — or throwing vases.”
“Oh,” she said, rage breaking through. “Then I’ll speak my mind right this minute. If you’d had any raising at all you’d never have come over here and talked to me. You’d have known I never wanted to lay eyes on you again! But you aren’t a gentleman! You are just a nasty ill-bred creature! And you think that because your rotten little boats can outrun the Yankees, you’ve the right to come here and jeer at men who are brave and women who are sacrificing everything for the Cause —”
“Stop, stop —” he begged with a grin. “You started off very nicely and said what you thought, but don’t begin talking to me about the Cause. I’m tired of hearing about it and I’ll bet you are, too —”
“Why, how did —” she began, caught off her balance, and then checked herself hastily, boiling with anger at herself for falling into his trap.
“I stood there in the doorway before you saw me and I watched you,” he said. “And I watched the other girls. And they all looked as though their faces came out of one mold. Yours didn’t. You have an easy face to read. You didn’t have your mind on your business and I’ll wager you weren’t thinking about our Cause or the hospital. It was all over your face that you wanted to dance and have a good time and you couldn’t. So you were mad clean through. Tell the truth. Am I not right?”
“I have nothing more to say to you, Captain Butler,” she said as formally as she could, trying to draw the rags of her dignity about her. “Just because you’re conceited at being the ‘great blockader’ doesn’t give you the right to insult women.”
“The great blockader! That’s a joke. Pray give me only one moment more of your precious time before you cast me into darkness. I wouldn’t want so charming a little patriot to be left under a misapprehension about my contribution to the Confederate Cause.”
“I don’t care to listen to your brags.”
“Blockading is a business with me and I’m making money out of it. When I stop making money out of it, I’ll quit. What do you think of that?”
“I think you’re a mercenary rascal — just like the Yankees.”
“Exactly,” he grinned. “And the Yankees help me make my money. Why, last month I sailed my boat right into New York harbor and took on a cargo.”
“What!” cried Scarlett, interested and excited in spite of herself. “Didn’t they shell you?”
“My poor innocent! Of course not. There are plenty of sturdy Union patriots who are not averse to picking up money selling goods to the Confederacy. I run my boat into New York, buy from Yankee firms, sub rosa, of course, and away I go. And when that gets a bit dangerous, I go to Nassau where these same Union patriots have brought powder and shells and hoop skirts for me. It’s more convenient than going to England. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult running it into Charleston or Wilmington — but you’d be surprised how far a little gold goes.”
“Oh, I knew Yankees were vile but I didn’t know —”
“Why quibble about the Yankees earning an honest penny selling out the Union? It won’t matter in a hundred years. The result will be the same. They know the Confederacy will be licked eventually, so why shouldn’t they cash in on it?”
“Licked — us?”
“Will you please leave me — or will it be necessary for me to call my carriage and go home to get rid of you?”
“A red-hot little Rebel,” he said, with another sudden grin. He bowed and sauntered off, leaving her with her bosom heaving with impotent rage and indignation. There was disappointment burning in her that she could not quite analyze, the disappointment of a child seeing illusions crumble. How dared he take the glamor from the blockaders! And how dared he say the Confederacy would be licked! He should be shot for that — shot like a traitor. She looked about the hall at the familiar faces, so assured of success, so brave, so devoted, and somehow a cold little chill set in at her heart. Licked? These people — why, of course not! The very idea was impossible, disloyal.
“What were you two whispering about?” asked Melanie, turning to Scarlett as her customers drifted off. “I couldn’t help seeing that Mrs. Merriwether had her eye on you all the time and, dear, you know how she talks.”
“Oh, the man’s impossible — an ill-bred boor,” said Scarlett. “And as for old lady Merriwether, let her talk. I’m sick of acting like a ninny, just for her benefit.”
“Why, Scarlett!” cried Melanie, scandalized.
“Sh-sh,” said Scarlett. “Dr. Meade is going to make another announcement.”
The gathering quieted again as the doctor raised his voice, at first in thanks to the ladies who had so willingly given their jewelry.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, I am going to propose a surprise — an innovation that may shock some of you, but I ask you to remember that all this is done for the hospital and for the benefit of our boys lying there.”
Everyone edged forward, in anticipation, trying to imagine what the sedate doctor could propose that would be shocking.
“The dancing is about to begin and the first number will, of course, be a reel, followed by a waltz. The dances following, the polkas, the schottisches, the mazurkas, will be preceded by short reels. I know the gentle rivalry to lead the reels very well and so —” The doctor mopped his brow and cast a quizzical glance at the corner, where his wife sat among the chaperons. “Gentlemen, if you wish to lead a reel with the lady of your choice, you must bargain for her. I will be auctioneer and the proceeds will go to the hospital.”
Fans stopped in mid-swish and a ripple of excited murmuring ran through the hall. The chaperons’ corner was in tumult and Mrs. Meade, anxious to support her husband in an action of which she heartily disapproved, was at a disadvantage. Mrs. Elsing, Mrs. Merriwether and Mrs. Whiting were red with indignation. But suddenly the Home Guard gave a cheer and it was taken up by the other uniformed guests. The young girls clapped their hands and jumped excitedly.
“Don’t you think it’s — it’s just — just a little like a slave auction?” whispered Melanie, staring uncertainly at the embattled doctor who heretofore had been perfect in her eyes.
Scarlett said nothing but her eyes glittered and her heart contracted with a little pain. If only she were not a widow. If only she were Scarlett O’Hara again, out there on the floor in an apple-green dress with dark-green velvet ribbons dangling from her bosom and tuberoses in her black hair — she’d lead that reel. Yes, indeed! There’d be a dozen men battling for her and paying over money to the doctor. Oh, to have to sit here, a wallflower against her will and see Fanny or Maybelle lead the first reel as the belle of Atlanta!
Above the tumult sounded the voice of the little Zouave, his Creole accent very obvious: “Eef I may — twenty dollars for Mees Maybelle Merriwether.”
Maybelle collapsed with blushes against Fanny’s shoulder and the two girls hid their faces in each other’s necks and giggled, as other voices began calling other names, other amounts of money. Dr. Meade had begun to smile again, ignoring completely the indignant whispers that came from the Ladies’ Hospital Committee in the corner.
At first, Mrs. Merriwether had stated flatly and loudly that her Maybelle would never take part in such a proceeding; but as Maybelle’s name was called most often and the amount went up to seventy-five dollars, her protests began to dwindle. Scarlett leaned her elbows on the counter and almost glared at the excited laughing crowd surging about the platform, their hands full of Confederate paper money.
Now, they would all dance — except her and the old ladies. Now everyone would have a good time, except her. She saw Rhett Butler standing just below the doctor and, before she could change the expression of her face, he saw her and one corner of his mouth went down and one eyebrow went up. She jerked her chin up and turned away from him and suddenly she heard her own name called — called in an unmistakable Charleston voice that rang out above the hubbub of other names.
“Mrs. Charles Hamilton — one hundred and fifty dollars — in gold.”
A sudden hush fell on the crowd both at the mention of the sum and at the name. Scarlett was so startled she could not even move. She remained sitting with her chin in her hands, her eyes wide with astonishment. Everybody turned to look at her. She saw the doctor lean down from the platform and whisper something to Rhett Butler. Probably telling him she was in mourning and it was impossible for her to appear on the floor. She saw Rhett’s shoulders shrug lazily.
“Another one of our belles, perhaps?” questioned the doctor.
“No,” said Rhett clearly, his eyes sweeping the crowd carelessly. “Mrs. Hamilton.”
“I tell you it is impossible,” said the doctor testily. “Mrs. Hamilton will not —”
Scarlett heard a voice which, at first, she did not recognize as her own.
“Yes, I will!”
She leaped to her feet, her heart hammering so wildly she feared she could not stand, hammering with the thrill of being the center of attention again, of being the most highly desired girl present and oh, best of all, at the prospect of dancing again.
“Oh, I don’t care! I don’t care what they say!” she whispered, as a sweet madness swept over her. She tossed her head and sped out of the booth, tapping her heels like castanets, snapping open her black silk fan to its widest.
For a fleeting instant she saw Melanie’s incredulous face, the look on the chaperons’ faces, the petulant girls, the enthusiastic approval of the soldiers.
Then she was on the floor and Rhett Butler was advancing toward her through the aisle of the crowd, that nasty mocking smile on his face. But she didn’t care — didn’t care if he were Abe Lincoln himself! She was going to dance again. She was going to lead the reel. She swept him a low curtsy and a dazzling smile and he bowed, one hand on his frilled bosom. Levi, horrified, was quick to cover the situation and bawled: “Choose yo’ padners fo’ de Ferginny reel!”
And the orchestra crashed into that best of all reel tunes, “Dixie.”
“How dare you make me so conspicuous, Captain Butler?”
“But, my dear Mrs. Hamilton, you so obviously wanted to be conspicuous!”
“How could you call my name out in front of everybody?”
“You could have refused.”
“But — I owe it to the Cause — I— I couldn’t think of myself when you were offering so much in gold. Stop laughing, everyone is looking at us.”
“They will look at us anyway. Don’t try to palm off that twaddle about the Cause to me. You wanted to dance and I gave you the opportunity. This march is the last figure of the reel, isn’t it?”
“Yes — really, I must stop and sit down now.”
“Why? Have I stepped on your feet?”
“No — but they’ll talk about me.”
“Do you really care — down in your heart?”
“You aren’t committing any crime, are you? Why not dance the waltz with me?”
“But if Mother ever —”
“Still tied to mamma’s apronstrings.”
“Oh, you have the nastiest way of making virtues sound so stupid.”
“But virtues are stupid. Do you care if people talk?”
“No — but — well, let’s don’t talk about it. Thank goodness the waltz is beginning. Reels always leave me breathless.”
“Don’t dodge my questions. Has what other women said ever mattered to you?”
“Oh, if you’re going to pin me down — no! But a girl is supposed to mind. Tonight, though, I don’t care.”
“Bravo! Now you are beginning to think for yourself instead of letting others think for you. That’s the beginning of wisdom.”
“Oh, but —”
“When you’ve been talked about as much as I have, you’ll realize how little it matters. Just think, there’s not a home in Charleston where I am received. Not even my contribution to our just and holy Cause lifts the ban.”
“Oh, not at all. Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.”
“You do talk scandalous!”
“Scandalously and truly. Always providing you have enough courage — or money — you can do without a reputation.”
“Money can’t buy everything.”
“Someone must have told you that. You’d never think of such a platitude all by yourself. What can’t it buy?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know — not happiness or love, anyway.”
“Generally it can. And when it can’t, it can buy some of the most remarkable substitutes.”
“And have you so much money, Captain Butler?”
“What an ill-bred question, Mrs. Hamilton. I’m surprised. But, yes. For a young man cut off without a shilling in early youth, I’ve done very well. And I’m sure I’ll clean up a million on the blockade.”
“Oh, yes! What most people don’t seem to realize is that there is just as much money to be made out of the wreckage of a civilization as from the upbuilding of one.”
“And what does all that mean?”
“Your family and my family and everyone here tonight made their money out of changing a wilderness into a civilization. That’s empire building. There’s good money in empire building. But, there’s more in empire wrecking.”
“What empire are you talking about?”
“This empire we’re living in-the South — the Confederacy — the Cotton Kingdom — it’s breaking up right under our feet. Only most fools won’t see it and take advantage of the situation created by the collapse. I’m making my fortune out of the wreckage.”
“Then you really think we’re going to get licked?”
“Yes. Why be an ostrich?”
“Oh, dear, it bores me to talk about such like. Don’t you ever say pretty things, Captain Butler?”
“Would it please you if I said your eyes were twin goldfish bowls filled to the brim with the clearest green water and that when the fish swim to the top, as they are doing now, you are devilishly charming?”
“Oh, I don’t like that. . . . Isn’t the music gorgeous? Oh, I could waltz forever! I didn’t know I had missed it so!”
“You are the most beautiful dancer I’ve ever held in my arms.”
“Captain Butler, you must not hold me so tightly. Everybody is looking.”
“If no one were looking, would you care?”
“Captain Butler, you forget yourself.”
“Not for a minute. How could I, with you in my arms? . . . What is that tune? Isn’t it new?”
“Yes. Isn’t it divine? It’s something we captured from the Yankees.”
“What’s the name of it?”
“‘When This Cruel War Is Over.’”
“What are the words? Sing them to me.”
“Dearest one, do you remember
When we last did meet?
When you told me how you loved me,
Kneeling at my feet?
Oh, how proud you stood before me
In your suit of gray,
When you vowed from me and country
Ne’er to go astray.
Weeping sad and lonely,
Sighs and tears how vain!
When this cruel war is over
Pray that we meet again!”
When we last did meet?
When you told me how you loved me,
Kneeling at my feet?
Oh, how proud you stood before me
In your suit of gray,
When you vowed from me and country
Ne’er to go astray.
Weeping sad and lonely,
Sighs and tears how vain!
When this cruel war is over
Pray that we meet again!”
“Of course, it was ‘suit of blue’ but we changed it to ‘gray.’ . . . Oh, you waltz so well, Captain Butler. Most big men don’t, you know. And to think it will be years and years before I’ll dance again.”
“It will only be a few minutes. I’m going to bid you in for the next reel — and the next and the next.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t! You mustn’t! My reputation will be ruined.”
“It’s in shreds already, so what does another dance matter? Maybe I’ll give the other boys a chance after I’ve had five or six, but I must have the last one.”
“Oh, all right. I know I’m crazy but I don’t care. I don’t care a bit what anybody says. I’m so tired of sitting at home. I’m going to dance and dance —”
“And not wear black? I loathe funeral crepe.”
“Oh, I couldn’t take off mourning — Captain Butler, you must not hold me so tightly. I’ll be mad at you if you do.”
“And you look gorgeous when you are mad. I’ll squeeze you again — there — just to see if you will really get mad. You have no idea how charming you were that day at Twelve Oaks when you were mad and throwing things.”
“Oh, please — won’t you forget that?”
“No, it is one of my most priceless memories — a delicately nurtured Southern belle with her Irish up — You are very Irish, you know.”
“Oh, dear, there’s the end of the music and there’s Aunt Pittypat coming out of the back room. I know Mrs. Merriwether must have told her. Oh, for goodness’ sakes, let’s walk over and look out the window. I don’t want her to catch me now. Her eyes are as big as saucers.”