Gone with the wind (Chapter 14)
Hope was rolling high in every Southern heart as the summer of 1863 came in. Despite privation and hardships, despite food speculators and kindred scourges, despite death and sickness and suffering which had now left their mark on nearly every family, the South was again saying “One more victory and the war is over,” saying it with even more happy assurance than in the summer before. The Yankees were proving a hard nut to crack but they were cracking at last.
Christmas of 1862 had been a happy one for Atlanta, for the whole South. The Confederacy had scored a smashing victory, at Fredericksburg and the Yankee dead and wounded were counted in the thousands. There was universal rejoicing in that holiday season, rejoicing and thankfulness that the tide was turning. The army in butternut were now seasoned fighters, their generals had proven their mettle, and everyone knew that when the campaign reopened in the spring, the Yankees would be crushed for good and all.
Spring came and the fighting recommenced. May came and the Confederacy won another great victory at Chancellorsville. The South roared with elation.
Closer at home, a Union cavalry dash into Georgia had been turned into a Confederate triumph. Folks were still laughing and slapping each other on the back and saying: “Yes, sir! When old Nathan Bedford Forrest gets after them, they better git!” Late in April, Colonel Streight and eighteen hundred Yankee cavalry had made a surprise raid into Georgia, aiming at Rome, only a little more than sixty miles north of Atlanta. They had ambitious plans to cut the vitally important railroad between Atlanta and Tennessee and then swing southward into Atlanta to destroy the factories and the war supplies concentrated there in that key city of the Confederacy.
It was a bold stroke and it would have cost the South dearly, except for Forrest. With only one-third as many men — but what men and what riders!— he had started after them, engaged them before they even reached Rome, harassed them day and night and finally captured the entire force!
The news reached Atlanta almost simultaneously with the news of the victory at Chancellorsville, and the town fairly rocked with exultation and with laughter. Chancellorsville might be a more important victory but the capture of Streight’s raiders made the Yankees positively ridiculous.
“No, sir, they’d better not fool with old Forrest,” Atlanta said gleefully as the story was told over and over.
The tide of the Confederacy’s fortune was running strong and full now, sweeping the people jubilantly along on its flood. True, the Yankees under Grant had been besieging Vicksburg since the middle of May. True, the South had suffered a sickening loss when Stonewall Jackson had been fatally wounded at Chancellorsville. True, Georgia had lost one of her bravest and most brilliant sons when General T. R. R. Cobb had been killed at Fredericksburg. But the Yankees just couldn’t stand any more defeats like Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. They’d have to give in, and then this cruel war would be over.
The first days of July came and with them the rumor, later confirmed by dispatches, that Lee was marching into Pennsylvania. Lee in the enemy’s territory! Lee forcing battle! This was the last fight of the war!
Atlanta was wild with excitement, pleasure and a hot thirst for vengeance. Now the Yankees would know what it meant to have the war carried into their own country. Now they’d know what it meant to have fertile fields stripped, horses and cattle stolen, houses burned, old men and boys dragged off to prison and women and children turned out to starve.
Everyone knew what the Yankees had done in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Even small children could recite with hate and fear the horrors the Yankees had inflicted upon the conquered territory. Already Atlanta was full of refugees from east Tennessee, and the town had heard firsthand stories from them of what suffering they had gone through. In that section, the Confederate sympathizers were in the minority and the hand of war fell heavily upon them, as it did on all the border states, neighbor informing against neighbor and brother killing brother. These refugees cried out to see Pennsylvania one solid sheet of flame, and even the gentlest of old ladies wore expressions of grim pleasure.
But when the news trickled back that Lee had issued orders that no private property in Pennsylvania should be touched, that looting would be punished by death and that the army would pay for every article it requisitioned — then it needed all the reverence the General had earned to save his popularity. Not turn the men loose in the rich storehouses of that prosperous state? What was General Lee thinking of? And our boys so hungry and needing shoes and clothes and horses!
A hasty note from Darcy Meade to the doctor, the only first-hand information Atlanta received during those first days of July, was passed from hand to hand, with mounting indignation.
“Pa, could you manage to get me a pair of boots? I’ve been barefooted for two weeks now and I don’t see any prospects of getting another pair. If I didn’t have such big feet I could get them off dead Yankees like the other boys, but I’ve never yet found a Yankee whose feet were near as big as mine. If you can get me some, don’t mail them. Somebody would steal them on the way and I wouldn’t blame them. Put Phil on the train and send him up with them. I’ll write you soon, where we’ll be. Right now I don’t know, except that we’re marching north. We’re in Maryland now and everybody says we’re going on into Pennsylvania. . . .
“Pa, I thought that we’d give the Yanks a taste of their own medicine but the General says No, and personally I don’t care to get shot just for the pleasure of burning some Yank’s house. Pa, today we marched through the grandest cornfields you ever saw. We don’t have corn like this down home. Well, I must admit we did a bit of private looting in that corn, for we were all pretty hungry and what the General don’t know won’t hurt him. But that green corn didn’t do us a bit of good. All the boys have got dysentery anyway, and that corn made it worse. It’s easier to walk with a leg wound than with dysentery. Pa, do try to manage some boots for me. I’m a captain now and a captain ought to have boots, even if he hasn’t got a new uniform or epaulets.”
But the army was in Pennsylvania — that was all that mattered. One more victory and the war would be over, and then Darcy Meade could have all the boots he wanted, and the boys would come marching home and everybody would be happy again. Mrs. Meade’s eyes grew wet as she pictured her soldier son home at last, home to stay.
On the third of July, a sudden silence fell on the wires from the north, a silence that lasted till midday of the fourth when fragmentary and garbled reports began to trickle into headquarters in Atlanta. There had been hard fighting in Pennsylvania, near a little town named Gettysburg, a great battle with all Lee’s army massed. The news was uncertain, slow in coming, for the battle had been fought in the enemy’s territory and the reports came first through Maryland, were relayed to Richmond and then to Atlanta.
Suspense grew and the beginnings of dread slowly crawled over the town. Nothing was so bad as not knowing what was happening. Families with sons at the front prayed fervently that their boys were not in Pennsylvania, but those who knew their relatives were in the same regiment with Darcy Meade clamped their teeth and said it was an honor for them to be in the big fight that would lick the Yankees for good and all.
In Aunt Pitty’s house, the three women looked into one another’s eyes with fear they could not conceal. Ashley was in Darcy’s regiment.
On the fifth came evil tidings, not from the North but from the West. Vicksburg had fallen, fallen after a long and bitter siege, and practically all the Mississippi River, from St. Louis to New Orleans was in the hands of the Yankees. The Confederacy had been cut in two. At any other time, the news of this disaster would have brought fear and lamentation to Atlanta. But now they could give little thought to Vicksburg. They were thinking of Lee in Pennsylvania, forcing battle. Vicksburg’s loss would be no catastrophe if Lee won in the East. There lay Philadelphia, New York, Washington. Their capture would paralyze the North and more than cancel off the defeat on the Mississippi.
The hours dragged by and the black shadow of calamity brooded over the town, obscuring the hot sun until people looked up startled into the sky as if incredulous that it was clear and blue instead of murky and heavy with scudding clouds. Everywhere, women gathered in knots, huddled in groups on front porches, on sidewalks, even in the middle of the streets, telling each other that no news is good news, trying to comfort each other, trying to present a brave appearance. But hideous rumors that Lee was killed, the battle lost, and enormous casualty lists coming in, fled up and down the quiet streets like darting bats. Though they tried not to believe, whole neighborhoods, swayed by panic, rushed to town, to the newspapers, to headquarters, pleading for news, any news, even bad news.
Crowds formed at the depot, hoping for news from incoming trains, at the telegraph office, in front of the harried headquarters, before the locked doors of the newspapers. They were oddly still crowds, crowds that quietly grew larger and larger. There was no talking. Occasionally an old man’s treble voice begged for news, and instead of inciting the crowd to babbling it only intensified the hush as they heard the oft-repeated: “Nothing on the wires yet from the North except that there’s been fighting.” The fringe of women on foot and in carriages grew greater and greater, and the heat of the close-packed bodies and dust rising from restless feet were suffocating. The women did not speak, but their pale set faces pleaded with a mute eloquence that was louder than wailing.
There was hardly a house in town that had not sent away a son, a brother, a father, a lover, a husband, to this battle. They all waited to hear the news that death had come to their homes. They expected death. They did not expect defeat. That thought they dismissed. Their men might be dying, even now, on the sun-parched grass of the Pennsylvania hills. Even now the Southern ranks might be falling like grain before a hailstorm, but the Cause for which they fought could never fall. They might be dying in thousands but, like the fruit of the dragon’s teeth, thousands of fresh men in gray and butternut with the Rebel yell on their lips would spring up from the earth to take their places. Where these men would come from, no one knew. They only knew, as surely as they knew there was a just and jealous God in Heaven, that Lee was miraculous and the Army of Virginia invincible.
Scarlett, Melanie and Miss Pittypat sat in front of the Daily Examiner office in the carriage with the top back, sheltered beneath their parasols. Scarlett’s hands shook so that her parasol wobbled above her head, Pitty was so excited her nose quivered in her round face like a rabbit’s, but Melanie sat as though carved of stone, her dark eyes growing larger and larger as time went by. She made only one remark in two hours, as she took a vial of smelling salts from her reticule and handed it to her aunt, the only time she had ever spoken to her, in her whole life, with anything but tenderest affection.
“Take this, Auntie, and use it if you feel faint. I warn you if you do faint you’ll just have to faint and let Uncle Peter take you home, for I’m not going to leave this place till I hear about — till I hear. And I’m not going to let Scarlett leave me, either.”
Scarlett had no intention of leaving, no intention of placing herself where she could not have the first news of Ashley. No, even if Miss Pitty died, she wouldn’t leave this spot. Somewhere, Ashley was fighting, perhaps dying, and the newspaper office was the only place where she could learn the truth.
She looked about the crowd, picking out friends and neighbors, Mrs. Meade with her bonnet askew and her arm through that of fifteen-year-old Phil; the Misses McLure trying to make their trembling upper lips cover their buck teeth; Mrs. Elsing, erect as a Spartan mother, betraying her inner turmoil only by the straggling gray locks that hung from her chignon; and Fanny Elsing white as a ghost. (Surely Fanny wouldn’t be so worried about her brother Hugh. Had she a real beau at the front that no one suspected?) Mrs. Merriwether sat in her carriage patting Maybelle’s hand. Maybelle looked so very pregnant it was a disgrace for her to be out in public, even if she did have her shawl carefully draped over her. Why should she be so worried? Nobody had heard that the Louisiana troops were in Pennsylvania. Probably her hairy little Zouave was safe in Richmond this very minute.
There was a movement on the outskirts of the crowd and those on foot gave way as Rhett Butler carefully edged his horse toward Aunt Pitty’s carriage. Scarlett thought: He’s got courage, coming here at this time when it wouldn’t take anything to make this mob tear him to pieces because he isn’t in uniform. As he came nearer, she thought she might be the first to rend him. How dared he sit there on that fine horse, in shining boots and handsome white linen suit, so sleek and well fed, smoking an expensive cigar, when Ashley and all the other boys were fighting the Yankees, barefooted, sweltering in the heat, hungry, their bellies rotten with disease?
Bitter looks were thrown at him as he came slowly through the press. Old men growled in their beards, and Mrs. Merriwether who feared nothing rose slightly in her carriage and said clearly: “Speculator!” in a tone that made the word the foulest and most venomous of epithets. He paid no heed to anyone but raised his hat to Melly and Aunt Pitty and, riding to Scarlett’s side, leaned down and whispered: “Don’t you think this would be the time for Dr. Meade to give us his familiar speech about victory perching like a screaming eagle on our banners?”
Her nerves taut with suspense, she turned on him as swiftly as an angry cat, hot words bubbling to her lips, but he stopped them with a gesture.
“I came to tell you ladies,” he said loudly, “that I have been to headquarters and the first casualty lists are coming in.”
At these words a hum rose among those near enough to hear his remark, and the crowd surged, ready to turn and run down Whitehall Street toward headquarters.
“Don’t go,” he called, rising in his saddle and holding up his hand. “The lists have been sent to both newspapers and are now being printed. Stay where you are!”
“Oh, Captain Butler,” cried Melly, turning to him with tears in her eyes. “How kind of you to come and tell us! When will they be posted?”
“They should be out any minute, Madam. The reports have been in the offices for half an hour now. The major in charge didn’t want to let that out until the printing was done, for fear the crowd would wreck the offices trying to get news. Ah! Look!”
The side window of the newspaper office opened and a hand was extended, bearing a sheaf of long narrow galley proofs, smeared with fresh ink and thick with names closely printed. The crowd fought for them, tearing the slips in half, those obtaining them trying to back out through the crowd to read, those behind pushing forward, crying: “Let me through!”
“Hold the reins,” said Rhett shortly, swinging to the ground and tossing the bridle to Uncle Peter. They saw his heavy shoulders towering above the crowd as he went through, brutally pushing and shoving. In a while he was back, with half a dozen in his hands. He tossed one to Melanie and distributed the others among the ladies in the nearest carriages, the Misses McLure, Mrs. Meade, Mrs. Merriwether, Mrs. Elsing.
“Quick, Melly,” cried Scarlett, her heart in her throat, exasperation sweeping her as she saw that Melly’s hands were shaking so that it was impossible for her to read.
“Take it,” whispered Melly, and Scarlett snatched it from her. The Ws. Where were the Ws? Oh, there they were at the bottom and all smeared up. “White,” she read and her voice shook, “Wilkens . . . Winn . . . Zebulon . . . Oh, Melly, he’s not on it! He’s not on it! Oh, for God’s sake, Auntie, Melly, pick up the salts! Hold her up, Melly.”
Melly, weeping openly with happiness, steadied Miss Pitty’s rolling head and held the smelling salts under her nose. Scarlett braced the fat old lady on the other side, her heart singing with joy. Ashley was alive. He wasn’t even wounded. How good God was to pass him by! How —
She heard a low moan and, turning, saw Fanny Elsing lay her head on her mother’s bosom, saw the casualty list flutter to the floor of the carriage, saw Mrs. Elsing’s thin lips quiver as she gathered her daughter in her arms and said quietly to the coachman: “Home. Quickly.” Scarlett took a quick glance at the lists. Hugh Elsing was not listed. Fanny must have had a beau and now he was dead. The crowd made way in sympathetic silence for the Elsings’ carriage, and after them followed the little wicker pony cart of the McLure girls. Miss Faith was driving, her face like a rock, and for once, her teeth were covered by her lips. Miss Hope, death in her face, sat erect beside her, holding her sister’s skirt in a tight grasp. They looked like very old women. Their young brother Dallas was their darling and the only relative the maiden ladies had in the world. Dallas was gone.
“Melly! Melly!” cried Maybelle, joy in her voice, “Rene is safe! And Ashley, too! Oh, thank God!” The shawl had slipped from her shoulders and her condition was most obvious but, for once, neither she nor Mrs. Merriwether cared. “Oh, Mrs. Meade! Rene —” Her voice changed, swiftly, “Melly, look!— Mrs. Meade, please! Darcy isn’t —?”
Mrs. Meade was looking down into her lap and she did not raise her head when her name was called, but the face of little Phil beside her was an open book that all might read.
“There, there, Mother,” he said, helplessly. Mrs. Meade looked up, meeting Melanie’s eyes.
“He won’t need those boots now,” she said.
“Oh, darling!” cried Melly, beginning to sob, as she shoved Aunt Pitty onto Scarlett’s shoulder and scrambled out of the carriage and toward that of the doctor’s wife.
“Mother, you’ve still got me,” said Phil, in a forlorn effort at comforting the white-faced woman beside him. “And if you’ll just let me, I’ll go kill all the Yank —”
Mrs. Meade clutched his arm as if she would never let it go, said “No!” in a strangled voice and seemed to choke.
“Phil Meade, you hush your mouth!” hissed Melanie, climbing in beside Mrs. Meade and taking her in her arms. “Do you think it’ll help your mother to have you off getting shot too? I never heard anything so silly. Drive us home, quick!”
She turned to Scarlett as Phil picked up the reins.
“As soon as you take Auntie home, come over to Mrs. Meade’s. Captain Butler, can you get word to the doctor? He’s at the hospital.”
The carriage moved off through the dispersing crowd. Some of the women were weeping with joy, but most looked too stunned to realize the heavy blows that had fallen upon them. Scarlett bent her head over the blurred lists, reading rapidly, to find names of friends. Now that Ashley was safe she could think of other people. Oh, how long the list was! How heavy the toll from Atlanta, from all of Georgia.
Good Heavens! “Calvert — Raiford, Lieutenant.” Raif! Suddenly she remembered the day, so long ago, when they had run away together but decided to come home at nightfall because they were hungry and afraid of the dark.
“Fontaine — Joseph K., private.” Little bad-tempered Joe! And Sally hardly over having her baby!
“Munroe — LaFayette, Captain.” And Lafe had been engaged to Cathleen Calvert. Poor Cathleen! Hers had been a double loss, a brother and a sweetheart. But Sally’s loss was greater — a brother and a husband.
Oh, this was too terrible. She was almost afraid to read further. Aunt Pitty was heaving and sighing on her shoulder and, with small ceremony, Scarlett pushed her over into a corner of the carriage and continued her reading.
Surely, surely — there couldn’t be three “Tarleton” names on that list. Perhaps — perhaps the hurried printer had repeated the name by error. But no. There they were. “Tarleton — Brenton, Lieutenant.” “Tarleton — Stuart, Corporal.” “Tarleton — Thomas, private.” And Boyd, dead the first year of the war, was buried God knew where in Virginia. All the Tarleton boys gone. Tom and the lazy long-legged twins with their love of gossip and their absurd practical jokes and Boyd who had the grace of a dancing master and the tongue of a wasp.
She could not read any more. She could not know if any other of those boys with whom she had grown up, danced, flirted, kissed were on that list. She wished that she could cry, do something to ease the iron fingers that were digging into her throat.
“I’m sorry, Scarlett,” said Rhett. She looked up at him. She had forgotten he was still there. “Many of your friends?”
She nodded and struggled to speak: “About every family in the County — and all — all three of the Tarleton boys.”
His face was quiet, almost somber, and there was no mocking in his eyes.
“And the end is not yet,” he said. “These are just the first lists and they’re incomplete. There’ll be a longer list tomorrow.” He lowered his voice so that those in the near-by carriages could not hear. “Scarlett, General Lee must have lost the battle. I heard at headquarters that he had retreated back into Maryland.”
She raised frightened eyes to his, but her fear did not spring from Lee’s defeat. Longer casualty lists tomorrow! Tomorrow. She had not thought of tomorrow, so happy was she at first that Ashley’s name was not on that list. Tomorrow. Why, right this minute he might be dead and she would not know it until tomorrow, or perhaps a week from tomorrow.
“Oh, Rhett, why do there have to be wars? It would have been so much better for the Yankees to pay for the darkies — or even for us to give them the darkies free of charge than to have this happen.”
“It isn’t the darkies, Scarlett. They’re just the excuse. There’ll always be wars because men love wars. Women don’t, but men do — yea, passing the love of women.”
His mouth twisted in his old smile and the seriousness was gone from his face. He lifted his wide Panama hat.
“Good-by. I’m going to find Dr. Meade. I imagine the irony of me being the one to tell him of his son’s death will be lost on him, just now. But later, he’ll probably hate to think that a speculator brought the news of a hero’s death.”
Scarlett put Miss Pitty to bed with a toddy, left Prissy and Cookie in attendance and went down the street to the Meade house. Mrs. Meade was upstairs with Phil, waiting her husband’s return, and Melanie sat in the parlor, talking in a low voice to a group of sympathetic neighbors. She was busy with needle and scissors, altering a mourning dress that Mrs. Elsing had lent to Mrs. Meade. Already the house was full of the acrid smell of clothes boiling in homemade black dye for, in the kitchen, the sobbing cook was stirring all of Mrs. Meade’s dresses in the huge wash pot.
“How is she?” questioned Scarlett softly.
“Not a tear,” said Melanie. “It’s terrible when women can’t cry. I don’t know how men stand things without crying. I guess it’s because they’re stronger and braver than women. She says she’s going to Pennsylvania by herself to bring him home. The doctor can’t leave the hospital.”
“It will be dreadful for her! Why can’t Phil go?”
“She’s afraid he’ll join the army if he gets out of her sight. You know he’s so big for his age and they’re taking them at sixteen now.”
One by one the neighbors slipped away, reluctant to be present when the doctor came home, and Scarlett and Melanie were left alone, sewing in the parlor. Melanie looked sad but tranquil, though tears dropped down on the cloth she held in her hands. Evidently she had not thought that the battle might still be going on and Ashley perhaps dead at this very moment. With panic in her heart, Scarlett did not know whether to tell Melanie of Rhett’s words and have the dubious comfort of her misery or keep it to herself. Finally she decided to remain quiet. It would never do for Melanie to think her too worried about Ashley. She thanked God that everyone, Melly and Pitty included, had been too engrossed in her own worries that morning to notice her conduct.
After an interval of silent sewing, they heard sounds outside and, peering through the curtains, they saw Dr. Meade alighting from his horse. His shoulders were sagging and his head bowed until his gray beard spread out fanlike on his chest. He came slowly into the house and, laying down his hat and bag, kissed both the girls silently. Then he went tiredly up the stairs. In a moment Phil came down, all long legs and arms and awkwardness. The two girls looked an invitation to join them, but he went onto the front porch and, seating himself on the top step, dropped his head on his cupped palm.
“He’s mad because they won’t let him go fight the Yankees. Fifteen years old! Oh, Scarlett, it would be Heaven to have a son like that!”
“And have him get killed,” said Scarlett shortly, thinking of Darcy.
“It would be better to have a son even if he did get killed than to never have one,” said Melanie and gulped. “You can’t understand, Scarlett, because you’ve got little Wade, but I— Oh, Scarlett, I want a baby so bad! I know you think I’m horrid to say it right out, but it’s true and only what every woman wants and you know it.”
Scarlett restrained herself from sniffing.
“If God should will that Ashley should be — taken, I suppose I could bear it, though I’d rather die if he died. But God would give me strength to bear it. But I could not bear having him dead and not having — not having a child of his to comfort me. Oh, Scarlett, how lucky you are! Though you lost Charlie, you have his son. And if Ashley goes, I’ll have nothing. Scarlett, forgive me, but sometimes I’ve been so jealous of you —”
“Jealous — of me?” cried Scarlett, stricken with guilt.
“Because you have a son and I haven’t. I’ve even pretended sometimes that Wade was mine because it’s so awful not to have a child.”
“Fiddle-dee-dee!” said Scarlett in relief. She cast a quick glance at the slight figure with blushing face bent over the sewing. Melanie might want children but she certainly did not have the figure for bearing them. She was hardly taller than a twelve-year-old child, her hips were as narrow as a child’s and her breasts were very flat. The very thought of Melanie having a child was repellent to Scarlett. It brought up too many thoughts she couldn’t bear thinking. If Melanie should have a child of Ashley’s, it would be as though something were taken from Scarlett that was her own.
“Do forgive me for saying that about Wade. You know I love him so. You aren’t mad at me, are you?”
“Don’t be silly,” said Scarlett shortly. “And go out on the porch and do something for Phil. He’s crying.”