Gone with the wind (Chapter 16)
January and February of 1864 passed, full of cold rains and wild winds, clouded by pervasive gloom and depression. In addition to the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the center of the Southern line had caved. After hard fighting, nearly all of Tennessee was now held by the Union troops. But even with this loss on the top of the others, the South’s spirit was not broken. True, grim determination had taken the place of high-hearted hopes, but people could still find a silver lining in the cloud. For one thing, the Yankees had been stoutly repulsed in September when they had tried to follow up their victories in Tennessee by an advance into Georgia.
Here in the northwesternmost corner of the state, at Chickamauga, serious fighting had occurred on Georgia soil for the first time since the war began. The Yankees had taken Chattanooga and then had marched through the mountain passes into Georgia, but they had been driven back with heavy losses.
Atlanta and its railroads had played a big part in making Chickamauga a great victory for the South. Over the railroads that led down from Virginia to Atlanta and then northward to Tennessee, General Longstreet’s corps had been rushed to the scene of the battle. Along the entire route of several hundred miles, the tracks had been cleared and all the available rolling stock in the Southeast had been assembled for the movement.
Atlanta had watched while train after train rolled through the town, hour after hour, passenger coaches, box cars, flat cars, filled with shouting men. They had come without food or sleep, without their horses, ambulances or supply trains and, without waiting for the rest, they had leaped from the trains and into the battle. And the Yankees had been driven out of Georgia, back into Tennessee.
It was the greatest feat of the war, and Atlanta took pride and personal satisfaction in the thought that its railroads had made the victory possible.
But the South had needed the cheering news from Chickamauga to strengthen its morale through the winter. No one denied now that the Yankees were good fighters and, at last, they had good generals. Grant was a butcher who did not care how many men he slaughtered for a victory, but victory he would have. Sheridan was a name to bring dread to Southern hearts. And, then, there was a man named Sherman who was being mentioned more and more often. He had risen to prominence in the campaigns in Tennessee and the West, and his reputation as a determined and ruthless fighter was growing.
None of them, of course, compared with General Lee. Faith in the General and the army was still strong. Confidence in ultimate victory never wavered. But the war was dragging out so long. There were so many dead, so many wounded and maimed for life, so many widowed, so many orphaned. And there was still a long struggle ahead, which meant more dead, more wounded, more widows and orphans.
To make matters worse, a vague distrust of those in high places had begun to creep over the civilian population. Many newspapers were outspoken in their denunciation of President Davis himself and the manner in which he prosecuted the war. There were dissensions within the Confederate cabinet, disagreements between President Davis and his generals. The currency was falling rapidly. Shoes and clothing for the army were scarce, ordnance supplies and drugs were scarcer. The railroads needed new cars to take the place of old ones and new iron rails to replace those torn up by the Yankees. The generals in the field were crying out for fresh troops, and there were fewer and fewer fresh troops to be had. Worst of all, some of the state governors, Governor Brown of Georgia among them, were refusing to send state militia troops and arms out of their borders. There were thousands of able-bodied men in the state troops for whom the army was frantic, but the government pleaded for them in vain.
With the new fall of currency, prices soared again. Beef, pork and butter cost thirty-five dollars a pound, flour fourteen hundred dollars a barrel, soda one hundred dollars a pound, tea five hundred dollars a pound. Warm clothing, when it was obtainable at all, had risen to such prohibitive prices that Atlanta ladies were lining their old dresses with rags and reinforcing them with newspapers to keep out the wind. Shoes cost from two hundred to eight hundred dollars a pair, depending on whether they were made of “cardboard” or real leather. Ladies now wore gaiters made of their old wool shawls and cut-up carpets. The soles were made of wood.
The truth was that the North was holding the South in a virtual state of siege, though many did not realize it. The Yankee gunboats had tightened the mesh at the ports and very few ships were now able to slip past the blockade.
The South had always lived by selling cotton and buying the things it did not produce, but now it could neither sell nor buy. Gerald O’Hara had three years’ crops of cotton stored under the shed near the gin house at Tara, but little good it did him. In Liverpool it would bring one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, but there was no hope of getting it to Liverpool. Gerald had changed from a wealthy man to a man who was wondering how he would feed his family and his negroes through the winter.
Throughout the South, most of the cotton planters were in the same fix. With the blockade closing tighter and tighter, there was no way to get the South’s money crop to its market in England, no way to bring in the necessaries which cotton money had brought in years gone by. And the agricultural South, waging war with the industrial North, was needing so many things now, things it had never thought of buying in times of peace.
It was a situation made to order for speculators and profiteers, and men were not lacking to take advantage of it. As food and clothing grew scarcer and prices rose higher and higher, the public outcry against the speculators grew louder and more venomous. In those early days of 1864, no newspaper could be opened that did not carry scathing editorials denouncing the speculators as vultures and bloodsucking leeches and calling upon the government to put them down with a hard hand. The government did its best, but the efforts came to nothing, for the government was harried by many things.
Against no one was feeling more bitter than against Rhett Butler. He had sold his boats when blockading grew too hazardous, and he was now openly engaged in food speculation. The stories about him that came back to Atlanta from Richmond and Wilmington made those who had received him in other days writhe with shame.
In spite of all these trials and tribulations, Atlanta’s ten thousand population had grown to double that number during the war. Even the blockade had added to Atlanta’s prestige. From time immemorial, the coast cities had dominated the South, commercially and otherwise. But now with the ports closed and many of the port cities captured or besieged, the South’s salvation depended upon itself. The interior section was what counted, if the South was going to win the war, and Atlanta was now the center of things. The people of the town were suffering hardship, privation, sickness and death as severely as the rest of the Confederacy; but Atlanta, the city, had gained rather than lost as a result of the war. Atlanta, the heart of the Confederacy, was still beating full and strong, the railroads that were its arteries throbbing with the never-ending flow of men, munitions and supplies.
In other days, Scarlett would have been bitter about her shabby dresses and patched shoes but now she did not care, for the one person who mattered was not there to see her. She was happy those two months, happier than she had been in years. Had she not felt the start of Ashley’s heart when her arms went round his neck? seen that despairing look on his face which was more open an avowal than any words could be? He loved her. She was sure of that now, and this conviction was so pleasant she could even be kinder to Melanie. She could be sorry for Melanie now, sorry with a faint contempt for her blindness, her stupidity.
“When the war is over!” she thought. “When it’s over — then . . .”
Sometimes she thought with a small dart of fear: “What then?” But she put the thought from her mind. When the war was over, everything would be settled, somehow. If Ashley loved her, he simply couldn’t go on living with Melanie.
But then, a divorce was unthinkable; and Ellen and Gerald, staunch Catholics that they were, would never permit her to marry a divorced man. It would mean leaving the Church! Scarlett thought it over and decided that, in a choice between the Church and Ashley, she would choose Ashley. But, oh, it would make such a scandal! Divorced people were under the ban not only of the Church but of society. No divorced person was received. However, she would dare even that for Ashley. She would sacrifice anything for Ashley.
Somehow it would come out all right when the war was over. If Ashley loved her so much, he’d find a way. She’d make him find a way. And with every day that passed, she became more sure in her own mind of his devotion, more certain he would arrange matters satisfactorily when the Yankees were finally beaten. Of course, he had said the Yankees “had” them. Scarlett thought that was just foolishness. He had been tired and upset when he said it. But she hardly cared whether the Yankees won or not. The thing that mattered was for the war to finish quickly and for Ashley to come home.
Then, when the sleets of March were keeping everyone indoors, the hideous blow fell. Melanie, her eyes shining with joy, her head ducked with embarrassed pride, told her she was going to have a baby.
“Dr. Meade says it will be here in late August or September,” she said. “I’ve thought — but I wasn’t sure till today. Oh, Scarlett, isn’t it wonderful? I’ve so envied you Wade and so wanted a baby. And I was so afraid that maybe I wasn’t ever going to have one and, darling, I want a dozen!”
Scarlett had been combing her hair, preparing for bed, when Melanie spoke and she stopped, the comb in mid-air.
“Dear God!” she said and, for a moment, realization did not come. Then there suddenly leaped to her mind the closed door of Melanie’s bedroom and a knifelike pain went through her, a pain as fierce as though Ashley had been her own husband and had been unfaithful to her. A baby. Ashley’s baby. Oh, how could he, when he loved her and not Melanie?
“I know you’re surprised,” Melanie rattled on, breathlessly. “And isn’t it too wonderful? Oh, Scarlett, I don’t know how I shall ever write Ashley! It wouldn’t be so embarrassing if I could tell him or — or — well, not say anything and just let him notice gradually, you know —”
“Dear God!” said Scarlett, almost sobbing, as she dropped the comb and caught at the marble top of the dresser for support.
“Darling, don’t look like that! You know having a baby isn’t so bad. You said so yourself. And you mustn’t worry about me, though you are sweet to be so upset. Of course, Dr. Meade said I was — was,” Melanie blushed, “quite narrow but that perhaps I shouldn’t have any trouble and — Scarlett, did you write Charlie and tell him when you found out about Wade, or did your mother do it or maybe Mr. O’Hara? Oh, dear, if I only had a mother to do it! I just don’t see how —”
“Hush!” said Scarlett, violently. “Hush!”
“Oh, Scarlett, I’m so stupid! I’m sorry. I guess all happy people are selfish. I forgot about Charlie, just for the moment —”
“Hush!” said Scarlett again, fighting to control her face and make her emotions quiet. Never, never must Melanie see or suspect how she felt.
Melanie, the most tactful of women, had tears in her eyes at her own cruelty. How could she have brought back to Scarlett the terrible memories of Wade being born months after poor Charlie was dead? How could she have been so thoughtless?
“Let me help you undress, dearest,” she said humbly. “And I’ll rub your head for you.”
“You leave me alone,” said Scarlett, her face like stone. And Melanie, bursting into tears of self-condemnation, fled the room, leaving Scarlett to a tearless bed, with wounded pride, disillusionment and jealousy for bedfellows.
She thought that she could not live any longer in the same house with the woman who was carrying Ashley’s child, thought that she would go home to Tara, home, where she belonged. She did not see how she could ever look at Melanie again and not have her secret read in her face. And she arose the next morning with the fixed intention of packing her trunk immediately after breakfast. But, as they sat at the table, Scarlett silent and gloomy, Pitty bewildered and Melanie miserable, a telegram came.
It was to Melanie from Ashley’s body servant, Mose.
“I have looked everywhere and I can’t find him. Must I come home?”
No one knew what it meant but the eyes of the three women went to one another, wide with terror, and Scarlett forgot all thoughts of going home. Without finishing their breakfasts they drove down to telegraph Ashley’s colonel, but even as they entered the office, there was a telegram from him.
“Regret to inform you Major Wilkes missing since scouting expedition three days ago. Will keep you informed.”
It was a ghastly trip home, with Aunt Pitty crying into her handkerchief, Melanie sitting erect and white and Scarlett slumped, stunned in the corner of the carriage. Once in the house, Scarlett stumbled up the stairs to her bedroom and, clutching her Rosary from the table, dropped to her knees and tried to pray. But the prayers would not come. There only fell on her an abysmal fear, a certain knowledge that God had turned His face from her for her sin. She had loved a married man and tried to take him from his wife, and God had punished her by killing him. She wanted to pray but she could not raise her eyes to Heaven. She wanted to cry but the tears would not come. They seemed to flood her chest, and they were hot tears that burned under her bosom, but they would not flow.
Her door opened and Melanie entered. Her face was like a heart cut from white paper, framed against black hair, and her eyes were wide, like those of a frightened child lost in the dark.
“Scarlett,” she said, putting out her hands. “You must forgive me for what I said yesterday, for you’re — all I’ve got now. Oh, Scarlett, I know my darling is dead!”
Somehow, she was in Scarlett’s arms, her small breasts heaving with sobs, and somehow they were lying on the bed, holding each other close, and Scarlett was crying too, crying with her face pressed close against Melanie’s, the tears of one wetting the cheeks of the other. It hurt so terribly to cry, but not so much as not being able to cry. Ashley is dead — dead, she thought, and I have killed him by loving him! Fresh sobs broke from her, and Melanie somehow feeling comfort in her tears tightened her arms about her neck.
“At least,” she whispered, “at least — I’ve got his baby.”
“And I,” thought Scarlett, too stricken now for anything so petty as jealousy, “I’ve got nothing — nothing — nothing except the look on his face when he told me good-by.”
The first reports were “Missing — believed killed” and so they appeared on the casualty list. Melanie telegraphed Colonel Sloan a dozen times and finally a letter arrived, full of sympathy, explaining that Ashley and a squad had ridden out on a scouting expedition and had not returned. There had been reports of a slight skirmish within the Yankee lines and Mose, frantic with grief, had risked his own life to search for Ashley’s body but had found nothing. Melanie, strangely calm now, telegraphed him money and instructions to come home.
When “Missing — believed captured” appeared on the casualty lists, joy and hope reanimated the sad household. Melanie could hardly be dragged away from the telegraph office and she met every train hoping for letters. She was sick now, her pregnancy making itself felt in many unpleasant ways, but she refused to obey Dr. Meade’s commands and stay in bed. A feverish energy possessed her and would not let her be still; and at night, long after Scarlett had gone to bed, she could hear her walking the floor in the next room.
One afternoon, she came home from town, driven by the frightened Uncle Peter and supported by Rhett Butler. She had fainted at the telegraph office and Rhett, passing by and observing the excitement, had escorted her home. He carried her up the stairs to her bedroom and while the alarmed household fled hither and yon for hot bricks, blankets and whisky, he propped her on the pillows of her bed.
“Mrs. Wilkes,” he questioned abruptly, “you are going to have a baby, are you not?”
Had Melanie not been so faint, so sick, so heartsore, she would have collapsed at his question. Even with women friends she was embarrassed by any mention of her condition, while visits to Dr. Meade were agonizing experiences. And for a man, especially Rhett Butler, to ask such a question was unthinkable. But lying weak and forlorn in the bed, she could only nod. After she had nodded, it did not seem so dreadful, for he looked so kind and so concerned.
“Then you must take better care of yourself. All this running about and worry won’t help you and may harm the baby. If you will permit me, Mrs. Wilkes, I will use what influence I have in Washington to learn about Mr. Wilkes’ fate. If he is a prisoner, he will be on the Federal lists, and if he isn’t — well, there’s nothing worse than uncertainty. But I must have your promise. Take care of yourself or, before God, I won’t turn a hand.”
“Oh, you are so kind,” cried Melanie. “How can people say such dreadful things about you?” Then overcome with the knowledge of her tactlessness and also with horror at having discussed her condition with a man, she began to cry weakly. And Scarlett, flying up the stairs with a hot brick wrapped in flannel, found Rhett patting her hand.
He was as good as his word. They never knew what wires he pulled. They feared to ask, knowing it might involve an admission of his too close affiliations with the Yankees. It was a month before he had news, news that raised them to the heights when they first heard it, but later created a gnawing anxiety in their hearts.
Ashley was not dead! He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and the records showed that he was at Rock Island, a prison camp in Illinois. In their first joy, they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But, when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said “Rock Island!” in the same voice they would have said “In Hell!” For even as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, so was Rock Island one to bring terror to the heart of any Southerner who had relatives imprisoned there.
When Lincoln refused to exchange prisoners, believing it would hasten the end of the war to burden the Confederacy with the feeding and guarding of Union prisoners, there were thousands of bluecoats at Andersonville, Georgia. The Confederates were on scant rations and practically without drugs or bandages for their own sick and wounded. They had little to share with the prisoners. They fed their prisoners on what the soldiers in the field were eating, fat pork and dried peas, and on this diet the Yankees died like flies, sometimes a hundred a day. Inflamed by the reports, the North resorted to harsher treatment of Confederate prisoners and at no place were conditions worse than at Rock Island. Food was scanty, one blanket for three men, and the ravages of smallpox, pneumonia and typhoid gave the place the name of a pest-house. Three-fourths of all the men sent there never came out alive.
And Ashley was in that horrible place! Ashley was alive but he was wounded and at Rock Island, and the snow must have been deep in Illinois when he was taken there. Had he died of his wound, since Rhett had learned his news? Had he fallen victim to smallpox? Was he delirious with pneumonia and no blanket to cover him?
“Oh, Captain Butler, isn’t there some way — Can’t you use your influence and have him exchanged?” cried Melanie.
“Mr. Lincoln, the merciful and just, who cries large tears over Mrs. Bixby’s five boys, hasn’t any tears to shed about the thousands of Yankees dying at Andersonville,” said Rhett, his mouth twisting. “He doesn’t care if they all die. The order is out. No exchanges. I— I hadn’t told you before, Mrs. Wilkes, but your husband had a chance to get out and refused it.”
“Oh, no!” cried Melanie in disbelief.
“Yes, indeed. The Yankees are recruiting men for frontier service to fight the Indians, recruiting them from among Confederate prisoners. Any prisoner who will take the oath of allegiance and enlist for Indian service for two years will be released and sent West. Mr. Wilkes refused.”
“Oh, how could he?” cried Scarlett. “Why didn’t he take the oath and then desert and come home as soon as he got out of jail?”
Melanie turned on her like a small fury.
“How can you even suggest that he would do such a thing? Betray his own Confederacy by taking that vile oath and then betray his word to the Yankees! I would rather know he was dead at Rock Island than hear he had taken that oath. I’d be proud of him if he died in prison. But if he did THAT, I would never look on his face again. Never! Of course, he refused.”
When Scarlett was seeing Rhett to the door, she asked indignantly: “If it were you, wouldn’t you enlist with the Yankees to keep from dying in that place and then desert?”
“Of course,” said Rhett, his teeth showing beneath his mustache.
“Then why didn’t Ashley do it?”
“He’s a gentleman,” said Rhett, and Scarlett wondered how it was possible to convey such cynicism and contempt in that one honorable word.