Gone with the wind (Chapter 17)
May of 1864 came — a hot dry May that wilted the flowers in the buds — and the Yankees under General Sherman were in Georgia again, above Dalton, one hundred miles northwest of Atlanta. Rumor had it that there would be heavy fighting up there near the boundary between Georgia and Tennessee. The Yankees were massing for an attack on the Western and Atlantic Railroad, the line which connected Atlanta with Tennessee and the West, the same line over which the Southern troops had been rushed last fall to win the victory at Chickamauga.
But, for the most part, Atlanta was not disturbed by the prospect of fighting near Dalton. The place where the Yankees were concentrating was only a few miles southeast of the battle field of Chickamauga. They had been driven back once when they had tried to break through the mountain passes of that region, and they would be driven back again.
Atlanta — and all of Georgia — knew that the state was far too important to the Confederacy for General Joe Johnston to let the Yankees remain inside the state’s borders for long. Old Joe and his army would not let even one Yankee get south of Dalton, for too much depended on the undisturbed functioning of Georgia. The unravaged state was a vast granary, machine shop and storehouse for the Confederacy. It manufactured much of the powder and arms used by the army and most of the cotton and woolen goods. Lying between Atlanta and Dalton was the city of Rome with its cannon foundry and its other industries, and Etowah and Allatoona with the largest ironworks south of Richmond. And, in Atlanta, were not only the factories for making pistols and saddles, tents and ammunition, but also the most extensive rolling mills in the South, the shops of the principal railroads and the enormous hospitals. And in Atlanta was the junction of the four railroads on which the very life of the Confederacy depended.
So no one worried particularly. After all, Dalton was a long way off, up near the Tennessee line. There had been fighting in Tennessee for three years and people were accustomed to the thought of that state as a far-away battle field, almost as far away as Virginia or the Mississippi River. Moreover, Old Joe and his men were between the Yankees and Atlanta, and everyone knew that, next to General Lee himself, there was no greater general than Johnston, now that Stonewall Jackson was dead.
Dr. Meade summed up the civilian point of view on the matter, one warm May evening on the veranda of Aunt Pitty’s house, when he said that Atlanta had nothing to fear, for General Johnston was standing in the mountains like an iron rampart. His audience heard him with varying emotions, for all who sat there rocking quietly in the fading twilight, watching the first fireflies of the season moving magically through the dusk, had weighty matters on their minds. Mrs. Meade, her hand upon Phil’s arm, was hoping the doctor was right. If the war came closer, she knew that Phil would have to go. He was sixteen now and in the Home Guard. Fanny Elsing, pale and hollow eyed since Gettysburg, was trying to keep her mind from the torturing picture which had worn a groove in her tired mind these past several months — Lieutenant Dallas McLure dying in a jolting ox cart in the rain on the long, terrible retreat into Maryland.
Captain Carey Ashburn’s useless arm was hurting him again and moreover he was depressed by the thought that his courtship of Scarlett was at a standstill. That had been the situation ever since the news of Ashley Wilkes’ capture, though the connection between the two events did not occur to him. Scarlett and Melanie both were thinking of Ashley, as they always did when urgent tasks or the necessity of carrying on a conversation did not divert them. Scarlett was thinking bitterly, sorrowfully: He must be dead or else we would have heard. Melanie, stemming the tide of fear again and again, through endless hours, was telling herself: “He can’t be dead. I’d know it — I’d feel it if he were dead.” Rhett Butler lounged in the shadows, his long legs in their elegant boots crossed negligently, his dark face an unreadable blank. In his arms Wade slept contentedly, a cleanly picked wishbone in his small hand. Scarlett always permitted Wade to sit up late when Rhett called because the shy child was fond of him, and Rhett oddly enough seemed to be fond of Wade. Generally Scarlett was annoyed by the child’s presence, but he always behaved nicely in Rhett’s arms. As for Aunt Pitty, she was nervously trying to stifle a belch, for the rooster they had had for supper was a tough old bird.
That morning Aunt Pitty had reached the regretful decision that she had better kill the patriarch before he died of old age and pining for his harem which had long since been eaten. For days he had drooped about the empty chicken run, too dispirited to crow. After Uncle Peter had wrung his neck, Aunt Pitty had been beset by conscience at the thought of enjoying him, en famille, when so many of her friends had not tasted chicken for weeks, so she suggested company for dinner. Melanie, who was now in her fifth month, had not been out in public or received guests for weeks, and she was appalled at the idea. But Aunt Pitty, for once, was firm. It would be selfish to eat the rooster alone, and if Melanie would only move her top hoop a little higher no one would notice anything and she was so flat in the bust anyway.
“Oh, but Auntie I don’t want to see people when Ashley —”
“It isn’t as if Ashley were — had passed away,” said Aunt Pitty, her voice quavering, for in her heart she was certain Ashley was dead. “He’s just as much alive as you are and it will do you good to have company. And I’m going to ask Fanny Elsing, too. Mrs. Elsing begged me to try to do something to arouse her and make her see people —”
“Oh, but Auntie, it’s cruel to force her when poor Dallas has only been dead —”
“Now, Melly, I shall cry with vexation if you argue with me. I guess I’m your auntie and I know what’s what. And I want a party.”
So Aunt Pitty had her party, and, at the last minute, a guest she did not expect, or desire, arrived. Just when the smell of roast rooster was filling the house, Rhett Butler, back from one of his mysterious trips, knocked at the door, with a large box of bonbons packed in paper lace under his arm and a mouthful of two-edged compliments for her. There was nothing to do but invite him to stay, although Aunt Pitty knew how the doctor and Mrs. Meade felt about him and how bitter Fanny was against any man not in uniform. Neither the Meades nor the Elsings would have spoken to him on the street, but in a friend’s home they would, of course, have to be polite to him. Besides, he was now more firmly than ever under the protection of the fragile Melanie. After he had intervened for her to get the news about Ashley, she had announced publicly that her home was open to him as long as he lived and no matter what other people might say about him.
Aunt Pitty’s apprehensions quieted when she saw that Rhett was on his best behavior. He devoted himself to Fanny with such sympathetic deference she even smiled at him, and the meal went well. It was a princely feast. Carey Ashburn had brought a little tea, which he had found in the tobacco pouch of a captured Yankee en route to Andersonville, and everyone had a cup, faintly flavored with tobacco. There was a nibble of the tough old bird for each, an adequate amount of dressing made of corn meal and seasoned with onions, a bowl of dried peas, and plenty of rice and gravy, the latter somewhat watery, for there was no flour with which to thicken it. For dessert, there was a sweet potato pie followed by Rhett’s bonbons, and when Rhett produced real Havana cigars for the gentlemen to enjoy over their glass of blackberry wine, everyone agreed it was indeed a Lucullan banquet.
When the gentlemen joined the ladies on the front porch, the talk turned to war. Talk always turned to war now, all conversations on any topic led from war or back to war — sometimes sad, often gay, but always war. War romances, war weddings, deaths in hospitals and on the field, incidents of camp and battle and march, gallantry, cowardice, humor, sadness, deprivation and hope. Always, always hope. Hope firm, unshaken despite the defeats of the summer before.
When Captain Ashburn announced he had applied for and been granted transfer from Atlanta to the army at Dalton, the ladies kissed his stiffened arm with their eyes and covered their emotions of pride by declaring he couldn’t go, for then who would beau them about?
Young Carey looked confused and pleased at hearing such statements from settled matrons and spinsters like Mrs. Meade and Melanie and Aunt Pitty and Fanny, and tried to hope that Scarlett really meant it.
“Why, he’ll be back in no time,” said the doctor, throwing an arm over Carey’s shoulder. “There’ll be just one brief skirmish and the Yankees will skedaddle back into Tennessee. And when they get there, General Forrest will take care of them. You ladies need have no alarm about the proximity of the Yankees, for General Johnston and his army stands there in the mountains like an iron rampart. Yes, an iron rampart,” he repeated, relishing his phrase. “Sherman will never pass. He’ll never dislodge Old Joe.”
The ladies smiled approvingly, for his lightest utterance was regarded as incontrovertible truth. After all, men understood these matters much better than women, and if he said General Johnston was an iron rampart, he must be one. Only Rhett spoke. He had been silent since supper and had sat in the twilight listening to the war talk with a down-twisted mouth, holding the sleeping child against his shoulder.
“I believe that rumor has it that Sherman has over one hundred thousand men, now that his reinforcements have come up?”
The doctor answered him shortly. He had been under considerable strain ever since he first arrived and found that one of his fellow diners was this man whom he disliked so heartily. Only the respect due Miss Pittypat and his presence under her roof as a guest had restrained him from showing his feelings more obviously.
“Well, sir?” the doctor barked in reply.
“I believe Captain Ashburn said just a while ago that General Johnston had only about forty thousand, counting the deserters who were encouraged to come back to the colors by the last victory.”
“Sir,” said Mrs. Meade indignantly. “There are no deserters in the Confederate army.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Rhett with mock humility. “I meant those thousands on furlough who forgot to rejoin their regiments and those who have been over their wounds for six months but who remain at home, going about their usual business or doing the spring plowing.”
His eyes gleamed and Mrs. Meade bit her lip in a huff. Scarlett wanted to giggle at her discomfiture, for Rhett had caught her fairly. There were hundreds of men skulking in the swamps and the mountains, defying the provost guard to drag them back to the army. They were the ones who declared it was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” and they had had enough of it. But outnumbering these by far were men who, though carried on company rolls as deserters, had no intention of deserting permanently. They were the ones who had waited three years in vain for furloughs and while they waited received ill-spelled letters from home: “We air hungry” “There won’t be no crop this year — there ain’t nobody to plow.” “We air hungry.” “The commissary took the shoats, and we ain’t had no money from you in months. We air livin’ on dried peas.”
Always the rising chorus swelled: “We are hungry, your wife, your babies, your parents. When will it be over? When will you come home? We are hungry, hungry.” When furloughs from the rapidly thinning army were denied, these soldiers went home without them, to plow their land and plant their crops, repair their houses and build up their fences. When regimental officers, understanding the situation, saw a hard fight ahead, they wrote these men, telling them to rejoin their companies and no questions would be asked. Usually the men returned when they saw that hunger at home would be held at bay for a few months longer. “Plow furloughs” were not looked upon in the same light as desertion in the face of the enemy, but they weakened the army just the same.
Dr. Meade hastily bridged over the uncomfortable pause, his voice cold: “Captain Butler, the numerical difference between our troops and those of the Yankees has never mattered. One Confederate is worth a dozen Yankees.”
The ladies nodded. Everyone knew that.
“That was true at the first of the war,” said Rhett. “Perhaps it’s still true, provided the Confederate soldier has bullets for his gun and shoes on his feet and food in his stomach. Eh, Captain Ashburn?”
His voice was still soft and filled with specious humility. Carey Ashburn looked unhappy, for it was obvious that he, too, disliked Rhett intensely. He gladly would have sided with the doctor but he could not lie. The reason he had applied for transfer to the front, despite his useless arm, was that he realized, as the civilian population did not, the seriousness of the situation. There were many other men, stumping on wooden pegs, blind in one eye, fingers blown away, one arm gone, who were quietly transferring from the commissariat, hospital duties, mail and railroad service back to their old fighting units. They knew Old Joe needed every man.
He did not speak and Dr. Meade thundered, losing his temper: “Our men have fought without shoes before and without food and won victories. And they will fight again and win! I tell you General Johnston cannot be dislodged! The mountain fastnesses have always been the refuge and the strong forts of invaded peoples from ancient times. Think of — think of Thermopylae!”
Scarlett thought hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her.
“They died to the last man at Thermopylae, didn’t they, Doctor?” Rhett asked, and his lips twitched with suppressed laughter.
“Are you being insulting, young man?”
“Doctor! I beg of you! You misunderstood me! I merely asked for information. My memory of ancient history is poor.”
“If need be, our army will die to the last man before they permit the Yankees to advance farther into Georgia,” snapped the doctor. “But it will not be. They will drive them out of Georgia in one skirmish.”
Aunt Pittypat rose hastily and asked Scarlett to favor them with a piano selection and a song. She saw that the conversation was rapidly getting into deep and stormy water. She had known very well there would be trouble if she invited Rhett to supper. There was always trouble when he was present. Just how he started it, she never exactly understood. Dear! Dear! What did Scarlett see in the man? And how could dear Melly defend him?
As Scarlett went obediently into the parlor, a silence fell on the porch, a silence that pulsed with resentment toward Rhett. How could anyone not believe with heart and soul in the invincibility of General Johnston and his men? Believing was a sacred duty. And those who were so traitorous as not to believe should, at least, have the decency to keep their mouths shut.
Scarlett struck a few chords and her voice floated out to them from the parlor, sweetly, sadly, in the words of a popular song:
“Into a ward of whitewashed walls Where the dead and dying lay — Wounded with bayonets, shells and balls — Somebody’s darling was borne one day.
“Somebody’s darling! so young and so brave! Wearing still on his pale, sweet face — Soon to be hid by the dust of the grave — The lingering light of his boyhood’s grace.”
“Matted and damp are the curls of gold,” mourned Scarlett’s faulty soprano, and Fanny half rose and said in a faint, strangled voice: “Sing something else!”
The piano was suddenly silent as Scarlett was overtaken with surprise and embarrassment. Then she hastily blundered into the opening bars of “Jacket of Gray” and stopped with a discord as she remembered how heartrending that selection was too. The piano was silent again for she was utterly at a loss. All the songs had to do with death and parting and sorrow.
Rhett rose swiftly, deposited Wade in Fanny’s lap, and went into the parlor.
“Play ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’” he suggested smoothly, and Scarlett gratefully plunged into it. Her voice was joined by Rhett’s excellent bass, and as they went into the second verse those on the porch breathed more easily, though Heaven knew it was none too cheery a song, either.
“Just a few more days for to tote the weary load! No matter, ’twill never be light! Just a few more days, till we totter in the road! Then, my old Kentucky home, good night!”
Dr. Meade’s prediction was right — as far as it went. Johnston did stand like an iron rampart in the mountains above Dalton, one hundred miles away. So firmly did he stand and so bitterly did he contest Sherman’s desire to pass down the valley toward Atlanta that finally the Yankees drew back and took counsel with themselves. They could not break the gray lines by direct assault and so, under cover of night, they marched through the mountain passes in a semicircle, hoping to come upon Johnston’s rear and cut the railroad behind him at Resaca, fifteen miles below Dalton.
With those precious twin lines of iron in danger, the Confederates left their desperately defended rifle pits and, under the starlight, made a forced march to Resaca by the short, direct road. When the Yankees, swarming out of the hills, came upon them, the Southern troops were waiting for them, entrenched behind breastworks, batteries planted, bayonets gleaming, even as they had been at Dalton.
When the wounded from Dalton brought in garbled accounts of Old Joe’s retreat to Resaca, Atlanta was surprised and a little disturbed. It was as though a small, dark cloud had appeared in the northwest, the first cloud of a summer storm. What was the General thinking about, letting the Yankees penetrate eighteen miles farther into Georgia? The mountains were natural fortresses, even as Dr. Meade had said. Why hadn’t Old Joe held the Yankees there?
Johnston fought desperately at Resaca and repulsed the Yankees again, but Sherman, employing the same flanking movement, swung his vast army in another semicircle, crossed the Oostanaula River and again struck at the railroad in the Confederate rear. Again the gray lines were summoned swiftly from their red ditches to defend the railroad, and, weary for sleep, exhausted from marching and fighting, and hungry, always hungry, they made another rapid march down the valley. They reached the little town of Calhoun, six miles below Resaca, ahead of the Yankees, entrenched and were again ready for the attack when the Yankees came up. The attack came, there was fierce skirmishing and the Yankees were beaten back. Wearily the Confederates lay on their arms and prayed for respite and rest. But there was no rest. Sherman inexorably advanced, step by step, swinging his army about them in a wide curve, forcing another retreat to defend the railroad at their back.
The Confederates marched in their sleep, too tired to think for the most part. But when they did think, they trusted old Joe. They knew they were retreating but they knew they had not been beaten. They just didn’t have enough men to hold their entrenchments and defeat Sherman’s flanking movements, too. They could and did lick the Yankees every time the Yankees would stand and fight. What would be the end of this retreat, they did not know. But Old Joe knew what he was doing and that was enough for them. He had conducted the retreat in masterly fashion, for they had lost few men and the Yankees killed and captured ran high. They hadn’t lost a single wagon and only four guns. And they hadn’t lost the railroad at their back, either. Sherman hadn’t laid a finger on it for all his frontal attacks, cavalry dashes and flank movements.
The railroad. It was still theirs, that slender iron line winding through the sunny valley toward Atlanta. Men lay down to sleep where they could see the rails gleaming faintly in the starlight. Men lay down to die, and the last sight that met their puzzled eyes was the rails shining in the merciless sun, heat shimmering along them.
As they fell back down the valley, an army of refugees fell back before them. Planters and Crackers, rich and poor, black and white, women and children, the old, the dying, the crippled, the wounded, the women far gone in pregnancy, crowded the road to Atlanta on trains, afoot, on horseback, in carriages and wagons piled high with trunks and household goods. Five miles ahead of the retreating army went the refugees, halting at Resaca, at Calhoun, at Kingston, hoping at each stop to hear that the Yankees had been driven back so they could return to their homes. But there was no retracing that sunny road. The gray troops passed by empty mansions, deserted farms, lonely cabins with doors ajar. Here and there some lone woman remained with a few frightened slaves, and they came to the road to cheer the soldiers, to bring buckets of well water for the thirsty men, to bind up the wounds and bury the dead in their own family burying grounds. But for the most part the sunny valley was abandoned and desolate and the untended crops stood in parching fields.
Flanked again at Calhoun, Johnston fell back to Adairsville, where there was sharp skirmishing, then to Cassville, then south of Cartersville. And the enemy had now advanced fifty-five miles from Dalton. At New Hope Church, fifteen miles farther along the hotly fought way, the gray ranks dug in for a determined stand. On came the blue lines, relentlessly, like a monster serpent, coiling, striking venomously, drawing its injured lengths back, but always striking again. There was desperate fighting at New Hope Church, eleven days of continuous fighting, with every Yankee assault bloodily repulsed. Then Johnston, flanked again, withdrew his thinning lines a few miles farther.
The Confederate dead and wounded at New Hope Church ran high. The wounded flooded Atlanta in train-loads and the town was appalled. Never, even after the battle of Chickamauga, had the town seen so many wounded. The hospitals overflowed and wounded lay on the floors of empty stores and upon cotton bales in the warehouses. Every hotel, boarding house and private residence was crowded with sufferers. Aunt Pitty had her share, although she protested that it was most unbecoming to have strange men in the house when Melanie was in a delicate condition and when gruesome sights might bring on premature birth. But Melanie reefed up her top hoop a little higher to hide her thickening figure and the wounded invaded the brick house. There was endless cooking and lifting and turning and fanning, endless hours of washing and rerolling bandages and picking lint, and endless warm nights made sleepless by the babbling delirium of men in the next room. Finally the choked town could take care of no more and the overflow of wounded was sent on to the hospitals at Macon and Augusta.
With this backwash of wounded bearing conflicting reports and the increase of frightened refugees crowding into the already crowded town, Atlanta was in an uproar. The small cloud on the horizon had blown up swiftly into a large, sullen storm cloud and it was as though a faint, chilling wind blew from it.
No one had lost faith in the invincibility of the troops but everyone, the civilians at least, had lost faith in the General. New Hope Church was only thirty-five miles from Atlanta! The General had let the Yankees push him back sixty-five miles in three weeks! Why didn’t he hold the Yankees instead of everlastingly retreating? He was a fool and worse than a fool. Graybeards in the Home Guard and members of the state militia, safe in Atlanta, insisted they could have managed the campaign better and drew maps on tablecloths to prove their contentions. As his lines grew thinner and he was forced back farther, the General called desperately on Governor Brown for these very men, but the state troops felt reasonably safe. After all, the Governor had defied Jeff Davis’ demand for them. Why should he accede to General Johnston?
Fight and fall back! Fight and fall back! For seventy miles and twenty-five days the Confederates had fought almost daily. New Hope Church was behind the gray troops now, a memory in a mad haze of like memories, heat, dust, hunger, weariness, tramp-tramp on the red rutted roads, slop-slop through the red mud, retreat, entrench, fight — retreat, entrench, fight. New Hope Church was a nightmare of another life and so was Big Shanty, where they turned and fought the Yankees like demons. But, fight the Yankees till the fields were blue with dead, there were always more Yankees, fresh Yankees; there was always that sinister southeast curving of the blue lines toward the Confederate rear, toward the railroad — and toward Atlanta!
From Big Shanty, the weary sleepless lines retreated down the road to Kennesaw Mountain, near the little town of Marietta, and here they spread their lines in a ten-mile curve. On the steep sides of the mountain they dug their rifle pits and on the towering heights they planted their batteries. Swearing, sweating men hauled the heavy guns up the precipitous slopes, for mules could not climb the hillsides. Couriers and wounded coming into Atlanta gave reassuring reports to the frightened townspeople. The heights of Kennesaw were impregnable. So were Pine Mountain and Lost Mountain near by which were also fortified. The Yankees couldn’t dislodge Old Joe’s men and they could hardly flank them now for the batteries on the mountain tops commanded all the roads for miles. Atlanta breathed more easily, but —
But Kennesaw Mountain was only twenty-two miles away!
On the day when the first wounded from Kennesaw Mountain were coming in, Mrs. Merriwether’s carriage was at Aunt Pitty’s house at the unheard-of hour of seven in the morning, and black Uncle Levi sent up word that Scarlett must dress immediately and come to the hospital. Fanny Elsing and the Bonnell girls, roused early from slumber, were yawning on the back seat and the Elsings’ mammy sat grumpily on the box, a basket of freshly laundered bandages on her lap. Off Scarlett went, unwillingly for she had danced till dawn the night before at the Home Guard’s party and her feet were tired. She silently cursed the efficient and indefatigable Mrs. Merriwether, the wounded and the whole Southern Confederacy, as Prissy buttoned her in her oldest and raggedest calico frock which she used for hospital work. Gulping down the bitter brew of parched corn and dried sweet potatoes that passed for coffee, she went out to join the girls.
She was sick of all this nursing. This very day she would tell Mrs. Merriwether that Ellen had written her to come home for a visit. Much good this did her, for that worthy matron, her sleeves rolled up, her stout figure swathed in a large apron, gave her one sharp look and said: “Don’t let me hear any more such foolishness, Scarlett Hamilton. I’ll write your mother today and tell her how much we need you, and I’m sure she’ll understand and let you stay. Now, put on your apron and trot over to Dr. Meade. He needs someone to help with the dressings.”
“Oh, God,” thought Scarlett drearily, “that’s just the trouble. Mother will make me stay here and I shall die if I have to smell these stinks any longer! I wish I was an old lady so I could bully the young ones, instead of getting bullied — and tell old cats like Mrs. Merriwether to go to Halifax!”
Yes, she was sick of the hospital, the foul smells, the lice, the aching, unwashed bodies. If there had ever been any novelty and romance about nursing, that had worn off a year ago. Besides, these men wounded in the retreat were not so attractive as the earlier ones had been. They didn’t show the slightest interest in her and they had very little to say beyond: “How’s the fightin’ goin’? What’s Old Joe doin’ now? Mighty clever fellow, Old Joe.” She didn’t think Old Joe a mighty clever fellow. All he had done was let the Yankees penetrate eighty-eight miles into Georgia. No, they were not an attractive lot. Moreover, many of them were dying, dying swiftly, silently, having little strength left to combat the blood poisoning, gangrene, typhoid and pneumonia which had set in before they could reach Atlanta and a doctor.
The day was hot and the flies came in the open windows in swarms, fat lazy flies that broke the spirits of the men as pain could not. The tide of smells and pain rose and rose about her. Perspiration soaked through her freshly starched dress as she followed Dr. Meade about, a basin in her hand.
Oh, the nausea of standing by the doctor, trying not to vomit when his bright knife cut into mortifying flesh! And oh, the horror of hearing the screams from the operating ward where amputations were going on! And the sick, helpless sense of pity at the sight of tense, white faces of mangled men waiting for the doctor to get to them, men whose ears were filled with screams, men waiting for the dreadful words: “I’m sorry, my boy, but that hand will have to come off. Yes, yes, I know; but look, see those red streaks? It’ll have to come off.”
Chloroform was so scarce now it was used only for the worst amputations and opium was a precious thing, used only to ease the dying out of life, not the living out of pain. There was no quinine and no iodine at all. Yes, Scarlett was sick of it all, and that morning she wished that she, like Melanie, had the excuse of pregnancy to offer. That was about the only excuse that was socially acceptable for not nursing these days.
When noon came, she put off her apron and sneaked away from the hospital while Mrs. Merriwether was busy writing a letter for a gangling, illiterate mountaineer. Scarlett felt that she could stand it no longer. It was an imposition on her and she knew that when the wounded came in on the noon train there would be enough work to keep her busy until night-fall — and probably without anything to eat.
She went hastily up the two short blocks to Peachtree Street, breathing the unfouled air in as deep gulps as her tightly laced corset would permit. She was standing on the corner, uncertain as to what she would do next, ashamed to go home to Aunt Pitty’s but determined not to go back to the hospital, when Rhett Butler drove by.
“You look like the ragpicker’s child,” he observed, his eyes taking in the mended lavender calico, streaked with perspiration and splotched here and there with water which had slopped from the basin. Scarlett was furious with embarrassment and indignation. Why did he always notice women’s clothing and why was he so rude as to remark upon her present untidiness?
“I don’t want to hear a word out of you. You get out and help me in and drive me somewhere where nobody will see me. I won’t go back to the hospital if they hang me! My goodness, I didn’t start this war and I don’t see any reason why I should be worked to death and —”
“A traitor to Our Glorious Cause!”
“The pot’s calling the kettle black. You help me in. I don’t care where you were going. You’re going to take me riding now.”
He swung himself out of the carriage to the ground and she suddenly thought how nice it was to see a man who was whole, who was not minus eyes or limbs, or white with pain or yellow with malaria, and who looked well fed and healthy. He was so well dressed too. His coat and trousers were actually of the same material and they fitted him, instead of hanging in folds or being almost too tight for movement. And they were new, not ragged, with dirty bare flesh and hairy legs showing through. He looked as if he had not a care in the world and that in itself was startling these days, when other men wore such worried, preoccupied, grim looks. His brown face was bland and his mouth, red lipped, clear cut as a woman’s, frankly sensual, smiled carelessly as he lifted her into the carriage.
The muscles of his big body rippled against his well-tailored clothes, as he got in beside her, and, as always, the sense of his great physical power struck her like a blow. She watched the swell of his powerful shoulders against the cloth with a fascination that was disturbing, a little frightening. His body seemed so tough and hard, as tough and hard as his keen mind. His was such an easy, graceful strength, lazy as a panther stretching in the sun, alert as a panther to spring and strike.
“You little fraud,” he said, clucking to the horse. “You dance all night with the soldiers and give them roses and ribbons and tell them how you’d die for the Cause, and when it comes to bandaging a few wounds and picking off a few lice, you decamp hastily.”
“Can’t you talk about something else and drive faster? It would be just my luck for Grandpa Merriwether to come out of his store and see me and tell old lady — I mean, Mrs. Merriwether.”
He touched up the mare with the whip and she trotted briskly across Five Points and across the railroad tracks that cut the town in two. The train bearing the wounded had already come in and the litter bearers were working swiftly in the hot sun, transferring wounded into ambulances and covered ordnance wagons. Scarlett had no qualm of conscience as she watched them but only a feeling of vast relief that she had made her escape.
“I’m just sick and tired of that old hospital,” she said, settling her billowing skirts and tying her bonnet bow more firmly under her chin. “And every day more and more wounded come in. It’s all General Johnston’s fault. If he’d just stood up to the Yankees at Dalton, they’d have —”
“But he did stand up to the Yankees, you ignorant child. And if he’d kept on standing there, Sherman would have flanked him and crushed him between the two wings of his army. And he’d have lost the railroad and the railroad is what Johnston is fighting for.”
“Oh, well,” said Scarlett, on whom military strategy was utterly lost. “It’s his fault anyway. He ought to have done something about it and I think he ought to be removed. Why doesn’t he stand and fight instead of retreating?”
“You are like everyone else, screaming ‘Off with his head’ because he can’t do the impossible. He was Jesus the Savior at Dalton, and now he’s Judas the Betrayer at Kennesaw Mountain, all in six weeks. Yet, just let him drive the Yankees back twenty miles and he’ll be Jesus again. My child, Sherman has twice as many men as Johnston, and he can afford to lose two men for every one of our gallant laddies. And Johnston can’t afford to lose a single man. He needs reinforcements badly and what is he getting? ‘Joe Brown’s Pets.’ What a help they’ll be!”
“Is the militia really going to be called out? The Home Guard, too? I hadn’t heard. How do you know?”
“There’s a rumor floating about to that effect. The rumor arrived on the train from Milledgeville this morning. Both the militia and the Home Guards are going to be sent in to reinforce General Johnston. Yes, Governor Brown’s darlings are likely to smell powder at last, and I imagine most of them will be much surprised. Certainly they never expected to see action. The Governor as good as promised them they wouldn’t. Well, that’s a good joke on them. They thought they had bomb proofs because the Governor stood up to even Jeff Davis and refused to send them to Virginia. Said they were needed for the defense of their state. Who’d have ever thought the war would come to their own back yard and they’d really have to defend their state?”
“Oh, how can you laugh, you cruel thing! Think of the old gentlemen and the little boys in the Home Guard! Why, little Phil Meade will have to go and Grandpa Merriwether and Uncle Henry Hamilton.”
“I’m not talking about the little boys and the Mexican War veterans. I’m talking about brave young men like Willie Guinan who like to wear pretty uniforms and wave swords —”
“My dear, that didn’t hurt a bit! I wear no uniform and wave no sword and the fortunes of the Confederacy mean nothing at all to me. Moreover, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the Home Guard or in any army, for that matter. I had enough of things military at West Point to do me the rest of my life. . . . Well, I wish Old Joe luck. General Lee can’t send him any help because the Yankees are keeping him busy in Virginia. So the Georgia state troops are the only reinforcements Johnston can get. He deserves better, for he’s a great strategist. He always manages to get places before the Yankees do. But he’ll have to keep falling back if he wants to protect the railroad; and mark my words, when they push him out of the mountains and onto the flatter land around here, he’s going to be butchered.”
“Around here?” cried Scarlett. “You know mighty well the Yankees will never get this far!”
“Kennesaw is only twenty-two miles away and I’ll wager you —”
“Rhett, look, down the street! That crowd of men! They aren’t soldiers. What on earth . . . ? Why, they’re darkies!”
There was a great cloud of red dust coming up the street and from the cloud came the sound of the tramping of many feet and a hundred or more negro voices, deep throated, careless, singing a hymn. Rhett pulled the carriage over to the curb, and Scarlett looked curiously at the sweating black men, picks and shovels over their shoulders, shepherded along by an officer and a squad of men wearing the insignia of the engineering corps.
“What on earth . . . ?” she began again.
Then her eyes lighted on a singing black buck in the front rank. He stood nearly six and a half feet tall, a giant of a man, ebony black, stepping along with the lithe grace of a powerful animal, his white teeth flashing as he led the gang in “Go Down, Moses.” Surely there wasn’t a negro on earth as tall and loud voiced as this one except Big Sam, the foreman of Tara. But what was Big Sam doing here, so far away from home, especially now that there was no overseer on the plantation and he was Gerald’s right-hand man?
As she half rose from her seat to look closer, the giant caught sight of her and his black face split in a grin of delighted recognition. He halted, dropped his shovel and started toward her, calling to the negroes nearest him: “Gawdlmighty! It’s Miss Scarlett! You, ‘Lige! ‘Postle! Prophet! Dar’s Miss Scarlett!”
There was confusion in the ranks. The crowd halted uncertainly, grinning, and Big Sam, followed by three other large negroes, ran across the road to the carriage, closely followed by the harried, shouting officer.
“Get back in line, you fellows! Get back, I tell you or I’ll — Why it’s Mrs. Hamilton. Good morning, Ma’m, and you, too, sir. What are you up to inciting mutiny and insubordination? God knows, I’ve had trouble enough with these boys this morning.”
“Oh, Captain Randall, don’t scold them! They are our people. This is Big Sam our foreman, and Elijah and Apostle and Prophet from Tara. Of course, they had to speak to me. How are you, boys?”
She shook hands all around, her small white hand disappearing into their huge black paws and the four capered with delight at the meeting and with pride at displaying before their comrades what a pretty Young Miss they had.
“What are you boys doing so far from Tara? You’ve run away, I’ll be bound. Don’t you know the patterollers will get you sure?”
They bellowed pleasedly at the badinage.
“Runned away?” answered Big Sam. “No’m, us ain’ runned away. Dey done sont an’ tuck us, kase us wuz de fo’ bigges’ an’ stronges’ han’s at Tara.” His white teeth showed proudly. “Dey specially sont fer me, kase Ah could sing so good. Yas’m, Mist’ Frank Kennedy, he come by an’ tuck us.”
“But why, Big Sam?”
“Lawd, Miss Scarlett! Ain’ you heerd? Us is ter dig de ditches fer de wite gempmums ter hide in w’en de Yankees comes.”
Captain Randall and the occupants of the carriage smothered smiles at this naive explanation of rifle pits.
“Cose, Mis’ Gerald might’ nigh had a fit w’en dey tuck me, an’ he say he kain run de place widout me. But Miss Ellen she say: ‘Tek him, Mist’ Kennedy. De Confedrutsy need Big Sam mo’ dan us do.’ An’ she gib me a dollar an’ tell me ter do jes’ whut de w’ite gempmums tell me. So hyah us is.”
“What does it all mean, Captain Randall?”
“Oh, it’s quite simple. We have to strengthen the fortifications of Atlanta with more miles of rifle pits, and the General can’t spare any men from the front to do it. So we’ve been impressing the strongest bucks in the countryside for the work.”
A cold little fear was beginning to throb in Scarlett’s breast. More miles of rifle pits! Why should they need more? Within the last year, a series of huge earth redoubts with battery emplacements had been built all around Atlanta, one mile from the center of town. These great earth-works were connected with rifle pits and they ran, mile after mile, completely encircling the city. More rifle pits!
“But — why should we be fortified any more than we are already fortified? We won’t need what we’ve got. Surely, the General won’t let —”
“Our present fortifications are only a mile from town,” said Captain Randall shortly. “And that’s too close for comfort — or safety. These new ones are going to be farther away. You see, another retreat may bring our men into Atlanta.”
Immediately he regretted his last remark, as her eyes widened with fear.
“But, of course there won’t be another retreat,” he added hastily. “The lines around Kennesaw Mountain are impregnable. The batteries are planted all up the mountain sides and they command the roads, and the Yankees can’t possibly get by.”
But Scarlett saw him drop his eyes before the lazy, penetrating look Rhett gave him, and she was frightened. She remembered Rhett’s remark: “When the Yankees push him out of the mountains and onto the flatter land, he’ll be butchered.”
“Oh, Captain, do you think —”
“Why, of course not! Don’t fret your mind one minute. Old Joe just believes in taking precautions. That’s the only reason we’re digging more entrenchments. . . . But I must be going now. It’s been pleasant, talking to you. . . . Say good-by to your mistress, boys, and let’s get going.”
“Good-by, boys. Now, if you get sick or hurt or in trouble, let me know. I live right down Peachtree Street, down there in almost the last house at the end of town. Wait a minute —” She fumbled in her reticule. “Oh, dear, I haven’t a cent. Rhett, give me a few shinplasters. Here, Big Sam, buy some tobacco for yourself and the boys. And be good and do what Captain Randall tells you.”
The straggling line re-formed, the dust arose again in a red cloud as they moved off and Big Sam started up the singing again.
“Go do-ow, Mos-es! Waaa-ay, do-own, in Eeejup laa-an! An’ te-el O-le Faa-ro-o Ter let mah — peee-pul go!”
“Rhett, Captain Randall was lying to me, just like all the men do — trying to keep the truth from us women for fear we’ll faint. Or was he lying? Oh, Rhett, if there’s no danger, why are they digging these new breastworks? Is the army so short of men they’ve got to use darkies?”
Rhett clucked to the mare.
“The army is damned short of men. Why else would the Home Guard be called out? And as for the entrenchments, well, fortifications are supposed to be of some value in case of a siege. The General is preparing to make his final stand here.”
“A siege! Oh, turn the horse around. I’m going home, back home to Tara, right away.”
“What ails you?”
“A siege! Name of God, a siege! I’ve heard about sieges! Pa was in one or maybe it was his Pa, and Pa told me —”
“The siege at Drogheda when Cromwell had the Irish, and they didn’t have anything to eat and Pa said they starved and died in the streets and finally they ate all the cats and rats and even things like cockroaches. And he said they ate each other too, before they surrendered, though I never did know whether to believe that or not. And when Cromwell took the town all the women were — A siege! Mother of God!”
“You are the most barbarously ignorant young person I ever saw. Drogheda was in sixteen hundred and something and Mr. O’Hara couldn’t possibly have been alive then. Besides, Sherman isn’t Cromwell.”
“No, but he’s worse! They say —”
“And as for the exotic viands the Irish ate at the siege — personally I’d as soon eat a nice juicy rat as some of the victuals they’ve been serving me recently at the hotel. I think I shall have to go back to Richmond. They have good food there, if you have the money to pay for it.” His eyes mocked the fear in her face.
Annoyed that she had shown her trepidation, she cried: “I don’t see why you’ve stayed here this long! All you think about is being comfortable and eating and — and things like that.”
“I know no more pleasant way to pass the time than in eating and er — things like that,” he said. “And as for why I stay here — well, I’ve read a good deal about sieges, beleaguered cities and the like, but I’ve never seen one. So I think I’ll stay here and watch. I won’t get hurt because I’m a noncombatant and besides I want the experience. Never pass up new experiences, Scarlett. They enrich the mind.”
“My mind’s rich enough.”
“Perhaps you know best about that, but I should say — But that would be ungallant. And perhaps, I’m staying here to rescue you when the siege does come. I’ve never rescued a maiden in distress. That would be a new experience, too.”
She knew he was teasing her but she sensed a seriousness behind his words. She tossed her head.
“I won’t need you to rescue me. I can take care of myself, thank you.”
“Don’t say that, Scarlett! Think of it, if you like, but never, never say it to a man. That’s the trouble with Yankee girls. They’d be most charming if they weren’t always telling you that they can take care of themselves, thank you. Generally they are telling the truth, God help them. And so men let them take care of themselves.”
“How you do run on,” she said coldly, for there was no insult worse than being likened to a Yankee girl. “I believe you’re lying about a siege. You know the Yankees will never get to Atlanta.”
“I’ll bet you they will be here within the month. I’ll bet you a box of bonbons against —” His dark eyes wandered to her lips. “Against a kiss.”
For a last brief moment, fear of a Yankee invasion clutched her heart but at the word “kiss,” she forgot about it. This was familiar ground and far more interesting than military operations. With difficulty she restrained a smile of glee. Since the day when he gave her the green bonnet, Rhett had made no advances which could in any way be construed as those of a lover. He could never be inveigled into personal conversations, try though she might, but now with no angling on her part, he was talking about kissing.
“I don’t care for such personal conversation,” she said coolly and managed a frown. “Besides, I’d just as soon kiss a pig.”
“There’s no accounting for tastes and I’ve always heard the Irish were partial to pigs — kept them under their beds, in fact. But, Scarlett, you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. All your beaux have respected you too much, though God knows why, or they have been too afraid of you to really do right by you. The result is that you are unendurably uppity. You should be kissed and by someone who knows how.”
The conversation was not going the way she wanted it. It never did when she was with him. Always, it was a duel in which she was worsted.
“And I suppose you think you are the proper person?” she asked with sarcasm, holding her temper in check with difficulty.
“Oh, yes, if I cared to take the trouble,” he said carelessly. “They say I kiss very well.”
“Oh,” she began, indignant at the slight to her charms. “Why, you . . .” But her eyes fell in sudden confusion. He was smiling, but in the dark depths of his eyes a tiny light flickered for a brief moment, like a small raw flame.
“Of course, you’ve probably wondered why I never tried to follow up that chaste peck I gave you, the day I brought you that bonnet —”
“I have never —”
“Then you aren’t a nice girl, Scarlett, and I’m sorry to hear it. All really nice girls wonder when men don’t try to kiss them. They know they shouldn’t want them to and they know they must act insulted if they do, but just the same, they wish the men would try. . . . Well, my dear, take heart. Some day, I will kiss you and you will like it. But not now, so I beg you not to be too impatient.”
She knew he was teasing but, as always, his teasing maddened her. There was always too much truth in the things he said. Well, this finished him. If ever, ever he should be so ill bred as to try to take any liberties with her, she would show him.
“Will you kindly turn the horse around, Captain Butler? I wish to go back to the hospital.”
“Do you indeed, my ministering angel? Then lice and slops are preferable to my conversation? Well, far be it from me to keep a pair of willing hands from laboring for Our Glorious Cause.” He turned the horse’s head and they started back toward Five Points.
“As to why I have made no further advances,” he pursued blandly, as though she had not signified that the conversation was at an end, “I’m waiting for you to grow up a little more. You see, it wouldn’t be much fun for me to kiss you now and I’m quite selfish about my pleasures. I never fancied kissing children.”
He smothered a grin, as from the corner of his eye he saw her bosom heave with silent wrath.
“And then, too,” he continued softly, “I was waiting for the memory of the estimable Ashley Wilkes to fade.”
At the mention of Ashley’s name, sudden pain went through her, sudden hot tears stung her lids. Fade? The memory of Ashley would never fade, not if he were dead a thousand years. She thought of Ashley wounded, dying in a far-off Yankee prison, with no blankets over him, with no one who loved him to hold his hand, and she was filled with hate for the well-fed man who sat beside her, jeers just beneath the surface of his drawling voice.
She was too angry to speak and they rode along in silence for some while.
“I understand practically everything about you and Ashley, now,” Rhett resumed. “I began with your inelegant scene at Twelve Oaks and, since then, I’ve picked up many things by keeping my eyes open. What things? Oh, that you still cherish a romantic schoolgirl passion for him which he reciprocates as well as his honorable nature will permit him. And that Mrs. Wilkes knows nothing and that, between the two of you, you’ve done her a pretty trick. I understand practically everything, except one thing that piques my curiosity. Did the honorable Ashley ever jeopardize his immortal soul by kissing you?”
A stony silence and an averted head were his answers.
“Ah, well, so he did kiss you. I suppose it was when he was here on furlough. And now that he’s probably dead you are cherishing it to your heart. But I’m sure you’ll get over it and when you’ve forgotten his kiss, I’ll —”
She turned in fury.
“You go to — Halifax,” she said tensely, her green eyes slits of rage. “And let me out of this carriage before I jump over the wheels. And I don’t ever want to speak to you again.”
He stopped the carriage, but before he could alight and assist her she sprang down. Her hoop caught on the wheel and for a moment the crowd at Five Points had a flashing view of petticoats and pantalets. Then Rhett leaned over and swiftly released it. She flounced off without a word, without even a backward look, and he laughed softly and clicked to the horse.