Gone with the wind (Chapter 20)
As the hot noisy days of August were drawing to a close the bombardment abruptly ceased. The quiet that fell on the town was startling. Neighbors met on the streets and stared at one another, uncertain, uneasy, as to what might be impending. The stillness, after the screaming days, brought no surcease to strained nerves but, if possible, made the strain even worse. No one knew why the Yankee batteries were silent; there was no news of the troops except that they had been withdrawn in large numbers from the breastworks about the town and had marched off toward the south to defend the railroad. No one knew where the fighting was, if indeed there was any fighting, or how the battle was going if there was a battle.
Nowadays the only news was that which passed from mouth to mouth. Short of paper, short of ink, short of men, the newspapers had suspended publication after the siege began, and the wildest rumors appeared from nowhere and swept through the town. Now, in the anxious quiet, crowds stormed General Hood’s headquarters demanding information, crowds massed about the telegraph office and the depot hoping for tidings, good tidings, for everyone hoped that the silence of Sherman’s cannon meant that the Yankees were in full retreat and the Confederates chasing them back up the road to Dalton. But no news came. The telegraph wires were still, no trains came in on the one remaining railroad from the south and the mail service was broken.
Autumn with its dusty, breathless heat was slipping in to choke the suddenly quiet town, adding its dry, panting weight to tired, anxious hearts. To Scarlett, mad to hear from Tara, yet trying to keep up a brave face, it seemed an eternity since the siege began, seemed as though she had always lived with the sound of cannon in her ears until this sinister quiet had fallen. And yet, it was only thirty days since the siege began. Thirty days of siege! The city ringed with red-clay rifle pits, the monotonous booming of cannon that never rested, the long lines of ambulances and ox carts dripping blood down the dusty streets toward the hospitals, the overworked burial squads dragging out men when they were hardly cold and dumping them like so many logs in endless rows of shallow ditches. Only thirty days!
And it was only four months since the Yankees moved south from Dalton! Only four months! Scarlett thought, looking back on that far day, that it had occurred in another life. Oh, no! Surely not just four months. It had been a lifetime.
Four months ago! Why, four months ago Dalton, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain had been to her only names of places on the railroad. Now they were battles, battles desperately, vainly fought as Johnston fell back toward Atlanta. And now, Peachtree Creek, Decatur, Ezra Church and Utoy Creek were no longer pleasant names of pleasant places. Never again could she think of them as quiet villages full of welcoming friends, as green places where she picnicked with handsome officers on the soft banks of slow-moving streams. These names meant battles too, and the soft green grasses where she had sat were cut to bits by heavy cannon wheels, trampled by desperate feet when bayonet met bayonet and flattened where bodies threshed in agonies. . . . And the lazy streams were redder now than ever Georgia clay could make them. Peachtree Creek was crimson, so they said, after the Yankees crossed it. Peachtree Creek, Decatur, Ezra Church, Utoy Creek. Never names of places any more. Names of graves where friends lay buried, names of tangled underbrush and thick woods where bodies rotted unburied, names of the four sides of Atlanta where Sherman had tried to force his army in and Hood’s men had doggedly beaten him back.
At last, news came from the south to the strained town and it was alarming news, especially to Scarlett. General Sherman was trying the fourth side of the town again, striking again at the railroad at Jonesboro. Yankees in large numbers were on that fourth side of the town now, no skirmishing units or cavalry detachments but the massed Yankee forces. And thousands of Confederate troops had been withdrawn from the lines close about the city to hurl themselves against them. And that explained the sudden silence.
“Why Jonesboro?” thought Scarlett, terror striking at her heart at the thought of Tara’s nearness. “Why must they always hit Jonesboro? Why can’t they find some other place to attack the railroad?”
For a week she had not heard from Tara and the last brief note from Gerald had added to her fears. Carreen had taken a turn for the worse and was very, very sick. Now it might be days before the mails came through, days before she heard whether Carreen was alive or dead. Oh, if she had only gone home at the beginning of the siege, Melanie or no Melanie!
There was fighting at Jonesboro — that much Atlanta knew, but how the battle went no one could tell and the most insane rumors tortured the town. Finally a courier came up from Jonesboro with the reassuring news that the Yankees had been beaten back. But they had made a sortie into Jonesboro, burned the depot, cut the telegraph wires and torn up three miles of track before they retreated. The engineering corps was working like mad, repairing the line, but it would take some time because the Yankees had torn up the crossties, made bonfires of them, laid the wrenched-up rails across them until they were red hot and then twisted them around telegraph poles until they looked like giant corkscrews. These days it was so hard to replace iron rails, to replace anything made of iron.
No, the Yankees hadn’t gotten to Tara. The same courier who brought the dispatches to General Hood assured Scarlett of that. He had met Gerald in Jonesboro after the battle, just as he was starting to Atlanta, and Gerald had begged him to bring a letter to her.
But what was Pa doing in Jonesboro? The young courier looked ill at ease as he made answer. Gerald was hunting for an army doctor to go to Tara with him.
As she stood in the sunshine on the front porch, thanking the young man for his trouble, Scarlett felt her knees go weak. Carreen must be dying if she was so far beyond Ellen’s medical skill that Gerald was hunting a doctor! As the courier went off in a small whirlwind of red dust, Scarlett tore open Gerald’s letter with fingers that trembled. So great was the shortage of paper in the Confederacy now that Gerald’s note was written between the lines of her last letter to him and reading it was difficult.
“Dear Daughter, Your Mother and both girls have the typhoid. They are very ill but we must hope for the best. When your mother took to her bed she bade me write you that under no condition were you to come home and expose yourself and Wade to the disease. She sends her love and bids you pray for her.”
“Pray for her!” Scarlett flew up the stairs to her room and, dropping on her knees by the bed, prayed as she had never prayed before. No formal Rosaries now but the same words over and over: “Mother of God, don’t let her die! I’ll be so good if you don’t let her die! Please, don’t let her die!”
For the next week Scarlett crept about the house like a stricken animal, waiting for news, starting at every sound of horses’ hooves, rushing down the dark stair at night when soldiers came tapping at the door, but no news came from Tara. The width of the continent might have spread between her and home instead of twenty-five miles of dusty road.
The mails were still disrupted, no one knew where the Confederates were or what the Yankees were up to. No one knew anything except that thousands of soldiers, gray and blue, were somewhere between Atlanta and Jonesboro. Not a word from Tara in a week.
Scarlett had seen enough typhoid in the Atlanta hospital to know what a week meant in that dread disease. Ellen was ill, perhaps dying, and here was Scarlett helpless in Atlanta with a pregnant woman on her hands and two armies between her and home. Ellen was ill — perhaps dying. But Ellen couldn’t be ill! She had never been ill. The very thought was incredible and it struck at the very foundations of the security of Scarlett’s life. Everyone else got sick, but never Ellen. Ellen looked after sick people and made them well again. She couldn’t be sick. Scarlett wanted to be home. She wanted Tara with the desperate desire of a frightened child frantic for the only haven it had ever known.
Home! The sprawling white house with fluttering white curtains at the windows, the thick clover on the lawn with the bees busy in it, the little black boy on the front steps shooing the ducks and turkeys from the flower beds, the serene red fields and the miles and miles of cotton turning white in the sun! Home!
If she had only gone home at the beginning of the siege, when everyone else was refugeeing! She could have taken Melanie with her in safety with weeks to spare.
“Oh, damn Melanie!” she thought a thousand times. “Why couldn’t she have gone to Macon with Aunt Pitty? That’s where she belongs, with her own kinfolks, not with me. I’m none of her blood. Why does she hang onto me so hard? If she’d only gone to Macon, then I could have gone home to Mother. Even now — even now, I’d take a chance on getting home in spite of the Yankees, if it wasn’t for this baby. Maybe General Hood would give me an escort. He’s a nice man, General Hood, and I know I could make him give me an escort and a flag of truce to get me through the lines. But I have to wait for this baby! . . . Oh, Mother! Mother! Don’t die! . . . Why don’t this baby ever come? I’ll see Dr. Meade today and ask him if there’s any way to hurry babies up so I can go home — if I can get an escort. Dr. Meade said she’d have a bad time. Dear God! Suppose she should die! Melanie dead. Melanie dead. And Ashley — No, I mustn’t think about that, it isn’t nice. But Ashley — No, I mustn’t think about that because he’s probably dead, anyway. But he made me promise I’d take care of her. But — if I didn’t take care of her and she died and Ashley is still alive — No, I mustn’t think about that. It’s sinful. And I promised God I’d be good if He would just not let Mother die. Oh, if the baby would only come. If I could only get away from here — get home — get anywhere but here.”
Scarlett hated the sight of the ominously still town now and once she had loved it. Atlanta was no longer the gay, the desperately gay place she had loved. It was a hideous place like a plague-stricken city so quiet, so dreadfully quiet after the din of the siege. There had been stimulation in the noise and the danger of the shelling. There was only horror in the quiet that followed. The town seemed haunted, haunted with fear and uncertainty and memories. People’s faces looked pinched and the few soldiers Scarlett saw wore the exhausted look of racers forcing themselves on through the last lap of a race already lost.
The last day of August came and with it convincing rumors that the fiercest fighting since the battle of Atlanta was taking place. Somewhere to the south. Atlanta, waiting for news of the turn of battle, stopped even trying to laugh and joke. Everyone knew now what the soldiers had known two weeks before — that Atlanta was in the last ditch, that if the Macon railroad fell, Atlanta would fall too.
On the morning of the first of September, Scarlett awoke with a suffocating sense of dread upon her, a dread she had taken to her pillow the night before. She thought, dulled with sleep: “What was it I was worrying about when I went to bed last night? Oh, yes, the fighting. There was a battle, somewhere, yesterday! Oh, who won?” She sat up hastily, rubbing her eyes, and her worried heart took up yesterday’s load again.
The air was oppressive even in the early morning hour, hot with the scorching promise of a noon of glaring blue sky and pitiless bronze sun. The road outside lay silent. No wagons creaked by. No troops raised the red dust with their tramping feet. There were no sounds of negroes’ lazy voices in neighboring kitchens, no pleasant sounds of breakfasts being prepared, for all the near neighbors except Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether had refugeed to Macon. And she could hear nothing from their houses either. Farther down the street the business section was quiet and many of the stores and offices were locked and boarded up, while their occupants were somewhere about the countryside with rifles in their hands.
The stillness that greeted her seemed even more sinister this morning than on any of the mornings of the queer quiet week preceding it. She rose hastily, without her usual preliminary burrowings and stretchings, and went to the window, hoping to see some neighbor’s face, some heartening sight. But the road was empty. She noted how the leaves on the trees were still dark green but dry and heavily coated with red dust, and how withered and sad the untended flowers in the front yard looked.
As she stood, looking out of the window, there came to her ears a far-off sound, faint and sullen as the first distant thunder of an approaching storm.
“Rain,” she thought in the first moment, and her country-bred mind added, “we certainly need it.” But, in a split instant: “Rain? No! Not rain! Cannon!”
Her heart racing, she leaned from the window, her ear cocked to the far-off roaring, trying to discover from which direction it came. But the dim thundering was so distant that, for a moment, she could not tell. “Make it from Marietta, Lord!” she prayed. “Or Decatur. Or Peachtree Creek. But not from the south! Not from the south!” She gripped the window still tighter and strained her ears and the far-away booming seemed louder. And it was coming from the south.
Cannon to the south! And to the south lay Jonesboro and Tara — and Ellen.
Yankees perhaps at Tara, now, this minute! She listened again but the blood thudding in her ears all but blurred out the sound of far-off firing. No, they couldn’t be at Jonesboro yet. If they were that far away, the sound would be fainter, more indistinct. But they must be at least ten miles down the road toward Jonesboro, probably near the little settlement of Rough and Ready. But Jonesboro was scarcely more than ten miles below Rough and Ready.
Cannon to the south, and they might be tolling the knell of Atlanta’s fall. But to Scarlett, sick for her mother’s safety, fighting to the south only meant fighting near Tara. She walked the floor and wrung her hands and for the first time the thought in all its implications came to her that the gray army might be defeated. It was the thought of Sherman’s thousands so close to Tara that brought it all home to her, brought the full horror of the war to her as no sound of siege guns shattering windowpanes, no privations of food and clothing and no endless rows of dying men had done. Sherman’s army within a few miles of Tara! And even if the Yankees should be defeated, they might fall back down the road to Tara. And Gerald couldn’t possibly refugee out of their way with three sick women.
Oh, if she were only there now, Yankees or not. She paced the floor in her bare feet, her nightgown clinging to her legs and the more she walked the stronger became her foreboding. She wanted to be at home. She wanted to be near Ellen.
From the kitchen below, she heard the rattle of china as Prissy prepared breakfast, but no sound of Mrs. Meade’s Betsy. The shrill, melancholy minor of Prissy was raised, “Jes’ a few mo’ days, ter tote de wee-ry load . . .” The song grated on Scarlett, its sad implications frightening her, and slipping on a wrapper she pattered out into the hall and to the back stairs and shouted: “Shut up that singing, Prissy!”
A sullen “Yas’m” drifted up to her and she drew a deep breath, feeling suddenly ashamed of herself.
“Ah doan know. She ain’ came.”
Scarlett walked to Melanie’s door and opened it a crack, peering into the sunny room. Melanie lay in bed in her nightgown, her eyes closed and circled with black, her heart-shaped face bloated, her slender body hideous and distorted. Scarlett wished viciously that Ashley could see her now. She looked worse than any pregnant woman she had ever seen. As she looked, Melanie’s eyes opened and a soft warm smile lit her face.
“Come in,” she invited, turning awkwardly on her side. “I’ve been awake since sun-up thinking, and, Scarlett, there’s something I want to ask you.”
She entered the room and sat down on the bed that was glaring with harsh sunshine.
Melanie reached out and took Scarlett’s hand in a gentle confiding clasp.
“Dear,” she said, “I’m sorry about the cannon. It’s toward Jonesboro, isn’t it?”
Scarlett said “Um,” her heart beginning to beat faster as the thought recurred.
“I know how worried you are. I know you’d have gone home last week when you heard about your mother, if it hadn’t been for me. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Scarlett ungraciously.
“Scarlett, darling. You’ve been so good to me. No sister could have been sweeter or braver. And I love you for it. I’m so sorry I’m in the way.”
Scarlett stared. Loved her, did she? The fool!
“And Scarlett, I’ve been lying here thinking and I want to ask a very great favor of you.” Her clasp tightened. “If I should die, will you take my baby?”
Melanie’s eyes were wide and bright with soft urgency.
Scarlett jerked away her hand as fear swamped her. Fear roughened her voice as she spoke.
“Oh, don’t be a goose, Melly. You aren’t going to die. Every woman thinks she’s going to die with her first baby. I know I did.”
“No, you didn’t. You’ve never been afraid of anything. You are just saying that to try to cheer me up. I’m not afraid to die but I’m so afraid to leave the baby, if Ashley is — Scarlett, promise me that you’ll take my baby if I should die. Then I won’t be afraid. Aunt Pittypat is too old to raise a child and Honey and India are sweet but — I want you to have my baby. Promise me, Scarlett. And if it’s a boy, bring him up like Ashley, and if it’s a girl — dear, I’d like her to be like you.”
“God’s nightgown!” cried Scarlett, leaping from the bed. “Aren’t things bad enough without you talking about dying?”
“I’m sorry, dear. But promise me. I think it’ll be today. I’m sure it’ll be today. Please promise me.”
“Oh, all right, I promise,” said Scarlett, looking down at her in bewilderment.
Was Melanie such a fool she really didn’t know how she cared for Ashley? Or did she know everything and feel that because of that love, Scarlett would take good care of Ashley’s child? Scarlett had a wild impulse to cry out questions, but they died on her lips as Melanie took her hand and held it for an instant against her cheek. Tranquillity had come back into her eyes.
“Why do you think it will be today, Melly?”
“I’ve been having pains since dawn — but not very bad ones.”
“You have? Well, why didn’t you call me? I’ll send Prissy for Dr. Meade.”
“No, don’t do that yet, Scarlett. You know how busy he is, how busy they all are. Just send word to him that we’ll need him some time today. Send over to Mrs. Meade’s and tell her and ask her to come over and sit with me. She’ll know when to really send for him.”
“Oh, stop being so unselfish. You know you need a doctor as much as anybody in the hospital. I’ll send for him right away.”
“No, please don’t. Sometimes it takes all day having a baby and I just couldn’t let the doctor sit here for hours when all those poor boys need him so much. Just send for Mrs. Meade. She’ll know.”
“Oh, all right,” said Scarlett.