Gone with the wind (Chapter 22)
There would never again be an afternoon as long as this one. Or as hot. Or as full of lazy insolent flies. They swarmed on Melanie despite the fan Scarlett kept in constant motion. Her arms ached from swinging the wide palmetto leaf. All her efforts seemed futile, for while she brushed them from Melanie’s moist face, they crawled on her clammy feet and legs and made her jerk them weakly and cry: “Please! On my feet!”
The room was in semigloom, for Scarlett had pulled down the shades to shut out the heat and brightness. Pin points of sunlight came in through minute holes in the shades and about the edges. The room was an oven and Scarlett’s sweat-drenched clothes never dried but became wetter and stickier as the hours went by. Prissy was crouched in a corner, sweating too, and smelled so abominably Scarlett would have sent her from the room had she not feared the girl would take to her heels if once out of sight. Melanie lay on the bed on a sheet dark with perspiration and splotched with dampness where Scarlett had spilled water. She twisted endlessly, to one side, to the other, to left, to right and back again.
Sometimes she tried to sit up and fell back and began twisting again. At first, she had tried to keep from crying out, biting her lips until they were raw, and Scarlett, whose nerves were as raw as the lips, said huskily: “Melly, for God’s sake, don’t try to be brave. Yell if you want to. There’s nobody to hear you but us.”
As the afternoon wore on, Melanie moaned whether she wanted to be brave or not, and sometimes she screamed. When she did, Scarlett dropped her head into her hands and covered her ears and twisted her body and wished that she herself were dead. Anything was preferable to being a helpless witness to such pain. Anything was better than being tied here waiting for a baby that took such a long time coming. Waiting, when for all she knew the Yankees were actually at Five Points.
She fervently wished she had paid more attention to the whispered conversations of matrons on the subject of childbirth. If only she had! If only she had been more interested in such matters she’d know whether Melanie was taking a long time or not. She had a vague memory of one of Aunt Pitty’s stories of a friend who was in labor for two days and died without ever having the baby. Suppose Melanie should go on like this for two days! But Melanie was so delicate. She couldn’t stand two days of this pain. She’d die soon if the baby didn’t hurry. And how could she ever face Ashley, if he were still alive, and tell him that Melanie had died — after she had promised to take care of her?
At first, Melanie wanted to hold Scarlett’s hand when the pain was bad but she clamped down on it so hard she nearly broke the bones. After an hour of this, Scarlett’s hands were so swollen and bruised she could hardly flex them. She knotted two long towels together and tied them to the foot of the bed and put the knotted end in Melanie’s hands. Melanie hung onto it as though it were a life line, straining, pulling it taut, slackening it, tearing it. Throughout the afternoon, her voice went on like an animal dying in a trap. Occasionally she dropped the towel and rubbed her hands feebly and looked up at Scarlett with eyes enormous with pain.
“Talk to me. Please talk to me,” she whispered and Scarlett would gabble something until Melanie again gripped the knot and again began writhing.
The dim room swam with heat and pain and droning flies, and time went by on such dragging feet Scarlett could scarcely remember the morning. She felt as if she had been in this steaming, dark, sweating place all her life. She wanted very much to scream every time Melanie did, and only by biting her lips so hard it infuriated her could she restrain herself and drive off hysteria.
Once Wade came tiptoeing up the stairs and stood outside the door, wailing.
“Wade hungwy!” Scarlett started to go to him, but Melanie whispered: “Don’t leave me. Please. I can stand it when you’re here.”
So Scarlett sent Prissy down to warm up the breakfast hominy and feed him. For herself, she felt that she could never eat again after this afternoon.
The clock on the mantel had stopped and she had no way of telling the time but as the heat in the room lessened and the bright pin points of light grew duller, she pulled the shade aside. She saw to her surprise that it was late afternoon and the sun, a ball of crimson, was far down the sky. Somehow, she had imagined it would remain broiling hot noon forever.
She wondered passionately what was going on downtown. Had all the troops moved out yet? Had the Yankees come? Would the Confederates march away without even a fight? Then she remembered with a sick dropping in her stomach how few Confederates there were and how many men Sherman had and how well fed they were. Sherman! The name of Satan himself did not frighten her half so much. But there was no time for thinking now, as Melanie called for water, for a cold towel on her head, to be fanned, to have the flies brushed away from her face.
When twilight came on and Prissy, scurrying like a black wraith, lit a lamp, Melanie became weaker. She began calling for Ashley, over and over, as if in a delirium until the hideous monotony gave Scarlett a fierce desire to smother her voice with a pillow. Perhaps the doctor would come after all. If he would only come quickly! Hope raising its head, she turned to Prissy, and ordered her to run quickly to the Meades’ house and see if he were there or Mrs. Meade.
“And if he’s not there, ask Mrs. Meade or Cookie what to do. Beg them to come!”
Prissy was off with a clatter and Scarlett watched her hurrying down the street, going faster than she had ever dreamed the worthless child could move. After a prolonged time she was back, alone.
“De doctah ain’ been home all day. Sont wud he mout go off wid de sojers. Miss Scarlett, Mist’ Phil’s ‘ceased.”
“Yas’m,” said Prissy, expanding with importance. “Talbot, dey coachman, tole me. He wuz shot —”
“Never mind that.”
“Ah din’ see Miss Meade. Cookie say Miss Meade she washin’ him an’ fixin ter buhy him fo’ de Yankees gits hyah. Cookie say effen de pain get too bad, jes’ you put a knife unner Miss Melly’s bed an’ it cut de pain in two.”
Scarlett wanted to slap her again for this helpful information but Melanie opened wide, dilated eyes and whispered: “Dear — are the Yankees coming?”
“No,” said Scarlett stoutly. “Prissy’s a liar.”
“Yas’m, Ah sho is,” Prissy agreed fervently.
“They’re coming,” whispered Melanie undeceived and buried her face in the pillow. Her voice came out muffled.
“My poor baby. My poor baby.” And, after a long interval: “Oh, Scarlett, you mustn’t stay here. You must go and take Wade.”
What Melanie said was no more than Scarlett had been thinking but hearing it put into words infuriated her, shamed her as if her secret cowardice was written plainly in her face.
“Don’t be a goose. I’m not afraid. You know I won’t leave you.”
“You might as well. I’m going to die.” And she began moaning again.
Scarlett came down the dark stairs slowly, like an old woman, feeling her way, clinging to the banisters lest she fall. Her legs were leaden, trembling with fatigue and strain, and she shivered with cold from the clammy sweat that soaked her body. Feebly she made her way onto the front porch and sank down on the top step. She sprawled back against a pillar of the porch and with a shaking hand unbuttoned her basque halfway down her bosom. The night was drenched in warm soft darkness and she lay staring into it, dull as an ox.
It was all over. Melanie was not dead and the small baby boy who made noises like a young kitten was receiving his first bath at Prissy’s hands. Melanie was asleep. How could she sleep after that nightmare of screaming pain and ignorant midwifery that hurt more than it helped? Why wasn’t she dead? Scarlett knew that she herself would have died under such handling. But when it was over, Melanie had even whispered, so weakly she had to bend over her to hear: “Thank you.” And then she had gone to sleep. How could she go to sleep? Scarlett forgot that she too had gone to sleep after Wade was born. She forgot everything. Her mind was a vacuum; the world was a vacuum; there had been no life before this endless day and there would be none hereafter — only a heavily hot night, only the sound of her hoarse tired breathing, only the sweat trickling coldly from armpit to waist, from hip to knee, clammy, sticky, chilling.
She heard her own breath pass from loud evenness to spasmodic sobbing but her eyes were dry and burning as though there would never be tears in them again. Slowly, laboriously, she heaved herself over and pulled her heavy skirts up to her thighs. She was warm and cold and sticky all at the same time and the feel of the night air on her limbs was refreshing. She thought dully what Aunt Pitty would say, if she could see her sprawled here on the front porch with her skirts up and her drawers showing, but she did not care. She did not care about anything. Time had stood still. It might be just after twilight and it might be midnight. She didn’t know or care.
She heard sounds of moving feet upstairs and thought “May the Lord damn Prissy,” before her eyes closed and something like sleep descended upon her. Then after an indeterminate dark interval, Prissy was beside her, chattering on in a pleased way.
“We done right good, Miss Scarlett. Ah specs Maw couldn’ a did no better.”
From the shadows, Scarlett glared at her, too tired to rail, too tired to upbraid, too tired to enumerate Prissy’s offenses — her boastful assumption of experience she didn’t possess, her fright, her blundering awkwardness, her utter inefficiency when the emergency was hot, the misplacing of the scissors, the spilling of the basin of water on the bed, the dropping of the new born baby. And now she bragged about how good she had been.
And the Yankees wanted to free the negroes! Well, the Yankees were welcome to them.
She lay back against the pillar in silence and Prissy, aware of her mood, tiptoed away into the darkness of the porch. After a long interval in which her breathing finally quieted and her mind steadied, Scarlett heard the sound of faint voices from up the road, the tramping of many feet coming from the north. Soldiers! She sat up slowly, pulling down her skirts, although she knew no one could see her in the darkness. As they came abreast the house, an indeterminate number, passing like shadows, she called to them.
A shadow disengaged itself from the mass and came to the gate.
“Are you going? Are you leaving us?”
The shadow seemed to take off a hat and a quiet voice came from the darkness.
“Yes, Ma’m. That’s what we’re doing. We’re the last of the men from the breastworks, ‘bout a mile north from here.”
“Are you — is the army really retreating?”
“Yes, Ma’m. You see, the Yankees are coming.”
The Yankees are coming! She had forgotten that. Her throat suddenly contracted and she could say nothing more. The shadow moved away, merged itself with the other shadows and the feet tramped off into the darkness. “The Yankees are coming! The Yankees are coming!” That was what the rhythm of their feet said, that was what her suddenly bumping heart thudded out with each beat. The Yankees are coming!
“De Yankees is comin’!” bawled Prissy, shrinking close to her. “Oh, Miss Scarlett, dey’ll kill us all! Dey’ll run dey baynits in our stummicks! Dey’ll —”
“Oh, hush!” It was terrifying enough to think these things without hearing them put into trembling words. Renewed fear swept her. What could she do? How could she escape? Where could she turn for help? Every friend had failed her.
Suddenly she thought of Rhett Butler and calm dispelled her fears. Why hadn’t she thought of him this morning when she had been tearing about like a chicken with its head off? She hated him, but he was strong and smart and he wasn’t afraid of the Yankees. And he was still in town. Of course, she was mad at him. But she could overlook such things at a time like this. And he had a horse and carriage, too. Oh, why hadn’t she thought of him before! He could take them all away from this doomed place, away from the Yankees, somewhere, anywhere.
She turned to Prissy and spoke with feverish urgency.
“You know where Captain Butler lives — at the Atlanta Hotel?”
“Yas’m, but —”
“Well, go there, now, as quick as you can run and tell him I want him. I want him to come quickly and bring his horse and carriage or an ambulance if he can get one. Tell him about the baby. Tell him I want him to take us out of here. Go, now. Hurry!”
She sat upright and gave Prissy a push to speed her feet.
“Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett! Ah’s sceered ter go runnin’ roun’ in de dahk by mahseff! Spose de Yankees gits me?”
“If you run fast you can catch up with those soldiers and they won’t let the Yankees get you. Hurry!”
“Ah’s sceered! Sposin’ Cap’n Butler ain’ at de hotel?”
“Then ask where he is. Haven’t you any gumption? If he isn’t at the hotel, go to the barrooms on Decatur Street and ask for him. Go to Belle Watling’s house. Hunt for him. You fool, don’t you see that if you don’t hurry and find him the Yankees will surely get us all?”
“Miss Scarlett, Maw would weah me out wid a cotton stalk, did Ah go in a bahroom or a ho’ house.”
Scarlett pulled herself to her feet.
“Well, I’ll wear you out if you don’t. You can stand outside in the street and yell for him, can’t you? Or ask somebody if he’s inside. Get going.”
When Prissy still lingered, shuffling her feet and mouthing, Scarlett gave her another push which nearly sent her headlong down the front steps.
“You’ll go or I’ll sell you down the river. You’ll never see your mother again or anybody you know and I’ll sell you for a field hand too. Hurry!”
“Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett —”
But under the determined pressure of her mistress’ hand she started down the steps. The front gate clicked and Scarlett cried: “Run, you goose!”
She heard the patter of Prissy’s feet as she broke into a trot, and then the sound died away on the soft earth.