Gone with the wind (Chapter 23)
After Prissy had gone, Scarlett went wearily into the downstairs hall and lit a lamp. The house felt steamingly hot, as though it held in its walls all the heat of the noontide. Some of her dullness was passing now and her stomach was clamoring for food. She remembered she had had nothing to eat since the night before except a spoonful of hominy, and picking up the lamp she went into the kitchen. The fire in the oven had died but the room was stifling hot. She found half a pone of hard corn bread in the skillet and gnawed hungrily on it while she looked about for other food. There was some hominy left in the pot and she ate it with a big cooking spoon, not waiting to put it on a plate. It needed salt badly but she was too hungry to hunt for it. After four spoonfuls of it, the heat of the room was too much and, taking the lamp in one hand and a fragment of pone in the other, she went out into the hall.
She knew she should go upstairs and sit beside Melanie. If anything went wrong, Melanie would be too weak to call. But the idea of returning to that room where she had spent so many nightmare hours was repulsive to her. Even if Melanie were dying, she couldn’t go back up there. She never wanted to see that room again. She set the lamp on the candle stand by the window and returned to the front porch. It was so much cooler here, and even the night was drowned in soft warmth. She sat down on the steps in the circle of faint light thrown by the lamp and continued gnawing on the corn bread.
When she had finished it, a measure of strength came back to her and with the strength came again the pricking of fear. She could hear a humming of noise far down the street, but what it portended she did not know. She could distinguish nothing but a volume of sound that rose and fell. She strained forward trying to hear and soon she found her muscles aching from the tension. More than anything in the world she yearned to hear the sound of hooves and to see Rhett’s careless, self-confident eyes laughing at her fears. Rhett would take them away, somewhere. She didn’t know where. She didn’t care.
As she sat straining her ears toward town, a faint glow appeared above the trees. It puzzled her. She watched it and saw it grow brighter. The dark sky became pink and then dull red, and suddenly above the trees, she saw a huge tongue of flame leap high to the heavens. She jumped to her feet, her heart beginning again its sickening thudding and bumping.
The Yankees had come! She knew they had come and they were burning the town. The flames seemed to be off to the east of the center of town. They shot higher and higher and widened rapidly into a broad expanse of red before her terrified eyes. A whole block must be burning. A faint hot breeze that had sprung up bore the smell of smoke to her.
She fled up the stairs to her own room and hung out the window for a better view. The sky was a hideous lurid color and great swirls of black smoke went twisting up to hand in billowy clouds above the flames. The smell of smoke was stronger now. Her mind rushed incoherently here and there, thinking how soon the flames would spread up Peachtree Street and burn this house, how soon the Yankees would be rushing in upon her, where she would run, what she would do. All the fiends of hell seemed screaming in her ears and her brain swirled with confusion and panic so overpowering she clung to the window sill for support.
“I must think,” she told herself over and over. “I must think.”
But thoughts eluded her, darting in and out of her mind like frightened humming birds. As she stood hanging to the sill, a deafening explosion burst on her ears, louder than any cannon she had ever heard. The sky was rent with gigantic flame. Then other explosions. The earth shook and the glass in the panes above her head shivered and came down around her.
The world became an inferno of noise and flame and trembling earth as one explosion followed another in earsplitting succession. Torrents of sparks shot to the sky and descended slowly, lazily, through blood-colored clouds of smoke. She thought she heard a feeble call from the next room but she paid it no heed. She had no time for Melanie now. No time for anything except a fear that licked through her veins as swiftly as the flames she saw. She was a child and mad with fright and she wanted to bury her head in her mother’s lap and shut out this sight. If she were only home! Home with Mother.
Through the nerve-shivering sounds, she heard another sound, that of fear-sped feet coming up the stairs three at a time, heard a voice yelping like a lost hound. Prissy broke into the room and, flying to Scarlett, clutched her arm in a grip that seemed to pinch out pieces of flesh.
“The Yankees —” cried Scarlett.
“No’m, its our gempmums!” yelled Prissy between breaths, digging her nails deeper into Scarlett’s arm. “Dey’s buhnin’ de foun’ry an’ de ahmy supply depots an’ de wa’houses an’, fo’ Gawd, Miss Scarlett, dey done set off dem sebenty freight cahs of cannon balls an’ gunpowder an’, Jesus, we’s all gwine ter buhn up!”
She began yelping again shrilly and pinched Scarlett so hard she cried out in pain and fury and shook off her hand.
The Yankees hadn’t come yet! There was still time to get away! She rallied her frightened forces together.
“If I don’t get a hold on myself,” she thought, “I’ll be squalling like a scalded cat!” and the sight of Prissy’s abject terror helped steady her. She took her by the shoulders and shook her.
“Shut up that racket and talk sense. The Yankees haven’t come, you fool! Did you see Captain Butler? What did he say? Is he coming?”
Prissy ceased her yelling but her teeth chattered.
“Yas’m, ah finely foun’ him. In a bahroom, lak you told me. He —”
“Never mind where you found him. Is he coming? Did you tell him to bring his horse?”
“Lawd, Miss Scarlett, he say our gempmums done tuck his hawse an’ cah’ige fer a amberlance.”
“Dear God in Heaven!”
“But he comin’—”
“What did he say?”
Prissy had recovered her breath and a small measure of control but her eyes still rolled.
“Well’m, lak you tole me, Ah foun’ him in a bahroom. Ah stood outside an’ yell fer him an’ he come out. An’ terreckly he see me an’ Ah starts tell him, de sojers tech off a sto’ house down Decatur Street an’ it flame up an’ he say Come on an’ he grab me an’ we runs ter Fibe Points an’ he say den: What now? Talk fas’. An’ Ah say you say, Cap’n Butler, come quick an’ bring yo’ hawse an’ cah’ige. Miss Melly done had a chile an’ you is bustin’ ter get outer town. An’ he say: Where all she studyin’ ‘bout goin’? An’ Ah say: Ah doan know, suh, but you is boun’ ter go fo’ de Yankees gits hyah an’ wants him ter go wid you. An’ he laugh an’ say dey done tuck his hawse.”
Scarlett’s heart went leaden as the last hope left her. Fool that she was, why hadn’t she thought that the retreating army would naturally take every vehicle and animal left in the city? For a moment she was too stunned to hear what Prissy was saying but she pulled herself together to hear the rest of the story.
“An’ den he say, Tell Miss Scarlett ter res’ easy. Ah’ll steal her a hawse outer de ahmy crall effen dey’s ary one lef. An’ he say, Ah done stole hawses befo’ dis night. Tell her Ah git her a hawse effen Ah gits shot fer it. Den he laugh agin an’ say, Cut an’ run home. An’ befo’ Ah gits started Ker-bboom! Off goes a noise an’ Ah lak ter drap in mah tracks an’ he tell me twain’t nuthin’ but de ammernition our gempmums blown’ up so’s de Yankees don’t git it an’—”
“He is coming? He’s going to bring a horse?”
“So he say.”
She drew a long breath of relief. If there was any way of getting a horse, Rhett Butler would get one. A smart man, Rhett. She would forgive him anything if he got them out of this mess. Escape! And with Rhett she would have no fear. Rhett would protect them. Thank God for Rhett! With safety in view she turned practical.
“Wake Wade up and dress him and pack some clothes for all of us. Put them in the small trunk. And don’t tell Miss Mellie we’re going. Not yet. But wrap the baby in a couple of thick towels and be sure and pack his clothes.”
Prissy still clung to her skirts and hardly anything showed in her eyes except the whites. Scarlett gave her a shove and loosened her grip.
“Hurry,” she cried, and Prissy went off like a rabbit.
Scarlett knew she should go in and quiet Melanie’s fear, knew Melanie must be frightened out of her senses by the thunderous noises that continued unabated and the glare that lighted the sky. It looked and sounded like the end of the world.
But she could not bring herself to go back into that room just yet. She ran down the stairs with some idea of packing up Miss Pittypat’s china and the little silver she had left when she refugeed to Macon. But when she reached the dining room, her hands were shaking so badly she dropped three plates and shattered them. She ran out onto the porch to listen and back again to the dining room and dropped the silver clattering to the floor. Everything she touched she dropped. In her hurry she slipped on the rag rug and fell to the floor with a jolt but leaped up so quickly she was not even aware of the pain. Upstairs she could hear Prissy galloping about like a wild animal and the sound maddened her, for she was galloping just as aimlessly.
For the dozenth time, she ran out onto the porch but this time she did not go back to her futile packing. She sat down. It was just impossible to pack anything. Impossible to do anything but sit with hammering heart and wait for Rhett. It seemed hours before he came. At last, far up the road, she heard the protesting screech of unoiled axles and the slow uncertain plodding of hooves. Why didn’t he hurry? Why didn’t he make the horse trot?
The sounds came nearer and she leaped to her feet and called Rhett’s name. Then, she saw him dimly as he climbed down from the seat of a small wagon, heard the clicking of the gate as he came toward her. He came into view and the light of the lamp showed him plainly. His dress was as debonaire as if he were going to a ball, well-tailored white linen coat and trousers, embroidered gray watered-silk waistcoat and a hint of ruffle on his shirt bosom. His wide Panama hat was set dashingly on one side of his head and in the belt of his trousers were thrust two ivory-handled, long-barreled dueling pistols. The pockets of his coat sagged heavily with ammunition.
He came up the walk with the springy stride of a savage and his fine head was carried like a pagan prince. The dangers of the night which had driven Scarlett into panic had affected him like an intoxicant. There was a carefully restrained ferocity in his dark face, a ruthlessness which would have frightened her had she the wits to see it.
His black eyes danced as though amused by the whole affair, as though the earth-splitting sounds and the horrid glare were merely things to frighten children. She swayed toward him as he came up the steps, her face white, her green eyes burning.
“Good evening,” he said, in his drawling voice, as he removed his hat with a sweeping gesture. “Fine weather we’re having. I hear you’re going to take a trip.”
“If you make any jokes, I shall never speak to you again,” she said with quivering voice.
“Don’t tell me you are frightened!” He pretended to be surprised and smiled in a way that made her long to push him backwards down the steep steps.
“Yes, I am! I’m frightened to death and if you had the sense God gave a goat, you’d be frightened too. But we haven’t got time to talk. We must get out of here.”
“At your service, Madam. But just where were you figuring on going? I made the trip out here for curiosity, just to see where you were intending to go. You can’t go north or east or south or west. The Yankees are all around. There’s just one road out of town which the Yankees haven’t got yet and the army is retreating by that road. And that road won’t be open long. General Steve Lee’s cavalry is fighting a rear-guard action at Rough and Ready to hold it open long enough for the army to get away. If you follow the army down the McDonough road, they’ll take the horse away from you and, while it’s not much of a horse, I did go to a lot of trouble stealing it. Just where are you going?”
She stood shaking, listening to his words, hardly hearing them. But, at his question she suddenly knew where she was going, knew that all this miserable day she had known where she was going. The only place.
“I’m going home,” she said.
“Home? You mean to Tara?”
“Yes, yes! To Tara! Oh, Rhett, we must hurry!”
He looked at her as if she had lost her mind.
“Tara? God Almighty, Scarlett! Don’t you know they fought all day at Jonesboro? Fought for ten miles up and down the road from Rough and Ready even into the streets of Jonesboro? The Yankees may be all over Tara by now, all over the County. Nobody knows where they are but they’re in that neighborhood. You can’t go home! You can’t go right through the Yankee army!”
“I will go home!” she cried. “I will! I will!”
“You little fool,” and his voice was swift and rough. “You can’t go that way. Even if you didn’t run into the Yankees, the woods are full of stragglers and deserters from both armies. And lots of our troops are still retreating from Jonesboro. They’d take the horse away from you as quickly as the Yankees would. Your only chance is to follow the troops down the McDonough road and pray that they won’t see you in the dark. You can’t go to Tara. Even if you got there, you’d probably find it burned down. I won’t let you go home. It’s insanity.”
“I will go home!” she cried and her voice broke and rose to a scream. “I will go home! You can’t stop me! I will go home! I want my mother! I’ll kill you if you try to stop me! I will go home!”
Tears of fright and hysteria streamed down her face as she finally gave way under the long strain. She beat on his chest with her fists and screamed again: “I will! I will! If I have to walk every step of the way!”
Suddenly she was in his arms, her wet cheek against the starched ruffle of his shirt, her beating hands stilled against him. His hands caressed her tumbled hair gently, soothingly, and his voice was gentle too. So gentle, so quiet, so devoid of mockery, it did not seem Rhett Butler’s voice at all but the voice of some kind strong stranger who smelled of brandy and tobacco and horses, comforting smells because they reminded her of Gerald.
“There, there, darling,” he said softly. “Don’t cry. You shall go home, my brave little girl. You shall go home. Don’t cry.”
She felt something brush her hair and wondered vaguely through her tumult if it were his lips. He was so tender, so infinitely soothing, she longed to stay in his arms forever. With such strong arms about her, surely nothing could harm her.
He fumbled in his pocket and produced a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.
“Now, blow your nose like a good child,” he ordered, a glint of a smile in his eyes, “and tell me what to do. We must work fast.”
She blew her nose obediently, still trembling, but she could not think what to tell him to do. Seeing how her lip quivered and her eyes looked up at him helplessly, he took command.
“Mrs. Wilkes has had her child? It will be dangerous to move her — dangerous to drive her twenty-five miles in that rickety wagon. We’d better leave her with Mrs. Meade.”
“The Meades aren’t home. I can’t leave her.”
“Very well. Into the wagon she goes. Where is that simple-minded little wench?”
“Upstairs packing the trunk.”
“Trunk? You can’t take any trunk in that wagon. It’s almost too small to hold all of you and the wheels are ready to come off with no encouragement. Call her and tell her to get the smallest feather bed in the house and put it in the wagon.”
Still Scarlett could not move. He took her arm in a strong grasp and some of the vitality which animated him seemed to flow into her body. If only she could be as cool and casual as he was! He propelled her into the hall but she still stood helplessly looking at him. His lip went down mockingly: “Can this be the heroic young woman who assured me she feared neither God nor man?”
He suddenly burst into laughter and dropped her arm. Stung, she glared at him, hating him.
“I’m not afraid,” she said.
“Yes, you are. In another moment you’ll be in a swoon and I have no smelling salts about me.”
She stamped her foot impotently because she could not think of anything else to do — and without a word picked up the lamp and started up the stairs. He was close behind her and she could hear him laughing softly to himself. That sound stiffened her spine. She went into Wade’s nursery and found him sitting clutched in Prissy’s arms, half dressed, hiccoughing quietly. Prissy was whimpering. The feather tick on Wade’s bed was small and she ordered Prissy to drag it down the stairs and into the wagon. Prissy put down the child and obeyed. Wade followed her down the stairs, his hiccoughs stilled by his interest in the proceedings.
“Come,” said Scarlett, turning to Melanie’s door and Rhett followed her, hat in hand.
Melanie lay quietly with the sheet up to her chin. Her face was deathly white but her eyes, sunken and black circled, were serene. She showed no surprise at the sight of Rhett in her bedroom but seemed to take it as a matter of course. She tried to smile weakly but the smile died before it reached the corners of her mouth.
“We are going home, to Tara,” Scarlett explained rapidly. “The Yankees are coming. Rhett is going to take us. It’s the only way, Melly.”
Melanie tried to nod her head feebly and gestured toward the baby. Scarlett picked up the small baby and wrapped him hastily in a thick towel. Rhett stepped to the bed.
“I’ll try not to hurt you,” he said quietly, tucking the sheet about her. “See if you can put your arms around my neck.”
Melanie tried but they fell back weakly. He bent, slipped an arm under her shoulders and another across her knees and lifted her gently. She did not cry out but Scarlett saw her bite her lip and go even whiter. Scarlett held the lamp high for Rhett to see and started toward the door when Melanie made a feeble gesture toward the wall.
“What is it?” Rhett asked softly.
“Please,” Melanie whispered, trying to point. “Charles.”
Rhett looked down at her as if he thought her delirious but Scarlett understood and was irritated. She knew Melanie wanted the daguerreotype of Charles which hung on the wall below his sword and pistol.
Please,” Melanie whispered again, “the sword.”
“Oh, all right,” said Scarlett and, after she had lighted Rhett’s careful way down the steps, she went back and unhooked the sword and pistol belts. It would be awkward, carrying them as well as the baby and the lamp. That was just like Melanie, not to be at all bothered over nearly dying and having the Yankees at her heels but to worry about Charles’ things.
As she took down the daguerreotype, she caught a glimpse of Charles’ face. His large brown eyes met hers and she stopped for a moment to look at the picture curiously. This man had been her husband, had lain beside her for a few nights, had given her a child with eyes as soft and brown as his. And she could hardly remember him.
The child in her arms waved small fists and mewed softly and she looked down at him. For the first time, she realized that this was Ashley’s baby and suddenly wished with all the strength left in her that he were her baby, hers and Ashley’s.
Prissy came bounding up the stairs and Scarlett handed the child to her. They went hastily down, the lamp throwing uncertain shadows on the wall. In the hall, Scarlett saw a bonnet and put it on hurriedly, tying the ribbons under her chin. It was Melanie’s black mourning bonnet and it did not fit Scarlett’s head but she could not recall where she had put her own bonnet.
She went out of the house and down the front steps, carrying the lamp and trying to keep the saber from banging against her legs. Melanie lay full length in the back of the wagon, and, beside her, were Wade and the towel-swathed baby. Prissy climbed in and took the baby in her arms.
The wagon was very small and the boards about the sides very low. The wheels leaned inward as if their first revolution would make them come off. She took one look at the horse and her heart sank. He was a small emaciated animal and he stood with his head dispiritedly low, almost between his forelegs. His back was raw with sores and harness galls and he breathed as no sound horse should.
“Not much of an animal, is it?” grinned Rhett. “Looks like he’ll die in the shafts. But he’s the best I could do. Some day I’ll tell you with embellishments just where and how I stole him and how narrowly I missed getting shot. Nothing but my devotion to you would make me, at this stage of my career, turn horse thief — and thief of such a horse. Let me help you in.”
He took the lamp from her and set it on the ground. The front seat was only a narrow plank across the sides of the wagon. Rhett picked Scarlett up bodily and swung her to it. How wonderful to be a man and as strong as Rhett, she thought, tucking her wide skirts about her. With Rhett beside her, she did not fear anything, neither the fire nor the noise nor the Yankees.
He climbed onto the seat beside her and picked up the reins.
“Oh, wait!” she cried. “I forgot to lock the front door.”
He burst into a roar of laughter and slapped the reins upon the horse’s back.
“What are you laughing at?”
“At you — locking the Yankees out,” he said and the horse started off, slowly, reluctantly. The lamp on the sidewalk burned on, making a tiny yellow circle of light which grew smaller and smaller as they moved away.
Rhett turned the horse’s slow feet westward from Peachtree and the wobbling wagon jounced into the rutty lane with a violence that wrenched an abruptly stifled moan from Melanie. Dark trees interlaced above their heads, dark silent houses loomed up on either side and the white palings of fences gleamed faintly like a row of tombstones. The narrow street was a dim tunnel, but faintly through the thick leafy ceiling the hideous red glow of the sky penetrated and shadows chased one another down the dark way like mad ghosts. The smell of smoke came stronger and stronger, and on the wings of the hot breeze came a pandemonium of sound from the center of town, yells, the dull rumbling of heavy army wagons and the steady tramp of marching feet. As Rhett jerked the horse’s head and turned him into another street, another deafening explosion tore the air and a monstrous skyrocket of flame and smoke shot up in the west.
“That must be the last of the ammunition trains,” Rhett said calmly. “Why didn’t they get them out this morning, the fools! There was plenty of time. Well, too bad for us. I thought by circling around the center of town, we might avoid the fire and that drunken mob on Decatur Street and get through to the southwest part of town without any danger. But we’ve got to cross Marietta Street somewhere and that explosion was near Marietta Street or I miss my guess.”
“Must — must we go through the fire?” Scarlett quavered.
“Not if we hurry,” said Rhett and, springing from the wagon, he disappeared into the darkness of a yard. When he returned he had a small limb of a tree in his hand and he laid it mercilessly across the horse’s galled back. The animal broke into a shambling trot, his breath panting and labored, and the wagon swayed forward with a jolt that threw them about like popcorn in a popper. The baby wailed, and Prissy and Wade cried out as they bruised themselves against the sides of the wagon. But from Melanie there was no sound.
As they neared Marietta Street, the trees thinned out and the tall flames roaring up above the buildings threw street and houses into a glare of light brighter than day, casting monstrous shadows that twisted as wildly as torn sails flapping in a gale on a sinking ship.
Scarlett’s teeth chattered but so great was her terror she was not even aware of it. She was cold and she shivered, even though the heat of the flames was already hot against their faces. This was hell and she was in it and, if she could only have conquered her shaking knees, she would have leaped from the wagon and run screaming back the dark road they had come, back to the refuge of Miss Pittypat’s house. She shrank closer to Rhett, took his arm in fingers that trembled and looked up at him for words, for comfort, for something reassuring. In the unholy crimson glow that bathed them, his dark profile stood out as clearly as the head on an ancient coin, beautiful, cruel and decadent. At her touch he turned to her, his eyes gleaming with a light as frightening as the fire. To Scarlett, he seemed as exhilarated and contemptuous as if he got strong pleasure from the situation, as if he welcomed the inferno they were approaching.
“Here,” he said, laying a hand on one of the long-barreled pistols in his belt. “If anyone, black or white, comes up on your side of the wagon and tries to lay hand on the horse, shoot him and we’ll ask questions later. But for God’s sake, don’t shoot the nag in your excitement.”
“I— I have a pistol,” she whispered, clutching the weapon in her lap, perfectly certain that if death stared her in the face, she would be too frightened to pull the trigger.
“You have? Where did you get it?”
“Yes, Charles — my husband.”
“Did you ever really have a husband, my dear?” he whispered and laughed softly.
If he would only be serious! If he would only hurry!
“How do you suppose I got my boy?” she cried fiercely.
“Oh, there are other ways than husbands —”
“Will you hush and hurry?”
But he drew rein abruptly, almost at Marietta Street, in the shadow of a warehouse not yet touched by the flames.
“Hurry!” It was the only word in her mind. Hurry! Hurry!
“Soldiers,” he said.
The detachment came down Marietta Street, between the burning buildings, walking at route step, tiredly, rifles held any way, heads down, too weary to hurry, too weary to care if timbers were crashing to right and left and smoke billowing about them. They were all ragged, so ragged that between officers and men there were no distinguishing insignia except here and there a torn hat brim pinned up with a wreathed “C.S.A.” Many were barefooted and here and there a dirty bandage wrapped a head or arm. They went past, looking neither to left nor right, so silent that had it not been for the steady tramp of feet they might all have been ghosts.
“Take a good look at them,” came Rhett’s gibing voice, “so you can tell your grandchildren you saw the rear guard of the Glorious Cause in retreat.”
Suddenly she hated him, hated him with a strength that momentarily overpowered her fear, made it seem petty and small. She knew her safety and that of the others in the back of the wagon depended on him and him alone, but she hated him for his sneering at those ragged ranks. She thought of Charles who was dead and Ashley who might be dead and all the gay and gallant young men who were rotting in shallow graves and she forgot that she, too, had once thought them fools. She could not speak, but hatred and disgust burned in her eyes as she stared at him fiercely.
As the last of the soldiers were passing, a small figure in the rear rank, his rifle butt dragging the ground, wavered, stopped and stared after the others with a dirty face so dulled by fatigue he looked like a sleepwalker. He was as small as Scarlett, so small his rifle was almost as tall as he was, and his grime-smeared face was unbearded. Sixteen at the most, thought Scarlett irrelevantly, must be one of the Home Guard or a runaway schoolboy.
As she watched, the boy’s knees buckled slowly and he went down in the dust. Without a word, two men fell out of the last rank and walked back to him. One, a tall spare man with a black beard that hung to his belt, silently handed his own rifle and that of the boy to the other. Then, stooping, he jerked the boy to his shoulders with an ease that looked like sleight of hand. He started off slowly after the retreating column, his shoulders bowed under the weight, while the boy, weak, infuriated like a child teased by its elders, screamed out: “Put me down, damn you! Put me down! I can walk!”
The bearded man said nothing and plodded on out of sight around the bend of the road.
Rhett sat still, the reins lax in his hands, looking after them, a curious moody look on his swarthy face. Then, there was a crash of falling timbers near by and Scarlett saw a thin tongue of flame lick up over the roof of the warehouse in whose sheltering shadow they sat. Then pennons and battle flags of flame flared triumphantly to the sky above them. Smoke burnt her nostrils and Wade and Prissy began coughing. The baby made soft sneezing sounds.
“Oh, name of God, Rhett! Are you crazy? Hurry! Hurry!”
Rhett made no reply but brought the tree limb down on the horse’s back with a cruel force that made the animal leap forward. With all the speed the horse could summon, they jolted and bounced across Marietta Street. Ahead of them was a tunnel of fire where buildings were blazing on either side of the short, narrow street that led down to the railroad tracks. They plunged into it. A glare brighter than a dozen suns dazzled their eyes, scorching heat seared their skins and the roaring, cracking and crashing beat upon their ears in painful waves. For an eternity, it seemed, they were in the midst of flaming torment and then abruptly they were in semidarkness again.
As they dashed down the street and bumped over the railroad tracks, Rhett applied the whip automatically. His face looked set and absent, as though he had forgotten where he was. His broad shoulders were hunched forward and his chin jutted out as though the thoughts in his mind were not pleasant. The heat of the fire made sweat stream down his forehead and cheeks but he did not wipe it off.
They pulled into a side street, then another, then turned and twisted from one narrow street to another until Scarlett completely lost her bearings and the roaring of the flames died behind them. Still Rhett did not speak. He only laid on the whip with regularity. The red glow in the sky was fading now and the road became so dark, so frightening, Scarlett would have welcomed words, any words from him, even jeering, insulting words, words that cut. But he did not speak.
Silent or not, she thanked Heaven for the comfort of his presence. It was so good to have a man beside her, to lean close to him and feel the hard swell of his arm and know that he stood between her and unnamable terrors, even though he merely sat there and stared.
“Oh, Rhett,” she whispered clasping his arm, “What would we ever have done without you? I’m so glad you aren’t in the army!”
He turned his head and gave her one look, a look that made her drop his arm and shrink back. There was no mockery in his eyes now. They were naked and there was anger and something like bewilderment in them. His lip curled down and he turned his head away. For a long time they jounced along in a silence unbroken except for the faint wails of the baby and sniffles from Prissy. When she was able to bear the sniffling noise no longer, Scarlett turned and pinched her viciously, causing Prissy to scream in good earnest before she relapsed into frightened silence.
Finally Rhett turned the horse at right angles and after a while they were on a wider, smoother road. The dim shapes of houses grew farther and farther apart and unbroken woods loomed wall-like on either side.
“We’re out of town now,” said Rhett briefly, drawing rein, “and on the main road to Rough and Ready.”
“Hurry. Don’t stop!”
“Let the animal breathe a bit.” Then turning to her, he asked slowly: “Scarlett, are you still determined to do this crazy thing?”
“Do you still want to try to get through to Tara? It’s suicidal. Steve Lee’s cavalry and the Yankee Army are between you and Tara.”
Oh, Dear God! Was he going to refuse to take her home, after all she’d gone through this terrible day?
“Oh, yes! Yes! Please, Rhett, let’s hurry. The horse isn’t tired.”
“Just a minute. You can’t go down to Jonesboro on this road. You can’t follow the train tracks. They’ve been fighting up and down there all day from Rough and Ready on south. Do you know any other roads, small wagon roads or lanes that don’t go through Rough and Ready or Jonesboro?”
“Oh, yes,” cried Scarlett in relief. “If we can just get near to Rough and Ready, I know a wagon trace that winds off from the main Jonesboro road and wanders around for miles. Pa and I used to ride it. It comes out right near the MacIntosh place and that’s only a mile from Tara.”
“Good. Maybe you can get past Rough and Ready all right. General Steve Lee was there during the afternoon covering the retreat. Maybe the Yankees aren’t there yet. Maybe you can get through there, if Steve Lee’s men don’t pick up your horse.”
“I can get through?”
“Yes, YOU.” His voice was rough.
“But Rhett — You — Aren’t going to take us?”
“No. I’m leaving you here.”
She looked around wildly, at the livid sky behind them, at the dark trees on either hand hemming them in like a prison wall, at the frightened figures in the back of the wagon — and finally at him. Had she gone crazy? Was she not hearing right?
He was grinning now. She could just see his white teeth in the faint light and the old mockery was back in his eyes.
“Leaving us? Where — where are you going?”
“I am going, dear girl, with the army.”
She sighed with relief and irritation. Why did he joke at this time of all times? Rhett in the army! After all he’d said about stupid fools who were enticed into losing their lives by a roll of drums and brave words from orators — fools who killed themselves that wise men might make money!
“Oh, I could choke you for scaring me so! Let’s get on.”
“I’m not joking, my dear. And I am hurt, Scarlett, that you do not take my gallant sacrifice with better spirit. Where is your patriotism, your love for Our Glorious Cause? Now is your chance to tell me to return with my shield or on it. But, talk fast, for I want time to make a brave speech before departing for the wars.”
His drawling voice gibed in her ears. He was jeering at her and, somehow, she knew he was jeering at himself too. What was he talking about? Patriotism, shields, brave speeches? It wasn’t possible that he meant what he was saying. It just wasn’t believable that he could talk so blithely of leaving her here on this dark road with a woman who might be dying, a new-born infant, a foolish black wench and a frightened child, leaving her to pilot them through miles of battle fields and stragglers and Yankees and fire and God knows what.
Once, when she was six years old, she had fallen from a tree, flat on her stomach. She could still recall that sickening interval before breath came back into her body. Now, as she looked at Rhett, she felt the same way she had felt then, breathless, stunned, nauseated.
“Rhett, you are joking!”
She grabbed his arm and felt her tears of fright splash down her wrist. He raised her hand and kissed it arily.
“Selfish to the end, aren’t you, my dear? Thinking only of your own precious hide and not of the gallant Confederacy. Think how our troops will be heartened by my eleventh-hour appearance.” There was a malicious tenderness in his voice.
“Oh, Rhett,” she wailed, “how can you do this to me? Why are you leaving me?”
“Why?” he laughed jauntily. “Because, perhaps, of the betraying sentimentality that lurks in all of us Southerners. Perhaps — perhaps because I am ashamed. Who knows?”
“Ashamed? You should die of shame. To desert us here, alone, helpless —”
“Dear Scarlett! You aren’t helpless. Anyone as selfish and determined as you are is never helpless. God help the Yankees if they should get you.”
He stepped abruptly down from the wagon and, as she watched him, stunned with bewilderment, he came around to her side of the wagon.
“Get out,” he ordered.
She stared at him. He reached up roughly, caught her under the arms and swung her to the ground beside him. With a tight grip on her he dragged her several paces away from the wagon. She felt the dust and gravel in her slippers hurting her feet. The still hot darkness wrapped her like a dream.
“I’m not asking you to understand or forgive. I don’t give a damn whether you do either, for I shall never understand or forgive myself for this idiocy. I am annoyed at myself to find that so much quixoticism still lingers in me. But our fair Southland needs every man. Didn’t our brave Governor Brown say just that? Not matter. I’m off to the wars.” He laughed suddenly, a ringing, free laugh that startled the echoes in the dark woods.
“‘I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not Honour more.’ That’s a pat speech, isn’t it? Certainly better than anything I can think up myself, at the present moment. For I do love you, Scarlett, in spite of what I said that night on the porch last month.”
His drawl was caressing and his hands slid up her bare arms, warm strong hands. “I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals. Neither of us cares a rap if the whole world goes to pot, so long as we are safe and comfortable.”
His voice went on in the darkness and she heard words, but they made no sense to her. Her mind was tiredly trying to take in the harsh truth that he was leaving her here to face the Yankees alone. Her mind said: “He’s leaving me. He’s leaving me.” But no emotion stirred.
Then his arms went around her waist and shoulders and she felt the hard muscles of his thighs against her body and the buttons of his coat pressing into her breast. A warm tide of feeling, bewildering, frightening, swept over her, carrying out of her mind the time and place and circumstances. She felt as limp as a rag doll, warm, weak and helpless, and his supporting arms were so pleasant.
“You don’t want to change your mind about what I said last month? There’s nothing like danger and death to give an added fillip. Be patriotic, Scarlett. Think how you would be sending a soldier to his death with beautiful memories.”
He was kissing her now and his mustache tickled her mouth, kissing her with slow, hot lips that were so leisurely as though he had the whole night before him. Charles had never kissed her like this. Never had the kisses of the Tarleton and Calvert boys made her go hot and cold and shaky like this. He bent her body backward and his lips traveled down her throat to where the cameo fastened her basque.
“Sweet,” he whispered. “Sweet.”
She saw the wagon dimly in the dark and heard the treble piping of Wade’s voice.
“Muvver! Wade fwightened!”
Into her swaying, darkened mind, cold sanity came back with a rush and she remembered what she had forgotten for the moment — that she was frightened too, and Rhett was leaving her, leaving her, the damned cad. And on top of it all, he had the consummate gall to stand here in the road and insult her with his infamous proposals. Rage and hate flowed into her and stiffened her spine and with one wrench she tore herself loose from his arms.
“Oh, you cad!” she cried and her mind leaped about, trying to think of worse things to call him, things she had heard Gerald call Mr. Lincoln, the MacIntoshes and balky mules, but the words would not come. “You low-down, cowardly, nasty, stinking thing!” And because she could not think of anything crushing enough, she drew back her arm and slapped him across the mouth with all the force she had left. He took a step backward, his hand going to his face.
“Ah,” he said quietly and for a moment they stood facing each other in the darkness. Scarlett could hear his heavy breathing, and her own breath came in gasps as if she had been running hard.
“They were right! Everybody was right! You aren’t a gentleman!”
“My dear girl,” he said, “how inadequate.”
She knew he was laughing and the thought goaded her.
“Go on! Go on now! I want you to hurry. I don’t want to ever see you again. I hope a cannon ball lands right on you. I hope it blows you to a million pieces. I—”
“Never mind the rest. I follow your general idea. When I’m dead on the altar of my country, I hope your conscience hurts you.”
She heard him laugh as he turned away and walked back toward the wagon. She saw him stand beside it, heard him speak and his voice was changed, courteous and respectful as it always was when he spoke to Melanie.
Prissy’s frightened voice made answer from the wagon.
“Gawdlmighty, Cap’n Butler! Miss Melly done fainted away back yonder.”
“She’s not dead? Is she breathing?”
“Yassuh, she breathin’.”
“Then she’s probably better off as she is. If she were conscious, I doubt if she could live through all the pain. Take good care of her, Prissy. Here’s a shinplaster for you. Try not to be a bigger fool than you are.”
“Yassuh. Thankee suh.”
She knew he had turned and was facing her but she did not speak. Hate choked all utterance. His feet ground on the pebbles of the road and for a moment she saw his big shoulders looming up in the dark. Then he was gone. She could hear the sound of his feet for a while and then they died away. She came slowly back to the wagon, her knees shaking.
Why had he gone, stepping off into the dark, into the war, into a Cause that was lost, into a world that was mad? Why had he gone, Rhett who loved the pleasures of women and liquor, the comfort of good food and soft beds, the feel of fine linen and good leather, who hated the South and jeered at the fools who fought for it? Now he had set his varnished boots upon a bitter road where hunger tramped with tireless stride and wounds and weariness and heartbreak ran like yelping wolves. And the end of the road was death. He need not have gone. He was safe, rich, comfortable. But he had gone, leaving her alone in a night as black as blindness, with the Yankee Army between her and home.
Now she remembered all the bad names she had wanted to call him but it was too late. She leaned her head against the bowed neck of the horse and cried.