Gone with the wind (Chapter 37)
It was on a wild wet night in April that Tony Fontaine rode in from Jonesboro on a lathered horse that was half dead from exhaustion and came knocking at their door, rousing her and Frank from sleep with their hearts in their throats. Then for the second time in four months, Scarlett was made to feel acutely what Reconstruction in all its implications meant, made to understand more completely what was in Will’s mind when he said “Our troubles have just begun,” to know that the bleak words of Ashley, spoken in the wind-swept orchard of Tara, were true: “This that’s facing all of us is worse than war — worse than prison — worse than death.”
The first time she had come face to face with Reconstruction was when she learned that Jonas Wilkerson with the aid of the Yankees could evict her from Tara. But Tony’s advent brought it all home to her in a far more terrifying manner. Tony came in the dark and the lashing rain and in a few minutes he was gone back into the night forever, but in the brief interval between he raised the curtain on a scene of new horror, a curtain that she felt hopelessly would never be lowered again.
That stormy night when the knocker hammered on the door with such hurried urgency, she stood on the landing, clutching her wrapper to her and, looking down into the hall below, had one glimpse of Tony’s swarthy saturnine face before he leaned forward and blew out the candle in Frank’s hand. She hurried down in the darkness to grasp his cold wet hand and hear him whisper: “They’re after me — going to Texas — my horse is about dead — and I’m about starved. Ashley said you’d — Don’t light the candle! Don’t wake the darkies. . . . I don’t want to get you folks in trouble if I can help it.”
With the kitchen blinds drawn and all the shades pulled down to the sills, he permitted a light and he talked to Frank in swift jerky sentences as Scarlett hurried about, trying to scrape together a meal for him.
He was without a greatcoat and soaked to the skin. He was hatless and his black hair was plastered to his little skull. But the merriment of the Fontaine boys, a chilling merriment that night, was in his little dancing eyes as he gulped down the whisky she brought him. Scarlett thanked God that Aunt Pittypat was snoring undisturbed upstairs. She would certainly swoon if she saw this apparition.
“One damned bast — Scallawag less,” said Tony, holding out his glass for another drink. “I’ve ridden hard and it’ll cost me my skin if I don’t get out of here quick, but it was worth it. By God, yes! I’m going to try to get to Texas and lay low there. Ashley was with me in Jonesboro and he told me to come to you all. Got to have another horse, Frank, and some money. My horse is nearly dead — all the way up here at a dead run — and like a fool I went out of the house today like a bat out of hell without a coat or hat or a cent of money. Not that there’s much money in our house.”
He laughed and applied himself hungrily to the cold corn pone and cold turnip greens on which congealed grease was thick in white flakes.
“You can have my horse,” said Frank calmly. “I’ve only ten dollars with me but if you can wait till morning —”
“Hell’s afire, I can’t wait!” said Tony, emphatically but jovially. “They’re probably right behind me. I didn’t get much of a start. If it hadn’t been for Ashley dragging me out of there and making me get on my horse, I’d have stayed there like a fool and probably had my neck stretched by now. Good fellow, Ashley.”
So Ashley was mixed up in this frightening puzzle. Scarlett went cold, her hand at her throat. Did the Yankees have Ashley now? Why, why didn’t Frank ask what it was all about? Why did he take it all so coolly, so much as a matter of course? She struggled to get the question to her lips.
“What —” she began. “Who —”
“Your father’s old overseer — that damned — Jonas Wilkerson.”
“Did you — is he dead?”
“My God, Scarlett O’Hara!” said Tony peevishly. “When I start out to cut somebody up, you don’t think I’d be satisfied with scratching him with the blunt side of my knife, do you? No, by God, I cut him to ribbons.”
“Good,” said Frank casually. “I never liked the fellow.”
Scarlett looked at him. This was not the meek Frank she knew, the nervous beard clawer who she had learned could be bullied with such ease. There was an air about him that was crisp and cool and he was meeting the emergency with no unnecessary words. He was a man and Tony was a man and this situation of violence was men’s business in which a woman had no part.
“But Ashley — Did he —”
“No. He wanted to kill him but I told him it was my right, because Sally is my sister-inlaw, and he saw reason finally. He went into Jonesboro with me, in case Wilkerson got me first. But I don’t think old Ash will get in any trouble about it. I hope not. Got any jam for this corn pone? And can you wrap me up something to take with me?”
“I shall scream if you don’t tell me everything.”
“Wait till I’ve gone and then scream if you’ve got to. I’ll tell you about it while Frank saddles the horse. That damned — Wilkerson has caused enough trouble already. I know how he did you about your taxes. That’s just one of his meannesses. But the worst thing was the way he kept the darkies stirred up. If anybody had told me I’d ever live to see the day when I’d hate darkies! Damn their black souls, they believe anything those scoundrels tell them and forget every living thing we’ve done for them. Now the Yankees are talking about letting the darkies vote. And they won’t let us vote. Why, there’s hardly a handful of Democrats in the whole County who aren’t barred from voting, now that they’ve ruled out every man who fought in the Confederate Army. And if they give the negroes the vote, it’s the end of us. Damn it, it’s our state! It doesn’t belong to the Yankees! By God, Scarlett, it isn’t to be borne! And it won’t be borne! We’ll do something about it if it means another war. Soon we’ll be having nigger judges, nigger legislators — black apes out of the jungle —”
“Please — hurry, tell me! What did you do?”
“Give me another mite of that pone before you wrap it up. Well, the word got around that Wilkerson had gone a bit too far with his nigger-equality business. Oh, yes, he talks it to those black fools by the hour. He had the gall — the —” Tony spluttered helplessly, “to say niggers had a right to — to — white women.”
“Oh, Tony, no!”
“By God, yes! I don’t wonder you look sick. But hell’s afire, Scarlett, it can’t be news to you. They’ve been telling it to them here in Atlanta.”
“I— I didn’t know.”
“Well, Frank would have kept it from you. Anyway, after that, we all sort of thought we’d call on Mr. Wilkerson privately by night and tend to him, but before we could — You remember that black buck, Eustis, who used to be our foreman?”
“Came to the kitchen door today while Sally was fixing dinner and — I don’t know what he said to her. I guess I’ll never know now. But he said something and I heard her scream and I ran into the kitchen and there he was, drunk as a fiddler’s bitch — I beg your pardon, Scarlett, it just slipped out.”
“I shot him and when Mother ran in to take care of Sally, I got my horse and started to Jonesboro for Wilkerson. He was the one to blame. The damned black fool would never have thought of it but for him. And on the way past Tara, I met Ashley and, of course, he went with me. He said to let him do it because of the way Wilkerson acted about Tara and I said No, it was my place because Sally was my own dead brother’s wife, and he went with me arguing the whole way. And when we got to town, by God, Scarlett, do you know I hadn’t even brought my pistol, I’d left it in the stable. So mad I forgot —”
He paused and gnawed the tough pone and Scarlett shivered. The murderous rages of the Fontaines had made County history long before this chapter had opened.
“So I had to take my knife to him. I found him in the barroom. I got him in a corner with Ashley holding back the others and I told him why before I lit into him. Why, it was over before I knew it,” said Tony reflecting. “First thing I knew, Ashley had me on my horse and told me to come to you folks. Ashley’s a good man in a pinch. He keeps his head.”
Frank came in, his greatcoat over his arm, and handed it to Tony. It was his only heavy coat but Scarlett made no protest. She seemed so much on the outside of this affair, this purely masculine affair.
“But Tony — they need you at home. Surely, if you went back and explained —”
“Frank, you’ve married a fool,” said Tony with a grin, struggling into the coat. “She thinks the Yankees will reward a man for keeping niggers off his women folks. So they will, with a drumhead court and a rope. Give me a kiss, Scarlett. Frank won’t mind and I may never see you again. Texas is a long way off. I won’t dare write, so let the home folks know I got this far in safety.”
She let him kiss her and the two men went out into the driving rain and stood for a moment, talking on the back porch. Then she heard a sudden splashing of hooves and Tony was gone. She opened the door a crack and saw Frank leading a heaving, stumbling horse into the carriage house. She shut the door again and sat down, her knees trembling.
Now she knew what Reconstruction meant, knew as well as if the house were ringed about by naked savages, squatting in breech clouts. Now there came rushing to her mind many things to which she had given little thought recently, conversations she had heard but to which she had not listened, masculine talk which had been checked half finished when she came into rooms, small incidents in which she had seen no significance at the time, Frank’s futile warnings to her against driving out to the mill with only the feeble Uncle Peter to protect her. Now they fitted themselves together into one horrifying picture.
The negroes were on top and behind them were the Yankee bayonets. She could be killed, she could be raped and, very probably, nothing would ever be done about it. And anyone who avenged her would be hanged by the Yankees, hanged without benefit of trial by judge and jury. Yankee officers who knew nothing of law and cared less for the circumstances of the crime could go through the motions of holding a trial and put a rope around a Southerner’s neck.
“What can we do?” she thought, wringing her hands in an agony of helpless fear. “What can we do with devils who’d hang a nice boy like Tony just for killing a drunken buck and a scoundrelly Scallawag to protect his women folks?”
“It isn’t to be borne!” Tony had cried and he was right. It couldn’t be borne. But what could they do except bear it, helpless as they were? She fell to trembling and, for the first time in her life, she saw people and events as something apart from herself, saw clearly that Scarlett O’Hara, frightened and helpless, was not all that mattered. There were thousands of women like her, all over the South, who were frightened and helpless. And thousands of men, who had laid down their arms at Appomattox, had taken them up again and stood ready to risk their necks on a minute’s notice to protect those women.
There had been something in Tony’s face which had been mirrored in Frank’s, an expression she had seen recently on the faces of other men in Atlanta, a look she had noticed but had not troubled to analyze. It was an expression vastly different from the tired helplessness she had seen in the faces of men coming home from the war after the surrender. Those men had not cared about anything except getting home. Now they were caring about something again, numbed nerves were coming back to life and the old spirit was beginning to burn. They were caring again with a cold ruthless bitterness. And, like Tony, they were thinking: “It isn’t to be borne!”
She had seen Southern men, soft voiced and dangerous in the days before the war, reckless and hard in the last despairing days of the fighting. But in the faces of the two men who stared at each other across the candle flame so short a while ago there had been something that was different, something that heartened her but frightened her — fury which could find no words, determination which would stop at nothing.
For the first time, she felt a kinship with the people about her, felt one with them in their fears, their bitterness, their determination. No, it wasn’t to be borne! The South was too beautiful a place to be let go without a struggle, too loved to be trampled by Yankees who hated Southerners enough to enjoy grinding them into the dirt, too dear a homeland to be turned over to ignorant negroes drunk with whisky and freedom.
As she thought of Tony’s sudden entrance and swift exit, she felt herself akin to him, for she remembered the old story how her father had left Ireland, left hastily and by night, after a murder which was no murder to him or to his family. Gerald’s blood was in her, violent blood. She remembered her hot joy in shooting the marauding Yankee. Violent blood was in them all, perilously close to the surface, lurking just beneath the kindly courteous exteriors. All of them, all the men she knew, even the drowsy-eyed Ashley and fidgety old Frank, were like that underneath — murderous, violent if the need arose. Even Rhett, conscienceless scamp that he was, had killed a negro for being “uppity to a lady.”
“Oh, Frank, how long will it be like this?” she leaped to her feet.
“As long as the Yankees hate us so, Sugar.”
“Is there nothing anybody can do?”
Frank passed a tired hand over his wet beard. “We are doing things.”
“Why talk of them till we have accomplished something? It may take years. Perhaps — perhaps the South will always be like this.”
“Sugar, come to bed. You must be chilled. You are shaking.”
“When will it all end?”
“When we can all vote again, Sugar. When every man who fought for the South can put a ballot in the box for a Southerner and a Democrat.”
“A ballot?” she cried despairingly. “What good’s a ballot when the darkies have lost their minds — when the Yankees have poisoned them against us?”
Frank went on to explain in his patient manner, but the idea that ballots could cure the trouble was too complicated for her to follow. She was thinking gratefully that Jonas Wilkerson would never again be a menace of Tara and she was thinking about Tony.
“Oh, the poor Fontaines!” she exclaimed. “Only Alex left and so much to do at Mimosa. Why didn’t Tony have sense enough to — to do it at night when no one would know who it was? A sight more good he’d do helping with the spring plowing than in Texas.”
Frank put an arm about her. Usually he was gingerly when he did this, as if he anticipated being impatiently shaken off, but tonight there was a far-off look in his eyes and his arm was firm about her waist.
“There are things more important now than plowing, Sugar. And scaring the darkies and teaching the Scallawags a lesson is one of them. As long as there are fine boys like Tony left, I guess we won’t need to worry about the South too much. Come to bed.”
“But, Frank —”
“If we just stand together and don’t give an inch to the Yankees, we’ll win, some day. Don’t you bother your pretty head about it, Sugar. You let your men folks worry about it. Maybe it won’t come in our time, but surely it will come some day. The Yankees will get tired of pestering us when they see they can’t even dent us, and then we’ll have a decent world to live in and raise our children in.”
She thought of Wade and the secret she had carried silently for some days. No, she didn’t want her children raised in this welter of hate and uncertainty, of bitterness and violence lurking just below the surface, of poverty and grinding hardships and insecurity. She never wanted children of hers to know what all this was like. She wanted a secure and well-ordered world in which she could look forward and know there was a safe future ahead for them, a world where her children would know only softness and warmth and good clothes and fine food.
Frank thought this could he accomplished by voting. Voting? What did votes matter? Nice people in the South would never have the vote again. There was only one thing in the world that was a certain bulwark against any calamity which fate could bring, and that was money. She thought feverishly that they must have money, lots of it to keep them safe against disaster.
Abruptly, she told him she was going to have a baby.
For weeks after Tony’s escape, Aunt Pitty’s house was subjected to repeated searches by parties of Yankee soldiers. They invaded the house at all hours and without warning. They swarmed through the rooms, asking questions, opening closets, prodding clothes hampers, peering under beds. The military authorities had heard that Tony had been advised to go to Miss Pitty’s house, and they were certain he was still hiding there or somewhere m the neighborhood.
As a result, Aunt Pitty was chronically in what Uncle Peter called a “state,” never knowing when her bedroom would be entered by an officer and a squad of men. Neither Frank nor Scarlett had mentioned Tony’s brief visit, so the old lady could have revealed nothing, even had she been so inclined. She was entirely honest in her fluttery protestations that she had seen Tony Fontaine only once in her life and that was at Christmas time in 1862.
“And,” she would add breathlessly to the Yankee soldiers, in an effort to be helpful, “he was quite intoxicated at the time.”
Scarlett, sick and miserable in the early stage of pregnancy, alternated between a passionate hatred of the bluecoats who invaded her privacy, frequently carrying away any little knick-knack that appealed to them, and an equally passionate fear that Tony might prove the undoing of them all. The prisons were full of people who had been arrested for much less reason. She knew that if one iota of the truth were proved against them, not only she and Frank but the innocent Pitty as well would go to jail.
For some time there had been an agitation in Washington to confiscate all “Rebel property” to pay the United States’ war debt and this agitation had kept Scarlett in a state of anguished apprehension. Now, in addition to this, Atlanta was full of wild rumors about the confiscation of property of offenders against military law, and Scarlett quaked lest she and Frank lose not only their freedom but the house, the store and the mill. And even if their property were not appropriated by the military, it would be as good as lost if she and Frank went to jail, for who would look after their business in their absence?
She hated Tony for bringing such trouble upon them. How could he have done such a thing to friends? And how could Ashley have sent Tony to them? Never again would she give aid to anyone if it meant having the Yankees come down on her like a swarm of hornets. No, she would bar the door against anyone needing help. Except, of course, Ashley. For weeks after Tony’s brief visit she woke from uneasy dreams at any sound in the road outside, fearing it might be Ashley trying to make his escape, fleeing to Texas because of the aid he had given Tony. She did not know how matters stood with him, for they did not dare write to Tara about Tony’s midnight visit. Their letters might be intercepted by the Yankees and bring trouble upon the plantation as well. But, when weeks went by and they heard no bad news, they knew that Ashley had somehow come clear. And finally, the Yankees ceased annoying them.
But even this relief did not free Scarlett from the state of dread which began when Tony came knocking at their door, a dread which was worse than the quaking fear of the siege shells, worse even than the terror of Sherman’s men during the last days of the war. It was as if Tony’s appearance that wild rainy night had stripped merciful blinders from her eyes and forced her to see the true uncertainty of her life.
Looking about her in that cold spring of 1866, Scarlett realized what was facing her and the whole South. She might plan and scheme, she might work harder than her slaves had ever worked, she might succeed in overcoming all of her hardships, she might through dint of determination solve problems for which her earlier life had provided no training at all. But for all her labor and sacrifice and resourcefulness, her small beginnings purchased at so great a cost might be snatched away from her at any minute. And should this happen, she had no legal rights, no legal redress, except those same drumhead courts of which Tony had spoken so bitterly, those military courts with their arbitrary powers. Only the negroes had rights or redress these days. The Yankees had the South prostrate and they intended to keep it so. The South had been tilted as by a giant malicious hand, and those who had once ruled were now more helpless than their former slaves had ever been.
Georgia was heavily garrisoned with troops and Atlanta had more than its share. The commandants of the Yankee troops in the various cities had complete power, even the power of life and death, over the civilian population, and they used that power. They could and did imprison citizens for any cause, or no cause, seize their property, hang them. They could and did harass and hamstring them with conflicting regulations about the operation of their business, the wages they must pay their servants, what they should say in public and private utterances and what they should write in newspapers. They regulated how, when and where they must dump their garbage and they decided what songs the daughters and wives of ex-Confederates could sing, so that the singing of “Dixie” or “Bonnie Blue Flag” became an offense only a little less serious than treason. They ruled that no one could get a letter our of the post office without taking the Iron Clad oath and, in some instances, they even prohibited the issuance of marriage licenses unless the couples had taken the hated oath.
The newspapers were so muzzled that no public protest could be raised against the injustices or depredations of the military, and individual protests were silenced with jail sentences. The jails were full of prominent citizens and there they stayed without hope of early trial. Trial by jury and the law of habeas corpus were practically suspended. The civil courts still functioned after a fashion but they functioned at the pleasure of the military, who could and did interfere with their verdicts, so that citizens so unfortunate as to get arrested were virtually at the mercy of the military authorities. And so many did get arrested. The very suspicion of seditious utterances against the government, suspected complicity in the Ku Klux Klan, or complaint by a negro that a white man had been uppity to him were enough to land a citizen in jail. Proof and evidence were not needed. The accusation was sufficient. And thanks to the incitement of the Freedmen’s Bureau, negroes could always be found who were willing to bring accusations.
The negroes had not yet been given the right to vote but the North was determined that they should vote and equally determined that their vote should be friendly to the North. With this in mind, nothing was too good for the negroes. The Yankee soldiers backed them up in anything they chose to do, and the surest way for a white person to get himself into trouble was to bring a complaint of any kind against a negro.
The former slaves were now the lords of creation and, with the aid of the Yankees, the lowest and most ignorant ones were on top. The better class of them, scorning freedom, were suffering as severely as their white masters. Thousands of house servants, the highest caste in the slave population, remained with their white folks, doing manual labor which had been beneath them in the old days. Many loyal field hands also refused to avail themselves of the new freedom, but the hordes of “trashy free issue niggers,” who were causing most of the trouble, were drawn largely from the field-hand class.
In slave days, these lowly blacks had been despised by the house negroes and yard negroes as creatures of small worth. Just as Ellen had done, other plantation mistresses throughout the South had put the pickaninnies through courses of training and elimination to select the best of them for the positions of greater responsibility. Those consigned to the fields were the ones least willing or able to learn, the least energetic, the least honest and trustworthy, the most vicious and brutish. And now this class, the lowest in the black social order, was making life a misery for the South.
Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen’s Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild — either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.
To the credit of the negroes, including the least intelligent of them, few were actuated by malice and those few had usually been “mean niggers” even in slave days. But they were, as a class, childlike in mentality, easily led and from long habit accustomed to taking orders. Formerly their white masters had given the orders. Now they had a new set of masters, the Bureau and the Carpetbaggers, and their orders were: “You’re just as good as any white man, so act that way. Just as soon as you can vote the Republican ticket, you are going to have the white man’s property. It’s as good as yours now. Take it, if you can get it!”
Dazzled by these tales, freedom became a never-ending picnic, a barbecue every day of the week, a carnival of idleness and theft and insolence. Country negroes flocked into the cities, leaving the rural districts without labor to make the crops. Atlanta was crowded with them and still they came by the hundreds, lazy and dangerous as a result of the new doctrines being taught them. Packed into squalid cabins, smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis broke out among them. Accustomed to the care of their mistresses when they were ill in slave days, they did not know how to nurse themselves or their sick. Relying upon their masters in the old days to care for their aged and their babies, they now had no sense of responsibility for their helpless. And the Bureau was far too interested in political matters to provide the care the plantation owners had once given.
Abandoned negro children ran like frightened animals about the town until kind-hearted white people took them into their kitchens to raise. Aged country darkies, deserted by their children, bewildered and panic stricken in the bustling town, sat on the curbs and cried to the ladies who passed: “Mistis, please Ma’m, write mah old Marster down in Fayette County dat Ah’s up hyah. He’ll come tek dis ole nigger home agin. ‘Fo’ Gawd, Ah done got nuff of dis freedom!”
The Freedmen’s Bureau, overwhelmed by the numbers who poured in upon them, realized too late a part of the mistake and tried to send them back to their former owners. They told the negroes that if they would go back, they would go as free workers, protected by written contracts specifying wages by the day. The old darkies went back to the plantations gladly, making a heavier burden than ever on the poverty-stricken planters who had not the heart to turn them out, but the young ones remained in Atlanta. They did not want to be workers of any kind, anywhere. Why work when the belly is full?
For the first time in their lives the negroes were able to get all the whisky they might want. In slave days, it was something they never tasted except at Christmas, when each one received a “drap” along with his gift. Now they had not only the Bureau agitators and the Carpetbaggers urging them on, but the incitement of whisky as well, and outrages were inevitable. Neither life nor property was safe from them and the white people, unprotected by law, were terrorized. Men were insulted on the streets by drunken blacks, houses and barns were burned at night, horses and cattle and chickens stolen in broad daylight, crimes of all varieties were committed and few of the perpetrators were brought to justice.
But these ignominies and dangers were as nothing compared with the peril of white women, many bereft by the war of male protection, who lived alone in the outlying districts and on lonely roads. It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being. The North wanted every member of the Ku Klux hunted down and hanged, because they had dared take the punishment of crime into their own hands at a time when the ordinary processes of law and order had been overthrown by the invaders.
Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners. The South must be kept down and disfranchisement of the whites was one way to keep the South down. Most of those who had fought for the Confederacy, held office under it or given aid and comfort to it were not allowed to vote, had no choice in the selection of their public officials and were wholly under the power of an alien rule. Many men, thinking soberly of General Lee’s words and example, wished to take the oath, become citizens again and forget the past. But they were not permitted to take it. Others who were permitted to take the oath, hotly refused to do so, scorning to swear allegiance to a government which was deliberately subjecting them to cruelty and humiliation.
Scarlett heard over and over until she could have screamed at the repetition: “I’d have taken their damned oath right after the surrender if they’d acted decent. I can be restored to the Union, but by God, I can’t be reconstructed into it!”
Through these anxious days and nights, Scarlett was torn with fear. The ever-present menace of lawless negroes and Yankee soldiers preyed on her mind, the danger of confiscation was constantly with her, even in her dreams, and she dreaded worse terrors to come. Depressed by the helplessness of herself and her friends, of the whole South, it was not strange that she often remembered during these days the words which Tony Fontaine had spoken so passionately:
“Good God, Scarlett, it isn’t to be borne! And it won’t be borne!”
In spite of war, fire and Reconstruction, Atlanta had again become a boom town. In many ways, the place resembled the busy young city of the Confederacy’s early days. The only trouble was that the soldiers crowding the streets wore the wrong kind of uniforms, the money was in the hands of the wrong people, and the negroes were living in leisure while their former masters struggled and starved.
Underneath the surface were misery and fear, but all the outward appearances were those of a thriving town that was rapidly rebuilding from its ruins, a bustling, hurrying town. Atlanta, it seemed, must always be hurrying, no matter what its circumstances might be. Savannah, Charleston, Augusta, Richmond, New Orleans would never hurry. It was ill bred and Yankeefied to hurry. But in this period, Atlanta was more ill bred and Yankeefied than it had ever been before or would ever be again. With “new people” thronging in from all directions, the streets were choked and noisy from morning till night. The shiny carriages of Yankee officers’ wives and newly rich Carpetbaggers splashed mud on the dilapidated buggies of the townspeople, and gaudy new homes of wealthy strangers crowded in among the sedate dwellings of older citizens.
The war had definitely established the importance of Atlanta in the affairs of the South and the hitherto obscure town was now known far and wide. The railroads for which Sherman had fought an entire summer and killed thousands of men were again stimulating the life of the city they had brought into being. Atlanta was again the center of activities for a wide region, as it had been before its destruction, and the town was receiving a great influx of new citizens, both welcome and unwelcome.
Invading Carpetbaggers made Atlanta their headquarters and on the streets they jostled against representatives of the oldest families in the South who were likewise newcomers in the town. Families from the country districts who had been burned out during Sherman’s march and who could no longer make a living without the slaves to till the cotton had come to Atlanta to live. New settlers were coming in every day from Tennessee and the Carolinas where the hand of Reconstruction lay even heavier than in Georgia. Many Irish and Germans who had been bounty men in the Union Army had settled in Atlanta after their discharge. The wives and families of the Yankee garrison, filled with curiosity about the South after four years of war, came to swell the population. Adventurers of every kind swarmed in, hoping to make their fortunes, and the negroes from the country continued to come by the hundreds.
The town was roaring — wide open like a frontier village, making no effort to cover its vices and sins. Saloons blossomed overnight, two and sometimes three in a block, and after nightfall the streets were full of drunken men, black and white, reeling from wall to curb and back again. Thugs, pickpockets and prostitutes lurked in the unlit alleys and shadowy streets. Gambling houses ran full blast and hardly a night passed without its shooting or cutting affray. Respectable citizens were scandalized to find that Atlanta had a large and thriving red-light district, larger and more thriving than during the war. All night long pianos jangled from behind drawn shades and rowdy songs and laughter floated out, punctuated by occasional screams and pistol shots. The inmates of these houses were bolder than the prostitutes of the war days and brazenly hung out of their windows and called to passers-by. And on Sunday afternoons, the handsome closed carriages of the madams of the district rolled down the main streets, filled with girls in their best finery, taking the air from behind lowered silk shades.
Belle Watling was the most notorious of the madams. She had opened a new house of her own, a large two-story building that made neighboring houses in the district look like shabby rabbit warrens. There was a long barroom downstairs, elegantly hung with oil paintings, and a negro orchestra played every night. The upstairs, so rumor said, was fitted out with the finest of plush upholstered furniture, heavy lace curtains and imported mirrors in gilt frames. The dozen young ladies with whom the house was furnished were comely, if brightly painted, and comported themselves more quietly than those of other houses. At least, the police were seldom summoned to Belle’s.
This house was something that the matrons of Atlanta whispered about furtively and ministers preached against in guarded terms as a cesspool of iniquity, a hissing and a reproach. Everyone knew that a woman of Belle’s type couldn’t have made enough money by herself to set up such a luxurious establishment. She had to have a backer and a rich one at that. And Rhett Butler had never had the decency to conceal his relations with her, so it was obvious that he and no other must be that backer. Belle herself presented a prosperous appearance when glimpsed occasionally in her closed carriage driven by an impudent yellow negro. When she drove by, behind a fine pair of bays, all the little boys along the street who could evade their mothers ran to peer at her and whisper excitedly: “That’s her! That’s ole Belle! I seen her red hair!”
Shouldering the shell-pitted houses patched with bits of old lumber and smoke-blackened bricks, the fine homes of the Carpetbaggers and war profiteers were rising, with mansard roofs, gables and turrets, stained-glass windows and wide lawns. Night after night, in these newly built homes, the windows were ablaze with gas light and the sound of music and dancing feet drifted out upon the air. Women in stiff bright-colored silks strolled about long verandas, squired by men in evening clothes. Champagne corks popped, and on lace tablecloths seven-course dinners were laid. Hams in wine, pressed duck, pate de foie gras, rare fruits in and out of season, were spread in profusion.
Behind the shabby doors of the old houses, poverty and hunger lived — all the more bitter for the brave gentility with which they were borne, all the more pinching for the outward show of proud indifference to material wants. Dr. Meade could tell unlovely stories of those families who had been driven from mansions to boarding houses and from boarding houses to dingy rooms on back streets. He had too many lady patients who were suffering from “weak hearts” and “declines.” He knew, and they knew he knew, that slow starvation was the trouble. He could tell of consumption making inroads on entire families and of pellagra, once found only among poor whites, which was now appearing in Atlanta’s best families. And there were babies with thin rickety legs and mothers who could not nurse them. Once the old doctor had been wont to thank God reverently for each child he brought into the world. Now he did not think life was such a boon. It was a hard world for little babies and so many died in their first few months of life.
Bright lights and wine, fiddles and dancing, brocade and broadcloth in the showy big houses and, just around the corners, slow starvation and cold. Arrogance and callousness for the conquerors, bitter endurance and hatred for the conquered.