Gone with the wind (Chapter 39)
The train was very late and the long, deeply blue twilight of June was settling over the countryside when Scarlett alighted in Jonesboro. Yellow gleams of lamplight showed in the stores and houses which remained in the village, but they were few. Here and there were wide gaps between the buildings on the main street where dwellings had been shelled or burned. Ruined houses with shell holes in their roofs and half the walls torn away stared at her, silent and dark. A few saddle horses and mule teams were hitched outside the wooden awning of Bullard’s store. The dusty red road was empty and lifeless, and the only sounds in the village were a few whoops and drunken laughs that floated on the still twilight air from a saloon far down the street.
The depot had not been rebuilt since it was burned in the battle and in its place was only a wooden shelter, with no sides to keep out the weather. Scarlett walked under it and sat down on one of the empty kegs that were evidently put there for seats. She peered up and down the street for Will Benteen. Will should have been here to meet her. He should have known she would take the first train possible after receiving his laconic message that Gerald was dead.
She had come so hurriedly that she had in her small carpetbag only a nightgown and a tooth brush, not even a change of underwear. She was uncomfortable in the tight black dress she had borrowed from Mrs. Meade, for she had had no time to get mourning clothes for herself. Mrs. Meade was thin now, and Scarlett’s pregnancy being advanced, the dress was doubly uncomfortable. Even in her sorrow at Gerald’s death, she did not forget the appearance she was making and she looked down at her body with distaste. Her figure was completely gone and her face and ankles were puffy. Heretofore she had not cared very much how she looked but now that she would see Ashley within the hour she cared greatly. Even in her heartbreak, she shrank from the thought of facing him when she was carrying another man’s child. She loved him and he loved her, and this unwanted child now seemed to her a proof of infidelity to that love. But much as she disliked having him see her with the slenderness gone from her waist and the lightness from her step, it was something she could not escape now.
She patted her foot impatiently. Will should have met her. Of course, she could go over to Bullard’s and inquire after him or ask someone there to drive her over to Tara, should she find he had been unable to come. But she did not want to go to Bullard’s. It was Saturday night and probably half the men of the County would be there. She did not want to display her condition in this poorly fitting black dress which accentuated rather than hid her figure. And she did not want to hear the kindly sympathy that would be poured out about Gerald. She did not want sympathy. She was afraid she would cry if anyone even mentioned his name to her. And she wouldn’t cry. She knew if she once began it would be like the time she cried into the horse’s mane, that dreadful night when Atlanta fell and Rhett had left her on the dark road outside the town, terrible tears that tore her heart and could not be stopped.
No, she wouldn’t cry! She felt the lump in her throat rising again, as it had done so often since the news came, but crying wouldn’t do any good. It would only confuse and weaken her. Why, oh, why hadn’t Will or Melanie or the girls written her that Gerald was ailing? She would have taken the first train to Tara to care for him, brought a doctor from Atlanta if necessary. The fools — all of them! Couldn’t they manage anything without her? She couldn’t be in two places at once and the good Lord knew she was doing her best for them all in Atlanta.
She twisted about on the keg, becoming nervous and fidgety as Will still did not come. Where was he? Then she heard the scrunching of cinders on the railroad tracks behind her and, twisting her body, she saw Alex Fontaine crossing the tracks toward a wagon, a sack of oats on his shoulder.
“Good Lord! Isn’t that you, Scarlett?” he cried, dropping the sack and running to take her hand, pleasure written all over his bitter, swarthy little face. “I’m so glad to see you. I saw Will over at the blacksmith’s shop, getting the horse shod. The train was late and he thought he’d have time. Shall I run fetch him?”
“Yes, please, Alex,” she said, smiling in spite of her sorrow. It was good to see a County face again.
“Oh — er — Scarlett,” he began awkwardly, still holding her hand, “I’m mighty sorry about your father.”
“Thank you,” she replied, wishing he had not said it. His words brought up Gerald’s florid face and bellowing voice so clearly.
“If it’s any comfort to you, Scarlett, we’re mighty proud of him around here,” Alex continued, dropping her hand. “He — well, we figure he died like a soldier and in a soldier’s cause.”
Now what did he mean by that, she thought confusedly. A soldier? Had someone shot him? Had he gotten into a fight with the Scallawags as Tony had? But she mustn’t hear more. She would cry if she talked about him and she mustn’t cry, not until she was safely in the wagon with Will and out in the country where no stranger could see her. Will wouldn’t matter. He was just like a brother.
“Alex, I don’t want to talk about it,” she said shortly.
“I don’t blame you one bit, Scarlett,” said Alex while the dark blood of anger flooded his face. “If it was my sister, I’d — well, Scarlett, I’ve never yet said a harsh word about any woman, but personally I think somebody ought to take a rawhide whip to Suellen.”
What foolishness was he talking about now, she wondered. What had Suellen to do with it all?
“Everybody around here feels the same way about her, I’m sorry to say. Will’s the only one who takes up for her — and, of course, Miss Melanie, but she’s a saint and won’t see bad in anyone and —”
“I said I didn’t want to talk about it,” she said coldly but Alex did not seem rebuffed. He looked as though he understood her rudeness and that was annoying. She didn’t want to hear bad tidings about her own family from an outsider, didn’t want him to know of her ignorance of what had happened. Why hadn’t Will sent her the full details?
She wished Alex wouldn’t look at her so hard. She felt that he realized her condition and it embarrassed her. But what Alex was thinking as he peered at her in the twilight was that her face had changed so completely he wondered how he had ever recognized her. Perhaps it was because she was going to have a baby. Women did look like the devil at such times. And, of course, she must be feeling badly about old man O’Hara. She had been his pet. But, no, the change was deeper than that. She really looked as if she had three square meals a day. And the hunted-animal look had partly gone from her eyes. Now, the eyes which had been fearful and desperate were hard. There was an air of command, assurance and determination about her, even when she smiled. Bet she led old Frank a merry life! Yes, she had changed. She was a handsome woman, to be sure, but all that pretty, sweet softness had gone from her face and that flattering way of looking up at a man, like he knew more than God Almighty, had utterly vanished.
Well, hadn’t they all changed? Alex looked down at his rough clothes and his face fell into its usual bitter lines. Sometimes at night when he lay awake, wondering how his mother was going to get that operation and how poor dead Joe’s little boy was going to get an education and how he was going to get money for another mule, he wished the war was still going on, wished it had gone on forever. They didn’t know their luck then. There was always something to eat in the army, even if it was just corn bread, always somebody to give orders and none of this torturing sense of facing problems that couldn’t be solved — nothing to bother about in the army except getting killed. And then there was Dimity Munroe. Alex wanted to marry her and he knew he couldn’t when so many were already looking to him for support. He had loved her for so long and now the roses were fading from her cheeks and the joy from her eyes. If only Tony hadn’t had to run away to Texas. Another man on the place would make all the difference in the world. His lovable bad-tempered little brother, penniless somewhere in the West. Yes, they had all changed. And why not? He sighed heavily.
“I haven’t thanked you for what you and Frank did for Tony,” he said. “It was you who helped him get away, wasn’t it? It was fine of you. I heard in a roundabout way that he was safe in Texas. I was afraid to write and ask you — but did you or Frank lend him any money? I want to repay —”
“Oh, Alex, please hush! Not now!” cried Scarlett. For once, money meant nothing to her.
Alex was silent for a moment.
“I’ll get Will for you,” he said, “and we’ll all be over tomorrow for the funeral.”
As he picked up the sack of oats and turned away, a wobbly-wheeled wagon swayed out of a side street and creaked up to them. Will called from the seat: “I’m sorry I’m late, Scarlett.”
Climbing awkwardly down from the wagon, he stumped toward her and, bending, kissed her cheek. Will had never kissed her before, had never failed to precede her name with “Miss” and, while it surprised her, it warmed her heart and pleased her very much. He lifted her carefully over the wheel and into the wagon and, looking down, she saw that it was the same old rickety wagon in which she had fled from Atlanta. How had it ever held together so long? Will must have kept it patched up very well. It made her slightly sick to look at it and to remember that night. If it took the shoes off her feet or food from Aunt Pitty’s table, she’d see that there was a new wagon at Tara and this one burned.
Will did not speak at first and Scarlett was grateful. He threw his battered straw hat into the back of the wagon, clucked to the horse and they moved off. Will was just the same, lank and gangling, pink of hair, mild of eye, patient as a draft animal.
They left the village behind and turned into the red road to Tara. A faint pink still lingered about the edges of the sky and fat feathery clouds were tinged with gold and palest green. The stillness of the country twilight came down about them as calming as a prayer. How had she ever borne it, she thought, away for all these months, away from the fresh smell of country air, the plowed earth and the sweetness of summer nights? The moist red earth smelled so good, so familiar, so friendly, she wanted to get out and scoop up a handful. The honeysuckle which draped the gullied red sides of the road in tangled greenery was piercingly fragrant as always after rain, the sweetest perfume in the world. Above their heads a flock of chimney swallows whirled suddenly on swift wings and now and then a rabbit scurried startled across the road, his white tail bobbing like an eiderdown powder puff. She saw with pleasure that the cotton stood well, as they passed between plowed fields where the green bushes reared themselves sturdily out of the red earth. How beautiful all this was! The soft gray mist in the swampy bottoms, the red earth and growing cotton, the sloping fields with curving green rows and the black pines rising behind everything like sable walls. How had she ever stayed in Atlanta so long?
“Scarlett, before I tell you about Mr. O’Hara — and I want to tell you everything before you get home — I want to ask your opinion on a matter. I figger you’re the head of the house now.”
“What is it, Will?”
He turned his mild sober gaze on her for a moment.
“I just wanted your approval to my marryin’ Suellen.”
Scarlett clutched the seat, so surprised that she almost fell backwards. Marry Suellen! She’d never thought of anybody marrying Suellen since she had taken Frank Kennedy from her. Who would have Suellen?
“Then I take it you don’t mind?”
“Mind? No, but — Why, Will, you’ve taken my breath away! You marry Suellen? Will, I always thought you were sweet on Carreen.”
Will kept his eyes on the horse and flapped the reins. His profile did not change but she thought he sighed slightly.
“Maybe I was,” he said.
“Well, won’t she have you?”
“I never asked her.”
“Oh, Will, you’re a fool. Ask her. She’s worth two of Suellen!”
“Scarlett, you don’t know a lot of things that’s been going on at Tara. You ain’t favored us with much of your attention these last months.”
“I haven’t, haven’t I?” she flared. “What do you suppose I’ve been doing in Atlanta? Riding around in a coach and four and going to balls? Haven’t I sent you money every month? Haven’t I paid the taxes and fixed the roof and bought the new plow and the mules? Haven’t —”
“Now, don’t fly off the handle and get your Irish up,” he interrupted imperturbably. “If anybody knows what you’ve done, I do, and it’s been two men’s work.”
Slightly mollified, she questioned, “Well then, what do you mean?”
“Well, you’ve kept the roof over us and food in the pantry and I ain’t denyin’ that, but you ain’t given much thought to what’s been goin’ on in anybody’s head here at Tara. I ain’t blamin’ you, Scarlett. That’s just your way. You warn’t never very much interested in what was in folks’ heads. But what I’m tryin’ to tell you is that I didn’t never ask Miss Carreen because I knew it wouldn’t be no use. She’s been like a little sister to me and I guess she talks to me plainer than to anybody in the world. But she never got over that dead boy and she never will. And I might as well tell you now she’s aimin’ to go in a convent over to Charleston.”
“Are you joking?”
“Well, I knew it would take you back and I just want to ask you, Scarlett, don’t you argue with her about it or scold her or laugh at her. Let her go. It’s all she wants now. Her heart’s broken.”
“But God’s nightgown! Lots of people’s hearts have been broken and they didn’t run off to convents. Look at me. I lost a husband.”
“But your heart warn’t broken,” Will said calmly and, picking up a straw from the bottom of the wagon, he put it in his mouth and chewed slowly. That remark took the wind out of her. As always when she heard the truth spoken, no matter how unpalatable it was, basic honesty forced her to acknowledge it as truth. She was silent a moment, trying to accustom herself to the idea of Carreen as a nun.
“Promise you won’t fuss at her.”
“Oh, well, I promise,” and then she looked at him with a new understanding and some amazement. Will had loved Carreen, loved her now enough to take her part and make her retreat easy. And yet he wanted to marry Suellen.
“Well, what’s all this about Suellen? You don’t care for her, do you?”
“Oh, yes, I do in a way,” he said removing the straw and surveying it as if it were highly interesting. “Suellen ain’t as bad as you think, Scarlett. I think we’ll get along right well. The only trouble with Suellen is that she needs a husband and some children and that’s just what every woman needs.”
The wagon jolted over the rutty road and for a few minutes while the two sat silent Scarlett’s mind was busy. There must be something more to it than appeared on the surface, something deeper, more important, to make the mild and soft-spoken Will want to marry a complaining nagger like Suellen.
“You haven’t told me the real reason, Will. If I’m head of the family, I’ve got a right to know.”
“That’s right,” said Will, “and I guess you’ll understand. I can’t leave Tara. It’s home to me, Scarlett, the only real home I ever knew and I love every stone of it. I’ve worked on it like it was mine. And when you put out work on somethin’, you come to love it. You know what I mean?”
She knew what he meant and her heart went out in a surge of warm affection for him, hearing him say he, too, loved the thing she loved best.
“And I figger it this way. With your pa gone and Carreen a nun, there’ll be just me and Suellen left here and, of course, I couldn’t live on at Tara without marryin’ Suellen. You know how folks talk.”
“But — but Will, there’s Melanie and Ashley —”
At Ashley’s name he turned and looked at her, his pale eyes unfathomable. She had the old feeling that Will knew all about her and Ashley, understood all and did not either censure or approve.
“They’ll be goin’ soon.”
“Going? Where? Tara is their home as well as yours.”
“No, it ain’t their home. That’s just what’s eatin’ on Ashley. It ain’t his home and he don’t feel like he’s earnin’ his keep. He’s a mighty pore farmer and he knows it. God knows he tries his best but he warn’t cut out for farmin’ and you know it as well as I do. If he splits kindlin’, like as not he’ll slice off his foot. He can’t no more keep a plow straight in a furrow than little Beau can, and what he don’t know about makin’ things grow would fill a book. It ain’t his fault. He just warn’t bred for it. And it worries him that he’s a man livin’ at Tara on a woman’s charity and not givin’ much in return.”
“Charity? Has he ever said —”
“No, he’s never said a word. You know Ashley. But I can tell. Last night when we were sittin’ up with your pa, I tole him I had asked Suellen and she’d said Yes. And then Ashley said that relieved him because he’d been feelin’ like a dog, stayin’ on at Tara, and he knew he and Miss Melly would have to keep stayin’ on, now that Mr. O’Hara was dead, just to keep folks from talkin’ about me and Suellen. So then he told me he was aimin’ to leave Tara and get work.”
“Work? What kind? Where?”
“I don’t know exactly what he’ll do but he said he was goin’ up North. He’s got a Yankee friend in New York who wrote him about workin’ in a bank up there.”
“Oh, no!” cried Scarlett from the bottom of her heart and, at the cry, Will gave her the same look as before.
“Maybe ‘twould be better all ‘round if he did go North.”
“No! No! I don’t think so.”
Her mind was working feverishly. Ashley couldn’t go North! She might never see him again. Even though she had not seen him in months, had not spoken to him alone since that fateful scene in the orchard, there had not been a day when she had not thought of him, been glad he was sheltered under her roof. She had never sent a dollar to Will that she had not been pleased that it would make Ashley’s life easier. Of course, he wasn’t any good as a farmer. Ashley was bred for better things, she thought proudly. He was born to rule, to live in a large house, ride fine horses, read books of poetry and tell negroes what to do. That there were no more mansions and horses and negroes and few books did not alter matters. Ashley wasn’t bred to plow and split rails. No wonder he wanted to leave Tara.
But she could not let him go away from Georgia. If necessary, she would bully Frank into giving him a job in the store, make Frank turn off the boy he now had behind the counter. But, no — Ashley’s place was no more behind a counter than it was behind a plow. A Wilkes a shopkeeper! Oh, never that! There must be something — why, her mill of course! Her relief at the thought was so great that she smiled. But would he accept an offer from her? Would he still think it was charity? She must manage it so he would think he was doing her a favor. She would discharge Mr. Johnson and put Ashley in charge of the old mill while Hugh operated the new one. She would explain to Ashley how Frank’s ill health and the pressure of work at the store kept him from helping her, and she would plead her condition as another reason why she needed his help.
She would make him realize somehow that she couldn’t do without his aid at this time. And she would give him a half-interest in the mill, if he would only take it over — anything just to have him near her, anything to see that bright smile light up his face, anything for the chance of catching an unguarded look in his eyes that showed he still cared. But, she promised herself, never, never would she again try to prod him into words of love, never again would she try to make him throw away that foolish honor he valued more than love. Somehow, she must delicately convey to him this new resolution of hers. Otherwise he might refuse, fearing another scene such as that last terrible one had been.
“I can get him something to do in Atlanta,” she said.
“Well, that’s yours and Ashley’s business,” said Will and put the straw back in his mouth. “Giddap, Sherman. Now, Scarlett. there’s somethin’ else I’ve got to ask you before I tell you about your pa. I won’t have you lightin’ into Suellen. What she’s done, she’s done, and you snatchin’ her baldheaded won’t bring Mr. O’Hara back. Besides she honestly thought she was actin’ for the best!”
“I wanted to ask you about that. What is all this about Suellen? Alex talked riddles and said she ought to be whipped. What has she done?”
“Yes, folks are pretty riled up about her. Everybody I run into this afternoon in Jonesboro was promisin’ to cut her dead the next time they seen her, but maybe they’ll get over it. Now, promise me you won’t light into her. I won’t be havin’ no quarrelin’ tonight with Mr. O’Hara layin’ dead in the parlor.”
HE won’t be having any quarreling! thought Scarlett, indignantly. He talks like Tara was his already!
And then she thought of Gerald, dead in the parlor, and suddenly she began to cry, cry in bitter, gulping sobs. Will put his arm around her, drew her comfortably close and said nothing.
As they jolted slowly down the darkening road, her head on his shoulder, her bonnet askew, she had forgotten the Gerald of the last two years, the vague old gentleman who stared at doors waiting for a woman who would never enter. She was remembering the vital, virile old man with his mane of crisp white hair, his bellowing cheerfulness, his stamping boots, his clumsy jokes, his generosity. She remembered how, as a child, he had seemed the most wonderful man in the world, this blustering father who carried her before him on his saddle when he jumped fences, turned her up and paddled her when she was naughty, and then cried when she cried and gave her quarters to get her to hush. She remembered him coming home from Charleston and Atlanta laden with gifts that were never appropriate, remembered too, with a faint smile through tears, how he came home in the wee hours from Court Day at Jonesboro, drunk as seven earls, jumping fences, his rollicking voice raised in “The Wearin’ o’ the Green.” And how abashed he was, facing Ellen on the morning after. Well, he was with Ellen now.
“Why didn’t you write me that he was ill? I’d have come so fast —”
“He warn’t ill, not a minute. Here, honey, take my handkerchief and I’ll tell you all about it.”
She blew her nose on his bandanna, for she had come from Atlanta without even a handkerchief, and settled back into the crook of Will’s arm. How nice Will was. Nothing ever upset him.
“Well, it was this way, Scarlett. You been sendin’ us money right along and Ashley and me, well, we’ve paid taxes and bought the mule and seeds and what-all and a few hogs and chickens. Miss Melly’s done mighty well with the hens, yes sir, she has. She’s a fine woman, Miss Melly is. Well, anyway, after we bought things for Tara, there warn’t so much left over for folderols, but none of us warn’t complainin’. Except Suellen.
“Miss Melanie and Miss Carreen stay at home and wear their old clothes like they’re proud of them but you know Suellen, Scarlett. She hasn’t never got used to doin’ without. It used to stick in her craw that she had to wear old dresses every time I took her into Jonesboro or over to Fayetteville. ‘Specially as some of those Carpetbaggers’ ladi — women was always flouncin’ around in fancy trimmin’s. The wives of those damn Yankees that run the Freedmen’s Bureau, do they dress up! Well, it’s kind of been a point of honor with the ladies of the County to wear their worst-lookin’ dresses to town, just to show how they didn’t care and was proud to wear them. But not Suellen. And she wanted a horse and carriage too. She pointed out that you had one.”
“It’s not a carriage, it’s an old buggy,” said Scarlett indignantly.
“Well, no matter what. I might as well tell you Suellen never has got over your marryin’ Frank Kennedy and I don’t know as I blame her. You know that was a kind of scurvy trick to play on a sister.”
Scarlett rose from his shoulder, furious as a rattler ready to strike.
“Scurvy trick, hey? I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, Will Benteen! Could I help it if he preferred me to her?”
“You’re a smart girl, Scarlett, and I figger, yes, you could have helped him preferrin’ you. Girls always can. But I guess you kind of coaxed him. You’re a mighty takin’ person when you want to be, but all the same, he was Suellen’s beau. Why, she’d had a letter from him a week before you went to Atlanta and he was sweet as sugar about her and talked about how they’d get married when he got a little more money ahead. I know because she showed me the letter.”
Scarlett was silent because she knew he was telling the truth and she could think of nothing to say. She had never expected Will, of all people, to sit in judgment on her. Moreover the lie she had told Frank had never weighed heavily upon her conscience. If a girl couldn’t keep a beau, she deserved to lose him.
“Now, Will, don’t be mean,” she said. “If Suellen had married him, do you think she’d ever have spent a penny on Tara or any of us?”
“I said you could be right takin’ when you wanted to,” said Will, turning to her with a quiet grin. “No, I don’t think we’d ever seen a penny of old Frank’s money. But still there’s no gettin’ ‘round it, it was a scurvy trick and if you want to justify the end by the means, it’s none of my business and who am I to complain? But just the same Suellen has been like a hornet ever since. I don’t think she cared much about old Frank but it kind of teched her vanity and she’s been sayin’ as how you had good clothes and a carriage and lived in Atlanta while she was buried here at Tara. She does love to go callin’ and to parties, you know, and wear pretty clothes. I ain’t blamin’ her. Women are like that.
“Well, about a month ago I took her into Jonesboro and left her to go callin’ while I tended to business and when I took her home, she was still as a mouse but I could see she was so excited she was ready to bust. I thought she’d found out somebody was goin’ to have a — that she’d heard some gossip that was interestin’, and I didn’t pay her much mind. She went around home for about a week all swelled up and excited and didn’t have much to say. She went over to see Miss Cathleen Calvert — Scarlett, you’d cry your eyes out at Miss Cathleen. Pore girl, she’d better be dead than married to that pusillanimous Yankee Hilton. You knew he’d mortgaged the place and lost it and they’re goin’ to have to leave?”
“No, I didn’t know and I don’t want to know. I want to know about Pa.”
“Well, I’m gettin’ to that,” said Will patiently. “When she come back from over there she said we’d all misjudged Hilton. She called him Mr. Hilton and she said he was a smart man, but we just laughed at her. Then she took to takin’ your pa out to walk in the afternoons and lots of times when I was comin’ home from the field I’d see her sittin’ with him on the wall ‘round the buryin’ ground, talkin’ at him hard and wavin’ her hands. And the old gentleman would just look at her sort of puzzled-like and shake his head. You know how he’s been, Scarlett. He just got kind of vaguer and vaguer, like he didn’t hardly know where he was or who we were. One time, I seen her point to your ma’s grave and the old gentleman begun to cry. And when she come in the house all happy and excited lookin’, I gave her a talkin’ to, right sharp, too, and I said: ‘Miss Suellen, why in hell are you devilin’ your poor pa and bringin’ up your ma to him? Most of the time he don’t realize she’s dead and here you are rubbin’ it in.’ And she just kind of tossed her head and laughed and said: ‘Mind your business. Some day you’ll be glad of what I’m doin’.’ Miss Melanie told me last night that Suellen had told her about her schemes but Miss Melly said she didn’t have no notion Suellen was serious. She said she didn’t tell none of us because she was so upset at the very idea.”
“What idea? Are you ever going to get to the point? We’re halfway home now. I want to know about Pa.”
“I’m trying to tell you,” said Will, “and we’re so near home, I guess I’d better stop right here till I’ve finished.”
He drew rein and the horse stopped and snorted. They had halted by the wild overgrown mock-orange hedge that marked the Macintosh property. Glancing under the dark trees Scarlett could just discern the tall ghostly chimneys still rearing above the silent ruin. She wished that Will had chosen any other place to stop.
“Well, the long and the short of her idea was to make the Yankees pay for the cotton they burned and the stock they drove off and the fences and the barns they tore down.”
“Haven’t you heard about it? The Yankee government’s been payin’ claims on all destroyed property of Union sympathizers in the South.”
“Of course I’ve heard about that,” said Scarlett. “But what’s that got to do with us?”
“A heap, in Suellen’s opinion. That day I took her to Jonesboro, she run into Mrs. MacIntosh and when they were gossipin’ along, Suellen couldn’t help noticin’ what fine-lookin’ clothes Mrs. Macintosh had on and she couldn’t help askin’ about them. Then Mrs. MacIntosh gave herself a lot of airs and said as how her husband had put in a claim with the Federal government for destroyin’ the property of a loyal Union sympathizer who had never given aid and comfort to the Confederacy in any shape or form.”
“They never gave aid and comfort to anybody,” snapped Scarlett. “Scotch–Irish!”
“Well, maybe that’s true. I don’t know them. Anyway, the government gave them, well — I forget how many thousand dollars. A right smart sum it was, though. That started Suellen. She thought about it all week and didn’t say nothin’ to us because she knew we’d just laugh. But she just had to talk to somebody so she went over to Miss Cathleen’s and that damned white trash, Hilton, gave her a passel of new ideas. He pointed out that your pa warn’t even born in this country, that he hadn’t fought in the war and hadn’t had no sons to fight, and hadn’t never held no office under the Confederacy. He said they could strain a point about Mr. O’Hara bein’ a loyal Union sympathizer. He filled her up with such truck and she come home and begun workin’ on Mr. O’Hara. Scarlett, I bet my life your pa didn’t even know half the time what she was talkin’ about. That was what she was countin’ on, that he would take the Iron Clad oath and not even know it.”
“Pa take the Iron Clad oath!” cried Scarlett.
“Well, he’d gotten right feeble in his mind these last months and I guess she was countin’ on that. Mind you, none of us suspicioned nothin’ about it. We knew she was cookin’ up somethin’, but we didn’t know she was usin’ your dead ma to reproach him for his daughters bein’ in rags when he could get a hundred and fifty thousand dollars out of the Yankees.”
“One hundred and fifty thousand dollars,” murmured Scarlett, her horror at the oath fading.
What a lot of money that was! And to be had for the mere signing of an oath of allegiance to the United States government, an oath stating that the signer had always supported the government and never given aid and comfort to its enemies. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars! That much money for that small a lie! Well, she couldn’t blame Suellen. Good heavens! Was that what Alex meant by wanting to rawhide her? What the County meant by intending to cut her? Fools, every one of them. What couldn’t she do with that much money! What couldn’t any of the folks in the County do with it! And what did so small a lie matter? After all, anything you could get out of the Yankees was fair money, no matter how you got it.
“Yesterday, about noon when Ashley and me were splittin’ rails, Suellen got this wagon and got your pa in it and off they went to town without a word to anybody. Miss Melly had a notion what it was all about but she was prayin’ somethin’ would change Suellen, so she didn’t say nothin’ to the rest of us. She just didn’t see how Suellen could do such a thing.
“Today I heard all about what happened. That pusillanimous fellow, Hilton, had some influence with the other Scallawags and Republicans in town and Suellen had agreed to give them some of the money — I don’t know how much — if they’d kind of wink their eye about Mr. O’Hara bein’ a loyal Union man and play on how he was an Irishman and didn’t fight in the army and so on, and sign recommendations. All your pa had to do was take the oath and sign the paper and off it would go to Washington.
“They rattled off the oath real fast and he didn’t say nothin’ and it went right well till she got him up to the signin’ of it. And then the old gentleman kind of come to himself for a minute and shook his head. I don’t think he knew what it was all about but he didn’t like it and Suellen always did rub him the wrong way. Well, that just about gave her the nervous fits after all the trouble she’d gone to. She took him out of the office and rode him up and down the road and talked to him about your ma cryin’ out of her grave at him for lettin’ her children suffer when he could provide for them. They tell me your pa sat there in the wagon and cried like a baby, like he always does when he hears her name. Everybody in town saw them and Alex Fontaine went over to see what was the matter, but Suellen gave him the rough side of her tongue and told him to mind his own business, so he went off mad.
“I don’t know where she got the notion but some time in the afternoon she got a bottle of brandy and took Mr. O’Hara back to the office and begun pourin’ it for him. Scarlett, we haven’t had no spirits ‘round Tara for a year, just a little blackberry wine and scuppernong wine Dilcey makes, and Mr. O’Hara warn’t used to it. He got real drunk, and after Suellen had argued and nagged a couple of hours he gave in and said Yes, he’d sign anything she wanted. They got the oath out again and just as he was about to put pen to paper, Suellen made her mistake. She said: ‘Well, now. I guess the Slatterys and the MacIntoshes won’t be givin’ themselves airs over us!’ You see, Scarlett, the Slatterys had put in a claim for a big amount for that little shack of theirs that the Yankees burned and Emmie’s husband had got it through Washington for them.
“They tell me that when Suellen said those names, your pa kind of straightened up and squared his shoulders and looked at her, sharp-like. He warn’t vague no more and he said: ‘Have the Slatterys and the MacIntoshes signed somethin’ like this?’ and Suellen got nervous and said Yes and No and stuttered and he shouted right loud: ‘Tell me, did that God-damned Orangeman and that God-damned poor white sign somethin’ like this?’ And that feller Hilton spoke up smooth-like and said: ‘Yes sir, they did and they got a pile of money like you’ll get.’
“And then the old gentleman let out a roar like a bull. Alex Fontaine said he heard him from down the street at the saloon. And he said with a brogue you could cut with a butterknife: ‘And were ye afther thinkin’ an O’Hara of Tara would be follyin’ the dirthy thracks of a Goddamned Orangeman and a God-damned poor white?’ And he tore the paper in two and threw it in Suellen’s face and he bellowed: ‘Ye’re no daughter of mine!’ and he was out of the office before you could say Jack Robinson.
“Alex said he saw him come out on the street, chargin’ like a bull. He said the old gentleman looked like his old self for the first time since your ma died. Said he was reelin’ drunk and cussin’ at the top of his lungs. Alex said he never heard such fine cussin’. Alex’s horse was standin’ there and your pa climbed on it without a by-your-leave and off he went in a cloud of dust so thick it choked you, cussin’ every breath he drew.
“Well, about sundown Ashley and me were sittin’ on the front step, lookin’ down the road and mighty worried. Miss Melly was upstairs cryin’ on her bed and wouldn’t tell us nothin’. Terrectly, we heard a poundin’ down the road and somebody yellin’ like they was fox huntin’ and Ashley said: ‘That’s queer! That sounds like Mr. O’Hara when he used to ride over to see us before the war.”
“And then we seen him way down at the end of the pasture. He must have jumped the fence right over there. And he come ridin’ hell-for-leather up the hill, singin’ at the top of his voice like he didn’t have a care in the world. I didn’t know your pa had such a voice. He was singin’ ‘Peg in a Low-backed Car’ and beatin’ the horse with his hat and the horse was goin’ like mad. He didn’t draw rein when he come near the top and we seen he was goin’ to jump the pasture fence and we hopped up, scared to death, and then he yelled: ‘Look, Ellen! Watch me take this one!’ But the horse stopped right on his haunches at the fence and wouldn’t take the jump and your pa went right over his head. He didn’t suffer none. He was dead time we got to him. I guess it broke his neck.”
Will waited a minute for her to speak and when she did not he picked up the reins. “Giddap, Sherman,” he said, and the horse started on toward home.