Gone with the wind (Chapter 40)
Scarlett slept little that night. When the dawn had come and the sun was creeping over the black pines on the hills to the east, she rose from her tumbled bed and, seating herself on a stool by the window, laid her tired head on her arm and looked out over the barn yard and orchard of Tara toward the cotton fields. Everything was fresh and dewy and silent and green and the sight of the cotton fields brought a measure of balm and comfort to her sore heart. Tara, at sunrise, looked loved, well tended and at peace, for all that its master lay dead. The squatty log chicken house was clay daubed against rats, weasels and clean with whitewash, and so was the log stable. The garden with its rows of corn, bright-yellow squash, butter beans and turnips was well weeded and neatly fenced with split-oak rails. The orchard was cleared of underbrush and only daisies grew beneath the long rows of trees. The sun picked out with faint glistening the apples and the furred pink peaches half hidden in the green leaves. Beyond lay the curving rows of cotton, still and green under the gold of the new sky. The ducks and chickens were waddling and strutting off toward the fields, for under the bushes in the soft plowed earth were found the choicest worms and slugs.
Scarlett’s heart swelled with affection and gratitude to Will who had done all of this. Even her loyalty to Ashley could not make her believe he had been responsible for much of this well-being, for Tara’s bloom was not the work of a planter-aristocrat, but of the plodding, tireless “small farmer” who loved his land. It was a “two-horse” farm, not the lordly plantation of other days with pastures full of mules and fine horses and cotton and corn stretching as far as eye could see. But what there was of it was good and the acres that were lying fallow could be reclaimed when times grew better, and they would be the more fertile for their rest.
Will had done more than merely farm a few acres. He had kept sternly at bay those two enemies of Georgia planters, the seedling pine and the blackberry brambles. They had not stealthily taken garden and pasture and cotton field and lawn and reared themselves insolently by the porches of Tara, as they were doing on numberless plantations throughout the state.
Scarlett’s heart failed a beat when she thought how close Tara had come to going back to wilderness. Between herself and Will, they had done a good job. They had held off the Yankees, the Carpetbaggers and the encroachments of Nature. And, best of all, Will had told her that after the cotton came in in the fall, she need send no more money — unless some other Carpetbagger coveted Tara and skyrocketed the taxes. Scarlett knew Will would have a hard pull without her help but she admired and respected his independence. As long as he was in the position of hired help he would take her money, but now that he was to become her brother-inlaw and the man of the house, he intended to stand on his own efforts. Yes, Will was something the Lord had provided.
Pork had dug the grave the night before, close by Ellen’s grave, and he stood, spade in hand, behind the moist red clay he was soon to shovel back in place. Scarlett stood behind him in the patchy shade of a gnarled low-limbed cedar, the hot sun of the June morning dappling her, and tried to keep her eyes away from the red trench in front of her. Jim Tarleton, little Hugh Munroe, Alex Fontaine and old man McRae’s youngest grandson came slowly and awkwardly down the path from the house bearing Gerald’s coffin on two lengths of split oak. Behind them, at a respectful distance, followed a large straggling crowd of neighbors and friends, shabbily dressed, silent. As they came down the sunny path through the garden, Pork bowed his head upon the top of the spade handle and cried; and Scarlett saw with incurious surprise that the kinks on his head, so jettily black when she went to Atlanta a few months before, were now grizzled.
She thanked God tiredly that she had cried all her tears the night before, so now she could stand erect and dry eyed. The sound of Suellen’s tears, just back of her shoulder, irritated her unbearably and she had to clench her fists to keep from turning and slapping the swollen face. Sue had been the cause of her father’s death, whether she intended it or not, and she should have the decency to control herself in front of the hostile neighbors. Not a single person had spoken to her that morning or given her one look of sympathy. They had kissed Scarlett quietly, shaken her hand, murmured kind words to Carreen and even to Pork but had looked through Suellen as if she were not there.
To them she had done worse than murder her father. She had tried to betray him into disloyalty to the South. And to that grim and close-knit community it was as if she had tried to betray the honor of them all. She had broken the solid front the County presented to the world. By her attempt to get money from the Yankee government she had aligned herself with Carpetbaggers and Scallawags, more hated enemies than the Yankee soldiers had ever been. She, a member of an old and staunchly Confederate family, a planter’s family, had gone over to the enemy and by so doing had brought shame on every family in the County.
The mourners were seething with indignation and downcast with sorrow, especially three of them — old man McRae, who had been Gerald’s crony since he came to the up-country from Savannah so many years before, Grandma Fontaine who loved him because he was Ellen’s husband, and Mrs. Tarleton who had been closer to him than to any of her neighbors because, as she often said, he was the only man in the County who knew a stallion from a gelding.
The sight of the stormy faces of these three in the dim parlor where Gerald lay before the funeral had caused Ashley and Will some uneasiness and they had retired to Ellen’s office for a consultation.
“Some of them are goin’ to say somethin’ about Suellen,” said Will abruptly, biting his straw in half. “They think they got just cause to say somethin’. Maybe they have. It ain’t for me to say. But, Ashley, whether they’re right or not, we’ll have to resent it, bein’ the men of the family, and then there’ll be trouble. Can’t nobody do nothin’ with old man McRae because he’s deaf as a post and can’t hear folks tryin’ to shut him up. And you know there ain’t nobody in God’s world ever stopped Grandma Fontaine from speakin’ her mind. And as for Mrs. Tarleton — did you see her roll them russet eyes of hers every time she looked at Sue? She’s got her ears laid back and can’t hardly wait. If they say somethin’, we got to take it up and we got enough trouble at Tara now without bein’ at outs with our neighbors.”
Ashley sighed worriedly. He knew the tempers of his neighbors better than Will did and he remembered that fully half of the quarrels and some of the shootings of the days before the war had risen from the County custom of saying a few words over the coffins of departed neighbors. Generally the words were eulogistic in the extreme but occasionally they were not. Sometimes, words meant in the utmost respect were misconstrued by overstrung relatives of the dead and scarcely were the last shovels of earth mounded above the coffin before trouble began.
In the absence of a priest Ashley was to conduct the services with the aid of Carreen’s Book of Devotions, the assistance of the Methodist and Baptist preachers of Jonesboro and Fayetteville having been tactfully refused. Carreen, more devoutly Catholic than her sisters, had been very upset that Scarlett had neglected to bring a priest from Atlanta with her and had only been a little eased by the reminder that when the priest came down to marry Will and Suellen, he could read the services over Gerald. It was she who objected to the neighboring Protestant preachers and gave the matter into Ashley’s hands, marking passages in her book for him to read. Ashley, leaning against the old secretary, knew that the responsibility for preventing trouble lay with him and, knowing the hair-trigger tempers of the County, was at a loss as to how to proceed.
“There’s no help for it, Will,” he said, rumpling his bright hair. “I can’t knock Grandma Fontaine down or old man McRae either, and I can’t hold my hand over Mrs. Tarleton’s mouth. And the mildest thing they’ll say is that Suellen is a murderess and a traitor and but for her Mr. O’Hara would still be alive. Damn this custom of speaking over the dead. It’s barbarous.”
“Look, Ash,” said Will slowly. “I ain’t aimin’ to have nobody say nothin’ against Suellen, no matter what they think. You leave it to me. When you’ve finished with the readin’ and the prayin’ and you say: ‘If anyone would like to say a few words,’ you look right at me, so I can speak first.”
But Scarlett, watching the pallbearers’ difficulty in getting the coffin through the narrow entrance into the burying ground, had no thought of trouble to come after the funeral. She was thinking with a leaden heart that in burying Gerald she was burying one of the last links that joined her to the old days of happiness and irresponsibility.
Finally the pallbearers set the coffin down near the grave and stood clenching and unclenching their aching fingers. Ashley, Melanie and Will filed into the inclosure and stood behind the O’Hara girls. All the closer neighbors who could crowd in were behind them and the others stood outside the brick wall. Scarlett, really seeing them for the first time, was surprised and touched by the size of the crowd. With transportation so limited it was kind of so many to come. There were fifty or sixty people there, some of them from so far away she wondered how they had heard in time to come. There were whole families from Jonesboro and Fayetteville and Lovejoy and with them a few negro servants. Many small farmers from far across the river were present and Crackers from the backwoods and a scattering of swamp folk. The swamp men were lean bearded giants in homespun, coon-skin caps on their heads, their rifles easy in the crooks of their arms, their wads of tobacco stilled in their cheeks. Their women were with them, their bare feet sunk in the soft red earth, their lower lips full of snuff. Their faces beneath their sun-bonnets were sallow and malarial-looking but shining clean and their freshly ironed calicoes glistened with starch.
The near neighbors were there in full force. Grandma Fontaine, withered, wrinkled and yellow as an old molted bird, was leaning on her cane, and behind her were Sally Munroe Fontaine and Young Miss Fontaine. They were trying vainly by whispered pleas and jerks at her skirt to make the old lady sit down on the brick wall. Grandma’s husband, the Old Doctor, was not there. He had died two months before and much of the bright malicious joy of life had gone from her old eyes. Cathleen Calvert Hilton stood alone as befitted one whose husband had helped bring about the present tragedy, her faded sunbonnet hiding her bowed face. Scarlett saw with amazement that her percale dress had grease spots on it and her hands were freckled and unclean. There were even black crescents under her fingernails. There was nothing of quality folks about Cathleen now. She looked Cracker, even worse. She looked poor white, shiftless, slovenly, trifling.
“She’ll be dipping snuff soon, if she isn’t doing it already,” thought Scarlett in horror. “Good Lord! What a comedown!”
She shuddered, turning her eyes from Cathleen as she realized how narrow was the chasm between quality folk and poor whites.
“There but for a lot of gumption am I,” she thought, and pride surged through her as she realized that she and Cathleen had started with the same equipment after the surrender — empty hands and what they had in their heads.
“I haven’t done so bad,” she thought, lifting her chin and smiling.
But she stopped in mid-smile as she saw the scandalized eyes of Mrs. Tarleton upon her. Her eyes were red-rimmed from tears and, after giving Scarlett a reproving look, she turned her gaze back to Suellen, a fierce angry gaze that boded ill for her. Behind her and her husband were the four Tarleton girls, their red locks indecorous notes in the solemn occasion, their russet eyes still looking like the eyes of vital young animals, spirited and dangerous.
Feet were stilled, hats were removed, hands folded and skirts rustled into quietness as Ashley stepped forward with Carreen’s worn Book of Devotions in his hand. He stood for a moment looking down, the sun glittering on his golden head. A deep silence fell on the crowd, so deep that the harsh whisper of the wind in the magnolia leaves came clear to their ears and the far-off repetitious note of a mockingbird sounded unendurably loud and sad. Ashley began to read the prayers and all heads bowed as his resonant, beautifully modulated voice rolled out the brief and dignified words.
“Oh!” thought Scarlett, her throat constricting. “How beautiful his voice is! If anyone has to do this for Pa, I’m glad it’s Ashley. I’d rather have him than a priest. I’d rather have Pa buried by one of his own folks than a stranger.”
When Ashley came to the part of the prayers concerning the souls in Purgatory, which Carreen had marked for him to read, he abruptly closed the book. Only Carreen noticed the omission and looked up puzzled, as he began the Lord’s Prayer. Ashley knew that half the people present had never heard of Purgatory and those who had would take it as a personal affront, if he insinuated, even in prayer, that so fine a man as Mr. O’Hara had not gone straight to Heaven. So, in deference to public opinion, he skipped all mention of Purgatory. The gathering joined heartily in the Lord’s Prayer but their voices trailed off into embarrassed silence when he began the Hail Mary. They had never heard that prayer and they looked furtively at each other as the O’Hara girls, Melanie and the Tara servants gave the response: “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Then Ashley raised his head and stood for a moment, uncertain. The eyes of the neighbors were expectantly upon him as they settled themselves in easier positions for a long harangue. They were waiting for him to go on with the service, for it did not occur to any of them that he was at the end of the Catholic prayers. County funerals were always long. The Baptist and Methodist ministers who performed them had no set prayers but extemporized as the circumstances demanded and seldom stopped before all mourners were in tears and the bereaved feminine relatives screaming with grief. The neighbors would have been shocked, aggrieved and indignant, had these brief prayers been all the service over the body of their loved friend, and no one knew this better than Ashley. The matter would be discussed at dinner tables for weeks and the opinion of the County would be that the O’Hara girls had not shown proper respect for their father.
So he threw a quick apologetic glance at Carreen and, bowing his head again, began reciting from memory the Episcopal burial service which he had often read over slaves buried at Twelve Oaks.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life . . . and whosoever . . . believeth in Me shall never die.”
It did not come back to him readily and he spoke slowly, occasionally falling silent for a space as he waited for phrases to rise from his memory. But this measured delivery made his words more impressive, and mourners who had been dry-eyed before began now to reach for handkerchiefs. Sturdy Baptists and Methodists all, they thought it the Catholic ceremony and immediately rearranged their first opinion that the Catholic services were cold and Popish. Scarlett and Suellen were equally ignorant and thought the words comforting and beautiful. Only Melanie and Carreen realized that a devoutly Catholic Irishman was being laid to rest by the Church of England’s service. And Carreen was too stunned by grief and her hurt at Ashley’s treachery to interfere.
When he had finished, Ashley opened wide his sad gray eyes and looked about the crowd. After a pause, his eyes caught those of Will and he said: “Is there anyone present who would like to say a word?”
Mrs. Tarleton twitched nervously but before she could act, Will stumped forward and standing at the head of the coffin began to speak.
“Friends,” he began in his flat voice, “maybe you think I’m gettin’ above myself, speakin’ first — me who never knew Mr. O’Hara till ‘bout a year ago when you all have known him twenty years or more. But this here is my excuse. If he’d lived a month or so longer, I’d have had the right to call him Pa.”
A startled ripple went over the crowd. They were too well bred to whisper but they shifted on their feet and stared at Carreen’s bowed head. Everyone knew his dumb devotion to her. Seeing the direction in which all eyes were cast, Will went on as if he had taken no note.
“So bein’ as how I’m to marry Miss Suellen as soon as the priest comes down from Atlanta, I thought maybe that gives me the right to speak first.”
The last part of his speech was lost in a faint sibilant buzz that went through the gathering, an angry beelike buzz. There were indignation and disappointment in the sound. Everyone liked Will, everyone respected him for what he had done for Tara. Everyone knew his affections lay with Carreen, so the news that he was to marry the neighborhood pariah instead sat ill upon them. Good old Will marrying that nasty, sneaking little Suellen O’Hara!
For a moment the air was tense. Mrs. Tarleton’s eyes began to snap and her lips to shape soundless words. In the silence, old man McRae’s high voice could be heard imploring his grandson to tell him what had been said. Will faced them all, still mild of face, but there was something in his pale blue eyes which dared them to say one word about his future wife. For a moment the balance hung between the honest affection everyone had for Will and their contempt for Suellen. And Will won. He continued as if his pause had been a natural one.
“I never knew Mr. O’Hara in his prime like you all done. All I knew personally was a fine old gentleman who was a mite addled. But I’ve heard tell from you all ‘bout what he used to be like. And I want to say this. He was a fightin’ Irishman and a Southern gentleman and as loyal a Confederate as ever lived. You can’t get no better combination than that. And we ain’t likely to see many more like him, because the times that bred men like him are as dead as he is. He was born in a furrin country but the man we’re buryin’ here today was more of a Georgian than any of us mournin’ him. He lived our life, he loved our land and, when you come right down to it, he died for our Cause, same as the soldiers did. He was one of us and he had our good points and our bad points and he had our strength and he had our failin’s. He had our good points in that couldn’t nothin’ stop him when his mind was made up and he warn’t scared of nothin’ that walked in shoe leather. There warn’t nothin’ that come to him FROM THE OUTSIDE that could lick him.
“He warn’t scared of the English government when they wanted to hang him. He just lit out and left home. And when he come to this country and was pore, that didn’t scare him a mite neither. He went to work and he made his money. And he warn’t scared to tackle this section when it was part wild and the Injuns had just been run out of it. He made a big plantation out of a wilderness. And when the war come on and his money begun to go, he warn’t scared to be pore again. And when the Yankees come through Tara and might of burnt him out or killed him, he warn’t fazed a bit and he warn’t licked neither. He just planted his front feet and stood his ground. That’s why I say he had our good points. There ain’t nothin’ FROM THE OUTSIDE can lick any of us.
“But he had our failin’s too, ‘cause he could be licked from the inside. I mean to say that what the whole world couldn’t do, his own heart could. When Mrs. O’Hara died, his heart died too and he was licked. And what we seen walking ‘round here warn’t him.”
Will paused and his eyes went quietly around the circle of faces. The crowd stood in the hot sun as if enchanted to the ground and whatever wrath they had felt for Suellen was forgotten. Will’s eyes rested for a moment on Scarlett and they crinkled slightly at the corners as if he were inwardly smiling comfort to her. Scarlett, who had been fighting back rising tears, did feel comforted. Will was talking common sense instead of a lot of tootle about reunions in another and better world and submitting her will to God’s. And Scarlett had always found strength and comfort in common sense.
“And I don’t want none of you to think the less of him for breakin’ like he done. All you all and me, too, are like him. We got the same weakness and failin’. There ain’t nothin’ that walks can lick us, any more than it could lick him, not Yankees nor Carpetbaggers nor hard times nor high taxes nor even downright starvation. But that weakness that’s in our hearts can lick us in the time it takes to bat your eye. It ain’t always losin’ someone you love that does it, like it done Mr. O’Hara. Everybody’s mainspring is different. And I want to say this — folks whose main-springs are busted are better dead. There ain’t no place for them in the world these days, and they’re happier bein’ dead. . . . That’s why I’m sayin’ you all ain’t got no cause to grieve for Mr. O’Hara now. The time to grieve was back when Sherman come through and he lost Mrs. O’Hara. Now that his body’s gone to join his heart, I don’t see that we got reason to mourn, unless we’re pretty damned selfish, and I’m sayin’ it who loved him like he was my own pa. . . . There won’t be no more words said, if you folks don’t mind. The family is too cut up to listen and it wouldn’t be no kindness to them.”
Will stopped and, turning to Mrs. Tarleton, he said in a lower voice: “I wonder couldn’t you take Scarlett in the house, Ma’m? It ain’t right for her to be standin’ in the sun so long. And Grandma Fontaine don’t look any too peart neither, meanin’ no disrespect.”
Startled at the abrupt switching from the eulogy to herself, Scarlett went red with embarrassment as all eyes turned toward her. Why should Will advertise her already obvious pregnancy? She gave him a shamed indignant look, but Will’s placid gaze bore her down.
“Please,” his look said. “I know what I’m doin’.”
Already he was the man of the house and, not wishing to make a scene, Scarlett turned helplessly to Mrs. Tarleton. That lady, suddenly diverted, as Will had intended, from thoughts of Suellen to the always fascinating matter of breeding, be it animal or human, took Scarlett’s arm.
“Come in the house, honey.”
Her face took on a look of kind, absorbed interest and Scarlett suffered herself to be led through the crowd that gave way and made a narrow path for her. There was a sympathetic murmuring as she passed and several hands went out to pat her comfortingly. When she came abreast Grandma Fontaine, the old lady put out a skinny claw and said: “Give me your arm, child,” and added with a fierce glance at Sally and Young Miss: “No, don’t you come. I don’t want you.”
They passed slowly through the crowd which closed behind them and went up the shady path toward the house, Mrs. Tarleton’s eager helping hand so strong under Scarlett’s elbow that she was almost lifted from the ground at each step.
“Now, why did Will do that?” cried Scarlett heatedly, when they were out of earshot. “He practically said: ‘Look at her! She’s going to have a baby!’”
“Well, sake’s alive, you are, aren’t you?” said Mrs. Tarleton. “Will did right. It was foolish of you to stand in the hot sun when you might have fainted and had a miscarriage.”
“Will wasn’t bothered about her miscarrying,” said Grandma, a little breathless as she labored across the front yard toward the steps. There was a grim, knowing smile on her face. “Will’s smart. He didn’t want either you or me, Beetrice, at the graveside. He was scared of what we’d say and he knew this was the only way to get rid of us. . . . And it was more than that. He didn’t want Scarlett to hear the clods dropping on the coffin. And he’s right. Just remember, Scarlett, as long as you don’t hear that sound, folks aren’t actually dead to you. But once you hear it . . . Well, it’s the most dreadfully final sound in the world. . . . Help me up the steps, child, and give me a hand, Beetrice. Scarlett don’t any more need your arm than she needs crutches and I’m not so peart, as Will observed. . . . Will knew you were your father’s pet and he didn’t want to make it worse for you than it already was. He figured it wouldn’t be so bad for your sisters. Suellen has her shame to sustain her and Carreen her God. But you’ve got nothing to sustain you, have you, child?”
“No,” answered Scarlett, helping the old lady up the steps, faintly surprised at the truth that sounded in the reedy old voice. “I’ve never had anything to sustain me — except Mother.”
“But when you lost her, you found you could stand alone, didn’t you? Well, some folks can’t. Your pa was one. Will’s right. Don’t you grieve. He couldn’t get along without Ellen and he’s happier where he is. Just like I’ll be happier when I join the Old Doctor.”
She spoke without any desire for sympathy and the two gave her none. She spoke as briskly and naturally as if her husband were alive and in Jonesboro and a short buggy ride would bring them together. Grandma was too old and had seen too much to fear death.
“But — you can stand alone too,” said Scarlett.
“Yes, but it’s powerful uncomfortable at times.”
“Look here, Grandma,” interrupted Mrs. Tarleton, “you ought not to talk to Scarlett like that. She’s upset enough already. What with her trip down here and that tight dress and her grief and the heat, she’s got enough to make her miscarry without your adding to it, talking grief and sorrow.”
“God’s nightgown!” cried Scarlett in irritation. “I’m not upset! And I’m not one of those sickly miscarrying fools!”
“You never can tell,” said Mrs. Tarleton omnisciently. “I lost my first when I saw a bull gore one of our darkies and — you remember my red mare, Nellie? Now, there was the healthiest-looking mare you ever saw but she was nervous and high strung and if I didn’t watch her, she’d —”
“Beetrice, hush,” said Grandma. “Scarlett wouldn’t miscarry on a bet. Let’s us sit here in the hall where it’s cool. There’s a nice draft through here. Now, you go fetch us a glass of buttermilk, Beetrice, if there’s any in the kitchen. Or look in the pantry and see if there’s any wine. I could do with a glass. We’ll sit here till the folks come up to say goodby.”
“Scarlett ought to be in bed,” insisted Mrs. Tarleton, running her eyes over her with the expert air of one who calculated a pregnancy to the last minute of its length.
“Get going,” said Grandma, giving her a prod with her cane, and Mrs. Tarleton went toward the kitchen, throwing her hat carelessly on the sideboard and running her hands through her damp red hair.
Scarlett lay back in her chair and unbuttoned the two top buttons of her tight basque. It was cool and dim in the high-ceilinged hall and the vagrant draft that went from back to front of the house was refreshing after the heat of the sun. She looked across the hall into the parlor where Gerald had lain and, wrenching her thoughts from him, looked up at the portrait of Grandma Robillard hanging above the fireplace. The bayonet-scarred portrait with its high-piled hair, hall-exposed breasts and cool insolence had, as always, a tonic effect upon her.
“I don’t know which hit Beetrice Tarleton worse, losing her boys or her horses,” said Grandma Fontaine. “She never did pay much mind to Jim or her girls, you know. She’s one of those folks Will was talking about. Her mainspring’s busted. Sometimes I wonder if she won’t go the way your pa went. She wasn’t ever happy unless horses or humans were breeding right in her face and none of her girls are married or got any prospects of catching husbands in this county, so she’s got nothing to occupy her mind. If she wasn’t such lady at heart, she’d be downright common. . . . Was Will telling the truth about marrying Suellen?”
“Yes,” said Scarlett, looking the old lady full in the eye. Goodness, she could remember the time when she was scared to death of Grandma Fontaine! Well, she’d grown up since then and she’d just as soon as not tell her to go to the devil if she meddled in affairs at Tara.
“He could do better,” said Grandma candidly.
“Indeed?” said Scarlett haughtily.
“Come off your high horse, Miss,” said the old lady tartly. “I shan’t attack your precious sister, though I might have if I’d stayed at the burying ground. What I mean is with the scarcity of men in the neighborhood, Will could marry most any of the girls. There’s Beetrice’s four wild cats and the Munroe girls and the McRae —”
“He’s going to marry Sue and that’s that.”
“She’s lucky to get him.”
“Tara is lucky to get him.”
“You love this place, don’t you?”
“So much that you don’t mind your sister marrying out of her class as long as you have a man around to care for Tara?”
“Class?” said Scarlett, startled at the idea. “Class? What does class matter now, so long as a girl gets a husband who can take care of her?”
“That’s a debatable question,” said Old Miss. “Some folks would say you were talking common sense. Others would say you were letting down bars that ought never be lowered one inch. Will’s certainly not quality folks and some of your people were.”
Her sharp old eyes went to the portrait of Grandma Robillard.
Scarlett thought of Will, lank, unimpressive, mild, eternally chewing a straw, his whole appearance deceptively devoid of energy, like that of most Crackers. He did not have behind him a long line of ancestors of wealth, prominence and blood. The first of Will’s family to set foot on Georgia soil might even have been one of Oglethorpe’s debtors or a bond servant. Will had not been to college. In fact, four years in a backwoods school was all the education he had ever had. He was honest and he was loyal, he was patient and he was hard working, but certainly he was not quality. Undoubtedly by Robillard standards, Suellen was coming down in the world.
“So you approve of Will coming into your family?”
“Yes,” answered Scarlett fiercely, ready to pounce upon the old lady at the first words of condemnation.
“You may kiss me,” said Grandma surprisingly, and she smiled in her most approving manner. “I never liked you much till now, Scarlett. You were always hard as a hickory nut, even as a child, and I don’t like hard females, barring myself. But I do like the way you meet things. You don’t make a fuss about things that can’t be helped, even if they are disagreeable. You take your fences cleanly like a good hunter.”
Scarlett smiled uncertainly and pecked obediently at the withered cheek presented to her. It was pleasant to hear approving words again, even if she had little idea what they meant.
“There’s plenty of folks hereabouts who’ll have something to say about you letting Sue marry a Cracker — for all that everybody likes Will. They’ll say in one breath what a fine man he is and how terrible it is for an O’Hara girl to marry beneath her. But don’t you let it bother you.”
“I’ve never bothered about what people said.”
“So I’ve heard.” There was a hint of acid in the old voice. “Well, don’t bother about what folks say. It’ll probably be a very successful marriage. Of course, Will’s always going to look like a Cracker and marriage won’t improve his grammar any. And, even if he makes a mint of money, he’ll never lend any shine and sparkle to Tara, like your father did. Crackers are short on sparkle. But Will’s a gentleman at heart. He’s got the right instincts. Nobody but a born gentleman could have put his finger on what is wrong with us as accurately as he just did, down there at the burying. The whole world can’t lick us but we can lick ourselves by longing too hard for things we haven’t got any more — and by remembering too much. Yes, Will will do well by Suellen and by Tara.”
“Then you approve of me letting him marry her?”
“God, no!” The old voice was tired and bitter but vigorous. “Approve of Crackers marrying into old families? Bah! Would I approve of breeding scrub stock to thoroughbreds? Oh, Crackers are good and solid and honest but —”
“But you said you thought it would be a successful match!” cried Scarlett bewildered.
“Oh, I think it’s good for Suellen to marry Will — to marry anybody for that matter, because she needs a husband bad. And where else could she get one? And where else could you get as good a manager for Tara? But that doesn’t mean I like the situation any better than you do.”
But I do like it, thought Scarlett trying to grasp the old lady’s meaning. I’m glad Will is going to marry her. Why should she think I minded? She’s taking it for granted that I do mind, just like her.
She felt puzzled and a little ashamed, as always when people attributed to her emotions and motives they possessed and thought she shared.
Grandma fanned herself with her palmetto leaf and went on briskly: “I don’t approve of the match any more than you do but I’m practical and so are you. And when it comes to something that’s unpleasant but can’t be helped, I don’t see any sense in screaming and kicking about it. That’s no way to meet the ups and downs of life. I know because my family and the Old Doctor’s family have had more than our share of ups and downs. And if we folks have a motto, it’s this: ‘Don’t holler — smile and bide your time.’ We’ve survived a passel of things that way, smiling and biding our time, and we’ve gotten to be experts at surviving. We had to be. We’ve always bet on the wrong horses. Run out of France with the Huguenots, run out of England with the Cavaliers, run out of Scotland with Bonnie Prince Charlie, run out of Haiti by the niggers and now licked by the Yankees. But we always turn up on top in a few years. You know why?”
She cocked her head and Scarlett thought she looked like nothing so much as an old, knowing parrot.
“No, I don’t know, I’m sure,” she answered politely. But she was heartily bored, even as she had been the day when Grandma launched on her memories of the Creek uprising.
“Well, this is the reason. We bow to the inevitable. We’re not wheat, we’re buckwheat! When a storm comes along it flattens ripe wheat because it’s dry and can’t bend with the wind. But ripe buckwheat’s got sap in it and it bends. And when the wind has passed, it springs up almost as straight and strong as before. We aren’t a stiff-necked tribe. We’re mighty limber when a hard wind’s blowing, because we know it pays to be limber. When trouble comes we bow to the inevitable without any mouthing, and we work and we smile and we bide our time. And we play along with lesser folks and we take what we can get from them. And when we’re strong enough, we kick the folks whose necks we’ve climbed over. That, my child, is the secret of the survival.” And after a pause, she added: “I pass it on to you.”
The old lady cackled, as if she were amused by her words, despite the venom in them. She looked as if she expected some comment from Scarlett but the words had made little sense to her and she could think of nothing to say.
“No, sir,” Old Miss went on, “our folks get flattened out but they rise up again, and that’s more than I can say for plenty of people not so far away from here. Look at Cathleen Calvert. You can see what she’s come to. Poor white! And a heap lower than the man she married. Look at the McRae family. Flat to the ground, helpless, don’t know what to do, don’t know how to do anything. Won’t even try. They spend their time whining about the good old days. And look at — well, look at nearly anybody in this County except my Alex and my Sally and you and Jim Tarleton and his girls and some others. The rest have gone under because they didn’t have any sap in them, because they didn’t have the gumption to rise up again. There never was anything to those folks but money and darkies, and now that the money and darkies are gone, those folks will be Cracker in another generation.”
“You forgot the Wilkes.”
“No, I didn’t forget them. I just thought I’d be polite and not mention them, seeing that Ashley’s a guest under this roof. But seeing as how you’ve brought up their names — look at them! There’s India who from all I hear is a dried-up old maid already, giving herself all kinds of widowed airs because Stu Tarleton was killed and not making any effort to forget him and try to catch another man. Of course, she’s old but she could catch some widower with a big family if she tried. And poor Honey was always a man-crazy fool with no more sense than a guinea hen. And as for Ashley, look at him!”
“Ashley is a very fine man,” began Scarlett hotly.
“I never said he wasn’t but he’s as helpless as a turtle on his back. If the Wilkes family pulls through these hard times, it’ll be Melly who pulls them through. Not Ashley.”
“Melly! Lord, Grandma! What are you talking about? I’ve lived with Melly long enough to know she’s sickly and scared and hasn’t the gumption to say Boo to a goose.”
“Now why on earth should anyone want to say Boo to a goose? It always sounded like a waste of time to me. She might not say Boo to a goose but she’d say Boo to the world or the Yankee government or anything else that threatened her precious Ashley or her boy or her notions of gentility. Her way isn’t your way, Scarlett, or my way. It’s the way your mother would have acted if she’d lived. Melly puts me in mind of your mother when she was young. . . . And maybe she’ll pull the Wilkes family through.”
“Oh, Melly’s a well-meaning little ninny. But you are very unjust to Ashley. He’s —”
“Oh, foot! Ashley was bred to read books and nothing else. That doesn’t help a man pull himself out of a tough fix, like we’re all in now. From what I hear, he’s the worst plow hand in the County! Now you just compare him with my Alex! Before the war, Alex was the most worthless dandy in the world and he never had a thought beyond a new cravat and getting drunk and shooting somebody and chasing girls who were no better than they should be. But look at him now! He learned farming because he had to learn. He’d have starved and so would all of us. Now he raises the best cotton in the County — yes, Miss! It’s a heap better than Tara cotton! — and he knows what to do with hogs and chickens. Ha! He’s a fine boy for all his bad temper. He knows how to bide his time and change with changing ways and when all this Reconstruction misery is over, you’re going to see my Alex as rich a man as his father and his grandfather were. But Ashley —”
Scarlett was smarting at the slight to Ashley.
“It all sounds like tootle to me,” she said coldly.
“Well, it shouldn’t,” said Grandma, fastening a sharp eye upon her. “For it’s just exactly the course you’ve been following since you went to Atlanta. Oh, yes! We hear of your didoes, even if we are buried down here in the country. You’ve changed with the changing times too. We hear how you suck up to the Yankees and the white trash and the new-rich Carpetbaggers to get money out of them. Butter doesn’t melt in your mouth from all I can hear. Well, go to it, I say. And get every cent out of them you can, but when you’ve got enough money, kick them in the face, because they can’t serve you any longer. Be sure you do that and do it properly, for trash hanging onto your coat tails can ruin you.”
Scarlett looked at her, her brow wrinkling with the effort to digest the words. They still didn’t make much sense and she was still angry at Ashley being called a turtle on his back.
“I think you’re wrong about Ashley,” she said abruptly.
“Scarlett, you just aren’t smart.”
“That’s your opinion,” said Scarlett rudely, wishing it were permissible to smack old ladies’ jaws.
“Oh, you’re smart enough about dollars and cents. That’s a man’s way of being smart. But you aren’t smart at all like a woman. You aren’t a speck smart about folks.”
Scarlett’s eyes began to snap fire and her hands to clench and unclench.
“I’ve made you good and mad, haven’t I?” asked the old lady, smiling. “Well, I aimed to do just that.”
“Oh, you did, did you? And why, pray?”
“I had good and plenty reasons.”
Grandma sank back in her chair and Scarlett suddenly realized that she looked very tired and incredibly old. The tiny clawlike hands folded over the fan were yellow and waxy as a dead person’s. The anger went out of Scarlett’s heart as a thought came to her. She leaned over and took one of the hands in hers.
“You’re a mighty sweet old liar,” she said. “You didn’t mean a word of all this rigmarole. You’ve just been talking to keep my mind off Pa, haven’t you?”
“Don’t fiddle with me!” said Old Miss grumpily, jerking away her hand. “Partly for that reason, partly because what I’ve been telling you is the truth and you’re just too stupid to realize it.”
But she smiled a little and took the sting from her words. Scarlett’s heart emptied itself of wrath about Ashley. It was nice to know Grandma hadn’t meant any of it.
“Thank you, just the same. It was nice of you to talk to me — and I’m glad to know you’re with me about Will and Suellen, even if — even if a lot of other people do disapprove.”
Mrs. Tarleton came down the hall, carrying two glasses of buttermilk. She did all domestic things badly and the gasses were slopping over.
“I had to go clear to the spring house to get it,” she said. “Drink it quick because the folks are coming up from the burying ground. Scarlett, are you really going to let Suellen marry Will? Not that he isn’t a sight too good for her but you know he is a Cracker and —”
Scarlett’s eyes met those of Grandma. There was a wicked sparkle in the old eyes that found an answer in her own.