Gone with the wind (Chapter 41)
When the last good-by had been said and the last sound of wheels and hooves died away, Scarlett went into Ellen’s office and removed a gleaming object from where she had hidden it the night before between the yellowed papers in the pigeon-holes of the secretary. Hearing Pork sniffling in the dining room as he went about laying the table for dinner she called to him. He came to her, his black face as forlorn as a lost and masterless hound.
“Pork,” she said sternly, “you cry just once more and I’ll — I’ll cry, too. You’ve got to stop.”
“Yas’m. Ah try but eve’y time Ah try Ah thinks of Mist’ Gerald an’—”
“Well, don’t think. I can stand everybody else’s tears but not yours. There,” she broke off gently, “don’t you see? I can’t stand yours because I know how you loved him. Blow your nose, Pork. I’ve got a present for you.”
A little interest flickered in Pork’s eyes as he blew his nose loudly but it was more politeness than interest.
“You remember that night you got shot robbing somebody’s hen house?”
“Lawd Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Ah ain’ never —”
“Well, you did, so don’t lie to me about it at this late date. You remember I said I was going to give you a watch for being so faithful?”
“Yas’m, Ah ‘members. Ah figgered you’d done fergot.”
“No, I didn’t forget and here it is.”
She held out for him a massive gold watch, heavily embossed, from which dangled a chain with many fobs and seals.
“Fo’ Gawd, Miss Scarlett!” cried Pork. “Dat’s Mist’ Gerald’s watch! Ah done seen him look at dat watch a milyun times!”
“Yes, it’s Pa’s watch, Pork, and I’m giving it to you. Take it.”
“Oh, no’m!” Pork retreated in horror. “Dat’s a w’ite gempmum’s watch an’ Mist’ Gerald’s ter boot. Huccome you talk ‘bout givin’ it ter me, Miss Scnrlett? Dat watch belong by rights ter lil Wade Hampton.”
“It belongs to you. What did Wade Hampton ever do for Pa? Did he look after him when he was sick and feeble? Did he bathe him and dress him and shave him? Did he stick by him when the Yankees came? Did he steal for him? Don’t be a fool, Pork. If ever anyone deserved a watch, you do, and I know Pa would approve. Here.”
She picked up the black hand and laid the watch in the palm. Pork gazed at it reverently and slowly delight spread over his face.
“Fer me, truly, Miss Scarlett?”
“Well’m — thankee, Ma’m.”
“Would you like for me to take it to Atlanta and have it engraved?”
“Whut’s dis engrabed mean?” Pork’s voice was suspicious.
“It means to put writing on the back of it, like — like ‘To Pork from the O’Haras — Well done good and faithful servant.’”
“No’m — thankee. Ma’m. Never mind de engrabin’.” Pork retreated a step, clutching the watch firmly.
A little smile twitched her lips.
“What’s the matter, Pork? Don’t you trust me to bring it back?”
“Yas’m, Ah trus’es you — only, well’m, you mout change yo’ mind.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Well’m, you mout sell it. Ah spec it’s wuth a heap.”
“Do you think I’d sell Pa’s watch?”
“Yas’m — ef you needed de money.”
“You ought to be beat for that, Pork. I’ve a mind to take the watch back.”
“No’m, you ain’!” The first faint smile of the day showed on Pork’s grief-worn face. “Ah knows you — An’ Miss Scarlett —”
“Ef you wuz jes’ half as nice ter w’ite folks as you is ter niggers, Ah spec de worl’ would treat you better.”
“It treats me well enough,” she said. “Now, go find Mr. Ashley and tell him I want to see him here, right away.”
Ashley sat on Ellen’s little writing chair, his long body dwarfing the frail bit of furniture while Scarlett offered him a half-interest in the mill. Not once did his eyes meet hers and he spoke no word of interruption. He sat looking down at his hands, turning them over slowly, inspecting first palms and then backs, as though he had never seen them before. Despite hard work, they were still slender and sensitive looking and remarkably well tended for a farmer’s hands.
His bowed head and silence disturbed her a little and she redoubled her efforts to make the mill sound attractive. She brought to bear, too, all the charm of smile and glance she possessed but they were wasted, for he did not raise his eyes. If he would only look at her! She made no mention of the information Will had given her of Ashley’s determination to go North and spoke with the outward assumption that no obstacle stood in the way of his agreement with her plan. Still he did not speak and finally, her words trailed into silence. There was a determined squareness about his slender shoulders that alarmed her. Surely he wouldn’t refuse! What earthly reason could he have for refusing?
“Ashley,” she began again and paused. She had not intended using her pregnancy as an argument, had shrunk from the thought of Ashley even seeing her so bloated and ugly, but as her other persuasions seemed to have made no impression, she decided to use it and her helplessness as a last card.
“You must come to Atlanta. I do need your help so badly now, because I can’t look after the mills. It may be months before I can because — you see — well, because . . .”
“Please!” he said roughly. “Good God, Scarlett!”
He rose and went abruptly to the window and stood with his back to her, watching the solemn single file of ducks parade across the barnyard.
“Is that — is that why you won’t look at me?” she questioned forlornly. “I know I look —”
He swung around in a flash and his gray eyes met hers with an intensity that made her hands go to her throat.
“Damn your looks!” he said with a swift violence. “You know you always look beautiful to me.”
Happiness flooded her until her eyes were liquid with tears.
“How sweet of you to say that! For I was so ashamed to let you see me —”
“You ashamed? Why should you be ashamed? I’m the one to feel shame and I do. If it hadn’t been for my stupidity you wouldn’t be in this fix. You’d never have married Frank. I should never have let you leave Tara last winter. Oh, fool that I was! I should have known you — known you were desperate, so desperate that you’d — I should have — I should have —” His face went haggard.
Scarlett’s heart beat wildly. He was regretting that he had not run away with her!
“The least I could have done was go out and commit highway robbery or murder to get the tax money for you when you had taken us in as beggars. Oh, I messed it up all the way around!”
Her heart contracted with disappointment and some of the happiness went from her, for these were not the words she hoped to hear.
“I would have gone anyway,” she said tiredly. “I couldn’t have let you do anything like that. And anyway, it’s done now.”
“Yes, it’s done now,” he said with slow bitterness. “You wouldn’t have let me do anything dishonorable but you would sell yourself to a man you didn’t love — and bear his child, so that my family and I wouldn’t starve. It was kind of you to shelter my helplessness.”
The edge in his voice spoke of a raw, unhealed wound that ached within him and his words brought shame to her eyes. He was swift to see it and his face changed to gentleness.
“You didn’t think I was blaming you? Dear God, Scarlett! No. You are the bravest woman I’ve ever known. It’s myself I’m blaming.”
He turned and looked out of the window again and the shoulders presented to her gaze did not look quite so square. Scarlett waited a long moment in silence, hoping that Ashley would return to the mood in which he spoke of her beauty, hoping he would say more words that she could treasure. It had been so long since she had seen him and she had lived on memories until they were worn thin. She knew he still loved her. That fact was evident, in every line of him, in every bitter, self-condemnatory word, in his resentment at her bearing Frank’s child. She so longed to hear him say it in words, longed to speak words herself that would provoke a confession, but she dared not. She remembered her promise given last winter in the orchard, that she would never again throw herself at his head. Sadly she knew that promise must be kept if Ashley were to remain near her. One cry from her of love and longing, one look that pleaded for his arms, and the matter would be settled forever. Ashley would surely go to New York. And he must not go away.
“Oh, Ashley, don’t blame yourself! How could it be your fault? You will come to Atlanta and help me, won’t you?”
“But, Ashley,” her voice was beginning to break with anguish and disappointment, “But I’d counted on you. I do need you so. Frank can’t help me. He’s so busy with the store and if you don’t come I don’t know where I can get a man! Everybody in Atlanta who is smart is busy with his own affairs and the others are so incompetent and —”
“It’s no use, Scarlett.”
“You mean you’d rather go to New York and live among Yankees than come to Atlanta?”
“Who told you that?” He turned and faced her, faint annoyance wrinkling his forehead.
“Yes, I’ve decided to go North. An old friend who made the Grand Tour with me before the war has offered me a position in his father’s bank. It’s better so, Scarlett. I’d be no good to you. I know nothing of the lumber business.”
“But you know less about banking and it’s much harder! And I know I’d make far more allowances for your inexperience than Yankees would!”
He winced and she knew she had said the wrong thing. He turned and looked out of the window again.
“I don’t want allowances made for me. I want to stand on my own feet for what I’m worth. What have I done with my life, up till now? It’s time I made something of myself — or went down through my own fault. I’ve been your pensioner too long already.”
“But I’m offering you a half-interest in the mill, Ashley! You would be standing on your own feet because — you see, it would be your own business.”
“It would amount to the same thing. I’d not be buying the half-interest. I’d be taking it as a gift. And I’ve taken too many gifts from you already, Scarlett — food and shelter and even clothes for myself and Melanie and the baby. And I’ve given you nothing in return.”
“Oh, but you have! Will couldn’t have —”
“I can split kindling very nicely now.”
“Oh, Ashley!” she cried despairingly, tears in her eyes at the jeering note in his voice. “What has happened to you since I’ve been gone? You sound so hard and bitter! You didn’t used to be this way.”
“What’s happened? A very remarkable thing, Scarlett. I’ve been thinking. I don’t believe I really thought from the time of the surrender until you went away from here. I was in a state of suspended animation and it was enough that I had something to eat and a bed to lie on. But when you went to Atlanta, shouldering a man’s burden, I saw myself as much less than a man — much less, indeed, than a woman. Such thoughts aren’t pleasant to live with and I do not intend to live with them any longer. Other men came out of the war with less than I had, and look at them now. So I’m going to New York.”
“But — I don’t understand! If it’s work you want, why won’t Atlanta do as well as New York? And my mill —”
“No, Scarlett. This is my last chance. I’ll go North. If I go to Atlanta and work for you, I’m lost forever.”
The word “lost — lost — lost” dinged frighteningly in her heart like a death bell sounding. Her eyes went quickly to his but they were wide and crystal gray and they were looking through her and beyond her at some fate she could not see, could not understand.
“Lost? Do you mean — have you done something the Atlanta Yankees can get you for? I mean, about helping Tony get away or — or — Oh, Ashley, you aren’t in the Ku Klux, are you?”
His remote eyes came back to her swiftly and he smiled a brief smile that never reached his eyes.
“I had forgotten you were so literal. No, it’s not the Yankees I’m afraid of. I mean if I go to Atlanta and take help from you again, I bury forever any hope of ever standing alone.”
“Oh,” she sighed in quick relief, “if it’s only that!”
“Yes,” and he smiled again, the smile more wintry than before. “Only that. Only my masculine pride, my self-respect and, if you choose to so call it, my immortal soul.”
“But,” she swung around on another tack, “you could gradually buy the mill from me and it would be your own and then —”
“Scarlett,” he interrupted fiercely, “I tell you, no! There are other reasons.”
“You know my reasons better than anyone in the world.”
“Oh — that? But — that’ll be all right,” she assured swiftly. “I promised, you know, out in the orchard, last winter and I’ll keep my promise and —”
“Then you are surer of yourself than I am. I could not count on myself to keep such a promise. I should not have said that but I had to make you understand. Scarlett, I will not talk of this any more. It’s finished. When Will and Suellen marry, I am going to New York.”
His eyes, wide and stormy, met hers for an instant and then he went swiftly across the room. His hand was on the door knob. Scarlett stared at him in agony. The interview was ended and she had lost. Suddenly weak from the strain and sorrow of the last day and the present disappointment, her nerves broke abruptly and she screamed: “Oh, Ashley!” And, flinging herself down on the sagging sofa, she burst into wild crying.
She heard his uncertain footsteps leaving the door and his helpless voice saying her name over and over above her head. There was a swift pattering of feet racing up the hall from the kitchen and Melanie burst into the room, her eyes wide with alarm.
“Scarlett . . . the baby isn’t . . .?”
Scarlett burrowed her head in the dusty upholstery and screamed again.
“Ashley — he’s so mean! So doggoned mean — so hateful!”
“Oh, Ashley, what have you done to her?” Melanie threw herself on the floor beside the sofa and gathered Scarlett into her arms. “What have you said? How could you! You might bring on the baby! There, my darling, put your head on Melanie’s shoulder! What is wrong?”
“Ashley — he’s so — so bullheaded and hateful!”
“Ashley, I’m surprised at you! Upsetting her so much and in her condition and Mr. O’Hara hardly in his grave!”
“Don’t you fuss at him!” cried Scarlett illogically, raising her head abruptly from Melanie’s shoulder, her coarse black hair tumbling out from its net and her face streaked with tears. “He’s got a right to do as he pleases!”
“Melanie,” said Ashley, his face white, “let me explain. Scarlett was kind enough to offer me a position in Atlanta as manager of one of her mills —”
“Manager!” cried Scarlett indignantly. “I offered him a half-interest and he —”
“And I told her I had already made arrangements for us to go North and she —”
“Oh,” cried Scarlett, beginning to sob again, “I told him and told him how much I needed him — how I couldn’t get anybody to manage the mill — how I was going to have this baby — and he refused to come! And now — now, I’ll have to sell the mill and I know I can’t get anything like a good price for it and I’ll lose money and I guess maybe we’ll starve, but he won’t care. He’s so mean!”
She burrowed her head back into Melanie’s thin shoulder and some of the real anguish went from her as a flicker of hope woke in her. She could sense that in Melanie’s devoted heart she had an ally, feel Melanie’s indignation that anyone, even her beloved husband, should make Scarlett cry. Melanie flew at Ashley like a small determined dove and pecked him for the first time in her life.
“Ashley, how could you refuse her? And after all she’s done for us! How ungrateful you make us appear! And she so helpless now with the bab — How unchivalrous of you! She helped us when we needed help and now you deny her when she needs you!”
Scarlett peeped slyly at Ashley and saw surprise and uncertainty plain in his face as he looked into Melanie’s dark indignant eyes. Scarlett was surprised, too, at the vigor of Melanie’s attack, for she knew Melanie considered her husband beyond wifely reproaches and thought his decisions second only to God’s.
“Melanie . . .” he began and then threw out his hands helplessly.
“Ashley, how can you hesitate? Think what she’s done for us — for me! I’d have died in Atlanta when Beau came if it hadn’t been for her! And she — yes, she killed a Yankee, defending us. Did you know that? She killed a man for us. And she worked and slaved before you and Will came home, just to keep food in our mouths. And when I think of her plowing and picking cotton, I could just — Oh, my darling!” And she swooped her head and kissed Scarlett’s tumbled hair in fierce loyalty. “And now the first time she asks us to do something for her —”
“You don’t need to tell me what she has done for us.”
“And Ashley, just think! Besides helping her, just think what it’ll mean for us to live in Atlanta among our own people and not have to live with Yankees! There’ll be Auntie and Uncle Henry and all our friends, and Beau can have lots of playmates and go to school. If we went North, we couldn’t let him go to school and associate with Yankee children and have pickaninnies in his class! We’d have to have a governess and I don’t see how we’d afford —”
“Melanie,” said Ashley and his voice was deadly quiet, “do you really want to go to Atlanta so badly? You never said so when we talked about going to New York. You never intimated —”
“Oh, but when we talked about going to New York, I thought there was nothing for you in Atlanta and, besides, it wasn’t my place to say anything. It’s a wife’s duty to go where her husband goes. But now that Scarlett needs us so and has a position that only you can fill we can go home! Home!” Her voice was rapturous as she squeezed Scarlett. “And I’ll see Five Points again and Peachtree road and — and — Oh, how I’ve missed them all! And maybe we could have a little home of our own! I wouldn’t care how little and tacky it was but — a home of our own!”
Her eyes blazed with enthusiasm and happiness and the two stared at her, Ashley with a queer stunned look, Scarlett with surprise mingled with shame. It had never occurred to her that Melanie missed Atlanta so much and longed to be back, longed for a home of her own. She had seemed so contented at Tara it came to Scarlett as a shock that she was homesick.
“Oh Scarlett, how good of you to plan all this for us! You knew how I longed for home!”
As usual when confronted by Melanie’s habit of attributing worthy motives where no worth existed, Scarlett was ashamed and irritated, and suddenly she could not meet either Ashley’s or Melanie’s eyes.
“We could get a little house of our own. Do you realize that we’ve been married five years and never had a home?”
“You can stay with us at Aunt Pitty’s. That’s your home,” mumbled Scarlett, toying with a pillow and keeping her eyes down to hide dawning triumph in them as she felt the tide turning her way.
“No, but thank you just the same, darling. That would crowd us so. We’ll get a house — Oh, Ashley, do say Yes!”
“Scarlett,” said Ashley and his voice was toneless, “look at me.”
Startled, she looked up and met gray eyes that were bitter and full of tired futility.
“Scarlett, I will come to Atlanta. . . . I cannot fight you both.”
He turned and walked out of the room. Some of the triumph in her heart was dulled by a nagging fear. The look in his eyes when he spoke had been the same as when he said he would be lost forever if he came to Atlanta.
After Suellen and Will married and Carreen went off to Charleston to the convent, Ashley, Melanie and Beau came to Atlanta, bringing Dilcey with them to cook and nurse. Prissy and Pork were left at Tara until such a time as Will could get other darkies to help him in the fields and then they, too, would come to town.
The little brick house that Ashley took for his family was on Ivy Street directly behind Aunt Pitty’s house and the two back yards ran together, divided only by a ragged overgrown privet hedge. Melanie had chosen it especially for this reason. She said, on the first morning of her return to Atlanta as she laughed and cried and embraced Scarlett and Aunt Pitty, she had been separated from her loved ones for so long that she could never be close enough to them again.
The house had originally been two stories high but the upper floor had been destroyed by shells during the siege and the owner, returning after the surrender, had lacked the money to replace it. He had contented himself with putting a flat roof on the remaining first floor which gave the building the squat, disproportionate look of a child’s playhouse built of shoe boxes. The house was high from the ground, built over a large cellar, and the long sweeping flight of stairs which reached it made it look slightly ridiculous. But the flat, squashed look of the place was partly redeemed by the two fine old oaks which shaded it and a dusty-leaved magnolia, splotched with white blossoms, standing beside the front steps. The lawn was wide and green with thick clover and bordering it was a straggling, unkempt privet hedge, interlaced with sweet-smelling honeysuckle vines. Here and there in the grass, roses threw out sprangles from crushed old stems and pink and white crepe myrtle bloomed as valiantly as if war had not passed over their heads and Yankee horses gnawed their boughs.
Scarlett thought it quite the ugliest dwelling she had ever seen but, to Melanie, Twelve Oaks in all its grandeur had not been more beautiful. It was home and she and Ashley and Beau were at last together under their own roof.
India Wilkes came back from Macon, where she and Honey had lived since 1864, and took up her residence with her brother, crowding the occupants of the little house. But Ashley and Melanie welcomed her. Times had changed, money was scarce, but nothing had altered the rule of Southern life that families always made room gladly for indigent or unmarried female relatives.
Honey had married and, so India said, married beneath her, a coarse Westerner from Mississippi who had settled in Macon. He had a red face and a loud voice and jolly ways. India had not approved of the match and, not approving, had not been happy in her brother-inlaw’s home. She welcomed the news that Ashley now had a home of his own, so she could remove herself from uncongenial surroundings and also from the distressing sight of her sister so fatuously happy with a man unworthy of her.
The rest of the family privately thought that the giggling and simple-minded Honey had done far better than could be expected and they marveled that she had caught any man. Her husband was a gentleman and a man of some means; but to India, born in Georgia and reared in Virginia traditions, anyone not from the eastern seaboard was a boor and a barbarian. Probably Honey’s husband was as happy to be relieved of her company as she was to leave him, for India was not easy to live with these days.
The mantle of spinsterhood was definitely on her shoulders now. She was twenty-five and looked it, and so there was no longer any need for her to try to be attractive. Her pale lashless eyes looked directly and uncompromisingly upon the world and her thin lips were ever set in haughty tightness. There was an air of dignity and pride about her now that, oddly enough, became her better than the determined girlish sweetness of her days at Twelve Oaks. The position she held was almost that of a widow. Everyone knew that Stuart Tarleton would have married her had he not been killed at Gettysburg, and so she was accorded the respect due a woman who had been wanted if not wed.
The six rooms of the little house on Ivy Street were soon scantily furnished with the cheapest pine and oak furniture in Frank’s store for, as Ashley was penniless and forced to buy on credit, he refused anything except the least expensive and bought only the barest necessities. This embarrassed Frank who was fond of Ashley and it distressed Scarlett. Both she and Frank would willingly have given, without any charge, the finest mahogany and carved rosewood in the store, but the Wilkeses obstinately refused. Their house was painfully ugly and bare and Scarlett hated to see Ashley living in the uncarpeted, uncurtained rooms. But he did not seem to notice his surroundings and Melanie, having her own home for the first time since her marriage, was so happy she was actually proud of the place. Scarlett would have suffered agonies of humiliation at having friends find her without draperies and carpets and cushions and the proper number of chairs and teacups and spoons. But Melanie did the honors of her house as though plush curtains and brocade sofas were hers.
For all her obvious happiness, Melanie was not well. Little Beau had cost her her health, and the hard work she had done at Tara since his birth had taken further toll of her strength. She was so thin that her small bones seemed ready to come through her white skin. Seen from a distance, romping about the back yard with her child, she looked like a little girl, for her waist was unbelievably tiny and she had practically no figure. She had no bust and her hips were as flat as little Beau’s and as she had neither the pride nor the good sense (so Scarlett thought) to sew ruffles in the bosom of her basque or pads on the back of her corsets, her thinness was very obvious. Like her body, her face was too thin and too pale and her silky brows, arched and delicate as a butterfly’s feelers, stood out too blackly against her colorless skin. In her small face, her eyes were too large for beauty, the dark smudges under them making them appear enormous, but the expression in them had not altered since the days of her unworried girlhood. War and constant pain and hard work had been powerless against their sweet tranquillity. They were the eyes of a happy woman, a woman around whom storms might blow without ever ruffling the serene core of her being.
How did she keep her eyes that way, thought Scarlett, looking at her enviously. She knew her own eyes sometimes had the look of a hungry cat. What was it Rhett had said once about Melanie’s eyes — some foolishness about them being like candles? Oh, yes, like two good deeds in a naughty world. Yes, they were like candles, candles shielded from every wind, two soft lights glowing with happiness at being home again among her friends.
The little house was always full of company. Melanie had been a favorite even as a child and the town flocked to welcome her home again. Everyone brought presents for the house, bric-a-brac, pictures, a silver spoon or two, linen pillow cases, napkins, rag rugs, small articles which they had saved from Sherman and treasured but which they now swore were of no earthly use to them.
Old men who had campaigned in Mexico with her father came to see her, bringing visitors to meet “old Colonel Hamilton’s sweet daughter.” Her mother’s old friends clustered about her, for Melanie had a respectful deference to her elders that was very soothing to dowagers in these wild days when young people seemed to have forgotten all their manners. Her contemporaries, the young wives, mothers and widows, loved her because she had suffered what they had suffered, had not become embittered and always lent them a sympathetic ear. The young people came, as young people always come, simply because they had a good time at her home and met there the friends they wanted to meet.
Around Melanie’s tactful and self-effacing person, there rapidly grew up a clique of young and old who represented what was left of the best of Atlanta’s ante-bellum society, all poor in purse, all proud in family, die-hards of the stoutest variety. It was as if Atlanta society, scattered and wrecked by war, depleted by death, bewildered by change, had found in her an unyielding nucleus about which it could re-form.
Melanie was young but she had in her all the qualities this embattled remnant prized, poverty and pride in poverty, uncomplaining courage, gaiety, hospitality, kindness and, above all, loyalty to all the old traditions. Melanie refused to change, refused even to admit that there was any reason to change in a changing world. Under her roof the old days seemed to come back again and people took heart and felt even more contemptuous of the tide of wild life and high living that was sweeping the Carpetbaggers and newly rich Republicans along.
When they looked into her young face and saw there the inflexible loyalty to the old days, they could forget, for a moment, the traitors within their own class who were causing fury, fear and heartbreak. And there were many such. There were men of good family, driven to desperation by poverty, who had gone over to the enemy, become Republicans and accepted positions from the conquerors, so their families would not be on charity. There were young ex-soldiers who lacked the courage to face the long years necessary to build up fortunes. These youngsters, following the lead of Rhett Butler, went hand in hand with the Carpetbaggers in money-making schemes of unsavory kinds.
Worst of all the traitors were the daughters of some of Atlanta’s most prominent families. These girls who had come to maturity since the surrender had only childish memories of the war and lacked the bitterness that animated their elders. They had lost no husbands, no lovers. They had few recollections of past wealth and splendor — and the Yankee officers were so handsome and finely dressed and so carefree. And they gave such splendid balls and drove such fine horses and simply worshiped Southern girls! They treated them like queens and were so careful not to injure their touchy pride and, after all — why not associate with them?
They were so much more attractive than the town swains who dressed so shabbily and were so serious and worked so hard that they had little time to play. So there had been a number of elopements with Yankee officers which broke the hearts of Atlanta families. There were brothers who passed sisters on the streets and did not speak and mothers and fathers who never mentioned daughters’ names. Remembering these tragedies, a cold dread ran in the veins of those whose motto was “No surrender”— a dread which the very sight of Melanie’s soft but unyielding face dispelled. She was, as the dowagers said, such an excellent and wholesome example to the young girls of the town. And, because she made no parade of her virtues the young girls did not resent her.
It never occurred to Melanie that she was becoming the leader of a new society. She only thought the people were nice to come to see her and to want her in their little sewing circles, cotillion clubs and musical societies. Atlanta had always been musical and loved good music, despite the sneering comments of sister cities of the South concerning the town’s lack of culture, and there was now an enthusiastic resurrection of interest that grew stronger as the times grew harder and more tense. It was easier to forget the impudent black faces in the streets and the blue uniforms of the garrison while they were listening to music.
Melanie was a little embarrassed to find herself at the head of the newly formed Saturday Night Musical Circle. She could not account for her elevation to this position except by the fact that she could accompany anyone on the piano, even the Misses McLure who were tone deaf but who would sing duets.
The truth of the matter was that Melanie had diplomatically managed to amalgamate the Lady Harpists, the Gentlemen’s Glee Club and the Young Ladies Mandolin and Guitar Society with the Saturday Night Musical Circle, so that now Atlanta had music worth listening to. In fact, the Circle’s rendition of The Bohemian Girl was said by many to be far superior to professional performances heard in New York and New Orleans. It was after she had maneuvered the Lady Harpists into the fold that Mrs. Merriwether said to Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Whiting that they must have Melanie at the head of the Circle. If she could get on with the Harpists, she could get on with anyone, Mrs. Merriwether declared. That lady herself played the organ for the choir at the Methodist Church and, as an organist, had scant respect for harps or harpists.
Melanie had also been made secretary for both the Association for the Beautification of the Graves of Our Glorious Dead and the Sewing Circle for the Widows and Orphans of the Confederacy. This new honor came to her after an exciting joint meeting of those societies which threatened to end in violence and the severance of lifelong ties of friendship. The question had arisen at the meeting as to whether or not weeds should be removed from the graves of the Union soldiers near those of Confederate soldiers. The appearance of the scraggly Yankee mounds defeated all the efforts of the ladies to beautify those of their own dead. Immediately the fires which smoldered beneath tight basques flamed wildly and the two organizations split up and glared hostilely. The Sewing Circle was in favor of the removal of the weeds, the Ladies of the Beautification were violently opposed.
Mrs. Meade expressed the views of the latter group when she said: “Dig up the weeds off Yankee graves? For two cents, I’d dig up all the Yankees and throw them in the city dump!”
At these ringing words the two associations arose and every lady spoke her mind and no one listened. The meeting was being held in Mrs. Merriwether’s parlor and Grandpa Merriwether, who had been banished to the kitchen, reported afterwards that the noise sounded just like the opening guns of the battle of Franklin. And, he added, be guessed it was a dinged sight safer to be present at the battle of Franklin than at the ladies’ meeting.
Somehow Melanie made her way to the center of the excited throng and somehow made her usually soft voice heard above the tumult. Her heart was in her throat with fright at daring to address the indignant gathering and her voice shook but she kept crying: “Ladies! Please!” till the din died down.
“I want to say — I mean, I’ve thought for a long time that — that not only should we pull up the weeds but we should plant flowers on — I— I don’t care what you think but every time I go to take flowers to dear Charlie’s grave, I always put some on the grave of an unknown Yankee which is near by. It — it looks so forlorn!”
The excitement broke out again in louder words and this time the two organizations merged and spoke as one.
“On Yankee graves! Oh, Melly, how could you!” “And they killed Charlie!” “They almost killed you!” “Why, the Yankees might have killed Beau when he was born!” “They tried to burn you out of Tara!”
Melanie held onto the back of her chair for support, almost crumpling beneath the weight of a disapproval she had never known before.
“Oh, ladies!” she cried, pleading. “Please, let me finish! I know I haven’t the right to speak on this matter, for none of my loved ones were killed except Charlie, and I know where he lies, thank God! But there are so many among us today who do not know where their sons and husbands and brothers are buried and —”
She choked and there was a dead silence in the room.
Mrs. Meade’s flaming eyes went somber. She had made the long trip to Gettysburg after the battle to bring back Darcy’s body but no one had been able to tell her where he was buried. Somewhere in some hastily dug trench in the enemy’s country. And Mrs. Allan’s mouth quivered. Her husband and brother had been on that ill-starred raid Morgan made into Ohio and the last information she had of them was that they fell on the banks of the river, just as the Yankee cavalry stormed up. She did not know where they lay. Mrs. Allison’s son had died in a Northern prison camp and she, the poorest of the poor, was unable to bring his body home. There were others who had read on casualty lists: “Missing — believed dead,” and in those words had learned the last news they were ever to learn of men they had seen march away.
They turned to Melanie with eyes that said: “Why do you open these wounds again? These are the wounds that never heal — the wounds of not knowing where they lie.”
Melanie’s voice gathered strength in the stillness of the room.
“Their graves are somewhere up in the Yankees’ country, just like the Yankee graves are here, and oh, how awful it would be to know that some Yankee woman said to dig them up and —”
Mrs. Meade made a small, dreadful sound.
“But how nice it would be to know that some good Yankee woman — And there must be SOME good Yankee women. I don’t care what people say, they can’t all be bad! How nice it would be to know that they pulled weeds off our men’s graves and brought flowers to them, even if they were enemies. If Charlie were dead in the North it would comfort me to know that someone — And I don’t care what you ladies think of me,” her voice broke again, “I will withdraw from both clubs and I’ll — I’ll pull up every weed off every Yankee’s grave I can find and I’ll plant flowers, too — and — I just dare anyone to stop me!”
With this final defiance Melanie burst into tears and tried to make her stumbling way to the door.
Grandpa Merriwether, safe in the masculine confines of the Girl of the Period Saloon an hour later, reported to Uncle Henry Hamilton that after these words, everybody cried and embraced Melanie and it all ended up in a love feast and Melanie was made secretary of both organizations.
“And they are going to pull up the weeds. The hell of it is Dolly said I’d be only too pleased to help do it, ‘cause I didn’t have anything much else to do. I got nothing against the Yankees and I think Miss Melly was right and the rest of those lady wild cats wrong. But the idea of me pulling weeds at my time of life and with my lumbago!”
Melanie was on the board of lady managers of the Orphans’ Home and assisted in the collection of books for the newly formed Young Men’s Library Association. Even the Thespians who gave amateur plays once a month clamored for her. She was too timid to appear behind the kerosene-lamp footlights, but she could make costumes out of croker sacks if they were the only material available. It was she who cast the deciding vote at the Shakespeare Reading Circle that the bard’s works should be varied with those of Mr. Dickens and Mr. Bulwer–Lytton and not the poems of Lord Byron, as had been suggested by a young and, Melanie privately feared, very fast bachelor member of the Circle.
In the nights of the late summer her small, feebly lighted house was always full of guests. There were never enough chairs to go around and frequently ladies sat on the steps of the front porch with men grouped about them on the banisters, on packing boxes or on the lawn below. Sometimes when Scarlett saw guests sitting on the grass, sipping tea, the only refreshment the Wilkeses could afford, she wondered how Melanie could bring herself to expose her poverty so shamelessly. Until Scarlett was able to furnish Aunt Pitty’s house as it had been before the war and serve her guests good wine and juleps and baked ham and cold haunches of venison, she had no intention of having guests in her house — especially prominent guests, such as Melanie had.
General John B. Gordon, Georgia’s great hero, was frequently there with his family. Father Ryan, the poet-priest of the Confederacy, never failed to call when passing through Atlanta. He charmed gatherings there with his wit and seldom needed much urging to recite his “Sword of Lee” or his deathless “Conquered Banner,” which never failed to make the ladies cry. Alex Stephens, late Vice–President of the Confederacy, visited whenever in town and, when the word went about that he was at Melanie’s, the house was filled and people sat for hours under the spell of the frail invalid with the ringing voice. Usually there were a dozen children present, nodding sleepily in their parents’ arms, up hours after their normal bedtime. No family wanted its children to miss being able to say in after years that they had been kissed by the great Vice–President or had shaken the hand that helped to guide the Cause. Every person of importance who came to town found his way to the Wilkes home and often they spent the night there. It crowded the little flat-topped house, forced India to sleep on a pallet in the cubbyhole that was Beau’s nursery and sent Dilcey speeding through the back hedge to borrow breakfast eggs from Aunt Pitty’s Cookie, but Melanie entertained them as graciously as if hers was a mansion.
No, it did not occur to Melanie that people rallied round her as round a worn and loved standard. And so she was both astounded and embarrassed when Dr. Meade, after a pleasant evening at her house where he acquitted himself nobly in reading the part of Macbeth, kissed her hand and made observations in the voice he once used in speaking of Our Glorious Cause.
“My dear Miss Melly, it is always a privilege and a pleasure to be in your home, for you — and ladies like you — are the hearts of all of us, all that we have left. They have taken the flower of our manhood and the laughter of our young women. They have broken our health, uprooted our lives and unsettled our habits. They have ruined our prosperity, set us back fifty years and placed too heavy a burden on the shoulders of our boys who should be in school and our old men who should be sleeping in the sun. But we will build back, because we have hearts like yours to build upon. And as long as we have them, the Yankees can have the rest!”
Until Scarlett’s figure reached such proportions that even Aunt Pitty’s big black shawl did not conceal her condition, she and Frank frequently slipped through the back hedge to join the summer-night gatherings on Melanie’s porch. Scarlett always sat well out of the light, hidden in the protecting shadows where she was not only inconspicuous but could, unobserved, watch Ashley’s face to her heart’s content.
It was only Ashley who drew her to the house, for the conversations bored and saddened her. They always followed a set pattern — first, hard times; next, the political situation; and then, inevitably, the war. The ladies bewailed the high prices of everything and asked the gentlemen if they thought good times would ever come back. And the omniscient gentlemen always said, indeed they would. Merely a matter of time. Hard times were just temporary. The ladies knew the gentlemen were lying and the gentlemen knew the ladies knew they were lying. But they lied cheerfully just the same and the ladies pretended to believe them. Everyone knew hard times were here to stay.
Once the hard times were disposed of, the ladies spoke of the increasing impudence of the negroes and the outrages of the Carpetbaggers and the humiliation of having the Yankee soldiers loafing on every corner. Did the gentlemen think the Yankees would ever get through with reconstructing Georgia? The reassuring gentlemen thought Reconstruction would be over in no time — that is, just as soon as the Democrats could vote again. The ladies were considerate enough not to ask when this would be. And having finished with politics, the talk about the war began.
Whenever two former Confederates met anywhere, there was never but one topic of conversation, and where a dozen or more gathered together, it was a foregone conclusion that the war would be spiritedly refought. And always the word “if” had the most prominent part in the talk.
“If England had recognized us —” “If Jeff Davis had commandeered all the cotton and gotten it to England before the blockade tightened —” “If Longstreet had obeyed orders at Gettysburg —” “If Jeb Stuart hadn’t been away on that raid when Marse Bob needed him —” “If we hadn’t lost Stonewall Jackson —” “If Vicksburg hadn’t fallen —” “If we could have held on another year —” And always: “If they hadn’t replaced Johnston with Hood —” or “If they’d put Hood in command at Dalton instead of Johnston —”
If! If! The soft drawling voices quickened with an old excitement as they talked in the quiet darkness — infantryman, cavalryman, cannoneer, evoking memories of the days when life was ever at high tide, recalling the fierce heat of their midsummer in this forlorn sunset of their winter.
“They don’t talk of anything else,” thought Scarlett. “Nothing but the war. Always the war. And they’ll never talk of anything but the war. No, not until they die.”
She looked about, seeing little boys lying in the crooks of their fathers’ arms, breath coming fast, eyes glowing, as they heard of midnight stories and wild cavalry dashes and flags planted on enemy breastworks. They were hearing drums and bugles and the Rebel yell, seeing footsore men going by in the rain with torn flags slanting.
“And these children will never talk of anything else either. They’ll think it was wonderful and glorious to fight the Yankees and come home blind and crippled — or not come home at all. They all like to remember the war, to talk about it. But I don’t. I don’t even like to think about it. I’d forget it all if I could — oh, if I only could!”
She listened with flesh crawling as Melanie told tales of Tara, making Scarlett a heroine as she faced the invaders and saved Charles’ sword, bragging how Scarlett had put out the fire. Scarlett took no pleasure or pride in the memory of these things. She did not want to think of them at all.
“Oh, why can’t they forget? Why can’t they look forward and not back? We were fools to fight that war. And the sooner we forget it, the better we’ll be.”
But no one wanted to forget, no one, it seemed, except herself, so Scarlett was glad when she could truthfully tell Melanie that she was embarrassed at appearing, even in the darkness. This explanation was readily understood by Melanie who was hypersensitive about all matters relating to childbirth. Melanie wanted another baby badly, but both Dr. Meade and Dr. Fontaine had said another child would cost her her life. So, only half resigned to her fate, she spent most of her time with Scarlett, vicariously enjoying a pregnancy not her own. To Scarlett, scarcely wanting her coming child and irritated at its untimeliness, this attitude seemed the height of sentimental stupidity. But she had a guilty sense of pleasure that the doctors’ edict had made impossible any real intimacy between Ashley and his wife.
Scarlett saw Ashley frequently now but she never saw him alone. He came by the house every night on his way home from the mill to report on the day’s work, but Frank and Pitty were usually present or, worse still, Melanie and India. She could only ask businesslike questions and make suggestions and then say: “It was nice of you to come by. Good night.”
If only she wasn’t having a baby! Here was a God-given opportunity to ride out to the mill with him every morning, through the lonely woods, far from prying eyes, where they could imagine themselves back in the County again in the unhurried days before the war.
No, she wouldn’t try to make him say one word of love! She wouldn’t refer to love in any way. She’d sworn an oath to herself that she would never do that again. But, perhaps if she were alone with him once more, he might drop that mask of impersonal courtesy he had worn since coming to Atlanta. Perhaps he might be his old self again, be the Ashley she had known before the barbecue, before any word of love had been spoken between them. If they could not be lovers, they could be friends again and she could warm her cold and lonely heart in the glow of his friendship.
“If only I could get this baby over and done with,” she thought impatiently, “then I could ride with him every day and we could talk —”
It was not only the desire to be with him that made her writhe with helpless impatience at her confinement. The mills needed her. The mills had been losing money ever since she retired from active supervision, leaving Hugh and Ashley in charge.
Hugh was so incompetent, for all that he tried so hard. He was a poor trader and a poorer boss of labor. Anyone could Jew him down on prices. If any slick contractor chose to say that the lumber was of an inferior grade and not worth the price asked, Hugh felt that all a gentleman could do was to apologize and take a lower price. When she heard of the price he received for a thousand feet of flooring, she burst into angry tears. The best grade of flooring the mill had ever turned out and he had practically given it away! And he couldn’t manage his labor crews. The negroes insisted on being paid every day and they frequently got drunk on their wages and did not turn up for work the next morning. On these occasions Hugh was forced to hunt up new workmen and the mill was late in starting. With these difficulties Hugh didn’t get into town to sell the lumber for days on end.
Seeing the profits slip from Hugh’s fingers, Scarlett became frenzied at her impotence and his stupidity. Just as soon as the baby was born and she could go back to work, she would get rid of Hugh and hire some one else. Anyone would do better. And she would never fool with free niggers again. How could anyone get any work done with free niggers quitting all the time?
“Frank,” she said, after a stormy interview with Hugh over his missing workmen, “I’ve about made up my mind that I’ll lease convicts to work the mills. A while back I was talking to Johnnie Gallegher, Tommy Wellburn’s foreman, about the trouble we were having getting any work out of the darkies and he asked me why I didn’t get convicts. It sounds like a good idea to me. He said I could sublease them for next to nothing and feed them dirt cheap. And he said I could get work out of them in any way I liked, without having the Freedman’s Bureau swarming down on me like hornets, sticking their bills into things that aren’t any of their business. And just as soon as Johnnie Gallegher’s contract with Tommy is up, I’m going to hire him to run Hugh’s mill. Any man who can get work out of that bunch of wild Irish he bosses can certainly get plenty of work out of convicts.”
Convicts! Frank was speechless. Leasing convicts was the very worst of all the wild schemes Scarlett had ever suggested, worse even than her notion of building a saloon.
At least, it seemed worse to Frank and the conservative circles in which he moved. This new system of leasing convicts had come into being because of the poverty of the state after the war. Unable to support the convicts, the State was hiring them out to those needing large labor crews in the building of railroads, in turpentine forests and lumber camps. While Frank and his quiet churchgoing friends realized the necessity of the system, they deplored it just the same. Many of them had not even believed in slavery and they thought this was far worse than slavery had ever been.
And Scarlett wanted to lease convicts! Frank knew that if she did he could never hold up his head again. This was far worse than owning and operating the mills herself, or anything else she had done. His past objections had always been coupled with the question: “What will people say?” But this — this went deeper than fear of public opinion. He felt that it was a traffic in human bodies on a par with prostitution, a sin that would be on his soul if he permitted her to do it.
From this conviction of wrongness, Frank gathered courage to forbid Scarlett to do such a thing, and so strong were his remarks that she, startled, relapsed into silence. Finally to quiet him, she said meekly she hadn’t really meant it. She was just so outdone with Hugh and the free niggers she had lost her temper. Secretly, she still thought about it and with some longing. Convict labor would settle one of her hardest problems, but if Frank was going to take on so about it —
She sighed. If even one of the mills were making money, she could stand it. But Ashley was faring little better with his mill than Hugh.
At first Scarlett was shocked and disappointed that Ashley did not immediately take hold and make the mill pay double what it had paid under her management. He was so smart and he had read so many books and there was no reason at all why he should not make a brilliant success and lots of money. But he was no more successful than Hugh. His inexperience, his errors, his utter lack of business judgment and his scruples about close dealing were the same as Hugh’s.
Scarlett’s love hastily found excuses for him and she did not consider the two men in the same light. Hugh was just hopelessly stupid, while Ashley was merely new at the business. Still, unbidden, came the thought that Ashley could never make a quick estimate in his head and give a price that was correct, as she could. And she sometimes wondered if he’d ever learn to distinguish between planking and sills. And because he was a gentleman and himself trustworthy, he trusted every scoundrel who came along and several times would have lost money for her if she had not tactfully intervened. And if he liked a person — and he seemed to like so many people! — he sold them lumber on credit without ever thinking to find out if they had money in the bank or property. He was as bad as Frank in that respect.
But surely he would learn! And while he was learning she had a fond and maternal indulgence and patience for his errors. Every evening when he called at her house, weary and discouraged, she was tireless in her tactful, helpful suggestions. But for all her encouragement and cheer, there was a queer dead look in his eyes. She could not understand it and it frightened her. He was different, so different from the man he used to be. If only she could see him alone, perhaps she could discover the reason.
The situation gave her many sleepless nights. She worried about Ashley, both because she knew he was unhappy and because she knew his unhappiness wasn’t helping him to become a good lumber dealer. It was a torture to have her mills in the hands of two men with no more business sense than Hugh and Ashley, heartbreaking to see her competitors taking her best customers away when she had worked so hard and planned so carefully for these helpless months. Oh, if she could only get back to work again! She would take Ashley in hand and then he would certainly learn. And Johnnie Gallegher could run the other mill, and she could handle the selling, and then everything would be fine. As for Hugh, he could drive a delivery wagon if he still wanted to work for her. That was all he was good for.
Of course, Gallegher looked like an unscrupulous man, for all of his smartness, but — who else could she get? Why had the other men who were both smart and honest been so perverse about working for her? If she only had one of them working for her now in place of Hugh, she wouldn’t have to worry so much, but —
Tommy Wellburn, in spite of his crippled back, was the busiest contractor in town and coining money, so people said. Mrs. Merriwether and Rene were prospering and now had opened a bakery downtown. Rene was managing it with true French thrift and Grandpa Merriwether, glad to escape from his chimney corner, was driving Rene’s pie wagon. The Simmons boys were so busy they were operating their brick kiln with three shifts of labor a day. And Kells Whiting was cleaning up money with his hair straightener, because he told the negroes they wouldn’t ever be permitted to vote the Republican ticket if they had kinky hair.
It was the same with all the smart young men she knew, the doctors, the lawyers, the storekeepers. The apathy which had clutched them immediately after the war had completely disappeared and they were too busy building their own fortunes to help her build hers. The ones who were not busy were the men of Hugh’s type — or Ashley’s.
What a mess it was to try to run a business and have a baby too!
“I’ll never have another one,” she decided firmly. “I’m not going to be like other women and have a baby every year. Good Lord, that would mean six months out of the year when I’d have to be away from the mills! And I see now I can’t afford to be away from them even one day. I shall simply tell Frank that I won’t have any more children.”
Frank wanted a big family, but she could manage Frank somehow. Her mind was made up. This was her last child. The mills were far more important.