Gone with the wind (Chapter 46)
Few families in the north end of town slept that night for the news of the disaster to the Klan, and Rhett’s stratagem spread swiftly on silent feet as the shadowy form of India Wilkes slipped through back yards, whispered urgently through kitchen doors and slipped away into the windy darkness. And in her path, she left fear and desperate hope.
From without, houses looked black and silent and wrapped in sleep but, within, voices whispered vehemently into the dawn. Not only those involved in the night’s raid but every member of the Klan was ready for flight and in almost every stable along Peachtree Street, horses stood saddled in the darkness, pistols in holsters and food in saddlebags. All that prevented a wholesale exodus was India’s whispered message: “Captain Butler says not to run. The roads will be watched. He has arranged with that Watling creature —” In dark rooms men whispered: “But why should I trust that damned Scallawag Butler? It may be a trap!” And women’s voices implored: “Don’t go! If he saved Ashley and Hugh, he may save everybody. If India and Melanie trust him —” And they half trusted and stayed because there was no other course open to them.
Earlier in the night, the soldiers had knocked at a dozen doors and those who could not or would not tell where they had been that night were marched off under arrest. Rene Picard and one of Mrs. Merriwether’s nephews and the Simmons boys and Andy Bonnell were among those who spent the night in jail. They had been in the ill-starred foray but had separated from the others after the shooting. Riding hard for home they were arrested before they learned of Rhett’s plan. Fortunately they all replied, to questions, that where they had been that night was their own business and not that of any damned Yankees. They had been locked up for further questioning in the morning. Old man Merriwether and Uncle Henry Hamilton declared shamelessly that they had spent the evening at Belle Watling’s sporting house and when Captain Jaffery remarked irritably that they were too old for such goings on, they wanted to fight him.
Belle Watling herself answered Captain Jaffery’s summons, and before he could make known his mission she shouted that the house was closed for the night. A passel of quarrelsome drunks had called in the early part of the evening and had fought one another, torn the place up, broken her finest mirrors and so alarmed the young ladies that all business had been suspended for the night. But if Captain Jaffery wanted a drink; the bar was still open —
Captain Jaffery, acutely conscious of the grins of his men and feeling helplessly that he was fighting a mist, declared angrily that he wanted neither the young ladies nor a drink and demanded if Belle knew the names of her destructive customers. Oh, yes, Belle knew them. They were her regulars. They came every Wednesday night and called themselves the Wednesday Democrats, though what they meant by that she neither knew or cared. And if they didn’t pay for the damage to the mirrors in the upper hall, she was going to have the law on them. She kept a respectable house and — Oh, their names? Belle unhesitatingly reeled off the names of twelve under suspicion, Captain Jaffery smiled sourly.
“These damned Rebels are as efficiently organized as our Secret Service,” he said. “You and your girls will have to appear before the provost marshal tomorrow.”
“Will the provost make them pay for my mirrors?”
“To hell with your mirrors! Make Rhett Butler pay for them. He owns the place, doesn’t he?”
Before dawn, every ex-Confederate family in town knew everything. And their negroes, who had been told nothing, knew everything too, by that black grapevine telegraph system which defies white understanding. Everyone knew the details of the raid, the killing of Frank Kennedy and crippled Tommy Wellburn and how Ashley was wounded in carrying Frank’s body away.
Some of the feeling of bitter hatred the women bore Scarlett for her share in the tragedy was mitigated by the knowledge that her husband was dead and she knew it and could not admit it and have the poor comfort of claiming his body. Until morning light disclosed the bodies and the authorities notified her, she must know nothing. Frank and Tommy, pistols in cold hands, lay stiffening among the dead weeds in a vacant lot. And the Yankees would say they killed each other in a common drunken brawl over a girl in Belle’s house. Sympathy ran high for Fanny, Tommy’s wife, who had just had a baby, but no one could slip through the darkness to see her and comfort her because a squad of Yankees surrounded the house, waiting for Tommy to return. And there was another squad about Aunt Pitty’s house, waiting for Frank.
Before dawn the news had trickled about that the military inquiry would take place that day. The townspeople, heavy eyed from sleeplessness and anxious waiting, knew that the safety of some of their most prominent citizens rested on three things — the ability of Ashley Wilkes to stand on his feet and appear before the military board, as though he suffered nothing more serious than a morning-after headache, the word of Belle Watling that these men had been in her house all evening and the word of Rhett Butler that he had been with them.
The town writhed at these last two! Belle Watling! To owe their men’s lives to her! It was intolerable! Women who had ostentatiously crossed the street when they saw Belle coming, wondered if she remembered and trembled for fear she did. The men felt less humiliation at taking their lives from Belle than the women did, for many of them thought her a good sort. But they were stung that they must owe lives and freedom to Rhett Butler, a speculator and a Scallawag. Belle and Rhett, the town’s best-known fancy woman and the town’s most hated man. And they must be under obligation to them.
Another thought that stung them to impotent wrath was the knowledge that the Yankees and Carpetbaggers would laugh. Oh, how they would laugh! Twelve of the town’s most prominent citizens revealed as habitual frequenters of Belle Watling’s sporting house! Two of them killed in a fight over a cheap little girl, others ejected from the place as too drunk to be tolerated even by Belle and some under arrest, refusing to admit they were there when everyone knew they were there!
Atlanta was right in fearing that the Yankees would laugh. They had squirmed too long beneath Southern coldness and contempt and now they exploded with hilarity. Officers woke comrades and retailed the news. Husbands roused wives at dawn and told them as much as could be decently told to women. And the women, dressing hastily, knocked on their neighbors’ doors and spread the story. The Yankee ladies were charmed with it all and laughed until tears ran down their faces. This was Southern chivalry and gallantry for you! Maybe those women who carried their heads so high and snubbed all attempts at friendliness wouldn’t be so uppity, now that everyone knew where their husbands spent their time when they were supposed to be at political meetings. Political meetings! Well, that was funny!
But even as they laughed, they expressed regret for Scarlett and her tragedy. After all, Scarlett was a lady and one of the few ladies in Atlanta who were nice to Yankees. She had already won their sympathy by the fact that she had to work because her husband couldn’t or wouldn’t support her properly. Even though her husband was a sorry one, it was dreadful that the poor thing should discover he had been untrue to her. And it was doubly dreadful that his death should occur simultaneously with the discovery of his infidelity. After all, a poor husband was better than no husband at all, and the Yankee ladies decided they’d be extra nice to Scarlett. But the others, Mrs. Meade, Mrs. Merriwether, Mrs. Elsing, Tommy Wellburn’s widow and most of all, Mrs. Ashley Wilkes, they’d laugh in their faces every time they saw them. That would teach them a little courtesy.
Much of the whispering that went on in the dark rooms on the north side of town that night was on this same subject. Atlanta ladies vehemently told their husbands that they did not care a rap what the Yankees thought. But inwardly they felt that running an Indian gantlet would be infinitely preferable to suffering the ordeal of Yankee grins and not being able to tell the truth about their husbands.
Dr. Meade, beside himself with outraged dignity at the position into which Rhett had jockeyed him and the others, told Mrs. Meade that, but for the fact that it would implicate the others, he would rather confess and be hanged than say he had been at Belle’s house.
“It is an insult to you, Mrs. Meade,” he fumed.
“But everyone will know you weren’t there for — for —”
“The Yankees won’t know. They’ll have to believe it if we save our necks. And they’ll laugh. The very thought that anyone will believe it and laugh infuriates me. And it insults you because — my dear, I have always been faithful to you.”
“I know that,” and in the darkness Mrs. Meade smiled and slipped a thin hand into the doctor’s. “But I’d rather it were really true than have one hair of your head in danger.”
“Mrs. Meade, do you know what you are saying?” cried the doctor, aghast at the unsuspected realism of his wife.
“Yes, I know. I’ve lost Darcy and I’ve lost Phil and you are all I have and, rather than lose you, I’d have you take up your permanent abode at that place.”
“You are distrait! You cannot know what you are saying.”
“You old fool,” said Mrs. Meade tenderly and laid her head against his sleeve.
Dr. Meade fumed into silence and stroked her cheek and then exploded again. “And to be under obligation to that Butler man! Hanging would be easy compared to that. No, not even if I owe him my life, can I be polite to him. His insolence is monumental and his shamelessness about his profiteering makes me boil. To owe my life to a man who never went in the army —”
“Melly said he enlisted after Atlanta fell.”
“It’s a lie. Miss Melly will believe any plausible scoundrel. And what I can’t understand is why he is doing all this — going to all this trouble. I hate to say it but — well, there’s always been talk about him and Mrs. Kennedy. I’ve seen them coming in from rides together too often this last year. He must have done it because of her.”
“If it was because of Scarlett, he wouldn’t have lifted his hand. He’d have been glad to see Frank Kennedy hanged. I think it’s because of Melly —”
“Mrs. Meade, you can’t be insinuating that there’s ever been anything between those two!”
“Oh, don’t be silly! But she’s always been unaccountably fond of him ever since he tried to get Ashley exchanged during the war. And I must say this for him, he never smiles in that nasty-nice way when he’s with her. He’s just as pleasant and thoughtful as can be — really a different man. You can tell by the way he acts with Melly that he could be decent if he wanted to. Now, my idea of why he’s doing all this is —” She paused. “Doctor, you won’t like my idea.”
“I don’t like anything about this whole affair!”
“Well, I think he did it partly for Melly’s sake but mostly because he thought it would be a huge joke on us all. We’ve hated him so much and showed it so plainly and now he’s got us in a fix where all of you have your choice of saying you were at that Watling woman’s house and shaming yourself and wives before the Yankees — or telling the truth and getting hanged. And he knows we’ll all be under obligation to him and his — mistress and that we’d almost rather be hanged than be obliged to them. Oh, I’ll wager he’s enjoying it.”
The doctor groaned. “He did look amused when he took us upstairs in that place.”
“Doctor,” Mrs. Meade hesitated, “what did it look like?”
“What are you saying, Mrs. Meade?”
“Her house. What did it look like? Are there cut-glass chandeliers? And red plush curtains and dozens of full-length gilt mirrors? And were the girls — were they unclothed?”
“Good God!” cried the doctor, thunderstruck, for it had never occurred to him that the curiosity of a chaste woman concerning her unchaste sisters was so devouring. “How can you ask such immodest questions? You are not yourself. I will mix you a sedative.”
“I don’t want a sedative. I want to know. Oh, dear, this is my only chance to know what a bad house looks like and now you are mean enough not to tell me!”
“I noticed nothing. I assure you I was too embarrassed at finding myself in such a place to take note of my surroundings,” said the doctor formally, more upset at this unsuspected revelation of his wife’s character than he had been by all the previous events of the evening. “If you will excuse me now, I will try to get some sleep.”
“Well, go to sleep then,” she answered, disappointment in her tones. Then as the doctor leaned over to remove his boots, her voice spoke from the darkness with renewed cheerfulness. “I imagine Dolly has gotten it all out of old man Merriwether and she can tell me about it.”
“Good Heavens, Mrs. Meade! Do you mean to tell me that nice women talk about such things among them —”
“Oh, go to bed,” said Mrs. Meade.
It sleeted the next day, but as the wintry twilight drew on the icy particles stopped falling and a cold wind blew. Wrapped in her cloak, Melanie went bewilderedly down her front walk behind a strange negro coachman who had summoned her mysteriously to a closed carriage waiting in front of the house. As she came up to the carriage the door was opened and she saw a woman in the dim interior.
Leaning closer, peering inside, Melanie questioned: “Who is it? Won’t you come in the house? It’s so cold —”
“Please come in here and set with me a minute, Miz Wilkes,” came a faintly familiar voice, an embarrassed voice from the depths of the carriage.
“Oh, you’re Miss — Mrs. — Watling!” cried Melanie. “I did so want to see you! You must come in the house.”
“I can’t do that, Miz Wilkes.” Belle Watling’s voice sounded scandalized. “You come in here and set a minute with me.”
Melanie entered the carriage and the coachman closed the door behind her. She sat down beside Belle and reached for her hand.
“How can I ever thank you enough for what you did today! How can any of us thank you enough!”
“Miz Wilkes, you hadn’t ought of sent me that note this mornin’. Not that I wasn’t proud to have a note from you but the Yankees might of got it. And as for sayin’ you was goin’ to call on me to thank me — why, Miz Wilkes, you must of lost your mind! The very idea! I come up here as soon as ’twas dark to tell you you mustn’t think of any sech thing. Why, I— why, you — it wouldn’t be fittin’ at all.”
“It wouldn’t be fitting for me to call and thank a kind woman who saved my husband’s life?”
“Oh, shucks, Miz Wilkes! You know what I mean!”
Melanie was silent for a moment, embarrassed by the implication. Somehow this handsome, sedately dressed woman sitting in the darkness of the carriage didn’t look and talk as she imagined a bad woman, the Madam of a House, should look and talk. She sounded like — well, a little common and countrified but nice and warm hearted.
“You were wonderful before the provost marshal today, Mrs. Watling! You and the other — your — the young ladies certainly saved our men’s lives.”
“Mr. Wilkes was the wonderful one. I don’t know how he even stood up and told his story, much less look as cool as he done. He was sure bleedin’ like a pig when I seen him last night. Is he goin’ to be all right, Miz Wilkes?”
“Yes, thank you. The doctor says it’s just a flesh wound, though he did lose a tremendous lot of blood. This morning he was — well, he was pretty well laced with brandy or he’d never have had the strength to go through with it all so well. But it was you, Mrs. Watling, who saved them. When you got mad and talked about the broken mirrors you sounded so — so convincing.”
“Thank you, Ma’m. But I— I thought Captain Butler done mighty fine too,” said Belle, shy pride in her voice.
“Oh, he was wonderful!” cried Melanie warmly. “The Yankees couldn’t help but believe his testimony. He was so smart about the whole affair. I can never thank him enough — or you either! How good and kind you are!”
“Thank you kindly, Miz Wilkes. It was a pleasure to do it. I— I hope it ain’t goin’ to embarrass you none, me sayin’ Mr. Wilkes come regular to my place. He never, you know —”
“Yes, I know. No, it doesn’t embarrass me at all. I’m just so grateful to you.”
“I’ll bet the other ladies ain’t grateful to me,” said Belle with sudden venom. “And I’ll bet they ain’t grateful to Captain Butler neither. I’ll bet they’ll hate him just this much more. I’ll bet you’ll be the only lady who even says thanks to me. I’ll bet they won’t even look me in the eye when they see me on the street. But I don’t care. I wouldn’t of minded if all their husbands got hung. But I did mind about Mr. Wilkes. You see I ain’t forgot how nice you was to me durin’ the war, about the money for the hospital. There ain’t never been a lady in this town nice to me like you was and I don’t forget a kindness. And I thought about you bein’ left a widder with a little boy if Mr. Wilkes got hung and — he’s a nice little boy, your boy is, Miz Wilkes. I got a boy myself and so I—”
“Oh, you have? Does he live — er —”
“Oh, no’m! He ain’t here in Atlanta. He ain’t never been here. He’s off at school. I ain’t seen him since he was little. I— well, anyway, when Captain Butler wanted me to lie for those men I wanted to know who the men was and when I heard Mr. Wilkes was one I never hesitated. I said to my girls, I said, ‘I’ll whale the livin’ daylights out of you all if you don’t make a special point of sayin’ you was with Mr. Wilkes all evenin’.”
“Oh!” said Melanie, still more embarrassed by Belle’s offhand reference to her “girls.” “Oh, that was — er — kind of you and — of them, too.”
“No more’n you deserve,” said Belle warmly. “But I wouldn’t of did it for just anybody. If it had been that Miz Kennedy’s husband by hisself, I wouldn’t of lifted a finger, no matter what Captain Butler said.”
“Well, Miz Wilkes, people in my business knows a heap of things. It’d surprise and shock a heap of fine ladies if they had any notion how much we knows about them. And she ain’t no good, Miz Wilkes. She kilt her husband and that nice Wellburn boy, same as if she shot them. She caused it all, prancin’ about Atlanta by herself, enticin’ niggers and trash. Why, not one of my girls —”
“You must not say unkind things about my sister-inlaw.” Melanie stiffened coldly.
Belle put an eager placating hand on Melanie’s arm and then hastily withdrew it.
“Don’t freeze me, please, Miz Wilkes. I couldn’t stand it after you been so kind and sweet to me. I forgot how you liked her and I’m sorry for what I said. I’m sorry about poor Mr. Kennedy bein’ dead too. He was a nice man. I used to buy some of the stuff for my house from him and he always treated me pleasant. But Miz Kennedy — well, she just ain’t in the same class with you, Miz Wilkes. She’s a mighty cold woman and I can’t help it if I think so. . . . When are they goin’ to bury Mr. Kennedy?”
“Tomorrow morning. And you are wrong about Mrs. Kennedy. Why, this very minute she’s prostrated with grief.”
“Maybe so,” said Belle with evident disbelief. “Well, I got to be goin’. I’m afraid somebody might recognize this carriage if I stayed here longer and that wouldn’t do you no good. And, Miz Wilkes, if you ever see me on the street, you — you don’t have to speak to me. I’ll understand.”
“I shall be proud to speak to you. Proud to be under obligation to you. I hope — I hope we meet again.”
“No,” said Belle. “That wouldn’t be fittin’. Good night.”