Gone with the wind (Chapter 48)
She did have fun, more fun than she had had since the spring before the war. New Orleans was such a strange, glamorous place and Scarlett enjoyed it with the headlong pleasure of a pardoned life prisoner. The Carpetbaggers were looting the town, many honest folk were driven from their homes and did not know where to look for their next meal, and a negro sat in the lieutenant governor’s chair. But the New Orleans Rhett showed her was the gayest place she had ever seen. The people she met seemed to have all the money they wanted and no cares at all. Rhett introduced her to dozens of women, pretty women in bright gowns, women who had soft hands that showed no signs of hard work, women who laughed at everything and never talked of stupid serious things or hard times. And the men she met — how thrilling they were! And how different from Atlanta men — and how they fought to dance with her, and paid her the most extravagant compliments as though she were a young belle.
These men had the same hard reckless look Rhett wore. Their eyes were always alert, like men who have lived too long with danger to be ever quite careless. They seemed to have no pasts or futures, and they politely discouraged Scarlett when, to make conversation, she asked what or where they were before they came to New Orleans. That, in itself, was strange, for in Atlanta every respectable newcomer hastened to present his credentials, to tell proudly of his home and family, to trace the tortuous mazes of relationship that stretched over the entire South.
But these men were a taciturn lot, picking their words carefully. Sometimes when Rhett was alone with them and Scarlett in the next room, she heard laughter and caught fragments of conversation that meant nothing to her, scraps of words, puzzling names — Cuba and Nassau in the blockade days, the gold rush and claim jumping, gun running and filibustering, Nicaragua and William Walker and how he died against a wall at Truxillo. Once her sudden entrance abruptly terminated a conversation about what had happened to the members of Quantrill’s band of guerillas, and she caught the names of Frank and Jesse James.
But they were all well mannered, beautifully tailored, and they evidently admired her, so it mattered little to Scarlett that they chose to live utterly in the present. What really mattered was that they were Rhett’s friends and had large houses and fine carriages, and they took her and Rhett driving, invited them to suppers, gave parties in their honor. And Scarlett like them very well. Rhett was amused when she told him so.
“I thought you would,” he said and laughed.
“Why not?” her suspicions aroused as always by his laughter.
“They’re all second-raters, black sheep, rascals. They’re all adventurers or Carpetbag aristocrats. They all made their money speculating in food like your loving husband or out of dubious government contracts or in shady ways that won’t bear investigation.”
“I don’t believe it. You’re teasing. They’re the nicest people . . .”
“The nicest people in town are starving,” said Rhett. “And living politely in hovels, and I doubt if I’d be received in those hovels. You see, my dear, I was engaged in some of my nefarious schemes here during the war and these people have devilish long memories! Scarlett, you are a constant joy to me. You unerringly manage to pick the wrong people and the wrong things.”
“But they are your friends!”
“Oh, but I like rascals. My early youth was spent as a gambler on a river boat and I can understand people like that. But I’m not blind to what they are. Whereas you”— he laughed again —“you have no instinct about people, no discrimination between the cheap and the great. Sometimes, I think that the only great ladies you’ve ever associated with were your mother and Miss Melly and neither seems to have made any impression on you.”
“Melly! Why she’s as plain as an old shoe and her clothes always look tacky and she never has two words to say for herself!”
“Spare me your jealousy, Madam. Beauty doesn’t make a lady, nor clothes a great lady!”
“Oh, don’t they! Just you wait, Rhett Butler, and I’ll show you. Now that I’ve — we’ve got money, I’m going to be the greatest lady you ever saw!”
“I shall wait with interest,” he said.
More exciting than the people she met were the frocks Rhett bought her, superintending the choice of colors, materials and designs himself. Hoops were out now, and the new styles were charming with the skirts pulled back from the front and draped over bustles, and on the bustles were wreaths of flowers and bows and cascades of lace. She thought of the modest hoops of the war years and she felt a little embarrassed at these new skirts which undeniably outlined her abdomen. And the darling little bonnets that were not really bonnets at all, but flat little affairs worn over one eye and laden with fruits and flowers, dancing plumes and fluttering ribbons! (If only Rhett had not been so silly and burned the false curls she bought to augment her knot of Indian-straight hair that peeked from the rear of these little hats!) And the delicate convent-made underwear! How lovely it was and how many sets she had! Chemises and nightgowns and petticoats of the finest linen trimmed with dainty embroidery and infinitesimal tucks. And the satin slippers Rhett bought her! They had heels three inches high and huge glittering paste buckles on them. And silk stockings, a dozen pairs and not a one had cotton tops! What riches!
She recklessly bought gifts for the family. A furry St. Bernard puppy for Wade, who had always longed for one, a Persian kitten for Beau, a coral bracelet for little Ella, a heavy necklace with moonstone pendants for Aunt Pitty, a complete set of Shakespeare for Melanie and Ashley, an elaborate livery for Uncle Peter, including a high silk coachman’s hat with a brush upon it, dress lengths for Dilcey and Cookie, expensive gifts for everyone at Tara.
“But what have you bought for Mammy?” questioned Rhett, looking over the pile of gifts spread out on the bed in their hotel room, and removing the puppy and kitten to the dressing room.
“Not a thing. She was hateful. Why should I bring her a present when she called us mules?”
“Why should you so resent hearing the truth, my pet? You must bring Mammy a present. It would break her heart if you didn’t — and hearts like hers are too valuable to be broken.”
“I won’t take her a thing. She doesn’t deserve it.”
“Then I’ll buy her one. I remember my mammy always said that when she went to Heaven she wanted a taffeta petticoat so stiff that it would stand by itself and so rustly that the Lord God would think it was made of angels’ wings. I’ll buy Mammy some red taffeta and have an elegant petticoat made.”
“She won’t take it from you. She’d die rather than wear it.”
“I don’t doubt it. But I’ll make the gesture just the same.”
The shops of New Orleans were so rich and exciting and shopping with Rhett was an adventure. Dining with him was an adventure too, and one more thrilling than shopping, for he knew what to order and how it should be cooked. The wines and liqueurs and champagnes of New Orleans were new and exhilarating to her, acquainted with only homemade blackberry and scuppernong vintages and Aunt Pitty’s “swoon” brandy; but oh, the food Rhett ordered! Best of all things in New Orleans was the food. Remembering the bitter hungry days at Tara and her more recent penury, Scarlett felt that she could never eat enough of these rich dishes. Gumboes and shrimp Creole, doves in wine and oysters in crumbly patties full of creamy sauce, mushrooms and sweetbreads and turkey livers, fish baked cunningly in oiled paper and limes. Her appetite never dulled, for whenever she remembered the everlasting goobers and dried peas and sweet potatoes at Tara, she felt an urge to gorge herself anew of Creole dishes.
“You eat as though each meal were your last,” said Rhett. “Don’t scrape the plate, Scarlett. I’m sure there’s more in the kitchen. You have only to ask the waiter. If you don’t stop being such a glutton, you’ll be as fat as the Cuban ladies and then I shall divorce you.”
But she only put out her tongue at him and ordered another pastry, thick with chocolate and stuffed with meringue.
What fun it was to be able to spend as much money as you liked and not count pennies and feel that you should save them to pay taxes or buy mules. What fun to be with people who were gay and rich and not genteelly poor like Atlanta people. What fun to wear rustling brocade dresses that showed your waist and all your neck and arms and more than a little of your breast and know that men were admiring you. And what fun to eat all you wanted without having censorious people say you weren’t ladylike. And what fun to drink all the champagne you pleased. The first time she drank too much, she was embarrassed when she awoke the next morning with a splitting headache and an awful memory of singing “Bonnie Blue Flag” all the way back to the hotel, through the streets of New Orleans, in an open carriage. She had never seen a lady even tipsy, and the only drunken woman she had ever seen had been that Watling creature on the day when Atlanta fell. She hardly knew how to face Rhett, so great was her humiliation, but the affair seemed only to amuse him. Everything she did seemed to amuse him, as though she were a gamboling kitten.
It was exciting to go out with him for he was so handsome. Somehow she had never given his looks a thought before, and in Atlanta everyone had been too preoccupied with his shortcomings ever to talk about his appearance. But here in New Orleans she could see how the eyes of other women followed him and how they fluttered when he bent over their hands. The realization that other women were attracted by her husband, and perhaps envied her, made her suddenly proud to be seen by his side.
“Why, we’re a handsome people,” thought Scarlett with pleasure.
Yes, as Rhett had prophesied, marriage could be a lot of fun. Not only was it fun but she was learning many things. That was odd in itself, because Scarlett had thought life could teach her no more. Now she felt like a child, every day on the brink of a new discovery.
First, she learned that marriage with Rhett was a far different matter from marriage with either Charles or Frank. They had respected her and been afraid of her temper. They had begged for favors and if it pleased her, she had bestowed them. Rhett did not fear her and, she often thought, did not respect her very much either. What he wanted to do, he did, and if she did not like it, he laughed at her. She did not love him but he was undoubtedly an exciting person to live with. The most exciting thing about him was that even in his outbursts of passion which were flavored sometimes with cruelty, sometimes with irritating amusement, he seemed always to be holding himself under restraint, always riding his emotions with a curb bit.
“I guess that’s because he isn’t really in love with me,” she thought and was content enough with the state of affairs. “I should hate for him to ever turn completely loose in any way.” But still the thought of the possibility teased her curiosity in an exciting way.
Living with Rhett, she learned many new things about him, and she had thought she knew him so well. She learned that his voice could be as silky as a cat’s fur one moment and crisp and crackling with oaths the next. He could tell, with apparent sincerity and approval, stories of courage and honor and virtue and love in the odd places he had been, and follow them with ribald stories of coldest cynicism. She knew no man should tell such stories to his wife but they were entertaining and they appealed to something coarse and earthy in her. He could be an ardent, almost a tender, lover for a brief while, and almost immediately a mocking devil who ripped the lid from her gunpowder temper, fired it and enjoyed the explosion. She learned that his compliments were always two edged and his tenderest expressions open to suspicion. In fact, in those two weeks in New Orleans, she learned everything about him except what he really was.
Some mornings he dismissed the maid and brought her the breakfast tray himself and fed her as though she were a child, took the hairbrush from her hand and brushed her long dark hair until it snapped and crackled. Yet other mornings she was torn rudely out of deep slumber when he snatched all the bed covers from her and tickled her bare feet. Sometimes he listened with dignified interest to details of her businesses, nodding approval at her sagacity, and at other times he called her somewhat dubious tradings scavenging, highway robbery and extortion. He took her to plays and annoyed her by whispering that God probably didn’t approve of such amusements, and to churches and, sotto voce, retailed funny obscenities and then reproved her for laughing. He encouraged her to speak her mind, to be flippant and daring. She picked up from him the gift of stinging words and sardonic phrases and learned to relish using them for the power they gave her over other people. But she did not possess his sense of humor which tempered his malice, nor his smile that jeered at himself even while he was jeering others.
He made her play and she had almost forgotten how. Life had been so serious and so bitter. He knew how to play and swept her along with him. But he never played like a boy; he was a man and no matter what he did, she could never forget it. She could not look down on him from the heights of womanly superiority, smiling as women have always smiled at the antics of men who are boys at heart.
This annoyed her a little, whenever she thought of it. It would be pleasant to feel superior to Rhett. All the other men she had known she could dismiss with a half-contemptuous “What a child!” Her father, the Tarleton twins with their love of teasing and their elaborate practical jokes, the hairy little Fontaines with their childish rages, Charles, Frank, all the men who had paid court to her during the war — everyone, in fact, except Ashley. Only Ashley and Rhett eluded her understanding and her control for they were both adults, and the elements of boyishness were lacking in them.
She did not understand Rhett, nor did she trouble to understand him, though there were things about him which occasionally puzzled her. There was the way he looked at her sometimes, when he thought she was unaware. Turning quickly she frequently caught him watching her, an alert, eager, waiting look in his eyes.
“Why do you look at me like that?” she once asked irritably. “Like a cat at a mouse hole!”
But his face had changed swiftly and he only laughed. Soon she forgot it and did not puzzle her head about it any more, or about anything concerning Rhett. He was too unpredictable to bother about and life was very pleasant — except when she thought of Ashley.
Rhett kept her too busy to think of Ashley often. Ashley was hardly ever in her thoughts during the day but at night when she was tired from dancing or her head was spinning from too much champagne — then she thought of Ashley. Frequently when she lay drowsily in Rhett’s arms with the moonlight streaming over the bed, she thought how perfect life would be if it were only Ashley’s arms which held her so closely, if it were only Ashley who drew her black hair across his face and wrapped it about his throat.
Once when she was thinking this, she sighed and turned her head toward the window, and after a moment she felt the heavy arm beneath her neck become like iron, and Rhett’s voice spoke in the stillness: “May God damn your cheating little soul to hell for all eternity!”
And, getting up, he put on his clothes and left the room despite her startled protests and questions. He reappeared the next morning as she was breakfasting in her room, disheveled, quite drunk and in his worst sarcastic mood, and neither made excuses nor gave an account of his absence.
Scarlett asked no questions and was quite cool to him, as became an injured wife, and when she had finished the meal, she dressed under his bloodshot gaze and went shopping. He was gone when she returned and did not appear again until time for supper.
It was a silent meal and Scarlett’s temper was straining because it was her last supper in New Orleans and she wanted to do justice to the crawfish. And she could not enjoy it under his gaze. Nevertheless she ate a large one, and drank a quantity of champagne. Perhaps it was this combination that brought back her old nightmare that evening, for she awoke, cold with sweat, sobbing brokenly. She was back at Tara again and Tara was desolate. Mother was dead and with her all the strength and wisdom of the world. Nowhere in the world was there anyone to turn to, anyone to rely upon. And something terrifying was pursuing her and she was running, running till her heart was bursting, running in a thick swimming fog, crying out, blindly seeking that nameless, unknown haven of safety that was somewhere in the mist about her.
Rhett was leaning over her when she woke, and without a word he picked her up in his arms like a child and held her close, his hard muscles comforting, his wordless murmuring soothing, until her sobbing ceased.
“Oh, Rhett. I was so cold and so hungry and so tired and I couldn’t find it. I ran through the mist and I ran but I couldn’t find it.”
“Find what, honey?”
“I don’t know. I wish I did know.”
“Is it your old dream?”
He gently placed her on the bed, fumbled in the darkness and lit a candle. In the light his face with bloodshot eyes and harsh lines was as unreadable as stone. His shirt, opened to the waist, showed a brown chest covered with thick black hair. Scarlett, still shaking with fright, thought how strong and unyielding that chest was, and she whispered: “Hold me, Rhett.”
“Darling!” he said swiftly, and picking her up he sat down in a large chair, cradling her body against him.
“Oh, Rhett, it’s awful to be hungry.”
“It must be awful to dream of starvation after a seven-course dinner including that enormous crawfish.” He smiled but his eyes were kind.
“Oh, Rhett, I just run and run and hunt and I can’t ever find what it is I’m hunting for. It’s always hidden in the mist. I know if I could find it, I’d be safe forever and ever and never be cold or hungry again.”
“Is it a person or a thing you’re hunting?”
“I don’t know. I never thought about it. Rhett, do you think I’ll ever dream that I get there to safety?”
“No,” he said, smoothing her tumbled hair, “I don’t. Dreams aren’t like that. But I do think that if you get used to being safe and warm and well fed in your everyday life, you’ll stop dreaming that dream. And, Scarlett, I’m going to see that you are safe.”
“Rhett, you are so nice.”
“Thanks for the crumbs from your table, Mrs. Dives. Scarlett, I want you to say to yourself every morning when you wake up: ‘I can’t ever be hungry again and nothing can ever touch me so long as Rhett is here and the United States government holds out.’”
“The United States government?” she questioned, sitting up, startled, tears still on her cheeks.
“The ex-Confederate money has now become an honest woman. I invested most of it in government bonds.”
“God’s nightgown!” cried Scarlett, sitting up in his lap, forgetful of her recent terror. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve loaned your money to the Yankees?”
“At a fair per cent.”
“I don’t care if it’s a hundred percent! You must sell them immediately. The idea of letting the Yankees have the use of your money!”
“And what must I do with it?” he questioned with a smile, noting that her eyes were no longer wide with fright.
“Why — why buy property at Five Points. I’ll bet you could buy all of Five Points with the money you have.”
“Thank you, but I wouldn’t have Five Points. Now that the Carpetbagger government has really gotten control of Georgia, there’s no telling what may happen. I wouldn’t put anything beyond the swarm of buzzards that’s swooping down on Georgia now from north, east, south and west. I’m playing along with them, you understand, as a good Scallawag should do, but I don’t trust them. And I’m not putting my money in real estate. I prefer bonds. You can hide them. You can’t hide real estate very easily.”
“Do you think —” she began, paling as she thought of the mills and store.
“I don’t know. But don’t look so frightened, Scarlett. Our charming new governor is a good friend of mine. It’s just that times are too uncertain now and I don’t want much of my money tied up in real estate.”
He shifted her to one knee and, leaning back, reached for a cigar and lit it. She sat with her bare feet dangling, watching the play of muscles on his brown chest, her terrors forgotten.
“And while we are on the subject of real estate, Scarlett,” he said, “I am going to build a house. You might have bullied Frank into living in Miss Pitty’s house, but not me. I don’t believe I could bear her vaporings three times a day and, moreover, I believe Uncle Peter would assassinate me before he would let me live under the sacred Hamilton roof. Miss Pitty can get Miss India Wilkes to stay with her and keep the bogyman away. When we get back to Atlanta we are going to stay in the bridal suite of the National Hotel until our house is finished. Before we left Atlanta I was dickering for that big lot on Peachtree, the one near the Leyden house. You know the one I mean?”
“Oh, Rhett, how lovely! I do so want a house of my own. A great big one!”
“Then at last we are agreed on something. What about a white stucco with wrought-iron work like these Creole houses here?”
“Oh, no, Rhett. Not anything old fashioned like these New Orleans houses. I know just what I want. It’s the newest thing because I saw a picture of it in-let me see — it was in that Harper’s Weekly I was looking at. It was modeled after a Swiss chalet.”
“A Swiss what?”
“Oh,” he said and stroked his mustache.
“It was lovely. It had a high mansard roof with a picket fence on top and a tower made of fancy shingles at each end. And the towers had windows with red and blue glass in them. It was so stylish looking.”
“I suppose it had jigsaw work on the porch banisters?”
“And a fringe of wooden scrollwork hanging from the roof of the porch?”
“Yes. You must have seen one like it.”
“I have — but not in Switzerland. The Swiss are a very intelligent race and keenly alive to architectural beauty. Do you really want a house like that?”
“I had hoped that association with me might improve your taste. Why not a Creole house or a Colonial with six white columns?”
“I tell you I don’t want anything tacky and old-fashioned looking. And inside let’s have red wall paper and red velvet portieres over all the folding doors and oh, lots of expensive walnut furniture and grand thick carpets and — oh, Rhett, everybody will be pea green when they see our house!”
“It is very necessary that everyone shall be envious? Well, if you like they shall be green. But, Scarlett, has it occurred to you that it’s hardly in good taste to furnish the house on so lavish a scale when everyone is so poor?”
“I want it that way,” she said obstinately. “I want to make everybody who’s been mean to me feel bad. And we’ll give big receptions that’ll make the whole town wish they hadn’t said such nasty things.”
“But who will come to our receptions?”
“Why, everybody, of course.”
“I doubt it. The Old Guard dies but it never surrenders.”
“Oh, Rhett, how you run on! If you’ve got money, people always like you.”
“Not Southerners. It’s harder for speculators’ money to get into the best parlors than for the camel to go through the needle’s eye. And as for Scallawags — that’s you and me, my pet — we’ll be lucky if we aren’t spit upon. But if you’d like to try, I’ll back you, my dear, and I’m sure I shall enjoy your campaign intensely. And while we are on the subject of money, let me make this clear to you. You can have all the cash you want for the house and all you want for your fal-lals. And if you like jewelry, you can have it but I’m going to pick it out. You have such execrable taste, my pet. And anything you want for Wade or Ella. And if Will Benteen can’t make a go of the cotton, I’m willing to chip in and help out on that white elephant in Clayton County that you love so much. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?”
“Of course. You’re very generous.”
“But listen closely. Not one cent for the store and not one cent for that kindling factory of yours.”
“Oh,” said Scarlett, her face falling. All during the honeymoon she had been thinking how she could bring up the subject of the thousand dollars she needed to buy fifty feet more of land to enlarge her lumber yard.
“I thought you always bragged about being broad minded and not caring what people said about my running a business, and you’re just like every other man — so afraid people will say I wear the pants in the family.”
“There’s never going to be any doubt in anybody’s mind about who wears the pants in the Butler family,” drawled Rhett. “I don’t care what fools say. In fact, I’m ill bred enough to be proud of having a smart wife. I want you to keep on running the store and the mills. They are your children’s. When Wade grows up he won’t feel right about being supported by his stepfather, and then he can take over the management. But not one cent of mine goes into either business.”
“Because I don’t care to contribute to the support of Ashley Wilkes.”
“Are you going to begin that again?”
“No. But you asked my reasons and I have given them. And another thing. Don’t think you can juggle books on me and lie about how much your clothes cost and how much it takes to run the house, so that you can use the money to buy more mules or another mill for Ashley. I intend to look over and carefully check your expenditures and I know what things cost. Oh, don’t get insulted. You’d do it. I wouldn’t put it beyond you. In fact, I wouldn’t put anything beyond you where either Tara or Ashley is concerned. I don’t mind Tara. But I must draw the line at Ashley. I’m riding you with a slack rein, my pet, but don’t forget that I’m riding with curb and spurs just the same.”