Gone with the wind (Chapter 49)
Mrs. Elsing cocked her ear toward the hall. Hearing Melanie’s steps die away into the kitchen where rattling dishes and clinking silverware gave promise of refreshments, she turned and spoke softly to the ladies who sat in a circle in the parlor, their sewing baskets in their laps.
“Personally, I do not intend to call on Scarlett now or ever,” she said, the chill elegance of her face colder than usual.
The other members of the Ladies’ Sewing Circle for the Widows and Orphans of the Confederacy eagerly laid down their needles and edged their rocking chairs closer. All the ladies had been bursting to discuss Scarlett and Rhett but Melanie’s presence prevented it. Just the day before, the couple had returned from New Orleans and they were occupying the bridal suite at the National Hotel.
“Hugh says that I must call out of courtesy for the way Captain Butler saved his life,” Mrs. Elsing continued. “And poor Fanny sides with him and says she will call too. I said to her ‘Fanny,’ I said, ‘if it wasn’t for Scarlett, Tommy would be alive this minute. It is an insult to his memory to call.’ And Fanny had no better sense than to say, ‘Mother, I’m not calling on Scarlett. I’m calling on Captain Butler. He tried his best to save Tommy and it wasn’t his fault if he failed.’”
“How silly young people are!” said Mrs. Merriwether. “Call, indeed!” Her stout bosom swelled indignantly as she remembered Scarlett’s rude reception of her advice on marrying Rhett. “My Maybelle is just as silly as your Fanny. She says she and Rene will call, because Captain Butler kept Rene from getting hanged. And I said if it hadn’t been for Scarlett exposing herself, Rene would never have been in any danger. And Father Merriwether intends to call and he talks like he was in his dotage and says he’s grateful to that scoundrel, even if I’m not. I vow, since Father Merriwether was in that Watling creature’s house he has acted in a disgraceful way. Call, indeed! I certainly shan’t call. Scarlett has outlawed herself by marrying such a man. He was bad enough when he was a speculator during the war and making money out of our hunger but now that he is hand in glove with the Carpetbaggers and Scallawags and a friend — actually a friend of that odious wretch, Governor Bullock — Call, indeed!”
Mrs. Bonnell sighed. She was a plump brown wren of a woman with a cheerful face.
“They’ll only call once, for courtesy, Dolly. I don’t know that I blame them. I’ve heard that all the men who were out that night intend to call, and I think they should. Somehow, it’s hard for me to think that Scarlett is her mother’s child. I went to school with Ellen Robillard in Savannah and there was never a lovelier girl than she was and she was very dear to me. If only her father had not opposed her match with her cousin, Philippe Robillard! There was nothing really wrong with the boy — boys must sow their wild oats. But Ellen must run off and marry old man O’Hara and have a daughter like Scarlett. But really, I feel that I must call once out of memory to Ellen.”
“Sentimental nonsense!” snorted Mrs. Merriwether with vigor. “Kitty Bonnell, are you going to call on a woman who married a bare year after her husband’s death? A woman —”
“And she really killed Mr. Kennedy,” interrupted India. Her voice was cool but acid. Whenever she thought of Scarlett it was hard for her even to be polite, remembering, always remembering Stuart Tarleton. “And I have always thought there was more between her and that Butler man before Mr. Kennedy was killed than most people suspected.”
Before the ladies could recover from their shocked astonishment at her statement and at a spinster mentioning such a matter, Melanie was standing in the doorway. So engrossed had they been in their gossip that they had not heard her light tread and now, confronted by their hostess, they looked like whispering schoolgirls caught by a teacher. Alarm was added to consternation at the change in Melanie’s face. She was pink with righteous anger, her gentle eyes snapping fire, her nostrils quivering. No one had ever seen Melanie angry before. Not a lady present thought her capable of wrath. They all loved her but they thought her the sweetest, most pliable of young women, deferential to her elders and without any opinions of her own.
“How dare you, India?” she questioned in a low voice that shook. “Where will your jealousy lead you? For shame!”
India’s face went white but her head was high.
“I retract nothing,” she said briefly. But her mind was seething.
“Jealous, am I?” she thought. With the memory of Stuart Tarleton and of Honey and Charles, didn’t she have good reason to be jealous of Scarlett? Didn’t she have good reason to hate her, especially now that she had a suspicion that Scarlett had somehow entangled Ashley in her web? She thought: “There’s plenty I could tell you about Ashley and your precious Scarlett.” India was torn between the desire to shield Ashley by her silence and to extricate him by telling all her suspicions to Melanie and the whole world. That would force Scarlett to release whatever hold she had on Ashley. But this was not the time. She had nothing definite, only suspicions.
“I retract nothing,” she repeated.
“Then it is fortunate that you are no longer living under my roof,” said Melanie and her words were cold.
India leaped to her feet, red flooding her sallow face.
“Melanie, you — my sister-inlaw — you aren’t going to quarrel with me over that fast piece —”
“Scarlett is my sister-inlaw, too,” said Melanie, meeting India’s eyes squarely as though they were strangers. “And dearer to me than any blood sister could ever be. If you are so forgetful of my favors at her hands, I am not. She stayed with me through the whole siege when she could have gone home, when even Aunt Pitty had run away to Macon. She brought my baby for me when the Yankees were almost in Atlanta and she burdened herself with me and Beau all that dreadful trip to Tara when she could have left me here in a hospital for the Yankees to get me. And she nursed and fed me, even if she was tired and even if she went hungry. Because I was sick and weak, I had the best mattress at Tara. When I could walk, I had the only whole pair of shoes. You can forget those things she did for me, India, but I cannot. And when Ashley came home, sick, discouraged, without a home, without a cent in his pockets, she took him in like a sister. And when we thought we would have to go North and it was breaking our hearts to leave Georgia, Scarlett stepped in and gave him the mill to run. And Captain Butler saved Ashley’s life out of the kindness of his heart. Certainly Ashley had no claim on him! And I am grateful, grateful to Scarlett and to Captain Butler. But you, India! How can you forget the favors Scarlett has done me and Ashley? How can you hold your brother’s life so cheap as to cast slurs on the man who saved him? If you went down on your knees to Captain Butler and Scarlett, it would not be enough.”
“Now, Melly,” began Mrs. Merriwether briskly, for she had recovered her composure, “that’s no way to talk to India.”
“I heard what you said about Scarlett too,” cried Melanie, swinging on the stout old lady with the air of a duelist who, having withdrawn a blade from one prostrate opponent, turns hungrily toward another. “And you too, Mrs. Elsing. What you think of her in your own petty minds, I do not care, for that is your business. But what you say about her in my own house or in my own hearing, ever, is my business. But how can you even think such dreadful things, much less say them? Are your men so cheap to you that you would rather see them dead than alive? Have you no gratitude to the man who saved them and saved them at risk of his own life? The Yankees might easily have thought him a member of the Klan if the whole truth had come out! They might have hanged him. But he risked himself for your men. For your father-inlaw, Mrs. Merriwether, and your son-inlaw and your two nephews, too. And your brother, Mrs. Bonnell, and your son and son-inlaw, Mrs. Elsing. Ingrates, that’s what you are! I ask an apology from all of you.”
Mrs. Elsing was on her feet cramming her sewing into her box, her mouth set.
“If anyone had ever told me that you could be so ill bred, Melly — No, I will not apologize. India is right. Scarlett is a flighty, fast bit of baggage. I can’t forget how she acted during the war. And I can’t forget how poor white trashy she’s acted since she got a little money —”
“What you can’t forget,” cut in Melanie, clenching her small fists against her sides, “is that she demoted Hugh because he wasn’t smart enough to run her mill.”
“Melly!” moaned a chorus of voices.
Mrs. Elsing’s head jerked up and she started toward the door. With her hand on the knob of the front door, she stopped and turned.
“Melly,” she said and her voice softened, “honey, this breaks my heart. I was your mother’s best friend and I helped Dr. Meade bring you into this world and I’ve loved you like you were mine. If it were something that mattered it wouldn’t be so hard to hear you talk like this. But about a woman like Scarlett O’Hara who’d just as soon do you a dirty turn as the next of us —”
Tears had started in Melanie’s eyes at the first words Mrs. Elsing spoke, but her face hardened when the old lady had finished.
“I want it understood,” she said, “that any of you who do not call on Scarlett need never, never call on me.”
There was a loud murmur of voices, confusion as the ladies got to their feet. Mrs. Elsing dropped her sewing box on the floor and came back into the room, her false fringe jerking awry.
“I won’t have it!” she cried. “I won’t have it! You are beside yourself, Melly, and I don’t hold you responsible. You shall be my friend and I shall be yours. I refuse to let this come between us.”
She was crying and somehow, Melanie was in her arms, crying too, but declaring between sobs that she meant every word she said. Several of the other ladies burst into tears and Mrs. Merriwether, trumpeting loudly into her handkerchief, embraced both Mrs. Elsing and Melanie. Aunt Pitty, who had been a petrified witness to the whole scene, suddenly slid to the floor in what was one of the few real fainting spells she had ever had. Amid the tears and confusion and kissing and scurrying for smelling salts and brandy, there was only one calm face, one dry pair of eyes. India Wilkes took her departure unnoticed by anyone.
Grandpa Merriwether, meeting Uncle Henry Hamilton in the Girl of the Period Saloon several hours later, related the happenings of the morning which he had heard from Mrs. Merriweather. He told it was relish for he was delighted that someone had the courage to face down his redoubtable daughter-inlaw. Certainly, he had never had such courage.
“Well, what did the pack of silly fools finally decide to do?” asked Uncle Henry irritably.
“I dunno for sure,” said Grandpa, “but it looks to me like Melly won hands down on this go-round. I’ll bet they’ll all call, at least once. Folks set a store by that niece of yours, Henry.”
“Melly’s a fool and the ladies are right. Scarlett is a slick piece of baggage and I don’t see why Charlie ever married her,” said Uncle Henry gloomily. “But Melly was right too, in a way. It’s only decent that the families of the men Captain Butler saved should call. When you come right down to it, I haven’t got so much against Butler. He showed himself a fine man that night he saved our hides. It’s Scarlett who sticks under my tail like a cocklebur. She’s a sight too smart for her own good. Well, I’ve got to call. Scallawag or not, Scarlett is my niece by marriage, after all. I was aiming to call this afternoon.”
“I’ll go with you, Henry. Dolly will be fit to be tied when she hears I’ve gone. Wait till I get one more drink.”
“No, we’ll get a drink off Captain Butler. I’ll say this for him, he always has good licker.”
Rhett had said that the Old Guard would never surrender and he was right. He knew how little significance there was to the few calls made upon them, and he knew why the calls were made. The families of the men who had been in the ill-starred Klan foray did call first, but called with obvious infrequency thereafter. And they did not invite the Rhett Butlers to their homes.
Rhett said they would not have come at all, except for fear of violence at the hands of Melanie. Where he got this idea, Scarlett did not know but she dismissed it with the contempt it deserved. For what possible influence could Melanie have on people like Mrs. Elsing and Mrs. Merriwether? That they did not call again worried her very little; in fact, their absence was hardly noticed, for her suite was crowded with guests of another type. “New people,” established Atlantians called them, when they were not calling them something less polite.
There were many “new people” staying at the National Hotel who, like Rhett and Scarlett, were waiting for their houses to be completed. They were gay, wealthy people, very much like Rhett’s New Orleans friends, elegant of dress, free with their money, vague as to their antecedents. All the men were Republicans and were “in Atlanta on business connected with the state government.” Just what the business was, Scarlett did not know and did not trouble to learn.
Rhett could have told her exactly what it was — the same business that buzzards have with dying animals. They smelled death from afar and were drawn unerringly to it, to gorge themselves. Government of Georgia by its own citizens was dead, the state was helpless and the adventurers were swarming in.
The wives of Rhett’s Scallawag and Carpetbagger friends called in droves and so did the “new people” she had met when she sold lumber for their homes. Rhett said that, having done business with them, she should receive them and, having received them, she found them pleasant company. They wore lovely clothes and never talked about the war or hard times, but confined the conversation to fashions, scandals and whist. Scarlett had never played cards before and she took to whist with joy, becoming a good player in a short time.
Whenever she was at the hotel there was a crowd of whist players in her suite. But she was not often in her suite these days, for she was too busy with the building of her new house to be bothered with callers. These days she did not much care whether she had callers or not. She wanted to delay her social activities until the day when the house was finished and she could emerge as the mistress of Atlanta’s largest mansion, the hostess of the town’s most elaborate entertainments.
Through the long warm days she watched her red stone and gray shingle house rise grandly, to tower above any other house on Peachtree Street. Forgetful of the store and the mills, she spent her time on the lot, arguing with carpenters, bickering with masons, harrying the contractor. As the walls went swiftly up she thought with satisfaction that, when finished, it would be larger and finer looking than any other house in town. It would be even more imposing than the near-by James residence which had just been purchased for the official mansion of Governor Bullock.
The governor’s mansion was brave with jigsaw work on banisters and eaves, but the intricate scrollwork on Scarlett’s house put the mansion to shame. The mansion had a ballroom, but it looked like a billiard table compared with the enormous room that covered the entire third floor of Scarlett’s house. In fact, her house had more of everything than the mansion, or any other house in town for that matter, more cupolas and turrets and towers and balconies and lightning rods and far more windows with colored panes.
A veranda encircled the entire house, and four flights of steps on the four sides of the building led up to it. The yard was wide and green and scattered about it were rustic iron benches, an iron summerhouse, fashionably called a “gazebo” which, Scarlett had been assured, was of pure Gothic design, and two large iron statues, one a stag and the other a mastiff as large as a Shetland pony. To Wade and Ella, a little dazzled by the size, splendor and fashionable dark gloom of their new home, these two metal animals were the only cheerful notes.
Within, the house was furnished as Scarlett had desired, with thick red carpeting which ran from wall to wall, red velvet portieres and the newest of highly varnished black-walnut furniture, carved wherever there was an inch for carving and upholstered in such slick horsehair that ladies had to deposit themselves thereon with great care for fear of sliding off. Everywhere on the walls were gilt-framed mirrors and long pier glasses — as many, Rhett said idly, as there were in Belle Watling’s establishment. Interspread were steel engravings in heavy frames, some of them eight feet long, which Scarlett had ordered especially from New York. The walls were covered with rich dark paper, the ceilings were high and the house was always dim, for the windows were overdraped with plum-colored plush hangings that shut out most of the sunlight.
All in all it was an establishment to take one’s breath away and Scarlett, stepping on the soft carpets and sinking into the embrace of the deep feather beds, remembered the cold floors and the straw-stuffed bedticks of Tara and was satisfied. She thought it the most beautiful and most elegantly furnished house she had ever seen, but Rhett said it was a nightmare. However, if it made her happy, she was welcome to it.
“A stranger without being told a word about us would know this house was built with ill-gotten gains,” he said. “You know, Scarlett, money ill come by never comes to good and this house is proof of the axiom. It’s just the kind of house a profiteer would build.”
But Scarlett, abrim with pride and happiness and full of plans for the entertainments she would give when they were thoroughly settled in the house, only pinched his ear playfully and said: “Fiddle-dee-dee! How you do run on!”
She knew, by now, that Rhett loved to take her down a peg, and would spoil her fun whenever he could, if she lent an attentive ear to his jibes. Should she take him seriously, she would be forced to quarrel with him and she did not care to match swords, for she always came off second best. So she hardly ever listened to anything he said, and what she was forced to hear she tried to turn off as a joke. At least, she tried for a while.
During their honeymoon and for the greater part of their stay at the National Hotel, they had lived together with amiability. But scarcely had they moved into the new house and Scarlett gathered her new friends about her, when sudden sharp quarrels sprang up between them. They were brief quarrels, short lived because it was impossible to keep a quarrel going with Rhett, who remained coolly indifferent to her hot words and waited his chance to pink her in an unguarded spot. She quarreled; Rhett did not. He only stated his unequivocal opinion of herself, her actions, her house and her new friends. And some of his opinions were of such a nature that she could no longer ignore them and treat them as jokes.
For instance when she decided to change the name of “Kennedy’s General Store” to something more edifying, she asked him to think of a title that would include the word “emporium.” Rhett suggested “Caveat Emptorium,” assuring her that it would be a title most in keeping with the type of goods sold in the store. She thought it had an imposing sound and even went so far as to have the sign painted, when Ashley Wilkes, embarrassed, translated the real meaning. And Rhett had roared at her rage.
And there was the way he treated Mammy. Mammy had never yielded an inch from her stand that Rhett was a mule in horse harness. She was polite but cold to Rhett. She always called him “Cap’n Butler,” never “Mist’ Rhett.” She never even dropped a curtsy when Rhett presented her with the red petticoat and she never wore it either. She kept Ella and Wade out of Rhett’s way whenever she could, despite the fact that Wade adored Uncle Rhett and Rhett was obviously fond of the boy. But instead of discharging Mammy or being short and stern with her, Rhett treated her with the utmost deference, with far more courtesy than he treated any of the ladies of Scarlett’s recent acquaintance. In fact, with more courtesy than he treated Scarlett herself. He always asked Mammy’s permission to take Wade riding and consulted with her before he bought Ella dolls. And Mammy was hardly polite to him.
Scarlett felt that Rhett should be firm with Mammy, as became the head of the house, but Rhett only laughed and said that Mammy was the real head of the house.
He infuriated Scarlett by saying coolly that he was preparing to be very sorry for her some years hence, when the Republican rule was gone from Georgia and the Democrats back in power.
“When the Democrats get a governor and a legislature of their own, all your new vulgar Republican friends will be wiped off the chess board and sent back to minding bars and emptying slops where they belong. And you’ll be left out on the end of a limb, with never a Democratic friend or a Republican either. Well, take no thought of the morrow.”
Scarlett laughed, and with some justice, for at that time, Bullock was safe in the governor’s chair, twenty-seven negroes were in the legislature and thousands of the Democratic voters of Georgia were disfranchised.
“The Democrats will never get back. All they do is make Yankees madder and put off the day when they could get back. All they do is talk big and run around at night Ku Kluxing.”
“They will get back. I know Southerners. I know Georgians. They are a tough and bullheaded lot. If they’ve got to fight another war to get back, they’ll fight another war. If they’ve got to buy black votes like the Yankees have done, then they will buy black votes. If they’ve got to vote ten thousand dead men like the Yankees did, every corpse in every cemetery in Georgia will be at the polls. Things are going to get so bad under the benign rule of our good friend Rufus Bullock that Georgia is going to vomit him up.
“Rhett, don’t use such vulgar words!” cried Scarlett. “You talk like I wouldn’t be glad to see the Democrats come back! And you know that isn’t so! I’d be very glad to see them back. Do you think I like to see these soldiers hanging around, reminding me of — do you think I like — why, I’m a Georgian, too! I’d like to see the Democrats get back. But they won’t. Not ever. And even if they did, how would that affect my friends? They’d still have their money, wouldn’t they?”
“If they kept their money. But I doubt the ability of any of them to keep money more than five years at the rate they’re spending. Easy come, easy go. Their money won’t do them any good. Any more than my money has done you any good. It certainly hasn’t made a horse out of you yet, has it, my pretty mule?”
The quarrel which sprang from this last remark lasted for days. After the fourth day of Scarlett’s sulks and obvious silent demands for an apology, Rhett went to New Orleans, taking Wade with him, over Mammy’s protests, and he stayed away until Scarlett’s tantrum had passed. But the sting of not humbling him remained with her.
When he came back from New Orleans, cool and bland, she swallowed her anger as best she could, pushing it into the back of her mind to be thought of at some later date. She did not want to bother with anything unpleasant now. She wanted to be happy for her mind was full of the first party she would give in the new house. It would be an enormous night reception with palms and an orchestra and all the porches shrouded in canvas, and a collation that made her mouth water in anticipation. To it she intended to invite everyone she had ever known in Atlanta, all the old friends and all the new and charming ones she had met since returning from her honeymoon. The excitement of the party banished, for the most part, the memory of Rhett’s barbs and she was happy, happier than she had been in years as she planned her reception.
Oh, what fun it was to be rich! To give parties and never count the cost! To buy the most expensive furniture and dresses and food and never think about the bills! How marvelous to be able to send tidy checks to Aunt Pauline and Aunt Eulalie in Charleston, and to Will at Tara! Oh, the jealous fools who said money wasn’t everything! How perverse of Rhett to say that it had done nothing for her!
Scarlett issued cards of invitation to all her friends and acquaintances, old and new, even those she did not like. She did not except even Mrs. Merriwether who had been almost rude when she called on her at the National Hotel or Mrs. Elsing who had been cool to frigidness. She invited Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Whiting who she knew disliked her and who she knew would be embarrassed because they did not have the proper clothes to wear to so elegant a function. For Scarlett’s housewarming, or “crush,” as it was fashionable to call such evening parties, half-reception, half-ball, was by far the most elaborate affair Atlanta had ever seen.
That night the house and canvas-covered veranda were filled with guests who drank her champagne punch and ate her patties and creamed oysters and danced to the music of the orchestra that was carefully screened by a wall of palms and rubber plants. But none of those whom Rhett had termed the “Old Guard” were present except Melanie and Ashley, Aunt Pitty and Uncle Henry, Dr. and Mrs. Meade and Grandpa Merriwether.
Many of the Old Guard had reluctantly decided to attend the “crush.” Some had accepted because of Melanie’s attitude, others because they felt they owed Rhett a debt for saving their lives and those of their relatives. But, two days before the function, a rumor went about Atlanta that Governor Bullock had been invited. The Old Guard signified their disapproval by a sheaf of cards, regretting their inability to accept Scarlett’s kind invitation. And the small group of old friends who did attend took their departure, embarrassed but firm, as soon as the governor entered Scarlett’s house.
Scarlett was so bewildered and infuriated at these slights that the party was utterly ruined for her. Her elegant “crush”! She had planned it so lovingly and so few old friends and no old enemies had been there to see how wonderful it was! After the last guest had gone home at dawn, she would have cried and stormed had she not been afraid that Rhett would roar with laughter, afraid that she would read “I told you so” in his dancing black eyes, even if he did not speak the words. So she swallowed her wrath with poor grace and pretended indifference.
Only to Melanie, the next morning, did she permit herself the luxury of exploding.
“You insulted me, Melly Wilkes, and you made Ashley and the others insult me! You know they’d have never gone home so soon if you hadn’t dragged them. Oh, I saw you! Just when I started to bring Governor Bullock over to present him to you, you ran like a rabbit!”
“I did not believe — I could not believe that he would really be present,” answered Melanie unhappily. “Even though everybody said —”
“Everybody? So everybody’s been clacking and blabbing about me, have they?” cried Scarlett furiously. “Do you mean to tell me if you’d known the governor was going to be present, you wouldn’t have come either?”
“No,” said Melanie in a low voice, her eyes on the floor. “Darling, I just wouldn’t have come.”
“Great balls of fire! So you’d have insulted me like everybody else did!”
“Oh, mercy!” cried Melly, in real distress. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. You’re my own sister, darling, my own Charlie’s widow and I—”
She put a timid hand on Scarlett’s arm. But Scarlett flung it off, wishing fervently that she could roar as loudly as Gerald used to roar when in a temper. But Melanie faced her wrath. And as she looked into Scarlett’s stormy green eyes, her slight shoulders straightened and a mantle of dignity, strangely at variance with her childish face and figure, fell upon her.
“I’m sorry you’re hurt, my dear, but I cannot meet Governor Bullock or any Republican or any Scallawag. I will not meet them, in your house or any other house. No, not even if I have to — if I have to —” Melanie cast about her for the worst thing she could think of — “Not even if I have to be rude.”
“Are you criticizing my friends?”
“No, dear. But they are your friends and not mine.”
“Are you criticizing me for having the governor at my house?”
Cornered, Melanie still met Scarlett’s eyes unwaveringly.
“Darling, what you do, you always do for a good reason and I love you and trust you and it is not for me to criticize. And I will not permit anyone to criticize you in my hearing. But, oh, Scarlett!” Suddenly words began to bubble out, swift hot words and there was inflexible hate in the low voice. “Can you forget what these people did to us? Can you forget darling Charlie dead and Ashley’s health ruined and Twelve Oaks burned? Oh, Scarlett, you can’t forget that terrible man you shot with your mother’s sewing box in his hands! You can’t forget Sherman’s men at Tara and how they even stole our underwear! And tried to burn the place down and actually handled my father’s sword! Oh, Scarlett, it was these same people who robbed us and tortured us and left us to starve that you invited to your party! The same people who have set the darkies up to lord it over us, who are robbing us and keeping our men from voting! I can’t forget. I won’t forget. I won’t let my Beau forget and I’ll teach my grandchildren to hate these people — and my grandchildren’s grandchildren if God lets me live that long! Scarlett, how can you forget?”
Melanie paused for breath and Scarlett stared at her, startled out of her own anger by the quivering note of violence in Melanie’s voice.
“Do you think I’m a fool?” she questioned impatiently. “Of course, I remember! But all that’s past, Melly. It’s up to us to make the best of things and I’m trying to do it. Governor Bullock and some of the nicer Republicans can help us a lot if we handle them right.”
“There are no nice Republicans,” said Melanie flatly. “And I don’t want their help. And I don’t intend to make the best of things — if they are Yankee things.”
“Good Heaven, Melly, why get in such a pet?”
“Oh!” cried Melanie, looking conscience stricken. “How I have run on! Scarlett, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings or to criticize. Everybody thinks differently and everybody’s got a right to their own opinion. Now, dear, I love you and you know I love you and nothing you could ever do would make me change. And you still love me, don’t you? I haven’t made you hate me, have I? Scarlett, I couldn’t stand it if anything ever came between us — after all we’ve been through together! Say it’s all right.”
“Fiddle-dee-dee, Melly, what a tempest you make in a teapot,” said Scarlett grudgingly, but she did not throw off the hand that stole around her waist.
“Now, we’re all right again,” said Melanie pleasedly but she added softly, “I want us to visit each other just like we always did, darling. Just you let me know what days Republicans and Scallawags are coming to see you and I’ll stay at home on those days.”
“It’s a matter of supreme indifference to me whether you come or not,” said Scarlett, putting on her bonnet and going home in a huff. There was some satisfaction to her wounded vanity in the hurt look on Melanie’s face.
In the weeks that followed her first party, Scarlett was hard put to keep up her pretense of supreme indifference to public opinion. When she did not receive calls from old friends, except Melanie and Pitty and Uncle Henry and Ashley, and did not get cards to their modest entertainments, she was genuinely puzzled and hurt. Had she not gone out of her way to bury old hatchets and show these people that she bore them no ill will for their gossiping and backbiting? Surely they must know that she didn’t like Governor Bullock any more than they did but that it was expedient to be nice to him. The idiots! If everybody would be nice to the Republicans, Georgia would get out of the fix she was in very quickly.
She did not realize then that with one stroke she had cut forever any fragile tie that still bound her to the old days, to old friends. Not even Melanie’s influence could repair the break of that gossamer thread. And Melanie, bewildered, broken hearted but still loyal, did not try to repair it. Even had Scarlett wanted to turn back to old ways, old friends, there was no turning back possible now. The face of the town was set against her as stonily as granite. The hate that enveloped the Bullock regime enveloped her too, a hate that had little fire and fury in it but much cold implacability. Scarlett had cast her lot with the enemy and, whatever her birth and family connections, she was now in the category of a turncoat, a nigger lover, a traitor, a Republican — and a Scallawag.
After a miserable while, Scarlett’s pretended indifference gave way to the real thing. She had never been one to worry long over the vagaries of human conduct or to be cast down for long if one line of action failed. Soon she did not care what the Merriwethers, the Elsings, the Whitings, the Bonnells, the Meades and others thought of her. At least, Melanie called, bringing Ashley, and Ashley was the one who mattered the most. And there were other people in Atlanta who would come to her parties, other people far more congenial than those hide-bound old hens. Any time she wanted to fill her house with guests, she could do so and these guests would be far more entertaining, far more handsomely dressed than those prissy, strait-laced old fools who disapproved of her.
These people were newcomers to Atlanta. Some of them were acquaintances of Rhett, some associated with him in those mysterious affairs which he referred to as “mere business, my pet.” Some were couples Scarlett had met when she was living at the National Hotel and some were Governor Bullock’s appointees.
The set with which she was now moving was a motley crew. Among them were the Gelerts who had lived in a dozen different states and who apparently had left each one hastily upon detection of their swindling schemes; the Conningtons whose connection with the Freedmen’s Bureau in a distant state had been highly lucrative at the expense of the ignorant blacks they were supposed to protect; the Deals who had sold “cardboard” shoes to the Confederate government until it became necessary for them to spend the last year of the war in Europe; the Hundons who had police records in many cities but nevertheless were often successful bidders on state contracts; the Carahans who had gotten their start in a gambling house and now were gambling for bigger stakes in the building of nonexistent railroads with the state’s money; the Flahertys who had bought salt at one cent a pound in 1861 and made a fortune when salt went to fifty cents in 1863, and the Barts who had owned the largest brothel in a Northern metropolis during the war and now were moving in the best circles of Carpetbagger society.
Such people were Scarlett’s intimates now, but those who attended her larger receptions included others of some culture and refinement, many of excellent families. In addition to the Carpetbag gentry, substantial people from the North were moving into Atlanta, attracted by the never ceasing business activity of the town in this period of rebuilding and expansion. Yankee families of wealth sent young sons to the South to pioneer on the new frontier, and Yankee officers after their discharge took up permanent residence in the town they had fought so hard to capture. At first, strangers in a strange town, they were glad to accept invitations to the lavish entertainments of the wealthy and hospitable Mrs. Butler, but they soon drifted out of her set. They were good people and they needed only a short acquaintance with Carpetbaggers and Carpetbag rule to become as resentful of them as the native Georgians were. Many became Democrats and more Southern than the Southerners.
Other misfits in Scarlett’s circle remained there only because they were not welcome elsewhere. They would have much preferred the quiet parlors of the Old Guard, but the Old Guard would have none of them. Among these were the Yankee schoolmarms who had come South imbued with the desire to uplift the Negro and the Scallawags who had been born good Democrats but had turned Republican after the surrender.
It was hard to say which class was more cordially hated by the settled citizenry, the impractical Yankee schoolmarms or the Scallawags, but the balance probably fell with the latter. The schoolmarms could be dismissed with, “Well, what can you expect of nigger-loving Yankees? Of course they think the nigger is just as good as they are!” But for those Georgians who had turned Republican for personal gain, there was no excuse.
“Starving is good enough for us. It ought to be good enough for you,” was the way the Old Guard felt. Many ex-Confederate soldiers, knowing the frantic fear of men who saw their families in want, were more tolerant of former comrades who had changed political colors in order that their families might eat. But not the women of the Old Guard, and the women were the implacable and inflexible power behind the social throne. The Lost Cause was stronger, dearer now in their hearts than it had ever been at the height of its glory. It was a fetish now. Everything about it was sacred, the graves of the men who had died for it, the battle fields, the torn flags, the crossed sabres in their halls, the fading letters from the front, the veterans. These women gave no aid, comfort or quarter to the late enemy, and now Scarlett was numbered among the enemy.
In this mongrel society thrown together by the exigencies of the political situation, there was but one thing in common. That was money. As most of them had never had twenty-five dollars at one time in their whole lives, previous to the war, they were now embarked on an orgy of spending such as Atlanta had never seen before.
With the Republicans in the political saddle the town entered into an era of waste and ostentation, with the trappings of refinement thinly veneering the vice and vulgarity beneath. Never before had the cleavage of the very rich and the very poor been so marked. Those on top took no thought for those less fortunate. Except for the negroes, of course. They must have the very best. The best of schools and lodgings and clothes and amusements, for they were the power in politics and every negro vote counted. But as for the recently impoverished Atlanta people, they could starve and drop in the streets for all the newly rich Republicans cared.
On the crest of this wave of vulgarity, Scarlett rode triumphantly, newly a bride, dashingly pretty in her fine clothes, with Rhett’s money solidly behind her. It was an era that suited her, crude, garish, showy, full of over-dressed women, over-furnished houses, too many jewels, too many horses, too much food, too much whisky. When Scarlett infrequently stopped to think about the matter she knew that none of her new associates could be called ladies by Ellen’s strict standards. But she had broken with Ellen’s standards too many times since that far-away day when she stood in the parlor at Tara and decided to be Rhett’s mistress, and she did not often feel the bite of conscience now.
Perhaps these new friends were not, strictly speaking, ladies and gentlemen but like Rhett’s New Orleans friends, they were so much fun! So very much more fun than the subdued, churchgoing, Shakespeare-reading friends of her earlier Atlanta days. And, except for her brief honeymoon interlude, she had not had fun in so long. Nor had she had any sense of security. Now secure, she wanted to dance, to play, to riot, to gorge on foods and fine wine, to deck herself in silks and satins, to wallow on soft feather beds and fine upholstery. And she did all these things. Encouraged by Rhett’s amused tolerance, freed now from the restraints of her childhood, freed even from that last fear of poverty, she was permitting herself the luxury she had often dreamed — of doing exactly what she pleased and telling people who didn’t like it to go to hell.
To her had come that pleasant intoxication peculiar to those whose lives are a deliberate slap in the face of organized society — the gambler, the confidence man, the polite adventuress, all those who succeed by their wits. She said and did exactly what she pleased and, in practically no time, her insolence knew no bounds.
She did not hesitate to display arrogance to her new Republican and Scallawag friends but to no class was she ruder or more insolent than the Yankee officers of the garrison and their families. Of all the heterogeneous mass of people who had poured into Atlanta, the army people alone she refused to receive or tolerate. She even went out of her way to be bad mannered to them. Melanie was not alone in being unable to forget what a blue uniform meant. To Scarlett, that uniform and those gold buttons would always mean the fears of the siege, the terror of flight, the looting and burning, the desperate poverty and the grinding work at Tara. Now that she was rich and secure in the friendship of the governor and many prominent Republicans, she could be insulting to every blue uniform she saw. And she was insulting.
Rhett once lazily pointed out to her that most of the male guests who assembled under their roof had worn that same blue uniform not so long ago, but she retorted that a Yankee didn’t seem like a Yankee unless he had on a blue uniform. To which Rhett replied: “Consistency, thou art a jewel,” and shrugged.
Scarlett, hating the bright hard blue they wore, enjoyed snubbing them all the more because it so bewildered them. The garrison families had a right to be bewildered for most of them were quiet, well-bred folk, lonely in a hostile land, anxious to go home to the North, a little ashamed of the riffraff whose rule they were forced to uphold — an infinitely better class than that of Scarlett’s associates. Naturally, the officers’ wives were puzzled that the dashing Mrs. Butler took to her bosom such women as the common red-haired Bridget Flaherty and went out of her way to slight them.
But even the ladies whom Scarlett took to her bosom had to endure much from her. However, they did it gladly. To them, she not only represented wealth and elegance but the old regime, with its old names, old families, old traditions with which they wished ardently to identify themselves. The old families they yearned after might have cast Scarlett out but the ladies of the new aristocracy did not know it. They only knew that Scarlett’s father had been a great slave owner, her mother a Robillard of Savannah and her husband was Rhett Butler of Charleston. And this was enough for them. She was their opening wedge into the old society they wished to enter, the society which scorned them, would not return calls and bowed frigidly in churches. In fact, she was more than their wedge into society. To them, fresh from obscure beginnings, she WAS society. Pinchbeck ladies themselves, they no more saw through Scarlett’s pinchbeck pretensions than she herself did. They took her at her own valuation and endured much at her hands, her airs, her graces, her tempers, her arrogance, her downright rudeness and her frankness about their shortcomings.
They were so lately come from nothing and so uncertain of themselves they were doubly anxious to appear refined and feared to show their temper or make retorts in kind, lest they be considered unladylike. At all costs they must be ladies. They pretended to great delicacy, modesty and innocence. To hear them talk one would have thought they had no legs, natural functions or knowledge of the wicked world. No one would have thought that red-haired Bridget Flaherty, who had a sun-defying white skin and a brogue that could be cut with a butter knife, had stolen her father’s hidden hoard to come to America to be chambermaid in a New York hotel. And to observe the delicate vapors of Sylvia (formerly Sadie Belle) Connington and Mamie Bart, no one would have suspected that the first grew up above her father’s saloon in the Bowery and waited on the bar at rush times, and that the latter, so it was said, had come out of one of her husband’s own brothels. No, they were delicate sheltered creatures now.
The men, though they had made money, learned new ways less easily or were, perhaps, less patient with the demands of the new gentility. They drank heavily at Scarlett’s parties, far too heavily, and usually after a reception there were one or more unexpected guests who stayed the night. They did not drink like the men of Scarlett’s girlhood. They became sodden, stupid, ugly or obscene. Moreover, no matter how many spittoons she might put out in view, the rugs always showed signs of tobacco juice on the mornings after.
She had a contempt for these people but she enjoyed them. Because she enjoyed them, she filled the house with them. And because of her contempt, she told them to go to hell as often as they annoyed her. But they stood it.
They even stood Rhett, a more difficult matter, for Rhett saw through them and they knew it. He had no hesitation about stripping them verbally, even under his own roof, always in a manner that left them no reply. Unashamed of how he came by his fortune, he pretended that they, too, were unashamed of their beginnings and he seldom missed an opportunity to remark upon matters which, by common consent, everyone felt were better left in polite obscurity.
There was never any knowing when he would remark affably, over a punch cup: “Ralph, if I’d had any sense I’d have made my money selling gold-mine stocks to widows and orphans, like you, instead of blockading. It’s so much safer.” “Well, Bill, I see you have a new span of horses. Been selling a few thousand more bonds for nonexistent railroads? Good work, boy!” “Congratulations, Amos, on landing that state contract. Too bad you had to grease so many palms to get it.”
The ladies felt that he was odiously, unendurably vulgar. The men said, behind his back, that he was a swine and a bastard. New Atlanta liked Rhett no better than old Atlanta had done and he made as little attempt to conciliate the one as he had the other. He went his way, amused, contemptuous, impervious to the opinions of those about him, so courteous that his courtesy was an affront in itself. To Scarlett, he was still an enigma but an enigma about which she no longer bothered her head. She was convinced that nothing ever pleased him or ever would please him, that he either wanted something badly and didn’t have it, or never had wanted anything and so didn’t care about anything. He laughed at everything she did, encouraged her extravagances and insolences, jeered at her pretenses — and paid the bills.