Gone with the wind (Chapter 52)
One rainy afternoon when Bonnie was barely past her first birthday, Wade moped about the sitting room, occasionally going to the window and flattening his nose on the dripping pane. He was a slender, weedy boy, small for his eight years, quiet almost to shyness, never speaking unless spoken to. He was bored and obviously at loss for entertainment, for Ella was busy in the corner with her dolls, Scarlett was at her secretary muttering to herself as she added a long column of figures, and Rhett was lying on the floor, swinging his watch by its chain, just out of Bonnie’s reach.
After Wade had picked up several books and let them drop with bangs and sighed deeply, Scarlett turned to him in irritation.
“Heavens, Wade! Run out and play.”
“I can’t. It’s raining.”
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed. Well, do something. You make me nervous, fidgeting about. Go tell Pork to hitch up the carriage and take you over to play with Beau.”
“He isn’t home,” sighed Wade. “He’s at Raoul Picard’s birthday party.”
Raoul was the small son of Maybelle and Rene Picard — a detestable little brat, Scarlett thought, more like an ape than a child.
“Well, you can go to see anyone you want to. Run tell Pork.”
“Nobody’s at home,” answered Wade. “Everybody’s at the party.”
The unspoken words “everybody — but me” hung in the air; but Scarlett, her mind on her account books, paid no heed.
Rhett raised himself to a sitting posture and said: “Why aren’t you at the party too, son?”
Wade edged closer to him, scuffing one foot and looking unhappy.
“I wasn’t invited, sir.”
Rhett handed his watch into Bonnie’s destructive grasp and rose lightly to his feet.
“Leave those damned figures alone, Scarlett. Why wasn’t Wade invited to this party?”
“For Heaven’s sake, Rhett! Don’t bother me now. Ashley has gotten these accounts in an awful snarl — Oh, that party? Well, I think it’s nothing unusual that Wade wasn’t invited and I wouldn’t let him go if he had been. Don’t forget that Raoul is Mrs. Merriwether’s grandchild and Mrs. Merriwether would as soon have a free issue nigger in her sacred parlor as one of us.”
Rhett, watching Wade’s face with meditative eyes, saw the boy flinch.
“Come here, son,” he said, drawing the boy to him. “Would you like to be at that party?”
“No, sir,” said Wade bravely but his eyes fell.
“Hum. Tell me, Wade, do you go to little Joe Whiting’s parties or Frank Bonnell’s or — well, any of your playmates?”
“No, sir. I don’t get invited to many parties.”
“Wade, you are lying!” cried Scarlett, turning. “You went to three last week, the Bart children’s party and the Gelerts’ and the Hundons’.”
“As choice a collection of mules in horse harness as you could group together,” said Rhett, his voice going into a soft drawl. “Did you have a good time at those parties? Speak up.”
“I— I dunno, sir. Mammy — Mammy says they’re white trash.”
“I’ll skin Mammy this minute!” cried Scarlett, leaping to her feet. “And as for you, Wade, talking so about Mother’s friends —”
“The boy’s telling the truth and so is Mammy,” said Rhett. “But, of course, you’ve never been able to know the truth if you met it in the road. . . . Don’t bother, son. You don’t have to go to any more parties you don’t want to go to. Here,” he pulled a bill from his pocket, “tell Pork to harness the carriage and take you downtown. Buy yourself some candy — a lot, enough to give you a wonderful stomach ache.”
Wade, beaming, pocketed the bill and looked anxiously toward his mother for confirmation. But she, with a pucker in her brows, was watching Rhett. He had picked Bonnie from the floor and was cradling her to him, her small face against his cheek. She could not read his face but there was something in his eyes almost like fear — fear and self-accusation.
Wade, encouraged by his stepfather’s generosity, came shyly toward him.
“Uncle Rhett, can I ask you sumpin’?”
“Of course.” Rhett’s look was anxious, absent, as he held Bonnie’s head closer. “What is it, Wade?”
“Uncle Rhett, were you — did you fight in the war?”
Rhett’s eyes came alertly back and they were sharp, but his voice was casual.
“Why do you ask, son?”
“Well, Joe Whiting said you didn’t and so did Frankie Bonnell.”
“Ah,” said Rhett, “and what did you tell them?”
Wade looked unhappy.
“I— I said — I told them I didn’t know.” And with a rush, “But I didn’t care and I hit them. Were you in the war, Uncle Rhett?”
“Yes,” said Rhett, suddenly violent. “I was in the war. I was in the army for eight months. I fought all the way from Lovejoy up to Franklin, Tennessee. And I was with Johnston when he surrendered.”
Wade wriggled with pride but Scarlett laughed.
“I thought you were ashamed of your war record,” she said. “Didn’t you tell me to keep it quiet?”
“Hush,” he said briefly. “Does that satisfy you, Wade?”
“Oh, yes, sir! I knew you were in the war. I knew you weren’t scared like they said. But — why weren’t you with the other little boys’ fathers?”
“Because the other little boys’ fathers were such fools they had to put them in the infantry. I was a West Pointer and so I was in the artillery. In the regular artillery, Wade, not the Home Guard. It takes a pile of sense to be in the artillery, Wade.”
“I bet,” said Wade, his face shining. “Did you get wounded, Uncle Rhett?”
“Tell him about your dysentery,” jeered Scarlett.
Rhett carefully set the baby on the floor and pulled his shirt and undershirt out of his trouser band.
“Come here, Wade, and I’ll show you where I was wounded.”
Wade advanced, excited, and gazed where Rhett’s finger pointed. A long raised scar ran across his brown chest and down into his heavily muscled abdomen. It was the souvenir of a knife fight in the California gold fields but Wade did not know it. He breathed heavily and happily.
“I guess you’re ‘bout as brave as my father, Uncle Rhett.”
“Almost but not quite,” said Rhett, stuffing his shirt into his trousers. “Now, go on and spend your dollar and whale hell out of any boy who says I wasn’t in the army.”
Wade went dancing out happily, calling to Pork, and Rhett picked up the baby again.
“Now why all these lies, my gallant soldier laddie?” asked Scarlett.
“A boy has to be proud of his father — or stepfather. I can’t let him be ashamed before the other little brutes. Cruel creatures, children.”
“I never thought about what it meant to Wade,” said Rhett slowly. “I never thought how he’s suffered. And it’s not going to be that way for Bonnie.”
“Do you think I’m going to have my Bonnie ashamed of her father? Have her left out of parties when she’s nine or ten? Do you think I’m going to have her humiliated like Wade for things that aren’t her fault but yours and mine?”
“Oh, children’s parties!”
“Out of children’s parties grow young girls’ debut parties. Do you think I’m going to let my daughter grow up outside of everything decent in Atlanta? I’m not going to send her North to school and to visit because she won’t be accepted here or in Charleston or Savannah or New Orleans. And I’m not going to see her forced to marry a Yankee or a foreigner because no decent Southern family will have her — because her mother was a fool and her father a blackguard.”
Wade, who had come back to the door, was an interested but puzzled listener.
“Bonnie can marry Beau, Uncle Rhett.”
The anger went from Rhett’s face as he turned to the little boy, and he considered his words with apparent seriousness as he always did when dealing with the children.
“That’s true, Wade. Bonnie can marry Beau Wilkes, but who will you marry?”
“Oh, I shan’t marry anyone,” said Wade confidently, luxuriating in a man-to-man talk with the one person, except Aunt Melly, who never reproved and always encouraged him. “I’m going to go to Harvard and be a lawyer, like my father, and then I’m going to be a brave soldier just like him.”
“I wish Melly would keep her mouth shut,” cried Scarlett. “Wade, you are not going to Harvard. It’s a Yankee school and I won’t have you going to a Yankee school. You are going to the University of Georgia and after you graduate you are going to manage the store for me. And as for your father being a brave soldier —”
“Hush,” said Rhett curtly, not missing the shining light in Wade’s eyes when he spoke of the father he had never known. “You grow up and be a brave man like your father, Wade. Try to be just like him, for he was a hero and don’t let anyone tell you differently. He married your mother, didn’t he? Well, that’s proof enough of heroism. And I’ll see that you go to Harvard and become a lawyer. Now, run along and tell Pork to take you to town.”
“I’ll thank you to let me manage my children,” cried Scarlett as Wade obediently trotted from the room.
“You’re a damned poor manager. You’ve wrecked whatever chances Ella and Wade had, but I won’t permit you to do Bonnie that way. Bonnie’s going to be a little princess and everyone in the world is going to want her. There’s not going to be any place she can’t go. Good God, do you think I’m going to let her grow up and associate with the riffraff that fills this house?”
“They are good enough for you —”
“And a damned sight too good for you, my pet. But not for Bonnie. Do you think I’d let her marry any of this runagate gang you spend your time with? Irishmen on the make, Yankees, white trash, Carpetbag parvenus — My Bonnie with her Butler blood and her Robillard strain —”
“The O’Haras —”
“The O’Haras might have been kings of Ireland once but your father was nothing but a smart Mick on the make. And you are no better — But then, I’m at fault too. I’ve gone through life like a bat out of hell, never caring what I did, because nothing ever mattered to me. But Bonnie matters. God, what a fool I’ve been! Bonnie wouldn’t be received in Charleston, no matter what my mother or your Aunt Eulalie or Aunt Pauline did — and it’s obvious that she won’t be received here unless we do something quickly —”
“Oh, Rhett, you take it so seriously you’re funny. With our money —”
“Damn our money! All our money can’t buy what I want for her. I’d rather Bonnie was invited to eat dry bread in the Picards’ miserable house or Mrs. Elsing’s rickety barn than to be the belle of a Republican inaugural ball. Scarlett, you’ve been a fool. You should have insured a place for your children in the social scheme years ago — but you didn’t. You didn’t even bother to keep what position you had. And it’s too much to hope that you’ll mend your ways at this late date. You’re too anxious to make money and too fond of bullying people.”
“I consider this whole affair a tempest in a teapot,” said Scarlett coldly, rattling her papers to indicate that as far as she was concerned the discussion was finished.
“We have only Mrs. Wilkes to help us and you do your best to alienate and insult her. Oh, spare me your remarks about her poverty and her tacky clothes. She’s the soul and the center of everything in Atlanta that’s sterling. Thank God for her. She’ll help me do something about it.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Do? I’m going to cultivate every female dragon of the Old Guard in this town, especially Mrs. Merriwether, Mrs. Elsing, Mrs. Whiting and Mrs. Meade. If I have to crawl on my belly to every fat old cat who hates me, I’ll do it. I’ll be meek under their coldness and repentant of my evil ways. I’ll contribute to their damned charities and I’ll go to their damned churches. I’ll admit and brag about my services to the Confederacy and, if worst comes to worst, I’ll join their damned Klan — though a merciful God could hardly lay so heavy a penance on my shoulders as that. And I shall not hesitate to remind the fools whose necks I saved that they owe me a debt. And you, Madam, will kindly refrain from undoing my work behind my back and foreclosing mortgages on any of the people I’m courting or selling them rotten lumber or in other ways insulting them. And Governor Bullock never sets foot in this house again. Do you hear? And none of this gang of elegant thieves you’ve been associating with, either. If you do invite them, over my request, you will find yourself in the embarrassing position of having no host in your home. If they come in this house, I will spend the time in Belle Watling’s bar telling anyone who cares to hear that I won’t stay under the same roof with them.”
Scarlett, who had been smarting under his words, laughed shortly.
“So the river-boat gambler and the speculator is going to be respectable! Well, your first move toward respectability had better be the sale of Belle Watling’s house.”
That was a shot in the dark. She had never been absolutely certain that Rhett owned the house. He laughed suddenly, as though he read her mind.
“Thanks for the suggestion.”
Had he tried, Rhett could not have chosen a more difficult time to beat his way back to respectability. Never before or after did the names Republican and Scallawag carry such odium, for now the corruption of the Carpet bag regime was at its height. And, since the surrender, Rhett’s name had been inextricably linked with Yankees, Republicans and Scallawags.
Atlanta people had thought, with helpless fury, in 1866, that nothing could be worse than the harsh military rule they had then, but now, under Bullock, they were learning the worst. Thanks to the negro vote, the Republicans and their allies were firmly entrenched and they were riding rough-shod over the powerless but still protesting minority.
Word had been spread among the negroes that there were only two political parties mentioned in the Bible, the Publicans and the Sinners. No negro wanted to join a party made up entirely of sinners, so they hastened to join the Republicans. Their new masters voted them over and over again, electing poor whites and Scallawags to high places, electing even some negroes. These negroes sat in the legislature where they spent most of their time eating goobers and easing their unaccustomed feet into and out of new shoes. Few of them could read or write. They were fresh from cotton patch and canebrake, but it was within their power to vote taxes and bonds as well as enormous expense accounts to themselves and their Republican friends. And they voted them. The state staggered under taxes which were paid in fury, for the taxpayers knew that much of the money voted for public purposes was finding its way into private pockets.
Completely surrounding the state capitol was a host of promoters, speculators, seekers after contracts and others hoping to profit from the orgy of spending, and many were growing shamelessly rich. They had no difficulty at all in obtaining the state’s money for building railroads that were never built, for buying cars and engines that were never bought, for erecting public buildings that never existed except in the minds of their promoters.
Bonds were issued running into the millions. Most of them were illegal and fraudulent but they were issued just the same. The state treasurer, a Republican but an honest man, protested against the illegal issues and refused to sign them, but he and others who sought to check the abuses could do nothing against the tide that was running.
The state-owned railroad had once been an asset to the state but now it was a liability and its debts had piled up to the million mark. It was no longer a railroad. It was an enormous bottomless trough in which the hogs could swill and wallow. Many of its officials were appointed for political reasons, regardless of their knowledge of the operation of railroads, there were three times as many people employed as were necessary, Republicans rode free on passes, carloads of negroes rode free on their happy jaunts about the state to vote and revote in the same elections.
The mismanagement of the state road especially infuriated the taxpayers for, out of the earnings of the road, was to come the money for free schools. But there were no earnings, there were only debts, and so there were no free schools and there was a generation of children growing up in ignorance who would spread the seeds of illiteracy down the years.
But far and above their anger at the waste and mismanagement and graft was the resentment of the people at the bad light in which the governor represented them in the North. When Georgia howled against corruption, the governor hastily went North, appeared before Congress and told of white outrages against negroes, of Georgia’s preparation for another rebellion and the need for a stern military rule in the state. No Georgian wanted trouble with the negroes and they tried to avoid trouble. No one wanted another war, no one wanted or needed bayonet rule. All Georgia wanted was to be let alone so the state could recuperate. But with the operation of what came to be known as the governor’s “slander mill,” the North saw only a rebellious state that needed a heavy hand, and a heavy hand was laid upon it.
It was a glorious spree for the gang which had Georgia by the throat. There was an orgy of grabbing and over all there was a cold cynicism about open theft in high places that was chilling to contemplate. Protests and efforts to resist accomplished nothing, for the state government was being upheld and supported by the power of the United States Army.
Atlanta cursed the name of Bullock and his Scallawags and Republicans and they cursed the name of anyone connected with them. And Rhett was connected with them. He had been in with them, so everyone said, in all their schemes. But now, he turned against the stream in which he had drifted so short a while before, and began swimming arduously back against the current.
He went about his campaign slowly, subtly, not arousing the suspicions of Atlanta by the spectacle of a leopard trying to change his spots overnight. He avoided his dubious cronies and was seen no more in the company of Yankee officers, Scallawags and Republicans. He attended Democratic rallies and he ostentatiously voted the Democratic ticket. He gave up high-stake card games and stayed comparatively sober. If he went to Belle Watling’s house at all, he went by night and by stealth as did more respectable townsmen, instead of leaving his horse hitched in front of her door in the afternoons as an advertisement of his presence within.
And the congregation of the Episcopal Church almost fell out of their pews when he tiptoed in, late for services, with Wade’s hand held in his. The congregation was as much stunned by Wade’s appearance as by Rhett’s, for the little boy was supposed to be a Catholic. At least, Scarlett was one. Or she was supposed to be one. But she had not put foot in the church in years, for religion had gone from her as many of Ellen’s other teachings had gone. Everyone thought she had neglected her boy’s religious education and thought more of Rhett for trying to rectify the matter, even if he did take the boy to the Episcopal Church instead of the Catholic.
Rhett could be grave of manner and charming when he chose to restrain his tongue and keep his black eyes from dancing maliciously. It had been years since he had chosen to do this but he did it now, putting on gravity and charm, even as he put on waistcoats of more sober hues. It was not difficult to gain a foothold of friendliness with the men who owed their necks to him. They would have showed their appreciation long ago, had Rhett not acted as if their appreciation were a matter of small moment. Now, Hugh Elsing, Rene, the Simmons boys, Andy Bonnell and the others found him pleasant, diffident about putting himself forward and embarrassed when they spoke of the obligation they owed him.
“It was nothing,” he would protest. “In my place you’d have all done the same thing.”
He subscribed handsomely to the fund for the repairs of the Episcopal Church and he gave a large, but not vulgarly large, contribution to the Association for the Beautification of the Graves of Our Glorious Dead. He sought out Mrs. Elsing to make this donation and embarrassedly begged that she keep his gift a secret, knowing very well that this would spur her to spreading the news. Mrs. Elsing hated to take his money —“speculator money”— but the Association needed money badly.
“I don’t see why you of all people should be subscribing,” she said acidly.
When Rhett told her with the proper sober mien that he was moved to contribute by the memories of former comrades in arms, braver than he but less fortunate, who now lay in unmarked graves, Mrs. Elsing’s aristocratic jaw dropped. Dolly Merriwether had told her Scarlett had said Captain Butler was in the army but, of course, she hadn’t believed it. Nobody had believed it.
“You in the army? What was your company — your regiment?”
Rhett gave them.
“Oh, the artillery! Everyone I knew was either in the cavalry or the infantry. Then, that explains —” She broke off, disconcerted, expecting to see his eyes snap with malice. But he only looked down and toyed with his watch chain.
“I would have liked the infantry,” he said, passing completely over her insinuation, “but when they found that I was a West Pointer — though I did not graduate, Mrs. Elsing, due to a boyish prank — they put me in the artillery, the regular artillery, not the militia. They needed men with specialized knowledge in that last campaign. You know how heavy the losses had been, so many artillerymen killed. It was pretty lonely in the artillery. I didn’t see a soul I knew. I don’t believe I saw a single man from Atlanta during my whole service.”
“Well!” said Mrs. Elsing, confused. If he had been in the army then she was wrong. She had made many sharp remarks about his cowardice and the memory of them made her feel guilty. “Well! And why haven’t you ever told anybody about your service? You act as though you were ashamed of it.”
Rhett looked her squarely in the eyes, his face blank.
“Mrs. Elsing,” he said earnestly, “believe me when I say that I am prouder of my services to the Confederacy than of anything I have ever done or will do. I feel — I feel —”
“Well, why did you keep it hidden?”
“I was ashamed to speak of it, in the light of — of some of my former actions.”
Mrs. Elsing reported the contribution and the conversation in detail to Mrs. Merriwether.
“And, Dolly, I give you my word that when he said that about being ashamed, tears came into his eyes! Yes, tears! I nearly cried myself.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” cried Mrs. Merriwether in disbelief. “I don’t believe tears came into his eyes any more than I believe he was in the army. And I can find out mighty quick. If he was in that artillery outfit, I can get at the truth, for Colonel Carleton who commanded it married the daughter of one of my grandfather’s sisters and I’ll write him.”
She wrote Colonel Carlton and to her consternation received a reply praising Rhett’s services in no uncertain terms. A born artilleryman, a brave soldier and an uncomplaining gentleman, a modest man who wouldn’t even take a commission when it was offered him.
“Well!” said Mrs. Merriwether showing the letter to Mrs. Elsing. “You can knock me down with a feather! Maybe we did misjudge the scamp about not being a soldier. Maybe we should have believed what Scarlett and Melanie said about him enlisting the day the town fell. But, just the same, he’s a Scallawag and a rascal and I don’t like him!”
“Somehow,” said Mrs. Elsing uncertainly, “somehow, I don’t think he’s so bad. A man who fought for the Confederacy can’t be all bad. It’s Scarlett who is the bad one. Do you know, Dolly, I really believe that he — well, he’s ashamed of Scarlett but is too much of a gentleman to let on.”
“Ashamed! Pooh! They’re both cut out of the same piece of cloth. Where did you ever get such a silly notion?”
“It isn’t silly,” said Mrs. Elsing indignantly. “Yesterday, in the pouring rain, he had those three children, even the baby, mind you, out in his carriage riding them up and down Peachtree Street and he gave me a lift home. And when I said: ‘Captain Butler, have you lost your mind keeping these children out in the damp? Why don’t you take them home?’ And he didn’t say a word but just looked embarrassed. But Mammy spoke up and said: ‘De house full of w’ite trash an’ it healthier fer de chillun in de rain dan at home!’”
“What did he say?”
“What could he say? He just scowled at Mammy and passed it over. You know Scarlett was giving a big whist party yesterday afternoon with all those common ordinary women there. I guess he didn’t want them kissing his baby.”
“Well!” said Mrs. Merriwether, wavering but still obstinate. But the next week she, too, capitulated.
Rhett now had a desk in the bank. What he did at this desk the bewildered officials of the bank did not know, but he owned too large a block of the stock for them to protest his presence there. After a while they forgot that they had objected to him for he was quiet and well mannered and actually knew something about banking and investments. At any rate he sat at his desk all day, giving every appearance of industry, for he wished to be on equal terms with his respectable fellow townsmen who worked and worked hard.
Mrs. Merriwether, wishing to expand her growing bakery, had tried to borrow two thousand dollars from the bank with her house as security. She had been refused because there were already two mortgages on the house. The stout old lady was storming out of the bank when Rhett stopped her, learned the trouble and said, worriedly: “But there must be some mistake, Mrs. Merriwether. Some dreadful mistake. You of all people shouldn’t have to bother about collateral. Why, I’d lend you money just on your word! Any lady who could build up the business you’ve built up is the best risk in the world. The bank wants to lend money to people like you. Now, do sit down right here in my chair and I will attend to it for you.”
When he came back he was smiling blandly, saying that there had been a mistake, just as he had thought. The two thousand dollars was right there waiting for her whenever she cared to draw against it. Now, about her house — would she just sign right here?
Mrs. Merriwether, torn with indignation and insult, furious that she had to take this favor from a man she disliked and distrusted, was hardly gracious in her thanks.
But he failed to notice it. As he escorted her to the door, he said: “Mrs. Merriwether, I have always had a great regard for your knowledge and I wonder if you could tell me something?”
The plumes on her bonnet barely moved as she nodded.
“What did you do when your Maybelle was little and she sucked her thumb?”
“My Bonnie sucks her thumb. I can’t make her stop it.”
“You should make her stop it,” said Mrs. Merriwether vigorously. “It will ruin the shape of her mouth.”
“I know! I know! And she has a beautiful mouth. But I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, Scarlett ought to know,” said Mrs. Merriwether shortly. “She’s had two other children.”
Rhett looked down at his shoes and sighed.
“I’ve tried putting soap under her finger nails,” he said, passing over her remark about Scarlett.
“Soap! Bah! Soap is no good at all. I put quinine on Maybelle’s thumb and let me tell you, Captain Butler, she stopped sucking that thumb mighty quick.”
“Quinine! I would never have thought of it! I can’t thank you enough, Mrs. Merriwether. It was worrying me.”
He gave her a smile, so pleasant, so grateful that Mrs. Merriwether stood uncertainly for a moment. But as she told him good-by she was smiling too. She hated to admit to Mrs. Elsing that she had misjudged the man but she was an honest person and she said there had to be something good about a man who loved his child. What a pity Scarlett took no interest in so pretty a creature as Bonnie! There was something pathetic about a man trying to raise a little girl all by himself! Rhett knew very well the pathos of the spectacle, and if it blackened Scarlett’s reputation he did not care.
From the time the child could walk he took her about with him constantly, in the carriage or in front of his saddle. When he came home from the bank in the afternoon, he took her walking down Peachtree Street, holding her hand, slowing his long strides to her toddling steps, patiently answering her thousand questions. People were always in their front yards or on their porches at sunset and, as Bonnie was such a friendly, pretty child, with her tangle of black curls and her bright blue eyes, few could resist talking to her. Rhett never presumed on these conversations but stood by, exuding fatherly pride and gratification at the notice taken of his daughter.
Atlanta had a long memory and was suspicious and slow to change. Times were hard and feeling was bitter against anyone who had had anything to do with Bullock and his crowd. But Bonnie had the combined charm of Scarlett and Rhett at their best and she was the small opening wedge Rhett drove into the wall of Atlanta’s coldness.
Bonnie grew rapidly and every day it became more evident that Gerald O’Hara had been her grandfather. She had short sturdy legs and wide eyes of Irish blue and a small square jaw that went with a determination to have her own way. She had Gerald’s sudden temper to which she gave vent in screaming tantrums that were forgotten as soon as her wishes were gratified. And as long as her father was near her, they were always gratified hastily. He spoiled her despite all the efforts of Mammy and Scarlett, for in all things she pleased him, except one. And that was her fear of the dark.
Until she was two years old she went to sleep readily in the nursery she shared with Wade and Ella. Then, for no apparent reason, she began to sob whenever Mammy waddled out of the room, carrying the lamp. From this she progressed to wakening in the late night hours, screaming with terror, frightening the other two children and alarming the house. Once Dr. Meade had to be called and Rhett was short with him when he diagnosed only bad dreams. All anyone could get from her was one word, “Dark.”
Scarlett was inclined to be irritated with the child and favored a spanking. She would not humor her by leaving a lamp burning in the nursery, for then Wade and Ella would be unable to sleep. Rhett, worried but gentle, attempting to extract further information from his daughter, said coldly that if any spanking were done, he would do it personally and to Scarlett.
The upshot of the situation was that Bonnie was removed from the nursery to the room Rhett now occupied alone. Her small bed was placed beside his large one and a shaded lamp burned on the table all night long. The town buzzed when this story got about. Somehow, there was something indelicate about a girl child sleeping in her father’s room, even though the girl was only two years old. Scarlett suffered from this gossip in two ways. First, it proved indubitably that she and her husband occupied separate rooms, in itself a shocking enough state of affairs. Second, everyone thought that if the child was afraid to sleep alone, her place was with her mother. And Scarlett did not feel equal to explaining that she could not sleep in a lighted room nor would Rhett permit the child to sleep with her.
“You’d never wake up unless she screamed and then you’d probably slap her,” he said shortly.
Scarlett was annoyed at the weight he attached to Bonnie’s night terrors but she thought she could eventually remedy the state of affairs and transfer the child back to the nursery. All children were afraid of the dark and the only cure was firmness. Rhett was just being perverse in the matter, making her appear a poor mother, just to pay her back for banishing him from her room.
He had never put foot in her room or even rattled the door knob since the night she told him she did not want any more children. Thereafter and until he began staying at home on account of Bonnie’s fears, he had been absent from the supper table more often than he had been present. Sometimes he had stayed out all night and Scarlett, lying awake behind her locked door, hearing the clock count off the early morning hours, wondered where he was. She remembered: “There are other beds, my dear!” Though the thought made her writhe, there was nothing she could do about it. There was nothing she could say that would not precipitate a scene in which he would be sure to remark upon her locked door and the probable connection Ashley had with it. Yes, his foolishness about Bonnie sleeping in a lighted room — in his lighted room — was just a mean way of paying her back.
She did not realize the importance he attached to Bonnie’s foolishness nor the completeness of his devotion to the child until one dreadful night. The family never forgot that night.
That day Rhett had met an ex-blockade runner and they had had much to say to each other. Where they had gone to talk and drink, Scarlett did not know but she suspected, of course, Belle Watling’s house. He did not come home in the afternoon to take Bonnie walking nor did he come home to supper. Bonnie, who had watched from the window impatiently all afternoon, anxious to display a mangled collection of beetles and roaches to her father, had finally been put to bed by Lou, amid wails and protests.
Either Lou had forgotten to light the lamp or it had burned out. No one ever knew exactly what happened but when Rhett finally came home, somewhat the worse for drink, the house was in an uproar and Bonnie’s screams reached him even in the stables. She had waked in darkness and called for him and he had not been there. All the nameless horrors that peopled her small imagination clutched her. All the soothing and bright lights brought by Scarlett and the servants could not quiet her and Rhett, coming up the stairs three at a jump, looked like a man who has seen Death.
When he finally had her in his arms and from her sobbing gasps had recognized only one word, “Dark,” he turned on Scarlett and the negroes in fury.
“Who put out the light? Who left her alone in the dark? Prissy, I’ll skin you for this, you —”
“Gawdlmighty, Mist’ Rhett! ‘Twarn’t me! ‘Twuz Lou!”
“Fo’ Gawd, Mist’ Rhett, Ah —”
“Shut up. You know my orders. By God, I’ll — get out. Don’t come back. Scarlett, give her some money and see that she’s gone before I come down stairs. Now, everybody get out, everybody!”
The negroes fled, the luckless Lou wailing into her apron. But Scarlett remained. It was hard to see her favorite child quieting in Rhett’s arms when she had screamed so pitifully in her own. It was hard to see the small arms going around his neck and hear the choking voice relate what had frightened her, when she, Scarlett, had gotten nothing coherent out of her.
“So it sat on your chest,” said Rhett softly. “Was it a big one?”
“Oh, yes! Dretfull big. And claws.”
“Ah, claws, too. Well, now. I shall certainly sit up all night and shoot him if he comes back.” Rhett’s voice was interested and soothing and Bonnie’s sobs died away. Her voice became less choked as she went into detailed description of her monster guest in a language which only he could understand. Irritation stirred in Scarlett as Rhett discussed the matter as if it had been something real.
“For Heaven’s sake, Rhett —”
But he made a sign for silence. When Bonnie was at last asleep, he laid her in her bed and pulled up the sheet.
“I’m going to skin that nigger alive,” he said quietly. “It’s your fault too. Why didn’t you come up here to see if the light was burning?”
“Don’t be a fool, Rhett,” she whispered. “She gets this way because you humor her. Lots of children are afraid of the dark but they get over it. Wade was afraid but I didn’t pamper him. If you’d just let her scream for a night or two —”
“Let her scream!” For a moment Scarlett thought he would hit her. “Either you are a fool or the most inhuman woman I’ve ever seen.”
“I don’t want her to grow up nervous and cowardly.”
“Cowardly? Hell’s afire! There isn’t a cowardly bone in her body! But you haven’t any imagination and, of course, you can’t appreciate the tortures of people who have one — especially a child. If something with claws and horns came and sat on your chest, you’d tell it to get the hell off you, wouldn’t you? Like hell you would. Kindly remember, Madam, that I’ve seen you wake up squalling like a scalded cat simply because you dreamed of running in a fog. And that’s not been so long ago either!”
Scarlett was taken aback, for she never liked to think of that dream. Moreover, it embarrassed her to remember that Rhett had comforted her in much the same manner he comforted Bonnie. So she swung rapidly to a different attack.
“You are just humoring her and —”
“And I intend to keep on humoring her. If I do, she’ll outgrow it and forget about it.”
“Then,” said Scarlett acidly, “if you intend to play nursemaid, you might try coming home nights and sober too, for a change.”
“I shall come home early but drunk as a fiddler’s bitch if I please.”
He did come home early thereafter, arriving long before time for Bonnie to be put to bed. He sat beside her, holding her hand until sleep loosened her grasp. Only then did he tiptoe downstairs, leaving the lamp burning brightly and the door ajar so he might hear her should she awake and become frightened. Never again did he intend her to have a recurrence of fear of the dark. The whole household was acutely conscious of the burning light, Scarlett, Mammy, Prissy and Pork, frequently tiptoeing upstairs to make sure that it still burned.
He came home sober too, but that was none of Scarlett’s doing. For months he had been drinking heavily, though he was never actually drunk, and one evening the smell of whisky was especially strong upon his breath. He picked up Bonnie, swung her to his shoulder and asked her: “Have you a kiss for your sweetheart?”
She wrinkled her small upturned nose and wriggled to get down from his arms.
“No,” she said frankly. “Nasty.”
“Smell nasty. Uncle Ashley don’t smell nasty.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said ruefully, putting her on the floor. “I never expected to find a temperance advocate in my own home, of all places!”
But, thereafter, he limited his drinking to a glass of wine after supper. Bonnie, who was always permitted to have the last drops in the glass, did not think the smell of wine nasty at all. As the result, the puffiness which had begun to obscure the hard lines of his cheeks slowly disappeared and the circles beneath his black eyes were not so dark or so harshly cut. Because Bonnie liked to ride on the front of his saddle, he stayed out of doors more and the sunburn began to creep across his dark face, making him swarthier than ever. He looked healthier and laughed more and was again like the dashing young blockader who had excited Atlanta early in the war.
People who had never liked him came to smile as he went by with the small figure perched before him on his saddle. Women who had heretofore believed that no woman was safe with him, began to stop and talk with him on the streets, to admire Bonnie. Even the strictest old ladies felt that a man who could discuss the ailments and problems of childhood as well as he did could not be altogether bad.