Gone with the wind (Chapter 53)
It was Ashley’s birthday and Melanie was giving him a surprise reception that night. Everyone knew about the reception, except Ashley. Even Wade and little Beau knew and were sworn to secrecy that puffed them up with pride. Everyone in Atlanta who was nice had been invited and was coming. General Gordon and his family had graciously accepted, Alexander Stephens would be present if his ever-uncertain health permitted and even Bob Toombs, the stormy petrel of the Confederacy, was expected.
All that morning, Scarlett, with Melanie, India and Aunt Pitty flew about the little house, directing the negroes as they hung freshly laundered curtains, polished silver, waxed the floor and cooked, stirred and tasted the refreshments. Scarlett had never seen Melanie so excited or so happy.
“You see, dear, Ashley hasn’t had a birthday party since — since, you remember the barbecue at Twelve Oaks? The day we heard about Mr. Lincoln’s call for volunteers? Well, he hasn’t had a birthday party since then. And he works so hard and he’s so tired when he gets home at night that he really hasn’t thought about today being his birthday. And won’t he be surprised after supper when everybody troops in!”
“How you goin’ to manage them lanterns on the lawn without Mr. Wilkes seein’ them when he comes home to supper?” demanded Archie grumpily.
He had sat all morning watching the preparations, interested but unwilling to admit it. He had never been behind the scenes at a large town folks’ party and it was a new experience. He made frank remarks about women running around like the house was afire, just because they were having company, but wild horses could not have dragged him from the scene. The colored-paper lanterns which Mrs. Elsing and Fanny had made and painted for the occasion held a special interest for him, as he had never seen “sech contraptions” before. They had been hidden in his room in the cellar and he had examined them minutely.
“Mercy! I hadn’t thought of that!” cried Melanie. “Archie, how fortunate that you mentioned it. Dear, dear! What shall I do? They’ve got to be strung on the bushes and trees and little candles put in them and lighted just at the proper time when the guests are arriving. Scarlett, can you send Pork down to do it while we’re eating supper?”
“Miz Wilkes, you got more sense than most women but you gits flurried right easy,” said Archie. “And as for that fool nigger, Pork, he ain’t got no bizness with them thar contraptions. He’d set them afire in no time. They are — right pretty,” he conceded. “I’ll hang them for you, whilst you and Mr. Wilkes are eatin’.”
“Oh, Archie, how kind of you!” Melanie turned childlike eyes of gratitude and dependence upon him. “I don’t know what I should do without you. Do you suppose you could go put the candles in them now, so we’d have that much out of the way?”
“Well, I could, p’raps,” said Archie ungraciously and stumped off toward the cellar stairs.
“There’s more ways of killing a cat than choking him to death with butter,” giggled Melanie when the whiskered old man had thumped down the stairs. “I had intended all along for Archie to put up those lanterns but you know how he is. He won’t do a thing if you ask him to. And now we’ve got him out from underfoot for a while. The darkies are so scared of him they just won’t do any work when he’s around, breathing down their necks.”
“Melly, I wouldn’t have that old desperado in my house,” said Scarlett crossly. She hated Archie as much as he hated her and they barely spoke. Melanie’s was the only house in which he would remain if she were present. And even in Melanie’s house, he stared at her with suspicion and cold contempt. “He’ll cause you trouble, mark my words.”
“Oh, he’s harmless if you flatter him and act like you depend on him,” said Melanie. “And he’s so devoted to Ashley and Beau that I always feel safe having him around.”
“You mean he’s so devoted to you, Melly,” said India, her cold face relaxing into a faintly warm smile as her gaze rested fondly on her sister-inlaw. “I believe you’re the first person that old ruffian has loved since his wife — er — since his wife. I think he’d really like for somebody to insult you, so he could kill them to show his respect for you.”
“Mercy! How you run on, India!” said Melanie blushing. “He thinks I’m a terrible goose and you know it.”
“Well, I don’t see that what that smelly old hill-billy thinks is of any importance,” said Scarlett abruptly. The very thought of how Archie had sat in judgment upon her about the convicts always enraged her. “I have to go now. I’ve got to go get dinner and then go by the store and pay off the clerks and go by the lumber yard and pay the drivers and Hugh Elsing.”
“Oh, are you going to the lumber yard?” asked Melanie. “Ashley is coming in to the yard in the late afternoon to see Hugh. Can you possibly hold him there till five o’clock? If he comes home earlier he’ll be sure to catch us finishing up a cake or something and then he won’t be surprised at all.”
Scarlett smiled inwardly, good temper restored.
“Yes, I’ll hold him,” she said.
As she spoke, India’s pale lashless eyes met hers piercingly. She always looks at me so oddly when I speak of Ashley, thought Scarlett.
“Well, hold him there as long as you can after five o’clock,” said Melanie. “And then India will drive down and pick him up. . . . Scarlett, do come early tonight. I don’t want you to miss a minute of the reception.”
As Scarlett rode home she thought sullenly: “She doesn’t want me to miss a minute of the reception, eh? Well then, why didn’t she invite me to receive with her and India and Aunt Pitty?”
Generally, Scarlett would not have cared whether she received at Melly’s piddling parties or not. But this was the largest party Melanie had ever given and Ashley’s birthday party too, and Scarlett longed to stand by Ashley’s side and receive with him. But she knew why she had not been invited to receive. Even had she not known it, Rhett’s comment on the subject had been frank enough.
“A Scallawag receive when all the prominent ex-Confederates and Democrats are going to be there? Your notions are as enchanting as they are muddle headed. It’s only because of Miss Melly’s loyalty that you are invited at all.”
Scarlett dressed with more than usual care that afternoon for her trip to the store and the lumber yard, wearing the new dull-green changeable taffeta frock that looked lilac in some lights and the new pale-green bonnet, circled about with dark-green plumes. If only Rhett would let her cut bangs and frizzle them on her forehead, how much better this bonnet would look! But he had declared that he would shave her whole head if she banged her forelocks. And these days he acted so atrociously he really might do it.
It was a lovely afternoon, sunny but not too hot, bright but not glaring, and the warm breeze that rustled the trees along Peachtree Street made the plumes on Scarlett’s bonnet dance. Her heart danced too, as always when she was going to see Ashley. Perhaps, if she paid off the team drivers and Hugh early, they would go home and leave her and Ashley alone in the square little office in the middle of the lumber yard. Chances to see Ashley alone were all too infrequent these days. And to think that Melanie had asked her to hold him! That was funny!
Her heart was merry when she reached the store, and she paid off Willie and the other counter boys without even asking what the day’s business had been. It was Saturday, the biggest day of the week for the store, for all the farmers came to town to shop that day, but she asked no questions.
Along the way to the lumber yard she stopped a dozen times to speak with Carpetbagger ladies in splendid equipages — not so splendid as her own, she thought with pleasure — and with many men who came through the red dust of the street to stand hat in hand and compliment her. It was a beautiful afternoon, she was happy, she looked pretty and her progress was a royal one. Because of these delays she arrived at the lumber yard later than she intended and found Hugh and the team drivers sitting on a low pile of lumber waiting for her.
“Is Ashley here?”
“Yes, he’s in the office,” said Hugh, the habitually worried expression leaving his face at the sight of her happy, dancing eyes. “He’s trying to — I mean, he’s going over the books.”
“Oh, he needn’t bother about that today,” she said and then lowering her voice: “Melly sent me down to keep him here till they get the house straight for the reception tonight.”
Hugh smiled for he was going to the reception. He liked parties and he guessed Scarlett did too from the way she looked this afternoon. She paid off the teamsters and Hugh and, abruptly leaving them, walked toward the office, showing plainly by her manner that she did not care to be accompanied. Ashley met her at the door and stood in the afternoon sunshine, his hair bright and on his lips a little smile that was almost a grin.
“Why, Scarlett, what are you doing downtown this time of the day? Why aren’t you out at my house helping Melly get ready for the surprise party?”
“Why, Ashley Wilkes!” she cried indignantly. “You weren’t supposed to know a thing about it. Melly will be so disappointed if you aren’t surprised.”
“Oh, I won’t let on. I’ll be the most surprised man in Atlanta,” said Ashley, his eyes laughing.
“Now, who was mean enough to tell you?”
“Practically every man Melly invited. General Gordon was the first. He said it had been his experience that when women gave surprise parties they usually gave them on the very nights men had decided to polish and clean all the guns in the house. And then Grandpa Merriwether warned me. He said Mrs. Merriwether gave him a surprise party once and she was the most surprised person there, because Grandpa had been treating his rheumatism, on the sly, with a bottle of whisky and he was too drunk to get out of bed and — oh, every man who’s ever had a surprise party given him told me.”
“The mean things!” cried Scarlett but she had to smile.
He looked like the old Ashley she knew at twelve Oaks when he smiled like this. And he smiled so seldom these days. The air was so soft, the sun so gentle, Ashley’s face so gay, his talk so unconstrained that her heart leaped with happiness. It swelled in her bosom until it positively ached with pleasure, ached as with a burden of joyful, hot, unshed tears. Suddenly she felt sixteen again and happy, a little breathless and excited. She had a mad impulse to snatch off her bonnet and toss it into the air and cry “Hurray!” Then she thought how startled Ashley would be if she did this, and she suddenly laughed, laughed until tears came to her eyes. He laughed, too, throwing back his head as though he enjoyed laughter, thinking her mirth came from the friendly treachery of the men who had given Melly’s secret away.
“Come in, Scarlett. I’m going over the books.”
She passed into the small room, blazing with the afternoon sun, and sat down in the chair before the roll-topped desk. Ashley, following her, seated himself on the corner of the rough table, his long legs dangling easily.
“Oh, don’t let’s fool with any books this afternoon, Ashley! I just can’t be bothered. When I’m wearing a new bonnet, it seems like all the figures I know leave my head.”
“Figures are well lost when the bonnet’s as pretty as that one,” he said. “Scarlett, you get prettier all the time!”
He slipped from the table and, laughing, took her hands, spreading them wide so he could see her dress. “You are so pretty! I don’t believe you’ll ever get old!”
At his touch she realized that, without being conscious of it, she had hoped that just this thing would happen. All this happy afternoon, she had hoped for the warmth of his hands, the tenderness of his eyes, a word that would show he cared. This was the first time they had been utterly alone since the cold day in the orchard at Tara, the first time their hands had met in any but formal gestures, and through the long months she had hungered for closer contact. But now —
How odd that the touch of his hands did not excite her! Once his very nearness would have set her a-tremble. Now she felt a curious warm friendliness and content. No fever leaped from his hands to hers and in his hands her heart hushed to happy quietness. This puzzled her, made her a little disconcerted. He was still her Ashley, still her bright, shining darling and she loved him better than life. Then why —
But she pushed the thought from her mind. It was enough that she was with him and he was holding her hands and smiling, completely friendly, without strain or fever. It seemed miraculous that this could be when she thought of all the unsaid things that lay between them. His eyes looked into hers, clear and shining, smiling in the old way she loved, smiling as though there had never been anything between them but happiness. There was no barrier between his eyes and hers now, no baffling remoteness. She laughed.
“Oh, Ashley, I’m getting old and decrepit.”
“Ah, that’s very apparent! No, Scarlett, when you are sixty, you’ll look the same to me. I’ll always remember you as you were that day of our last barbecue, sitting under an oak with a dozen boys around you. I can even tell you just how you were dressed, in a white dress covered with tiny green flowers and a white lace shawl about your shoulders. You had on little green slippers with black lacings and an enormous leghorn hat with long green streamers. I know that dress by heart because when I was in prison and things got too bad, I’d take out my memories and thumb them over like pictures, recalling every little detail —”
He stopped abruptly and the eager light faded from his face. He dropped her hands gently and she sat waiting, waiting for his next words.
“We’ve come a long way, both of us, since that day, haven’t we, Scarlett? We’ve traveled roads we never expected to travel. You’ve come swiftly, directly, and I, slowly and reluctantly.”
He sat down on the table again and looked at her and a small smile crept back into his face. But it was not the smile that had made her so happy so short a while before. It was a bleak smile.
“Yes, you came swiftly, dragging me at your chariot wheels. Scarlett, sometimes I have an impersonal curiosity as to what would have happened to me without you.”
Scarlett went quickly to defend him from himself, more quickly because treacherously there rose to her mind Rhett’s words on this same subject.
“But I’ve never done anything for you, Ashley. Without me, you’d have been just the same. Some day, you’d have been a rich man, a great man like you are going to be.”
“No, Scarlett, the seeds of greatness were never in me. I think that if it hadn’t been for you, I’d have gone down into oblivion — like poor Cathleen Calvert and so many other people who once had great names, old names.”
“Oh, Ashley, don’t talk like that. You sound so sad.”
“No, I’m not sad. Not any longer. Once — once I was sad. Now, I’m only —”
He stopped and suddenly she knew what he was thinking. It was the first time she had ever known what Ashley was thinking when his eyes went past her, crystal clear, absent. When the fury of love had beaten in her heart, his mind had been closed to her. Now, in the quiet friendliness that lay between them, she could walk a little way into his mind, understand a little. He was not sad any longer. He had been sad after the surrender, sad when she begged him to come to Atlanta. Now, he was only resigned.
“I hate to hear you talk like that, Ashley,” she said vehemently. “You sound just like Rhett. He’s always harping on things like that and something he calls the survival of the fitting till I’m so bored I could scream.”
“Did you ever stop to think, Scarlett, that Rhett and I are fundamentally alike?”
“Oh, no! You are so fine, so honorable and he —” She broke off, confused.
“But we are. We came of the same kind of people, we were raised in the same pattern, brought up to think the same things. And somewhere along the road we took different turnings. We still think alike but we react differently. As, for instance, neither of us believed in the war but I enlisted and fought and he stayed out till nearly the end. We both knew the war was all wrong. We both knew it was a losing fight. I was willing to fight a losing fight. He wasn’t. Sometimes I think he was right and then, again —”
“Oh, Ashley, when will you stop seeing both sides of questions?” she asked. But she did not speak impatiently as she once would have done. “No one ever gets anywhere seeing both sides.”
“That’s true but — Scarlett, just where do you want to get? I’ve often wondered. You see, I never wanted to get anywhere at all. I’ve only wanted to be myself.”
Where did she want to get? That was a silly question. Money and security, of course. And yet — Her mind fumbled. She had money and as much security as one could hope for in an insecure world. But, now that she thought about it, they weren’t quite enough. Now that she thought about it, they hadn’t made her particularly happy, though they made her less harried, less fearful of the morrow. If I’d had money and security and you, that would have been where I wanted to get, she thought, looking at him yearningly. But she did not speak the words, fearful of breaking the spell that lay between them, fearful that his mind would close against her.
“You only want to be yourself?” she laughed, a little ruefully. “Not being myself has always been my hardest trouble! As to where I want to get, well, I guess I’ve gotten there. I wanted to be rich and safe and —”
“But, Scarlett, did it ever occur to you that I don’t care whether I’m rich or not?”
No, it had never occurred to her that anyone would not want to be rich.
“Then, what do you want?”
“I don’t know, now. I knew once but I’ve half forgotten. Mostly to be left alone, not to be harried by people I don’t like, driven to do things I don’t want to do. Perhaps — I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears.”
Scarlett set her mouth obstinately. It was not that she did not know what he meant. The very tones of his voice called up other days as nothing else could, made her heart hurt suddenly, as she too remembered. But since the day she had lain sick and desolate in the garden at Twelve Oaks and said: “I won’t look back,” she had set her face against the past.
“I like these days better,” she said. But she did not meet his eyes as she spoke. “There’s always something exciting happening now, parties and so on. Everything’s got a glitter to it. The old days were so dull.” (Oh, lazy days and warm still country twilights! The high soft laughter from the quarters! The golden warmth life had then and the comforting knowledge of what all tomorrows would bring! How can I deny you?)
“I like these days better,” she said but her voice was tremulous.
He slipped from the table, laughing softly in unbelief. Putting his hand under her chin, he turned her face up to his.
“Ah, Scarlett, what a poor liar you are! Yes, life has a glitter now — of a sort. That’s what’s wrong with it. The old days had no glitter but they had a charm, a beauty, a slow-paced glamour.”
Her mind pulled two ways, she dropped her eyes. The sound of his voice, the touch of his hand were softly unlocking doors that she had locked forever. Behind those doors lay the beauty of the old days, and a sad hunger for them welled up within her. But she knew that no matter what beauty lay behind, it must remain there. No one could go forward with a load of aching memories.
His hand dropped from her chin and he took one of her hands between his two and held it gently.
“Do you remember,” he said — and a warning bell in her mind rang: Don’t look back! Don’t look back!
But she swiftly disregarded it, swept forward on a tide of happiness. At last she was understanding him, at last their minds had met. This moment was too precious to be lost, no matter what pain came after.
“Do you remember,” he said and under the spell of his voice the bare walls of the little office faded and the years rolled aside and they were riding country bridle paths together in a long-gone spring. As he spoke, his light grip tightened on her hand and in his voice was the sad magic of old half-forgotten songs. She could hear the gay jingle of bridle bits as they rode under the dogwood trees to the Tarletons’ picnic, hear her own careless laughter, see the sun glinting on his silver-gilt hair and note the proud easy grace with which he sat his horse. There was music in his voice, the music of fiddles and banjos to which they had danced in the white house that was no more. There was the far-off yelping of possum dogs in the dark swamp under cool autumn moons and the smell of eggnog bowls, wreathed with holly at Christmas time and smiles on black and white faces. And old friends came trooping back, laughing as though they had not been dead these many years: Stuart and Brent with their long legs and their red hair and their practical jokes, Tom and Boyd as wild as young horses, Joe Fontaine with his hot black eyes, and Cade and Raiford Calvert who moved with such languid grace. There was John Wilkes, too; and Gerald, red with brandy; and a whisper and a fragrance that was Ellen. Over it all rested a sense of security, a knowledge that tomorrow could only bring the same happiness today had brought.
His voice stopped and they looked for a long quiet moment into each other’s eyes and between them lay the sunny lost youth that they had so unthinkingly shared.
“Now I know why you can’t be happy,” she thought sadly. “I never understood before. I never understood before why I wasn’t altogether happy either. But — why, we are talking like old people talk!” she thought with dreary surprise. “Old people looking back fifty years. And we’re not old! It’s just that so much has happened in between. Everything’s changed so much that it seems like fifty years ago. But we’re not old!”
But when she looked at Ashley he was no longer young and shining. His head was bowed as he looked down absently at her hand which he still held and she saw that his once bright hair was very gray, silver gray as moonlight on still water. Somehow the bright beauty had gone from the April afternoon and from her heart as well and the sad sweetness of remembering was as bitter as gall.
“I shouldn’t have let him make me look back,” she thought despairingly. “I was right when I said I’d never look back. It hurts too much, it drags at your heart till you can’t ever do anything else except look back. That’s what’s wrong with Ashley. He can’t look forward any more. He can’t see the present, he fears the future, and so he looks back. I never understood it before. I never understood Ashley before. Oh, Ashley, my darling, you shouldn’t look back! What good will it do? I shouldn’t have let you tempt me into talking of the old days. This is what happens when you look back to happiness, this pain, this heartbreak, this discontent.”
She rose to her feet, her hand still in his. She must go. She could not stay and think of the old days and see his face, tired and sad and bleak as it now was.
“We’ve come a long way since those days, Ashley,” she said, trying to steady her voice, trying to fight the constriction in her throat. “We had fine notions then, didn’t we?” And then, with a rush, “Oh, Ashley, nothing has turned out as we expected!”
“It never does,” he said. “Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it’s no worse than it is.”
Her heart was suddenly dull with pain, with weariness, as she thought of the long road she had come since those days. There rose up in her mind the memory of Scarlett O’Hara who loved beaux and pretty dresses and who intended, some day, when she had the time, to be a great lady like Ellen.
Without warning, tears started in her eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks and she stood looking at him dumbly, like a hurt bewildered child. He said no word but took her gently in his arms, pressed her head against his shoulder and, leaning down, laid his cheek against hers. She relaxed against him and her arms went round his body. The comfort of his arms helped dry her sudden tears. Ah, it was good to be in his arms, without passion, without tenseness, to be there as a loved friend. Only Ashley who shared her memories and her youth, who knew her beginnings and her present could understand.
She heard the sound of feet outside but paid little heed, thinking it was the teamsters going home. She stood for a moment, listening to the slow beat of Ashley’s heart. Then suddenly he wrenched himself from her, confusing her by his violence. She looked up into his face in surprise but he was not looking at her. He was looking over her shoulder at the door.
She turned and there stood India, white faced, her pale eyes blazing, and Archie, malevolent as a one-eyed parrot. Behind them stood Mrs. Elsing.
How she got out of the office she never remembered. But she went instantly, swiftly, by Ashley’s order, leaving Ashley and Archie in grim converse in the little room and India and Mrs. Elsing outside with their backs to her. Shame and fear sped her homeward and, in her mind, Archie with his patriarch’s beard assumed the proportions of an avenging angel straight from the pages of the Old Testament.
The house was empty and still in the April sunset. All the servants had gone to a funeral and the children were playing in Melanie’s back yard. Melanie —
Melanie! Scarlett went cold at the thought of her as she climbed the stairs to her room. Melanie would hear of this. India had said she would tell her. Oh, India would glory in telling her, not caring if she blackened Ashley’s name, not caring if she hurt Melanie, if by so doing she could injure Scarlett! And Mrs. Elsing would talk too, even though she had really seen nothing, because she was behind India and Archie in the door of the lumber office. But she would talk, just the same. The news would be all over town by supper time. Everyone, even the negroes, would know by tomorrow’s breakfast. At the party tonight, women would gather in corners and whisper discreetly and with malicious pleasure. Scarlett Butler tumbled from her high and mighty place! And the story would grow and grow. There was no way of stopping it. It wouldn’t stop at the bare facts, that Ashley was holding her in his arms while she cried. Before nightfall people would be saying she had been taken in adultery. And it had been so innocent, so sweet! Scarlett thought wildly: If we had been caught that Christmas of his furlough when I kissed him good-by — if we had been caught in the orchard at Tara when I begged him to run away with me — oh, if we’d been caught any of the times when we were really guilty, it wouldn’t be so bad! But now! Now! When I went to his arms as a friend —
But no one would believe that. She wouldn’t have a single friend to take her part, not a single voice would be raised to say: “I don’t believe she was doing anything wrong.” She had outraged old friends too long to find a champion among them now. Her new friends, suffering in silence under her insolences, would welcome a chance to blackguard her. No, everybody would believe anything about her, though they might regret that so fine a man as Ashley Wilkes was mixed up in so dirty an affair. As usual they would cast the blame upon the woman and shrug at the man’s guilt. And in this case they would be right. She had gone into his arms.
Oh, she could stand the cuts, the slights, the covert smiles, anything the town might say, if she had to stand them — but not Melanie! Oh, not Melanie! She did not know why she should mind Melanie knowing, more than anyone else. She was too frightened and weighed down by a sense of past guilt to try to understand it. But she burst into tears at the thought of what would be in Melanie’s eyes when India told her that she had caught Ashley fondling Scarlett. And what would Melanie do when she knew? Leave Ashley? What else could she do, with any dignity? And what will Ashley and I do then? she thought frenziedly, the tears streaming down her face. Oh, Ashley will die of shame and hate me for bringing this on him. Suddenly her tears stopped short as a deadly fear went through her heart. What of Rhett? What would he do?
Perhaps he’d never know. What was that old saying, that cynical saying? “The husband is always the last to find out.” Perhaps no one would tell him. It would take a brave man to break such news to Rhett, for Rhett had the reputation for shooting first and asking questions afterwards. Please, God, don’t let anybody be brave enough to tell him! But she remembered the face of Archie in the lumber office, the cold, pale eye, remorseless, full of hate for her and all women. Archie feared neither God nor man and he hated loose women. He had hated them enough to kill one. And he had said he would tell Rhett. And he’d tell him in spite of all Ashley could do to dissuade him. Unless Ashley killed him, Archie would tell Rhett, feeling it his Christian duty.
She pulled off her clothes and lay down on the bed, her mind whirling round and round. If she could only lock her door and stay in this safe place forever and ever and never see anyone again. Perhaps Rhett wouldn’t find out tonight. She’d say she had a headache and didn’t feel like going to the reception. By morning she would have thought up some excuse to offer, some defense that might hold water.
“I won’t think of it now,” she said desperately, burying her face in the pillow. “I won’t think of it now. I’ll think of it later when I can stand it.”
She heard the servants come back as night fell and it seemed to her that they were very silent as they moved about preparing supper. Or was it her guilty conscience? Mammy came to the door and knocked but Scarlett sent her away, saying she did not want any supper. Time passed and finally she heard Rhett coming up the steps. She held herself tensely as he reached the upper hall, gathered all her strength for a meeting but he passed into his room. She breathed easier. He hadn’t heard. Thank God, he still respected her icy request that he never put foot in her bedroom again, for if he saw her now, her face would give her away. She must gather herself together enough to tell him that she felt too ill to go to the reception. Well, there was time enough for her to calm herself. Or was there time? Since the awful moment that afternoon, life had seemed timeless. She heard Rhett moving about in his room for a long time, speaking occasionally to Pork. Still she could not find courage to call to him. She lay still on the bed in the darkness, shaking.
After a long time, he knocked on her door and she said, trying to control her voice: “Come in.”
“Am I actually being invited into the sanctuary?” he questioned, opening the door. It was dark and she could not see his face. Nor could she make anything of his voice. He entered and closed the door.
“Are you ready for the reception?”
“I’m so sorry but I have a headache.” How odd that her voice sounded natural! Thank God for the dark! “I don’t believe I’ll go. You go, Rhett, and give Melanie my regrets.”
There was a long pause and he spoke drawlingly, bitingly in the dark.
“What a white livered, cowardly little bitch you are.”
He knew! She lay shaking, unable to speak. She heard him fumble in the dark, strike a match and the room sprang into light. He walked over to the bed and looked down at her. She saw that he was in evening clothes.
“Get up,” he said and there was nothing in his voice. “We are going to the reception. You will have to hurry.”
“Oh, Rhett, I can’t. You see —”
“I can see. Get up.”
“Rhett, did Archie dare —”
“Archie dared. A very brave man, Archie.”
“You should have killed him for telling lies —”
“I have a strange way of not killing people who tell the truth. There’s no time to argue now. Get up.”
She sat up, hugging her wrapper close to her, her eyes searching his face. It was dark and impassive.
“I won’t go, Rhett. I can’t until this — misunderstanding is cleared up.”
“If you don’t show your face tonight, you’ll never be able to show it in this town as long as you live. And while I may endure a trollop for a wife, I won’t endure a coward. You are going tonight, even if everyone, from Alex Stephens down, cuts you and Mrs. Wilkes asks us to leave the house.”
“Rhett, let me explain.”
“I don’t want to hear. There isn’t time. Get on your clothes.”
“They misunderstood — India and Mrs. Elsing and Archie. And they hate me so. India hates me so much that she’d even tell lies about her own brother to make me appear in a bad light. If you’ll only let me explain —”
Oh, Mother of God, she thought in agony, suppose he says: “Pray do explain!” What can I say? How can I explain?
“They’ll have told everybody lies. I can’t go tonight.”
“You will go,” he said, “if I have to drag you by the neck and plant my boot on your ever so charming bottom every step of the way.”
There was a cold glitter in his eyes as he jerked her to her feet. He picked up her stays and threw them at her.
“Put them on. I’ll lace you. Oh yes, I know all about lacing. No, I won’t call Mammy to help you and have you lock the door and skulk here like the coward you are.”
“I’m not a coward,” she cried, stung out of her fear. “I—”
“Oh, spare me your saga about shooting Yankees and facing Sherman’s army. You’re a coward — among other things. If not for your own sake, you are going tonight for Bonnie’s sake. How could you further ruin her chances? Put on your stays, quick.”
Hastily she slipped off her wrapper and stood clad only in her chemise. If only he would look at her and see how nice she looked in her chemise, perhaps that frightening look would leave his face. After all, he hadn’t seen her in her chemise for ever and ever so long. But he did not look. He was in her closet, going through her dresses swiftly. He fumbled and drew out her new jade-green watered-silk dress. It was cut low over the bosom and the skirt was draped back over an enormous bustle and on the bustle was a huge bunch of pink velvet roses.
“Wear that,” he said, tossing it on the bed and coming toward her. “No modest, matronly dove grays and lilacs tonight. Your flag must be nailed to the mast, for obviously you’d run it down if it wasn’t. And plenty of rouge. I’m sure the woman the Pharisees took in adultery didn’t look half so pale. Turn around.”
He took the strings of the stays in his hands and jerked them so hard that she cried out, frightened, humiliated, embarrassed at such an untoward performance.
“Hurts, does it?” He laughed shortly and she could not see his face. “Pity it isn’t around your neck.”
Melanie’s house blazed lights from every room and they could hear the music far up the street. As they drew up in front, the pleasant exciting sounds of many people enjoying themselves floated out. The house was packed with guests. They overflowed on verandas and many were sitting on benches in the dim lantern-hung yard.
I can’t go in-I can’t, thought Scarlett, sitting in the carriage, gripping her balled-up handkerchief. I can’t. I won’t. I will jump out and run away, somewhere, back home to Tara. Why did Rhett force me to come here? What will people do? What will Melanie do? What will she look like? Oh, I can’t face her. I will run away.
As though he read her mind, Rhett’s hand closed upon her arm in a grip that would leave a bruise, the rough grip of a careless stranger.
“I’ve never known an Irishman to be a coward. Where’s your much-vaunted courage?”
“Rhett, do please, let me go home and explain.”
“You have eternity in which to explain and only one night to be a martyr in the amphitheater. Get out, darling, and let me see the lions eat you. Get out.”
She went up the walk somehow, the arm she was holding as hard and steady as granite, communicating to her some courage. By God, she could face them and she would. What were they but a bunch of howling, clawing cats who were jealous of her? She’d show them. She didn’t care what they thought. Only Melanie — only Melanie.
They were on the porch and Rhett was bowing right and left, his hat in his hand, his voice cool and soft. The music stopped as they entered and the crowd of people seemed to her confused mind to surge up to her like the roar of the sea and then ebb away, with lessening, ever-lessening sound. Was everyone going to cut her? Well, God’s nightgown, let them do it! Her chin went up and she smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling.
Before she could turn to speak to those nearest the door, someone came through the press of people. There was an odd hush that caught Scarlett’s heart. Then through the lane came Melanie on small feet that hurried, hurried to meet Scarlett at the door, to speak to her before anyone else could speak. Her narrow shoulders were squared and her small jaw set indignantly and, for all her notice, she might have had no other guest but Scarlett. She went to her side and slipped an arm about her waist.
“What a lovely dress, darling,” she said in her small, clear voice. “Will you be an angel? India was unable to come tonight and assist me. Will you receive with me?”