Gone with the wind (Chapter 57)

Chapter 57

It was a pale, thin woman that Rhett put on the Jonesboro train a month later. Wade and Ella, who were to make the trip with her, were silent and uneasy at their mother’s still, white face. They clung close to Prissy, for even to their childish minds there was something frightening in the cold, impersonal atmosphere between their mother and their stepfather.

Weak as she was, Scarlett was going home to Tara. She felt that she would stifle if she stayed in Atlanta another day, with her tired mind forcing itself round and round the deeply worn circle of futile thoughts about the mess she was in. She was sick in body and weary in mind and she was standing like a lost child in a nightmare country in which there was no familiar landmark to guide her.

As she had once fled Atlanta before an invading army, so she was fleeing it again, pressing her worries into the back of her mind with her old defense against the world: “I won’t think of it now. I can’t stand it if I do. I’ll think of it tomorrow at Tara. Tomorrow’s another day.” It seemed that if she could only get back to the stillness and the green cotton fields of home, all her troubles would fall away and she would somehow be able to mold her shattered thoughts into something she could live by.

Rhett watched the train until it was out of sight and on his face there was a look of speculative bitterness that was not pleasant. He sighed, dismissed the carriage and mounting his horse, rode down Ivy Street toward Melanie’s house.

It was a warm morning and Melanie sat on the vine-shaded porch, her mending basket piled high with socks. Confusion and dismay filled her when she saw Rhett alight from his horse and toss the reins over the arm of the cast-iron negro boy who stood at the sidewalk. She had not seen him alone since that too dreadful day when Scarlett had been so ill and he had been so — well — so drunk. Melanie hated even to think the word. She had spoken to him only casually during Scarlett’s convalescence and, on those occasions, she had found it difficult to meet his eyes. However, he had been his usual bland self at those times, and never by look or word showed that such a scene had taken place between them. Ashley had told her once that men frequently did not remember things said and done in drink and Melanie prayed heartily that Captain Butler’s memory had failed him on that occasion. She felt she would rather die than learn that he remembered his outpourings. Timidity and embarrassment swept over her and waves of color mounted her cheeks as he came up the walk. But perhaps he had only come to ask if Beau could spend the day with Bonnie. Surely he wouldn’t have the bad taste to come and thank her for what she had done that day!

She rose to meet him, noting with surprise, as always, how lightly he walked for a big man.

“Scarlett has gone?”

“Yes. Tara will do her good,” he said smiling. “Sometimes I think she’s like the giant Antaeus who became stronger each time he touched Mother Earth. It doesn’t do for Scarlett to stay away too long from the patch of red mud she loves. The sight of cotton growing will do her more good than all Dr. Meade’s tonics.”

“Won’t you sit down?” said Melanie, her hands fluttering. He was so very large and male, and excessively male creatures always discomposed her. They seem to radiate a force and vitality that made her feel smaller and weaker even than she was. He looked so swarthy and formidable and the heavy muscles in his shoulders swelled against his white linen coat in a way that frightened her. It seemed impossible that she had seen all this strength and insolence brought low. And she had held that black head in her lap!

“Oh, dear!” she thought in distress and blushed again.

“Miss Melly,” he said gently, “does my presence annoy you? Would you rather I went away? Pray be frank.”

“Oh!” she thought. “He does remember! And he knows how upset I am!”

She looked up at him, imploringly, and suddenly her embarrassment and confusion faded. His eyes were so quiet, so kind, so understanding that she wondered how she could ever have been silly enough to be flurried. His face looked tired and, she thought with surprise, more than a little sad. How could she have even thought he’d be ill bred enough to bring up subjects both would rather forget?

“Poor thing, he’s been so worried about Scarlett,” she thought, and managing a smile, she said: “Do sit down, Captain Butler.”

He sat down heavily and watched her as she picked up her darning.

“Miss Melly, I’ve come to ask a very great favor of you and,” he smiled and his mouth twisted down, “to enlist your aid in a deception from which I know you will shrink.”

“A— deception?”

“Yes. Really, I’ve come to talk business to you.”

“Oh, dear. Then it’s Mr. Wilkes you’d better see. I’m such a goose about business. I’m not smart like Scarlett.”

“I’m afraid Scarlett is too smart for her own good,” he said, “and that is exactly what I want to talk to you about. You know how — ill she’s been. When she gets back from Tara she will start again hammer and tongs with the store and those mills which I wish devoutly would explode some night. I fear for her health, Miss Melly.”

“Yes, she does far too much. You must make her stop and take care of herself.”

He laughed.

“You know how headstrong she is. I never even try to argue with her. She’s just like a willful child. She won’t let me help her — she won’t let anyone help her. I’ve tried to get her to sell her share in the mills but she won’t. And now, Miss Melly, I come to the business matter. I know Scarlett would sell the remainder of her interest in the mills to Mr. Wilkes but to no one else, and I want Mr. Wilkes to buy her out.”

“Oh, dear me! That would be nice but —” Melanie stopped and bit her lip. She could not mention money matters to an outsider. Somehow, despite what he made from the mill, she and Ashley never seemed to have enough money. It worried her that they saved so little. She did not know where the money went. Ashley gave her enough to run the house on, but when it came to extra expenses they were often pinched. Of course, her doctors bills were so much, and then the books and furniture Ashley ordered from New York did run into money. And they had fed and clothed any number of waifs who slept in their cellar. And Ashley never felt like refusing a loan to any man who’d been in the Confederate Army. And —

“Miss Melly, I want to lend you the money,” said Rhett.

“That’s so kind of you, but we might never repay it.”

“I don’t want it repaid. Don’t be angry with me, Miss Melly! Please hear me through. It will repay me enough to know that Scarlett will not be exhausting herself driving miles to the mills every day. The store will be enough to keep her busy and happy. . . . Don’t you see?”

“Well — yes —” said Melanie uncertainly.

“You want your boy to have a pony don’t you? And want him to go to the university and to Harvard and to Europe on a Grand Tour?”

“Oh, of course,” cried Melanie, her face lighting up, as always, at the mention of Beau. “I want him to have everything but — well, everyone is so poor these days that —”

“Mr. Wilkes could make a pile of money out of the mills some day,” said Rhett. “And I’d like to see Beau have all the advantages he deserves.”

“Oh, Captain Butler, what a crafty wretch you are!” she cried, smiling. “Appealing to a mother’s pride! I can read you like a book.”

“I hope not,” said Rhett, and for the first time there was a gleam in his eye. “Now will you let me lend you the money?”

“But where does the deception come in?”

“We must be conspirators and deceive both Scarlett and Mr. Wilkes.”

“Oh, dear! I couldn’t!”

“If Scarlett knew I had plotted behind her back, even for her own good — well, you know her temper! And I’m afraid Mr. Wilkes would refuse any loan I offered him. So neither of them must know where the money comes from.”

“Oh, but I’m sure Mr. Wilkes wouldn’t refuse, if he understood the matter. He is so fond of Scarlett.”

“Yes, I’m sure he is,” said Rhett smoothly. “But just the same he would refuse. You know how proud all the Wilkes are.”

“Oh, dear!” cried Melanie miserably, “I wish — Really, Captain Butler, I couldn’t deceive my husband.”

“Not even to help Scarlett?” Rhett looked very hurt. “And she is so fond of you!”

Tears trembled on Melanie’s eyelids.

“You know I’d do anything in the world for her. I can never, never half repay her for what she’s done for me. You know.”

“Yes,” he said shortly, “I know what she’s done for you. Couldn’t you tell Mr. Wilkes that the money was left you in the will of some relative?”

“Oh, Captain Butler, I haven’t a relative with a penny to bless him!”

“Then, if I sent the money through the mail to Mr. Wilkes without his knowing who sent it, would you see that it was used to buy the mills and not — well, given away to destitute ex-Confederates?”

At first she looked hurt at his last words, as though they implied criticism of Ashley, but he smiled so understandingly she smiled back.

“Of course I will.”

“So it’s settled? It’s to be our secret?”

“But I have never kept anything secret from my husband!”

“I’m sure of that, Miss Melly.”

As she looked at him she thought how right she had always been about him and how wrong so many other people were. People had said he was brutal and sneering and bad mannered and even dishonest. Though many of the nicest people were now admitting they had been wrong. Well! She had known from the very beginning that he was a fine man. She had never received from him anything but the kindest treatment, thoughtfulness, utter respect and what understanding! And then, how he loved Scarlett! How sweet of him to take this roundabout way of sparing Scarlett one of the loads she carried!

In an impulsive rush of feeling, she said: “Scarlett’s lucky to have a husband who’s so nice to her!”

“You think so? I’m afraid she wouldn’t agree with you, if she could hear you. Besides, I want to be nice to you too, Miss Melly. I’m giving you more than I’m giving Scarlett.”

“Me!” she questioned, puzzled. “Oh, you mean for Beau.”

He picked up his hat and rose. He stood for a moment looking down at the plain, heart-shaped face with its long widow’s peak and serious dark eyes. Such an unworldly face, a face with no defenses against life.

“No, not Beau. I’m trying to give you something more than Beau, if you can imagine that.”

“No, I can’t,” she said, bewildered again. “There’s nothing in the world more precious to me than Beau except Ash — except Mr. Wilkes.”

Rhett said nothing and looked down at her, his dark face still.

“You’re mighty nice to want to do things for me, Captain Butler, but really, I’m so lucky. I have everything in the world any woman could want.”

“That’s fine,” said Rhett, suddenly grim. “And I intend to see that you keep them.”

When Scarlett came back from Tara, the unhealthy pallor had gone from her face and her cheeks were rounded and faintly pink. Her green eyes were alert and sparkling again, and she laughed aloud for the first time in weeks when Rhett and Bonnie met her and Wade and Ella at the depot — laughed in annoyance and amusement. Rhett had two straggling turkey feathers in the brim of his hat and Bonnie, dressed in a sadly torn dress that was her Sunday frock, had diagonal lines of indigo blue on her cheeks and a peacock feather half as long as she was in her curls. Evidently a game of Indian had been in progress when the time came to meet the train and it was obvious from the look of quizzical helplessness on Rhett’s face and the lowering indignation of Mammy that Bonnie had refused to have her toilet remedied, even to meet her mother.

Scarlett said: “What a ragamuffin!” as she kissed the child and turned a cheek for Rhett’s lips. There were crowds of people in the depot or she would never have invited this caress. She could not help noticing, for all her embarrassment at Bonnie’s appearance, that everyone in the crowd was smiling at the figure father and daughter cut, smiling not in derision but in genuine amusement and kindness. Everyone knew that Scarlett’s youngest had her father under her thumb and Atlanta was amused and approving. Rhett’s great love for his child had gone far toward reinstating him in public opinion.

On the way home, Scarlett was full of County news. The hot, dry weather was making the cotton grow so fast you could almost hear it but Will said cotton prices were going to be low this fall. Suellen was going to have another baby — she spelled this out so the children would not comprehend — and Ella had shown unwonted spirit in biting Suellen’s oldest girl. Though, observed Scarlett, it was no more than little Susie deserved, she being her mother all over again. But Suellen had become infuriated and they had had an invigorating quarrel that was just like old times. Wade had killed a water moccasin, all by himself. ‘Randa and Camilla Tarleton were teaching school and wasn’t that a joke? Not a one of the Tarletons had ever been able to spell cat! Betsy Tarleton had married a fat one-armed man from Lovejoy and they and Hetty and Jim Tarleton were raising a good cotton crop at Fairhill. Mrs. Tarleton had a brood mare and a colt and was as happy as though she had a million dollars. And there were negroes living in the old Calvert house! Swarms of them and they actually owned it! They’d bought it in at the sheriff’s sale. The place was dilapidated and it made you cry to look at it. No one knew where Cathleen and her no-good husband had gone. And Alex was to marry Sally, his brother’s widow! Imagine that, after them living in the same house for so many years! Everybody said it was a marriage of convenience because people were beginning to gossip about them living there alone, since both Old Miss and Young Miss had died. And it had about broken Dimity Munroe’s heart. But it served her right. If she’d had any gumption she’d have caught her another man long ago, instead of waiting for Alex to get money enough to marry her.

Scarlett chattered on cheerfully but there were many things about the County which she suppressed, things that hurt to think about. She had driven over the County with Will, trying not to remember when these thousands of fertile acres had stood green with cotton. Now, plantation after plantation was going back to the forest, and dismal fields of broomsedge, scrub oak and runty pines had grown stealthily about silent ruins and over old cotton fields. Only one acre was being farmed now where once a hundred had been under the plow. It was like moving through a dead land.

“This section won’t come back for fifty years — if it ever comes back,” Will had said. “Tara’s the best farm in the County, thanks to you and me, Scarlett, but it’s a farm, a two-mule farm, not a plantation. And the Fontaine place, it comes next to Tara and then the Tarletons. They ain’t makin’ much money but they’re gettin’ along and they got gumption. But most of the rest of the folks, the rest of the farms —”

No, Scarlett did not like to remember the way the deserted County looked. It seemed even sadder, in retrospect, beside the bustle and prosperity of Atlanta.

“Has anything happened here?” she asked when they were finally home and were seated on the front porch. She had talked rapidly and continuously all the way home, fearing that a silence would fall. She had not had a word alone with Rhett since that day when she fell down the steps and she was none too anxious to be alone with him now. She did not know how he felt toward her. He had been kindness itself during her miserable convalescence, but it was the kindness of an impersonal stranger. He had anticipated her wants, kept the children from bothering her and supervised the store and the mills. But he had never said: “I’m sorry.” Well, perhaps he wasn’t sorry. Perhaps he still thought that child that was never born was not his child. How could she tell what went on in the mind behind the bland dark face? But he had showed a disposition to be courteous, for the first time in their married life, and a desire to let life go on as though there had never been anything unpleasant between them — as though, thought Scarlett, cheerlessly, as though there had never been anything at all between them. Well, if that was what he wanted, she could act her part too.

“Is everything all right?” she repeated. “Did you get the new shingles for the store? Did you swap the mules? For Heaven’s sake, Rhett, take those feathers out of your hat. You look a fool and you’ll be likely to wear them downtown without remembering to take them out.”

“No,” said Bonnie, picking up her father’s hat, defensively.

“Everything has gone very well here,” replied Rhett. “Bonnie and I have had a nice time and I don’t believe her hair has been combed since you left. Don’t suck the feathers, darling, they may be nasty. Yes, the shingles are fixed and I got a good trade on the mules. No, there’s really no news. Everything has been quite dull.”

Then, as an afterthought, he added: “The honorable Ashley was over here last night. He wanted to know if I thought you would sell him your mill and the part interest you have in his.”

Scarlett, who had been rocking and fanning herself with a turkey tail fan, stopped abruptly.

“Sell? Where on earth did Ashley get the money? You know they never have a cent. Melanie spends it as fast as he makes it.”

Rhett shrugged. “I always thought her a frugal little person, but then I’m not as well informed about the intimate details of the Wilkes family as you seem to be.”

That jab seemed in something of Rhett’s old style and Scarlett grew annoyed.

“Run away, dear,” she said to Bonnie. “Mother wants to talk to Father.”

“No,” said Bonnie positively and climbed upon Rhett’s lap.

Scarlett frowned at her child and Bonnie scowled back in so complete a resemblance to Gerald O’Hara that Scarlett almost laughed.

“Let her stay,” said Rhett comfortably. “As to where he got the money, it seems it was sent him by someone he nursed through a case of smallpox at Rock Island. It renews my faith in human nature to know that gratitude still exists.”

“Who was it? Anyone we know?”

“The letter was unsigned and came from Washington. Ashley was at a loss to know who could have sent it. But then, one of Ashley’s unselfish temperament goes about the world doing so many good deeds that you can’t expect him to remember all of them.”

Had she not been so surprised at Ashley’s windfall, Scarlett would have taken up this gauntlet, although while at Tara she had decided that never again would she permit herself to be involved in any quarrel with Rhett about Ashley. The ground on which she stood in this matter was entirely too uncertain and, until she knew exactly where she stood with both men, she did not care to be drawn out.

“He wants to buy me out?”

“Yes. But of course, I told him you wouldn’t sell.”

“I wish you’d let me mind my own business.”

“Well, you know you wouldn’t part with the mills. I told him that he knew as well as I did that you couldn’t bear not to have your finger in everybody’s pie, and if you sold out to him, then you wouldn’t be able to tell him how to mind his own business.”

“You dared say that to him about me?”

“Why not? It’s true, isn’t it? I believe he heartily agreed with me but, of course, he was too much of a gentleman to come right out and say so.”

“It’s a lie! I will sell them to him!” cried Scarlett angrily.

Until that moment, she had had no idea of parting with the mills. She had several reasons for wanting to keep them and their monetary value was the least reason. She could have sold them for large sums any time in the last few years, but she had refused all offers. The mills were the tangible evidence of what she had done, unaided and against great odds, and she was proud of them and of herself. Most of all, she did not want to sell them because they were the only path that lay open to Ashley. If the mills went from her control it would mean that she would seldom see Ashley and probably never see him alone. And she had to see him alone. She could not go on this way any longer, wondering what his feelings toward her were now, wondering if all his love had died in shame since the dreadful night of Melanie’s party. In the course of business she could find many opportune times for conversations without it appearing to anyone that she was seeking him out. And, given time, she knew she could gain back whatever ground she had lost in his heart. But if she sold the mills —

No, she did not want to sell but, goaded by the thought that Rhett had exposed her to Ashley in so truthful and so unflattering a light, she had made up her mind instantly. Ashley should have the mills and at a price so low he could not help realizing how generous she was.

“I will sell!” she cried furiously. “Now, what do you think of that?”

There was the faintest gleam of triumph in Rhett’s eyes as he bent to tie Bonnie’s shoe string.

“I think you’ll regret it,” he said.

Already she was regretting the hasty words. Had they been spoken to anyone save Rhett she would have shamelessly retracted them. Why had she burst out like that? She looked at Rhett with an angry frown and saw that he was watching her with his old keen, cat-at-a-mouse-hole look. When he saw her frown, he laughed suddenly, his white teeth flashing. Scarlett had an uncertain feeling that he had jockeyed her into this position.

“Did you have anything to do with this?” she snapped.

“I?” His brows went up in mock surprise. “You should know me better. I never go about the world doing good deeds if I can avoid it.”

That night she sold the mills and all her interest in them to Ashley. She did not lose thereby for Ashley refused to take advantage of her first low offer and met the highest bid that she had ever had for them. When she had signed the papers and the mills were irrevocably gone and Melanie was passing small glasses of wine to Ashley and Rhett to celebrate the transaction, Scarlett felt bereft, as though she had sold one of her children.

The mills had been her darlings, her pride, the fruit of her small grasping hands. She had started with one little mill in those black days when Atlanta was barely struggling up from ruin and ashes and want was staring her in the face. She had fought and schemed and nursed them through the dark times when Yankee confiscation loomed, when money was tight and smart men going to the wall. And now when Atlanta was covering its scars and buildings were going up everywhere and newcomers flocking to the town every day, she had two fine mills, two lumber yards, a dozen mule teams and convict labor to operate the business at low cost. Bidding farewell to them was like closing a door forever on a part of her life, a bitter, harsh part but one which she recalled with a nostalgic satisfaction.

She had built up this business and now she had sold it and she was oppressed with the certainty that, without her at the helm, Ashley would lose it all — everything that she had worked to build. Ashley trusted everyone and still hardly knew a two-by-four from a six-by-eight. And now she would never be able to give him the benefit of her advice — all because Rhett had told him that she liked to boss everything.

“Oh, damn Rhett!” she thought and as she watched him the conviction grew that he was at the bottom of all this. Just how and why she did not know. He was talking to Ashley and his words brought her up sharply.

“I suppose you’ll turn the convicts back right away,” he said.

Turn the convicts back? Why should there be any idea of turning them back? Rhett knew perfectly well that the large profits from the mills grew out of the cheap convict labor. And why did Rhett speak with such certainty about what Ashley’s future actions would be? What did he know of him?

“Yes, they’ll go back immediately,” replied Ashley and he avoided Scarlett’s dumbfounded gaze.

“Have you lost your mind?” she cried. “You’ll lose all the money on the lease and what kind of labor can you get, anyway?”

“I’ll use free darkies,” said Ashley.

“Free darkies! Fiddle-dee-dee! You know what their wages will cost and besides you’ll have the Yankees on your neck every minute to see if you’re giving them chicken three times a day and tucking them to sleep under eiderdown quilts. And if you give a lazy darky a couple of licks to speed him up, you’ll hear the Yankees scream from here to Dalton and you’ll end up in jail. Why, convicts are the only —”

Melanie looked down into her lap at her twisted hands. Ashley looked unhappy but obdurate. For a moment he was silent. Then his gaze crossed Rhett’s and it was as if he found understanding and encouragement in Rhett’s eyes — a glance that was not lost on Scarlett.

“I won’t work convicts, Scarlett,” he said quietly.

“Well, sir!” her breath was taken away. “And why not? Are you afraid people will talk about you like they do about me?”

Ashley raised his head.

“I’m not afraid of what people say as long as I’m right. And I have never felt that convict labor was right.”

“But why —”

“I can’t make money from the enforced labor and misery of others.”

“But you owned slaves!”

“They weren’t miserable. And besides, I’d have freed them all when Father died if the war hadn’t already freed them. But this is different, Scarlett. The system is open to too many abuses. Perhaps you don’t know it but I do. I know very well that Johnnie Gallegher has killed at least one man at his camp. Maybe more — who cares about one convict, more or less? He said the man was killed trying to escape, but that’s not what I’ve heard elsewhere. And I know he works men who are too sick to work. Call it superstition, but I do not believe that happiness can come from money made from the sufferings of others.”

“God’s nightgown! You mean — goodness, Ashley, you didn’t swallow all the Reverend Wallace’s bellowings about tainted money?”

“I didn’t have to swallow it. I believed it long before he preached on it.”

“Then, you must think all my money is tainted,” cried Scarlett beginning to be angry. “Because I worked convicts and own saloon property and —” She stopped short. Both the Wilkes looked embarrassed and Rhett was grinning broadly. Damn him, thought Scarlett, vehemently. He’s thinking that I’m sticking my finger in other people’s pies again and so is Ashley. I’d like to crack their heads together! She swallowed her wrath and tried to assume an aloof air of dignity but with little success.

“Of course, it’s immaterial to me,” she said.

“Scarlett, don’t think I’m criticizing you! I’m not. It’s just that we look at things in different ways and what is good for you might not be good for me.”

She suddenly wished that they were alone, wished ardently that Rhett and Melanie were at the end of the earth, so she could cry out: “But I want to look at things the way you look at them! Tell me just what you mean, so I can understand and be like you!”

But with Melanie present, trembling with the distress of the scene, and Rhett lounging, grinning at her, she could only say with as much coolness and offended virtue as she could muster: “I’m sure it’s your own business, Ashley, and far be it from me to tell you how to run it. But, I must say, I do not understand your attitude or your remarks.”

Oh, if they were only alone, so she would not be forced to say these cool things to him, these words that were making him unhappy!

“I’ve offended you, Scarlett, and I did not mean to. You must believe me and forgive me. There is nothing enigmatic in what I said. It is only that I believe that money which comes in certain ways seldom brings happiness.”

“But you’re wrong!” she cried, unable to restrain herself any longer. “Look at me! You know how my money came. You know how things were before I made my money! You remember that winter at Tara when it was so cold and we were cutting up the carpets for shoes and there wasn’t enough to eat and we used to wonder how we were going to give Beau and Wade an education. You remem —”

“I remember,” said Ashley tiredly, “but I’d rather forget.”

“Well, you can’t say any of us were happy then, can you? And look at us now! You’ve a nice home and a good future. And has anyone a prettier house than mine or nicer clothes or finer horses? Nobody sets as fine a table as me or gives nicer receptions and my children have everything they want. Well, how did I get the money to make it possible? Off trees? No, sir! Convicts and saloon rentals and —”

“And don’t forget murdering that Yankee,” said Rhett softly. “He really gave you your start.”

Scarlett swung on him, furious words on her lips.

“And the money has made you very, very happy, hasn’t it, darling?” he asked, poisonously sweet.

Scarlett stopped short, her mouth open, and her eyes went swiftly to the eyes of the other three. Melanie was almost crying with embarrassment, Ashley was suddenly bleak and withdrawn and Rhett was watching her over his cigar with impersonal amusement. She started to cry out: “But of course, it’s made me happy!”

But somehow, she could not speak.

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