Gone with the wind (Chapter 58)

Chapter 58

In the time that followed her illness Scarlett noticed a change in Rhett and she was not altogether certain that she liked it. He was sober and quiet and preoccupied. He was at home more often for supper now and he was kinder to the servants and more affectionate to Wade and Ella. He never referred to anything in their past, pleasant or otherwise, and silently seemed to dare her to bring up such subjects. Scarlett held her peace, for it was easier to let well enough alone, and life went on smoothly enough, on the surface. His impersonal courtesy toward her that had begun during her convalescence continued and he did not fling softly drawled barbs at her or sting her with sarcasm. She realized now that though he had infuriated her with his malicious comments and roused her to heated rejoinders, he had done it because he cared what she did and said. Now she wondered if he cared about anything she did. He was polite and disinterested and she missed his interest, perverse though it had been, missed the old days of bickering and retort.

He was pleasant to her now, almost as though she were a stranger; but, as his eyes had once followed her, they now followed Bonnie. It was as though the swift flood of his life had been diverted into one narrow channel. Sometimes Scarlett thought that if Rhett had given her one-half the attention and tenderness he lavished on Bonnie, life would have been different. Sometimes it was hard to smile when people said: “How Captain Butler idolizes that child!” But, if she did not smile, people would think it strange and Scarlett hated to acknowledge, even to herself, that she was jealous of a little girl, especially when that little girl was her favorite child. Scarlett always wanted to be first in the hearts of those around her and it was obvious now that Rhett and Bonnie would always be first with each other.

Rhett was out late many nights but he came home sober on these nights. Often she heard him whistling softly to himself as he went down the hall past her closed door. Sometimes men came home with him in the late hours and sat talking in the dining room around the brandy decanter. They were not the same men with whom he had drunk the first year they were married. No rich Carpetbaggers, no Scallawags, no Republicans came to the house now at his invitation. Scarlett, creeping on tiptoe to the banister of the upstairs hall, listened and, to her amazement, frequently heard the voices of Rene Picard, Hugh Elsing, the Simmons boys and Andy Bonnell. And always Grandpa Merriwether and Uncle Henry were there. Once, to her astonishment, she heard the tones of Dr. Meade. And these men had once thought hanging too good for Rhett!

This group was always linked in her mind with Frank’s death, and the late hours Rhett kept these days reminded her still more of the times preceding the Klan foray when Frank lost his life. She remembered with dread Rhett’s remark that he would even join their damned Klan to be respectable, though he hoped God would not lay so heavy a penance on his shoulders. Suppose Rhett, like Frank —

One night when he was out later than usual she could stand the strain no longer. When she heard the rasp of his key in the lock, she threw on a wrapper and, going into the gas lit upper hall, met him at the top of the stairs. His expression, absent, thoughtful, changed to surprise when he saw her standing there.

“Rhett, I’ve got to know! I’ve got to know if you — if it’s the Klan — is that why you stay out so late? Do you belong —”

In the flaring gas light he looked at her incuriously and then he smiled.

“You are way behind the times,” he said. “There is no Klan in Atlanta now. Probably not in Georgia. You’ve been listening to the Klan outrage stories of your Scallawag and Carpetbagger friends.”

“No Klan? Are you lying to try to soothe me?”

“My dear, when did I ever try to soothe you? No, there is no Klan now. We decided that it did more harm than good because it just kept the Yankees stirred up and furnished more grist for the slander mill of his excellency, Governor Bullock. He knows he can stay in power just so long as he can convince the Federal government and the Yankee newspapers that Georgia is seething with rebellion and there’s a Klansman hiding behind every bush. To keep in power he’s been desperately manufacturing Klan outrage stories where none exist, telling of loyal Republicans being hung up by the thumbs and honest darkies lynched for rape. But he’s shooting at a nonexistent target and he knows it. Thank you for your apprehensions, but there hasn’t been an active Klan since shortly after I stopped being a Scallawag and became an humble Democrat.”

Most of what he said about Governor Bullock went in one ear and out the other for her mind was mainly occupied with relief that there was no Klan any longer. Rhett would not be killed as Frank was killed; she wouldn’t lose her store or his money. But one word of his conversation swam to the top of her mind. He had said “we,” linking himself naturally with those he had once called the “Old Guard.”

“Rhett,” she asked suddenly, “did you have anything to do with the breaking up of the Klan?”

He gave her a long look and his eyes began to dance.

“My love, I did. Ashley Wilkes and I are mainly responsible.”

“Ashley — and you?”

“Yes, platitudinously but truly, politics make strange bedfellows. Neither Ashley nor I cared much for each other as bedfellows but — Ashley never believed in the Klan because he’s against violence of any sort. And I never believed in it because it’s damned foolishness and not the way to get what we want. It’s the one way to keep the Yankees on our necks till Kingdom Come. And between Ashley and me, we convinced the hot heads that watching, waiting and working would get us further than nightshirts and fiery crosses.”

“You don’t mean the boys actually took your advice when you —”

“When I was a speculator? A Scallawag? A consorter with Yankees? You forget, Mrs. Butler, that I am now a Democrat in good standing, devoted to my last drop of blood to recovering our beloved state from the hands of her ravishers! My advice was good advice and they took it. My advice in other political matters is equally good. We have a Democratic majority in the legislature now, haven’t we? And soon, my love, we will have some of our good Republican friends behind the bars. They are a bit too rapacious these days, a bit too open.”

“You’d help put them in jail? Why, they were your friends! They let you in on that railroad-bond business that you made thousands out of!”

Rhett grinned suddenly, his old mocking grin.

“Oh, I bear them no ill will. But I’m on the other side now and if I can assist in any way in putting them where they belong, I’ll do it. And how that will redound to my credit! I know just enough about the inside of some of these deals to be very valuable when the legislature starts digging into them — and that won’t be far off, from the way things look now. They’re going to investigate the governor, too, and they’ll put him in jail if they can. Better tell your good friends the Gelerts and the Hundons to be ready to leave town on a minute’s notice, because if they can nab the governor, they’ll nab them too.”

For too many years Scarlett had seen the Republicans, backed up by the force of the Yankee Army, in power in Georgia to believe Rhett’s light words. The governor was too strongly entrenched for any legislature to do anything to him, much less put him in jail.

“How you do run on,” she observed.

“If he isn’t put in jail, at least he won’t be reelected. We’re going to have a Democratic governor next time, for a change.”

“And I suppose you’ll have something to do with it?” she questioned sarcastically.

“My pet, I will. I am having something to do with it now. That’s why I stay out so late at nights. I’m working harder than I ever worked with a shovel in the gold rush, trying to help get the election organized. And — I know this will hurt you, Mrs. Butler, but I am contributing plenty of money to the organization, too. Do you remember telling me, years ago, in Frank’s store, that it was dishonest for me to keep the Confederate gold? At last I’ve come to agree with you and the Confederate gold is being spent to get the Confederates back into power.”

“You’re pouring money down a rat hole!”

“What! You call the Democratic party a rat hole?” His eyes mocked her and then were quiet, expressionless. “It doesn’t matter a damn to me who wins this election. What does matter is that everyone knows I’ve worked for it and that I’ve spent money on it. And that’ll be remembered in Bonnie’s favor in years to come.”

“I was almost afraid from your pious talk that you’d had a change of heart, but I see you’ve got no more sincerity about the Democrats than about anything else.”

“Not a change of heart at all. Merely a change of hide. You might possibly sponge the spots off a leopard but he’d remain a leopard, just the same.”

Bonnie, awakened by the sound of voices in the hall, called sleepily but imperiously: “Daddy!” and Rhett started past Scarlett.

“Rhett, wait a minute. There’s something else I want to tell you. You must stop taking Bonnie around with you in the afternoons to political meetings. It just doesn’t look well. The idea of a little girl at such places! And it makes you look so silly. I never dreamed that you took her until Uncle Henry mentioned it, as though he thought I knew and —”

He swung round on her and his face was hard.

“How can you read wrong in a little girl sitting on her father’s lap while he talks to friends? You may think it looks silly but it isn’t silly. People will remember for years that Bonnie sat on my lap while I helped run the Republicans out of this state. People will remember for years —” The hardness went out of his face and a malicious light danced in his eyes. “Did you know that when people ask her who she loves best, she says ‘Daddy and the Demiquats,’ and who she hates most, she says: ‘The Scallywags.’ People, thank God, remember things like that.”

Scarlett’s voice rose furiously. “And I suppose you tell her I’m a Scallawag!”

“Daddy!” said the small voice, indignant now, and Rhett, still laughing, went down the hall to his daughter.

That October Governor Bullock resigned his office and fled from Georgia. Misuse of public funds, waste and corruption had reached such proportions during his administration that the edifice was toppling of its own weight. Even his own party was split, so great had public indignation become. The Democrats had a majority in the legislature now, and that meant just one thing. Knowing that he was going to be investigated and fearing impeachment, Bullock did not wait. He hastily and secretly decamped, arranging that his resignation would not become public until he was safely in the North.

When it was announced, a week after his flight, Atlanta was wild with excitement and joy. People thronged the streets, men laughing and shaking hands in congratulation, ladies kissing each other and crying. Everybody gave parties in celebration and the fire department was kept busy fighting the flames that spread from the bonfires of jubilant small boys.

Almost out of the woods! Reconstruction’s almost over! to be sure, the acting governor was a Republican too, but the election was coming up in December and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what the result would be. And when the election came, despite the frantic efforts of the Republicans, Georgia once more had a Democratic governor.

There was joy then, excitement too, but of a different sort from that which seized the town when Bullock took to his heels. This was a more sober heartfelt joy, a deep-souled feeling of thanksgiving, and the churches were filled as ministers reverently thanked God for the deliverance of the state. There was pride too, mingled with the elation and joy, pride that Georgia was back in the hands of her own people again, in spite of all the administration in Washington could do, in spite of the army, the Carpetbaggers, the Scallawags and the native Republicans.

Seven times Congress had passed crushing acts against the state to keep it a conquered province, three times the army had set aside civil law. The negroes had frolicked through the legislature, grasping aliens had mismanaged the government, private individuals had enriched themselves from public funds. Georgia had been helpless, tormented, abused, hammered down. But now, in spite of them all, Georgia belonged to herself again and through the efforts of her own people.

The sudden overturn of the Republicans did not bring joy to everyone. There was consternation in the ranks of the Scallawags, the Carpetbaggers and the Republicans. The Gelerts and Hundons, evidently apprised of Bullock’s departure before his resignation became public, left town abruptly, disappearing into that oblivion from which they had come. The other Carpetbaggers and Scallawags who remained were uncertain, frightened, and they hovered together for comfort, wondering what the legislative investigation would bring to light concerning their own private affairs. They were not insolent now. They were stunned, bewildered, afraid. And the ladies who called on Scarlett said over and over:

“But who would have thought it would turn out this way? We thought the governor was too powerful. We thought he was here to stay. We thought —”

Scarlett was equally bewildered by the turn of events, despite Rhett’s warning as to the direction it would take. It was not that she was sorry Bullock had gone and the Democrats were back again. Though no one would have believed it she, too, felt a grim happiness that the Yankee rule was at last thrown off. She remembered all too vividly her struggles during those first days of Reconstruction, her fears that the soldiers and the Carpetbaggers would confiscate her money and her property. She remembered her helplessness and her panic at her helplessness and her hatred of the Yankees who had imposed this galling system upon the South. And she had never stopped hating them. But, in trying to make the best of things, in trying to obtain complete security, she had gone with the conquerors. No matter how much she disliked them, she had surrounded herself with them, cut herself off from her old friends and her old ways of living. And now the power of the conquerors was at an end. She had gambled on the continuance of the Bullock regime and she had lost.

As she looked about her, that Christmas of 1871, the happiest Christmas the state had known in over ten years, she was disquieted. She could not help seeing that Rhett, once the most execrated man in Atlanta, was now one of the most popular, for he had humbly recanted his Republican heresies and given his time and money and labor and thought to helping Georgia fight her way back. When he rode down the streets, smiling, tipping his hat, the small blue bundle that was Bonnie perched before him on his saddle, everyone smiled back, spoke with enthusiasm and looked with affection on the little girl. Whereas, she, Scarlett —

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