Under Mrs. Merriwether's goading, Dr. Meade took action, in the form of a letter to the newspaper wherein he did not mention Rhett by name, though his meaning was obvious. The editor, sensing the social drama of the letter, put it on the second page of the paper, in itself a startling innovation, as the first two pages of the paper were always devoted to advertisements of slaves, mules, plows, coffins, houses for sale or rent, cures for private diseases, abortifacients and restoratives for lost manhood.
The doctor's letter was the first of a chorus of indignation that was beginning to be heard all over the South against speculators, profiteers and holders of government contracts. Conditions in Wilmington, the chief blockade port, now that Charleston's port was practically sealed by the Yankee gunboats, had reached the proportions of an open scandal. Speculators swarmed Wilmington and, having the ready cash, bought up boatloads of goods and held them for a rise in prices. The rise always came, for with the increasing scarcity of necessities, prices leaped higher by the month. The civilian population had either to do without or buy at the speculators' prices, and the poor and those in moderate circumstances were suffering increasing hardships. With the rise in prices, Confederate money sank, and with its rapid fall there rose a wild passion for luxuries. Blockaders were commissioned to bring in necessities but now it was the higher-priced luxuries that filled their boats to the exclusion of the things the Confederacy vitally needed. People frenziedly bought these luxuries with the money they had today, fearing that tomorrow's prices would be higher and the money worthless.
To make matters worse, there was only one railroad line from Wilmington to Richmond and, while thousands of barrels of flour and boxes of bacon spoiled and rotted in wayside stations for want of transportation, speculators with wines, taffetas and coffee to sell seemed always able to get their goods to Richmond two days after they were landed at Wilmington.
The rumor which had been creeping about underground was now being openly discussed, that Rhett Butler not only ran his own four boats and sold the cargoes at unheard-of prices but bought up the cargoes of other boats and held them for rises in prices. It was said that he was at the head of a combine worth more than a million dollars, with Wilmington as its headquarters for the purpose of buying blockade goods on the docks. They had dozens of warehouses in that city and in Richmond, so the story ran, and the warehouses were crammed with food and clothing that were being held for higher prices. Already soldiers and civilians alike were feeling the pinch, and the muttering against him and his fellow speculators was bitter.
"There are many brave and patriotic men in the blockade arm of the Confederacy's naval service," ran the last of the doctor's letter, "unselfish men who are risking their lives and all their wealth that the Confederacy may survive. They are enshrined in the hearts of all loyal Southerners, and no one begrudges them the scant monetary returns they make for their risks. They are unselfish gentlemen, and we honor them. Of these men, I do not speak.
"But there are other scoundrels who masquerade under the cloak of the blockader for their own selfish gains, and I call down the just wrath and vengeance of an embattled people, fighting in the justest of Causes, on these human vultures who bring in satins and laces when our men are dying for want of quinine, who load their boats with tea and wines when our heroes are writhing for lack of morphia. I execrate these vampires who are sucking the lifeblood of the men who follow Robert Lee--these men who are making the very name of blockader a stench in the nostrils of all patriotic men. How can we endure these scavengers in our midst with their varnished boots when our boys are tramping barefoot into battle? How can we tolerate them with their champagnes and their pates of Strasbourg when our soldiers are shivering about their camp fires and gnawing moldy bacon? I call upon every loyal Confederate to cast them out."
Atlanta read, knew the oracle had spoken, and, as loyal Confederates, they hastened to cast Rhett out.
Of all the homes which had received him in the fall of 1862, Miss Pittypat's was almost the only one into which he could enter in 1863. And, except for Melanie, he probably would not have been received there. Aunt Pitty was in a state whenever he was in town. She knew very well what her friends were saying when she permitted him to call but she still lacked the courage to tell him he was unwelcome. Each time he arrived in Atlanta, she set her fat mouth and told the girls that she would meet him at the door and forbid him to enter. And each time he came, a little package in his hand and a compliment for her charm and beauty on his lips, she wilted.
"I just don't know what to do," she would moan. "He just looks at me and I--I'm scared to death of what he would do if I told him. He's got such a bad reputation. Do you suppose he would strike me--or--or-- Oh, dear, if Charlie were only alive! Scarlett, YOU must tell him not to call again--tell him in a nice way. Oh, me! I do believe you encourage him, and the whole town is talking and, if your mother ever finds out, what will she say to me? Melly, you must not be so nice to him. Be cool and distant and he will understand. Oh, Melly, do you think I'd better write Henry a note and ask him to speak to Captain Butler?"
"No, I don't," said Melanie. "And I won't be rude to him, either. I think people are acting like chickens with their heads off about Captain Butler. I'm sure he can't be all the bad things Dr. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether say he is. He wouldn't hold food from starving people. Why, he even gave me a hundred dollars for the orphans. I'm sure he's just as loyal and patriotic as any of us and he's just too proud to defend himself. You know how obstinate men are when they get their backs up."
Aunt Pitty knew nothing about men, either with their backs up or otherwise, and she could only wave her fat little hands helplessly. As for Scarlett, she had long ago become resigned to Melanie's habit of seeing good in everyone. Melanie was a fool, but there was nothing anybody could do about it.
Scarlett knew that Rhett was not being patriotic and, though she would have died rather than confess it, she did not care. The little presents he brought her from Nassau, little oddments that a lady could accept with propriety, were what mattered most to her. With prices as high as they were, where on earth could she get needles and bonbons and hairpins, if she forbade the house to him? No, it was easier to shift the responsibility to Aunt Pitty, who after all was the head of the house, the chaperon and the arbiter of morals. Scarlett knew the town gossiped about Rhett's calls, and about her too; but she also knew that in the eyes of Atlanta Melanie Wilkes could do no wrong, and if Melanie defended Rhett his calls were still tinged with respectability.
However, life would be pleasanter if Rhett would recant his heresies. She wouldn't have to suffer the embarrassment of seeing him cut openly when she walked down Peachtree Street with him.
"Even if you think such things, why do you say them?" she scolded. "If you'd just think what you please but keep your mouth shut, everything would be so much nicer."
"That's your system, isn't it, my green-eyed hypocrite? Scarlett, Scarlett! I hoped for more courageous conduct from you. I thought the Irish said what they thought and the Divvil take the hindermost. Tell me truthfully, don't you sometimes almost burst from keeping your mouth shut?"
"Well--yes," Scarlett confessed reluctantly. "I do get awfully bored when they talk about the Cause, morning, noon and night. But goodness, Rhett Butler, if I admitted it nobody would speak to me and none of the boys would dance with me!"
"Ah, yes, and one must be danced with, at all costs. Well, I admire your self-control but I do not find myself equal to it. Nor can I masquerade in a cloak of romance and patriotism, no matter how convenient it might be. There are enough stupid patriots who are risking every cent they have in the blockade and who are going to come out of this war paupers. They don't need me among their number, either to brighten the record of patriotism or to increase the roll of paupers. Let them have the haloes. They deserve them--for once I am being sincere--and, besides, haloes will be about all they will have in a year or so."
"I think you are very nasty to even hint such things when you know very well that England and France are coming in on our side in no time and--"
"Why, Scarlett! You must have been reading a newspaper! I'm surprised at you. Don't do it again. It addles women's brains. For your information, I was in England, not a month ago, and I'll tell you this. England will never help the Confederacy. England never bets on the underdog. That's why she's England. Besides, the fat Dutch woman who is sitting on the throne is a God-fearing soul and she doesn't approve of slavery. Let the English mill workers starve because they can't get our cotton but never, never strike a blow for slavery. And as for France, that weak imitation of Napoleon is far too busy establishing the French in Mexico to be bothered with us. In fact he welcomes this war, because it keeps us too busy to run his troops out of Mexico. . . . No, Scarlett, the idea of assistance from abroad is just a newspaper invention to keep up the morale of the South. The Confederacy is doomed. It's living on its hump now, like the camel, and even the largest of humps aren't inexhaustible. I give myself about six months more of blockading and then I'm through. After that, it will be too risky. And I'll sell my boats to some foolish Englishman who thinks he can slip them through. But one way or the other, it's not bothering me. I've made money enough, and it's in English banks and in gold. None of this worthless paper for me."
As always when he spoke, he sounded so plausible. Other people might call his utterances treachery but, to Scarlett, they always rang with common sense and truth. And she knew that this was utterly wrong, knew she should be shocked and infuriated. Actually she was neither, but she could pretend to be. It made her feel more respectable and ladylike.
"I think what Dr. Meade wrote about was right, Captain Butler. The only way to redeem yourself is to enlist after you sell your boats. You're a West Pointer and--"
"You talk like a Baptist preacher making a recruiting speech. Suppose I don't want to redeem myself? Why should I fight to uphold the system that cast me out? I shall take pleasure in seeing it smashed."
"I never heard of any system," she said crossly.
"No? And yet you are a part of it, like I was, and I'll wager you don't like it any more than I did. Well, why am I the black sheep of the Butler family? For this reason and no other--I didn't conform to Charleston and I couldn't. And Charleston is the South, only intensified. I wonder if you realize yet what a bore it is? So many things that one must do because they've always been done. So many things, quite harmless, that one must not do for the same reason. So many things that annoyed me by their senselessness. Not marrying the young lady, of whom you have probably heard, was merely the last straw. Why should I marry a boring fool, simply because an accident prevented me from getting her home before dark? And why permit her wild-eyed brother to shoot and kill me, when I could shoot straighter? If I had been a gentleman, of course, I would have let him kill me and that would have wiped the blot from the Butler escutcheon. But--I like to live. And so I've lived and I've had a good time. . . . When I think of my brother, living among the sacred cows of Charleston, and most reverent toward them, and remember his stodgy wife and his Saint Cecilia Balls and his everlasting rice fields--then I know the compensation for breaking with the system. Scarlett, our Southern way of living is as antiquated as the feudal system of the Middle Ages. The wonder is that it's lasted as long as it has. It had to go and it's going now. And yet you expect me to listen to orators like Dr. Meade who tell me our Cause is just and holy? And get so excited by the roll of drums that I'll grab a musket and rush off to Virginia to shed my blood for Marse Robert? What kind of a fool do you think I am? Kissing the rod that chastised me is not in my line. The South and I are even now. The South threw me out to starve once. I haven't starved, and I am making enough money out of the South's death throes to compensate me for my lost birthright."
"I think you are vile and mercenary," said Scarlett, but her remark was automatic. Most of what he was saying went over her head, as did any conversation that was not personal. But part of it made sense. There were such a lot of foolish things about life among nice people. Having to pretend that her heart was in the grave when it wasn't. And how shocked everybody had been when she danced at the bazaar. And the infuriating way people lifted their eyebrows every time she did or said anything the least bit different from what every other young woman did and said. But still, she was jarred at hearing him attack the very traditions that irked her most. She had lived too long among people who dissembled politely not to feel disturbed at hearing her own thoughts put into words.
"Mercenary? No, I'm only farsighted. Though perhaps that is merely a synonym for mercenary. At least, people who were not as farsighted as I will call it that. Any loyal Confederate who had a thousand dollars in cash in 1861 could have done what I did, but how few were mercenary enough to take advantage of their opportunities! As for instance, right after Fort Sumter fell and before the blockade was established, I bought up several thousand bales of cotton at dirt-cheap prices and ran them to England. They are still there in warehouses in Liverpool. I've never sold them. I'm holding them until the English mills have to have cotton and will give me any price I ask. I wouldn't be surprised if I got a dollar a pound."
"You'll get a dollar a pound when elephants roost in trees!"
"I'll believe I'll get it. Cotton is at seventy-two cents a pound already. I'm going to be a rich man when this war is over, Scarlett, because I was farsighted--pardon me, mercenary. I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the upbuilding of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the upbuilding, fast money in the crack-up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you some day."
"I do appreciate good advice so much," said Scarlett, with all the sarcasm she could muster. "But I don't need your advice. Do you think Pa is a pauper? He's got all the money I'll ever need and then I have Charles' property besides."
"I imagine the French aristocrats thought practically the same thing until the very moment when they climbed into the tumbrils."
Frequently Rhett pointed out to Scarlett the inconsistency of her wearing black mourning clothes when she was participating in all social activities. He liked bright colors and Scarlett's funeral dresses and the crepe veil that hung from her bonnet to her heels both amused him and offended him. But she clung to her dull black dresses and her veil, knowing that if she changed them for colors without waiting several more years, the town would buzz even more than it was already buzzing. And besides, how would she ever explain to her mother?
Rhett said frankly that the crepe veil made her look like a crow and the black dresses added ten years to her age. This ungallant statement sent her flying to the mirror to see if she really did look twenty-eight instead of eighteen.
"I should think you'd have more pride than to try to look like Mrs. Merriwether," he taunted. "And better taste than to wear that veil to advertise a grief I'm sure you never felt. I'll lay a wager with you. I'll have that bonnet and veil off your head and a Paris creation on it within two months."
"Indeed, no, and don't let's discuss it any further," said Scarlett, annoyed by his reference to Charles. Rhett, who was preparing to leave for Wilmington for another trip abroad, departed with a grin on his face.
One bright summer morning some weeks later, he reappeared with a brightly trimmed hatbox in his hand and, after finding that Scarlett was alone in the house, he opened it. Wrapped in layers of tissue was a bonnet, a creation that made her cry: "Oh, the darling thing!" as she reached for it. Starved for the sight, much less the touch, of new clothes, it seemed the loveliest bonnet she had ever seen. It was of dark-green taffeta, lined with water silk of a pale-jade color. The ribbons that tied under the chin were as wide as her hand and they, too, were pale green. And, curled about the brim of this confection was the perkiest of green ostrich plumes.
"Put it on," said Rhett, smiling.
She flew across the room to the mirror and plopped it on her head, pushing back her hair to show her earrings and tying the ribbon under her chin.
"How do I look?" she cried, pirouetting for his benefit and tossing her head so that the plume danced. But she knew she looked pretty even before she saw confirmation in his eyes. She looked attractively saucy and the green of the lining made her eyes dark emerald and sparkling.
"Oh, Rhett, whose bonnet is it? I'll buy it. I'll give you every cent I've got for it."
"It's your bonnet," he said. "Who else could wear that shade of green? Don't you think I carried the color of your eyes well in my mind?"
"Did you really have it trimmed just for me?"
"Yes, and there's 'Rue de la Paix' on the box, if that means anything to you."
It meant nothing to her, smiling at her reflection in the mirror. Just at this moment, nothing mattered to her except that she looked utterly charming in the first pretty hat she had put on her head in two years. What she couldn't do with this hat! And then her smile faded.
"Don't you like it?"
"Oh, it's a dream but-- Oh, I do hate to have to cover this lovely green with crepe and dye the feather black."
He was beside her quickly and his deft fingers untied the wide bow under her chin. In a moment the hat was back in its box.
"What are you doing? You said it was mine."
"But not to change to a mourning bonnet. I shall find some other charming lady with green eyes who appreciates my taste."
"Oh, you shan't! I'll die if I don't have it! Oh, please, Rhett, don't be mean! Let me have it."
"And turn it into a fright like your other hats? No."
She clutched at the box. That sweet thing that made her look so young and enchanting to be given to some other girl? Oh, never! For a moment she thought of the horror of Pitty and Melanie. She thought of Ellen and what she would say, and she shivered. But vanity was stronger.
"I won't change it. I promise. Now, do let me have it."
He gave her the box with a slightly sardonic smile and watched her while she put it on again and preened herself.
"How much is it?" she asked suddenly, her face falling. "I have only fifty dollars but next month--"
"It would cost about two thousand dollars, Confederate money," he said with a grin at her woebegone expression.
"Oh, dear-- Well, suppose I give you the fifty now and then when I get--"
"I don't want any money for it," he said. "It's a gift."
Scarlett's mouth dropped open. The line was so closely, so carefully drawn where gifts from men were concerned.
"Candy and flowers, dear," Ellen had said time and again, "and perhaps a book of poetry or an album or a small bottle of Florida water are the only things a lady may accept from a gentleman. Never, never any expensive gift, even from your fiance. And never any gift of jewelry or wearing apparel, not even gloves or handkerchiefs. Should you accept such gifts, men would know you were no lady and would try to take liberties."
"Oh, dear," thought Scarlett, looking first at herself in the mirror and then at Rhett's unreadable face. "I simply can't tell him I won't accept it. It's too darling. I'd--I'd almost rather he took a liberty, if it was a very small one." Then she was horrified at herself for having such a thought and she turned pink.
"I'll--I'll give you the fifty dollars--"
"If you do I will throw it in the gutter. Or, better still buy masses for your soul. I'm sure your soul could do with a few masses."
She laughed unwillingly, and the laughing reflection under the green brim decided her instantly.
"Whatever are you trying to do to me?"
"I'm tempting you with fine gifts until your girlish ideals are quite worn away and you are at my mercy," he said. "'Accept only candy and flowers from gentlemen, dearie,'" he mimicked, and she burst into a giggle.
"You are a clever, black-hearted wretch, Rhett Butler, and you know very well this bonnet's too pretty to be refused."
His eyes mocked her, even while they complimented her beauty.
"Of course, you can tell Miss Pitty that you gave me a sample of taffeta and green silk and drew a picture of the bonnet and I extorted fifty dollars from you for it."
"No. I shall say one hundred dollars and she'll tell everybody in town and everybody will be green with envy and talk about my extravagance. But Rhett, you mustn't bring me anything else so expensive. It's awfully kind of you, but I really couldn't accept anything else."
"Indeed? Well, I shall bring you presents so long as it pleases me and so long as I see things that will enhance your charms. I shall bring you dark-green watered silk for a frock to match the bonnet. And I warn you that I am not kind. I am tempting you with bonnets and bangles and leading you into a pit. Always remember I never do anything without reason and I never give anything without expecting something in return. I always get paid."
His black eyes sought her face and traveled to her lips.
Scarlett cast down her eyes, excitement filling her. Now, he was going to try to take liberties, just as Ellen predicted. He was going to kiss her, or try to kiss her, and she couldn't quite make up her flurried mind which it should be. If she refused, he might jerk the bonnet right off her head and give it to some other girl. On the other hand, if she permitted one chaste peck, he might bring her other lovely presents in the hope of getting another kiss. Men set such a store by kisses, though Heaven alone knew why. And lots of times, after one kiss they fell completely in love with a girl and made most entertaining spectacles of themselves, provided the girl was clever and withheld her kisses after the first one. It would be exciting to have Rhett Butler in love with her and admitting it and begging for a kiss or a smile. Yes, she would let him kiss her.
But he made no move to kiss her. She gave him a sidelong glance from under her lashes and murmured encouragingly.
"So you always get paid, do you? And what do you expect to get from me?"
"That remains to be seen."
"Well, if you think I'll marry you to pay for the bonnet, I won't," she said daringly and gave her head a saucy flirt that set the plume to bobbing.
His white teeth gleamed under his little mustache.
"Madam, you flatter yourself, I do not want to marry you or anyone else. I am not a marrying man."
"Indeed!" she cried, taken aback and now determined that he should take some liberty. "I don't even intend to kiss you, either."
"Then why is your mouth all pursed up in that ridiculous way?"
"Oh!" she cried as she caught a glimpse of herself and saw that her red lips were indeed in the proper pose for a kiss. "Oh!" she cried again, losing her temper and stamping her foot. "You are the horridest man I have ever seen and I don't care if I never lay eyes on you again!"
"If you really felt that way, you'd stamp on the bonnet. My, what a passion you are in and it's quite becoming, as you probably know. Come, Scarlett, stamp on the bonnet to show me what you think of me and my presents."
"Don't you dare touch this bonnet," she said, clutching it by the bow and retreating. He came after her, laughing softly and took her hands in his.
"Oh, Scarlett, you are so young you wring my heart," he said. "And I shall kiss you, as you seem to expect it," and leaning down carelessly, his mustache just grazed her cheek. "Now, do you feel that you must slap me to preserve the proprieties?"
Her lips mutinous, she looked up into his eyes and saw so much amusement in their dark depths that she burst into laughter. What a tease he was and how exasperating! If he didn't want to marry her and didn't even want to kiss her, what did he want? If he wasn't in love with her, why did he call so often and bring her presents?
"That's better," he said. "Scarlett, I'm a bad influence on you and if you have any sense you will send me packing--if you can. I'm very hard to get rid of. But I'm bad for you."
"Can't you see it? Ever since I met you at the bazaar, your career has been most shocking and I'm to blame for most of it. Who encouraged you to dance? Who forced you to admit that you thought our glorious Cause was neither glorious nor sacred? Who goaded you into admitting that you thought men were fools to die for high-sounding principles? Who has aided you in giving the old ladies plenty to gossip about? Who is getting you out of mourning several years too soon? And who, to end all this, has lured you into accepting a gift which no lady can accept and still remain a lady?"
"You flatter yourself, Captain Butler. I haven't done anything so scandalous and I'd have done everything you mentioned without your aid anyway."
"I doubt that," he said and his face went suddenly quiet and somber. "You'd still be the broken-hearted widow of Charles Hamilton and famed for your good deeds among the wounded. Eventually, however--"
But she was not listening, for she was regarding herself pleasedly in the mirror again, thinking she would wear the bonnet to the hospital this very afternoon and take flowers to the convalescent officers.
That there was truth in his last words did not occur to her. She did not see that Rhett had pried open the prison of her widowhood and set her free to queen it over unmarried girls when her days as a belle should have been long past. Nor did she see that under his influence she had come a long way from Ellen's teachings. The change had been so gradual, the flouting of one small convention seeming to have no connection with the flouting of another, and none of them any connection with Rhett. She did not realize that, with his encouragement, she had disregarded many of the sternest injunctions of her mother concerning the proprieties, forgotten the difficult lessons in being a lady.
She only saw that the bonnet was the most becoming one she ever had, that it had not cost her a penny and that Rhett must be in love with her, whether he admitted it or not. And she certainly intended to find a way to make him admit it.
The next day, Scarlett was standing in front of the mirror with a comb in her hand and her mouth full of hairpins, attempting a new coiffure which Maybelle, fresh from a visit to her husband in Richmond, had said was the rage at the Capital. It was called "Cats, Rats and Mice" and presented many difficulties. The hair was parted in the middle and arranged in three rolls of graduating size on each side of the head, the largest, nearest the part, being the "cat." The "cat" and the "rat" were easy to fix but the "mice" kept slipping out of her hairpins in an exasperating manner. However, she was determined to accomplish it, for Rhett was coming to supper and he always noticed and commented upon any innovation of dress or hair.
As she struggled with her bushy, obstinate locks, perspiration beading her forehead, she heard light running feet in the downstairs hall and knew that Melanie was home from the hospital. As she heard her fly up the stairs, two at a time, she paused, hairpin in mid-air, realizing that something must be wrong, for Melanie always moved as decorously as a dowager. She went to the door and threw it open, and Melanie ran in, her face flushed and frightened, looking like a guilty child.
There were tears on her cheeks, her bonnet was hanging on her neck by the ribbons and her hoops swaying violently. She was clutching something in her hand, and the reek of heavy cheap perfume came into the room with her.
"Oh, Scarlett!" she cried, shutting the door and sinking on the bed. "Is Auntie home yet? She isn't? Oh, thank the Lord! Scarlett, I'm so mortified I could die! I nearly swooned and, Scarlett, Uncle Peter is threatening to tell Aunt Pitty!"
"That I was talking to that--to Miss--Mrs.--" Melanie fanned her hot face with her handkerchief. "That woman with red hair, named Belle Watling!"
"Why, Melly!" cried Scarlett, so shocked she could only stare.
Belle Watling was the red-haired woman she had seen on the street the first day she came to Atlanta and by now, she was easily the most notorious woman in town. Many prostitutes had flocked into Atlanta, following the soldiers, but Belle stood out above the rest, due to her flaming hair and the gaudy, overly fashionable dresses she wore. She was seldom seen on Peachtree Street or in any nice neighborhood, but when she did appear respectable women made haste to cross the street to remove themselves from her vicinity. And Melanie had been talking with her. No wonder Uncle Peter was outraged.
"I shall die if Aunt Pitty finds out! You know she'll cry and tell everybody in town and I'll be disgraced," sobbed Melanie. "And it wasn't my fault. I--I couldn't run away from her. It would have been so rude. Scarlett, I--I felt sorry for her. Do you think I'm bad for feeling that way?"
But Scarlett was not concerned with the ethics of the matter. Like most innocent and well-bred young women, she had a devouring curiosity about prostitutes.
"What did she want? What does she talk like?"
"Oh, she used awful grammar but I could see she was trying so hard to be elegant, poor thing. I came out of the hospital and Uncle Peter and the carriage weren't waiting, so I thought I'd walk home. And when I went by the Emersons' yard, there she was hiding behind the hedge! Oh, thank Heaven, the Emersons are in Macon! And she said, 'Please, Mrs. Wilkes, do speak a minute with me.' I don't know how she knew my name. I knew I ought to run as hard as I could but--well, Scarlett, she looked so sad and--well, sort of pleading. And she had on a black dress and black bonnet and no paint and really looked decent but for that red hair. And before I could answer she said. 'I know I shouldn't speak to you but I tried to talk to that old peahen, Mrs. Elsing, and she ran me away from the hospital.'"
"Did she really call her a peahen?" said Scarlett pleasedly and laughed.
"Oh, don't laugh. It isn't funny. It seems that Miss--this woman, wanted to do something for the hospital--can you imagine it? She offered to nurse every morning and, of course, Mrs. Elsing must have nearly died at the idea and ordered her out of the hospital. And then she said, 'I want to do something, too. Ain't I a Confedrut, good as you?' And, Scarlett, I was right touched at her wanting to help. You know, she can't be all bad if she wants to help the Cause. Do you think I'm bad to feel that way?"
"For Heaven's sake, Melly, who cares if you're bad? What else did she say?"
"She said she'd been watching the ladies go by to the hospital and thought I had--a--a kind face and so she stopped me. She had some money and she wanted me to take it and use it for the hospital and not tell a soul where it came from. She said Mrs. Elsing wouldn't let it be used if she knew what kind of money it was. What kind of money! That's when I thought I'd swoon! And I was so upset and anxious to get away, I just said: 'Oh, yes, indeed, how sweet of you' or something idiotic, and she smiled and said: 'That's right Christian of you' and shoved this dirty handkerchief into my hand. Ugh, can you smell the perfume?"
Melanie held out a man's handkerchief, soiled and highly perfumed, in which some coins were knotted.
"She was saying thank you and something about bringing me some money every week and just then Uncle Peter drove up and saw me!" Melly collapsed into tears and laid her head on the pillow. "And when he saw who was with me, he--Scarlett, he HOLLERED at me! Nobody has ever hollered at me before in my whole life. And he said, 'You git in dis hyah cah'ige dis minute!' Of course, I did, and all the way home he blessed me out and wouldn't let me explain and said he was going to tell Aunt Pitty. Scarlett, do go down and beg him not to tell her. Perhaps he will listen to you. It will kill Auntie if she knows I ever even looked that woman in the face. Will you?"
"Yes, I will. But let's see how much money is in here. It feels heavy."
She untied the knot and a handful of gold coins rolled out on the bed.
"Scarlett, there's fifty dollars here! And in gold!" cried Melanie, awed, as she counted the bright pieces. "Tell me, do you think it's all right to use this kind--well, money made--er--this way for the boys? Don't you think that maybe God will understand that she wanted to help and won't care if it is tainted? When I think of how many things the hospital needs--"
But Scarlett was not listening. She was looking at the dirty handkerchief, and humiliation and fury were filling her. There was a monogram in the corner in which were the initials "R. K. B." In her top drawer was a handkerchief just like this, one that Rhett Butler had lent her only yesterday to wrap about the stems of wild flowers they had picked. She had planned to return it to him when he came to supper tonight.
So Rhett consorted with that vile Watling creature and gave her money. That was where the contribution to the hospital came from. Blockade gold. And to think that Rhett would have the gall to look a decent woman in the face after being with that creature! And to think that she could have believed he was in love with her! This proved he couldn't be.
Bad women and all they involved were mysterious and revolting matters to her. She knew that men patronized these women for purposes which no lady should mention--or, if she did mention them, in whispers and by indirection and euphemism. She had always thought that only common vulgar men visited such women. Before this moment, it had never occurred to her that nice men-- that is, men she met at nice homes and with whom she danced--could possibly do such things. It opened up an entirely new field of thought and one that was horrifying. Perhaps all men did this! It was bad enough that they forced their wives to go through such indecent performances but to actually seek out low women and pay them for such accommodation! Oh, men were so vile, and Rhett Butler was the worst of them all!
She would take this handkerchief and fling it in his face and show him the door and never, never speak to him again. But no, of course she couldn't do that. She could never, never let him know she even realized that bad women existed, much less that he visited them. A lady could never do that.
"Oh," she thought in fury. "If I just wasn't a lady, what wouldn't I tell that varmint!"
And, crumbling the handkerchief in her hand, she went down the stairs to the kitchen in search of Uncle Peter. As she passed the stove, she shoved the handkerchief into the flames and with impotent anger watched it burn.
|Notes of the Chapter|