For the first time since the war began, Atlanta could hear the sound of battle. In the early morning hours before the noises of the town awoke, the cannon at Kennesaw Mountain could be heard faintly, far away, a low dim booming that might have passed for summer thunder. Occasionally it was loud enough to be heard even above the rattle of traffic at noon. People tried not to listen to it, tried to talk, to laugh, to carry on their business, just as though the Yankees were not there, twenty-two miles away, but always ears were strained for the sound. The town wore a preoccupied look, for no matter what occupied their hands, all were listening, listening, their hearts leaping suddenly a hundred times a day. Was the booming louder? Or did they only think it was louder? Would General Johnston hold them this time? Would he?
Panic lay just beneath the surface. Nerves which had been stretched tighter and tighter each day of the retreat began to reach the breaking point. No one spoke of fears. That subject was taboo, but strained nerves found expression in loud criticism of the General. Public feeling was at fever heat. Sherman was at the very doors of Atlanta. Another retreat might bring the Confederates into the town.
Give us a general who won't retreat! Give us a man who will stand and fight!
With the far-off rumbling of cannon in their ears, the state militia, "Joe Brown's Pets," and the Home Guard marched out of Atlanta, to defend the bridges and ferries of the Chattahoochee River at Johnston's back. It was a gray, overcast day and, as they marched through Five Points and out the Marietta road, a fine rain began to fall. The whole town had turned out to see them off and they stood, close packed, under the wooden awnings of the stores on Peachtree Street and tried to cheer.
Scarlett and Maybelle Merriwether Picard had been given permission to leave the hospital and watch the men go out, because Uncle Henry Hamilton and Grandpa Merriwether were in the Home Guard, and they stood with Mrs. Meade, pressed in the crowd, tiptoeing to get a better view. Scarlett, though filled with the universal Southern desire to believe only the pleasantest and most reassuring things about the progress of the fighting, felt cold as she watched the motley ranks go by. Surely, things must be in a desperate pass if this rabble of bombproofers, old men and little boys were being called out! To be sure there were young and able-bodied men in the passing lines, tricked out in the bright uniforms of socially select militia units, plumes waving, sashes dancing. But there were so many old men and young boys, and the sight of them made her heart contract with pity and with fear. There were graybeards older than her father trying to step jauntily along in the needle- fine rain to the rhythm of the fife and drum corps. Grandpa Merriwether, with Mrs. Merriwether's best plaid shawl laid across his shoulders to keep out the rain, was in the first rank and he saluted the girls with a grin. They waved their handkerchiefs and cried gay good-bys to him; but Maybelle, gripping Scarlett's arm, whispered: "Oh, the poor old darling! A real good rainstorm will just about finish him! His lumbago--"
Uncle Henry Hamilton marched in the rank behind Grandpa Merriwether, the collar of his long black coat turned up about his ears, two Mexican War pistols in his belt and a small carpetbag in his hand. Beside him marched his black valet who was nearly as old as Uncle Henry, with an open umbrella held over them both. Shoulder to shoulder with their elders came the young boys, none of them looking over sixteen. Many of them had run away from school to join the army, and here and there were clumps of them in the cadet uniforms of military academies, the black cock feathers on their tight gray caps wet with rain, the clean white canvas straps crossing their chests sodden. Phil Meade was among them, proudly wearing his dead brother's saber and horse pistols, his hat bravely pinned up on one side. Mrs. Meade managed to smile and wave until he had passed and then she leaned her head on the back of Scarlett's shoulder for a moment as though her strength had suddenly left her.
Many of the men were totally unarmed, for the Confederacy had neither rifles nor ammunition to issue to them. These men hoped to equip themselves from killed and captured Yankees. Many carried bowie knives in their boots and bore in their hands long thick poles with iron-pointed tips known as "Joe Brown pikes." The lucky ones had old flintlock muskets slung over their shoulders and powder-horns at their belts.
Johnston had lost around ten thousand men in his retreat. He needed ten thousand more fresh troops. And this, thought Scarlett frightened, is what he is getting!
As the artillery rumbled by, splashing mud into the watching crowds, a negro on a mule, riding close to a cannon caught her eye. He was a young, saddle-colored negro with a serious face, and when Scarlett saw him she cried: "It's Mose! Ashley's Mose! Whatever is he doing here?" She fought her way through the crowd to the curb and called: "Mose! Stop!"
The boy seeing her, drew rein, smiled delightedly and started to dismount. A soaking sergeant, riding behind him, called: "Stay on that mule, boy, or I'll light a fire under you! We got to git to the mountain some time."
Uncertainly, Mose looked from the sergeant to Scarlett and she, splashing through the mud, close to the passing wheels, caught at Moses' stirrup strap.
"Oh, just a minute, Sergeant! Don't get down, Mose. What on earth are you doing here?"
"Ah's off ter de war, agin, Miss Scarlett. Dis time wid Ole Mist' John 'stead ob Mist' Ashley."
"Mr. Wilkes!" Scarlett was stunned. Mr. Wilkes was nearly seventy. "Where is he?"
"Back wid de las' cannon, Miss Scarlett. Back dar!"
"Sorry, lady. Move on, boy!"
Scarlett stood for a moment, ankle deep in mud as the guns lurched by. Oh, no! She thought. It can't be. He's too old. And he doesn't like war any more than Ashley did! She retreated back a few paces toward the curb and scanned each face that passed. Then, as the last cannon and limber chest came groaning and splashing up, she saw him, slender, erect, his long silver hair wet upon his neck, riding easily upon a little strawberry mare that picked her way as daintily through the mud holes as a lady in a satin dress. Why--that mare was Nellie! Mrs. Tarleton's Nellie! Beatrice Tarleton's treasured darling!
When he saw her standing in the mud, Mr. Wilkes drew rein with a smile of pleasure and, dismounting, came toward her.
"I had hoped to see you, Scarlett. I was charged with so many messages from your people. But there was no time. We just got in this morning and they are rushing us out immediately, as you see."
"Oh, Mr. Wilkes," she cried desperately, holding his hand. "Don't go! Why must you go?"
"Ah, so you think I'm too old!" he smiled, and it was Ashley's smile in an older face. "Perhaps I am too old to march but not to ride and shoot. And Mrs. Tarleton so kindly lent me Nellie, so I am well mounted. I hope nothing happens to Nellie, for if something should happen to her, I could never go home and face Mrs. Tarleton. Nellie was the last horse she had left." He was laughing now, turning away her fears. "Your mother and father and the girls are well and they sent you their love. Your father nearly came up with us today!"
"Oh, not Pa!" cried Scarlett in terror. "Not Pa! He isn't going to the war, is he?"
"No, but he was. Of course, he can't walk far with his stiff knee, but he was all for riding away with us. Your mother agreed, providing he was able to jump the pasture fence, for, she said, there would be a lot of rough riding to be done in the army. Your father thought that easy, but--would you believe it? When his horse came to the fence, he stopped dead and over his head went your father! It's a wonder it didn't break his neck! You know how obstinate he is. He got right up and tried it again. Well, Scarlett, he came off three times before Mrs. O'Hara and Pork assisted him to bed. He was in a taking about it, swearing that your mother had 'spoken a wee word in the beast's ear.' He just isn't up to active service, Scarlett. You need have no shame about it. After all, someone must stay home and raise crops for the army."
Scarlett had no shame at all, only an active feeling of relief.
"I've sent India and Honey to Macon to stay with the Burrs and Mr. O'Hara is looking after Twelve Oaks as well as Tara. . . . I must go, my dear. Let me kiss your pretty face."
Scarlett turned up her lips and there was a choking pain in her throat. She was so fond of Mr. Wilkes. Once, long ago, she had hoped to be his daughter-in-law.
"And you must deliver this kiss to Pittypat and this to Melanie," he said, kissing her lightly two more times. "And how is Melanie?"
"She is well."
"Ah!" His eyes looked at her but through her, past her as Ashley's had done, remote gray eyes looking on another world. "I should have liked to see my first grandchild. Good-by, my dear."
He swung onto Nellie and cantered off, his hat in his hand, his silver hair bare to the rain. Scarlett had rejoined Maybelle and Mrs. Meade before the import of his last words broke upon her. Then in superstitious terror she crossed herself and tried to say a prayer. He had spoken of death, just as Ashley had done, and now Ashley-- No one should ever speak of death! It was tempting Providence to mention death. As the three women started silently back to the hospital in the rain, Scarlett was praying: "Not him, too, God. Not him and Ashley, too!"
The retreat from Dalton to Kennesaw Mountain had taken from early May to mid-June and as the hot rainy days of June passed and Sherman failed to dislodge the Confederates from the steep slippery slopes, hope again raised its head. Everyone grew more cheerful and spoke more kindly of General Johnston. As wet June days passed into a wetter July and the Confederates, fighting desperately around the entrenched heights, still held Sherman at bay, a wild gaiety took hold of Atlanta. Hope went to their heads like champagne. Hurrah! Hurrah! We're holding them! An epidemic of parties and dances broke out. Whenever groups of men from the fighting were in town for the night, dinners were given for them and afterwards there was dancing and the girls, outnumbering the men ten to one, made much of them and fought to dance with them.
Atlanta was crowded with visitors, refugees, families of wounded men in the hospitals, wives and mothers of soldiers fighting at the mountain who wished to be near them in case of wounds. In addition, bevies of belles from the country districts, where all remaining men were under sixteen or over sixty, descended upon the town. Aunt Pitty disapproved highly of these last, for she felt they had come to Atlanta for no reason at all except to catch husbands, and the shamelessness of it made her wonder what the world was coming to. Scarlett disapproved, too. She did not care for the eager competition furnished by the sixteen-year-olds whose fresh cheeks and bright smiles made one forget their twice-turned frocks and patched shoes. Her own clothes were prettier and newer than most, thanks to the material Rhett Butler had brought her on the last boat he ran in, but, after all, she was nineteen and getting along and men had a way of chasing silly young things.
A widow with a child was at a disadvantage with these pretty minxes, she thought. But in these exciting days her widowhood and her motherhood weighed less heavily upon her than ever before. Between hospital duties in the day time and parties at night, she hardly ever saw Wade. Sometimes she actually forgot, for long stretches, that she had a child.
In the warm wet summer nights, Atlanta's homes stood open to the soldiers, the town's defenders. The big houses from Washington Street to Peachtree Street blazed with lights, as the muddy fighters in from the rifle pits were entertained, and the sound of banjo and fiddle and the scrape of dancing feet and light laughter carried far on the night air. Groups hung over pianos and voices sang lustily the sad words of "Your Letter Came but Came Too Late" while ragged gallants looked meaningly at girls who laughed from behind turkey-tail fans, begging them not to wait until it was too late. None of the girls waited, if they could help it. With the tide of hysterical gaiety and excitement flooding the city, they rushed into matrimony. There were so many marriages that month while Johnston was holding the enemy at Kennesaw Mountain, marriages with the bride turned out in blushing happiness and the hastily borrowed finery of a dozen friends and the groom with saber banging at patched knees. So much excitement, so many parties, so many thrills! Hurrah! Johnston is holding the Yanks twenty-two miles away!
Yes, the lines around Kennesaw Mountain were impregnable. After twenty-five days of fighting, even General Sherman was convinced of this, for his losses were enormous. Instead of continuing the direct assault, he swung his army in a wide circle again and tried to come between the Confederates and Atlanta. Again, the strategy worked. Johnston was forced to abandon the heights he had held so well, in order to protect his rear. He had lost a third of his men in that fight and the remainder slogged tiredly through the rain across the country toward the Chattahoochee River. The Confederates could expect no more reinforcements, whereas the railroad, which the Yankees now held from Tennessee south to the battle line, brought Sherman fresh troops and supplies daily. So the gray lines went back through the muddy fields, back toward Atlanta.
With the loss of the supposedly unconquerable position, a fresh wave of terror swept the town. For twenty-five wild, happy days, everyone had assured everyone else that this could not possibly happen. And now it had happened! But surely the General would hold the Yankees on the opposite bank of the river. Though God knows the river was close enough, only seven miles away!
But Sherman flanked them again, crossing the stream above them, and the weary gray files were forced to hurry across the yellow water and throw themselves again between the invaders and Atlanta. They dug in hastily in shallow pits to the north of the town in the valley of Peachtree Creek. Atlanta was in agony and panic.
Fight and fall back! Fight and fall back! And every retreat was bringing the Yankees closer to the town. Peachtree Creek was only five miles away! What was the General thinking about?
The cries of "Give us a man who will stand and fight!" penetrated even to Richmond. Richmond knew that if Atlanta was lost, the war was lost, and after the army had crossed the Chattahoochee, General Johnston was removed from command. General Hood, one of his corps commanders, took over the army, and the town breathed a little easier. Hood wouldn't retreat. Not that tall Kentuckian, with his flowing beard and flashing eye! He had the reputation of a bulldog. He'd drive the Yankees back from the creek, yes, back across the river and on up the road every step of the way back to Dalton. But the army cried: "Give us back Old Joe!" for they had been with Old Joe all the weary miles from Dalton and they knew, as the civilians could not know, the odds that had opposed them.
Sherman did not wait for Hood to get himself in readiness to attack. On the day after the change in command, the Yankee general struck swiftly at the little town of Decatur, six miles beyond Atlanta, captured it and cut the railroad there. This was the railroad connecting Atlanta with Augusta, with Charleston, and Wilmington and with Virginia. Sherman had dealt the Confederacy a crippling blow. The time had come for action! Atlanta screamed for action!
Then, on a July afternoon of steaming heat, Atlanta had its wish. General Hood did more than stand and fight. He assaulted the Yankees fiercely at Peachtree Creek, hurling his men from their rifle pits against the blue lines where Sherman's men outnumbered him more than two to one.
Frightened, praying that Hood's attack would drive the Yankees back, everyone listened to the sound of booming cannon and the crackling of thousands of rifles which, though five miles away from the center of town, were so loud as to seem almost in the next block. They could hear the rumblings of the batteries, see the smoke which rolled like low-hanging clouds above the trees, but for hours no one knew how the battle was going.
By late afternoon the first news came, but it was uncertain, contradictory, frightening, brought as it was by men wounded in the early hours of the battle. These men began straggling in, singly and in groups, the less seriously wounded supporting those who limped and staggered. Soon a steady stream of them was established, making their painful way into town toward the hospitals, their faces black as negroes' from powder stains, dust and sweat, their wounds unbandaged, blood drying, flies swarming about them.
Aunt Pitty's was one of the first houses which the wounded reached as they struggled in from the north of the town, and one after another, they tottered to the gate, sank down on the green lawn and croaked:
All that burning afternoon, Aunt Pitty and her family, black and white, stood in the sun with buckets of water and bandages, ladling drinks, binding wounds until the bandages gave out and even the torn sheets and towels were exhausted. Aunt Pitty completely forgot that the sight of blood always made her faint and she worked until her little feet in their too small shoes swelled and would no longer support her. Even Melanie, now great with child, forgot her modesty and worked feverishly side by side with Prissy, Cookie and Scarlett, her face as tense as any of the wounded. When at last she fainted, there was no place to lay her except on the kitchen table, as every bed, chair and sofa in the house was filled with wounded.
Forgotten in the tumult, little Wade crouched behind the banisters on the front porch, peering out onto the lawn like a caged, frightened rabbit, his eyes wide with terror, sucking his thumb and hiccoughing. Once Scarlett saw him and cried sharply: "Go play in the back yard, Wade Hampton!" but he was too terrified, too fascinated by the mad scene before him to obey.
The lawn was covered with prostrate men, too tired to walk farther, too weak from wounds to move. These Uncle Peter loaded into the carriage and drove to the hospital, making trip after trip until the old horse was lathered. Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether sent their carriages and they, too, drove off, springs sagging beneath the weight of the wounded.
Later, in the long, hot summer twilight, the ambulances came rumbling down the road from the battle field and commissary wagons, covered with muddy canvas. Then farm wagons, ox carts and even private carriages commandeered by the medical corps. They passed Aunt Pitty's house, jolting over the bumpy road, packed with wounded and dying men, dripping blood into the red dust. At the sight of the women with buckets and dippers, the conveyances halted and the chorus went up in cries, in whispers:
Scarlett held wobbling heads that parched lips might drink, poured buckets of water over dusty, feverish bodies and into open wounds that the men might enjoy a brief moment's relief. She tiptoed to hand dippers to ambulance drivers and of each she questioned, her heart in her throat: "What news? What news?"
From all came back the answer: "Don't know fer sartin, lady. It's too soon to tell."
Night came and it was sultry. No air moved and the flaring pine knots the negroes held made the air hotter. Dust clogged Scarlett's nostrils and dried her lips. Her lavender calico dress, so freshly clean and starched that morning, was streaked with blood, dirt and sweat. This, then, was what Ashley had meant when he wrote that war was not glory but dirt and misery.
Fatigue gave an unreal, nightmarish cast to the whole scene. It couldn't be real--or it was real, then the world had gone mad. If not, why should she be standing here in Aunt Pitty's peaceful front yard, amid wavering lights, pouring water over dying beaux? For so many of them were her beaux and they tried to smile when they saw her. There were so many men jolting down this dark, dusty road whom she knew so well, so many men dying here before her eyes, mosquitoes and gnats swarming their bloody faces, men with whom she had danced and laughed, for whom she had played music and sung songs, teased, comforted and loved--a little.
She found Carey Ashburn on the bottom layer of wounded in an ox cart, barely alive from a bullet wound in his head. But she could not extricate him without disturbing six other wounded men, so she let him go on to the hospital. Later she heard he had died before a doctor ever saw him and was buried somewhere, no one knew exactly. So many men had been buried that month, in shallow, hastily dug graves at Oakland Cemetery. Melanie felt it keenly that they had not been able to get a lock of Carey's hair to send to his mother in Alabama.
As the hot night wore on and their backs were aching and their knees buckling from weariness, Scarlett and Pitty cried to man after man: "What news? What news?"
And as the long hours dragged past, they had their answer, an answer that made them look whitely into each other's eyes.
"We're falling back." "We've got to fall back." "They outnumber us by thousands." "The Yankees have got Wheeler's cavalry cut off near Decatur. We got to reenforce them." "Our boys will all be in town soon."
Scarlett and Pitty clutched each other's arms for support.
"Are--are the Yankees coming?"
"Yes'm, they're comin' all right but they ain't goin' ter git fer, lady." "Don't fret, Miss, they can't take Atlanta." "No, Ma'm, we got a million miles of breastworks 'round this town." "I heard Old Joe say it myself: 'I can hold Atlanta forever.'" "But we ain't got Old Joe. We got--" "Shut up, you fool! Do you want to scare the ladies?" "The Yankees will never take this place, Ma'm." "Whyn't you ladies go ter Macon or somewheres that's safer? Ain't you got no kinfolks there?" "The Yankees ain't goin' ter take Atlanta but still it ain't goin' ter be so healthy for ladies whilst they're tryin' it." "There's goin' ter be a powerful lot of shellin'."
In a warm steaming rain the next day, the defeated army poured though Atlanta by thousands, exhausted by hunger and weariness, depleted by seventy-six days of battle and retreat, their horses starved scarecrows, their cannon and caissons harnessed with odds and ends of rope and strips of rawhide. But they did not come in as disorderly rabble, in full rout. They marched in good order, jaunty for all their rags, their torn red battle flags flying in the rain. They had learned retreating under Old Joe, who had made it as great a feat of strategy as advancing. The bearded, shabby files swung down Peachtree Street to the tune of "Maryland! My Maryland!" and all the town turned out to cheer them. In victory or defeat, they were their boys.
The state militia who had gone out so short a time before, resplendent in new uniforms, could hardly be distinguished from the seasoned troops, so dirty and unkempt were they. There was a new look in their eyes. Three years of apologizing, of explaining why they were not at the front was behind them now. They had traded security behind the lines for the hardships of battle. Many of their number had traded easy living for hard death. They were veterans now, veterans of brief service, but veterans just the same, and they had acquitted themselves well. They searched out the faces of friends in the crowd and stared at them proudly, defiantly. They could hold up their heads now.
The old men and boys of the Home Guard marched by, the graybeards almost too weary to lift their feet, the boys wearing the faces of tired children, confronted too early with adult problems. Scarlett caught sight of Phil Meade and hardly recognized him, so black was his face with powder and grime, so taut with strain and weariness. Uncle Henry went limping by, hatless in the rain, his head stuck through a hole in a piece of old oilcloth. Grandpa Merriwether rode in on a gun carriage, his bare feet tied in quilt scraps. But search though she might, she saw no sign of John Wilkes.
Johnston's veterans, however, went by with the tireless, careless step which had carried them for three years, and they still had the energy to grin and wave at pretty girls and to call rude gibes to men not in uniform. They were on their way to the entrenchments that ringed the town--no shallow, hastily dug trenches, these, but earthworks, breast high, reinforced with sandbags and tipped with sharpened staves of wood. For mile after mile the trenches encircled the town, red gashes surmounted by red mounds, waiting for the men who would fill them.
The crowd cheered the troops as they would have cheered them in victory. There was fear in every heart but, now that they knew the truth, now that the worst had happened, now that the war was in their front yard, a change came over the town. There was no panic now, no hysteria. Whatever lay in hearts did not show on faces. Everyone looked cheerful even if the cheer was strained. Everyone tried to show brave, confident faces to the troops. Everyone repeated what Old Joe had said, just before he was relieved of command: "I can hold Atlanta forever."
Now that Hood had had to retreat, quite a number wished, with the soldiers, that they had Old Joe back, but they forebore saying it and took courage from Old Joe's remark:
"I can hold Atlanta forever!"
Not for Hood the cautious tactics of General Johnston. He assaulted the Yankees on the east, he assaulted them on the west. Sherman was circling the town like a wrestler seeking a fresh hold on an opponent's body, and Hood did not remain behind his rifle pits waiting for the Yankees to attack. He went out boldly to meet them and savagely fell upon them. Within the space of a few days the battles of Atlanta and of Ezra Church were fought, and both of them were major engagements which made Peachtree Creek seem like a skirmish.
But the Yankees kept coming back for more. They had suffered heavy losses but they could afford to lose. And all the while their batteries poured shells into Atlanta, killing people in their homes, ripping roofs off buildings, tearing huge craters in the streets. The townsfolk sheltered as best they could in cellars, in holes in the ground and in shallow tunnels dug in railroad cuts. Atlanta was under siege.
Within eleven days after he had taken command, General Hood had lost almost as many men as Johnston had lost in seventy-four days of battle and retreat, and Atlanta was hemmed in on three sides.
The railroad from Atlanta to Tennessee was now in Sherman's hands for its full length. His army was across the railroad to the east and he had cut the railroad running southwest to Alabama. Only the one railroad to the south, to Macon and Savannah, was still open. The town was crowded with soldiers, swamped with wounded, jammed with refugees, and this one line was inadequate for the crying needs of the stricken city. But as long as this railroad could be held, Atlanta could still stand.
Scarlett was terrified when she realized how important this line had become, how fiercely Sherman would fight to take it, how desperately Hood would fight to defend it. For this was the railroad which ran through the County, through Jonesboro. And Tara was only five miles from Jonesboro! Tara seemed like a haven of refuge by comparison with the screaming hell of Atlanta, but Tara was only five miles from Jonesboro!
Scarlett and many other ladies sat on the flat roofs of stores, shaded by their tiny parasols, and watched the fighting on the day of the battle of Atlanta. But when shells began falling in the streets for the first time, they fled to the cellars, and that night the exodus of women, children and old people from the city began. Macon was their destination and many of those who took the train that night had already refugeed five and six times before, as Johnston fell back from Dalton. They were traveling lighter now than when they arrived in Atlanta. Most of them carried only a carpetbag and a scanty lunch done up in a bandana handkerchief. Here and there, frightened servants carried silver pitchers, knives and forks and a family portrait or two which had been salvaged in the first fight.
Mrs. Merriwether and Mrs. Elsing refused to leave. They were needed at the hospital and furthermore, they said proudly, they weren't afraid and no Yankees were going to run them out of their homes. But Maybelle and her baby and Fanny Elsing went to Macon. Mrs. Meade was disobedient for the first time in her married life and flatly refused to yield to the doctor's command that she take the train to safety. The doctor needed her, she said. Moreover, Phil was somewhere in the trenches and she wanted to be near by in case . . .
But Mrs. Whiting went and many other ladies of Scarlett's circle. Aunt Pitty, who had been the first to denounce Old Joe for his policy of retreat, was among the first to pack her trunks. Her nerves, she said, were delicate and she could not endure noises. She feared she might faint at an explosion and not be able to reach the cellar. No, she was not afraid. Her baby mouth tried to set in martial lines but failed. She'd go to Macon and stay with her cousin, old Mrs. Burr, and the girls should come with her.
Scarlett did not want to go to Macon. Frightened as she was of the shells, she'd rather stay in Atlanta than go to Macon, for she hated old Mrs. Burr cordially. Years ago, Mrs. Burr had said she was "fast" after catching her kissing her son Willie at one of the Wilkes' house parties. No, she told Aunt Pitty, I'll go home to Tara and Melly can go to Macon with you.
At this Melanie began to cry in a frightened, heartbroken way. When Aunt Pitty fled to get Dr. Meade, Melanie caught Scarlett's hand in hers, pleading:
"Dear, don't go to Tara and leave me! I'll be so lonely without you. Oh, Scarlett, I'd just die if you weren't with me when the baby came! Yes--Yes, I know I've got Aunt Pitty and she is sweet. But after all, she's never had a baby, and sometimes she makes me so nervous I could scream. Don't desert me, darling. You've been just like a sister to me, and besides," she smiled wanly, "you promised Ashley you'd take care of me. He told me he was going to ask you."
Scarlett stared down at her in wonderment. With her own dislike of this woman so strong she could barely conceal it, how could Melly love her so? How could Melly be so stupid as not to guess the secret of her love of Ashley? She had given herself away a hundred times during these months of torment, waiting for news of him. But Melanie saw nothing, Melanie who could see nothing but good in anyone she loved. . . . Yes, she had promised Ashley she would look out for Melanie. Oh, Ashley! Ashley! you must be dead, dead these many months! And now your promise reaches out and clutches me!
"Well," she said shortly, "I did promise him that and I don't go back on my promises. But I won't go to Macon and stay with that old Burr cat. I'd claw her eyes out in five minutes. I'm going home to Tara and you can come with me. Mother would love to have you."
"Oh, I'd like that! Your mother is so sweet. But you know Auntie would just die if she wasn't with me when the baby came, and I know she won't go to Tara. It's too close to the fighting, and Auntie wants to be safe."
Dr. Meade, who had arrived out of breath, expecting to find Melanie in premature labor at least, judging by Aunt Pitty's alarmed summoning, was indignant and said as much. And upon learning the cause of the upset, he settled the matter with words that left no room for argument.
"It's out of the question for you to go to Macon, Miss Melly. I won't answer for you if you move. The trains are crowded and uncertain and the passengers are liable to be put off in the woods at any time, if the trains are needed for the wounded or troops and supplies. In your condition--"
"But if I went to Tara with Scarlett--"
"I tell you I won't have you moved. The train to Tara is the train to Macon and the same conditions prevail. Moreover, no one knows just where the Yankees are now, but they are all over everywhere. Your train might even be captured. And even if you reached Jonesboro safely, there'd be a five-mile ride over a rough road before you ever reached Tara. It's no trip for a woman in a delicate condition. Besides, there's not a doctor in the County since old Dr. Fontaine joined the army."
"But there are midwives--"
"I said a doctor," he answered brusquely and his eyes unconsciously went over her tiny frame. "I won't have you moved. It might be dangerous. You don't want to have the baby on the train or in a buggy, do you?"
This medical frankness reduced the ladies to embarrassed blushes and silence.
"You've got to stay right here where I can watch you, and you must stay in bed. No running up and down stairs to cellars. No, not even if shells come right in the window. After all, there's not so much danger here. We'll have the Yankees beaten back in no time. . . . Now, Miss Pitty, you go right on to Macon and leave the young ladies here."
"Unchaperoned?" she cried, aghast.
"They are matrons," said the doctor testily. "And Mrs. Meade is just two houses away. They won't be receiving any male company anyway with Miss Melly in her condition. Good Heavens, Miss Pitty! This is war time. We can't think of the proprieties now. We must think of Miss Melly."
He stamped out of the room and waited on the front porch until Scarlett joined him.
"I shall talk frankly to you, Miss Scarlett," he began, jerking at his gray beard. "You seem to be a young woman of common sense, so spare me your blushes. I do not want to hear any further talk about Miss Melly being moved. I doubt if she could stand the trip. She is going to have a difficult time, even in the best of circumstances--very narrow in the hips, as you know, and probably will need forceps for her delivery, so I don't want any ignorant darky midwife meddling with her. Women like her should never have children, but-- Anyway, you pack Miss Pitty's trunk and send her to Macon. She's so scared she'll upset Miss Melly and that won't do any good. And now, Miss," he fixed her with a piercing glance, "I don't want to hear about you going home, either. You stay with Miss Melly till the baby comes. Not afraid, are you?"
"Oh, no!" lied Scarlett, stoutly.
"That's a brave girl. Mrs. Meade will give you whatever chaperonage you need and I'll send over old Betsy to cook for you, if Miss Pitty wants to take her servants with her. It won't be for long. The baby ought to be here in another five weeks, but you never can tell with first babies and all this shelling going on. It may come any day."
So Aunt Pittypat went to Macon, in floods of tears, taking Uncle Peter and Cookie with her. The carriage and horse she donated to the hospital in a burst of patriotism which she immediately regretted and that brought on more tears. And Scarlett and Melanie were left alone with Wade and Prissy in a house that was much quieter, even though the cannonading continued.
|Notes of the Chapter|