In that warm summer after peace came, Tara suddenly lost its isolation. And for months thereafter a stream of scarecrows, bearded, ragged, footsore and always hungry, toiled up the red hill to Tara and came to rest on the shady front steps, wanting food and a night's lodging. They were Confederate soldiers walking home. The railroad had carried the remains of Johnston's army from North Carolina to Atlanta and dumped them there, and from Atlanta they began their pilgrimages afoot. When the wave of Johnston's men had passed, the weary veterans from the Army of Virginia arrived and then men from the Western troops, beating their way south toward homes which might not exist and families which might be scattered or dead. Most of them were walking, a few fortunate ones rode bony horses and mules which the terms of the surrender had permitted them to keep, gaunt animals which even an untrained eye could tell would never reach far-away Florida and south Georgia.
Going home! Going home! That was the only thought in the soldiers' minds. Some were sad and silent, others gay and contemptuous of hardships, but the thought that it was all over and they were going home was the one thing that sustained them. Few of them were bitter. They left bitterness to their women and their old people. They had fought a good fight, had been licked and were willing to settle down peaceably to plowing beneath the flag they had fought.
Going home! Going home! They could talk of nothing else, neither battles nor wounds, nor imprisonment nor the future. Later, they would refight battles and tell children and grandchildren of pranks and forays and charges, of hunger, forced marches and wounds, but not now. Some of them lacked an arm or a leg or an eye, many had scars which would ache in rainy weather if they lived for seventy years but these seemed small matters now. Later it would be different.
Old and young, talkative and taciturn, rich planter and sallow Cracker, they all had two things in common, lice and dysentery. The Confederate soldier was so accustomed to his verminous state he did not give it a thought and scratched unconcernedly even in the presence of ladies. As for dysentery--the "bloody flux" as the ladies delicately called it--it seemed to have spared no one from private to general. Four years of half-starvation, four years of rations which were coarse or green or half-putrefied, had done its work with them and every soldier who stopped at Tara was either just recovering or was actively suffering from it.
"Dey ain' a soun' set of bowels in de whole Confedrut ahmy," observed Mammy darkly as she sweated over the fire, brewing a bitter concoction of blackberry roots which had been Ellen's sovereign remedy for such afflictions. "It's mah notion dat 'twarn't de Yankees whut beat our gempmum. 'Twuz dey own innards. Kain no gempmum fight wid his bowels tuhnin' ter water."
One and all, Mammy dosed them, never waiting to ask foolish questions about the state of their organs and, one and all, they drank her doses meekly and with wry faces, remembering, perhaps, other stern black faces in far-off places and other inexorable black hands holding medicine spoons.
In the matter of "comp'ny" Mammy was equally adamant. No lice- ridden soldier should come into Tara. She marched them behind a clump of thick bushes, relieved them of their uniforms, gave them a basin of water and strong lye soap to wash with and provided them with quilts and blankets to cover their nakedness, while she boiled their clothing in her huge wash pot. It was useless for the girls to argue hotly that such conduct humiliated the soldiers. Mammy replied that the girls would be a sight more humiliated if they found lice upon themselves.
When the soldiers began arriving almost daily, Mammy protested against their being allowed to use the bedrooms. Always she feared lest some louse had escaped her. Rather than argue the matter, Scarlett turned the parlor with its deep velvet rug into a dormitory. Mammy cried out equally loudly at the sacrilege of soldiers being permitted to sleep on Miss Ellen's rug but Scarlett was firm. They had to sleep somewhere. And, in the months after the surrender, the deep soft nap began to show signs of wear and finally the heavy warp and woof showed through in spots where heels had worn it and spurs dug carelessly.
Of each soldier, they asked eagerly of Ashley. Suellen, bridling, always asked news of Mr. Kennedy. But none of the soldiers had ever heard of them nor were they inclined to talk about the missing. It was enough that they themselves were alive, and they did not care to think of the thousands in unmarked graves who would never come home.
The family tried to bolster Melanie's courage after each of these disappointments. Of course, Ashley hadn't died in prison. Some Yankee chaplain would have written if this were true. Of course, he was coming home but his prison was so far away. Why, goodness, it took days riding on a train to make the trip and if Ashley was walking, like these men . . . Why hadn't he written? Well, darling, you know what the mails are now--so uncertain and slipshod even where mail routes are re-established. But suppose--suppose he had died on the way home. Now, Melanie, some Yankee woman would have surely written us about it! . . . Yankee women! Bah! . . . Melly, there ARE some nice Yankee women. Oh, yes, there are! God couldn't make a whole nation without having some nice women in it! Scarlett, you remember we did meet a nice Yankee woman at Saratoga that time--Scarlett, tell Melly about her!
"Nice, my foot!" replied Scarlert. "She asked me how many bloodhounds we kept to chase our darkies with! I agree with Melly. I never saw a nice Yankee, male or female. But don't cry, Melly! Ashley'll come home. It's a long walk and maybe--maybe he hasn't got any boots."
Then at the thought of Ashley barefooted, Scarlett could have cried. Let other soldiers limp by in rags with their feet tied up in sacks and strips of carpet, but not Ashley. He should come home on a prancing horse, dressed in fine clothes and shining boots, a plume in his hat. It was the final degradation for her to think of Ashley reduced to the state of these other soldiers.
One afternoon in June when everyone at Tara was assembled on the back porch eagerly watching Pork cut the first half-ripe watermelon of the season, they heard hooves on the gravel of the front drive. Prissy started languidly toward the front door, while those left behind argued hotly as to whether they should hide the melon or keep it for supper, should the caller at the door prove to be a soldier.
Melly and Carreen whispered that the soldier guest should have a share and Scarlett, backed by Suellen and Mammy, hissed to Pork to hide it quickly.
"Don't be a goose, girls! There's not enough for us as it is and if there are two or three famished soldiers out there, none of us will even get a taste," said Scarlett.
While Pork stood with the little melon clutched to him, uncertain as to the final decision, they heard Prissy cry out.
"Gawdlmighty! Miss Scarlett! Miss Melly! Come quick!"
"Who is it?" cried Scarlett, leaping up from the steps and racing through the hall with Melly at her shoulder and the others streaming after her.
Ashley! she thought. Oh, perhaps--
"It's Uncle Peter! Miss Pittypat's Uncle Peter!"
They all ran out to the front porch and saw the tall grizzled old despot of Aunt Pitty's house climbing down from a rat-tailed nag on which a section of quilting had been strapped. On his wide black face, accustomed dignity strove with delight at seeing old friends, with the result that his brow was furrowed in a frown but his mouth was hanging open like a happy toothless old hound's.
Everyone ran down the steps to greet him, black and white shaking his hand and asking questions, but Melly's voice rose above them all.
"Auntie isn't sick, is she?"
"No'm. She's po'ly, thank God," answered Peter, fastening a severe look first on Melly and then on Scarlett, so that they suddenly felt guilty but could think of no reason why. "She's po'ly but she is plum outdone wid you young Misses, an' ef it come right down to it, Ah is too!"
"Why! Uncle Peter! What on earth--"
"Y'all nee'n try ter 'scuse you'seffs. Ain' Miss Pitty writ you an' writ you ter come home? Ain' Ah seed her write an' seed her a-cryin' w'en y'all writ her back dat you got too much ter do on disyere ole farm ter come home?"
"But, Uncle Peter--"
"Huccome you leave Miss Pitty by herseff lak dis w'en she so scary lak? You know well's Ah do Miss Pitty ain' never live by herseff an' she been shakin' in her lil shoes ever since she come back frum Macom. She say fer me ter tell y'all plain as Ah knows how dat she jes' kain unnerstan' y'all desertin' her in her hour of need."
"Now, hesh!" said Mammy tartly, for it sat ill upon her to hear Tara referred to as an "ole farm." Trust an ignorant city-bred darky not to know the difference between a farm and a plantation. "Ain' us got no hours of need? Ain' us needin' Miss Scarlett an' Miss Melly right hyah an' needin' dem bad? Huccome Miss Pitty doan ast her brudder fer 'sistance, does she need any?"
Uncle Peter gave her a withering look.
"Us ain' had nuthin' ter do wid Mist' Henry fer y'ars, an' us is too ole ter start now." He turned back to the girls, who were trying to suppress their smiles. "You young Misses ought ter tek shame, leavin' po' Miss Pitty 'lone, wid half her frens daid an' de other half in Macom, an' 'Lanta full of Yankee sojers an' trashy free issue niggers."
The two girls had borne the castigation with straight faces as long as they could, but the thought of Aunt Pitty sending Peter to scold them and bring them back bodily to Atlanta was too much for their control. They burst into laughter and hung on each other's shoulders for support. Naturally, Pork and Dilcey and Mammy gave vent to loud guffaws at hearing the detractor of their beloved Tara set at naught. Suellen and Carreen giggled and even Gerald's face wore a vague smile. Everyone laughed except Peter, who shifted from one large splayed foot to the other in mounting indignation.
"Whut's wrong wid you, nigger?" inquired Mammy with a grin. "Is you gittin' too ole ter perteck yo' own Missus?"
Peter was outraged.
"Too ole! Me too ole? No, Ma'm! Ah kin perteck Miss Pitty lak Ah allus done. Ain' Ah perteck her down ter Macom when us refugeed? Ain' Ah perteck her w'en de Yankees come ter Macom an' she so sceered she faintin' all de time? An' ain' Ah 'quire disyere nag ter bring her back ter 'Lanta an' perteck her an' her pa's silver all de way?" Peter drew himself to his full height as he vindicated himself. "Ah ain' talkin' about perteckin'. Ah's talkin' 'bout how it LOOK."
"How who look?"
"Ah'm talkin' 'bout how it look ter folks, seein' Miss Pitty livin' 'lone. Folks talks scan'lous 'bout maiden ladies dat lives by deyseff," continued Peter, and it was obvious to his listeners that Pittypat, in his mind, was still a plump and charming miss of sixteen who must be sheltered against evil tongues. "An' Ah ain' figgerin' on havin' folks criticize her. No, ma'm . . . An' Ah ain' figgerin' on her takin' in no bo'ders, jes' fer comp'ny needer. Ah done tole her dat. 'Not w'ile you got yo' flesh an' blood dat belongs wid you,' Ah says. An' now her flesh an' blood denyin' her. Miss Pitty ain' nuthin' but a chile an'--"
At this, Scarlett and Melly whooped louder and sank down to the steps. Finally Melly wiped tears of mirth from her eyes.
"Poor Uncle Peter! I'm sorry I laughed. Really and truly. There! Do forgive me. Miss Scarlett and I just can't come home now. Maybe I'll come in September after the cotton is picked. Did Auntie send you all the way down here just to bring us back on that bag of bones?"
At this question, Peter's jaw suddenly dropped and guilt and consternation swept over his wrinkled black face. His protruding underlip retreated to normal as swiftly as a turtle withdraws its head beneath its shell.
"Miss Melly. Ah is gittin' ole, Ah spec', 'cause Ah clean fergit fer de moment whut she sent me fer, an' it's important too. Ah got a letter fer you. Miss Pitty wouldn' trust de mails or nobody but me ter bring it an'--"
"A letter? For me? Who from?"
"Well'm, it's--Miss Pitty, she says ter me, 'You, Peter, you brek it gen'ly ter Miss Melly,' an' Ah say--"
Melly rose from the steps, her hand at her heart.
"Ashley! Ashley! He's dead!"
"No'm! No'm!" cried Peter, his voice rising to a shrill bawl, as he fumbled in the breast pocket of his ragged coat. "He's 'live! Disyere a letter frum him. He comin' home. He-- Gawdlmighty! Ketch her, Mammy! Lemme--"
"Doan you tech her, you ole fool!" thundered Mammy, struggling to keep Melanie's sagging body from falling to the ground. "You pious black ape! Brek it gen'ly! You, Poke, tek her feet. Miss Carreen, steady her haid. Lessus lay her on de sofa in de parlor."
There was a tumult of sound as everyone but Scarlett swarmed about the fainting Melanie, everyone crying out in alarm, scurrying into the house for water and pillows, and in a moment Scarlett and Uncle Peter were left standing alone on the walk. She stood rooted, unable to move from the position to which she had leaped when she heard his words, staring at the old man who stood feebly waving a letter. His old black face was as pitiful as a child's under its mother's disapproval, his dignity collapsed.
For a moment she could not speak or move, and though her mind shouted: "He isn't dead! He's coming home!" the knowledge brought neither joy nor excitement, only a stunned immobility. Uncle Peter's voice came as from a far distance, plaintive, placating.
"Mist' Willie Burr frum Macom whut is kin ter us, he brung it ter Miss Pitty. Mist' Willie he in de same jail house wid Mist' Ashley. Mist' Willie he got a hawse an' he got hyah soon. But Mist' Ashley he a-walkin' an'--"
Scarlett snatched the letter from his hand. It was addressed to Melly in Miss Pitty's writing but that did not make her hesitate a moment. She ripped it open and Miss Pitty's inclosed note fell to the ground. Within the envelope there was a piece of folded paper, grimy from the dirty pocket in which it had been carried, creased and ragged about the edges. It bore the inscription in Ashley's hand: "Mrs. George Ashley Wilkes, Care Miss Sarah Jane Hamilton, Atlanta, or Twelve Oaks, Jonesboro, Ga."
With fingers that shook, she opened it and read:
"Beloved, I am coming home to you--"
Tears began to stream down her face so that she could not read and her heart swelled up until she felt she could not bear the joy of it. Clutching the letter to her, she raced up the porch steps and down the hall, past the parlor where all the inhabitants of Tara were getting in one another's way as they worked over the unconscious Melanie, and into Ellen's office. She shut the door and locked it and flung herself down on the sagging old sofa crying, laughing, kissing the letter.
"Beloved," she whispered, "I am coming home to you."
Common sense told them that unless Ashley developed wings, it would be weeks or even months before he could travel from Illinois to Georgia, but hearts nevertheless beat wildly whenever a soldier turned into the avenue at Tara. Each bearded scarecrow might be Ashley. And if it were not Ashley, perhaps the soldier would have news of him or a letter from Aunt Pitty about him. Black and white, they rushed to the front porch every time they heard footsteps. The sight of a uniform was enough to bring everyone flying from the woodpile, the pasture and the cotton patch. For a month after the letter came, work was almost at a standstill. No one wanted to be out of the house when he arrived. Scarlett least of all. And she could not insist on the others attending to their duties when she so neglected hers.
But when the weeks crawled by and Ashley did not come or any news of him, Tara settled back into its old routine. Longing hearts could only stand so much of longing. An uneasy fear crept into Scarlett's mind that something had happened to him along the way. Rock Island was so far away and he might have been weak or sick when released from prison. And he had no money and was tramping through a country where Confederates were hated. If only she knew where he was, she would send money to him, send every penny she had and let the family go hungry, so he could come home swiftly on the train.
"Beloved, I am coming home to you."
In the first rush of joy when her eyes met those words, they had meant only that Ashley was coming home to her. Now, in the light of cooler reason, it was Melanie to whom he was returning, Melanie who went about the house these days singing with joy. Occasionally, Scarlett wondered bitterly why Melanie could not have died in childbirth in Atlanta. That would have made things perfect. Then she could have married Ashley after a decent interval and made little Beau a good stepmother too. When such thoughts came she did not pray hastily to God, telling Him she did not mean it. God did not frighten her any more.
Soldiers came singly and in pairs and dozens and they were always hungry. Scarlett thought despairingly that a plague of locusts would be more welcome. She cursed again the old custom of hospitality which had flowered in the era of plenty, the custom which would not permit any traveler, great or humble, to go on his journey without a night's lodging, food for himself and his horse and the utmost courtesy the house could give. She knew that era had passed forever, but the rest of the household did not, nor did the soldiers, and each soldier was welcomed as if he were a long- awaited guest.
As the never-ending line went by, her heart hardened. They were eating the food meant for the mouths of Tara, vegetables over whose long rows she had wearied her back, food she had driven endless miles to buy. Food was so hard to get and the money in the Yankee's wallet would not last forever. Only a few greenbacks and the two gold pieces were left now. Why should she feed this horde of hungry men? The war was over. They would never again stand between her and danger. So, she gave orders to Pork that when soldiers were in the house, the table should be set sparely. This order prevailed until she noticed that Melanie, who had never been strong since Beau was born, was inducing Pork to put only dabs of food on her plate and giving her share to the soldiers.
"You'll have to stop it, Melanie," she scolded. "You're half sick yourself and if you don't eat more, you'll be sick in bed and we'll have to nurse you. Let these men go hungry. They can stand it. They've stood it for four years and it won't hurt them to stand it a little while longer."
Melanie turned to her and on her face was the first expression of naked emotion Scarlett had ever seen in those serene eyes.
"Oh, Scarlett, don't scold me! Let me do it. You don't know how it helps me. Every time I give some poor man my share I think that maybe, somewhere on the road up north, some woman is giving my Ashley a share of her dinner and it's helping him to get home to me!"
"Beloved, I am coming home to you."
Scarlett turned away, wordless. After that, Melanie noticed there was more food on the table when guests were present, even though Scarlett might grudge them every mouthful.
When the soldiers were too ill to go on, and there were many such, Scarlett put them to bed with none too good grace. Each sick man meant another mouth to feed. Someone had to nurse him and that meant one less worker at the business of fence building, hoeing, weeding and plowing. One boy, on whose face a blond fuzz had just begun to sprout, was dumped on the front porch by a mounted soldier bound for Fayetteville. He had found him unconscious by the roadside and had brought him, across his saddle, to Tara, the nearest house. The girls thought he must be one of the little cadets who had been called out of military school when Sherman approached Milledgeville but they never knew, for he died without regaining consciousness and a search of his pockets yielded no information.
A nice-looking boy, obviously a gentleman, and somewhere to the south, some woman was watching the roads, wondering where he was and when he was coming home, just as she and Melanie, with a wild hope in their hearts, watched every bearded figure that came up their walk. They buried the cadet in the family burying ground, next to the three little O'Hara boys, and Melanie cried sharply as Pork filled in the grave, wondering in her heart if strangers were doing this same thing to the tall body of Ashley.
Will Benteen was another soldier, like the nameless boy, who arrived unconscious across the saddle of a comrade. Will was acutely ill with pneumonia and when the girls put him to bed, they feared he would soon join the boy in the burying ground.
He had the sallow malarial face of the south Georgia Cracker, pale pinkish hair and washed-out blue eyes which even in delirium were patient and mild. One of his legs was gone at the knee and to the stump was fitted a roughly whittled wooden peg. He was obviously a Cracker, just as the boy they had buried so short a while ago was obviously a planter's son. Just how the girls knew this they could not say. Certainly Will was no dirtier, no more hairy, no more lice infested than many fine gentlemen who came to Tara. Certainly the language he used in his delirium was no less grammatical than that of the Tarleton twins. But they knew instinctively, as they knew thoroughbred horses from scrubs, that he was not of their class. But this knowledge did not keep them from laboring to save him.
Emaciated from a year in a Yankee prison, exhausted by his long tramp on his ill-fitting wooden peg, he had little strength to combat pneumonia and for days he lay in the bed moaning, trying to get up, fighting battles over again. Never once did he call for mother, wife, sister or sweetheart and this omission worried Carreen.
"A man ought to have some folks," she said. "And he sounds like he didn't have a soul in the world."
For all his lankiness he was tough, and good nursing pulled him through. The day came when his pale blue eyes, perfectly cognizant of his surroundings, fell upon Carreen sitting beside him, telling her rosary beads, the morning sun shining through her fair hair.
"Then you warn't a dream, after all," he said, in his flat toneless voice. "I hope I ain't troubled you too much, Ma'm."
His convalescence was a long one and he lay quietly looking out of the window at the magnolias and causing very little trouble to anyone. Carreen liked him because of his placid and unembarrassed silences. She would sit beside him through the long hot afternoons, fanning him and saying nothing.
Carreen had very little to say these days as she moved, delicate and wraithlike, about the tasks which were within her strength. She prayed a good deal, for when Scarlett came into her room without knocking, she always found her on her knees by her bed. The sight never failed to annoy her, for Scarlett felt that the time for prayer had passed. If God had seen fit to punish them so, then God could very well do without prayers. Religion had always been a bargaining process with Scarlett. She promised God good behavior in exchange for favors. God had broken the bargain time and again, to her way of thinking, and she felt that she owed Him nothing at all now. And whenever she found Carreen on her knees when she should have been taking an afternoon nap or doing the mending, she felt that Carreen was shirking her share of the burdens.
She said as much to Will Benteen one afternoon when he was able to sit up in a chair and was startled when he said in his flat voice: "Let her be, Miss Scarlett. It comforts her."
"Yes, she's prayin' for your ma and him."
"Who is 'him'?"
His faded blue eyes looked at her from under sandy lashes without surprise. Nothing seemed to surprise or excite him. Perhaps he had seen too much of the unexpected ever to be startled again. That Scarlett did not know what was in her sister's heart did not seem odd to him. He took it as naturally as he did the fact that Carreen had found comfort in talking to him, a stranger.
"Her beau, that boy Brent something-or-other who was killed at Gettysburg."
"Her beau?" said Scarlett shortly. "Her beau, nothing! He and his brother were my beaux."
"Yes, so she told me. Looks like most of the County was your beaux. But, all the same, he was her beau after you turned him down, because when he come home on his last furlough they got engaged. She said he was the only boy she'd ever cared about and so it kind of comforts her to pray for him."
"Well, fiddle-dee-dee!" said Scarlett, a very small dart of jealousy entering her.
She looked curiously at this lanky man with his bony stooped shoulders, his pinkish hair and calm unwavering eyes. So he knew things about her own family which she had not troubled to discover. So that was why Carreen mooned about, praying all the time. Well, she'd get over it. Lots of girls got over dead sweethearts, yes, dead husbands, too. She'd certainly gotten over Charles. And she knew one girl in Atlanta who had been widowed three times by the war and was still able to take notice of men. She said as much to Will but he shook his head.
"Not Miss Carreen," he said with finality.
Will was pleasant to talk to because he had so little to say and yet was so understanding a listener. She told him about her problems of weeding and hoeing and planting, of fattening the hogs and breeding the cow, and he gave good advice for he had owned a small farm in south Georgia and two negroes. He knew his slaves were free now and the farm gone to weeds and seedling pines. His sister, his only relative, had moved to Texas with her husband years ago and he was alone in the world. Yet, none of these things seemed to bother him any more than the leg he had left in Virginia.
Yes, Will was a comfort to Scarlett after hard days when the negroes muttered and Suellen nagged and cried and Gerald asked too frequently where Ellen was. She could tell Will anything. She even told him of killing the Yankee and glowed with pride when he commented briefly: "Good work!"
Eventually all the family found their way to Will's room to air their troubles--even Mammy, who had at first been distant with him because he was not quality and had owned only two slaves.
When he was able to totter about the house, he turned his hands to weaving baskets of split oak and mending the furniture ruined by the Yankees. He was clever at whittling and Wade was constantly by his side, for he whittled out toys for him, the only toys the little boy had. With Will in the house, everyone felt safe in leaving Wade and the two babies while they went about their tasks, for he could care for them as deftly as Mammy and only Melly surpassed him at soothing the screaming black and white babies.
"You've been mighty good to me, Miss Scarlett," he said, "and me a stranger and nothin' to you all. I've caused you a heap of trouble and worry and if it's all the same to you, I'm goin' to stay here and help you all with the work till I've paid you back some for your trouble. I can't ever pay it all, 'cause there ain't no payment a man can give for his life."
So he stayed and, gradually, unobtrusively, a large part of the burden of Tara shifted from Scarlett's shoulders to the bony shoulders of Will Benteen.
It was September and time to pick the cotton. Will Benteen sat on the front steps at Scarlett's feet in the pleasant sunshine of the early autumn afternoon and his flat voice went on and on languidly about the exorbitant costs of ginning the cotton at the new gin near Fayetteville. However, he had learned that day in Fayetteville that he could cut this expense a fourth by lending the horse and wagon for two weeks to the gin owner. He had delayed closing the bargain until he discussed it with Scarlett.
She looked at the lank figure leaning against the porch column, chewing a straw. Undoubtedly, as Mammy frequently declared, Will was something the Lord had provided and Scarlett often wondered how Tara could have lived through the last few months without him. He never had much to say, never displayed any energy, never seemed to take much interest in anything that went on about him, but he knew everything about everybody at Tara. And he did things. He did them silently, patiently and competently. Though he had only one leg, he could work faster than Pork. And he could get work out of Pork, which was, to Scarlett, a marvelous thing. When the cow had the colic and the horse fell ill with a mysterious ailment which threatened to remove him permanently from them, Will sat up nights with them and saved them. That he was a shrewd trader brought him Scarlett's respect, for he could ride out in the mornings with a bushel or two of apples, sweet potatoes and other vegetables and return with seeds, lengths of cloth, flour and other necessities which she knew she could never have acquired, good trader though she was.
He had gradually slipped into the status of a member of the family and slept on a cot in the little dressing room off Gerald's room. He said nothing of leaving Tara, and Scarlett was careful not to question him, fearful that he might leave them. Sometimes, she thought that if he were anybody and had any gumption he would go home, even if he no longer had a home. But even with this thought, she would pray fervently that he would remain indefinitely. It was so convenient to have a man about the house.
She thought, too, that if Carreen had the sense of a mouse she would see that Will cared for her. Scarlett would have been eternally grateful to Will, had he asked her for Carreen's hand. Of course, before the war, Will would certainly not have been an eligible suitor. He was not of the planter class at all, though he was not poor white. He was just plain Cracker, a small farmer, half-educated, prone to grammatical errors and ignorant of some of the finer manners the O'Haras were accustomed to in gentlemen. In fact, Scarlett wondered if he could be called a gentleman at all and decided that he couldn't. Melanie hotly defended him, saying that anyone who had Will's kind heart and thoughtfulness of others was of gentle birth. Scarlett knew that Ellen would have fainted at the thought of a daughter of hers marrying such a man, but now Scarlett had been by necessity forced too far away from Ellen's teachings to let that worry her. Men were scarce, girls had to marry someone and Tara had to have a man. But Carreen, deeper and deeper immersed in her prayer book and every day losing more of her touch with the world of realities, treated Will as gently as a brother and took him as much for granted as she did Pork.
"If Carreen had any sense of gratitude to me for what I've done for her, she'd marry him and not let him get away from here," Scarlett thought indignantly. "But no, she must spend her time mooning about a silly boy who probably never gave her a serious thought."
So Will remained at Tara, for what reason she did not know and she found his businesslike man-to-man attitude with her both pleasant and helpful. He was gravely deferential to the vague Gerald but it was to Scarlett that he turned as the real head of the house.
She gave her approval to the plan of hiring out the horse even though it meant the family would be without any means of transportation temporarily. Suellen would be especially grieved at this. Her greatest joy lay in going to Jonesboro or Fayetteville with Will when he drove over on business. Adorned in the assembled best of the family, she called on old friends, heard all the gossip of the County and felt herself again Miss O'Hara of Tara. Suellen never missed the opportunity to leave the plantation and give herself airs among people who did not know she weeded the garden and made beds.
Miss Fine Airs will just have to do without gadding for two weeks, thought Scarlett, and we'll have to put up with her nagging and her bawling.
Melanie joined them on the veranda, the baby in her arms, and spreading an old blanket on the floor, set little Beau down to crawl. Since Ashley's letter Melanie had divided her time between glowing, singing happiness and anxious longing. But happy or depressed, she was too thin, too white. She did her share of the work uncomplainingly but she was always ailing. Old Dr. Fontaine diagnosed her trouble as female complaint and concurred with Dr. Meade in saying she should never have had Beau. And he said frankly that another baby would kill her.
"When I was over to Fayetteville today," said Will, "I found somethin' right cute that I thought would interest you ladies and I brought it home." He fumbled in his back pants pocket and brought out the wallet of calico, stiffened with bark, which Carreen had made him. From it, he drew a Confederate bill.
"If you think Confederate money is cute, Will, I certainly don't," said Scarlett shortly, for the very sight of Confederate money made her mad. "We've got three thousand dollars of it in Pa's trunk this minute, and Mammy's after me to let her paste it over the holes in the attic walls so the draft won't get her. And I think I'll do it. Then it'll be good for something."
"'Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,'" said Melanie with a sad smile. "Don't do that, Scarlett. Keep it for Wade. He'll be proud of it some day."
"Well, I don't know nothin' about imperious Caesar," said Will, patiently, "but what I've got is in line with what you've just said about Wade, Miss Melly. It's a poem, pasted on the back of this bill. I know Miss Scarlett ain't much on poems but I thought this might interest her."
He turned the bill over. On its back was pasted a strip of coarse brown wrapping paper, inscribed in pale homemade ink. Will cleared his throat and read slowly and with difficulty.
"The name is 'Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note,'" he said.
"Representing nothing on God's earth now And naught in the waters below it-- As the pledge of nation that's passed away Keep it, dear friend, and show it.
Show it to those who will lend an ear To the tale this trifle will tell Of Liberty, born of patriots' dream, Of a storm-cradled nation that fell."
"Oh, how beautiful! How touching!" cried Melanie. "Scarlett, you mustn't give the money to Mammy to paste in the attic. It's more than paper--just like this poem said: 'The pledge of a nation that's passed away!'"
"Oh, Melly, don't be sentimental! Paper is paper and we've got little enough of it and I'm tired of hearing Mammy grumble about the cracks in the attic. I hope when Wade grows up I'll have plenty of greenbacks to give him instead of Confederate trash."
Will, who had been enticing little Beau across the blanket with the bill during this argument, looked up and, shading his eyes, glanced down the driveway.
"More company," he said, squinting in the sun. "Another soldier."
Scarlett followed his gaze and saw a familiar sight, a bearded man coming slowly up the avenue under the cedars, a man clad in a ragged mixture of blue and gray uniforms, head bowed tiredly, feet dragging slowly.
"I thought we were about through with soldiers," she said. "I hope this one isn't very hungry."
"He'll be hungry," said Will briefly.
"I'd better tell Dilcey to set an extra plate," she said, "and warn Mammy not to get the poor thing's clothes off his back too abruptly and--"
She stopped so suddenly that Scarlett turned to look at her. Melanie's thin hand was at her throat, clutching it as if it was torn with pain, and Scarlett could see the veins beneath the white skin throbbing swiftly. Her face went whiter and her brown eyes dilated enormously.
She's going to faint, thought Scarlett, leaping to her feet and catching her arm.
But, in an instant, Melanie threw off her hand and was down the steps. Down the graveled path she flew, skimming lightly as a bird, her faded skirts streaming behind her, her arms outstretched. Then, Scarlett knew the truth, with the impact of a blow. She reeled back against an upright of the porch as the man lifted a face covered with a dirty blond beard and stopped still, looking toward the house as if he was too weary to take another step. Her heart leaped and stopped and then began racing, as Melly with incoherent cries threw herself into the dirty soldier's arms and his head bent down toward hers. With rapture, Scarlett took two running steps forward but was checked when Will's hand closed upon her skirt.
"Don't spoil it," he said quietly.
"Turn me loose, you fool! Turn me loose! It's Ashley!"
He did not relax his grip.
"After all, he's HER husband, ain't he?" Will asked calmly and, looking down at him in a confusion of joy and impotent fury, Scarlett saw in the quiet depths of his eyes understanding and pity.
|Notes of the Chapter|