The sun shone intermittently the next morning and the hard wind that drove dark clouds swiftly across its face rattled the windowpanes and moaned faintly about the house. Scarlett said a brief prayer of thanksgiving that the rain of the previous night had ceased, for she had lain awake listening to it, knowing that it would mean the ruin of her velvet dress and new bonnet. Now that she could catch fleeting glimpses of the sun, her spirits soared. She could hardly remain in bed and look languid and make croaking noises until Aunt Pitty, Mammy and Uncle Peter were out of the house and on their way to Mrs. Bonnell's. When, at last, the front gate banged and she was alone in the house, except for Cookie who was singing in the kitchen, she leaped from the bed and lifted her new clothes from the closet hooks.
Sleep had refreshed her and given her strength and from the cold hard core at the bottom of her heart, she drew courage. There was something about the prospect of a struggle of wits with a man--with any man--that put her on her mettle and, after months of battling against countless discouragements, the knowledge that she was at last facing a definite adversary, one whom she might unhorse by her own efforts, gave her a buoyant sensation.
Dressing unaided was difficult but she finally accomplished it and putting on the bonnet with its rakish feathers she ran to Aunt Pitty's room to preen herself in front of the long mirror. How pretty she looked! The cock feathers gave her a dashing air and the dull-green velvet of the bonnet made her eyes startlingly bright, almost emerald colored. And the dress was incomparable, so rich and handsome looking and yet so dignified! It was wonderful to have a lovely dress again. It was so nice to know that she looked pretty and provocative, and she impulsively bent forward and kissed her reflection in the mirror and then laughed at her own foolishness. She picked up Ellen's Paisley shawl to wrap about her but the colors of the faded old square clashed with the moss-green dress and made her appear a little shabby. Opening Aunt Pitty's closet she removed a black broadcloth cloak, a thin fall garment which Pitty used only for Sunday wear, and put it on. She slipped into her pierced ears the diamond earrings she had brought from Tara, and tossed her head to observe the effect. They made pleasant clicking noises which were very satisfactory and she thought that she must remember to toss her head frequently when with Rhett. Dancing earrings always attracted a man and gave a girl such a spirited air.
What a shame Aunt Pitty had no other gloves than the ones now on her fat hands! No woman could really feel like a lady without gloves, but Scarlett had not had a pair since she left Atlanta. And the long months of hard work at Tara had roughened her hands until they were far from pretty. Well, it couldn't be helped. She'd take Aunt Pitty's little seal muff and hide her bare hands in it. Scarlett felt that it gave her the final finishing touch of elegance. No one, looking at her now, would suspect that poverty and want were standing at her shoulder.
It was so important that Rhett should not suspect. He must not think that anything but tender feelings were driving her.
She tiptoed down the stairs and out of the house while Cookie bawled on unconcernedly in the kitchen. She hastened down Baker Street to avoid the all seeing eyes of the neighbors and sat down on a carriage block on Ivy Street in front of a burned house, to wait for some passing carriage or wagon which would give her a ride. The sun dipped in and out from behind hurrying clouds, lighting the street with a false brightness which had no warmth in it, and the wind fluttered the lace of her pantalets. It was colder than she had expected and she wrapped Aunt Pitty's thin cloak about her and shivered impatiently. Just as she was preparing to start walking the long way across town to the Yankee encampment, a battered wagon appeared. In it was an old woman with a lip full of snuff and a weather-beaten face under a drab sunbonnet, driving a dawdling old mule. She was going in the direction of the city hall and she grudgingly gave Scarlett a ride. But it was obvious that the dress, bonnet and muff found no favor with her.
"She thinks I'm a hussy," thought Scarlett. "And perhaps she's right at that!"
When at last they reached the town square and the tall white cupola of the city hall loomed up, she made her thanks, climbed down from the wagon and watched the country woman drive off. Looking around carefully to see that she was not observed, she pinched her cheeks to give them color and bit her lips until they stung to make them red. She adjusted the bonnet and smoothed back her hair and looked about the square. The two-story red-brick city hall had survived the burning of the city. But it looked forlorn and unkempt under the gray sky. Surrounding the building completely and covering the square of land of which it was the center were row after row of army huts, dingy and mud splashed. Yankee soldiers loitered everywhere and Scarlett looked at them uncertainly, some of her courage deserting her. How would she go about finding Rhett in this enemy camp?
She looked down the street toward the firehouse and saw that the wide arched doors were closed and heavily barred and two sentries passed and repassed on each side of the building. Rhett was in there. But what should she say to the Yankee soldiers? And what would they say to her? She squared her shoulders. If she hadn't been afraid to kill one Yankee, she shouldn't fear merely talking to another.
She picked her way precariously across the stepping stones of the muddy street and walked forward until a sentry, his blue overcoat buttoned high against the wind, stopped her.
"What is it, Ma'm?" His voice had a strange mid-Western twang but it was polite and respectful.
"I want to see a man in there--he is a prisoner."
"Well, I don't know," said the sentry, scratching his head. "They are mighty particular about visitors and--" He stopped and peered into her face sharply. "Lord, lady! Don't you cry! You go over to post headquarters and ask the officers. They'll let you see him, I bet."
Scarlett, who had no intention of crying, beamed at him. He turned to another sentry who was slowly pacing his beat: "Yee-ah, Bill. Come'eer."
The second sentry, a large man muffled in a blue overcoat from which villainous black whiskers burst, came through the mud toward them.
"You take this lady to headquarters."
Scarlett thanked him and followed the sentry.
"Mind you don't turn your ankle on those stepping stones," said the soldier, taking her arm. "And you'd better hist up your skirts a little to keep them out of the mud."
The voice issuing from the whiskers had the same nasal twang but was kind and pleasant and his hand was firm and respectful. Why, Yankees weren't bad at all!
"It's a mighty cold day for a lady to be out in," said her escort. "Have you come a fer piece?"
"Oh, yes, from clear across the other side of town," she said, warming to the kindness in his voice.
"This ain't no weather for a lady to be out in," said the soldier reprovingly, "with all this la grippe in the air. Here's Post Command, lady-- What's the matter?"
"This house--this house is your headquarters?" Scarlett looked up at the lovely old dwelling facing on the square and could have cried. She had been to so many parties in this house during the war. It had been a gay beautiful place and now--there was a large United States flag floating over it.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing--only--only--I used to know the people who lived here."
"Well, that's too bad. I guess they wouldn't know it themselves if they saw it, for it shore is torn up on the inside. Now, you go on in, Ma'm, and ask for the captain."
She went up the steps, caressing the broken white banisters, and pushed open the front door. The hall was dark and as cold as a vault and a shivering sentry was leaning against the closed folding doors of what had been, in better days, the dining room.
"I want to see the captain," she said.
He pulled back the doors and she entered the room, her heart beating rapidly, her face flushing with embarrassment and excitement. There was a close stuffy smell in the room, compounded of the smoking fire, tobacco fumes, leather, damp woolen uniforms and unwashed bodies. She had a confused impression of bare walls with torn wallpaper, rows of blue overcoats and slouch hats hung on nails, a roaring fire, a long table covered with papers and a group of officers in blue uniforms with brass buttons.
She gulped once and found her voice. She mustn't let these Yankees know she was afraid. She must look and be her prettiest and most unconcerned self.
"I'm one captain," said a fat man whose tunic was unbuttoned.
"I want to see a prisoner, Captain Rhett Butler."
"Butler again? He's popular, that man," laughed the captain, taking a chewed cigar from his mouth. "You a relative, Ma'm?"
He laughed again.
"He's got a lot of sisters, one of them here yesterday."
Scarlett flushed. One of those creatures Rhett consorted with, probably that Watling woman. And these Yankees thought she was another one. It was unendurable. Not even for Tara would she stay here another minute and be insulted. She turned to the door and reached angrily for the knob but another officer was by her side quickly. He was clean shaven and young and had merry, kind eyes.
"Just a minute, Ma'm. Won't you sit down here by the fire where it's warm? I'll go see what I can do about it. What is your name? He refused to see the--lady who called yesterday."
She sank into the proffered chair, glaring at the discomfited fat captain, and gave her name. The nice young officer slipped on his overcoat and left the room and the others took themselves off to the far end of the table where they talked in low tones and pawed at the papers. She stretched her feet gratefully toward the fire, realizing for the first time how cold they were and wishing she had thought to put a piece of cardboard over the hole in the sole of one slipper. After a time, voices murmured outside the door and she heard Rhett's laugh. The door opened, a cold draft swept the room and Rhett appeared, hatless, a long cape thrown carelessly across his shoulders. He was dirty and unshaven and without a cravat but somehow jaunty despite his dishabille, and his dark eyes were snapping joyfully at the sight of her.
He had her hands in both of his and, as always, there was something hot and vital and exciting about his grip. Before she quite knew what he was about, he had bent and kissed her cheek, his mustache tickling her. As he felt the startled movement of her body away from him, he hugged her about the shoulders and said: "My darling little sister!" and grinned down at her as if he relished her helplessness in resisting his caress. She couldn't help laughing back at him for the advantage he had taken. What a rogue he was! Jail had not changed him one bit.
The fat captain was muttering through his cigar to the merry-eyed officer.
"Most irregular. He should be in the firehouse. You know the orders."
"Oh, for God's sake, Henry! The lady would freeze in that barn."
"Oh, all right, all right! It's your responsibility."
"I assure you, gentlemen," said Rhett, turning to them but still keeping a grip on Scarlett's shoulders, "my--sister hasn't brought me any saws or files to help me escape."
They all laughed and, as they did, Scarlett looked quickly about her. Good Heavens, was she going to have to talk to Rhett before six Yankee officers! Was he so dangerous a prisoner they wouldn't let him out of their sight? Seeing her anxious glance, the nice officer pushed open a door and spoke brief low words to two privates who had leaped to their feet at his entrance. They picked up their rifles and went out into the hall, closing the door behind them.
"If you wish, you may sit here in the orderly room," said the young captain. "And don't try to bolt through that door. The men are just outside."
"You see what a desperate character I am, Scarlett," said Rhett. "Thank you, Captain. This is most kind or you."
He bowed carelessly and taking Scarlett's arm pulled her to her feet and propelled her into the dingy orderly room. She was never to remember what the room looked like except that it was small and dim and none too warm and there were handwritten papers tacked on the mutilated walls and chairs which had cowhide seats with the hair still on them.
When he had closed the door behind them, Rhett came to her swiftly and bent over her. Knowing his desire, she turned her head quickly but smiled provocatively at him out of the corners of her eyes.
"Can't I really kiss you now?"
"On the forehead, like a good brother," she answered demurely.
"Thank you, no. I prefer to wait and hope for better things." His eyes sought her lips and lingered there a moment. "But how good of you to come to see me, Scarlett! You are the first respectable citizen who has called on me since my incarceration, and being in jail makes one appreciate friends. When did you come to town?"
"And you came out this morning? Why, my dear, you are more than good." He smiled down at her with the first expression of honest pleasure she had ever seen on his face. Scarlett smiled inwardly with excitement and ducked her head as if embarrassed.
"Of course, I came out right away. Aunt Pitty told me about you last night and I--I just couldn't sleep all night for thinking how awful it was. Rhett, I'm so distressed!"
His voice was soft but there was a vibrant note in it, and looking up into his dark face she saw in it none of the skepticism, the jeering humor she knew so well. Before his direct gaze her eyes fell again in real confusion. Things were going even better than she hoped.
"It's worth being in jail to see you again and to hear you say things like that. I really couldn't believe my ears when they brought me your name. You see, I never expected you to forgive me for my patriotic conduct that night on the road near Rough and Ready. But I take it that this call means you have forgiven me?"
She could feel swift anger stir, even at this late date, as she thought of that night but she subdued it and tossed her head until the earrings danced.
"No, I haven't forgiven you," she said and pouted.
"Another hope crushed. And after I offered up myself for my country and fought barefooted in the snow at Franklin and got the finest case of dysentery you ever heard of for my pains!"
"I don't want to hear about your--pains," she said, still pouting but smiling at him from up-tilted eyes. "I still think you were hateful that night and I never expect to forgive you. Leaving me alone like that when anything might have happened to me!"
"But nothing did happen to you. So, you see, my confidence in you was justified. I knew you'd get home safely and God help any Yankee who got in your way!"
"Rhett, why on earth did you do such a silly thing--enlisting at the last minute when you knew we were going to get licked? And after all you'd said about idiots who went out and got shot!"
"Scarlett, spare me! I am always overcome with shame when I think about it."
"Well, I'm glad to learn you are ashamed of the way you treated me."
"You misunderstand. I regret to say that my conscience has not troubled me at all about deserting you. But as for enlisting--when I think of joining the army in varnished boots and a white linen suit and armed with only a pair of dueling pistols-- And those long cold miles in the snow after my boots wore out and I had no overcoat and nothing to eat . . . I cannot understand why I did not desert. It was all the purest insanity. But it's in one's blood. Southerners can never resist a losing cause. But never mind my reasons. It's enough that I'm forgiven."
"You're not. I think you're a hound." But she caressed the last word until it might have been "darling."
"Don't fib. You've forgiven me. Young ladies don't dare Yankee sentries to see a prisoner, just for charity's sweet sake, and come all dressed up in velvet and feathers and seal muffs too. Scarlett, how pretty you look! Thank God, you aren't in rags or mourning! I get so sick of women in dowdy old clothes and perpetual crepe. You look like the Rue de la Paix. Turn around, my dear, and let me look at you."
So he had noticed the dress. Of course, he would notice such things, being Rhett. She laughed in soft excitement and spun about on her toes, her arms extended, her hoops tilting up to show her lace trimmed pantalets. His black eyes took her in from bonnet to heels in a glance that missed nothing, that old impudent unclothing glance which always gave her goose bumps.
"You look very prosperous and very, very tidy. And almost good enough to eat. If it wasn't for the Yankees outside--but you are quite safe, my dear. Sit down. I won't take advantage of you as I did the last time I saw you." He rubbed his cheek with pseudo ruefulness. "Honestly, Scarlett, don't you think you were a bit selfish that night? Think of all I had done for you, risked my life--stolen a horse--and such a horse! Rushed to the defense of Our Glorious Cause! And what did I get for my pains? Some hard words and a very hard slap in the face."
She sat down. The conversation was not going in quite the direction she hoped. He had seemed so nice when he first saw her, so genuinely glad she had come. He had almost seemed like a human being and not the perverse wretch she knew so well.
"Must you always get something for your pains?"
"Why, of course! I am a monster of selfishness, as you ought to know. I always expect payment for anything I give."
That sent a slight chill through her but she rallied and jingled her earbobs again.
"Oh, you really aren't so bad, Rhett. You just like to show off."
"My word, but you have changed!" he said and laughed. "What has made a Christian of you? I have kept up with you through Miss Pittypat but she gave me no intimation that you had developed womanly sweetness. Tell me more about yourself, Scarlett. What have you been doing since I last saw you?"
The old irritation and antagonism which he roused in her was hot in her heart and she yearned to speak tart words. But she smiled instead and the dimple crept into her cheek. He had drawn a chair close beside hers and she leaned over and put a gentle hand on his arm, in an unconscious manner.
"Oh, I've been doing nicely, thank you, and everything at Tara is fine now. Of course, we had a dreadful time right after Sherman went through but, after all, he didn't burn the house and the darkies saved most of the livestock by driving it into the swamp. And we cleared a fair crop this last fall, twenty bales. Of course, that's practically nothing compared with what Tara can do but we haven't many field hands. Pa says, of course, we'll do better next year. But, Rhett, it's so dull in the country now! Imagine, there aren't any balls or barbecues and the only thing people talk about is hard times! Goodness, I get sick of it! Finally last week I got too bored to stand it any longer, so Pa said I must take a trip and have a good time. So I came up here to get me some frocks made and then I'm going over to Charleston to visit my aunt. It'll be lovely to go to balls again."
There, she thought with pride, I delivered that with just the right airy way! Not too rich but certainly not poor.
"You look beautiful in ball dresses, my dear, and you know it too, worse luck! I suppose the real reason you are going visiting is that you have run through the County swains and are seeking fresh ones in fields afar."
Scarlett had a thankful thought that Rhett had spent the last several months abroad and had only recently come back to Atlanta. Otherwise, he would never have made so ridiculous a statement. She thought briefly of the County swains, the ragged embittered little Fontaines, the poverty-stricken Munroe boys, the Jonesboro and Fayetteville beaux who were so busy plowing, splitting rails and nursing sick old animals that they had forgotten such things as balls and pleasant flirtations ever existed. But she put down this memory and giggled self-consciously as if admitting the truth of his assertion.
"Oh, well," she said deprecatingly.
"You are a heartless creature, Scarlett, but perhaps that's part of your charm." He smiled in his old way, one corner of his mouth curving down, but she knew he was complimenting her. "For, of course, you know you have more charm than the law should permit. Even I have felt it, case-hardened though I am. I've often wondered what it was about you that made me always remember you, for I've known many ladies who were prettier than you and certainly more clever and, I fear, morally more upright and kind. But, somehow, I always remembered you. Even during the months since the surrender when I was in France and England and hadn't seen you or heard of you and was enjoying the society of many beautiful ladies, I always remembered you and wondered what you were doing."
For a moment she was indignant that he should say other women were prettier, more clever and kind than she, but that momentary flare was wiped out in her pleasure that he had remembered her and her charm. So he hadn't forgotten! That would make things easier. And he was behaving so nicely, almost like a gentleman would do under the circumstances. Now, all she had to do was bring the subject around to himself, so she could intimate that she had not forgotten him either and then--
She gently squeezed his arm and dimpled again.
"Oh, Rhett, how you do run on, teasing a country girl like me! I know mighty well you never gave me a thought after you left me that night. You can't tell me you ever thought of me with all those pretty French and English girls around you. But I didn't come all the way out here to hear you talk foolishness about me. I came--I came--because--"
"Oh, Rhett, I'm so terribly distressed about you! So frightened for you! When will they let you out of that terrible place?"
He swiftly covered her hand with his and held it hard against his arm.
"Your distress does you credit. There's no telling when I'll be out. Probably when they've stretched the rope a bit more."
"Yes, I expect to make my exit from here at the rope's end."
"They won't really hang you?"
"They will if they can get a little more evidence against me."
"Oh, Rhett!" she cried, her hand at her heart.
"Would you be sorry? If you are sorry enough, I'll mention you in my will."
His dark eyes laughed at her recklessly and he squeezed her hand.
His will! She hastily cast down her eyes for fear of betrayal but not swiftly enough, for his eyes gleamed, suddenly curious.
"According to the Yankees, I ought to have a fine will. There seems to be considerable interest in my finances at present. Every day, I am hauled up before another board of inquiry and asked foolish questions. The rumor seems current that I made off with the mythical gold of the Confederacy."
"What a leading question! You know as well as I do that the Confederacy ran a printing press instead of a mint."
"Where did you get all your money? Speculating? Aunt Pittypat said--"
"What probing questions you ask!"
Damn him! Of course, he had the money. She was so excited it became difficult to talk sweetly to him.
"Rhett, I'm so upset about your being here. Don't you think there's a chance of your getting out?"
"'Nihil desperandum' is my motto."
"What does that mean?"
"It means 'maybe,' my charming ignoramus."
She fluttered her thick lashes up to look at him and fluttered them down again.
"Oh, you're too smart to let them hang you! I know you'll think of some clever way to beat them and get out! And when you do--"
"And when I do?" he asked softly, leaning closer.
"Well, I--" and she managed a pretty confusion and a blush. The blush was not difficult for she was breathless and her heart was beating like a drum. "Rhett, I'm so sorry about what I--I said to you that night--you know--at Rough and Ready. I was--oh, so very frightened and upset and you were so--so--" She looked down and saw his brown hand tighten over hers. "And--I thought then that I'd never, never forgive you! But when Aunt Pitty told me yesterday that you--that they might hang you--it came over me of a sudden and I--I--" She looked up into his eyes with one swift imploring glance and in it she put an agony of heartbreak. "Oh, Rhett, I'd die if they hanged you! I couldn't bear it! You see, I--" And, because she could not longer sustain the hot leaping light that was in his eyes, her lids fluttered down again.
In a moment I'll be crying, she thought in a frenzy of wonder and excitement. Shall I let myself cry? Would that seem more natural?
He said quickly: "My God, Scarlett, you can't mean that you--" and his hands closed over hers in so hard a grip that it hurt.
She shut her eyes tightly, trying to squeeze out tears, but remembered to turn her face up slightly so he could kiss her with no difficulty. Now, in an instant his lips would be upon hers, the hard insistent lips which she suddenly remembered with a vividness that left her weak. But he did not kiss her. Disappointment queerly stirring her, she opened her eyes a trifle and ventured a peep at him. His black head was bent over her hands and, as she watched, he lifted one and kissed it and, taking the other, laid it against his cheek for a moment. Expecting violence, this gentle and loverlike gesture startled her. She wondered what expression was on his face but could not tell for his head was bowed.
She quickly lowered her gaze lest he should look up suddenly and see the expression on her face. She knew that the feeling of triumph surging through her was certain to be plain in her eyes. In a moment he would ask her to marry him--or at least say that he loved her and then . . . As she watched him through the veil of her lashes he turned her hand over, palm up, to kiss it too, and suddenly he drew a quick breath. Looking down she saw her own palm, saw it as it really was for the first time in a year, and a cold sinking fear gripped her. This was a stranger's palm, not Scarlett O'Hara's soft, white, dimpled, helpless one. This hand was rough from work, brown with sunburn, splotched with freckles. The nails were broken and irregular, there were heavy calluses on the cushions of the palm, a half-healed blister on the thumb. The red scar which boiling fat had left last month was ugly and glaring. She looked at it in horror and, before she thought, she swiftly clenched her fist.
Still he did not raise his head. Still she could not see his face. He pried her fist open inexorably and stared at it, picked up her other hand and held them both together silently, looking down at them.
"Look at me," he said finally raising his head, and his voice was very quiet. "And drop that demure expression."
Unwillingly she met his eyes, defiance and perturbation on her face. His black brows were up and his eyes gleamed.
"So you have been doing very nicely at Tara, have you? Cleared so much money on the cotton you can go visiting. What have you been doing with your hands--plowing?"
She tried to wrench them away but he held them hard, running his thumbs over the calluses.
"These are not the hands of a lady," he said and tossed them into her lap.
"Oh, shut up!" she cried, feeling a momentary intense relief at being able to speak her feelings. "Whose business is it what I do with my hands?"
What a fool I am, she thought vehemently. I should have borrowed or stolen Aunt Pitty's gloves. But I didn't realize my hands looked so bad. Of course, he would notice them. And now I've lost my temper and probably ruined everything. Oh, to have this happen when he was right at the point of a declaration!
"Your hands are certainly no business of mine," said Rhett coolly and lounged back in his chair indolently, his face a smooth blank.
So he was going to be difficult. Well, she'd have to bear it meekly, much as she disliked it, if she expected to snatch victory from this debacle. Perhaps if she sweet-talked him--
"I think you're real rude to throw off on my poor hands. Just because I went riding last week without my gloves and ruined them--"
"Riding, hell!" he said in the same level voice. "You've been working with those hands, working like a nigger. What's the answer? Why did you lie to me about everything being nice at Tara?"
"Suppose we get down to the truth. What is the real purpose of your visit? Almost, I was persuaded by your coquettish airs that you cared something about me and were sorry for me."
"Oh, I am sorry! Indeed--"
"No, you aren't. They can hang me higher than Haman for all you care. It's written as plainly on your face as hard work is written on your hands. You wanted something from me and you wanted it badly enough to put on quite a show. Why didn't you come out in the open and tell me what it was? You'd have stood a much better chance of getting it, for if there's one virtue I value in women it's frankness. But no, you had to come jingling your earbobs and pouting and frisking like a prostitute with a prospective client."
He did not raise his voice at the last words or emphasize them in any way but to Scarlett they cracked like a whiplash, and with despair she saw the end of her hopes of getting him to propose marriage. Had he exploded with rage and injured vanity or upbraided her, as other men would have done, she could have handled him. But the deadly quietness of his voice frightened her, left her utterly at a loss as to her next move. Although he was a prisoner and the Yankees were in the next room, it came to her suddenly that Rhett Butler was a dangerous man to run afoul of.
"I suppose my memory is getting faulty. I should have recalled that you are just like me and that you never do anything without an ulterior motive. Now, let me see. What could you have had up your sleeve, Mrs. Hamilton? It isn't possible that you were so misguided as to think I would propose matrimony?"
Her face went crimson and she did not answer.
"But you can't have forgotten my oft-repeated remark that I am not a marrying man?"
When she did not speak, he said with sudden violence:
"You hadn't forgotten? Answer me."
"I hadn't forgotten," she said wretchedly.
"What a gambler you are, Scarlett," he jeered. "You took a chance that my incarceration away from female companionship would put me in such a state I'd snap at you like a trout at a worm."
And that's what you did, thought Scarlett with inward rage, and if it hadn't been for my hands--
"Now, we have most of the truth, everything except your reason. See if you can tell me the truth about why you wanted to lead me into wedlock."
There was a suave, almost teasing note in his voice and she took heart. Perhaps everything wasn't lost, after all. Of course, she had ruined any hope of marriage but, even in her despair, she was glad. There was something about this immobile man which frightened her, so that now the thought of marrying him was fearful. But perhaps if she was clever and played on his sympathies and his memories, she could secure a loan. She pulled her face into a placating and childlike expression.
"Oh, Rhett, you can help me so much--if you'll just be sweet."
"There's nothing I like better than being--sweet."
"Rhett, for old friendship's sake, I want you to do me a favor."
"So, at last the horny-handed lady comes to her real mission. I feared that 'visiting the sick and the imprisoned' was not your proper role. What do you want? Money?"
The bluntness of his question ruined all hopes of leading up to the matter in any circuitous and sentimental way.
"Don't be mean, Rhett," she coaxed. "I do want some money. I want you to lend me three hundred dollars."
"The truth at last. Talking love and thinking money. How truly feminine! Do you need the money badly?"
"Oh, ye-- Well, not so terribly but I could use it."
"Three hundred dollars. That's a vast amount of money. What do you want it for?"
"To pay taxes on Tara."
"So you want to borrow some money. Well, since you're so businesslike, I'll be businesslike too. What collateral will you give me?"
"Collateral. Security on my investment. Of course, I don't want to lose all that money." His voice was deceptively smooth, almost silky, but she did not notice. Maybe everything would turn out nicely after all.
"I'm not interested in earrings."
"I'll give you a mortgage on Tara."
"Now just what would I do with a farm?"
"Well, you could--you could--it's a good plantation. And you wouldn't lose. I'd pay you back out of next year's cotton."
"I'm not so sure." He tilted back in his chair and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Cotton prices are dropping. Times are so hard and money's so tight."
"Oh, Rhett, you are teasing me! You know you have millions!"
There was a warm dancing malice in his eyes as he surveyed her.
"So everything is going nicely and you don't need the money very badly. Well, I'm glad to hear that. I like to know that all is well with old friends."
"Oh, Rhett, for God's sake . . ." she began desperately, her courage and control breaking.
"Do lower your voice. You don't want the Yankees to hear you, I hope. Did anyone ever tell you you had eyes like a cat--a cat in the dark?"
"Rhett, don't! I'll tell you everything. I do need the money so badly. I--I lied about everything being all right. Everything's as wrong as it could be. Father is--is--he's not himself. He's been queer ever since Mother died and he can't help me any. He's just like a child. And we haven't a single field hand to work the cotton and there's so many to feed, thirteen of us. And the taxes-- they are so high. Rhett, I'll tell you everything. For over a year we've been just this side of starvation. Oh, you don't know! You can't know! We've never had enough to eat and it's terrible to wake up hungry and go to sleep hungry. And we haven't any warm clothes and the children are always cold and sick and--"
"Where did you get the pretty dress?"
"It's made out of Mother's curtains," she answered, too desperate to lie about this shame. "I could stand being hungry and cold but now--now the Carpetbaggers have raised our taxes. And the money's got to be paid right away. And I haven't any money except one five-dollar gold piece. I've got to have money for the taxes! Don't you see? If I don't pay them, I'll--we'll lose Tara and we just can't lose it! I can't let it go!"
"Why didn't you tell me all this at first instead of preying on my susceptible heart--always weak where pretty ladies are concerned? No, Scarlett, don't cry. You've tried every trick except that one and I don't think I could stand it. My feelings are already lacerated with disappointment at discovering it was my money and not my charming self you wanted."
She remembered that he frequently told bald truths about himself when he spoke mockingly--mocking himself as well as others, and she hastily looked up at him. Were his feelings really hurt? Did he really care about her? Had he been on the verge of a proposal when he saw her palms? Or had he only been leading up to another such odious proposal as he had made twice before? If he really cared about her, perhaps she could smooth him down. But his black eyes raked her in no lover-like way and he was laughing softly.
"I don't like your collateral. I'm no planter. What else have you to offer?"
Well, she had come to it at last. Now for it! She drew a deep breath and met his eyes squarely, all coquetry and airs gone as her spirit rushed out to grapple that which she feared most.
"I--I have myself."
Her jaw line tightened to squareness and her eyes went emerald.
"You remember that night on Aunt Pitty's porch, during the siege? You said--you said then that you wanted me."
He leaned back carelessly in his chair and looked into her tense face and his own dark face was inscrutable. Something flickered behind his eyes but he said nothing.
"You said--you said you'd never wanted a woman as much as you wanted me. If you still want me, you can have me. Rhett, I'll do anything you say but, for God's sake, write me a draft for the money! My word's good. I swear it. I won't go back on it. I'll put it in writing if you like."
He looked at her oddly, still inscrutable and as she hurried on she could not tell if he were amused or repelled. If he would only say something, anything! She felt her cheeks getting hot.
"I have got to have the money soon, Rhett. They'll turn us out in the road and that damned overseer of Father's will own the place and--"
"Just a minute. What makes you think I still want you? What makes you think you are worth three hundred dollars? Most women don't come that high."
She blushed to her hair line and her humiliation was complete.
"Why are you doing this? Why not let the farm go and live at Miss Pittypat's. You own half that house."
"Name of God!" she cried. "Are you a fool? I can't let Tara go. It's home. I won't let it go. Not while I've got breath left in me!"
"The Irish," said he, lowering his chair back to level and removing his hands from his pockets, "are the damnedest race. They put so much emphasis on so many wrong things. Land, for instance. And every bit of earth is just like every other bit. Now, let me get this straight, Scarlett. You are coming to me with a business proposition. I'll give you three hundred dollars and you'll become my mistress."
Now that the repulsive word had been said, she felt somehow easier and hope awoke in her again. He had said "I'll give you." There was a diabolic gleam in his eyes as if something amused him greatly.
"And yet, when I had the effrontery to make you this same proposition, you turned me out of the house. And also you called me a number of very hard names and mentioned in passing that you didn't want a 'passel of brats.' No, my dear, I'm not rubbing it in. I'm only wondering at the peculiarities of your mind. You wouldn't do it for your own pleasure but you will to keep the wolf away from the door. It proves my point that all virtue is merely a matter of prices."
"Oh, Rhett, how you run on! If you want to insult me, go on and do it but give me the money."
She was breathing easier now. Being what he was, Rhett would naturally want to torment and insult her as much as possible to pay her back for past slights and for her recent attempted trickery. Well, she could stand it. She could stand anything. Tara was worth it all. For a brief moment it was mid-summer and the afternoon skies were blue and she lay drowsily in the thick clover of Tara's lawn, looking up at the billowing cloud castles, the fragrance of white blossoms in her nose and the pleasant busy humming of bees in her ears. Afternoon and hush and the far-off sound of the wagons coming in from the spiraling red fields. Worth it all, worth more.
Her head went up.
"Are you going to give me the money?"
He looked as if he were enjoying himself and when he spoke there was suave brutality in his voice.
"No, I'm not," he said.
For a moment her mind could not adjust itself to his words.
"I couldn't give it to you, even if I wanted to. I haven't a cent on me. Not a dollar in Atlanta. I have some money, yes, but not here. And I'm not saying where it is or how much. But if I tried to draw a draft on it, the Yankees would be on me like a duck on a June bug and then neither of us would get it. What do you think of that?"
Her face went an ugly green, freckles suddenly standing out across her nose and her contorted mouth was like Gerald's in a killing rage. She sprang to her feet with an incoherent cry which made the hum of voices in the next room cease suddenly. Swift as a panther, Rhett was beside her, his heavy hand across her mouth, his arm tight about her waist. She struggled against him madly, trying to bite his hand, to kick his legs, to scream her rage, despair, hate, her agony of broken pride. She bent and twisted every way against the iron of his arm, her heart near bursting, her tight stays cutting off her breath. He held her so tightly, so roughly that it hurt and the hand over her mouth pinched into her jaws cruelly. His face was white under its tan, his eyes hard and anxious as he lifted her completely off her feet, swung her up against his chest and sat down in the chair, holding her writhing in his lap.
"Darling, for God's sake! Stop! Hush! Don't yell. They'll be in here in a minute if you do. Do calm yourself. Do you want the Yankees to see you like this?"
She was beyond caring who saw her, beyond anything except a fiery desire to kill him, but dizziness was sweeping her. She could not breathe; he was choking her; her stays were like a swiftly compressing band of iron; his arms about her made her shake with helpless hate and fury. Then his voice became thin and dim and his face above her swirled in a sickening mist which became heavier and heavier until she no longer saw him--or anything else.
When she made feeble swimming motions to come back to consciousness, she was tired to her bones, weak, bewildered. She was lying back in the chair, her bonnet off, Rhett was slapping her wrist, his black eyes searching her face anxiously. The nice young captain was trying to pour a glass of brandy into her mouth and had spilled it down her neck. The other officers hovered helplessly about, whispering and waving their hands.
"I--guess I must have fainted," she said, and her voice sounded so far away it frightened her.
"Drink this," said Rhett, taking the glass and pushing it against her lips. Now she remembered and glared feebly at him but she was too tired for anger.
"Please, for my sake."
She gulped and choked and began coughing but he pushed it to her mouth again. She swallowed deeply and the hot liquid burned suddenly in her throat.
"I think she's better now, gentlemen," said Rhett, "and I thank you very much. The realization that I'm to be executed was too much for her."
The group in blue shuffled their feet and looked embarrassed and after several clearings of throats, they tramped out. The young captain paused in the doorway.
"If there's anything more I can do--"
"No, thank you."
He went out, closing the door behind him.
"Drink some more," said Rhett.
She swallowed another mouthful and the warmth began spreading through her body and strength flowed slowly back into her shaking legs. She pushed away the glass and tried to rise but he pressed her back.
"Take your hands off me. I'm going."
"Not yet. Wait a minute. You might faint again."
"I'd rather faint in the road than be here with you."
"Just the same, I won't have you fainting in the road."
"Let me go. I hate you."
A faint smile came back to his face at her words.
"That sounds more like you. You must be feeling better."
She lay relaxed for a moment, trying to summon anger to her aid, trying to draw on her strength. But she was too tired. She was too tired to hate or to care very much about anything. Defeat lay on her spirit like lead. She had gambled everything and lost everything. Not even pride was left. This was the dead end of her last hope. This was the end of Tara, the end of them all. For a long time she lay back with her eyes closed, hearing his heavy breathing near her, and the glow of the brandy crept gradually over her, giving a false strength and warmth. When finally she opened her eyes and looked him in the face, anger had roused again. As her slanting eyebrows rushed down together in a frown Rhett's old smile came back.
"Now you are better. I can tell it by your scowl."
"Of course, I'm all right. Rhett Butler, you are hateful, a skunk, if ever I saw one! You knew very well what I was going to say as soon as I started talking and you knew you weren't going to give me the money. And yet you let me go right on. You could have spared me--"
"Spared you and missed hearing all that? Not much. I have so few diversions here. I don't know when I've ever heard anything so gratifying." He laughed his sudden mocking laugh. At the sound she leaped to her feet, snatching up her bonnet.
He suddenly had her by the shoulders.
"Not quite yet. Do you feel well enough to talk sense?"
"Let me go!"
"You are well enough, I see. Then, tell me this. Was I the only iron you had in the fire?" His eyes were keen and alert, watching every change in her face.
"What do you mean?"
"Was I the only man you were going to try this on?"
"Is that any of your business?"
"More than you realize. Are there any other men on your string? Tell me!"
"Incredible. I can't imagine you without five or six in reserve. Surely someone will turn up to accept your interesting proposition. I feel so sure of it that I want to give you a little advice."
"I don't want your advice."
"Nevertheless I will give it. Advice seems to be the only thing I can give you at present. Listen to it, for it's good advice. When you are trying to get something out of a man, don't blurt it out as you did to me. Do try to be more subtle, more seductive. It gets better results. You used to know how, to perfection. But just now when you offered me your--er--collateral for my money you looked as hard as nails. I've seen eyes like yours above a dueling pistol twenty paces from me and they aren't a pleasant sight. They evoke no ardor in the male breast. That's no way to handle men, my dear. You are forgetting your early training."
"I don't need you to tell me how to behave," she said and wearily put on her bonnet. She wondered how he could jest so blithely with a rope about his neck and her pitiful circumstances before him. She did not even notice that his hands were jammed in his pockets in hard fists as if he were straining at his own impotence.
"Cheer up," he said, as she tied the bonnet strings. "You can come to my hanging and it will make you feel lots better. It'll even up all your old scores with me--even this one. And I'll mention you in my will."
"Thank you, but they may not hang you till it's too late to pay the taxes," she said with a sudden malice that matched his own, and she meant it.
|Notes of the Chapter|