Scarlett sat in her bedroom, picking at the supper tray Mammy had brought her, listening to the wind hurling itself out of the night. The house was frighteningly still, quieter even than when Frank had lain in the parlor just a few hours before. Then there had been tiptoeing feet and hushed voices, muffled knocks on the door, neighbors rustling in to whisper sympathy and occasional sobs from Frank's sister who had come up from Jonesboro for the funeral.
But now the house was cloaked in silence. Although her door was open she could hear no sounds from below stairs. Wade and the baby had been at Melanie's since Frank's body was brought home and she missed the sound of the boy's feet and Ella's gurgling. There was a truce in the kitchen and no sound of quarreling from Peter, Mammy and Cookie floated up to her. Even Aunt Pitty, downstairs in the library, was not rocking her creaking chair in deference to Scarlett's sorrow.
No one intruded upon her, believing that she wished to be left alone with her grief, but to be left alone was the last thing Scarlett desired. Had it only been grief that companioned her, she could have borne it as she had borne other griefs. But, added to her stunned sense of loss at Frank's death, were fear and remorse and the torment of a suddenly awakened conscience. For the first time in her life she was regretting things she had done, regretting them with a sweeping superstitious fear that made her cast sidelong glances at the bed upon which she had lain with Frank.
She had killed Frank. She had killed him just as surely as if it had been her finger that pulled the trigger. He had begged her not to go about alone but she had not listened to him. And now he was dead because of her obstinacy. God would punish her for that. But there lay upon her conscience another matter that was heavier and more frightening even than causing his death--a matter which had never troubled her until she looked upon his coffined face. There had been something helpless and pathetic in that still face which had accused her. God would punish her for marrying him when he really loved Suellen. She would have to cower at the seat of judgment and answer for that lie she told him coming back from the Yankee camp in his buggy.
Useless for her to argue now that the end justified the means, that she was driven into trapping him, that the fate of too many people hung on her for her to consider either his or Suellen's rights and happiness. The truth stood out boldly and she cowered away from it. She had married him coldly and used him coldly. And she had made him unhappy during the last six months when she could have made him very happy. God would punish her for not being nicer to him--punish her for all her bullyings and proddings and storms of temper and cutting remarks, for alienating his friends and shaming him by operating the mills and building the saloon and leasing convicts.
She had made him very unhappy and she knew it, but he had borne it all like a gentleman. The only thing she had ever done that gave him any real happiness was to present him with Ella. And she knew if she could have kept from having Ella, Ella would never have been born.
She shivered, frightened, wishing Frank were alive, so she could be nice to him, so very nice to him to make up for it all. Oh, if only God did not seem so furious and vengeful! Oh, if only the minutes did not go by so slowly and the house were not so still! If only she were not so alone!
If only Melanie were with her, Melanie could calm her fears. But Melanie was at home, nursing Ashley. For a moment Scarlett thought of summoning Pittypat to stand between her and her conscience but she hesitated. Pitty would probably make matters worse, for she honestly mourned Frank. He had been more her contemporary than Scarlett's and she had been devoted to him. He had filled to perfection Pitty's need for "a man in the house," for he brought her little presents and harmless gossip, jokes and stories, read the paper to her at night and explained topics of the day to her while she mended his socks. She had fussed over him and planned special dishes for him and coddled him during his innumerable colds. Now she missed him acutely and repeated over and over as she dabbed at her red swollen eyes: "If only he hadn't gone out with the Klan!"
If there were only someone who could comfort her, quiet her fears, explain to her just what were these confused fears which made her heart sink with such cold sickness! If only Ashley--but she shrank from the thought. She had almost killed Ashley, just as she had killed Frank. And if Ashley ever knew the real truth about how she lied to Frank to get him, knew how mean she had been to Frank, he could never love her any more. Ashley was so honorable, so truthful, so kind and he saw so straightly, so clearly. If he knew the whole truth, he would understand. Oh, yes, he would understand only too well! But he would never love her any more. So he must never know the truth because he must keep on loving her. How could she live if that secret source of her strength, his love, were taken from her? But what a relief it would be to put her head on his shoulder and cry and unburden her guilty heart!
The still house with the sense of death heavy upon it pressed about her loneliness until she felt she could not bear it unaided any longer. She arose cautiously, pushed her door half-closed and then dug about in the bottom bureau drawer beneath her underwear. She produced Aunt Pitty's "swoon bottle" of brandy which she had hidden there and held it up to the lamp. It was nearly half-empty. Surely she hadn't drunk that much since last night! She poured a generous amount into her water glass and gulped it down. She would have to put the bottle back in the cellaret before morning, filled to the top with water. Mammy had hunted for it, just before the funeral when the pallbearers wanted a drink, and already the air in the kitchen was electric with suspicion between Mammy, Cookie and Peter.
The brandy burned with fiery pleasantness. There was nothing like it when you needed it. In fact, brandy was good almost any time, so much better than insipid wine. Why on earth should it be proper for a woman to drink wine and not spirits? Mrs. Merriwether and Mrs. Meade had sniffed her breath most obviously at the funeral and she had seen the triumphant look they had exchanged. The old cats!
She poured another drink. It wouldn't matter if she did get a little tipsy tonight for she was going to bed soon and she could gargle cologne before Mammy came up to unlace her. She wished she could get as completely and thoughtlessly drunk as Gerald used to get on Court Day. Then perhaps she could forget Frank's sunken face accusing her of ruining his life and then killing him.
She wondered if everyone in town thought she had killed him. Certainly the people at the funeral had been cold to her. The only people who had put any warmth into their expressions of sympathy were the wives of the Yankee officers with whom she did business. Well, she didn't care what the town said about her. How unimportant that seemed beside what she would have to answer for to God!
She took another drink at the thought, shuddering as the hot brandy went down her throat. She felt very warm now but still she couldn't get the thought of Frank out of her mind. What fools men were when they said liquor made people forget! Unless she drank herself into insensibility, she'd still see Frank's face as it had looked the last time he begged her not to drive alone, timid, reproachful, apologetic.
The knocker on the front door hammered with a dull sound that made the still house echo and she heard Aunt Pitty's waddling steps crossing the hall and the door opening. There was the sound of greeting and an indistinguishable murmur. Some neighbor calling to discuss the funeral or to bring a blanc mange. Pitty would like that. She had taken an important and melancholy pleasure in talking to the condolence callers.
She wondered incuriously who it was and, when a man's voice, resonant and drawling, rose above Pitty's funereal whispering, she knew. Gladness and relief flooded her. It was Rhett. She had not seen him since he broke the news of Frank's death to her, and now she knew, deep in her heart, that he was the one person who could help her tonight.
"I think she'll see me," Rhett's voice floated up to her.
"But she is lying down now, Captain Butler, and won't see anyone. Poor child, she is quite prostrated. She--"
"I think she will see me. Please tell her I am going away tomorrow and may be gone some time. It's very important."
"But--" fluttered Aunt Pittypat.
Scarlett ran out into the hall, observing with some astonishment that her knees were a little unsteady, and leaned over the banisters.
"I'll be down terrectly, Rhett," she called.
She had a glimpse of Aunt Pittypat's plump upturned face, her eyes owlish with surprise and disapproval. Now it'll be all over town that I conducted myself most improperly on the day of my husband's funeral, thought Scarlett, as she hurried back to her room and began smoothing her hair. She buttoned her black basque up to the chin and pinned down the collar with Pittypat's mourning brooch. I don't look very pretty she thought, leaning toward the mirror, too white and scared. For a moment her hand went toward the lock box where she kept her rouge hidden but she decided against it. Poor Pittypat would be upset in earnest if she came downstairs pink and blooming. She picked up the cologne bottle and took a large mouthful, carefully rinsed her mouth and then spit into the slop jar.
She rustled down the stairs toward the two who still stood in the hall, for Pittypat had been too upset by Scarlett's action to ask Rhett to sit down. He was decorously clad in black, his linen frilly and starched, and his manner was all that custom demanded from an old friend paying a call of sympathy on one bereaved. In fact, it was so perfect that it verged on the burlesque, though Pittypat did not see it. He was properly apologetic for disturbing Scarlett and regretted that in his rush of closing up business before leaving town he had been unable to be present at the funeral.
"Whatever possessed him to come?" wondered Scarlett. "He doesn't mean a word he's saying."
"I hate to intrude on you at this time but I have a matter of business to discuss that will not wait. Something that Mr. Kennedy and I were planning--"
"I didn't know you and Mr. Kennedy had business dealings," said Aunt Pittypat, almost indignant that some of Frank's activities were unknown to her.
"Mr. Kennedy was a man of wide interests," said Rhett respectfully. "Shall we go into the parlor?"
"No!" cried Scarlett. glancing at the closed folding doors. She could still see the coffin in that room. She hoped she never had to enter it again. Pitty, for once, took a hint, although with none too good grace.
"Do use the library. I must--I must go upstairs and get out the mending. Dear me, I've neglected it so this last week. I declare--"
She went up the stairs with a backward look of reproach which was noticed by neither Scarlett nor Rhett. He stood aside to let her pass before him into the library.
"What business did you and Frank have?" she questioned abruptly.
He came closer and whispered. "None at all. I just wanted to get Miss Pitty out of the way." He paused as he leaned over her. "It's no good, Scarlett."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"I'm sure you do. You've been drinking pretty heavily."
"Well, what if I have? Is it any of your business?"
"The soul of courtesy, even in the depths of sorrow. Don't drink alone, Scarlett. People always find it out and it ruins the reputation. And besides, it's a bad business, this drinking alone. What's the matter, honey?"
He led her to the rosewood sofa and she sat down in silence.
"May I close the doors?"
She knew if Mammy saw the closed doors she would be scandalized and would lecture and grumble about it for days, but it would be still worse if Mammy should overhear this discussion of drinking, especially in light of the missing brandy bottle. She nodded and Rhett drew the sliding doors together. When he came back and sat down beside her, his dark eyes alertly searching her face, the pall of death receded before the vitality he radiated and the room seemed pleasant and homelike again, the lamps rosy and warm.
"What's the matter, honey?"
No one in the world could say that foolish word of endearment as caressingly as Rhett, even when he was joking, but he did not look as if he were joking now. She raised tormented eyes to his face and somehow found comfort in the blank inscrutability she saw there. She did not know why this should be, for he was such an unpredictable, callous person. Perhaps it was because, as he often said, they were so much alike. Sometimes she thought that all the people she had ever known were strangers except Rhett.
"Can't you tell me?" he took her hand, oddly gentle. "It's more than old Frank leaving you? Do you need money?"
"Money? God, no! Oh, Rhett, I'm so afraid."
"Don't be a goose, Scarlett, you've never been afraid in your life."
"Oh, Rhett, I am afraid!"
The words bubbled up faster than she could speak them. She could tell him. She could tell Rhett anything. He'd been so bad himself that he wouldn't sit in judgment on her. How wonderful to know someone who was bad and dishonorable and a cheat and a liar, when all the world was filled with people who would not lie to save their souls and who would rather starve than do a dishonorable deed!
"I'm afraid I'll die and go to hell."
If he laughed at her she would die, right then. But he did not laugh.
"You are pretty healthy--and maybe there isn't any hell after all."
"Oh, but there is, Rhett! You know there is!"
"I know there is but it's right here on earth. Not after we die. There's nothing after we die, Scarlett. You are having your hell now."
"Oh, Rhett, that's blasphemous!"
"But singularly comforting. Tell me, why are you going to hell?"
He was teasing now, she could see the glint in his eyes but she did not mind. His hands felt so warm and strong, so comforting to cling to.
"Rhett, I oughtn't to have married Frank. It was wrong. He was Suellen's beau and he loved her, not me. But I lied to him and told him she was going to marry Tony Fontaine. Oh, how could I have done it?"
"Ah, so that was how it came about! I always wondered."
"And then I made him so miserable. I made him do all sorts of things he didn't want to do, like making people pay their bills when they really couldn't afford to pay them. And it hurt him so when I ran the mills and built the saloon and leased convicts. He could hardly hold up his head for shame. And Rhett, I killed him. Yes, I did! I didn't know he was in the Klan. I never dreamed he had that much gumption. But I ought to have known. And I killed him."
"'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?'"
"No matter. Go on."
"Go on? That's all. Isn't it enough? I married him, I made him unhappy and I killed him. Oh, my God! I don't see how I could have done it! I lied to him and I married him. It all seemed so right when I did it but now I see how wrong it was. Rhett, it doesn't seem like it was me who did all these things. I was so mean to him but I'm not really mean. I wasn't raised that way. Mother--" She stopped and swallowed. She had avoided thinking of Ellen all day but she could no longer blot out her image.
"I often wondered what she was like. You seemed to me so like your father."
"Mother was-- Oh, Rhett, for the first time I'm glad she's dead, so she can't see me. She didn't raise me to be mean. She was so kind to everybody, so good. She'd rather I'd have starved than done this. And I so wanted to be just like her in every way and I'm not like her one bit. I hadn't thought of that--there's been so much else to think about--but I wanted to be like her. I didn't want to be like Pa. I loved him but he was--so--so thoughtless. Rhett, sometimes I did try so hard to be nice to people and kind to Frank, but then the nightmare would come back and scare me so bad I'd want to rush out and just grab money away from people, whether it was mine or not."
Tears were streaming unheeded down her face and she clutched his hand so hard that her nails dug into his flesh.
"What nightmare?" His voice was calm and soothing.
"Oh--I forgot you didn't know. Well, just when I would try to be nice to folks and tell myself that money wasn't everything, I'd go to bed and dream that I was back at Tara right after Mother died, right after the Yankees went through. Rhett, you can't imagine--I get cold when I think about it. I can see how everything is burned and so still and there's nothing to eat. Oh, Rhett, in my dream I'm hungry again."
"I'm hungry and everybody, Pa and the girls and the darkies, are starving and they keep saying over and over: 'We're hungry' and I'm so empty it hurts, and so frightened. My mind keeps saying: 'If I ever get out of this, I'll never, never be hungry again' and then the dream goes off into a gray mist and I'm running, running in the mist, running so hard my heart's about to burst and something is chasing me, and I can't breathe but I keep thinking that if I can just get there, I'll be safe. But I don't know where I'm trying to get to. And then I'd wake up and I'd be cold with fright and so afraid that I'd be hungry again. When I wake up from that dream, it seems like there's not enough money in the world to keep me from being afraid of being hungry again. And then Frank would be so mealy mouthed and slow poky that he would make me mad and I'd lose my temper. He didn't understand, I guess, and I couldn't make him understand. I kept thinking that I'd make it up to him some day when we had money and I wasn't so afraid of being hungry. And now he's dead and it's too late. Oh, it seemed so right when I did it but it was all so wrong. If I had it to do over again, I'd do it so differently."
"Hush," he said, disentangling her frantic grip and pulling a clean handkerchief from his pocket. "Wipe your face. There is no sense in your tearing yourself to pieces this way."
She took the handkerchief and wiped her damp cheeks, a little relief stealing over her as if she had shifted some of her burden to his broad shoulders. He looked so capable and calm and even the slight twist of his mouth was comforting as though it proved her agony and confusion unwarranted.
"Feel better now? Then let's get to the bottom of this. You say if you had it to do over again, you'd do it differently. But would you? Think, now. Would you?"
"No, you'd do the same things again. Did you have any other choice?"
"Then what are you sorry about?"
"I was so mean and now he's dead."
"And if he wasn't dead, you'd still be mean. As I understand it, you are not really sorry for marrying Frank and bullying him and inadvertently causing his death. You are only sorry because you are afraid of going to hell. Is that right?"
"Well--that sounds so mixed up."
"Your ethics are considerably mixed up too. You are in the exact position of a thief who's been caught red handed and isn't sorry he stole but is terribly, terribly sorry he's going to jail."
"Oh, don't be so literal! In other words if you didn't have this silly idea that you were damned to hell fire eternal, you'd think you were well rid of Frank."
"Oh, come! You are confessing and you might as well confess the truth as a decorous lie. Did your--er--conscience bother you much when you offered to--shall we say--part with that jewel which is dearer than life for three hundred dollars?"
The brandy was spinning in her head now and she felt giddy and a little reckless. What was the use in lying to him? He always seemed to read her mind.
"I really didn't think about God much then--or hell. And when I did think--well, I just reckoned God would understand."
"But you don't credit God with understanding why you married Frank?"
"Rhett, how can you talk so about God when you know you don't believe there is one?"
"But you believe in a God of Wrath and that's what's important at present. Why shouldn't the Lord understand? Are you sorry you still own Tara and there aren't Carpetbaggers living there? Are you sorry you aren't hungry and ragged?"
"Well, did you have any alternative except marrying Frank?"
"He didn't have to marry you, did he? Men are free agents. And he didn't have to let you bully him into doing things he didn't want to, did he?"
"Scarlett, why worry about it? If you had it to do over again you would be driven to the lie and he to marrying you. You would still have run yourself into danger and he would have had to avenge you. If he had married Sister Sue, she might not have caused his death but she'd probably have made him twice as unhappy as you did. It couldn't have happened differently."
"But I could have been nicer to him."
"You could have been--if you'd been somebody else. But you were born to bully anyone who'll let you do it. The strong were made to bully and the weak to knuckle under. It's all Frank's fault for not beating you with a buggy whip. . . . I'm surprised at you, Scarlett, for sprouting a conscience this late in life. Opportunists like you shouldn't have them."
"What is an oppor--what did you call it?"
"A person who takes advantage of opportunities."
"Is that wrong?"
"It has always been held in disrepute--especially by those who had the same opportunities and didn't take them."
"Oh, Rhett, you are joking and I thought you were going to be nice!"
"I am being nice--for me. Scarlett, darling, you are tipsy. That's what's the matter with you."
"Yes, I dare. You are on the verge of what is vulgarly called a 'crying jag' and so I shall change the subject and cheer you up by telling you some news that will amuse you. In fact, that's why I came here this evening, to tell you my news before I went away."
"Where are you going?"
"To England and I may be gone for months. Forget your conscience, Scarlett. I have no intention of discussing your soul's welfare any further. Don't you want to hear my news?"
"But--" she began feebly and paused. Between the brandy which was smoothing out the harsh contours of remorse and Rhett's mocking but comforting words, the pale specter of Frank was receding into shadows. Perhaps Rhett was right. Perhaps God did understand. She recovered enough to push the idea from the top of her mind and decide: "I'll think about it all tomorrow."
"What's your news?" she said with an effort, blowing her nose on his handkerchief and pushing back the hair that had begun to straggle.
"My news is this," he answered, grinning down at her. "I still want you more than any woman I've ever seen and now that Frank's gone, I thought you'd be interested to know it."
Scarlett jerked her hands away from his grasp and sprang to her feet.
"I--you are the most ill-bred man in the world, coming here at this time of all times with your filthy--I should have known you'd never change. And Frank hardly cold! If you had any decency-- Will you leave this--"
"Do be quiet or you'll have Miss Pittypat down here in a minute," he said, not rising but reaching up and taking both her fists. "I'm afraid you miss my point."
"Miss your point? I don't miss anything." She pulled against his grip. "Turn me loose and get out of here. I never heard of such bad taste. I--"
"Hush," he said. "I am asking you to marry me. Would you be convinced if I knelt down?"
She said "Oh" breathlessly and sat down hard on the sofa.
She stared at him, her mouth open, wondering if the brandy were playing tricks on her mind, remembering senselessly his jibing: "My dear, I'm not a marrying man." She was drunk or he was crazy. But he did not look crazy. He looked as calm as though he were discussing the weather, and his smooth drawl fell on her ears with no particular emphasis.
"I always intended having you, Scarlett, since that first day I saw you at Twelve Oaks when you threw that vase and swore and proved that you weren't a lady. I always intended having you, one way or another. But as you and Frank have made a little money, I know you'll never be driven to me again with any interesting propositions of loans and collaterals. So I see I'll have to marry you."
"Rhett Butler, is this one of your vile jokes?"
"I bare my soul and you are suspicious! No, Scarlett, this is a bona fide honorable declaration. I admit that it's not in the best of taste, coming at this time, but I have a very good excuse for my lack of breeding. I'm going away tomorrow for a long time and I fear that if I wait till I return you'll have married some one else with a little money. So I thought, why not me and my money? Really, Scarlett, I can't go all my life, waiting to catch you between husbands."
He meant it. There was no doubt about it. Her mouth was dry as she assimilated this knowledge and she swallowed and looked into his eyes, trying to find some clue. They were full of laughter but there was something else, deep in them, which she had never seen before, a gleam that defied analysis. He sat easily, carelessly but she felt that he was watching her as alertly as a cat watches a mouse hole. There was a sense of leashed power straining beneath his calm that made her draw back, a little frightened.
He was actually asking her to marry him; he was committing the incredible. Once she had planned how she would torment him should he ever propose. Once she had thought that if he ever spoke those words she would humble him and make him feel her power and take a malicious pleasure in doing it. Now, he had spoken and the plans did not even occur to her, for he was no more in her power than he had ever been. In fact, he held the whip hand of the situation so completely that she was as flustered as a girl at her first proposal and she could only blush and stammer.
"I--I shall never marry again."
"Oh, yes, you will. You were born to be married. Why not me?"
"But Rhett, I--I don't love you."
"That should be no drawback. I don't recall that love was prominent in your other two ventures."
"Oh, how can you? You know I was fond of Frank!"
He said nothing.
"I was! I was!"
"Well, we won't argue that. Will you think over my proposition while I'm gone?"
"Rhett, I don't like for things to drag on. I'd rather tell you now. I'm going home to Tara soon and India Wilkes will stay with Aunt Pittypat. I want to go home for a long spell and--I--I don't ever want to get married again."
"Oh, well--never mind why. I just don't like being married."
"But, my poor child, you've never really been married. How can you know? I'll admit you've had bad luck--once for spite and once for money. Did you ever think of marrying--just for the fun of it?"
"Fun! Don't talk like a fool. There's no fun being married."
"No? Why not?"
A measure of calm had returned and with it all the natural bluntness which brandy brought to the surface.
"It's fun for men--though God knows why. I never could understand it. But all a woman gets out of it is something to eat and a lot of work and having to put up with a man's foolishness--and a baby every year."
He laughed so loudly that the sound echoed in the stillness and Scarlett heard the kitchen door open.
"Hush! Mammy has ears like a lynx and it isn't decent to laugh so soon after--hush laughing. You know it's true. Fun! Fiddle-dee- dee!"
"I said you'd had bad luck and what you've just said proves it. You've been married to a boy and to an old man. And into the bargain I'll bet your mother told you that women must bear 'these things' because of the compensating joys of motherhood. Well, that's all wrong. Why not try marrying a fine young man who has a bad reputation and a way with women? It'll be fun."
"You are coarse and conceited and I think this conversation has gone far enough. It's--it's quite vulgar."
"And quite enjoyable, too, isn't it? I'll wager you never discussed the marital relation with a man before, even Charles or Frank."
She scowled at him. Rhett knew too much. She wondered where he had learned all he knew about women. It wasn't decent.
"Don't frown. Name the day, Scarlett. I'm not urging instant matrimony because of your reputation. We'll wait the decent interval. By the way, just how long is a 'decent interval'?"
"I haven't said I'd marry you. It isn't decent to even talk of such things at such a time."
"I've told you why I'm talking of them. I'm going away tomorrow and I'm too ardent a lover to restrain my passion any longer. But perhaps I've been too precipitate in my wooing."
With a suddenness that startled her, he slid off the sofa onto his knees and with one hand placed delicately over his heart, he recited rapidly:
"Forgive me for startling you with the impetuosity of my sentiments, my dear Scarlett--I mean, my dear Mrs. Kennedy. It cannot have escaped your notice that for some time past the friendship I have had in my heart for you has ripened into a deeper feeling, a feeling more beautiful, more pure, more sacred. Dare I name it you? Ah! It is love which makes me so bold!"
"Do get up," she entreated. "You look such a fool and suppose Mammy should come in and see you?"
"She would be stunned and incredulous at the first signs of my gentility," said Rhett, arising lightly. "Come, Scarlett, you are no child, no schoolgirl to put me off with foolish excuses about decency and so forth. Say you'll marry me when I come back or, before God, I won't go. I'll stay around here and play a guitar under your window every night and sing at the top of my voice and compromise you, so you'll have to marry me to save your reputation."
"Rhett, do be sensible. I don't want to marry anybody."
"No? You aren't telling me the real reason. It can't be girlish timidity. What is it?"
Suddenly she thought of Ashley, saw him as vividly as though he stood beside her, sunny haired, drowsy eyed, full of dignity, so utterly different from Rhett. He was the real reason she did not want to marry again, although she had no objections to Rhett and at times was genuinely fond of him. She belonged to Ashley, forever and ever. She had never belonged to Charles or Frank, could never really belong to Rhett. Every part of her, almost everything she had ever done, striven after, attained, belonged to Ashley, were done because she loved him. Ashley and Tara, she belonged to them. The smiles, the laughter, the kisses she had given Charles and Frank were Ashley's, even though he had never claimed them, would never claim them. Somewhere deep in her was the desire to keep herself for him, although she knew he would never take her.
She did not know that her face had changed, that reverie had brought a softness to her face which Rhett had never seen before. He looked at the slanting green eyes, wide and misty, and the tender curve of her lips and for a moment his breath stopped. Then his mouth went down violently at one corner and he swore with passionate impatience.
"Scarlett O'Hara, you're a fool!"
Before she could withdraw her mind from its far places, his arms were around her, as sure and hard as on the dark road to Tara, so long ago. She felt again the rush of helplessness, the sinking yielding, the surging tide of warmth that left her limp. And the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness. He bent back her head across his arm and kissed her, softly at first, and then with a swift gradation of intensity that made her cling to him as the only solid thing in a dizzy swaying world. His insistent mouth was parting her shaking lips, sending wild tremors along her nerves, evoking from her sensations she had never known she was capable of feeling. And before a swimming giddiness spun her round and round, she knew that she was kissing him back.
"Stop--please, I'm faint!" she whispered, trying to turn her head weakly from him. He pressed her head back hard against his shoulder and she had a dizzy glimpse of his face. His eyes were wide and blazing queerly and the tremor in his arms frightened her.
"I want to make you faint. I will make you faint. You've had this coming to you for years. None of the fools you've known have kissed you like this--have they? Your precious Charles or Frank or your stupid Ashley--"
"I said your stupid Ashley. Gentlemen all--what do they know about women? What did they know about you? I know you."
His mouth was on hers again and she surrendered without a struggle, too weak even to turn her head, without even the desire to turn it, her heart shaking her with its poundings, fear of his strength and her nerveless weakness sweeping her. What was he going to do? She would faint if he did not stop. If he would only stop--if he would never stop.
"Say Yes!" His mouth was poised above hers and his eyes were so close that they seemed enormous, filling the world. "Say Yes, damn you, or--"
She whispered "Yes" before she even thought. It was almost as if he had willed the word and she had spoken it without her own volition. But even as she spoke it, a sudden calm fell on her spirit, her head began to stop spinning and even the giddiness of the brandy was lessened. She had promised to marry him when she had had no intention of promising. She hardly knew how it had all come about but she was not sorry. It now seemed very natural that she had said Yes--almost as if by divine intervention, a hand stronger than hers was about her affairs, settling her problems for her.
He drew a quick breath as she spoke and bent as if to kiss her again and her eyes closed and her head fell back. But he drew back and she was faintly disappointed. It made her feel so strange to be kissed like this and yet there was something exciting about it.
He sat very still for a while holding her head against his shoulder and, as if by effort, the trembling of his arms ceased. He moved away from her a little and looked down at her. She opened her eyes and saw that the frightening glow had gone from his face. But somehow she could not meet his gaze and she dropped her eyes in a rush of tingling confusion.
When he spoke his voice was very calm.
"You meant it? You don't want to take it back?"
"It's not just because I've--what is the phrase?--'swept you off your feet' by my--er--ardor?"
She could not answer for she did not know what to say, nor could she meet his eyes. He put a hand under her chin and lifted her face.
"I told you once that I could stand anything from you except a lie. And now I want the truth. Just why did you say Yes?"
Still the words would not come, but, a measure of poise returning, she kept her eyes demurely down and tucked the corners of her mouth into a little smile.
"Look at me. Is it my money?"
"Why, Rhett! What a question!"
"Look up and don't try to sweet talk me. I'm not Charles or Frank or any of the County boys to be taken in by your fluttering lids. Is it my money?"
"Well--yes, a part."
He did not seem annoyed. He drew a swift breath and with an effort wiped from his eyes the eagerness her words had brought, an eagerness which she was too confused to see.
"Well," she floundered helplessly, "money does help, you know, Rhett, and God knows Frank didn't leave any too much. But then-- well, Rhett, we do get on, you know. And you are the only man I ever saw who could stand the truth from a woman, and it would be nice having a husband who didn't think me a silly fool and expect me to tell lies--and--well, I am fond of you."
"Fond of me?"
"Well," she said fretfully, "if I said I was madly in love with you, I'd be lying and what's more, you'd know it."
"Sometimes I think you carry your truth telling too far, my pet. Don't you think, even if it was a lie, that it would be appropriate for you to say 'I love you, Rhett,' even if you didn't mean it?"
What was he driving at, she wondered, becoming more confused. He looked so queer, eager, hurt, mocking. He took his hands from her and shoved them deep in his trousers pockets and she saw him ball his fists.
"If it costs me a husband, I'll tell the truth," she thought grimly, her blood up as always when he baited her.
"Rhett, it would be a lie, and why should we go through all that foolishness? I'm fond of you, like I said. You know how it is. You told me once that you didn't love me but that we had a lot in common. Both rascals, was the way you--"
"Oh, God!" he whispered rapidly, turning his head away. "To be taken in my own trap!"
"What did you say?"
"Nothing," and he looked at her and laughed, but it was not a pleasant laugh. "Name the day, my dear," and he laughed again and bent and kissed her hands. She was relieved to see his mood pass and good humor apparently return, so she smiled too.
He played with her hand for a moment and grinned up at her.
"Did you ever in your novel reading come across the old situation of the disinterested wife falling in love with her own husband?"
"You know I don't read novels," she said and, trying to equal his jesting mood, went on: "Besides, you once said it was the height of bad form for husbands and wives to love each other."
"I once said too God damn many things," he retorted abruptly and rose to his feet.
"You'll have to get used to it and learn to swear too. You'll have to get used to all my bad habits. That'll be part of the price of being--fond of me and getting your pretty paws on my money."
"Well, don't fly off the handle so, because I didn't lie and make you feel conceited. You aren't in love with me, are you? Why should I be in love with you?"
"No, my dear, I'm not in love with you, no more than you are with me, and if I were, you would be the last person I'd ever tell. God help the man who ever really loves you. You'd break his heart, my darling, cruel, destructive little cat who is so careless and confident she doesn't even trouble to sheathe her claws."
He jerked her to her feet and kissed her again, but this time his lips were different for he seemed not to care if he hurt her-- seemed to want to hurt her, to insult her. His lips slid down to her throat and finally he pressed them against the taffeta over her breast, so hard and so long that his breath burnt to her skin. Her hands struggled up, pushing him away in outraged modesty.
"You mustn't! How dare you!"
"Your heart's going like a rabbit's," he said mockingly. "All too fast for mere fondness I would think, if I were conceited. Smooth your ruffled feathers. You are just putting on these virginal airs. Tell me what I shall bring you from England. A ring? What kind would you like?"
She wavered momentarily between interest in his last words and a feminine desire to prolong the scene with anger and indignation.
"Oh--a diamond ring--and Rhett, do buy a great big one."
"So you can flaunt it before your poverty-stricken friends and say 'See what I caught!' Very well, you shall have a big one, one so big that your less-fortunate friends can comfort themselves by whispering that it's really vulgar to wear such large stones."
He abruptly started off across the room and she followed him, bewildered, to the closed doors.
"What is the matter? Where are you going?"
"To my rooms to finish packing."
"Nothing. I hope you have a nice trip."
He opened the door and walked into the hall. Scarlett trailed after him, somewhat at a loss, a trifle disappointed as at an unexpected anticlimax. He slipped on his coat and picked up his gloves and hat.
"I'll write you. Let me know if you change your mind."
"Well?" He seemed impatient to be off.
"Aren't you going to kiss me good-by?" she whispered, mindful of the ears of the house.
"Don't you think you've had enough kissing for one evening?" he retorted and grinned down at her. "To think of a modest, well- brought-up young woman-- Well, I told you it would be fun, didn't I?"
"Oh, you are impossible!" she cried in wrath, not caring if Mammy did hear. "And I don't care if you never come back."
She turned and flounced toward the stairs, expecting to feel his warm hand on her arm, stopping her. But he only pulled open the front door and a cold draft swept in.
"But I will come back," he said and went out, leaving her on the bottom step looking at the closed door.
The ring Rhett brought back from England was large indeed, so large it embarrassed Scarlett to wear it. She loved gaudy and expensive jewelry but she had an uneasy feeling that everyone was saying, with perfect truth, that this ring was vulgar. The central stone was a four-carat diamond and, surrounding it, were a number of emeralds. It reached to the knuckle of her finger and gave her hand the appearance of being weighted down. Scarlett had a suspicion that Rhett had gone to great pains to have the ring made up and, for pure meanness, had ordered it made as ostentatious as possible.
Until Rhett was back in Atlanta and the ring on her finger she told no one, not even her family, of her intentions, and when she did announce her engagement a storm of bitter gossip broke out. Since the Klan affair Rhett and Scarlett had been, with the exception of the Yankees and Carpetbaggers, the town's most unpopular citizens. Everyone had disapproved of Scarlett since the far-away day when she abandoned the weeds worn for Charlie Hamilton. Their disapproval had grown stronger because of her unwomanly conduct in the matter of the mills, her immodesty in showing herself when she was pregnant and so many other things. But when she brought about the death of Frank and Tommy and jeopardized the lives of a dozen other men, their dislike flamed into public condemnation.
As for Rhett, he had enjoyed the town's hatred since his speculations during the war and he had not further endeared himself to his fellow citizens by his alliances with the Republicans since then. But, oddly enough, the fact that he had saved the lives of some of Atlanta's most prominent men was what aroused the hottest hate of Atlanta's ladies.
It was not that they regretted their men were still alive. It was that they bitterly resented owing the men's lives to such a man as Rhett and to such an embarrassing trick. For months they had writhed under Yankee laughter and scorn, and the ladies felt and said that if Rhett really had the good of the Klan at heart he would have managed the affair in a more seemly fashion. They said he had deliberately dragged in Belle Watling to put the nice people of the town in a disgraceful position. And so he deserved neither thanks for rescuing the men nor forgiveness for his past sins.
These women, so swift to kindness, so tender to the sorrowing, so untiring in times of stress, could be as implacable as furies to any renegade who broke one small law of their unwritten code. This code was simple. Reverence for the Confederacy, honor to the veterans, loyalty to old forms, pride in poverty, open hands to friends and undying hatred to Yankees. Between them, Scarlett and Rhett had outraged every tenet of this code.
The men whose lives Rhett had saved attempted, out of decency and a sense of gratitude, to keep their women silent but they had little success. Before the announcement of their coming marriage, the two had been unpopular enough but people could still be polite to them in a formal way. Now even that cold courtesy was no longer possible. The news of their engagement came like an explosion, unexpected and shattering, rocking the town, and even the mildest- mannered women spoke their minds heatedly. Marrying barely a year after Frank's death and she had killed him! And marrying that Butler man who owned a brothel and who was in with the Yankees and Carpetbaggers in all kinds of thieving schemes! Separately the two of them could be endured, but the brazen combination of Scarlett and Rhett was too much to be borne. Common and vile, both of them! They ought to be run out of town!
Atlanta might perhaps have been more tolerant toward the two if the news of their engagement had not come at a time when Rhett's Carpetbagger and Scallawag cronies were more odious in the sight of respectable citizens than they had ever been before. Public feeling against the Yankees and all their allies was at fever heat at the very time when the town learned of the engagement, for the last citadel of Georgia's resistance to Yankee rule had just fallen. The long campaign which had begun when Sherman moved southward from above Dalton, four years before, had finally reached its climax, and the state's humiliation was complete.
Three years of Reconstruction had passed and they had been three years of terrorism. Everyone had thought that conditions were already as bad as they could ever be. But now Georgia was discovering that Reconstruction at its worst had just begun.
For three years the Federal government had been trying to impose alien ideas and an alien rule upon Georgia and, with an army to enforce its commands, it had largely succeeded. But only the power of the military upheld the new regime. The state was under the Yankee rule but not by the state's consent. Georgia's leaders had kept on battling for the state's right to govern itself according to its own ideas. They had continued resisting all efforts to force them to bow down and accept the dictates of Washington as their own state law.
Officially, Georgia's government had never capitulated but it had been a futile fight, an ever-losing fight. It was a fight that could not win but it had, at least, postponed the inevitable. Already many other Southern states had illiterate negroes in high public office and legislatures dominated by negroes and Carpetbaggers. But Georgia, by its stubborn resistance, had so far escaped this final degradation. For the greater part of three years, the state's capitol had remained in the control of white men and Democrats. With Yankee soldiers everywhere, the state officials could do little but protest and resist. Their power was nominal but they had at least been able to keep the state government in the hands of native Georgians. Now even that last stronghold had fallen.
Just as Johnston and his men had been driven back step by step from Dalton to Atlanta, four years before, so had the Georgia Democrats been driven back little by little, from 1865 on. The power of the Federal government over the state's affairs and the lives of its citizens had been steadily made greater and greater. Force had been piled on top of force and military edicts in increasing numbers had rendered the civil authority more and more impotent. Finally, with Georgia in the status of a military province, the polls had been ordered thrown open to the negroes, whether the state's laws permitted it or not.
A week before Scarlett and Rhett announced their engagement, an election for governor had been held. The Southern Democrats had General John B. Gordon, one of Georgia's best loved and most honored citizens, as their candidate. Opposing him was a Republican named Bullock. The election had lasted three days instead of one. Trainloads of negroes had been rushed from town to town, voting at every precinct along the way. Of course, Bullock had won.
If the capture of Georgia by Sherman had caused bitterness, the final capture of the state's capitol by the Carpetbaggers, Yankees and negroes caused an intensity of bitterness such as the state had never known before. Atlanta and Georgia seethed and raged.
And Rhett Butler was a friend of the hated Bullock!
Scarlett, with her usual disregard of all matters not directly under her nose, had scarcely known an election was being held. Rhett had taken no part in the election and his relations with the Yankees were no different from what they had always been. But the fact remained that Rhett was a Scallawag and a friend of Bullock. And, if the marriage went through, Scarlett also would be turning Scallawag. Atlanta was in no mood to be tolerant or charitable toward anyone in the enemy camp and, the news of the engagement coming when it did, the town remembered all of the evil things about the pair and none of the good.
Scarlett knew the town was rocking but she did not realize the extent of public feeling until Mrs. Merriwether, urged on by her church circle, took it upon herself to speak to her for her own good.
"Because your own dear mother is dead and Miss Pitty, not being a matron, is not qualified to--er, well, to talk to you upon such a subject, I feel that I must warn you, Scarlett, Captain Butler is not the kind of a man for any woman of good family to marry. He is a--"
"He managed to save Grandpa Merriwether's neck and your nephew's, too."
Mrs. Merriwether swelled. Hardly an hour before she had had an irritating talk with Grandpa. The old man had remarked that she must not value his hide very much if she did not feel some gratitude to Rhett Butler, even if the man was a Scallawag and a scoundrel.
"He only did that as a dirty trick on us all, Scarlett, to embarrass us in front of the Yankees," Mrs. Merriwether continued. "You know as well as I do that the man is a rogue. He always has been and now he's unspeakable. He is simply not the kind of man decent people receive."
"No? That's strange, Mrs. Merriwether. He was in your parlor often enough during the war. And he gave Maybelle her white satin wedding dress, didn't he? Or is my memory wrong?"
"Things are so different during the war and nice people associated with many men who were not quite-- It was all for the Cause and very proper, too. Surely you can't be thinking of marrying a man who wasn't in the army, who jeered at men who did enlist?"
"He was, too, in the army. He was in the army eight months. He was in the last campaign and fought at Franklin and was with General Johnston when he surrendered."
"I had not heard that," said Mrs. Merriwether and she looked as if she did not believe it either. "But he wasn't wounded," she added, triumphantly.
"Lots of men weren't."
"Everybody who was anybody got wounded. _I_ know no one who wasn't wounded."
Scarlett was goaded.
"Then I guess all the men you knew were such fools they didn't know when to come in out of a shower of rain--or of minie balls. Now, let me tell you this, Mrs. Merriwether, and you can take it back to your busybody friends. I'm going to marry Captain Butler and I wouldn't care if he'd fought on the Yankee side."
When that worthy matron went out of the house with her bonnet jerking with rage, Scarlett knew she had an open enemy now instead of a disapproving friend. But she did not care. Nothing Mrs. Merriwether could say or do could hurt her. She did not care what anyone said--anyone except Mammy.
Scarlett had borne with Pitty's swooning at the news and had steeled herself to see Ashley look suddenly old and avoid her eyes as he wished her happiness. She had been amused and irritated at the letters from Aunt Pauline and Aunt Eulalie in Charleston, horror struck at the news, forbidding the marriage, telling her it would not only ruin her social position but endanger theirs. She had even laughed when Melanie with a worried pucker in her brows said loyally: "Of course, Captain Butler is much nicer than most people realize and he was so kind and clever, the way he saved Ashley. And after all, he did fight for the Confederacy. But, Scarlett, don't you think you'd better not decide so hastily?"
No, she didn't mind what anybody said, except Mammy. Mammy's words were the ones that made her most angry and brought the greatest hurt.
"Ah has seed you do a heap of things dat would hu't Miss Ellen, did she know. An' it has done sorrered me a plen'y. But disyere is de wust yit. Mahyin' trash! Yas'm, Ah said trash! Doan go tellin' me he come frum fine folkses. Dat doan mek no diffunce. Trash come outer de high places, same as de low, and he trash! Yas'm, Miss Scarlett, Ah's seed you tek Mist' Charles 'way frum Miss Honey w'en you din' keer nuthin' 'bout him. An' Ah's seed you rob yo own sister of Mist' Frank. An' Ah's heshed mah mouf 'bout a heap of things you is done, lak sellin' po' lumber fer good, an' lyin' 'bout de other lumber gempmums, an' ridin' roun' by yo'seff, exposin' yo'seff ter free issue niggers an' gettin' Mist' Frank shot, an' not feedin' dem po' convicts nuff ter keep dey souls in dey bodies. Ah's done heshed mah mouf, even ef Miss Ellen in de Promise Lan' wuz sayin' 'Mammy, Mammy! You ain' look affer mah chile right!' Yas'm. Ah's stood fer all dat but Ah ain' gwine stand fer dis, Miss Scarlett. You kain mahy wid trash. Not w'ile Ah got breaf in mah body."
"I shall marry whom I please," said Scarlett coldly. "I think you are forgetting your place, Mammy."
"An' high time, too! Ef Ah doan say dese wuds ter you, who gwine ter do it?"
"I've been thinking the matter over, Mammy, and I've decided that the best thing for you to do is to go back to Tara. I'll give you some money and--"
Mammy drew herself up with all her dignity.
"Ah is free, Miss Scarlett. You kain sen' me nowhar Ah doan wanter go. An' w'en Ah goes back ter Tara, it's gwine be w'en you goes wid me. Ah ain' gwine leave Miss Ellen's chile, an' dar ain' no way in de worl' ter mek me go. An' Ah ain' gwine leave Miss Ellen's gran'chillun fer no trashy step-pa ter bring up, needer. Hyah Ah is and hyah Ah stays!"
"I will not have you staying in my house and being rude to Captain Butler. I am going to marry him and there's no more to be said."
"Dar is plen'y mo' ter be said," retorted Mammy slowly and into her blurred old eyes there came the light of battle.
"But Ah ain' never thought ter say it ter none of Miss Ellen's blood. But, Miss Scarlett, lissen ter me. You ain' nuthin' but a mule in hawse harness. You kin polish a mule's feet an' shine his hide an' put brass all over his harness an' hitch him ter a fine cah'ige. But he a mule jes' de same. He doan fool nobody. An' you is jes' de same. You got silk dresses an' de mills an' de sto' an' de money, an' you give yo'seff airs lak a fine hawse, but you a mule jes' de same. An' you ain' foolin' nobody, needer. An' dat Butler man, he come of good stock and he all slicked up lak a race hawse, but he a mule in hawse harness, jes' lak you."
Mammy bent a piercing look on her mistress. Scarlett was speechless and quivering with insult.
"Ef you say you gwine mahy him, you gwine do it, 'cause you is bullhaided lak yo' pa. But 'member dis, Miss Scarlett, Ah ain' leavin' you. Ah gwine stay right hyah an' see dis ting thoo."
Without waiting for a reply, Mammy turned and left Scarlett and if she had said: "Thou shalt see me at Philippi!" her tones would not have been more ominous.
While they were honeymooning in New Orleans Scarlett told Rhett of Mammy's words. To her surprise and indignation he laughed at Mammy's statement about mules in horse harness.
"I have never heard a profound truth expressed so succinctly," he said. "Mammy's a smart old soul and one of the few people I know whose respect and good will I'd like to have. But, being a mule, I suppose I'll never get either from her. She even refused the ten- dollar gold piece which I, in my groomlike fervor, wished to present her after the wedding. I've seen so few people who did not melt at the sight of cash. But she looked me in the eye and thanked me and said she wasn't a free issue nigger and didn't need my money."
"Why should she take on so? Why should everybody gabble about me like a bunch of guinea hens? It's my own affair whom I marry and how often I marry. I've always minded my own business. Why don't other people mind theirs?"
"My pet, the world can forgive practically anything except people who mind their own business. But why should you squall like a scalded cat? You've said often enough that you didn't mind what people said about you. Why not prove it? You know you've laid yourself open to criticism so often in small matters, you can't expect to escape gossip in this large matter. You knew there'd be talk if you married a villain like me. If I were a low-bred poverty-stricken villain, people wouldn't be so mad. But a rich, flourishing villain--of course, that's unforgivable."
"I wish you'd be serious sometimes!"
"I am serious. It's always annoying to the godly when the ungodly flourish like the green bay tree. Cheer up, Scarlett, didn't you tell me once that the main reason you wanted a lot of money was so you could tell everybody to go to hell? Now's your chance."
"But you were the main one I wanted to tell to go to hell," said Scarlett, and laughed.
"Do you still want to tell me to go to hell?"
"Well, not as often as I used to."
"Do it whenever you like, if it makes you happy."
"It doesn't make me especially happy," said Scarlett and, bending, she kissed him carelessly. His dark eyes flickered quickly over her face, hunting for something in her eyes which he did not find, and he laughed shortly.
"Forget about Atlanta. Forget about the old cats. I brought you to New Orleans to have fun and I intend that you shall have it."
|Notes of the Chapter|