Safe in her room again, Scarlett fell on the bed, careless of her moire dress, bustle and roses. For a time she could only lie still and think of standing between Melanie and Ashley, greeting guests. What a horror! She would face Sherman's army again rather than repeat that performance! After a time, she rose from the bed and nervously paced the floor, shedding garments as she walked.
Reaction from strain set in and she began to shake. Hairpins slipped out of her fingers and tinkled to the floor and when she tried to give her hair its customary hundred strokes, she banged the back of the brush hurtingly against her temple. A dozen times she tiptoed to the door to listen for noises downstairs but the hall below lay like a black silent pit.
Rhett had sent her home alone in the carriage when the party was over and she had thanked God for the reprieve. He had not come in yet. Thank God, he had not come in. She could not face him tonight, shamed, frightened, shaking. But where was he? Probably at that creature's place. For the first time, Scarlett was glad there was such a person as Belle Watling. Glad there was some other place than this house to shelter Rhett until his glittering, murderous mood had passed. That was wrong, being glad a husband was at the house of a prostitute, but she could not help it. She would be almost glad if he were dead, if it meant she would not have to see him tonight.
Tomorrow--well, tomorrow was another day. Tomorrow she would think of some excuse, some counter accusations, some way of putting Rhett in the wrong. Tomorrow the memory of this hideous night would not be driving her so fiercely that she shook. Tomorrow she would not be so haunted by the memory of Ashley's face, his broken pride and his shame--shame that she had caused, shame in which he had so little part. Would he hate her now, her darling honorable Ashley, because she had shamed him? Of course he would hate her now--now that they had both been saved by the indignant squaring of Melanie's thin shoulders and the love and outspoken trust which had been in her voice as she crossed the glassy floor to slip her arm through Scarlett's and face the curious, malicious, covertly hostile crowd. How neatly Melanie had scotched the scandal, keeping Scarlett at her side all through the dreadful evening! People had been a bit cool, somewhat bewildered, but they had been polite.
Oh, the ignominy of it all, to be sheltered behind Melanie's skirts from those who hated her, who would have torn her to bits with their whispers! To be sheltered by Melanie's blind trust, Melanie of all people!
Scarlett shook as with a chill at the thought. She must have a drink, a number of drinks before she could lie down and hope to sleep. She threw a wrapper about her gown and went hastily out into the dark hall, her backless slippers making a great clatter in the stillness. She was halfway down the stairs before she looked toward the closed door of the dining room and saw a narrow line of light streaming from under it. Her heart stopped for a moment. Had that light been burning when she came home and had she been too upset to notice it? Or was Rhett home after all? He could have come in quietly through the kitchen door. If Rhett were home, she would tiptoe back to bed without her brandy, much as she needed it. Then she wouldn't have to face him. Once in her room she would be safe, for she could lock the door.
She was leaning over to pluck off her slippers, so she might hurry back in silence, when the dining-room door swung open abruptly and Rhett stood silhouetted against the dim candlelight behind him. He looked huge, larger than she had ever seen him, a terrifying faceless black bulk that swayed slightly on its feet.
"Pray join me, Mrs. Butler," he said and his voice was a little thick.
He was drunk and showing it and she had never before seen him show his liquor, no matter how much he drank. She paused irresolutely, saying nothing and his arm went up in gesture of command.
"Come here, damn you!" he said roughly.
He must be very drunk, she thought with a fluttering heart. Usually, the more he drank, the more polished became his manners. He sneered more, his words were apt to be more biting, but the manner that accompanied them was always punctilious--too punctilious.
"I must never let him know I'm afraid to face him," she thought, and, clutching the wrapper closer to her throat, she went down the stairs with her head up and her heels clacking noisily.
He stood aside and bowed her through the door with a mockery that made her wince. She saw that he was coatless and his cravat hung down on either side of his open collar. His shirt was open down to the thick mat of black hair on his chest. His hair was rumpled and his eyes bloodshot and narrow. One candle burned on the table, a tiny spark of light that threw monstrous shadows about the high- ceilinged room and made the massive sideboards and buffet look like still, crouching beasts. On the table on the silver tray stood the decanter with cut-glass stopper out, surrounded by glasses.
"Sit down," he said curtly, following her into the room.
Now a new kind of fear crept into her, a fear that made her alarm at facing him seem very small. He looked and talked and acted like a stranger. This was an ill-mannered Rhett she had never seen before. Never at any time, even in most intimate moments, had he been other than nonchalant. Even in anger, he was suave and satirical, and whisky usually served to intensify these qualities. At first it had annoyed her and she had tried to break down that nonchalance but soon she had come to accept it as a very convenient thing. For years she had thought that nothing mattered very much to him, that he thought everything in life, including her, an ironic joke. But as she faced him across the table, she knew with a sinking feeling in her stomach that at last something was mattering to him, mattering very much.
"There is no reason why you should not have your nightcap, even if I am ill bred enough to be at home," he said. "Shall I pour it for you?"
"I did not want a drink," she said stiffly. "I heard a noise and came--"
"You heard nothing. You wouldn't have come down if you'd thought I was home. I've sat here and listened to you racing up and down the floor upstairs. You must need a drink badly. Take it."
"I do not--"
He picked up the decanter and sloshed a glassful, untidily.
"Take it," he said, shoving it into her hand. "You are shaking all over. Oh, don't give yourself airs. I know you drink on the quiet and I know how much you drink. For some time I've been intending to tell you to stop your elaborate pretenses and drink openly if you want to. Do you think I give a damn if you like your brandy?"
She took the wet glass, silently cursing him. He read her like a book. He had always read her and he was the one man in the world from whom she would like to hide her real thoughts.
"Drink it, I say."
She raised the glass and bolted the contents with one abrupt motion of her arm, wrist stiff, just as Gerald had always taken his neat whisky, bolted it before she thought how practiced and unbecoming it looked. He did not miss the gesture and his mouth went down at the corner.
"Sit down and we will have a pleasant domestic discussion of the elegant reception we have just attended."
"You are drunk," she said coldly, "and I am going to bed."
"I am very drunk and I intend to get still drunker before the evening's over. But you aren't going to bed--not yet. Sit down."
His voice still held a remnant of its wonted cool drawl but beneath the words she could feel violence fighting its way to the surface, violence as cruel as the crack of a whip. She wavered irresolutely and he was at her side, his hand on her arm in a grip that hurt. He gave it a slight wrench and she hastily sat down with a little cry of pain. Now, she was afraid, more afraid than she had ever been in her life. As he leaned over her, she saw that his face was dark and flushed and his eyes still held their frightening glitter. There was something in their depths she did not recognize, could not understand, something deeper than anger, stronger than pain, something driving him until his eyes glowed redly like twin coals. He looked down at her for a long time, so long that her defiant gaze wavered and fell, and then he slumped into a chair opposite her and poured himself another drink. She thought rapidly, trying to lay a line of defenses. But until he spoke, she would not know what to say for she did not know exactly what accusation he intended to make.
He drank slowly, watching her over the glass and she tightened her nerves, trying to keep from trembling. For a time his face did not change its expression but finally he laughed, still keeping his eyes on her, and at the sound she could not still her shaking.
"It was an amusing comedy, this evening, wasn't it?"
She said nothing, curling her toes in the loose slippers in an effort at controlling her quivering.
"A pleasant comedy with no character missing. The village assembled to stone the erring woman, the wronged husband supporting his wife as a gentleman should, the wronged wife stepping in with Christian spirit and casting the garments of her spotless reputation over it all. And the lover--"
"I don't please. Not tonight. It's too amusing. And the lover looking like a damned fool and wishing he were dead. How does it feel, my dear, to have the woman you hate stand by you and cloak your sins for you? Sit down."
She sat down.
"You don't like her any better for it, I imagine. You are wondering if she knows all about you and Ashley--wondering why she did this if she does know--if she just did it to save her own face. And you are thinking she's a fool for doing it, even if it did save your hide but--"
"I will not listen--"
"Yes, you will listen. And I'll tell you this to ease your worry. Miss Melly is a fool but not the kind you think. It was obvious that someone had told her but she didn't believe it. Even if she saw, she wouldn't believe. There's too much honor in her to conceive of dishonor in anyone she loves. I don't know what lie Ashley Wilkes told her--but any clumsy one would do, for she loves Ashley and she loves you. I'm sure I can't see why she loves you but she does. Let that be one of your crosses."
"If you were not so drunk and insulting, I would explain everything," said Scarlett, recovering some dignity. "But now--"
"I am not interested in your explanations. I know the truth better than you do. By God, if you get up out of that chair just once more--
"And what I find more amusing than even tonight's comedy is the fact that while you have been so virtuously denying me the pleasures of your bed because of my many sins, you have been lusting in your heart after Ashley Wilkes. 'Lusting in your heart.' That's a good phrase, isn't it? There are a number of good phrases in that Book, aren't there?"
"What book? What book?" her mind ran on, foolishly, irrelevantly as she cast frantic eyes about the room, noting how dully the massive silver gleamed in the dim light, how frighteningly dark the corners were.
"And I was cast out because my coarse ardors were too much for your refinement--because you didn't want any more children. How bad that made me feel, dear heart! How it cut me! So I went out and found pleasant consolation and left you to your refinements. And you spent that time tracking the long-suffering Mr. Wilkes. God damn him, what ails him? He can't be faithful to his wife with his mind or unfaithful with his body. Why doesn't he make up his mind? You wouldn't object to having his children, would you--and passing them off as mine?"
She sprang to her feet with a cry and he lunged from his seat, laughing that soft laugh that made her blood cold. He pressed her back into her chair with large brown hands and leaned over her.
"Observe my hands, my dear," he said, flexing them before her eyes. "I could tear you to pieces with them with no trouble whatsoever and I would do it if it would take Ashley out of your mind. But it wouldn't. So I think I'll remove him from your mind forever, this way. I'll put my hands, so, on each side of your head and I'll smash your skull between them like a walnut and that will blot him out."
His hands were on her head, under her flowing hair, caressing, hard, turning her face up to his. She was looking into the face of a stranger, a drunken drawling-voiced stranger. She had never lacked animal courage and in the face of danger it flooded back hotly into her veins, stiffening her spine, narrowing her eyes.
"You drunken fool," she said. "Take your hands off me."
To her surprise, he did so and seating himself on the edge of the table he poured himself another drink.
"I have always admired your spirit, my dear. Never more than now when you are cornered."
She drew her wrapper close about her body. Oh, if she could only reach her room and turn the key in the stout door and be alone. Somehow, she must stand him off, bully him into submission, this Rhett she had never seen before. She rose without haste, though her knees shook, tightened the wrapper across her hips and threw back her hair from her face.
"I'm not cornered," she said cuttingly. "You'll never corner me, Rhett Butler, or frighten me. You are nothing but a drunken beast who's been with bad women so long that you can't understand anything else but badness. You can't understand Ashley or me. You've lived in dirt too long to know anything else. You are jealous of something you can't understand. Good night."
She turned casually and started toward the door and a burst of laughter stopped her. She turned and he swayed across the room toward her. Name of God, if he would only stop that terrible laugh! What was there to laugh about in all of this? As he came toward her, she backed toward the door and found herself against the wall. He put his hands heavily upon her and pinned her shoulders to the wall.
"I am laughing because I am so sorry for you."
"Sorry--for me? Be sorry for yourself."
"Yes, by God, I'm sorry for you, my dear, my pretty little fool. That hurts, doesn't it? You can't stand either laughter or pity, can you?"
He stopped laughing, leaning so heavily against her shoulders that they ached. His face changed and he leaned so close to her that the heavy whisky smell of his breath made her turn her head.
"Jealous, am I?" he said. "And why not? Oh, yes, I'm jealous of Ashley Wilkes. Why not? Oh, don't try to talk and explain. I know you've been physically faithful to me. Was that what you were trying to say? Oh, I've known that all along. All these years. How do I know? Oh, well, I know Ashley Wilkes and his breed. I know he is honorable and a gentleman. And that, my dear, is more than I can say for you--or for me, for that matter. We are not gentlemen and we have no honor, have we? That's why we flourish like green bay trees."
"Let me go. I won't stand here and be insulted."
"I'm not insulting you. I'm praising your physical virtue. And it hasn't fooled me one bit. You think men are such fools, Scarlett. It never pays to underestimate your opponent's strength and intelligence. And I'm not a fool. Don't you suppose I know that you've lain in my arms and pretended I was Ashley Wilkes?"
Her jaw dropped and fear and astonishment were written plainly in her face.
"Pleasant thing, that. Rather ghostly, in fact. Like having three in a bed where there ought to be just two." He shook her shoulders, ever so slightly, hiccoughed and smiled mockingly.
"Oh, yes, you've been faithful to me because Ashley wouldn't have you. But, hell, I wouldn't have grudged him your body. I know how little bodies mean--especially women's bodies. But I do grudge him your heart and your dear, hard, unscrupulous, stubborn mind. He doesn't want your mind, the fool, and I don't want your body. I can buy women cheap. But I do want your mind and your heart, and I'll never have them, any more than you'll ever have Ashley's mind. And that's why I'm sorry for you."
Even through her fear and bewilderment, his sneer stung.
"Yes, sorry because you're such a child, Scarlett. A child crying for the moon. What would a child do with the moon if it got it? And what would you do with Ashley? Yes, I'm sorry for you--sorry to see you throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make you happy. I'm sorry because you are such a fool you don't know there can't ever be happiness except when like mates like. If I were dead, if Miss Melly were dead and you had your precious honorable lover, do you think you'd be happy with him? Hell, no! You would never know him, never know what he was thinking about, never understand him any more than you understand music and poetry and books or anything that isn't dollars and cents. Whereas, we, dear wife of my bosom, could have been perfectly happy if you had ever given us half a chance, for we are so much alike. We are both scoundrels, Scarlett, and nothing is beyond us when we want something. We could have been happy, for I loved you and I know you, Scarlett, down to your bones, in a way that Ashley could never know you. And he would despise you if he did know. . . . But no, you must go mooning all your life after a man you cannot understand. And I, my darling, will continue to moon after whores. And, I dare say we'll do better than most couples."
He released her abruptly and made a weaving way back toward the decanter. For a moment, Scarlett stood rooted, thoughts tearing in and out of her mind so swiftly that she could seize none of them long enough to examine them. Rhett had said he loved her. Did he mean it? Or was he merely drunk? Or was this one of his horrible jokes? And Ashley--the moon--crying for the moon. She ran swiftly into the dark hall, fleeing as though demons were upon her. Oh, if she could only reach her room! She turned her ankle and the slipper fell half off. As she stopped to kick it loose frantically, Rhett, running lightly as an Indian, was beside her in the dark. His breath was not on her face and his hands went round her roughly, under the wrapper, against her bare skin.
"You turned me out on the town while you chased him. By God, this is one night when there are only going to be two in my bed."
He swung her off her feet into his arms and started up the stairs. Her head was crushed against his chest and she heard the hard hammering of his heart beneath her ears. He hurt her and she cried out, muffled, frightened. Up the stairs he went in the utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. He was shaking, as though he stood in a strong wind, and his lips, traveling from her mouth downward to where the wrapper had fallen from her body, fell on her soft flesh. He was muttering things she did not hear, his lips were evoking feelings never felt before. She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.
When she awoke the next morning, he was gone and had it not been for the rumpled pillow beside her, she would have thought the happenings of the night before a wild preposterous dream. She went crimson at the memory and, pulling the bed covers up about her neck, lay bathed in sunlight, trying to sort out the jumbled impressions in her mind.
Two things stood to the fore. She had lived for years with Rhett, slept with him, eaten with him, quarreled with him and borne his child--and yet, she did not know him. The man who had carried her up the dark stairs was a stranger of whose existence she had not dreamed. And now, though she tried to make herself hate him, tried to be indignant, she could not. He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it.
Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee.
Rhett loved her! At least, he said he loved her and how could she doubt it now? How odd and bewildering and how incredible that he loved her, this savage stranger with whom she had lived in such coolness. She was not altogether certain how she felt about this revelation but as an idea came to her she suddenly laughed aloud. He loved her and so she had him at last. She had almost forgotten her early desire to entrap him into loving her, so she could hold the whip over his insolent black head. Now, it came back and it gave her great satisfaction. For one night, he had had her at his mercy but now she knew the weakness of his armor. From now on she had him where she wanted him. She had smarted under his jeers for a long time, but now she had him where she could make him jump through any hoops she cared to hold.
When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.
"I'm nervous as a bride," she thought. "And about Rhett!" And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.
But Rhett did not appear for dinner, nor was he at his place at the supper table. The night passed, a long night during which she lay awake until dawn, her ears strained to hear his key in the latch. But he did not come. When the second day passed with no word from him, she was frantic with disappointment and fear. She went by the bank but he was not there. She went to the store and was very sharp with everyone, for every time the door opened to admit a customer she looked up with a flutter, hoping it was Rhett. She went to the lumber yard and bullied Hugh until he hid himself behind a pile of lumber. But Rhett did not seek her there.
She could not humble herself to ask friends if they had seen him. She could not make inquiries among the servants for news of him. But she felt they knew something she did not know. Negroes always knew everything. Mammy was unusually silent those two days. She watched Scarlett out of the corner of her eye and said nothing. When the second night had passed Scarlett made up her mind to go to the police. Perhaps he had had an accident, perhaps his horse had thrown him and he was lying helpless in some ditch. Perhaps--oh, horrible thought--perhaps he was dead.
The next morning when she had finished her breakfast and was in her room putting on her bonnet, she heard swift feet on the stairs. As she sank to the bed in weak thankfulness, Rhett entered the room. He was freshly barbered, shaved and massaged and he was sober, but his eyes were bloodshot and his face puffy from drink. He waved an airy hand at her and said: "Oh, hello."
How could a man say "Oh, hello," after being gone without explanation for two days? How could he be so nonchalant with the memory of such a night as they had spent? He couldn't unless-- unless--the terrible thought leaped into her mind. Unless such nights were the usual thing to him. For a moment she could not speak and all the pretty gestures and smiles she had thought to use upon him were forgotten. He did not even come to her to give her his usual offhand kiss but stood looking at her, with a grin, a smoking cigar in his hand.
"Where--where have you been?"
"Don't tell me you don't know! I thought surely the whole town knew by now. Perhaps they all do, except you. You know the old adage: 'The wife is always the last one to find out.'"
"What do you mean?"
"I thought that after the police called at Belle's night before last--"
"Belle's--that--that woman! You have been with--"
"Of course. Where else would I be? I hope you haven't worried about me."
"You went from me to--oh!"
"Come, come, Scarlett! Don't play the deceived wife. You must have known about Belle long ago."
"You went to her from me, after--after--"
"Oh, that." He made a careless gesture. "I will forget my manners. My apologies for my conduct at our last meeting. I was very drunk, as you doubtless know, and quite swept off my feet by your charms--need I enumerate them?"
Suddenly she wanted to cry, to lie down on the bed and sob endlessly. He hadn't changed, nothing had changed, and she had been a fool, a stupid, conceited, silly fool, thinking he loved her. It had all been one of his repulsive drunken jests. He had taken her and used her when he was drunk, just as he would use any woman in Belle's house. And now he was back, insulting, sardonic, out of reach. She swallowed her tears and rallied. He must never, never know what she had thought. How he would laugh if he knew! Well, he'd never know. She looked up quickly at him and caught that old, puzzling, watchful glint in his eyes--keen, eager as though he hung on her next words, hoping they would be--what was he hoping? That she'd make a fool out of herself and bawl and give him something to laugh about? Not she! Her slanting brows rushed together in a cold frown.
"I had naturally suspected what your relations with that creature were."
"Only suspected? Why didn't you ask me and satisfy your curiosity? I'd have told you. I've been living with her ever since the day you and Ashley Wilkes decided that we should have separate bedrooms."
"You have the gall to stand there and boast to me, your wife, that--"
"Oh, spare me your moral indignation. You never gave a damn what I did as long as I paid the bills. And you know I've been no angel recently. And as for you being my wife--you haven't been much of a wife since Bonnie came, have you? You've been a poor investment, Scarlett. Belle's been a better one."
"Investment? You mean you gave her--?"
"'Set her up in business' is the correct term, I believe. Belle's a smart woman. I wanted to see her get ahead and all she needed was money to start a house of her own. You ought to know what miracles a woman can perform when she has a bit of cash. Look at yourself."
"You compare me--"
"Well, you are both hard-headed business women and both successful. Belle's got the edge on you, of course, because she's a kind- hearted, good-natured soul--"
"Will you get out of this room?"
He lounged toward the door, one eyebrow raised quizzically. How could he insult her so, she thought in rage and pain. He was going out of his way to hurt and humiliate her and she writhed as she thought how she had longed for his homecoming, while all the time he was drunk and brawling with police in a bawdy house.
"Get out of this room and don't ever come back in it. I told you that once before and you weren't enough of a gentleman to understand. Hereafter I will lock my door."
"I will lock it. After the way you acted the other night--so drunk, so disgusting--"
"Come now, darling! Not disgusting, surely!"
"Don't worry. I'm going. And I promise I'll never bother you again. That's final. And I just thought I'd tell you that if my infamous conduct was too much for you to bear, I'll let you have a divorce. Just give me Bonnie and I won't contest it."
"I would not think of disgracing the family with a divorce."
"You'd disgrace it quick enough if Miss Melly was dead, wouldn't you? It makes my head spin to think how quickly you'd divorce me."
"Will you go?"
"Yes, I'm going. That's what I came home to tell you. I'm going to Charleston and New Orleans and--oh, well, a very extended trip. I'm leaving today."
"And I'm taking Bonnie with me. Get that foolish Prissy to pack her little duds. I'll take Prissy too."
"You'll never take my child out of this house."
"My child too, Mrs. Butler. Surely you do not mind me taking her to Charleston to see her grandmother?"
"Her grandmother, my foot! Do you think I'll let you take that baby out of here when you'll be drunk every night and most likely taking her to houses like that Belle's--"
He threw down the cigar violently and it smoked acridly on the carpet, the smell of scorching wool rising to their nostrils. In an instant he was across the floor and by her side, his face black with fury.
"If you were a man, I would break your neck for that. As it is, all I can say is for you to shut your God-damn mouth. Do you think I do not love Bonnie, that I would take her where--my daughter! Good God, you fool! And as for you, giving yourself pious airs about your motherhood, why, a cat's a better mother than you! What have you ever done for the children? Wade and Ella are frightened to death of you and if it wasn't for Melanie Wilkes, they'd never know what love and affection are. But Bonnie, my Bonnie! Do you think I can't take better care of her than you? Do you think I'll ever let you bully her and break her spirit, as you've broken Wade's and Ella's? Hell, no! Have her packed up and ready for me in an hour or I warn you what happened the other night will be mild beside what will happen. I've always thought a good lashing with a buggy whip would benefit you immensely."
He turned on his heel before she could speak and went out of the room on swift feet. She heard him cross the floor of the hall to the children's play room and open the door. There was a glad, quick treble of childish voices and she heard Bonnie's tones rise over Ella's.
"Daddy, where you been?"
"Hunting for a rabbit's skin to wrap my little Bonnie in. Give your best sweetheart a kiss, Bonnie--and you too, Ella."
|Notes of the Chapter|