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Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind/110

skulk here like the coward you are."

"I'm not a coward," she cried, stung out of her fear.

"Oh, spare me your saga about shooting Yankees and facing Sherman's army. You're a coward -- among other things. If not for your own sake, you are going tonight for Bonnie's sake. How could you further ruin her chances? Put on your stays, quick."

Hastily she slipped off her wrapper and stood clad only in her chemise. If only he would look at her and see how nice she looked in her chemise, perhaps that frightening look would leave his face. After all, he hadn't seen her in her chemise for ever and ever so long. But he did not look. He was in her closet, going through her dresses swiftly. He fumbled and drew out her new jade-green watered-silk dress. It was cut low over the bosom and the skirt was draped back over an enormous bustle and on the bustle was a huge bunch of pink velvet roses.

"Wear that," he said, tossing it on the bed and coming toward her. "No modest, matronly dove grays and lilacs tonight. Your flag must be nailed to the mast, for obviously you'd run it down if it wasn't. And plenty of rouge. I'm sure the woman the Pharisees took in adultery didn't look half so pale. Turn around."

He took the strings of the stays in his hands and jerked them so hard that she cried out, frightened, humiliated, embarrassed at such an untoward performance.

"Hurts, does it?" He laughed shortly and she could not see his face. "Pity it isn't around your neck."

Melanie's house blazed lights from every room and they could hear the music far up the street. As they drew up in front, the pleasant exciting sounds of many people enjoying themselves floated out. The house was packed with guests. They overflowed on verandas and many were sitting on benches in the dim lantern-hung yard.

I can't go in -- I can't, thought Scarlett, sitting in the carriage, gripping her balled-up handkerchief. I can't. I won't. I will jump out and run away, somewhere, back home to Tara, Why did Rhett force me to come here? What will people do? What will Melanie do? What will she look like? Oh, I can't face her. I will run away.

As though he read her mind, Rhett's hand closed upon her arm in a grip that would leave a bruise, the rough grip of a careless stranger.

"I've never known an Irishman to be a coward. Where's your much-vaunted courage?"

"Rhett, do please, let me go home and explain."

"You have eternity in which to explain and only one night to be a martyr in the amphitheater. Get out, darling, and let me see the lions eat you. Get out."

She went up the walk somehow, the arm she was holding as hard and steady as granite, communicating to her some courage. By God, she could face them and she would. What were they but a bunch of howling, clawing cats who were jealous of her? She'd show them. She didn't care what they thought. Only Melanie -- only Melanie.

They were on the porch and Rhett was bowing right and left, his hat in his hand, his voice cool and soft. The music stopped as they entered and the crowd of people seemed to her confused mind to surge up to her like the roar of the sea and then ebb away, with lessening, ever-lessening sound. Was everyone going to cut her? Well, God's nightgown, let them do it! Her chin went up and she smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling.

Before she could turn to speak to those nearest the door, someone came through the press of people. There was an odd hush that caught Scarlett's heart. Then through the lane came Melanie on small feet that hurried, hurried to meet Scarlett at the door, to speak to her before anyone else could speak. Her narrow shoulders were squared and her small jaw set indignantly and, for all her notice, she might have had no other guest but Scarlett. She went to her side and slipped an arm about her waist.

"What a lovely dress, darling," she said in her small, clear voice. "Will you be an angel? India was unable to come tonight and assist me. Will you receive with me?"





CHAPTER LIV


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 --"

"Please."

"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.

"Stop laughing."

"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 b