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Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind/40
. And then she went up the stairs to tell Melanie.
At the end of July came the unwelcome news, predicted by Uncle Henry, that the Yankees had swung around again toward Jonesboro. They had cut the railroad four miles below the town, but they had been beaten off by the Confederate cavalry; and the engineering corps, sweating in the broiling sun, had repaired the line.
Scarlett was frantic with anxiety. For three days she waited, fear growing in her heart. Then a reassuring letter came from Gerald. The enemy had not reached Tara. They had heard the sound of the fight but they had seen no Yankees.
Gerald's letter was so full of brag and bluster as to how the Yankees had been driven from the railroad that one would have thought he personally had accomplished the feat, single handed. He wrote for three pages about the gallantry of the troops and then, at the end of his letter, mentioned briefly that Carreen was ill. The typhoid, Mrs. O'Hara said it was. She was not very ill and Scarlett was not to worry about her, but on no condition must she come home now, even if the railroad should become safe. Mrs. O'Hara was very glad now that Scarlett and Wade had not come home when the siege began. Mrs. O'Hara said Scarlett must go to church and say some Rosaries for Carreen's recovery.
Scarlett's conscience smote her at this last, for it had been months since she had been to church. Once she would have thought this omission a mortal sin but, somehow, staying away from church did not seem so sinful now as it formerly had. But she obeyed her mother and going to her room gabbled a hasty Rosary. When she rose from her knees she did not feel as comforted as she had formerly felt after prayer. For some time she had felt that God was not watching out for her, the Confederates or the South, in spite of the millions of prayers ascending to Him daily.
That night she sat on the front porch with Gerald's letter in her bosom where she could touch it occasionally and bring Tara and Ellen closer to her. The lamp in the parlor window threw odd golden shadows onto the dark vine-shrouded porch, and the matted tangle of yellow climbing roses and honeysuckle made a wall of mingled fragrance about her. The night was utterly still. Not even the crack of a rifle had sounded since sunset and the world seemed far away. Scarlett rocked back and forth, lonely, miserable since reading the news from Tara, wishing that someone, anyone, even Mrs. Merriwether, were with her. But Mrs. Merriwether was on night duty at the hospital, Mrs. Meade was at home making a feast for Phil, who was in from the front lines, and Melanie was asleep. There was not even the hope of a chance caller. Visitors had fallen off to nothing this last week, for every man who could walk was in the rifle pits or chasing the Yankees about the countryside near Jonesboro.
It was not often that she was alone like this and she did not like it. When she was alone she had to think and, these days, thoughts were not so pleasant. Like everyone else, she had fallen into the habit of thinking of the past, the dead.
Tonight when Atlanta was so quiet, she could close her eyes and imagine she was back in the rural stillness of Tara and that life was unchanged, unchanging. But she knew that life in the County would never be the same again. She thought of the four Tarletons, the red-haired twins and Tom and Boyd, and a passionate sadness caught at her throat. Why, either Stu or Brent might have been her husband. But now, when the war was over and she went back to Tara to live, she would never again hear their wild halloos as they dashed up the avenue of cedars. And Raiford Calvert, who danced so divinely, would never again choose her to be his partner. And the Munroe boys and little Joe Fontaine and --
"Oh, Ashley!" she sobbed, dropping her head into her hands. "I'll never get used to you being gone!"
She heard the front gate click and she hastily raised her head and dashed her hand across her wet eyes. She rose and saw it was Rhett Butler coming up the walk, carrying his wide Panama hat in his hand. She had not seen him since the day when she had alighted from his carriage so precipitously at Five Points. On that occasion, she had expressed the desire never to lay eyes on him again. But she was so glad now to have someone to talk to, someone to divert her thoughts from Ashley, that she hastily put the memory from her mind. Evidently he had forgotten the contretemps, or pretended to have forgotten it, for he settled himself on the top step at her feet without mention of their late difference.
"So you didn't refugee to Macon! I heard that Miss Pitty had retreated and, of course, I thought you had gone too. So, when I saw your light I came here to investigate. Why did you stay?"
"To keep Melanie company. You see, she -- well, she can't refugee just now."
"Thunderation," he said, and in the lamplight she saw that he was frowning. "You don't mean to tell me Mrs. Wilkes is still here? I never heard of such idiocy. It's quite dangerous for her in her condition."
Scarlett was silent, embarrassed, for Melanie's condition was not a subject she could discuss with a man. She was embarrassed, too, that Rhett should know it was dangerous for Melanie. Such knowledge sat ill upon a bachelor.
"It's quite ungallant of you not to think that I might get hurt too," she said tartly.
His eyes flickered with amusement.
"I'd back you against the Yankees any day."
"I'm not sure that that's a compliment," she said uncertainly.
"It isn't," he answered. "When will you stop looking for compliments in men's lightest utterances?"
"When I'm on my deathbed," she replied and smiled, thinking that there would always be men to compliment her, even if Rhett never did.
"Vanity, vanity," he said. "At least, you are frank about it."
He opened his cigar case, extracted a black cigar and held it to his nose for a moment. A match flared, he leaned back against a post and, clasping his hands about his knees, smoked a while in silence. Scarlett resumed her rocking and the still darkness of the warm night closed about them. The mockingbird, which nested in the tangle of roses and honeysuckle, roused from slumber and gave one timid, liquid note. Then, as if thinking better of the matter, it was silent again.
From the shadow of the porch, Rhett suddenly laughed, a low, soft laugh.
"So you stayed with Mrs. Wilkes! This is the strangest situation I ever encountered!"
"I see nothing strange about it," she answered uncomfortably, immediately on the alert.
"No? But then you lack the impersonal viewpoint My impression has been for some time past that you could hardly endure Mrs. Wilkes. You think her silly and stupid and her patriotic notions bore you. You seldom pass by the opportunity to slip in some belittling remark about her, so naturally it seems strange to me that you should elect to do the unselfish thing and stay here with her during this shelling. Now, just why did you do it?"
"Because she's Charlie's sister -- and like a sister to me," answered Scarlett with as much dignity as possible though her cheeks were growing hot.
"You mean because she's Ashley's Wilkes' widow."
Scarlett rose quickly, struggling with her anger.
"I was almost on the point of forgiving you for your former boorish conduct but now I shan't do it. I wouldn't have ever let you come upon this porch at all, if I hadn't been feeling so blue and --"
"Sit down and smooth your ruffled fur," he said, and his voice changed. He reached up and taking her hand pulled her back into her chair. "Why are you blue?"
"Oh, I had a letter from Tara today. The Yankees are close to home and my little sister is ill with typhoid and -- and -- so now, even if I could go home, like I want to, Mother wouldn't let me for fear I'd catch it too. Oh, dear, and I do so want to go home!"
"Well, don't cry about it," he said, but his voice was kinder. "You are much safer here in Atlanta even if the Yankees do come than you'd be at Tara. The Yankees won't hurt you and typhoid would."
"The Yankees wouldn't hurt me! How can you say such a lie?"
"My dear girl, the Yankees aren't fiends. They haven't horns and hoofs, as you seem to think. They are pretty much like Southerners -- except with worse manners, of course, and terrible accents."
"Why, the Yankees would --"
"Rape you? I think not. Though, of course, they'd want to."
"If you are going to talk vilely I shall go into the house," she cried, grateful that the shadows hid her crimson face.
"Be frank. Wasn't that what you were thinking?"
"Oh, certainly not!"
"Oh, but it was! No use getting mad at me for reading your thoughts. That's what all our delicately nurtured and pure-minded Southern ladies think. They have it on their minds constantly. I'll wager even dowagers like Mrs. Merriwether ..."
Scarlett gulped in silence, remembering that wherever two or more matrons were gathered together, in these trying days, they whispered of such happenings, always in Virginia or Tennessee or Louisiana, never close to home. The Yankees raped women and ran bayonets through children's stomachs and burned houses over the heads of old people. Everyone knew these things were true even if they didn't shout them on the street corners. And if Rhett had any decency he would realize they were true. And not talk about them. And it wasn't any laughing matter either.
She could hear him chuckling softly. Sometimes he was odious. In fact, most of the time he was odious. It was awful for a man to know what women really thought about and talked about. It made a girl feel positively undressed. And no man ever learned such things from good women either. She was indignant that he had read her mind. She liked to believe herself a thing of mystery to men, but she knew Rhett thought her as transparent as glass.
"Speaking of such matters," he continued, "have you a protector or chaperon in the house? The admirable Mrs. Merriwether or Mrs. Meade? They always look at me as if they knew I was here for no good purpose."
"Mrs. Meade usually comes over at night," answered Scarlett, glad to change the subject "But she couldn't tonight Phil, her boy, is home."
"What luck," he said softly, "to find you alone."
Something in his voice made her heart beat pleasantly faster and she felt her face flush. She had heard that note in men's voices often enough to know that it presaged a declaration of love. Oh, what fun! If he would just say he loved her, how she would torment him and get even with him for all the sarcastic remarks he had flung at her these past three years. She would lead him a chase that would make up for even that awful humiliation of the day he witnessed her slapping Ashley. And then she'd tell him sweetly she could only be a sister to him and retire with the full honors of war. She laughed nervously in pleasant anticipation.
"Don't giggle," he said, and taking her hand, he turned it over and pressed his lips into the palm. Something vital, electric, leaped from him to her at the touch of his warm mouth, something that caressed her whole body thrillingly. His lips traveled to her wrist and she knew he must feel the leap of her pulse as her heart quickened and she tried to draw back her hand. She had not bargained on this -- this treacherous warm tide of feeling that made her want to run her hands through his hair, to feel his lips upon her mouth.
She wasn't in love with him, she told herself confusedly. She was in love with Ashley. But how to explain this feeling that made her hands shake and the pit of her stomach grow cold?
He laughed softly.
"Don't pull away! I won't hurt you!"
"Hurt me? I'm not afraid of you, Rhett Butler, or of any man in shoe leather!" she cried, furious that her voice shook as well as her hands.
"An admirable sentiment, but do lower your voice. Mrs. Wilkes might hear you. And pray compose yourself." He sounded as though delighted at her flurry.
"Scarlett, you do like me, don't you?"
That was more like, what she was expecting.
"Well, sometimes," she answered cautiously. "When you aren't acting like a varmint."
He laughed again and held the palm of her hand against his hard cheek.
"I think you like me because I am a varmint. You've known so few dyed-in-the-wool varmints in your sheltered life that my very difference holds a quaint charm for you."
This was not the turn she had anticipated and she tried again without success to pull her hand free.
"That's not true! I like nice men -- men you can depend on to always be gentlemanly."
"You mean men you can always bully. It's merely a matter of definition. But no matter."
He kissed her palm again, and again the skin on the back of her neck crawled excitingly.
"But you do like me. Could you ever love me, Scarlett?"
"Ah!" she thought, triumphantly. "Now I've got him!" And she answered with studied coolness: "Indeed, no. That is -- not unless you mended your manners considerably."
"And I have no intention of mending them. So you could not love me? That is as I hoped. For while I like you immensely, I do not love you and it would be tragic indeed for you to suffer twice from unrequited love, wouldn't it, dear? May I call you 'dear,' Mrs. Hamilton? I shall call you 'dear' whether you like it or not, so no matter, but the proprieties must be observed."
"You don't love me?"
"No, indeed. Did you hope that I did?"
"Don't be so presumptuous!"
"You hoped! Alas, to blight your hopes! I should love you, for you are charming and talented at many useless accomplishments. But many ladies have charm and accomplishments and are just as useless as you are. No, I don't love you. But I do like you tremendously -- for the elasticity of your conscience, for the selfishness which you seldom trouble to hide, and for the shrewd practicality in you which, I fear, you get from some not too remote Irish-peasant ancestor."
Peasant! Why, he was insulting her! She began to splutter wordlessly.
"Don't interrupt," he begged, squeezing her hand. "I like you because I have those same qualities in me and like begets liking. I realize you still cherish the memory of the godlike and wooden-headed Mr. Wilkes, who's probably been in his grave these six months. But there must be room in your heart for me too. Scarlett, do stop wriggling! I am making you a declaration. I have wanted you since the first time I laid eyes on you, in the hall of Twelve Oaks, when you were bewitching poor Charlie Hamilton. I want you more than I have ever wanted any woman -- and I've waited longer for you than I've ever waited for any woman."
She was breathless with surprise at his last words. In spite of all his insults, he did love her and he was just so contrary he didn't want to come out frankly and put it into words, for fear she'd laugh. Well, she'd show him and right quickly.
"Are you asking me to marry you?"
He dropped her hand and laughed so loudly she shrank back in her chair.
"Good Lord, no! Didn't I tell you I wasn't a marrying man?"
"But -- but -- what --"
He rose to his feet and, hand on heart, made her a burlesque bow.
"Dear," he said quietly, "I am complimenting your intelligence by asking you to be my mistress without having first seduced you."
Her mind shouted the word, shouted that she had been vilely insulted. But in that first startled moment she did not feel insulted. She only felt a furious surge of indignation that he should think her such a fool. He must think her a fool if he offered her a proposition like that, instead of the proposal of matrimony she had been expecting. Rage, punctured vanity and disappointment threw her mind into a turmoil and, before she even thought of the high moral grounds on which she should upbraid him, she blurted out the first words which came to her lips --
"Mistress! What would I get out of that except a passel of brats?"
And then her jaw dropped in horror as she realized what she had said. He laughed until he choked, peering at her in the shadows as she sat, stricken dumb, pressing her handkerchief to her mouth.
"That's why I like you! You are the only frank woman I know, the only woman who looks on the practical side of matters without beclouding the issue with mouthings about sin and morality. Any other woman would have swooned first and then shown me the door."
Scarlett leaped to her feet, her face red with shame. How could she have said such a thing! How could she, Ellen's daughter, with her upbringing, have sat there and listened to such debasing words and then made such a shameless reply? She should have screamed. She should have fainted. She should have turned coldly away in silence and swept from the porch. Too late now!
"I will show you the door," she shouted, not caring if Melanie or the Meades, down the street, did hear her. "Get out! How dare you say such things to me! What have I ever done to encourage you -- to make you suppose ... Get out and don't ever come back here. I mean it this time. Don't you ever come back here with any of your piddling papers of pins and ribbons, thinking I'll forgive you. I'll -- I'll tell my father and he'll kill you!"
He picked up his hat and bowed and she saw in the light of the lamp that his teeth were showing in a smile beneath his mustache. He was not ashamed, he was amused at what she had said, and he was watching her with alert interest.
Oh, he was detestable! She swung round on her heel and marched into the house. She grabbed hold of the door to shut it with a bang, but the hook which held it open was too heavy for her. She struggled with it, panting.
"May I help you?" he asked.
Feeling that she would burst a blood vessel if she stayed another minute, she stormed up the stairs. And as she reached the upper floor, she heard him obligingly slam the door for her.
AS THE HOT noisy days of August were drawing to a close the bombardment abruptly ceased. The quiet that fell on the town was startling. Neighbors met on the streets and stared at one another, uncertain, uneasy, as to what might be impending. The stillness, after the screaming days, brought no surcease to strained nerves but, if possible, made the strain even worse. No one knew why the Yankee batteries were silent; there was no news of the troops except that they had been withdrawn in large numbers from the breastworks about the town and had marched off toward the south to defend the railroad. No one knew where the fighting was, if indeed there was any fighting, or how the battle was going if there was a battle.
Nowadays the only news was that which passed from mouth to mouth. Short of paper, short of ink, short of men, the newspapers had suspended publication after the siege began, and the wildest rumors appeared from nowhere and swept through the town. Now, in the anxious quiet, crowds stormed General Hood's headquarter