Gone with the Wind - Chapter 21
After sending up Melanie’s breakfast tray, Scarlett dispatched Prissy for Mrs. Meade and sat down with Wade to eat her own breakfast. But for once she had no appetite. Between her nervous apprehension over the thought that Melanie’s time was approaching and her unconscious straining to hear the sound of the cannon, she could hardly eat. Her heart acted very queerly, beating regularly for several minutes and then thumping so loudly and swiftly it almost made her sick at her stomach. The heavy hominy stuck in her throat like glue and never before had the mixture of parched corn and ground-up yams that passed for coffee been so repulsive. Without sugar or cream it was bitter as gall, for the sorghum used for “long sweetening” did little to improve the taste. After one swallow she pushed her cup away. If for no other reason she hated the Yankees because they kept her from having real coffee with sugar and thick cream in it.
Wade was quieter than usual and did not set up his every morning complaint against the hominy that he so disliked. He ate silently the spoonfuls she pushed into his mouth and washed them down with noisily gulped water. His soft brown eyes followed her every movement, large, round as dollars, a childish bewilderment in them as though her own scarce-hidden fears had been communicated to him. When he had finished she sent him off to the back yard to play and watched him toddle across the straggling grass to his playhouse with great relief.
She arose and stood irresolutely at the foot of the stairs. She should go up and sit with Melanie and distract her mind from her coming ordeal but she did not feel equal to it. Of all days in the world, Melanie had to pick this day to have the baby! And of all days to talk about dying!
She sat down on the bottom step of the stairs and tried to compose herself, wondering again how yesterday’s battle had gone, wondering how today’s fighting was going. How strange to have a big battle going on just a few miles away and to know nothing of it! How strange the quiet of this deserted end of town in contrast with the day of the fighting at Peachtree Creek! Aunt Pitty’s house was one of the last on the north side of Atlanta and with the fighting somewhere to the far south, there were no reinforcements going by at double-quick, no ambulances and staggering lines of walking wounded coming back. She wondered if such scenes were being enacted on the south side of town and thanked God she was not there. If only everyone except the Meades and the Merriwethers had not refugeed from this north end of Peachtree! It made her feel forsaken and alone. She wished fervently that Uncle Peter were with her so he could go down to headquarters and learn the news. If it wasn’t for Melanie she’d go to town this very minute and learn for herself, but she couldn’t leave until Mrs. Meade arrived. Mrs. Meade. Why didn’t she come on? And where was Prissy?
She rose and went out onto the front porch and looked for them impatiently, but the Meade house was around a shady bend in the street and she could see no one. After a long while Prissy came into view, alone, switching her skirts from side to side and looking over her shoulder to observe the effect.
“You’re as slow as molasses in January,” snapped Scarlett as Prissy opened the gate. “What did Mrs. Meade say? How soon will she be over here?”
“She warn’t dar,” said Prissy.
“Where is she? When will she be home?”
“Well’m,” answered Prissy, dragging out her words pleasurably to give more weight to her message. “Dey Cookie say Miss Meade done got wud early dis mawnin’ dat young Mist’ Phil done been shot an’ Miss Meade she tuck de cah’ige an’ Ole Talbot an’ Betsy an’ dey done gone ter fotch him home. Cookie say he bad hurt an’ Miss Meade ain’ gwine ter be studyin’ ‘bout comin’ up hyah.”
Scarlett stared at her and had an impulse to shake her. Negroes were always so proud of being the bearers of evil tidings.
“Well, don’t stand there like a ninny. Go down to Mrs. Merriwether’s and ask her to come up or send her mammy. Now, hurry.”
“Dey ain’ dar, Miss Scarlett. Ah drapped in ter pass time of de day wid Mammy on mah way home. Dey’s done gone. House all locked up. Spec dey’s at de horsepittle.”
“So that’s where you were so long! Whenever I send you somewhere you go where I tell you and don’t stop to ‘pass any time’ with anybody. Go —”
She stopped and racked her brain. Who was left in town among their friends who would be helpful? There was Mrs. Elsing. Of course, Mrs. Elsing didn’t like her at all these days but she had always been fond of Melanie.
“Go to Mrs. Elsing’s, and explain everything very carefully and tell her to please come up here. And, Prissy, listen to me. Miss Melly’s baby is due and she may need you any minute now. Now you hurry right straight back.”
“Yas’m,” said Prissy and, turning, sauntered down the walk at snail’s gait.
“Hurry, you slow poke!”
Prissy quickened her gait infinitesimally and Scarlett went back into the house. She hesitated again before going upstairs to Melanie. She would have to explain to her just why Mrs. Meade couldn’t come and the knowledge that Phil Meade was badly wounded might upset her. Well, she’d tell a lie about it.
She entered Melanie’s room and saw that the breakfast tray was untouched. Melanie lay on her side, her face white.
“Mrs. Meade’s over at the hospital,” said Scarlett. “But Mrs. Elsing is coming. Do you feel bad?”
“Not very,” lied Melanie. “Scarlett, how long did it take Wade to get born?”
“Less than no time,” answered Scarlett with a cheerfulness she was far from feeling. “I was out in the yard and I didn’t hardly have time to get into the house. Mammy said it was scandalous — just like one of the darkies.”
“I hope I’ll be like one of the darkies too,” said Melanie, mustering a smile which suddenly disappeared as pain contorted her face.
Scarlett looked down at Melanie’s tiny hips with none too sanguine hopes but said reassuringly: “Oh, it’s not really so bad.”
“Oh, I know it isn’t. I’m afraid I’m a little coward. Is — is Mrs. Elsing coming right away?”
“Yes, right away,” said Scarlett. “I’ll go down and get some fresh water and sponge you off. It’s so hot today.”
She took as long a time as possible in getting the water, running to the front door every two minutes to see if Prissy were coming. There was no sign of Prissy so she went back upstairs, sponged Melanie’s perspiring body and combed out her long dark hair.
When an hour had passed she heard scuffing negro feet coming down the street, and looking out of the window, saw Prissy returning slowly, switching herself as before and tossing her head with as many airy affectations as if she had a large and interested audience.
“Some day, I’m going to take a strap to that little wench,” thought Scarlett savagely, hurrying down the stairs to meet her.
“Miss Elsing ober at de horsepittle. Dey Cookie ‘lows a whole lot of wounded sojers come in on de early train. Cookie fixin’ soup ter tek over dar. She say —”
“Never mind what she said,” interrupted Scarlett, her heart sinking. “Put on a clean apron because I want you to go over to the hospital. I’m going to give you a note to Dr. Meade, and if he isn’t there, give it to Dr. Jones or any of the other doctors. And if you don’t hurry back this time, I’ll skin you alive.”
“And ask any of the gentlemen for news of the fighting. If they don’t know, go by the depot and ask the engineers who brought the wounded in. Ask if they are fighting at Jonesboro or near there.”
“Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett!” and sudden fright was in Prissy’s black face. “De Yankees ain’ at Tara, is dey?”
“I don’t know. I’m telling you to ask for news.”
“Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll dey do ter Maw?”
Prissy began to bawl suddenly, loudly, the sound adding to Scarlett’s own uneasiness.
“Stop bawling! Miss Melanie will hear you. Now go change your apron, quick.”
Spurred to speed, Prissy hurried toward the back of the house while Scarlett scratched a hasty note on the margin of Gerald’s last letter to her — the only bit of paper in the house. As she folded it, so that her note was uppermost, she caught Gerald’s words, “Your mother — typhoid — under no condition — to come home —” She almost sobbed. If it wasn’t for Melanie, she’d start home, right this minute, if she had to walk every step of the way.
Prissy went off at a trot, the letter gripped in her hand, and Scarlett went back upstairs, trying to think of some plausible lie to explain Mrs. Elsing’s failure to appear. But Melanie asked no questions. She lay upon her back, her face tranquil and sweet, and the sight of her quieted Scarlett for a while.
She sat down and tried to talk of inconsequential things, but the thoughts of Tara and a possible defeat by the Yankees prodded cruelly. She thought of Ellen dying and of the Yankees coming into Atlanta, burning everything, killing everybody. Through it all, the dull far-off thundering persisted, rolling into her ears in waves of fear. Finally, she could not talk at all and only stared out of the window at the hot still street and the dusty leaves hanging motionless on the trees. Melanie was silent too, but at intervals her quiet face was wrenched with pain.
She said, after each pain: “It wasn’t very bad, really,” and Scarlett knew she was lying. She would have preferred a loud scream to silent endurance. She knew she should feel sorry for Melanie, but somehow she could not muster a spark of sympathy. Her mind was too torn with her own anguish. Once she looked sharply at the pain-twisted face and wondered why it should be that she, of all people in the world, should be here with Melanie at this particular time — she who had nothing in common with her, who hated her, who would gladly have seen her dead. Well, maybe she’d have her wish, and before the day was over too. A cold superstitious fear swept her at this thought. It was bad luck to wish that someone were dead, almost as bad luck as to curse someone. Curses came home to roost, Mammy said. She hastily prayed that Melanie wouldn’t die and broke into feverish small talk, hardly aware of what she said. At last, Melanie put a hot hand on her wrist.
“Don’t bother about talking, dear. I know how worried you are. I’m so sorry I’m so much trouble.”
Scarlett relapsed into silence but she could not sit still. What would she do if neither the doctor nor Prissy got there in time? She walked to the window and looked down the street and came back and sat down again. Then she rose and looked out of the window on the other side of the room.
An hour went by and then another. Noon came and the sun was high and hot and not a breath of air stirred the dusty leaves. Melanie’s pains were harder now. Her long hair was drenched in sweat and her gown stuck in wet spots to her body. Scarlett sponged her face in silence but fear was gnawing at her. God in Heaven, suppose the baby came before the doctor arrived! What would she do? She knew less than nothing of midwifery. This was exactly the emergency she had been dreading for weeks. She had been counting on Prissy to handle the situation if no doctor should be available. Prissy knew all about midwifery. She’d said so time and again. But where was Prissy? Why didn’t she come? Why didn’t the doctor come? She went to the window and looked again. She listened hard and suddenly she wondered if it were only her imagination or if the sound of cannon in the distance had died away. If it were farther away it would mean that the fighting was nearer Jonesboro and that would mean —
At last she saw Prissy coming down the street at a quick trot and she leaned out of the window. Prissy, looking up, saw her and her mouth opened to yell. Seeing the panic written on the little black face and fearing she might alarm Melanie by crying out evil tidings, Scarlett hastily put her finger to her lips and left the window.
“I’ll get some cooler water,” she said, looking down into Melanie’s dark, deep-circled eyes and trying to smile. Then she hastily left the room, closing the door carefully behind her.
Prissy was sitting on the bottom step in the hall, panting.
“Dey’s fightin’ at Jonesboro, Miss Scarlett! Dey say our gempmums is gittin’ beat. Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter Maw an’ Poke? Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter us effen de Yankees gits hyah? Oh, Gawd —”
Scarlett clapped a hand over the blubbery mouth.
“For God’s sake, hush!”
Yes, what would happen to them if the Yankees came — what would happen to Tara? She pushed the thought firmly back into her mind and grappled with the more pressing emergency. If she thought of these things, she’d begin to scream and bawl like Prissy.
“Where’s Dr. Meade? When’s he coming?”
“Ah ain’ nebber seed him, Miss Scarlett.”
“No’m, he ain’ at de horsepittle. Miss Merriwether an’ Miss Elsing ain’ dar needer. A man he tole me de doctah down by de car shed wid the wounded sojers jes’ come in frum Jonesboro, but Miss Scarlett, Ah wuz sceered ter go down dar ter de shed — dey’s folkses dyin’ down dar. Ah’s sceered of daid folkses —”
“What about the other doctors?”
“Miss Scarlett, fo’ Gawd, Ah couldn’ sceercely git one of dem ter read yo’ note. Dey wukin’ in de horsepittle lak dey all done gone crazy. One doctah he say ter me, ‘Damn yo’ hide! Doan you come roun’ hyah bodderin’ me ‘bout babies w’en we got a mess of men dyin’ hyah. Git some woman ter he’p you.’ An’ den Ah went aroun’ an’ about an’ ask fer news lak you done tole me an’ dey all say ‘fightin’ at Jonesboro’ an’ Ah —”
“You say Dr. Meade’s at the depot?”
“Yas’m. He —”
“Now, listen sharp to me. I’m going to get Dr. Meade and I want you to sit by Miss Melanie and do anything she says. And if you so much as breathe to her where the fighting is, I’ll sell you South as sure as gun’s iron. And don’t you tell her that the other doctors wouldn’t come either. Do you hear?”
“Wipe your eyes and get a fresh pitcher of water and go on up. Sponge her off. Tell her I’ve gone for Dr. Meade.”
“Is her time nigh, Miss Scarlett?”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid it is but I don’t know. You should know. Go on up.”
Scarlett caught up her wide straw bonnet from the console table and jammed it on her head. She looked in the mirror and automatically pushed up loose strands of hair but she did not see her own reflection. Cold little ripples of fear that started in the pit of her stomach were radiating outward until the fingers that touched her cheeks were cold, though the rest of her body streamed perspiration. She hurried out of the house and into the heat of the sun. It was blindingly, glaring hot and as she hurried down Peachtree Street her temples began to throb from the heat. From far down the street she could hear the rise and fall and roar of many voices. By the time she caught sight of the Leyden house, she was beginning to pant, for her stays were tightly laced, but she did not slow her gait. The roar of noise grew louder.
From the Leyden house down to Five Points, the street seethed with activity, the activity of an anthill just destroyed. Negroes were running up and down the street, panic in their faces; and on porches, white children sat crying untended. The street was crowded with army wagons and ambulances filled with wounded and carriages piled high with valises and pieces of furniture. Men on horseback dashed out of side streets pell-mell down Peachtree toward Hood’s headquarters. In front of the Bonnell house, old Amos stood holding the head of the carriage horse and he greeted Scarlett with rolling eyes.
“Ain’t you gone yit, Miss Scarlett? We is goin’ now. Ole Miss packin’ her bag.”
“Gawd knows, Miss. Somewheres. De Yankees is comin’!”
She hurried on, not even saying good-by. The Yankees were coming! At Wesley Chapel, she paused to catch her breath and wait for her hammering heart to subside. If she did not quiet herself she would certainly faint. As she stood clutching a lamp post for support, she saw an officer on horseback come charging up the street from Five Points and, on an impulse, she ran out into the street and waved at him.
“Oh, stop! Please, stop!”
He reined in so suddenly the horse went back on its haunches, pawing the air. There were harsh lines of fatigue and urgency in his face but his tattered gray hat was off with a sweep.
“Tell me, is it true? Are the Yankees coming?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Do you know so?”
“Yes, Ma’m. I know so. A dispatch came in to headquarters half an hour ago from the fighting at Jonesboro.”
“At Jonesboro? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. There’s no use telling pretty lies, Madam. The message was from General Hardee and it said: ‘I have lost the battle and am in full retreat.’”
“Oh, my God!”
The dark face of the tired man looked down without emotion. He gathered the reins again and put on his hat.
“Oh, sir, please, just a minute. What shall we do?”
“Madam, I can’t say. The army is evacuating Atlanta soon.”
“Going off and leaving us to the Yankees?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The spurred horse went off as though on springs and Scarlett was left standing in the middle of the street with the red dust thick upon her ankles.
The Yankees were coming. The army was leaving. The Yankees were coming. What should she do? Where should she run? No, she couldn’t run. There was Melanie back there in the bed expecting that baby. Oh, why did women have babies? If it wasn’t for Melanie she could take Wade and Prissy and hide in the woods where the Yankees could never find them. But she couldn’t take Melanie to the woods. No, not now. Oh, if she’d only had the baby sooner, yesterday even, perhaps they could get an ambulance and take her away and hide her somewhere. But now — she must find Dr. Meade and make him come home with her. Perhaps he could hurry the baby.
She gathered up her skirts and ran down the street, and the rhythm of her feet was “The Yankees are coming! The Yankees are coming!” Five Points was crowded with people who rushed here and there with unseeing eyes, jammed with wagons, ambulances, ox carts, carriages loaded with wounded. A roaring sound like the breaking of surf rose from the crowd.
Then a strangely incongruous sight struck her eyes. Throngs of women were coming up from the direction of the railroad tracks carrying hams across their shoulders. Little children hurried by their sides, staggering under buckets of steaming molasses. Young boys dragged sacks of corn and potatoes. One old man struggled along with a small barrel of flour on a wheelbarrow. Men, women and children, black and white, hurried, hurried with straining faces, lugging packages and sacks and boxes of food — more food than she had seen in a year. The crowd suddenly gave a lane for a careening carriage and through the lane came the frail and elegant Mrs. Elsing, standing up in the front of her victoria, reins in one hand, whip in the other. She was hatless and white faced and her long gray hair streamed down her back as she lashed the horse like a Fury. Jouncing on the back seat of the carriage was her black mammy, Melissy, clutching a greasy side of bacon to her with one hand, while with the other and both feet she attempted to hold the boxes and bags piled all about her. One bag of dried peas had burst and the peas strewed themselves into the street. Scarlett screamed to her, but the tumult of the crowd drowned her voice and the carriage rocked madly by.
For a moment she could not understand what it all meant and then, remembering that the commissary warehouses were down by the railroad tracks, she realized that the army had thrown them open to the people to salvage what they could before the Yankees came.
She pushed her way swiftly through the crowds, past the packed, hysterical mob surging in the open space of Five Points, and hurried as fast as she could down the short block toward the depot. Through the tangle of ambulances and the clouds of dust, she could see doctors and stretcher bearers bending, lifting, hurrying. Thank God, she’d find Dr. Meade soon. As she rounded the corner of the Atlanta Hotel and came in full view of the depot and the tracks, she halted appalled.
Lying in the pitiless sun, shoulder to shoulder, head to feet, were hundreds of wounded men, lining the tracks, the sidewalks, stretched out in endless rows under the car shed. Some lay stiff and still but many writhed under the hot sun, moaning. Everywhere, swarms of flies hovered over the men, crawling and buzzing in their faces, everywhere was blood, dirty bandages, groans, screamed curses of pain as stretcher bearers lifted men. The smell of sweat, of blood, of unwashed bodies, of excrement rose up in waves of blistering heat until the fetid stench almost nauseated her. The ambulance men hurrying here and there among the prostrate forms frequently stepped on wounded men, so thickly packed were the rows, and those trodden upon stared stolidly up, waiting their turn.
She shrank back, clapping her hand to her mouth feeling that she was going to vomit. She couldn’t go on. She had seen wounded men in the hospitals, wounded men on Aunt Pitty’s lawn after the fighting at the creek, but never anything like this. Never anything like these stinking, bleeding bodies broiling under the glaring sun. This was an inferno of pain and smell and noise and hurry — hurry — hurry! The Yankees are coming! The Yankees are coming!
She braced her shoulders and went down among them, straining her eyes among the upright figures to distinguish Dr. Meade. But she discovered she could not look for him, for if she did not step carefully she would tread on some poor soldier. She raised her skirts and tried to pick her way among them toward a knot of men who were directing the stretcher bearers.
As she walked, feverish hands plucked at her skirt and voices croaked: “Lady — water! Please, lady, water! For Christ’s sake, water!”
Perspiration came down her face in streams as she pulled her skirts from clutching hands. If she stepped on one of these men, she’d scream and faint. She stepped over dead men, over men who lay dull eyed with hands clutched to bellies where dried blood had glued torn uniforms to wounds, over men whose beards were stiff with blood and from whose broken jaws came sounds which must mean:
If she did not find Dr. Meade soon, she would begin screaming with hysteria. She looked toward the group of men under the car shed and cried as loudly as she could:
“Dr. Meade! Is Dr. Meade there?”
From the group one man detached himself and looked toward her. It was the doctor. He was coatless and his sleeves were rolled up to his shoulders. His shirt and trousers were as red as a butcher’s and even the end of his iron-gray beard was matted with blood. His face was the face of a man drunk with fatigue and impotent rage and burning pity. It was gray and dusty, and sweat had streaked long rivulets across his cheeks. But his voice was calm and decisive as he called to her.
“Thank God, you are here. I can use every pair of hands.”
For a moment she stared at him bewildered, dropping her skirts in dismay. They fell over the dirty face of a wounded man who feebly tried to turn his head to escape from their smothering folds. What did the doctor mean? The dust from the ambulances came into her face with choking dryness, and the rotten smells were like a foul liquid in her nostrils.
“Hurry, child! Come here.”
She picked up her skirts and went to him as fast as she could go across the rows of bodies. She put her hand on his arm and felt that it was trembling with weariness but there was no weakness in his face.
“Oh, Doctor!” she cried. “You must come. Melanie is having her baby.”
He looked at her as if her words did not register on his mind. A man who lay upon the ground at her feet, his head pillowed on his canteen, grinned up companionably at her words.
“They will do it,” he said cheerfully.
She did not even look down but shook the doctor’s arm.
“It’s Melanie. The baby. Doctor, you must come. She — the —” This was no time for delicacy but it was hard to bring out the words with the ears of hundreds of strange men listening.
“The pains are getting hard. Please, Doctor!”
“A baby? Great God!” thundered the doctor and his face was suddenly contorted with hate and rage, a rage not directed at her or at anyone except a world wherein such things could happen. “Are you crazy? I can’t leave these men. They are dying, hundreds of them. I can’t leave them for a damned baby. Get some woman to help you. Get my wife.”
She opened her mouth to tell him why Mrs. Meade could not come and then shut it abruptly. He did not know his own son was wounded! She wondered if he would still be here if he did know, and something told her that even if Phil were dying he would still be standing on this spot, giving aid to the many instead of the one.
“No, you must come, Doctor. You know you said she’d have a hard time —” Was it really she, Scarlett, standing here saying these dreadful indelicate things at the top of her voice in this hell of heat and groans? “She’ll die if you don’t come!”
He shook off her hand roughly and spoke as though he hardly heard her, hardly knew what she said.
“Die? Yes, they’ll all die — all these men. No bandages, no salves, no quinine, no chloroform. Oh, God, for some morphia! Just a little morphia for the worst ones. Just a little chloroform. God damn the Yankees! God damn the Yankees!”
“Give um hell, Doctor!” said the man on the ground, his teeth showing in his beard.
Scarlett began to shake and her eyes burned with tears of fright. The doctor wasn’t coming with her. Melanie would die and she had wished that she would die. The doctor wasn’t coming.
“Name of God, Doctor! Please!”
Dr. Meade bit his lip and his jaw hardened as his face went cool again.
“Child, I’ll try. I can’t promise you. But I’ll try. When we get these men tended to. The Yankees are coming and the troops are moving out of town. I don’t know what they’ll do with the wounded. There aren’t any trains. The Macon line has been captured. . . . But I’ll try. Run along now. Don’t bother me. There’s nothing much to bringing a baby. Just tie up the cord. . . .”
He turned as an orderly touched his arm and began firing directions and pointing to this and that wounded man. The man at her feet looked up at Scarlett compassionately. She turned away, for the doctor had forgotten her.
She picked her way rapidly through the wounded and back to Peachtree Street. The doctor wasn’t coming. She would have to see it through herself. Thank God, Prissy knew all about midwifery. Her head ached from the heat and she could feel her basque, soaking wet from perspiration, sticking to her. Her mind felt numb and so did her legs, numb as in a nightmare when she tried to run and could not move them. She thought of the long walk back to the house and it seemed interminable.
Then, “The Yankees are coming!” began to beat its refrain in her mind again. Her heart began to pound and new life came into her limbs. She hurried into the crowd at Five Points, now so thick there was no room on the narrow sidewalks and she was forced to walk in the street. Long lines of soldiers were passing, dust covered, sodden with weariness. There seemed thousands of them, bearded, dirty, their guns slung over their shoulders, swiftly passing at route step. Cannon rolled past, the drivers flaying the thin mules with lengths of rawhide. Commissary wagons with torn canvas covers rocked through the ruts. Cavalry raising clouds of choking dust went past endlessly. She had never seen so many soldiers together before. Retreat! Retreat! The army was moving out.
The hurrying lines pushed her back onto the packed sidewalk and she smelled the reek of cheap corn whisky. There were women in the mob near Decatur Street, garishly dressed women whose bright finery and painted faces gave a discordant note of holiday. Most of them were drunk and the soldiers on whose arms they hung were drunker. She caught a fleeting glimpse of a head of red curls and saw that creature, Belle Watling, heard her shrill drunken laughter as she clung for support to a one-armed soldier who reeled and staggered.
When she had shoved and pushed her way through the mob for a block beyond Five Points the crowd thinned a little and, gathering up her skirts, she began to run again. When she reached Wesley Chapel, she was breathless and dizzy and sick at her stomach. Her stays were cutting her ribs in two. She sank down on the steps of the church and buried her head in her hands until she could breathe more easily. If she could only get one deep breath, way down in her abdomen. If her heart would only stop bumping and drumming and cavorting. If there were only someone in this mad place to whom she could turn.
Why, she had never had to do a thing for herself in all her life. There had always been someone to do things for her, to look after her, shelter and protect her and spoil her. It was incredible that she could be in such a fix. Not a friend, not a neighbor to help her. There had always been friends, neighbors, the competent hands of willing slaves. And now in this hour of greatest need, there was no one. It was incredible that she could be so completely alone, and frightened, and far from home.
Home! If she were only home, Yankees or no Yankees. Home, even if Ellen was sick. She longed for the sight of Ellen’s sweet face, for Mammy’s strong arms around her.
She rose dizzily to her feet and started walking again. When she came in sight of the house, she saw Wade swinging on the front gate. When he saw her, his face puckered and he began to cry, holding up a grubby bruised finger.
“Hurt!” he sobbed. “Hurt!”
“Hush! Hush! Hush! Or I’ll spank you. Go out in the back yard and make mud pies and don’t move from there.”
“Wade hungwy,” he sobbed and put the hurt finger in his mouth.
“I don’t care. Go in the back yard and —”
She looked up and saw Prissy leaning out of the upstairs window, fright and worry written on her face; but in an instant they were wiped away in relief as she saw her mistress. Scarlett beckoned to her to come down and went into the house. How cool it was in the hall. She untied her bonnet and flung it on the table, drawing her forearms across her wet forehead. She heard the upstairs door open and a low wailing moan, wrenched from the depths of agony, came to her ears. Prissy came down the stairs three at a time.
“Is de doctah come?”
“No. He can’t come.”
“Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Miss Melly bad off!”
“The doctor can’t come. Nobody can come. You’ve got to bring the baby and I’ll help you.”
Prissy’s mouth fell open and her tongue wagged wordlessly. She looked at Scarlett sideways and scuffed her feet and twisted her thin body.
“Don’t look so simple minded!” cried Scarlett, infuriated at her silly expression. “What’s the matter?”
Prissy edged back up the stairs.
“Fo’ Gawd, Miss Scarlett —” Fright and shame were in her rolling eyes.
“Fo’ Gawd, Miss Scarlett! We’s got ter have a doctah. Ah — Ah — Miss Scarlett, Ah doan know nuthin’ ‘bout bringin’ babies. Maw wouldn’ nebber lemme be ‘round folkses whut wuz havin’ dem.”
All the breath went out of Scarlett’s lungs in one gasp of horror before rage swept her. Prissy made a lunge past her, bent on flight, but Scarlett grabbed her.
“You black liar — what do you mean? You’ve been saying you knew everything about birthing babies. What is the truth? Tell me!” She shook her until the kinky head rocked drunkenly.
“Ah’s lyin’, Miss Scarlett! Ah doan know huccome Ah tell sech a lie. Ah jes’ see one baby birthed, an’ Maw she lak ter wo’ me out fer watchin’.”
Scarlett glared at her and Prissy shrank back, trying to pull loose. For a moment her mind refused to accept the truth, but when realization finally came to her that Prissy knew no more about midwifery than she did, anger went over her like a flame. She had never struck a slave in all her life, but now she slapped the black cheek with all the force in her tired arm. Prissy screamed at the top of her voice, more from fright than pain, and began to dance up and down, writhing to break Scarlett’s grip.
As she screamed, the moaning from the second floor ceased and a moment later Melanie’s voice, weak and trembling, called: “Scarlett? Is it you? Please come! Please!”
Scarlett dropped Prissy’s arm and the wench sank whimpering to the steps. For a moment Scarlett stood still, looking up, listening to the low moaning which had begun again. As she stood there, it seemed as though a yoke descended heavily upon her neck, felt as though a heavy load were harnessed to it, a load she would feel as soon as she took a step.
She tried to think of all the things Mammy and Ellen had done for her when Wade was born but the merciful blurring of the childbirth pains obscured almost everything in mist. She did recall a few things and she spoke to Prissy rapidly, authority in her voice.
“Build a fire in the stove and keep hot water boiling in the kettle. And bring up all the towels you can find and that ball of twine. And get me the scissors. Don’t come telling me you can’t find them. Get them and get them quick. Now hurry.”
She jerked Prissy to her feet and sent her kitchenwards with a shove. Then she squared her shoulders and started up the stairs. It was going to be difficult, telling Melanie that she and Prissy were to deliver her baby.