Gone with the Wind - Chapter 26
Scarlett had been at Tara two weeks since her return from Atlanta when the largest blister on her foot began to fester, swelling until it was impossible for her to put on her shoe or do more than hobble about on her heel. Desperation plucked at her when she looked at the angry sore on her toe. Suppose it should gangrene like the soldiers’ wounds and she should die, far away from a doctor? Bitter as life was now, she had no desire to leave it. And who would look after Tara if she should die?
She had hoped when she first came home that Gerald’s old spirit would revive and he would take command, but in these two weeks that hope had vanished. She knew now that, whether she liked it or not, she had the plantation and all its people on her two inexperienced hands, for Gerald still sat quietly, like a man in a dream, so frighteningly absent from Tara, so gentle. To her pleas for advice he gave as his only answer: “Do what you think best, Daughter.” Or worse still, “Consult with your mother, Puss.”
He never would be any different and now Scarlett realized the truth and accepted it without emotion — that until he died Gerald would always be waiting for Ellen, always listening for her. He was in some dim borderline country where time was standing still and Ellen was always in the next room. The mainspring of his existence was taken away when she died and with it had gone his bounding assurance, his impudence and his restless vitality. Ellen was the audience before which the blustering drama of Gerald O’Hara had been played. Now the curtain had been rung down forever, the footlights dimmed and the audience suddenly vanished, while the stunned old actor remained on his empty stage, waiting for his cues.
That morning the house was still, for everyone except Scarlett, Wade and the three sick girls was in the swamp hunting the sow. Even Gerald had aroused a little and stumped off across the furrowed fields, one hand on Pork’s arm and a coil of rope in the other. Suellen and Careen had cried themselves to sleep, as they did at least twice a day when they thought of Ellen, tears of grief and weakness oozing down their sunken cheeks. Melanie, who had been propped up on pillows for the first time that day, lay covered with a mended sheet between two babies, the downy flaxen head of one cuddled in her arm, the kinky black head of Dilcey’s child held as gently in the other. Wade sat at the bottom of the bed, listening to a fairy story.
To Scarlett, the stillness at Tara was unbearable, for it reminded her too sharply of the deathlike stillness of the desolate country through which she had passed that long day on her way home from Atlanta. The cow and the calf had made no sound for hours. There were no birds twittering outside her window and even the noisy family of mockers who had lived among the harshly rustling leaves of the magnolia for generations had no song that day. She had drawn a low chair close to the open window of her bedroom, looking out on the front drive, the lawn and the empty green pasture across the road, and she sat with her skirts well above her knees and her chin resting on her arms on the window sill. There was a bucket of well water on the floor beside her and every now and then she lowered her blistered foot into it, screwing up her face at the stinging sensation.
Fretting, she dug her chin into her arm. Just when she needed her strength most, this toe had to fester. Those fools would never catch the sow. It had taken them a week to capture the pigs, one by one, and now after two weeks the sow was still at liberty. Scarlett knew that if she were just there in the swamp with them, she could tuck up her dress to her knees and take the rope and lasso the sow before you could say Jack Robinson.
But even after the sow was caught — if she were caught? What then, after she and her litter were eaten? Life would go on and so would appetites. Winter was coming and there would be no food, not even the poor remnants of the vegetables from the neighbors’ gardens. They must have dried peas and sorghum and meal and rice and — and — oh, so many things. Corn and cotton seed for next spring’s planting, and new clothes too. Where was it all to come from and how would she pay for it?
She had privately gone through Gerald’s pockets and his cash box and all she could find was stacks of Confederate bonds and three thousand dollars in Confederate bills. That was about enough to buy one square meal for them all, she thought ironically, now that Confederate money was worth almost less than nothing at all. But if she did have money and could find food, how would she haul it home to Tara? Why had God let the old horse die? Even that sorry animal Rhett had stolen would make all the difference in the world to them. Oh, those fine sleek mules which used to kick up their heels in the pasture across the road, and the handsome carriage horses, her little mare, the girls’ ponies and Gerald’s big stallion racing about and tearing up the turf — Oh, for one of them, even the balkiest mule!
But, no matter — when her foot healed she would walk to Jonesboro. It would be the longest walk she had ever taken in her life, but walk it she would. Even if the Yankees had burned the town completely, she would certainly find someone in the neighborhood who could tell her where to get food. Wade’s pinched face rose up before her eyes. He didn’t like yams, he repeated; wanted a drumstick and some rice and gravy.
The bright sunlight in the front yard suddenly clouded and the trees blurred through tears. Scarlett dropped her head on her arms and struggled not to cry. Crying was so useless now. The only time crying ever did any good was when there was a man around from whom you wished favors. As she crouched there, squeezing her eyes tightly to keep back the tears, she was startled by the sound of trotting hooves. But she did not raise her head. She had imagined that sound too often in the nights and days of these last two weeks, just as she had imagined she heard the rustle of Ellen’s skirts. Her heart hammered, as it always did at such moments, before she told herself sternly: “Don’t be a fool.”
But the hooves slowed down in a startlingly natural way to the rhythm of a walk and there was the measured scrunch-scrunch on the gravel. It was a horse — the Tarletons, the Fontaines! She looked up quickly. It was a Yankee cavalryman.
Automatically, she dodged behind the curtain and peered fascinated at him through the dim folds of the cloth, so startled that the breath went out of her lungs with a gasp.
He sat slouched in the saddle, a thick, rough-looking man with an unkempt black beard straggling over his unbuttoned blue jacket. Little close-set eyes, squinting in the sun glare, calmly surveyed the house from beneath the visor of his tight blue cap. As he slowly dismounted and tossed the bridle reins over the hitching post, Scarlett’s breath came back to her as suddenly and painfully as after a blow in the stomach. A Yankee, a Yankee with a long pistol on his hip! And she was alone in the house with three sick girls and the babies!
As he lounged up the walk, hand on holster, beady little eyes glancing to right and left, a kaleidoscope of jumbled pictures spun in her mind, stories Aunt Pittypat had whispered of attacks on unprotected women, throat cuttings, houses burned over the heads of dying women, children bayoneted because they cried, all of the unspeakable horrors that lay bound up in the name of “Yankee.”
Her first terrified impulse was to hide in the closet, crawl under the bed, fly down the back stairs and run screaming to the swamp, anything to escape him. Then she heard his cautious feet on the front steps and his stealthy tread as he entered the hall and she knew that escape was cut off. Too cold with fear to move, she heard his progress from room to room downstairs, his steps growing louder and bolder as he discovered no one. Now he was in the dining room and in a moment he would walk out into the kitchen.
At the thought of the kitchen, rage suddenly leaped up in Scarlett’s breast, so sharply that it jabbed at her heart like a knife thrust, and fear fell away before her overpowering fury. The kitchen! There, over the open kitchen fire were two pots, one filled with apples stewing and the other with a hodgepodge of vegetables brought painfully from Twelve Oaks and the MacIntosh garden — dinner that must serve for nine hungry people and hardly enough for two. Scarlett had been restraining her appetite for hours, waiting for the return of the others and the thought of the Yankee eating their meager meal made her shake with anger.
God damn them all! They descended like locusts and left Tara to starve slowly and now they were back again to steal the poor leavings. Her empty stomach writhed within her. By God, this was one Yankee who would do no more stealing!
She slipped off her worn shoe and, barefooted, she pattered swiftly to the bureau, not even feeling her festered toe. She opened the top drawer soundlessly and caught up the heavy pistol she had brought from Atlanta, the weapon Charles had worn but never fired. She fumbled in the leather box that hung on the wall below his saber and brought out a cap. She slipped it into place with a hand that did not shake. Quickly and noiselessly, she ran into the upper hall and down the stairs, steadying herself on the banisters with one hand and holding the pistol close to her thigh in the folds of her skirt.
“Who’s there?” cried a nasal voice and she stopped on the middle of the stairs, the blood thudding in her ears so loudly she could hardly hear him. “Halt or I’ll shoot!” came the voice.
He stood in the door of the dining room, crouched tensely, his pistol in one hand and, in the other, the small rosewood sewing box fitted with gold thimble, gold-handled scissors and tiny gold-topped acorn of emery. Scarlett’s legs felt cold to the knees but rage scorched her face. Ellen’s sewing box in his hands. She wanted to cry: “Put it down! Put it down, you dirty —” but words would not come. She could only stare over the banisters at him and watch his face change from harsh tenseness to a half-contemptuous, half-ingratiating smile.
“So there is somebody ter home,” he said, slipping his pistol back into its holster and moving into the hall until he stood directly below her. “All alone, little lady?”
Like lightning, she shoved her weapon over the banisters and into the startled bearded face. Before he could even fumble at his belt, she pulled the trigger. The back kick of the pistol made her reel, as the roar of the explosion filled her ears and the acrid smoke stung her nostrils. The man crashed backwards to the floor, sprawling into the dining room with a violence that shook the furniture. The box clattered from his hand, the contents spilling about him. Hardly aware that she was moving, Scarlett ran down the stairs and stood over him, gazing down into what was left of the face above the beard, a bloody pit where the nose had been, glazing eyes burned with powder. As she looked, two streams of blood crept across the shining floor, one from his face and one from the back of his head.
Yes, he was dead. Undoubtedly. She had killed a man.
The smoke curled slowly to the ceiling and the red streams widened about her feet. For a timeless moment she stood there and in the still hot hush of the summer morning every irrelevant sound and scent seemed magnified, the quick thudding of her heart, like a drumbeat, the slight rough rustling of the magnolia leaves, the far-off plaintive sound of a swamp bird and the sweet smell of the flowers outside the window.
She had killed a man, she who took care never to be in at the kill on a hunt, she who could not bear the squealing of a hog at slaughter or the squeak of a rabbit in a snare. Murder! she thought dully. I’ve done murder. Oh, this can’t be happening to me! Her eyes went to the stubby hairy hand on the floor so close to the sewing box and suddenly she was vitally alive again, vitally glad with a cool tigerish joy. She could have ground her heel into the gaping wound which had been his nose and taken sweet pleasure in the feel of his warm blood on her bare feet. She had struck a blow of revenge for Tara — and for Ellen.
There were hurried stumbling steps in the upper hall, a pause and then more steps, weak dragging steps now, punctuated by metallic clankings. A sense of time and reality coming back to her, Scarlett looked up and saw Melanie at the top of the stairs, clad only in the ragged chemise which served her as a nightgown, her weak arm weighed down with Charles’ saber. Melanie’s eyes took in the scene below in its entirety, the sprawling blue-clad body in the red pool, the sewing box beside him, Scarlett, barefooted and gray-faced, clutching the long pistol.
In silence her eyes met Scarlett’s. There was a glow of grim pride in her usually gentle face, approbation and a fierce joy in her smile that equaled the fiery tumult in Scarlett’s own bosom.
“Why — why — she’s like me! She understands how I feel!” thought Scarlett in that long moment. “She’d have done the same thing!”
With a thrill she looked up at the frail swaying girl for whom she had never had any feelings but of dislike and contempt. Now, struggling against hatred for Ashley’s wife, there surged a feeling of admiration and comradeship. She saw in a flash of clarity untouched by any petty emotion that beneath the gentle voice and the dovelike eyes of Melanie there was a thin flashing blade of unbreakable steel, felt too that there were banners and bugles of courage in Melanie’s quiet blood.
“Scarlett! Scarlett!” shrilled the weak frightened voices of Suellen and Carreen, muffled by their closed door, and Wade’s voice screamed “Auntee! Auntee!” Swiftly Melanie put her finger to her lips and, laying the sword on the top step, she painfully made her way down the upstairs hall and opened the door of the sick room.
“Don’t be scared, chickens!” came her voice with teasing gaiety. “Your big sister was trying to clean the rust off Charles’ pistol and it went off and nearly scared her to death!” . . . “Now, Wade Hampton, Mama just shot off your dear Papa’s pistol! When you are bigger, she will let you shoot it.”
“What a cool liar!” thought Scarlett with admiration. “I couldn’t have thought that quickly. But why lie? They’ve got to know I’ve done it.”
She looked down at the body again and now revulsion came over her as her rage and fright melted away, and her knees began to quiver with the reaction. Melanie dragged herself to the top step again and started down, holding onto the banisters, her pale lower lip caught between her teeth.
“Go back to bed, silly, you’ll kill yourself!” Scarlett cried, but the half-naked Melanie made her painful way down into the lower hall.
“Scarlett,” she whispered, “we must get him out of here and bury him. He may not be alone and if they find him here —” She steadied herself on Scarlett’s arm.
“He must be alone,” said Scarlett. “I didn’t see anyone else from the upstairs window. He must be a deserter.”
“Even if he is alone, no one must know about it. The negroes might talk and then they’d come and get you. Scarlett, we must get him hidden before the folks come back from the swamp.”
Her mind prodded to action by the feverish urgency of Melanie’s voice, Scarlett thought hard.
“I could bury him in the corner of the garden under the arbor — the ground is soft there where Pork dug up the whisky barrel. But how will I get him there?”
“We’ll both take a leg and drag him,” said Melanie firmly.
Reluctantly, Scarlett’s admiration went still higher.
“You couldn’t drag a cat. I’ll drag him,” she said roughly. “You go back to bed. You’ll kill yourself. Don’t dare try to help me either or I’ll carry you upstairs myself.”
Melanie’s white face broke into a sweet understanding smile. “You are very dear, Scarlett,” she said and softly brushed her lips against Scarlett’s cheek. Before Scarlett could recover from her surprise, Melanie went on: “If you can drag him out, I’ll mop up the — the mess before the folks get home, and Scarlett —”
“Do you suppose it would be dishonest to go through his knapsack? He might have something to eat.”
“I do not,” said Scarlett, annoyed that she had not thought of this herself. “You take the knapsack and I’ll go through his pockets.”
Stooping over the dead man with distaste, she unbuttoned the remaining buttons of his jacket and systematically began rifling his pockets.
“Dear God,” she whispered, pulling out a bulging wallet, wrapped about with a rag. “Melanie — Melly, I think it’s full of money!”
Melanie said nothing but abruptly sat down on the floor and leaned back against the wall.
“You look,” she said shakily. “I’m feeling a little weak.”
Scarlett tore off the rag and with trembling hands opened the leather folds.
“Look, Melly — just look!”
Melanie looked and her eyes dilated. Jumbled together was a mass of bills, United States greenbacks mingling with Confederate money and, glinting from between them, were one ten-dollar gold piece and two five-dollar gold pieces.
“Don’t stop to count it now,” said Melanie as Scarlett began fingering the bills. “We haven’t time —”
“Do you realize, Melanie, that this money means that we’ll eat?”
“Yes, yes, dear. I know but we haven’t time now. You look in his other pockets and I’ll take the knapsack.”
Scarlett was loath to put down the wallet. Bright vistas opened before her — real money, the Yankee’s horse, food! There was a God after all, and He did provide, even if He did take very odd ways of providing. She sat on her haunches and stared at the wallet smiling. Food! Melanie plucked it from her hands —
“Hurry!” she said.
The trouser pockets yielded nothing except a candle end, a jackknife, a plug of tobacco and a bit of twine. Melanie removed from the knapsack a small package of coffee which she sniffed as if it were the sweetest of perfumes, hardtack and, her face changing, a miniature of a little girl in a gold frame set with seed pearls, a garnet brooch, two broad gold bracelets with tiny dangling gold chains, a gold thimble, a small silver baby’s cup, gold embroidery scissors, a diamond solitaire ring and a pair of earrings with pendant pear-shaped diamonds, which even their unpracticed eyes could tell were well over a carat each.
“A thief!” whispered Melanie, recoiling from the still body. “Scarlett, he must have stolen all of this!”
“Of course,” said Scarlett. “And he came here hoping to steal more from us.”
“I’m glad you killed him,” said Melanie her gentle eyes hard. “Now hurry, darling, and get him out of here.”
Scarlett bent over, caught the dead man by his boots and tugged. How heavy he was and how weak she suddenly felt. Suppose she shouldn’t be able to move him? Turning so that she backed the corpse, she caught a heavy boot under each arm and threw her weight forward. He moved and she jerked again. Her sore foot, forgotten in the excitement, now gave a tremendous throb that made her grit her teeth and shift her weight to the heel. Tugging and straining, perspiration dripping from her forehead, she dragged him down the hall, a red stain following her path.
“If he bleeds across the yard, we can’t hide it,” she gasped. “Give me your shimmy, Melanie, and I’ll wad it around his head.”
Melanie’s white face went crimson.
“Don’t be silly, I won’t look at you,” said Scarlett. “If I had on a petticoat or pantalets I’d use them.”
Crouching back against the wall, Melanie pulled the ragged linen garment over her head and silently tossed it to Scarlett, shielding herself as best she could with her arms.
“Thank God, I’m not that modest,” thought Scarlett, feeling rather than seeing Melanie’s agony of embarrassment, as she wrapped the ragged cloth about the shattered face.
By a series of limping jerks, she pulled the body down the hall toward the back porch and, pausing to wipe her forehead with the back of her hand, glanced back toward Melanie, sitting against the wall hugging her thin knees to her bare breasts. How silly of Melanie to be bothering about modesty at a time like this, Scarlett thought irritably. It was just part of her nicey-nice way of acting which had always made Scarlett despise her. Then shame rose in her. After all — after all, Melanie had dragged herself from bed so soon after having a baby and had come to her aid with a weapon too heavy even for her to lift. That had taken courage, the kind of courage Scarlett honestly knew she herself did not possess, the thin-steel, spun-silk courage which had characterized Melanie on the terrible night Atlanta fell and on the long trip home. It was the same intangible, unspectacular courage that all the Wilkeses possessed, a quality which Scarlett did not understand but to which she gave grudging tribute.
“Go back to bed,” she threw over her shoulder. “You’ll be dead if you don’t. I’ll clean up the mess after I’ve buried him.”
“I’ll do it with one of the rag rugs,” whispered Melanie, looking at the pool of blood with a sick face.
“Well, kill yourself then and see if I care! And if any of the folks come back before I’m finished, keep them in the house and tell them the horse just walked in from nowhere.”
Melanie sat shivering in the morning sunlight and covered her ears against the sickening series of thuds as the dead man’s head bumped down the porch steps.
No one questioned whence the horse had come. It was so obvious he was a stray from the recent battle and they were well pleased to have him. The Yankee lay in the shallow pit Scarlett had scraped out under the scuppernong arbor. The uprights which held the thick vines were rotten and that night Scarlett hacked at them with the kitchen knife until they fell and the tangled mass ran wild over the grave. The replacing of these posts was one bit of repair work Scarlett did not suggest and, if the negroes knew why, they kept their silence.
No ghost rose from that shallow grave to haunt her in the long nights when she lay awake, too tired to sleep. No feeling of horror or remorse assailed her at the memory. She wondered why, knowing that even a month before she could never have done the deed. Pretty young Mrs. Hamilton, with her dimple and her jingling earbobs and her helpless little ways, blowing a man’s face to a pulp and then burying him in a hastily scratched-out hole! Scarlett grinned a little grimly thinking of the consternation such an idea would bring to those who knew her.
“I won’t think about it any more,” she decided. “It’s over and done with and I’d have been a ninny not to kill him. I reckon — I reckon I must have changed a little since coming home or else I couldn’t have done it.”
She did not think of it consciously but in the back of her mind, whenever she was confronted by an unpleasant and difficult task, the idea lurked giving her strength: “I’ve done murder and so I can surely do this.”
She had changed more than she knew and the shell of hardness which had begun to form about her heart when she lay in the slave garden at Twelve Oaks was slowly thickening.
Now that she had a horse, Scarlett could find out for herself what had happened to their neighbors. Since she came home she had wondered despairingly a thousand times: “Are we the only folks left in the County? Has everybody else been burned out? Have they all refugeed to Macon?” With the memory of the ruins of Twelve Oaks, the MacIntosh place and the Slattery shack fresh in her mind, she almost dreaded to discover the truth. But it was better to know the worst than to wonder. She decided to ride to the Fontaines’ first, not because they were the nearest neighbors but because old Dr. Fontaine might be there. Melanie needed a doctor. She was not recovering as she should and Scarlett was frightened by her white weakness.
So on the first day when her foot had healed enough to stand a slipper, she mounted the Yankee’s horse. One foot in the shortened stirrup and the other leg crooked about the pommel in an approximation of a side saddle, she set out across the fields toward Mimosa, steeling herself to find it burned.
To her surprise and pleasure, she saw the faded yellow-stucco house standing amid the mimosa trees, looking as it had always looked. Warm happiness, happiness that almost brought tears, flooded her when the three Fontaine women came out of the house to welcome her with kisses and cries of joy.
But when the first exclamations of affectionate greeting were over and they all had trooped into the dining room to sit down, Scarlett felt a chill. The Yankees had not reached Mimosa because it was far off the main road. And so the Fontaines still had their stock and their provisions, but Mimosa was held by the same strange silence that hung over Tara, over the whole countryside. All the slaves except four women house servants had run away, frightened by the approach of the Yankees. There was not a man on the place unless Sally’s little boy, Joe, hardly out of diapers, could be counted as a man. Alone in the big house were Grandma Fontaine, in her seventies, her daughter-inlaw who would always be known as Young Miss, though she was in her fifties, and Sally, who had barely turned twenty. They were far away from neighbors and unprotected, but if they were afraid it did not show on their faces. Probably, thought Scarlett, because Sally and Young Miss were too afraid of the porcelain-frail but indomitable old Grandma to dare voice any qualms. Scarlett herself was afraid of the old lady, for she had sharp eyes and a sharper tongue and Scarlett had felt them both in the past.
Though unrelated by blood and far apart in age, there was a kinship of spirit and experience binding these women together. All three wore home-dyed mourning, all were worn, sad, worried, all bitter with a bitterness that did not sulk or complain but, nevertheless, peered out from behind their smiles and their words of welcome. For their slaves were gone, their money was worthless, Sally’s husband, Joe, had died at Gettysburg and Young Miss was also a widow, for young Dr. Fontaine had died of dysentery at Vicksburg. The other two boys, Alex and Tony, were somewhere in Virginia and nobody knew whether they were alive or dead; and old Dr. Fontaine was off somewhere with Wheeler’s cavalry.
“And the old fool is seventy-three years old though he tries to act younger and he’s as full of rheumatism as a hog is of fleas,” said Grandma, proud of her husband, the light in her eyes belying her sharp words.
“Have you all had any news of what’s been happening in Atlanta?” asked Scarlett when they were comfortably settled. “We’re completely buried at Tara.”
“Law, child,” said Old Miss, taking charge of the conversation, as was her habit, “we’re in the same fix as you are. We don’t know a thing except that Sherman finally got the town.”
“So he did get it. What’s he doing now? Where’s the fighting now?”
“And how would three lone women out here in the country know about the war when we haven’t seen a letter or a newspaper m weeks?” said the old lady tartly. “One of our darkies talked to a darky who’d seen a darky who’d been to Jonesboro, and except for that we haven’t heard anything. What they said was that the Yankees were just squatting in Atlanta resting up their men and their horses, but whether it’s true or not you’re as good a judge as I am. Not that they wouldn’t need a rest, after the fight we gave them.”
“To think you’ve been at Tara all this time and we didn’t know!” Young Miss broke in. “Oh, how I blame myself for not riding over to see! But there’s been so much to do here with most all the darkies gone that I just couldn’t get away. But I should have made time to go. It wasn’t neighborly of me. But, of course, we thought the Yankees had burned Tara like they did Twelve Oaks and the MacIntosh house and that your folks had gone to Macon. And we never dreamed you were home, Scarlett.”
“Well, how were we to know different when Mr. O’Hara’s darkies came through here so scared they were popeyed and told us the Yankees were going to burn Tara?” Grandma interrupted.
“And we could see —” Sally began.
“I’m telling this, please,” said Old Miss shortly. “And they said the Yankees were camped all over Tara and your folks were fixing to go to Macon. And then that night we saw the glare of fire over toward Tara and it lasted for hours and it scared our fool darkies so bad they all ran off. What burned?”
“All our cotton — a hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth,” said Scarlett bitterly.
“Be thankful it wasn’t your house,” said Grandma, leaning her chin on her cane. “You can always grow more cotton and you can’t grow a house. By the bye, had you all started picking your cotton?”
“No,” said Scarlett, “and now most of it is ruined. I don’t imagine there’s more than three bales left standing, in the far field in the creek bottom, and what earthly good will it do? All our field hands are gone and there’s nobody to pick it.”
“Mercy me, all our field hands are gone and there’s nobody to pick it!” mimicked Grandma and bent a satiric glance on Scarlett. “What’s wrong with your own pretty paws, Miss, and those of your sisters?”
“Me? Pick cotton?” cried Scarlett aghast, as if Grandma had been suggesting some repulsive crime. “Like a field hand? Like white trash? Like the Slattery women?”
“White trash, indeed! Well, isn’t this generation soft and ladylike! Let me tell you, Miss, when I was a girl my father lost all his money and I wasn’t above doing honest work with my hands and in the fields too, till Pa got enough money to buy some more darkies. I’ve hoed my row and I’ve picked my cotton and I can do it again if I have to. And it looks like I’ll have to. White trash, indeed!”
“Oh, but Mama Fontaine,” cried her daughter-inlaw, casting imploring glances at the two girls, urging them to help her smooth the old lady’s feathers. “That was so long ago, a different day entirely, and times have changed.”
“Times never change when there’s a need for honest work to be done,” stated the sharp-eyed old lady, refusing to be soothed. “And I’m ashamed for your mother, Scarlett, to hear you stand there and talk as though honest work made white trash out of nice people. ‘When Adam delved and Eve span’—”
To change the subject, Scarlett hastily questioned: “What about the Tarletons and the Calverts? Were they burned out? Have they refugeed to Macon?”
“The Yankees never got to the Tarletons. They’re off the main road, like we are, but they did get to the Calverts and they stole all their stock and poultry and got all the darkies to run off with them —” Sally began.
“Hah! They promised all the black wenches silk dresses and gold earbobs — that’s what they did. And Cathleen Calvert said some of the troopers went off with the black fools behind them on their saddles. Well, all they’ll get will be yellow babies and I can’t say that Yankee blood will improve the stock.”
“Oh, Mama Fontaine!”
“Don’t pull such a shocked face, Jane. We’re all married, aren’t we? And, God knows, we’ve seen mulatto babies before this.”
“Why didn’t they burn the Calverts’ house?”
“The house was saved by the combined accents of the second Mrs. Calvert and that Yankee overseer of hers, Hilton,” said Old Miss, who always referred to the ex-governess as the “second Mrs. Calvert,” although the first Mrs. Calvert had been dead twenty years.
“‘We are staunch Union sympathizers,’” mimicked the old lady, twanging the words through her long thin nose. “Cathleen said the two of them swore up hill and down dale that the whole passel of Calverts were Yankees. And Mr. Calvert dead in the Wilderness! And Raiford at Gettysburg and Cade in Virginia with the army! Cathleen was so mortified she said she’d rather the house had been burned. She said Cade would bust when he came home and heard about it. But then, that’s what a man gets for marrying a Yankee woman — no pride, no decency, always thinking about their own skins. . . . How come they didn’t burn Tara, Scarlett?”
For a moment Scarlett paused before answering. She knew the very next question would be: “And how are all your folks? And how is your dear mother?” She knew she could not tell them Ellen was dead. She knew that if she spoke those words or even let herself think of them in the presence of these sympathetic women, she would burst into a storm of tears and cry until she was sick. And she could not let herself cry. She had not really cried since she came home and she knew that if she once let down the floodgates, her closely husbanded courage would all be gone. But she knew, too, looking with confusion at the friendly faces about her, that if she withheld the news of Ellen’s death, the Fontaines would never forgive her. Grandma in particular was devoted to Ellen and there were very few people in the County for whom the old lady gave a snap of her skinny fingers.
“Well, speak up,” said Grandma, looking sharply at her. “Don’t you know, Miss?”
“Well, you see, I didn’t get home till the day after the battle,” she answered hastily. “The Yankees were all gone then. Pa — Pa told me that — that he got them not to burn the house because Suellen and Carreen were so ill with typhoid they couldn’t be moved.”
“That’s the first time I ever heard of a Yankee doing a decent thing,” said Grandma, as if she regretted hearing anything good about the invaders. “And how are the girls now?”
“Oh, they are better, much better, almost well but quite weak,” answered Scarlett. Then, seeing the question she feared hovering on the old lady’s lips, she cast hastily about for some other topic of conversation.
“I— I wonder if you could lend us something to eat? The Yankees cleaned us out like a swarm of locusts. But, if you are on short rations, just tell me so plainly and —”
“Send over Pork with a wagon and you shall have half of what we’ve got, rice, meal, ham, some chickens,” said Old Miss, giving Scarlett a sudden keen look.
“Oh, that’s too much! Really, I—”
“Not a word! I won’t hear it. What are neighbors for?”
“You are so kind that I can’t — But I have to be going now. The folks at home will be worrying about me.”
Grandma rose abruptly and took Scarlett by the arm.
“You two stay here,” she commanded, pushing Scarlett toward the back porch. “I have a private word for this child. Help me down the steps, Scarlett.”
Young Miss and Sally said good-by and promised to come calling soon. They were devoured by curiosity as to what Grandma had to say to Scarlett but unless she chose to tell them, they would never know. Old ladies were so difficult, Young Miss whispered to Sally as they went back to their sewing.
Scarlett stood with her hand on the horse’s bridle, a dull feeling at her heart.
“Now,” said Grandma, peering into her face, “what’s wrong at Tara? What are you keeping back?”
Scarlett looked up into the keen old eyes and knew she could tell the truth, without tears. No one could cry in the presence of Grandma Fontaine without her express permission.
“Mother is dead,” she said flatly.
The hand on her arm tightened until it pinched and the wrinkled lids over the yellow eyes blinked.
“Did the Yankees kill her?”
“She died of typhoid. Died — the day before I came home.”
“Don’t think about it,” said Grandma sternly and Scarlett saw her swallow. “And your Pa?”
“Pa is — Pa is not himself.”
“What do you mean? Speak up. Is he ill?”
“The shock — he is so strange — he is not —”
“Don’t tell me he’s not himself. Do you mean his mind is unhinged?”
It was a relief to hear the truth put so baldly. How good the old lady was to offer no sympathy that would make her cry.
“Yes,” she said dully, “he’s lost his mind. He acts dazed and sometimes he can’t seem to remember that Mother is dead. Oh, Old Miss, it’s more than I can stand to see him sit by the hour, waiting for her and so patiently too, and he used to have no more patience than a child. But it’s worse when he does remember that she’s gone. Every now and then, after he’s sat still with his ear cocked listening for her, he jumps up suddenly and stumps out of the house and down to the burying ground. And then he comes dragging back with the tears all over his face and he says over and over till I could scream: ‘Katie Scarlett, Mrs. O’Hara is dead. Your mother is dead,’ and it’s just like I was hearing it again for the first time. And sometimes, late at night, I hear him calling her and I get out of bed and go to him and tell him she’s down at the quarters with a sick darky. And he fusses because she’s always tiring herself out nursing people. And it’s so hard to get him back to bed. He’s like a child. Oh, I wish Dr. Fontaine was here! I know he could do something for Pa! And Melanie needs a doctor too. She isn’t getting over her baby like she should —”
“Melly — a baby? And she’s with you?”
“What’s Melly doing with you? Why isn’t she in Macon with her aunt and her kinfolks? I never thought you liked her any too well, Miss, for all she was Charles’ sister. Now, tell me all about it.”
“It’s a long story, Old Miss. Don’t you want to go back in the house and sit down?”
“I can stand,” said Grandma shortly. “And if you told your story in front of the others, they’d be bawling and making you feel sorry for yourself. Now, let’s have it.”
Scarlett began haltingly with the siege and Melanie’s condition, but as her story progressed beneath the sharp old eyes which never faltered in their gaze, she found words, words of power and horror. It all came back to her, the sickeningly hot day of the baby’s birth, the agony of fear, the flight and Rhett’s desertion. She spoke of the wild darkness of the night, the blazing camp fires which might be friends or foes, the gaunt chimneys which met her gaze in the morning sun, the dead men and horses along the road, the hunger, the desolation, the fear that Tara had been burned.
“I thought if I could just get home to Mother, she could manage everything and I could lay down the weary load. On the way home I thought the worst had already happened to me, but when I knew she was dead I knew what the worst really was.”
She dropped her eyes to the ground and waited for Grandma to speak. The silence was so prolonged she wondered if Grandma could have failed to comprehend her desperate plight. Finally the old voice spoke and her tones were kind, kinder than Scarlett had ever heard her use in addressing anyone.
“Child, it’s a very bad thing for a woman to face the worst that can happen to her, because after she’s faced the worst she can’t ever really fear anything again. And it’s very bad for a woman not to be afraid of something. You think I don’t understand what you’ve told me — what you’ve been through? Well, I understand very well. When I was about your age I was in the Creek uprising, right after the Fort Mims massacre — yes,” she said in a far-away voice, “just about your age for that was fifty-odd years ago. And I managed to get into the bushes and hide and I lay there and saw our house burn and I saw the Indians scalp my brothers and sisters. And I could only lie there and pray that the light of the flames wouldn’t show up my hiding place. And they dragged Mother out and killed her about twenty feet from where I was lying. And scalped her too. And ever so often one Indian would go back to her and sink his tommyhawk into her skull again. I— I was my mother’s pet and I lay there and saw it all. And in the morning I set out for the nearest settlement and it was thirty miles away. It took me three days to get there, through the swamps and the Indians, and afterward they thought I’d lose my mind. . . . That’s where I met Dr. Fontaine. He looked after me. . . . Ah, well, that’s been fifty years ago, as I said, and since that time I’ve never been afraid of anything or anybody because I’d known the worst that could happen to me. And that lack of fear has gotten me into a lot of trouble and cost me a lot of happiness. God intended women to be timid frightened creatures and there’s something unnatural about a woman who isn’t afraid. . . . Scarlett, always save something to fear — even as you save something to love. . . .”
Her voice trailed off and she stood silent with eyes looking back over half a century to the day when she had been afraid. Scarlett moved impatiently. She had thought Grandma was going to understand and perhaps show her some way to solve her problems. But like all old people she’d gotten to talking about things that happened before anyone was born, things no one was interested in. Scarlett wished she had not confided in her.
“Well, go home, child, or they’ll be worrying about you,” she said suddenly. “Send Pork with the wagon this afternoon. . . . And don’t think you can lay down the load, ever. Because you can’t. I know.”
Indian summer lingered into November that year and the warm days were bright days for those at Tara. The worst was over. They had a horse now and they could ride instead of walk. They had fried eggs for breakfast and fried ham for supper to vary the monotony of the yams, peanuts and dried apples, and on one festal occasion they even had roast chicken. The old sow had finally been captured and she and her brood rooted and grunted happily under the house where they were penned. Sometimes they squealed so loudly no one in the house could talk but it was a pleasant sound. It meant fresh pork for the white folks and chitterlings for the negroes when cold weather and hog-killing time should arrive, and it meant food for the winter for all.
Scarlett’s visit to the Fontaines had heartened her more than she realized. Just the knowledge that she had neighbors, that some of the family friends and old homes had survived, drove out the terrible loss and alone feeling which had oppressed her in her first weeks at Tara. And the Fontaines and Tarletons, whose plantations had not been in the path of the army, were most generous in sharing what little they had. It was the tradition of the County that neighbor helped neighbor and they refused to accept a penny from Scarlett, telling her that she would do the same for them and she could pay them back, in kind, next year when Tara was again producing.
Scarlett now had food for her household, she had a horse, she had the money and jewelry taken from the Yankee straggler, and the greatest need was new clothing. She knew it would be risky business sending Pork south to buy clothes, when the horse might be captured by either Yankees or Confederates. But, at least, she had the money with which to buy the clothes, a horse and wagon for the trip, and perhaps Pork could make the trip without getting caught. Yes, the worst was over.
Every morning when Scarlett arose she thanked God for the pale-blue sky and the warm sun, for each day of good weather put off the inevitable time when warm clothing would be needed. And each warm day saw more and more cotton piling up in the empty slave quarters, the only storage place left on the plantation. There was more cotton in the fields than she or Pork had estimated, probably four bales, and soon the cabins would be full.
Scarlett had not intended to do any cotton picking herself, even after Grandma Fontaine’s tart remark. It was unthinkable that she, an O’Hara lady, now the mistress of Tara, should work in the fields. It put her on the same level with the snarly haired Mrs. Slattery and Emmie. She had intended that the negroes should do the field work, while she and the convalescent girls attended to the house, but here she was confronted with a caste feeling even stronger than her own. Pork, Mammy and Prissy set up outcries at the idea of working in the fields. They reiterated that they were house niggers, not field hands. Mammy, in particular, declared vehemently that she had never even been a yard nigger. She had been born in the Robillard great house, not in the quarters, and had been raised in Ole Miss’ bedroom, sleeping on a pallet at the foot of the bed. Dilcey alone said nothing and she fixed her Prissy with an unwinking eye that made her squirm.
Scarlett refused to listen to the protests and drove them all into the cotton rows. But Mammy and Pork worked so slowly and with so many lamentations that Scarlett sent Mammy back to the kitchen to cook and Pork to the woods and the river with snares for rabbits and possums and lines for fish. Cotton picking was beneath Pork’s dignity but hunting and fishing were not.
Scarlett next had tried her sisters and Melanie in the fields, but that had worked no better. Melanie had picked neatly, quickly and willingly for an hour in the hot sun and then fainted quietly and had to stay in bed for a week. Suellen, sullen and tearful, pretended to faint too, but came back to consciousness spitting like an angry cat when Scarlett poured a gourdful of water in her face. Finally she refused point-blank.
“I won’t work in the fields like a darky! You can’t make me. What if any of our friends ever heard of it? What if — if Mr. Kennedy ever knew? Oh, if Mother knew about this —”
“You just mention Mother’s name once more, Suellen O’Hara, and I’ll slap you flat,” cried Scarlett. “Mother worked harder than any darky on this place and you know it, Miss Fine Airs!”
“She did not! At least, not in the fields. And you can’t make me. I’ll tell Papa on you and he won’t make me work!”
“Don’t you dare go bothering Pa with any of our troubles!” cried Scarlett, distracted between indignation at her sister and fear for Gerald.
“I’ll help you, Sissy,” interposed Carreen docilely. “I’ll work for Sue and me too. She isn’t well yet and she shouldn’t be out in the sun.”
Scarlett said gratefully: “Thank you, Sugarbaby,” but looked worriedly at her younger sister. Carreen, who had always been as delicately pink and white as the orchard blossoms that are scattered by the spring wind, was no longer pink but still conveyed in her sweet thoughtful face a blossomlike quality. She had been silent, a little dazed since she came back to consciousness and found Ellen gone, Scarlett a termagant, the world changed and unceasing labor the order of the new day. It was not in Carreen’s delicate nature to adjust herself to change. She simply could not comprehend what had happened and she went about Tara like a sleepwalker, doing exactly what she was told. She looked, and was, frail but she was willing, obedient and obliging. When she was not doing Scarlett’s bidding, her rosary beads were always in her hands and her lips moving in prayers for her mother and for Brent Tarleton. It did not occur to Scarlett that Carreen had taken Brent’s death so seriously and that her grief was unhealed. To Scarlet, Carreen was still “baby sister,” far too young to have had a really serious love affair.
Scarlett, standing in the sun in the cotton rows, her back breaking from the eternal bending and her hands roughened by the dry bolls, wished she had a sister who combined Suellen’s energy and strength with Carreen’s sweet disposition. For Carreen picked diligently and earnestly. But, after she had labored for an hour it was obvious that she, and not Suellen, was the one not yet well enough for such work. So Scarlett sent Carreen back to the house too.
There remained with her now in the long rows only Dilcey and Prissy. Prissy picked lazily, spasmodically, complaining of her feet, her back, her internal miseries, her complete weariness, until her mother took a cotton stalk to her and whipped her until she screamed. After that she worked a little better, taking care to stay far from her mother’s reach.
Dilcey worked tirelessly, silently, like a machine, and Scarlett, with her back aching and her shoulder raw from the tugging weight of the cotton bag she carried, thought that Dilcey was worth her weight in gold.
“Dilcey,” she said, “when good times come back, I’m not going to forget how you’ve acted. You’ve been mighty good.”
The bronze giantess did not grin pleasedly or squirm under praise like the other negroes. She turned an immobile face to Scarlett and said with dignity: “Thankee, Ma’m. But Mist’ Gerald and Miss Ellen been good to me. Mist’ Gerald buy my Prissy so I wouldn’ grieve and I doan forgit it. I is part Indian and Indians doan forgit them as is good to them. I sorry ‘bout my Prissy. She mighty wuthless. Look lak she all nigger lak her pa. Her pa was mighty flighty.”
In spite of Scarlett’s problem of getting help from the others in the picking and in spite of the weariness of doing the labor herself, her spirits lifted as the cotton slowly made its way from the fields to the cabins. There was something about cotton that was reassuring, steadying. Tara had risen to riches on cotton, even as the whole South had risen, and Scarlett was Southerner enough to believe that both Tara and the South would rise again out of the red fields.
Of course, this little cotton she had gathered was not much but it was something. It would bring a little in Confederate money and that little would help her to save the hoarded greenbacks and gold in the Yankee’s wallet until they had to be spent. Next spring she would try to make the Confederate government send back Big Sam and the other field hands they had commandeered, and if the government wouldn’t release them, she’d use the Yankee’s money to hire field hands from the neighbors. Next spring, she would plant and plant. . . . She straightened her tired back and, looking over the browning autumn fields, she saw next year’s crop standing sturdy and green, acre upon acre.
Next spring! Perhaps by next spring the war would be over and good times would be back. And whether the Confederacy won or lost, times would be better. Anything was better than the constant danger of raids from both armies. When the war was over, a plantation could earn an honest living. Oh, if the war were only over! Then people could plant crops with some certainty of reaping them!
There was hope now. The war couldn’t last forever. She had her little cotton, she had food, she had a horse, she had her small but treasured hoard of money. Yes, the worst was over!