When she was finally able to go out again, Scarlett had Lou lace her into stays as tightly as the strings would pull. Then she passed the tape measure about her waist. Twenty inches! She groaned aloud. That was what having babies did to your figure! Her waist was a large as Aunt Pitty’s, as large as Mammy’s.
“Pull them tighter, Lou. See if you can’t make it eighteen and a half inches or I can’t get into any of my dresses.”
“It’ll bust de strings,” said Lou. “Yo’ wais’ jes’ done got bigger, Miss Scarlett, an’ dar ain’ nuthin’ ter do ’bout it.”
“There is something to do about it,” thought Scarlett as she ripped savagely at the seams of her dress to let out the necessary inches. “I just won’t have any more babies.”
Of course, Bonnie was pretty and a credit to her and Rhett adored the child, but she would not have another baby. Just how she would manage this she did not know, for she couldn’t handle Rhett as she had Frank. Rhett wasn’t afraid of her. It would probably be difficult with Rhett acting so foolishly about Bonnie and probably wanting a son next year, for all that he said he’d drown any boy she gave him. Well, she wouldn’t give him a boy or girl either. Three children were enough for any woman to have.
When Lou had stitched up the ripped seams, pressed them smooth and buttoned Scarlett into the dress, she called the carriage and Scarlett set out for the lumber yard. Her spirits rose as she went and she forgot about her waist line, for she was going to meet Ashley at the yard to go over the books with him. And, if she was lucky, she might see him alone. She hadn’t seen him since long before Bonnie was born. She hadn’t wanted to see him at all when she was so obviously pregnant. And she had missed the daily contact with him, even if there was always someone around. She had missed the importance and activity of her lumber business while she was immured. Of course, she did not have to work now. She could easily sell the mills and invest the money for Wade and Ella. But that would mean she would hardly ever see Ashley, except in a formal social way with crowds of people around. And working by Ashley’s side was her greatest pleasure.
When she drove up to the yard she saw with interest how high the piles of lumber were and how many customers were standing among them, talking to Hugh Elsing. And there were six mule teams and wagons being loaded by the negro drivers. Six teams, she thought, with pride. And I did all this by myself!
Ashley came to the door of the little office, his eyes joyful with the pleasure of seeing her again and he handed her out of her carriage and into the office as if she were a queen.
But some of her pleasure was dimmed when she went over the books of his mill and compared them with Johnnie Gallegher’s books. Ashley had barely made expenses and Johnnie had a remarkable sum to his credit. She forbore to say anything as she looked at the two sheets but Ashley read her face.
“Scarlett, I’m sorry. All I can say is that I wish you’d let me hire free darkies instead of using convicts. I believe I could do better.”
“Darkies! Why, their pay would break us. Convicts are dirt cheap. If Johnnie can make this much with them—”
Ashley’s eyes went over her shoulder, looking at something she could not see, and the glad light went out of his eyes.
“I can’t work convicts like Johnnie Gallegher. I can’t drive men.”
“God’s nightgown! Johnnie’s a wonder at it. Ashley, you are just too soft hearted. You ought to get more work out of them. Johnnie told me that any time a malingerer wanted to get out of work he told you he was sick and you gave him a day off. Good Lord, Ashley! That’s no way to make money. A couple of licks will cure most any sickness short of a broken leg—”
“Scarlett! Scarlett! Stop! I can’t bear to hear you talk that way,” cried Ashley, his eyes coming back to her with a fierceness that stopped her short. “Don’t you realize that they are men—some of them sick, underfed, miserable and—Oh, my dear, I can’t bear to see the way he has brutalized you, you who were always so sweet—”
“Who has whatted me?”
“I’ve got to say it and I haven’t any right. But I’ve got to say it. Your—Rhett Butler. Everything he touches he poisons. And he has taken you who were so sweet and generous and gentle, for all your spirited ways, and he has done this to you—hardened you, brutalized you by his contact.”
“Oh,” breathed Scarlett, guilt struggling with joy that Ashley should feel so deeply about her, should still think her sweet. Thank God, he thought Rhett to blame for her penny-pinching ways. Of course, Rhett had nothing to do with it and the guilt was hers but, after all, another black mark on Rhett could do him no harm.
“If it were any other man in the world, I wouldn’t care so much—but Rhett Butler! I’ve seen what he’s done to you. Without your realizing it, he’s twisted your thoughts into the same hard path his own run in. Oh, yes, I know I shouldn’t say this—He saved my life and I am grateful but I wish to God it had been any other man but him! And I haven’t the right to talk to you like—”
“Oh, Ashley, you have the right—no, one else has!”
“I tell you I can’t bear it, seeing your fineness coarsened by him, knowing that your beauty and your charm are in the keeping of a man who—When I think of him touching you, I—”
“He’s going to kiss me!” thought Scarlett ecstatically. “And it won’t be my fault!” She swayed toward him. But he drew back suddenly, as if realizing he had said too much—said things he never intended to say.
“I apologize most humbly, Scarlett. I—I’ve been insinuating that your husband is not a gentleman and my own words have proved that I’m not one. No one has a right to criticize a husband to a wife. I haven’t any excuse except—except—” He faltered and his face twisted. She waited breathless.
“I haven’t any excuse at all.”
All the way home in the carriage Scarlett’s mind raced. No excuse at all except—except that he loved her! And the thought of her lying in Rhett’s arms roused a fury in him that she did not think possible. Well, she could understand that. If it wasn’t for the knowledge that his relations with Melanie were, necessarily, those of brother and sister, her own life would be a torment. And Rhett’s embraces coarsened her, brutalized her! Well, if Ashley thought that, she could do very well without those embraces. She thought how sweet and romantic it would be for them both to be physically true to each other, even though married to other people. The idea possessed her imagination and she took pleasure in it. And then, too, there was the practical side of it. It would mean that she would not have to have any more children.
When she reached home and dismissed the carriage, some of the exaltation which had filled her at Ashley’s words began to fade as she faced the prospect of telling Rhett that she wanted separate bedrooms and all which that implied. It would be difficult. Moreover, how could she tell Ashley that she had denied herself to Rhett, because of his wishes? What earthly good was a sacrifice if no one knew about it? What a burden modesty and delicacy were! If she could only talk to Ashley as frankly as she could to Rhett! Well, no matter. She’d insinuate the truth to Ashley somehow.
She went up the stairs and, opening the nursery door, found Rhett sitting beside Bonnie’s crib with Ella upon his lap and Wade displaying the contents of his pocket to him. What a blessing Rhett liked children and made much of them! Some stepfathers were so bitter about children of former marriages.
“I want to talk to you,” she said and passed on into their bedroom. Better have this over now while her determination not to have any more children was hot within her and while Ashley’s love was giving her strength.
“Rhett,” she said abruptly when he had closed the bedroom door behind him, “I’ve decided that I don’t want any more children.”
If he was startled at her unexpected statement he did not show it. He lounged to a chair and sitting down, tilted it back.
“My pet, as I told you before Bonnie was born, it is immaterial to me whether you have one child or twenty.”
How perverse of him to evade the issue so neatly, as if not caring whether children came had anything to do with their actual arrival.
“I think three are enough. I don’t intend to have one every year.”
“Three seems an adequate number.”
“You know very well—” she began, embarrassment making her cheeks red. “You know what I mean?”
“I do. Do you realize that I can divorce you for refusing me my marital rights?”
“You are just low enough to think of something like that,” she cried, annoyed that nothing was going as she planned it. “If you had any chivalry you’d—you’d be nice like—Well, look at Ashley Wilkes. Melanie can’t have any children and he—”
“Quite the little gentleman, Ashley,” said Rhett and his eyes began to gleam oddly. “Pray go on with your discourse.”
Scarlett choked, for her discourse was at its end and she had nothing more to say. Now she saw how foolish had been her hope of amicably settling so important a matter, especially with a selfish swine like Rhett.
“You’ve been to the lumber office this afternoon, haven’t you?”
“What has that to do with it?”
“You like dogs, don’t you, Scarlett? Do you prefer them in kennels or mangers?”
The allusion was lost on her as the tide of her anger and disappointment rose.
He got lightly to his feet and coming to her put his hand under her chin and jerked her face up to his.
“What a child you are! You have lived with three men and still know nothing of men’s natures. You seem to think they are like old ladies past the change of life.”
He pinched her chin playfully and his hand dropped away from her. One black eyebrow went up as he bent a cool long look on her.
“Scarlett, understand this. If you and your bed still held any charms for me, no looks and no entreaties could keep me away. And I would have no sense of shame for anything I did, for I made a bargain with you—a bargain which I have kept and you are now breaking. Keep your chaste bed, my dear.”
“Do you mean to tell me,” cried Scarlett indignantly, “that you don’t care—”
“You have tired of me, haven’t you? Well, men tire more easily than women. Keep your sanctity, Scarlett. It will work no hardship on me. It doesn’t matter,” he shrugged and grinned. “Fortunately the world is full of beds—and most of the beds are full of women.”
“You mean you’d actually be so—”
“My dear innocent! But, of course. It’s a wonder I haven’t strayed long ere this. I never held fidelity to be a Virtue.”
“I shall lock my door every night!”
“Why bother? If I wanted you, no lock would keep me out.”
He turned, as though the subject were closed, and left the room. Scarlett heard him going back to the nursery where he was welcomed by the children. She sat down abruptly. She had had her way. This was what she wanted and Ashley wanted. But it was not making her happy. Her vanity was sore and she was mortified at the thought that Rhett had taken it all so lightly, that he didn’t want her, that he put her on the level of other women in other beds.
She wished she could think of some delicate way to tell Ashley that she and Rhett were no longer actually man and wife. But she knew now she could not. It all seemed a terrible mess now and she half heartedly wished she had said nothing about it. She would miss the long amusing conversations in bed with Rhett when the ember of his cigar glowed in the dark. She would miss the comfort of his arms when she woke terrified from the dreams that she was running through cold mist.
Suddenly she felt very unhappy and leaning her head on the arm of the chair, she cried.