Something was wrong with the world, a somber, frightening wrongness that pervaded everything like a dark impenetrable mist, stealthily closing around Scarlett. This wrongness went even deeper than Bonnie’s death, for now the first unbearable anguish was fading into resigned acceptance of her loss. Yet this eerie sense of disaster to come persisted, as though something black and hooded stood just at her shoulder, as though the ground beneath her feet might turn to quicksand as she trod upon it.
She had never before known this type of fear. All her life her feet had been firmly planted in common sense and the only things she had ever feared had been the things she could see, injury, hunger, poverty, loss of Ashley’s love. Unanalytical she was trying to analyze now and with no success. She had lost her dearest child but she could stand that, somehow, as she had stood other crushing losses. She had her health, she had as much money as she could wish and she still had Ashley, though she saw less and less of him these days. Even the constraint which had been between them since the day of Melanie’s ill-starred surprise party did not worry her, for she knew it would pass. No, her fear was not of pain or hunger or loss of love. Those fears had never weighed her down as this feeling of wrongness was doing—this blighting fear that was oddly like that which she knew in her old nightmare, a thick, swimming mist through which she ran with bursting heart, a lost child seeking a haven that was hidden from her.
She remembered how Rhett had always been able to laugh her out of her fears. She remembered the comfort of his broad brown chest and his strong arms. And so she turned to him with eyes that really saw him for the first time in weeks. And the change she saw shocked her. This man was not going to laugh, nor was he going to comfort her.
For some time after Bonnie’s death she had been too angry with him, too preoccupied with her own grief to do more than speak politely in front of the servants. She had been too busy remembering the swift running patter of Bonnie’s feet and her bubbling laugh to think that he, too, might be remembering and with pain even greater than her own. Throughout these weeks they had met and spoken as courteously as strangers meeting in the impersonal walls of a hotel, sharing the same roof, the same table, but never sharing the thoughts of each other.
Now that she was frightened and lonely, she would have broken through this barrier if she could, but she found that he was holding her at arm’s length, as though he wished to have no words with her that went beneath the surface. Now that her anger was fading she wanted to tell him that she held him guiltless of Bonnie’s death. She wanted to cry in his arms and say that she, too, had been overly proud of the child’s horsemanship, overly indulgent to her wheedlings. Now she would willingly have humbled herself and admitted that she had only hurled that accusation at him out of her misery, hoping by hurting him to alleviate her own hurt. But there never seemed an opportune moment. He looked at her out of black blank eyes that made no opportunity for her to speak. And apologies, once postponed, became harder and harder to make, and finally impossible.
She wondered why this should be. Rhett was her husband and between them there was the unbreakable bond of two people who have shared the same bed, begotten and borne a loved child and seen that child, too soon, laid away in the dark. Only in the arms of the father of that child could she find comfort, in the exchange of memories and grief that might hurt at first but would help to heal. But, now, as matters stood between them, she would as soon go to the arms of a complete stranger.
He was seldom at home. When they did sit down to supper together, he was usually drunk. He was not drinking as he had formerly, becoming increasingly more polished and biting as the liquor took hold of him, saying amusing, malicious things that made her laugh in spite of herself. Now he was silently, morosely drunk and, as the evenings progressed, soddenly drunk. Sometimes, in the early hours of the dawn, she heard him ride into the back yard and beat on the door of the servants’ house so that Pork might help him up the back stairs and put him to bed. Put him to bed! Rhett who had always drunk others under the table without turning a hair and then put them to bed.
He was untidy now, where once he had been well groomed, and it took all Pork’s scandalized arguing even to make him change his linen before supper. Whisky was showing in his face and the hard line of his long jaw was being obscured under an unhealthy bloat and puffs rising under his bloodshot eyes. His big body with its hard swelling muscles looked soft and slack and his waist line began to thicken.
Often he did not come home at all or even send word that he would be away overnight. Of course, he might be snoring drunkenly in some room above a saloon, but Scarlett always believed that he was at Belle Watling’s house on these occasions. Once she had seen Belle in a store, a coarse overblown woman now, with most of her good looks gone. But, for all her paint and flashy clothes, she was buxom and almost motherly looking. Instead of dropping her eyes or glaring defiantly, as did other light women when confronted by ladies, Belle gave her stare for stare, searching her face with an intent, almost pitying look that brought a flush to Scarlett’s cheek.
But she could not accuse him now, could not rage at him, demand fidelity or try to shame him, any more than she could bring herself to apologize for accusing him of Bonnie’s death. She was clutched by a bewildered apathy, an unhappiness that she could not understand, an unhappiness that went deeper than anything she had ever known. She was lonely and she could never remember being so lonely before. Perhaps she had never had the time to be very lonely until now. She was lonely and afraid and there was no one to whom she could turn, no one except Melanie. For now, even Mammy, her mainstay, had gone back to Tara. Gone permanently.
Mammy gave no explanation for her departure. Her tired old eyes looked sadly at Scarlett when she asked for the train fare home. To Scarlett’s tears and pleading that she stay, Mammy only answered: “Look ter me lak Miss Ellen say ter me: ‘Mammy, come home. Yo’ wuk done finish.’ So Ah’s gwine home.”
Rhett, who had listened to the talk, gave Mammy the money and patted her arm.
“You’re right, Mammy. Miss Ellen is right. Your work here is done. Go home. Let me know if you ever need anything.” And as Scarlett broke into renewed indignant commands: “Hush, you fool! Let her go! Why should anyone want to stay in this house—now?”
There was such a savage bright glitter in his eyes when he spoke that Scarlett shrank from him, frightened.
“Dr. Meade, do you think he can—can have lost his mind?” she questioned afterwards, driven to the doctor by her own sense of helplessness.
“No,” said the doctor, “but he’s drinking like a fish and will kill himself if he keeps it up. He loved the child, Scarlett, and I guess he drinks to forget about her. Now, my advice to you, Miss, is to give him another baby just as quickly as you can.”
“Hah!” thought Scarlett bitterly, as she left his office. That was easier said than done. She would gladly have another child, several children, if they would take that look out of Rhett’s eyes and fill up the aching spaces in her own heart. A boy who had Rhett’s dark handsomeness and another little girl. Oh, for another girl, pretty and gay and willful and full of laughter, not like the giddy-brained Ella. Why, oh, why couldn’t God have taken Ella if He had to take one of her children? Ella was no comfort to her, now that Bonnie was gone. But Rhett did not seem to want any other children. At least he never came to her bedroom though now the door was never locked and usually invitingly ajar. He did not seem to care. He did not seem to care for anything now except whisky and that blowzy red-haired woman.
He was bitter now, where he had been pleasantly jeering, brutal where his thrusts had once been tempered with humor. After Bonnie died, many of the good ladies of the neighborhood who had been won over to him by his charming manners with his daughter were anxious to show him kindness. They stopped him on the street to give him their sympathy and spoke to him from over their hedges, saying that they understood. But now that Bonnie, the reason for his good manners, was gone the manners went to. He cut the ladies and their well-meant condolences off shortly, rudely.
But, oddly enough, the ladies were not offended. They understood, or thought they understood. When he rode home in the twilight almost too drunk to stay in the saddle, scowling at those who spoke to him, the ladies said “Poor thing!” and redoubled their efforts to be kind and gentle. They felt very sorry for him, broken hearted and riding home to no better comfort than Scarlett.
Everybody knew how cold and heartless she was. Everybody was appalled at the seeming ease with which she had recovered from Bonnie’s death, never realizing or caring to realize the effort that lay behind that seeming recovery. Rhett had the town’s tenderest sympathy and he neither knew nor cared. Scarlett had the town’s dislike and, for once, she would have welcomed the sympathy of old friends.
Now, none of her old friends came to the house, except Aunt Pitty, Melanie and Ashley. Only the new friends came calling in their shining carriages, anxious to tell her of their sympathy, eager to divert her with gossip about other new friends in whom she was not at all interested. All these “new people,” strangers, every one! They didn’t know her. They would never know her. They had no realization of what her life had been before she reached her present safe eminence in her mansion on Peachtree Street. They didn’t care to talk about what their lives had been before they attained stiff brocades and victorias with fine teams of horses. They didn’t know of her struggles, her privations, all the things that made this great house and pretty clothes and silver and receptions worth having. They didn’t know. They didn’t care, these people from God-knows-where who seemed to live always on the surface of things, who had no common memories of war and hunger and fighting, who had no common roots going down into the same red earth.
Now in her loneliness, she would have liked to while away the afternoons with Maybelle or Fanny or Mrs. Elsing or Mrs. Whiting or even that redoubtable old warrior, Mrs. Merriwether. Or Mrs. Bonnell or—or any of her old friends and neighbors. For they knew. They had known war and terror and fire, had seen dear ones dead before their time; they had hungered and been ragged, had lived with the wolf at the door. And they had rebuilt fortune from ruin.
It would be a comfort to sit with Maybelle, remembering that Maybelle had buried a baby, dead in the mad flight before Sherman. There would be solace in Fanny’s presence, knowing that she and Fanny both had lost husbands in the black days of martial law. It would be grim fun to laugh with Mrs. Elsing, recalling the old lady’s face as she flogged her horse through Five Points the day Atlanta fell, her loot from the commissary jouncing from her carriage. It would be pleasant to match stories with Mrs. Merriwether, now secure on the proceeds of her bakery, pleasant to say: “Do you remember how bad things were right after the surrender? Do you remember when we didn’t know where our next pair of shoes was coming from? And look at us now!”
Yes, it would be pleasant. Now she understood why when two exConfederates met, they talked of the war with so much relish, with pride, with nostalgia. Those had been days that tried their hearts but they had come through them. They were veterans. She was a veteran too, but she had no cronies with whom she could refight old battles. Oh, to be with her own kind of people again, those people who had been through the same things and knew how they hurt—and yet how great a part of you they were!
But, somehow, these people had slipped away. She realized that it was her own fault. She had never cared until now—now that Bonnie was dead and she was lonely and afraid and she saw across her shining dinner table a swarthy sodden stranger disintegrating under her eyes.