The army, driven back into Virginia, went into winter quarters on the Rapidan—a tired, depleted army since the defeat at Gettysburg—and as the Christmas season approached, Ashley came home on furlough. Scarlett, seeing him for the first time in more than two years, was frightened by the violence of her feelings. When she had stood in the parlor at Twelve Oaks and seen him married to Melanie, she had thought she could never love him with a more heartbreaking intensity than she did at that moment. But now she knew her feelings of that long-past night were those of a spoiled child thwarted of a toy. Now, her emotions were sharpened by her long dreams of him, heightened by the repression she had been forced to put on her tongue.
This Ashley Wilkes in his faded, patched uniform, his blond hair bleached tow by summer suns, was a different man from the easygoing, drowsy-eyed boy she had loved to desperation before the war. And he was a thousand times more thrilling. He was bronzed and lean now, where he had once been fair and slender, and the long golden mustache drooping about his mouth, cavalry style, was the last touch needed to make him the perfect picture of a soldier.
He stood with military straightness in his old uniform, his pistol in its worn holster, his battered scabbard smartly slapping his high boots, his tarnished spurs dully gleaming—Major Ashley Wilkes, C. S. A. The habit of command sat upon him now, a quiet air of self-reliance and authority, and grim lines were beginning to emerge about his mouth. There was something new and strange about the square set of his shoulders and the cool bright gleam of his eyes. Where he had once been lounging and indolent, he was now as alert as a prowling cat, with the tense alertness of one whose nerves are perpetually drawn as tight as the strings of a violin. In his eyes, there was a fagged, haunted look, and the sunburned skin was tight across the fine bones of his face—her same handsome Ashley, yet so very different.
Scarlett had made her plans to spend Christmas at Tara, but after Ashley’s telegram came no power on earth, not even a direct command from the disappointed Ellen, could drag her away from Atlanta. Had Ashley intended going to Twelve Oaks, she would have hastened to Tara to be near him; but he had written his family to join him in Atlanta, and Mr. Wilkes and Honey and India were already in town. Go home to Tara and miss seeing him, after two long years? Miss the heart-quickening sound of his voice, miss reading in his eyes that he had not forgotten her? Never! Not for all the mothers in the world.
Ashley came home four days before Christmas, with a group of the County boys also on furlough, a sadly diminished group since Gettysburg. Cade Calvert was among them, a thin, gaunt Cade, who coughed continually, two of the Munroe boys, bubbling with the excitement of their first leave since 1861, and Alex and Tony Fontaine, splendidly drunk, boisterous and quarrelsome. The group had two hours to wait between trains and, as it was taxing the diplomacy of the sober members of the party to keep the Fontaines from fighting each other and perfect strangers in the depot, Ashley brought them all home to Aunt Pittypat’s.
“You’d think they’d had enough fighting in Virginia,” said Cade bitterly, as he watched the two bristle like game-cocks over who should be the first to kiss the fluttering and flattered Aunt Pitty. “But no. They’ve been drunk and picking fights ever since we got to Richmond. The provost guard took them up there and if it hadn’t been for Ashley’s slick tongue, they’d have spent Christmas in jail.”
But Scarlett hardly heard a word he said, so enraptured was she at being in the same room with Ashley again. How could she have thought during these two years that other men were nice or handsome or exciting? How could she have even endured hearing them make love to her when Ashley was in the world? He was home again, separated from her only by the width of the parlor rug, and it took all her strength not to dissolve in happy tears every time she looked at him sitting there on the sofa with Melly on one side and India on the other and Honey hanging over his shoulder. If only she had the right to sit there beside him, her arm through his! If only she could pat his sleeve every few minutes to make sure he was really there, hold his hand and use his handkerchief to wipe away her tears of joy. For Melanie was doing all these things, unashamedly. Too happy to be shy and reserved, she hung on her husband’s arm and adored him openly with her eyes, with her smiles, her tears. And Scarlett was too happy to resent this, too glad to be jealous. Ashley was home at last!
Now and then she put her hand up to her cheek where he had kissed her and felt again the thrill of his lips and smiled at him. He had not kissed her first, of course. Melly had hurled herself into his arms crying incoherently, holding him as though she would never let him go. And then, India and Honey had hugged him, fairly tearing him from Melanie’s arms. Then he had kissed his father, with a dignified affectionate embrace that showed the strong quiet feeling that lay between them. And then Aunt Pitty, who was jumping up and down on her inadequate little feet with excitement. Finally he turned to her, surrounded by all the boys who were claiming their kisses, and said: “Oh, Scarlett! You pretty, pretty thing!” and kissed her on the cheek.
With that kiss, everything she had intended to say in welcome took wings. Not until hours later did she recall that he had not kissed her on the lips. Then she wondered feverishly if he would have done it had she met him alone, bending his tall body over hers, pulling her up on tiptoe, holding her for a long, long time. And because it made her happy to think so, she believed that he would. But there would be time for all things, a whole week! Surely she could maneuver to get him alone and say: “Do you remember those rides we used to take down our secret bridle paths?” “Do you remember how the moon looked that night when we sat on the steps at Tara and you quoted that poem?” (Good Heavens! What was the name of that poem, anyway?) “Do you remember that afternoon when I sprained my ankle and you carried me home in your arms in the twilight?”
Oh, there were so many things she would preface with “Do you remember?” So many dear memories that would bring back to him those lovely days when they roamed the County like care-free children, so many things that would call to mind the days before Melanie Hamilton entered on the scene. And while they talked she could perhaps read in his eyes some quickening of emotion, some hint that behind the barrier of husbandly affection for Melanie he still cared, cared as passionately as on that day of the barbecue when he burst forth with the truth. It did not occur to her to plan just what they would do if Ashley should declare his love for her in unmistakable words. It would be enough to know that he did care… Yes, she could wait, could let Melanie have her happy hour of squeezing his arm and crying. Her time would come. After all, what did a girl like Melanie know of love?
“Darling, you look like a ragamuffin,” said Melanie when the first excitement of homecoming was over. “Who did mend your uniform and why did they use blue patches?”
“I thought I looked perfectly dashing,” said Ashley, considering his appearance. “Just compare me with those rag-tags over there and you’ll appreciate me more. Mose mended the uniform and I thought he did very well, considering that he’d never had a needle in his hand before the war. About the blue cloth, when it comes to a choice between having holes in your britches or patching them with pieces of a captured Yankee uniform—well, there just isn’t any choice. And as for looking like a ragamuffin, you should thank your stars your husband didn’t come home barefooted. Last week my old boots wore completely out, and I would have come home with sacks tied on my feet if we hadn’t had the good luck to shoot two Yankee scouts. The boots of one of them fitted me perfectly.”
He stretched out his long legs in their scarred high boots for them to admire.
“And the boots of the other scout didn’t fit me,” said Cade. “They’re two sizes too small and they’re killing me this minute. But I’m going home in style just the same.”
“And the selfish swine won’t give them to either of us,” said Tony. “And they’d fit our small, aristocratic Fontaine feet perfectly. Hell’s afire, I’m ashamed to face Mother in these brogans. Before the war she wouldn’t have let one of our darkies wear them.”
“Don’t worry,” said Alex, eyeing Cade’s boots. “We’ll take them off of him on the train going home. I don’t mind facing Mother but I’m da—I mean I don’t intend for Dimity Munroe to see my toes sticking out.”
“Why, they’re my boots. I claimed them first,” said Tony, beginning to scowl at his brother; and Melanie, fluttering with fear at the possibility of one of the famous Fontaine quarrels, interposed and made peace.
“I had a full beard to show you girls,” said Ashley, ruefully rubbing his face where half-healed razor nicks still showed. “It was a beautiful beard and if I do say it myself, neither Jeb Stuart nor Nathan Bedford Forrest had a handsomer one. But when we got to Richmond, those two scoundrels,” indicating the Fontaines, “decided that as they were shaving their beards, mine should come off too. They got me down and shaved me, and it’s a wonder my head didn’t come off along with the beard. It was only by the intervention of Evan and Cade that my mustache was saved.”
“Snakes, Mrs. Wilkes! You ought to thank me. You’d never have recognized him and wouldn’t have let him in the door,” said Alex. “We did it to show our appreciation of his talking the provost guard out of putting us in jail. If you say the word, we’ll take the mustache off for you, right now.”
“Oh, no, thank you!” said Melanie hastily, clutching Ashley in a frightened way, for the two swarthy little men looked capable of any violence. “I think it’s perfectly lovely.”
“That’s love,” said the Fontaines, nodding gravely at each other.
When Ashley went into the cold to see the boys off to the depot in Aunt Pitty’s carriage, Melanie caught Scarlett’s arm.
“Isn’t his uniform dreadful? Won’t my coat be a surprise? Oh, if only I had enough cloth for britches too!”
That coat for Ashley was a sore subject with Scarlett, for she wished so ardently that she and not Melanie were bestowing it as a Christmas gift. Gray wool for uniforms was now almost literally more priceless than rubies, and Ashley was wearing the familiar homespun. Even butternut was now none too plentiful, and many of the soldiers were dressed in captured Yankee uniforms which had been turned a dark-brown color with walnut-shell dye. But Melanie, by rare luck, had come into possession of enough gray broadcloth to make a coat—a rather short coat but a coat just the same. She had nursed a Charleston boy in the hospital and when he died had clipped a lock of his hair and sent it to his mother, along with the scant contents of his pockets and a comforting account of his last hours which made no mention of the torment in which he died. A correspondence had sprung up between them and, learning that Melanie had a husband at the front, the mother had sent her the length of gray cloth and brass buttons which she had bought for her dead son. It was a beautiful piece of material, thick and warm and with a dull sheen to it, undoubtedly blockade goods and undoubtedly very expensive. It was now in the hands of the tailor and Melanie was hurrying him to have it ready by Christmas morning. Scarlett would have given anything to be able to provide the rest of the uniform, but the necessary materials were simply not to be had in Atlanta.
She had a Christmas present for Ashley, but it paled in insignificance beside the glory of Melanie’s gray coat. It was a small “housewife,” made of flannel, containing the whole precious pack of needles Rhett had brought her from Nassau, three of her linen handkerchiefs, obtained from the same source, two spools of thread and a small pair of scissors. But she wanted to give him something more personal, something a wife could give a husband, a shirt, a pair of gauntlets, a hat. Oh, yes, a hat by all means. That little flat-topped forage cap Ashley was wearing looked ridiculous. Scarlett had always hated them. What if Stonewall Jackson had worn one in preference to a slouch felt? That didn’t make them any more dignified looking. But the only hats obtainable in Atlanta were crudely made wool hats, and they were tackier than the monkey-hat forage caps.
When she thought of hats, she thought of Rhett Butler. He had so many hats, wide Panamas for summer, tall beavers for formal occasions, hunting hats, slouch hats of tan and black and blue. What need had he for so many when her darling Ashley rode in the rain with moisture dripping down his collar from the back of his cap?
“I’ll make Rhett give me that new black felt of his,” she decided. “And I’ll put a gray ribbon around the brim and sew Ashley’s wreath on it and it will look lovely.”
She paused and thought it might be difficult to get the hat without some explanation. She simply could not tell Rhett she wanted it for Ashley. He would raise his brows in that nasty way he always had when she even mentioned Ashley’s name and, like as not, would refuse to give her the hat. Well, she’d make up some pitiful story about a soldier in the hospital who needed it and Rhett need never know the truth.
All that afternoon, she maneuvered to be alone with Ashley, even for a few minutes, but Melanie was beside him constantly, and India and Honey, their pale lashless eyes glowing, followed him about the house. Even John Wilkes, visibly proud of his son, had no opportunity for quiet conversation with him.
It was the same at supper where they all plied him with questions about the war. The war! Who cared about the war? Scarlett didn’t think Ashley cared very much for that subject either. He talked at length, laughed frequently and dominated the conversation more completely than she had ever seen him do before, but he seemed to say very little. He told them jokes and funny stories about friends, talked gaily about makeshifts, making light of hunger and long marches in the rain, and described in detail how General Lee had looked when he rode by on the retreat from Gettysburg and questioned: “Gentlemen, are you Georgia troops? Well, we can’t get along without you Georgians!”
It seemed to Scarlett that he was talking fervishly to keep them from asking questions he did not want to answer. When she saw his eyes falter and drop before the long, troubled gaze of his father, a faint worry and bewilderment rose in her as to what was hidden in Ashley’s heart. But it soon passed, for there was no room in her mind for anything except a radiant happiness and a driving desire to be alone with him.
That radiance lasted until everyone in the circle about the open fire began to yawn, and Mr. Wilkes and the girls took their departure for the hotel. Then as Ashley and Melanie and Pittypat and Scarlett mounted the stairs, lighted by Uncle Peter, a chill fell on her spirit. Until that moment when they stood in the upstairs hall, Ashley had been hers, only hers, even if she had not had a private word with him that whole afternoon. But now, as she said good night, she saw that Melanie’s cheeks were suddenly crimson and she was trembling. Her eyes were on the carpet and, though she seemed overcome with some frightening emotion, she seemed shyly happy. Melanie did not even look up when Ashley opened the bedroom door, but sped inside. Ashley said good night abruptly, and he did not meet Scarlett’s eyes either.
The door closed behind them, leaving Scarlett open mouthed and suddenly desolate. Ashley was no longer hers. He was Melanie’s. And as long as Melanie lived, she could go into rooms with Ashley and close the door—and close out the rest of the world.
Now Ashley was going away, back to Virginia, back to the long marches in the sleet, to hungry bivouacs in the snow, to pain and hardship and to the risk of all the bright beauty of his golden head and proud slender body being blotted out in an instant, like an ant beneath a careless heel. The past week with its shimmering, dreamlike beauty, its crowded hours of happiness, was gone.
The week had passed swiftly, like a dream, a dream fragrant with the smell of pine boughs and Christmas trees, bright with little candles and home-made tinsel, a dream where minutes flew as rapidly as heartbeats. Such a breathless week when something within her drove Scarlett with mingled pain and pleasure to pack and cram every minute with incidents to remember after he was gone, happenings which she could examine at leisure in the long months ahead, extracting every morsel of comfort from them—dance, sing, laugh, fetch and carry for Ashley, anticipate his wants, smile when he smiles, be silent when he talks, follow him with your eyes so that each line of his erect body, each lift of his eyebrows, each quirk of his mouth, will be indelibly printed on your mind—for a week goes by so fast and the war goes on forever.
She sat on the divan in the parlor, holding her going-away gift for him in her lap, waiting while he said good-by to Melanie, praying that when he did come down the stairs he would be alone and she might be granted by Heaven a few moments alone with him. Her ears strained for sounds from upstairs, but the house was oddly still, so still that even the sound of her breathing seemed loud. Aunt Pittypat was crying into her pillows in her room, for Ashley had told her good-by half an hour before. No sounds of murmuring voices or of tears came from behind the closed door of Melanie’s bedroom. It seemed to Scarlett that he had been in that room for hours, and she resented bitterly each moment that he stayed, saying good-by to his wife, for the moments were slipping by so fast and his time was so short.
She thought of all the things she had intended to say to him during this week. But there had been no opportunity to say them, and she knew now that perhaps she would never have the chance to say them.
Such foolish little things, some of them: “Ashley, you will be careful, won’t you?” “Please don’t get your feet wet. You take cold so easily.” “Don’t forget to put a newspaper across your chest under your shirt. It keeps out the wind so well.” But there were other things, more important things she had wanted to say, much more important things she had wanted to hear him say, things she had wanted to read in his eyes, even if he did not speak them.
So many things to say and now there was no time! Even the few minutes that remained might be snatched away from her if Melanie followed him to the door, to the carriage block. Why hadn’t she made the opportunity during this last week? But always, Melanie was at his side, her eyes caressing him adoringly, always friends and neighbors and relatives were in the house and, from morning till night, Ashley was never alone. Then, at night, the door of the bedroom closed and he was alone with Melanie. Never once during these last days had he betrayed to Scarlett by one look, one word, anything but the affection a brother might show a sister or a friend, a lifelong friend. She could not let him go away, perhaps forever, without knowing whether he still loved her. Then, even if he died, she could nurse the warm comfort of his secret love to the end of her days.
After what seemed an eternity of waiting, she heard the sound of his boots in the bedroom above and the door opening and closing. She heard him coming down the steps. Alone! Thank God for that! Melanie must be too overcome by the grief of parting to leave her room. Now she would have him for herself for a few precious minutes.
He came down the steps slowly, his spurs clinking, and she could hear the slap-slap of his saber against his high boots. When he came into the parlor, his eyes were somber. He was trying to smile but his face was as white and drawn as a man bleeding from an internal wound. She rose as he entered, thinking with proprietary pride that he was the handsomest soldier she had ever seen. His long holster and belt glistened and his silver spurs and scabbard gleamed, from the industrious polishing Uncle Peter had given them. His new coat did not fit very well, for the tailor had been hurried and some of the seams were awry. The bright new sheen of the gray coat was sadly at variance with the worn and patched butternut trousers and the scarred boots, but if he had been clothed in silver armor he could not have looked more the shining knight to her.
“Ashley,” she begged abruptly, “may I go to the train with you?”
“Please don’t. Father and the girls will be there. And anyway, I’d rather remember you saying good-by to me here than shivering at the depot. There’s so much to memories.”
Instantly she abandoned her plan. If India and Honey who disliked her so much were to be present at the leave taking, she would have no chance for a private word.
“Then I won’t go,” she said. “See, Ashley! I’ve another present for you.”
A little shy, now that the time had come to give it to him, she unrolled the package. It was a long yellow sash, made of thick China silk and edged with heavy fringe. Rhett Butler had brought her a yellow shawl from Havana several months before, a shawl gaudily embroidered with birds and flowers in magenta and blue. During this last week, she had patiently picked out all the embroidery and cut up the square of silk and stitched it into a sash length.
“Scarlett, it’s beautiful! Did you make it yourself? Then I’ll value it all the more. Put it on me, my dear. The boys will be green with envy when they see me in the glory of my new coat and sash.”
She wrapped the bright lengths about his slender waist, above his belt, and tied the ends in a lover’s knot. Melanie might have given him his new coat but this sash was her gift, her own secret guerdon for him to wear into battle, something that would make him remember her every time he looked at it. She stood back and viewed him with pride, thinking that even Jeb Stuart with his flaunting sash and plume could not look so dashing as her cavalier.
“It’s beautiful,” he repeated, fingering the fringe. “But I know you’ve cut up a dress or a shawl to make it. You shouldn’t have done it, Scarlett. Pretty things are too hard to get these days.”
“Oh, Ashley, I’d—”
She had started to say: “I’d cut up my heart for you to wear if you wanted it,” but she finished, “I’d do anything for you!”
“Would you?” he questioned and some of the somberness lifted from his face. “Then, there’s something you can do for me, Scarlett, something that will make my mind easier when I’m away.”
“What is it?” she asked joyfully, ready to promise prodigies.
“Scarlett, will you look after Melanie for me?”
“Look after Melly?”
Her heart sank with bitter disappointment. So this was something beautiful, something spectacular! And then anger flared. This moment was her moment with Ashley, hers alone. And yet, though Melanie was absent, her pale shadow lay between them. How could he bring up her name in their moment of farewell? How could he ask such a thing of her?
He did not notice the disappointment on her face. As of old, his eyes were looking through her and beyond her, at something else, not seeing her at all.
“Yes, keep an eye on her, take care of her. She’s so frail and she doesn’t realize it. She’ll wear herself out nursing and sewing. And she’s so gentle and timid. Except for Aunt Pittypat and Uncle Henry and you, she hasn’t a close relative in the world, except the Burrs in Macon and they’re third cousins. And Aunt Pitty—Scarlett, you know she’s like a child. And Uncle Henry is an old man. Melanie loves you so much, not just because you were Charlie’s wife, but because—well, because you’re you and she loves you like a sister. Scarlett, I have nightmares when I think what might happen to her if I were killed and she had no one to turn to. Will you promise?”
She did not even hear his last request, so terrified was she by those ill-omened words, “if I were killed.”
Every day she had read the casualty lists, read them with her heart in her throat, knowing that the world would end if anything should happen to him. But always, always, she had an inner feeling that even if the Confederate Army were entirely wiped out, Ashley would be spared. And now he had spoken the frightful words! Goose bumps came out all over her and fear swamped her, a superstitious fear she could not combat with reason. She was Irish enough to believe in second sight, especially where death premonitions were concerned, and in his wide gray eyes she saw some deep sadness which she could only interpret as that of a man who has felt the cold finger on his shoulder, has heard the wail of the Banshee.
“You mustn’t say it! You mustn’t even think it. It’s bad luck to speak of death! Oh, say a prayer, quickly!”
“You say it for me and light some candles, too,” he said, smiling at the frightened urgency in her voice.
But she could not answer, so stricken was she by the pictures her mind was drawing, Ashley lying dead in the snows of Virginia, so far away from her. He went on speaking and there was a quality in his voice, a sadness, a resignation, that increased her fear until every vestige of anger and disappointment was blotted out.
“I’m asking you for this reason, Scarlett. I cannot tell what will happen to me or what will happen to any of us. But when the end comes, I shall be far away from here, even if I am alive, too far away to look out for Melanie.”
“The end of the war—and the end of the world.”
“But Ashley, surely you can’t think the Yankees will beat us? All this week you’ve talked about how strong General Lee—”
“All this week I’ve talked lies, like all men talk when they’re on furlough. Why should I frighten Melanie and Aunt Pitty before there’s any need for them to be frightened? Yes, Scarlett, I think the Yankees have us. Gettysburg was the beginning of the end. The people back home don’t know it yet. They can’t realize how things stand with us, but—Scarlett, some of my men are barefooted now and the snow is deep in Virginia. And when I see their poor frozen feet, wrapped in rags and old sacks, and I see the blood prints they leave in the snow, and know that I’ve got a whole pair of boots—well, I feel like I should give mine away and be barefooted too.”
“Oh, Ashley, promise me you won’t give them away!”
“When I see things like that and then look at the Yankees—then I see the end of everything. Why Scarlett, the Yankees are buying soldiers from Europe by the thousands! Most of the prisoners we’ve taken recently can’t even speak English. They’re Germans and Poles and wild Irishmen who talk Gaelic. But when we lose a man, he can’t be replaced. When our shoes wear out, there are no more shoes. We’re bottled up, Scarlett. And we can’t fight the whole world.”
She thought wildly: Let the whole Confederacy crumble in the dust. Let the world end, but you must not die! I couldn’t live if you were dead!
“I hope you will not repeat what I have said, Scarlett. I do not want to alarm the others. And, my dear, I would not have alarmed you by saying these things, were it not that I had to explain why I ask you to look after Melanie. She’s so frail and weak and you’re so strong, Scarlett. It will be a comfort to me to know that you are together if anything happens to me. You will promise, won’t you?”
“Oh, yes!” she cried, for at that moment, seeing death at his elbow, she would have promised anything. “Ashley, Ashley! I can’t let you go away! I simply can’t be brave about it!”
“You must be brave,” he said, and his voice changed subtly. It was resonant, deeper, and his words fell swiftly as though hurried with some inner urgency. “You must be brave. For how else can I stand it?”
Her eyes sought his face quickly and with joy, wondering if he meant that leaving her was breaking his heart, even as it was breaking hers. His face was as drawn as when he came down from bidding Melanie good-by, but she could read nothing in his eyes. He leaned down, took her face in his hands, and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Scarlett! Scarlett! You are so fine and strong and good. So beautiful, not just your sweet face, my dear, but all of you, your body and your mind and your soul.”
“Oh, Ashley,” she whispered happily, thrilling at his words and his touch on her face. “Nobody else but you ever—”
“I like to think that perhaps I know you better than most people and that I can see beautiful things buried deep in you that others are too careless and too hurried to notice.”
He stopped speaking and his hands dropped from her face, but his eyes still clung to her eyes. She waited a moment, breathless for him to continue, a-tiptoe to hear him say the magic three words. But they did not come. She searched his face frantically, her lips quivering, for she saw he had finished speaking.
This second blighting of her hopes was more than heart could bear and she cried “Oh!” in a childish whisper and sat down, tears stinging her eyes. Then she heard an ominous sound in the driveway, outside the window, a sound that brought home to her even more sharply the imminence of Ashley’s departure. A pagan hearing the lapping of the waters around Charon’s boat could not have felt more desolate. Uncle Peter, muffled in a quilt, was bringing out the carriage to take Ashley to the train.
Ashley said “Good-by,” very softly, caught up from the table the wide felt hat she had inveigled from Rhett and walked into the dark front hall. His hand on the doorknob, he turned and looked at her, a long, desperate look, as if he wanted to carry away with him every detail of her face and figure. Through a blinding mist of tears she saw his face and with a strangling pain in her throat she knew that he was going away, away from her care, away from the safe haven of this house, and out of her life, perhaps forever, without having spoken the words she so yearned to hear. Time was going by like a mill race, and now it was too late. She ran stumbling across the parlor and into the hall and clutched the ends of his sash.
“Kiss me,” she whispered. “Kiss me good-by.”
His arms went around her gently, and he bent his head to her face. At the first touch of his lips on hers, her arms were about his neck in a strangling grip. For a fleeting immeasurable instant, he pressed her body close to his. Then she felt a sudden tensing of all his muscles. Swiftly, he dropped the hat to the floor and, reaching up, detached her arms from his neck.
“No, Scarlett, no,” he said in a low voice, holding her crossed wrists in a grip that hurt.
“I love you,” she said choking. “I’ve always loved you. I’ve never loved anybody else. I just married Charlie to—to try to hurt you. Oh, Ashley, I love you so much I’d walk every step of the way to Virginia just to be near you! And I’d cook for you and polish your boots and groom your horse—Ashley, say you love me! I’ll live on it for the rest of my life!”
He bent suddenly to retrieve his hat and she had one glimpse of his face. It was the unhappiest face she was ever to see, a face from which all aloofness had fled. Written on it were his love for and joy that she loved him, but battling them both were shame and despair.
“Good-by,” he said hoarsely.
The door clicked open and a gust of cold wind swept the house, fluttering the curtains. Scarlett shivered as she watched him run down the walk to the carriage, his saber glinting in the feeble winter sunlight, the fringe of his sash dancing jauntily.
January and February of 1864 passed, full of cold rains and wild winds, clouded by pervasive gloom and depression. In addition to the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the center of the Southern line had caved. After hard fighting, nearly all of Tennessee was now held by the Union troops. But even with this loss on the top of the others, the South’s spirit was not broken. True, grim determination had taken the place of high-hearted hopes, but people could still find a silver lining in the cloud. For one thing, the Yankees had been stoutly repulsed in September when they had tried to follow up their victories in Tennessee by an advance into Georgia.
Here in the northwesternmost corner of the state, at Chickamauga, serious fighting had occurred on Georgia soil for the first time since the war began. The Yankees had taken Chattanooga and then had marched through the mountain passes into Georgia, but they had been driven back with heavy losses.
Atlanta and its railroads had played a big part in making Chickamauga a great victory for the South. Over the railroads that led down from Virginia to Atlanta and then northward to Tennessee, General Longstreet’s corps had been rushed to the scene of the battle. Along the entire route of several hundred miles, the tracks had been cleared and all the available rolling stock in the Southeast had been assembled for the movement.
Atlanta had watched while train after train rolled through the town, hour after hour, passenger coaches, box cars, flat cars, filled with shouting men. They had come without food or sleep, without their horses, ambulances or supply trains and, without waiting for the rest, they had leaped from the trains and into the battle. And the Yankees had been driven out of Georgia, back into Tennessee.
It was the greatest feat of the war, and Atlanta took pride and personal satisfaction in the thought that its railroads had made the victory possible.
But the South had needed the cheering news from Chickamauga to strengthen its morale through the winter. No one denied now that the Yankees were good fighters and, at last, they had good generals. Grant was a butcher who did not care how many men he slaughtered for a victory, but victory he would have. Sheridan was a name to bring dread to Southern hearts. And, then, there was a man named Sherman who was being mentioned more and more often. He had risen to prominence in the campaigns in Tennessee and the West, and his reputation as a determined and ruthless fighter was growing.
None of them, of course, compared with General Lee. Faith in the General and the army was still strong. Confidence in ultimate victory never wavered. But the war was dragging out so long. There were so many dead, so many wounded and maimed for life, so many widowed, so many orphaned. And there was still a long struggle ahead, which meant more dead, more wounded, more widows and orphans.
To make matters worse, a vague distrust of those in high places had begun to creep over the civilian population. Many newspapers were outspoken in their denunciation of President Davis himself and the manner in which he prosecuted the war. There were dissensions within the Confederate cabinet, disagreements between President Davis and his generals. The currency was falling rapidly. Shoes and clothing for the army were scarce, ordnance supplies and drugs were scarcer. The railroads needed new cars to take the place of old ones and new iron rails to replace those torn up by the Yankees. The generals in the field were crying out for fresh troops, and there were fewer and fewer fresh troops to be had. Worst of all, some of the state governors, Governor Brown of Georgia among them, were refusing to send state militia troops and arms out of their borders. There were thousands of able-bodied men in the state troops for whom the army was frantic, but the government pleaded for them in vain.
With the new fall of currency, prices soared again. Beef, pork and butter cost thirty-five dollars a pound, flour fourteen hundred dollars a barrel, soda one hundred dollars a pound, tea five hundred dollars a pound. Warm clothing, when it was obtainable at all, had risen to such prohibitive prices that Atlanta ladies were lining their old dresses with rags and reinforcing them with newspapers to keep out the wind. Shoes cost from two hundred to eight hundred dollars a pair, depending on whether they were made of “cardboard” or real leather. Ladies now wore gaiters made of their old wool shawls and cut-up carpets. The soles were made of wood.
The truth was that the North was holding the South in a virtual state of siege, though many did not realize it. The Yankee gunboats had tightened the mesh at the ports and very few ships were now able to slip past the blockade.
The South had always lived by selling cotton and buying the things it did not produce, but now it could neither sell nor buy. Gerald O’Hara had three years’ crops of cotton stored under the shed near the gin house at Tara, but little good it did him. In Liverpool it would bring one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, but there was no hope of getting it to Liverpool. Gerald had changed from a wealthy man to a man who was wondering how he would feed his family and his negroes through the winter.
Throughout the South, most of the cotton planters were in the same fix. With the blockade closing tighter and tighter, there was no way to get the South’s money crop to its market in England, no way to bring in the necessaries which cotton money had brought in years gone by. And the agricultural South, waging war with the industrial North, was needing so many things now, things it had never thought of buying in times of peace.
It was a situation made to order for speculators and profiteers, and men were not lacking to take advantage of it. As food and clothing grew scarcer and prices rose higher and higher, the public outcry against the speculators grew louder and more venomous. In those early days of 1864, no newspaper could be opened that did not carry scathing editorials denouncing the speculators as vultures and bloodsucking leeches and calling upon the government to put them down with a hard hand. The government did its best, but the efforts came to nothing, for the government was harried by many things.
Against no one was feeling more bitter than against Rhett Butler. He had sold his boats when blockading grew too hazardous, and he was now openly engaged in food speculation. The stories about him that came back to Atlanta from Richmond and Wilmington made those who had received him in other days writhe with shame.
In spite of all these trials and tribulations, Atlanta’s ten thousand population had grown to double that number during the war. Even the blockade had added to Atlanta’s prestige. From time immemorial, the coast cities had dominated the South, commercially and otherwise. But now with the ports closed and many of the port cities captured or besieged, the South’s salvation depended upon itself. The interior section was what counted, if the South was going to win the war, and Atlanta was now the center of things. The people of the town were suffering hardship, privation, sickness and death as severely as the rest of the Confederacy; but Atlanta, the city, had gained rather than lost as a result of the war. Atlanta, the heart of the Confederacy, was still beating full and strong, the railroads that were its arteries throbbing with the never-ending flow of men, munitions and supplies.
In other days, Scarlett would have been bitter about her shabby dresses and patched shoes but now she did not care, for the one person who mattered was not there to see her. She was happy those two months, happier than she had been in years. Had she not felt the start of Ashley’s heart when her arms went round his neck? seen that despairing look on his face which was more open an avowal than any words could be? He loved her. She was sure of that now, and this conviction was so pleasant she could even be kinder to Melanie. She could be sorry for Melanie now, sorry with a faint contempt for her blindness, her stupidity.
“When the war is over!” she thought. “When it’s over—then…”
Sometimes she thought with a small dart of fear: “What then?” But she put the thought from her mind. When the war was over, everything would be settled, somehow. If Ashley loved her, he simply couldn’t go on living with Melanie.
But then, a divorce was unthinkable; and Ellen and Gerald, staunch Catholics that they were, would never permit her to marry a divorced man. It would mean leaving the Church! Scarlett thought it over and decided that, in a choice between the Church and Ashley, she would choose Ashley. But, oh, it would make such a scandal! Divorced people were under the ban not only of the Church but of society. No divorced person was received. However, she would dare even that for Ashley. She would sacrifice anything for Ashley.
Somehow it would come out all right when the war was over. If Ashley loved her so much, he’d find a way. She’d make him find a way. And with every day that passed, she became more sure in her own mind of his devotion, more certain he would arrange matters satisfactorily when the Yankees were finally beaten. Of course, he had said the Yankees “had” them. Scarlett thought that was just foolishness. He had been tired and upset when he said it. But she hardly cared whether the Yankees won or not. The thing that mattered was for the war to finish quickly and for Ashley to come home.
Then, when the sleets of March were keeping everyone indoors, the hideous blow fell. Melanie, her eyes shining with joy, her head ducked with embarrassed pride, told her she was going to have a baby.
“Dr. Meade says it will be here in late August or September,” she said. “I’ve thought—but I wasn’t sure till today. Oh, Scarlett, isn’t it wonderful? I’ve so envied you Wade and so wanted a baby. And I was so afraid that maybe I wasn’t ever going to have one and, darling, I want a dozen!”
Scarlett had been combing her hair, preparing for bed, when Melanie spoke and she stopped, the comb in mid-air.
“Dear God!” she said and, for a moment, realization did not come. Then there suddenly leaped to her mind the closed door of Melanie’s bedroom and a knifelike pain went through her, a pain as fierce as though Ashley had been her own husband and had been unfaithful to her. A baby. Ashley’s baby. Oh, how could he, when he loved her and not Melanie?
“I know you’re surprised,” Melanie rattled on, breathlessly. “And isn’t it too wonderful? Oh, Scarlett, I don’t know how I shall ever write Ashley! It wouldn’t be so embarrassing if I could tell him or—or—well, not say anything and just let him notice gradually, you know—”
“Dear God!” said Scarlett, almost sobbing, as she dropped the comb and caught at the marble top of the dresser for support.
“Darling, don’t look like that! You know having a baby isn’t so bad. You said so yourself. And you mustn’t worry about me, though you are sweet to be so upset. Of course, Dr. Meade said I was—was,” Melanie blushed, “quite narrow but that perhaps I shouldn’t have any trouble and—Scarlett, did you write Charlie and tell him when you found out about Wade, or did your mother do it or maybe Mr. O’Hara? Oh, dear, if I only had a mother to do it! I just don’t see how—”
“Hush!” said Scarlett, violently. “Hush!”
“Oh, Scarlett, I’m so stupid! I’m sorry. I guess all happy people are selfish. I forgot about Charlie, just for the moment—”
“Hush!” said Scarlett again, fighting to control her face and make her emotions quiet. Never, never must Melanie see or suspect how she felt.
Melanie, the most tactful of women, had tears in her eyes at her own cruelty. How could she have brought back to Scarlett the terrible memories of Wade being born months after poor Charlie was dead? How could she have been so thoughtless?
“Let me help you undress, dearest,” she said humbly. “And I’ll rub your head for you.”
“You leave me alone,” said Scarlett, her face like stone. And Melanie, bursting into tears of self-condemnation, fled the room, leaving Scarlett to a tearless bed, with wounded pride, disillusionment and jealousy for bedfellows.
She thought that she could not live any longer in the same house with the woman who was carrying Ashley’s child, thought that she would go home to Tara, home, where she belonged. She did not see how she could ever look at Melanie again and not have her secret read in her face. And she arose the next morning with the fixed intention of packing her trunk immediately after breakfast. But, as they sat at the table, Scarlett silent and gloomy, Pitty bewildered and Melanie miserable, a telegram came.
It was to Melanie from Ashley’s body servant, Mose.
“I have looked everywhere and I can’t find him. Must I come home?”
No one knew what it meant but the eyes of the three women went to one another, wide with terror, and Scarlett forgot all thoughts of going home. Without finishing their breakfasts they drove down to telegraph Ashley’s colonel, but even as they entered the office, there was a telegram from him.
“Regret to inform you Major Wilkes missing since scouting expedition three days ago. Will keep you informed.”
It was a ghastly trip home, with Aunt Pitty crying into her handkerchief, Melanie sitting erect and white and Scarlett slumped, stunned in the corner of the carriage. Once in the house, Scarlett stumbled up the stairs to her bedroom and, clutching her Rosary from the table, dropped to her knees and tried to pray. But the prayers would not come. There only fell on her an abysmal fear, a certain knowledge that God had turned His face from her for her sin. She had loved a married man and tried to take him from his wife, and God had punished her by killing him. She wanted to pray but she could not raise her eyes to Heaven. She wanted to cry but the tears would not come. They seemed to flood her chest, and they were hot tears that burned under her bosom, but they would not flow.
Her door opened and Melanie entered. Her face was like a heart cut from white paper, framed against black hair, and her eyes were wide, like those of a frightened child lost in the dark.
“Scarlett,” she said, putting out her hands. “You must forgive me for what I said yesterday, for you’re—all I’ve got now. Oh, Scarlett, I know my darling is dead!”
Somehow, she was in Scarlett’s arms, her small breasts heaving with sobs, and somehow they were lying on the bed, holding each other close, and Scarlett was crying too, crying with her face pressed close against Melanie’s, the tears of one wetting the cheeks of the other. It hurt so terribly to cry, but not so much as not being able to cry. Ashley is dead—dead, she thought, and I have killed him by loving him! Fresh sobs broke from her, and Melanie somehow feeling comfort in her tears tightened her arms about her neck.
“At least,” she whispered, “at least—I’ve got his baby.”
“And I,” thought Scarlett, too stricken now for anything so petty as jealousy, “I’ve got nothing—nothing—nothing except the look on his face when he told me good-by.”
The first reports were “Missing—believed killed” and so they appeared on the casualty list. Melanie telegraphed Colonel Sloan a dozen times and finally a letter arrived, full of sympathy, explaining that Ashley and a squad had ridden out on a scouting expedition and had not returned. There had been reports of a slight skirmish within the Yankee lines and Mose, frantic with grief, had risked his own life to search for Ashley’s body but had found nothing. Melanie, strangely calm now, telegraphed him money and instructions to come home.
When “Missing—believed captured” appeared on the casualty lists, joy and hope reanimated the sad household. Melanie could hardly be dragged away from the telegraph office and she met every train hoping for letters. She was sick now, her pregnancy making itself felt in many unpleasant ways, but she refused to obey Dr. Meade’s commands and stay in bed. A feverish energy possessed her and would not let her be still; and at night, long after Scarlett had gone to bed, she could hear her walking the floor in the next room.
One afternoon, she came home from town, driven by the frightened Uncle Peter and supported by Rhett Butler. She had fainted at the telegraph office and Rhett, passing by and observing the excitement, had escorted her home. He carried her up the stairs to her bedroom and while the alarmed household fled hither and yon for hot bricks, blankets and whisky, he propped her on the pillows of her bed.
Had Melanie not been so faint, so sick, so heartsore, she would have collapsed at his question. Even with women friends she was embarrassed by any mention of her condition, while visits to Dr. Meade were agonizing experiences. And for a man, especially Rhett Butler, to ask such a question was unthinkable. But lying weak and forlorn in the bed, she could only nod. After she had nodded, it did not seem so dreadful, for he looked so kind and so concerned.
“Then you must take better care of yourself. All this running about and worry won’t help you and may harm the baby. If you will permit me, Mrs. Wilkes, I will use what influence I have in Washington to learn about Mr. Wilkes’ fate. If he is a prisoner, he will be on the Federal lists, and if he isn’t—well, there’s nothing worse than uncertainty. But I must have your promise. Take care of yourself or, before God, I won’t turn a hand.”
“Oh, you are so kind,” cried Melanie. “How can people say such dreadful things about you?” Then overcome with the knowledge of her tactlessness and also with horror at having discussed her condition with a man, she began to cry weakly. And Scarlett, flying up the stairs with a hot brick wrapped in flannel, found Rhett patting her hand.
He was as good as his word. They never knew what wires he pulled. They feared to ask, knowing it might involve an admission of his too close affiliations with the Yankees. It was a month before he had news, news that raised them to the heights when they first heard it, but later created a gnawing anxiety in their hearts.
Ashley was not dead! He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and the records showed that he was at Rock Island, a prison camp in Illinois. In their first joy, they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But, when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said “Rock Island!” in the same voice they would have said “In Hell!” For even as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, so was Rock Island one to bring terror to the heart of any Southerner who had relatives imprisoned there.
When Lincoln refused to exchange prisoners, believing it would hasten the end of the war to burden the Confederacy with the feeding and guarding of Union prisoners, there were thousands of bluecoats at Andersonville, Georgia. The Confederates were on scant rations and practically without drugs or bandages for their own sick and wounded. They had little to share with the prisoners. They fed their prisoners on what the soldiers in the field were eating, fat pork and dried peas, and on this diet the Yankees died like flies, sometimes a hundred a day. Inflamed by the reports, the North resorted to harsher treatment of Confederate prisoners and at no place were conditions worse than at Rock Island. Food was scanty, one blanket for three men, and the ravages of smallpox, pneumonia and typhoid gave the place the name of a pest-house. Three-fourths of all the men sent there never came out alive.
And Ashley was in that horrible place! Ashley was alive but he was wounded and at Rock Island, and the snow must have been deep in Illinois when he was taken there. Had he died of his wound, since Rhett had learned his news? Had he fallen victim to smallpox? Was he delirious with pneumonia and no blanket to cover him?
“Oh, Captain Butler, isn’t there some way—Can’t you use your influence and have him exchanged?” cried Melanie.
“Mr. Lincoln, the merciful and just, who cries large tears over Mrs. Bixby’s five boys, hasn’t any tears to shed about the thousands of Yankees dying at Andersonville,” said Rhett, his mouth twisting. “He doesn’t care if they all die. The order is out. No exchanges. I—I hadn’t told you before, Mrs. Wilkes, but your husband had a chance to get out and refused it.”
“Oh, no!” cried Melanie in disbelief.
“Yes, indeed. The Yankees are recruiting men for frontier service to fight the Indians, recruiting them from among Confederate prisoners. Any prisoner who will take the oath of allegiance and enlist for Indian service for two years will be released and sent West. Mr. Wilkes refused.”
“Oh, how could he?” cried Scarlett. “Why didn’t he take the oath and then desert and come home as soon as he got out of jail?”
Melanie turned on her like a small fury.
“How can you even suggest that he would do such a thing? Betray his own Confederacy by taking that vile oath and then betray his word to the Yankees! I would rather know he was dead at Rock Island than hear he had taken that oath. I’d be proud of him if he died in prison. But if he did that, I would never look on his face again. Never! Of course, he refused.”
When Scarlett was seeing Rhett to the door, she asked indignantly: “If it were you, wouldn’t you enlist with the Yankees to keep from dying in that place and then desert?”
“Of course,” said Rhett, his teeth showing beneath his mustache.
“Then why didn’t Ashley do it?”
“He’s a gentleman,” said Rhett, and Scarlett wondered how it was possible to convey such cynicism and contempt in that one honorable word.