In those first days of the siege, when the Yankees crashed here and there against the defenses of the city, Scarlett was so frightened by the bursting shells she could only cower helplessly, her hands over her ears, expecting every moment to be blown into eternity. When she heard the whistling screams that heralded their approach, she rushed to Melanie’s room and flung herself on the bed beside her, and the two clutched each other, screaming “Oh! Oh!” as they buried their heads in the pillows. Prissy and Wade scurried for the cellar and crouched in the cobwebbed darkness, Prissy squalling at the top of her voice and Wade sobbing and hiccoughing.
Suffocating under feather pillows while death screamed overhead, Scarlett silently cursed Melanie for keeping her from the safer regions below stairs. But the doctor had forbidden Melanie to walk and Scarlett had to stay with her. Added to her terror of being blown to pieces was her equally active terror that Melanie’s baby might arrive at any moment. Sweat broke out on Scarlett with clammy dampness, whenever this thought entered her mind. What would she do if the baby started coming? She knew she’d rather let Melanie die than go out on the streets to hunt for the doctor when the shells were falling like April rain. And she knew Prissy could be beaten to death before she would venture forth. What would she do if the baby came?
These matters she discussed with Prissy in whispers one evening, as they prepared Melanie’s supper tray, and Prissy, surprisingly enough, calmed her fears.
“Miss Scarlett, effen we kain git de doctah w’en Miss Melly’s time come, doan you bodder. Ah kin manage. Ah knows all ’bout birthin’. Ain’ mah ma a midwife? Ain’ she raise me ter be a midwife, too? Jes’ you leave it ter me.”
Scarlett breathed more easily knowing that experienced hands were near, but she nevertheless yearned to have the ordeal over and done with. Mad to be away from exploding shells, desperate to get home to the quiet of Tara, she prayed every night that the baby would arrive the next day, so she would be released from her promise and could leave Atlanta. Tara seemed so safe, so far away from all this misery.
Scarlett longed for home and her mother as she had never longed for anything in all her life. If she were just near Ellen she wouldn’t be afraid, no matter what happened. Every night after a day of screeching ear-splitting shells, she went to bed determined to tell Melanie the next morning that she could not stand Atlanta another day, that she would have to go home and Melanie would have to go to Mrs. Meade’s. But, as she lay on her pillow, there always rose the memory of Ashley’s face as it had looked when she last saw him, drawn as with an inner pain but with a little smile on his lips: “You’ll take care of Melanie, won’t you? You’re so strong… Promise me.” And she had promised. Somewhere, Ashley lay dead. Wherever he was, he was watching her, holding her to that promise. Living or dead, she could not fail him, no matter what the cost. So she remained day after day.
In response to Ellen’s letters, pleading with her to come home, she wrote minimizing the dangers of the siege, explaining Melanie’s predicament and promising to come as soon as the baby was born. Ellen, sensitive to the bonds of kin, be they blood or marriage, wrote back reluctantly agreeing that she must stay but demanding Wade and Prissy be sent home immediately. This suggestion met with the complete approval of Prissy, who was now reduced to teethchattering idiocy at every unexpected sound. She spent so much time crouching in the cellar that the girls would have fared badly but for Mrs. Meade’s stolid old Betsy.
Scarlett was as anxious as her mother to have Wade out of Atlanta, not only for the child’s safety, but because his constant fear irritated her. Wade was terrified to speechlessness by the shelling, and even when lulls came he clung to Scarlett’s skirts, too terrified to cry. He was afraid to go to bed at night, afraid of the dark, afraid to sleep lest the Yankees should come and get him, and the sound of his soft nervous whimpering in the night grated unendurably on her nerves. Secretly she was just as frightened as he was, but it angered her to be reminded of it every minute by his tense, drawn face. Yes, Tara was the place for Wade. Prissy should take him there and return immediately to be present when the baby came.
But before Scarlett could start the two on their homeward journey, news came that the Yankees had swung to the south and were skirmishing along the railroad between Atlanta and Jonesboro. Suppose the Yankees should capture the train on which Wade and Prissy were riding—Scarlett and Melanie turned pale at the thought, for everyone knew that Yankee atrocities on helpless children were even more dreadful than on women. So she feared to send him home and he remained in Atlanta, a frightened, silent little ghost, pattering about desperately after his mother, fearing to have her skirt out of his hand for even a minute.
The siege went on through the hot days of July, thundering days following nights of sullen, ominous stillness, and the town began to adjust itself. It was as though, the worst having happened, they had nothing more to fear. They had feared a siege and now they had a siege and, after all, it wasn’t so bad. Life could and did go on almost as usual. They knew they were sitting on a volcano, but until that volcano erupted there was nothing they could do. So why worry now? And probably it wouldn’t erupt anyway. Just look how General Hood is holding the Yankees out of the city! And see how the cavalry is holding the railroad to Macon! Sherman will never take it!
But for all their apparent insouciance in the face of falling shells and shorter rations, for all their ignoring the Yankees, barely half a mile away, and for all their boundless confidence in the ragged line of gray men in the rifle pits, there pulsed, just below the skin of Atlanta, a wild uncertainty over what the next day would bring. Suspense, worry, sorrow, hunger and the torment of rising, falling, rising hope was wearing that skin thin.
Gradually, Scarlett drew courage from the brave faces of her friends and from the merciful adjustment which nature makes when what cannot be cured must be endured. To be sure, she still jumped at the sound of explosions but she did not run screaming to burrow her head under Melanie’s pillow. She could now gulp and say weakly: “That was close, wasn’t it?”
She was less frightened also because life had taken on the quality of a dream, a dream too terrible to be real. It wasn’t possible that she, Scarlett O’Hara, should be in such a predicament, with the danger of death about her every hour, every minute. It wasn’t possible that the quiet tenor of life could have changed so completely in so short a time.
It was unreal, grotesquely unreal, that morning skies which dawned so tenderly blue could be profaned with cannon smoke that hung over the town like low thunder clouds, that warm noontides filled with the piercing sweetness of massed honeysuckle and climbing roses could be so fearful, as shells screamed into the streets, bursting like the crack of doom, throwing iron splinters hundreds of yards, blowing people and animals to bits.
Quiet, drowsy afternoon siestas had ceased to be, for though the clamor of battle might lull from time to time, Peachtree Street was alive and noisy at all hours, cannon and ambulances rumbling by, wounded stumbling in from the rifle pits, regiments hurrying past at double-quick, ordered from the ditches on one side of town to the defense of some hard-pressed earthworks on the other, and couriers dashing headlong down the street toward headquarters as though the fate of the Confederacy hung on them.
The hot nights brought a measure of quiet but it was a sinister quiet. When the night was still, it was too still—as though the tree frogs, katydids and sleepy mockingbirds were too frightened to raise their voices in the usual summer-night chorus. Now and again, the quiet was broken sharply by the crack-cracking of musket fire in the last line of defenses.
Often in the late night hours, when the lamps were out and Melanie asleep and deathly silence pressed over the town, Scarlett, lying awake, heard the latch of the front gate click and soft urgent tappings on the front door.
Always, faceless soldiers stood on the dark porch and from the darkness many different voices spoke to her. Sometimes a cultured voice came from the shadows: “Madam, my abject apologies for disturbing you, but could I have water for myself and my horse?” Sometimes it was the hard burring of a mountain voice, sometimes the odd nasals of the flat Wiregrass country to the far south, occasionally the lulling drawl of the Coast that caught at her heart, reminding her of Ellen’s voice.
“Missy, I got a pardner here who I wuz aimin’ ter git ter the horsepittle but looks like he ain’t goin’ ter last that fer. Kin you take him in?”
“Lady, I shore could do with some vittles. I’d shore relish a corn pone if it didn’t deprive you none.”
“Madam, forgive my intrusion but—could I spend the night on your porch? I saw the roses and smelled the honeysuckle and it was so much like home that I was emboldened—”
No, these nights were not real! They were a nightmare and the men were part of that nightmare, men without bodies or faces, only tired voices speaking to her from the warm dark. Draw water, serve food, lay pillows on the front porch, bind wounds, hold the dirty heads of the dying. No, this could not be happening to her!
Once, late in July, it was Uncle Henry Hamilton who came tapping in the night. Uncle Henry was minus his umbrella and carpetbag now, and his fat stomach as well. The skin of his pink fat face hung down in loose folds like the dewlaps of a bulldog and his long white hair was indescribably dirty. He was almost barefoot, crawling with lice, and he was hungry, but his irascible spirit was unimpaired.
Despite his remark: “It’s a foolish war when old fools like me are out toting guns,” the girls received the impression that Uncle Henry was enjoying himself. He was needed, like the young men, and he was doing a young man’s work. Moreover, he could keep up with the young men, which was more than Grandpa Merriwether could do, he told them gleefully. Grandpa’s lumbago was troubling him greatly and the Captain wanted to discharge him. But Grandpa wouldn’t go home. He said frankly that he preferred the Captain’s swearing and bullying to his daughter-in-law’s coddling, and her incessant demands that he give up chewing tobacco and launder his beard every day.
Uncle Henry’s visit was brief, for he had only a four-hour furlough and he needed half of it for the long walk in from the breastworks and back.
“Girls, I’m not going to see you all for a while,” he announced as he sat in Melanie’s bedroom, luxuriously wriggling his blistered feet in the tub of cold water Scarlett had set before him. “Our company is going out in the morning.”
“Where?” questioned Melanie frightened, clutching his arm.
“Don’t put your hand on me,” said Uncle Henry irritably. “I’m crawling with lice. War would be a picnic if it wasn’t for lice and dysentery. Where’m I going? Well, I haven’t been told but I’ve got a good idea. We’re marching south, toward Jonesboro, in the morning, unless I’m greatly in error.”
“Oh, why toward Jonesboro?”
“Because there’s going to be big fighting there, Missy. The Yankees are going to take the railroad if they possibly can. And if they do take it, it’s good-by Atlanta!”
“Shucks, girls! No! How can they when I’m there?” Uncle Henry grinned at their frightened faces and then, becoming serious again: “It’s going to be a hard fight, girls. We’ve got to win it. You know, of course, that the Yankees have got all the railroads except the one to Macon, but that isn’t all they’ve got. Maybe you girls didn’t know it, but they’ve got every road, too, every wagon lane and bridle path, except the McDonough road. Atlanta’s in a bag and the strings of the bag are at Jonesboro. And if the Yankees can take the railroad there, they can pull up the strings and have us, just like a possum in a poke. So, we don’t aim to let them get that railroad… I may be gone a while, girls. I just came in to tell you all good-by and to make sure Scarlett was still with you, Melly.”
“Of course, she’s with me,” said Melanie fondly. “Don’t you worry about us, Uncle Henry, and do take care of yourself.”
Uncle Henry wiped his wet feet on the rag rug and groaned as he drew on his tattered shoes.
“I got to be going,” he said. “I’ve got five miles to walk. Scarlett, you fix me up some kind of lunch to take. Anything you’ve got.”
After he had kissed Melanie good-by, he went down to the kitchen where Scarlett was wrapping a corn pone and some apples in a napkin.
“Uncle Henry—is it—is it really so serious?”
“Serious? God’lmighty, yes! Don’t be a goose. We’re in the last ditch.”
“Do you think they’ll get to Tara?”
“Why—” began Uncle Henry, irritated at the feminine mind which thought only of personal things when broad issues were involved. Then, seeing her frightened, woebegone face, he softened.
“Of course they won’t. Tara’s five miles from the railroad and it’s the railroad the Yankees want. You’ve got no more sense than a June bug, Missy.” He broke off abruptly. “I didn’t walk all this way here tonight just to tell you all good-by. I came to bring Melly some bad news, but when I got up to it I just couldn’t tell her. So I’m going to leave it to you to do.”
“Now, how would I be hearing about Ashley when I’ve been standing in rifle pits up to the seat of my pants in mud?” the old gentleman asked testily. “No. It’s about his father. John Wilkes is dead.”
Scarlett sat down suddenly, the half-wrapped lunch in her hand.
“I came to tell Melly—but I couldn’t. You must do it. And give her these.”
He hauled from his pockets a heavy gold watch with dangling seals, a small miniature of the long dead Mrs. Wilkes and a pair of massive cuff buttons. At the sight of the watch which she had seen in John Wilkes’ hands a thousand times, the full realization came over Scarlett that Ashley’s father was really dead. And she was too stunned to cry or to speak. Uncle Henry fidgeted, coughed and did not look at her, lest he catch sight of a tear that would upset him.
“He was a brave man, Scarlett. Tell Melly that. Tell her to write it to his girls. And a good soldier for all his years. A shell got him. Came right down on him and his horse. Tore the horse’s—I shot the horse myself, poor creature. A fine little mare she was. You’d better write Mrs. Tarleton about that, too. She set a store on that mare. Wrap up my lunch, child. I must be going. There, dear, don’t take it so hard. What better way can an old man die than doing a young man’s work?”
“Oh, he shouldn’t have died! He shouldn’t have ever gone to the war. He should have lived and seen his grandchild grow up and died peacefully in bed. Oh, why did he go? He didn’t believe in secession and he hated the war and—”
“Plenty of us think that way, but what of it?” Uncle Henry blew his nose grumpily. “Do you think I enjoy letting Yankee riflemen use me for a target at my age? But there’s no other choice for a gentleman these days. Kiss me good-by, child, and don’t worry about me. I’ll come through this war safely.”
Scarlett kissed him and heard him go down the steps into the dark, heard the latch click on the front gate. She stood for a minute looking at the keepsakes in her hand. And then she went up the stairs to tell Melanie.
At the end of July came the unwelcome news, predicted by Uncle Henry, that the Yankees had swung around again toward Jonesboro. They had cut the railroad four miles below the town, but they had been beaten off by the Confederate cavalry; and the engineering corps, sweating in the broiling sun, had repaired the line.
Scarlett was frantic with anxiety. For three days she waited, fear growing in her heart. Then a reassuring letter came from Gerald. The enemy had not reached Tara. They had heard the sound of the fight but they had seen no Yankees.
Gerald’s letter was so full of brag and bluster as to how the Yankees had been driven from the railroad that one would have thought he personally had accomplished the feat, single handed. He wrote for three pages about the gallantry of the troops and then, at the end of his letter, mentioned briefly that Carreen was ill. The typhoid, Mrs. O’Hara said it was. She was not very ill and Scarlett was not to worry about her, but on no condition must she come home now, even if the railroad should become safe. Mrs. O’Hara was very glad now that Scarlett and Wade had not come home when the siege began. Mrs. O’Hara said Scarlett must go to church and say some Rosaries for Carreen’s recovery.
Scarlett’s conscience smote her at this last, for it had been months since she had been to church. Once she would have thought this omission a mortal sin but, somehow, staying away from church did not seem so sinful now as it formerly had. But she obeyed her mother and going to her room gabbled a hasty Rosary. When she rose from her knees she did not feel as comforted as she had formerly felt after prayer. For some time she had felt that God was not watching out for her, the Confederates or the South, in spite of the millions of prayers ascending to Him daily.
That night she sat on the front porch with Gerald’s letter in her bosom where she could touch it occasionally and bring Tara and Ellen closer to her. The lamp in the parlor window threw odd golden shadows onto the dark vine-shrouded porch, and the matted tangle of yellow climbing roses and honeysuckle made a wall of mingled fragrance about her. The night was utterly still. Not even the crack of a rifle had sounded since sunset and the world seemed far away. Scarlett rocked back and forth, lonely, miserable since reading the news from Tara, wishing that someone, anyone, even Mrs. Merriwether, were with her. But Mrs. Merriwether was on night duty at the hospital, Mrs. Meade was at home making a feast for Phil, who was in from the front lines, and Melanie was asleep. There was not even the hope of a chance caller. Visitors had fallen off to nothing this last week, for every man who could walk was in the rifle pits or chasing the Yankees about the countryside near Jonesboro.
It was not often that she was alone like this and she did not like it. When she was alone she had to think and, these days, thoughts were not so pleasant. Like everyone else, she had fallen into the habit of thinking of the past, the dead.
Tonight when Atlanta was so quiet, she could close her eyes and imagine she was back in the rural stillness of Tara and that life was unchanged, unchanging. But she knew that life in the County would never be the same again. She thought of the four Tarletons, the red-haired twins and Tom and Boyd, and a passionate sadness caught at her throat. Why, either Stu or Brent might have been her husband. But now, when the war was over and she went back to Tara to live, she would never again hear their wild halloos as they dashed up the avenue of cedars. And Raiford Calvert, who danced so divinely, would never again choose her to be his partner. And the Munroe boys and little Joe Fontaine and—
“Oh, Ashley!” she sobbed, dropping her head into her hands. “I’ll never get used to you being gone!”
She heard the front gate click and she hastily raised her head and dashed her hand across her wet eyes. She rose and saw it was Rhett Butler coming up the walk, carrying his wide Panama hat in his hand. She had not seen him since the day when she had alighted from his carriage so precipitously at Five Points. On that occasion, she had expressed the desire never to lay eyes on him again. But she was so glad now to have someone to talk to, someone to divert her thoughts from Ashley, that she hastily put the memory from her mind. Evidently he had forgotten the contretemps, or pretended to have forgotten it, for he settled himself on the top step at her feet without mention of their late difference.
“So you didn’t refugee to Macon! I heard that Miss Pitty had retreated and, of course, I thought you had gone too. So, when I saw your light I came here to investigate. Why did you stay?”
“To keep Melanie company. You see, she—well, she can’t refugee just now.”
“Thunderation,” he said, and in the lamplight she saw that he was frowning. “You don’t mean to tell me Mrs. Wilkes is still here? I never heard of such idiocy. It’s quite dangerous for her in her condition.”
Scarlett was silent, embarrassed, for Melanie’s condition was not a subject she could discuss with a man. She was embarrassed, too, that Rhett should know it was dangerous for Melanie. Such knowledge sat ill upon a bachelor.
“It’s quite ungallant of you not to think that I might get hurt too,” she said tartly.
His eyes flickered with amusement.
“I’d back you against the Yankees any day.”
“I’m not sure that that’s a compliment,” she said uncertainly.
“It isn’t,” he answered. “When will you stop looking for compliments in men’s lightest utterances?”
“When I’m on my deathbed,” she replied and smiled, thinking that there would always be men to compliment her, even if Rhett never did.
“Vanity, vanity,” he said. “At least, you are frank about it.”
He opened his cigar case, extracted a black cigar and held it to his nose for a moment. A match flared, he leaned back against a post and, clasping his hands about his knees, smoked a while in silence. Scarlett resumed her rocking and the still darkness of the warm night closed about them. The mockingbird, which nested in the tangle of roses and honeysuckle, roused from slumber and gave one timid, liquid note. Then, as if thinking better of the matter, it was silent again.
From the shadow of the porch, Rhett suddenly laughed, a low, soft laugh.
“So you stayed with Mrs. Wilkes! This is the strangest situation I ever encountered!”
“I see nothing strange about it,” she answered uncomfortably, immediately on the alert.
“No? But then you lack the impersonal viewpoint. My impression has been for some time past that you could hardly endure Mrs. Wilkes. You think her silly and stupid and her patriotic notions bore you. You seldom pass by the opportunity to slip in some belittling remark about her, so naturally it seems strange to me that you should elect to do the unselfish thing and stay here with her during this shelling. Now, just why did you do it?”
“Because she’s Charlie’s sister—and like a sister to me,” answered Scarlett with as much dignity as possible though her cheeks were growing hot.
“You mean because she’s Ashley’s Wilkes’ widow.”
Scarlett rose quickly, struggling with her anger.
“I was almost on the point of forgiving you for your former boorish conduct but now I shan’t do it. I wouldn’t have ever let you come upon this porch at all, if I hadn’t been feeling so blue and—”
“Sit down and smooth your ruffled fur,” he said, and his voice changed. He reached up and taking her hand pulled her back into her chair. “Why are you blue?”
“Oh, I had a letter from Tara today. The Yankees are close to home and my little sister is ill with typhoid and—and—so now, even if I could go home, like I want to, Mother wouldn’t let me for fear I’d catch it too. Oh, dear, and I do so want to go home!”
“Well, don’t cry about it,” he said, but his voice was kinder. “You are much safer here in Atlanta even if the Yankees do come than you’d be at Tara. The Yankees won’t hurt you and typhoid would.”
“The Yankees wouldn’t hurt me! How can you say such a lie?”
“My dear girl, the Yankees aren’t fiends. They haven’t horns and hoofs, as you seem to think. They are pretty much like Southerners—except with worse manners, of course, and terrible accents.”
“Why, the Yankees would—”
“Rape you? I think not. Though, of course, they’d want to.”
“If you are going to talk vilely I shall go into the house,” she cried, grateful that the shadows hid her crimson face.
“Be frank. Wasn’t that what you were thinking?”
“Oh, certainly not!”
“Oh, but it was! No use getting mad at me for reading your thoughts. That’s what all our delicately nurtured and pure-minded Southern ladies think. They have it on their minds constantly. I’ll wager even dowagers like Mrs. Merriwether…”
Scarlett gulped in silence, remembering that wherever two or more matrons were gathered together, in these trying days, they whispered of such happenings, always in Virginia or Tennessee or Lousiana, never close to home. The Yankees raped women and ran bayonets through children’s stomachs and burned houses over the heads of old people. Everyone knew these things were true even if they didn’t shout them on the street corners. And if Rhett had any decency he would realize they were true. And not talk about them. And it wasn’t any laughing matter either.
She could hear him chuckling softly. Sometimes he was odious. In fact, most of the time he was odious. It was awful for a man to know what women really thought about and talked about. It made a girl feel positively undressed. And no man ever learned such things from good women either. She was indignant that he had read her mind. She liked to believe herself a thing of mystery to men, but she knew Rhett thought her as transparent as glass.
“Speaking of such matters,” he continued, “have you a protector or chaperon in the house? The admirable Mrs. Merriwether or Mrs. Meade? They always look at me as if they knew I was here for no good purpose.”
“Mrs. Meade usually comes over at night,” answered Scarlett, glad to change the subject. “But she couldn’t tonight. Phil, her boy, is home.”
“What luck,” he said softly, “to find you alone.”
Something in his voice made her heart beat pleasantly faster and she felt her face flush. She had heard that note in men’s voices often enough to know that it presaged a declaration of love. Oh, what fun! If he would just say he loved her, how she would torment him and get even with him for all the sarcastic remarks he had flung at her these past three years. She would lead him a chase that would make up for even that awful humiliation of the day he witnessed her slapping Ashley. And then she’d tell him sweetly she could only be a sister to him and retire with the full honors of war. She laughed nervously in pleasant anticipation.
“Don’t giggle,” he said, and taking her hand, he turned it over and pressed his lips into the palm. Something vital, electric, leaped from him to her at the touch of his warm mouth, something that caressed her whole body thrillingly. His lips traveled to her wrist and she knew he must feel the leap of her pulse as her heart quickened and she tried to draw back her hand. She had not bargained on this—this treacherous warm tide of feeling that made her want to run her hands through his hair, to feel his lips upon her mouth.
She wasn’t in love with him, she told herself confusedly. She was in love with Ashley. But how to explain this feeling that made her hands shake and the pit of her stomach grow cold?
He laughed softly.
“Don’t pull away! I won’t hurt you!”
“Hurt me? I’m not afraid of you, Rhett Butler, or of any man in shoe leather!” she cried, furious that her voice shook as well as her hands.
“An admirable sentiment, but do lower your voice. Mrs. Wilkes might hear you. And pray compose yourself.” He sounded as though delighted at her flurry.
“Scarlett, you do like me, don’t you?”
That was more like what she was expecting.
“Well, sometimes,” she answered cautiously. “When you aren’t acting like a varmint.”
He laughed again and held the palm of her hand against his hard cheek.
“I think you like me because I am a varmint. You’ve known so few dyed-in-the-wool varmints in your sheltered life that my very difference holds a quaint charm for you.”
This was not the turn she had anticipated and she tried again without success to pull her hand free.
“That’s not true! I like nice men—men you can depend on to always be gentlemanly.”
“You mean men you can always bully. It’s merely a matter of definition. But no matter.”
He kissed her palm again, and again the skin on the back of her neck crawled excitingly.
“But you do like me. Could you ever love me, Scarlett?”
“Ah!” she thought, triumphantly. “Now I’ve got him!” And she answered with studied coolness: “Indeed, no. That is—not unless you mended your manners considerably.”
“And I have no intention of mending them. So you could not love me? That is as I hoped. For while I like you immensely, I do not love you and it would be tragic indeed for you to suffer twice from unrequited love, wouldn’t it, dear? May I call you ‘dear,’ Mrs. Hamilton? I shall call you ‘dear’ whether you like it or not, so no matter, but the proprieties must be observed.”
“You don’t love me?”
“No, indeed. Did you hope that I did?”
“Don’t be so presumptuous!”
“You hoped! Alas, to blight your hopes! I should love you, for you are charming and talented at many useless accomplishments. But many ladies have charm and accomplishments and are just as useless as you are. No, I don’t love you. But I do like you tremendously—for the elasticity of your conscience, for the selfishness which you seldom trouble to hide, and for the shrewd practicality in you which, I fear, you get from some not too remote Irish-peasant ancestor.”
Peasant! Why, he was insulting her! She began to splutter wordlessly.
“Don’t interrupt,” he begged, squeezing her hand. “I like you because I have those same qualities in me and like begets liking. I realize you still cherish the memory of the godlike and woodenheaded Mr. Wilkes, who’s probably been in his grave these six months. But there must be room in your heart for me too. Scarlett, do stop wriggling! I am making you a declaration. I have wanted you since the first time I laid eyes on you, in the hall of Twelve Oaks, when you were bewitching poor Charlie Hamilton. I want you more than I have ever wanted any woman—and I’ve waited longer for you than I’ve ever waited for any woman.”
She was breathless with surprise at his last words. In spite of all his insults, he did love her and he was just so contrary he didn’t want to come out frankly and put it into words, for fear she’d laugh. Well, she’d show him and right quickly.
“Are you asking me to marry you?”
He dropped her hand and laughed so loudly she shrank back in her chair.
“Good Lord, no! Didn’t I tell you I wasn’t a marrying man?”
“Dear,” he said quietly, “I am complimenting your intelligence by asking you to be my mistress without having first seduced you.”
Her mind shouted the word, shouted that she had been vilely insulted. But in that first startled moment she did not feel insulted. She only felt a furious surge of indignation that he should think her such a fool. He must think her a fool if he offered her a proposition like that, instead of the proposal of matrimony she had been expecting. Rage, punctured vanity and disappointment threw her mind into a turmoil and, before she even thought of the high moral grounds on which she should upbraid him, she blurted out the first words which came to her lips—
“Mistress! What would I get out of that except a passel of brats?”
And then her jaw dropped in horror as she realized what she had said. He laughed until he choked, peering at her in the shadows as she sat, stricken dumb, pressing her handkerchief to her mouth.
“That’s why I like you! You are the only frank woman I know, the only woman who looks on the practical side of matters without beclouding the issue with mouthings about sin and morality. Any other woman would have swooned first and then shown me the door.”
Scarlett leaped to her feet, her face red with shame. How could she have said such a thing! How could she, Ellen’s daughter, with her upbringing, have sat there and listened to such debasing words and then made such a shameless reply? She should have screamed. She should have fainted. She should have turned coldly away in silence and swept from the porch. Too late now!
“I will show you the door,” she shouted, not caring if Melanie or the Meades, down the street, did bear her. “Get out! How dare you say such things to me! What have I ever done to encourage you—to make you suppose… Get out and don’t ever come back here. I mean it this time. Don’t you ever come back here with any of your piddling papers of pins and ribbons, thinking I’ll forgive you. I’ll—I’ll tell my father and he’ll kill you!”
He picked up his hat and bowed and she saw in the light of the lamp that his teeth were showing in a smile beneath his mustache. He was not ashamed, he was amused at what she had said, and he was watching her with alert interest.
Oh, he was detestable! She swung round on her heel and marched into the house. She grabbed hold of the door to shut it with a bang, but the hook which held it open was too heavy for her. She struggled with it, panting.
“May I help you?” he asked.
Feeling that she would burst a blood vessel if she stayed another minute, she stormed up the stairs. And as she reached the upper floor, she heard him obligingly slam the door for her.