On a cold January afternoon in 1866, Scarlett sat in the office writing a letter to Aunt Pitty, explaining in detail for the tenth time why neither she, Melanie nor Ashley could come back to Atlanta to live with her. She wrote impatiently because she knew Aunt Pitty would read no farther than the opening lines and then write her again, wailing: “But I’m afraid to live by myself!”
Her hands were chilled and she paused to rub them together and to scuff her feet deeper into the strip of old quilting wrapped about them. The soles of her slippers were practically gone and were reinforced with pieces of carpet. The carpet kept her feet off the floor but did little to keep them warm. That morning Will had taken the horse to Jonesboro to get him shod. Scarlett thought grimly that things were indeed at a pretty pass when horses had shoes and people’s feet were as bare as yard dogs’.
She picked up her quill to resume her writing but laid it down when she heard Will coming in at the back door. She heard the thumpthump of his wooden leg in the hall outside the office and then he stopped. She waited for a moment for him to enter and when he made no move she called to him. He came in, his ears red from the cold, his pinkish hair awry, and stood looking down at her, a faintly humorous smile on his lips.
“Miss Scarlett,” he questioned, “just how much cash money have you got?”
“Are you going to try to marry me for my money, Will?” she asked somewhat crossly.
“No, Ma’m. But I just wanted to know.”
She stared at him inquiringly. Will didn’t look serious, but then he never looked serious. However, she felt that something was wrong.
“I’ve got ten dollars in gold,” she said. “The last of that Yankee’s money.”
“Well, Ma’m, that won’t be enough.”
“Enough for what?”
“Enough for the taxes,” he answered and, stumping over to the fireplace, he leaned down and held his red hands to the blaze.
“Taxes?” she repeated. “Name of God, Will! We’ve already paid the taxes.”
“Yes’m. But they say you didn’t pay enough. I heard about it today over to Jonesboro.”
“But, Will, I can’t understand. What do you mean?”
“Miss Scarlett, I sure hate to bother you with more trouble when you’ve had your share but I’ve got to tell you. They say you ought to paid lots more taxes than you did. They’re runnin’ the assessment up on Tara sky high—higher than any in the County, I’ll be bound.”
“But they can’t make us pay more taxes when we’ve already paid them once.”
“Miss Scarlett, you don’t never go to Jonesboro often and I’m glad you don’t. It ain’t no place for a lady these days. But if you’d been there much, you’d know there’s a mighty rough bunch of Scallawags and Republicans and Carpetbaggers been runnin’ things recently. They’d make you mad enough to pop. And then, too, niggers pushin’ white folks off the sidewalks and—”
“But what’s that got to do with our taxes?”
“I’m gettin’ to it, Miss Scarlett. For some reason the rascals have histed the taxes on Tara till you’d think it was a thousandbale place. After I heard about it, I sorter oozed around the barrooms pickin’ up gossip and I found out that somebody wants to buy in Tara cheap at the sheriff’s sale, if you can’t pay the extra taxes. And everybody knows pretty well that you can’t pay them. I don’t know yet who it is wants this place. I couldn’t find out. But I think that pusillanimous feller, Hilton, that married Miss Cathleen knows, because he laughed kind of nasty when I tried to sound him out.”
Will sat down on the sofa and rubbed the stump of his leg. It ached in cold weather and the wooden peg was neither well padded nor comfortable. Scarlett looked at him wildly. His manner was so casual when he was sounding the death knell of Tara. Sold out at the sheriff’s sale? Where would they all go? And Tara belonging to some one else! No, that was unthinkable!
She had been so engrossed with the job of making Tara produce she had paid little heed to what was going on in the world outside. Now that she had Will and Ashley to attend to whatever business she might have in Jonesboro and Fayetteville, she seldom left the plantation. And even as she had listened with deaf ears to her father’s war talk in the days before the war came, so she had paid little heed to Will and Ashley’s discussions around the table after supper about the beginnings of Reconstruction.
Oh, of course, she knew about the Scallawags—Southerners who had turned Republican very profitably—and the Carpetbaggers, those Yankees who came South like buzzards after the surrender with all their worldly possessions in one carpetbag. And she had had a few unpleasant experiences with the Freedmen’s Bureau. She had gathered, also, that some of the free negroes were getting quite insolent. This last she could hardly believe, for she had never seen an insolent negro in her life.
But there were many things which Will and Ashley had conspired to keep from her. The scourge of war had been followed by the worse scourge of Reconstruction, but the two men had agreed not to mention the more alarming details when they discussed the situation at home. And when Scarlett took the trouble to listen to them at all, most of what they said went in one ear and out the other.
She had heard Ashley say that the South was being treated as a conquered province and that vindictiveness was the dominant policy of the conquerors. But that was the kind of statement which meant less than nothing at all to Scarlett. Politics was men’s business. She had heard Will say it looked to him like the North just wasn’t aiming to let the South get on its feet again. Well, thought Scarlett, men always had to have something foolish to worry about. As far as she was concerned, the Yankees hadn’t whipped her once and they wouldn’t do it this time. The thing to do was to work like the devil and stop worrying about the Yankee government. After all, the war was over.
Scarlett did not realize that all the rules of the game had been changed and that honest labor could no longer earn its just reward. Georgia was virtually under martial law now. The Yankee soldiers garrisoned throughout the section and the Freedmen’s Bureau were in complete command of everything and they were fixing the rules to suit themselves.
This Bureau, organized by the Federal government to take care of the idle and excited ex-slaves, was drawing them from the plantations into the villages and cities by the thousands. The Bureau fed them while they loafed and poisoned their minds against their former owners. Gerald’s old overseer, Jonas Wilkerson, was in charge of the local Bureau, and his assistant was Hilton, Cathleen Calvert’s husband. These two industriously spread the rumor that the Southerners and Democrats were just waiting for a good chance to put the negroes back into slavery and that the negroes’ only hope of escaping this fate was the protection given them by the Bureau and the Republican party.
Wilkerson and Hilton furthermore told the negroes they were as good as the whites in every way and soon white and negro marriages would be permitted, soon the estates of their former owners would be divided and every negro would be given forty acres and a mule for his own. They kept the negroes stirred up with tales of cruelty perpetrated by the whites and, in a section long famed for the affectionate relations between slaves and slave owners, hate and suspicion began to grow.
The Bureau was backed up by the soldiers and the military had issued many and conflicting orders governing the conduct of the conquered. It was easy to get arrested, even for snubbing the officials of the Bureau. Military orders had been promulgated concerning the schools, sanitation, the kind of buttons one wore on one’s suit, the sale of commodities and nearly everything else. Wilkerson and Hilton had the power to interfere in any trade Scarlett might make and to fix their own prices on anything she sold or swapped.
Fortunately Scarlett had come into contact with the two men very little, for Will had persuaded her to let him handle the trading while she managed the plantation. In his mild-tempered way, Will had straightened out several difficulties of this kind and said nothing to her about them. Will could get along with Carpetbaggers and Yankees—if he had to. But now a problem had arisen which was too big for him to handle. The extra tax assessment and the danger of losing Tara were matters Scarlett had to know about—and right away.
She looked at him with flashing eyes.
“Oh, damn the Yankees!” she cried. “Isn’t it enough that they’ve licked us and beggared us without turning loose scoundrels on us?”
The war was over, peace had been declared, but the Yankees could still rob her, they could still starve her, they could still drive her from her house. And fool that she was, she had thought through weary months that if she could just hold out until spring, everything would be all right. This crushing news brought by Will, coming on top of a year of back-breaking work and hope deferred, was the last straw.
“Oh, Will, and I thought our troubles were all over when the war ended!”
“No’m.” Will raised his lantern-jawed, country-looking face and gave her a long steady look. “Our troubles are just gettin’ started.”
“How much extra taxes do they want us to pay?”
“Three hundred dollars.”
She was struck dumb for a moment. Three hundred dollars! It might just as well be three million dollars.
“Why,” she floundered, “why—why, then we’ve got to raise three hundred, somehow.”
“Yes’m—and a rainbow and a moon or two.”
“Oh, but Will! They couldn’t sell out Tara. Why—”
His mild pale eyes showed more hate and bitterness than she thought possible.
“Oh, couldn’t they? Well, they could and they will and they’ll like doin’ it! Miss Scarlett, the country’s gone plumb to hell, if you’ll pardon me. Those Carpetbaggers and Scallawags can vote and most of us Democrats can’t. Can’t no Democrat in this state vote if he was on the tax books for more than two thousand dollars in ’sixty-five. That lets out folks like your pa and Mr. Tarleton and the McRaes and the Fontaine boys. Can’t nobody vote who was a colonel and over in the war and, Miss Scarlett, I bet this state’s got more colonels than any state in the Confederacy. And can’t nobody vote who held office under the Confederate government and that lets out everybody from the notaries to the judges, and the woods are full of folks like that. Fact is, the way the Yankees have framed up that amnesty oath, can’t nobody who was somebody before the war vote at all. Not the smart folks nor the quality folks nor the rich folks.
“Huh! I could vote if I took their damned oath. I didn’t have any money in ’sixty-five and I certainly warn’t a colonel or nothin’ remarkable. But I ain’t goin’ to take their oath. Not by a dinged sight! If the Yankees had acted right, I’d have taken their oath of allegiance but I ain’t now. I can be restored to the Union but I can’t be reconstructed into it. I ain’t goin’ to take their oath even if I don’t never vote again—But scum like that Hilton feller, he can vote, and scoundrels like Jonas Wilkerson and pore whites like the Slatterys and no-counts like the MacIntoshes, they can vote. And they’re runnin’ things now. And if they want to come down on you for extra taxes a dozen times, they can do it. Just like a nigger can kill a white man and not get hung or—” He paused, embarrassed, and the memory of what had happened to a lone white woman on an isolated farm near Lovejoy was in both their minds… “Those niggers can do anything against us and the Freedmen’s Bureau and the soldiers will back them up with guns and we can’t vote or do nothin’ about it.”
“Vote!” she cried. “Vote! What on earth has voting got to do with all this, Will? It’s taxes we’re talking about… Will, everybody knows what a good plantation Tara is. We could mortgage it for enough to pay the taxes, if we had to.”
“Miss Scarlett, you ain’t any fool but sometimes you talk like one. Who’s got any money to lend you on this property? Who except the Carpetbaggers who are tryin’ to take Tara away from you? Why, everybody’s got land. Everybody’s land pore. You can’t give away land.”
“I’ve got those diamond earbobs I got off that Yankee. We could sell them.”
“Miss Scarlett, who ’round here has got money for earbobs? Folks ain’t got money to buy side meat, let alone gewgaws. If you’ve got ten dollars in gold, I take oath that’s more than most folks have got.”
They were silent again and Scarlett felt as if she were butting her head against a stone wall. There had been so many stone walls to butt against this last year.
“What are we goin’ to do, Miss Scarlett?”
“I don’t know,” she said dully and felt that she didn’t care. This was one stone wall too many and she suddenly felt so tired that her bones ached. Why should she work and struggle and wear herself out? At the end of every struggle it seemed that defeat was waiting to mock her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But don’t let Pa know. It might worry him.”
“Have you told anyone?”
“No, I came right to you.”
Yes, she thought, everyone always came right to her with bad news and she was tired of it.
“Where is Mr. Wilkes? Perhaps he’ll have some suggestion.”
Will turned his mild gaze on her and she felt, as from the first day when Ashley came home, that he knew everything.
“He’s down in the orchard splittin’ rails. I heard his axe when I was puttin’ up the horse. But he ain’t got any money any more than we have.”
“If I want to talk to him about it, I can, can’t I?” she snapped, rising to her feet and kicking the fragment of quilting from her ankles.
Will did not take offense but continued rubbing his hands before the flame. “Better get your shawl, Miss Scarlett. It’s raw outside.”
But she went without the shawl, for it was upstairs and her need to see Ashley and lay her troubles before him was too urgent to wait.
How lucky for her if she could find him alone! Never once since his return had she had a private word with him. Always the family clustered about him, always Melanie was by his side, touching his sleeve now and again to reassure herself he was really there. The sight of that happy possessive gesture had aroused in Scarlett all the jealous animosity which had slumbered during the months when she had thought Ashley probably dead. Now she was determined to see him alone. This time no one was going to prevent her from talking with him alone.
She went through the orchard under the bare boughs and the damp weeds beneath them wet her feet. She could hear the sound of the axe ringing as Ashley split into rails the logs hauled from the swamp. Replacing the fences the Yankees had so blithely burned was a long hard task. Everything was a long hard task, she thought wearily, and she was tired of it, tired and mad and sick of it all. If only Ashley were her husband, instead of Melanie’s, how sweet it would be to go to him and lay her head upon his shoulder and cry and shove her burdens onto him to work out as best he might.
She rounded a thicket of pomegranate trees which were shaking bare limbs in the cold wind and saw him leaning on his axe, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. He was wearing the remains of his butternut trousers and one of Gerald’s shirts, a shirt which in better times went only to Court days and barbecues, a ruffled shirt which was far too short for its present owner. He had hung his coat on a tree limb, for the work was hot, and he stood resting as she came up to him.
At the sight of Ashley in rags, with an axe in his hand, her heart went out in a surge of love and of fury at fate. She could not bear to see him in tatters, working, her debonaire immaculate Ashley. His hands were not made for work or his body for anything but broadcloth and fine linen. God intended him to sit in a great house, talking with pleasant people, playing the piano and writing things which sounded beautiful and made no sense whatsoever.
She could endure the sight of her own child in aprons made of sacking and the girls in dingy old gingham, could bear it that Will worked harder than any field hand, but not Ashley. He was too fine for all this, too infinitely dear to her. She would rather split logs herself than suffer while he did it.
“They say Abe Lincoln got his start splitting rails,” he said as she came up to him. “Just think to what heights I may climb!”
She frowned. He was always saying light things like this about their hardships. They were deadly serious matters to her and sometimes she was almost irritated at his remarks.
Abruptly she told him Will’s news, tersely and in short words, feeling a sense of relief as she spoke. Surely, he’d have something helpful to offer. He said nothing but, seeing her shiver, he took his coat and placed it about her shoulders.
“Well,” she said finally, “doesn’t it occur to you that we’ll have to get the money somewhere?”
“Yes,” he said, “but where?”
“I’m asking you,” she replied, annoyed. The sense of relief at unburdening herself had disappeared. Even if he couldn’t help, why didn’t he say something comforting, even if it was only: “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“In all these months since I’ve been home I’ve only heard of one person, Rhett Butler, who actually has money,” he said.
Aunt Pittypat had written Melanie the week before that Rhett was back in Atlanta with a carriage and two fine horses and pocketfuls of greenbacks. She had intimated, however, that he didn’t come by them honestly. Aunt Pitty had a theory, largely shared by Atlanta, that Rhett had managed to get away with the mythical millions of the Confederate treasury.
“Don’t let’s talk about him,” said Scarlett shortly. “He’s a skunk if ever there was one. What’s to become of us all?”
Ashley put down the axe and looked away and his eyes seemed to be journeying to some far-off country where she could not follow.
“I wonder,” he said. “I wonder not only what will become of us at Tara but what will become of everybody in the South.”
She felt like snapping out abruptly: “To hell with everybody in the South! What about us?” but she remained silent because the tired feeling was back on her more strongly than ever. Ashley wasn’t being any help at all.
“In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out. At least, it has been interesting, if not comfortable, to witness a Gotterdammerung.”
“A dusk of the gods. Unfortunately, we Southerners did think we were gods.”
“For Heaven’s sake, Ashley Wilkes! Don’t stand there and talk nonsense at me when it’s us who are going to be winnowed out!”
Something of her exasperated weariness seemed to penetrate his mind, calling it back from its wanderings, for he raised her hands with tenderness and, turning them palm up, looked at the calluses.
“These are the most beautiful hands I know,” he said and kissed each palm lightly. “They are beautiful because they are strong and every callus is a medal, Scarlett, every blister an award for bravery and unselfishness. They’ve been roughened for all of us, your father, the girls, Melanie, the baby, the negroes and for me. My dear, I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Here stands an impractical fool talking tommyrot about dead gods when living people are in danger.’ Isn’t that true?”
She nodded, wishing he would keep on holding her hands forever, but he dropped them.
“And you came to me, hoping I could help you. Well, I can’t.”
His eyes were bitter as he looked toward the axe and the pile of logs.
“My home is gone and all the money that I so took for granted I never realized I had it. And I am fitted for nothing in this world, for the world I belonged in has gone. I can’t help you, Scarlett, except by learning with as good grace as possible to be a clumsy farmer. And that won’t keep Tara for you. Don’t you think I realize the bitterness of our situation, living here on your charity—Oh, yes, Scarlett, your charity. I can never repay you what you’ve done for me and for mine out of the kindness of your heart. I realize it more acutely every day. And every day I see more clearly how helpless I am to cope with what has come on us all—Every day my accursed shrinking from realities makes it harder for me to face the new realities. Do you know what I mean?”
She nodded. She had no very clear idea what he meant but she clung breathlessly on his words. This was the first time he had ever spoken to her of the things he was thinking when he seemed so remote from her. It excited her as if she were on the brink of a discovery.
“It’s a curse—this not wanting to look on naked realities. Until the war, life was never more real to me than a shadow show on a curtain. And I preferred it so. I do not like the outlines of things to be too sharp. I like them gently blurred, a little hazy.”
He stopped and smiled faintly, shivering a little as the cold wind went through his thin shirt.
“In other words, Scarlett, I am a coward.”
His talk of shadow shows and hazy outlines conveyed no meaning to her but his last words were in language she could understand. She knew they were untrue. Cowardice was not in him. Every line of his slender body spoke of generations of brave and gallant men and Scarlett knew his war record by heart.
“Why, that’s not so! Would a coward have climbed on the cannon at Gettysburg and rallied the men? Would the General himself have written Melanie a letter about a coward? And—”
“That’s not courage,” he said tiredly. “Fighting is like champagne. It goes to the heads of cowards as quickly as of heroes. Any fool can be brave on a battle field when it’s be brave or else be killed. I’m talking of something else. And my kind of cowardice is infinitely worse than if I had run the first time I heard a cannon fired.”
His words came slowly and with difficulty as if it hurt to speak them and he seemed to stand off and look with a sad heart at what he had said. Had any other man spoken so, Scarlett would have dismissed such protestations contemptuously as mock modesty and a bid for praise. But Ashley seemed to mean them and there was a look in his eyes which eluded her—not fear, not apology, but the bracing to a strain which was inevitable and overwhelming. The wintry wind swept her damp ankles and she shivered again but her shiver was less from the wind than from the dread his words evoked in her heart.
“But, Ashley, what are you afraid of?”
“Oh, nameless things. Things which sound very silly when they are put into words. Mostly of having life suddenly become too real, of being brought into personal, too personal, contact with some of the simple facts of life. It isn’t that I mind splitting logs here in the mud, but I do mind what it stands for. I do mind, very much, the loss of the beauty of the old life I loved. Scarlett, before the war, life was beautiful. There was a glamor to it, a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art. Maybe it wasn’t so to everyone. I know that now. But to me, living at Twelve Oaks, there was a real beauty to living. I belonged in that life. I was a part of it. And now it is gone and I am out of place in this new life, and I am afraid. Now, I know that in the old days it was a shadow show I watched. I avoided everything which was not shadowy, people and situations which were too real, too vital. I resented their intrusion. I tried to avoid you too, Scarlett. You were too full of living and too real and I was cowardly enough to prefer shadows and dreams.”
“Melanie is the gentlest of dreams and a part of my dreaming. And if the war had not come I would have lived out my life, happily buried at Twelve Oaks, contentedly watching life go by and never being a part of it. But when the war came, life as it really is thrust itself against me. The first time I went into action—it was at Bull Run, you remember—I saw my boyhood friends blown to bits and heard dying horses scream and learned the sickeningly horrible feeling of seeing men crumple up and spit blood when I shot them. But those weren’t the worst things about the war, Scarlett. The worst thing about the war was the people I had to live with.
“I had sheltered myself from people all my life, I had carefully selected my few friends. But the war taught me I had created a world of my own with dream people in it. It taught me what people really are, but it didn’t teach me how to live with them. And I’m afraid I’ll never learn. Now, I know that in order to support my wife and child, I will have to make my way among a world of people with whom I have nothing in common. You, Scarlett, are taking life by the horns and twisting it to your will. But where do I fit in the world any more? I tell you I am afraid.”
While his low resonant voice went on, desolate, with a feeling she could not understand, Scarlett clutched at words here and there, trying to make sense of them. But the words swooped from her hands like wild birds. Something was driving him, driving him with a cruel goad, but she did not understand what it was.
“Scarlett, I don’t know just when it was that the bleak realization came over me that my own private shadow show was over. Perhaps in the first five minutes at Bull Run when I saw the first man I killed drop to the ground. But I knew it was over and I could no longer be a spectator. No, I suddenly found myself on the curtain, an actor, posturing and making futile gestures. My little inner world was gone, invaded by people whose thoughts were not my thoughts, whose actions were as alien as a Hottentot’s. They’d tramped through my world with slimy feet and there was no place left where I could take refuge when things became too bad to stand. When I was in prison, I thought: When the war is over, I can go back to the old life and the old dreams and watch the shadow show again. But, Scarlett, there’s no going back. And this which is facing all of us now is worse than war and worse than prison—and, to me, worse than death… So, you see, Scarlett, I’m being punished for being afraid.”
“But, Ashley,” she began, floundering in a quagmire of bewilderment, “if you’re afraid we’ll starve, why—why—Oh, Ashley, we’ll manage somehow! I know we will!”
For a moment, his eyes came back to her, wide and crystal gray, and there was admiration in them. Then, suddenly, they were remote again and she knew with a sinking heart that he had not been thinking about starving. They were always like two people talking to each other in different languages. But she loved him so much that, when he withdrew as he had now done, it was like the warm sun going down and leaving her in chilly twilight dews. She wanted to catch him by the shoulders and hug him to her, make him realize that she was flesh and blood and not something he had read or dreamed. If she could only feel that sense of oneness with him for which she had yearned since that day, so long ago, when he had come home from Europe and stood on the steps of Tara and smiled up at her.
“Starving’s not pleasant,” he said. “I know for I’ve starved, but I’m not afraid of that. I am afraid of facing life without the slow beauty of our old world that is gone.”
Scarlett thought despairingly that Melanie would know what he meant. Melly and he were always talking such foolishness, poetry and books and dreams and moonrays and star dust. He was not fearing the things she feared, not the gnawing of an empty stomach, nor the keenness of the winter wind nor eviction from Tara. He was shrinking before some fear she had never known and could not imagine. For, in God’s name, what was there to fear in this wreck of a world but hunger and cold and the loss of home?
And she had thought that if she listened closely she would know the answer to Ashley.
“Oh!” she said and the disappointment in her voice was that of a child who opens a beautifully wrapped package to find it empty. At her tone, he smiled ruefully as though apologizing.
“Forgive me, Scarlett, for talking so. I can’t make you understand because you don’t know the meaning of fear. You have the heart of a lion and an utter lack of imagination and I envy you both of those qualities. You’ll never mind facing realities and you’ll never want to escape from them as I do.”
It was as if that were the only understandable word he had spoken. Ashley, like her, was tired of the struggle and he wanted to escape. Her breath came fast.
“Oh, Ashley,” she cried, “you’re wrong. I do want to escape, too. I am so very tired of it all!”
His eyebrows went up in disbelief and she laid a hand, feverish and urgent, on his arm.
“Listen to me,” she began swiftly, the words tumbling out one over the other. “I’m tired of it all, I tell you. Bone tired and I’m not going to stand it any longer. I’ve struggled for food and for money and I’ve weeded and hoed and picked cotton and I’ve even plowed until I can’t stand it another minute. I tell you, Ashley, the South is dead! It’s dead! The Yankees and the free niggers and the Carpetbaggers have got it and there’s nothing left for us. Ashley, let’s run away!”
He peered at her sharply, lowering his head to look into her face, now flaming with color.
“Yes, let’s run away—leave them all! I’m tired of working for the folks. Somebody will take care of them. There’s always somebody who takes care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Oh, Ashley, let’s run away, you and I. We could go to Mexico—they want officers in the Mexican Army and we could be so happy there. I’d work for you, Ashley. I’d do anything for you. You know you don’t love Melanie—”
He started to speak, a stricken look on his face, but she stemmed his words with a torrent of her own.
“You told me you loved me better than her that day—oh, you remember that day! And I know you haven’t changed! I can tell you haven’t changed! And you’ve just said she was nothing but a dream—Oh, Ashley, let’s go away! I could make you so happy. And anyway,” she added venomously, “Melanie can’t—Dr. Fontaine said she couldn’t ever have any more children and I could give you—”
His hands were on her shoulders so tightly that they hurt and she stopped, breathless.
“We were to forget that day at Twelve Oaks.”
“Do you think I could ever forget it? Have you forgotten it? Can you honestly say you don’t love me?”
He drew a deep breath and answered quickly.
“No. I don’t love you.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Even if it is a lie,” said Ashley and his voice was deadly quiet, “it is not something which can be discussed.”
“Do you think I could go off and leave Melanie and the baby, even if I hated them both? Break Melanie’s heart? Leave them both to the charity of friends? Scarlett, are you mad? Isn’t there any sense of loyalty in you? You couldn’t leave your father and the girls. They’re your responsibility, just as Melanie and Beau are mine, and whether you are tired or not, they are here and you’ve got to bear them.”
“I could leave them—I’m sick of them—tired of them—”
He leaned toward her and, for a moment, she thought with a catch at her heart that he was going to take her in his arms. But instead, he patted her arm and spoke as one comforting a child.
“I know you’re sick and tired. That’s why you are talking this way. You’ve carried the load of three men. But I’m going to help you—I won’t always be so awkward—”
“There’s only one way you can help me,” she said dully, “and that’s to take me away from here and give us a new start somewhere, with a chance for happiness. There’s nothing to keep us here.”
She looked at him with baffled longing and saw, as if for the first time, how the crescents of his lashes were the thick rich gold of ripe wheat, how proudly his head sat upon his bared neck and how the look of race and dignity persisted in his slim erect body, even through its grotesque rags. Her eyes met his, hers naked with pleading, his remote as mountain lakes under gray skies.
She saw in them defeat of her wild dream, her mad desires.
Heartbreak and weariness sweeping over her, she dropped her head in her hands and cried. He had never seen her cry. He had never thought that women of her strong mettle had tears, and a flood of tenderness and remorse swept him. He came to her swiftly and in a moment had her in his arms, cradling her comfortingly, pressing her black head to his heart, whispering: “Dear! My brave dear—don’t! You mustn’t cry!”
At his touch, he felt her change within his grip and there was madness and magic in the slim body he held and a hot soft glow in the green eyes which looked up at him. Of a sudden, it was no longer bleak winter. For Ashley, spring was back again, that halfforgotten balmy spring of green rustlings and murmurings, a spring of ease and indolence, careless days when the desires of youth were warm in his body. The bitter years since then fell away and he saw that the lips turned up to his were red and trembling and he kissed her.
There was a curious low roaring sound in her ears as of sea shells held against them and through the sound she dimly heard the swift thudding of her heart. Her body seemed to melt into his and, for a timeless time, they stood fused together as his lips took hers hungrily as if he could never have enough.
When he suddenly released her she felt that she could not stand alone and gripped the fence for support. She raised eyes blazing with love and triumph to him.
“You do love me! You do love me! Say it—say it!”
His hands still rested on her shoulders and she felt them tremble and loved their trembling. She leaned toward him ardently but he held her away from him, looking at her with eyes from which all remoteness had fled, eyes tormented with struggle and despair.
“Don’t!” he said. “Don’t! If you do, I shall take you now, here.”
She smiled a bright hot smile which was forgetful of time or place or anything but the memory of his mouth on hers.
Suddenly he shook her, shook her until her black hair tumbled down about her shoulders, shook her as if in a mad rage at her—and at himself.
“We won’t do this!” he said. “I tell you we won’t do it!”
It seemed as if her neck would snap if he shook her again. She was blinded by her hair and stunned by his action. She wrenched herself away and stared at him. There were small beads of moisture on his forehead and his fists were curled into claws as if in pain. He looked at her directly, his gray eyes piercing.
“It’s all my fault—none of yours and it will never happen again, because I am going to take Melanie and the baby and go.”
“Go?” she cried in anguish. “Oh, no!”
“Yes, by God! Do you think I’ll stay here after this? When this might happen again—”
“But, Ashley, you can’t go. Why should you go? You love me—”
“You want me to say it? All right, I’ll say it. I love you.”
He leaned over her with a sudden savagery which made her shrink back against the fence.
“I love you, your courage and your stubbornness and your fire and your utter ruthlessness. How much do I love you? So much that a moment ago I would have outraged the hospitality of the house which has sheltered me and my family, forgotten the best wife any man ever had—enough to take you here in the mud like a—”
She struggled with a chaos of thoughts and there was a cold pain in her heart as if an icicle had pierced it. She said haltingly: “If you felt like that—and didn’t take me—then you don’t love me.”
“I can never make you understand.”
They fell silent and looked at each other. Suddenly Scarlett shivered and saw, as if coming back from a long journey, that it was winter and the fields were bare and harsh with stubble and she was very cold. She saw too that the old aloof face of Ashley, the one she knew so well, had come back and it was wintry too, and harsh with hurt and remorse.
She would have turned and left him then, seeking the shelter of the house to hide herself, but she was too tired to move. Even speech was a labor and a weariness.
“There is nothing left,” she said at last. “Nothing left for me. Nothing to love. Nothing to fight for. You are gone and Tara is going.”
He looked at her for a long space and then, leaning, scooped up a small wad of red clay from the ground.
“Yes, there is something left,” he said, and the ghost of his old smile came back, the smile which mocked himself as well as her. “Something you love better than me, though you may not know it. You’ve still got Tara.”
He took her limp hand and pressed the damp clay into it and closed her fingers about it. There was no fever in his hands now, nor in hers. She looked at the red soil for a moment and it meant nothing to her. She looked at him and realized dimly that there was an integrity of spirit in him which was not to be torn apart by her passionate hands, nor by any hands.
If it killed him, he would never leave Melanie. If he burned for Scarlett until the end of his days, he would never take her and he would fight to keep her at a distance. She would never again get through that armor. The words, hospitality and loyalty and honor, meant more to him than she did.
The clay was cold in her hand and she looked at it again.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ve still got this.”
At first, the words meant nothing and the clay was only red clay. But unbidden came the thought of the sea of red dirt which surrounded Tara and how very dear it was and how hard she had fought to keep it—how hard she was going to have to fight if she wished to keep it hereafter. She looked at him again and wondered where the hot flood of feeling had gone. She could think but could not feel, not about him nor Tara either, for she was drained of all emotion.
“You need not go,” she said clearly. “I won’t have you all starve, simply because I’ve thrown myself at your head. It will never happen again.”
She turned away and started back toward the house across the rough fields, twisting her hair into a knot upon her neck. Ashley watched her go and saw her square her small thin shoulders as she went. And that gesture went to his heart, more than any words she had spoken.