Cold weather set in abruptly with a killing frost. Chilling winds swept beneath the doorsills and rattled the loose windowpanes with a monotonous tinkling sound. The last of the leaves fell from the bare trees and only the pines stood clothed, black and cold against pale skies. The rutted red roads were frozen to flintiness and hunger rode the winds through Georgia.
Scarlett recalled bitterly her conversation with Grandma Fontaine. On that afternoon two months ago, which now seemed years in the past, she had told the old lady she had already known the worst which could possibly happen to her, and she had spoken from the bottom of her heart. Now that remark sounded like schoolgirl hyperbole. Before Sherman's men came through Tara the second time, she had her small riches of food and money, she had neighbors more fortunate than she and she had the cotton which would tide her over until spring. Now the cotton was gone, the food was gone, the money was of no use to her, for there was no food to buy with it, and the neighbors were in worse plight than she. At least, she had the cow and the calf, a few shoats and the horse, and the neighbors had nothing but the little they had been able to hide in the woods and bury in the ground.
Fairhill, the Tarleton home, was burned to the foundations, and Mrs. Tarleton and the four girls were existing in the overseer's house. The Munroe house near Lovejoy was leveled too. The wooden wing of Mimosa had burned and only the thick resistant stucco of the main house and the frenzied work of the Fontaine women and their slaves with wet blankets and quilts had saved it. The Calverts' house had again been spared, due to the intercession of Hilton, the Yankee overseer, but there was not a head of livestock, not a fowl, not an ear of corn left on the place.
At Tara and throughout the County, the problem was food. Most of the families had nothing at all but the remains of their yam crops and their peanuts and such game as they could catch in the woods. What they had, each shared with less fortunate friends, as they had done in more prosperous days. But the time soon came when there was nothing to share.
At Tara, they ate rabbit and possum and catfish, if Pork was lucky. On other days a small amount of milk, hickory nuts, roasted acorns and yams. They were always hungry. To Scarlett it seemed that at every turn she met outstretched hands, pleading eyes. The sight of them drove her almost to madness, for she was as hungry as they.
She ordered the calf killed, because he drank so much of the precious milk, and that night everyone ate so much fresh veal all of them were ill. She knew that she should kill one of the shoats but she put it off from day to day, hoping to raise them to maturity. They were so small. There would be so little of them to eat if they were killed now and so much more if they could be saved a little longer. Nightly she debated with Melanie the advisability of sending Pork abroad on the horse with some greenbacks to try to buy food. But the fear that the horse might be captured and the money taken from Pork deterred them. They did not know where the Yankees were. They might be a thousand miles away or only across the river. Once, Scarlett, in desperation, started to ride out herself to search for food, but the hysterical outbursts of the whole family fearful of the Yankees made her abandon the plan.
Pork foraged far, at times not coming home all night, and Scarlett did not ask him where he went. Sometimes he returned with game, sometimes with a few ears of corn, a bag of dried peas. Once he brought home a rooster which he said he found in the woods. The family ate it with relish but a sense of guilt, knowing very well Pork had stolen it, as he had stolen the peas and corn. One night soon after this, he tapped on Scarlett's door long after the house was asleep and sheepishly exhibited a leg peppered with small shot. As she bandaged it for him, he explained awkwardly that when attempting to get into a hen coop at Fayetteville, he had been discovered. Scarlett did not ask whose hen coop but patted Pork's shoulder gently, tears in her eyes. Negroes were provoking sometimes and stupid and lazy, but there was loyalty in them that money couldn't buy, a feeling of oneness with their white folks which made them risk their lives to keep food on the table.
In other days Pork's pilferings would have been a serious matter, probably calling for a whipping. In other days she would have been forced at least to reprimand him severely. "Always remember, dear," Ellen had said, "you are responsible for the moral as well as the physical welfare of the darkies God has intrusted to your care. You must realize that they are like children and must be guarded from themselves like children, and you must always set them a good example."
But now, Scarlett pushed that admonition into the back of her mind. That she was encouraging theft, and perhaps theft from people worse off than she, was no longer a matter for conscience. In fact the morals of the affair weighed lightly upon her. Instead of punishment or reproof, she only regretted he had been shot.
"You must be more careful, Pork. We don't want to lose you. What would we do without you? You've been mighty good and faithful and when we get some money again, I'm going to buy you a big gold watch and engrave on it something out of the Bible. 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'"
Pork beamed under the praise and gingerly rubbed his bandaged leg.
"Dat soun' mighty fine, Miss Scarlett. W'en you speckin' ter git dat money?"
"I don't know, Pork, but I'm going to get it some time, somehow." She bent on him an unseeing glance that was so passionately bitter he stirred uneasily, "Some day, when this war is over, I'm going to have lots of money, and when I do I'll never be hungry or cold again. None of us will ever be hungry or cold. We'll all wear fine clothes and have fried chicken every day and--"
Then she stopped. The strictest rule at Tara, one which she herself had made and which she rigidly enforced, was that no one should ever talk of the fine meals they had eaten in the past or what they would eat now, if they had the opportunity.
Pork slipped from the room as she remained staring moodily into the distance. In the old days, now dead and gone, life had been so complex, so full of intricate and complicated problems. There had been the problem of trying to win Ashley's love and trying to keep a dozen other beaux dangling and unhappy. There had been small breaches of conduct to be concealed from her elders, jealous girls to be flouted or placated, styles of dresses and materials to be chosen, different coiffures to be tried and, oh, so many, many other matters to be decided! Now life was so amazingly simple. Now all that mattered was food enough to keep off starvation, clothing enough to prevent freezing and a roof overhead which did not leak too much.
It was during these days that Scarlett dreamed and dreamed again the nightmare which was to haunt her for years. It was always the same dream, the details never varied, but the terror of it mounted each time it came to her and the fear of experiencing it again troubled even her waking hours. She remembered so well the incidents of the day when she had first dreamed it.
Cold rain had fallen for days and the house was chill with drafts and dampness. The logs in the fireplace were wet and smoky and gave little heat. There had been nothing to eat except milk since breakfast, for the yams were exhausted and Pork's snares and fishlines had yielded nothing. One of the shoats would have to be killed the next day if they were to eat at all. Strained and hungry faces, black and white, were staring at her, mutely asking her to provide food. She would have to risk losing the horse and send Pork out to buy something. And to make matters worse, Wade was ill with a sore throat and a raging fever and there was neither doctor nor medicine for him.
Hungry, weary with watching her child, Scarlett left him to Melanie's care for a while and lay down on her bed to nap. Her feet icy, she twisted and turned, unable to sleep, weighed down with fear and despair. Again and again, she thought: "What shall I do? Where shall I turn? Isn't there anybody in the world who can help me?" Where had all the security of the world gone? Why wasn't there someone, some strong wise person to take the burdens from her? She wasn't made to carry them. She did not know how to carry them. And then she fell into an uneasy doze.
She was in a wild strange country so thick with swirling mist she could not see her hand before her face. The earth beneath her feet was uneasy. It was a haunted land, still with a terrible stillness, and she was lost in it, lost and terrified as a child in the night. She was bitterly cold and hungry and so fearful of what lurked in the mists about her that she tried to scream and could not. There were things in the fog reaching out fingers to pluck at her skirt, to drag her down into the uneasy quaking earth on which she stood, silent, relentless, spectral hands. Then, she knew that somewhere in the opaque gloom about her there was shelter, help, a haven of refuge and warmth. But where was it? Could she reach it before the hands clutched her and dragged her down into the quicksands?
Suddenly she was running, running through the mist like a mad thing, crying and screaming, throwing out her arms to clutch only empty air and wet mist. Where was the haven? It eluded her but it was there, hidden, somewhere. If she could only reach it! If she could only reach it she would be safe! But terror was weakening her legs, hunger making her faint. She gave one despairing cry and awoke to find Melanie's worried face above her and Melanie's hand shaking her to wakefulness.
The dream returned again and again, whenever she went to sleep with an empty stomach. And that was frequently enough. It so frightened her that she feared to sleep, although she feverishly told herself there was nothing in such a dream to be afraid of. There was nothing in a dream about fog to scare her so. Nothing at all--yet the thought of dropping off into that mist-filled country so terrified her she began sleeping with Melanie, who would wake her up when her moaning and twitching revealed that she was again in the clutch of the dream.
Under the strain she grew white and thin. The pretty roundness left her face, throwing her cheek bones into prominence, emphasizing her slanting green eyes and giving her the look of a prowling, hungry cat.
"Daytime is enough like a nightmare without my dreaming things," she thought desperately and began hoarding her daily ration to eat it just before she went to sleep.
At Christmas time Frank Kennedy and a small troop from the commissary department jogged up to Tara on a futile hunt for grain and animals for the army. They were a ragged and ruffianly appearing crew, mounted on lame and heaving horses which obviously were in too bad condition to be used for more active service. Like their animals the men had been invalided out of the front-line forces and, except for Frank, all of them had an arm missing or an eye gone or stiffened joints. Most of them wore blue overcoats of captured Yankees and, for a brief instant of horror, those at Tara thought Sherman's men had returned.
They stayed the night on the plantation, sleeping on the floor in the parlor, luxuriating as they stretched themselves on the velvet rug, for it had been weeks since they had slept under a roof or on anything softer than pine needles and hard earth. For all their dirty beards and tatters they were a well-bred crowd, full of pleasant small talk, jokes and compliments and very glad to be spending Christmas Eve in a big house, surrounded by pretty women as they had been accustomed to do in days long past. They refused to be serious about the war, told outrageous lies to make the girls laugh and brought to the bare and looted house the first lightness, the first hint of festivity it had known in many a day.
"It's almost like the old days when we had house parties, isn't it?" whispered Suellen happily to Scarlett. Suellen was raised to the skies by having a beau of her own in the house again and she could hardly take her eyes off Frank Kennedy. Scarlett was surprised to see that Suellen could be almost pretty, despite the thinness which had persisted since her illness. Her cheeks were flushed and there was a soft luminous look in her eyes.
"She really must care about him," thought Scarlett in contempt. "And I guess she'd be almost human if she ever had a husband of her own, even if her husband was old fuss-budget Frank."
Carreen had brightened a little too, and some of the sleep-walking look left her eyes that night. She had found that one of the men had known Brent Tarleton and had been with him the day he was killed, and she promised herself a long private talk with him after supper.
At supper Melanie surprised them all by forcing herself out of her timidity and being almost vivacious. She laughed and joked and almost but not quite coquetted with a one-eyed soldier who gladly repaid her efforts with extravagant gallantries. Scarlett knew the effort this involved both mentally and physically, for Melanie suffered torments of shyness in the presence of anything male. Moreover she was far from well. She insisted she was strong and did more work even than Dilcey but Scarlett knew she was sick. When she lifted things her face went white and she had a way of sitting down suddenly after exertions, as if her legs would no longer support her. But tonight she, like Suellen and Carreen, was doing everything possible to make the soldiers enjoy their Christmas Eve. Scarlett alone took no pleasure in the guests.
The troop had added their ration of parched corn and side meat to the supper of dried peas, stewed dried apples and peanuts which Mammy set before them and they declared it was the best meal they had had in months. Scarlett watched them eat and she was uneasy. She not only begrudged them every mouthful they ate but she was on tenterhooks lest they discover somehow that Pork had slaughtered one of the shoats the day before. It now hung in the pantry and she had grimly promised her household that she would scratch out the eyes of anyone who mentioned the shoat to their guests or the presence of the dead pig's sisters and brothers, safe in their pen in the swamp. These hungry men could devour the whole shoat at one meal and, if they knew of the live hogs, they could commandeer them for the army. She was alarmed, too, for the cow and the horse and wished they were hidden in the swamp, instead of tied in the woods at the bottom of the pasture. If the commissary took her stock, Tara could not possibly live through the winter. There would be no way of replacing them. As to what the army would eat, she did not care. Let the army feed the army--if it could. It was hard enough for her to feed her own.
The men added as dessert some "ramrod rolls" from their knapsacks, and this was the first time Scarlett had ever seen this Confederate article of diet about which there were almost as many jokes as about lice. They were charred spirals of what appeared to be wood. The men dared her to take a bite and, when she did, she discovered that beneath the smoke-blackened surface was unsalted corn bread. The soldiers mixed their ration of corn meal with water, and salt too when they could get it, wrapped the thick paste about their ramrods and roasted the mess over camp fires. It was as hard as rock candy and as tasteless as sawdust and after one bite Scarlett hastily handed it back amid roars of laughter. She met Melanie's eyes and the same thought was plain in both faces. . . . "How can they go on fighting if they have only this stuff to eat?"
The meal was gay enough and even Gerald, presiding absently at the head of the table, managed to evoke from the back of his dim mind some of the manner of a host and an uncertain smile. The men talked, the women smiled and flattered--but Scarlett turning suddenly to Frank Kennedy to ask him news of Miss Pittypat, caught an expression on his face which made her forget what she intended to say.
His eyes had left Suellen's and were wandering about the room, to Gerald's childlike puzzled eyes, to the floor, bare of rugs, to the mantelpiece denuded of its ornaments, the sagging springs and torn upholstery into which Yankee bayonets had ripped, the cracked mirror above the sideboard, the unfaded squares on the wall where pictures had hung before the looters came, the scant table service, the decently mended but old dresses of the girls, the flour sack which had been made into a kilt for Wade.
Frank was remembering the Tara he had known before the war and on his face was a hurt look, a look of tired impotent anger. He loved Suellen, liked her sisters, respected Gerald and had a genuine fondness for the plantation. Since Sherman had swept through Georgia, Frank had seen many appalling sights as he rode about the state trying to collect supplies, but nothing had gone to his heart as Tara did now. He wanted to do something for the O'Haras, especially Suellen, and there was nothing he could do. He was unconsciously wagging his whiskered head in pity and clicking his tongue against his teeth when Scarlett caught his eye. He saw the flame of indignant pride in them and he dropped his gaze quickly to his plate in embarrassment.
The girls were hungry for news. There had been no mail service since Atlanta fell, now four months past, and they were in complete ignorance as to where the Yankees were, how the Confederate Army was faring, what had happened to Atlanta and to old friends. Frank, whose work took him all over the section, was as good as a newspaper, better even, for he was kin to or knew almost everyone from Macon north to Atlanta, and he could supply bits of interesting personal gossip which the papers always omitted. To cover his embarrassment at being caught by Scarlett, he plunged hastily into a recital of news. The Confederates, he told them, had retaken Atlanta after Sherman marched out, but it was a valueless prize as Sherman had burned it completely.
"But I thought Atlanta burned the night I left," cried Scarlett, bewildered. "I thought our boys burned it!"
"Oh, no, Miss Scarlett!" cried Frank, shocked. "We'd never burn one of our own towns with our own folks in it! What you saw burning was the warehouses and the supplies we didn't want the Yankees to capture and the foundries and the ammunition. But that was all. When Sherman took the town the houses and stores were standing there as pretty as you please. And he quartered his men in them."
"But what happened to the people? Did he--did he kill them?"
"He killed some--but not with bullets," said the one-eyed soldier grimly. "Soon's he marched into Atlanta he told the mayor that all the people in town would have to move out, every living soul. And there were plenty of old folks that couldn't stand the trip and sick folks that ought not to have been moved and ladies who were-- well, ladies who hadn't ought to be moved either. And he moved them out in the biggest rainstorm you ever saw, hundreds and hundreds of them, and dumped them in the woods near Rough and Ready and sent word to General Hood to come and get them. And a plenty of the folks died of pneumonia and not being able to stand that sort of treatment."
"Oh, but why did he do that? They couldn't have done him any harm," cried Melanie.
"He said he wanted the town to rest his men and horses in," said Frank. "And he rested them there till the middle of November and then he lit out. And he set fire to the whole town when he left and burned everything."
"Oh, surely not everything!" cried the girls in dismay.
It was inconceivable that the bustling town they knew, so full of people, so crowded with soldiers, was gone. All the lovely homes beneath shady trees, all the big stores and the fine hotels--surely they couldn't be gone! Melanie seemed ready to burst into tears, for she had been born there and knew no other home. Scarlett's heart sank because she had come to love the place second only to Tara.
"Well, almost everything," Frank amended hastily, disturbed by the expressions on their faces. He tried to look cheerful, for he did not believe in upsetting ladies. Upset ladies always upset him and made him feel helpless. He could not bring himself to tell them the worst. Let them find out from some one else.
He could not tell them what the army saw when it marched back into Atlanta, the acres and acres of chimneys standing blackly above ashes, piles of half-burned rubbish and tumbled heaps of brick clogging the streets, old trees dying from fire, their charred limbs tumbling to the ground in the cold wind. He remembered how the sight had turned him sick, remembered the bitter curses of the Confederates when they saw the remains of the town. He hoped the ladies would never hear of the horrors of the looted cemetery, for they'd never get over that. Charlie Hamilton and Melanie's mother and father were buried there. The sight of that cemetery still gave Frank nightmares. Hoping to find jewelry buried with the dead, the Yankee soldiers had broken open vaults, dug up graves. They had robbed the bodies, stripped from the coffins gold and silver name plates, silver trimmings and silver handles. The skeletons and corpses, flung helterskelter among their splintered caskets, lay exposed and so pitiful.
And Frank couldn't tell them about the dogs and the cats. Ladies set such a store by pets. But the thousands of starving animals, left homeless when their masters had been so rudely evacuated, had shocked him almost as much as the cemetery, for Frank loved cats and dogs. The animals had been frightened, cold, ravenous, wild as forest creatures, the strong attacking the weak, the weak waiting for the weaker to die so they could eat them. And, above the ruined town, the buzzards splotched the wintry sky with graceful, sinister bodies.
Frank cast about in his mind for some mitigating information that would make the ladies feel better.
"There's some houses still standing," he said, "houses that set on big lots away from other houses and didn't catch fire. And the churches and the Masonic hall are left. And a few stores too. But the business section and all along the railroad tracks and at Five Points--well, ladies, that part of town is flat on the ground."
"Then," cried Scarlett bitterly, "that warehouse Charlie left me, down on the tracks, it's gone too?"
"If it was near the tracks, it's gone, but--" Suddenly he smiled. Why hadn't he thought of it before? "Cheer up, ladies! Your Aunt Pitty's house is still standing. It's kind of damaged but there it is."
"Oh, how did it escape?"
"Well, it's made of brick and it's got about the only slate roof in Atlanta and that kept the sparks from setting it afire, I guess. And then it's about the last house on the north end of town and the fire wasn't so bad over that way. Of course, the Yankees quartered there tore it up aplenty. They even burned the baseboard and the mahogany stair rail for firewood, but shucks! It's in good shape. When I saw Miss Pitty last week in Macon--"
"You saw her? How is she?"
"Just fine. Just fine. When I told her her house was still standing, she made up her mind to come home right away. That is-- if that old darky, Peter, will let her come. Lots of the Atlanta people have already come back, because they got nervous about Macon. Sherman didn't take Macon but everybody is afraid Wilson's raiders will get there soon and he's worse than Sherman."
"But how silly of them to come back if there aren't any houses! Where do they live?"
"Miss Scarlett, they're living in tents and shacks and log cabins and doubling up six and seven families in the few houses still standing. And they're trying to rebuild. Now, Miss Scarlett, don't say they are silly. You know Atlanta folks as well as I do. They are plumb set on that town, most as bad as Charlestonians are about Charleston, and it'll take more than Yankees and a burning to keep them away. Atlanta folks are--begging your pardon, Miss Melly--as stubborn as mules about Atlanta. I don't know why, for I always thought that town a mighty pushy, impudent sort of place. But then, I'm a countryman born and I don't like any town. And let me tell you, the ones who are getting back first are the smart ones. The ones who come back last won't find a stick or stone or brick of their houses, because everybody's out salvaging things all over town to rebuild their houses. Just day before yesterday, I saw Mrs. Merriwether and Miss Maybelle and their old darky woman out collecting brick in a wheelbarrow. And Mrs. Meade told me she was thinking about building a log cabin when the doctor comes back to help her. She said she lived in a log cabin when she first came to Atlanta, when it was Marthasville, and it wouldn't bother her none to do it again. 'Course, she was only joking but that shows you how they feel about it."
"I think they've got a lot of spirit," said Melanie proudly. "Don't you, Scarlett?"
Scarlett nodded, a grim pleasure and pride in her adopted town filling her. As Frank said, it was a pushy, impudent place and that was why she liked it. It wasn't hide-bound and stick-in-the- muddish like the older towns and it had a brash exuberance that matched her own. "I'm like Atlanta," she thought. "It takes more than Yankees or a burning to keep me down."
"If Aunt Pitty is going back to Atlanta, we'd better go back and stay with her, Scarlett," said Melanie, interrupting her train of thought. "She'll die of fright alone."
"Now, how can I leave here, Melly?" Scarlett asked crossly. "If you are so anxious to go, go. I won't stop you."
"Oh, I didn't mean it that way, darling," cried Melanie, flushing with distress. "How thoughtless of me! Of course, you can't leave Tara and--and I guess Uncle Peter and Cookie can take care of Auntie."
"There's nothing to keep you from going," Scarlett pointed out, shortly.
"You know I wouldn't leave you," answered Melanie. "And I--I would be just frightened to death without you."
"Suit yourself. Besides, you wouldn't catch me going back to Atlanta. Just as soon as they get a few houses up, Sherman will come back and burn it again."
"He won't be back," said Frank and, despite his efforts, his face drooped. "He's gone on through the state to the coast. Savannah was captured this week and they say the Yankees are going on up into South Carolina."
"Yes. Why, ladies, Savannah couldn't help but fall. They didn't have enough men to hold it, though they used every man they could get--every man who could drag one foot after another. Do you know that when the Yankees were marching on Milledgeville, they called out all the cadets from the military academies, no matter how young they were, and even opened the state penitentiary to get fresh troops? Yes, sir, they turned loose every convict who was willing to fight and promised him a pardon if he lived through the war. It kind of gave me the creeps to see those little cadets in the ranks with thieves and cutthroats."
"They turned loose the convicts on us!"
"Now, Miss Scarlett, don't you get upset. They're a long way off from here, and furthermore they're making good soldiers. I guess being a thief don't keep a man from being a good soldier, does it?"
"I think it's wonderful," said Melanie softly.
"Well, I don't," said Scarlett flatly. "There's thieves enough running around the country anyway, what with the Yankees and--" She caught herself in time but the men laughed.
"What with Yankees and our commissary department," they finished and she flushed.
"But where's General Hood's army?" interposed Melanie hastily. "Surely he could have held Savannah."
"Why, Miss Melanie," Frank was startled and reproachful, "General Hood hasn't been down in that section at all. He's been fighting up in Tennessee, trying to draw the Yankees out of Georgia."
"And didn't his little scheme work well!" cried Scarlett sarcastically. "He left the damn Yankees to go through us with nothing but schoolboys and convicts and Home Guards to protect us."
"Daughter," said Gerald rousing himself, "you are profane. Your mother will be grieved."
"They are damn Yankees!" cried Scarlett passionately. "And I never expect to call them anything else."
At the mention of Ellen everyone felt queer and conversation suddenly ceased. Melanie again interposed.
"When you were in Macon did you see India and Honey Wilkes? Did they--had they heard anything of Ashley?"
"Now, Miss Melly, you know if I'd had news of Ashley, I'd have ridden up here from Macon right away to tell you," said Frank reproachfully. "No, they didn't have any news but--now, don't you fret about Ashley, Miss Melly. I know it's been a long time since you heard from him, but you can't expect to hear from a fellow when he's in prison, can you? And things aren't as bad in Yankee prisons as they are in ours. After all, the Yankees have plenty to eat and enough medicines and blankets. They aren't like we are-- not having enough to feed ourselves, much less our prisoners."
"Oh, the Yankees have got plenty," cried Melanie, passionately bitter. "But they don't give things to the prisoners. You know they don't, Mr. Kennedy. You are just saying that to make me feel better. You know that our boys freeze to death up there and starve too and die without doctors and medicine, simply because the Yankees hate us so much! Oh, if we could just wipe every Yankee off the face of the earth! Oh, I know that Ashley is--"
"Don't say it!" cried Scarlett, her heart in her throat. As long as no one said Ashley was dead, there persisted in her heart a faint hope that he lived, but she felt that if she heard the words pronounced, in that moment he would die.
"Now, Mrs. Wilkes, don't you bother about your husband," said the one-eyed man soothingly. "I was captured after first Manassas and exchanged later and when I was in prison, they fed me off the fat of the land, fried chicken and hot biscuits--"
"I think you are a liar," said Melanie with a faint smile and the first sign of spirit Scarlett had ever seen her display with a man. "What do you think?"
"I think so too," said the one-eyed man and slapped his leg with a laugh.
"If you'll all come into the parlor, I'll sing you some Christmas carols," said Melanie, glad to change the subject. "The piano was one thing the Yankees couldn't carry away. Is it terribly out of tune, Suellen?"
"Dreadfully," answered Suellen, happily beckoning with a smile to Frank.
But as they all passed from the room, Frank hung back, tugging at Scarlett's sleeve.
"May I speak to you alone?"
For an awful moment she feared he was going to ask about her livestock and she braced herself for a good lie.
When the room was cleared and they stood by the fire, all the false cheerfulness which had colored Frank's face in front of the others passed and she saw that he looked like an old man. His face was as dried and brown as the leaves that were blowing about the lawn of Tara and his ginger-colored whiskers were thin and scraggly and streaked with gray. He clawed at them absently and cleared his throat in an annoying way before he spoke.
"I'm sorry about your ma, Miss Scarlett."
"Please don't talk about it."
"And your pa-- Has he been this way since--?"
"Yes--he's--he's not himself, as you can see."
"He sure set a store by her."
"Oh, Mr. Kennedy, please don't let's talk--"
"I'm sorry, Miss Scarlett," and he shuffled his feet nervously. "The truth is I wanted to take up something with your pa and now I see it won't do any good."
"Perhaps I can help you, Mr. Kennedy. You see--I'm the head of the house now."
"Well, I," began Frank and again clawed nervously at his beard. "The truth is-- Well, Miss Scarlett, I was aiming to ask him for Miss Suellen."
"Do you mean to tell me," cried Scarlett in amused amazement, "that you haven't yet asked Pa for Suellen? And you've been courting her for years!"
He flushed and grinned embarrassedly and in general looked like a shy and sheepish boy.
"Well, I--I didn't know if she'd have me. I'm so much older than she is and--there were so many good-looking young bucks hanging around Tara--"
"Hump!" thought Scarlett, "they were hanging around me, not her!"
"And I don't know yet if she'll have me. I've never asked her but she must know how I feel. I--I thought I'd ask Mr. O'Hara's permission and tell him the truth. Miss Scarlett, I haven't got a cent now. I used to have a lot of money, if you'll forgive me mentioning it, but right now all I own is my horse and the clothes I've got on. You see, when I enlisted I sold most of my land and I put all my money in Confederate bonds and you know what they're worth now. Less than the paper they're printed on. And anyway, I haven't got them now, because they burned up when the Yankees burned my sister's house. I know I've got gall asking for Miss Suellen now when I haven't a cent but--well, it's this way. I got to thinking that we don't know how things are going to turn out about this war. It sure looks like the end of the world for me. There's nothing we can be sure of and--and I thought it would be a heap of comfort to me and maybe to her if we were engaged. That would be something sure. I wouldn't ask to marry her till I could take care of her, Miss Scarlett, and I don't know when that will be. But if true love carries any weight with you, you can be certain Miss Suellen will be rich in that if nothing else."
He spoke the last words with a simple dignity that touched Scarlett, even in her amusement. It was beyond her comprehension that anyone could love Suellen. Her sister seemed to her a monster of selfishness, of complaints and of what she could only describe as pure cussedness.
"Why, Mr. Kennedy," she said kindly, "it's quite all right. I'm sure I can speak for Pa. He always set a store by you and he always expected Suellen to marry you."
"Did he now?" cried Frank, happiness in his face.
"Indeed yes," answered Scarlett, concealing a grin as she remembered how frequently Gerald had rudely bellowed across the supper table to Suellen: "How now, Missy! Hasn't your ardent beau popped the question yet? Shall I be asking him his intentions?"
"I shall ask her tonight," he said, his face quivering, and he clutched her hand and shook it. "You're so kind, Miss Scarlett."
"I'll send her to you," smiled Scarlett, starting for the parlor. Melanie was beginning to play. The piano was sadly out of tune but some of the chords were musical and Melanie was raising her voice to lead the others in "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!"
Scarlett paused. It did not seem possible that war had swept over them twice, that they were living in a ravaged country, close to the border of starvation, when this old sweet Christmas hymn was being sung. Abruptly she turned to Frank.
"What did you mean when you said it looked like the end of the world to you?"
"I'll talk frankly," he said slowly, "but I wouldn't want you to be alarming the other ladies with what I say. The war can't go on much longer. There aren't any fresh men to fill the ranks and the desertions are running high--higher than the army likes to admit. You see, the men can't stand to be away from their families when they know they're starving, so they go home to try to provide for them. I can't blame them but it weakens the army. And the army can't fight without food and there isn't any food. I know because, you see, getting food is my business. I've been all up and down this section since we retook Atlanta and there isn't enough to feed a jaybird. It's the same way for three hundred miles south to Savannah. The folks are starving and the railroads are torn up and there aren't any new rifles and the ammunition is giving out and there's no leather at all for shoes. . . . So, you see, the end is almost here."
But the fading hopes of the Confederacy weighed less heavily on Scarlett than his remark about the scarcity of food. It had been her intention to send Pork out with the horse and wagon, the gold pieces and the United States money to scour the countryside for provisions and material for clothes. But if what Frank said was true--
But Macon hadn't fallen. There must be food in Macon. Just as soon as the commissary department was safely on its way, she'd start Pork for Macon and take the chance of having the precious horse picked up by the army. She'd have to risk it.
"Well, let's don't talk about unpleasant things tonight, Mr. Kennedy," she said. "You go and sit in Mother's little office and I'll send Suellen to you so you can--well, so you'll have a little privacy."
Blushing, smiling, Frank slipped out of the room and Scarlett watched him go.
"What a pity he can't marry her now," she thought. "That would be one less mouth to feed."