That night when Frank deposited her and Aunt Pitty and the children at Melanie's and rode off down the street with Ashley, Scarlett could have burst with rage and hurt. How could he go off to a political meeting on this of all nights in the world? A political meeting! And on the same night when she had been attacked, when anything might have happened to her! It was unfeeling and selfish of him. But then, he had taken the whole affair with maddening calm, ever since Sam had carried her sobbing into the house, her basque gaping to the waist. He hadn't clawed his beard even once when she cried out her story. He had just questioned gently: "Sugar, are you hurt--or just scared?"
Wrath mingling with her tears she had been unable to answer and Sam had volunteered that she was just scared.
"Ah got dar fo' dey done mo'n t'ar her dress."
"You're a good boy, Sam, and I won't forget what you've done. If there's anything I can do for you--"
"Yassah, you kin sen' me ter Tara, quick as you kin. De Yankees is affer me."
Frank had listened to this statement calmly too, and had asked no questions. He had looked very much as he did the night Tony came beating on their door, as though this was an exclusively masculine affair and one to be handled with a minimum of words and emotions.
"You go get in the buggy. I'll have Peter drive you as far as Rough and Ready tonight and you can hide in the woods till morning and then catch the train to Jonesboro. It'll be safer. . . . Now, Sugar, stop crying. It's all over now and you aren't really hurt. Miss Pitty, could I have your smelling salts? And Mammy, fetch Miss Scarlett a glass of wine."
Scarlett had burst into renewed tears, this time tears of rage. She wanted comforting, indignation, threats of vengeance. She would even have preferred him storming at her, saying that this was just what he had warned her would happen--anything rather than have him take it all so casually and treat her danger as a matter of small moment. He was nice and gentle, of course, but in an absent way as if he had something far more important on his mind.
And that important thing had turned out to be a small political meeting!
She could hardly believe her ears when he told her to change her dress and get ready for him to escort her over to Melanie's for the evening. He must know how harrowing her experience had been, must know she did not want to spend an evening at Melanie's when her tired body and jangled nerves cried out for the warm relaxation of bed and blankets--with a hot brick to make her toes tingle and a hot toddy to soothe her fears. If he really loved her, nothing could have forced him from her side on this of all nights. He would have stayed home and held her hand and told her over and over that he would have died if anything had happened to her. And when he came home tonight and she had him alone, she would certainly tell him so.
Melanie's small parlor looked as serene as it usually did on nights when Frank and Ashley were away and the women gathered together to sew. The room was warm and cheerful in the firelight. The lamp on the table shed a quiet yellow glow on the four smooth heads bent to their needlework. Four skirts billowed modestly, eight small feet were daintily placed on low hassocks. The quiet breathing of Wade, Ella and Beau came through the open door of the nursery. Archie sat on a stool by the hearth, his back against the fireplace, his cheek distended with tobacco, whittling industriously on a bit of wood. The contrast between the dirty, hairy old man and the four neat, fastidious ladies was as great as though he were a grizzled, vicious old watchdog and they four small kittens.
Melanie's soft voice, tinged with indignation, went on and on as she told of the recent outburst of temperament on the part of the Lady Harpists. Unable to agree with the Gentlemen's Glee Club as to the program for their next recital, the ladies had waited on Melanie that afternoon and announced their intention of withdrawing completely from the Musical Circle. It had taken all of Melanie's diplomacy to persuade them to defer their decision.
Scarlett, overwrought, could have screamed: "Oh, damn the Lady Harpists!" She wanted to talk about her dreadful experience. She was bursting to relate it in detail, so she could ease her own fright by frightening the others. She wanted to tell how brave she had been, just to assure herself by the sound of her own words that she had, indeed, been brave. But every time she brought up the subject, Melanie deftly steered the conversation into other and innocuous channels. This irritated Scarlett almost beyond endurance. They were as mean as Frank.
How could they be so calm and placid when she had just escaped so terrible a fate? They weren't even displaying common courtesy in denying her the relief of talking about it.
The events of the afternoon had shaken her more than she cared to admit, even to herself. Every time she thought of that malignant black face peering at her from the shadows of the twilight forest road, she fell to trembling. When she thought of the black hand at her bosom and what would have happened if Big Sam had not appeared, she bent her head lower and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. The longer she sat silent in the peaceful room, trying to sew, listening to Melanie's voice, the tighter her nerves stretched. She felt that at any moment she would actually hear them break with the same pinging sound a banjo string makes when it snaps.
Archie's whittling annoyed her and she frowned at him. Suddenly it seemed odd that he should be sitting there occupying himself with a piece of wood. Usually he lay flat on the sofa, during the evenings when he was on guard, and slept and snored so violently that his long beard leaped into the air with each rumbling breath. It was odder still that neither Melanie nor India hinted to him that he should spread a paper on the floor to catch his litter of shavings. He had already made a perfect mess on the hearth rug but they did not seem to have noticed it.
While she watched him, Archie turned suddenly toward the fire and spat a stream of tobacco juice on it with such vehemence that India, Melanie and Pitty leaped as though a bomb had exploded.
"NEED you expectorate so loudly?" cried India in a voice that cracked with nervous annoyance. Scarlett looked at her in surprise for India was always so self-contained.
Archie gave her look for look.
"I reckon I do," he answered coldly and spat again. Melanie gave a little frowning glance at India.
"I was always so glad dear Papa didn't chew," began Pitty, and Melanie, her frown creasing deeper, swung on her and spoke sharper words than Scarlett had ever heard her speak.
"Oh, do hush, Auntie! You're so tactless."
"Oh, dear!" Pitty dropped her sewing in her lap and her mouth pressed up in hurt. "I declare, I don't know what ails you all tonight. You and India are just as jumpy and cross as two old sticks."
No one answered her. Melanie did not even apologize for her crossness but went back to her sewing with small violence.
"You're taking stitches an inch long," declared Pitty with some satisfaction. "You'll have to take every one of them out. What's the matter with you?"
But Melanie still did not answer.
Was there anything the matter with them, Scarlett wondered? Had she been too absorbed with her own fears to notice? Yes, despite Melanie's attempts to make the evening appear like any one of fifty they had all spent together, there was a difference due to their alarm and shock at what had happened that afternoon. Scarlett stole glances at her companions and intercepted a look from India. It discomforted her because it was a long, measuring glance that carried in its cold depths something stronger than hate, something more insulting than contempt.
"As though she thought I was to blame for what happened," Scarlett thought indignantly.
India turned from her to Archie and, all annoyance at him gone from her face, gave him a look of veiled anxious inquiry. But he did not meet her eyes. He did however look at Scarlett, staring at her in the same cold hard way India had done.
Silence fell dully in the room as Melanie did not take up the conversation again and, in the silence, Scarlett heard the rising wind outside. It suddenly began to be a most unpleasant evening. Now she began to feel the tension in the air and she wondered if it had been present all during the evening--and she too upset to notice it. About Archie's face there was an alert waiting look and his tufted, hairy old ears seemed pricked up like a lynx's. There was a severely repressed uneasiness about Melanie and India that made them raise their heads from their sewing at each sound of hooves in the road, at each groan of bare branches under the wailing wind, at each scuffing sound of dry leaves tumbling across the lawn. They started at each soft snap of burning logs on the hearth as if they were stealthy footsteps.
Something was wrong and Scarlett wondered what it was. Something was afoot and she did not know about it. A glance at Aunt Pitty's plump guileless face, screwed up in a pout, told her that the old lady was as ignorant as she. But Archie and Melanie and India knew. In the silence she could almost feel the thoughts of India and Melanie whirling as madly as squirrels in a cage. They knew something, were waiting for something, despite their efforts to make things appear as usual. And their inner unease communicated itself to Scarlett, making her more nervous than before. Handling her needle awkwardly, she jabbed it into her thumb and with a little scream of pain and annoyance that made them all jump, she squeezed it until a bright red drop appeared.
"I'm just too nervous to sew," she declared, throwing her mending to the floor. "I'm nervous enough to scream. I want to go home and go to bed. And Frank knew it and he oughtn't to have gone out. He talks, talks, talks about protecting women against darkies and Carpetbaggers and when the time comes for him to do some protecting, where is he? At home, taking care of me? No, indeed, he's gallivanting around with a lot of other men who don't do anything but talk and--"
Her snapping eyes came to rest on India's face and she paused. India was breathing fast and her pale lashless eyes were fastened on Scarlett's face with a deadly coldness.
"If it won't pain you too much, India," she broke off sarcastically, "I'd be much obliged if you'd tell me why you've been staring at me all evening. Has my face turned green or something?"
"It won't pain me to tell you. I'll do it with pleasure," said India and her eyes glittered. "I hate to see you underrate a fine man like Mr. Kennedy when, if you knew--"
"India!" said Melanie warningly, her hands clenching on her sewing.
"I think I know my husband better than you do," said Scarlett, the prospect of a quarrel, the first open quarrel she had ever had with India, making her spirits rise and her nervousness depart. Melanie's eyes caught India's and reluctantly India closed her lips. But almost instantly she spoke again and her voice was cold with hate.
"You make me sick, Scarlett O'Hara, talking about being protected! You don't care about being protected! If you did you'd never have exposed yourself as you have done all these months, prissing yourself about this town, showing yourself off to strange men, hoping they'll admire you! What happened to you this afternoon was just what you deserved and if there was any justice you'd have gotten worse."
"Oh, India, hush!" cried Melanie.
"Let her talk," cried Scarlett. "I'm enjoying it. I always knew she hated me and she was too much of a hypocrite to admit it. If she thought anyone would admire her, she'd be walking the streets naked from dawn till dark."
India was on her feet, her lean body quivering with insult.
"I do hate you," she said in a clear but trembling voice. "But it hasn't been hypocrisy that's kept me quiet. It's something you can't understand, not possessing any--any common courtesy, common good breeding. It's the realization that if all of us don't hang together and submerge our own small hates, we can't expect to beat the Yankees. But you--you--you've done all you could to lower the prestige of decent people--working and bringing shame on a good husband, giving Yankees and riffraff the right to laugh at us and make insulting remarks about our lack of gentility. Yankees don't know that you aren't one of us and have never been. Yankees haven't sense enough to know that you haven't any gentility. And when you've ridden about the woods exposing yourself to attack, you've exposed every well-behaved woman in town to attack by putting temptation in the ways of darkies and mean white trash. And you've put our men folks' lives in danger because they've got to--"
"My God, India!" cried Melanie and even in her wrath, Scarlett was stunned to hear Melanie take the Lord's name in vain. "You must hush! She doesn't know and she--you must hush! You promised--"
"Oh, girls!" pleaded Miss Pittypat, her lips trembling.
"What don't I know?" Scarlett was on her feet, furious, facing the coldly blazing India and the imploring Melanie.
"Guinea hens," said Archie suddenly and his voice was contemptuous. Before anyone could rebuke him, his grizzled head went up sharply and he rose swiftly. "Somebody comin' up the walk. 'Tain't Mr. Wilkes neither. Cease your cackle."
There was male authority in his voice and the women stood suddenly silent, anger fading swiftly from their faces as he stumped across the room to the door.
"Who's thar?" he questioned before the caller even knocked.
"Captain Butler. Let me in."
Melanie was across the floor so swiftly that her hoops swayed up violently, revealing her pantalets to the knees, and before Archie could put his hand on the knob she flung the door open. Rhett Butler stood in the doorway, his black slouch hat low over his eyes, the wild wind whipping his cape about him in snapping folds. For once his good manners had deserted him. He neither took off his hat nor spoke to the others in the room. He had eyes for no one but Melanie and he spoke abruptly without greeting.
"Where have they gone? Tell me quickly. It's life or death."
Scarlett and Pitty, startled and bewildered, looked at each other in wonderment and, like a lean old cat, India streaked across the room to Melanie's side.
"Don't tell him anything," she cried swiftly. "He's a spy, a Scallawag!"
Rhett did not even favor her with a glance.
"Quickly, Mrs. Wilkes! There may still be time."
Melanie seemed in a paralysis of terror and only stared into his face.
"What on earth--" began Scarlett.
"Shet yore mouth," directed Archie briefly. "You too, Miss Melly. Git the hell out of here, you damned Scallawag."
"No, Archie, no!" cried Melanie and she put a shaking hand on Rhett's arm as though to protect him from Archie. "What has happened? How did--how did you know?"
On Rhett's dark face impatience fought with courtesy.
"Good God, Mrs. Wilkes, they've all been under suspicion since the beginning--only they've been too clever--until tonight! How do I know? I was playing poker tonight with two drunken Yankee captains and they let it out. The Yankees knew there'd be trouble tonight and they've prepared for it. The fools have walked into a trap."
For a moment it was as though Melanie swayed under the impact of a heavy blow and Rhett's arm went around her waist to steady her.
"Don't tell him! He's trying to trap you!" cried India, glaring at Rhett. "Didn't you hear him say he'd been with Yankee officers tonight?"
Still Rhett did not look at her. His eyes were bent insistently on Melanie's white face.
"Tell me. Where did they go? Have they a meeting place?"
Despite her fear and incomprehension, Scarlett thought she had never seen a blanker, more expressionless face than Rhett's but evidently Melanie saw something else, something that made her give her trust. She straightened her small body away from the steadying arm and said quietly but with a voice that shook:
"Out the Decatur road near Shantytown. They meet in the cellar of the old Sullivan plantation--the one that's half-burned."
"Thank you. I'll ride fast. When the Yankees come here, none of you know anything."
He was gone so swiftly, his black cape melting into the night, that they could hardly realize he had been there at all until they heard the spattering of gravel and the mad pounding of a horse going off at full gallop.
"The Yankees coming here?" cried Pitty and, her small feet turning under her, she collapsed on the sofa, too frightened for tears.
"What's it all about? What did he mean? If you don't tell me I'll go crazy!" Scarlett laid hands on Melanie and shook her violently as if by force she could shake an answer from her.
"Mean? It means you've probably been the cause of Ashley's and Mr. Kennedy's death!" In spite of the agony of fear there was a note of triumph in India's voice. "Stop shaking Melly. She's going to faint."
"No, I'm not," whispered Melanie, clutching the back of a chair.
"My God, my God! I don't understand! Kill Ashley? Please, somebody tell me--"
Archie's voice, like a rusty hinge, cut through Scarlett's words.
"Set down," he ordered briefly. "Pick up yore sewin'. Sew like nothin' had happened. For all we know, the Yankees might have been spyin' on this house since sundown. Set down, I say, and sew."
Trembling they obeyed, even Pitty picking up a sock and holding it in shaking fingers while her eyes, wide as a frightened child's went around the circle for an explanation.
"Where is Ashley? What has happened to him, Melly?" cried Scarlett.
"Where's your husband? Aren't you interested in him?" India's pale eyes blazed with insane malice as she crumpled and straightened the torn towel she had been mending.
"India, please!" Melanie had mastered her voice but her white, shaken face and tortured eyes showed the strain under which she was laboring. "Scarlett, perhaps we should have told you but--but--you had been through so much this afternoon that we--that Frank didn't think--and you were always so outspoken against the Klan--"
At first, Scarlett spoke the word as if she had never heard it before and had no comprehension of its meaning and then:
"The Klan!" she almost screamed it. "Ashley isn't in the Klan! Frank can't be! Oh, he promised me!"
"Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan and Ashley, too, and all the men we know," cried India. "They are men, aren't they? And white men and Southerners. You should have been proud of him instead of making him sneak out as though it were something shameful and--"
"You all have known all along and I didn't--"
"We were afraid it would upset you," said Melanie sorrowfully.
"Then that's where they go when they're supposed to be at the political meetings? Oh, he promised me! Now, the Yankees will come and take my mills and the store and put him in jail--oh, what did Rhett Butler mean?"
India's eyes met Melanie's in wild fear. Scarlett rose, flinging her sewing down.
"If you don't tell me, I'm going downtown and find out. I'll ask everybody I see until I find--"
"Set," said Archie, fixing her with his eye. "I'll tell you. Because you went gallivantin' this afternoon and got yoreself into trouble through yore own fault, Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Kennedy and the other men are out tonight to kill that thar nigger and that thar white man, if they can catch them, and wipe out that whole Shantytown settlement. And if what that Scallawag said is true, the Yankees suspected sumpin' or got wind somehow and they've sont out troops to lay for them. And our men have walked into a trap. And if what Butler said warn't true, then he's a spy and he is goin' to turn them up to the Yankees and they'll git kilt just the same. And if he does turn them up, then I'll kill him, if it's the last deed of m' life. And if they ain't kilt, then they'll all have to light out of here for Texas and lay low and maybe never come back. It's all yore fault and thar's blood on yore hands."
Anger wiped out the fear from Melanie's face as she saw comprehension come slowly across Scarlett's face and then horror follow swiftly. She rose and put her hand on Scarlett's shoulder.
"Another such word and you go out of this house, Archie," she said sternly. "It's not her fault. She only did--did what she felt she had to do. And our men did what they felt they had to do. People must do what they must do. We don't all think alike or act alike and it's wrong to--to judge others by ourselves. How can you and India say such cruel things when her husband as well as mine may be--may be--"
"Hark!" interrupted Archie softly. "Set, Ma'm. Thar's horses."
Melanie sank into a chair, picked up one of Ashley's shirts and, bowing her head over it, unconsciously began to tear the frills into small ribbons.
The sound of hooves grew louder as horses trotted up to the house. There was the jangling of bits and the strain of leather and the sound of voices. As the hooves stopped in front of the house, one voice rose above the others in a command and the listeners heard feet going through the side yard toward the back porch. They felt that a thousand inimical eyes looked at them through the unshaded front window and the four women, with fear in their hearts, bent their heads and plied their needles. Scarlett's heart screamed in her breast: "I've killed Ashley! I've killed him!" And in that wild moment she did not even think that she might have killed Frank too. She had no room in her mind for any picture save that of Ashley, lying at the feet of Yankee cavalrymen, his fair hair dappled with blood.
As the harsh rapid knocking sounded at the door, she looked at Melanie and saw come over the small, strained face a new expression, an expression as blank as she had just seen on Rhett Butler's face, the bland blank look of a poker player bluffing a game with only two deuces.
"Archie, open the door," she said quietly.
Slipping his knife into his boot top and loosening the pistol in his trouser band, Archie stumped over to the door and flung it open. Pitty gave a little squeak, like a mouse who feels the trap snap down, as she saw massed in the doorway, a Yankee captain and a squad of bluecoats. But the others said nothing. Scarlett saw with the faintest feeling of relief that she knew this officer. He was Captain Tom Jaffery, one of Rhett's friends. She had sold him lumber to build his house. She knew him to be a gentleman. Perhaps, as he was a gentleman, he wouldn't drag them away to prison. He recognized her instantly and, taking off his hat, bowed, somewhat embarrassed.
"Good evening, Mrs. Kennedy. And which of you ladies is Mrs. Wilkes?"
"I am Mrs. Wilkes," answered Melanie, rising and for all her smallness, dignity flowed from her. "And to what do I owe this intrusion?"
The eyes of the captain flickered quickly about the room, resting for an instant on each face, passing quickly from their faces to the table and the hat rack as though looking for signs of male occupancy.
"I should like to speak to Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Kennedy, if you please."
"They are not here," said Melanie, a chill in her soft voice.
"Are you sure?"
"Don't you question Miz Wilkes' word," said Archie, his beard bristling.
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Wilkes. I meant no disrespect. If you give me your word, I will not search the house."
"You have my word. But search if you like. They are at a meeting downtown at Mr. Kennedy's store."
"They are not at the store. There was no meeting tonight," answered the captain grimly. "We will wait outside until they return."
He bowed briefly and went out, closing the door behind him. Those in the house heard a sharp order, muffled by the wind: "Surround the house. A man at each window and door." There was a tramping of feet. Scarlett checked a start of terror as she dimly saw bearded faces peering in the windows at them. Melanie sat down and with a hand that did not tremble reached for a book on the table. It was a ragged copy of Les Miserables, that book which caught the fancy of the Confederate soldiers. They had read it by camp-fire light and took some grim pleasure in calling it "Lee's Miserables." She opened it at the middle and began to read in a clear monotonous voice.
"Sew," commanded Archie in a hoarse whisper and the three women, nerved by Melanie's cool voice, picked up their sewing and bowed their heads.
How long Melanie read beneath that circle of watching eyes, Scarlett never knew but it seemed hours. She did not even hear a word that Melanie read. Now she was beginning to think of Frank as well as Ashley. So this was the explanation of his apparent calm this evening! He had promised her he would have nothing to do with the Klan. Oh, this was just the kind of trouble she had feared would come upon them! All the work of this last year would go for nothing. All her struggles and fears and labors in rain and cold had been wasted. And who would have thought that spiritless old Frank would get himself mixed up in the hot-headed doings of the Klan? Even at this minute, he might be dead. And if he wasn't dead and the Yankees caught him, he'd be hanged. And Ashley, too!
Her nails dug into her palms until four bright-red crescents showed. How could Melanie read on and on so calmly when Ashley was in danger of being hanged? When he might be dead? But something in the cool soft voice reading the sorrows of Jean Valjean steadied her, kept her from leaping to her feet and screaming.
Her mind fled back to the night Tony Fontaine had come to them, hunted, exhausted, without money. If he had not reached their house and received money and a fresh horse, he would have been hanged long since. If Frank and Ashley were not dead at this very minute, they were in Tony's position, only worse. With the house surrounded by soldiers they couldn't come home and get money and clothes without being captured. And probably every house up and down the street had a similar guard of Yankees, so they could not apply to friends for aid. Even now they might be riding wildly through the night, bound for Texas.
But Rhett--perhaps Rhett had reached them in time. Rhett always had plenty of cash in his pocket. Perhaps he would lend them enough to see them through. But that was queer. Why should Rhett bother himself about Ashley's safety? Certainly he disliked him, certainly he professed a contempt for him. Then why-- But this riddle was swallowed up in a renewed fear for the safety of Ashley and Frank.
"Oh, it's all my fault!" she wailed to herself. "India and Archie spoke the truth. It's all my fault. But I never thought either of them was foolish enough to join the Klan! And I never thought anything would really happen to me! But I couldn't have done otherwise. Melly spoke the truth. People have to do what they have to do. And I had to keep the mills going! I had to have money! And now I'll probably lose it all and somehow it's all my fault!"
After a long time Melanie's voice faltered, trailed off and was silent. She turned her head toward the window and stared as though no Yankee soldier stared back from behind the glass. The others raised their heads, caught by her listening pose, and they too listened.
There was a sound of horses' feet and of singing, deadened by the closed windows and doors, borne away by the wind but still recognizable. It was the most hated and hateful of all songs, the song about Sherman's men "Marching through Georgia" and Rhett Butler was singing it.
Hardly had he finished the first lines when two other voices, drunken voices, assailed him, enraged foolish voices that stumbled over words and blurred them together. There was a quick command from Captain Jaffery on the front porch and the rapid tramp of feet. But even before these sounds arose, the ladies looked at one another stunned. For the drunken voices expostulating with Rhett were those of Ashley and Hugh Elsing.
Voices rose louder on the front walk, Captain Jaffery's curt and questioning, Hugh's shrill with foolish laughter, Rhett's deep and reckless and Ashley's queer, unreal, shouting: "What the hell! What the hell!"
"That can't be Ashley!" thought Scarlett wildly. "He never gets drunk! And Rhett--why, when Rhett's drunk he gets quieter and quieter--never loud like that!"
Melanie rose and, with her, Archie rose. They heard the captain's sharp voice: "These two men are under arrest." And Archie's hand closed over his pistol butt.
"No," whispered Melanie firmly. "No. Leave it to me." There was in her face the same look Scarlett had seen that day at Tara when Melanie had stood at the top of the steps looking down at the dead Yankee, her weak wrist weighed down by the heavy saber--a gentle and timid soul nerved by circumstances to the caution and fury of a tigress. She threw the front door open.
"Bring him in, Captain Butler," she called in a clear tone that bit with venom. "I suppose you've gotten him intoxicated again. Bring him in."
From the dark windy walk, the Yankee captain spoke: "I'm sorry, Mrs. Wilkes, but your husband and Mr. Elsing are under arrest."
"Arrest? For what? For drunkenness? If everyone in Atlanta was arrested for drunkenness, the whole Yankee garrison would be in jail continually. Well, bring him in, Captain Butler--that is, if you can walk yourself."
Scarlett's mind was not working quickly and for a brief moment nothing made sense. She knew neither Rhett nor Ashley was drunk and she knew Melanie knew they were not drunk. Yet here was Melanie, usually so gentle and refined, screaming like a shrew and in front of Yankees too, that both of them were too drunk to walk.
There was a short mumbled argument, punctuated with curses, and uncertain feet ascended the stairs. In the doorway appeared Ashley, white faced, his head lolling, his bright hair tousled, his long body wrapped from neck to knees in Rhett's black cape. Hugh Elsing and Rhett, none too steady on their feet, supported him on either side and it was obvious he would have fallen to the floor but for their aid. Behind them came the Yankee captain, his face a study of mingled suspicion and amusement. He stood in the open doorway with his men peering curiously over his shoulders and the cold wind swept the house.
Scarlett, frightened, puzzled, glanced at Melanie and back to the sagging Ashley and then half-comprehension came to her. She started to cry out: "But he can't be drunk!" and bit back the words. She realized she was witnessing a play, a desperate play on which lives hinged. She knew she was not part of it nor was Aunt Pitty but the others were and they were tossing cues to one another like actors in an oft-rehearsed drama. She understood only half but she understood enough to keep silent.
"Put him in the chair," cried Melanie indignantly. "And you, Captain Butler, leave this house immediately! How dare you show your face here after getting him in this condition again!"
The two men eased Ashley into a rocker and Rhett, swaying, caught hold of the back of the chair to steady himself and addressed the captain with pain in his voice.
"That's fine thanks I get, isn't it? For keeping the police from getting him and bringing him home and him yelling and trying to claw me!"
"And you, Hugh Elsing, I'm ashamed of you! What will your poor mother say? Drunk and out with a--a Yankee-loving Scallawag like Captain Butler! And, oh, Mr. Wilkes, how could you do such a thing?"
"Melly, I ain't so very drunk," mumbled Ashley, and with the words fell forward and lay face down on the table, his head buried in his arms.
"Archie, take him to his room and put him to bed--as usual," ordered Melanie. "Aunt Pitty, please run and fix the bed and oo- oh," she suddenly burst into tears. "Oh, how could he? After he promised!"
Archie already had his arm under Ashley's shoulder and Pitty, frightened and uncertain, was on her feet when the captain interposed.
"Don't touch him. He's under arrest. Sergeant!"
As the sergeant stepped into the room, his rifle at trail, Rhett, evidently trying to steady himself, put a hand on the captain's arm and, with difficulty, focused his eyes.
"Tom, what you arresting him for? He ain't so very drunk. I've seen him drunker."
"Drunk be damned," cried the captain. "He can lie in the gutter for all I care. I'm no policeman. He and Mr. Elsing are under arrest for complicity in a Klan raid at Shantytown tonight. A nigger and a white man were killed. Mr. Wilkes was the ringleader in it."
"Tonight?" Rhett began to laugh. He laughed so hard that he sat down on the sofa and put his head in his hands. "Not tonight, Tom," he said when he could speak. "These two have been with me tonight--ever since eight o'clock when they were supposed to be at the meeting."
"With you, Rhett? But--" A frown came over the captain's forehead and he looked uncertainly at the snoring Ashley and his weeping wife. "But--where were you?"
"I don't like to say," and Rhett shot a look of drunken cunning at Melanie.
"You'd better say!"
"Le's go out on the porch and I'll tell you where we were."
"You'll tell me now."
"Hate to say it in front of ladies. If you ladies'll step out of the room--"
"I won't go," cried Melanie, dabbing angrily at her eyes with her handkerchief. "I have a right to know. Where was my husband?"
"At Belle Watling's sporting house," said Rhett, looking abashed. "He was there and Hugh and Frank Kennedy and Dr. Meade and--and a whole lot of them. Had a party. Big party. Champagne. Girls--"
"At--at Belle Watling's?"
Melanie's voice rose until it cracked with such pain that all eyes turned frightenedly to her. Her hand went clutching at her bosom and, before Archie could catch her, she had fainted. Then a hubbub ensued, Archie picking her up, India running to the kitchen for water, Pitty and Scarlett fanning her and slapping her wrists, while Hugh Elsing shouted over and over: "Now you've done it! Now you've done it!"
"Now it'll be all over town," said Rhett savagely. "I hope you're satisfied, Tom. There won't be a wife in Atlanta who'll speak to her husband tomorrow."
"Rhett, I had no idea--" Though the chill wind was blowing through the open door on his back, the captain was perspiring. "Look here! You take an oath they were at--er--at Belle's?"
"Hell, yes," growled Rhett. "Go ask Belle herself if you don't believe me. Now, let me carry Mrs. Wilkes to her room. Give her to me, Archie. Yes, I can carry her. Miss Pitty, go ahead with a lamp."
He took Melanie's limp body from Archie's arms with ease.
"You get Mr. Wilkes to bed, Archie. I don't want to ever lay eyes or hands on him again after this night."
Pitty's hand trembled so that the lamp was a menace to the safety of the house but she held it and trotted ahead toward the dark bedroom. Archie, with a grunt, got an arm under Ashley and raised him.
"But--I've got to arrest these men!"
Rhett turned in the dim hallway.
"Arrest them in the morning then. They can't run away in this condition--and I never knew before that it was illegal to get drunk in a sporting house. Good God, Tom, there are fifty witnesses to prove they were at Belle's."
"There are always fifty witnesses to prove a Southerner was somewhere he wasn't," said the captain morosely. "You come with me, Mr. Elsing. I'll parole Mr. Wilkes on the word of--"
"I am Mr. Wilkes' sister. I will answer for his appearance," said India coldly. "Now, will you please go? You've caused enough trouble for one night."
"I regret it exceedingly." The captain bowed awkwardly. "I only hope they can prove their presence at the--er--Miss--Mrs. Watling's house. Will you tell your brother that he must appear before the provost marshal tomorrow morning for questioning?"
India bowed coldly and, putting her hand upon the door knob, intimated silently that his speedy retirement would be welcome. The captain and the sergeant backed out, Hugh Elsing with them, and she slammed the door behind them. Without even looking at Scarlett, she went swiftly to each window and drew down the shade. Scarlett, her knees shaking, caught hold of the chair in which Ashley had been sitting to steady herself. Looking down at it, she saw that there was a dark moist spot, larger than her hand, on the cushion in the back of the chair. Puzzled, her hand went over it and, to her horror, a sticky red wetness appeared on her palm.
"India," she whispered, "India, Ashley's--he's hurt."
"You fool! Did you think he was really drunk?"
India snapped down the last shade and started on flying feet for the bedroom, with Scarlett close behind her, her heart in her throat. Rhett's big body barred the doorway but, past his shoulder, Scarlett saw Ashley lying white and still on the bed. Melanie, strangely quick for one so recently in a faint, was rapidly cutting off his blood-soaked shirt with embroidery scissors. Archie held the lamp low over the bed to give light and one of his gnarled fingers was on Ashley's wrist.
"Is he dead?" cried both girls together.
"No, just fainted from loss of blood. It's through his shoulder," said Rhett.
"Why did you bring him here, you fool?" cried India. "Let me get to him! Let me pass! Why did you bring him here to be arrested?"
"He was too weak to travel. There was nowhere else to bring him, Miss Wilkes. Besides--do you want him to be an exile like Tony Fontaine? Do you want a dozen of your neighbors to live in Texas under assumed names for the rest of their lives? There's a chance that we may get them all off if Belle--"
"Let me pass!"
"No, Miss Wilkes. There's work for you. You must go for a doctor-- Not Dr. Meade. He's implicated in this and is probably explaining to the Yankees at this very minute. Get some other doctor. Are you afraid to go out alone at night?"
"No," said India, her pale eyes glittering. "I'm not afraid." She caught up Melanie's hooded cape which was hanging on a hook in the hall. "I'll go for old Dr. Dean." The excitement went out of her voice as, with an effort, she forced calmness. "I'm sorry I called you a spy and a fool. I did not understand. I'm deeply grateful for what you've done for Ashley--but I despise you just the same."
"I appreciate frankness--and I thank you for it." Rhett bowed and his lip curled down in an amused smile. "Now, go quickly and by back ways and when you return do not come in this house if you see signs of soldiers about."
India shot one more quick anguished look at Ashley, and, wrapping her cape about her, ran lightly down the hall to the back door and let herself out quietly into the night.
Scarlett, straining her eyes past Rhett, felt her heart beat again as she saw Ashley's eyes open. Melanie snatched a folded towel from the washstand rack and pressed it against his streaming shoulder and he smiled up weakly, reassuringly into her face. Scarlett felt Rhett's hard penetrating eyes upon her, knew that her heart was plain upon her face, but she did not care. Ashley was bleeding, perhaps dying and she who loved him had torn that hole through his shoulder. She wanted to run to the bed, sink down beside it and clasp him to her but her knees trembled so that she could not enter the room. Hand at her mouth, she stared while Melanie packed a fresh towel against his shoulder, pressing it hard as though she could force back the blood into his body. But the towel reddened as though by magic.
How could a man bleed so much and still live? But, thank God, there was no bubble of blood at his lips--oh, those frothy red bubbles, forerunners of death that she knew so well from the dreadful day of the battle at Peachtree Creek when the wounded had died on Aunt Pitty's lawn with bloody mouths.
"Brace up," said Rhett, and there was a hard, faintly jeering note in his voice. "He won't die. Now, go take the lamp and hold it for Mrs. Wilkes. I need Archie to run errands."
Archie looked across the lamp at Rhett.
"I ain't takin' no orders from you," he said briefly, shifting his wad of tobacco to the other cheek.
"You do what he says," said Melanie sternly, "and do it quickly. Do everything Captain Butler says. Scarlett, take the lamp."
Scarlett went forward and took the lamp, holding it in both hands to keep from dropping it. Ashley's eyes had closed again. His bare chest heaved up slowly and sank quickly and the red stream seeped from between Melanie's small frantic fingers. Dimly she heard Archie stump across the room to Rhett and heard Rhett's low rapid words. Her mind was so fixed upon Ashley that of the first half-whispered words of Rhett, she only heard: "Take my horse . . . tied outside . . . ride like hell."
Archie mumbled some question and Scarlett heard Rhett reply: "The old Sullivan plantation. You'll find the robes pushed up the biggest chimney. Burn them."
"Um," grunted Archie.
"And there's two--men in the cellar. Pack them over the horse as best you can and take them to that vacant lot behind Belle's--the one between her house and the railroad tracks. Be careful. If anyone sees you, you'll hang as well as the rest of us. Put them in that lot and put pistols near them--in their hands. Here--take mine."
Scarlett, looking across the room, saw Rhett reach under his coat tails and produce two revolvers which Archie took and shoved into his waist band.
"Fire one shot from each. It's got to appear like a plain case of shooting. You understand?"
Archie nodded as if he understood perfectly and an unwilling gleam of respect shone in his cold eye. But understanding was far from Scarlett. The last half-hour had been so nightmarish that she felt nothing would ever be plain and clear again. However, Rhett seemed in perfect command of the bewildering situation and that was a small comfort.
Archie turned to go and then swung about and his one eye went questioningly to Rhett's face.
Archie grunted and spat on the floor.
"Hell to pay," he said as he stumped down the hall to the back door.
Something in the last low interchange of words made a new fear and suspicion rise up in Scarlett's breast like a chill ever-swelling bubble. When that bubble broke--
"Where's Frank?" she cried.
Rhett came swiftly across the room to the bed, his big body swinging as lightly and noiselessly as a cat's.
"All in good time," he said and smiled briefly. "Steady that lamp, Scarlett. You don't want to burn Mr. Wilkes up. Miss Melly--"
Melanie looked up like a good little soldier awaiting a command and so tense was the situation it did not occur to her that for the first time Rhett was calling her familiarly by the name which only family and old friends used.
"I beg your pardon, I mean, Mrs. Wilkes. . . ."
"Oh, Captain Butler, do not ask my pardon! I should feel honored if you called me 'Melly' without the Miss! I feel as though you were my--my brother or--or my cousin. How kind you are and how clever! How can I ever thank you enough?"
"Thank you," said Rhett and for a moment he looked almost embarrassed. "I should never presume so far, but Miss Melly," and his voice was apologetic, "I'm sorry I had to say that Mr. Wilkes was in Belle Watling's house. I'm sorry to have involved him and the others in such a--a-- But I had to think fast when I rode away from here and that was the only plan that occurred to me. I knew my word would be accepted because I have so many friends among the Yankee officers. They do me the dubious honor of thinking me almost one of them because they know my--shall we call it my 'unpopularity'?--among my townsmen. And you see, I was playing poker in Belle's bar earlier in the evening. There are a dozen Yankee soldiers who can testify to that. And Belle and her girls will gladly lie themselves black in the face and say Mr. Wilkes and the others were--upstairs all evening. And the Yankees will believe them. Yankees are queer that way. It won't occur to them that women of--their profession are capable of intense loyalty or patriotism. The Yankees wouldn't take the word of a single nice Atlanta lady as to the whereabouts of the men who were supposed to be at the meeting tonight but they will take the word of--fancy ladies. And I think that between the word of honor of a Scallawag and a dozen fancy ladies, we may have a chance of getting the men off."
There was a sardonic grin on his face at the last words but it faded as Melanie turned up to him a face that blazed with gratitude.
"Captain Butler, you are so smart! I wouldn't have cared if you'd said they were in hell itself tonight, if it saves them! For I know and every one else who matters knows that my husband was never in a dreadful place like that!"
"Well--" began Rhett awkwardly, "as a matter of fact, he was at Belle's tonight."
Melanie drew herself up coldly.
"You can never make me believe such a lie!"
"Please, Miss Melly! Let me explain! When I got out to the old Sullivan place tonight, I found Mr. Wilkes wounded and with him were Hugh Elsing and Dr. Meade and old man Merriwether--"
"Not the old gentleman!" cried Scarlett.
"Men are never too old to be fools. And your Uncle Henry--"
"Oh, mercy!" cried Aunt Pitty.
"The others had scattered after the brush with the troops and the crowd that stuck together had come to the Sullivan place to hide their robes in the chimney and to see how badly Mr. Wilkes was hurt. But for his wound, they'd be headed for Texas by now--all of them--but he couldn't ride far and they wouldn't leave him. It was necessary to prove that they had been somewhere instead of where they had been, and so I took them by back ways to Belle Watling's."
"Oh--I see. I do beg your pardon for my rudeness, Captain Butler. I see now it was necessary to take them there but-- Oh, Captain Butler, people must have seen you going in!"
"No one saw us. We went in through a private back entrance that opens on the railroad tracks. It's always dark and locked."
"I have a key," said Rhett laconically, and his eyes met Melanie's evenly.
As the full impact of the meaning smote her, Melanie became so embarrassed that she fumbled with the bandage until it slid off the wound entirely.
"I did not mean to pry--" she said in a muffled voice, her white face reddening, as she hastily pressed the towel back into place.
"I regret having to tell a lady such a thing."
"Then it's true!" thought Scarlett with an odd pang. "Then he does live with that dreadful Watling creature! He does own her house!"
"I saw Belle and explained to her. We gave her a list of the men who were out tonight and she and her girls will testify that they were all in her house tonight. Then to make our exit more conspicuous, she called the two desperadoes who keep order at her place and had us dragged downstairs, fighting, and through the barroom and thrown out into the street as brawling drunks who were disturbing the place."
He grinned reminiscently. "Dr. Meade did not make a very convincing drunk. It hurt his dignity to even be in such a place. But your Uncle Henry and old man Merriwether were excellent. The stage lost two great actors when they did not take up the drama. They seemed to enjoy the affair. I'm afraid your Uncle Henry has a black eye due to Mr. Merriwether's zeal for his part. He--"
The back door swung open and India entered, followed by old Dr. Dean, his long white hair tumbled, his worn leather bag bulging under his cape. He nodded briefly but without words to those present and quickly lifted the bandage from Ashley's shoulder.
"Too high for the lung," he said. "If it hasn't splintered his collar bone it's not so serious. Get me plenty of towels, ladies, and cotton if you have it, and some brandy."
Rhett took the lamp from Scarlett and set it on the table as Melanie and India sped about, obeying the doctor's orders.
"You can't do anything here. Come into the parlor by the fire." He took her arm and propelled her from the room. There was a gentleness foreign to him in both hand and voice. "You've had a rotten day, haven't you?"
She allowed herself to be led into the front room and though she stood on the hearth rug in front of the fire she began to shiver. The bubble of suspicion in her breast was swelling larger now. It was more than a suspicion. It was almost a certainty and a terrible certainty. She looked up into Rhett's immobile face and for a moment she could not speak. Then:
"Was Frank at--Belle Watling's?"
Rhett's voice was blunt.
"Archie's carrying him to the vacant lot near Belle's. He's dead. Shot through the head."