"Darling, I don't want any explanation from you and I won't listen to one," said Melanie firmly as she gently laid a small hand across Scarlett's tortured lips and stilled her words. "You insult yourself and Ashley and me by even thinking there could be need of explanations between us. Why, we three have been--have been like soldiers fighting the world together for so many years that I'm ashamed of you for thinking idle gossip could come between us. Do you think I'd believe that you and my Ashley-- Why, the idea! Don't you realize I know you better than anyone in the world knows you? Do you think I've forgotten all the wonderful, unselfish things you've done for Ashley and Beau and me--everything from saving my life to keeping us from starving! Do you think I could remember you walking in a furrow behind that Yankee's horse almost barefooted and with your hands blistered--just so the baby and I could have something to eat--and then believe such dreadful things about you? I don't want to hear a word out of you, Scarlett O'Hara. Not a word."
"But--" Scarlett fumbled and stopped.
Rhett had left town the hour before with Bonnie and Prissy, and desolation was added to Scarlett's shame and anger. The additional burden of her guilt with Ashley and Melanie's defense was more than she could bear. Had Melanie believed India and Archie, cut her at the reception or even greeted her frigidly, then she could have held her head high and fought back with every weapon in her armory. But now, with the memory of Melanie standing between her and social ruin, standing like a thin, shining blade, with trust and a fighting light in her eyes, there seemed nothing honest to do but confess. Yes, blurt out everything from that far-off beginning on the sunny porch at Tara.
She was driven by a conscience which, though long suppressed, could still rise up, an active Catholic conscience. "Confess your sins and do penance for them in sorrow and contrition," Ellen had told her a hundred times and, in this crisis, Ellen's religious training came back and gripped her. She would confess--yes, everything, every look and word, those few caresses--and then God would ease her pain and give her peace. And, for her penance, there would be the dreadful sight of Melanie's face changing from fond love and trust to incredulous horror and repulsion. Oh, that was too hard a penance, she thought in anguish, to have to live out her life remembering Melanie's face, knowing that Melanie knew all the pettiness, the meanness, the two-faced disloyalty and the hypocrisy that were in her.
Once, the thought of flinging the truth tauntingly in Melanie's face and seeing the collapse of her fool's paradise had been an intoxicating one, a gesture worth everything she might lose thereby. But now, all that had changed overnight and there was nothing she desired less. Why this should be she did not know. There was too great a tumult of conflicting ideas in her mind for her to sort them out. She only knew that as she had once desired to keep her mother thinking her modest, kind, pure of heart, so she now passionately desired to keep Melanie's high opinion. She only knew that she did not care what the world thought of her or what Ashley or Rhett thought of her, but Melanie must not think her other than she had always thought her.
She dreaded to tell Melanie the truth but one of her rare honest instincts arose, an instinct that would not let her masquerade in false colors before the woman who had fought her battles for her. So she had hurried to Melanie that morning, as soon as Rhett and Bonnie had left the house.
But at her first tumbled-out words: "Melly, I must explain about the other day--" Melanie had imperiously stopped her. Scarlett looking shamefaced into the dark eyes that were flashing with love and anger, knew with a sinking heart that the peace and calm following confession could never be hers. Melanie had forever cut off that line of action by her first words. With one of the few adult emotions Scarlett had ever had, she realized that to unburden her own tortured heart would be the purest selfishness. She would be ridding herself of her burden and laying it on the heart of an innocent and trusting person. She owed Melanie a debt for her championship and that debt could only be paid with silence. What cruel payment it would be to wreck Melanie's life with the unwelcome knowledge that her husband was unfaithful to her, and her beloved friend a party to it!
"I can't tell her," she thought miserably. "Never, not even if my conscience kills me." She remembered irrelevantly Rhett's drunken remark: "She can't conceive of dishonor in anyone she loves . . . let that be your cross."
Yes, it would be her cross, until she died, to keep this torment silent within her, to wear the hair shirt of shame, to feel it chafing her at every tender look and gesture Melanie would make throughout the years, to subdue forever the impulse to cry: "Don't be so kind! Don't fight for me! I'm not worth it!"
"If you only weren't such a fool, such a sweet, trusting, simple- minded fool, it wouldn't be so hard," she thought desperately. "I've toted lots of weary loads but this is going to be the heaviest and most galling load I've ever toted."
Melanie sat facing her, in a low chair, her feet firmly planted on an ottoman so high that her knees stuck up like a child's, a posture she would never have assumed had not rage possessed her to the point of forgetting proprieties. She held a line of tatting in her hands and she was driving the shining needle back and forth as furiously as though handling a rapier in a duel.
Had Scarlett been possessed of such an anger, she would have been stamping both feet and roaring like Gerald in his finest days, calling on God to witness the accursed duplicity and knavishness of mankind and uttering blood-curdling threats of retaliation. But only by the flashing needle and the delicate brows drawn down toward her nose did Melanie indicate that she was inwardly seething. Her voice was cool and her words were more close clipped than usual. But the forceful words she uttered were foreign to Melanie who seldom voiced an opinion at all and never an unkind word. Scarlett realized suddenly that the Wilkeses and the Hamiltons were capable of furies equal to and surpassing those of the O'Haras.
"I've gotten mighty tired of hearing people criticize you, darling," Melanie said, "and this is the last straw and I'm going to do something about it. All this has happened because people are jealous of you, because you are so smart and successful. You've succeeded where lots of men, even, have failed. Now, don't be vexed with me, dear, for saying that. I don't mean you've ever been unwomanly or unsexed yourself, as lots of folks have said. Because you haven't. People just don't understand you and people can't bear for women to be smart. But your smartness and your success don't give people the right to say that you and Ashley-- Stars above!"
The soft vehemence of this last ejaculation would have been, upon a man's lips, profanity of no uncertain meaning. Scarlett stared at her, alarmed by so unprecedented an outburst.
"And for them to come to me with the filthy lies they'd concocted-- Archie, India, Mrs. Elsing! How did they dare? Of course, Mrs. Elsing didn't come here. No, indeed, she didn't have the courage. But she's always hated you, darling, because you were more popular than Fanny. And she was so incensed at your demoting Hugh from the management of the mill. But you were quite right in demoting him. He's just a piddling, do-less, good-for-nothing!" Swiftly Melanie dismissed the playmate of her childhood and the beau of her teen years. "I blame myself about Archie. I shouldn't have given the old scoundrel shelter. Everyone told me so but I wouldn't listen. He didn't like you, dear, because of the convicts, but who is he to criticize you? A murderer, and the murderer of a woman, too! And after all I've done for him, he comes to me and tells me-- I shouldn't have been a bit sorry if Ashley had shot him. Well, I packed him off with a large flea in his ear, I can tell you! And he's left town.
"And as for India, the vile thing! Darling, I couldn't help noticing from the first time I saw you two together that she was jealous of you and hated you, because you were so much prettier and had so many beaux. And she hated you especially about Stuart Tarleton. And she's brooded about Stuart so much that--well, I hate to say it about Ashley's sister but I think her mind has broken with thinking so much! There's no other explanation for her action. . . . I told her never to put foot in this house again and that if I heard her breathe so vile an insinuation I would--I would call her a liar in public!"
Melanie stopped speaking and abruptly the anger left her face and sorrow swamped it. Melanie had all that passionate clan loyalty peculiar to Georgians and the thought of a family quarrel tore her heart. She faltered for a moment. But Scarlett was dearest, Scarlett came first in her heart, and she went on loyally:
"She's always been jealous because I loved you best, dear. She'll never come in this house again and I'll never put foot under any roof that receives her. Ashley agrees with me, but it's just about broken his heart that his own sister should tell such a--"
At the mention of Ashley's name, Scarlett's overwrought nerves gave way and she burst into tears. Would she never stop stabbing him to the heart? Her only thought had been to make him happy and safe but at every turn she seemed to hurt him. She had wrecked his life, broken his pride and self-respect, shattered that inner peace, that calm based on integrity. And now she had alienated him from the sister he loved so dearly. To save her own reputation and his wife's happiness, India had to be sacrificed, forced into the light of a lying, half-crazed, jealous old maid--India who was absolutely justified in every suspicion she had ever harbored and every accusing word she had uttered. Whenever Ashley looked into India's eyes, he would see the truth shining there, truth and reproach and the cold contempt of which the Wilkeses were masters.
Knowing how Ashley valued honor above his life, Scarlett knew he must be writhing. He, like Scarlett, was forced to shelter behind Melanie's skirts. While Scarlett realized the necessity for this and knew that the blame for his false position lay mostly at her own door, still--still-- Womanlike she would have respected Ashley more, had he shot Archie and admitted everything to Melanie and the world. She knew she was being unfair but she was too miserable to care for such fine points. Some of Rhett's taunting words of contempt came back to her and she wondered if indeed Ashley had played the manly part in this mess. And, for the first time, some of the bright glow which had enveloped him since the first day she fell in love with him began to fade imperceptibly. The tarnish of shame and guilt that enveloped her spread to him as well. Resolutely she tried to fight off this thought but it only made her cry harder.
"Don't! Don't!" cried Melanie, dropping her tatting and flinging herself onto the sofa and drawing Scarlett's head down onto her shoulder. "I shouldn't have talked about it all and distressed you so. I know how dreadfully you must feel and we'll never mention it again. No, not to each other or to anybody. It'll be as though it never happened. But," she added with quiet venom, "I'm going to show India and Mrs. Elsing what's what. They needn't think they can spread lies about my husband and my sister-in-law. I'm going to fix it so neither of them can hold up their heads in Atlanta. And anybody who believes them or receives them is my enemy."
Scarlett, looking sorrowfully down the long vista of years to come, knew that she was the cause of a feud that would split the town and the family for generations.
Melanie was as good as her word. She never again mentioned the subject to Scarlett or to Ashley. Nor, for that matter, would she discuss it with anyone. She maintained an air of cool indifference that could speedily change to icy formality if anyone even dared hint about the matter. During the weeks that followed her surprise party, while Rhett was mysteriously absent and the town in a frenzied state of gossip, excitement and partisanship, she gave no quarter to Scarlett's detractors, whether they were her old friends or her blood kin. She did not speak, she acted.
She stuck by Scarlett's side like a cocklebur. She made Scarlett go to the store and the lumber yard, as usual, every morning and she went with her. She insisted that Scarlett go driving in the afternoons, little though Scarlett wished to expose herself to the eager curious gaze of her fellow townspeople. And Melanie sat in the carriage beside her. Melanie took her calling with her on formal afternoons, gently forcing her into parlors in which Scarlett had not sat for more than two years. And Melanie, with a fierce "love-me-love-my-dog" look on her face, made converse with astounded hostesses.
She made Scarlett arrive early on these afternoons and remain until the last callers had gone, thereby depriving the ladies of the opportunity for enjoyable group discussion and speculation, a matter which caused some mild indignation. These calls were an especial torment to Scarlett but she dared not refuse to go with Melanie. She hated to sit amid crowds of women who were secretly wondering if she had been actually taken in adultery. She hated the knowledge that these women would not have spoken to her, had it not been that they loved Melanie and did not want to lose her friendship. But Scarlett knew that, having once received her, they could not cut her thereafter.
It was characteristic of the regard in which Scarlett was held that few people based their defense or their criticism of her on her personal integrity. "I wouldn't put much beyond her," was the universal attitude. Scarlett had made too many enemies to have many champions now. Her words and her actions rankled in too many hearts for many people to care whether this scandal hurt her or not. But everyone cared violently about hurting Melanie or India and the storm revolved around them, rather than Scarlett, centering upon the one question--"Did India lie?"
Those who espoused Melanie's side pointed triumphantly to the fact that Melanie was constantly with Scarlett these days. Would a woman of Melanie's high principles champion the cause of a guilty woman, especially a woman guilty with her own husband? No, indeed! India was just a cracked old maid who hated Scarlett and lied about her and induced Archie and Mrs. Elsing to believe her lies.
But, questioned India's adherents, if Scarlett isn't guilty, where is Captain Butler? Why isn't he here at his wife's side, lending her the strength of his countenance? That was an unanswerable question and, as the weeks went by and the rumor spread that Scarlett was pregnant, the pro-India group nodded with satisfaction. It couldn't be Captain Butler's baby, they said. For too long the fact of their estrangement had been public property. For too long the town had been scandalized by the separate bedrooms.
So the gossip ran, tearing the town apart, tearing apart, too, the close-knit clan of Hamiltons, Wilkeses, Burrs, Whitemans and Winfields. Everyone in the family connection was forced to take sides. There was no neutral ground. Melanie with cool dignity and India with acid bitterness saw to that. But no matter which side the relatives took, they all were resentful that Scarlett should have been the cause of the family breach. None of them thought her worth it. And no matter which side they took, the relatives heartily deplored the fact that India had taken it upon herself to wash the family dirty linen so publicly and involve Ashley in so degrading a scandal. But now that she had spoken, many rushed to her defense and took her side against Scarlett, even as others, loving Melanie, stood by her and Scarlett.
Half of Atlanta was kin to or claimed kin with Melanie and India. The ramifications of cousins, double cousins, cousins-in-law and kissing cousins were so intricate and involved that no one but a born Georgian could ever unravel them. They had always been a clannish tribe, presenting an unbroken phalanx of overlapping shields to the world in time of stress, no matter what their private opinions of the conduct of individual kinsmen might be. With the exception of the guerrilla warfare carried on by Aunt Pitty against Uncle Henry, which had been a matter for hilarious laughter within the family for years, there had never been an open breach in the pleasant relations. They were gentle, quiet spoken, reserved people and not given to even the amiable bickering that characterized most Atlanta families.
But now they were split in twain and the town was privileged to witness cousins of the fifth and sixth degree taking sides in the most shattering scandal Atlanta had ever seen. This worked great hardship and strained the tact and forbearance of the unrelated half of the town, for the India-Melanie feud made a rupture in practically every social organization. The Thalians, the Sewing Circle for the Widows and Orphans of the Confederacy, the Association for the Beautification of the Graves of Our Glorious Dead, the Saturday Night Musical Circle, the Ladies' Evening Cotillion Society, the Young Men's Library were all involved. So were four churches with their Ladies' Aid and Missionary societies. Great care had to be taken to avoid putting members of warring factions on the same committees.
On their regular afternoons at home, Atlanta matrons were in anguish from four to six o'clock for fear Melanie and Scarlett would call at the same time India and her loyal kin were in their parlors.
Of all the family, poor Aunt Pitty suffered the most. Pitty, who desired nothing except to live comfortably amid the love of her relatives, would have been very pleased, in this matter, to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. But neither the hares nor the hounds would permit this.
India lived with Aunt Pitty and, if Pitty sided with Melanie, as she wished to do, India would leave. And if India left her, what would poor Pitty do then? She could not live alone. She would have to get a stranger to live with her or she would have to close up her house and go and live with Scarlett. Aunt Pitty felt vaguely that Captain Butler would not care for this, or she would have to go and live with Melanie and sleep in the little cubbyhole that was Beau's nursery.
Pitty was not overly fond of India, for India intimidated her with her dry, stiff-necked ways and her passionate convictions. But she made it possible for Pitty to keep her own comfortable establishment and Pitty was always swayed more by considerations of personal comfort than by moral issues. And so India remained.
But her presence in the house made Aunt Pitty a storm center, for both Scarlett and Melanie took that to mean that she sided with India. Scarlett curtly refused to contribute more money to Pitty's establishment as long as India was under the same roof. Ashley sent India money every week and every week India proudly and silently returned it, much to the old lady's alarm and regret. Finances at the red-brick house would have been in a deplorable state, but for Uncle Henry's intervention, and it humiliated Pitty to take money from him.
Pitty loved Melanie better than anyone in the world, except herself, and now Melly acted like a cool, polite stranger. Though she practically lived in Pitty's back yard, she never once came through the hedge and she used to run in and out a dozen times a day. Pitty called on her and wept and protested her love and devotion, but Melanie always refused to discuss matters and never returned the calls.
Pitty knew very well what she owed Scarlett--almost her very existence. Certainly in those black days after the war when Pitty was faced with the alternative of Brother Henry or starvation, Scarlett had kept her home for her, fed her, clothed her and enabled her to hold up her head in Atlanta society. And since Scarlett had married and moved into her own home, she had been generosity itself. And that frightening fascinating Captain Butler--frequently after he called with Scarlett, Pitty found brand-new purses stuffed with bills on her console table or lace handkerchiefs knotted about gold pieces which had been slyly slipped into her sewing box. Rhett always vowed he knew nothing about them and accused her, in a very unrefined way, of having a secret admirer, usually the be-whiskered Grandpa Merriwether.
Yes, Pitty owed love to Melanie, security to Scarlett, and what did she owe India? Nothing, except that India's presence kept her from having to break up her pleasant life and make decisions for herself. It was all most distressing and too, too vulgar and Pitty, who had never made a decision for herself in her whole life, simply let matters go on as they were and as a result spent much time in uncomforted tears.
In the end, some people believed whole-heartedly in Scarlett's innocence, not because of her own personal virtue but because Melanie believed in it. Some had mental reservations but they were courteous to Scarlett and called on her because they loved Melanie and wished to keep her love. India's adherents bowed coldly and some few cut her openly. These last were embarrassing, infuriating, but Scarlett realized that, except for Melanie's championship and her quick action, the face of the whole town would have been set against her and she would have been an outcast.