Scarlett was in Marietta when Rhett's urgent telegram came. There was a train leaving for Atlanta in ten minutes and she caught it, carrying no baggage except her reticule and leaving Wade and Ella at the hotel with Prissy.
Atlanta was only twenty miles away but the train crawled interminably through the wet early autumn afternoon, stopping at every bypath for passengers. Panic stricken at Rhett's message, mad for speed, Scarlett almost screamed at every halt. Down the road lumbered the train through forests faintly, tiredly gold, past red hillsides still scarred with serpentine breastworks, past old battery emplacements and weed-grown craters, down the road over which Johnston's men had retreated so bitterly, fighting every step of the way. Each station, each crossroad the conductor called was the name of a battle, the site of a skirmish. Once they would have stirred Scarlett to memories of terror but now she had no thought for them.
Rhett's message had been:
"Mrs. Wilkes ill. Come home immediately."
Twilight had fallen when the train pulled into Atlanta and a light misting rain obscured the town. The gas street lamps glowed dully, blobs of yellow in the fog. Rhett was waiting for her at the depot with the carriage. The very sight of his face frightened her more than his telegram. She had never seen it so expressionless before.
"She isn't--" she cried.
"No. She's still alive." Rhett assisted her into the carriage. "To Mrs. Wilkes' house and as fast as you can go," he ordered the coachman.
"What's the matter with her? I didn't know she was ill. She looked all right last week. Did she have an accident? Oh, Rhett, it isn't really as serious as you--"
"She's dying," said Rhett and his voice had no more expression than his face. "She wants to see you."
"Not Melly! Oh, not Melly! What's happened to her?"
"She's had a miscarriage."
"A--a-mis--but, Rhett, she--" Scarlett floundered. This information on top of the horror of his announcement took her breath away.
"You did not know she was going to have a baby?"
She could not even shake her head.
"Ah, well. I suppose not. I don't think she told anyone. She wanted it to be a surprise. But I knew."
"You knew? But surely she didn't tell you!"
"She didn't have to tell me. I knew. She's been so--happy these last two months I knew it couldn't mean anything else."
"But Rhett, the doctor said it would kill her to have another baby!"
"It has killed her," said Rhett. And to the coachman: "For God's sake, can't you drive faster?"
"But, Rhett, she can't be dying! I--I didn't and I--"
"She hasn't your strength. She's never had any strength. She's never had anything but heart."
The carriage rocked to a standstill in front of the flat little house and Rhett handed her out. Trembling, frightened, a sudden feeling of loneliness upon her, she clasped his arm.
"You're coming in, Rhett?"
"No," he said and got back into the carriage.
She flew up the front steps, across the porch and threw open the door. There, in the yellow lamplight were Ashley, Aunt Pitty and India. Scarlett thought: "What's India doing here? Melanie told her never to set foot in this house again." The three rose at the sight of her, Aunt Pitty biting her trembling lips to still them, India staring at her, grief stricken and without hate. Ashley looked dull as a sleepwalker and, as he came to her and put his hand upon her arm, he spoke like a sleepwalker.
"She asked for you," he said. "She asked for you."
"Can I see her now?" She turned toward the closed door of Melanie's room.
"No. Dr. Meade is in there now. I'm glad you've come, Scarlett."
"I came as quickly as I could." Scarlett shed her bonnet and her cloak. "The train-- She isn't really-- Tell me, she's better, isn't she, Ashley? Speak to me! Don't look like that! She isn't really--"
"She kept asking for you," said Ashley and looked her in the eyes. And, in his eyes she saw the answer to her question. For a moment, her heart stood still and then a queer fear, stronger than anxiety, stronger than grief, began to beat in her breast. It can't be true, she thought vehemently, trying to push back the fear. Doctors make mistakes. I won't think it's true. I can't let myself think it's true. I'll scream if I do. I must think of something else.
"I don't believe it!" she cried stormily, looking into the three drawn faces as though defying them to contradict her. "And why didn't Melanie tell me? I'd never have gone to Marietta if I'd known!"
Ashley's eyes awoke and were tormented.
"She didn't tell anyone, Scarlett, especially not you. She was afraid you'd scold her if you knew. She wanted to wait three--till she thought it safe and sure and then surprise you all and laugh and say how wrong the doctors had been. And she was so happy. You know how she was about babies--how much she's wanted a little girl. And everything went so well until--and then for no reason at all--"
The door of Melanie's room opened quietly and Dr. Meade came out into the hall, shutting the door behind him. He stood for a moment, his gray beard sunk on his chest, and looked at the suddenly frozen four. His gaze fell last on Scarlett. As he came toward her, she saw that there was grief in his eyes and also dislike and contempt that flooded her frightened heart with guilt.
"So you finally got here," he said.
Before she could answer, Ashley started toward the closed door.
"Not you, yet," said the doctor. "She wants to speak to Scarlett."
"Doctor," said India, putting a hand on his sleeve. Though her voice was toneless, it plead more loudly than words. "Let me see her for a moment. I've been here since this morning, waiting, but she-- Let me see her for a moment. I want to tell her--must tell her--that I was wrong about--something."
She did not look at Ashley or Scarlett as she spoke, but Dr. Meade allowed his cold glance to fall on Scarlett.
"I'll see, Miss India," he said briefly. "But only if you'll give me your word not to use up her strength telling her you were wrong. She knows you were wrong and it will only worry her to hear you apologize."
Pitty began, timidly: "Please, Dr. Meade--"
"Miss Pitty, you know you'd scream and faint."
Pitty drew up her stout little body and gave the doctor glance for glance. Her eyes were dry and there was dignity in every curve.
"Well, all right, honey, a little later," said the doctor, more kindly. "Come, Scarlett."
They tiptoed down the hall to the closed door and the doctor put his hand on Scarlett's shoulder in a hard grip.
"Now, Miss," he whispered briefly, "no hysterics and no deathbed confessions from you or, before God, I will wring your neck! Don't give me any of your innocent stares. You know what I mean. Miss Melly is going to die easily and you aren't going to ease your own conscience by telling her anything about Ashley. I've never harmed a woman yet, but if you say anything now--you'll answer to me."
He opened the door before she could answer, pushed her into the room and closed the door behind her. The little room, cheaply furnished in black walnut, was in semidarkness, the lamp shaded with a newspaper. It was as small and prim a room as a schoolgirl's, the narrow little low-backed bed, the plain net curtains looped back, the clean faded rag rugs on the floor, were so different from the lavishness of Scarlett's own bedroom with its towering carved furniture, pink brocade draperies and rose-strewn carpet.
Melanie lay in the bed, her figure under the counterpane shrunken and flat like a little girl's. Two black braids fell on either side of her face and her closed eyes were sunken in twin purple circles. At the sight of her Scarlett stood transfixed, leaning against the door. Despite the gloom of the room, she could see that Melanie's face was of a waxy yellow color. It was drained of life's blood and there was a pinched look about the nose. Until that moment, Scarlett had hoped Dr. Meade was mistaken. But now she knew. In the hospitals during the war she had seen too many faces wearing this pinched look not to know what it inevitably presaged.
Melanie was dying, but for a moment Scarlett's mind refused to take it in. Melanie could not die. It was impossible for her to die. God wouldn't let her die when she, Scarlett, needed her so much. Never before had it occurred to her that she needed Melanie. But now, the truth surged in, down to the deepest recesses of her soul. She had relied on Melanie, even as she had relied upon herself, and she had never known it. Now, Melanie was dying and Scarlett knew she could not get along without her. Now, as she tiptoed across the room toward the quiet figure, panic clutching at her heart, she knew that Melanie had been her sword and her shield, her comfort and her strength.
"I must hold her! I can't let her get away!" she thought and sank beside the bed with a rustle of skirts. Hastily she grasped the limp hand lying on the coverlet and was frightened anew by its chill.
"It's me, Melly," she said.
Melanie's eyes opened a slit and then, as if having satisfied herself that it was really Scarlett, she closed them again. After a pause she drew a breath and whispered:
"Beau--look after him."
Scarlett could only nod, a strangled feeling in her throat, and she gently pressed the hand she held by way of assent.
"I give him to you." There was the faintest trace of a smile. "I gave him to you, once before--'member?--before he was born."
Did she remember? Could she ever forget that time? Almost as clearly as if that dreadful day had returned, she could feel the stifling heat of the September noon, remembering her terror of the Yankees, hear the tramp of the retreating troops, recall Melanie's voice begging her to take the baby should she die--remember, too, how she had hated Melanie that day and hoped that she would die.
"I've killed her," she thought, in superstitious agony. "I wished so often she would die and God heard me and is punishing me."
"Oh, Melly, don't talk like that! You know you'll pull through this--"
"You know I promise. I'll treat him like he was my own boy."
"College?" asked Melanie's faint flat voice.
"Oh, yes! The university and Harvard and Europe and anything he wants--and--and--a pony--and music lessons-- Oh, please, Melly, do try! Do make an effort!"
The silence fell again and on Melanie's face there were signs of a struggle to gather strength to speak.
"Ashley," she said. "Ashley and you--" Her voice faltered into stillness.
At the mention of Ashley's name, Scarlett's heart stood still, cold as granite within her. Melanie had known all the time. Scarlett dropped her head on the coverlet and a sob that would not rise caught her throat with a cruel hand. Melanie knew. Scarlett was beyond shame now, beyond any feeling save a wild remorse that she had hurt this gentle creature throughout the long years. Melanie had known--and yet, she had remained her loyal friend. Oh, if she could only live those years over again! She would never even let her eyes meet those of Ashley.
"O God," she prayed rapidly, "do, please, let her live! I'll make it up to her. I'll be so good to her. I'll never even speak to Ashley again as long as I live, if You'll only let her get well!"
"Ashley," said Melanie feebly and her fingers reached out to touch Scarlett's bowed head. Her thumb and forefinger tugged with no more strength than that of a baby at Scarlett's hair. Scarlett knew what that meant, knew Melanie wanted her to look up. But she could not, could not meet Melanie's eyes and read that knowledge in them.
"Ashley," Melanie whispered again and Scarlett gripped herself. When she looked God in the face on the Day of Judgment and read her sentence in His eyes, it would not be as bad as this. Her soul cringed but she raised her head.
She saw only the same dark loving eyes, sunken and drowsy with death, the same tender mouth tiredly fighting pain for breath. No reproach was there, no accusation and no fear--only an anxiety that she might not find strength for words.
For a moment Scarlett was too stunned to even feel relief. Then, as she held Melanie's hand more closely, a flood of warm gratitude to God swept over her and, for the first time since her childhood, she said a humble, unselfish prayer.
"Thank You, God. I know I'm not worth it but thank You for not letting her know."
"What about Ashley, Melly?"
"You'll--look after him?"
"He catches cold--so easily."
There was a pause.
"Look after--his business--you understand?"
"Yes, I understand. I will."
She made a great effort.
Only death could have forced that disloyalty from Melanie.
"Look after him, Scarlett--but--don't ever let him know."
"I'll look after him and the business too, and I'll never let him know. I'll just kind of suggest things to him."
Melanie managed a small smile but it was a triumphant one as her eyes met Scarlett's again. Their glance sealed the bargain that the protection of Ashley Wilkes from a too harsh world was passing from one woman to another and that Ashley's masculine pride should never be humbled by this knowledge.
Now the struggle went out of the tired face as though with Scarlett's promise, ease had come to her.
"You're so smart--so brave--always been so good to me--"
At these words, the sob came freely to Scarlett's throat and she clapped her hand over her mouth. Now, she was going to bawl like a child and cry out: "I've been a devil! I've wronged you so! I never did anything for you! It was all for Ashley."
She rose to her feet abruptly, sinking her teeth into her thumb to regain her control. Rhett's words came back to her again, "She loves you. Let that be your cross." Well, the cross was heavier now. It was bad enough that she had tried by every art to take Ashley from her. But now it was worse that Melanie, who had trusted her blindly through life, was laying the same love and trust on her in death. No, she could not speak. She could not even say again: "Make an effort to live." She must let her go easily, without a struggle, without tears, without sorrow.
The door opened slightly and Dr. Meade stood on the threshold, beckoning imperiously. Scarlett bent over the bed, choking back her tears and taking Melanie's hand, laid it against her cheek.
"Good night," she said, and her voice was steadier than she thought it possibly could be.
"Promise me--" came the whisper, very softly now.
"Captain Butler--be kind to him. He--loves you so."
"Rhett?" thought Scarlett, bewildered, and the words meant nothing to her.
"Yes, indeed," she said automatically and, pressing a light kiss on the hand, laid it back on the bed.
"Tell the ladies to come in immediately," whispered the doctor as she passed through the door.
Through blurred eyes she saw India and Pitty follow the doctor into the room, holding their skirts close to their sides to keep them from rustling. The door closed behind them and the house was still. Ashley was nowhere to be seen. Scarlett leaned her head against the wall, like a naughty child in a corner, and rubbed her aching throat.
Behind that door, Melanie was going and, with her, the strength upon which she had relied unknowingly for so many years. Why, oh, why, had she not realized before this how much she loved and needed Melanie? But who would have thought of small plain Melanie as a tower of strength? Melanie who was shy to tears before strangers, timid about raising her voice in an opinion of her own, fearful of the disapproval of old ladies, Melanie who lacked the courage to say Boo to a goose? And yet--
Scarlett's mind went back through the years to the still, hot noon at Tara when gray smoke curled above a blue-clad body and Melanie stood at the top of the stairs with Charles' saber in her hand. Scarlett remembered that she had thought at the time: "How silly! Melly couldn't even heft that sword!" But now she knew that had the necessity arisen, Melanie would have charged down those stairs and killed the Yankee--or been killed herself.
Yes, Melanie had been there that day with a sword in her small hand, ready to do battle for her. And now, as Scarlett looked sadly back, she realized that Melanie had always been there beside her with a sword in her hand, unobtrusive as her own shadow, loving her, fighting for her with blind passionate loyalty, fighting Yankees, fire, hunger, poverty, public opinion and even her beloved blood kin.
Scarlett felt her courage and self-confidence ooze from her as she realized that the sword which had flashed between her and the world was sheathed forever.
"Melly is the only woman friend I ever had," she thought forlornly, "the only woman except Mother who really loved me. She's like Mother, too. Everyone who knew her has clung to her skirts."
Suddenly it was as if Ellen were lying behind that closed door, leaving the world for a second time. Suddenly she was standing at Tara again with the world about her ears, desolate with the knowledge that she could not face life without the terrible strength of the weak, the gentle, the tender hearted.
She stood in the hall, irresolute, frightened, and the glaring light of the fire in the sitting room threw tall dim shadows on the walls about her. The house was utterly still and the stillness soaked into her like a fine chill rain. Ashley! Where was Ashley?
She went toward the sitting room seeking him like a cold animal seeking the fire but he was not there. She must find him. She had discovered Melanie's strength and her dependence on it only to lose it in the moment of discovery but there was still Ashley left. There was Ashley who was strong and wise and comforting. In Ashley and his love lay strength upon which to lay her weakness, courage to bolster her fear, ease for her sorrow.
He must be in his room, she thought, and tiptoeing down the hall, she knocked softly. There was no answer, so she pushed the door open. Ashley was standing in front of the dresser, looking at a pair of Melanie's mended gloves. First he picked up one and looked at it, as though he had never seen it before. Then he laid it down gently, as though it were made of glass, and picked up the other one.
She said: "Ashley!" in a trembling voice and he turned slowly and looked at her. The drowsy aloofness had gone from his gray eyes and they were wide and unmasked. In them she saw fear that matched her own fear, helplessness weaker than her own, bewilderment more profound than she would ever know. The feeling of dread which had possessed her in the hall deepened as she saw his face. She went toward him.
"I'm frightened," she said. "Oh, Ashley, hold me. I'm so frightened!"
He made no move to her but stared, gripping the glove tightly in both hands. She put a hand on his arm and whispered: "What is it?"
His eyes searched her intently, hunting, hunting desperately for something he did not find. Finally he spoke and his voice was not his own.
"I was wanting you," he said. "I was going to run and find you-- run like a child wanting comfort--and I find a child, more frightened, running to me."
"Not you--you can't be frightened," she cried. "Nothing has ever frightened you. But I-- You've always been so strong--"
"If I've ever been strong, it was because she was behind me," he said, his voice breaking, and he looked down at the glove and smoothed the fingers. "And--and--all the strength I ever had is going with her."
There was such a note of wild despair in his low voice that she dropped her hand from his arm and stepped back. And in the heavy silence that fell between them, she felt that she really understood him for the first time in her life.
"Why--" she said slowly, "why, Ashley, you love her, don't you?"
He spoke as with an effort.
"She is the only dream I ever had that lived and breathed and did not die in the face of reality."
"Dreams!" she thought, an old irritation stirring. "Always dreams with him! Never common sense!"
With a heart that was heavy and a little bitter, she said: "You've been such a fool, Ashley. Why couldn't you see that she was worth a million of me?"
"Scarlett, please! If you only knew what I've gone through since the doctor--"
"What you've gone through! Don't you think that I-- Oh, Ashley, you should have known, years ago, that you loved her and not me! Why didn't you! Everything would have been so different, so-- Oh, you should have realized and not kept me dangling with all your talk about honor and sacrifice! If you'd told me, years ago, I'd have-- It would have killed me but I could have stood it somehow. But you wait till now, till Melly's dying, to find it out and now it's too late to do anything. Oh, Ashley, men are supposed to know such things--not women! You should have seen so clearly that you loved her all the time and only wanted me like--like Rhett wants that Watling woman!"
He winced at her words but his eyes still met hers, imploring silence, comfort. Every line of his face admitted the truth of her words. The very droop of his shoulders showed that his own self- castigation was more cruel than any she could give. He stood silent before her, clutching the glove as though it were an understanding hand and, in the stillness that followed her words, her indignation fell away and pity, tinged with contempt, took its place. Her conscience smote her. She was kicking a beaten and defenseless man--and she had promised Melanie that she would look after him.
"And just as soon as I promised her, I said mean, hurting things to him and there's no need for me to say them or for anyone to say them. He knows the truth and it's killing him," she thought desolately. "He's not grown up. He's a child, like me, and he's sick with fear at losing her. Melly knew how it would be--Melly knew him far better than I do. That's why she said look after him and Beau, in the same breath. How can Ashley ever stand this? I can stand it. I can stand anything. I've had to stand so much. But he can't--he can't stand anything without her."
"Forgive me, darling," she said gently, putting out her arms. "I know what you must be suffering. But remember, she doesn't know anything--she never even suspected-- God was that good to us."
He came to her quickly and his arms went round her blindly. She tiptoed to bring her warm cheek comfortingly against his and with one hand she smoothed the back of his hair.
"Don't cry, sweet. She'd want you to be brave. She'll want to see you in a moment and you must be brave. She mustn't see that you've been crying. It would worry her."
He held her in a grip that made breathing difficult and his choking voice was in her ear.
"What will I do? I can't--I can't live without her!"
"I can't either," she thought, shuddering away from the picture of the long years to come, without Melanie. But she caught herself in a strong grasp. Ashley was depending on her, Melanie was depending on her. As once before, in the moonlight at Tara, drunk, exhausted, she had thought: "Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them." Well, her shoulders were strong and Ashley's were not. She squared her shoulders for the load and with a calmness she was far from feeling, kissed his wet cheek without fever or longing or passion, only with cool gentleness.
"We shall manage--somehow," she said.
A door opened with sudden violence into the hall and Dr. Meade called with sharp urgency:
"My God! She's gone!" thought Scarlett. "And Ashley didn't get to tell her good-by! But maybe--"
"Hurry!" she cried aloud, giving him a push, for he stood staring like one stunned. "Hurry!"
She pulled open the door and motioned him through. Galvanized by her words, he ran into the hall, the glove still clasped closely in his hand. She heard his rapid steps for a moment and then the closing of a door.
She said, "My God!" again and walking slowly to the bed, sat down upon it and dropped her head in her hands. She was suddenly tired, more tired than she had ever been in all her life. With the sound of the closing door, the strain under which she had been laboring, the strain which had given her strength, suddenly snapped. She felt exhausted in body and drained of emotions. Now she felt no sorrow or remorse, no fear or amazement. She was tired and her mind ticked away dully, mechanically, as the clock on the mantel.
Out of the dullness, one thought arose. Ashley did not love her and had never really loved her and the knowledge did not hurt. It should hurt. She should be desolate, broken hearted, ready to scream at fate. She had relied upon his love for so long. It had upheld her through so many dark places. Yet, there the truth was. He did not love her and she did not care. She did not care because she did not love him. She did not love him and so nothing he could do or say could hurt her.
She lay down on the bed and put her head on the pillow tiredly. Useless to try to combat the idea, useless to say to herself: "But I do love him. I've loved him for years. Love can't change to apathy in a minute."
But it could change and it had changed.
"He never really existed at all, except in my imagination," she thought wearily. "I loved something I made up, something that's just as dead as Melly is. I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it. And when Ashley came riding along, so handsome, so different, I put that suit on him and made him wear it whether it fitted him or not. And I wouldn't see what he really was. I kept on loving the pretty clothes--and not him at all."
Now she could look back down the long years and see herself in green flowered dimity, standing in the sunshine at Tara, thrilled by the young horseman with his blond hair shining like a silver helmet. She could see so clearly now that he was only a childish fancy, no more important really than her spoiled desire for the aquamarine earbobs she had coaxed out of Gerald. For, once she owned the earbobs, they had lost their value, as everything except money lost its value once it was hers. And so he, too, would have become cheap if, in those first far-away days, she had ever had the satisfaction of refusing to marry him. If she had ever had him at her mercy, seen him grown passionate, importunate, jealous, sulky, pleading, like the other boys, the wild infatuation which had possessed her would have passed, blowing away as lightly as mist before sunshine and light wind when she met a new man.
"What a fool I've been," she thought bitterly. "And now I've got to pay for it. What I've wished for so often has happened. I've wished Melly was dead so I could have him. And now she's dead and I've got him and I don't want him. His damned honor will make him ask me if I want to divorce Rhett and marry him. Marry him? I wouldn't have him on a silver platter! But, just the same I've got him round my neck for the rest of my life. As long as I live I'll have to look after him and see that he doesn't starve and that people don't hurt his feelings. He'll be just another child, clinging to my skirts. I've lost my lover and I've got another child. And if I hadn't promised Melly, I'd--I wouldn't care if I never saw him again."