On an afternoon of the following week, Scarlett came home from the hospital weary and indignant. She was tired from standing on her feet all morning and irritable because Mrs. Merriwether had scolded her sharply for sitting on a soldier’s bed while she dressed his wounded arm. Aunt Pitty and Melanie, bonneted in their best, were on the porch with Wade and Prissy, ready for their weekly round of calls. Scarlett asked to be excused from accompanying them and went upstairs to her room.
When the last sound of carriage wheels had died away and she knew the family was safely out of sight, she slipped quietly into Melanie’s room and turned the key in the lock. It was a prim, virginal little room and it lay still and warm in the slanting rays of the four-o’clock sun. The floors were glistening and bare except for a few bright rag rugs, and the white walls unornamented save for one corner which Melanie had fitted up as a shrine.
Here, under a draped Confederate flag, hung the gold-hilted saber that Melanie’s father had carried in the Mexican War, the same saber Charles had worn away to war. Charles’ sash and pistol belt hung there too, with his revolver in the holster. Between the saber and the pistol was a daguerreotype of Charles himself, very stiff and proud in his gray uniform, his great brown eyes shining out of the frame and a shy smile on his lips.
Scarlett did not even glance at the picture but went unhesitatingly across the room to the square rosewood writing box that stood on the table beside the narrow bed. From it she took a pack of letters tied together with a blue ribbon, addressed in Ashley’s hand to Melanie. On the top was the letter which had come that morning and this one she opened.
When Scarlett first began secretly reading these letters, she had been so stricken of conscience and so fearful of discovery she could hardly open the envelopes for trembling. Now, her never-too-scrupulous sense of honor was dulled by repetition of the offense and even fear of discovery had subsided. Occasionally, she thought with a sinking heart, “What would Mother say if she knew?” She knew Ellen would rather see her dead than know her guilty of such dishonor. This had worried Scarlett at first, for she still wanted to be like her mother in every respect. But the temptation to read the letters was too great and she put the thought of Ellen out of her mind. She had become adept at putting unpleasant thoughts out of her mind these days. She had learned to say, “I won’t think of this or that bothersome thought now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Generally when tomorrow came, the thought either did not occur at all or it was so attenuated by the delay it was not very troublesome. So the matter of Ashley’s letters did not lie very heavily on her conscience.
Melanie was always generous with the letters, reading parts of them aloud to Aunt Pitty and Scarlett. But it was the part she did not read that tormented Scarlett, that drove her to surreptitious reading of her sister-inlaw’s mail. She had to know if Ashley had come to love his wife since marrying her. She had to know if he even pretended to love her. Did he address tender endearments to her? What sentiments did he express and with what warmth?
She carefully smoothed out the letter.
Ashley’s small even writing leaped up at her as she read, “My dear wife,” and she breathed in relief. He wasn’t calling Melanie “Darling” or “Sweetheart” yet.
“My Dear wife: You write me saying you are alarmed lest I be concealing my real thoughts from you and you ask me what is occupying my mind these days —”
“Mother of God!” thought Scarlett, in a panic of guilt. “‘Concealing his real thoughts.’ Can Melly have read his mind? Or my mind? Does she suspect that he and I—”
Her hands trembled with fright as she held the letter closer, but as she read the next paragraph she relaxed.
“Dear Wife, if I have concealed aught from you it is because I did not wish to lay a burden on your shoulders, to add to your worries for my physical safety with those of my mental turmoil. But I can keep nothing from you, for you know me too well. Do not be alarmed. I have no wound. I have not been ill. I have enough to eat and occasionally a bed to sleep in. A soldier can ask for no more. But, Melanie, heavy thoughts lie on my heart and I will open my heart to you.
“These summer nights I lie awake, long after the camp is sleeping, and I look up at the stars and, over and over, I wonder, ‘Why are you here, Ashley Wilkes? What are you fighting for?’
“Not for honor and glory, certainly. War is a dirty business and I do not like dirt. I am not a soldier and I have no desire to seek the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. Yet, here I am at the wars — whom God never intended to be other than a studious country gentleman. For, Melanie, bugles do not stir my blood nor drums entice my feet and I see too clearly that we have been betrayed, betrayed by our arrogant Southern selves, believing that one of us could whip a dozen Yankees, believing that King Cotton could rule the world. Betrayed, too, by words and catch phrases, prejudices and hatreds coming from the mouths of those highly placed, those men whom we respected and revered —‘King Cotton, Slavery, States’ Rights, Damn Yankees.’
“And so when I lie on my blanket and look up at the stars and say ‘What are you fighting for?’ I think of States’ Rights and cotton and the darkies and the Yankees whom we have been bred to hate, and I know that none of these is the reason why I am fighting. Instead, I see Twelve Oaks and remember how the moonlight slants across the white columns, and the unearthly way the magnolias look, opening under the moon, and how the climbing roses make the side porch shady even at the hottest noon. And I see Mother, sewing there, as she did when I was a little boy. And I hear the darkies coming home across the fields at dusk, tired and singing and ready for supper, and the sound of the windlass as the bucket goes down into the cool well. And there’s the long view down the road to the river, across the cotton fields, and the mist rising from the bottom lands in the twilight. And that is why I’m here who have no love of death or misery or glory and no hatred for anyone. Perhaps that is what is called patriotism, love of home and country. But Melanie, it goes deeper than that. For, Melanie, these things I have named are but the symbols of the thing for which I risk my life, symbols of the kind of life I love. For I am fighting for the old days, the old ways I love so much but which, I fear, are now gone forever, no matter how the die may fall. For, win or lose, we lose just the same.
“If we win this war and have the Cotton Kingdom of our dreams, we still have lost, for we will become a different people and the old quiet ways will go. The world will be at our doors clamoring for cotton and we can command our own price. Then, I fear, we will become like the Yankees, at whose money-making activities, acquisitiveness and commercialism we now sneer. And if we lose, Melanie, if we lose!
“I am not afraid of danger or capture or wounds or even death, if death must come, but I do fear that once this war is over, we will never get back to the old times. And I belong in those old times. I do not belong in this mad present of killing and I fear I will not fit into any future, try though I may. Nor will you, my dear, for you and I are of the same blood. I do not know what the future will bring, but it cannot be as beautiful or as satisfying as the past.
“I lie and look at the boys sleeping near me and I wonder if the twins or Alex or Cade think these same thoughts. I wonder if they know they are fighting for a Cause that was lost the minute the first shot was fired, for our Cause is really our own way of living and that is gone already. But I do not think they think these things and they are lucky.
“I had not thought of this for us when I asked you to marry me. I had thought of life going on at Twelve Oaks as it had always done, peacefully, easily, unchanging. We are alike, Melanie, loving the same quiet things, and I saw before us a long stretch of uneventful years in which to read, hear music and dream. But not this! Never this! That this could happen to us all, this wrecking of old ways, this bloody slaughter and hate! Melanie, nothing is worth it — States’ Rights, nor slaves, nor cotton. Nothing is worth what is happening to us now and what may happen, for if the Yankees whip us the future will be one of incredible horror. And, my dear, they may yet whip us.
“I should not write those words. I should not even think them. But you have asked me what was in my heart, and the fear of defeat is there. Do you remember at the barbecue, the day our engagement was announced, that a man named Butler, a Charlestonian by his accent, nearly caused a fight by his remarks about the ignorance of Southerners? Do you recall how the twins wanted to shoot him because he said we had few foundries and factories, mills and ships, arsenals and machine shops? Do you recall how he said the Yankee fleet could bottle us up so tightly we could not ship out our cotton? He was right. We are fighting the Yankees’ new rifles with Revolutionary War muskets, and soon the blockade will be too tight for even medical supplies to slip in. We should have paid heed to cynics like Butler who knew, instead of statesmen who felt — and talked. He said, in effect, that the South had nothing with which to wage war but cotton and arrogance. Our cotton is worthless and what he called arrogance is all that is left. But I call that arrogance matchless courage. If —”
But Scarlett carefully folded up the letter without finishing it and thrust it back into the envelope, too bored to read further. Besides, the tone of the letter vaguely depressed her with its foolish talk of defeat. After all, she wasn’t reading Melanie’s mail to learn Ashley’s puzzling and uninteresting ideas. She had had to listen to enough of them when he sat on the porch at Tara in days gone by.
All she wanted to know was whether he wrote impassioned letters to his wife. So far he had not. She had read every letter in the writing box and there was nothing in any one of them that a brother might not have written to a sister. They were affectionate, humorous, discursive, but not the letters of a lover. Scarlett had received too many ardent love letters herself not to recognize the authentic note of passion when she saw it. And that note was missing. As always after her secret readings, a feeling of smug satisfaction enveloped her, for she felt certain that Ashley still loved her. And always she wondered sneeringly why Melanie did not realize that Ashley only loved her as a friend. Melanie evidently found nothing lacking in her husband’s messages but Melanie had had no other man’s love letters with which to compare Ashley’s.”
“He writes such crazy letters,” Scarlett thought. “If ever any husband of mine wrote me such twaddle-twaddle, he’d certainly hear from me! Why, even Charlie wrote better letters than these.”
She flipped back the edges of the letters, looking at the dates, remembering their contents. In them there were no fine descriptive pages of bivouacs and charges such as Darcy Meade wrote his parents or poor Dallas McLure had written his old-maid sisters, Misses Faith and Hope. The Meades and McLures proudly read these letters all over the neighborhood, and Scarlett had frequently felt a secret shame that Melanie had no such letters from Ashley to read aloud at sewing circles.
It was as though when writing Melanie, Ashley tried to ignore the war altogether, and sought to draw about the two of them a magic circle of timelessness, shutting out everything that had happened since Fort Sumter was the news of the day. It was almost as if he were trying to believe there wasn’t any war. He wrote of books which he and Melanie had read and songs they had sung, of old friends they knew and places he had visited on his Grand Tour. Through the letters ran a wistful yearning to be back home at Twelve Oaks, and for pages he wrote of the hunting and the long rides through the still forest paths under frosty autumn stars, the barbecues, the fish fries, the quiet of moonlight nights and the serene charm of the old house.
She thought of his words in the letter she had just read: “Not this! Never this!” and they seemed to cry of a tormented soul facing something he could not face, yet must face. It puzzled her for, if he was not afraid of wounds and death, what was it he feared? Unanalytical, she struggled with the complex thought.
“The war disturbs him and he — he doesn’t like things that disturb him. . . . Me, for instance. . . . He loved me but he was afraid to marry me because — for fear I’d upset his way of thinking and living. No, it wasn’t exactly that he was afraid. Ashley isn’t a coward. He couldn’t be when he’s been mentioned in dispatches and when Colonel Sloan wrote that letter to Melly all about his gallant conduct in leading the charge. Once he’s made up his mind to do something, no one could be braver or more determined but — He lives inside his head instead of outside in the world and he hates to come out into the world and — Oh, I don’t know what it is! If I’d just understood this one thing about him years ago, I know he’d have married me.”
She stood for a moment holding the letters to her breast, thinking longingly of Ashley. Her emotions toward him had not changed since the day when she first fell in love with him. They were the same emotions that struck her speechless that day when she was fourteen years old and she had stood on the porch of Tara and seen Ashley ride up smiling, his hair shining silver in the morning sun. Her love was still a young girl’s adoration for a man she could not understand, a man who possessed all the qualities she did not own but which she admired. He was still a young girl’s dream of the Perfect Knight and her dream asked no more than acknowledgment of his love, went no further than hopes of a kiss.
After reading the letters, she felt certain he did love her, Scarlett, even though he had married Melanie, and that certainty was almost all that she desired. She was still that young and untouched. Had Charles with his fumbling awkwardness and his embarrassed intimacies tapped any of the deep vein of passionate feeling within her, her dreams of Ashley would not be ending with a kiss. But those few moonlight nights alone with Charles had not touched her emotions or ripened her to maturity. Charles had awakened no idea of what passion might be or tenderness or true intimacy of body or spirit.
All that passion meant to her was servitude to inexplicable male madness, unshared by females, a painful and embarrassing process that led inevitably to the still more painful process of childbirth. That marriage should be like this was no surprise to her. Ellen had hinted before the wedding that marriage was something women must bear with dignity and fortitude, and the whispered comments of other matrons since her widowhood had confirmed this. Scarlett was glad to be done with passion and marriage.
She was done with marriage but not with love, for her love for Ashley was something different, having nothing to do with passion or marriage, something sacred and breathtakingly beautiful, an emotion that grew stealthily through the long days of her enforced silence, feeding on oft-thumbed memories and hopes.
She sighed as she carefully tied the ribbon about the packet, wondering for the thousandth time just what it was in Ashley that eluded her understanding. She tried to think the matter to some satisfactory conclusion but, as always, the conclusion evaded her uncomplex mind. She put the letters back in the lap secretary and closed the lid. Then she frowned, for her mind went back to the last part of the letter she had just read, to his mention of Captain Butler. How strange that Ashley should be impressed by something that scamp had said a year ago. Undeniably Captain Butler was a scamp, for all that he danced divinely. No one but a scamp would say the things about the Confederacy that he had said at the bazaar.
She crossed the room to the mirror and patted her smooth hair approvingly. Her spirits rose, as always at the sight of her white skin and slanting green eyes, and she smiled to bring out her dimples. Then she dismissed Captain Butler from her mind as she happily viewed her reflection, remembering how Ashley had always liked her dimples. No pang of conscience at loving another woman’s husband or reading that woman’s mail disturbed her pleasure in her youth and charm and her renewed assurance of Ashley’s love.
She unlocked the door and went down the dim winding stair with a light heart. Halfway down she began singing “When This Cruel War Is Over.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57