The cotton yield was going to be miserably small, and Scarlett was afraid.
She could not, would not admit that, of course. Fear stiffened Scarlett’s spine; she quite literally stood straighter, stared harder. The residents of Tara were right to assume the worst of their self-appointed matriarch; she preferred it that way.
It was late, she knew. She no longer had a watch by which to measure the time, though; it had gone to acquire quinine for the girls. Scarlett sniffed at the thought. The quinine had barely been enough, and what would happen when they needed more? What if Beau were to fall ill, or Wade?
She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. There was no use borrowing trouble. Mammy would say so. Mother would say so.
So Scarlett said so.
The numbers swam up at her from the papers across the table. These were Gerald O’Hara’s accounts of years past, the highs and lows of their cotton plantation’s actual production. Scarlett had never given a thought to the economics of running such an enterprise. ‘Tis for the menfolk to worry about, and not yer pretty little head, Pa would say with a belly laugh.
She wished he would walk in now and shake his head, pet her and send her on her way. Instead she had put him to bed, hours ago; he would tolerate only his Katie Scarlett after a certain point in the day. He would talk to her about County Meade or tell her the legends of Tara over and over until he drifted to sleep. Some nights, the worst nights, he would mistake her for his dear Ellen, or think her Ellen’s ghost. Every so often, he would be in his right mind, and take Scarlett’s hand, and lament their rough condition. This is not what you are meant for, he would say, and tears would fall down his face.
For what, though? For what had Scarlett been intended, if this was the way the world really was? To sit and simper and flirt? She had not the smallest inkling of what her mother had done to run a household, much less her father. Perhaps they had been waiting, or perhaps they counted on a system that would keep girls like Scarlett from ever seeing the field hands, much less stepping into their role. Scarlett could not know now, and she was not one to dwell on the what-ifs and dreams of yesterday.
None of it mattered. Pa was…well, Scarlett refused to think on his vacant stare and stammering repetition. Mother was gone, and Scarlett struggled mightily to recall her soft tones. Who was going to fill their roles if not their eldest daughter?
Scarlett was far from recognizing it, but all of the gumption in the world wouldn’t allow her to be both Gerald and Ellen O’Hara. She had to find a way to be simply Scarlett. Tonight, though, as the wounds from the war were still quite fresh and Scarlett was hardly a woman grown, father lost and mother moldering in the red clay, there was no revelation. Only determination and sorrow.
She shook her head, and pushed away the accounts for 1858, looking for those marked 1859. She worked through the night, trying to make sense of the trends of crops and prices past, and eventually fell asleep at the desk.
Dawn was Melanie’s favorite time of day. She loved the possibilities of a fresh morning, especially as winter waned and the promise of spring came in on the breeze.
It had been a long time since she had woken with the dawn, as opposed to coming at it from the other end, seeing it cap a long night instead of heralding the day. Motherhood was wondrous to Melanie, but she would admit only in her quietest prayers that it was much harder than she had imagined. Beau was a quiet infant, said Mammy and Prissy and everyone who had experience with such, save Scarlett. Scarlett’s face fell a little whenever she saw Beau; she likely thought no one knew, but Melanie had known her too long not to notice her eyes darken or her smile harden.
Scarlett may never have another, thought Melanie as she watched Beau sleep. We have even that in common. She placed a hand over her womb.
It had been difficult, the pregnancy, more so than Melanie knew, though she intuited much. She was recovered, now, months later. Beau was growing stronger, though Melanie had not been able to nurse him long, and he had more than one mother. And a protective older brother in Wade Hampton, Melanie had begun to notice. She smiled at the thought of the boys growing up together, representing their generation in what was sure to be better times than those in which they’d been born.
She decided to go downstairs, maybe out into the yard to greet the dawn more fully. No one would be awake yet; they had finished the first round of planting yesterday, and Scarlett had insisted everyone get their rest.
Melanie made her way down. The staircase still sent a chill up her spine; she could smell the blood of that Yankee deserter in the wood, she was sure of it. So she quickened her pace, always, light-footed and anxious to hide her hesitation.
The door to Gerald O’Hara’s office was ajar; it struck Melanie then that Scarlett had to have been up all night. It was like her, now. Melanie marveled as she walked in and saw Scarlett asleep, her head cradled in her arms on the desk, snoring lightly. She was wearing the dress from the day before, a once-pretty day dress, now so streaked with dirt it was hardly serviceable even en famille. This is Scarlett O’Hara, thought Melanie, the belle of Clayton County. It brought tears to her eyes, thinking of it. Every day had brought a fresh blow, a confirmation that their lives were changed irrevocably. Seeing Scarlett there, so unlike the girl who had won Charles Hamilton’s heart, hit Melanie harder than any of their realities.
Melanie took the shawl from her own shoulders and put it around Scarlett’s, gently, so as not to wake her. She blew out the last feebly flickering candle, and left the room, closing the door as softly as she could.
Out in the yard, the red sky was giving way to the softest hues of early morning, and Melanie let her thoughts wander to Ashley. The sun would rise wherever he was, too, and maybe those rays warming her face warmed his as well.
Ashley. He was her dream, he was everything. But it was possible, it was even likely, he was gone, that the war had taken him from her. Melanie could let herself dwell on this thought, while no one watched, while she could believe God held her in His embrace. The war had taken much from her, and it may yet take more. Melanie Wilkes was not given to melancholy, but reality could touch her, too.
She took a deep breath and tried to force the idea away, imagining as best she could Ashley’s face, the night they had made Beau.
She was still standing there when Scarlett came out.
Scarlett didn’t see Melanie at first. She was bleary-eyed and the sun was bright now, the morning in fullest bloom. But when Melanie came into focus, Scarlett felt the familiar contempt well up in her. What was she doing out in the yard at this hour? She had been out in the field for a time the day before against advice, and Scarlett didn’t need Melanie collapsing now in the yard and causing them all to go into another frenzy of worry and care. It was too much, and Scarlett felt very much like the smallest of straws would break her carefully tended balance.
She bit back the harsh remonstrance when she saw Melanie’s face, however. She was calm, her eyes closed; the sun shone on her like the rays of Heaven on the Virgin’s upturned face. She looked, Scarlett was suddenly sure, just like Ellen.
Melanie’s eyes opened and the spell broke. Scarlett spoke.
“Why are you out here, at this hour?”
It was much softer than anything Scarlett had ever said to Melanie. Scarlett felt a twinge of guilt as she realized it, and Melanie appeared not to notice at all.
“I love the dawn. This time of day…Scarlett, it’s as if the world is a blank slate. No mistakes, no fresh sorrow. It…I had to come out here.”
Scarlett’s face colored, and she turned to look at the rising sun. She shaded her eyes and squinted; she breathed deeply, and felt for a moment that she understood Melanie.
The cock crowed, a straggling survivor, and Scarlett’s eyes flew open. Morning was just another stretch of time for chores, and whatever magic it held, Scarlett was unable to access it. Envy flooded her as she watched Melanie take it in. Melanie had always been the stronger one, if Scarlett was honest; did she take some strength from this ritual that was forbidden Scarlett?
Melanie turned to her. “Walk with me, Scarlett. The others are yet asleep.”
Scarlett looked back at the house, thinking on the accounts left spread on her father’s desk, the bed she hadn’t seen since the previous dawn, her sisters and their blistered hands, Mammy’s increasingly wan face.
“Alright,” she said to Melanie.
Scarlett gave her the shawl, for it was not a very warm morning, and Melanie was shivering. Their progress was slow, both because they wished to cause no stir and because their muscles ached. But each held her head high; they were every bit the belles they had been taught to be, but more than that.
They came to an oak tree; Scarlett was still amazed that the trees stood, with so much around them destroyed or altered. Her father had often talked to her about the trees on the land that he had refused to clear; the oaks, he said, were old, and to grow old one had to be strong.
He admired strength, did Gerald O’Hara.
Scarlett walked up to the tree and placed her hand on the trunk. She was overwhelmed; she was exhausted, and worried, and deeply frightened. It hit her all at once, and she leaned on the tree.
“It’s no use, Melly. It’s no use.”
In her right mind, in another set of circumstances, both women knew, Scarlett O’Hara would never let this happen in front of Melanie Hamilton. But she wasn’t just Scarlett O’Hara, not just then, and neither was Melanie the simple, doe-eyed belle of her own past. No, this was entirely different.
“What’s no use?” said Melanie, low. She didn’t approach Scarlett.
Scarlett turned to her. Her face was a picture of despair; Melanie saw so much that was familiar, and yet it couldn't be Scarlett! “Everything. I don’t understand how they did it for so long; I don’t understand how to keep it going. We won’t have the crop we need, not with the winter we had and the spoiled fields. Taxes, Melly, taxes! And how will we feed them? If the boys, if anyone, falls ill again! And Pa…oh, Pa!” She bit down on a sob, and Melanie did come to her then.
It took the briefest of seconds for Scarlett to acquiesce to Melanie’s touch, and she fell into her rival’s arms. Melanie held Scarlett, and an observer would have said, the strength of one grew as the other let herself be weak. You could see it in their faces.
“Scarlett…Scarlett, listen to me. Darling, listen. You are tired, you are worn out. We will get through this.”
“Where will get the money? I…I sold Pa’s watch, I had to, the quinine, and now that’s gone, too.”
Melanie tightened her fingers on Scarlett's shoulders. Money. She thought of the Yankee's haversack, the small fortune in gold they had spent on seed and scant provisions. Some remained, yes. But it wouldn't be enough. She thought of Aunt Pittypat and the grand circle of Atlanta's wealthy; she alone could apply for help, perhaps. “I’ll get the money." Scarlett's face twisted; she knew Melanie would go to them, begging, and Melanie hated the vision just then as much as Scarlett. It was that, the hens of Atlanta and how they might cluck, that forced the next thing from Melanie's lips. That, and an empty red road, stretching north. "Or…Scarlett, we could go. We could take the boys and go. Mammy and Suellen will figure it out, they’ll….we could go.”
It was so radical, it stopped Scarlett cold. She swallowed hard, clearing her throat. Melanie would surely be laughing when she looked up.
But Melanie’s face had taken on a haunted look. She gazed out at Tara’s fields. Scarlett followed her gaze; it wasn’t the fields Melanie saw, it was the north. Their enemies, but also their dead, so many of them; there hadn’t been a family in the county untouched by death. Every hope they’d cherished had gone north with their men. Desolation lie that way; desolation surrounded them. Twelve Oaks was gone, leaving Tara to anchor the county, and what good would Tara be if they could not get a bigger crop the next year?
Not taking her eyes off the horizon, Scarlett saw her future play out in a dark, sad succession of menial victories and catastrophic failures. Hunger, always. She had promised – no, sworn – she would not let that happen. Just then, it felt inevitable.
“We could go to Mexico,” Scarlett whispered.
They both stood there, letting all that sink in. That they had reached this point said so much. They were considering it! Both women had a vision of what it could mean, the freedom, the different world they could inhabit.
The moment ended as the vision of their freedom was broken by a mutual and never acknowledged specter. Ashley, his grey coat tattered, the gold braid faded. A beard on his sunken, starving face. The defeat that would course through him, the need he would have to be coddled, taken care of. Everything he represented, a South humiliated, destroyed, and in great need of rehabilitation.
There was love yet, and desire, and if there was a chance that Ashley Wilkes would walk down that red clay road one day, neither woman in his life would leave this place.
There was more – the girls who began to stir upstairs, the small boys, Mammy and Prissy and Pork and Dilcey, even addled and fading Gerald. There was still a world in their charge; Melanie soothing, Scarlett leading.
Neither said a word. Scarlett left the embrace first, backing away to the tree for support, for she still felt sad and weak, and needed to collect herself. Melanie watched her, shame flooding her as she realized she had said it first. Was she so willing to abandon this place, these - dare she think, her - people?
Scarlett shook her head, though Melanie had not voiced this thought. “I would. In a heartbeat, if I could, I would leave this place. It isn’t just you.”
“Oh, Scarlett, you wouldn’t. Not really,” said Melanie, ignoring Scarlett’s motions of vehement disagreement. “Neither would I, in the end. Women…we have to stay. There really would be nothing left, if we…abandoned it all.”
There it was, then, for those words meant something to Scarlett. They had been left behind, and too much had happened. They had sacrificed everything to get this far. That was who they were. Scarlett felt gratitude, an affection, for Melanie that she never had before.
They stood there awhile longer, not speaking. When they finally began the walk back, they had regained their previous roles, fallen back into a pattern they understood.
“The taxes?” said Melanie, as they came to the back door.
Scarlett waved her hand in dismissal. “We’ll handle it. There’s a cow yet, and I’m sure I know where some of the silver may be hidden.”
Melanie nodded. “I’ll go take care of the boys and ask Mammy to look in on the girls. I am sure they are plum worn out from yesterday. You go sleep, Scarlett.”
Scarlett opened her mouth to protest, and Melanie’s stern, motherly look made her laugh instead.
“Yes, I will do that.” She looked as though she wished to say more, and Melanie just nodded, and pressed Scarlett’s hand.
“Tomorrow is another day, you know. We will get there, and keep going.”
Scarlett’s eyes widened in acknowledgement, and she left Melanie standing on the porch. Melanie knew she would have to check later, to see if Scarlett had indeed gone to sleep. The smell of breakfast was coming out into the yard, and Melanie heard Prissy fussing with biscuits or hash and Mammy or Dilcey correcting her every move. She heard Beau’s coo, and Wade’s chatter, and knew she needed to go in.
She needed a minute more.
Melanie turned to face the sun, now safely hidden behind the towering oaks, the light filtering down in delicious green. Was it the same, where he was?
She longed to know.
“Have a good day, my love,” she whispered, and turned to go inside and begin the day.
Upstairs, Scarlett walked past her sisters’ rooms, and went to the room her father was sleeping in; not his, originally, but his wife’s.
He was sitting up in bed, awake. He looked clear-eyed and aware, which gave her a bit of courage to walk all the way in.
“Good morning, Pa,” she said. He looked up, and Scarlett’s heart sank, as his gaze became confused and sad.
“Good mornin’,” he replied, uncertain. “Katie? Katie Scarlett?”
He recognized her, at least. So she got him out of bed with a little coaxing, and spoke quietly to him. He brightened as she spoke, recognizing more, and finally he was aware enough to ask her to bring Pork.
The former valet stood outside the door, having reached a point in his own morning when he seriously worried about Mr. O’Hara. He stepped in on hearing his name spoken, and gently took Gerald O’Hara’s hand. He exchanged a look with Scarlett, who left quickly once certain her Pa was taken care of.
This was going to be her every morning at Tara until the Lord took him. She sighed, though it was a lighter sigh than before. She didn’t know how she would get by, if Melanie left, taking Dilcey and likely Pork with her and Gerald O’Hara lived that long.
That was a problem she could think about tomorrow.
Scarlett made her way to her room, attempted to clean up a little. Melanie had been right, she was exhausted. So long as the work was taken care of, that each of the moving pieces that made up even this make-shift, war zone of a Tara was working, she could sleep.
She could close her eyes, and the ghost-Ashley from the field would be replaced with a warmer version, a sweeter version. Or, as happened when her guard was down, Scarlett would fall asleep to the thought of dark eyes and a swarthy complexion, a wide, knowing grin and a searching gaze. Today, though both struggled for her attention, she felt calmer than she had since Wilkerson came to her door. Faintly she could hear conversation in the house, and the brief flare of her sisters’ tempers.
Above it all, the comforting lilt of a lady’s voice, soothing hurt feelings and making it all right again.
“Thank you,” Scarlett whispered as sleep finally took her.