Now and then, Melanie Hamilton Wilkes let herself wonder how different things would have been without the war.
She would have married Ashley Wilkes under the trees at Twelve Oaks. She would have presided over that stately mansion as its mistress, and raised a family there with the man she loved.
Perhaps there would have been changes to the rhythm of their days, but not the utter destruction of all they had known. Ashley would have been more than willing to free their slaves, a decision she would have been proud to support. They could have changed with grace and dignity, in their own way.
Honey and India Wilkes would have also married men of their class and upbringing. Melanie would not have seen India become drawn and bitter because the man she loved slept beneath the Pennsylvania soil, because she had no home of her own.
John Wilkes would have seen his grandson playing beneath those same trees at Twelve Oaks, and would have died peacefully in his bed. Perhaps there would have been more children, if she had not endured the privations of the war. Perhaps not.
Perhaps Charles would have married Honey, as their families had always planned. Perhaps not. Perhaps Scarlett would have still turned his head. It was impossible to know.
But the war had come. The South had been ground beneath the North’s bootheels. The North had not been satisfied with victory, but had burned and starved and humiliated the South. Women and children had lost the men who protected them, seen their homes invaded and destroyed and burned.
Charles had died of illness, never seeing his hoped-for glory, never knowing that he had a son to carry on his name. Honey Wilkes had married a Westerner, and India Wilkes had become a sour old maid, and John Wilkes had been killed by an artillery shell in a battle no old man should have had to fight. He had gone because the South had already given its young and fit men, because he had seen it as his duty. Scarlett had told her of their last meeting, and Melanie had been able to imagine it. She thought that perhaps it had been for the best, that he had died and not been forced to live through the aftermath of the South’s utter defeat.
Melanie knew her tragedies were not unique – they were the tragedies suffered by women all over the South. Scarlett had suffered as well, with the loss of two husbands and both her parents. The two of them had come through so much together. Melanie knew she would never have survived the war without her brother’s most lasting gift – Scarlett. Perhaps Scarlett was not the sister Melanie had always imagined, but Melanie would always be grateful to her.
It had been Scarlett who stayed with her in Atlanta when she was pregnant with Beau, even when she must have wanted to flee to Tara. Scarlett had never abandoned her or Beau, from the moment her boy drew his first breath. It had been Scarlett who had kept Melanie and Beau – and all of the family at Tara – safe and fed, Scarlett who had sacrificed her own comfort for all of them.
She knew that there were many who disapproved of Scarlett’s actions, not just India Wilkes. Melanie disapproved of those actions herself and mourned Scarlett’s loss of softness, but she could never forget what Scarlett had done for her, and what Scarlett was still doing for their family.
Melanie did not understand how Scarlett could stand to deal with the Yankees and the carpetbaggers, could stand to have them in her own house, could stand to smile and speak pleasantly to them. She only knew she could not have done what Scarlett did. They might tolerate those horrible people because there was no other choice, but Melanie dreamed of the day when they could truly rebuild the South as it had been – not the slaves and the cotton, but the grace and the gentility. Perhaps she would not live to see it, but she would do her best to make Beau understand what the world his parents had lived in had been like.
Sometimes, she wished she could make people see Scarlett through her eyes.
Melanie remembered that horrible time when the Yankees had come back to Tara, just as they had reached a level of relative safety and comfort. The deserter had been enough of a threat, but Scarlett had taken care of him easily enough. These Yankees had taken almost everything they had. They had not cared that they took food out of the mouths of women and small children and an old man driven to a twilight madness by the death of his wife. They wanted to starve them, not only of food but of their pride.
They had tried to take her brother’s sword – the sword that he and their father had each carried to war, the sword that was all her nephew Wade had left of his family heritage. Scarlett had surrendered her pride and pleaded for the sword, so that her small son did not have to be stripped of everything. Wade had whispered the story to her once, and it had made Melanie weep. Scarlett had not fought for the sword because it was valuable, because it would help keep food on the table, but because it was her little boy’s pride, because touching it comforted Wade, because it was the only thing of his father’s that had not been lost.
Melanie did wish Scarlett could be more gentle, for Wade’s sake if nothing else. She saw so much of her sweet brother in the boy. He had Charles’ soft dark eyes and Charles’ sweet manner, but he had lived through events that no child should have had to experience. Scarlett was impatient, too quick to criticize the boy, but Melanie knew that Scarlett simply did not realize how easily bruised the boy could be. So Melanie gave him her extra kindness. She had so much kindness, and she knew she must not smother her own son with it. Someday, Wade would be as fine as the Hamilton men who had come before him. Someday, Melanie hoped, Scarlett could recover her own softness, could finally be secure.
Whatever might happen, Melanie would stand by Scarlett, just as Scarlett had stood by her.