Saturday, March 13, 2010

7. RHETT AND ASHLEY, FACE TO FACE

Later, Papa got Ashley’s own view of his treachery with Scarlett at the mill.  The two of them met by chance a week or two after the trespass occurred, and it was the first conversation between them I recorded. 
Papa spied Mr. Wilkes (as I called him at the time) from a distance and eventually approached him.  Seated alone, he had looked tall, despite his baldness.  Papa offered a handshake.  Ashley stiffly got to his feet and shook.  He offered Papa a seat at his table.  Rhett introduced me and I too took a seat.  It was around my thirteenth birthday, and I ordered my first gin in a public place.  The bar of the Hotel Excelsior was no saloon, however, and waiters served the drinks.  The chandelier above us banished all shadows from the room, and ladies with escorts were being seated.  Ladies were served iced tea. 
As of 1872, Ashley’s fair hair was gone, except at his temples.  He had pink scalp and blue English eyes, and alongside Rhett, he looked pale. 
Papa said, “My arch rival.”
“Thanks Rhett, but nobody rivals you.” 
Papa acknowledged the compliment, but said, “No rivals for my throne?  Then I should expect a heap more admiration.  My daughter’s the only one - - she and Jacques here - - who loves me anymore.”
“Your wife loves you, sir.”
 Papa’s face straightened.  “You’re a terrible liar, Wilkes.  I know a superb liar,   who could give you want a few tips.”
Ashley kept a stone face.
“Forgive me.  That’s what’s unique about you - - you wish me no harm, and you believe what Scarlett tells you.”  Rhett abruptly turned and spoke to the waiter,   seemingly done with the topic of truthfulness. 
“Anyone can see it.”
“How noble of you, sir.  Every time our rivalry for Scarlett heats up, you willingly forfeit your advantage.” 
Ashley’s good nature seemed to wear thin.  “I know very well how a loving wife acts and so do you, my friend.”  Our drinks arrived and they both went for one.  “A rival to you?”  A appealed to the heavens,” How many times have I spurned that woman?”
“Not enough times.  She won’t be spurned by you or by me.” 
“You’d never quit Scarlett, and I’m no rival to you.  That’s why you don’t carry out your threat.”
“What threat?”
“If we had dueled, I’d be dead.  Thank god you kept your head.”
“Dueled?” Rhett slammed his glass on the table.  “I never threatened to shoot you!  Who said so, Scarlett?” 
A nodded.
“Goddamn that woman!  I haven’t shot you because you don’t really love Scarlett.”  Rhett looked him in the eye.  “Do you love anyone?” 
“Yes,” Ashley said with gritted teeth.  Somehow, he could never be goaded, no matter how sharp the prod. 
Papa raised his glass.  “To the Wilkses.” 
*                                  *                                  *
            Scarlett always felt she was plain, as compared to her mother’s beauty, and she worried about it constantly.  I know because I heard her one afternoon, fretting after Rhett attempted to compliment her.
            He said, “Bonnie’s got your eyes.  They’re blue like Gerald’s, but still they’re yours.  I’ve always said they make me wonder what you will do if I take you in my arms.”
            “No, no. Bonnie will be like my mother.”   
“They’re captivating.”
“’A girl must be beautiful,’ Mother told us.  She was, and she expected us to be beautiful too - - not vamps.”
Rhett squinted at her.  “Don’t say ‘vamp.’” 
“I got scolded the most, being the oldest, for vamping around.  Careen and Suellen got it a little, but they were both late to puberty.  I was five feet tall before my eleventh birthday.  Of course, everybody in the house knew it, when I reached puberty, since we wore white knickers - - impossible to keep white.That day, Mother called to me, instead of sending Dilsey for me.  ‘Woooo,’ Suellen said, ‘you’re in for it.’ 
Scarlett continued, “I tried to wipe the grit from the yard off my face.  Nothing could be done about black fingernails, since the water in the basin wasn’t fresh.  Mother was seated at her vanity, with three mirrors reflecting the different facets of her face.  She was surely the Queen of her kingdom on earth.  No matter what she was preparing to say to me, it seemed it would shake my world.”
"Momma said,’Scarlett, I’ve been calling you ‘young lady’ since you were born, but now it’s the truth - - you look grown.  So there’ll be no more girlyness.’  She reached for my bows and loosed my pigtails.  ’No more lap-child,’ she said.  She’d been saying that too, since I’d grown tall, but I was surprised to see her rise and offer me her own place at her glamorous vanity.  She led me by the hand, and soon I was face-to-face with my own image from three different perspectives.  ’Without a vanity of your own, you’ll never be beautiful, which is above all things, for a lady.  She rolled up her cuffs.  ’We must to boost you up a bit,’ she said, and unrolled her measuring tape.  From then on, I sat in front of those black-haired images every morning, but I never learned to like them much."
Scarlett continued, "The day came when I got frustrated with primping and I dropped my expensive boar’s hair brush on the floor.  I fled the vanity, flopped on my bed and stared at the ceiling.  Mother came in and almost stumbled over the brush.  She always wore her hair in a bun, but she wouldn’t allow us to wear a bun.  Standing over me, she looked taller and more majestic than ever."
"Momma said, ‘Serves you right to have bushy hair, the way you neglect it.  A hundred strokes only takes –‘
“Only takes ten minutes’ I mimicked. “Takes an hour, really.”
‘Takes you an hour.’
“You’re blonde, Momma.  It’s flat whether you brush it or not.  Bushy’s the way I am.”
"Momma said, ’Black hair’s not a curse.  Anyway, you’ve never brushed a hundred strokes in your life, so how do you know?  Where’s Prissy?’  She went straight to the door and called her.
“No, not Prissy” I said.  “She brushes it hard, like her own nappy head.”
’It serves you right Katie Scarlett, to have a nappy bush like hers.’  
Momma!” I covered my mouth, since I’d never before heard Mother stoop to spitefulness toward any of the negroes.  ’Shame on both of us,’ she said.  She held her chin up, despite her confession.  Even her blouse had a high buttoned collar that seemed to choke her neck.  ‘I was mean to Prissy, when it’s you, Katie Scarlett who’s disgusting.  You come here and kneel.  Let us both say ten mea culpas and ten hail Marys.’
Scarlett said, "I rolled over and buried my face in my pillow and mumbled, ‘Again?  My knees are raw.’  Mother whacked my fanny.  I slid off and knelt by her mother with hands folded, and didn’t peep again till mother had hailed Mary to her heart’s content.  I did the O’Hara girls proud by reciting her hail Marys quicker than the days of the week.  The trick Careen had taught me was to say the words ‘Mary mother of God’ on the inhale, and to exhale ‘mea culpa.’”
Ten years hence, sitting with Rhett at the Chalet, Scarlett’s hair lay much flatter, thanks to Mammy’s stroking.  She never wore Ellen’s collars or cuffs, and kept her chin tucked, since it wasn’t worth flaunting.  “I know I’m not beautiful, so your compliments sounded like flattery, Rhett.”
“Your eyes captivated me, remember?”
“I was pitiful back then.”
“Captivating.  The belle of Clayton County.”
“That was a long time ago.  After the devastation there were no belles or beaus.  I never sunk so low as that day I came begging to you.”
“For the loan.  It was business.”
“You took advantage.  You knew I was desperate, and you came to me wearing your money on your sleeve.”
“I turned you down.  Didn’t touch you.”
“You baited me shrewdly, so I acted a vamp.”
“Flirtation was your nature, Scarlett, and my nature too.  Still is!  Not one word of it mattered.” 
  “A woman never forgets the first time she plays the harlot.  A gentleman would have scolded me for even thinking of it.  Not you, Rhett Butler.  A woman’s honor didn’t interest you.  You got me for cheap.”
He spread wide his arms.  “It hasn’t been cheap for me to keep you.”
*                                  *                                  *
I never met Gerald O’Hara, since he passed away long before I arrived in Atlanta, I remember seeing a miniature evergreen wreath from his funeral that Aunt Scarlett had kept as a memento.  Its printed card said “Blessed Virgin, receive our beloved Gerald.” 
Papa said Gerald was “the only mariner in Clayton County.”  They both had been raised around their hometown wharves, Papa in Charleston and Gerald in Belfast, Ireland.  They both disliked country squires like Ashley Wilkes, who had never seen the Ocean or fended for themselves.  Maybe that’s why Gerald had never called Papa a scalawag or joined with Mr. Fontaine and the other Old Guards, who did.
Papa once told me of an encounter he had had with Gerald and Frank Kennedy, Scarlett’s husband.  The three met at Kennedy’s store in Jonesboro.  Papa had been summoned by Gerald and Kennedy, to discuss the rates of freight to England for cotton.  Frank, who was almost as old as Gerald, had aspirations to broker cotton for export out of Charleston.  Gerald was keen to sell his cotton nearby, rather than in Gainesville, ten miles away.  Tactfully, Papa showed them what he thought of his plan.
Papa didn’t patronize Kennedy.  “Where do you plan on storing your product?  The dust in here’s as thick as chicken feed.  You need a full time broom and dust pan if you expect to move cotton through here.”
“It ain’t a cotton brockerage yet,” Gerald said, in Kennedy’s defense.
Papa scooped some cotton seed with his bare hand, took one look at it, and said to Gerald, “You buy here?”
Frank Kennedy, whose whiskers looked as tarnished as brass, said, “Gerald gets a good yield from it.” 
“Seventy-two bales good middling.”
“All good middling?” Papa said.
“Yessir.” 
“Every boll,” said Kennedy.  
“That’s real fine, Mr. O’Hara.  Who graded it?”
“I did,” Kennedy said.
“Congratulations, Mr. O’Hara.  You must have gotten a premium for a whole crop of good middling.”
Gerald kept quiet on the subject of the sale price.
After me and Papa left them at Kennedy’s, he said to me, “We’ll never be back there again.”
“Bad businessmen?”
“They’ll never have a cotton brockerage.  Kennedy’s lucky folks will buy feed and seed from him.”  
Later, the place was converted to “Bait & tackle.”  I snickered when I noticed the new owner’s homespun style, because the letter “t” on the sign wasn’t properly capitalized.  Papa whispered, “His tackle must be second rate!”
The owner was from Macon, over a hundred miles away.  Why he took a shine to Kennedy’s spot was obvious after he announced that fish bait was his business.  Deepstep Lake was nearby, which sounded to Atlanta slickers like a good place for bass.  None were ever caught there, since it was just a pond, but the sunnies they caught were plentiful and good in the fry pan.
 Mr. Benteen never spoke of the owner by name, even when we visited his shop.  He said strangers always think they know better about a place than the folks who cleared the land for settlement in the first place.  The man would never become a local if he kept trying to change things.  He scooped out the former feed bins, lined them with tin, and shoveled in clods of peat moss full of earthworms.  The cider barrels that were still water-tight held fresh water - - very fresh, Mr. Benteen said - - full of slender minnows who stood in stillness with their lips to the surface.
Mosquitoes clung to the new metal screen door, and a hungry cat darted across the dirt floor.  I wasn’t inside a minute before I gagged on the stink and busted out again.
 When he came out, Papa said, “Sure, it smells a bit rare, but this place has never been cleaner.  Can’t allow varmints if he expects to sell anything.”
GONE WITH THE WIND NEGLECTED TO MENTION RHETT"S FONDNESS FOR SUELLEN
Papa and Suellen had a warm relationship, much better than the relations of the sisters themselves.  For example, Suellen showed her kindness to Papa when he most needed solace from a woman.  It occurred after Scarlett had become outraged at Papa for admitting he was visiting Belle Watling.  Scarlett had asked Rhett to move out of the master suite of the chalet.   In return, Rhett had been indignant as hell at Scarlett, for the scandal she had caused by kissing Mr. Wilkes at the mill. 
When he and Suellen talked, Papa had never before met privately with her.  She was a half-a-day’s ride from Atlanta, living at Tara, and running the farm with the support of Will Benteen. 
Rhett and Suellen sat alone in the parlor.  They left the door ajar, so I eavesdropped upon their conversation. 
“Mother scolded her over marrying for money.  They battled over Charles, because she knew Scarlett didn’t love him.  She refused her consent to their marriage, since she had admitted it was all she was after.”
“Refused?  Good Lord!  I never knew.”
“We were all ashamed of it, of course.  Father had consented to the marriage right away, so Mother’s refusal only served to insult the Hamiltons and Miss Pittypat.  They didn’t speak to her for months.
 “Meanwhile, Scarlett was carrying a torch for Wilkes, which she still carries today,” Rhett said.
“She adored Ashley back then, but he’s lost his charm.  Anyway, you’re the only one she married for love.  Otherwise, I’d have raised Cain, just like I did when she married Frank Kennedy for his money.  I’m like Mamma that way.”
“How could you be so sure?  ‘Cuz Mamma said so?”
“Yes Sir.”  The dimples in her cheeks gave her away.  “I’ve never needed a good reason to oppose Scarlett.  She never had any reason for anything, since she acted on pure impulse.  So my good reasons were wasted on her. 
“Lord ‘a mercy, I know,” he said.
“She loves you.  That’s what I’m tellin’ you, Rhett.  She’s loves you and she’d never betray you or hurt you on purpose.  I’m the one she hates.”
He objected but she kept on.  “Everybody knows what she did to me, so I’m not going into it.  But afterward, she never regretted it one bit.  She’ll do it again, if I let her.  That’s why I’ll never leave Tara.  If I ever do, I’ll never get back in.  I’ll be in the slaves’ quarters forever after.”
“Family never gets along unless they keep their distance from each other.  My brothers ran me out of Charleston.” 
“Brothers?”
He nodded.
“Family,” she said, “We gotta put up with her.”  It sounded like the O’Hara credo.
“Which proves that we love her, ”  he said and shrugged. 
“She puts up with you too, doesn’t she?”  Suellen waited his reply.
He nodded.  “So far.”
“Well then?" 
He dropped it.

7 comments:

  1. Dolores Aldred TreadwayApril 18, 2010 at 2:39 PM

    I am a real Vivien Leigh fan :) have been since 1972....i love most all of her movies....have some on dvds....all biographies on her, too....even the rare ones... :) i am an addict! LOL i also write poetry (since 1977 in journals)...i find your story (i read some) on Rhett Butler to be very interesting .... it is also cool that you teach a writing class!!

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  2. I am fan the Ashley, he very beatiful and sexy and romatic!!

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  3. You relate the incident in Jonesboro, and start with Jacques saying he never met Gerald. Later, when Rhett leaves the store after the discussion about starting a cotton brokerage, he is talking to Jacques. It's a little confusing.

    I like your take on the flow of events, especially Rhett and Suellen's conversation.

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  4. Very interesting take on the Rhett & Scarlett story. You make Rhett sound uninteresting, it makes me wonder why Scarlett fell in love with him.

    Also there is a discrepancy, you say that Jacques is younger than Wade by a year yet there is a part where you mention that he is thirteen, and it seems that it is before Bonnie's death, that is, if she does die. I'm a little confused as to the timing of Jacques' story... is it before or after Rhett leaves/Melly dies.

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  5. Iris, thanks for your sharp eye, noticing the contradiction. I'll edit it!

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  6. Iamnoone666, thanks for your compliments! Jacques' story is his memoir written later, but the story covers the whole period from S & R's wedding thru the end.

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