She heard whispering voices outside, and going to the door she saw the frightened negroes standing in the back hall, Dilcey with her arms sagging under the heavy weight of the sleeping Beau, Uncle Peter crying, and Cookie wiping her wide wet face on her apron. All three looked at her, dumbly asking what they were to do now. She looked up the hall toward the sitting room and saw India and Aunt Pitty standing speechless, holding each other's hands and, for once, India had lost her stiff-necked look. Like the negroes, they looked imploringly at her, expecting her to give instructions. She walked into the sitting room and the two women closed about her.
"Oh, Scarlett, what--" began Aunt Pitty, her fat, child's mouth shaking.
"Don't speak to me or I'll scream," said Scarlett. Overwrought nerves brought sharpness to her voice and her hands clenched at her sides. The thought of speaking of Melanie now, of making the inevitable arrangements that follow a death made her throat tighten. "I don't want a word out of either of you."
At the authoritative note in her voice, they fell back, helpless hurt looks on their faces. "I mustn't cry in front of them," she thought. "I mustn't break now or they'll begin crying too, and then the darkies will begin screaming and we'll all go mad. I must pull myself together. There's so much I'll have to do. See the undertaker and arrange the funeral and see that the house is clean and be here to talk to people who'll cry on my neck. Ashley can't do them. I've got to do them. Oh, what a weary load! It's always been a weary load and always some one else's load!"
She looked at the dazed hurt faces of India and Pitty and contrition swept her. Melanie would not like her to be so sharp with those who loved her.
"I'm sorry I was cross," she said, speaking with difficulty. "It's just that I--I'm sorry I was cross, Auntie. I'm going out on the porch for a minute. I've got to be alone. Then I'll come back and we'll--"
She patted Aunt Pitty and went swiftly by her to the front door, knowing if she stayed in this room another minute her control would crack. She had to be alone. And she had to cry or her heart would break.
She stepped onto the dark porch and closed the door behind her and the moist night air was cool upon her face. The rain had ceased and there was no sound except for the occasional drip of water from the eaves. The world was wrapped in a thick mist, a faintly chill mist that bore on its breath the smell of the dying year. All the houses across the street were dark except one, and the light from a lamp in the window, falling into the street, struggled feebly with the fog, golden particles floating in its rays. It was as if the whole world were enveloped in an unmoving blanket of gray smoke. And the whole world was still.
She leaned her head against one of the uprights of the porch and prepared to cry but no tears came. This was a calamity too deep for tears. Her body shook. There still reverberated in her mind the crashes of the two impregnable citadels of her life, thundering to dust about her ears. She stood for a while, trying to summon up her old charm: "I'll think of all this tomorrow when I can stand it better." But the charm had lost its potency. She had to think of two things, now--Melanie and how much she loved and needed her; Ashley and the obstinate blindness that had made her refuse to see him as he really was. And she knew that thoughts of them would hurt just as much tomorrow and all the tomorrows of her life.
"I can't go back in there and talk to them now," she thought. "I can't face Ashley tonight and comfort him. Not tonight! Tomorrow morning I'll come early and do the things I must do, say the comforting things I must say. But not tonight. I can't. I'm going home."
Home was only five blocks away. She would not wait for the sobbing Peter to harness the buggy, would not wait for Dr. Meade to drive her home. She could not endure the tears of the one, the silent condemnation of the other. She went swiftly down the dark front steps without her coat or bonnet and into the misty night. She rounded the corner and started up the long hill toward Peachree Street, walking in a still wet world, and even her footsteps were as noiseless as a dream.
As she went up the hill, her chest tight with tears that would not come, there crept over her an unreal feeling, a feeling that she had been in this same dim chill place before, under a like set of circumstances--not once but many times before. How silly, she thought uneasily, quickening her steps. Her nerves were playing her tricks. But the feeling persisted, stealthily pervading her mind. She peered about her uncertainly and the feeling grew, eerie but familiar, and her head went up sharply like an animal scenting danger. It's just that I'm worn out, she tried to soothe herself. And the night's so queer, so misty. I never saw such thick mist before except--except!
And then she knew and fear squeezed her heart. She knew now. In a hundred nightmares, she had fled through fog like this, through a haunted country without landmarks, thick with cold cloaking mist, peopled with clutching ghosts and shadows. Was she dreaming again or was this her dream come true?
For an instant, reality went out of her and she was lost. The old nightmare feeling was sweeping her, stronger than ever, and her heart began to race. She was standing again amid death and stillness, even as she had once stood at Tara. All that mattered in the world had gone out of it, life was in ruins and panic howled through her heart like a cold wind. The horror that was in the mist and was the mist laid hands upon her. And she began to run. As she had run a hundred times in dreams, she ran now, flying blindly she knew not where, driven by a nameless dread, seeking in the gray mist for the safety that lay somewhere.
Up the dim street she fled, her head down, her heart hammering, the night air wet on her lips, the trees overhead menacing. Somewhere, somewhere in this wild land of moist stillness, there was a refuge! She sped gasping up the long hill, her wet skirts wrapping coldly about her ankles, her lungs bursting, the tight-laced stays pressing her ribs into her heart.
Then before her eyes there loomed a light, a row of lights, dim and flickering but none the less real. In her nightmare, there had never been any lights, only gray fog. Her mind seized on those lights. Lights meant safety, people, reality. Suddenly she stopped running, her hands clenching, struggling to pull herself out of her panic, staring intently at the row of gas lamps which had signaled to her brain that this was Peachtree Street, Atlanta, and not the gray world of sleep and ghosts.
She sank down panting on a carriage block, clutching at her nerves as though they were ropes slipping swiftly through her hands.
"I was running--running like a crazy person!" she thought, her body shaking with lessening fear, her thudding heart making her sick. "But where was I running?"
Her breath came more easily now and she sat with her hand pressed to her side and looked up Peachtree Street. There, at the top of the hill, was her own house. It looked as though every window bore lights, lights defying the mist to dim their brilliance. Home! It was real! She looked at the dim far-off bulk of the house thankfully, longingly, and something like calm fell on her spirit.
Home! That was where she wanted to go. That was where she was running. Home to Rhett!
At this realization it was as though chains fell away from her and with them the fear which had haunted her dreams since the night she stumbled to Tara to find the world ended. At the end of the road to Tara she had found security gone, all strength, all wisdom, all loving tenderness, all understanding gone--all those things which, embodied in Ellen, had been the bulwark of her girlhood. And, though she had won material safety since that night, in her dreams she was still a frightened child, searching for the lost security of that lost world.
Now she knew the haven she had sought in dreams, the place of warm safety which had always been hidden from her in the mist. It was not Ashley--oh, never Ashley! There was no more warmth in him than in a marsh light, no more security than in quicksand. It was Rhett--Rhett who had strong arms to hold her, a broad chest to pillow her tired head, jeering laughter to pull her affairs into proper perspective. And complete understanding, because he, like her, saw truth as truth, unobstructed by impractical notions of honor, sacrifice, or high belief in human nature. He loved her! Why hadn't she realized that he loved her, for all his taunting remarks to the contrary? Melanie had seen it and with her last breath had said, "Be kind to him."
"Oh," she thought, "Ashley's not the only stupidly blind person. I should have seen."
For years she had had her back against the stone wall of Rhett's love and had taken it as much for granted as she had taken Melanie's love, flattering herself that she drew her strength from herself alone. And even as she had realized earlier in the evening that Melanie bad been beside her in her bitter campaigns against life, now she knew that silent in the background, Rhett had stood, loving her, understanding her, ready to help. Rhett at the bazaar, reading her impatience in her eyes and leading her out in the reel, Rhett helping her out of the bondage of mourning, Rhett convoying her through the fire and explosions the night Atlanta fell, Rhett lending her the money that gave her her start, Rhett who comforted her when she woke in the nights crying with fright from her dreams-- why, no man did such things without loving a woman to distraction!
The trees dripped dampness upon her but she did not feel it. The mist swirled about her and she paid it no heed. For when she thought of Rhett, with his swarthy face, flashing teeth and dark alert eyes, a trembling came over her.
"I love him," she thought and, as always, she accepted the truth with little wonder, as a child accepting a gift. "I don't know how long I've loved him but it's true. And if it hadn't been for Ashley, I'd have realized it long ago. I've never been able to see the world at all, because Ashley stood in the way."
She loved him, scamp, blackguard, without scruple or honor--at least, honor as Ashley saw it. "Damn Ashley's honor!" she thought. "Ashley's honor has always let me down. Yes, from the very beginning when he kept on coming to see me, even though he knew his family expected him to marry Melanie. Rhett has never let me down, even that dreadful night of Melly's reception when he ought to have wrung my neck. Even when he left me on the road the night Atlanta fell, he knew I'd be safe. He knew I'd get through somehow. Even when he acted like he was going to make me pay to get that money from him at the Yankee camp. He wouldn't have taken me. He was just testing me. He's loved me all along and I've been so mean to him. Time and again, I've hurt him and he was too proud to show it. And when Bonnie died-- Oh, how could I?"
She stood up straight and looked at the house on the hill. She had thought, half an hour ago, that she had lost everything in the world, except money, everything that made life desirable, Ellen, Gerald, Bonnie, Mammy, Melanie and Ashley. She had to lose them all to realize that she loved Rhett--loved him because he was strong and unscrupulous, passionate and earthy, like herself.
"I'll tell him everything," she thought. "He'll understand. He's always understood. I'll tell him what a fool I've been and how much I love him and I'll make it up to him."
Suddenly she felt strong and happy. She was not afraid of the darkness or the fog and she knew with a singing in her heart that she would never fear them again. No matter what mists might curl around her in the future, she knew her refuge. She started briskly up the street toward home and the blocks seemed very long. Far, far too long. She caught up her skirts to her knees and began to run lightly. But this time she was not running from fear. She was running because Rhett's arms were at the end of the street.