Gone With the Wind – Part 8
Gone With the Wind – Part 8
Gerald closed his eyes and, in the stillness of the unworked acres, he felt that he had come home. Here under his feet would rise a house of whitewashed brick. Across the road would be new rail fences, inclosing fat cattle and blooded horses, and the red earth that rolled down the hillside to the rich river bottom land would gleam white as eiderdown in the sun—cotton, acres and acres of cotton! The fortunes of the O’Haras would rise again. With his own small stake, what he could borrow from his unenthusiastic brothers and a neat sum from mortgaging the land, Gerald bought his first field hands and came to Tara to live in bachelor solitude in the four-room overseer’s house, till such a time as the white walls of Tara should rise. He cleared the fields and planted cotton and borrowed more money from James and Andrew to buy more slaves. The O’Haras were a clannish tribe, clinging to one another in prosperity as well as in adversity, not for any overweening family affection but because they had learned through grim years that to survive a family must present an unbroken front to the world. They lent Gerald the money and, in the years that followed, the money came back to them with interest. Gradually the plantation widened out, as Gerald bought more acres lying near him, and in time the white house became a reality instead of a dream. It was built by slave labor, a clumsy sprawling building that crowned the rise of ground overlooking the green incline of pasture land running down to the river; and it pleased Gerald greatly, for, even when new, it wore a look of mellowed years. The old oaks, which had seen Indians pass under their limbs, hugged the house closely with their great trunks and towered their branches over the roof in dense shade. The lawn, reclaimed from weeds, grew thick with clover and Bermuda grass, and Gerald saw to it that it was well kept. From the avenue of cedars to the row of white cabins in the slave quarters, there was an air of solidness, of stability and permanence about Tara, and whenever Gerald galloped around the bend in the road and saw his own roof rising through green branches, his heart swelled with pride as though each sight of it were the first sight. He had done it all, little, hard-headed, blustering Gerald. Gerald was on excellent terms with all his neighbors in the County, except the MacIntoshes whose land adjoined his on the left and the Slatterys whose meager three acres stretched on his right along the swamp bottoms between the river and John Wilkes’ plantation. The MacIntoshes were Scotch-Irish and Orangemen and, had they possessed all the saintly qualities of the Catholic calendar, this ancestry would have damned them forever in Gerald’s eyes. True, they had lived in Georgia for seventy years and, before that, had spent a generation in the Carolinas; but the first of the family who set foot on American shores had come from Ulster, and that was enough for Gerald. They were a close-mouthed and stiff-necked family, who kept strictly to themselves and intermarried with their Carolina relatives, and Gerald was not alone in disliking them, for the County people were neighborly and sociable and none too tolerant of anyone lacking in those same qualities. Rumors of Abolitionist sympathies did not enhance the popularity of the MacIntoshes. Old Angus had never manumitted a single slave and had committed the unpardonable social breach of selling some of his negroes to passing slave traders en route to the cane fields of Louisiana, but the rumors persisted. “He’s an Abolitionist, no doubt,” observed Gerald to John Wilkes. “But, in an Orangeman, when a principle comes up against Scotch tightness, the principle fares ill.” The Slatterys were another affair. Being poor white, they were not even accorded the grudging respect that Angus MacIntosh’s dour independence wrung from neighboring families. Old Slattery, who clung persistently to his few acres, in spite of repeated offers from Gerald and John Wilkes, was shiftless and whining. His wife was a snarly-haired woman, sickly and washed-out of appearance, the mother of a brood of sullen and rabbity-looking children– a brood which was increased regularly every year. Tom Slattery owned no slaves, and he and his two oldest boys spasmodically worked their few acres of cotton, while the wife and younger children tended what was supposed to be a vegetable garden. But, somehow, the cotton always failed, and the garden, due to Mrs. Slattery’s constant childbearing, seldom furnished enough to feed her flock. The sight of Tom Slattery dawdling on his neighbors’ porches, begging cotton seed for planting or a side of bacon to “tide him over,” was a familiar one. Slattery hated his neighbors with what little energy he possessed, sensing their contempt beneath their courtesy, and especially did he hate “rich folks’ uppity niggers.” The house negroes of the County considered themselves superior to white trash, and their unconcealed scorn stung him, while their more secure position in life stirred his envy. By contrast with his own miserable existence, they were well-fed, well-clothed and looked after in sickness and old age. They were proud of the good names of their owners and, for the most part, proud to belong to people who were quality, while he was despised by all. Tom Slattery could have sold his farm for three times its value to any of the planters in the County. They would have considered it money well spent to rid the community of an eyesore, but he was well satisfied to remain and to subsist miserably on the proceeds of a bale of cotton a year and the charity of his neighbors. With all the rest of the County, Gerald was on terms of amity and some intimacy. The Wilkeses, the Calverts, the Tarletons, the Fontaines, all smiled when the small figure on the big white horse galloped up their driveways, smiled and signaled for tall glasses in which a pony of Bourbon had been poured over a teaspoon of sugar and a sprig of crushed mint. Gerald was likable, and the neighbors learned in time what the children, negroes and dogs discovered at first sight, that a kind heart, a ready and sympathetic ear and an open pocketbook lurked just behind his bawling voice and his truculent manner. His arrival was always amid a bedlam of hounds barking and small black children shouting as they raced to meet him, quarreling for the privilege of holding his horse and squirming and grinning under his good-natured insults. The white children clamored to sit on his knee and be trotted, while he denounced to their elders the infamy of Yankee politicians; the daughters of his friends took him into their confidence about their love affairs, and the youths of the neighborhood, fearful of confessing debts of honor upon the carpets of their fathers, found him a friend in need. “So, you’ve been owning this for a month, you young rascal!” he would shout. “And, in God’s name, why haven’t you been asking me for the money before this?” His rough manner of speech was too well known to give offense, and it only made the young men grin sheepishly and reply: “Well, sir, I hated to trouble you, and my father—” “Your father’s a good man, and no denying it, but strict, and so take this and let’s be hearing no more of it.” The planters’ ladies were the last to capitulate. But, when Mrs. Wilkes, “a great lady and with a rare gift for silence,” as Gerald characterized her, told her husband one evening, after Gerald’s horse had pounded down the driveway. “He has a rough tongue, but he is a gentleman,” Gerald had definitely arrived. He did not know that he had taken nearly ten years to arrive, for it never occurred to him that his neighbors had eyed him askance at first. In his own mind, there had never been any doubt that he belonged, from the moment he first set foot on Tara. When Gerald was forty-three, so thickset of body and florid of face that he looked like a hunting squire out of a sporting print, it came to him that Tara, dear though it was, and the County folk, with their open hearts and open houses, were not enough. He wanted a wife. Tara cried out for a mistress. The fat cook, a yard negro elevated by necessity to the kitchen, never had the meals on time, and the chambermaid, formerly a field hand, let dust accumulate on the furniture and never seemed to have clean linen on hand, so that the arrival of guests was always the occasion of much stirring and to-do. Pork, the only trained house negro on the place, had general supervision over the other servants, but even he had grown slack and careless after several years of exposure to Gerald’s happy-go-lucky mode of living. As valet, he kept Gerald’s bedroom in order, and, as butler, he served the meals with dignity and style, but otherwise he pretty well let matters follow their own course. With unerring African instinct, the negroes had all discovered that Gerald had a loud bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him. The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there never had been a slave sold from Tara and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald’s pet horse after a long day’s hunting. Gerald’s sharp blue eyes noticed how efficiently his neighbors’ houses were run and with what ease the smooth-haired wives in rustling skirts managed their servants. He had no knowledge of the dawn-till-midnight activities of these women, chained to supervision of cooking, nursing, sewing and laundering. He only saw the outward results, and those results impressed him. The urgent need of a wife became clear to him one morning when he was dressing to ride to town for Court Day. Pork brought forth his favorite ruffled shirt, so inexpertly mended by the chambermaid as to be unwearable by anyone except his valet. “Mist’ Gerald,” said Pork, gratefully rolling up the shirt as Gerald fumed, “whut you needs is a wife, and a wife whut has got plen’y of house niggers.” Gerald upbraided Pork for his impertinence, but he knew that he was right. He wanted a wife and he wanted children and, if he did not acquire them soon, it would be too late. But he was not going to marry just anyone, as Mr. Calvert had done, taking to wife the Yankee governess of his motherless children. His wife must be a lady and a lady of blood, with as many airs and graces as Mrs. Wilkes and the ability to manage Tara as well as Mrs. Wilkes ordered her own domain. But there were two difficulties in the way of marriage into the County families. The first was the scarcity of girls of marriageable age. The second, and more serious one, was that Gerald was a “new man,” despite his nearly ten years’ residence, and a foreigner. No one knew anything about his family. While the society of up-country Georgia was not so impregnable as that of the Coast aristocrats, no family wanted a daughter to wed a man about whose grandfather nothing was known. Gerald knew that despite the genuine liking of the County men with whom he hunted, drank and talked politics there was hardly one whose daughter he could marry. And he did not intend to have it gossiped about over supper tables that this, that or the other father had regretfully refused to let Gerald O’Hara pay court to his daughter. This knowledge did not make Gerald feel inferior to his neighbors. Nothing could ever make Gerald feel that he was inferior in any way to anyone. It was merely a quaint custom of the County that daughters only married into families who had lived in the South much longer than twenty-two years, had owned land and slaves and been addicted only to the fashionable vices during that time. “Pack up. We’re going to Savannah,” he told Pork. “And if I hear you say ‘Whist!’ or ‘Faith!’ but once, it’s selling you I’ll be doing, for they are words I seldom say meself.” James and Andrew might have some advice to offer on this subject of marriage, and there might be daughters among their old friends who would both meet his requirements and find him acceptable as a husband. James and Andrew listened to his story patiently but they gave him little encouragement. They had no Savannah relatives to whom they might look for assistance, for they had been married when they came to America. And the daughters of their old friends had long since married and were raising small children of their own. “You’re not a rich man and you haven’t a great family,” said James. “I’ve made me money and I can make a great family. And I won’t be marrying just anyone.” “You fly high,” observed Andrew, dryly. But they did their best for Gerald. James and Andrew were old men and they stood well in Savannah. They had many friends, and for a month they carried Gerald from home to home, to suppers, dances and picnics. “There’s only one who takes me eye,” Gerald said finally. “And she not even born when I landed here.”
“And who is it takes your eye?” “Miss Ellen Robillard,” said Gerald, trying to speak casually, for the slightly tilting dark eyes of Ellen Robillard had taken more than his eye. Despite a mystifying listlessness of manner, so strange in a girl of fifteen, she charmed him. Moreover, there was a haunting look of despair about her that went to his heart and made him more gentle with her than he had ever been with any person in all the world. “And you old enough to be her father!” “And me in me prime!” cried Gerald stung. James spoke gently. “Jerry, there’s no girl in Savannah you’d have less chance of marrying. Her father is a Robillard, and those French are proud as Lucifer. And her mother—God rest her soul—was a very great lady.” “I care not,” said Gerald heatedly. “Besides, her mother is dead, and old man Robillard likes me.” “As a man, yes, but as a son-in-law, no.” “The girl wouldn’t have you anyway,” interposed Andrew. “She’s been in love with that wild buck of a cousin of hers, Philippe Robillard, for a year now, despite her family being at her morning and night to give him up.” “He’s been gone to Louisiana this month now,” said Gerald. “And how do you know?” “I know,” answered Gerald, who did not care to disclose that Pork had supplied this valuable bit of information, or that Philippe had departed for the West at the express desire of his family. “And I do not think she’s been so much in love with him that she won’t forget him. Fifteen is too young to know much about love.” “They’d rather have that breakneck cousin for her than you.” So, James and Andrew were as startled as anyone when the news came out that the daughter of Pierre Robillard was to marry the little Irishman from up the country. Savannah buzzed behind its doors and speculated about Philippe Robillard, who had gone West, but the gossiping brought no answer. Why the loveliest of the Robillard daughters should marry a loud-voiced, red-faced little man who came hardly up to her ears remained a mystery to all. Gerald himself never quite knew how it all came about. He only knew that a miracle had happened. And, for once in his life, he was utterly humble when Ellen, very white but very calm, put a light hand on his arm and said: “I will marry you, Mr. O’Hara.” The thunderstruck Robillards knew the answer in part, but only Ellen and her mammy ever knew the whole story of the night when the girl sobbed till the dawn like a broken-hearted child and rose up in the morning a woman with her mind made up. With foreboding, Mammy had brought her young mistress a small package, addressed in a strange hand from New Orleans, a package containing a miniature of Ellen, which she flung to the floor with a cry, four letters in her own handwriting to Philippe Robillard, and a brief letter from a New Orleans priest, announcing the death of her cousin in a barroom brawl. “They drove him away, Father and Pauline and Eulalie. They drove him away. I hate them. I hate them all. I never want to see them again. I want to get away. I will go away where I’ll never see them again, or this town, or anyone who reminds me of—of-him.” And when the night was nearly spent, Mammy, who had cried herself out over her mistress’ dark head, protested, “But, honey, you kain do dat!” “I will do it. He is a kind man. I will do it or go into the convent at Charleston.” It was the threat of the convent that finally won the assent of bewildered and heartstricken Pierre Robillard. He was staunchly Presbyterian, even though his family were Catholic, and the thought of his daughter becoming a nun was even worse than that of her marrying Gerald O’Hara. After all, the man had nothing against him but a lack of family. So, Ellen, no longer Robillard, turned her back on Savannah, never to see it again, and with a middle-aged husband, Mammy, and twenty “house niggers” journeyed toward Tara.