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ELLEN O’HARA was thirty-two years old, and, according to the standards of her day, she was a middle-aged woman, one who had borne six children and buried three. She was a tall woman, standing a head higher than her fiery little husband, but she moved with such quiet grace in her swaying hoops that the height attracted no attention to itself. Her neck, rising from the black taffeta sheath of her basque, was creamy-skinned, rounded and slender, and it seemed always tilted slightly backward by the weight of her luxuriant hair in its net at the back of her head. From her French mother, whose parents had fled Haiti in the Revolution of 1791, had come her slanting dark eyes, shadowed by inky lashes, and her black hair; and from her father, a soldier of Napoleon, she had her long straight nose and her square-cut jaw that was softened by the gentle curving of her cheeks. But only from life could Ellen’s face have acquired its look of pride that had no haughtiness, its graciousness, its melancholy and its utter lack of humor.
She would have been a strikingly beautiful woman had there been any glow in her eyes, any responsive warmth in her smile or any spontaneity in her voice that fell with gentle melody on the ears of her family and her servants. She spoke in the soft slurring voice of the coastal Georgian, liquid of vowels, kind to consonants and with the barest trace of French accent. It was a voice never raised in command to a servant or reproof to a child but a voice that was obeyed instantly at Tara, where her husband’s blustering and roaring were quietly disregarded.
As far back as Scarlett could remember, her mother had always been the same, her voice soft and sweet whether in praising or in reproving, her manner efficient and unruffled despite the daily emergencies of Gerald’s turbulent household, her spirit always calm and her back unbowed, even in the deaths of her three baby sons. Scarlett had never seen her mother’s back touch the back of any chair on which she sat. Nor had she ever seen her sit down without a bit of needlework in her hands, except at mealtime, while attending the sick or while working at the bookkeeping of the plantation. It was delicate embroidery if company were present, but at other times her hands were occupied with Gerald’s ruffled shirts, the girls’ dresses or garments for the slaves. Scarlett could not imagine her mother’s hands without her gold thimble or her rustling figure unaccompanied by the small negro girl whose sole function in life was to remove basting threads and carry the rosewood sewing box from room to room, as Ellen moved about the house superintending the cooking, the cleaning and the wholesale clothes-making for the plantation.
She had never seen her mother stirred from her austere placidity, nor her personal appointments anything but perfect, no matter what the hour of day or night. When Ellen was dressing for a ball or for guests or even to go to Jonesboro for Court Day, it frequently required two hours, two maids and Mammy to turn her out to her own satisfaction; but her swift toilets in times of emergency were amazing.
Scarlett, whose room lay across the hall from her mother’s, knew from babyhood the soft sound of scurrying bare black feet on the hardwood floor in the hours of dawn, the urgent tappings on her mother’s door, and the muffled, frightened negro voices that whispered of sickness and birth and death in the long row of whitewashed cabins in the quarters. As a child, she often had crept to the door and, peeping through the tiniest crack, had seen Ellen emerge from the dark room, where Gerald’s snores were rhythmic and untroubled, into the flickering light of an upheld candle, her medicine case under her arm, her hair smoothed neatly place, and no button on her basque unlooped.
It had always been so soothing to Scarlett to hear her mother whisper, firmly but compassionately, as she tiptoed down the hall: “Hush, not so loudly. You will wake Mr. O’Hara. They are not sick enough to die.”
Yes, it was good to creep back into bed and know that Ellen was abroad in the night and everything was right.
In the mornings, after all-night sessions at births and deaths, when old Dr. Fontaine and young Dr. Fontaine were both out on calls and could not be found to help her, Ellen presided at the breakfast table as usual, her dark eyes circled with weariness but her voice and manner revealing none of the strain. There was a steely quality under her stately gentleness that awed the whole household, Gerald as well as the girls, though he would have died rather than admit it.
Sometimes when Scarlett tiptoed at night to kiss her tall mother’s cheek, she looked up at the mouth with its too short, too tender upper lip, a mouth too easily hurt by the world, and wondered if it had ever curved in silly girlish giggling or whispered secrets through long nights to intimate girl friends. But no, that wasn’t possible. Mother had always been just as she was, a pillar of strength, a fount of wisdom, the one person who knew the answers to everything.
But Scarlett was wrong, for, years before, Ellen Robillard of Savannah had giggled as inexplicably as any fifteen-year-old in that charming coastal city and whispered the long nights through with friends, exchanging confidences, telling all secrets but one. That was the year when Gerald O’Hara, twenty-eight years older than she, came into her life—the year, too, when youth and her black-eyed cousin, Philippe Robillard, went out of it. For when Philippe, with his snapping eyes and his wild ways, left Savannah forever, he took with him the glow that was in Ellen’s heart and left for the bandy-legged little Irishman who married her only a gentle shell.
But that was enough for Gerald, overwhelmed at his unbelievable luck in actually marrying her. And if anything was gone from her, he never missed it. Shrewd man that he was, he knew that it was no less than a miracle that he, an Irishman with nothing of family and wealth to recommend him, should win the daughter of one of the wealthiest and proudest families on the Coast. For Gerald was a self-made man.
Gerald had come to America from Ireland when he was twenty-one. He had come hastily, as many a better and worse Irishman before and since, with the clothes he had on his back, two shillings above his passage money and a price on his head that he felt was larger than his misdeed warranted. There was no Orangeman this side of hell worth a hundred pounds to the British government or to the devil himself; but if the government felt so strongly about the death of an English absentee landlord’s rent agent, it was time for Gerald O’Hara to be leaving and leaving suddenly. True, he had called the rent agent “a bastard of an Orangeman,” but that, according to Gerald’s way of looking at it, did not give the man any right to insult him by whistling the opening bars of “The Boyne Water.”
The Battle of the Boyne had been fought more than a hundred years before, but, to the O’Haras and their neighbors, it might have been yesterday when their hopes and their dreams, as well as their lands and wealth, went off in the same cloud of dust that enveloped a frightened and fleeing Stuart prince, leaving William of Orange and his hated troops with their orange cockades to cut down the Irish adherents of the Stuarts.
For this and other reasons, Gerald’s family was not inclined to view the fatal outcome of this quarrel as anything very serious, except for the fact that it was charged with serious consequences. For years, the O’Haras had been in bad odor with the English constabulary on account of suspected activities against the government, and Gerald was not the first O’Hara to take his foot in his hand and quit Ireland between dawn and morning. His two oldest brothers, James and Andrew, he hardly remembered, save as close-lipped youths who came and went at odd hours of the night on mysterious errands or disappeared for weeks at a time, to their mother’s gnawing anxiety. They had come to America years before, after the discovery of a small arsenal of rifles buried under the O’Hara pigsty. Now they were successful merchants in Savannah, “though the dear God alone knows where that may be,” as their mother always interpolated when mentioning the two oldest of her male brood, and it was to them that young Gerald was sent.
He left home with his mother’s hasty kiss on his cheek and her fervent Catholic blessing in his ears, and his father’s parting admonition, “Remember who ye are and don’t be taking nothing off no man.” His five tall brothers gave him good-by with admiring but slightly patronizing smiles, for Gerald was the baby and the little one of a brawny family.
His five brothers and their father stood six feet and over and broad in proportion, but little Gerald, at twenty-one, knew that five feet four and a half inches was as much as the Lord in His wisdom was going to allow him. It was like Gerald that he never wasted regrets on his lack of height and never found it an obstacle to his acquisition of anything he wanted. Rather, it was Gerald’s compact smallness that made him what he was, for he had learned early that little people must be hardy to survive among large ones. And Gerald was hardy.
His tall brothers were a grim, quiet lot, in whom the family tradition of past glories, lost forever, rankled in unspoken hate and crackled out in bitter humor. Had Gerald been brawny, he would have gone the way of the other O’Haras and moved quietly and darkly among the rebels against the government But Gerald was “loud-mouthed and bullheaded,” as his mother fondly phrased it, hair trigger of temper, quick with his fists and possessed of a chip on his shoulder so large as to be almost visible to the naked eye. He swaggered among the tall O’Haras like a strutting bantam in a barnyard of giant Cochin roosters, and they loved him, baited him affectionately to hear him roar and hammered on him with their large fists no more than was necessary to keep a baby brother in his proper place.
If the educational equipment which Gerald brought to America was scant, he did not even know it. Nor would he have cared if he had been told. His mother had taught him to read and to write a clear hand. He was adept at ciphering. And there his book knowledge stopped. The only Latin he knew was the responses of the Mass and the only history the manifold wrongs of Ireland. He knew no poetry save that of Moore and no music except the songs of Ireland that had come down through the years. While he entertained the liveliest respect for those who had more book learning than he, he never felt his own lack. And what need had he of these things in a new country where the most ignorant of bogtrotters had made great fortunes? in this country which asked only that a man be strong and unafraid of work?
Nor did James and Andrew, who took him into their store in Savannah, regret his lack of education. His clear hand, his accurate figures and his shrewd ability in bargaining won their respect, where a knowledge of literature and a fine appreciation of music, had young Gerald possessed them, would have moved them to snorts of contempt. America, in the early years of the century, had been kind to the Irish. James and Andrew, who had begun by hauling goods in covered wagons from Savannah to Georgia’s inland towns, had prospered into a store of their own, and Gerald prospered with them.
He liked the South, and he soon became, in his own opinion, a Southerner. There was much about the South—and Southerners—that he would never comprehend; but, with the wholeheartedness that was his nature, he adopted its ideas and customs, as he understood them, for his own—poker and horse racing, red-hot politics and the code duello, States’ Rights and damnation to all Yankees, slavery and King Cotton, contempt for white trash and exaggerated courtesy to women. He even learned to chew tobacco. There was no need for him to acquire a good head for whisky, he had been born with one.
But Gerald remained Gerald. His habits of living and his ideas changed, but his manners he would not change, even had he been able to change them. He admired the drawling elegance of the wealthy rice and cotton planters, who rode into Savannah from their moss-hung kingdoms, mounted on thoroughbred horses and followed by the carriages of their equally elegant ladies and the wagons of their slaves. But Gerald could never attain elegance. Their lazy, blurred voices fell pleasantly on his ears, but his own brisk brogue clung to his tongue. He liked the casual grace with which they conducted affairs of importance, risking a fortune, a plantation or a slave on the turn of a card and writing off their losses with careless good humor and no more ado than when they scattered pennies to pickaninnies. But Gerald had known poverty, and he could never learn to lose money with good humor or good grace. They were a pleasant race, these coastal Georgians, with their soft-voiced, quick rages and their charming inconsistencies, and Gerald liked them. But there was a brisk and restless vitality about the young Irishman, fresh from a country where winds blew wet and chill, where misty swamps held no fevers, that set him apart from these indolent gentle-folk of semi-tropical weather and malarial marshes.
From them he learned what he found useful, and the rest he dismissed. He found poker the most useful of all Southern customs, poker and a steady head for whisky; and it was his natural aptitude for cards and amber liquor that brought to Gerald two of his three most prized possessions, his valet and his plantation. The other was his wife, and he could only attribute her to the mysterious kindness of God.
The, valet. Pork by name, shining black, dignified and trained in all the arts of sartorial elegance, was the result of an all-night poker game with a planter from St. Simons Island, whose courage in a bluff equaled Gerald’s but whose head for New Orleans rum did not. Though Pork’s former owner later offered to buy him back at twice his value, Gerald obstinately refused, for the possession of his first slave, and that slave the “best damn valet on the Coast,” was the first step upward toward his heart’s desire, Gerald wanted to be a slave owner and a landed gentleman.
His mind was made up that he was not going to spend all of his days, like Tames and Andrew, in bargaining, or all his nights, by candlelight, over long columns of figures. He felt keenly, as his brothers did not, the social stigma attached to those “in trade.” Gerald wanted to be a planter. With the deep hunger of an Irishman who has been a tenant on the lands his people once had owned and hunted, he wanted to see his own acres stretching green before his eyes. With a ruthless singleness of purpose, he desired his own house, his own plantation, his own horse, his own slaves. And here in this new country, safe from the twin perils of the land he had left—taxation that ate up crops and barns and the ever-present threat of sudden confiscation—he intended to have them. But having that ambition and bringing it to realization were two different matters, he discovered as time went by. Coastal Georgia was too firmly held by an entrenched aristocracy for him ever to hope to win the place he intended to have.
Then the hand of Fate and a hand of poker combined to give him the plantation which he afterwards called Tara, and at the same time moved him out of the Coast into the upland country of north Georgia.
It was in a saloon in Savannah, on a hot night in spring, when the chance conversation of a stranger sitting near by made Gerald prick up his ears. The stranger, a native of Savannah, had just returned after twelve years in the inland country. He had been one of the winners in the land lottery conducted by the State to divide up the vast area in middle Georgia, ceded by the Indians the year before Gerald came to America. He had gone up there and established a plantation; but, now the house had burned down, he was tired of the “accursed place” and would be most happy to get it off his hands.
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