Saturday, March 13, 2010

12. MY OWN BETRAYAL OF PAPA

Rhett Butler was my father, no matter what GONE WITH THE WIND said.  He adopted me down in New Orleans before he ever met Scarlett.  But compared to Scarlett, I didn’t mean a thing to Papa.  Scarlett had his whole heart, and she knew he’d indulge her anything, even her unfaithfulness towards him.  He was too steadfast for his own good, allowing us all our turn to betray him, including me.  My own treachery against him amounted to a mere trifle in Papa’s mind, as compared to Scarlett’s.  He shrugged it off, and somehow in the end, salvaged some fondness for me. 
Ms. Mitchell caricatured Papa as a playboy and whoremonger in GONE WITH THE WIND.  What's worse, she suppressed Papa’s true heroics,   I’ll be damned if I won’t tell Papa’s side of the story, for their sake.
Despite my treachery towards Papa, I never forgot that I owed everything I had and hoped to have, to him.  Before Papa adopted me, I had never heard the word “faithfulness” spoken, let alone seen it acted by a man.  I’ve never seen it since then, either - - not the way he showed it to the people he chose for himself.  He heaped it on so high over our heads, that we - - teenaged Scarlett and me - - could not live up his standard, despite our vows to him of devotion.  For our sins, we both deserved the ax.  Nevertheless, he seemed to understand our flaws - - that we’d never live up to our own illusions of loyalty to him.  So he didn’t despair in the end, when he must have felt alone and friendless. 
As soon as I double-crossed him, I believed I was condemned to hell forevermore, and I could no longer face myself in the mirror.  It has taken me fifty-six years of pondering my character flaw to forgive myself and to summons enough objectivity to be able to write this memoir.
*                    *                    * 
The week after Papa left the Chalet, everything seemed stirred-up with one upsetting event after another.  One afternoon, I had just come from Papa when I suddenly found myself face to face with her in the main foyer.  She’d obviously anticipated my arrival.  In fact, she ambushed me, waiting right behind the front door.  I was led to see her without Mammy, Dilsey or Prissy attending.  She looked petite under a ceiling lit by a chandelier with two hundred candles.  She looked aimless, standing on the equator of a marble mosaic depicting of the entire surface of the globe.  The staircase and hallways behind her seemed too broad for her to traverse without an escort of some kind.  Her face and neck were bare with her hair pinned back, and her dress’s sleeves seemed too short for comfort.   
She was a little woman who could frighten me with nothing more than a glare.  Her eyes had always pierced me, but I had learned to take that for granted.  Scarlett’s glare, however, was a different matter entirely, because I had learned the hard way what would follow after she had glared at me, and I never took it lightly again.
The lesson was fresh in my mind, because it had happened during the Spring of that same year.  It was her abruptness and the agitation on her face.  But I saw fury there, and I’d had no warning.  I was cornered, with no way of avoiding her.  I remember suddenly wishing I could hide, because of what I was carrying in my breast pocket.  It was a note bearing Miss Watling’s greetings to Papa, penned in her own hand.  Carrying messages to Papa was routine, so I hadn’t given a thought to delivering one from Belle.  But when I found myself under Scarlett’s suspicious eye, I suddenly felt I had a firecracker with a lit fuse.
“Where’s Captain Butler been lodging?” she said in a loud whisper.
“Lodging?”
“You know what I’m asking, you scoundrel.  Don’t mock me.  If he moves out of this house, I’m gonna blame you.  You’re the one scouting out new quarters for him.  And where have you scouted?  A brothel!  You’d have him rooming with all the riff-raff in Belle Watling’s brothel.  You won’t get away with this, Jacques. I’m gonna make you sorry for what you’ve done.”
I didn’t dare deny it, since she had caught me red-handed.  “I only delivered a message to Ms. Watling.  I don’t know nothing.”
You’re nothing - - nothing but a beggar - -  a beggar dressed in fine woolens.  You think you’re something, because you’ve lived like a prince ever since I rescued you from the gutter in New Orleans.  You’ve never shown me any gratitude.”
“I want him to stay here.”
“You’re nothing,” she continued.  “You’re not Rhett Butler.  You’ll be locked out of that brothel.  Belle Watling doesn’t want you - - you’ve got no money.  She wants Rhett’s money.  You’ll be stranded, out in the cold, while she’s taking every penny he’s got.  He’ll be happy as a pig in a poke, and he’ll forget about you.”
“I’ll show you, Aunt Scarlett.  I’ll find a way to keep him home, if . . . if I can.”
“See there?  You think Rhett’ll listen to you.  You’re nothing!”
“He hasn’t moved yet.  I’ll figure out something.”
“You better, or you’ll find yourself back where you came from, in the gutter in New Orleans.”
I left Scarlett on a mission, since she had scared me into believing I’d be deserted.  She seemed to be sincere, since she had her own genuine interest in keeping Papa put.
I went up to my little garret on the fourth floor, high above the street.  As tiny as it was, it was the coziest room I’ve ever had.  My mattress under the window served as an easy chair, where I could watch the whole town pass by, too far beneath me to disturb my daydreams.  I never asked for drapes, since I slept just as well in the warm direct sun as I did in the dark.
No daydreams that day, but I stared intently across the street and pondered Papa’s habits.  Although he often drove the buggy to Belle’s, the first thing I imagined was Nag saddled-up with her tail twitching, tied to the post.  An easy target.  With that image alone, I concocted a simple scheme: if Nag was stolen while Papa was visiting Belle, Papa wouldn’t feel safe to stay there anymore. 
The next evening, I was so eager to work my scheme I could hardly wait for the sun to set.  When I was a boy, I’d seen my uncles pull off a petty theft or two, so I knew better than to try a theft broad daylight.  I didn’t worry about the Sheriff hunting me down and jailing me.  All I cared about was eluding Papa himself.  I’d rather die from the Sheriff’s buckshot than to face Papa in the act of stealing his mount.  Of course, I didn’t mean for Nag to be lost or hurt in any way, only for it to appear as such.  I loved her too!  I’d retrieve her for him in short order, after her loss had been felt.  
I was so sure of myself, I didn’t speak to Scarlett before I embarked upon my scheme.  Hatching it and carrying it out was the most courageous thing I’d ever done, as well as the most misguided.  After all, I still loved Scarlett at that early date, and I wanted her favor more than ever.  It gave me a sense of bravado, which I needed in order to attempt to cross one of the most fearful and ornery men in Dixie, Rhett Butler.  I wanted to return home to Scarlett and declare that her secret desire had been successfully accomplished and she could rest assured, thanks to my skill and guts.
Tempers flared between Papa and Scarlett at the dinner at the Chalet.  As usual, Scarlett was chastising Bonnie.
“You’re not excused from the table.  I don’t care if your horse is raising Cain.”
“They’re trying to ride him.”
“No they’re not,” Papa said.
Bonnie jumped to the floor and tried to slip behind Scarlett’s chair, but Scarlett caught her.  Bonnie squealed and strained against her at arms length, nearly toppling Scarlett’s chair.   
 “Let go,” Papa cautioned Scarlett.
“Grab her!”
“Let her go.  She’s already up.”
“Grab   her,   or I’ll beat the tar out of her.”
Papa took her by the hand to the window that overlooked the corral. 
“Nag is nudging the little fella, that’s all.  He’s unbridled.”  He sent Bonnie back to her chair,   and when she passed Scarlett, Scarlett whacked her on the head, barely hard enough to hear it from my seat at the table. 
“Hold on,” Papa said.  Bonnie whined in Papa’s direction.  “Take it easy,” he snapped at Scarlett.
“I will spank you,” Scarlett threatened her, in defiance of Papa.  Bonnie fretted and turned and ran to him in his chair.  She put her face in his lap, pouting.
“Here, you can sit here.”  He hoisted her up to his lap.  The pouting ceased and
she sucked her thumb.
            “How’s she gonna learn?”
            “Not by your hand, Scarlett.”
            The horse’s neighing spurred me to get on with my scheme.  I’d had a lump of fear in my gut all day long.  Dinner helped too, although I got impatient before Johnnie could serve us the lemon cake.  I wanted my boots on.  I had been shrewd enough to appear at dinner in slippers and housecoat, rather than trousers, lest they suspect I had something planned for later.
It was stupid of me however, to ask to be excused early.  It clued everyone that something was up, since I’d never refused dessert before in my life, not even if it was gum drops.  Johnnie, the bald kitchen nigger,   fretted that the ham had nauseated me. 
“Now?” Scarlett said.
“There’s lemon cake,” Papa said, but he was talking to Bonnie.  She pouted, in turn.
Scarlett flicked her wrist, granting me leave.
In order to dress the part of a thief, I had to actually be one.  Papa’s hunting cloak was required, since it enveloped me in dim grey, but I couldn’t ask his permission for it, needless to say.
Again I waited until after Papa left for Belle’s, rather than give him cause to wonder where I was going.  I paced in and out of my room and up and down the first flight of steps.  From those steps I peeked at the hallway below that led to Papa’s room. I hoped to catch sight of him as soon as he emerged from his room in riding boots. 
He departed quickly as I had guessed he would.  He must have desired sweeter company than Scarlett had been at dinner.  I watched out my window to confirm that he was on Nag, rather than driving.  He was, and he headed South on Peachtree, in the direction of Belle’s.  
I walked a different route, which allowed me to avoid Papa, as well as to arrive at Belle’s driveway from a different vantage point.  Visibility was short, and I couldn’t rely on moonlight for sure recognition of Nag, so I approached Belle’s from her neighbor’s property rather than from her own driveway, to get a broadside view of Nag.   
I began trembling with fear when I saw the brothel with its flickering porch lamps.  Nag was the only horse hitched to the post, but I didn’t recognize her at first, since her nose was facing the house and her only markings were right above her nostrils.  Of course all [brown] horses look the same from the rear at night, so I doubted that this one was Nag.  But her tail had been clipped just below her flanks, which looked somewhat distinct.  I’d prayed for another horse or two to crowd the hitching post, so that after we’d left, Nag’s absence wouldn’t look conspicuous.  But at that early hour, there was only one horse and its nose was hidden from me.  My luck seemed shaky, but at least Papa had shown up on time and nobody was lounging on Belle’s front porch who might witness my crime.  I gave myself a tongue lashing to cure my cold feet.
Good fortune placed Nag down wind of me, so she turned to follow my scent, which was mingled with papa’s scent.  I took heart at the sight of her white nose, which was as bright as day.  She nudged me sweetly when I reached her, fond as she was of the cloak.  I untied her reins and led her slowly away, despite the panic I felt.  I was afraid to mount her lest her hoofs should make a clatter, till I got halfway down the driveway.  Then I leapt onto her and kicked.  We flew!  Thieves’ luck is pretty good.
It was like a western, where the man in the black hat snatches the hero’s mount and gets away with it, for a while.  And the stolen horse obeys the thief dutifully, but seems eager to desert him and returns straight to its true master’s barn.  Actually, I made it easy for Nag’s instincts, since I rode her back within three blocks of the Chalet, where Nag could practically smell her own stable.  I made it too easy, and almost got caught. 
I couldn’t risk losing Nag to a real thief, and having my whole caper go catastrophically wrong.  Big Sam knew what I’d done as soon as he saw me stride up to the gate in my riding boots.  Some time earlier, she’d poked her nose through the gap in the back and practically kicked it down.  Meanwhile, I was laying low in a deserted alley way, to let the dust to settle.  But when I arrived and climbed the front steps, Big Sam still had an eye out.  He looked askance at me, creeping around in Papa’s cloak.
Next morning, she sent for me.  “What did you do?  Big Sam said-”
“Everything’s fine.”
“Tell me, right now.  You took Nag, didn’t you?”
“I, I - - she’s fine.”
“Fine?  You better come to the mill with me today.” 
“All day?”
“You took her from Belle’s.  Even I can figure it out!”
“Did Big Sam tell Papa –“
“No.  You were lucky, you idiot.  I got to him first and told him an alibi - - you went to Dr. Meade’s.”
“Nobody saw me with Nag.  Not even Sam.”
“You could’ve been shot, you idiot.  Did you think of that?  No alibi would’ve helped you dead.”
I shrugged and said, “It worked.”
“I covered for you - - sent you to Meade’s.  That’s what worked.”
“I’ll fake sick.”
“No!  Go and face him.”  She grabbed me and pulled me nose to nose, where I smelled her sweet breath.  “Listen here.  You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.  It was all for Rhett’s own good.  You acted a fool, but you were trying to lure him out of that brothel.  For his own good, you hear?”  I heard her and bless her heart, she was making me feel appreciated - - indispensable - - for the first time ever.  “Walk up and look him right in the eye, and say ‘It’s a beautiful day.’”  I turned to go on my way, but she caught my arm.  She kissed my cheek.
Suddenly, I saw Scarlett differently.  Her tenderness was sincere, almost overwhelming.  Maybe I had finally reached the age when a woman could really get to me, because it was impossible to keep my wits about me, after she drew me close to her.  In an instant, I understood why Papa couldn’t leave her, no matter what she did to him.  It was a glimpse of my manhood to come, a weak manhood that I’d never imagined.  
*                *                * 
According to GONE WITH THE WIND, Scarlett never acknowledged Belle Watling’s relationship with Rhett.  On the contrary, Scarlett actually complained to him about it.  Scarlett knew every move Papa made, including his visits to Belle’s.  She knew he never quit visiting Belle’s brothel, except when they were on honeymoon in New Orleans.  
The morning after Nag’s disappearance, Scarlett got to Papa before I did, which was a relief to me.  They were seated in the dining room, waiting to be served breakfast.  Papa was still unshaved in his housecoat, which surprised me.
“No, Nag wasn’t stolen.  If she had been, we’d have never seen her again.  She was spooked by lightning or something, heat lightning.  It happens all the time.”
I went straight to Papa’s side and attempted to look him in the eye, as Scarlett had told me.  He wouldn’t turn his head from Scarlett, so I took my seat and watched her work.  Knowing her strategy in advance, it was a lesson to me in shrewdness.
She fretted, “Nag was outside, with no roof over her head?”
“Not for long.”
“She’s a fighter, and smart enough to run home, whenever she’s loose.”
“She gets the royal treatment.  Healthiest philly in town.”  At that, he paused and listened for a “yea” from me.  Normally, I wouldn’t have needed a prompt from him, but I kept out of it.  My guilt made me timid.
Scarlett looked him in the eye.  “Where were you when you lost her?”
“Over on
Virginia Avenue
.”
“On the South side?” she said - - a bad neighborhood.
He nodded.
She let the subject drop. 
*                *                * 
Two nights later, the pot boiled over.  The version of argument described in GONE WITH THE WIND made Scarlett seem too pure to countenance the thought of a brothel. 
She said, “Where - - where have you been?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know!  I thought surely the whole town knew by now.  Perhaps they all do, except you.  You know the old adage, ‘The wife is always the last one to find out.’”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought that after the Sheriff inquired at Belle’s, night before last –“
“Belle’s?”  She stage whispered, “That whore?  You’ve been with –“
“Of course.  Where else would I be?”
“I feared that you’d been dallying but I thought you were more discrete.”
“Of course you knew.  I’ve been living with her ever since you and Ashley Wilkes decided that we should have separate bedrooms.”
“And you have the gall to boast to me, your wife, that –“
“Wife?  You haven’t been much of a wife since Bonnie came, have you?”
“Get out of this room and don’t ever come back in it.  I told you that once before and you weren’t enough of a gentleman to understand.  And the way you acted the other night - - so drunk, so disgusting –“
“Disgusting?  Come now, Darling.”
“Get out.”
 “Don’t worry, I’ll go, and I promise I’ll never bother you again.  That’s final.  And I just thought that I’d tell you that if my infamous conduct was too much for you to bear,   I’ll let you have a divorce.  Just give me Bonnie and I won’t contest it.”
“I would not think of disgracing the family with a divorce.”
“You’d disgrace it quickly enough if Miss Melly was dead, wouldn’t you?  It makes my head spin to think how quickly you’d ditch me in order to marry Wilkes.”
“Will you get out?”
“Yes, I’m going.  That’s what I came home to tell you.  I’m going to Charleston and New Orleans  - - oh well, a very extended trip.  I’m leaving today.” and
“Oh!”
“And I’m taking Bonnie with me.  Get that foolish Prissy to pack her little duds.  I’ll take Prissy too.”
“You’ll never take my child out of this house.”
“My child too, Mrs. Butler.  Surely you’ll let me take her to Charleston to see her grandmother?”
“’Her grandmother’ my foot.  Do you think I’ll let you take that baby when you’ll be drunk every night and most likely taking her to houses like that Belle’s –“
He threw down the cigar violently and it smoked acridly on the carpet, the smell of scorching wool rising to their nostrils. In an instant he was across the floor and by her side, his face black with fury.
“If you were a man I would break your neck for that.  So shut your God damn mouth.  Do you think I don’t love Bonnie?  That I would take her to a brothel - - my daughter!  Good God, you fool.  And you, putting on pious airs about motherhood.  Why, an alleycat’s a better mother than you.  What have you ever done for the children?  Wade and Ella are frightened to death of you, and if it wasn’t for Melanie Wilkes, they’d never know what love and affection are.  But Bonnie, my Bonnie.  Do you think I can’t take better care of her than you?  You don’t think I’ll ever let you bully her and break her spirit the way you’ve broken Wade’s and Ella’s.  Hell no!  Have her packed up and ready to go in an hour, or I’ll warn you, what happened the other night will be mild beside what will happen.  I’ve always thought a lashing with a buggy whip would benefit you immensely.”
Needless to say, Papa never whipped her.  That’s why the mention of it was so shocking.  Maybe he should have, because Scarlett wasn’t daunted at all.  On the contrary, she went right to work on her plan to keep him corralled at the Chalet by means of deceit.  I confess, I was her accomplice, despite my great respect for Papa’s whip - - riding crop - - that we heard whacking horses day and night.  Nag and the steeds were the only ones around who ever felt the sting of it, but the mere sound of leather on horse hide began to sting me a little, after my conscience became guilty of deceit. 
The next morning Scarlett called me to her and revealed her plan to me, after reminding me I was at risk of abandonment, if Papa moved.  Before she had even told me my role in her plan, I pledged myself to it.  It hinged upon Bonnie, and Scarlett’s  explosive suggestion that Papa would expose the girl to Belle’s brothel.
“Tease her.  She hates being left behind, especially if she’s forbidden.”
“What if she asks ‘Where?’”
“Tell her.  She’ll pitch a fit, and beg Rhett to go along.”
“Speak of Belle to Bonnie?  He’ll have my hide!” 
She shrugged.  That was her plan, precisely.  “I’ll try to distract him.  I’ll raise Cain over it, when Bonnie asks about Belle.  He’ll be too distracted to trifle with you.”
I gulped.
“Next, you must drive the buggy there, looking for Captain Butler.”
“Alone?”
She nodded.  “For appearances.  Folks’ll think you’ve taken Bonnie in search of Captain Butler.”
“Who?”  I was really dreading this.
“Belle and her floozies.  Rhett maybe.  Stay there long enough to be noticed, then turn around and come back, as if you were bringing Bonnie home where she belongs.”

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