Saturday, March 13, 2010

14. PAPA'S DEATH


        Scarlett was the only one who could’ve killed Rhett Butler.
  He never gave anyone else a clear shot at him.  I’m not calling Scarlett a murderer, I'm just stating a fact.
This won’t be the last chapter of my criticism of GONE WITH THE WIND, I hope, because I haven’t told it all yet.  Even the title Mrs. Mitchell chose was odd, since neither Scarlett nor Rhett were gone.  What was gone?  The romance between them, but that didn’t keep them apart. 
Rhett Butler’s final days have never been chronicled, thank heavens, so there’s no slander yet on that score.  Consequently, I’m rushing to get the bare facts down, before Mrs. Mitchell has a chance at it.  She has already misquoted Papa’s personal thoughts on the subject of death, however, so I must address that here, lest people think him a bitter old cynic.
Scarlett acted so pitifully during Papa’s last days that Mrs. Mitchell suppressed the true facts.  They tell volumes about Scarlett, though they won’t surprise those of you who knew her.  Did her own state of grief over Rhett’s condition excuse her misbehavior?  Consider what happened if you will, and judge for yourself.
She was closeby enough to make an appearance when she chose to do so, but not close enough to be relied upon for help.  Sadly, Papa still longed for Scarlett, no matter what her response to him.  That’s why she had the unique ability to deal the fatal blow.   
I guess Papa was too stout to die from common causes - - riding fall or a derringer shot.  And after Scarlett, his heart could beat its way through anything.  But the pain of his disease of the bowels was worse than any of those.  Longer, therefore worse.  Finally, the meddling he suffered from folks forced him to retreat to a solitary place.  All he needed was a listening ear, since the disease had silenced his voice to a whisper.   
His hair and sideburns were thinner and grey, but he wasn’t bald or stooped like other old men of his height.  He had thinned in the waist, so he cinched up the slack in his pants.  It contrasted with his swollen red nose, that of a glutton, though he was no glutton for food.  Yet, the gin he craved didn’t ruin him in the end and neither did the disease of the gut.  His ruination was a woman who had pestered him for years, from near and from afar, which was plain to everyone including him.  Now the writer, Ms. Mitchell, has rubbed his nose in it, by presenting his personal decline as if it was his final chapter. 
He lived his last months in a four room cottage on Ninth Street in Atlanta, where rents were too high.  Crape myrtles to the rooftop provided him a shady front porch.  I found him there, the first time I visited, the day after he moved in, and six months before he died.  The sun was high, but he was still sipping coffee and reading yesterday’s mail.  I asked for cold tea, since I was already perspiring.  Out in the glare, it had seemed more like July than September.  Of course, I thought the cottage too cramped for him, since he had always seemed like a baron, bigger than any mansion - - a cosmopolitan, bigger than any town.  Yet there he was, perfectly content.  There was no place in the cottage for me, which I confess, was my first thought.  I’d had my own apartment for years, but somehow I still thought of Papa’s place as home, and everyone who occupied it as family.  The Chalet had been a world unto itself back when he and I were there, at the time I needed a home the most.  I wished he was still there.
“Where have you been?” he croaked, before I had a chance to say “boo.”  It was still his voice, but it lacked power, unless you listened well.  The disease was coming from deep down.  Somehow, conversation came easier than ever before, on that narrow porch in the shade.  
“I wish you had a decent veranda on this cottage.”
“It’s all I want.  Something different.”
I said, “My door’s open - - always - - if you need some relaxation.”
“Never relaxed on my sloop, and the Chalet was, well you know.“
“A beehive.”
“I never slept a wink in that house.”  He looked me in the eye.  “A chalet is not a plantation.  We tried to make it one, with all the livestock, but it was just a chalet.  She didn’t know anything else but plantations.  We had chickens in the gutters!  They’re probably still there.”
“Now you’re sleeping better?”
“No, but I know I will sleep.  I’ll sleep fine, as soon as this
bout is over.  It’s a long one . . . killing me . . . but it’ll pass.”  He paused.  “Here it’s calm - - he spread his hands - - the calm I’ve been wanting.”
I knew he couldn’t mount up anymore, but I just had to say, “There’s no stable here.”
He flipped his thumb.  “The young pacer’s out back, ready for harness.  How many mounts does one man need?”
“One’s plenty.  A stable would cost you more, too.  Your rent’s high enough, I’m sure.”
“Rent?”  He sneered.  “This is Tommy Wellburn‘s place.  I’m keepin’ an eye on it for him.” 
“Wellburn?”
“Leave him be.  He hasn’t worn a hood in fifteen years.  It was Tom, his daddy, who got him to ride with the clan, years ago.  It’s for young fools - - losers and thugs with nothing better to do.  Tom lived in this house till the end, last January.  The pneumonia got him.”
I cringed.  “I hope you aired the house out.”
“That was six months ago!  Can’t you stomach the thought of death?”
I shrugged.
“You joke about it with your buddies, why with me?”
“Because it’s gonna be awful,” I said.
“Oh, for God’s sake, I know some good ones!”  He pounded the arm of his rocker, reminding me of the roar he’d have made, ten years ago.
I changed the subject back to the cottage. 
Later,   I got quiet, and realized what a coward I had been.  I said,” I guess I’m still shy of the subject of death.”
He nodded.  “We’re city boys.  We didn’t grow up around it like farmers who send their sows and heifers to the slaughter every day.  Of course, the war changed that and got me used to it.  This whole city died before my eyes.”
“I was a kid.”
“I was afraid of it when I was your age, and back when things were going my way.  Not anymore.  I know men who’d welcome it.”  He paused to let it sink in. 
I took my cue.  “Who?”
“Ashley Wilkes and his kind.  They’re living in the past.  Like I told Scarlett, when she was fretting over Wilkes.  ‘If he had died in battle, his troubles would’ve been over.  He’d have been spared the humiliation of a loser.  Survivors like Wilkes aren’t happy, the dead are happy, because their troubles are over.”’
“What kind of troubles?”
“Humiliation.  The Yankees will rub salt in their wounds forever.”
“You’re not humiliated?”  What a stupid question.  I wanted it back as soon as I said it.  We were all laid low, every Georgian, every Southerner, whether we actually marched into battle or not. 
“Look at me!”
That’s when I realized he was dying.  Until then, I had never seen him as he was - - aged.  He hadn’t outlived his personal sorrows the way he outlived the war.  The loss of Bonnie and his estrangement from Scarlett were worse - - too bad to outlive.  He wanted to be done with them.
“You don’t have to be alone,’ I said, believing I could help.  But fuss as I might, I didn’t help a bit.  He didn’t even seem to hear me, his sorrow was so deep. Sadly, that was the last full conversation I had with him. 
I’ve always wished he’d died happier, but he always kept me guessing.  The older I get, however, the truer I find his insight to be, that the dead are happy.  I see more clearly now, that he was speaking of himself as much as he was of Ashley Wilkes, when he repeated it to me for the last time.  Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have had such an intimate conversation with him, the kind that only a father and son can share.  Sometimes happiness isn’t the emotion I cherish the most.
*                *                * 
He was in a coma the next time I saw him, and happier for it, I’m sure, since the foolishness that occurred during his last four days in this world would have enraged him.  
There were some moments of consciousness, when he was aware of our presence and spoke to me or to Mildred.  He seemed to be aware of his own frailty, as well. 
The last time I heard his voice, he had awoke and had taken
some broth for the first time in days.  When Doctor Meade had finished with him, I sat down and told him how long he’d been down and he nodded his head.  Then he asked,
            “Any word from Tara?”
            “Not today.” 
There was never any word from Scarlett until twenty-four hours before he died, when she appeared on his doorstep, unannounced.
Of course, she didn’t come alone to Rhett’s house, which would have been the decent thing to do.  She needed a whole entourage alongside her, lest she should be ignored.  It took a second carriage to seat her priest, her lawyer, and the lawyer’s wife who was also his secretary.  The fourth was a woman called Betty, her maid, who busied herself fretting over Scarlett.  At her age, Scarlett was most definitely ailing from time to time, due to the hardships and wounds she had suffered, lo those forty-two years. She could still wear her gay blouses with shoulders as narrow as a doe’s, but office work in the city and travel from there to Jonesboro had taken their toll on her figure. She filled every dress out like a hoop skirt, and the balance was gone from her feet.  None of this was a surprise to me, since I’d spotted her around town, but her sudden arrival at Papa’s little cottage certainly startled Mildred and I.  We’d given up trying to anticipate it by the time Papa’s pneumonia had already persisted ten days.  In hindsight, their absence had ironically been a blessing, because their shuffling across the porch was enough to disturb an ailing patient.
She knocked on the door herself, and stood unaided on the doorstep, while the rest of them paraded behind her. 
“Hello Aunt Scarlett,” I said and a surprising sense of relief came over me, despite myself.  After all, Papa had asked for her and I wanted nothing more than to comfort him, however he himself wished.
“Dear Jacques,” she said, and inclined her cheek to be kissed.  She looked quite somber in a charcoal suit and maroon hat and matching blouse.  She made no effort to introduce her companions, which didn’t bother me at all. I had no interest in them, since none of them seemed capable of doing Papa any good.  Her lawyer introduced himself and the others as friends of Scarlett’s, in a perfectly solicitous voice.  He was dressed for a funeral, as were the rest.  I didn’t yet suspect that he had written a new version of Papa’s will that would disinherit me.  I was resting in the assurance that Papa had signed, sealed and delivered his will two years earlier, which he had.  He was utterly reliable, for the simple purpose of putting folks’ minds at ease.  All that remained for us heirs was to unseal it and read it.
This had eased my mind greatly, since Scarlett had been pulling the rug out from under me since I’d known her.  I won’t harp on it here, since I’ve mentioned it previously in this account.  As I’ve said, on this day when they arrived at Papa’s bedside, I had no reason to question their motives.
We all proceeded to sit and wait and hope that Papa would regain consciousness.   Some sat on the porch, while Scarlett and others sat around the dining room table.  When we started a hand of bridge, Scarlett declined to join. 
I had wished to talk with Scarlett, and exchange sympathies as is proper for mourners.  We might have reminisced of our years together,   if only to pass the hours.  Instead, she refused.  I said, “How’s Ella?”
She mumbled that Ella’s engaged to be married, which Ella had been for about fifteen years, without plans for a wedding.  However, when I mentioned that Papa always had a soft spot for Ella, Scarlett sniffled and dabbed her nose, as if the mere mention of Papa was too much for her to bear.  Her maid rushed to her and actually shrouded Scarlett’s head in her shawl, as if Scarlett herself was sickly.  Smothered was my gentlemanly attempt to engage Scarlett.  Indeed I had appeared insensitive to her, by making her cry.
Needless to say, Scarlett found constant reasons to sniffle, in the midst of Papa’s ointments and salves and remedies. In fact, I never saw her eyes again that day, but only the top of her head and her wadded handkerchief.  Not one audible word did she speak to anyone but her attendant.  Was she simply too grief-stricken to speak?  Maybe, but I doubt it, due to my past experiences with her. 
For decades past, I had often gotten the cold shoulder from Scarlett, so I looked upon her silence and sniffles with skepticism.  Cynicism may be a better word, since I felt little sympathy for her.  She had taught me early on, to recognize her methods of bossing everyone around the Chalet, and the cold shoulder had been one of her shrewdest.
Papa was forced to scold her repeatedly for giving the cold shoulder to him too, which would come as no surprise to my readers, except possibly to readers who are personally unfamiliar with the misery of marital strife such as that depicted in GONE WITH THE WIND.
Her brashest, coldest use of this method was on the day when she purposely broke Papa’s heart.  She broke it mercilessly too, only to turn around moments later and relent and make up to him for her harshness.
 It occurred after Frank Kennedy died, when Scarlett became single again for the first time in four years.  She had moved to Aunt Pittypat’s, her aunt by law from her first marriage.  She was pretending to grieve over Frank’s death, but in reality she was pleased and relieved that the marriage had ended.  She was glad to be free of the bonds of marriage to Frank.
Papa wasted no time finding where she was staying and appearing in person upon her doorstep.  Scarlett asked him directly what news he had for her, and in reply, he didn’t hesitate.  He honestly said he wanted her hand in marriage.  It was a uniquely candid request by Papa, without the cleverness he had always employed to great effect.  In proposing marriage to her, he abandoned all pretence.  She dodged the question, and he said, “I’m asking you to marry me.  Would you be convinced if I knelt down?”
“Scarlett’s response to him was shockingly cold.  “I don’t love you,” she said.  “I don’t ever want to get married again.”  He persevered, and later managed to get her consent, in exchange for his money.
It was Scarlett’s history of muteness when Papa most needed her most, that I thought of when she did it to us, that night in his dining room.  I know I should be more sympathetic, but I had seen Scarlett’s crocodile tears before.  While weeping, she was actually working her scheme to rewrite Papa’s will.  I’ll describe the scheme in due course.
 Scarlett never called for Papa on the night, a decade earlier, when he had tried to revive their dying love for each.  It followed a disastrous month, that began with Scarlett and Ashley being caught in the act of romantic embrace.  In response, Papa made a heroic gesture of faith and loyalty to her.  He unabashedly escorted her to a party at Ashley’s own home, then whisked her away in a flourish and made passionate love to her in the sanctity of their marriage bed.  The pregnancy that followed was the quintessential sign to the world of marital well-being.  Nevertheless, Scarlett ignored Papa and failed to call for him during her discomfort and miscarriage.  In the process, she actually imagined him dead, along with the baby.  They lost the baby as well as the love they’d been nursing along.
The family hoped Papa would come out of his coma, but for different reasons.  I don’t question Scarlett’s interest in Papa’s welfare, but she and her lawyer had other plans as well.  They were tactful enough to refrain from mentioning Papa’s will in the presence of us heirs.  We spent long hours around Papa’s small dining table, playing euchre, drinking Papa’s liquor or sipping iced tea.  But when he recovered for a few days, Scarlett demanded to see him, as if she had a right. 
Of course, I knew her purpose because of the lawyer, but I had no power to thwart them.  Mildred tried to prepare Papa for seeing her.  “What’s she doing here?” Papa asked.
Mildred said Scarlett had heard Papa was dying.
Scarlett intruded at that moment, carrying a sheaf of papers, before Papa had a chance to plead for solitude.  She had disguised her black mourning clothes with a gold silk scarf across her bodice and she had taken her hair down.  I later learned what happened from Mildred, who doggedly remained at Papa’s side.
 “I’m not dying, Scarlett, so go back to the Chalet.” 
She began to boo hoo as soon as she laid eyes on Rhett.  She said she was worried about him and fussed at him for not taking better care.  She vowed not to leave his side.
Papa interrupted her to ask what she was carrying.
 Scarlett said, “A will.  Your old one’s no good, Mr. Dawdry said so.”
“I don’t need that, and neither do you.  You’ve already got everything.  The Chalet, the livestock, the valuables - -  What else could you possibly take, the shirt off my back?”  He snatched the papers from her.
“He’s a cracker-jack lawyer,” she said.  “Here, let me -“
“No,” he grunted, as loud as he could.  “You’re not shoving it down my throat.”  He clutched the document while Mildred fetched his spectacles. The pristine paper was newly typed, without a mark or fold. 
Rhett read aloud, “Scarlett O’Hara Butler is sole surviving heir.’  What about Jacques?  He’s right outside, and he’s gonna survive you, Scarlett.”
“I’ll look after Jacques.  I’ve always been generous.” 
“Generous?” His voice was almost gone. “You’re trying to steal his share, just like you took all of mine!  He grabbed her neck and choked her.  “Bitch!”
Her tiny fists seemed to be deadly, since his body suddenly went slack.  The breath left him and he slid off the edge of the bed.  Scarlett blocked his slide, and Mildred helped lift him onto the pillow.  His eyes were closed.
 “Rhett,” Scarlett gasped.
*                                  *                                  *
Of course, I assembled a memorial service at Peachtree Methodist, where he had once joined.  He'd stopped attending after Bonnie died, so few of the Methodists attended.  Scarlett, however, felt her Catholic family had been slighted, so she declined my invitation.  Ashley Wilkes and his daughter were there, and he stood up and spoke a gracious word or two.
At graveside, I demurred to her.  According to Papa's wishes, her priest offered only a benediction and a prayer.  She was flanked by her lawyer and maid, so not even Wade could reach her.  She vanished from sight, somewhere between the “Shall we pray” and the “amen.”
The End.

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. This story of Rhett is very interesting.

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  3. Michal-Hillel DesforgesApril 6, 2010 at 5:45 PM

    "Omg ...Rhett dies??•••"

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  4. Rose D'Eramo Bell TignorApril 14, 2010 at 7:14 PM

    i skipped to the last part this evening. very interesting and just like scarlett. would we expect any less. i think not. she was quite a woman. but, her tenacity kept those people alive during that civil war. and that melanie, they would have been dead 2 minutes after they got back to tara. she got on my nerves and ashley-- what a wimpy guy. nice writing. i will try to read the rest. take care.

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  5. aww how could u kill him? :(

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  6. I like it! It's a whole other side of the story. And its wriiten beautifully.

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