*tap tap* Ahem, is this thing on? Is anyone still there? Here's a new chapter for this old story. It finally has a little something to tie R&S fans over. (We're getting there, guys, slowly but surely.) It also ties in with the last section of chapter 4, so anyone looking for a refresher should look there, although I think this is pretty straightforward reading without it, too. With many thanks to iso and E. who read this chapter and gave very useful advice.
ETA: If you've visited the site last week and already seen this update, ignore it. FFdotnet email alerts were down for the last ~10 days and, as they confirmed they wouldn't be sending out any lost alerts from that time period and I tend to rely on email notifications rather than visit the site myself, I've tried reposting it instead.
Chapter XI: Splendor in the Grass
"Talking to Rhett was comparable only to one thing, the feeling of ease and comfort afforded by a pair of old slippers after dancing in a pair too tight." (GWTW, Ch. XXXVI)
She heard them before she saw them. She'd gone to Jonesboro that morning with Will, who needed to make arrangements for the upcoming harvest. First picking was almost upon them and more field hands needed to be hired. On the way back, they were silent— Will chewing placidly on his straw, Scarlett lulled to pleasant drowsiness by the rhythmic creaking of the wagon and the calm promise of the road unwinding before her, a sinuous red ribbon between fields of green and white. She had been both vaguely tired and a little restless that morning, an echo of yesterday's exertions at Fairhill, yet now both feelings were gone, replaced by a sort of dreamy contemplation. She could already picture in her mind the cool stillness of her room at Tara, the soothing darkness that would descend once she drew the curtains for her afternoon rest. And then, as the road coiled along the wide pastures that lay close to the house, there was an unexpected sound drifting on the wind, calling her to attention.
She sat straight in her seat. The song, an old marching ditty, was familiar, as were the singers' voices. When Bonnie comes marching home, one of them stressed stubbornly over the others, melting almost into a shriek on the desired name change. A man's baritone slid smoothly below the piping voices from time to time, to save the wavering tune. As the wagon finally turned a bend in the road and the singers came into view, Scarlett's eyes widened in disbelief. There was her youngest, decked in a puffy white dress, finer than even her usual taffeta and lace. Its ample skirt was embroidered with colorful little flowers that shone in the sun and matched the small riot of flowers on Bonnie's sun hat. Behind her, marching determinedly through the red dust, were her sister and cousins, all three of them in what looked like their Sunday best. Finally, bringing up the rear was Rhett, in his usual attire, a split-oak basket in the crook of his arm and a net attached to a thin rod on his shoulder.
He inclined his head amiably as the wagon came to a stop, and the girls rushed to its side in a swirl of chirping voices. Scarlett was frozen in dismay for a second as she caught full sight of her nieces. They were not merely wearing their Sunday best—they were wearing the new dresses the Butlers had bought for them in Atlanta, and fine white stockings, and delicate patent-leather shoes that already sported streaks of red dust. Had Rhett lost his mind, taking them out of the house dressed like that? What would Suellen think? She raised stormy eyes to him, fully prepared to give him a piece of her mind, but he'd remained a few steps behind the children, smiling an almost infuriatingly benign smile. Scarlett scowled at him from a distance before looking down at the girls.
"Darlings, don't talk all at once!" she chided in a brightly tight voice and was granted a brief moment of silence. "Now, where are you going? Isn't it time for your dinner and naps?"
"We are going to have a picnic, Aunt Scarlett," Susie replied primly, eager to dispel any impression of irregularity as concerned her own person. She was the only one that had kept a proper distance between herself and the wagon. The other three girls hovered close to its wheels and Bonnie looked as if she was assessing her chances of climbing up its side to her mother.
"Bonnie sweetheart, don't touch that!" Scarlett said sharply. "You'll get mud all over your pretty dress. And why, may I ask, are you wearing your pretty dress outside?"
The question, much like her first one, was aimed at Rhett, but he made no move to reply, his smile growing just a touch wider under his mustache. His daughter, however, was quite up to the task of answering it without his intervention.
"I want to be queen," she said, taking a small step back from the side of the wagon and pushing Sollie and Ella back with her in the process.
"You want to be queen?" Scarlett frowned and could barely keep herself from rolling her eyes. Of course it would have to be some foolish tale Rhett had concocted for the girls. He had an endless supply of them, each sillier than the last.
"Yes, queen of the butterflies!" Bonnie nodded vigorously.
"Oh," her mother said weakly and sat back in her seat.
"We're not going to have a picnic, Mommy," Ella piped in, casting a disdainful look at Susie. "I mean, we are…" she stumbled and frowned, "but—but we are going to find butterflies! And we're going to have a contest. Remember when you said—"
"Butterflies, how lovely!" Scarlett cut her short with bright, determined cheerfulness. She remembered all too well what she'd said and was none too eager to have it repeated in front of Rhett now, for him to know exactly how hard she'd had to work to coax Bonnie into coming to Tara. God only knew how he'd mock her for that! And nothing between them was settled and perhaps he'd wonder why she'd wanted Bonnie at Tara and… She would have to let the matter of the girls' attire pass, she decided quickly.
"Well then," she smiled airily down at the small group, "I hope you catch the prettiest butterflies. Just make sure you are back in time for—"
"Oh, but, Mommy, won't you come with us?" Ella interrupted in a plaintively hopeful voice.
Scarlett opened her mouth to refuse and was immediately cut off by louder exclamations from Sollie and Bonnie.
"Come with us, Mother!"
"Yes, Aunt Scarlett, do!"
Hands clasped high in front of them, the girls jumped up and down, trying to outdo each other in pleading most dramatically, and raising a small cloud of dust in the process. Susie alone was silent and looked more than a little appalled at the childishness of her peers. Scarlett tried to intervene, but it was in vain. Only the sharpest of tones would have cut through the girls' combined energy now—and that, under the circumstances, she could not deliver. At her side, Will clucked mildly to the horse, which had begun to stir uneasily at the noise. He made no move to chasten his daughter.
"Yes, my dear, why don't you join us?" Rhett's deep voice cut through the ruckus. He looked amused by her predicament, but otherwise quite guileless, as if he earnestly wanted her to join them on their picnic. It made it harder to refuse without seeming ungracious—which he probably knew quite well. Scarlett opened her mouth and then hesitated, sensing with some irritation that any reply would send the prospect of a quiet afternoon rest irretrievably out of her grasp.
"I can tell Sue to wait a little on dinner," Will spoke quietly from her side.
"Oh, there's little need for that," Rhett offered comfortably. "We've enough food with us to feed a small army."
"Oh, all right," Scarlett sighed resignedly and the girls cheered so loudly the horse had to be reined in.
Rhett made his way to the wagon. "Girls, salute your new captain," he said as he helped Scarlett down and the girls shrieked loudly once more. They then waved a long, enthusiastic goodbye to Will as the wagon got smaller and smaller on the red road, while Scarlett stood undecided in place, carefully smoothing down her skirts.
"Well, where were you headed to?" she asked when the noise finally died down.
"Down to the river?" Rhett shrugged, as if he hadn't given the matter much thought.
"The river?" she looked up in surprise. "That's a little far for a picnic, isn't it?"
Not to mention that there weren't any butterflies to be found by the river, but that was not a subject she was about to raise with him.
"Unless, perhaps, you have a better place in mind," he inclined his head solicitously.
She gave the matter a moment's thought. "We could go to the orchard."
"The orchard, a splendid idea!" She cast him a quick look, but he pressed on before she could decide if he was mocking her. "Lead the way, my good captain."
"We'll cut across the pasture here." He followed the direction of her outstretched hand and a slow smile spread over his face.
"Jump over the fence, you mean?"
"Well, would you rather walk half a mile to the gate and half a mile back to enter the orchard?" she asked with peeved practicality.
"Jump over the fence!" Bonnie clapped her hands excitedly. Her cousin Susie, finely attuned to the intricacies of polite manners despite her tender age, looked vaguely insulted by the idea.
"No, sweetheart," Scarlett said firmly. "You're not jumping over the fence. Ladies don't climb fences. Your father will go to the other side and I will hand you to him."
Rhett looked thoroughly entertained by her speech, but he complied. He set the basket down and passed the butterfly net to his daughter. And then, with one hand on the post, he swung his large frame over the fence with startling speed. Scarlett moved to pick up Bonnie, but he stopped her with a short wave of his hand and reached over the rails to lift up the children himself. Scarlett handed him the basket and then set her foot determinedly on the lower rail.
"Do you require assistance?" he asked, leaning casually against the post. Behind him, the girls had already set out across the field.
Scarlett shook her head. "I have climbed fences like this all my life."
"I thought ladies—"
"Do you mind?" she ground out, motioning for him to move away before she made her way over the fence. He took a step back, but remained close to the post until her feet touched the ground on the other side. Though nimble, her climb over the rails had exposed her legs up to her knees and she looked up at Rhett expecting to find leering or mockery on his dark face. She found neither, just a strange little smile of almost tender amusement that smoothed itself to blandness under her curious gaze. It made her feel obscurely embarrassed and she looked away from him as he picked up the basket. Before them, in the sun, the girls had broken into a run, chasing each other with the butterfly net and hollering with laughter in the lazy summer air.
"Oh, they will fall and ruin their dresses," Scarlett moaned, as she and Rhett made their way across the pasture. "You shouldn't have let them wear their good clothes outside."
"They insisted they had to," he shrugged, "and who was I to contradict them? Today was to be our day. We've been hunting for that mythical butterfly field for a long time now—since the day after we arrived, in fact—to no avail. But then it's always the natives who know these places, I'm told."
There was something slightly alarming in the offhandedness of that last sentence and she looked up at him in suspicion. Sure enough, a hint of the old devilish light was there in his dark eyes. It occurred to her that he had known all along that she had been the one who'd told Bonnie about the butterflies, but he'd chosen not to wield that weapon openly for some reason. She hastily turned her gaze back to the girls running in the distance. They were now almost at the gate.
"Suellen will be furious when she sees their dresses," she said to fill the silence.
"I will graciously take my penance."
"As if she'd say anything to you," she said, more peevishly than she'd intended, for his obsequiousness toward Suellen didn't fail to rankle. But he did not pick up the gauntlet. They closed the distance to the orchard in silence, and he stepped aside to let her pass through the gate first.
Tara's orchard was the crown jewel of Will's talents. He had endless patience for pruning, grafting and propping—and trees tended to reward such patient work. Dotted with fruit, their crowns melted thickly into one another, each row a long green cloud anchored by slender dark trunks to the carpet of daisies and cornflowers below. Scarlett led the small group past fragrant peach trees and the heavy shadows of apple trees to the very back of the orchard, where fruit had been picked early and cheerful bright flowers stretched all the way to the surrounding fence and beyond.
"Look, Mother, butterflies!" Bonnie gasped and ran towards the fence, her chubby arms stretched out in greeting. Yet the delicate wings eluded her, flitting brightly out of her grasp.
"Don't worry, poppet, they'll come after we have lunch," her father consoled her.
They rounded a thicket of pomegranate trees and laid their blanket in the shade. Someone more mindful of finery than Rhett was had packed four large napkins to be tied around the girls' necks and cover their frocks. Thus enveloped in linen, they ate—Bonnie and Sollie assisted by the adults, Ella and Susie on their own, sitting as far from each other as the blanket permitted. A pointed conversation between her mother and Scarlett the week before had forced Susie to be civil to Ella, as long as any adults were present. Yet she had started exacting revenge on her cousin in cunning little slights, too small and too numerous for Ella to be able to appeal to any authority outside the nursery again.
This tension notwithstanding, the girls filled the air with bright chatter, as if a host of noisy sparrows had descended on the blanket, making it unnecessary for the adults to converse. It suited Scarlett quite well, for she didn't want silence to fall between her and Rhett. She had felt like engaging him quite a few times over the past days, but those had all been peevish retorts, quickly swallowed back for fear of the animosity they would revive. Now, at close quarters, she couldn't imagine what they could possibly talk about. Every subject seemed either conspicuously dull or else threaded with danger. After they'd eaten their lunch, Rhett went away to pick fruit for dessert. He returned with blushing fuzzy peaches for the girls, weighing down the pockets of his coat, and a pomegranate for Scarlett. "Here, my Proserpine," he said as he handed it to her. She blinked up at him in confusion, but she took the proffered fruit nonetheless and let him cut it open for her, after he'd sliced the peaches for the children. And then the feast was over, cutlery and plates were returned to the basket, and it was finally time for the girls to catch the promised butterflies.
They rushed to the fence at once and sat down in the sweet-smelling grass, spreading their skirts around them like the petals of strange colorful flowers. For a few moments, they were silent, holding their breaths with the sort of impatient solemnity they would, in the years to come, wait for beaus to invite them to dance. Yet butterflies were less than taken by their charms. Fickle suitors, they fluttered carelessly past, dipping teasingly close and then dancing out of reach again. And every time that happened, the girls would gasp in dismay and Bonnie would move to catch them outright, driving them even farther out of her reach.
From the blanket, Scarlett surveyed the scene with a half-smile. There was a faint ring of the past to it, of her own childhood, trickling down through the years to this summer afternoon. Sunny mornings on the front lawn, clouds billowing lazily past, the tender smell of cloves and summer blossoms in her nose. Hot afternoons in the orchard, bickering with Suellen over a place in the shade, the crispness of apples not yet fallen from their branch. And as the lines of those old, almost forgotten days melted softly into the present summer tableau, she was grateful that Ella and Bonnie had this, that Tara was here for them still, abiding when all the world had changed. Yet mixed with that gratitude was a certain puzzlement and, with it, that strange disquieting vertigo that had overtaken her so many times since spring.
For against this brightly-lit picture there was the intimation of another, darker knowledge struggling to reach her consciousness—that nothing had turned out as she had expected. Little of what that young girl in yesterday's orchard had dreamed of or anticipated had come true. And instead this. Her children, her husband, her life. And behind them other things still harder to grasp and more painful, ranged like in the dark background of a painting. Ellen gone, Gerald gone, the world as she'd known it gone. And however dimly she realized it, it made it hard to hold on to the pleasure of the present moment or even to the more durable satisfaction this moment embodied, the satisfaction of having at least saved Tara from the wreckage. For, knowingly or not, it would always be there, lying in wait to catch her eye—a chip in the brightness of today, the inescapable shadow of a fracture line in the mended whole.
But she had never been one to dwell on things that were either painful or confused. There was no use to it. She pushed the uneasy, half-formed feeling from her mind, and cast a furtive look at Rhett. His eyes were closed and he looked supremely at ease, stretched out on the blanket like a big, lazy tomcat. She should join the girls. It would be good to lie down in the soft green grass and surround herself with their gaiety. Rhett wouldn't notice (and why should she care if he did?). But something in her didn't welcome that thought. Something in her was restless and dissatisfied and resisted soothing. She was not sure herself what she needed, except that she wished she had refused to come to the picnic after all. She sighed and brought her knees up, resting her elbows on them and her chin in her hand.
"What's ailing you, Scarlett?"
He was not asleep after all. He'd opened his eyes at her sigh and propped himself on one elbow to watch her. But there was nothing in her thoughts that bore sharing.
"Nothing," she shrugged. "I…"
"Did things not go well in Jonesboro? Should I expect to be sent out in the fields in two weeks' time?"
"Of course not. Will spoke to some men for the picking. He'll clear fifteen acres down by the river bottom after that—for next year."
"Not much," Rhett shrugged, drawing out his cigar case.
"No, but it's more than anyone else around here. We've been to the Tarletons, the Fontaines—they're not doing any better. People around Jonesboro who've taken tenants and sharecroppers might have more of their land in use, but for the rest..."
She trailed off, waiting for him to say something in reply. She was vaguely aware that she had been stung into defensiveness and, faced with his renewed silence, cast around for something to add. But the words that came out, halting and unsure, were not what she had imagined she would say.
"No one else is doing better. The rest of the County... it's as if it's deserted. When we drove back from Mimosa this week, everything was pine trees and brush, as far as you could see. And all the old houses are in ruins, but there's no one left to fix them, and the fields around them are just growing up wild."
"'Round the decay, the lone and level sands stretch far away'," Rhett said softly.
"Nothing. Go on."
"Well, there's nothing much to say, really. Will said it would take fifty years for any of it to be fixed. And even the farms that are doing well… We would have been lost without Will, but we are only farming a tenth of Tara and we will never farm more than half. Not if we have to rely on cotton alone. There is no money to be made in cotton anymore. Will said so himself. The Fontaines—Alex wanted to buy a cotton mill, so he could have enough money to marry Dimity. Alex Fontaine, a mill owner! He works harder than anyone in the County, Will included, and he still can't make ends meet."
The words flowed easily from her now, as he smoked silently and listened. She wasn't sure where all these things she was telling him had sprung from, for she hadn't been thinking of them at all before she had started speaking. But it was easy to talk to him about this, where all other topics were hard. And it felt so good to talk; it was if something that had sat painfully coiled in her throat was slowly unwinding and she was carried away by the relief of its loosening. Without realizing it, she folded her legs under her as she was talking, turning to fully face Rhett.
"And the Tarletons—they could live quite well off horse breeding, I suppose, if they were sensible about it, but not the land. And even so, the girls won't stay here. 'Randa and Camilla are quite set on going up North, and I suppose Hetty will have to as well, unless she wants to be an old maid her whole life. But just to think of them up North or—or marrying Yankees... No one would have ever imagined it would come to this before the war. But then no one would have ever imagined they would be old maids either. They were the belles of this County. After me and Cathleen, of course."
She saw him smile at that, a quick flash of white teeth under his mustache. "Rhett," she said after a small hesitant pause, "what did you tell Camilla yesterday? Did—did she ask you about Boston?"
"I told her Bostonians are nice people with terrible accents. Though I fear good country people from Georgia find Charlestonians every bit as bad. You thought as much yourself when you visited the old place, if memory serves. Though maybe you've changed your mind since?"
"Oh, be serious."
"I am serious—and quite disappointed. But shall we return to your problem?"
"Isn't what you were describing a problem? It strikes me as a very familiar one. A soldier goes out to war, returns to find the world he fought to defend is gone. It stings doubly if the war was won."
"The war? But we lost the war..."
"Don't be literal, Scarlett. I meant your war, the one you started when you went forth to slay innocent men in your mother's velvet curtains and the tail feathers of a rooster."
"Slay innocent—" she started indignantly, but Rhett put a hand up to stop her.
"Innocent, I say, but slayed for a good cause. Food and shelter for yourself and your family, no cause more sacred. And we can agree, I think, that you've won that war quite handily. Bar the unexpected downfall of this country, you and your kin will never be hungry again. You have more money than you can spend in this lifetime, almost certainly more than your own father had before the war. You have a house that reflects this fact, much like this house here reflects your father's rapid ascension to wealth. And you have Tara. But there is a rub, isn't there?"
She cast him a wary look, suspecting some further quip at her expense. This was the problem with Rhett. He could be perfectly pleasant and patient and listen to all of your troubles with that small shrug of his that cut things down to their proper proportions without dismissing them unduly. Yet sometimes, unpredictably, instead of comforting you, he would turn nasty.
"And the rub is this, what you've been telling me. That you might have won your war, but you have not turned back the clock. That the world has changed irreparably. That Tara is still here, but Tara is a farm. That even the people who have not gone under have changed. So that perhaps winning was not enough. Perhaps having enough money not to go under was not enough."
"But none of these people has enough money!" she protested. "If Alex Fontaine or the Tarletons had money, there would be no problem for them. And if Will only took my money, Tara would be back to its old self in no time at all. Same for everyone else in the County. If they had enough money, they would be fine. They wouldn't have the old things, true. But they would have new things that are just as good, and they would be happy."
"You think so, my dear? Has money made you happy?"
Carried by the hotness of her previous words, she started to say, "Of course it's made me happy!" But somehow, she couldn't speak.
"It's a silly question," she finally said, averting her eyes. In the distance, the girls gasped loudly as a small white butterfly landed on the tip of Susie's shoe. Susie smiled palely in victory.
"Is it?" he said mildly. "I do beg your pardon. But even if your County people had money, it would still not be the same. Look, if you will, at Atlanta in all its bustle and prosperity. It is richer now than it ever used to be. Yet would one rather have this new Atlanta, with all its riches, over the old? Even you, in your better moments, might balk at that."
This time she didn't move to protest. Because his words had stirred the memory of another conversation, the one she'd had with Ashley before it had all gone so disastrously wrong in the spring. She could hear herself protesting that she liked the glitter and excitement of the new days, and heard the lie in her past voice just as clearly as Ashley had at the time. And suddenly she was weary.
"Of course I liked the old days better," she said. "But what good will it do to pine for them? You know you can't move forward if you have your memories like a stone around your neck to hold you down. You'd only be like"—she almost said Ashley, but caught herself in time — "like someone who won't face the present and can't see the future."
Rhett put out the stub of his cigar in the grass. When he spoke, his voice was almost gentle.
"But, my dear, it is not always a question of facing the present and seeing the future. It is often a question of seeing the present—as it truly is, not as a fall from the dreams of childhood or as a momentary unpleasantness to be faced for the sake of a better future to come. Your comparison is apt; some people, perhaps the vast majority, wear their past like a stone around their necks. But then there are others, who cut free of its weight entirely. And they can't see the present either, because they are borne unthinkingly into the future. They only ever strive for the future. People, I've come to think, need weights to tie them down and force them to see what's under their eyes."
There was something there that was meant for her. She was not sure how she knew it, just that she did. He was talking about her. And for the first time she felt she was close to understanding what he was saying in his cryptic fashion, that there was something in his words that was relevant to her situation, perhaps even essential to it, if she could only grasp exactly what it was. Someone reaching for the future and not seeing what was under their eyes—her practical mind could not untangle that and set it aside. But the other part of what he was saying was clearer. He thought that one could make do with a load of painful memories, that it was better somehow to hold on to them than cut loose.
"But how would sitting around dwelling on the old days help anything with—with what you're saying?" she finally asked. "It would just drag at your heart without stop and make you wish everything was different."
Rhett, who had been watching her face closely, suddenly smiled.
"Not if you see the past for what it is. Neither totally good, nor totally bad. Most people look at it through the eyes of the child or youth they once were, and they can never see beyond that. If they enjoyed their life, they think the past was good, always and for everyone, and they can never stop longing for it. And if they've had the misfortune of living in times of war, the old days are forever the time before the suffering and ruin, and hallowed in their memory. But the old days had their own brutality, their own wrong-headedness—if not for themselves, then for others."
The letters from Ellen's secretary, now safely tucked at the bottom of her jewelry box, suddenly came to her mind and she shifted uneasily on the blanket. What would Rhett say about that, she wondered. Perhaps she should ask him. Perhaps he would know what to do. And suddenly she was impatient for him to finish talking, her mind no longer on the topic at hand.
"If one were to look at the past with clear eyes," he continued, "one would see the need to embrace only parts of it, without clinging to the whole or chasing its return. People who don't are broken down by the weight of their own memories, or else they hang around like grown men still waiting to receive the toy sabers they longed for as children. And so, my dear—"
But he never did finish his thought, cut short by a sudden noise. For back by the fence, the game of waiting had exhausted its charm for Bonnie. Her sister and older cousin had both been graced by the winged critters, and even the young Sollie had managed to stop fidgeting long enough for a butterfly to land on the hem of her dress. A few moments of staying still might have yielded her, too, the coveted prize. But nowhere in Bonnie's blood was there patience to sit and wait for the objects of her desire to come to her on their own terms—and it would have been surprising if it were, for neither of her parents possessed that quality. And so she abandoned her post and set out to catch the butterflies by force. She chased them the few steps to the fence, waving the butterfly net enthusiastically and casting it down with enough force to make the tall grass blades flatten to the ground. Once, twice—and then, on her third try, the net caught the top of a post and was trapped. She pulled to dislodge it, but the fence was old and rotten. It had been built years ago by her uncle Ashley, himself a less than able carpenter, and when she pulled again, it started to come down on her with a loud, frightening creak. And then everything happened at once. She cried and drew back, letting go of the net. The girls turned to look at her and screamed. The fence leaned at an angle and stopped its descent a couple of inches above her head, half of its rotten post still clinging to the ground.
And then her father was by her side, having leaped from the blanket so swiftly that Scarlett, still frozen in place, barely had time to perceive his motion as a dark blur at the edge of her vision.
"Are you hurt, sweetheart?" he asked, going down on one knee at his daughter's side. She shook her head and started recounting what had happened, rubbing one small fist against her cheek. Rhett listened gravely, nodding from time to time, and looked at the fence when she pointed accusingly to it. Scarlett, who had started making her way towards them, stopped awkwardly in place a few steps away. Neither of them showed any signs of noticing her presence, so she changed course and enlisted the girls to help her fold the blanket instead. It was clear that the picnic was over; and, over her momentary fright, she had the unsettled sensation of one who had been rushed up from their meal before they had finished. Well, it didn't matter, there would be other times for Rhett and her to talk, now that they were back on friendlier terms.
Back on the sun-dappled field, Rhett whispered something in Bonnie's ear. She nodded and came running to join the little group in the shade. As her small hands grasped her mother's skirts, Scarlett turned around just in time to see Rhett plant a foot on the leaning fence. He pushed, with a sort of calm brutality, until the rotten posts gave way with a sudden cracking sound and that whole section of the fence was flat on the ground. He looked down at it, and there was complete silence for a moment. Then he turned to face the wide-eyed group by the picnic basket.
"Will would have needed to replace it soon anyway," he said to Scarlett, whose shock was giving way to anger. "It hadn't been properly set in the ground."
He had a point there and she didn't have time to think of a reply, for he made his way to her side and picked up the basket.
"Shall we go?" he asked. "We might as well go through the fence there, since it's closer to the house."
She nodded a little warily and they made their way to the missing section in silence, the girls still a little subdued by the unexpected turn in their afternoon. Rhett picked up Ella and Bonnie and stepped easily over the fallen fence with them, to keep them from stumbling through the rails. He came back for Susie and Sollie, and then Scarlett alone was left in the orchard. Rhett turned back and extended his hand to her. She looked at it, then down at the fallen rails, and his upturned palm stretched out in an age-old gesture of impatient appeal. She placed her hand in his and, leaning on its strength, stepped across the old crumbling wood and out into the field.