Chapter 1: The Summons
In the first terrible hot days of that summer after Aunt Melly had died and Uncle Rhett left, Mother and I went to see Uncle Will and Aunt Suellen at Tara. We took Ella with us. She was eight, nearly nine, but acted younger. Mother had dressed her all in black, and the ribbon around her waist of her ruffled skirt had come untied.
"Will we ever see Aunt Melwy again?" Ella asked as she clutched my hand with her small, fat one. She still had trouble with double "l" sounds, which seemed to make Mother even more irritated than usual. Ella didn't seem to notice, tripping along between Mother and I, chatting constantly to herself.
"Aunt Melly is in Heaven," I whispered, "she's gone, Ella."
Her wide eyes looked up at me with disbelief, although she had certainly been told this fact at least a hundred times.
"Gone like Bonnie?"
"Yes. Gone like Bonnie."
A brief sadness cast a shadow over Ella's round face, then her eyes lit up, as if the matter was forgotten.
"Keep her quiet, won't you Wade Hampton?" Mother snipped.
My mother had a way about her. She was hard and sure of herself, not like any of the other mothers, or even like Aunt Melly, whose loving embrace I still longed for. She always acted as if she knew something about the world that the rest of the Old Guard of Atlanta did not.
We disembarked the train at the Jonesboro depot, and Uncle Will was waiting with a beat up buggy and a horse Mother said was fit for the glue factory.
Uncle Will's smile was knowing. "We'll get us a'nern one of these days, Scarlett."
Uncle Will lifted Ella into the back of the buggy and extended a hand as I tossed in my satchel. I had hastily packed a few books and a jacket, since Mother didn't tell us how long we would be gone.
"Rhett still ain't planning on comin'?" Will addressed Mother knowingly.
She shook her head and rolled her eyes at Ella, who was sucking on the hand of her porcelain doll.
"Get that out of her mouth, Wade Hampton!" she shouted, taking her seat in the buggy next to Will, and putting her head close to his ear as she began to speak about things that were clearly not meant for our hearing.
I felt left out of the conversation. But that was my way. I always felt left out. Everyone else was ahead of me, always playing at some game, it seemed, the rules of which I still had to learn. And as soon as I learned the rules, someone always seemed to change them.
But I had caught on to this much – Uncle Rhett had left for good it seemed. It was different than when he left before, with Bonnie in tow. And everyone else in Atlanta had caught on, it seemed. You could see it in their faces. Their eyes were hard and mean and their manner cocky to the point of rudeness. An older boy had knocked my books right out of my hand and made a crack about Mother the last day of school. They even whispered that word usually unspoken in polite society: divorce. Sometimes they didn't whisper. The most lowly Negro servant to the roughest white trash folks in the street who knew Mother from the store. They all acted as if they knew our business and knew what was about to happen.
But what was about to happen? Was I letting the grief of losing Aunt Melly control my emotions? Uncle Rhett had always warned me about that. "Be a man, Wade Hampton," was the last words he spoke to me before he left.
The day before we had set off for Tara, I had gathered my courage and confided in Mother. "Nobody at school will talk to me. Even Beau. Why?"
We were at the top of the staircase in the Peachtree house. Mother had fallen down those stairs just a few months prior to Aunt Melly dying and Uncle Rhett leaving. Her face looked a little white as she steadied herself on the railing.
Two of the housekeepers scurried by, whispering furtively between one another.
"You really don't know, do you?" Mother had asked me. "Rhett left me, Wade Hampton."
I felt ashamed, as if I had missed something again, something that was right before my eyes.
I burst into tears, which I think startled Mother.
"I'm sorry, Mother."
She looked slightly sympathetic, although her tone was still sharp. "You must pay more mind to things."
I studied her haughty profile as Uncle Will drove us. My mother had taught me a lot of things in my life: my way around the bustling, winding streets of the reconstructed Atlanta, how to bargain for things so I would spend less of my pocket money, how to get up early and pick cotton when the war was still on, and we had to scrounge for food and money and worse...
I would have been lonely if not for Ella. She was the only friend I had inside the house. I admired Mother and Uncle Rhett both, but at a respectful distance.
"Where are we going?" Ella yawned again.
"Tara," I said, attempting to emulate Mother's tone. I was tired of repeating myself. "Uncle Rhett's gone on a long trip so we are doing the same."
"How will he know where we are?" she asked, seeming to have a better grasp on the situation now that we were leaving the depot.
"He doesn't care," I responded.
"What about Uncle Ashley and Beau?" Ella had continued.
I pondered that question. Beau hadn't really bothered to speak to me much after Aunt Melly's funeral. A few times Uncle Ashley had stopped by our gate and asked me if Mother might go to supper with Ella and I at Aunt Pittypat's house. I had wanted to go, if only to attempt conversation with Beau. My mother said no. There would be no suppers with Ashley, she had said, and looked almost put out.
Uncle Ashley's grey eyes had gone sad when I reported back what Mother had said. I had always much admired him because Mother herself seemed to admire him so, and seemed to come alive in his presence.
Now, with Aunt Melly gone, it was as if he might as well have been the most insignificant of mill workers come to bother my mother with an inquiry.
But I admired Uncle Will, too. The house he and his wife, my mother's sister Suellen, kept at Tara was calm and orderly. And I felt safe in that house, the house my mother grew up in and loved so deeply. Yes, whatever was wrong with Mother and Uncle Rhett and the rest of the world would be made right in that house.
Aunt Suellen was waiting for us at the gate, flanked by her two oldest daughters, my cousins Susie and Lucy.
"I don't like the letters I've been getting from town, Scarlett."
"You don't have to take sides already," Mother teased, pinching Aunt Suellen's cheek.
"I don't care about sides – it's shameful, Scarlett, shameful."
I must have looked melancholy as Mother and Aunt Suellen disappeared into the house. Ella's doll was quickly usurped by Susie, who took off running with it. Lucy smacked Ella's bottom for good measure, then followed her sister. I stood there holding poor Ella's hand and told her not to cry. Uncle Will smiled and clapped me on the back as he lumbered up the porch, his wooden leg clip-clopping against the porch steps.
"Go inside and get something to drink, Ella. That's a good girl."
Ella shuffled sadly into the house. I moved to follow her but Uncle Will stopped me. He studied me, "What do you want out of life, Wade Hampton?"
Nobody had ever asked me that before. So I had never had to ponder it.
"I…I wouldn't mind fitting in somewhere. I don't fit in in Atlanta."
Will stared at me. "That's all?"
To me, it was everything I had ever wanted.
He laughed. "I don't reckon I fit in here. Even after all them years. Still. Reckon I make the best of it. You miss your Uncle Rhett?"
I shook my head no. I did miss Uncle Rhett, desperately, but no one should have treated my mother the way he had.
He looked at me in that shrewd way of his.
"You'd best see to Ella," he said. "I'll see if I can't get that dolly back."
He lumbered off, and I didn't say anything to Aunt Suellen when I entered the house, unwilling to bring her displeasure down on me and inadvertently cause Mother any undue stress. Suellen yelled up to the older girls that it was time for lunch, which was ready in the kitchen.
"Wade Hampton," she nodded curtly, motioning for me to take a seat next to Mother.
"Oh, by the way," Suellen said nonchalantly, "I've a message for you. Your stepfather sent it several weeks ago. I assume from the tone that he figured that your Mother–" she paused on the word as if she was speaking about someone else besides the mother I had sitting to my right – "…would ship you and Ella Lorena off to us at first opportunity."
She smiled as she handed Mother the note. Mother did not smile.
"You heard from Rhett?" she said darkly.
I felt a sense of dread.
"He wanted to spend some time with his stepson." Again Suellen gave that awful inflection, as though I was not really Uncle Rhett's stepson at all, but some sort of imposter.
My mother made no noise as she scanned the letter with her sharp eyes.
She looked besieged, as if she were waging some sort of internal battle.
I just stared at her, awaiting her response.
She said nothing, then sat the letter down as if it was of no further importance, then proceeded to complement Aunt Suellen on the prettiness of the table.
The rest of the day went by without issue and I went to bed that night in the room that had been my Aunt Careen's. Ella had hardly cried when they said she would be sharing a room with Susie and Lucy, but I lay awake in bed in case she needed a refuge in the middle of the night.
The hall clock struck midnight and still no Ella, although I heard the slight sound of a bottle hitting a glass. I walked out into the dark hall, wearing my nightshirt. I crept down the staircase and round the foyer into the parlor that had been my grandmother's office. My mother, still dressed, was sitting primly in a stiffbacked chair.
She had a drink in her hand.
"Spying on me, Wade Hampton?" There was not the customary coolness in her tone.
"No ma'am," I replied. "I was just waiting up in case Ella…needed me."
She softened slightly.
"Uncle Rhett wants me to send you to visit him in Charleston. For the rest of the summer."
I almost tripped over the chair opposite hers.
She looked perturbed. "You're the only son I've got, aren't you?"
She eyed me, appraising me from top to bottom.
"I don't know that you're ready for what he's suggesting."
"Charleston," she sounded perturbed again. "He wants me to send you to Charleston for the summer. Of all the places."
"But…where do I live? With Uncle Rhett? With his mother, who?" I realized that I had not been invited to keep speaking. Mother was glowering now.
"With him, of course. He suggests that having you by his side will keep the gossip down. The nerve of him…" she took another sip of her drink. "That said, perhaps it isn't a horrible idea."
That was all she would say at the moment. So I didn't press her.
We said no more about the subject for the next several days, until finally Uncle Will mentioned that I would be needing a trunk and some new clothes for my trip, and it seemed that Mother had made up her mind for me. A series of telegrams were exchanged and it was decided that I would depart on Friday, and that Uncle Rhett would send someone to collect me and my things from the Charleston station.
When it was time to go, we loaded up my things and headed back to the Jonesboro depot, Mother, Ella, Uncle Will and me. Ella threw her arms around me and wailed. Mother stood straight and tall as the whitewashed columns of Tara itself. She gave me a small squeeze.
"Wade Hampton," she whispered softly. "Give Uncle Rhett my…love."
Her green eyes were unblinking. And it came to me then that she still cared for him. Loved him even.
Love for my mother filled my very bones.
I just stared at her. I would do anything for her and this was the most important task of all. Providing a link to Rhett.
Mother withdrew her hand and smiled. "It's hot. You should get on the train and get a good seat. Don't dawdle."
"Yes." I gave Ella another squeeze and drew away. Will smiled at me, and I whispered to Ella, "I'll be home the first of September. I promise."
She gave me a weak smile. "With Uncle Rhett?"
My mother must have heard because she seemed to shake with some tremor of…excitement, perhaps?
I turned, making my way to the platform. My heart was beating fast. All of my mother's hopes for her future were in my hands, and Uncle Rhett was about to come back into my life.