BY LARRY FLEWIN
Copyright is held by the author.
“UNCLE GERALD, Aunt Ellen.”
“Carolina my darling, here you are at long last,” boomed Uncle Gerald. “Welcome to Tara. It’s been far too long, hasn’t it my dear?”
“It certainly has Mister O’Hara, it certainly has,” agreed Aunt Ellen. “And just in time too, the Wilkes’ Barbecue is tomorrow. It’s the event of the season!”
“Oh thank goodness!” I gasped. “I was certain I was going to miss it entirely! Mother would have never let me hear the end of it!”
“Well now never you mind that,” said Uncle Gerald, smiling broadly. “You’re here safe and sound and that’s all that’s important. Come in, come in girl, and welcome!”
“William, see that miss Carolina’s bags are taken straight away to the Garden room.”
“Yes ma’am, miss Ellen.”
And so began my grand southern adventure.
My family, the DuMauriers of Fauquier county Virginia, are an old and well-respected family, boasting of father Charles, a prominent lawyer, mother Helene a grand figure in local society, brother Albermarle, and myself, younger sister Carolina. Our forbearers were émigrés from Paris, fleeing the terrors of the revolution and settling here amongst friends and family. Succeeding generations built up a family reputation based on the twins pillars of civility and generosity.
But that was then and this was now.
There was much talk of war in the air; worrisome enough were it not for the fact that we were also within sight of our supposed enemy’s capital city. Indeed, so anxious was my dear brother to join the fight that he kept a horse saddled and ready in the paddock. Should the call come he was determined to be the first to answer it and capture Washington by himself!
Mother was quite put out by all of this, but while Father remained silent he was secretly much enthused by the idea. He continually boasted to all who would listen about how his son would be the first southerner north. And while my understanding of geography was limited, such things were not for ladies of quality as my finishing school headmistress would frequently intone, I was lead to understand that Washington was but two days hard ride from our estate.
However, despite the uncertainty of the moment and as I was of an age where I might travel comfortably on my own, I was sent off on a family visit to my Uncle Gerald’s plantation estate in Georgia, Tara by name. And while I adored our thousand acres of woodland, pastureland, and quaint French-inspired villages I was not prepared for the grand vista that greeted me when the carriage taking me from the train station entered the grounds of Tara. It was simply breath taking.
A long gravelled drive ran from the front gate to the entrance of the plantation house, set far into the distance. It was lined on either side with very large and very old trees in the full bloom of spring and hung with masses of silvery Spanish moss. The grounds beyond were immaculate and of a green so bright as to make you wonder if they hadn’t been painted so. The far end of this shady delight opened out onto the grand edifice that was Tara.
It was immense, a colossus of such magnitude as to make even the ancient Greeks and their temples envious. All dressed in white, fronted by enormous colonnades and of a size of which left me speechless, Tara, like any true southern belle, beckoned to the whole world to come and embrace her warmth, her charm, and her beauty.
I attempted to do so but the lateness of my arrival meant that my first introduction to my Aunt and Uncle and cousins was to be at dinner. That was held in the family room, by any other name a ballroom. Scarlett was several years my junior, perhaps as young as 16 although I did not believe it polite to ask. She was all that a southern belle ought to be, vain, tempestuous, spoiled, and a great beauty. She spoke endlessly of the upcoming Barbecue, whom she ought to dance with, and not, with whom the other ladies of her social circle should, and so on. I don’t suppose she ate more than a teaspoonful of the feast served to us that night in two long hours of dining.
Her older sister Sue Ellen was much the opposite in temperament, quiet, soft spoken, graceful, all that a southern woman sought to be. She was clearly embarrassed by her sister’s outspokenness and made every effort, unsuccessfully I might add, to curb that wild southern spirit. It was for me she felt the embarrassment I am sure but I was simply too in awe of my cousin to be so.
The following morning I enjoyed a long and leisurely breakfast in the company of my aunt and uncle, my cousins having not yet risen. I remarked on their absence on such a beautiful day and was quietly informed that my cousins never appeared before mid-morning, if it all. It seemed that mornings were of little interest to them other than for rest and idle chatter before officially rising for early tea and toast.
For a short time Uncle Gerald squired me around the immediate grounds of Tara, pointing out this tree and that flowerbed, in all as splendid a sight as any I have ever seen. He was called away at one point to which I said I would be more than happy to continue on my own. In so doing I happened past the south portico and noted that not only was my cousin Scarlett up and about but that she was already entertaining several young gentlemen. They were draped all over a garden swing from within which Scarlett held court.
“Well, good morning to you miss Scarlet, gentlemen.”
The two of them stopped in mid- sentence and echoed a very boisterous good morning.
“Why Carolina how nice to see you up and about on such a lovely day. May I present to you my two beaus Brent and Stuart Tarleton? Gentlemen please meet my cousin on my father’s side Carolina DuMaurier.” They bowed elaborately, grinning like twin Cheshire cats, for they were indeed twins, as like as two peas.
“Oh Scarlett honey you have company!” exclaimed Brent. “We wouldn’t have come over if we’d known you were entertaining, would we have Stuart?”
“Absolutely not, Brent!”
“Oh stuff and nonsense the pair of you,” huffed Scarlett. “She’s just my northern cousin is all, here for just a few days. Isn’t that right Carolina?”
”Why yes it is but . . .”
“Northern cousin?” the twins cried in unison. “You have a northern cousin? Oh Scarlett that’s just awful, no offense ma’am. And here we were thinking you were southern through and through and you have northern sympathies! We couldn’t possibly go to the Barbecue with a northerner!”
“No sir we could not! No true southern gentlemen would ever dance with a northern girl!” And they made as if to leave.
Scarlett looked shocked for moment, a look that changed quickly into a mischievous grin.
“Brent Tarleton,” she wailed “and you too Stuart! How could you even think such a thing! Of course I’m southern, right down to my very toes! Oh that you two would shame me so with such an outrageous suggestion.”
And with that she sat back on the swing, arms folded across her chest, with such a look of defiance on her face that I was quite sure she would faint from apoplexy.
The twins rushed to her side and made every attempt to persuade her not to.
“Gentlemen,” I exclaimed, with such dignity as I could muster, “I’m hardly that I assure you. Unless you count Fauquier county Virginia as too far north to be southern.”
“Oh well that’s different then, come on up and tell us all about it. Scarlett you never mentioned you had a cousin from Virginia.”
“Yes well it probably slipped my mind, what with all the goings on for the Barbecue and you two are such a distraction, why I do declare I shall die of thirst. Surely one of you could fetch me a glass of lemonade from the kitchen?”
The two of the leapt up at once and raced indoors, two cavaliers vying for their lady’s affection, all the while arguing over who was to carry the glass back.
“Well Carolina, I trust you are enjoying your stay at Tara.”
“Oh I am indeed Scarlett, I am indeed. This place is beyond reproach. It’s almost too beautiful to describe. How I envy you.”
“And so you should. I don’t suppose they have anything like this from wherever it is you come from.”
“Sadly no. I do believe our northerner clime does not suit itself to such loveliness. And those two young men . . .”
“You stay away from them,” she snapped, leaning forward in swing. “This is our land and poppa says we should be proud of it. And our men too! Brent and Stuart are mine do you hear, mine, after all a girl can’t have too many beaus now can she? Do you have beaus where you come from?”
At this point the cavaliers returned with not one but two glasses of lemonade, enthusiastically delivered to a supposedly thirsty Scarlett. Not knowing which to chose from she daintily took a sip from each one, much to the delight of the twins. And when she declared she could sip no more they raced each other to the bottom of their glass, the winner receiving a coquettish smile from Scarlett.
And so passed my introduction to the genteel southern belle.
It was long towards luncheon when I joined Aunt Ellen in a short carriage ride to Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes’ estate and site of the Barbecue. I was old enough to be considered a young lady, which meant rather than taking a nap I had the privilege of meeting with several other ladies, all close friends of Aunt Ellen’s. We were gathered to help complete the final preparations for the grand event.
It was during our passage from the day room to the Barbecue site when rather handsome older gentlemen, just arriving, caught my attention. He was dressed all in black and possessed of such a wicked smile as to flush my cheeks and quicken my breath. He doffed his hat and bowed slightly to us all as we passed by, but to me I do believe he winked. I was quite taken aback by this familiarity, but only for a moment as Aunt Ellen took me by the elbow and hurried me along.
“Who was that man?” I gasped. “He’s—”
“Not for you,” she snapped. “That’s a friend of Ashley’s, a Mister Rhett Butler from Charleston. He has a certain reputation; some call it unsavoury, that I would direct you away from. He is not a man for you to be seen with, or spoken to.”
“Unless he has more of that French lace he’s smuggling in from Paris,” murmured one of the other ladies. A gentle chorus of laughter followed.
Preparations were well underway when we arrived but there was still much to be done. I spent a very pleasant hour or so arranging bouquets of flowers at the tables and seeing that the napkins were folded and placed correctly. What with all the hustle and bustle in the midst of a hot afternoon I became quite fatigued and begged off that I might go and sit for minute and refresh myself with some lemonade.
In passing through the garden entrance of the plantation house towards the day room, where refreshments were being served, I happened to pass the library and catch a glimpse of the gentlemen who would be joining us later on. They appeared to be having yet another one of those tedious political discussions, of which my own father was particularly fond.
There stood among them the gentleman I had seen earlier, Mister Butler. I heard him addressed as a businessman from Charleston, and would he make his views known on the current situation. I shamelessly stepped closer, if only to catch a better glimpse of his striking elegance. And I must confess I found my heart to be rather excited by this, unlike any of the discussions father had ever held.
It was war talk, as if that was all there was to talk about, as if nothing else mattered. It was all I had ever heard when Father had his gentlemen friends in for brandy and cigars or whenever Mother held one of her grand salons. All they could find to discuss was their contribution to the war effort, bandages, and socks and the raising funds for our gallant southern warriors.
I dared not listen for long for the tone had grown quite loud, even angry. It was Mr Butlers opinion that the south was gallant to its very fingertips but gallantry did not win wars, guns did. Big guns, small guns, and lots of them, and where did the south think it was going to get them. They had no factories to make them, no money to buy them, and if they did from whom. Once the war started the Union navy would blockade the south and he himself would be out of business. His ships could sail but the Southern navy could not protect them. It would be over in weeks.
At that point the meeting was adjourned, Mister O’Hara demanding everyone calm down and go for a drink and a cigar. They did so, exiting the room quickly. As I did not want to be discovered in so unladylike a place I turned a corner and began to repair my hair in a mirror.
A shadow fell over me.
“I trust you heard all you intended to hear young lady. Talk of war is such a tedious subject and yet you seemed to be quite enthused.” I turned and found myself face to face with the man himself, Rhett Butler. I could say nothing.
“Well now this is a surprise, the only southerner without an opinion on anything. You do have an opinion don’t you, everybody else seems to.”
“Why . . . why . . . why yes I do but it would not be so ladylike for me to say so. Mister . . .uh . . .”
“Butler ma’am, Rhett Butler” and he smiled mischievously. “Now let me guess, French lace, empire cut green sateen, Virginian accent, you could only be Carolina DuMaurier, Scarlett’s cousin.”
How do you know that?” I exclaimed in surprise.
“Well to be perfectly honest I didn’t, but those in service here do. Pay them a dollar or two, thank them for the ice in your whiskey, and they can be quite forthcoming. So how is it old Roscoe’s youngest finds herself in amongst this den of thieves?”
“You know my father, but we’ve never met?”
“Business. Mine takes me all over the north, and the south, and I have had several dealings with your father. He’s a good man, a little too honest for my taste but then we can’t all be.”
“You are too kind sir. Father will be most pleased when I tell him of our conversation.”
“Thank you, I’m glad to hear I’m not the scallywag everyone else seems to think I am. So tell me, is this really your first trip away from home?”
“Yes Mister Butler it is.”
“And you chose this place for your first stop, you have my sympathies.”
“Mister Butler surely not! Aunt Ellen and Uncle Gerald have been the kindest of hosts.”
“Well . . .”
“Enough said. Oh and please call me Rhett, all my friends do.”
“Am I your friend?”
“You’re too lovely to be an enemy.”
“Thank you . . . Rhett.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. So tell me, what do you think of the upcoming war?”
“More talk of war? Is that all you gentlemen care to talk about?”
“Well then let’s talk about a more pleasant subject, you perhaps. Found yourself a beau yet? South’s full of them or so Scarlett tells me.”
“Mister Butler . . . Rhett. How little you must think of me, coming all this way just to find a husband.“
“Think nothing, that’s all your father talks about, marrying you off and defeating those dastardly northerners! His life would be complete if you were to marry a southern general! As it happens I know of several eligible officers aspiring to that rank.”
“I thank you sir but I am not in such as hurry as that I assure you. A time will come when that certain someone will enter my life.”
“Well you better hope that he enters it soon. The way things are going he may be dead long before you get to meet him, let alone marry him. This conflict is not going to end well for the south, no matter how ardent and well meaning their young men are. If you want my advice marry while you can still pick and choose.”
“I’m not purchasing vegetables, that I might pick and choose amongst them. I will marry, if I ever do, at my time and pleasure thank you very much.”
“A noble sentiment, one which many widows will no doubt share with you in the coming months.”
The rest of the conversation rested as we parted ways, he retiring to the portico to partake of a cigar while I joined several of the ladies in the day room.
Shortly afterwards a gong sounded to announce the beginning of everything. What had once been an oasis of calm quickly became a sea of gaiety and laughter as grand event got underway. There was much toing and froing amongst the young ladies and their gentlemen callers, as to who was to have what honour with whom, and so on. And more than once did I not hear the sharp tongue of Scarlett O’Hara as she settled things to her personal satisfaction.
Such a to-do over a Barbecue, but it is what I had come to learn passed for southern manners in such matters, grace and charm giving way to sharped eyed, and sharp tongued exchanges. Scarlett in particular seemed to hold sway over this entire affair, her witty charm directing more barbs than all the others together, and leaving many a wound upon those within her sights.
It was as loud and as joyous and as carefree as any Barbecue had a right to be, and these people, these southern belles and beaus, embraced it as fervently as if this was their Christmas come early. Eventually it all became sorted out and the grand parade of ladies and their gentlemen leading out to the Barbecue began.
But no sooner had the festivities begun in earnest when a young gentleman rode up, leaped from his horse, and ran throughout the Barbecue shouting at the top of his lungs. War had been declared! Fort Sumter had been fired on and the south was going to war! No sooner had that announcement been made than every young gentleman leaped to his feet, hurrahing and carrying on as if they had already won! And as one they raced for the door to be the first to volunteer. It was moment I would never forget.
As they left and broke so many hearts, some few were salved by quick proposals of marriage. Alas not for Scarlett for she seemed to have been overlooked by her many beaus, and was left standing alone as they made ready to race each other to Washington.
As for me, I could do little more than catch my breath before this all fell out and Twelve Oaks was emptied of all it’s young men, and the south of it’s last great hope.
“Miss Carolina,” a soft voice whispered in my ear. It was Rhett. “You see what I mean, all that earnestness going fast and you having not made a decision.”
“Mister Butler, this us hardly the time! They are going to war, they are going to fight.”
“Yes, and this is the last you will see of them, poor brave devils. Take this all in while you can, tell your father what you saw, tell him it came with hope and was gone with the wind . . .”
“Mister Butler . . . Rhett . . . such poesy and from you of all people.”
“Miss Carolina, I have a question I might put to you if I may?”
“Caroline, Caroline honey wake up! Look honey I’m sorry to wake you up but the kids need changing and I can’t find the diapers! Any idea where you put them? Here, you hold him and I’ll turn this thing off. You fell asleep but you can watch Rhett and Scarlett another time, right now I need those diapers. Any ideas where?”