'Rhett Butler's People'
AUTHOR: Donald McCaig
Chapter 1: Affairs of Honor
SOURCE: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
PUBLISHED ON: Friday, October 26, 2007
Seventy-one years after Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell gave the world the saga of war and romance called "Gone With the Wind," the latest follow-up novel to that blockbuster story is about to arrive.
On Nov. 6, St. Martin's Press releases Donald McCaig's "Rhett Butler's People," a new book authorized by the Mitchell estate that tells the "GWTW" story with Rhett, not Scarlett O'Hara, as its central character.
The book begins long before the seminal moment in "GWTW" where the headstrong lovers meet for the first time at Twelve Oaks. Instead, McCaig introduces us to 21-year-old Rhett on his way to take part in a duel. (We're guessing he survives.)
One hour before sunrise, twelve years before the war, a closed carriage hurried through the Carolina Low Country. The Ashley River road was pitch-black except for the coach's sidelights, and fog swirled through the open windows, moistening the passengers' cheeks and the backs of their hands.
"Rhett Butler, damn your cross-grained soul."
John Haynes sagged in his seat.
"As you like, John." Butler popped the overhead hatch to ask, "Are we near? I wouldn't wish to keep the gentlemen waiting."
"We comin' down the main trunk now, Master Rhett." Although Hercules was Rhett's father's racehorse trainer and Broughton's highest-ranking servant, he'd insisted on driving the young men.
Rhett had warned, "When he learns you've helped, Langston will be angry."
Hercules had stiffened. "Master Rhett, I knowed you when you was just a child. Was me, Hercules, put you up on your first horse. You and Mr. Haynes tie your horses behind. I'll be drivin' the rig tonight."
John Haynes's plump cheeks belied his uncommonly determined chin. His mouth was set in an unhappy line.
Rhett said, "I love these marshes. Hell, I never wanted to be a rice planter. Langston would go on about rice varieties or negro management and I'd not hear a word for dreaming about the river." Eyes sparkling, he leaned toward his friend, "I'd drift through the fog, steering with an oar. One morning, I surprised a loggerhead sliding down an otter slide— sliding for the pure joy of it. John, have you ever seen a loggerhead turtle smile?
"I don't know how many times I tried to slip past a sleeping anhinga without waking her. But that snaky head would pop from beneath her wing, sharp-eyed, not groggy in the least, and quick as that"—Rhett snapped his fingers—"she'd dive. Marsh hens weren't near as wary. Many's a time I'd drift 'round a bend and hundreds of 'em would explode into flight. Can you imagine flying through fog like this?"
"You have too much imagination," Rhett's friend said.
"And I've often wondered, John, why you are so cautious. For what great purpose are you reserving yourself?"
When John Haynes rubbed his spectacles with a damp handkerchief, he smeared them. "On some other day, I'd be flattered by your concern."
"Oh hell, John, I'm sorry. Fast nerves. Is our powder dry?"
Haynes touched the glossy mahogany box cradled in his lap. "I stoppered it myself."
"Hear the whippoorwill?"
The rapid pounding of the horse's hooves, the squeak of harness leather, Hercules crying, "Pick 'em up, you rascals, pick 'em up," the threenote song of the whippoorwill. Whippoorwill—hadn't John heard something about Shad Watling and a whippoorwill?
"I've had a good life," Rhett Butler said.
Since John Haynes believed his friend's life had been a desperate shambles, he bit his tongue.
"Some good times, some good friends, my beloved little sister, Rosemary . . ."
"What of Rosemary, Rhett? Without you, what will become of her?"
"You must not ask me that!" Rhett turned to the blank black window.
"For God's sake. If you were in my place, what would you do?"
The words in sturdy John Haynes's mind were, I would not be in your place, but he couldn't utter them, although they were as true as words have ever been.
Rhett's thick black hair was swept back off his forehead; his frock coat was lined with red silk jacquard, and the hat on the seat beside him was beaver fur. John's friend was as vital as any man John had ever known, as alive as wild creatures can be. Shot dead, Rhett Butler would be as emptied out as a swamp-lion pelt hung up on the fence of the Charleston market.
Rhett said, "I am disgraced already. Whatever happens, I can't be worse disgraced." His sudden grin flashed. "Won't this give the biddies something to gossip about?"
"You've managed that a time or two."
"I have. By God, I've given respectable folk a satisfying tut-tut. Who
has served Charleston's finger pointers better than I? Why, John, I have become
the Bogeyman." He intoned solemnly, " 'Child, if you persist in your
wicked ways, you'll end up just like Rhett Butler!' "
"I wish you'd stop joking," John said quietly.
"John, John, John . . ."
"May I speak candidly?"
Rhett raised a dark eyebrow. "I can't prevent you."
"You needn't go through with this. Have Hercules turn 'round—we'll enjoy a morning ride into town and a good breakfast. Shad Watling is no gentleman and you needn't fight him. Watling couldn't find one Charleston gentleman to second him. He pressed some hapless Yankee tourist into service."
"Belle Watling's brother has a right to satisfaction."
"Rhett, for God's sake, Shad's your father's overseer's son. His employee!" John Haynes waved dismissively. "Offer some monetary compensation. . . ."
He paused, dismayed. "Surely you're not doing this . . . this thing . . . for the girl?"
"Belle Watling is a better woman than many who condemn her. Forgive me, John, but you mustn't impugn my motives. Honor must be satisfied: Shad Watling told lies about me and I have called him out."
John had so much to say, he could hardly talk. "Rhett, if it hadn't been for West Point . . ."
"My expulsion, you mean? That's merely my latest, most flamboyant disgrace." Rhett clamped his friend's arm. "Must I enumerate my disgraces? More disgraces and failures than . . ." He shook his head wearily. "I am sick of disgraces. John, should I have asked another to second me?"
"Damn it!" John Haynes cried. "Damn it to hell!"
John Haynes and Rhett Butler had become acquainted at Cathecarte Puryear's Charleston school. By the time Rhett left for West Point, John Haynes was established in his father's shipping business. After Rhett's expulsion and return, Haynes saw his old friend occasionally on the streets of town. Sometimes Rhett was sober, more often not. It troubled John to see a man with Rhett's natural grace reeking and slovenly.
John Haynes was one of those young Southerners from good families who take up the traces of civic virtue as if born to them. John was a St. Michaels vestryman and the St. Cecilia Society's youngest ball manager.
Though John envied Rhett's spirit, he never accompanied Rhett and his friends—"Colonel Ravanel's Sports"—on their nightly routs through Charleston's brothels, gambling hells, and saloons. Consequently, John had been astonished when Butler came to the wharfside offices of Haynes & Son seeking John's assistance in an affair of honor.
"But Rhett, your friends? Andrew Ravanel? Henry Kershaw? Edgar Puryear?"
"Ah, but John, you'll be sober." Few men or women could resist Rhett Butler's what-the-hell grin, and John Haynes didn't.
Perhaps John was dull. He never heard about amusing scandals until Charleston society was tiring of them. When John repeated a clever man's witticism, he invariably misspoke. If Charleston's mothers thought John Haynes a "good catch," maidens giggled about him behind their fans. But John Haynes had twice seconded affairs of honor. When duty came knocking, it found John Haynes at home.
Broughton Plantation's main trunk was a broad earthen dike separating its rice fields from the Ashley River. The carriage lurched when it quit the trunk to turn inland. John Haynes had never felt so helpless. This thing—this ugly, deadly thing—would go forward whatever he might do. Honor must be satisfied.
It wasn't Hercules driving the team; it was Honor's bony hands on the lines. It wasn't .40-caliber Happoldt pistols in the mahogany box; it was Honor—ready to spit reproaches. A tune sang in John's head: "I could not love thee Cecilia, loved I not honor more"—what a stupid, stupid song! Shad Watling was the best shot in the Low Country.
They turned into a brushy lane so infrequently traveled that Spanish moss whisked the carriage roof. Sometimes, Hercules lifted low-hanging branches so the rig could pass beneath.
With a start, John Haynes recalled the story of Shad Watling and a whippoorwill.
"Ah," Rhett mused. "Can you smell it? Marsh perfume: cattails, myrtle, sea aster, marsh gas, mud. When I was a boy, I'd get in my skiff and disappear for days, living like a red indian." Rhett's smile faded with his reverie.
"Let me beg one last favor. You know Tunis Bonneau?"
"The free colored seaman?"
"If you see him, ask him if he remembers the day we sailed to Beaufort. Ask him to pray for my soul."
"A free colored?"
"We were boys on the river together."
Indeterminate gray light was filtering into the carriage. Rhett looked out. "Ah, we have arrived."
John consulted his pocket hunter. "Sunrise in twenty minutes."
The field of honor was a three-acre pasture edged with gloomy cypresses and moss-bedecked live oaks. The pasture vanished in the fog, inside which a voice was crying hoarsely, "Sooey! Soo cow! Soo cow!"
Rhett stepped down from the carriage, chafing his hands. "So. This is my destination. When I was a boy dreaming of glories awaiting me, I never dreamed of this."
Cattle bawled inside the fog. "We wouldn't want to shoot a cow." Rhett stretched. "My father would be furious if we shot one of his cows."
"Rhett . . ."
Rhett Butler laid a hand on John Haynes's shoulder. "I need you this morning, John, and I trust you to arrange matters properly. Please spare me your sound, kindly meant advice."
John swallowed his advice, wishing he hadn't remembered about Shad Watling and the whippoorwill: After Langston Butler built Broughton's grand manor house, his overseer, Isaiah Watling, moved his family into the original Butler home, which was convenient to the rice fields and negro quarters. Huge live oaks, which had been saplings when the Butlers first arrived in the Low Country, shaded the small, plain farmhouse. Nesting in a live oak, that whippoorwill welcomed them from twilight until dawn.
Apparently, Belle, the Watling girl, thought the bird was seeking a mate. Her mother, Sarah, said the bird was grieving. The question of whether the bird was flirting or weeping was mooted at daybreak, not long after they moved in, when a shot blasted through the house. When his mother rushed into his bedroom, Shad Watling's smoking pistol lay on the windowsill. "Fool bird won't rise me up no more," Shad Watling grunted. In poor light at sixty paces, Shad Watling had shot the tiny whippoorwill's head off its body.
John Haynes asked Rhett, "You've heard about that whippoorwill?"
"Just a yarn, John." Rhett scratched a match on his boot sole.
"Shad Watling has killed before, Rhett."
The match sputtered and flared as Rhett lit his cigar. "But only negroesand men of his class."
"Do you believe your gentle birth will turn a bullet?"
"Why, yes," Rhett said solemnly. "Hell yes! Gentle birth's got to be good for something!"
"Comes somebody," Hercules spoke from his elevated seat.
Breathing hard, a young man emerged from the fog. His frock coat was folded over his arm and his trouser knees were wet where he'd stumbled. "Darn cows," he confided. He shifted his jacket and offered his hand to John Haynes, then thought better of it and made an awkward bow instead.
"Tom Jaffery. Amity, Massachusetts. At your service, gentlemen."
"Well, Tom." Rhett smiled. "It seems your Charleston visit will be a memorable one."
Jaffery was two or three years younger than Rhett and John. "They'll never believe this in Amity."
"Lurid tales, Tom. Lurid tales are the South's principal export. When you describe us to your friends, remark the devilishly handsome, gallant Rhett Butler." Rhett's brow furrowed thoughtfully. "If I were telling the tale, I wouldn't mention the cows."
"Has your principal arrived?" John asked the young Yankee.
Tom Jaffery gestured at the fog bank. "Watling and that Dr. Ward, too. They don't care for each other."
John Haynes took the younger man's arm, walking him out of Rhett's earshot. "Mr. Jaffery, have you seconded these affairs before?"
"No, sir. We don't hardly do this kind of thing in Amity. I mean, my grandfather might have done it, but nowadays we don't. I'm a novice, so to speak. My aunt Patience passed to her Heavenly Reward and she bequeathed me a sum, so I set out to see the country. Tom, I says to myself, if not now, for goodness' sake, when? So there I was, admiring your Charleston harbor, which is, if I might say so, every bit the equal of our famous Boston harbor. Anyway, there I was when Mr. Watling approached me and asked was I a gentleman, and I said I certainly hoped so. When Mr. Watling asked if I would second him, I thought, Tom, you've come to see the country, and see the country you shall. I'll never get a chance like this in Amity."
John Haynes didn't tell the younger man that Shad Watling's choosing a Yankee stranger to second him was a calculated insult.
"Are you familiar with your duties?"
"We seconds make sure everything happens regular."
John Haynes eyed the young Yankee thoughtfully. "Seeking reconciliation between the principals is our primary duty," he said with the regret of the man who has failed that duty.
"Oh, my principal isn't contemplatin' reconciliation. My principal says he anticipates shootin' Mr. Butler in the heart. He and Mr. Butler are old acquaintances."
"It will be light soon. We generally let sunrise be our signal."
"Sunrise suits you, suits us."
"When the sun comes over the horizon, the gentlemen choose their pistols. As the challenged party, your man chooses first. Shall we load now?"
John Haynes braced the mahogany box on the carriage fender, unlatched it, and removed a pistol. The sleek knurled butt felt alive in his hand, as if he'd clutched a water moccasin. "As you see, the pistols are identical. While you observe, I'll charge one pistol. You will charge the second."
John poured powder, set a round lead ball into an oiled cloth patch, and rammed it home. He placed a cap under the hammer and eased the hammer to half cock.
"They'll never believe this back home," Thomas Jaffery said.
The morning gathered light, the fog tore into streamers, and two ghosty vehicles swam into sight across the meadow: a one-horse chaise and a mule-drawn farm wagon. Rhett Butler untied his horse from behind the carriage and pressed his face against the beast's powerful neck. "You're not frightened, are you, Tecumseh? Don't be. Nothing's going to hurt you."
"This meadow, John—they grew indigo here in my grandfather's day. There's a pond in the woods where pintails hatch their young. Muskrats are fond of young pintails, and sometimes a brood will be paddling along, until one is pulled under—so swiftly, they don't make a flurry. Our trunk master, Will, trapped muskrats here."
"Rhett, we seconds will speak with Watling. What apology will you accept?"
Rhett squeezed his eyes shut obstinately. "Shad Watling claims I am father of his sister's child. I have said Watling is a liar. If Watling admits his lie, I will withdraw my challenge."
"Will you offer compensation? Money so the girl can go somewhere to have her baby?"
"If Belle needs money, I will give her money. Money has nothing to do with this."
"As your friend, Rhett . . ."
"John, John . . ." Rhett muffled his face in Tecumseh's neck. "A friend would help me finish this thing."
Shadrach Watling's farm wagon was heaped with broken wheels, hubs, and rims. "Morning, Mr. Jaffery, Mr. Haynes. I see you brung Butler."
"Shad . . ."
"It'll be 'Mr. Watling' today."
"Mr. Watling, I trust we can reach an accommodation."
"B'lieve Butler 'commodated my sister. B'lieve I'll 'commodate him."
"When Rhett Butler treated you as a gentlemen, he complimented you."
Shad spat. "I'm thinkin' of westering. Goddamn, I'm sick of the Low Country. Rich bastards and niggers. Niggers and rich bastards. I got cousins in Missouri."
"Wherever you go, you'll want money. If your sister, Belle, were to go with you, the scandal would die."
Watling chuckled. "Butler offering me money?"
"No, sir. I am."
"All comes down to money, don't it?" Watling spat again.
Shadrach Watling was a beardless, thickset man. "Naw, not this time. I got a grudge against Butler. Even though Pa whipped Belle good, she never would say 'twas Rhett topped her. Ain't no nevermind. I'm craving to put a bullet in Butler. He weren't no 'count as the Young Master and I hear he weren't no 'count as a soldier boy, neither. Butler ain't worth a bootful of warm piss."
Shad Watling eyed the river. "Gonna be light directly. I got four busted wheels for the wheelwright, and he starts his day early. Bein's I'm the challenged man, I'll be namin' the distance. Figure fifty paces'll be far enough for me to hit and him to miss. I wo uldn't want be nicked by no stray ball." His stubby, stained teeth glistened in silent laughter.
Swaddled in thick woolen robes, the surgeon was snoring in his buggy.
When John Haynes tapped his boot toe, Franklin Ward opened his eyes and yawned. "Ah. Our business . . ." He unbundled, stepped down, and faced away; the stink of his urine made John Haynes's nose twitch. The doctor wiped his fingers on his coattails.
Dr. Ward offered his hand to Rhett, "Ah, the patient, I presume!"
Rhett grinned. "You have appliances for extracting the bullet, Doctor? Probes? Bandages?"
"Sir, I studied in Philadelphia."
"Doubtless, Philadelphia is an excellent city to have studied in."
Shad Watling ambled behind, grinning absently and scratching his thigh.
"Mr. Butler," Tom Jaffery asked, "why are you removing your shirt?"
"Hold it for me, John? I take off my shirt, my Yankee friend, so the bullet won't push cloth into the wound."
"Maybe you jest like goin' naked." Shad Watling eyed the slighter man disdainfully. "Me, I generally don't take off more clothes'n I got to."
"Gentlemen," John Haynes interrupted, "this is a terrible, deadly business and I must ask again if honor wouldn't be served by Mr. Watling's retraction, an apology and recompense from Mr. Butler."
Gooseflesh pimpled Rhett's arms in the chilly air.
"Fifty paces," Shad said, "oughta serve. Butler, you remember your nigger pal, Will? How Will cried for mercy? If'n you cry for mercy, maybe I'll let you off." Watling showed his teeth again. "Let me see them pistols. Yank, did you watch Mr. Haynes load? Didn't double-charge one of them pistols, did he? Might have had one charge already in the barrel 'fore he poured the second charge atop?"
The Yankee was shocked, "Mr. Haynes is a gentleman!"
"He score his bullet? Little ring cut into the bullet so it gobs when it hits. Inspected his bullet, did you, Yank?"
Young Jaffery repeated, "Mr. Haynes is a gentleman."
"Sure as hell. Sure as hell. Gentleman don't score no bullet, no sir. Gentlemen won't double-charge no pistol. Now, which of these here pistols did Mr. Haynes load?"
"I loaded the near pistol," John said.
A horn sounded in the woods, a long exuberant note, like fox hunters sighting their quarry. Seconds later, moisture streaming off its wheels, an open landau clattered onto the field. Two young sports stood between its seats, one with a coach horn at his lips, which he dropped to grab a seatback, else the stop would have pitched him headlong. "Hallooo! Hallooo! Have we missed the fun?"
Their elderly driver cackled. "Told you I'd get us here in time," he said. "Didn't Colonel Jack find these scamps?"
Colonel Ravanel had been a respectable rice planter until his wife, Frances, was killed. Whether Jack's subsequent dissipation was from grief or the absence of marital inhibitions was not known. In Charleston, where gentlemanly drunkenness was only forbidden clergy, Colonel Jack Ravanel was a drunk. In a city where every gentleman gambled, Jack was banned from respectable gambling clubs. Jack was a genius with horseflesh, and horse-mad Charleston forgave him much for that.
John Haynes stepped to the landau. "Gentlemen, this is an affair of honor. Decorum . . ."
The young men wore short brocade jackets, bright ascots, and pants so tight, a codpiece was unnecessary. Although Jack Ravanel was old enough to be the young men's father, he was similarly garbed.
"Country wench gets one in the oven and that's an affair of honor?" The horn blower sounded a blast. "Whooooa, Johnny Haynes. It's one of Rhett's damn jokes, that's what it is."
John Haynes bristled. "Henry Kershaw, this is an affront. You are unwelcome here."
Big Henry Kershaw was reeling. "You mean Cousin Rhett is going through with this? Damn me, Edgar, I'll settle tomorrow. Rhett, that you? Ain't you cold? We been drivin' through this damn swamp for hours. Colonel Jack says he used to own this ground, but he must have been sober at the time. Edgar Puryear, don't you hog that whiskey!"
Tom Jaffery asked, "Mr. Haynes. Is this regular?"
"You the Yankee we heard about?" Henry Kershaw asked.
"Yes, sir. From Amity, Massachusetts."
"Man can't help where he's born. Say, you ain't one of them damned abolitionists, are you?"
Rhett Butler silenced John Haynes with a touch and asked in the quietest voice, "Edgar, Henry, Jack—have you come to see me die?"
Edgar Puryear pasted an apologetic expression on his face. "Jack promised this was a lark, Rhett; a lark! He said you'd never fight a man over . . . over . . ."
"A 'lark,' Jack? If my father discovers your part in this, he'll see you in the workhouse."
"Dear Rhett! Do not speak cruelly to Old Jack!"
"Henry Kershaw is drunk—Henry will do anything when he is drunk. Edgar Allan has come to watch. Edgar is a great watcher. But what dragged the aged reprobate out of his whore's warm bed on a cold morning?"
Jack Ravanel's smile was ingratiating. "Why, Rhett, old Jack's come to help you. I've come to talk sense! We'll all have a friendly drink and recall happier times. Rhett, have I told you how I admire Tecumseh? By God, there's a horse!"
For an instant, Rhett was stunned. Then his mouth twitched into a chuckle, which became a laugh, which became so hearty Rhett bent over laughing. This laughter infected the sports, who wore smiles on their faces, and the young Yankee chuckled.
Rhett wiped his eyes. "No, Jack, you shan't have Tecumseh. John, if I am killed, my horse is yours. Now, Watling. Choose your pistol."
"God Almighty!" Henry Kershaw gaped. "Rhett means to go through with it!"
Colonel Jack's eyes narrowed. He lashed his team off the field.
Deep in the woods, a grouse drummed on a hollow log. The huge sun rose steaming out of the river, restoring yellows, blues, and pale greens to the land from which fog had exiled them.
John Haynes shut his eyes briefly in a wordless prayer. Then he said, "Gentlemen."
Shad Watling had lost something to Rhett's great laughter. Something had got away from him. His prey had tripped the trigger but left the trap empty. Shad snatched a pistol, examining it as if it might be faulty. " 'Young Marster' Butler. Christ, how the niggers fawned over you!"
The other long-barreled pistol hung loose in Rhett's hand; his smile was so big, it traveled down his naked arm to the muzzle, as if the pistol, too, were smiling.
In the river morning, a thick, angry man stood back-to-back with a half-naked, smiling man. Each would step off twenty-five paces. When the sun cleared the horizon, John Haynes would give the command to turn and fire. The duelists stepped off twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five paces. . . . The sun clung to the horizon.
"They'll never believe this in Amity," Tom Jaffery whispered.
The sun strained upward until a white space opened between its rim and the riverbank. In a clear voice, John Haynes called, "Gentlemen! Turn! Fire!"
Rhett Butler's hair lifted to a wind gust off the river. Butler pivoted, presenting a fencer's profile as his pistol rose. Shad Watling fired first, an explosion of white smoke at the muzzle when the hammer struck home.
Nine years earlier.
At his father's impatient gesture, Langston Butler's elder son prepared for his caning. He removed his shirt and folded it over a straight-backed chair.
The boy turned and set his palms flat on his father's desk. The fine leather surface gave infinitesimally under his weight. He fixed his eyes on his father's cut-glass inkwell. There can be a world of pain in a cut-glass inkwell. The first searing blow caught him by surprise. The inkwell was half-full of blue-black ink. Rhett wondered if this time his father might not be able to stop. When the boy's sight blurred, the inkwell seemed to float in a mist of tears.
This time, too, his father did stop.
Hands curled in frustration, Langston Butler hurled his cane to the floor and shouted, "By God, boy, if you weren't my son, you'd feel the bullwhip."
At twelve years of age, Rhett was already tall. His skin was darker than his father's and his thick jet black hair hin ted at Indian blood. Although the boy's back was a mosaic of livid stripes, he hadn't begged.
"May I dress, sir?"
"Your brother, Julian, is dutiful. Why must my elder son defy me?"
"I cannot say, sir."
Langston's office was as spare as Broughton's family quarters were opulent. The broad desk, a straight-backed chair, inkwell, blotter, and pens were its entire furnishings. No engravings or paintings hung from the picture rail. Ten-foot-tall undraped windows offered an unimpeded panorama of the plantation's endless rice fields.
The boy took his white chambray shirt from the chair and with a just perceptible wince draped it over his shoulders.
"You refuse to accompany me when the legislature is in session. When prominent men meet at Broughton, you vanish. Wade Hampton himself asked why he never sees my elder son."
The boy was mute.
"You will not drive our negroes. You refuse to learn to drive negroes!"
The boy said nothing.
"Indeed, it is safe to say you reject every proper duty of a Carolina gentleman's son. Sir, you are a renegade." With his handkerchief, Langston wiped sweat from his pale forehead. " "Do you think I relish these punishments?"
"I cannot say, sir."
"Your brother, Julian, is dutiful. Julian obeys me. Why won't you obey?"
"I cannot say, sir."
"You cannot say! You will not! Nor will you accompany your family to Charleston. Instead, you swear you'll run away."
"Yes, sir, I will."
The angry father stared into the boy's eyes for a long time. "Then, by God, let the fevers have you!"
Next morning, the Butler family departed for their Charleston townhouse without their elder son. That night, Dollie, the colored midwife, rubbed salve into the welts on the boy's arm. "Master Langston, he a hard man," she said.
"I hate Charleston," Rhett said.
On the river plantations, the rice seed was clayed and planted in April and trunk gates were opened for the sprout flow. The rice would be flooded three more times before harvest in September. Maintenance and operation of the great and lesser trunk gates were so vital to the crop that Will, Broughton Plantation's trunk master, ranked in the slave hierarchy second only to Hercules.
Although Will obeyed Master Langston and Isaiah Watling, he obeyed no other man, including Shad Watling, the overseer's twenty-year-old son.
Will had a cabin to himself. He owned a table, two chairs, a rope bed, and three cracked Spanish bowls that Louis Valentine Butler had taken from the Mercato. A decent year after Will's first wife died, Will jumped the broomstick with Mistletoe, a comely girl of fifteen.
Fearing the deadly fevers, Low Country planters shunned their plantations during the hot months. When Langston came out from the city to inspect his crop, he arrived after daybreak and departed before dark.
Barefoot and shirtless, his son hunted, fished, and explored the tidal marshes along the Ashley River. Young Rhett Butler was educated by alligators, egrets, osprey, rice birds, loggerheads, and wild hogs. The boy knew where the negro conjure man found his herbs and where the catfish nested. Sometimes Rhett stayed away from Broughton for days on end, and if his father visited during one of Rhett's absences, the elder Butler never asked after his son.
Overseer Watling supervised the floodings and hoeings of the tender rice plants. Watling determined when dike-burrowing muskrats must be poisoned and the rice birds shot.
Although they were more resistant to fever than their white masters, rice negroes worked knee-deep in a subtropical swamp, and inevitably some sickened. In Broughton's dispensary, Overseer Watling's wife, Sarah, and young Belle dosed victims with chinchona bark and slippery elm tea. The white woman and her child helped Dollie deliver babies and salved the backs of the men and women their husband and father had whipped.
Some negroes said Master Langston was less likely to pick up the bullwhip than Boss Watling. "Master Langston ain't gonna get no work out of a man laid up in the dispensary." Others preferred Isaiah Watling. "Boss Watling, he hard all right. But he don't lay no whip on you less'n he got to."
Young Master Rhett pestered his father's servants with practical questions: Why were the trunk gates made of cypress? Why wasn't the rice hoed after the harvest flow? Why was the seed rice winnowed by hand?
The negroes ate the fish and game Rhett brought and the white boy spent Sundays, the negroes' day of rest, in the quarters. Rhett accompanied Will on trunk inspections, and often at noontime the two shared a meal on the riverbank.
When he felt the urge, Shadrach Watling visited the quarters after dark. Usually, Watling sent the girl's family away: "Might be you could take a meander down by the woods." Sometimes Shad gave the husband or father a demijohn of popskull to while away the hour.
But Mistletoe, the trunk master's new wife, didn't want to fool with the overseer's son, and when Shad Watling wouldn't leave his cabin, Will tossed him into the street, a circumstance that delighted the other negroes.
When Langston Butler heard what Will had done, he explained to Overseer Watling that negroes must not laugh at the Overseer's son, lest they laugh at the Overseer next and ultimately at the Master himself.
Three hundred negroes lived on Broughton with a handful of whites, some of them women. What prevented those negroes from rising up and murdering those whites? Langston Butler told Isaiah Watling that revolt could not be suppressed after negroes have begun muttering and sharpening their hoes, their rice knives. Rebellion is quelled by crushing the first defiant glance, the insolent whisper, the first disrespectful snicker.
"Will's a good nigger," Watling said.
"Your boy will do the punishing."
"Shadrach?" Watling's eyes were anthracite. "Have you been satisfied with my work?"
"It has been satisfactory."
Watling bowed his head and muttered, "I got to tell you, Master Langston. Will had just cause. My Shadrach . . . Shadrach ain't no account."
"But he's white," Master Langston replied.
The sky was unseasonably clear that August morning; the air was dead and heavy. Broughton Plantation's rice mill was brick; its winnowing house was whitewashed clapboard. The dairy, negro houses, and infirmary were tabby—cement of crushed oyster shells and lime. Tall and windowless, with its thick iron-banded door, Broughton's meat house was as forbidding as a medieval keep. Every Sunday morning, standing before this vault of plentitude, Overseer Watling distributed the week's rations to the servants shuffling past. "Thank you, Boss Watling." "We sure does thank you, Boss."
Isaiah Watling was the giver of all good things, as well as the source of all punishment. Broughton's whipping post was a blunt black cypress stub five feet six inches high and eighteen inches in diameter. An iron ring was placed where a man's wrists might be fastened.
Will had asked the young Master to intercede, and Rhett confronted the overseer. "Watling, I am giving you an order!"
Isaiah Watling studied the boy as if he were something curious washed in on the tide. "Young Butler, when you defied Master Butler to stay, I asked him who was Master when he was off in town. Master Butler said I was to follow his orders, that you weren't to give no orders. Now, young Butler, the niggers is here to see justice done and to learn respect. Will's insolence bought him two hundred."
"It'll kill Will. Damn it, Watling, it's murder."
Isaiah Watling cocked his head as if listening for something faint and far away. "The nigger's your father's property. Very few of us, young Butler, get to be our own men."
His son Shad's bullwhip coiled lazily before he popped a trumpet-vine blossom off the well house. The negroes stood silently, men to the fore, women and children behind. Tiny children clung to their mothers' shifts.
When Isaiah Watling led Will out of the meat house, the trunk master blinked in the brightness. When the overseer tied Will's wrists, Will didn't resist.
Rhett Butler had not yet come into his adult courage and could not watch his friend be killed. When Watling bared Will's back, Mistletoe fainted and Rhett bolted for the river, deaf to the whip crack and Will's grunts, which became screams.
Rhett jumped into his skiff, loosed the mooring line, and let the river take him away. A rainsquall descended and he got soaked through. His boat went where the current willed. Rain drummed in the boy's ears and he blinked rain from his eyelids. Rhett Butler swore that when he was a man, he would never be helpless again.
Rain fell on the boy. Rain fell harder. Rhett couldn't see the bow of his boat. Water lapped at its thwarts. His sail exploded into tatters. He lost an oar. When a drifting cypress trunk threatened to roll the skiff, he broke his other oar fending it off. He inspected the stub as if, had he the wit, he might yet row with it. He bailed until his arms ached. When he shouted to ease the pressure in his ears, the wind snatched his shout away.
The river broached the trunks and flooded rice fields, and sometimes Rhett's skiff was in the channel and sometimes scudding above what had been acres of Carolina's finest golden rice.
Suddenly, as if he'd been washed into a different universe, the wind and rain stopped. In the calm, Rhett's skiff drifted gently through brightness at the tip of a whirling funnel that rose up, up into a heaven, which was so dark blue, Rhett imagined he saw stars. He had heard about the hurricano's eye. He never thought he'd see one.
The current bumped the waterlogged skiff against a jumbled shoreline of uprooted, broken trees. Rhett tied his skiff to a branch before clambering inland toward the sound of hammering.
As a young man, Thomas Bonneau had been freed by the masterwho had fathered him. Thomas Bonneau's white father deeded his son five acres of land on a low rise beside the river, where Thomas built a modest tabby house, whose thick, homely walls had resisted previoushurricanoes. Bonneau and a boy about Rhett's age were on the roof, nailingshingles.
"Look, Papa, yon's a white boy," the boy, Tunis, said.
The two slid to the ground and Thomas greeted the half-drowned Rhett. "Come with us now, Young Master. These walls has sustained usthus far. God grant they sustain us a mite longer."
Inside his one-room house, Thomas Bonneau's wife, Pearl, and two younger children were piling trunks, fish traps, a chopping block, and chicken coops onto a rickety mound to clamber onto the ceiling joists.
"It ain't hurricano's rain nor wind kills you," Bonneau explained as he took his joist. "Ol' hurricano raises up a mighty tide what drowns you."
Tunis passed the youngest children to his father, who set them next to him under his strong arm. When they all were astride a joist, Bonneau spoke in a singsong: "And God said to Noah, 'The peoples is corrupt and so I will raise a mighty flood. But you and your family gonna swim above the flood. . . . ' " Whatever more he said was snatched away by the wind.
When it came, the storm surge crashed against the little tabby house and forced the door. Water foamed beneath Rhett's dangling feet and the joist he straddled vibrated between his thighs. Thomas Bonneau leaned his head back and shut his eyes and the cords of his neck were taut with praising God.
That was the worst of it.
As all storms must, this storm ended, the waters receded, and as ever after such storms, the sun illuminated a brilliant new world. Thomas Bonneau said, "If I ain't mistook, that's a macaw in yon tree." A bedraggled blue-and-yellow bird clung weakly to a leafless branch. "Lord knows where he been blowed from."
They dragged the muddy trunks and broken fish traps outside and Pearl Bonneau stretched a line to dry their clothes. Pearl wore her wet petticoat while her dress dried; the others went naked.
Tunis and Rhett collected storm-beached fish while Thomas Bonneau started a fire with the dry inner bark of a cedar tree. When they were seated around the fire, turning fish on sticks, Thomas Bonneau offered thanks to God for sparing his family and the Young Master.
"I'm not the Young Master," the white boy said. "I'm Rhett."
Ten days later, when Rhett returned to Broughton, Will had been buried in the slave cemetery and Mistletoe had been sold South. Broughton Plantation was miles of drowned, stinking rice plants. Langston Butler was personally supervising a gang repairing breaks in the main trunk while Watling's gang restored the interior trunks. Men trundled wheelbarrels of fill; women and children emptied pails and buckets in the breaches.
Rhett's father's boots were filthy and he hadn't shaved in days. His soft hands were cracked and his fingernails were broken. Langston Butler greeted his son, "We accounted you dead. Your mother is grieving."
"My mother has a tender heart, sir."
"Where have you been?"
"The free colored Thomas Bonneau saved me from the hurricano. I have been helping his family restore their homestead."
"Your duty was with your people."
Rhett said nothing.
His father ran his forearm across his sweaty forehead. "The crop is lost," he said distantly. "A year's work destroyed. Wade Hampton asked me to run for Governor, but now, of course . . ." Langston Butler looked into his son's unforgiving eyes. "Sir, have you learned anything from the trunk master's fate?"
"Humility? Obedience? A proper deference to authority?"
"I have often heard you say, Father, that knowledge is power. I accept that conclusion."
Despite his obligations at Broughton, that same week Langston Butler took his son to Charleston to begin acquiring the education that distinguishes a Low Country gentleman.
Cathecarte Puryear was Charleston's most visible intellectual, and the city took pride in him, as they might in any curiosity—a two-headed calf or a talking duck. In Cathecarte's student years, he'd boarded beside Edgar Poe at the University of Virginia, and, as everyone knows, poetry is contagious.
Cathecarte Puryear's contentious essays in the Southern Literary Messenger had twice produced challenges, which he had accepted, but on both occasions, after declaiming his belief that affairs of honor were "designed by the mentally unfit, for the mentally unfit," Cathecarte discharged his pistol into the air. He was never challenged again. There is no honor—and maybe dishonor—calling out a man who will not return fire.
Cathecarte was president of the St. Cecilia Society, which sponsored uplifting concerts and Charleston's most popular balls. Most of Charleston's intellectuals were clergymen or, like the Unionist Louis Petigru, lawyers by profession, but thanks to his deceased wife's considerable fortune, Cathecarte Puryear never had to earn his bread. He tutored a few wellbred young gentlemen because, as Cathecarte often explained, "noblesse oblige." Eleanor Baldwin Puryear (d. 1836) was Cathecarte's sole poetic subject. Philistines said exchanging Eleanor's handsome dowry for literary immortality was a fool's bargain.
Aweary, preoccupied Langston Butler assessed his son for the prospective tutor: "My eldest son is intelligent but defiant. The boy disregards my orders and flouts those distinctions of rank and race that undergird our society. Though Rhett reads, writes, and does sums, gentlemen would not recognize my son as one of them."
Cathecarte beamed encouragement. "Every young man's mind is a 'tabula rasa,' sir. We may impress upon that blank slate whatever we desire."
Langston smiled wearily. "We shall see, shan't we?"
After Langston left, the tutor said, "Sit down, young man. Do sit down. You prowl like a caged beast."
In rapid succession, Cathecarte asked: "Aristotle taught which famous general, young man? Please decline amare. Which British king succeeded Charles the First? Explain the doctrine of separation of powers. Recite Mr. Poe's 'The Raven,' Mr. Keats's 'La Belle Dame sans Merci.' "
After the silence became oppressive, Cathecarte smiled. "Young man, apparently I know many things which you do not. Just what do you know?"
Rhett leaned forward. "I know why trunk gates are made of cypress. Everybody says the mother alligator eats her own babies, but she doesn't; she totes 'em in her mouth. Conjure men take four different cures from the jimsonweed. Muskrat dens always have one entrance below the water."
Cathecarte Puryear blinked. "You are a natural philosopher?"
The boy dismissed that possibility. "No, sir. I'm a renegade."
After that interview with Cathecarte Puryear, Rhett Butler climbed steep stairs into the heat of an angular room whose window overlooked Charleston harbor. Dirty clothes were strewn on one unmade bed and highly polished riding boots rested on the pillow of the other.
Rhett unpacked his carpetbag, tossed the boots on the floor, and sat by the window, watching the harbor. So many ships. What a vast place the world was. He wondered if he would ever succeed at anything.
A half hour later, his roommate came clattering up the stairs. He was a slight lad, whose long fingers nervously flicked pale hair off his forehead. He lifted his boots and examined them suspiciously. "You're Butler, I suppose," he said.
"And you are?"
The lad drew himself up. "I am Andrew Ravanel. What do you make of that?"
"I don't make anything of that. Should I?"
"Well, I guess you'd better!"
When Andrew cocked his fists, Rhett hit him in the stomach. The other boy slumped onto his bed, trying to catch his breath. "You shouldn't have done that," he gasped, "You had no right. . . ."
"You were going to hit me."
"Well," Andrew Ravanel's smile was innocent as an angel's. "Well, maybe I would. But maybe I wouldn't have."
In the next few months, Rhett understood how lonely he had been. Andrew Ravanel was a city boy; Rhett had never lived where gaslights flickered. Rhett looked at the practical side of things; Andrew was a dreamer. Andrew was shocked by Rhett's indifference to rank: "Rhett, you don't thank a servant for serving you; serving you is his reason for being."
Rhett excelled at mathematics and Andrew liked to show his friend off by asking Rhett to add complex figures in his head. Rhett didn't know how he could do it; he just could. Andrew was an indifferent scholar so Rhett tutored him.
Cathecarte's other pupils were Henry Kershaw, a hulking seventeen-yearold who spent his evenings on the town; Cathecarte's own son, Edgar Allan, who was Henry Kershaw's acolyte; and John Haynes, heir to the Haynes Shipping Company. John's father, Congress Haynes, approved Cathecarte Puryear's pedagogy but not his good sense. Consequently, Congress's son lived at home.
As night cooled the great port city, Rhett and Andrew would perch in their dormer window, discussing duty, honor, and love—those great questions every boy puzzles over. Rhett didn't understand the bleak moods that sometimes overwhelmed Andrew. Although Andrew was almost recklessly brave, trifles could prostrate him.
"But Cathecarte condescends to everybody," Rhett explained patiently. "That's what he does. You must not pay him any mind."
Rhett could neither reason nor jolly Andrew out of his despair, but since it seemed to help, Rhett sat quietly with Andrew through the darkest hours.
Though Cathecarte Puryear railed against "planter philistines," he never questioned Charleston's tradition that young gentlemen should raise hell until they were safely married. Andrew's father, Colonel Jack Ravanel, acquainted Rhett with spirits and escorted the boy on his fifteenth birthday to Miss Polly's brothel.
When Rhett came downstairs, Old Jack grinned. "Well, young sir. What do you think about love?"
"Love? Is that what it's called?"
After three years studying with Cathecarte Puryear, Rhett could do calculus, read Latin (with a dictionary), knew the names of every English monarch since Alfred, the fancies of Charleston's prettiest whores, and that a straight never, never beats a flush.
In the same year Texas annexation was debated in the United States Senate, Cathecarte Puryear published his notorious letter. Why Cathecarte was impelled to advance his opinions wasn't clear. Some thought he envied poet Henry Timrod's growing fame; others said it was the rejection of Cathecarte's poems by the selfsame Charleston Mercury that published his scurrilous letter (bracketed with its editor's disclaimers).
"Nullification," Cathecarte Puryear wrote, "is stupendous folly; and nullification's adherents are reckless fools. Can any sane man believe the Federal government will permit a cabal of Carolina 'gentlemen' to determine which Federal laws they might choose to obey and which they will not? Some of these gentlemen are whispering the dread word 'secession.' I trust that when Mr. Langston Butler and his friends finally commit suicide, they will do so privately, without involving the rest of us in their folly."
Although Rhett's father couldn't challenge Cathecarte Puryear—"the villain has made a mockery of the code of honor"—Langston could and did remove his son from Puryear's influence.
As their carriage rolled down King Street, Langston told Rhett, "Senator Wade Hampton has engaged a tutor for his children. Henceforth, Hampton's tutor will instruct you too." He examined his son skeptically. "I pray you are not already infected by Puryear's treasonous beliefs."
Rhett studied his father's sour, angry face and thought, He wants me to be the man he is. Rhett jumped out of the carriage, darted behind a brewer's dray, and disappeared down the street.
Thomas Bonneau laid down the net he'd been mending. "What you doin' here, young man?"
Rhett's smile was tentative. "I had hoped I might be welcome."
"Well, you ain't. You's trouble."
Glasses dangling from one hand, Tunis came outdoors. He held The Seaman's Friend in the other.
Desperately, Rhett pronounced, "That book has ketch rigging wrong."
Tunis rolled his eyes. "Daddy, I b'lieve young Master Butler sayin' he a sailor. You reckon?"
Rhett wore a short blue jacket over a broadcloth shirt. His trousers were so tight, he dared not touch his toes. The Bonneaus were barefoot and Tunis's dirty canvas trousers were belted with a rope.
Quietly, Rhett said, "I've nowhere else to go."
Tunis examined Rhett for a long time before he laughed, "Eight bushel of oysters that book cost me and Young Master here says it's mistook."
Thomas Bonneau's cheeks filled and expelled a puff of air. "I expect I gonna regret this. Sit yourself down and I'll show you how to mend a net."
The Bonneaus raked oyster banks below Morris Island and fished off Sullivan's Island. Rhett rose with them hours before dawn, worked with them, laughed with them, and one memorable Sunday when Thomas, his wife, and the younger children were at church, Rhett and Tunis sailed Thomas Bonneau's skiff down the coast all the way to Beaufort. Young Rhett Butler had never imagined he could be so happy.
Every negro on the Ashley River knew about Thomas Bonneau's white "son," but it was thirteen weeks before Langston Butler discovered Rhett's whereabouts and Broughton's launch tied up at the Bonneaus' rickety dock.
Langston Butler towered over Thomas Bonneau, "Many legislators wish to exile Carolina's free coloreds or return them to slavery. That is my view, as well. Should you interfere with my family again, I vow that you, your wife, and your children will toil under Mr. Watling's lash."
On the long pull upstream to Broughton, Langston Butler didn't speak to his son, and when they landed, he turned Rhett over to Isaiah Watling. "He's a rice hand like any other. If he runs or disobeys, introduce him to the bullwhip."
Watling assigned Rhett a cabin in the negro quarters. Its straw pallet danced with fleas.
The stretch flow had been drained two weeks previously and the rice was thriving. His first morning in the fields, the mosquitoes and gnats were so thick, Rhett swallowed mouthfuls. Twenty minutes after sunrise, the overheated air sucked his breath away. Thigh-deep in mud, he hoed as far as his arms could reach before, extracting one leg at a time, he shifted to a new stance. A big man on a big horse, Shadrach Watling watched from the levee.
At noon, the work gang paused for beans and cornmeal ladled from a common pot. Since Rhett didn't have a bowl or spoon, he waited until another man finished to borrow his.
It was ninety-five degrees that first afternoon and red and purple flashes played across Rhett's eyes. By custom, after a worker finished his allotted task, his time was his own. By three o'clock some of the stronger men left the field and by five o'clock only two middle-aged women and Rhett were still working. At 8:30, when Rhett was done, he and Shad Watling remained.
"Best watch for snakes." Shad grinned. "We lost a nigger in this patch last week."
Rhett's delirium of working, eating, and working again was relieved by fitful snatches of sleep. When Rhett did meet a water moccasin, he watched indifferently as the snake slithered past his bare legs.
On his tall, bony mule, Overseer Watling visited each of his gangs. The handle of the bullwhip hanging from his saddle bow was bleached from the sweat of his hand.
Despite the heat, the overseer wore a black frock coat and his shirt was buttoned to his chin. His wide-brimmed straw hat clasped his close-cropped skull. At dinnertime on Saturday, he beckoned to Rhett.
Watling had big ears, a big nose, long arms, big hands; his face was lined with hard work and bitterness. Watling laid his pale, empty gaze on Rhett. "When I was bankrupted and come to Broughton, many stretch flows past, you was an ornery child, but I believed there was hope for you. It is writ that by tribulations we shall one day rise. Young Butler"—the overseer started his mule—"our day will come."
By the second week, Rhett worked as well as an old woman, and by the end of the third he could keep up with a negro boy of ten. In the evenings, Rhett slumped on a chopping block in the dooryard. Although Broughton's negroes had been told to shun him, they slipped him food from their own meager stores. By September, young Rhett Butler was a full-task rice hand on Broughton Plantation.
As Carolina's delegates were boarding the schooner for Baltimore and the Democratic party's convention, Senator Wade Hampton took Langston Butler aside to ask about a rumor that Langston's son was working beside negroes in the rice fields.
"My son wants discipline."
Wade Hampton was a physical giant who owned 3,500 slaves. Now, he frowned. Hampton explained the Democratic party could not afford a scandal.
"Sir, my son must have discipline."
So Senator Wade Hampton arranged Rhett Butler's appointment to West Point.
When Isaiah Watling rode into the quarters that evening, Rhett Butler was sitting cross-legged in the doorway of his cabin, watching rice birds wheel over the river.
Isaiah Watling dismounted. "Master Butler wants you in town," he said. "Boat's waitin' at the landing." After a pause, Watling added, "For a white boy, you was a pretty fair nigger."
In Charleston, Rhett was bathed and barbered. His clothing was altered for his new musculature. Before all his insect bites had healed, Rhett boarded a northbound schooner.
Young Rhett Butler stood at the rail as the schooner cleared Charleston harbor. He should have been excited about his prospects, but he wasn't. His body didn't feel right in gentleman's clothing. Fort Sumter grew smaller and smaller, until it was a dot on the gray ocean.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press from "Rhett Butler's People" by Donald McCaig. Copyright 2007 by Stephen Mitchell Trusts.