An Odor of Verbena
Eight years later, Bayard is a law student at the University of Mississippi. One night he is studying in his room when his landlord and tutor Professor Wilkins barges in; Bayard knows without being told that his father has been shot and killed. Downstairs is Ringo, who has ridden forty miles without stopping to retrieve him. As Bayard hastily prepares to leave, he realizes he is now The Sartoris—the head of the family—and that he is entering upon the greatest trial of his life: "At least this will be my chance to find out if I am what I think I am or if I just hope; if I am going to do what I have taught myself is right or if I am just going to wish I were," he thinks. He shakes hands with Professor Wilkins, knowing the professor half expects never to see him again alive, and rides off with Ringo. As they travel Bayard imagines Drusilla waiting for him in the parlor, dressed in yellow with a sprig of verbena in her hair, holding two loaded pistols.
Bayard fills in some of the missing history of those eight years. Herded by Mrs. Habersham, Drusilla and Colonel Sartoris were indeed married just hours after the election was finished. Colonel Sartoris built a much larger house on the site of the old one, and Bayard's Aunt Jenny came to live with them. A few years later, the colonel partnered with a man named Ben Redmond to build a railroad through the county. Then Bayard specifically recalls a day four years earlier, walking through the garden with Drusilla, when she told him about his father's dream of helping the whole county, black and white, to raise itself by the bootstraps. Bayard protested at the loss of life his father caused, but Drusilla told him that a real dream is worth dozens of lives. Next (still riding back to Jefferson), he describes how Colonel Sartoris's partnership with Redmond dissolved into bitterness and mutual fury; how his father bought out Redmond in a tricky deal and finished the railroad himself, then ran against Redmond for the state legislature and beat him; how throughout the last several years Colonel Sartoris baited Redmond with needless, repeated insults. Finally Bayard remembers an afternoon only two months earlier, in August, when he and Drusilla kissed passionately in the garden. After the kiss, Bayard decided he must tell his father; but when he went to Colonel Sartoris's office to confess, he discovered his father was too preoccupied with his struggle with Redmond to care. The last thing Bayard recalls is his father telling him that he planned to confront Redmond but that, tired of killing men, he would do so unarmed.
Back in the present, Bayard arrives home to find George Wyatt, a member of his father's old troop, and several other ex-soldiers standing watch at the house. Wyatt describes how Colonel Sartoris was killed—Redmond, no coward, shot him face-to-face rather than in the back. Wyatt says he and the other men will "take this off your hands," but Bayard refuses, as they all knew he would. Waiting for Bayard at the top of the steps is Drusilla, in a yellow ball gown with verbena in her hair, just as he pictured her. He dismisses the men, agreeing to meet them tomorrow for the showdown. Drusilla, eyes blazing, leads him into the parlor where Colonel Sartoris's body is laid out; he avoids looking at first but greets his Aunt Jenny. When Bayard finally looks upon his father, grief washes over him, realizing he is seeing Colonel Sartoris in repose for the first time. Drusilla interrupts him and with a "passionate and voracious exaltation," hands him a pair of dueling pistols and a sprig of verbena. She kisses his hand, then is overcome with hysterical laughter spilling from her mouth "like vomit," until Louvinia has to lead her to bed. When they are alone, Aunt Jenny warns Bayard not to kill Redmond simply for another's sake. Finally she leaves him, and he begins to pant uncontrollably in grief and despair.
The next morning, Bayard prepares quietly for the day. He bids a still- hysterical Drusilla goodbye; his aunt gently cautions him not to try to be a hero, telling him she would still respect him even if he hid in the stable. Bayard and Ringo ride into Jefferson, stopping outside Redmond's office in the town square. Wyatt and the other men are waiting for him. Bayard firmly tells Ringo he must stay behind, and he refuses a pistol from Wyatt. He mounts the stairs and enters Redmond's office. Redmond raises a gun from his desk and fires twice at Bayard. As Bayard stands motionless, Redmond then rises from his chair, takes his hat and leaves the office. He walks straight across the square to the train station, walks onto a southbound train and leaves Jefferson forever. At first the men think Bayard has been killed; then, when they run upstairs, they think Bayard has missed Redmond twice. Only slowly does it dawn on them that the bullets were Redmond's and that Bayard is unarmed. Wyatt is astonished, but he praises Bayard's courage and admits that "maybe there has been enough killing in your family." Bayard rides home with Ringo, falls asleep at the creek bottom and wakes up sobbing. When he enters the house late in the afternoon, Aunt Jenny tells him that Drusilla is gone—she has left for Montgomery where her brother lives. The last trace of her is a sprig of verbena she has left on Bayard's pillow.
"An Odor of Verbena" stands apart from the rest of The Unvanquished in a variety of ways. It was written later than the other chapters, composed after Faulkner proposed combining the stories into a novel and never published in a magazine. Stylistically it features a complex vocabulary and more convoluted syntax, closer to Faulkner's usual hyper-elaborate style than to the everyday tone of the rest of the novel. And it introduces new themes and symbols while still serving as a logical culmination to the stories.
Most critics agree that "An Odor of Verbena" is the strongest, best-written section of the novel. Faulkner plays with language to a far greater extent: in the other sections the narration mimics the sound of Bayard's thoughts, whether as a child or an adult, but in this chapter it becomes stylized and poetic, closer to the standard Faulknerian narrative voice. The description of the night air as "the hot thick dusty darkness quick and strained for the overdue equinox like a laboring delayed woman " The adjectives run together without commas, the unusual metaphor, the drawn-out rhythm (the words do not roll off the tongue, aided by alliteration or conjunctions) are all typical Faulknerian techniques. In this chapter, the convention of indicating characters' thoughts by italics, inserted without comment into ordinary sentences, is used far more heavily than elsewhere, as are paragraph-long sentences and rich, ornate vocabulary. Drusilla's rapid talking is described as a "feverish and glittering volubility."
Bayard's decision about whether to take revenge on his father's killer is cast in the imagery of Greek tragedy. He imagines Drusilla waiting for him on the steps of the house in her yellow ball gown holding dueling pistols, the "Greek amphora priestess of a succinct and formal violence." The words "formal" or "formality" are used several times to describe Drusilla as she puts a sprig of verbena in her hair or George Wyatt and the other men as they wait for Bayard outside the house, suggesting the frozen postures of portraits on a Greek urn or of the carved friezes on a temple. Even the flower verbena has classical associations: it was worn by Roman priests responsible for guarding the public faith. The specific tragedy being evoked is the Oresteia, a trilogy of plays by the ancient dramatist Aeschylus. In the trilogy, the Trojan war hero Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra; his son Orestes is forced to avenge his father's death by killing his mother. In the third play, Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the Furies for committing matricide, until the goddess Athena absolves him and ends what might otherwise be ceaseless violence. Like Orestes, Bayard must avenge his father's murder, but as in the Eumenides, he decides to heal his community by ending the destructive cycle of bloodshed. Drusilla has attributes of the Furies in her insistence on retribution, her wild-eyed, almost insane pursuit of revenge over mercy.
Whereas in previous chapters Drusilla has been associated with a positive, wholesome set of virtues, in "An Odor of Verbena" the dangers of her traditional code of honor are revealed. Her desire for vengeance leads to an uncontrollable hysteria, echoed in the blazing stare of George Wyatt when he thinks Bayard might evade his traditional duty. But unlike in "Vendée," Bayard is not avenging the death of an innocent. Colonel Sartoris intentionally provoked Ben Redmond, who the novel stresses is no coward, taunting him even when he had the upper hand and should have withdrawn gracefully. Redmond was pressured to shoot the colonel to preserve his dignity; by murdering him Bayard would only be compounding his father's injustice.
Bayard chooses what is arguably the bravest and most honorable way of all. By confronting Redmond unarmed, he proves he is not afraid to meet danger but avoids the necessity of actually killing him. Practically speaking, Redmond is as good as dead—he will never trouble Bayard or Jefferson again. Wyatt comes to understand the wisdom of Bayard's decision, admitting that the Sartoris family has already seen enough bloodshed. But Drusilla, still insistent, cannot abide by his choice, and leaves for Montgomery rather than face her cousin. The single sprig of verbena she leaves on his pillow is an admission of his courage and a token of farewell.