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The chapter begins with an extended look back in time, in which Bayard remembers the day, two years earlier, when the family found out that cousin Drusilla had gone to war. Drusilla left home in 1864, leaving Aunt Louisa frantic, but several months later she appeared back at Hawkhurst in the uniform of a common soldier and revealed that she had been away fighting in Colonel Sartoris's troop. A stunned Aunt Louisa insisted that Drusilla immediately marry Colonel Sartoris to preserve appearances, but Drusilla refused. We learn more of Drusilla's history: her fiance, Gavin Breckbridge, was killed at Shiloh in 1862, and she rejected the martyrdom of Southern widowhood and tried to look and act like a man.
Back in the present—the spring of 1865—the war is over, and Drusilla and Colonel Sartoris are back in Jefferson clearing land for a new house. Drusilla shares an old slave cabin with Bayard and his father and works with an axe like the men. One day Mrs. Compson comes to the plantation with a letter from Aunt Louisa, who has asked her to look after Drusilla's dignity and try to restore some propriety to the situation. The next day, fourteen ladies come from town to observe Drusilla's degraded condition and decide what to do. Gossiping, they conclude that Drusilla must undoubtedly be pregnant with Colonel Sartoris's child. When one of the ladies, Mrs. Habersham, confronts her and offers her sympathy for her "condition," Drusilla runs off. Bayard finds her in the cabin, crying and humiliated. "We went to the War to hurt Yankees, not hunting women!" she sobs to Louvinia.
In the meantime, Bayard describes the strange times in Jefferson and Colonel Sartoris's mysterious business in town. After a trip to Jefferson, Ringo tells him with astonishment, "I aint a nigger anymore. I done been abolished." Ringo says that Cassius Q. Benbow—an illiterate ex-slave—is to be elected Marshal of Jefferson, and that two carpetbaggers from Missouri, the Burdens, have come to Yoknapatawpha County to organize the black population for the Republican Party. Colonel Sartoris and the other white men, he says, are working hard to prevent the changes. "This War aint over. Hit just started good," Ringo says.
Before long, Aunt Louisa arrives in town herself, carrying trunks full of dresses for Drusilla. Drusilla is "beaten" as soon as she sees her, but Colonel Sartoris tells her not to be discouraged. Aunt Louisa forces Drusilla to put on a dress, and the Jefferson ladies invite her unwillingly into their circle. Louisa asks Colonel Sartoris to marry her daughter. She sets the wedding for two days later, heedless of the fact that the Marshal's election is the same day. That day, Bayard takes Drusilla into town to be married, right into the middle of the election showdown. Colonel Sartoris enters the polling place; then Drusilla runs in after him, in her wedding gown and veil. Bayard, waiting outside, describes how three shots ring out, and the would-be newlyweds emerge carrying the ballot box—they have killed the Burdens. None of the black men dare to challenge Colonel Sartoris, who appoints Drusilla election commissioner on the spot. The couple rides back to the plantation with the townsmen to conduct the election on more favorable terms. Aunt Louisa and the other ladies angrily confront Drusilla, who says she forgot about the wedding altogether. Louisa orders Drusilla into the cabin, but Drusilla refuses; after a short standoff, Louisa begins to cry and retreats. Drusilla and Colonel Sartoris conduct the election; not surprisingly, Cash Benbow receives no votes—in part because the ballots are pre-marked. They ride back to town, and the white men erupt in cheers.
Some critics have interpreted "Skirmish at Sartoris" as a light, humorous story in the style of the earlier chapters, featuring the comical squawking of Aunt Louisa and Mrs. Habersham and an essentially good-humored defeat for Drusilla. But this reading fails to account for the pathos of Drusilla's situation, rendered with heartbreaking clarity in scenes like that of her first encounter with the town ladies when they offer their sympathy for her "condition." The battle-of-the-sexes humor we might expect is replaced by a more thoughtful meditation on the narrow constraints on women in traditional Southern society. When Bayard says that the men of Jefferson are actually the "enemies" of the women, he does not just mean that the men are hen-pecked: we can discern a clash between separate spheres of what we might call masculine and feminine values. But these values are not strictly governed by gender: the most admirable female characters in the novel—Granny and, in this chapter, Drusilla—adhere to the masculine.
In "Skirmish at Sartoris," the narrator links Drusilla to masculine virtues and describes her pants and her close-cropped hair. She is devoted to the Confederate cause and fulfills that devotion in a practical, valuable way, taking the fight directly to the Yankees (as Granny did) rather than just hating them. While the "respectable" womenfolk like Aunt Louisa hunt for innuendo and impropriety, Drusilla is clean-minded, even naive: twice she says that she went to battle to "hurt Yankees" rather than to find a husband. (The second time she says she was fighting Yankees, "not hunting women"—a choice of words that shows her close identification with the male point of view.) And the reader knows she is telling the truth—there is clearly nothing suspicious about her relationship with Colonel Sartoris. Like him and Granny, Drusilla is sincere and direct. Meanwhile, the polite, feminine women—Mrs. Compson, Mrs. Habersham and Aunt Louisa—use an insincere propriety to disguise their gossipy interest in Drusilla's private life. They contribute nothing valuable to the larger goals of the community: while Granny clothed and fed the poor, and while the men (and Drusilla) actively work to keep out the Northern carpetbaggers, they can talk about nothing more important than wedding etiquette. Finally, they are inflexible and outmoded, clinging to the social standards of prewar society even when those standards are counterproductive to society's new goals—they would keep Drusilla from working to build the new house, for instance, when her labor is obviously helpful. Thus, the clash between the masculine Drusilla and the feminine ladies is more than a humorous incident—it is a struggle between two value systems, and Drusilla's defeat is painful and quite serious.
But even though Colonel Sartoris and Drusilla are on the admirable side, to a contemporary reader their conduct in the election seems shocking and dishonorable. The novel expects us to applaud when the Burdens are murdered—they are Northern meddlers who are prevented from imposing their own alien values on the community. But by today's standards, the community's values are dead wrong. It is not just that they are outsiders that upsets the townsmen, but that they believe in racial equality: Colonel Sartoris tells the Burdens that the election must not be held with Cassius Benbow "or any other nigger" involved. The implication is that the town's racial problems are the Burdens' fault, for stirring up agitation among local blacks—that left alone, "good" blacks like Louvinia and Joby would not try to exceed their place. The successful re-oppression of Jefferson's black population is held up as a triumph and a proud achievement of Colonel Sartoris. At moments like this, the novel reveals its limits—unlike Faulkner's greatest, most humane fiction, it cannot transcend the prejudice and provincialism of its time and place.
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