She skipped over Hanna's many words of gratitude. She skipped over Aunt Pauline's usual cordial sentiments and raced straight to the lines that began with Rhett.
"Rhett visited us just a week after you left for Atlanta and he stayed for just a half hour. I remember our last conversation about Rhett, Scarlett and I wish to tell you that he didn't at all seem bitter or withdrawn. He was actually quite cordial. I was the one who asked him about you (Just to see what he would say) and he replied that you had right now settled at your newly constructed Peach tree house and were visiting Tara from time to time. (You see, Scarlett, he doesn't know that you were in Charleston). I told him. I told him I met you just a week ago and I never expected to meet him in tow. Strangely, instead of looking surprised, he looked very interested. He laughed off his lapse in knowing his wife's whereabouts and inquired at length to what made you come to Charleston. I naturally told him the good you were doing - helping faithful house servants find new places of employment and he seemed.. well, his face was rather blank. But I suppose he must be happy. It is a very good thing you were doing,my dear. He left very quickly. I asked after him and he said he might visit Atlanta soon and left, I must say, rather abruptly. Now what I think about this whole-"
Scarlett's mind veered off at this for she hardly cared what her Aunt Pauline thought. The main thing was Rhett had asked after her and he had seemed interested to know what she was doing. A small flicker of hope lighted in Scarlett's chest. And for the first time in months, she smiled and rather laughed in relief. She knew her joy would be short lived for there were still many miles to go but she was feeling so relieved. Her eyes closed and a single tear ran down her cheek.
Just then the doorbell rang and one of the servants went to answer it. Presently, there was a soft knock of Scarlett's own door. "Mr. Wilkes is waiting at the parlor."
Scarlett wiped away the tear hastily and looked up in surprise. "Mr. Wilkes?" She thought for a moment and then nodded, "Bring the tea into the parlor. And bring some sandwiches too. Tell Mr. Wilkes I'll come down terrectly-"
Scarlett's spirits lifted considerably as she walked down the stairs to receive Ashley Wilkes. She dressed demurely but she could not resist applying rouge to her cheeks. With even a glimmering chance that Rhett might come back to her, her self-confidence rose with every step. She looked almost in good humor as she entered the parlor room.
"Ashley! What a lovely surprise!"
"Scarlett, you look as lovely as ever." replied Ashley as he warmly touched her hand and settled down into the comfortable sofa. His eyes were twinkling at her. "Well, Scarlett, what's all this I hear about you trekking everywhere across the South and finding jobs for our former slaves-"
Scarlett opened her mouth in surprise and Ashley's laughed. "Why Ashley, how ever did you know-"
"Well, the town's agog with this latest news about you. So before your Aunt Pitty any other busybody had a chance to rattle you with questions, I thought I would be the first to congratulate you. Truly Scarlett, I feel happy for you- We've been hearing very good stories-"
"Who has been telling them?" asked Scarlett, surprised and a little alarmed.
"I first heard it from Aunt Pitty. She says she heard from someone in Charleston-"
"Oh!" Scarlett realized Aunt Pauline had tattled to Pitty and she knew that was enough to get the whole town talking. "Aunt Pitty is the most awful tattle tale!"
Ashley smiled again and munched into his sandwich.
"But it is very sweet of you to come here to wish me, Ashley. Tell me, how is Beau and how is India?"
"India has returned to Macon and she is quite happy there. Beau is doing well too. He and Wade seem to be getting along really well-"
"And how are you doing, Ashley?"
Ashley smiled his gentle smile. "I am the same as always, Scarlett. You know me. I don't have the spirit or the zeal to cross miles doing noble deeds like you-"
Scarlett blushed this time. "Oh Ashley, you make it sound so romantic and ...and .. like something out of a novel. But it's not. It's actually rather tiring work-"
"But you enjoy it. Scarlett, it's your energy and your vivaciousness that I will admire the most- I know I can never be like you-"
"Do you want to be like me, Ashley?" asked Scarlett, sipping her tea and looking calm and happy.
"Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think we all would like to be somebody else for a change-"
"Ashley, I don't even do the things that I do for the nobility of it or the goodness of it. I help house servants find places because it needs some creative persuasion. And of course there is a lot of joy in helping others. I have only recently stumbled on this kind of happiness. Ashley, why don't you reach out too. Why don't you teach people or ..or.. give important talks or something.. you've been all over Europe and you read so many books-"
Ashley began to smile.
"Ashley, I do mean what I am saying. I am saying this because you know I care about you. I promised Melanie I would always take care of you"
"What a sweet thing to say." said Ashley quietly. He sighed. "Oh Scarlett, if only you could understand- When I was raised in Twelve Oaks, my early years there weren't filled with so much drama or excitement. Our family were uniformly quiet and unvarying. As a boy, I was very quiet and in the shadows. You couldn't really notice me in a small crowd. I never spoke much and I never did much. But I observed. I observed a great deal. We were never chastised too much and we were never rewarded too much either. Our world was books and we lived in our libraries. Do you understand, Scarlett? Each day was as unvarying as the next and when you live in this unvarying world from the moment you were an infant until the day you turn a man, you realize that there is nothing good in reaching out-"
"Ashley-" Scarlett looked stunned as she heard Ashley speaking so plainly for the first time. Or was she really hearing him right for the first time? She felt confused and could not tell.
"It is true, Scarlett. Maybe to you, the world is full of excitement and possibilities. But to meet that world, you have enthusiasm, the sense of adventure and wonder- you have these things that propel you to venture out. You work hard and you want to work even harder to meet goals you have set against time and have these seeds planted in you- seeds which haven't been rooted out-"
"Are you saying that you might have once been like me?"
"Perhaps- I don't know, Scarlett- We are all born the same way, aren't we? But whatever spirit I had was met by a blandness.. What would have happened if you ,as a little girl, came home in a tattered dress and up to your knees in mud?"
"Pa would have spanked me or Mammy would have bugged out her eyes and stuck out her lips and marched me straight to the bath to get scrubbed and then I would never hear the end of it till the next afternoon-"
"Aaah, but at Twelve Oaks, Father would only nod to the servant to help me get washed and dressed and that would be all. There would not be very many cheers or frowns, do you understand? So, nothing really matters very much- My childhood was an dull blandness which I have come to love- Twelve Oaks with it's slow charm and unvarying days-"
"Oh Ashley... Ashley, why are you telling me all this?" Scarlett's joy vanished at once. "Oh, you must be depressed. You must be missing Melanie dreadfully-"
"I do." Ashley reached for his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "She was a dream. I kept calling Twelve Oaks - kept portraying it as a glamorous place.. a safe place and the quiet life I led there- And she helped me uphold that dream. In that, she was a lovely dream. "
Scarlett understood exactly what Ashley was only now. His realities were limited because they were limited long ago by his family. Marrying within cousins, reading and only visiting art museums and things.. Ashley was robbed of his right to have positive experiences with the outer world, to use his creative ideas, to be enthusiastic and productive with some outside venture. He could not even comprehend the value of these things-
"Ashley for what it is worth, I saw you so differently. Perhaps your life was different but mine- I looked upon Twelve Oaks house as if she were a white lady with her regal stone columns, like something out of Greece. The very columns spoke of predictability and stability- qualities I searched for all my life. And you were never dull to me Ashley. I thought you were well learned and you always were very good at sifting books and making sense of literary things. I know I am not very good at explaining but-"
"Scarlett, how kind of you to say these things."
"But I mean them, Ashley. Every word. I have great respect for all the Wilkeses. I have always admired Twelve Oaks and I especially loved and respected Mr. Wilkes. I believe I should like to know the history of the Wilkes's family-"
Ashley looked very pleased at this. "Someday I'll let you accompany me to Twelve Oaks grounds, Scarlett. The place is lost now but I do go there once in a while to remember the old days. I stand among the ruins and think of how life was back in those days. If you want to know the history, I would be interested to tell you-"
Scarlett smiled and she wondered how she ever thought she could infuse enthusiasm and a zest for life in a person as bland and stagnant as Ashley. And as she stared at Ashley, she thought how similar his eyes looked to her own Mother's eyes.
"How is Rhett?"
This question snapped Scarlett back to reality. "Rhett is all right. He will be returning from his trip soon-" replied Scarlett, hiding the real state of her marital relationship from Ashley. Then eager to clear Rhett's name, Scarlett ventured, "I am quite glad that you got rid of convict labor, Ashley. I..I mean, if you didn't really want to work convicts-"
"See, even you think it is right-"
"Actually Ashley, working convicts was my idea. I know I hinted at it being Rhett's idea before but it was my idea. We all needed the money so badly-"
"Scarlett, after all... what is money but-"
"Ashley, money is very important. I have always looked on it with keeness. When I was just a little girl, I used to know just how much Pa lost by gambling. I knew who he lent money to, how much things cost and how money can be put to productive use-"
"I think being a resourceful person is good and Rhett liked that too. We both were the same in that respect."
Ashley let out a laugh. "Oh, let's not talk of that!" When he saw that Scarlett was serious, he stopped laughing and looked at her intently. Seeing that she was still serious, he finally realized that she was speaking in earnest. And the realization bought understanding into his face in the form of a frown. But just as the frown formed, a well-trained mask appeared once again.
"Do think of it,Ashley... money can be spent in so many exciting ways.. as creatively and productively as possible. I know I haven't exactly done wonders with it but Rhett always challenged me by saying what I could do with his money and we had a sortof-"
Scarlett stopped for Ashley was nodding vaguely and rising out of his seat. "I must be off" he said, pleasantly. "I'll remember to call you the next time I visit Twelve Oaks. And I am once again very happy for you, Scarlett-"
Scarlett stood up and saw Ashley off at the porch. As she saw him leave, she finally understood what her own Pa had said so long ago. Their minds were too different. Money and all its possibilities did not exist for Ashley just as hens laying eggs did not exist for her own Mother. They were similar and their realities were limited in similar ways too. And they both could not-
Scarlett stopped here and walked back into her house.