Scruples of Honour
The worst of it, Ashley thought, with the rueful withdrawn smile that was as much for his own frailties as those of the world about him, was that he understood all too clearly just what his cousin Charles was going through right now. Understood him probably better than anyone else in the County... and better by far than the woman he was to marry. Vivid, vital Scarlett O'Hara, who had bookish Charles Hamilton's betrothal ring on her finger and his young heart most definitely in her pocket — and who would not know Keats' stout Cortez from Byron's Corsair, or, if asked, give a fig for either.
Ashley's own taste ran more to Thoreau and Thackeray these days, and he'd had to hold back laughter more than once at the romantical turn to Charles' imagination; but it was a world of dream-castles that he too had known, and beneath whose heroic banners he too in younger days had thrilled. He remembered those same ardent lovers and their ecstasies of mutual sacrifice and joy, consumed by lamplight by a young mind too intoxicated by the poetry of the page to pay any heed to the house-servants' disapproving yawns, and the advancing hour. And in Atlanta, Uncle Peter had disapproved mightily. Remembering adolescence, Ashley's smile widened into a genuine wistful grin.
He'd been visiting at the Hamiltons' for as long as he could remember, though his aunt by blood — his father's youngest sister Lina — had died bringing little Melly into the world nearly two months before her time, and all he could recall of her was a frail, sweet voice and the waft of verbena that seemed to cling to her skirts. The tiny scrap of a child had lived, despite all expectations, but the fierce old Colonel, his aunt's husband, had never been the same after that. He'd passed away quite suddenly when Charlie was five and Melly only two, and they could not remember him at all; but Ashley could still remember standing up straight to meet the old man's gaze square in the eye, and getting a pat of commendation that almost crushed his shoulder.
Colonel Hamilton had approved of him — more, Ashley thought ruefully, than he'd approved of his own two children. But then Ashley had never been afraid of him. He'd never been afraid of anything in that way, and it helped.
He'd set himself as a boy to jump the highest fences and climb the highest trees, not because it thrilled him as it seemed to thrill the other boys but because it was a necessary accomplishment if he was to be one of them. When he grew older, he set himself with the same calm determination to hold his liquor and to play cards, until he could take money from any of his neighbours at poker and drink them all under the table if he put his mind to it. But in the Hamilton house in Atlanta he was required to do none of these things.
At the lanky age of eighteen, he could sprawl all day there on the sofa with a book if he wished, without any interruptions from neighbours' sons clattering up to the porch and confused to the point of disapproval if he declined to join them in some wild jape. At twenty, he could argue cheerfully with Charlie over the relative talents of Shelley and Lord Byron, over whom the boy was prepared to enthuse for hours on end; Charlie was never shy when it came to his beloved books, and he often forgot to stammer.
And in the months before his Grand Tour, Ashley had teased tiny grave Melly, adult beyond her years, over the attentions of Hugh Elsing, who'd promised to squire her about town while he was away. They'd both known even then, with the quiet confidence of tradition, that some day they would be married. One of these years, when she was grown, Melanie would come back home with him to Twelve Oaks as Mrs George Ashley Wilkes, and together they'd raise a family amid the music and books they both loved, across long slow gracious golden years.
He'd gone overseas to Europe, and come back with memories full of culture and beauty from centuries when Georgia still slumbered beneath her primeval woods. But it was not Melanie who had grown up while he was away. Nor even Charles, though the boy had learnt to blush hotly at a pretty face, with a warmth that rivalled the glow in his eyes when he hung upon Ashley's tales of the Sistine Chapel and the terrible grandeurs of the Rhine. No, it was Scarlett who'd come to the sudden brink of adulthood: Scarlett, the daughter of the roaring little Irishman Gerald O'Hara.
She'd been a green-eyed tomboy when he left, forever escaping lessons to end up halfway up a tree with her skirts around her knees. In some ways, Ashley thought, with the clear-eyed detachment that he could never quite lose, for good or for ill, in some ways she was that same rebellious urchin still, with her passions and her eager appetites and disregard for danger. But no-one would ever again think of Scarlett O'Hara in the same breath as a schoolboy.
He'd watched her deploy the newfound enchantment of those tip-tilted green eyes on everything male in the County to devastating effect, looking on with the rueful admiration of a senator observing Cæsar's rise to power. After the first few encounters with Ashley's elusive reserve, with the pragmatism that was equally a part of her she'd given up trying to flutter her lashes and play foolish for him. Instead they'd ridden together, danced together and sat together out in the porch in the warm evenings, and the distant, dispassionate course of his days had been warmed by the vivid life in her and by her forthright company. He wondered, sometimes, if she had any idea how the quality of her own blazing spirit could draw a man to her when she forgot to flirt. But she took such a childish pleasure in her coquetry that Ashley was almost certain she had not a notion of it.
She had so many beaus, but Ashley was not one of them. He kept their friendship scrupulous to a fault, with a growing effort that cost more than he cared to admit. Whatever he might feel for her, they had scarcely an interest in common, and she'd made no secret of her impatience with all the quiet pursuits that meant so much to him. And besides, their whole acquaintance had known for years that he was to marry Charles Hamilton's sister.
Now it was only a week until that union was to take place. Only seven more days before he would be united for the rest of his life with Melanie, whose quiet depths were so different from Scarlett's bright tumbling waters; so quiet and yet so strong. She and Charles had been a part of his world for so long that it was like joining with the other half of oneself, a thing so natural that it was hardly to be questioned. One could find peace and happiness, with Melanie. He could have found peace there, he knew it... if there had never been anyone else.
But she would never know that. For the sake of the love that he did bear her, she must never know it.
It was only a week until his long-awaited wedding, and he meant to go forward into it with open eyes and as much of his heart as he could muster. But there were only six days left before that other wedding, when his cousin Charles was to rush headlong into a wartime marriage with Scarlett herself, whom he worshipped with his whole ardent, untouched soul — and with whom he was ill-matched in every conceivable way.
If only it had been anyone else. Ashley bit back a groan. He ought to have intervened the moment he heard, for Melanie's sake at least if not for Charles' own, gone to the boy and made some attempt to talk him out of this rush into disaster. But as things stood, he was the one man with the least right in the world to do so.
Scarlett was enchanting, wilful, an untutored child of nature, a Mænad or Bacchante to set a man's blood beating wildly and steal his wits away — and she was the sole girl who'd ever paid shy, stammering Charles a moment's attention, or melted beneath his gaze and made him feel like a man. Ashley could see her through his cousin's eyes as clearly as if the boy's heart had been an open book; as clearly as he himself could see a girl he'd hurt and shamed with false hopes, then driven to fling herself into the arms of the first-comer who could salve her wounds with unquestioning worship to heal the humiliation of what she had done.
She had torn away the veils of friendship and scruple with which he had tried to shield them both, and flung passion down between them where it had to be faced. And when he'd turned it aside — turned her aside, as gently as he could — she had struck him in the face, and gone to Charles.
He had not, even for one moment, considered giving way: taking advantage of her wildfire innocence for a few days of delirium that would sour to something they would forever regret. That steadfast resolve was the only part of his own conduct from which he could still draw a shadow of self-respect.
It would have been easier if he could have hated her... or Charles. But he could only ache for the unhappiness awaiting them both.
Scarlett had conquered Charles on a wild, childish impulse to show Ashley that she did not care. And she had done it in the hopes of hurting Melanie, who had won his loyalty where she could not. Ashley set that understanding up in the painful reckoning against his own conscience, and was silent; for Melanie, sweet Melanie, flesh of his blood and blood of his bone, had seen the inner beauty in Scarlett even as he had, and welcomed her already as a sister with unshadowed joy.
It was one of the things he'd always cared for most in Melanie. They loved alike. Only... he did not want Scarlett as a sister-in-law, still less as a sister. And how — how, with that unspoken knowledge heavy upon his tongue — could he ever presume to lecture Charles on whom he should and should not wed?
And then there was Honey.
Ashley, who had never feared anything that any of his neighbours could understand, shrank back as he had always shrunk back from the raw, unfinished realities of other people's hurt. He'd never been close to Honey as he had to his other sister India, before their mother died. There had been time then for shared books, and music in the parlour, and even a trip or two to the opera up in Boston, with a small India overawed and clinging tightly to her older brother's hand. It was India, later, to whom he'd shown his first halting attempts at poetry, and whose calm critique had helped guide his work. Charles had read them and blushed with praise, but it was India who had set an unerring finger on metre that limped and a line that strained too hard for effect.
But Honey... Honey was different.
She'd been too little for companionship at first, younger even than Melly. But Melly back when she was toddling after her big brother Charlie in Atlanta had been easier for Ashley to understand than his own little sister.
Honey Wilkes had never for one minute wanted to be like Melanie, or even like India. From the moment she had learned to read, she'd cared little for the library and less for art. All she'd ever wanted was pretty things and admiration, and had she only been a good-looking girl she would have giggled her way happily through life without a care in the world. But nature had made her colourless and drab, and poor Honey tried all the harder to compensate.
She'd been half-promised to her cousin Charles for as long as either of them could remember, and flaunted his property and his shy good looks among the other girls as something of a feather in her cap; but the truth was, Ashley thought, with the painful detachment that drove him to look facts in the face even as he shrank from them, the truth was that his sister Honey was no more suitable a wife for Charles than Scarlett O'Hara would be. Poor silly man-hungry Honey was a pallid shadow of Scarlett at her most heedless.
But she was his sister, and Charles had thrown her over to marry elsewhere. He could not urge the boy against that marriage without pressing Honey's cause. And Charles would not listen in any case.
Ashley remembered, against his will, Scarlett betraying blank ignorance of the Borgias and Charles in a shamefaced flush of defence. There would be no Borghese Palace for Charles, if this wedding went ahead; no Grand Tour of which his cousin had dreamed for so long. It would mean nothing to Scarlett, and she would never let him go. And her husband would blush for her again and again.
Only... there might be no Grand Tour at all for Charles, with this coming war. Ashley confronted that cold knowledge open-eyed, as he had faced the chance of his own demise. This might be all the time they had. And even if the Yankees knuckled under as quickly as everyone hoped—believed—they would, a nameless fear told him that the long golden years would still be over. War did many things to a country, even to the victors, and few of them were pleasant. Virgil had known that as far back as the siege of Ilium.
How could he go now to Charles, all glowing in his young adoration and pride, and ask him to jilt the girl whose consent had brought him such happiness in these final weeks? And how, yet again, could he ever presume to advise Charles on that subject at all with the knowledge of his own hypocrisy stark in his heart?
He pictured the scene to himself as he had done a dozen times already, trying to find the words for what he needed to say: the counsel of an older and wiser cousin with nothing but Charles' wellbeing on his mind. Words to tell Charles that he understood, that he sympathised, but that there were times, for all love's enchantments, when it was better to deny oneself and say no. He envisioned himself delivering that kind, brotherly lecture — with the memory of Scarlett's blow livid like a brand across his cheek.
To play the impartial friend to his cousin now would be to act out a falsehood that seemed to him unutterably vile. He cared for Charles. He had no right to care for Scarlett. Sick to his soul, Ashley knew that he should stop this marriage; knew that there was no way, in all honour, that he could.