Worth it All
The premise of this story is based on the idea that Rhett is able to give Scarlett the loan she requests to pay the taxes on Tara when she visits him in jail.
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I couldn't remember ever feeling so nauseous. Perhaps morning sickness with Wade arrived a close second. I felt as if my stomach was going to ring itself inside out. It didn't matter. It didn't make a speck of difference how I felt about any of it really. This was a task like any other. I hadn't wanted to pick cotton until my fingers bled. I hadn't enjoyed killing that man or subsiding on nothing but yams for months either. I hadn't done all that for nothing either; certainly not to lose it all to a pair of nasty varmints. Not to that straggly Emmie Slattery who killed my precious mother; not to anybody. Tara was my everything. Tara was our only solace is a life so racked with pain and so riddled with confusion. Tara was stability; Tara was our chrysalis to redefine us; Tara was life itself.
I could do anything. Tara's firm resolve had been increased and encouraged by my hotheaded Irish father and naturally bred into me. I felt Tara within my bones; I felt Tara racing through my blood, spuring me to the makeshift Yankee prison. It was giving me a confidence I hadn't really felt since Ashley spurned me at that barbeque so terribly long ago. It was the very same feeling that had me standing at the alter facing Charles Hamilton. I could do anything I set my mind to and it didn't really matter if the choice was right or wrong, if there even was such a thing anymore.
I took a deep breath and set my face carefully as I stepped into the entrance of the fire hall turned jail house.
I'd overheard a woman at a county ball talking about me once to other ladies—I think she knew the whole time I could hear her. She had said I had the charm of the whole South all wrapped up in Irish spitfire personality. She then compared it to carrying diamonds in a potatoe sack. I remember the ire I felt, which I only contained out of fear of proving her statement true. I would never give her the satisfaction. I pretended I didn't care a whit and then I might have danced every possible dance with her beau.
I knew conversing with these Yankee men that my personality hadn't been a mistake; there was no accident to the effusive contrasts of my personality. I had been given charm enough to intrigue and endear people and spark enough to assure that I wasn't silly or spineless and didn't intend to be trifled with.
Standing in front of Rhett I tried to remember which cards to play. Generally it came so naturally that I simply did whatever I felt innately. Rhett would never be like other people. I would never unconsciously know what to do or say with him, to get what I wanted. I knew charm was key. That rage, as much as I felt it pulling at me, wouldn't secure Tara. I knew that I had to get things right. I had been up thinking and half dreaming about what to do or say. I'd slapped the mental version of Rhett across the face a few times in my dreams; for leaving me on that godforsaken road to Rough and Ready; for not being there; for kissing me like it meant something. I hoped having done so would reduce the desire to feel my palm connect in person. I really did want to hurt him for what he did that night, maybe more so for playing with my feelings then for abandoning me to bandits, Yankees and road conditions.
I smiled and hugged him tightly to me. He smelt like horses and straw and damn if that wasn't somehow fetching on him.
I almost opened my mouth but then resorted to smiling again widely to collect my thoughts. Rhett was always easy to talk to when I didn't have a motive; however, he had an uncanny understanding of what my motives were when I did have them, which was almost always.
I told him quickly about how I'd heard about his incarceration and rushed over as quick as could be. Nothing like haste implied a reckless sort of care.
It seemed to start off so well, but then honesty trickled in and I couldn't help but agree with him that I was still harboring unforgiveness towards him for leaving me stranded.
I knew he'd spot a lie a mile off and knew I wasn't the kind to forgive and forget.
Once I started to give my opinion, it seemed to backslide rapidly—seemed to open my mouth to a flood of things I couldn't keep back. I thought for a few moments that it was done, that I'd lost the chance to bring this conversation back around to my intended purpose.
Then he complimented me, my appearance and the way my clothing looked. I'm certain I beamed from ear to ear. Not simply because the conversation was moving in a better direction but that the words were like the finest chocolate to a starving person. I dearly missed being praised and yet I understood also that there was something important in the fact that it was Rhett's praise that really thrilled me.
It didn't last. It couldn't have lasted. Talking with him was like walking a knife's edge; walking stable one moment and then being cut the next. The barbs seemed even; not too deep to be truly offensives, yet they made the plan of seduction seem a very hazy prospect. I couldn't seem to prevent myself for trading back biting words. Small talk would intervene for a while and then the words with the sharp edges would come back into the conversation as if they couldn't be done without.
Once on the subject of his imminent hanging the act somehow felt easier. As if my mind slowed everything down and I could just be. I felt like I imagine Ellen always felt running Tara, like my heart simply knew how it was done. I found tears ready without ready having to conjure them up. I didn't have to think about the lines of graves by the orchard, I didn't think about anything except the possibility that he might not be here sometime soon. For all I knew, this could be our very last moment. It saddened me that money had to be the motivation and yet some part of me really didn't want to lose the strange man that had been the best and oddest friend I had ever had.
I knew the moment I had him. I knew I should have felt more relief at the look in his eyes then. I should have felt overjoyed that he was going to propose. And yet I didn't. The idea seemed so empty suddenly. Not Charles Hamilton, loveless marriage empty, it something I had only really felt after losing my mother. The hollow kind of feeling when you knew exactly what was missing, and how cherished that missing thing was. What good was a dead friend? What good was a husband dangling at the end of a rope? I knew instantly that Rhett was worth more to me than simply his money. As much as I needed it, I felt if, by God, I was given one wish I might just ask for Rhett's safety over the 300 dollars.
Emotions shifted quickly. I pitied him one moment and wanted to kill him myself the next.
I never had felt shame quite like I did as he examined my hands. Not digging through neighbor's slave's gardens looking for abandon vegetables, not even after shooting a man. I knew by his eyes the ruse was over, that he wouldn't even entertain the thought of marrying me; probably never did and probably wouldn't lend me a dime.
He looked livid, I thought I might shrink under his glare and scurry out like a rodent. More unnerving was the reserved tone he took to and the fact that he didn't make his anger known by anything other than his eyes. Then a leveling question, "Why did you lie to me about everything being nice at Tara?"
I baulked and I tried to avoid giving him any real details.
His mocking and sour remarks caused a deal of annoyance and almost drew my temper, but I remained somehow in control of my mouth.
He filled in the pieces, as if taunting me with how adeptly he could read my motives.
Then he gave almost a look of indifference before stating "Now, we have most of the truth, everything except your reason. See if you can tell me the truth about why you wanted to lead me into wedlock."
I started in on what bordered on the truth. It was veiled to be sure but it was as much as I was willing to offer as explanation.
Then he was talking about collateral and securing his investment. He said he didn't want my earbobs or anything to do with a Farm.
I tried to stress that he might be paid back within the year. His chuckle unnerved me.
"So everything is going nicely and you don't need the money very badly. Well, I'm glad to hear that. I like to know that all is well with old friends."
"Oh, Rhett, for God's sake . . ." I began feeling absolutely crazy and completely fed-up.
I told him everything, without sugar to sweeten it or brandy to help to reality of it all. It was the gruesome truth— like the soliders brought it with gangrene, their festering wounds smelt horrid and anyone who was exposed to the reality understood how damning it was. I knew by his face he thought we were all so very far from good and things as they really were, were closer to the pit of hell than to the paradise I had tried to paint for him earlier.
If I expected pity from him I would have been disappointed. I assumed that if he was anyone else he might have been upset with me for trying to play with his feelings to get what I wanted. He understood people like me because he was cut from the same cloth. I half expected he was more disappointed with himself for not seeing this coming, for not seeing my ploy a mile off and expecting my motives in advance.
His tangible dissatisfaction with himself coloured his words. "I don't like your collateral. I'm no planter. What else have you to offer?"
A sharp image from days long past suddenly burned at my mind; a porch at night, the smell of poplar trees and cigar smoke and an audacious proposition. I felt my breath hitch, as if my body knew what my mind was going to propose before my mind had really considered it. It was more an impression than a consideration but the words left my mouth before the thought was fully formed in my mind.
"I— I have myself." It sounded so foolish as it rang in my own ears. As if anyone would want me now. I wasn't who I had been, hollow cheeks and minuet chest. Anyone who had seen me in my true form would likely laugh at the suggestion. This? This lady dressed in curtains? Hardly an offer. I could predict the laughs. Who could keep a straight face? This scarecrow—a mere fraction of the women who captivated every man's eye at a Twelve Oaks barbeque—so transformed, no one could mistake the two for the same person.
Rhett was absolutely expressionless. Not the slightest flicker of anything. No laughter, not an eyebrow raise of mockery, nothing but silence for the longest moment. One might wonder if he'd even heard it, but I knew he played at cards and this lack of outward sign was a mark of any decent gambler.
"Yes?" he said, in a 'what of it' sort of tone.
I face flamed.
"You remember that night on Aunt Pitty's porch, during the siege? You said — you said then that you wanted me." I felt desperate to convince him that I was still worth something, maybe more so for myself, for my pride than for Tara.
His silence only made me feel more certain of the need to convince him, I was still Scarlett O'hara. Older, shrewder, stronger but still her.
"You said — you said you'd never wanted a woman as much as you wanted me. If you still want me, you can have me. Rhett, I'll do anything you say but, for God's sake, write me a draft for the money! My word's good. I swear it. I won't go back on it. I'll put it in writing if you like."
I could feel his eyes burning into me the whole while. Again, his eyes were the only sign that he even heard any of it.
Just when I felt ready to smack him, just to have him change his expression, he spoke. "Just a minute. What makes you think I still want you? What makes you think you are worth three hundred dollars? Most women don't come that high."
I felt shame roaring through me into the caverns beneath my ribcage. I felt winded almost, yet he echoed everything I already knew. Despite being somewhat prepared for it I felt sick again, like my stomach was going to undo itself all over the flagstone floor.
My ears were ringing, I hardly took in most of what he said next, perhaps it was self-preservation or maybe I really was sick, Wade had been battling sickness before I left for Atlanta.
"…every bit of earth is just like every other bit. Now, let me get this straight, Scarlett. You are coming to me with a business proposition. I'll give you three hundred dollars and you'll become my mistress."
The response was almost foreign to me; it sounded hollow and lifeless. I felt so empty that I simply did not care any longer, "Yes."
I felt a third or fourth kick to the ribs, or at least it had the same physically effect, a painfully breathless sensation every time he tossed harsh words back at me. He was relentless. The wind was taken from my lungs for what felt like the millionth time today. I told myself I felt nothing—surely I would believe it someday. I felt broken, ill-formed and empty. Death probably felt something like this.
Anger rushed forth and seemed to help reduce the ache in my lungs, "Oh, Rhett, how you run on! If you want to insult me, go on and do it but give me the money."
I thought about Tara in the long moment of silence. I thought about what this was all for, the kind of hope this exchange would bring. Tara felt like freedom, like picturesque landscapes and warm summer afternoons. Worth it all, worth more.
"Are you going to give me the money?" I pressed.
As fast as an irritated cat, Rhett gripped my head, pulling me to him swiftly. A victorious smile broke out across my face as I assumed he was going to kiss me.
Instead he whispered into my ear, more gruffly than I expected. "If you walk down 7th street towards that little pie shop there is a locksmith with a large sign, you can't miss it. You need to go in mid-day, and tell him that you are there to retrieve a key for a man returning to Atlanta on the late train. He shouldn't ask for any more details; take the key and head East and cross the road when you get to 5th street. There is a house two blocks north, cast iron railings, green shingles, directly across from the farrier Harris & Son's. The key will open the door. If it is after four o'clock, you will leave and you will wait until the following day."
I baulked at that idea, "but Rhett, why?" I demanded.
He ignored me, "The second board on the staircase is actually a hidden compartment; pull on that board like one of your peasant ancestors pulling at a cork until it comes loose. Take what you think you are worth and then put the board back in place. Leave the key behind the trellis if it isn't too much an inconvenience," he concluded.
I didn't really know what to say. I felt like kissing him, but in a hero worship sort of way.
"Oh Rhett, thank you! I feel you are my dearest friend in this moment," I told him, wrapping my arm securely around him.
"Or possibly the only friend with money to their name? Strange how the world turns," he reflected.
"Well, they aren't on trial, penniless but not facing perdition," I told him feeling vexed again and yet sad at how quickly our moment was over.
"I'll be seeing you," He told me, as if shaking my words off unheard.