Disclaimer: Nothing recognizable belongs to me. I do not have a beta so forgive my mistakes.
Scarlett O'Hara was alone. For first time in her life she was without the woman who had shielded her from so much, and she felt it keenly. She had thought again of those women she had disregarded as foolish and catty, and wished that she could be with them to share the grief of losing Melanie, just as she wished to be among them after Bonnie died. It seemed to Scarlett that her long held belief their never being a convenient time for death, taxes, and childbirth held true. Had she not lost her precious daughter just months ago? Now she must bear the loss of her sister, and no one knew how deeply this loss had cut her.
For years her family had looked to her for leadership and for financial stability. For years she had done everything in her power to provide both. Had she not kept them all from starvation, kept a roof over everyone's head, and yet they still found her conduct disgraceful. Aside from Melanie of course. Scarlett recalled how often Melanie had reminded her of all that she had done and how grateful she had been that Scarlett did those for everyone else, when had Scarlett had time to conform to the ideals of a society which no longer existed? There hadn't been time, not really, unless. Well she didn't want to think of that right at this moment.
Her children had been sent for from Marietta and they'd arrived the next day with Prissy. She told them immediately, seeing no point in keeping it from them. They had been with her through all of the many deaths of the people she had loved. They were bewildered by the news. Auntie had been so happy recently, how could she be dead. Mother had given no explanation but that Auntie was in heaven. But it was their own mother that had them worried. She was pale and quiet, much like before she'd gone to Tara after she had been ill. It had been Auntie who had set about making sure Mother was busy, who would do it now? It was clear that Uncle Rhett was gone again given the way she'd answered them when they'd asked about him. Uncle Ashley was likely not much better off than Mother. And Aunt Pittypat of course would be beside herself. Mother was alone. They were not oblivious to the way that she seemed to drift from room to room at times. It seemed that she did not sleep or eat, if she did it hadn't been much. Wade had heard her scream and then quiet sobbing the first night after their return, and it reminded him of Bonnie's night terrors. No one went to her, Mammy was still at Tara, due to arrive with WIll and Aunt Sue the next day, and the rest of the house was unsure of what to do for their mistress. They left her alone, but shared concerned glances as she paced in her room all night.
But throughout the city, there was talk, and it was focused on a great many speculations about Mrs. Butler. For Captain Butler was again not present. Why would a husband leave his wife at a time like this, unless there was some credence to the charge of adultery. Would there be a divorce? Would Ashley sink so far as to marry Scarlett, a divorcee? There was even talk of Melanie speaking to Scarlett alone before she passed, and a great many ideas about what could have been shared between them as she died. Atlanta felt the loss of Melanie deeply, but their ever present curiosity of the non-conforming Scarlett grew stronger without Melanie's input. Scarlett had not been seen outside of her home since the night of Melanie's death. There had been a flurry of coaches coming and going as she arranged the funeral for Melanie, but she hadn't stepped foot outside.
This had sparked some conversations, didn't they recall it had been Melanie who had taken the pale Scarlett from home to the mills and the store after the talk of adultery? And brought her to their sitting rooms? Was it not also Melanie who nursed Scarlett after her accident and saw to it that she went out walking? Perhaps there had been more to Scarlett and Melanie than they all had understood to be based only in Melanie's gentle kindness.
All of Old Atlanta turned out for Melanie's funeral. Scarlett's appearance at the funeral was shocking, but not in the usual way she seemed to enjoy being scandalous. She looked tired and young and utterly lost. Scarlett had never been ill, not outside of her accident, that anyone could remember. It seemed since then her accident, her health had not yet recovered completely. As she walked among them, looking more like a ghost than the woman who had defied them so often, it startled many of the matrons. She hadn't so much as glanced at Ashley, and had stood with Pittypat at the graveside. She'd kept the older woman from swooning and had patted her arm gently saying, "There, there Auntie." It appeared that Scarlett could be respectable. She had come to the Ivy Street house and not strayed far from Pittypat's side.
The house was packed with mourners and they spilled out on to the front porch and yard, and it was in the fading light of the evening that Scarlett found herself in the backyard. She had had enough of the looks of disdain from those with whom she wished to mourn. The division of the families forced to choose between Scarlett and India had been erased and now both sides were free to openly dislike Scarlett, who had been a curse upon the Hamilton family it seemed. She sat on the back step and the tears came without warning. Scarlett wiped them away with haste, it would do her little good to be caught crying. Why should what others thought of her now be any different than just last week? Or any of the years before that. She had always set tongues wagging, and it hadn't mattered.
And as had been happening quite often lately, she'd heard Rhett's words, from things they'd talked about all throughout the time they'd known each other, up until he had left the other night. She could recall them all so clearly. He had laid so much upon her the night he left. She went back to all those conversations and saw what a fool she had been. So eager to have the upper hand that she missed all of the evidence of his affection. Though, he'd done a great deal to layer the evidence with just enough teasing to hide those feelings from her. But he had shared those feelings with Melanie, and her last words were saved to remind her to be kind to her husband.
Would that she had the strength to say fie to all of this. But something within her had broken. She knew once she made it to Tara she could make sense of everything. Now, now she was grasping at the mist which had enveloped her life. The people who loved her were gone, but she had all that she ever wished for and it didn't matter.
"You shouldn't be out here in the cold."
The voice drew her from her thoughts, and she fought to focus on the speaker. It was Uncle Henry.
"I.." Scarlett began but found that she had no defense. What would he care that she was afraid of the town for once.
"My brother built that house when he came to Atlanta," Henry said. Looking over at the home in which Pittypat occupied. "Of course, then it was called Marthasville, and it wasn't more than a couple homes and general store. But he'd made his claim, and you know that those downtown properties are still in the Hamilton name."
"He made a new life for himself here," Henry said. "I followed him because he'd made it seem like there were a great many opportunities for men who were willing to roll up their sleeves."
Never having heard this, Scarlett was surprised. She'd known Charles father was a respected war veteran but she'd never considered how the Hamiltons had come to Atlanta. For all it's excitement the town wasn't much older than herself.
"I don't think he suspected his entire family would die here."
Scarlett felt the tears run down her cheeks once again and hurried to wipe them away. She wasn't this emotional fool who couldn't keep from crying, she'd never been. She couldn't start now.
Henry cleared his throat. "I know that what the two of you went through together created a true bond, same as sharing the trenches with men creates a bond between them."
The memory of Melanie telling their wartime stories during those evenings after she'd returned to Atlanta came forth. Melly had never shied away from praising her. And all Scarlett had done was wish her dead. She thought of the sick feeling she'd had after Frank died, of how she was sure she would go to hell. And Rhett had been right, this was hell, nothing could be more agonizing that what was happening. She then focused her attention, as Henry was still speaking.
"I know you've struggled to keep many mouths fed. I want you to know that Melanie wasn't the only one who appreciated what you've done for our family. You've let an old fool play at being a young lawyer for many years and kept my sister and niece and great nephews from hunger. I know the tongues wag, and I know I'm guilty of joining in, but, today you've put the fear of God in me."
Scarlett looked startled. What ever could he mean going on about all of this? Did she look so unlike herself that her Uncle was going to take up her cause? It was pity, and she did not want it from anyone. She made up her mind to leave, to go home to haunt her own halls. She would not make a spectacle on this day.
"I'm going home," Scarlett said. And with that she stood and went through the hedge. She would walk home, nevermind waiting for a carriage. Will and Sue would bring the children home, she was sure Henry would tell them she had left. The rain had cleared suddenly, but it had it had left a chill in the air. Most winters were mild in comparison with those faced by a great many outside of Georgia, but it was a bitter cold front that had settled upon them.
She walked with purpose those five blocks she had run just two nights before. There was no one at home to see her determination return with each step. Atlanta would be the death of her if she stayed. In her too large home, with no real friends to fill it, and of course, no husband.
She wore her anger as her shawl and didn't feel the bite of the wind.. She could not believe he had not come to Melanie's funeral, for all his talk about her being the finest woman he'd ever known. And all his talk about keeping up appearances. She did have all the evidence she needed to divorce him, and it was so clearly what he wanted.
As she stormed up the walk, thinking about leaving Atlanta and Rhett and Ashley behind, she remembered the promises she'd made to Melanie. She was meant to look after little Beau, and after Ashley's finances. Oh Rhett had said that once too, hadn't he? Ashley would always need looking after.
The house was quiet, as everyone was over at the Ivy House. She went to her room and began to pace. She felt caged. There was a certain heaviness that clutched at her. To think that this would be the entirety of her life, living in this mansion, with no old friends to visit her, no Melanie to praise her, and having to tread carefully as she watched over Ashley's business and provided for Beau, and her children. She had money enough, but what would she do in the meantime. The store ran itself these days, a decent manager having been found while she was ill, and of course she had sold the mills. Which how she had come to be in Marietta, traveling was easier than facing Atlanta with all of its memories. How the memories haunted her, her strong mind was a curse in the way that it so easily recalled events, when she so wanted to leave them firmly in the past. It couldn't be helped.
In that time of her recover, she had tried to make up for lost time with her children, but they were not used to her kindness and spent too long trying not to annoy her that they were confused by her actions. Now their dear Auntie was dead too. It would be a sorry life for them without her coddling. Although Wade was eleven years old now, a young man by any account and he'd killed that snake when they were at Tara last. Perhaps spending time in the country would be best for everyone, even Ella had shown gumption in fighting with her cousin. She would have gladly left for Tara, to be among those red hills and tall pines immediately, but they again had all looked to her to see about Melanie's funeral. They, the neverending they. Even the proud India Wilkes had deferred to her. She seemed destined to tote the load of everyone, but not in such a way that would ever win anyone's approval.
The house was too quiet, and it made time crawl. She thought of going back, but she didn't have the strength. She was suddenly tired and hungry. She crawled into bed to rest her eyes, and she was so tired she slept without dreaming. The sounds of the house starting the day greeted her as she regained her senses upon waking. There was cooking being done and Prissy was leading Ella out of the room. Today she would return to Tara, and she felt the smallest excitement swell in her chest.
The familiar company of the county was a welcome change from the cold shoulder of Atlanta. Many of the county families had heard of all of her great misdeeds, but what did what she had done in Atlanta matter to them? Was her father not the same bull headed Irishman who had won Tara in a poker game and brought shine to it through hard work. She was an O'Hara for all the genteel raising of Ellen. Had she not sent more than enough money in the past few years to quietly assist them all in some way? No, they could not fault the former belle of their county for saving her own hide, and by extension the hide of her family and neighbors as well. They'd known her from infancy, and they'd known that city people could be queer about things like survival. The county knew what it was to take hold through hard times, wasn't their continued existence testament to the hardiness of their county people? They welcomed Scarlett home, and they were sad for the loss of Melanie, but for all her greatness and kindness, they'd known that this new world was not for the weak. But they worried for the willful girl who'd gone away and come back a pale, sad woman for the second time in the span of two years. The city would not break her, they vowed to remind her of her hardy roots. It was Mrs. Tarleton who'd coaxed Scarlett into taking a horse, despite what the beasts had taken from her. In only a month she had regained her color and her spirit with the overwhelming acceptance of the county. It was then that she'd lost her Mammy. A hard loss for Scarlett to bear, but she had promised to take care of herself so her Mammy could rest, and she did as she promised.
She rode about the fields of Tara and again her heart sank as the wilderness encroaching on the lands her father had worked so hard to civilize. The tiny pines were constant reminders of the work that was part and parcel of being a planter. Despite the work, she was happy to be free from prying eyes and people who had already made their mind up about her. She was safe at Tara and the among the people who knew her.
Will and Sue were polite about her staying, as they were both Southerners and hospitality was still of utmost importance. They also knew that despite what they did with Tara, it was Scarlett who paid for their relatively cushioned lives. Scarlet was given free reign and she determined to make Tara shine. Grandma Fontaine's words about Tara never coming back ringing in her ears. Will was dispatched to Atlanta once a month to mind her business affairs but she had not wondered two figs about the people and the city. She had set it up with Henry that a fund was set up for Beau, and Will always brought back information on the boy when he went to Atlanta. It seemed that he was doing well in spite of all that had happened. Will was also able to keep up with Ashley, and relayed the news that he was surviving as a mill owner, although he hadn't done as well as Scarlett, he was turning a profit.
Scarlet had not heard from Rhett since that awful night. Upon his return from his second visit to Atlanta on her behalf, Will said that when he'd stopped in at the saloon while waiting for the train back home there had been talk that Captain Butler had been home for a short spell and departed without much fanfare. He'd kept the part about how odd it was that both Rhett Scarlett hadn't been back to Atlanta in such a long time. There had been a few unsavory things said after that, but Will had kept a level head, not wanting to cause a stir.
As time passed, he didn't need to be told that things were bad between Scarlett and her husband, the lack of contact had not gone unnoticed. Suellen didn't much care to think about it, she was quite busy with their daughters. And Will knew just how closely Scarlett was guarding this one topic. He'd raised the point with her when she'd been with them four months, and she had raged something fierce. The fire in her eyes had the whole household hiding that day. It was like the old days, but then Scarlett hadn't been seen for a week and Will knew the topic should never be broached again. No one dared mention the nightmares she seemed to experience either.
It was also during that spring that Scarlett had gotten it in her mind that they were going to beat back the wilderness if it killed her. She had heard about some mechanical contraption which would make it possible for them to run the acres of land without all the hands they had needed before the war. And she'd done it. She had spent freely, and they had a decent crew of men to do the labor. They were former field hands, who like Big Sam, remembered the O'Hara's. And they were paid handsome wages for remembering Scarlett's parents.
It had seemed like a dream that would never come to fruition when she'd started. But by the end of the season Will saw with his own eyes just what the will of Scarlett O'Hara wrought. They had planted all of the acres Tara had to offer and had sold enough to keep Tara running for the next several years, with still more in the barn that had been raised.
With some of the money from the cotton, Scarlett bought the land that had once belonged to the Wilkes. And she had plans to raise more cotton there next year. She spoke to Big Sam and he was able to recruit a crew who could be trusted. They were to build homes, put up fences, and clear the fields in preparation for the spring planting.
As order had been restored to the fields, so too was the house renovated. And by the middle of November, Scarlett had run out of projects on which she could personally oversee. Will knew she would need something to keep her occupied, she had only been there eleven months. Eleven months, and she had turned everything around. It was largely because of her own accumulated wealth, but she had also taken initiative to devise methods to work the land in innovative ways.
She had given him a plantation to run and a house to be proud of, but she was growing restless. He brought it up to Sue, and she said that it was how Scarlett had always been. She would get her way, no matter what God or anyone else had planned. Sue was glad Scarlett had turned her eye to the house and the fields, she would never have spoken about it but she too remembered the glory of their home before the War, and it had saddened her to have it fall into the state that it had, despite all of their work. But she did not share with Will that it she felt something inside Scarlett had been irrevocably changed by the succession of deaths that had happened. Scarlett had never loved anyone if she could help it, but she'd lost her daughter, Melly, and Mammy in the span of months. It was obviously hard on her, and the added absence of the man she'd taken for a husband who had known her true character but supported her anyway. Sue thought it was his loss she had felt most, but she did not want to ruin the peace they had developed. And Scarlett kept herself quite busy.
Where she had thought to force others to do their share of the work, she now pushed herself to carry the load on her own. She was often reading, which Sue had never known her to do, books about economics, mechanical contraptions, and other unladylike things. And she knew that Scarlett had continued to eat less and sleep less. She rather reminded her of mother in those days before the Yankees had come, so consumed with making the land produce. Gone was the spoiled sister she had known for so long, in her place a stranger who was determined to prove God and the naysayers wrong about Tara never being a plantation again.
While Scarlett focused on improving her beloved Tara, her children had playmates in the country. Children whose parents were Southerners as much as they were, not Scallywags or Yankees. And they were invited to every event, and welcomed warmly. They had free reign to roam about the hills that their mother loved. Their mother was still busy, but she seemed to be proud of them, for they had seemed to grow stronger away from the ever judgemental Atlanta. She'd also hired a governess, rather than have them learn from the Tarleton sisters. Sue was only too happy to have a governess for her children.
It was as the year began to draw to a close, and Christmas drew near that the telegram came. Will had seen the rider coming in as he was on his way back to the house. He'd been over to the other side of the land, seeing how the houses were coming along. He rode up and alighted his horse as fast as he could when he saw her sink onto the steps with little grace.. He asked, "What's wrong?"
She said nothing and handed him the telegram. It was from her husband, and read:
"Will be in Atlanta soon. Would like to speak about our situation."
He wondered about the extravagance of such a telegram, wouldn't a letter have conveyed the same message? But he looked to his sister-in-law, who looked quite shaken. Since that Spring day he hadn't spoken a word about the man. He had heard occasionally during his trips to Atlanta that Captain Butler came back to town just about every other month, but they knew Scarlett was not with him.
"Will you go?" he asked. He already knew she would go, he had seen her building up her resolve. She was a determined woman, and while Atlanta had tried to it's best to command her, she would not break entirely. She was not the same woman they had known, he had known since she welcomed them to their home after Mrs. Wilkes passed. They'd stoked the fire in her, and she was as vital as before but with this telegram the light had gone from her eyes again. It was then that he realized the telegram was purposeful as well. Her husband knew her, or had known her, and the telegram was meant to bait her into action.
"I'll save you the trip to Atlanta this month," she said.
In all the years of her marriage to Rhett, Will had never seen the man at Tara. It had never quite struck him as odd until now. He was known to be a man who travelled often as he had business in many places. Now it became clear to Will that Rhett regarded Tara as a safe haven for Scarlett, where not even he would venture. He was summoning her to the city, and Will wasn't sure he liked that.
"I don't mind going with you," Will said.
"Oh, it's probably best I go alone," Scarlett said, her voice having lost the odd quiver it had just moments before. "I'll do some shopping for presents. You worry about the fields being ready."
With that she left the veranda and could be heard calling for Prissy as she made her way to her room.
Atlanta had lost none of it's speed. In the country it was only her own breakneck pace that kept the drowsiness from settling into her bones. In Atlanta, the thrum of the city was alive and well. She wrangled a cab and made her way across town to her house. As she approached it, she realized that everyone had been correct in calling it a monstrosity. It would better serve a brothel than a family. Why hadn't she listened and made her home something which could persist for generations, as stately as Tara and the other old houses? She had spent many months putting Tara back together, attempting to match pieces and had come to understand her mother's timeless taste a little bit more.
Were she to have to put together her own home again, she's not sure she would be able to find suitable matches for many things. For the fashions had changed and what she'd ordered were not in high demand. Unlike the pieces that populated all of the great homes. The past two years had pushed a great many youthful ideas from her, and she was a little ashamed of her poor taste. Although given the choice, when she thought of what she would do given the same opportunities, she knew would likely have made the same decisions because that had been who she was.
She had brought Pork, Prissy, and Dilcey with her from Tara. Lou had been called for and charged with Beau's care after Pork and Prissy returned to Tara and Dilcey decided to go with them. They set about airing the house out and lighting fires in the home which had been all but abandoned. There were a few of the staff who had remained on, to care for the grounds and the horses and were glad to have their mistress in a state to order them readily. They knew Mister Rhett would be coming at some point, and there was likely to more fighting, but it sure was good to have their mistress at home.
Dilcey was charged with the cooking, and set off for the market to gather supplies. Scarlett set about unpacking, and made a list of things she would have to do while she was in Atlanta. She would have to call on Aunt Pittypat, today if possible, to let her know she had come to town. Tomorrow she would take care of business. She would see Uncle Henry about her business dealings and other matters, and then go by the store to see if the fine reports she had were to be believed. That would likely take up her entire day, and she still had to do the Christmas shopping. Sue had given her a list of things to buy as well. She left the list on her writing desk, and decided to take a tour of her house.
It was unsettling how little had changed. The house was exactly as she had left it, and it had been a year since she had been here. She had been away for much of the prior year as well. She walked from room to room and wondered at the state of everything. It would seem that at any minute her children would rush in and Melanie would follow, telling them not to run in the house. She went to the library, and picked out a book on the history of France, having some inclination to know more about events she'd heard her grandparents had endured. She read the same line several times without being able to recall what it was that she had read before she called for a coach. It was too much to be in the still home.
Aunt Pittypat was little changed from the last time Scarlett had seen her. She welcomed Scarlett into her home, appearing genuinely glad to see her. More surprising was India's welcome.
Pitty was only too happy to share the latest news from their friends. Scarlett had nearly laughed at the use of their. She knew she would not be welcomed in any of their homes. She was hoping to avoid being in Atlanta for more than a few days, and also to not incite any new gossip. However, it was all dependant on when Rhett chose to arrive but she knew she would leave before Christmas as she had promised she would be back by then with all of the shopping. India served tea, and then excused herself, which hadn't bothered Scarlett any. Scarlett listened as Pitty talked about the Merriweathers, Picards, and Meades. Life went on for Old Atlanta while Scarlett retreated to Tara. There were new marriages and babies born, and of course death. They carried on with their lives, despite the Yankees, Scallywags, and other riffraff.
Scarlett nearly fell out of her chair when India returned with her brother and nephew. Beau was all too happy to see her, and had run to embrace her. She still admired his warm affection and remembrance of her as brave Auntie Scarlett, despite her poor ability to tolerate children during his formative years. Ashley seemed relieved to see her as well. She had not thought to see them, lest the matrons say she returned and ran directly to Ashley. Beau talked excitedly about his own social life, and his plans to go to the Phillips Exeter Academy as soon as he was thirteen, so that he would be able to attend Harvard, as he had promised mother. While the adults in the room flinched at the mention of the Melly, he carried right on talking about what Scarlett had missed. In the warmness of his spirit, Scarlett saw his mother, and suddenly found herself fighting back tears.
While a year had flown by for Scarlett out in the country, she hadn't considered what a year meant for a child. He had grown so much. And while he looked like his father, it was in his nature that Scarlett saw his mother. As he spoke, it became clear where the adults had found their strength. This boy was the heart of this family at all of ten years old.
"Scarlett, won't you stay for supper?" Pitty said as they noted the time.
"I'm sorry Auntie, I should get home," Scarlett said. "I only wanted to let you know I'd arrived, and to catch up with you."
"Oh," Pitty said. Scarlett had been away so long, but life at Tara must suite her for she seemed to be well. Although it wasn't quite the same as before. There was something different about her that Pitty couldn't quite figure out.
"Will you be in town long?" India asked. She'd been almost cordial the entire visit, which perplexed Scarlett, but she'd met her with the same level of familiarity.
"I'll be back at Tara before Christmas. Will was too busy to make it to town this month, so I thought I would come to town to see to matters and was given many lists for shopping," Scarlett said.
Christmas was a week away, so her entire visit would amount to days. Not nearly long enough by most standards.
"Oh," India said. "I'd heard that he had been seen in town more often, but I hadn't realized..."
"Yes, he's taken it upon himself to come to town in my stead," Scarlett said. The clock marked the hour and Scarlett rose. "It's been so nice to catch up with you all, but I really have to get home."
Pitty embraced her with a fierceness that surprised Scarlett. And she'd taken her arm and walked her out of the room. She spoke in hushed tones about the money that Scarlett had begun to send to Pitty after the funeral. Scarlett had thought it would have been what Melly would have wanted, lest she be accused of leaving poor Aunt Pittypat destitute on top of everything else. From the parlor to the front porch, Pitty had found the gumption to thank her, and while the Wilkes followed them Pitty had ushered her out of the door before they'd had a chance to say their own goodbyes.
She rode with the carriage shades drawn. For once in her life she wanted to be left alone by the polite society of Atlanta. It was a relief to know that Auntie and the Wilkes seemed to be doing well, Melanie would be proud of how they had soldiered on without her. When the carriage stopped, more relief flooded her sense as she could take refuge in her monstrosity of a home. For now that had visited Auntie, everyone would know she was in Atlanta, which had been the purpose of her visit. But it was unexpected to see the Wilkes men, and to be tolerated by India. It was an altogether unsettling experience.
The dining room was lit, and the most delightful smells were emanating from the kitchen. She walked into the dining room and stopped dead in her tracks. For at the head of the table, sat Rhett. He'd arrived only hours after her, and her dedicated staff was hard at work making the place presentable. Pork had told him about Scarlett's departure to see Aunt Pitty, but she'd set Dilcey to making supper so he didn't suspect she would be out long. He decided then to wait in the dining room, where a great many of their conversation had taken place. He could have been knocked over with the lightest touch for the Scarlett who joined him at the table was a far cry from the one he had left.
"Hello Mrs. Butler, you're looking well," he said. Although it was a bit of a lie. She was thin, gone were the curves she had been so proud of for so much of her life. Her eyes which he'd always carried with him in his memories were a pale imitation of the bright dancing pair he'd known.
"Rhett," she said, voice a low whisper. He had surprised her, as intended.
"I understand you've been to see Miss Pittypat," Rhett said.
"Yes," Scarlett said as she sat at the opposite end. "I figured it would be best to let her know I was in town before anyone else could tell her."
"So considerate," he said.
Their plates were brought in and Scarlett hesitated to eat.
"Don't hold back on my account," Rhett said. He'd thought he would get a rise out of her before the end of the meal, but where his pet had eaten mountains of food, this woman picked up the silverware and carefully took small bites. she had barely touched her plate. Why hadn't anyone made her eat? Couldn't they see she was wasting away, surely Mammy would have been on her. He then had the awful thought that perhaps even her precious Mammy had departed this world as well. It would certainly explain her appearance.
"You're rather quiet this evening," Rhett commented after some time had passed in a silence that was far from comfortable.
"I," Scarlett started, but seem to find she had nothing to say really. A moment later, she asked, "Have you been well?"
"Yes I have, thank you," Rhett said, he watched her carefully. She sent her plate away. He was quite sure that this had been going on for quite some time and he would get to the bottom of it with Pork. He then picked up the conversation. "I've been travelling, but I've come back often enough to keep the rumors at bay, but it seems that you have no interest in keeping up appearances."
They had only been in each other's company for half an hour, and already they were at the dreaded topic. From the moment she had received Rhett's telegram, she knew that this was going to be discussed. She had spent the year going about her business, without touching his money, although her monthly allowance had continued to amass. Where she had spent on new dresses and other extravegencies from this fund before, she had not wanted to spend it. She also did not touch any of the money in his account, with which he gave her free reign for her innumerable improvements and extravegancies not covered by the monthly sum. Sitting here, in the same room, she knew it would be easier to never see him again than to rebuild any of their old friendship. What had he said, neither of them were patient enough to put it back together. It was still unfathomably sad, to know that this would be the end. Where she had once gone to him with her most trivial of affairs, she wondered about what was appropriate to share with him now.
"Tara has kept me busy," Scarlett said.
"I've heard talk that you are quite the industrialist, working the land with more machines than men," Rhett said.
It was vexing how he always seemed to know what she had been up to, while she had no idea where he was or what he did. She hadn't really bothered to care before, and this past year she had tried terribly hard to put him out of her mind entirely. The coldness of their last exchange had left her without hope of any real future. Try as she might, she had not come up with some miraculous method of making him fall in love with her once more. He had not come to her, or written her, despite knowing exactly where she was. It was proof enough that he had finally tired of her completely, had he not said that despite all his efforts he was unable to stay away before their marriage? From the moment she read the telegram, she had been resigned to the end of her marriage, and the end of her long friendship with Rhett.
"Yes, and next year we'll have twice the crop," Scarlett said. "I bought the old Wilkes' property, and I intend to make it produce."
"I hadn't heard that," Rhett said.
It was in that moment that Scarlett had a moment to observe him. He seemed to be the same rogue she had always known, only his disinterest was turned toward her. She knew how quickly he could turn from pleasant to a scoundrel. She hoped that this wouldn't take an unexpected turn, as so many of her conversations with him had over the years. She was determined to keep the conversation polite.
"The land was just sitting there, begging to be used," Scarlett said. "It was going back to wilderness, and I just couldn't stand by and let that happen."
"Of course not," Rhett said. "I'm sure you got it for almost nothing."
And for a moment it was like old times, when he'd listen to her ideas and give her honest feedback. But only for a moment, that was all Scarlett could handle. She knew what looking back did, and if there was going to be a divorce, she couldn't look back now.
"Yes, it was a surprisingly low amount," Scarlett said. She met his eyes, and his face was blank. She knew that it was time to discuss the matter at hand, she would have to try very hard to steady herself. "I suppose we should discuss our situation."
He surprised her. "I think we can save that conversation for tomorrow, or are you so eager to get back to your precious Tara?"
"Whatever suits you," Scarlett said. She didn't want to fight, this day had been tiresome enough already. "Well, goodnight."
And with that she left the dining room and went to her room. Prissy helped her undress and Scarlett was left with her thoughts. She put her lamp on low, she hadn't been able to sleep in the dark anymore. Not since she had run through the fog in the waking world. It made the line between reality and dreams too blurry.
She woke the next morning to a breakfast tray, the portions were laughably small, but Dilcey knew how little she ate most days. Eating no longer brought her the same pleasure. She ate enough to keep up her strength and no more. She ate, dressed and called for the carriage. She went directly to Uncle Henry's office, only to be met with an unfamiliar man. He was tall, and of middling build, and well dressed. His eyes were closer to honey than the chocolate of his hair. He was quite handsome, not that Scarlett noticed. She'd had enough of the foolishness of men to last a lifetime.
"Oh," she said as she walked in, and turned around to be sure she was in the right office. "Where is Uncle Henry?"
"He tends to arrive after eleven these days," he said. Then suddenly remembering his manners he stood, and introduced himself. "Thomas Hunter."
"Scarlett O'Hara, Butler," she added the Butler as an afterthought. She'd always been Scarlett O'Hara, regardless of who her husband was. And over the last year, she'd begun to think of herself as a separate entity from the Mrs. Butler who had made such a spectacle of everything.
"Mrs. Butler," he said. "How wonderful to finally meet you, I've heard so much about you. I was sure that no such woman existed and you were only a legend."
Scarlett blushed, how could he speak so freely? But she would not let his flattery win her over. "I don't know what you've heard, but it's likely all true."
He laughed. "A straight shooter, just as I was promised."
Scarlett looked at this man and his amusement. It had been a long while since she'd been in the company of handsome stranger, and one who was not put off by her conduct. "Well you certainly seem to know an awful lot about me, but I have no idea who you are, Mr. Hunter."
"Forgive me for forgetting my manners," he said. "I work for your Uncle. And he talks a great deal about you. Particularly after Mr. Benteen's visits."
Will had never mentioned this man, but it could be that Uncle Henry only met with Will and perhaps Will had never seen Mr. Hunter. Will had a standing appointment with Uncle Henry, and she knew they likely met away from prying eyes and ears. If India didn't know why Will was in town, perhaps the rest of the town didn't know either. And Will had been to Ashley's mill on the premise of ordering lumber for the many projects that had sprung up at Tara.
"I wouldn't have thought that I would be high on the list of things Uncle Henry talks about," Scarlett said.
"On the contrary, he's only too proud to talk about his spitfire niece," Thomas said. "Only in the strictest of confidence and in this office though."
That sounded more along the lines of the conduct she expected.
"Do let him know I stopped by, and that I would like to speak to him, at his earliest convenience," Scarlett said. She hadn't sat the entire conversation, and knew she should leave before anyone saw her. It would set tongues wagging she knew, Scarlett had come to town to talk to the handsome lawyer.
She made her way to the store, working herself up into a state of annoyance over his familiar attitude. She didn't know him from Adam but he had certainly seemed to know her. The nerve of Henry Hamilton.
The manager saw her and nearly fainted. He had been dealing expressly with Mr. Benteen, and occasionally Captain Butler, but he wasn't to mention Captain Butler's visits to anyone. To see Mrs. Butler herself after her long absence was a wondrous event. But the scowl she wore was enough for him to come to his senses.
"Mrs. Butler, it's been too long," he said.
"Indeed, Mr. Criley," she said.
John Criley had settled in Atlanta after the War. His family had lived in Tennessee for all of their history, but he'd wanted something different. He was selected for the job of manager after a long interview process. He had been warned that Mrs. Butler suffered no fools and had specific requirements for her store. Which he had taken lightly, as he'd worked in a stores for some time before and often the positions were described as having the highest of expectations but in reality as long as there was a profit they didn't care about particulars. He was proved quite wrong in his assumptions. In the short while she had been in Atlanta after his hiring, he had come to know her demanding standards and worked very diligently to not only meet but exceed her expectations as that was what he had agreed to when he was hired. It was quite surprising that she left him to his own devices for the past year, and only sent Mr. Benteen to check in on him every month. Of course, Captain Butler, who had been responsible for his hiring, was quite thorough in his own audits of the books and inventory during his visits.
"Shall we get started?" she asked.
"Of course," he said. He lead the way to the office, and when the clerk saw Mrs. Butler, he nearly tripped over his own feet and then hastened to make himself busy in straightening inventory. Criley left her to the ledgers, shutting the door behind him and joined the clerk in making the inventory more presentable. Although they always kept the inventory in excellent condition, for fear that she would walk in at any moment. They needed to be busy lest she think that a position could be eliminated.
Scarlett sat at the desk and went over the past year of ledgers. She had seen them, as they'd been copied and sent via Will for her to review. But she wanted to be sure what had been sent to her matched the actual ledgers. She was in the office for most of the day. When she finished her review of the ledgers, she went about the store and inspected the inventory and noted that it all looked well. Criley was a good manager, and she was glad that her store could run without intervention. She took her leave, and returned to Henry's office.
This time he was in the office.
"Scarlett, I'd heard you stopped by, come in and have a seat."
She went to the back office where Henry shut the door after she entered.
"You look well, I take it the country suits you."
"It does," Scarlett said. "I am in town to see about my affairs, Will was busy this month."
"Of course," Henry said. He'd long ago realized that Scarlett was an awful liar, but she'd kept herself out of the line of fire this year. And while he'd heard from Will just what she had been up to, he didn't see the need to raise the issue. He also did not see any reason to mention that he had heard last night was that Captain Butler had also arrived in Atlanta. The man had come to him several times over the past year, checking in on Mrs. Butler's affairs. He'd said that he knew Will came once a month, but he wanted to be sure everything was above board himself. Henry couldn't deny her husband access, but it seemed suspicious that he had taken interest in her affairs after letting her have free reign for so long. "Everything is still in order. You know I'd write to you if anything was amiss."
"And you know I like to know what is happening, good or bad," Scarlett said.
She looked beyond Henry, and he thought she looked like she had something to confess. If Scarlett was about to confess something, he knew he would have to steel himself, for it would likely be shocking.
She turned her focus back to him, and said, "I would like a divorce."
He had not expected that at all. It was well-known that she was back at Tara for the past year. It was also well-known that Captain Butler was not in Atlanta either, save for his weeklong visits wherein he appeared to check in on their businesses. Their relationship had been source of much speculation. Divorce had been the hot topic soon after Melanie's death. But when neither Butler was seen for months, the topic fell out of favor. There was renewed curiosity when Captain Butler returned to Atlanta the first time and seemed to be surprised to find his wife had not yet returned from Tara. Since then any time he came to town there was curiosity as to when, and if, Scarlett would return to Atlanta.
"Divorce, are you certain?" Henry asked. The man who had come in inquiring after his wife's investments didn't appear to believe a divorce was on the horizon.
"I will be honest with you," she said. "The night Melly died, he offered a divorce to me. I declined, and we've not communited until he sent a telegram which said we would discuss our situation. I believe he is here to ask for the divorce, and I'm going to give it to him."
He would never have suspected that they had drifted so far apart based on Rhett's interest and insistence on new investment which had seemed odd but he seemed to know what he was the right thing to do as the Panic had caused quite a bit of commotion economically, yet Scarlett continued to prosper. But it was clear that Scarlett had made up her mind. It wouldn't be difficult, there was enough evidence to support a divorce but, Henry couldn't bring himself to think to allow it. "Scarlett, think of what you're saying. Of what it will mean for your children and your family."
Scarlett looked up at him, and he was startled to see that there was no fight in her eyes for this subject. She had spent a great many time arguing with him in this very office. Those arguments were some of his best lawyering, and he'd been particularly proud of those wins. This woman was far from the Scarlett who had had fought him.
"I have thought of all of those things, Uncle Henry, and if this is what Rhett wants, it's what he should have," she said. "I have no desire to be a burden on anyone, least of all to man who never intended to marry."
"Scarlett," Henry said.
"I know it's distasteful, and I know it will only make things more difficult for me, but if you won't do it, I'll find someone else."
Henry considered this. Would he rather she seek out some other lawyer, someone who wouldn't protect the assets she had amassed? Someone who may take the case and leave her with nothing? It wouldn't be borne.
"I'll draw up the papers," Henry said. "But, be absolutely certain this is what you truly want."
Scarlett laughed. A tired, cynical laugh. "This is not what I want, but I have considered this for the past year, and I know that it is the only course."
With that she stood and left his office. He sank into his chair, this was the most unexpected information. He didn't know how she stood all that fell upon her shoulders. She seemed to have finally lost that last touch of childishness, and looked at the world in black in white. He would get the paperwork together, but it would take time. He hoped that they would come to their senses before he finished gathering the information.
It was almost supper time when she arrived at the Peachtree House. She removed her coat and hat and went to the dining room. Again her husband was there. She greeted him kindly and moved to take her place at the table.
"How's business?" he asked as she sat.
"Everything appears to be well managed," she said. "Criley has kept the books orderly and knows how to manage inventory."
"I believe you would have come to reign terror on him long before today if you'd suspected otherwise."
"How you do run on," she said. In the silence that followed, it occurred to her to broach a subject they hadn't broached in all of their polite interactions since her accident. "I don't think I've ever thanked you for looking after everything, while I was… ill."
"It was nothing," Rhett said.
Scarlett had no polite reply to that. It had been something, he knew how much her businesses meant to her, but he was dismissing it. It reminded her of the conversations she had reviewed over the past year, only now it was difficult to decide if he was genuinely disinterested or still protecting himself. Supper was served, and there was that odd silence that fell over them again. It made her appetite completely disappear yet again.
"I can't help but notice that your zeal for food appears to have vanished," Rhett said. He was pointedly looking at the paltry serving on her plate. She had only pushed the food around her plate at for the last five minutes.
"Fiddle-dee-dee, my zeal for food, I will remind you I never became fat like most wives," Scarlett said. She needn't hear him express concern over her health. "I suppose I should remark on your lack of drink if we're going to mention new habits."
She'd noticed last night that he hadn't had a drink with his dinner. Which she didn't think much of, until it was repeated tonight. An amused smile had begun to work it's way onto his features, but it faded quickly into the blank mask he was so adept at wearing.
"Mrs. Butler, can it be that you have become more aware of those around you?" he asked, there was just a hint of teasing in his voice.
"Oh hush," she said. He certainly seemed to be in a good mood tonight. She did not want to ruin it, but she knew that she would sooner or later. She could never seem to say the right thing to him. He was right though, she had taken more care to observe those around her in greater detail over the past year, particularly as they were the people who had weathered her stormy moods and still welcomed her home.
What she did not know, and could not have guessed, was that it was the honest need to learn who she had become that brought him here tonight. Last night, he recognized the hardness he had worked to remove had returned. Already in their conversation tonight he had noticed the same despondent reactions. While she said the words which had been so charming to him, and smiled, as she had always done, neither carried the same undertones as before their separation. Her retreat to the country was expected, the lack of fighting spirit was not. He had thought only of himself in his retreat, his own tiredness and heartbreak. He did not know the woman who sat before him, but he was certain he had played a part in the breaking of his former source of amusement. He resorted to their most argued topic in attempt to ruffle her feathers.
"The ever honorable Ashley Wilkes called today."
"Whatever for?" she asked. The tone she used had been formerly reserved for the polite inquiries required for social niceties, never for Ashley.
"Business affairs, he claimed."
Her brow furrowed and she said, "I have no business with him, aside from Beau's fund which I promised Melly, and is largely from what Ashley paid me for the mills."
So she still had a hand in the Wilkes' lives, and he it had been his own money used to back the boy in the end, though she did not know that. He thought there might have been an odd inflection in the way she said Mrs. Wilkes name, but he could not be certain. He had been curious about her actions this past year. While he could not humble himself enough to go to her, for it seemed she had not actually wanted him after all her talk of loving him, he was able to keep an eye on her accounts. Prior to their separation, she had spent his money freely, and that was her right as they'd discussed when she'd agreed to marry him. It was early in the year that he'd noticed that she hadn't spent any of his ill gotten gains of late.
He returned to Atlanta, only find that she was still out of town. Arrangements had been made for the house, but she'd given no word on when she planned to return, and Mister Benteen had come by and picked up more of the children's things, was the report from the staff. He'd dismissed them and gone to Belle's. She heard a great many tale of his wife and seem to take a special pleasure in sharing what she'd heard about her. It was this cruel, jealous streak where it came to Scarlett that he could not stand. He left that night with the notion that he would finally sell his share and would not see Belle again, he found it difficult to continue to see her, after having told Scarlett about the reasons he had been with her. His selfishness had certainly cause a great deal of trouble.
He left the town that was so deeply associated with his wife, and returned to Charleston where he had been spending time with his mother. But it wasn't too long before he found himself back in Atlanta, ostensibly because of his business. Yet, Scarlett had not returned. He'd expected her to spend a few months at Tara, but it seemed now that she had deserted Atlanta entirely. It was difficult to understand what was keeping her away. There were times before when she had been genuinely afraid, but she'd conquered those fears and persisted. It hadn't occurred to him at that point that the people who'd pressed her to move past her fears had left her.
He went to Henry Hamilton,who grudgingly provided information on her affairs, which were all quite tidy. Profits being generated and money being invested properly. He went to Criley, who told him what he knew. Scarlett had ordered a great many things for Tara but it was all paid for immediately. In his investigation, Rhett had even gone so far as to visit Ashley, who seemed to have finally had to take hold of his lot and had been quite involved in the lumber business. It was an odd meeting, Rhett came under the pretense of introducing him to a man who needed a good supplier for his upcoming project. As Rhett was leaving, Ashley said he hoped Scarlett was well, and that it had been like he'd lost both Scarlett and Melanie on the same day. He was worried that she would never come back to Atlanta. Rhett still understood him, he too had played a part in the disappearance of Scarlett and wanted to know that this was not the straw that would break her. In the moment. Rhett was almost moved to strike him, but had recovered and said that he would pass along his sentiments to Mrs. Butler. He could only imagine the gossip that would have come over the town if he'd hit Mr. Wilkes.
It came to pass that he returned to Atlanta like clockwork, only to be told by the staff that they hadn't seen Miss Scarlett at all. It had been almost a year and she had never shown her face. Entirely unlike the willful girl he'd known. He'd sent that telegram knowing she would have to respond. She would not hide forever. But now that she had come away from her precious Tara, and without the vigor and spirit he'd been sure she would recover, he wondered if Tara wasn't the place for her to recover. Pork had shared that Mammy had brought Scarlett home from Atlanta after Melanie's funeral, and spent the next month forcing Scarlett to finish plates and folks had come visiting often. Mammy wanted to be sure Scarlett wasn't aiming to leave this Earth too early. When Mammy couldn't leave her bed, and everyone knew she was going to die, Scarlett had promised Mammy that she would live a long time and she would take care of everything. It'd came to pass that they were living with a Scarlett who had little time for anything other than cotton and renovations, try though they might to get her to eat and sleep more. Pork was quite tearful by the end, talking about how he'd failed the O'Hara's and Mammy, but no one could do anything for Miss Scarlett.
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Ashley Wilkes. Who had said that he wanted to talk about business. But for all his honor, he appeared to have gotten himself worked up about Scarlett. Certain that an apology was necessary, hadn't he been the most useless of her charity cases? Hadn't she carried his lot for far longer than she should have? The death of his wife and woken Ashley from his dreamlike state. He was forced to face the realities of his situation, and his family would either parish or go on based solely on whether or not he could manage to make a living on the mills which Scarlett had run so efficiently that she'd fed and clothed her large dependant family and had enough money to expand into other businesses. Rhett had never held anything but contempt for Ashley Wilkes, and today was no different. He hadn't said anything to Ashley, other than polite replies. Rhett let him say his piece and then showed him out. In his own careless way, Ashley had played his part in the creation of her current state. They both understood that, and it seemed to have cut Ashley rather deeply. Lost was their defiant, bullheaded girl in her place a perfect stranger who made them both uneasy, that much was clear. It was with great suspense that he waited for any of the usual espoutions about not being fit to speak his name now that he had said it.
But she said nothing further on the subject. He said, "Perhaps it was more than a business call and he was disappointed to find me at home."
For a split moment he saw the hint of a tantrum flash through her features. It was gone in an instant. "God's nightgown, how can you be so indecent? As though I have any interest in that, I'm quite content to grow old away from all of the prying eyes and old cats."
"You've decide to move to Tara then? You know I have no interest in a plantation."
She shifted in her chair and then said, "Well then, you'll be relieved to hear that I've decided that you were right, about the divorce. Broken pieces and all of that. I went to see Uncle Henry about it this afternoon."
He hadn't made his own mind up about a divorce. He had kept up his end of the bargain, coming to Atlanta. But she had retreated to Tara and the literal Yankee army had not been able to pluck her from the mud she cared so deeply for, he knew he had no chance of removing her before she was ready. Perhaps his telegram had been rather ominous. He'd only meant he wanted to stop this avoidance business and to discuss what the next year of their agreement would entail. He should have written a letter, but so quick was his departure from Charleston that a telegram was necessary. She appeared to be resolved, quite likely nothing he could say change her mind. He thought he would like to try. As hard as he'd tried to put her firmly in his past, to let the last feelings of pity and kindness fade to nothingness. Yet he still thought of her more often than he liked to admit. Hadn't his almost too frequent trips back been sign enough that he was an old fool?
"And what did your dear uncle have to say on the matter?"
"He disapproves of course, and I'm sure I'll hear about it from Aunt Pitty and my Aunts Eulalie and Pauline," Scarlett said. "I'll have made the final transition to family black sheep. I'm sure I'll have to go to Mexico or abroad to avoid shaming the family any further."
She had thought about what divorce meant, in great detail. Perhaps all of this fervor in making the land useful and letting Will handle her affairs wasn't entirely the actions of a woman who had been beaten by a society. Perhaps it was simply that she had finally stopped caring about wagging tongues because she had plotted an escape.
"Wouldn't you like to know what I think of the matter?" he asked.
"I assumed divorce was what you wanted," Scarlett said. "You hadn't written me a single word until your telegram."
"I would point out that you were capable of writing me letters as well."
Rhett thought he heard her mutter something about technicalities and horses but he soon distracted by her actual reply. "I did start a few letters, I wanted to tell you about the fields of cotton that reminded me of when I was young, and how the county was faring. I stopped when I realized that these weren't things I wanted polite replies about."
Her memory was damnable. She remembered every word he ever said, or so it seemed. There was no hiding from things he had spoken in anger or other extreme emotions.
"I wanted the Rhett who had listened and guided me through all of those formative business dealings," Scarlett said. "But all that you have is pity and kindness, and you know I can bear neither. I will not be a burden for you to bear or throw a tantrum, for I'm tired too."
He realized then that her temper had been conquered, to some extent. As he had done many a time, over the past year, he considered her life in the time that he had known her. A mother who loved her, for all her faults who died when she'd been seeking comfort. Leaving her with a family to care for, who looked to her for guidance. He'd never been in the same situation, he'd been his own man from a very young age with no one looking to him for food and shelter. Two dead husbands who hadn't cared for her beyond her batting eyelashes. She'd come through it all, and he knew he'd played a part in getting her to have fun. Even when they'd finally been married, she still had a great number of people looking to her for security. It was a small wonder that she turned to people who seemed to have considerably less worries than Old Atlanta. But when it came down to it, she was a Southerner. And not just any, she was a Clayton County Southerner who would do what needed to be done to survive. This current state was a state of survival, at the bare minimum.
She'd given her word many a time that she would look out for her family and others, and she was going to survive as long as they needed her, even if she no longer saw the fun in the world. She had mentioned growing old several times already tonight. He thought she would never succumb to age, but she seemed to be willing to let it be known that she old, at the ripe age of twenty nine. She'd prepared herself to be a pariah, for his benefit. This visit to Atlanta was her goodbye, the overwhelmingly sad look about her made sense.
"Perhaps the meaning of my telegram was misconstrued," he said. "As I'm sure you recall, I went to Charleston to make peace with my people."
"Well, there are a great many people who would like to meet the woman who made a leopard change his spots," he said.
It was true, his mother in particular was keen to know Scarlett better. Bonnie's funeral had been the first time they met. And they had not had much to say to one another. But since Rhett went home, his mother asked after her often, and wondered why she had yet to come visit with him. Through some means, she had discovered Scarlett was not in Atlanta. Rhett suspected Scarlett's aunts had played their part in sharing this knowledge. His motives for returning to Atlanta were questioned, he had always been dispatched with an invitation for Scarlett to return with him for his mother had told him that Charleston would be better for her health. After her discovery of his deception, he could no longer hide the state of his marriage.
He told his mother all of his secrets, much as he had confessed to Melly at least, and the night that he had last seen Scarlett. His mother had been scandalized about his behavior and Scarlett's, but she still did not let him rest until he told her everything that had passed between them. She chastised him for rubbing Scarlett's face in his relations with Belle, no wife should have to live with that knowledge. No matter what was said or done, if her husband any good breeding he should never have shared that information. She looked at Rhett with a stern eye and said that she knew he had been raised better than that. For leaving her to return to Charleston, and not bothering to go to her in the last year, she'd sent him away and told him he was not welcome unless he brought his wife with him.
Here sat his wife, offering to divorce him. Had he any sense, he would have listened to his mother and gone to Scarlett long before she'd taken it upon herself to forget him. Damn his pride and her strength in carrying whatever fate saw fit to place upon her shoulders.
"I couldn't do that, I couldn't go back to that city," she said. "I can barely stand to be in Atlanta."
He remembered her telling him about her time in Charleston. About her aunt's proclivity to stay behind the high walls of her home, and her other aunt's dark plantation in the swamp. The city was old, and set it in their ways, and she certainly had felt it in her young, restless heart. The same way he had before setting out on his own adventures. Would that she could see the game in winning over the old guard who turned their backs on them. She enjoyed knowing she had secretly had the upper hand, and she most certainly would have the upper hand as she had faced her fear of society and was fully prepared to turn her back on them once and for all.
"Well if you don't go to Charleston, I won't be welcomed back, and certainly not as a divorced man."
The change in her demeanor was almost instantaneous. Her farewell to society look was soon overcome by a look he knew to be dangerous. She was thinking of her own benefit. The overall feeling of anxiety that had overcome him since her quiet entrance yesterday disappeared. She might have been thin, apparently caused by her devotion to production if Pork was to be believed, but now that the threat of divorce was no longer hanging over her head her eyes had sparked to the fiery green he knew so well.
"I'll not go to Charleston, but I won't proceed with the divorce either," Scarlett said.
"I'm afraid I have to insist that you accompany on my next visit," Rhett said. "My mother won't receive me without you."
"Oh," she said.
He watched as her mind buzzed. He had always enjoyed the look that overcame her when she was calculating. She had been spending her own money with such speed that he knew whatever was happening at Tara was certain to be extensive. Never had he set foot on her hallowed grounds. He knew plantation life, hadn't his family had a plantation of their own before his father's pride let it go to taxes? He was sure Tara would hold little charm for him. However, now he was curious, he had seen what she could do with a bit of money and determination.
"I have to go back to Tara, I promised everyone I'd be back," Scarlett said. "And there's so much to do to get ready for spring planting."
"Come now, Scarlett, do you mean to tell me that Brother Will and Big Sam can't handle Tara, are they so ineffective?"
"It's not that they don't know what they're doing," Scarlett started.
'It's that they won't do it as efficiently as you," Rhett finished.
"Well, yes," Scarlett said.
"I know your efficiency, and have found no other who could match you," Rhett said. The compliment seemed to surprise her. "But I'm certain that you've bullied them enough this past year that they know what you expect. I know that people would rather turn tail than to disappoint you."
He was surprised at her lack of affront at being told she was a bully, but he supposed she had been told worse. There was also fear in her features. There were few times where she had truly been afraid, and this appeared to be one of them. Though what exactly she feared he could not say.
"If it's what you want, then I will do it," she said. "But I have to go back to Tara."
"I intend to present you to my mother as a Christmas surprise, although you will have to perk up," he said. For all her talk of being old Scarlett was still not of a great age. He was older than she was now when he'd first laid eyes on her, he'd had a great many adventures since. It seemed he would have to pull her back from yet another societal edge. "You'll have to eat more."
She looked as though just the thought pained her. Never had he known her to avoid food, especially once she had enough money to keep a good table. This change he did not understand. He was certain if she had made Tara produce bales and bales of cotton, surely there had been fields of food as well. Pork's tears at failing Mammy came to mind and he supposed if she did not want eat there was no one to make her. He recalled his youth, seeing wives on these great plantations who were too busy caring for everyone else to devote much time to themselves. It seemed that was what afflicted Scarlett, too busy to mind her appearance, she hadn't even bothered to put up a charade of vibrancy since she had arrived.
"I eat plenty," she said stubbornly.
"Not from what I've seen," he said. "And Dilcey seems to know not to bring you more than that. Has Tara not been well fed?"
Her eyes sparked with anger, he'd finally gotten the rise he'd wanted from her. There was still something with which to enrage her. He should have known to poke at the one thing she had always clung to while everything else fell away.
"There is plenty of food at Tara! We have stores of food," she said. "I suppose I've just been too distracted to spend much time thinking about eating."
"Well I'll do my best to remind you, I'm afraid you'll have to sew ruffles into your dresses soon."
Color rose to her cheeks and she narrowed her eyes at him. He could not help the laugh that escaped him, so much was she like the Scarlett before everything. Moved by spite and vanity to action she ate the morsels on her plate quickly and called for more.
After supper she did not retire her bedroom as she had done the prior evening. She was still sorting through the expectations that had come up over the meal.
Rhett wanted her to go to Charleston, not a divorce. She knew he had let him bait her into anger. To say that Tara was not able to produce enough to feed it's residents was not to be borne. Even if the land itself did not provide, wasn't she wealthy enough to go into Jonesboro and buy everything in that sad excuse for a store? His laughter had made her angrier still. For all her lofty aspiration to remain calm and polite in his presence, he had managed to make her angry. That was what had always happened, and she had been trying so hard to move in a new direction. It didn't seem that he didn't have the same inclination.
She could not help but wonder what new game he was playing. She had been prepared to meet the man who had left her without looking back a year ago, who said all he felt was kindness and pity. She did not think that either of those emotions would have called for him to bait her into anger. She supposed that he was telling the truth about needing her to sate Charleston's societal expectations, perhaps that meant they would have to have some semblance of their past selves. To have to go to Charleston, it galled her. It was old and stately and she had become used to going about the plantation as she pleased. Charleston meant confinement and social niceties that she had been ready to cast aside forever. But if it meant she got to have Rhett as a friendly ear, perhaps she could bear it. It was decided that the shopping would be done tomorrow and Dilcey and Pork would be sent home, and with the news that Scarlett was needed in Charleston.
As she considered just what she would do in Charleston, she recalled would have to make time to see Baby, although she would have to remember to call her Sister... she forgot the name she'd taken on since entering the convent. She would always be Baby to Scarlett.
It had occurred to her in spending so much time with Sue that her sisters were quite similar to her. Sue was willful, and had been trying to wheedle their father into taking thousands from the Yankee government. If that was not proof enough of their shared calculating mind, Scarlett didn't know what was. Baby had turned her back on the idea of being wife to anyone outside of their county boys, though technically she was married to God now. In deciding to go to the convent, she had bucked tradition in her own quiet way. They were spirited and would get what they wanted. She had watched Ella with her cousins, and thought that perhaps the O'Hara spirit would come to them as well. Sue was certainly taking great care to share the many teachings their own mother had shared with them.
Scarlett turned her focus to her book. She required the distraction to slow her thoughts. For the many ways that this visit could go had come to her. Innumerable scenarios had come unbidden. It was difficult to pinpoint just what was within the realm of possibility. Certainly she did not know what sort of woman Rhett's mother was for their only interaction had been in the sad days after Bonnie's death. What could she have been other than kind and supportive. She did not get along with other women, and she was sure Rhett's mother would find many things about her disappointing.
"I don't believe in all of our years of acquaintance I have ever seen you read anything other than account sheets and ledgers, and the occasional letter."
It was said with a certain amount of awe. Scarlett fought back a smug smile, she was capable of surprising him, even with the nearly fifteen years he'd known her. Heavens! Had it really been that long? He had been a part of nearly half her life.
"Is it really so shocking? I recall once you were proud of having a smart wife."
He laughed, not as uproariously as he had at dinner, but it was an amused chuckle. "I admit I have always admired the way you've managed to do well in business. But, your ability to recall a great many of our conversations is a great credit to your intelligence as well. What are you reading?"
She heard the "my pet" in her mind. The absence of his particular turn of phrase had not gone unnoticed. "Innocents Abroad, by that Twain fellow."
He smiled. "And are you enjoying it?"
"Yes," she said.
"Will wonders never cease," he said. "Well, don't let me disturb you. I only came as I thought the lamp had been left on by accident."
With that he left the doorway and she was alone with her book. She read a chapter, and felt quite ready for bed.
They left the next night at ten-thirty on the Atlanta-Augusta night train. Scarlett dreaded the trip, for it would take them an age to make the journey. She had not considered when she agreed that they would be spending the hours travelling in very close company. For the first leg of their trip, she was able to sleep for a large part of the journey, as they were on an overnight train which had sleeper cars. Their compartment was quiet and the rhythmic movement of the train across the tracks lulled her to sleep. She slept more than she had on any given day since before Rhett's departure.
They arrived in Augusta the next morning at the scheduled eight-fifteen, and were shuttled across the river to Hamburg, where the waiting train would take them the rest of the way to Charleston. It seemed rather rushed as there was only three quarters of an hour to get across the river and settled onto the next train. Once they departed, her time was spent reading, writing down notes to send to Will and Uncle Henry as thoughts occurred to her, and napping when all else failed. Rhett for his part teased her for reading, spent time with other passengers, brought her food, and also wrote also tried to impart onto her information she might find helpful once they arrived.
He had told his mother everything, hence the necessity for Scarlett's arrival. His sister had married and lived on a plantation. Her aunt Eulalie was a frequent visitor at the Butler house. He also spoke of the Charlestonian customs she might not be familiar with. But she was familiar, she remembered all those things that her aunt had told her when she arrived after Wade was born.
"I don't think anyone will want to while away their days with someone of my reputation," Scarlett said as they were within an hour of Charleston. "You might have had your spots changed, but my reputation is still in tatters."
"You're the daughter of Ellen Robillard, and will be under the roof of the Butler house, they'll have to receive you," Rhett said.
"If you recall, you shared with my aunts all of my unwomanly ways, they're likely to refuse to see me," Scarlett said. Though they had not reproached her after that letter, and still freely took her money each month.
"Oh but haven't you been reformed?" Rhett said. "I'm sure that your aunts are likely to let any new information be chalked up to misinformation, you did sell the mills and have a manager for the store now. I believe you lead your aunts to believe you were at Tara for your health?"
"Then you should not be worried. They'll of course wonder about why you didn't write ahead to let them know you were coming, but that's where the surprise for my mother comes in."
"I do hope your mother doesn't send me away."
"She's done nothing but ask after you while I've been here, and she cast me out with no hope of returning without you by my side. I'm certain she will receive you."
He always had a way of getting down to the important details quickly when necessary.
"But for how long," she thought. It seemed very important to Rhett that she make a good impression. It would be difficult, considering he had already told his mother about all of their troubles. Added with her history when it came to earning the approval of female matrons, it seemed to be a lost cause. "And how long will I stay in Charleston?"
"I should think at least a month, likely longer. You know how proper visits drag on."
Most surprising was his patience throughout the entire ordeal. As always, he seemed to think this was a game. Her return to polite society, in a wholly different city than the one that had been attempting to reform her for years. He had said as much, telling her to think of how fun it would be to know that they were all bound to this way of life and she only had to bear it for a short while. She could be pleasant and make nice. But as so many people had told her, she was a poor liar, so if she were to have any success, she would have to be faithful to the ideals.
For all that he spoke now on games and simplicity, she recalled a time when they had spoken about how others had come through with the cargo of their morals safely intact while she had thrown hers overboard. He'd said that jettisoned cargo was always irreparably damaged, which meant that her honor, virtue, and kindness would never recover. She had so very little regard for those qualities for such a long while, it did not seem that this was going to be a simple task.
While she'd been at Tara she thought of her mother often, realizing that she was fast approaching the age at which her mother had died. She remembered Ellen's words all the more clearly as she went about her work. She knew the values she had tried to instill, they were there, she would just have to place them above her own natural tendencies. She would win this game, she felt deeply that it was necessary, as it wasn't clear what would happen if she failed. Did divorce still linger? Or would her living at Tara be enough to keep the rest of the world out of her affairs? Perhaps she would have to go abroad, or out West after all.
They arrived in Charleston in the evening. The 140 miles between Hamburg and Charleston had taken them the an entire day to traverse. It had been 18 hours since they'd departed Atlanta, but Scarlett was sure it should have been a week at least. Rhett appeared to be familiar with the porter and the coach staff. Their luggage was unloaded quickly and a coach ready before anyone else. She felt the eyes of many people upon them and became uncertain of what to do with herself. What did they expect of her and was she to meet their expectations or only behave as a lady would? She would ask once they were in the carriage.
"Rhett," she said.
"Am I to be a lady, or the fool is cruel to who love her and puts practicality above all else? If you're mother does know everything that you've said, won't she expect me to be anything but a lady?"
His easygoing attitude disappeared and the air seemed to go out of the coach.
"Ah, I suppose we have avoided discussing the last significant conversation we had well enough, haven't we," he said after what seemed like hours but was surely only seconds.
"It's just, you've mentioned that people want to know what sort of woman got you to marry, and, well, if you were to marry a well bred lady, there were a great many available in any number of cities."
He laughed. Scarlett's bluntness amused him greatly, he had been wondering if she would ever bring it up or continue to be polite. She had cut it rather close for this conversation though, as they would be pulling up to his mother's home shortly. He too had anxiety about the meeting, and was also unsure of what to expect. Since his departure, his mother had never been particularly guarded in their conversations. Rather she seemed to take great pleasure in being able to say as she pleased in his presence. And she had had a great deal to say about Scarlett over the years.
"What takes you to Atlanta so often? It's not much more than mud and lumber, I don't know why a blockader has need to be so far inland. Could it be that someone has caught your eye at last?"
"In your travels to Atlanta, have you had come across a Scarlett O'Hara? Eulalie claims she's a willful girl, a credit to her mother and her mother's mother. Why, didn't you know Ellen Robillard was in love with her rogue cousin? And their mother was married three times. I don't know where that spirit is in Eulalie and Pauline. I do recall having been present when she was here after her husband died, there was such a fuss about her putting on an accent, but they would have done well to not talk so poorly of her father."
"I heard that you caused a scene by dancing with a certain young widow. I'm sure you had your reasons but you should be more careful with a girl's reputation, haven't you learned that lesson yet?"
"I don't know what your beloved upstart town is on about, but Eulalie was over here this afternoon telling me that she received a letter from a Mrs. Meade about some nonsense related to her niece running a store? Eulalie is certain that her new husband is completely useless, and so of course Scarlett is helping out. Who does this Mrs. Meade think she is, writing to Eulalie without any sort of introduction, really."
"So it was Scarlett that took you to Atlanta so often. I had some suspicion but when she married someone else, I thought perhaps I was wrong. And to think, Eulalie and Pauline's niece, She's only just lost her husband, and you appeared to have rushed in and swept her off her feet."
"Thank you for bringing Bonnie to visit, but where is your wife? I know you've gone to see Eulalie and Pauline, but a daughter should really be with her mother."
"I heard Scarlett's friend, who was so kind when I was in Atlanta, passed away. Were you not aware? I should think that you should be with her in her time of need."
"It is highly suspicious that your wife has yet to make an appearance. It's all the old hens can talk about. They think that there is marital trouble, and I'm starting to agree."
"Is your wife with child? I see no other reason why she should not be able to make the journey with you."
"Eulalie says that Scarlett is at Tara, and has been for months, and you lead me to believe that she was in Atlanta and that's why you went back so often."
"If Scarlett had brothers, I should think that you would have long been dead, if they'd known how poorly you've treated her. And I would be glad of it had I heard that this was what my son thought of as a marriage. You have toyed with her all of these years and I'd wager you never let her know you truly felt. It's cowardly Rhett, and I don't know how I can hold my head up knowing how you've abused her. The poor thing."
Scarlett was correct in that his mother would expect something aside from the run of the mill lady. However, he did not know how to impress upon her that not only did his mother not believe anything that came out of Atlanta, but had largely blamed Rhett for anything of too great impropriety.
"My mother will expect you to be willful, for it's what your aunts have described you as," he said. "And she believes a great many of the occasions where you behaved in any sort of scandalous way was my fault."
"Oh," she said.
"Yes, so be as willful as you like," he said. "And try not be too cruel about my behavior, I am certain my mother will be critical enough without your added judgement."
And with that, they had arrived.
Mrs. Butler was a tall woman, and quite stately. Scarlett could not recall whether she had noted Mrs. Butler's height when last they met but she marked it now. She welcomed Scarlett with excitement.
"Come, let me have a look at you," she said. "Tsk, you are so thin, which will make having children difficult. You'll have to eat more while you're here."
Scarlett smiled but was unsettled already. God's nightgown, she had only just arrived and Mrs. Butler was angling for more grandchildren. She looked to Rhett to see what he thought of his mother's suggestion but he was busy paying the coach fare.
"I had no idea you would be here so soon," she said. "Mary tell Cookie that they've come, I'm sure Rhett and his wife are starved after travelling."
She turned back to Scarlett and put her arm about her and walked her through the house. Scarlett did not have time to notice much about the room, or the house in general for Mrs. Butler moved them swiftly. She said, "Rhett tells me you've been at Tara. Is your family well?"
"Yes," Scarlett said. They'd reached the dining room and Mrs. Butler sat Scarlett at her left side of the head of the table, where she then took her seat.
"That's wonderful. You'll be able to have a nice long visit, I've so wanted to get to know you," Mrs. Butler said. "I know that my son is a scoundrel, but when I heard he married Ellen Robilliard's daughter I nearly fainted I was so surprised."
Scarlett recalled that Charleston folk were very keen on family history. Of course they would call it a match between the Butlers and the Robilliards, her father wasn't anyone of note. She was about to remark on that, but Mrs. Butler had already moved on.
"And when he told me how poorly he'd treated you, I cast him out and told him he was not welcome back until he apologized to you and brought you here to me," she said. "Had I known that he would be so quick about it, I would have made the threat sooner. But I had no idea he was such a poor husband until last week."
"Mother," Rhett said. "Perhaps Scarlett would like a moment to recover from our travels before we eat."
"Of course, what was I thinking. Go, go, my dear. Mary, help Mrs. Rhett prepare for supper. Be sure to come right back down dear, I'm sure the food will be ready quite soon," Mrs. Butler said.
Mrs. Butler assume they would be sharing a room, and even if Scarlett raised objection, she was almost certain Mrs. Butler would laugh the matter away and move on to some other topic. They hadn't shared a bedroom in years, and yet here they were in another improbable situation because of his mother. She certainly seemed to be a woman used to getting her way, and going about it in such a way that you don't quite realize you've already agreed, as Scarlett had just experienced.
Scarlett noted that her trunk had already been unpacked. My, the staff was quick, she'd barely had time to sit and so much had been done. She would be able to change out of her travelling clothes and into a more suitable dress. Mary was quick to help her to change and fearing that if she took too long Mrs. Butler would come to find her, Scarlett returned to the dining room.
Rhett and his mother appeared to have been having a pleasant enough conversation. She returned to the chair that Mrs. Butler had all but forced her into earlier. Mrs. Butler did not wait to speak, she truly seemed to think that there would not be enough time for all that she wanted to say.
"That is a lovely shade of green, it really does complement your eyes," she said. "I am certain that I have never seen eyes as particularly enchanting as yours, dear."
"Thank you, Mrs. Butler," Scarlett said. There was no telling what this woman would say. Was she so free with everyone? Scarlett could not recall what had passed between them in her visit with her Aunt's after Wade was born. And in Atlanta, they'd had very little to say to each other.
"She's so polite, Rhett," Mrs. Butler said. "For all that I'd heard about you young lady, I expected you to be quite the hellion. Perhaps I'll change my mind in time, but I don't see what all the fuss was about your behavior."
Scarlett had the good sense to be embarrassed. What had Mrs. Butler heard about her behavior? Was she speaking of Rhett shared? Had other people shared other gossip? For all that Rhett said she didn't believe it, Mrs. Butler seemed to know quite a lot. Had she heard about how she carried on with Ashley? How she did bookkeeping and sold lumber herself? For all that it didn't matter at the time, now considering that Mrs. Butler was judging her, she felt some shame. And while her own mother was altogether different from Mrs. Butler, she found that she felt the same worry as to what Mrs. Butler would think of her. It occurred to her then that for the first time in a very long while, she found she genuinely wanted someone to have a good opinion of her. For so long she'd thought of her mother in the abstract, as all of the goodness in the world, and how she had done less and less as the years went on to honor that goodness. But here was a living, breathing woman who Scarlett felt she should not embarrass publically or otherwise displease. She was not all the goodness in the world, but she was someone who had heard of her misdeeds and brushed over them without judgement.
"And quiet," Mrs. Butler continued. "I thought you were a willful girl who sassed a great many of the matrons in your newly materialized city. They wrote often enough."
Scarlett found that she could not come up with anything to say. For Mrs. Butler was quick witted and did not leave much time for a reply. She had spent so little time with anyone who would argue with her that Scarlett was out of practice. It then occurred to her that this felt very much like her old conversations with Rhett.
"Mother, I'm sure Scarlett will be much better company after some food and some rest. It has been a long journey."
"You should have had better sense than to drag her out here so quickly. I'm fairly certain all your good sense has left you, look at how thin she is, I'm afraid she'll blow away if there's more than a breeze."
"Mother, really," Rhett said.
"Mary, do check on the food," Mrs. Butler said, seeming to ignore Rhett's gentle chastisement completely. She then said, "As I was saying earlier, your sister invited me to her home for the traditional Christmas meal, although she did seem to think that it would be a great imposition for me to travel to her."
"It is nearly twenty miles," Rhett said.
"She will be glad to know that I'm staying here after all," Mrs. Butler said.
Mary at this point returned carrying a tray upon which sat three bowls.
"She-crab soup! What a treat, I'm glad that we have Hannay. She quite a good cook, she spoils us," Mrs. Butler said. "Don't mind me, I'll keep talking as long as there is breath left in my body."
And she did talk. About a great many things, never waiting for any sort of reply. Scarlett thought that perhaps her husband had been a man of few words and she was used to just talking, much like Gerald went on and Ellen had listened. She found that she was listening as there seemed to be a great deal that went on in Rhett's absence, despite only having been gone five days. She had been so consumed with listening to Mrs. Butler that she hadn't realized she'd finished her soup. Mrs. Butler requested another bowl for her in the same breath as she spoke of the family just down the way having decided to go to Savannah for the holiday to be with their kin down there. Scarlett was enjoying the soup, for it was delicious and not a something that they had at home. The Butlers were particular about food, but their particularities certainly made for delicious meals.
It was then that Mrs. Butler decided that Scarlett would rest, and she would do it in Charleston, despite some protest from Scarlett. But Mrs. Butler was determined to keep Scarlett for as long as possible. The people were still very much the same, they were still proud though many other states thought they should be punished for starting the war. Public money being spent unwisely was the topic of much gossip. To think that the Republicans would spend money so recklessly, and just after the Panic. It made Scarlett angry that money was wasted, and so she was happy to pass judgement on others. Mrs. Butler was clear that Scarlett was to do nothing but enjoy Charleston, and not worry about other matters. That was what her husband was for, wasn't it? Rhett had laughed and agreed. She allowed for correspondence with those at Tara and Uncle Henry, but kept Scarlett so involved in other activities that Scarlett often found she had only had time for a quick updates.
Her relationship with Rhett continued along the lines of polite friendship despite all Mrs. Butler's efforts to propel them beyond that line. They slept side by side and if Rhett went out at night, she did not notice. He did watch her with great curiosity as his mother recounted their days and praised Scarlett for a great many trivial things. He occasionally joined them on social calls but he seemed to be busy with other matters much of the time. When they were alone he talked about what the Panic had wrought, and how they were safe, as they'd always kept a considerable amount of money in gold, and the bonds would come through alright eventually. He'd spoken to Henry last year about adjusting her investments as well.
Eulalie and Pauline seemed pleased to have their niece in Charleston, and were frequent visitors. Scarlett suspected they were happy to have her where they could see her and keep an eye on her behavior. Though they had very little to worry about on that front, for Eleanor seemed have her well in hand. How she had done it, they didn't know, but it seemed that Scarlett was wholly devoted to her.
Scarlett respected her mother in law. She was a great lady, but she was not afraid as she'd known so many women to be. Of course, Mrs. Butler had the fortune of Rhett behind her, but Scarlett suspected she would have found a way to survive even if her husband continued to suffer for the cause. While she could not always hold her tongue, especially where others were talking such nonsense, she found that Mrs. Butler often agreed with her. It reminded her somewhat of Melly, who had often supported her. As she thought of Melly, she could not find herself to be as annoyed as she'd been in previous years. And Mrs. Butler fussed about her health that Scarlett felt perhaps that despite the Panic and the Yankees and Republicans that perhaps she could rest a while, Tara and had Will, her store had Criley, and Uncle Henry seemed to be able to manage most of her affairs. And there was Rhett, who stepped in occasionally.
She met Rhett's sister nearly a month after she'd arrived as Rosemary had been held back from returning to the city by her husband's illness, and then her own. Rosemary was also tall, and had dark hair like her brother. She was quite attractive and was older than Scarlett by nearly five years. She'd had another beaux, but he had died in the war, and she had married man who had two young children and needed a wife. He was considered quite the catch for he was from a good family and though older than her by ten years, was not fat or otherwise unattractive. Rosemary was not unkind, but she was not particularly welcoming of Scarlett either. Rosemary stayed for lunch and then returned to her home. Scarlett had not seen her since.
There were a great many people in Charleston, which Scarlett had not appreciated in her first visit. She still felt that it was all rather closed in, but a walk along the sea wall was usually enough to quell that feeling. The sea was vast and the landscape quite open. The Butler house several piazzas from which a person could go out and sit if so inclined. Scarlett found that she was inclined to sit on the highest piazza with a book if she wished to be left alone. But the great number of families and societies that Mrs. Butler entertained required Scarlett to be quite busy. Despite the overall poor economy, the people were pleasant, determined not to show the Yankees and Republicans that they were anything less that what they were before the war. She attended a great many musical, dinner party, dance, and even a masquerade ball given by some society or other.
Rhett continued to make trips related to business, and always made sure to stop in Atlanta and look over her matters as well. It was upon his return from his early April trip that Rhett decided to discuss their situation. He sought her out on the piazza.
"I do believe it is time for us to have another unpleasant conversation," Rhett said.
"Welcome back to Charleston, Captain Butler," she said, without looking up from the book. "Now do tell, what unpleasant topic must we discuss today."
"The matter of our marriage," Rhett said.
At this Scarlett put the book down and set it aside. "Perhaps we had better go to the room."
"A wise choice," Rhett said.
They went indoors and into the bedroom they had occupied for three months. Scarlett sat and looked expectantly at Rhett.
He shut the door and said, "Your Uncle Henry wishes to know if you would like to proceed with the divorce. He told me that he was still uncomfortable with the idea, and if there was to be a divorce, I should have a less active hand in your business affairs."
"Why on Earth would he speak on such things," Scarlett said.
"I believe he plans to retire, and leave the management of your affairs in the hands of his young partner, Mr. Hunter," Rhett said.
"Oh," Scarlett said. "Well he should have written to me."
"He said he's sent a few letters, but he was worried his meaning was missed, as he hadn't gotten a direct response about the situation," Rhett said.
"Your mother has kept me so busy I barely recall any of his letters," Scarlett said. She wanted to review them, but she had hidden them away so as not to have prying eyes know about all of her business dealings.
"Well, do you want to proceed? I'm also rather anxious to know your answer, as I believed that you were enjoying your time here and occupying my mother's time," Rhett said. "If that's not the case, then please speak up now."
There was some anger in his voice, which was the most he'd reacted to her in quite a long while. She had begun to look forward to their nightly talks, where she shared the things she wanted to say to people and he laughed quite a lot. Scarlett felt that they had become friends again, and it was almost like during the war when he would take her out. But he also seemed rather careful as he never made any advances in all of that time, always keeping things above board. It seemed that for all of their proclamations the night Melly died, neither one of them really knew what should happen next.
"I am enjoying myself," Scarlett said. "I do like your mother, she behaves as though I am her own daughter."
"She likes you a great deal," Rhett said. "She tells me that I should have brought you here sooner."
"I would have never have left Atlanta before," Scarlett said. She had felt so tied to the town, she hadn't realized the immensity of the outside world. So content was she with the town, and later, with Tara, that she had not considered a larger city could have anything to offer.
"Very true," Rhett said. "But, back to the matter at hand, what are we to do?"
"I haven't given Henry an answer, because we haven't ever gotten close to the topic of our marriage. We have a great deal of fun, but I have been lead to believe that you are no longer interested me as your wife," Scarlett said. "I've noted that you only refer to me as Mrs. Butler, or Scarlett, depending on the present company. And, you've not once tried to kiss me."
Scarlett was surprised to see shame flood his features. He sat beside her and took her hand and interlaced their fingers. He lifted their hands and kissed the back of hers.
"My dear, I have been so ashamed of my behavior. I have thought often of how awful that drunken night must have been for you, and for what I have done and said since. How could I be so cruel? You have often accused me of not being a gentleman, and I willingly acknowledged that, but I should never have been so crude."
Scarlett was still. She had put so much of that out of her mind. The drunken night, the fall, the entirety dismantling of their lives as they had known it. She knew he was not at fault, not entirely. Had she not been disloyal and thought of another man herself? Had she not been known to use cruel language as well?
She put her free hand over the back of the large one that still held hers, clasping them together. "You were not alone in acting shamefully. I am deserving of some blame. I have never been a good wife, that much we know. And you never wanted to be a husband."
"Scarlett," Rhett started.
"Allow me to express one last sentiment," she said. "I do believe we have always been good friends, you've always listened and given me honest advice. In our time here, I believe we have managed to revive that. I think that we do not need to divorce, unless you would like to marry someone else. I know that there are plenty of woman of marriageable who would be only too happy to have a husband, even one who has had a divorce."
"Can this eloquent, thoughtful woman be my Scarlett, my pet?" Rhett said. He drew her closer to him and she found herself pressed to his chest, still hard muscled and she felt herself nearly ready to burst into tears. For so long she had craved this particular comfort, now that she was in his arms she was overwhelmed. "I know you are still very much the girl who threw a vase at me the day we met, and I still care very much for her. But this side of you has been very bewitching. I have never been so thoroughly entrapped by any other woman."
He looked down at her, and she saw that deep searching look she had seen so often in their time together. She could not wait a moment longer, and stretched to kiss him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he leaned into the kiss. It ignited all of those feelings she had always enjoyed when she was with him, excitement, dangerousness, and a feeling that there was something wicked in what they were doing.
When they broke apart, he was staring at her with wonderment and amusement. "Why, Mrs. Butler."
Scarlett laughed, it was so incredibly wonderful to finally know that they were speaking plainly, and that they were in agreement for once in their lives.
AN: Last week I re-read the book, and my heart broke. Thus this fic was born to help me with my feels and to mend my broken heart. I hope I've not veered too far off into the weeds. It was fun to dig into some of the history, I'm actually expecting a few books on Charleston, and now have a subscription to a newspaper archives site. But as I wrote this last scene I felt at peace, and thought that was the natural end. I may come back and tweak a few things once the books come in, and I might write other scenes in the future and add them here. But for now, this is it. Thanks for reading.
If you happen to follow my other story, Another Time, Another Place. Know that I tried to pick it up when this mood struck me, but I found I wanted to make a great many adjustments to the story after my re-read. So it got shelved again but know that it's not forgotten.