As always, for Dani...
In the days following their disaster during the storm; Rhett remained at Scarlett's bedside; just waiting. She was so pale that there was little difference between her complexion and the unbleached, cotton sheets she slept on. He wanted her to open her eyes and say something, anything; even if she laid full blame at his feet for their near drowning.
In addition to the bruises and abrasions on her legs from coming ashore, Scarlett also had a terrible cough and a fever that seemingly rose and fell continually. It hurt him in an almost physical way to watch her body arch up in her bed as coughing fits wracked her slim frame. He held her hand tightly as though he could somehow absorb her pain. He knew that he couldn't, but if she drew any measure of comfort from her hand in his, then he'd continue to do so until she awoke and told him differently.
Initially, during the first night as she'd tossed and turned and called for her mother, he'd thought she might die and so he prayed as he had never prayed before. His mother and sister urged him to come home and rest, someone could send for him if she awoke. How could he rest if he wasn't by her side, all he'd do was pace and worry about her? So Rhett sat by her bedside in the hospital ward of the fort, simply waiting for her to wake up from the drug induced state of unconsciousness that the doctors had assured him was necessary.
For three days, he watched over her and prayed. Then, on the third day of her convalescence, the doctors overseeing Scarlett's recovery discontinued giving her laudanum and aproic. For several hours, she tossed and turned, struggling against the narcotics in her system, but finally her pale green eyes opened. She looked at him and in her eyes; he could see that she remembered every word he'd said to her in the cabin where they had sought shelter and none of the words of passion that had poured from his lips as he'd made love to her in the shallow shelter of the sandy cove.
To give credit where credit was due, she never complained. In actuality, she barely spoke to him once she regained consciousness. He tried to tell her that she would be all right, that as soon as she had a clean bill of health, he would take her home. The word home, he belatedly realized, was objective since she was supposed to leave his mother's house by the second week in April, but he just wanted to see that spark come back into her eyes.
When she was happy or in the midst of a scheme, Scarlett's eyes glowed like emeralds in a shop window. Now they were flat and held a disturbing note of wait and see.
On the third evening, once Scarlett slipped into a drugless slumber, Doctor Mossy the doctor who'd been attending Scarlett asked to have a moment alone with Rhett before he turned in for the evening. Rhett acquiesced after making sure a nurse would watch Scarlett.
Directed by a nurse, he made his way outside to join Doctor Mossy on the wide stone steps leading into the hospital.
"Cigarillo?" Doctor Mossy inquired pleasantly, extending a battered leather case.
Rhett shook his head.
"Obviously, I didn't just ask you out here for a smoke. Mr. Butler, I'd like to be frank with you about your wife's condition." Doctor Mossy took a long, full drag on his cigarillo before continuing. "Her fever, while bothersome, will eventually run its course in about a week, possibly two
"There's more though, isn't there?"
"It's her lack of mobility that concerns me. While you suffered few, if any, adverse affects from the time you spent in the ocean, Mrs. Butler was not so lucky. She is of a much smaller stature than you so the effects of the water were particularly detrimental to her health. While the temperature of the ocean wasn't cold enough to promote a full case of hypothermia, Mrs. Butler had an abnormally low body temperature for an extended period of time." Doctor Mossy took one last drag of his cigarillo before disposing of the end of it into the shrubbery framing the steps.
Rhett took advantage of the pause in the doctor's explanation to ask, "But she's going to be alright? She's awake now and she hasn't said…"
"Mr. Butler please, let me finish, when the human body becomes extraordinarily cold, all the systems begin to slow down, including the circulatory system. In Mrs. Butler's case, this has led to a lose of mobility."
The doctor's words penetrated his brain at last. Horror dawned on his face. "My God, is Scarlett…"
Doctor Mossy, anticipating the remainder of Rhett's question quickly sought to put his mind at ease. "Paralyzed? No, at least, not permanently. At present, she's lost a great deal of sensitivity in her feet, which will make it difficult for her to stand unaided for an extended period of time. Eventually she will regain most, if not all, the feeling in her legs and feet. Mrs. Butler will most likely experience some stiffness and muscle cramps as the circulation returns and she regains mobility."
"How long till Scarlet makes a full recovery?"
"At this time Mr. Butler, I could not hazard a guess. I would not want to give you an incorrect timeline. Someday perhaps the medical community will have a wealth of information at it's disposal when it comes to various forms of paralysis, but for now, I can only say that the more rest and care she receives, the sooner she'll recover."
Finally, four days after the boat capsized, the doctor at the fort considered her condition stable enough to allow Rhett to remove her to his mother's home. Her cold hadn't improved and so he'd brought the furs he'd denied her throughout the season. Doctor Mossy had insisted on sending a nurse to accompany the Butler's over on the ferry pointing out that she could then bring back the wheelchair that Scarlett reluctantly allowed herself to be placed in. A shadow of the strong, resilient Scarlett Rhett had always known appeared at the sight of the wheel chair…
"I will not sit in that contraption," Scarlett told Doctor Mossy, "my husband will help me onto the ferry and then…"
"Mrs. Butler, do you wish to get better?" Doctor Mossy asked; ignoring the hostile glare Scarlett was regarding him with.
"Then do as I tell you, it's just until you reach the battery. After that, Mr. Butler can carry you or, if you feel up to it, you could attempt to walk."
Doctor Mossy caught Rhett's attention over Scarlett's head with a pointed look. Rhett understood immediately. He was only adding the comment about walking to mollify Scarlett; it would be a long time before she felt strong enough to walk on her own
Reluctantly, Scarlett allowed Rhett to lift her from the chair she'd been sitting in. As he lowered her into the wheelchair, she frowned slightly, wrinkling her upper brow.
Rhett leaned forward to whisper in her ear, "When I was but a lad, my mammy told me to be careful making faces, they might stick that way." His quip was rewarded with the barest ghost of a smile. It was faint, but it was a smile.
"Mammy told me the same thing. Once, I stuck my tongue out in front of my mother's vanity mirror for nearly three quarters of an hour to see if it would."
"From the lovely visage before me, I see that it didn't."
Scarlett smiled again. "Mammy was bound to be wrong at least once in her life."
"As inconceivable as that sounds," replied Rhett.
Nodding, she continued to settle herself in the wheelchair.
By the time they were on the ferry, her earlier smiles had faded away.
She was so still and quiet on the ride over that Rhett found himself leaning over to ask her if she was comfortable if for no other reason than to instigate a brief conversation.
"I hate sitting in this chair," she said, never taking her eyes off the battery as the ferry made its final approach.
"I'm sure, but it's only a precaution. When we reach the mainland you'll never see it again," he said amicably.
She didn't answer and he tried not to worry, after all, soon she'd be gone from his life forever. It wasn't likely that she'd be leaving on the agreed upon date, but once she'd recovered, then she would leave him. She'd no longer be his to worry about. He smiled ruefully, how could he not worry about her; he'd done it for so long now that it was second nature.
Wild horses would never drag it out of him but after he'd left her in the house in Atlanta, he didn't take the first train to Charleston. He sat through the boarding on to that train and had to buy a second ticket. Scarlett was in his blood and he felt divided on whether leaving her was the thing to do. She told him the words he'd waited so long to hear and then he'd told her those words no longer mattered. Certainly that was a lie, he'd carry those words tattooed on his heart forever
After giving the nurse a tip so generous that she told him not once, but three times to send for her if his wife needed a nurse, he asked Scarlett if she felt well enough to walk to the carriage he'd retained the services of. He asked more as a courtesy than an expectation assuming she'd decline and he would carry her, but Scarlett surprised him once again.
She tried to stand but her knees buckled. If it hadn't been for his hand on the small of her back, she would have collapsed back into the wheelchair.
Flushing a dull brick red, Scarlett wouldn't look up to meet his quizzing gaze.
"You can't stand, can you?" His voice was gentle, but she flinched as if he'd screamed.
"I can stand," she replied, her voice catching, not meeting his eyes.
He didn't let her attempt to stand again; he simply swung her up into his arms and carried her to the carriage. They rode in silence for the ten minutes it took to reach the house and he was once again left to try and ignore his treacherous heart as it entreated him to tell Scarlett they could try again.
"e's hea Cap'n Butler," said driver.
"Ready?" Rhett asked pleasantly.
"Yes," she replied, stiffly.
He thought that she looked a little better but when he lifted her from the carriage, she cried out hoarsely. Her face turned white with pain and her jaw clenched, causing the skin to draw taunt across her face.
"Scarlett," the alarm he felt came through in his voice, "what is it, did I hurt you?"
"Please, don't worry about me, I just need to rest for a while," she told him, her voice still hoarse from the pain that just ripped through her.
He only replied with a terse "Fine." Not willing to further agitate her by arguing, he readjusted her in his arms, carrying her upstairs to her bedroom. He placed her carefully on the bench in front of the vanity thinking she'd be fine. He intended to only leave her there for a moment while he turned down the bedclothes; instead, she swayed forward and let out a small, choked gasp.
The look of agony on her face was almost enough to wring from his lips the words that he'd spoken to her as they made love on the beach. He wanted to tell her how grateful he was that she survived. He wanted to confess that the love he felt for her for so many years wasn't truly dead, how indeed having come so close to losing her, he'd realized how empty life would become without her.
In lieu of the words that he wanted to say, but didn't dare, he wrapped his arms around her waist to steady her. "I'm going to send for Doctor Bastin, he's our family physician. I want him to examine you."
"The doctor at the Fort said I was just suffering from exhaustion and exposure. On top of that, I have a cold. But I'll keep our deal, don't you fret. I'll leave Charleston in a few weeks, just as we agreed."
He was momentarily taken aback. Her leaving Charleston was the very last thing on his mind. "Don't be ridiculous," he snapped, "how could you think you'd be able to travel in the condition you're in?"
She put her hand against his chest to steady herself, she was becoming so agitated that she was unaware she was even touching him. "I have Pansy and by the end of the week I expect I'll be just fine. Maybe I'll leave then, no use prolonging the inevitable," she added with false bravado.
"You heard what Doctor Mossy said, you'll recover when you recover," he snapped, "I won't have you exacerbating your condition. You won't be happy till you're flat on your back, burning with fever coughing your pretty little head off. You'll stay here until you are well enough to travel without endangering your health."
Without giving her a chance to reply, he lifted her up and gently laid her on the bed. For once, she didn't continue to argue, she simply sighed, leaning back into the pillows.
Reaching down he removed her thin kid slippers. To his amusement, he noticed that one of the insteps of the slippers had at one point been badly scuffed. Someone, at Scarlett's insistence most likely, had rubbed Indian ink into the scuff to hide it.
Even with over a hundred pairs of slippers, shoes, boots and other assorted pieces of footwear in her closet; Scarlett couldn't bear to get rid of shoes just because they were a little scuffed. Actually, her shoes could be falling to pieces and though she might stop wearing them, they would end up carefully stashed away in the back of her closet in their house in Atlanta.
Once, years ago, when Scarlett was carrying Bonnie, she'd asked him to find her a pair of bedroom slippers. He could almost see in his mind how she was by then. Her stomach was so large that she could no longer bend forward with any degree of ease. She must have been in the last few weeks of her pregnancy. She was so miserable by that time he didn't tease her about being too lazy to do it herself. He just complied without so much as a word.
It had been ages since he'd seen the inside of her dressing room and it's interior closet. The previous year when he'd been consulting with the crew building the house the master builder had suggested the closet as one of the latest innovations in house building and Rhett, thinking Scarlett would enjoy having one, readily agreed. Looking at the mess inside, he wasn't so sure he made the right decision. The closet was in an overall state of textile based chaos.
"She hasn't thrown out a single thing since we've been married," he muttered to himself, as he surveyed the utter mess in the closet. Finally, he located a pair of satin bedroom slippers that he vaguely recalled having bought for her in New Orleans. He returned to the bedroom to find her reclining on the divan couch in their bedroom in an attempt to make her self more comfortable.
"Here, allow me." He bent forward and cupped her dainty foot in his large, slightly calloused hand. Sliding on each slipper, he carefully avoided the urge to run his hand up her leg toward her inner thigh. The gesture would not be welcome and he didn't feel like being rebuffed yet again.
"Thank you," she murmured softly, before closing her eyes.
"I believe tomorrow I'll ask Mammy to enlist the help of some of the maids. Your closet and dressing room are in dire need of being sorted out. Anything that's worn out or you are no longer fond of, Miss Melanie can distribute to the deserving poor."
Her eyes snapped open; her eyes burning with barely concealed anger. "No, don't you dare." Her cheeks colored with anger.
"Surely you aren't so mercenary as to deny those in need your castoffs," he asked sarcastically.
She ignored his rebuke. "I don't have anything that you can distribute to anyone."
Rhett sat down in the wingback leather chair across from her and lit a cigar. "Scarlett, be something like reasonable. You have pairs of dancing slippers with holes worn clean through the soles. Those aren't fit for the feet of a Butler. They aren't fit for anything but the rubbish heap."
Scarlett struggled to sit up. Her chest was heaving with what Rhett thought was anger but upon closer inspection, he knew that something was wrong. Suddenly, without a word, she burst into tears.
He ground out his cigar in an ash dish and sat next to her on the divan. Wrapping her in his arms, he smiled into her hair. She was pregnant and obviously, her emotions were running away with her. That was the only explanation he could think of for her tears. "Darling, what is it?" Receiving no answer, he made another attempt to draw her out. "I swear whatever you dispose of, I'll buy you two to make up for its loss."
She draped her arms around his neck. "It isn't that, really," she said sniffing, "I just find it impossible to throw away anything that looks like it has the least bit of wear left in it. During the war, but especially after, I would have been delighted to have a pair of slippers that only had the heels worn out. The slippers that I wore when I came to see you in jail were lined with carpet from my mother's office." The soft, ladylike sniffs became hiccups, then shudders, then finally silence as she snuggled in his arms.
"Scarlett, look at me," Rhett told her, his voice oddly gentle. She did reluctantly, her eyes still slightly wet with tears. "Even if I have to rob banks or become a highway man, I will always see that you're taken care of. You know that, don't you?"
She nodded and then, in a rare display of affection, she strained forward and kissed him. It had been so long since they'd exchanged more than a distracted good night kiss that he groaned gently against her mouth and held her even tighter as she pulled him closer. Lifting her up in his arms and carried her to their bed where they…
"Thank you," she murmured, extending her toes languidly.
She startled him out of his reflections, "You're welcome."
The drugs that she'd been given just before they'd left Fort McHenry must have finally begun to take effect. "I don't feel very well," she said, her words slurring slightly.
Rhett pulled a chair along the side of the bed; despite his initial resolve to keep his distance during her recovery, he couldn't leave her when she was suffering. "It's little wonder you don't feel well, after all I promised you a day of sailing and instead you were half frozen and very nearly drowned."
Scarlett struggled against the drugged sleep she was helplessly slipping into. "Not your fault, it was a storm, couldn't be helped.
He felt ridiculous arguing with a heavy sedated woman but he felt complied to take responsibility for their near miss. "I was the captain on dozens of voyages during the blockades. I've sailed on the Atlantic longer than you've drawn breath. I missed all the signs of a coming squall because I was too busy…"
The sound of her even breathing, slow and steady, silenced his outpouring of guilt. She was in a sleep so deep it was closer to a state of unconsciousness than it was slumber.
What had he been too busy doing? He had been studying Scarlett, trying to complete a storehouse of memories, enough to last him the rest of his life. He watched the sheer excitement she felt at the wonders of sailing light up her face till it appeared to glow from within.
He'd planned on leaving the day after tomorrow on the first train to New York to see some former business partners. As soon as he knew she was packing to depart for Atlanta, he had planned on leaving before he became seduced by her charms all over again. Now that she was back in his mother's home it was clear to him that she simply was not well enough for him to leave her. Suppose she should need him and he were far away, suppose she was ill and called for him? How could he stand that guilt, he couldn't.
His mother whispered from the doorway. "Rhett?"
He tucked the loose covers around Scarlett and with one last glance; he left to join his mother in the hall.
"Your sister and I went to Fort McHenry to help bring Scarlett home, but the charge nurse said you'd left nearly an hour before we arrived." She looked at his tired face and reached up to lay her hand on his cheek. "Is something the matter darling?"
"She's just so weak and I don't know, perhaps a bit helpless. I'm not use to seeing her at a disadvantage."
"She'll be fine in no time. I've had Carlen make you up a tray; it's in the library. Why don't you come downstairs and eat. Don't forget, you were hurt as well."
"Mother, Scarlett's in pain," he admitted, "I know that she is, but she won't tell me anything. She's barely spoken a word to me in the last few days."
"Do you think she's angry with you about the accident?" Eleanor asked.
"No, I think she's in a great deal of pain but she's determined to honor the bargain we made about her leaving once the season ended." He was so lost in his thoughts about Scarlett's condition that the words were past his lips before he could stop himself.
"Bargain? What do you mean?"
"Nothing, forgive me for rambling. I'm tired and honestly, I'm not thinking very clearly."
His mother took his arm. "Come downstairs and eat, then you can lie down. I don't suppose Scarlett will be awake any time soon and if you wish, I'll ask Rosemary to sit with her."
"That sounds fine, " he leaned down and kissed his mother's cheek.
Together mother and son descended the stairs each lost in their own thoughts regarding the sleeping woman they were both so worried about.