A What If? Of "Separate Bedrooms"
She would miss the long amusing conversations in bed with Rhett when the ember of his cigar glowed in the dark. She would miss the comfort of his arms when she woke terrified from dreams that she was running through cold mist. Suddenly she felt very unhappy and leaning her head on the arm of the chair, she cried. –Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind
As the tedious first nights alone turned into weeks alone, visions of her husband enjoying other women's beds forced their way into her restless mind. Meanwhile her own bed was considerably empty and so very cold- much like his demeanor towards her. He spoke to her very little, and ceased to quarrel with her- except when he laughed with pleasure at her stupidity. He never came home except to tuck Bonnie in to sleep. Supper waited for him on the table and was thrown out nightly, uneaten. Rhett's frequent absence worried the children and made Scarlett ill with agony. At night she lay awake long after the lamps were extinguished, waiting until she faintly heard the door slam and listening to his footsteps as he entered his bedroom. Not once had he come to her! Scarlett couldn't help but hold her breath in hope that he would come softly to her door, but his footsteps never lingered except at the door of the nursery.
She hated herself for missing him so, and hated him more for refusing to buckle. She did not care to know what he did on his nightly escapades. All she knew was that she wanted him back so badly she wept- and if he knew, he would laugh.
Belle was not familiar with the homes of her clients. They came to her saloon, they paid her money, and they went home to their wives. Questions were never asked. Men were never eager to speak of their wives in a whorehouse. Perhaps, Belle pondered, to keep the reality of their secret (and sometimes not so secret) lives in the back of their brains. But generally, Belle never thought of her clients on her own time. She had a business to run.
Rhett Butler was another story, a story that haunted her best dreams. She very often wondered, and Rhett very often told her, what life was like in the house on Peachtree Street. He spoke seldom of the children, but vividly and uninhibitedly of his wife. It made Belle blush to hear such private thoughts and exchanges of a married couple! Sometimes when he spoke of Scarlett, Belle allowed herself to imagine that she was Rhett Butler's wife, that she was the one to carry on lazy conversations with him whenever she pleased, and not just when he entered her business.
As often as she thought of Rhett when she was alone, she thought of Scarlett. Belle supposed she had always disliked the thrice married southern beauty, but she hated Scarlett even more when she was forced to hear Rhett's drawling voice speak with such devotion of everything she did and said. That woman was not worthy of Rhett's worship! She was cold and heartless, refusing Rhett more children and shoving him from her bed. …Still, she couldn't hate the woman so much for that act, because it was what caused Rhett to inquire upon Belle's company. But she wished he wouldn't talk so much about Scarlett.
One night, as he lounged on her chaise, she asked him to describe his home to her. He described her of the gaudy decorations Scarlett insisted upon, and the grand red staircase and the crystal chandelier.
"I'm told," he chortled, "that in a certain light my home looks just like your place."
"In that case, it sounds perfectly tacky, Rhett." She laughed with him.
"Just the same, I always wanted to see where you lived," she mused, and he watched her over his drink, grinning with secret agenda.
"Have you? Well, that's that." And he downed his glass and stood. "I shall show you my humble abode- this very minute. Don't you try to say no. "
"But Rhett- It's not fittin'!" He shrugged recklessly.
"You know I don't give a damn about my reputation, Belle. It's pitch black out, besides. We'll take your carriage." It was pointless to refuse. Rhett had made up his mind. Mirroring his shrug, Belle covered her face with a hood and left Bridget in charge.
Scarlett padded down the hallway, her bare feet scuffing against the carpet. The big clock on the wall struck two in the morning. He was always home by quarter after. She paused at the top of the stairs, playing out the scene in her mind. She would be waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, looking as pretty as she could be in her nightgown. He would be surprised, naturally, and she would laugh at him and call for him to come to bed. She blushed to herself when she thought what might happen next. Scarlett descended the remaining stairs and, shaking with fearful anticipation, gripped the rail post. When she heard the clop of hooves outside she fought the urge to fly up the stairs to the safety of her room. Instead she pasted the sweetest smile on her face as the doorknob began to turn.
"I'm thinking I shan't go in, Rhett. What about your wife?" A woman! Scarlett stiffened and her stomach churned. Rhett had brought a woman home! She was going to faint.
"My wife doesn't give a damn, and what's more, I don't give a damn. You are coming in for a nightcap and I will usher you out when I see fit." Rhett's voice. The door was open now, and they were coming into the house. Scarlett glimpsed unnatural red hair as the two people were framed in the doorway. And then there was silence except for a shrill gasp Scarlett knew had not come from her.
"My God," choked Belle, and Scarlett's emerald eyes snapped to Belle's face so quickly she felt like she'd been slapped. Belle's cheeks burned red of embarrassment. It wasn't natural for a woman of her age and profession to be embarrassed, but she figured this wasn't a natural situation. She felt like she'd been standing there for years. Neither Rhett not Scarlett had said a word. Belle tore her eyes away from Scarlett's blazing ones to look at Rhett. He stood as still as if he was made of stone, but then he glanced at Belle, visibly steeled himself, and broke the silence.
"Scarlett," he began calmly, closing the door behind him and slowly advancing towards his trembling wife. "I don't believe you've ever properly met Belle Watling." His eyes were guarded, as if he was prepared for his wife to suddenly lunge at either one of them. But Scarlett was so rooted to the spot that Belle would have thought she'd died had it not been for the shaking. Belle found her voice.
"I was only comin' for a nightcap, Miss Scarlett- Mrs. Butler, I mean." Scarlett gave no indication of having heard what had been spoken to her. Belle wanted to wave a hand in front of her face.
But then Rhett reached for his wife's elbow and Scarlett snapped out of her shock. She shoved Rhett away with such sudden force he stumbled. Belle stared incredulously at him.
"Get out," said a small voice. Belle had to strain to hear it. "Get out," Scarlett said again, whispering. Belle nodded her head obligingly and looked up, but Scarlett hadn't been speaking to her. Her delicate face was trained on her husband. How young she looks, Belle thought. She looks like a child.
"Get Out!" Scarlett screamed abruptly, and both Belle and Rhett jumped at the force of her voice.
"Scarlett," began Rhett, and he reached for her, but Scarlett pounded on his chest weakly. Belle lowered her eyes when Scarlett began to cry.
"Get out! Get out! Get out get out!" she sobbed. "Get out," she cried weakly, and she sank to her knees. "Please," she sobbed. "Please, Rhett." Her thin arms snaked around his legs and she hid her face. "Please," she wept, muffled. Belle began to back out of the house. It wasn't right for her to be seeing this. Her back hit the door and she felt blindly for the doorknob. She wished Rhett would look at her before she left. She wished he would tell her that she hadn't just ruined his marriage. But Rhett did not look up. Rhett was staring down at his humbled wife. He couldn't even see Belle anymore. "Please," Scarlett said again, more clearly, and she looked up into his face. Belle knew, and wondered if Rhett knew, that Scarlett was no longer begging to be left alone. She was begging for something deeper. Belle couldn't place it, because she had never been married or loved.
Before she turned to leave, she watched Rhett pick up his wife under her arms as he would his daughter and delicately start up the stairs.
Later, when she sat in her carriage alone, Belle cried into her hands.