Author's note: I know it's probably been done before and that someone's writing a Scarlett Christmas Carol, but I couldn't resist casting Rhett in the role of Scrooge for myself. Hope you guys don't mind—and that you enjoy this! I'll try to be done in time for actual Christmas. Please read and review!
Chapter One: Atlanta
If there was one thing Rhett Butler hated more than Christmas, it was Christmas in Atlanta.
He hated Atlanta any time of year, but at Christmastime it was insufferable. Starting on the first of December, the city seemed to become a caricature of itself. The streetlamps were ringed with holly and red bows, and gay tinsel wreaths appeared on every door. The air was full of woodsmoke and spices. Groups of carolers loitered in the square, hoping to inflict their cheer on innocent passersby—girls pinched color into their cheeks to match the ribbons pinned to their dresses—even old maids who should know better got into the spirit and behaved as though there was still hope for them. That hopefulness grated on Rhett's nerves—to pretend, for a few weeks, that anything in the world was possible, only to come crashing back to earth when the last present had been opened!
People were smiling as he stepped down from the train--"Season's greetings"--"Happy Yule!" and even one "Very merry new year to you, sir!" from the boy who had helped him with his trunk. Rhett had sneered at them. "Fiddle dee dee," he said, in a parody of someone he had once known. But then--she had always loved Christmas. Rhett, look at the candles in all the windows--the holly and the ivy--oh, I just love Christmastime, don't you?
Perhaps that was why he hated it.
Had he ever enjoyed the season? Rhett thought back--he did not think so. His boyhood in Charleston had been bleak. Oh, it had! His mother had tried, sometimes, to inject a bit of cheer into the grim, dark house by the Ashley River. But his father had always ruined things, somehow. His black rages took no note of bank holidays. Ah, well. Perhaps the old man had been right about something.
Because for his own part, Rhett Butler could see no good in any kind of Christmas cheer.
He had passed, on his way to Uncle Henry Hamilton's office this afternoon, Mrs. Dr. Meade herself, standing in the cold, her cheeks chapped to redness, holding a collection jar, soliciting—as she would put it, Rhett would have said it was more like browbeating—donations for the Confederate Ladies Fund for the Care of the Widows and Orphans of Our Glorious Cause. Nearly ten years after the end of the war, it seemed those widows and orphans were in just as dire straits as ever. Funnily enough, Mrs. Meade hadn't bothered Rhett for any money. Once she might have. But when she saw him that afternoon her good humor had evaporated, and her nose had wrinkled distastefully.
"I won't bother you for a penny, Captain Butler," she called after him as he passed. "Heaven knows it would be a waste of breath. A fool and his money are soon parted—but a miser and his never are!"
Rhett had stopped and bowed to her, in a parody of gentlemanliness, before striding away. He could not help a smile from touching the edges of his lips, and he found that he was whistling God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen jauntily through his teeth. Let nothing you dismay! he thought--and he certainly wasn't.
There was once when he and Mrs. Meade might have been, if not friendly, then at least cordial to one another. And there was once when Rhett might have given her a pretty sum for her collection--given it gladly. It wasn't that he particularly cared about any widows and orphans—he didn't, though he knew that he should. No—it would have been for Bonnie's sake. He would have done anything for his darling Bonnie, anything to ensure that his little girl grew up with all of Atlanta at her feet. But Bonnie was gone now, dead almost a year. Without Bonnie, what did it matter? What did any of it matter? Atlanta might sink into the sea, for all Rhett cared.
Rhett amused himself, as Uncle Henry shuffled through the papers on his desk, with imagining the retort he might have made to Mrs. Meade if he had cared to stop and talk to her. He could have scalded her ears with curses. He chuckled to himself, imagining the look on her face if he was to let loose and tell her what he really thought of her. She was a meddlesome nosy woman who delighted in the foibles of others, which was worse than being a miser, in Rhett's opinion. The Meades, for all their emphasis on breeding, had never had too much in the way of a fortune. It was like that, Rhett reflected—the people without money were forever telling the ones with money how to spend theirs.
He might have mentioned to Mrs. Meade that he had already made his charitable contribution for the year. He had paid sizeably into the Scarlett O'Hara Fund for Scarlett O'Hara. It cost him a small fortune to heat and run the house on Peachtree Street, as well as chunks of money for the continued existence of that great white monster down in Clayton County. Not to mention that Wade and Ella, Scarlett's children, needed books and shoes and clothes and all manner of gilt bobs and small nothings that children always seemed to require. It was a good thing Scarlett hadn't had another husband--another child, another mouth, added to the mix might be enough to make him feel a pinch.
If he had known how expensive it would be to abandon his wife, he might have tried harder to make it work.
You could have tried harder, said a voice in the back of his head, but Rhett pushed it away. Scarlett O'Hara had run roughshod over everyone unlucky enough to be around her for the entirety of her life. She would have sold her own Irish Pa down the river for an Indian-head nickel. She was cruel and selfish and greedy and she had hurt him terribly—and he was the one who should have tried harder? Rhett shook his head in annoyance and tried to cover the feeling by clearing his throat loudly.
"I'd like to go over those figures sometime in the next hour or so, Uncle Henry. If it wouldn't trouble you too much. I do have a train to catch; I'd like to be gone from this godforsaken city as soon as humanly possible."
The old man blinked from behind his glasses. Rhett Butler had never been what folks would have called charitable, but there had always been a certain charm about him. That famous Butler charm was all but evaporated now. Even at his most sarcastic, Rhett Butler had not been nasty. And yet—Uncle Henry let his eyes roam up and down the seated form. Butler was slumped in his chair, and there were gray shadows under his eyes. Folks said he gave up the drink for his little girl but then she had died. He supposed Rhett had taken it up again. His face was haggard and puffy, and his perpetually lean physique was tending a little toward fat.
The poor man, Uncle Henry thought. At any other time, he might have called Rhett a devil or a carpetbagger or worse, but on Christmas eve, even Henry Hamilton was feeling sentimental. He pushed the papers across the desk to Rhett.
"I'm sorry for keeping you waiting," he said. "I just need you to sign here and here—and this is an itemized list of draughts on the account by—" Uncle Henry faltered. Was Scarlett still Rhett's wife? Everyone knew that his appearances at the house on Peachtree street were just that: appearances. But had they been divorced? It was doubtful. But then, Butler had always had connections.
"By my former niece," he finished lamely.
Rhett lifted his eyebrows in an exaggerated motion. "Do you mind if I peruse them before signing?" he asked, with cold cordiality. "Since it is my money keeping her in her grand style of living—and paying your salary, I might add."
Uncle Henry flushed. "Not at all," he said shortly.
But it seemed that the steam had gone out of Rhett's act. He sighed—his shoulders slumped. He made the most cursory of looks down at the papers and then signed his name—Rhett K. Butler—in large, looping script across the bottom of each page.
"That's settled," he said, and he stood, as though he really couldn't wait to be gone. "I'm going back to Charleston on the evening train. You may have your office send me a bill of services rendered. Or just draw on the account yourself—you are my trustee. It would be well within your right."
Uncle Henry stood, too. "Thank you," he said, feeling unsure of what exactly he was thanking Rhett for. But then he remembered Ashley. "Thank you," he said again, with more feeling. "It's a wonderful thing you're doing for little Beau. Ashley never would have been able to pay for him to go to school on the pittance he's making at the mill—or for the riding lessons—or the books."
Rhett had been reaching for his coat, but now he turned slowly back to face the old man. "I beg your pardon?" he asked, and there was something electric in his face and voice. "What I am doing for Ashley—I haven't done the first thing for him. Whatever could you mean?"
Uncle Henry stammered, "I mean—the money—for the books and things…" he trailed away when Rhett's eyes went narrowed and dangerous.
Scarlett, Rhett was thinking. He had told her in no uncertain terms that he would not stand for her supporting Ashley Wilkes. And she was deliberately defying him! He felt a hot rush of anger surge through his body. His hands itched to connect with her skin and teach her the lesson of the cost of going against his will. She had said she didn't love Ashley—and yet, here she was, slipping him money at every turn! Rhett's money! And what else was she giving him when everyone's back was turned—when Melanie was hardly cold in her grave?
"I want to make a change to my account," Rhett said, his voice freezing. He make his words extra clipped, his tone extra sharp, as though it could stanch the little feeling of betrayal in his heart. Why should he care if Scarlett still loved Ashley? Oh--he didn't--he couldn't. He would not!
"I do not want Scarlett to have any further access to my funds." Each word fell like a heavy stone sinking to the bottom of any icy lake. "I do not authorize her to drawn on my accounts and I do not authorize you to allow her to do so. She is forbidden. She is cut off. Do you understand me?"
"What about the house?" was all that Uncle Henry could squeak in the face of such dark passion.
"I shall have my Charleston lawyers draw up an eviction notice in the new year," Rhett said carelessly--with studied carelessness. "If Scarlett loves Tara so much she may go and live there as a guest of sister Sue. I'm sure that will go over like a lark."
"But," Uncle Henry protested, "What about Wade and Ella? And Scarlett herself? The mill is barely turning a profit in this recession—how will she live?"
"It's really no longer any of my concern," said Rhett, with such finality that even Uncle Henry could not mistake his meaning.
There were no taxis to be had, of course. He would have to walk if he were going to catch the last train to Charleston—or else he would have to risk spending Christmas in Atlanta. Unacceptable! Rhett did not relish walking but he relished the idea of spending even another night in this place far less.
It had started to sleet and Rhett pulled his collar up as he walked out into the darkened streets. The days were so blastedly short this time of year; it got dark so early. Atlanta winters were usually mild but once every few years or so, there was a string of bitter days that made Rhett almost pity the Yankees. How did Bostonians survive? He supposed he might start acting like a Yankee, too, if he had to put up with such cold, day in and out, for months at a time.
But for all that, his new wool overcoat was very fine, and the tall hat that covered his ears was of the finest silk. A poor woman sitting on a stoop with her baby in a bundle saw him as he passed and her eyes lit up with a desperate hope.
"Sir!" she called, "Oh, sir, can't you spare anything for me and my little boy? We were supposed to spend Christmas with my mother but she's thrown me out and we've no place to go. Can't you help us—please? In the spirit of Christmas?"
She had been pretty once, he could see that--the baby would have been, if it had been a little plumper--a little cleaner. Together they made such a pathetic picture that Rhett, despite his better judgment, might have helped her—if she had not invoked the season. At the very word 'Christmas' he felt the corners of his mouth turn down scornfully. Christmas! Everyone thought it was a magic word, meant to unlock the heartstrings—and the purse strings. But they did not know what it meant to be a man without a family—without a home. For a man like Rhett, Christmas was a day like any other—worse than any other, because it reminded him of what he had lost.
"I know a place where you can go," he said pleasantly, and the woman's mouth dropped open in surprise and delight. Rhett gave her an address. "Ask for Belle Watling," he told her.
"Oh, thank you, sir! And who is Mrs. Watling? Does she run the boardinghouse?"
"She runs a whorehouse," Rhett corrected her, nearly laughing as her face fell. The sleet had mixed with snow, and the icy pellets stung his face but Rhett barely noticed as he walked on toward the depot.
At the station, he handed his small bag to the Negro porter and walked toward the platform. The boy's voice chattered after him. "Suh! I say, suh!" and Rhett realized he had forgotten to tip the man. He drew his chin to his chest and pretended he hadn't heard. He was tired and cold and in no mood to be charitable.
The boy had caught up with him and Rhett felt another flash of fury. Why couldn't some people just be contented with their lot? Why were people always grasping for things? But the boy didn't ask him for a thing. He only said,
"Laws a'mighty you walk fast! I'm near't a breath tryin' to catch you. Laws! You cain't go up there, mistah."
Rhett looked from the boy to the platform. "Yes, I can," he said. "I've a ticket to Charleston, round-trip. And the next train comes in…" He pulled a large gold watch from his pocket and consulted it. "It should be here already. Let me go or I'll miss it."
"That's what I tryin' to tell you, suh! Ain't no more trains coming ternight. It's stormin' baid up Jonesboro-way and the tracks all froze up. Ain't no more trains comin' through till mawnin'!"
"That's ridiculous," Rhett told him, feeling angry enough to choke the boy. "This is Atlanta. It isn't cold enough to freeze."
"You tell that to Old Man Nature," said the porter, laughing softly. "It's cold enough ternight!"
"What am I supposed to do?" Rhett snapped. "I can't stay here."
"You cain," said the boy gleefully. "But it mought be purty cold out on this here platform!" And he walked away, whistling as Rhett had, only a few hours ago.