"God's nightgown," said Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler as she closed the door behind the latest delivery man. All day the bell had been ringing as packages were delivered—toys of all shapes and sizes for the children, and now, the fixings for a full Christmas dinner that could feed an army: turkey, ham, vegetables, and a plump goose that might have been the king of geese. "Take it into the kitchen," she told the servants, wondering if someone might be playing a joke on her.
"Probably one of the carpet-baggers, trying to get in my good graces," she muttered, as she went into the parlor, where Wade and Ella were playing with their toys. Scarlett had not seen any of her old friends in months, but every time she encountered them on the street they pretended that they were still close, greeting her exuberantly as she swept coldly by, her head raised. She had thought if Rhett could see her doing that—if he heard that she had changed—he might come back to her. But he hadn't heard—or if he had, he hadn't cared.
Her heart shrank in her chest as she thought back to the night before. Such bad, bad luck that Rhett should see her with Ashley! And of course he would misunderstand, and be angry. He had a right. She had been—well, if she had not committed adultery in the flesh, so to speak, she had committed in in spirit. Of course he should be angry. But, she could not help thinking, he might have given her a chance to explain!
"Mother, look at this!" Ella said, rocking on her horse. Wade was sighting one of his new pistols with a vase on the mantelpiece, looking pleased as punch. Scarlett did not feel anything like the Christmas spirit they were feeling, but she put on a good show. "Why, it's all so lovely, darling. I wish we knew who sent them."
"It was Uncle Rhett," Wade pronounced, and Scarlett felt her heart squeeze now for her son. After the way he had spoken to her last night, there was no doubt in Scarlett's mind that Rhett really didn't care about her—or the children—at all.
"Maybe they're from Santa Claus," she laughed.
The bell rang again, and Scarlett, throwing up her hands, went to answer it. "Oh, Ashley!" she cried, in dismay. Stupid. I'm stupid. Of course it would be Ashley and Beau—I invited them for supper, didn't I? Behind Ashley stood a very pretty girl with curly fair hair—sweet and a little placid looking, but with depths of spirit that showed in her eyes.
"Scarlett, this is Miss Hannah DuPre," Ashley said. "She's a new friend—I hope you don't mind if she comes to supper today. Aunt Pitty couldn't spare a place at her table." The woman held a baby to her chest, but her other hand was tucked in the crook of Ashley's arm. Scarlett smiled, sensing the beginnings of an attraction between Ashley and this young woman. Why—it was almost palpable! Oh, she had thought when Ashley found someone it would hurt, for her sake or Melanie's, but it didn't. This girl even reminded her of Melly, a little.
"I'm glad to meet you," Scarlett told her. "Come in—come in. Beau, you're looking well. Better than usual."
"He's pleased as punch over that bunch of books that you sent him for a Christmas present, Scarlett."
"Books! Great balls of fire, Ashley—I got him a bearskin cap. You know I don't truck with books unless they're Waverly novels."
"Well, if you didn't send them, who did?"
"Maybe the person who got me my pony!" cried Ella. "Maybe Santa Claus?"
The grownups laughed and Ashley caught Scarlett's hand. "And Dr. Meade came by after breakfast to tell me that you've paid him in advance for any medicine Beau might need this winter. I can't thank you enough, Scarlett."
Scarlett had a very strange feeling. "Ashley," she said. "I did no such thing, but I would, of course..."
Ashley did not believe her. He only laughed, and handed Scarlett a wrapped box. "Merry Christmas, dear," he said, pecking her cheek.
Scarlett gave Ashley his own present, which she retrieved from the library—a gold silk tie that reminded her of the sash she had given him during the war. She opened Ashley's present to her, in a velvet jewel box, with a moment's hesitation. Suppose it was—oh! But it was only a pretty little hair ornament Melly had used to wear, in the old days. For a moment she had thought it would be—but of course that was stupid!
"Thank you, Ashley," she said. "This is just the thing I wanted to remember Melly by." She arranged the ornament against her hair.
Wade had gotten her perfume, and Ella had embroidered her a plethora of handkerchiefs, and Scarlett, with a meaningful nod of her head, directed Ella to give one of the parcels to Miss DuPre, so she would not be left out. She kissed her children, and was just sitting back down when Wade cried,
"Mother, there's something else here for you," and handed her a hatbox.
"Who is it from, Wade honey?"
"There's no card," Wade said. "But it came earlier, with everything else."
Scarlett picked at the string, and opened the box. Nestled inside a wreath of tissue, was a sweet green hat! Oh, it was a little shabby—but it put her in mind of another hat somebody had given her once. Could Rhett have sent it—and all these other things? But she quashed that hope before it could take root in her heart. If Rhett had sent these things, these lovely things, wouldn't he be here himself?
Likely they were meant for someone else and sent here by mistake, she sighed inwardly, but she would not ruin her children's fun. "Let's go into the dining room," she said, and stood, and led the way.
She had set an extra place, in the hope against hope that Rhett would come. But now Miss DuPre sat there. He wasn't coming. That was plain! Accept it, Scarlett. The soup course was served, but while they ate, Scarlett could not accept the bald truth of Rhett's absence. She kept looking toward the door. She could not stop herself.
Everyone knew whom she hoped for. Ella murmured into her bowl, "I miss Uncle Rhett." Wade, seated to her left, covered Scarlett's hand gently with his own.
"He's not coming, Mother. I'm sorry, darling."
Ashley, picking up on Scarlett's despair, began praising the meal, the decorations, everything. He's a good man, Scarlett thought, at his attempts to cheer her. Miss DuPre will be lucky to have him—for she will, I know she will, in the end. If only I had someone, too…my own true love.
"That reminds me," Ashley went on, "I didn't tell you how Hannah and I met, Scarlett. It was the strangest thing. Butler came by this morning…"
So Rhett was still in Atlanta—had been here, on Peachtree street, and had not stopped by? Scarlett dropped her spoon into her bowl and buried her head in her hands. He didn't care—he didn't—not anymore.
"Oh, stop!" she cried, to Ashley. "Don't mention him. I—I can't bear it."
Silence in the room—a great, sweeping silence. Scarlett heard the ticking of the clock, the whisper of embers in the hearth, the sound of sleigh bells outside. Voices calling—a great, booming voice—and the sound of boots on the steps outside. The bell rang, startling them all. They looked up.
"Who can it be?"
"I don't know—go and see, Wade."
"No," Ashley held the boy back, understanding dawning. "You go, Scarlett. I'm sure it's for you."
She sighed, and threw her napkin down and trudged through the dining room into the hall. "I've got it, Teena," she told the maid, and with superhuman effort, she pulled the door open, and—and—!
She had dreamed of this moment so many times. The moment when the mist finally cleared, and she saw him here, before her. But this was not a dream—was it?—no, no. This was real.
"Merry Christmas, Scarlett," Rhett said and she trembled from head to foot with newfound joy.
"Rhett!" she threw herself into his arms, scarcely daring to think first whether he would recoil. She only knew that she must do it. But surprise of surprises!—his arms went around her, tight. He lowered his lips to her hair, and then her lips. His moustache tickled—how she had missed it! She laughed, despite the tears that were rolling down her cheeks.
"You're so handsome," she cried, when she got a look at him, quite without meaning to say anything of the sort. But Rhett did look handsome—in his best suit, with his hair neat and his moustache trimmed. He looked better than he had in ages. He grinned—that old grin, with spirit in it.
"I wanted to come to you as a bridegroom, as they say in the old text," he said. "I couldn't find a man to give me a shave and so I had to do it myself, for once. That explains why I'm so late. I hope you'll forgive me, Scarlett."
"Forgive you! Why, I should be lucky you're even speaking to me."
"No, darling." He put his finger to her lips to quiet her. "Scarlett, you apologized to me once, and I told you that I wouldn't hear it. Now it is my turn, but I hope you'll be more understanding than I. I love you, sweetheart, and I'm sorry. I didn't understand what things were like for you. I was only thinking of myself. Well—things will be different, from now on."
"Oh, Rhett—do you mean it? And you're home—home for good?"
"Yes, I mean it—and yes, back for good—if you will have me."
She did not need to tell him her answer. Her eyes said it all. They kissed again. But they had had their moment—Ashley could not restrain the children any longer. "Uncle Rhett!" Ella cried, launching herself at the man and woman who clung together in the foyer. Even Wade forgot that he was mostly grownup, and threw his arms around his step-father.
"What are you doing here, Uncle Rhett?"
"Can't a man be with his family on Christmas Day? It's the only place he can be. Did you ragamuffins get the presents I sent? Ella, I spoke to a man today at the hotel about a pony for you—how would you like that? Wade, what a handsome boy you've got to be! Ashley, good to see you and Miss DuPre again—little Beau, how did you like your history books? Scarlett—where are you going?"
For Scarlett had run back into the parlor. She appeared, a few seconds later, laughing, with the hatbox in her hands.
"I'm going to break etiquette and wear this hat through the meal," she giggled. "You put it on me, Rhett—tie the ribbons under my chin like you did, once before."
He tied them, his hands trembling with emotion, and his eyes full of things he could not say.
"A toast," said Ashley, to break the silence. He poured champagne chilling on the sideboard into glasses, and passed them around, even to the children. "To the return of old friends—and to new friends," putting his arm around Miss DuPre.
"To new love—and to old love, too," Scarlett said, looking at them, and then at Rhett.
"To family," murmured Miss DuPre with a smile down at the baby in her arms.
Rhett said, with his arm around Scarlett: "Hear, hear."
"To presents!" cried Wade.
"And ponies!" cried Ella.
But it was little Beau Wilkes who stole the show, who said just the right thing, to fill their eyes with happy tears. He stood up on his chair, and lifted his glass, and looked down on the happy faces around him.
"Merry Christmas!" he piped in his thin voice, his eyes bright, holding his glass aloft so that it caught and held the light. "And God bless us, every one!"