Here I am again. Spoiler warning: if you haven't read the book Jane Eyre, there are rather massive spoilers in this story. If it seems strange that I'm posting spoiler warnings for JE on a GWTW fic, yeah, well…it is. Thanks for reassuring me that this wasn't just strange idea, Alica!
" 'Reader, I married him…'"
The lilting, sweet voice of Melanie Wilkes cut through the sweltering heat in the room, her unassuming tone a cool balm, a breath of fresh air to the inhabitants listening to her. The afternoon had dragged on for hours, and even as close to sunset as it was, the heat showed no signs of letting up. No one could stomach sitting on the porch, and so the strange assortment of people gathered together had convened in the fussy, old-maidish study for tea. It was at that point that Captain Butler suggested that Mrs. Wilkes 'regale them' with a reading from her latest book. The always modest Mrs. Wilkes had blushed and stammered out that she had been reading aloud from Ms. Charlotte Bronte's work Jane Eyre for the last several weeks and had just left off half-way through the last chapter. She wasn't a very fine reader, and of course she didn't want to force their guest to listen to the end of a book he hadn't heard the beginning of. Then Captain Butler surprised them by admitting he knew the work well, and honestly would enjoy hearing the end very much, it having been many years since he'd had the pleasure of reading it. Mrs. Wilkes sensed so much sincerity beneath his words that she couldn't refuse.
And that was how the party ended up listening to the epilogue of Jane Eyre told by the usually shy Melanie Wilkes. Pittypat Hamilton sat on her little settee, fanning herself frantically and looking rather like a large black teacake. At her feet sat her two-year-old great-nephew, Wade Hampton Hamilton, sitting enraptured by his beloved aunt's recitation. It was the only thing that could distract him from the toy sailboat that had been given to him less than an hour previous.
His mother, Mrs. Charles Hamilton, formerly Ms. Scarlett O'Hara, sighed and absently blew a piece of hair out of her face. God, Melanie was dull—why did she like reading these boring, foreign novels out loud? If she enjoyed them so much, why couldn't she keep them to herself rather than subjecting everyone else in the house to them?
Suddenly Scarlett had the very distinct feeling she was being watched—and worse, that her face had given away exactly what she been thinking to the person she wanted least in the world to know. She raised her gaze to the final member of the party, the notorious blockade-runner and scoundrel Captain Rhett Butler, who met her look immediately. The respectful face he put on for Melanie melted away in an instant and he flashed her a nasty, knowing grin.
White-hot rage the likes of which only he could bring about swept through her. Him! This was all his fault—Rhett Butler was the reason she was sitting here in this stuffy parlor listening to some silly story. He knew she didn't want to be here and he was enjoying her discomfort immensely.
She really did loathe him—loathed him because she could conceal nothing from him and it seemed to be his favorite pastime to use what he knew about her to annoy her. This stupid reading was just another example of it—wanted to hear the end of the book again, ha! The only reason Rhett Butler had asked Melly to read that book was because at the ice-cream social benefit for the hospital Rhett had accompanied her to last week she had told him how Pittypat and Melanie's book readings bored her to tears. Why had she given him that information? She tried to recall how it had come up in conversation—ah, yes, now she remembered. Scarlett blushed hotly—she remembered. Somehow Rhett had challenged her to a contest—a contest to see which one of them could name more things that bored them. She'd told him it was a ridiculous game, but somehow he'd managed to goad her into it. How had he done that?
"Not being a gentleman, I'll go first. Dr. Meade's speeches about 'The Cause'."
"This is really rather silly, Captain Butler. We should not engage in such games--It's not proper-"
"Spare me what's 'proper' Scarlett, I know you don't really object. You're just stalling because Dr. Meade's speeches was what you were going to say, and you must distract me while you think of something else that bores you. Go on, even someone with as little imagination as you should be able to think of something."
"Be thankful no one else is around to see that blush, Mrs. Hamilton—why, to think you're bored with the treatment of your own countrymen. Of course, were I a Southern woman, that would've been the first thing I said—but then, you and I are so frightfully alike."
"There is not the slightest thing alike about us!"
"Well, I'll admit there are some differences. I'm a much better liar. But no matter—our game. War stories—they're rather boring. And all the same. Now it's your turn, Scarlett, pray give me a good one or I shall be henceforth take you for a coward."
"Don't you dare ever say I'm a coward! Mrs. Merriwether calling on our house all the time, there! She's always ratting on me to Aunt Pitty, saying I leave the hospital early to go gambling around in men's carriages with them. How's it any of her affair what I do with myself?"
"I notice you don't deny the accusation—but why bother, to me, I suppose, the 'man' in question? And another thing—it doesn't sound like that bores you Scarlett, sounds like it annoys you. If we played the game with annoyance as the rule rather than boredom, I fear you would easily beat me. Considering that there are few things that annoy me and many that annoy you."
"I can think of one thing that annoys me more than any other, and he's standing right here in this room with the most obnoxious smirk that God ever gave a man."
"Ah—how ungallant! Could she possibly be talking about moi? It is nice to know that I'm first in your heart in some way, even if it is just the position of 'Chief Annoyance'. Is there a special reward for gaining it—besides having crockery hurled at one, I mean?"
"I'll throw worse at you, one of these days."
"I've no doubt—and I hope one of these days you'll give up your ladylike pretences and throw yourself at me. Or at least throw caution to the wind."
"Why I—I've never heard something so vile, so—"
"Being the Chief Annoyance, I am of course absolved from being used in this game as something that bores you. Annoying and boring are seldom the same. And how gratifying it is to learn that I do not bore you—of course, I know that I don't, but it is nice to hear it from the horse's mouth, as it were."
The conversation had gone on like this for some time—until Scarlett had blurted out that the thing that bored her most in the world right now was hearing Melanie read from that book and having to sit with nothing to do but pay attention to it. And that had lead directly to her sitting here now, hearing the end of it with Rhett Butler as a witness to her misfortune. If she excused herself, Pitty would drone on at her about 'not being polite' to their guest, or accuse her of leaving them alone with Captain Butler. God's nightgown, did they think she had any control over him?
She forced herself to think back on what he had said—about boring her, in particular. He had a peculiar way of hitting on the truth. He never did it in a straightforward manner, he was always roundabout and mocking and sarcastic, but he did seem to value the truth more than other people. And what he had said about not boring her was the truth.
For all he infuriated her, she couldn't deny the validity of that conversation. He amused her, irritated her—sometimes she was certain that she despised him with her whole being, but he would worm his way back into her good graces with flattery and gifts so deftly it defied explanation—but he did not bore her.
Something in the back of her mind suggested to her that this was important. She did not know exactly what it was, but it was telling her that being bored was much, much worse than being irritated. Why that should be, she did not know. She only knew that deep down in the fiber of her being she preferred Rhett's company to anyone in Atlanta, and that was in large part because he never bored her.
But hell if she let him know that. The thought of him knowing he had any sort of power over her filled her with an almost instinctual dread. No man had ever had any real power over her before—except perhaps Ashley, and he was far too much of a gentleman to ever hold anything over her or misuse it. But Rhett wasn't like Ashley at all, and if she acted in any way as if she cared a whit he would never let her hear the end of it.
Why did she enjoy their conversations so much? She could go round and round it and never know. He never showed her or anyone else the tiniest ounce of respect—no one except Melanie, she thought, with a queer twinge of some unfamiliar emotion. He was never anything for very long—he changed so fluidly from self-abasing fool to mocking judge to affectionate friend to rude cad, she wasn't sure which was his true form. It was easiest to simply think of him as the latter, but then, what did that make her? For she did so often agree with him.
He needled her relentlessly, and often with a hint of personal maliciousness that she did not understand. It defied explanation. At the end of their barbed sparring matches, she would often find a dim recollection of something Cathleen Calvert said to her, once, come floating to the top of her consciousness—something about little boys pulling pigtails.
Why in God's name would Rhett make her think of that? Little boys and pigtails…what was it that Cathleen had said about them? It was years ago, when they were no older than eleven or twelve…she strained her mind for a minute or so, before giving up. What did it matter anyway?
She couldn't fathom why her brain kept connecting little boys pulling girls' hair with Rhett's never-ending need to infuriate her. Had she been a more erudite observer of the human race, had she the inclination or ability to examine the inner workings of herself or others, the reason would have been obvious to her. Inexperience doubled her ignorance—18 years of life had not prepared her to tackle the enigma that was Rhett Butler.
Instead, she satisfied herself with the thought that whatever his reasons and motivations, none of them were any good.
" 'We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character--perfect concord is the result…'"
Melanie was embarrassed to find tears in her eyes as she read the last chapter of the novel aloud. How silly everyone would think her, especially her poor sister-in-law, who had lost her own dear, sweet Charles less than two years before! Melanie could see that, in spite of Scarlett's great strength, deep down the story of love lost and found must be tearing her up inside. Even now, glancing up at Scarlett's face, there was physical pain present there. She had offered to read from A Tale of Two Cities instead, to spare Scarlett the pain of having to hear a love story so soon after her husband's death, but a brief description of the book and Scarlett had insisted she wanted to hear none of it. Melanie's sister-in-law was so kind, to allow Melanie to share Charlotte Brontë's glorious work with the all. For she did so love it…
Precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.
Could there be a more ideal description of her marriage?
She did not delude herself into believing that the love between them was as passionate or romantic as the love between Mr. Rochester and Jane—she knew it was not. Their courtship had been subdued, as much to do with honor and duty as it was to do with romance. As naive as she was, Melanie Wilkes knew that the love between her husband and herself sprang from a shared love of sacred, beautiful things—of quiet, peace and serenity—Ashley was noble and good and she wanted desperately for this war to be over. War went against everything her husband stood for. Her husband knew that it was a waste of life and doomed to fail—and if his words had not been enough to convince her, hours spent in the hospital caring for the endless stream of sick and dying men would have been.
Still, she found a little of herself and her life in Jane Eyre—the main character in particular. She looked up again from her reading and surveyed the man sitting across from Scarlett—the man who had requested she read. He was very attentive to her reading, but as polite and gentlemanly as he always was to her, she could see his eyes flash over to her sister-in-law several times over the course of the oration.
Captain Butler, she felt, must be very like the Mr. Rochester of the story. Her long-held belief that he had suffered some tremendous heartbreak in his youth, the reason for the jaded man before her, had been cemented when she read Jane Eyre. Here it was—a gentleman, born and raised, cast out from his home by misunderstandings and fate, crossed by love, left cynical and guarded. In need only of a good woman to love and be loved in return…she was certain that Captain Butler was all of these things, just as she was sure he was capable of very true, deep and passionate love. Distaste for presumption kept her from thinking what she sensed, deep in her breast and in her heart every time she saw the Captain—that he had found a woman, and—further misfortune upon him—she was a broken-hearted widow who was not yet ready to love again.
The 'broken hearted widow' yawned in a manner which she probably thought was inconspicuous, but it did not escape the notice of her tragically misfortuned suitor. Melanie probably wouldn't have been able to believe what was going on in either one of their heads had she been privy to it.
"'…On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy...'"
The party for the most part listened with rapt attention to the rest of the story. Pittypat had found herself frankly shocked by some of the descriptions of Rochester's escapades in the middle section of the book, but the epilogue was doused with enough moralizing to keep her from having a fainting fit. Wade crawled over to Rhett and was rewarded for his efforts by a spot on the blackguard's lap—enjoying the sound of Melanie's voice, if not understanding what the words meant—in a comfortable place.
For lack of something better to do, Scarlett forced herself to pay attention to what Melanie was saying. It helped distract her from looking at Rhett and seeing him handle her son more comfortably than she could. Her parenting ability was one of the few things he did not openly discuss with her, but she knew that he was rendering some inward judgment on it and was ill-bred enough to voice it. If not now, then at a later time—she could see it now (a tiny, guilty voice in the back of her mind reminded her that she spent little time with Wade and even less time paying attention to him—a voice that sounded suspiciously like her mother's), him using his knowledge of her indifference to Charles as a weapon to undermine her motherhood.
" '"My Master," he says, "has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly,--'Surely I come quickly!' and hourly I more eagerly respond,--'Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!'"'"
The words "The End" could not have come sooner from Melanie's mouth, Scarlett thought, while she grudgingly joined Rhett and Pitty in politely applauding the reading. Maybe Melanie would give up on this reading novel business now that she had seen how long this one had taken finish.
"What a fine story, Mrs. Wilkes—as fine as I remember it being. Have you read any of the other Brontë sisters' work?"
"Why, yes Captain Butler," Melanie stammered out, "Mr. Thackeray is so fond of Ms. Brontë's books, or so my husband tells me…I read Wuthering Heights last year."
"And what of you, Mrs. Hamilton? Have you read Wuthering Heights?"
Rhett's eyes gleamed with mirth, and Scarlett put on an outward display of disinterest. She wanted nothing more than to call him out on his behavior and get a real reaction out of him, but if she was ever to see such a day, it was not this one. So, instead, she would play the aloof lady and satisfy herself with imagining him being run over by a train.
"Indeed, no, Captain Butler."
"I suppose you must spend your time reading loftier books of learning—but I'm sure you'd enjoy novels if you'd give yourself the chance to. I think you'd enjoy Wuthering Heights immensely," he answered her, smartly. Shamelessly, he added, "I think you might even find you relate to the novel's heroine. I know I saw a lot of myself in Heathcliff."
He was making fun of her—she knew he was! His voice was completely neutral, but the look in his eyes and the fact that he was talking about something he knew she knew nothing about struck her. He was the type of man to make a joke for himself and no one else to laugh at—she did not understand his remark, but some underlying impudence suggested it was mocking. He was looking at her with something both expectant and forcibly withdrawn.
Melanie seemed to understand, though—of course she would, knowing the book. Scarlett was shocked to see her sister-in-law look on Rhett with pity in her brown eyes. Rhett drew his eyes away from Scarlett and slipped on his usual bland, polite face. Things were again normal in the universe. Another moment in Scarlett O'Hara's life passed that might have meant something. She did not dwell on it—why bother? She'd never figure him out anyway.
At that moment, Wade yawned very loudly.
"Why, Wade Hampton—we've forgotten to put you down for your afternoon nap, haven't we?"
Melanie stood up and walked towards Wade with the intention of taking him upstairs for his long-overdue afternoon nap. Scarlett became sharply aware of how bad this would look—the child's aunt putting him to bed, and not her.
"I'll do it, Melly."
She stood up and walked bravely over to Rhett, pushed past Melanie, and brazenly scooped her son from his lap. Her hands brushed his leg, and all at once she realized with embarrassment how forthright her behavior was—how entirely inappropriate and rash the action was. In the brief second of physical contact her eyes met Rhett—the look he was giving her was that of a man with insatiable appetites, a man who always seemed to know what she was thinking, and a primitive, female fear swept through her that she neither liked nor understood. The urge to leave his presence was inexplicably great.
She hurried upstairs with Wade, as red as a cherry tomato. Not used to being handled by his young and thoughtless mother, the one and a half year old squawked at being so roughly deposited into his bed.
"Shh, Wade—you go to sleep now, do you understand?"
Had he been less tired, Wade would probably not been able to fall asleep, so unfamiliar was his mother's voice in the nursery setting and so unsuited was it for lulling children to sleep. But, having stayed awake longer than usual and crawled all over Captain Butler's broad lap, he fell into a childish stupor immediately. Scarlett, so unused to her son not annoying her, sat down on a chair in the room and was soothed by his light breathing. She did not want to return to the drawing room and 'face the music'—for she knew that Melanie and Pitty would retire themselves, soon, and leave her alone with Rhett. Something in the pit of her stomach, some gut feeling was urging her to stay away from him today—she sensed his mood was more combative than usual, and she was wary of an altercation.
She'd stay up here for a little while longer—perhaps Pitty and Melly would make up an excuse for her, tell him that Scarlett, too, must have retired, and he would grow bored and leave. Not even the promise of the present he'd hinted at having for her would lure her back downstairs.
And yet…treacherously, she knew that he would see through her. Rhett would know she was avoiding him, and she hated to have him think that he had any bearing on her behavior. She could see that smug grin, taunting her about her cowardice…
Just the thought of it had her on her feet and back down the stairs in a flash. She passed Melanie and Pitty on the stairs, both of them heading up to their rooms—apparently Rhett had 'insisted on waiting for Mrs. Hamilton to return, as he was sure she would'.
"We've left him with Uncle Peter, Scarlett," twittered Aunt Pitty Pat, nervously. She seemed to be worried about the pair, but whether she was more nervous for Rhett's safety or Uncle Peter's, it was hard to say.
Cursing Melanie and Pitty's soft heartedness and inability to get rid of him, she tried to daintily descend the staircase but got fed-up halfway through and purposefully marched the rest of the way back into the scene of her most recent humiliation. Scarlett entered the room.
Intending to put on a show of polite disinterest, the idea was quickly dropped once she found him to be lounging quite insolently in the chair, looking as though he did not intend to leave for quite some time. How utterly at home he had made himself—Scarlett had never thought she'd think of Uncle Peter as a kindred spirit, but the thinly-veiled contemptuous look he was giving Rhett summed up her feelings for the gentleman to a 't'.
"I thought you had left," was her neutral greeting. Suddenly she wished Uncle Peter would leave the room so her true feelings could fly forth unchecked. She would let him have it this time—she could really shame him totally, leave him begging for her forgiveness—but she would never give it. This sudden hot rage did not really come from anger over the stunt he pulled earlier—it stemmed from a yet unrealized, primal attraction to the challenge he presented her.
"Leave, without saying goodbye to you? Never."
"Uncle Peter, I believe Aunt Pitty said she needed you for something."
"What fo', Miss Scarlett?"
"I don't know, something," she snapped, her undeveloped imagination incapable of coming up with a good excuse. "To fan her, since it's so hot. Bring her a cool glass of water, too, while you're up."
Peter grumbled, gave Rhett one final eyeball, and sidled out of the study, heading to the kitchen. In either a show of deference to propriety or a show of distrust of Rhett, he pointedly left the door open. Scarlett strolled from her door to Uncle Peter's, and upon reaching it, couldn't help but close it a bit too forcefully. The bang it made surprised her, and, annoyed with her lack of self-control, Scarlett turned around, intending to 'let Rhett have it' with as much dignity as she could muster.
She was greeted by the Captain innocently perusing Melanie's copy of Jane Eyre. The coal-black eyes, upon finishing whatever sentence they had been reading, raised and met hers with a challenging look.
Her resolve to keep her temper in check melted in an instant.
"I cannot believe the nerve of you!"
"Should I take from your expression that you didn't enjoy Mrs. Wilkes's reading?"
If his words weren't enough to set off her Irish temper, the raised eyebrows and amused smile he was not bothering to hide were. Any remains of her demure affectation fell away completely and she balled her fists, stalking across the room towards him. In complete physical opposition to her combative stance, Rhett lounged gracefully in his chair, long, lithe legs sprawling in front of him. When displayed so fully, like now, this lazy grace gave him the air of a resplendent tomcat.
Scarlett stopped a few feet in front of him, suddenly feeling that he was, as usual, making a fool of her. What was the point of getting in a temper if the other person didn't either cower or get angry back? She felt childish standing here, glowering at him—like her father the few times he had ever been upset with her mother, gibbering and sputtering while Ellen calmly disarmed him and made him more angry at himself for reacting so stupidly than anything else. Rhett's innocent gaze silently asked her why she was standing there, while knowing the answer full well.
She turned on her heel and looked wildly around the study, searching for a reason to be standing. Seizing on the first thing she saw, Pitty's large knitting needles and the garish green yarn Rhett himself had brought them, she snatched them both off the sideboard where they'd been deposited by the matron before vacating the room.
"As if you didn't know exactly how I felt about that 'reading'—you lied about wanting to hear that book, you've never read it. You just thought it'd be funny because I hate those readings so much!"
She plopped down on Pitty's vacated sofa, gracelessly—for what was the point of being graceful and ladylike for him, who constantly reminded her of her worst self and encouraged her to embrace it?
She stabbed the ball of yarn in irritation, the knitting pretense forgotten.
"While I'll admit the beguiling flash of your eyes when provoked did have some bearing on my request, I was telling the truth when I said I'd like to hear the end. You couldn't spot a real lie if it hit you in the face, Scarlett. So much the better for me," he added, cryptically, "For you see, I have read all the Brontës."
"You've read that silly story about the ninny governess?" She could hardly imagine a man like him reading a book that Melly liked. "Why?"
"My father doesn't approve of female writers. I make a point of reading every book written by a woman I can get my hands on."
It was a surprising admission, even after all the months she'd known him. He always surprised her. Rhett was so deliberately defiant—Scarlett marveled at the daring of him—she had never known someone who so openly and carelessly flaunted the rules of society and enjoyed it so fully. She was both admiring and jealous of his complete disconnect from law and order—but it frightened her, too.
"I expect that's the least of what your father doesn't approve of that you do," said she, in a suitably morally upbraiding tone. It was the sort of thing her mother could say and you would instantly know how sincere the words were. Out of Scarlett's mouth, it was as disingenuous a scolding as it could be—there was too much eagerness in her voice, for she truly found his scandalous behavior delightfully shocking. She enjoyed hearing his exploits as much as the first time she'd laid eyes on him in Twelve Oaks, and was almost daring him to tell her more.
"I expect you're right," was his short reply, "Though you are so hopelessly green that you couldn't possibly imagine all the things I've done that my father would disapprove of. I could fill a book with it. And speaking of books," he held up Jane Eyre with one hand, jangling it slightly, "I was wondering what you thought of this one."
He so seamlessly changed the subject that she had no time to stop and think about why he had. The amount of control over their exchanges she had was nonexistent—in fact, so out of her depth was she that the immature widow did not realize in the slightest.
"Yes, this one. Weren't you read the entire thing? I'm sure you paid next to no attention, but surely something got through to you. Humor me."
"What's to think about it? It's just a story about some trashy governess who throws herself at the man she works for." The Calverts' Yankee governess turned stepmother came to mind. "I don't understand why that Mr. Rochester loves her, she seemed dull as dishwater to me."
"I wish you would write literary criticism. I would get it published, and your erudite book reviews would take the world by storm," he drawled, dryly. He looked as though he might burst into laughter at any second—he'd asked for her opinion, she thought, eyes flashing, and she'd given it. What was so damn funny? "So, I take it you didn't like Jane Eyre? I guess I was expecting too much of you when it crossed my mind that you'd relate her situation to your own."
His eyes were boring into hers. He was leading up to something, she could feel the buildup in his voice, the words carefully picked and refined—this sort of line of questioning always crescendoed in a truly wicked bit of insight, and she never knew what direction it was coming from.
"And how, exactly, am I like her?" she asked, favoring the most direct approach.
He observed her silently for a moment, with an air of mock gravity about him. Suddenly, the book snapped shut and his mouth turned into a malevolent smile.
"Why, only because you are both eighteen-year-old girls pining over already married men." Her jaw dropped at his gall. "How is Major Wilkes, by the way? Mrs. Wilkes didn't mention."
Ashley! If there was a direction she should have learned to expect him to come from, that was it. Every time she was sure that Rhett Butler had forgotten her secret, he would bring it up in the most outrageously humiliating way. In any other man, the behavior would have suggested jealousy to her, but Rhett rarely brought up the subject without provocation, and the knowledge that she had professed to a nearly married man appeared to amuse him more than anything else.
Scarlett decided that dignified silence would be the best approach in this case, and so she said nothing. She knew he'd twist and pervert anything she said aloud about Ashley.
"Come on, Scarlett, don't turn coward on me now…Mrs. Rochester—excuse me, Mrs. Wilkes—is hidden away with Grace Poole in the attic," He bared his teeth rather barbarically while he made the literary reference, "So speak your mind freely. You must know how your love is?" She had never heard the word love said so disdainfully.
"I won't grace these sorts of questions with an answer, Captain Butler," She fought to keep the irritation at having her most sacred feelings mercilessly mocked out of her voice. "If you can't be civilized—"
"Are you ashamed, Scarlett?" he cut her off, abruptly, "Are you ashamed of your schoolgirl infatuation with a married man?" His face hardened, entire demeanor changing drastically. "Don't be. I don't think you really have any shame, but just in case you do—well, you shouldn't pretend to be ashamed, anyway. You aren't the first person in the world to want someone against all reason."
His eyes, locked on hers, glimmered strangely for a split second—so quickly did they return to normal that she was sure she had imagined the change.
"—And I daresay you won't be the last."
Scarlett was startled by his strange questions—so startled that she did not deny loving Ashley, as she usually would have. Was she ashamed of loving him? Surely not—hers and Ashley's love was pure, sacred. There was nothing to be ashamed of, she told herself, while Ellen's soft voice gently pleaded the other side of the case—that it was wrong to love a married man, this feeling was wrong.
What Rhett was saying made sense—as usual.
The sound of her companion clearing his throat brought her out of her reverie.
"Enough about the plight of the human condition, Scarlett. I still want to know what you think of this book."
The guarantee of the mental stimulation that Rhett always brought her, even with the risks of being with him, was worth it. It felt good to get angry and laugh again—even if it was with a moral reprobate like Rhett Butler. The Atlanta Bazaar dance had felt like her first breath of fresh air after being stuffed into a trunk for a year—a year of marriage, widowhood, and pregnancy.
She did not want Rhett to go, yet. He had not behaved badly enough to be sent away.
"I've told you, haven't I?"
"What about Rochester? How did your delicate sensibilities react to a hero like that?"
Rochester—the leading man of the story—how had she seen him? Scarlett's conception of what a hero should be began and ended with Ashley the day he returned from his European tour—truthfully, she did not know what to think of such a brooding, rude, overbearing leading man as the one in the story Melanie had read. She'd been just as surprised as Jane was when Rochester professed love and proposed marriage—he seemed as though he saw the governess character as—well, she couldn't see where he'd been hiding all that love. The very idea of being surprised by a proposal from a man was simply ridiculous.
"I thought he was very rude and coarse."
"You aren't familiar with the Romantic Movement, are you, Scarlett?" The phrase sounded familiar—something she had learned in school, most likely, and promptly forgot. "No, you wouldn't know a Byronic hero if he was sitting across the table from you."
His words were laced with some hidden irony.
"I suppose that's what that Mr. Rochester is," she sniffed, annoyed at her own ignorance on the subject at hand.
"Why, yes, he's a prime example of one. Byron wrote Manfred—the story of a man haunted by guilt, who summons spirits in an attempt to magic it away." He smirked. "Of course, all his problems stem from a woman. Byron's characters are notable for not answering to higher powers—they're non-conventional by nature. Supposedly, Charlotte Bronte wrote Rochester with Byron in mind."
"Thank you for the literature lesson," she said, coldly.
"You're very welcome. I enjoy taking up your education—there are undoubtedly vast gaps in your knowledge, so it's proving to be quite the task."
His tone was light, with a healthy layer of condescension on top.
"And what about St. John Rivers, the minister character—the description of him must have set your girlish heart a flutter."
The purpose of this pseudo-literature lesson alluded Scarlett. Either he was trying to goad her into revealing something—what it was, she had not a clue—or Rhett genuinely enjoyed her lack of knowledge on this subject and childish responses to specific questions about the text. She did not think for a second he was really interested in what she thought about the book—after all, what man would be?
"If you wish to hear me say something foolish, it's not going to work."
" 'Oh, you have been very correct, very sensible,'" he quoted from the tome in his lap, inexplicably. Before she could ask what he meant, Rhett began flipping through Jane Eyre carefully, searching for some specific passage—the ease with which he found it suggested he knew the book far better than he initially let on.
"Ah, here it is. I'm sure you'll enjoy this part the second time around—'He was young-- perhaps from twenty-eight to thirty--tall, slender; his face riveted the eye; it was like a Greek face, very pure in outline: quite a straight, classic nose; quite an Athenian mouth and chin. It is seldom, indeed, an English face comes so near the antique models as did his.'" He snapped the book shut with a flourish. "Now, doesn't that sound like your Adonis?"
"I suppose one might say that they are similar on the outside," Scarlett remembered the preacher character now—but he was a proud, cold fish, not at all like her dear Ashley! "But besides that Ashley isn't like him at all."
"Au contraire, Mrs. Hamilton—they're probably more alike on the inside than out. Think about it—Sinjun Rivers keeps himself from marrying a young, pretty girl he's attracted to because he knows she'll make a poor wife for him—that she won't fit into his vocational plans. Of memory from that afternoon at Twelve Oaks serves me that is precisely why Mr. Wilkes—er—protested against your remarks."
"Damn your memory!"
The idea that she wouldn't fit into Ashley's life—it wasn't the truth, it wasn't! She would have been the finest mistress that Twelve Oaks ever saw! Ashley had not married her because-…well, because his father wanted him to marry Melanie. Ashley, unlike Rhett, was honorable enough to follow his father's wishes—anger with him for suggesting that she and Ashley did not 'suit' clouded the fact that she had flagrantly disobeyed her mother's wishes, just like Rhett, since she'd met him again. Instead, her mind filled with the evidence of his vileness.
Fear of raising Pittypat or Melanie kept her from screaming at him to get out of the house. Her intincts had been right, today—behind that veneer of gentility was a malicious desire to attack her—why he was his most vicious when it came to her love for Ashley, she did not know nor ever think about.
"Of course, Ashley Wilkes worships at the altar of honor rather than God, but it comes to the same thing, as far as you're concerned."
Scarlett began to tremble with anger, her rage so apparent that she was rendered almost incapacitated in her desire to let loose with a string of character defaming remarks. He could see the look in her eye, and quickly pulled out of his coat pocket a small package wrapped prettily in pink and gold.
"I, unlike him, worship at the altar of female beauty, and place before you this humble offering," He swept his hand up to hers in an elaborate gesture and plopped the little package into her slender fingers. Instead of screaming at him, she eagerly tore at the pretty paper, not waiting a second to pretend that she had any intention of not accepting the gift. "I give it with the hopes of quelling the potential erupting volcano," He remarked, wryly.
The promise of the present combined with eloquent flattery drove the anger straight out of her mind. She never noticed how Rhett withheld his presents until the opportune moment, always—how he used them to distract her from his most infuriating statements and maximized the amount of time he could stay in the house without being bodily thrown from it.
The rose-shaped silver filigree comb she held in her hands was far too beautiful for her limited verbal qualities to describe in words—but she knew what she saw and wanted it. Greedily, she plucked the comb from the delicate box (which, in her eagerness, she did not notice was quite expensive itself—mahogany wood with ivory detailing) and soaked in its prettiness. She had expected a gift—but one this fine! In her ravenous appreciation for the hair bauble she did not see the mirror image of herself across from her—Rhett's eyes were roaming over her mouth, face, and neck with the same self-centered greed she was so plainly exhibiting.
Unlike Rhett, Scarlett's expression was one of the satiated kind. Rhett had temporarily mollified her need for pretty things and attention—both of which she had been starved for, as of late. As for what Rhett was starved for…
She looked up and saw the same bland and amused expression he always wore.
"Oh, Rhett—it's so pretty!"
Mrs. Hamilton flitted over to the mirror with as much grace and dignity as a widowed cat would have.
"When I saw it, I thought of you—a beautiful bloom, ripe for the plucking—but, alas!" he mock sighed, "Thorns."
She shot him as withering a glance as she could muster, over her shoulder, before eagerly placing the delicate silver creation in her hair. How fine it looked—how well the silver shown in her dark hair! She already began planning the hairstyles she could wear with it—Rhett would come over for dinner, and she'd wear his present, and he'd compliment it, pretend he wasn't the one who'd given it to her in the first place. Rhett was often an accomplice to her lies—he was the only person she'd ever known who could not only lie well, but seemed to find great amusement in her pathetic fibs for the sake of respectability. When she informed him that it was irritation with the fainting spells Pitty would feign for hours upon hearing that she had accepted Rhett's more lavish presents that fueled the bold-faced lying, he applauded what he called her 'self-preservation instincts'.
Melanie suspected they were gifts from Rhett, but Melanie was too silly and timid to ever mention it or doubt sister-in-law's word—so much the better for Scarlett.
She spun around, coquettishly.
"How does it look?"
"May I take that question as an indication that I am forgiven," he asked, "Or am I going to have to bring matching earrings next time I'm here?"
Her eyes gleamed at the thought of silver rose-shaped earrings, but she did not voice the insistent "Yes, yes, yes!" that was crying out in her head.
"I asked you how it looks, Captain Butler. For once, your opinion is desired."
He laughed aloud at the petulant answer.
"That comb is utterly charming, as I'm sure you full well know—vain thing that you are," he raised an eyebrow, "But surely you aren't going to just accept my ill-bred and presumptuous present, Scarlett—usually you pretend to think it over and weigh the potential moral consequences for fifteen seconds before claiming my gifts."
"There's nothing wrong with accepting a darling little comb from you when you've behaved abominably—it's my right." She justified, with a dignity that belied the flimsiness of her excuse.
"If getting you angry before I give you presents will salve your guilty conscience, I'll do it every time," he promised, solemnly.
"Really, though, Rhett—" she said, predictably, "You mustn't bring this sort of thing anymore."
"Ah—like clockwork. I remind you of your duty to your vaulted and saintly mother, and you parrot what you are supposed to say."
She removed the ornament from her hair and put it back in the little box, snapping the lid shut in irritation.
"You don't know my mother, so don't talk about her," she said, almost as a defensive reflex.
Rhett, surprisingly, bowed his head in the closest she had ever seen to an apologetic gesture from him.
"You're right, I suppose. I never did get to meet her, though your father mentioned her several times when he came to give me that stern talking to," he smiled at the memory, "She sounds like a very fine lady."
"She is," was the short and proud response he got.
"She doesn't sound much like you, Scarlett. I don't understand why you insist on trying to be someone you're not—is it worth it?"
The question was asked in a light, breezy tone, as if the answer was of little consequence to him, and was only voiced from some idle curiosity. The implication that she was intrinsically different from Ellen bothered her—she knew, one day, that she would indeed be a 'Great Lady' like Ellen.
That day was a perpetual tomorrow for her.
"What would you have me be, Rhett—like you? Always traipsing about and having bad rumors flying about me?" She pointed at the hated manuscript, indignantly. "You know what I've just realized? You're like the man in that book—a nasty cad who's forgotten civilization because he's been around such bad people and who only cares about himself."
"I'm like Rochester?" was his quizzical question. "Then you're saying all I need is the love of a good and moral woman to break me from my wicked ways. What an interesting perspective—very naive, but interesting. You never cease to surprise me in how one-dimensionally you view the world, Scarlett."
"I think it would take a lot more than a mousey governess to make you into a gentleman," she shot back, peevishly.
"You're right about that. I'm the sort of man who becomes less of a gentleman when the fairer sex is involved, not more of one. Surely you have not been immune to the wagging tongues of Atlanta, declaiming me as a moral reprobate?"
"I make it a point not to listen to idle gossip."
"No, you make it a point to start it, and when you hear it you believe every word, no matter how ridiculous."
"You said that one could fill a book up with your bad deeds. I am only taking your word as the truth." Growing bored with the exchange, and annoyed with her inability to best him verbally, Scarlett returned to preening herself in the mirror. She had been harassed enough by Rhett for one day—it was exhausting work, keeping the black-hearted blockade runner entertained. The pay-off, though—Scarlett smiled at the thought of her pretty new filigree comb—the pay-off was certainly worth it.
"I don't think anything I've done could quite compare to trying to marry someone while I've got a wife still living. That was quite an elaborate secret—I was impressed at his ability to keep it." Rhett rose from the chair, seeming to sense that the gratitude his gift had garnered was flitting out the window, rapidly.
"Do you think that's possible?" asked Scarlett, absently. She had wondered while Melanie read the book if, like Rochester, Ashley was keeping his deep love a secret from the world in the same way.
"Keeping a that sort of secret?"
"Oh, you know…" she colored, "Hiding a marriage, or…or hiding love."
Rhett picked up his hat, seriously contemplating the question.
"Do I think it's possible for a man to want a woman so badly that he's willing to lie about his very marital state to get her? Do I think it's possible for a man to hide his love for a woman so well that not even she realizes it?"
He studied her puzzled expression carefully, as if he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. She stared back. There was a long pause before his serious face broke into a grin.
"I don't know. If I'm ever foolish enough to fall in love, I'll tell you."
Scarlett threw her hands up in the air—typical Rhett. She rolled her eyes dramatically before plopping back down on the sofa. As he was putting on his coat, he picked up Jane Eyre and tossed it to her. Scarlett caught the book, startled.
"Here. I'm impressed with how deep your thoughts become after high literature. You should try reading more often."
"You should try reading a book on manners, Rhett Butler, because you haven't got any!"
"Maybe the next time I come around I'll bring you a novel instead of those earrings I promised."
"You better not if you expect to be ever received by me again, Rhett Butler!"
She could still hear him laughing when the door shut.
Interesting fact: Rhett is widely acknowledged to be a prime example of an American Byronic hero. Look on the wiki for Byronic heroes—he fits every single category. Also, I could not for the life of me find evidence of when the term Byronic hero came into vogue, so chock Rhett's use of it to possible poetic license.