A chance meeting in Charleston, circa 1848.
Free! Free at last!
Strange that after twenty years of life, the happiest he had ever felt was today, the day that his father struck his name from the family Bible and disowned him. After years of half-heartedly trying to gain Stephen's approval, trying to be the son that Stephen Butler wanted, he had given up—in the instant Stephen demanded he do right by Seline Albright and marry her, Rhett knew that he would never be the son his father wanted. Whatever small pleasure that other men got from pleasing their fathers was not worth living the life Stephen had planned for him.
West Point, he thought, wryly, was not worth it.
He would not linger in Charleston long—he'd visit his favorite brothel tonight and get spectacularly drunk, which would have the dual purpose of celebrating his newfound freedom and being one final publicly humiliating shot at his father.
And then, California!
From the first time he heard about the gold fields while at West Point, he'd known he had to see them—uncharted lands, rugged hills, unspoken wealth—just ripe for the taking. All that you needed was enough smarts and guts to reach out and take it, and he had both. Rhett was not one to discard a natural-born talent, and making money would always be one of his hallmark gifts.
Years later, he would admit to himself that a great deal of his zest for making and keeping money stemmed from a desire to prove to his father that he needed neither Stephen nor his inheritance.
He had no long-term plans for the future—he only knew that he wanted to see California. From then on, who knew? Life was an uncharted map.
Rhett Butler was young and reckless and had something to prove. He did not dwell on his heartbroken mother, even at this moment sobbing with grief at the unfixable breach in the family. The image of her face when he left the house was a black spot—he did not want to think of it, he could not, for every time he saw her in his mind's eye the undeniable urge to run far, far away came over him.
He prided himself on looking men square in the eye when dueling, not realizing that there is more than one way to be a coward.
Now, he did not think of his mother. Instead he thought of his father, and the indignant rage on his sire's face put a damned near strut in the son's stride—he was walking on air today.
Rhett decided to visit all the most recognizable and important landmarks in Charleston and tell them all to 'go to hell' before he left the city. It would be the best send-off Charleston had ever had, he thought, strolling down South Battery Street. He barely noticed the boutiques and shops he passed, so engrossed in his own thoughts was he.
Rhett pitied those Southerners who felt tied to a city like Charleston—a city of antiquity, of the past. He was a born trailblazer, meant to forge new paths. The future stretched before him like a blank canvas, waiting to be painted on.
Waiting to be dirtied, he remedied, lecherously. He couldn't wait to get his hands on Teresa, the dark-haired Latin beauty that had caught his eye the first night he'd been back in town since his untimely expulsion. Tonight, Teresa. Tomorrow, the world. Nothing would ever tie him down, or hold him back—Rhett Butler vowed to never again let someone else's wants or desires supercede his own. He thought himself very mature for making this pact—very wise. This desired, self-actualized individualism would be as close to invincible as one could be: his only master, himself.
Lost in the self-indulgent vanity of youth, the lanky 20-year-old did not notice the tiny green ball of energy vaulting towards him until it collided with his leg. He stumbled backward in surprise when a little girl fell down after colliding with him, and was jerked roughly from his wild imaginings of future glory. He looked down instinctually to see what exactly had interrupted his inner monologue.
A pair of large, almond-shaped green eyes stared up at him.
Before he got the chance to examine her any closer, the dark haired little girl looked away, picked herself off the ground and purposefully darted past him into the next shop over.
All at once he realized where he was. He became aware of his surroundings—he was close to the water, South Broad Street. A small child had just run out of the shop in front of him, straight into his leg, fallen down, and run into the next shop over without even stopping to say 'excuse me'. He could not help but laugh self-deprecatingly—here he was, wrapped up in his own importance, and a small child did not think he was worth acknowledging, even after literally running into him!
He expected any minute to see the girl's mother or father come out of the shop she'd come from, looking for her. He strode over to peer into the window, noticing that it was a rather notable Charleston candy emporium—Barton's. Inside the window he saw a stout, bright-eyed man of about fifty, trying in vain to quiet a light brown haired girl of three who was wailing for sweets. While he was shushing her, he bounced a pretty, round-faced baby in his arms. The rest of the store was completely deserted. Rhett immediately deduced that this proud papa had, in his distraction with the younger two, mislaid the third one—there was no other possible parent for her to have.
He decided, then and there, to perform one last good deed for Charleston society and retrieve the little miss. Best to do it quietly and not make the man feel a fool for being incapable of controlling his own children. He wondered, as he doubled back to the shop where he'd seen the girl in the green dress run into, where the mother was in all of this.
The sales clerk looked up from the ledger in front of him when the bell tinkled.
"May I help you…sir?" he asked, not bothering to hide his distaste for this potential customer's garb. Rhett was dressed in the same clothes he'd woken up in, and his dishevelment did not suggest good breeding. He found it amusing thinking about how his younger brother would undoubtedly frequent shops like this in only a few years with their father, picking out waistcoats and suits and hats and ties together.
He liked the idea of having the clothes, just not the dignified ritual his father would undoubtedly turn it into.
"Where's the little girl that ran in here?"
"She's in the other room," he gestured to a smaller side room, presumably designed for dressing, "She said her father was going to come in to be fitted and she had run ahead to see the store. She's an awfully pretty girl, you ought to be proud." He smiled indulgently.
That little liar!
He was impressed—her father was not coming to be fitted at all—and the store clerk had fallen for it.
"She's not my daughter," he remarked, dryly, "Tell me, do I look old enough to have a daughter that age?"
Not bothering to wait for an answer, he strolled into the dressing room.
Sitting on one of the chairs placed along the side of the fitting areas was the little dark haired girl who'd run into him before. She was clad in a knee-length emerald skirt, and she was swinging her legs back and forth on the chair in such a way that her little crinoline petticoat was peaking out above her little black buckled shoes. Beneath her poke bonnet were those large green eyes he'd noticed earlier. The rest of her face was equally arresting, from the dark lashes that framed the jade orbs to the little pointed chin.
While she hummed to herself, with one hand she was artlessly removing her dark hair from the ribbons that held the fashionable plaits constricting it. The other hand was holding the largest piece of fudge Rhett had ever seen, and her cherry-red mouth was currently occupied with taking a rather large bite out of it. Her eyes were focused on the chocolate—clearly not noticing that she was no longer alone in her little sanctuary.
Altogether, it was the most delightfully charming picture he'd ever seen.
"You know, you should really introduce yourself when you run into people. Or at least say hello," he said, after watching her for a moment. She yelped with surprise, and he almost laughed outright at the way she immediately stuck the fudge behind her back guiltily and stopped dislodging her hairstyle, which now hung half undone, the left side a mass of black ringlets while the right was a still primly braided.
"Who're you?" she asked, rudely. He now saw that she couldn't be any older than five years old.
"Well now," he grinned, stepping into the room, "That's not a very nice thing to say to someone you've already met—or at least, someone who wanted to meet you."
The green eyes, narrowed with suspicion, alighted with pride at the compliment. Rhett's gift for perception did him credit—he could see that this was a girl used to being petted and adored. That would help him get her to come with him without a scene—strangely, though, he found himself growing more and more interested in finding out why she had run in here in the first place.
"I'm not to speak to strangers," she said, mechanically, as if it had been told to her so many times that the meaning had all but been lost for the words.
"We wouldn't be strangers if you'd said hello to me before, out there on the street," he said, not in the least bit patronizingly. He never liked being talked to by adults as a child—at least, most adults, for his parents' friends always spoke down to him. One of his many goals as a newly established free agent in the world was never to speak down to children, who were, as he could still recall—not being far from childhood himself—people too. "Why were you in such a hurry, anyway?"
He saw the little arms unconsciously slip behind her and clench the piece of fudge, coupled with a guilty, furrowed brow and biting of the lip.
"I saw your father in the shop with two other little girls, who I assume are your sisters…why did you want to leave your family in such a hurry, hm?" He wondered if it was a bit mean, teasing the child this way—but she didn't seem to be close to crying, as her sister was. In fact, her squirming suggested there was an escape plan in the works. The little cherub-faced girl had lit a spark of interest in him, and he was curious to hear what she'd say.
"Sue's a crybaby. She was bein' noisy," was the short reply he got. Her accent, he noted, was not Charleston—it sounded like it could be Georgian.
"Oh? So it wouldn't have anything to do with—" he artlessly walked over to her and grabbed the candy from behind her back, "—This?"
The pseudo-innocent expression he'd seen on the little face fled the instant he touched her prize.
"Hey! That's mine," she cried, indignantly, "Give it back."
"Before I do, I must ask," he held it above her head, "Miss, did you steal this fudge? Be honest and I'll return it to you."
She stopped jumping in the air to get the candy and stared up at him, defiantly. He could see the moral dilemma on her face—she was weighing the choice between admitting that she'd, as he amusedly suspected, run out of the store with fudge that had not been purchased, or not saying anything and risk not getting it back at all.
"No, I didn't steal it," she finally answered, "Now, can I have it back, sir?"
When she smiled, her cheeks dimpled charmingly.
"I said I'd give it back to you when you gave me an honest answer. And I think you ran out of that store sans paying. Tell me, is that so?"
She stamped her foot in frustration at him and he wondered if he was about to be assaulted by a small girl for the second time in the same day.
"There was a whole pile of them sitting there an' Pa said if he bought one for me than Mother would scold him for spoilin' dinner—but he promised me I'd get a treat for having tea with Auntie 'Lalie and Auntie Pauline," was her roundabout way of answering in the affirmative. He could see she was angry that her lie had been seen through—her eyes gleamed with a petulant, childish rage, somewhat dampened by a shamefaced look.
"Well then," he handed the stolen fudge back to her, "That makes perfect sense to me."
Greedily, she snatched it back from his hands and settled back into the little chair she'd been nestled on when he entered the room. Rhett marveled at this little creature's moral compass—or lack thereof.
"You promise not to tell Mother?" was her sincere question to him, between gulps.
Ah, well—not completely gone. Still, he found himself strangely admiring her nerve at such a grand theft—he didn't think he started pinching candy from the store until he was at least eight or nine.
"I promise," vowed her bemused companion, carefully removing the pile of fine linen handkerchiefs from the chair next to her and settling in, "We'll just wait until you're finished and take you back to the Barton's—" He was fairly certain Daddy dearest had not yet managed the monumental task of calming down the other girl. "—And no one will be the wiser."
Satisfied with this explanation, she devoured her chocolate without comment. Her companion found he could not take his eyes off her—she was the first person he'd seen in a very long time that just did what they wanted without being held back by the limitations of society. It seemed a strange thought, but as he watched her guilelessly munch on the fudge, he felt an odd sort of kinship with the miniature thief.
"So, little girl, do you have a name?"
"I'm not little. I'm almost five years old," was the stubborn answer through a mouthful of candy. She gulped, "'Sides, you're little, too. You're still a boy."
"Why am I still a boy?"
"Men have beards, like my Pa," She pointed at his clean-shaven face, "You don't have a beard or a mous-a muos-" She stumbled over the large word.
"A moustache?" he supplied.
"Uh-huh. One of those." She was entirely matter-of-fact in her understanding of adulthood. "You need one to be a man. Mr. Tarleton and Mr. Wilkes has one, too."
Rhett found his hand unconsciously raising to his smooth face. Why didn't he have a beard or moustache? All distinguished men had…was he actually taking advice on this matter from a four-year-old girl?
"You aren't going to tell me your name?" he persisted with the original question.
"I…" she looked up into his dark eyes, childishly appraising him, "My real name is Katie."
Katie…Somehow, it seemed like too common a name for such an uncommon child.
"Your real name?"
"Uh-huh. But it's…not my favorite name," she whispered conspiratorially, "I don't know you well enough to tell you that."
Her favorite name? What did that mean?
"Your…favorite name?" he echoed.
She bobbed her head up and down sagely.
"It's the one I like. But I only tell people Mother or Pa knows," she thought for a moment, "Or people who I like lots."
"Well, maybe one of these days you'll like me enough to tell me."
He didn't know why he said it—he would never see this little girl again, because he was leaving Charleston forever and she didn't even live here in the first place. He never said things like that—it was a stupid, sentimental thing to say. As if there would be another day to see her…
"Maybe." She grinned up at him cheekily, and then raised her unoccupied hand to finish the arduous task of taking her hair out of the tight plaits it was in. Her tiny, stubby fingers, coated with fudge, were having a difficult time untying the double-knotted emerald ribbon that held the plait on the right side of her dark head. He observed her struggling to untangle it from her hair for a minute, before his hand shot out in frustration.
"Here, let me do it." He deftly untied it in an instant. She jerked her head away from his, irritably.
"I don't need your help," she whined, impetuously. Rhett found himself becoming inordinately annoyed at his efforts being brushed off so carelessly. Katie was a stubborn one, he could see that—wouldn't a normal child have welcomed being assisted?
"Fine," he said, coolly, as she finished unbraiding her hair. It hung in charming little ringlets now, framing the chocolate-covered face perfectly. "Why were you taking it out, anyhow?"
"The plaits hurt. Mammy put them in because I'm supposed to look nice for my Aunties," she pulled a face, "But they're boring and I don't want to look nice for them."
He guffawed at her candor—from the mouth's of babes, as they said!
"Why are you laughing at me?"
"I like people who tell the truth, that's all. I'm not laughing at you, I'm er, just very happy."
Her grimace suggested she didn't believe him.
"So you're visiting your aunts, are you?"
"Uh-huh. Mother's with them right now, and we're going back to see them soon."
She finished her fudge at the same time she finished her speech—Rhett was amazed at how quickly and easily she'd managed to polish off a piece of candy that seemed about as large as she was. Having not taken much care while she was gorging herself, rather prominent brown marks were smeared all over her rosy cheeks. Lackadaisically, she attempted to wipe it off her mouth with the back of her hand—to no avail.
"How'd I look?" was her question, a trace of coquettishness that indicated a future as a belle in the works.
"I think you missed a spot," Rhett answered, not bothering to keep the amusement out of his voice. For all his attempts to show children as much respect as he could, he found himself wanting to tease this one more and more. Perhaps all people were meant to be teased a bit—certainly her reactions were wildly entertaining, and that was worth it. "Here, let me get that for you…"
He dug through his pocket for a handkerchief, but the only thing he came up with was a handful of lint. Suddenly, he noticed the pile of linens he'd deposited on the floor earlier—including a very fine selection of colored men's handkerchiefs. An idea struck him.
If it's a good enough method for Katie, it's good enough for me.
He glanced through the doorway at the sales clerk, before grabbing the steel gray silk striped handkerchief off the top of the pile and handing it to Katie, with a flourish. She giggled at the overwrought gesture.
"Are you supposed to take that?" she asked, in a voice of scandalized delight.
"I won't tell anyone if you don't," he smiled down at her, and gently began to help her remove the stubborn marks from her face with the little piece of cloth. His hand brushed her smooth cheek and a tendril of raven-black hair grazed his thumb.
Her hair is so soft.
"There you go," he said, gently, cleaning off the last of the muddy residue from her petite hands, "Clean as a whistle."
He pocketed the now-soiled handkerchief, figuring that the store probably wouldn't want it anymore—so why not appropriate it? He was nothing if not practical—and immoral.
Katie plopped down onto the floor and gave him a very clumsy curtsy, her skirts touching the ground unseemly. He bowed politely back at her.
"You're very welcome, Miss Katie—now, shall I escort you back to your father?"
"I guess Pa'll worry," she answered, a trace of guilt in her voice, "So I should get back."
She skittered out of the room, Rhett close on her heels. The chubby little four-year-old legs clumsily skipped out of the store, and her twenty-year-old rescuer followed merrily on her heels, waving jauntily at the store clerk with the own stolen merchandise as they passed.
In the bright, mid-afternoon sun outside the shop, the gold detailing on Katie's dress sparkled brightly—clearly this visit to the aunts was a formal occasion—but it did not sparkle as brightly as the eyes of the child who had successfully duped her father and charmed an accomplice into the bargain. Said accomplice found her joy infectious—as good as he'd been feeling before she'd stumbled into his path, his mood now was downright giddy. He was on the verge of whistling a merry tune as he accompanied the little moral reprobate back to her father and out of his life again.
"Well, Katie, I guess this is it." He felt oddly wistful at handing her back to her father. As his last good deed in Charleston, letting go of the girl was akin the last bond he had with the city snapping. He could not explain where this emotion, so alien to him not twenty minutes before, should have come from. "You'd better run inside—looks as though your father is searching the store for you."
The stout man was calling for Katie, now, and as Rhett peered through the glass he could also hear his voice, faintly—was that an Irish brogue?
"Well, thank you, sir," she curtsied again, before turning to run inside Barton's.
"Wait a minute," he stopped her, "I have a name, you know. Don't you want to thank me by name?"
"If I know your name, I'll have to write you a thank you letter."
Honest to the end—he had to laugh. He'd never heard a more benign and selfish reason to not want to know someone's name. If indeed he'd ever heard someone refuse to hear an introduction at all.
"I don't expect a thank you letter—but do let me give you a show of my esteem, Katie," he proclaimed, "Hold out your hand."
She did so, cautiously, and Rhett brushed a gentlemanly kiss on the back of her tiny hand. He looked up to see that her face had gone about as red as a cherry tomato—he grinned and winked, and the girl's response was to yank her hand jerkily out of his, embarrassed.
"You're strange. I never met anyone like you," she said.
"You've got a long way ahead of you, Miss…but if it's worth anything, I've never met anyone exactly like you, either."
Brimming with pride, her mouth broke into a smile.
"We're going to be here till Tuesday—will you be here tomorrow?"
Tomorrow…tomorrow was the day he left this place for good, and started a new life, free from promises, attachments and duty. Free from everything that held people back in the short time they were given on this earth.
"We'll see about tomorrow, Katie," he said, finally, "You go in and see your Pa, he'll be worried about you."
"If you're here tomorrow, I'll tell you my favorite name!" And without so much as a goodbye, she ran into the shop, green skirt flying behind her. As he looked in the glass, he could see the back of a straw poke bonnet go flying towards the Irishman, and he glimpsed the beginning of a gentle scolding before tearing himself away from the glass and continuing his final tour of the city he was born in.
His heart was a little less buoyant than it had been before—he felt, somehow, like a little bit of his freedom had been unwittingly stolen from him. There was no explanation for it—Rhett's excitement had seemed unending, but now it was…dampened.
He shook his head and tried to put any and all dark thoughts out of his mind—he would not allow chance encounters with families make him think at all about the merits of settling down, of family…of what having children might be like. Adventure still called, and he was still ready for it—learning Katie's 'favorite name' would be a childish diversion, anyhow.
That night, looking in the dank mirror at Madame Farelli's house of ill repute, he wondered what he would look like with a moustache—not thinking at all about who had planted the seed of the idea in his head.