Thanks to everyone who read a section of this/helped with sentence structure/listened to me whine about writers' block. Enjoy, and remember, I know when you favorite the story but don't review…I know.
"Scarlett engaged again. Ashley, can you believe it?"
He could. He really could believe it—though he'd never gotten the impression that Scarlett enjoyed being married to either one of her first two husbands, he was not at all surprised that a man had wanted his feisty, irresistible sister-in-law enough to cajole her into becoming the third. That afternoon Scarlett informed the closest thing she had to a family in Atlanta of the engagement she'd kept secret for months.
"And to Captain Butler, of all people."
He felt something drop to the pit of his stomach. To Captain Butler…how soon after Scarlett was attacked and the notorious Rhett Butler saved all their necks had he proposed marriage to her? Scarlett was evasive on the subject, her eyes had darted from one side to the other when Melanie asked so naively, "You haven't been keeping us in the dark too long, have you, Scarlett dear?"
He remembered that Butler left soon after Frank died—the a few days later, he wagered, and that he was gone from Atlanta for nearly two months. Ashley never indulged in idle gossip himself, but everyone else he knew did—that was how he knew that Rhett Butler left town swiftly after the night of the Klan raid. Once he returned to Atlanta, he came and went just as he always did, lingering in the city perhaps a bit more than he had the previous year and a half. Whenever Ashley saw him, Rhett always shot him the most irritating looks—a mixture of casual disdain and ill-gotten triumph. Not that he saw Butler very often, the two men hardly traveled in the same circles, thank God—but even if they did, Ashley knew that the Rhett would never seek him out. Rhett Butler was suavely polite to everyone, but even so, Ashley felt dislike radiating from him whenever they were in the same room. It was something that his guilty conscience guessed the source of, had been suspicious of for months, and was cemented the night of the raid.
He would never forget the needlessly aggressive way that Butler hauled him to his feet that night, after he was wounded. He was drifting in and out of consciousness from the lost blood, but the harsh words his 'savior' muttered into his ear could not be easily mistaken or forgotten.
"It'd be so easy to put us both out of our misery, do you know that? I could shoot you and no one would be the wiser—but no, then you'd be a martyr to her, sacrificed on the cross of her non-existent honor."
He fell unconscious after that, so if Butler said anything further he would never know.
And now Scarlett was marrying this man—but why she was he could not be sure. He ashamedly knew the reason she married both her husbands, and he blamed himself for both unions. Charles she married to make him jealous, he suspected it at the time and had his belief confirmed on his furlough. Frank she married for the money to pay the taxes on Tara, something he could not help but feel guilty for. He could do nothing for her, he was incapable of raising the money—he blamed himself for her unhappy second marriage.
But Rhett Butler—he was an altogether different story. Scarlett no longer needed Butler's money, even if she once came to Atlanta with the express purpose of getting it. He'd only ever heard his childhood friend insult the infamous blockade runner—but they were also often spotted driving to the mills together, and Melanie's matronly friends often whispered in Aunt Pitty's parlor about the friendship between Captain Butler and Scarlett Kennedy. They made the word friendship sound unclean, with the way they muttered about the untoward behavior between a married woman and a man of dubious reputation—and now that the two were engaged, he could only imagine how tongues would wag.
He said nothing to Scarlett that afternoon about his misgivings—nothing at all, for truly, what right had he to? What claim did he have, truly? It would be the sheerest hypocrisy to try and deny her the freedom to marry, no matter how often he thought about the last time he held her in his arms, over two years before.
Sometimes, when he would lie awake next to Melanie, sleep never coming as easily as it did before the war, he would think back to that day in January—his guilty heart incapable of repressing the memory of how those red lips had stood out against the dreary gray that his world, their world had become. He allowed himself to recall how she'd felt in his arms—the way that just touching her, holding her for those few stolen moments had transferred some of her life-giving force to him—as though he had even a tenth of her will and spirit beating below his breast, and not his shimmering, faint presence, growing dimmer with every passing day since the last barbeque at Twelve Oaks. Scarlett was life personified—everything beautiful and terrible about humanity was reflected in those green eyes. She was to him as the sirens were to Ulysses. He'd tied himself to the 'mast' of Tara and now suffered the agony of being near enough to hear her plaintive cry, but incapable of doing anything about it.
The ropes had slipped that day, though, because his hazy world was dead and buried and Scarlett was real. She was alive and warm in front of him, the only thing of beauty left from his former life and he clung to her—if only to affirm that such a life had once existed. When everything in his life was an indistinct, glittering dream Scarlett had been too sharp, too in focus. He saw her infatuation with him, appreciated her beauty more than he wanted to admit—but he could never bring himself to factor her into his plans for the future. Melanie was his ideal woman, she was what he pictured in Twelve Oaks. She would run the house gently, with elegance and womanly grace that Scarlett, for all her charms, lacked. She was unrefined, unpolished and would suit Brent Tarleton's wild ways far better than his own. Scarlett was too coarse and spirited, too like her father—like a wild horse, to be admired for what it was but never ridden. Now, since he'd returned from war and death and starvation to the merciless toil of survival, he was seeing her with new eyes and new admiration. Scarlett stood out against the wasteland as testament to sheer force of will. She always shined before the War seemingly effortlessly, her belle status was proof of that. Now though, now that civilization had toppled over and left a pile of wreckage in its wake, she was all the more bright, all the more remarkable. While her light was glaring before the War, it was now a guiding beacon to everyone at Tara, he included.
To have her in front of him, declaring absolute devotion was too heady—he was only human, only a man, not the God her words would suggest, and the temptation to take what was offered drove him to kiss her.
She did transfer some of her life force to him that day—he had kissed her because he wanted her, badly, not because it was his right or privilege. He became like her, taking what he wanted, the devil with the consequences—only the traits that were so admirable in Scarlett were, in him, disgusting and filled him with both self-loathing and some other, wholly primitive feeling. For a man who loved art and poetry and civilization, the feelings that such a woman instilled in him were almost frightening. There was nothing refined about what he wanted to do to her, what had taken all his willpower to prevent himself from doing.
And yet he could not help himself from looking on it with regret for what did not happen between them—but what could have.
"Ashley, dear, you haven't said a word since we got home—are you feeling quite alright?"
Melanie's sincere concern brought him out of his deep musings with a start.
"I'm sorry, dear, I was just…" he trailed off, "…lost in my thoughts. What was it you said?"
"I said that you didn't say a word to congratulate Scarlett on her engagement. I thought you were quite rude." This was about as chiding as Melanie ever got—and she was quite right, he'd barely said anything when Scarlett told them all of her upcoming nuptials.
"Melly, I'm…concerned about Scarlett," he sighed heavily and sat down on the bed, "Rhett Butler has a very bad reputation, and I don't think she should be marrying a man she knows so little of."
"But Scarlett knows Captain Butler very well, darling. He used to come and call on us all the time during the war—and he would always escort Scarlett to dances and socials," She sat next to her husband, struck by his heartfelt concern for her dear sister, "She's just the sort of woman who can't stay unmarried for very long—I'm surprised Captain Butler didn't ask her to marry him before." She gently placed a hand on Ashley's shoulder, rubbing him soothingly, "As for what he's supposedly done, I am certain that it's not so. He always acted a complete gentleman to us, I'll never forget when he retrieved my wedding ring for me after I gave it up for the Cause—and he saved you and all the rest of the boys! He must be a gentleman."
Melanie said it with such naive certainty that her husband, not for the first time, wondered how she made it through an entire upheaval of their way of life with her innocence completely intact. Scarlett…it was brave Scarlett who had kept Melanie so safe and sheltered, just as he asked her to. It was through the intercession of courageous Scarlett that Beau was kept alive when he was born, that Beau had been sheltered and ate.
"Oh, Ashley, I'd—I'd do anything for you!"
He blanched at the vivid memory, and, lying to Melanie about why he'd turned white, left the house, citing 'needing a bit of fresh air' as his reason. He decided to take a walk. He was not a man who often roamed the streets at night, preferring the pleasures of Dante or Sophocles to Atlanta after hours. Tonight, though…he needed to think, and he always felt guilty thinking about Scarlett in any capacity when he was lying next to his wife, who considered the woman he was unfaithful with in his fantasies her sister.
The former Major in the army of the Confederacy scarcely noticed where he was walking, so engrossed was he in his thoughts.
He let his mind drift to Rhett Butler, the man he met the same day his engagement to Melanie was announced, the same day Scarlett told him she loved him, only a few days after Fort Sumter was fired on and their lives were irrevocably changed. He disliked the older man's manners from the first, the arrogance with which he spoke of the Confederacy's chances was gallingly rude, but he knew the words were the truth. Butler was no fool. He was intelligent—obviously educated, from good Southern stock, but he rejected it all in his youth and still managed to accrue more wealth than he probably would have inherited anyway, from what Ashley understood of his past. None of his money was made in an honest way, of course—making his way down the rain soaked streets, he thought of Scarlett traipsing off to Atlanta in her green poitiers dress. Scarlett had made her money in 'an honest way'—of a sort. She did what she had to in order to secure the money for Tara, the plantation he was certain, deep down, she loved far more than she did him. She'd fought for it, that was for certain.
There were some people who could survive and flourish, no matter what the circumstances—and then there were people like him.
The night was a balmy and wet spring weather, clouds blowing about the sky swiftly and casting strange shadows on the moon. The rain that marked the day earlier was now subsided, but Ashley, as he walked down the miserable streets of the city he never wanted to live in the first place, was certain it would start again. The problem of the rain would be a nice distraction from the more complex struggles he grappled with every night.
The National loomed in front of him now, the newly renovated structure making him feel all the more old and worn down. The night was mild, in spite of the light rain earlier, and there was a bustle of people coming in and out of the hotel, even at this late hour—just past midnight. Most of the folks were fashionably dressed and quite gay, and Ashley found their shrill laughter jarring, even grating. Clearly most of them were Northerners or speculators, that was the only explanation for their expensive clothing and having the means to stay at a place like the National in the first place.
When was the last time I heard people laughing? Honest, good laughter?
He closed his eyes and could see them all in his mind's eye, the Fontaines, the Calverts, the Monroes…Boyd Tarleton, whom he'd always gotten along well with, Brent and Stuart, Tom—they were all at Twelve Oaks. It was the Christmas of 1860—Melanie and Charles were visiting, too. There was flirting and merriment, Twelve Oaks had always been beautiful in the winter months. The tree was the largest they'd ever had, nearly twelve feet tall, and it stood in the main foyer of Twelve Oaks, graceful and tall, a testament to everything the Wilkes family loved in life. His mother, he was certain, would have loved that tree. The O'Haras were there, too, that Christmas. Little Carreen, barely 13, besotted with Brent Tarleton who could not take his eyes off her older sister, sullen Suellen…and Scarlett. Scarlett stood out to him, her gay laughter a clear bell, he could hear it in his head over everything else…
"What brings you out so late, Mr. Wilkes?"
Scarlett's laughter ceased immediately as Ashley realized who was standing in front of him. He'd been so lost in his wistful imaginings of happier days that he must not have noticed Rhett Butler coming out of the hotel. Faintly annoyed, Ashley wondered how long Butler had been standing there, watching him—he was leaning against the building with an almost bored but still slightly amused look on his face.
"Forgive me, Captain Butler, for not noticing you, I was lost in my thoughts," he could barely conceal the wistful tone in his voice, "Good evening."
"Very good, I expect—I was just going out to enjoy it," he replied, blandly, "I see you've already been enjoying it for some time."
He suddenly stood up straight, leaning away from the building and revealing his full height. Butler was tall—taller than him, Ashley faintly noticed, and he was broad-shouldered and well-built. He was the only man Ashley ever knew that seemed as though he would be just as much at home in the Paris Opera House as he would in the Roman Coliseum or on a pirate ship. While everything from his accent to his shoes reeked of taste and class, there was always a sense of irony in what he said—as if the disdainfully polite man in front of him was acting a part for no sake but his own amusement.
"Yes I—" he started awkwardly, as Butler coolly surveyed him, "It's very…pleasant out." Even while he spoke the faint patter of spring rain washed over his words, nearly drowning him out.
"Pleasant is, I'm sure, your preferred sort of evening, Mr. Wilkes," he answered, smoothly. The remark was innocuous in itself; it was the non-committal sort of comment that men of their acquaintance would make. From Butler's mouth, though, there was some underlying insult, some hidden barb swimming just out of reach. Ashley couldn't pinpoint it precisely, but the way he raised his eyebrow while saying the word 'pleasant' was almost challenging.
"Why yes, I suppose it is," was his answer, said with more strength. Butler's eyes glittered even in the dark underneath the impressive hotel, an eerie bright spot in the darkness. An awkward silence fell over the two men, until Ashley finally said, in a stiff, formal tone, "May I be among the first to congratulate you on your engagement?"
Rhett Butler stepped out of the shadow he'd been half hiding in, for the first time his expression clear, revealed in the moonlight newly freed from behind the sparse clouds. His face, the younger man was surprised to see, bore not the usual calculated, shrewd or impudently bored look he saw on it every other time they met.
Instead an unaffected, maliciously gleeful grin greeted his eyes, every one of Butler's straight white teeth visible against the darkness of his skin and clothing, showing up brilliantly against the oddly changeable night.
"My sincerest thanks. You're the first to congratulate me, if you can believe it." His eyes were narrowed, not meeting the rather insincere smirk on his smug face. Not for the first time, Ashley wondered how much he knew.
"Come on, Butler, I thought you'd offered to pay for all of our drinks!" One of the well-dressed men lingering outside of the hotel, about 15 feet away from where Ashley was standing, called. They were Northern in accent—some of his wealthier friends, perhaps Yankee officers, three or four of them, each with a tawdry looking woman attached at the hip. The girls were swaying in a drunken fashion, clear proof that the group of people plying Butler for more liquor had no need for it.
Ashley was certain that he'd never seen a more dreadfully distasteful sight in his whole life. Rhett Butler just laughed, turning back to them and issuing a wry salute. Ashley could not see the face that accompanied his next words.
"I pride myself, Dick, on my generosity, but don't you think questioning it after four rounds is a bit much?" He waved them off, "Go on, I promise to pay tomorrow if it will get you off my back."
"You'll pay every night until you marry that spitfire little widow of yours, Butler—I can see it now," The man crudely shot back as he and his party stumbled off to the next stop on their train ride of debauchery. "I've got to make the most of your 'genorosity' before you're bored with her!"
He and the other men howled with laughter, and Ashley felt his fist clench in anger—anger at Scarlett being held in such contempt by people so decidedly below her, and anger at his inability to do anything about it. Standing behind Butler, the dark-haired man's face still concealed from him, he could see a subtle change in body language. The good Captain, so easy to compare to a jungle cat—his hackles raised, and his broad shoulders tensed up at the words. When he turned back to Ashley, his face was marred with a self-effacing disgust.
"No matter how much time I spend up North," he said, his eyes coldly amused, "I never get used to their accents." His face was a blank mask, the remark irrelevant. Ashley found the longer the conversation went on the less steady he ground he was standing on was. Rhett Butler had a way of setting him off-balance effortlessly. "You went to school up north, didn't you, Mr. Wilkes? Have you ever gotten used to them?"
He narrowed his eyes.
"I went to the University of Virginia."
"I was under the impression you attended Harvard, like your cousin. My mistake," he replied, unapologetically.
Rhett Butler was not the type of man to make such a presumption. Ashley was certain that he'd made the remark solely for the purpose of irritation—he didn't know why such an assumption should annoy him, but it did.
"I may not have gone to school up north, but I did visit New York and Boston several times before the War…and no, sir, I can't say I ever have gotten used to their accents."
England, France, Italy, New York…even Butler's Charleston accent was strange to him, on some level.
"Come inside the hotel and have a drink with me." Ashley held up his hands, but before he could protest, Rhett cut him off, "It's on me—besides, you look like you need it. The rain is getting heavier, it'd be better to wait for it to let up with something warm in you."
Seeing no polite way to rebuff him, Ashley Wilkes followed Rhett Butler through the archway and into the National Hotel's elaborate lobby. Next to the restaurant was the hotel's bar, where the two men ended up, side by side.
"Evening, Johnny," said Butler to the bartender, a freckly red-headed man about the same age as Ashley, "I'll have a the usual—Aberlour, neat. And for Mr. Wilkes—?" He turned, questioning, to his reluctant drinking partner.
"I'll have scotch," he said firmly to the bartender, not playing Butler's game of ordering an impressive vintage, "On the rocks."
"Make Mr. Wilkes's a double, Johnny," said Rhett, right before the bartender turned around to start making the drinks, "He's had some bad news today."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Wilkes," he said, sympathetically.
The man had already gone back to retrieve the Aberlour whiskey, leaving Ashley no time to formulate a response to he caustic remark. He turned back to Butler, who was wearing another self-satisfied look.
"So, Scarlett told you today?" Johnny slide them the drinks from the other end of the bar, and Butler caught his and downed it with a flourish.
"Who was with you?"
"Aunt Pitty, Melanie, Ella and Wade—she told us all this afternoon."
Understanding passed over Rhett's face.
"Ah—that explains it."
"Explains what?" he asked, stiffly, drinking his own liquor carefully, with care.
"Why you look so dower—well, part of it, anyway. Since Ms. Melly and Pitty were there when she told you, you had no chance to give her your misgivings."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he sniffed.
"I'm sure you do, but that's immaterial." He grinned and gestured at the bartender to get him another drink. "How did Pitty react to the news? Did she threaten to faint?"
He gave a small smile in response to the query.
"Scarlett didn't give her the chance to." She almost had, though, until Scarlett snapped at her to pull herself together.
"No doubt your wife extolled my virtues to you," he said off-handedly, drinking his second whiskey, this time more slowly, "Mrs. Wilkes could see the good in death row inmates." The sincerity in Rhett's voice was obvious, and Ashley found the compliment, coming from such an obvious cynic, distinctly odd. He felt his heart swell too, though, because if there was anyone on this earth that deserved a compliment, it was his Melly.
"She has assured me that you are, despite rumors to the contrary, a gentleman."
"Proof that even the brightest of young woman can be woefully misinformed." He seemed to delight in his own vice and shortcomings. Ashley was told that Butler, during the war, often made a point of saying how little he cared about the outcome, as long as he walked away with a profit. This same man had joined the army, though, according to Scarlett…he was a mass of contradictions.
"So, Mr. Wilkes, I know that Ms. Pittypat is shocked—unsurprising—and your wife is certain my oft-reported vice is all a grave misunderstanding. But I hear none of your thoughts on the matter—what do you make of it?" he asked, as if they were having a mild discussion on the recent bad weather and not a conversation about his pending marriage.
"I only want what's best for Scarlett," he said, carefully, and Butler actually had the audacity to laugh aloud.
"You're concerned with her well-being?"
There was as much accusation in it as there was disbelief.
"Of course I am."
"Then, pray explain to me why you allowed her to marry her first two husbands?" he asked, smoothly.
"Who Scarlett married was none of my concern—"
"Spare me whatever gentlemanly platitude you have lined up, and have another drink," he roughly shoved another shot of whiskey down the bar (Johnny was familiar with Rhett's drinking habits, apparently), but his companion took it quite willingly this time. "I can understand you letting her marry Frank Kennedy, she did that while you were still at Tara—thought I'm sure you knew she'd come to me for that money first."
He did know. He'd known all along what Scarlett was going to do when she left the farm, but this was the first actual confirmation he'd had of what he suspected. The shame he felt was caused by an admission from, ironically enough, Rhett Butler himself.
"Frank, as we both know, was for money. Scarlett's above all a practical woman, I doubt you could have convinced her otherwise once she made up her mind about having old Frank. It's Charles Hamilton I'm wondering about—why the hell you let a girl of no more than seventeen marry your cousin, who you knew she neither loved nor had any chance of happiness with, is a quandary quite beyond me."
"You don't know that there was no chance of happiness between them—Charles loved her," Ashley shot back with surprising sharpness, knowing full well the other man was right, "How much of this has Scarlett told you, and how much of it is from your own…deductions?" He had always been able to hold his liquor well, but Butler seemed to be producing it from nowhere, and every free drink he shoved at Ashley he took. The more he drank, the bolder the usually reserved man became.
"I haven't been her willing confidante, if that's what you're asking. I've had to pry the truth out of her, but over the years I've made a pretty clear picture of it. Scarlett's an easy read—but about Charles Hamilton—"
"If you must know, I did try to convince him not to go through with it," This was none of Rhett Butler's business, really, but Butler made him feel on-edge and defensive. His eyes were bleary, too—how many had he had?
"Oh? How?" He shot back, as the conversation picked up speed.
"I told him I thought it was too fast, that he ought to wait—he absolutely refused to budge, though, and Melanie encouraged him. She's always liked Scarlett, even before she married Charles."
"Well, she and Scarlett do share some…things," was his nasty rebuttal, the allusion meant to be obvious, "But tell me, ye who claims to care, don't you think telling him it was you and not he she was so besotted with might have convinced him not to marry Scarlett?"
The question had the triple effect of being rude, well phrased, and devastatingly correct at its core, in spite of the impropriety of its utterer. Did Scarlett tell him about her short courtship with Charles, how he had stood by and watched her give herself away to a man he knew, without a doubt, she did not love?
"Charles was totally enamored with her, it was the first time I'd ever seen him assert himself about anything. I didn't have the heart to crush his hopes that way."
"Didn't have the heart to? But you had no qualms about allowing Scarlett to shackle herself to a man she didn't love indefinitely."
"If you think me so low, sir, I wonder what you gain by inviting me for a drink." Ashley watched Rhett knock another one back and tried not to imagine this impressively large man with Scarlett, on Scarlett's arm, kissing her… "From the way Scarlett spoke about you at Tara, it seems you've done your fair share of failing her as well. Did you not leave her on the road to Jonesboro?"
His conversational sparring partner's eyes lowered to the drink in his hand. Unless Ashley was mistaken, Rhett Butler was weighing the validity of the point.
"You're right—I did," he conceded finally, "I never claimed to be sinless, though—I hear of your vaulted sainthood enough to almost believe you had fashioned the myth and not Scarlett." His good humor returned, and Ashley did not find he had the strength to dwell on the man's words or give his cryptic barbs a great deal of thought. He was worried about where such musings would lead.
"I'm bothering you with all my vulgar talk of morality, I'll stop. I keep forgetting I'm in a such a good mood." He smiled self-indulgently and took out his gold pocket watch to check the time leisurely. "You've known Scarlett longer than I have, tell me, Mr. Wilkes—where do you think she'd like to go on her honeymoon?" Innocently asked, Ashley felt the full impact and intent of the question like a punch to the stomach. For the first time, he felt honest-to-goodness jealousy when thinking of Scarlett with another man—even with every beaux she'd had as a young belle, even with her previous two husbands, he'd never felt so threatened by a man in Scarlett's life.
He was now facing a real rival for Scarlett's affections. Scarlett was willful and bullheaded, Butler would encourage her in her hoyden behavior until there was nothing left of the girl with the passion for living who claimed he held her heart. Butler wasn't good for Scarlett, he would just discard her when he found something new to chase, and Ashley would be left with a broken shell. Scarlett, and, he realized obliquely, her misguided feelings for him, were one of the few things he had left over from the old days.
He wanted to hold onto them and her, desperately, even while knowing that it would be good for neither of them.
"I'm not sure where Scarlett would enjoy going, I'm certain she'd like anywhere you picked," he answered noncommittally. He tried not to picture Scarlett on her honeymoon with Butler, but treacherous imagination that God gave him, he could not help it. Scarlett and Rhett were an attractive pair, they looked well together—he could see them dressed in the type of clothing Butler wore every day, expensive dinner wear, out at a restaurant, at the theater…going back to a hotel room.
He swallowed hard.
"You don't think Paris or London would make a difference?" Rhett queried, almost coyly, "I almost considered Venice, but I'm not sure she'd care for all the water."
"You would go all the way to Europe for your honeymoon?" Extravagant, to say the least. Even in their heyday most people did not splurge so brazenly on a honeymoon trip—somewhere far nearer was generally deemed more appropriate for a young bride. Trips to Europe were saved for gentleman, for the Grand Tour—not that Southern women never saw Europe, but it was more unusual.
"I considered it, but I decided I would rather go somewhere by train than boat. I don't want to wait that long to get her in a hotel room."
Ashley slammed his glass down onto the counter and rose, intending to leave this time, truly. With surprising swiftness Rhett grabbed his arm and held him, immobile on his stool.
"Have I touched a nerve?" he asked, softly. There was a dangerous glint in his dark, slightly narrowed eyes. Ashley found himself lowering slowly back into his seat.
"If there's something you have to say to me, Captain Butler, I wish you would just say it," he returned, to which said Butler raised one eyebrow, clearly impressed. "I'm tired of these mind games."
"There are a great deal of things I would like to say to you, Mr. Wilkes, but I daresay some of them will keep. Satisfy my curiosity on one more point and I promise never to accost you on the street again—you have my word as a gentleman." He smiled at some private joke. "I was wondering if you'd at all thought about why Scarlett is marrying me."
The look on Ashley's face must have confirmed his beliefs, because Rhett looked positively delighted. How had he known that that very thought had been brewing in his head before coming into the National? That all day he had been wondering if Scarlett's affections had been transferred to someone else…but no, after the way she cajoled him into working at the mills, they couldn't have—or could they?
"Ah—I see the thought has crossed your mind. Well, let me set your mind at rest and tell you why the woman whose love you squander and body you covet is walking down the aisle for a third time—" Taking it from his inner pocket with the unnecessary bravado only competition between inebriated males can bring, he slammed a one hundred dollar bill onto the counter in between them.
"—Cold, hard cash."
Ashley stared at it. Such a huge sum of money—he would probably never hold a bill that large in his life again, except perhaps in some transaction for the mills. And here was Butler, who could throw it down on a table at the bar like it was worth as much as the paper it was printed on. Rhett Butler laughed at the shock he was not bothering to mask.
"So you needn't bother worrying about your precious allusions being shattered—her schoolgirl infatuation is as alive as it ever was," he laughed darkly, "Scarlett is marrying me for my money. I intend to give her everything her greedy little heart has ever wanted, which no doubt will be, in her shrewd mind, more substantial than every pretty word you've ever spouted at her." Every word was brimming with the confidence of a man who is certain they've won—or orchestrating the most convincing high-stakes bluff in history.
Rhett Butler was far away now, his face held a pensive, imaginative quality that, if Ashley had ever seen himself, he would recognize as one of his own expressions. What sort of future was Butler imagining, he wondered? The man's true motivations were obscured, he was an enigma to be sure—for a split second Ashley wondered if Rhett had fallen in love with Scarlett was well, before he dismissed it as impossible. A man like that didn't fall in love.
Just as soon as he'd gone into it, Rhett Butler came out of his reverie with a snap and assumed his usual puzzling, polished manners. He called over Johnny to their section of the bar from what he was doing, and handed him the hundred-dollar bill. The bartender accepted it, flabbergasted.
"Here, consider this payment for my whole tab this evening and every evening for the foreseeable future—and take as big a tip from the leftovers as you want, Johnny." The young and impressionable man thanked him profusely. Ashley, still sitting there, wondered again at the contradictions the man before him seemed to be made of.
"You can remain and drink to your heart's desire, Mr. Wilkes—I'm sure my money can pay for whatever else you might need." Rhett rose, still immaculate in spite of the whiskey on his breath, and bowed. "I believe I'll follow your example and take a walk-about—it sounds as though the rain's let up." The bar was totally silent now, the last few stragglers having left a long time ago, leaving the two men the sole proprietors of the establishment.
Looking back at the conversation later, Ashley would realize how very little of Butler's hand had been revealed to him—every question had been asking for confirmation of suspicions, as well, which left Ashley wondering if either one of the men had walked away from the table with anything they hadn't walked in with.
Rhett made his way purposefully across the bar, to the very edge of where it met the restaurant, before he turned around again.
"You really didn't try to convince her not to go through with it?"
"…No, I didn't."
"But you wanted to? You still might try?" he persisted, putting his wide-brimmed panama hat back on, eyes still focused intently on the end of the bar he'd vacated a moment before. Ashley looked up, directly in the eyes of his opponent—he was a coward in many ways, but this would not be one of them.
"From what you've told me, it wouldn't make a difference if I did," he responded, wearily. He felt, if it was possible, even older after this exchange.
"All the same, now that you know, I'd better set a date. I don't want you getting a chance alone with her to 'express your concerns'." The words were directed more at himself than at Ashley, and they were shrewd and calculating—they had the distinct tone of one who was formulating a plan.
"You really think it will make a difference?"
"No, but one never can be too sure," he said, raising his hat in a farewell salute. "If there's anyone who might convince Scarlett to turn me away, it's you—you'd probably talk her out of it better than she could."
And with that, he laughed and walked out. The next time Ashley saw him would be his wedding to Scarlett, a little more than a month later.
He finished his drink and left the bar a short time after Rhett, lingering in the hotel foyer in the hope of not running into the other man again. He stepped out onto the wet sidewalk (the rain had let up, after all) and began to make his way back to his house on Ivy Street, and his wife.
If there's anyone who might convince Scarlett to turn me away, it's you.
Rhett Butler's last words echoed in his head, and as memorable as the entire exchange was, unique to their acquaintance, he found the end was the one that came back to him again and again. Contemplative, he slowly trudged home, wondering if the power to influence Scarlett really belonged to anyone. He thought of how well she'd taken care of Melanie after he asked her to, which left him to wonder if that was the extent of his ability…
Butler only spoke the truth with him; he was not so self-deluded that he couldn't recognize that. Even arrogant Rhett Butler, who was marrying Scarlett, grudgingly admitted that he had power.
Those words would remain with him longer than even he realized. If Rhett Butler knew the inadvertent weapon he'd handed Ashley Wilkes, he would have slipped something far more potent than whiskey into his glass.