I hadn't intended to post anything anytime soon, what with being busy with RL, but when you cross an insomniac with a new idea for a plot-line you get ….roughly 5000 words, apparently. Thank you for the many kind inquiries, whether by review or PM, about the fate of Rose and the other Butlers. This will be my first attempt at a multi-generational fanfic. It is seated roughly two years after Murder in Marietta Street – which you can read if you haven't and want to, but I think it's fine as a stand-alone.
Disclaimer: the characters of GWTW are owned by the Estate of Margaret Mitchell.
Charleston, SC, around Christmas of 1891
It is rare that any man of volatile temperament takes as remarkable a turn towards gracious affability in mid-life as had Mr. Rhett Butler of Charleston. His formidable wit, imbued as he now was with happy domesticity, had lost most of its barb, and none of its luster, and he doted on his wife and offspring with a fondness that was as indisputable as it was heartwarming. Mrs. Rosemary Thornton, sister of the former, might roll her eyes towards the heavens at such a transformation, and pronounce the rôle of the reformed rake to be revoltingly cliché, but she was well-known to be of astringent temperament, and her opinion was for once not shared by many.
It was nonetheless with some trepidation that his lady, in the privacy of their dressing chamber, breeched the matter of the letter.
"Darling, you'll be surprised to learn that I've heard from Thad," Scarlett reported, her voice covered in a veneer of superficial brightness. She was already dressed in a most becoming green faille ball gown with cunning feather trimmings. With her right hand, she dabbed a touch of powder on her nose, and she appeared to be studying her reflection intently. "It seems after two years he finally wishes to see us! He says he plans to arrive two weeks from now, just before Christmas. It appears his mother is visiting a friend of hers over the holidays, and he'll be alone. I know it'll be inconvenient to have any more visitors here, with Ella and Chase, and Wade and his family arriving so soon, so I understand if ….."
Her husband, in the process of adjusting his cravat, turned away from the mirror to face his wife. "So that's what's placed the frown between those lovely brows. I'd been wondering whether there was something about this suit that you disapproved of. I am hearted to hear it's nothing so serious, as I've had it made just for the occasion, and would have hated to send it back. " He waited for her huff, then turned back to the mirror with a grin. "You needn't fret, my dear. I shall be as pleased to see Thad as I am to house Wade and his family, and Ella and her husband. It was never my wish that Thad and I should become so estranged. It will be good for him to be around family at Christmas. And little Rose will be pleased to see her cousin."
"Little Rose is over sixteen now," Scarlett reminded him, with some acidity. "And I should hope that a girl who receives a dozen bouquets a day from the most eligible bachelors in town will have forgotten a childhood infatuation that would never have answered!" She conveniently forgot the length of time she herself had clung to a childhood infatuation at a similar age, and her husband did not remind her. "However, for once I wasn't thinking about you, Rhett Butler, for I hope I know you well enough to understand you'd be happy to see your nephew. I was thinking about Charles! I know times are not as they were, but how will he take to us receiving the son of a …well, the product of a youthful indiscretion into our home? Just think of the scandal!"
"I never try to think of the scandal, if I can help it," her husband replied, comfortably. He had finished tying the cravat, eyed the result critically, and then shook his head, starting the process all over again. "Charles has the earthquake of 1886 to thank for the removal of his wife, whose sensibilities would have been truly lacerated, and he himself has neither the imagination or the energy to be offended. He has no other son, and if he's wise he will take the chance to meet him, but I predict he will simply avoid us for the few weeks that Thad is here. At any rate, Charles can please himself, and his daughters are grown and married, and live out of state."
"But the girls?" Scarlett questioned. "As much as I like Thad, I don't want to hurt their chances. I'm of half a mind to write to him to meet us at Tara after the Season, but then again…." She sighed.
"Ella is safely married, and Rose's chances won't be hurt if you invite Lucifer himself into this house", he laughed. "The Ton will take their cue from Rosemary, in whose good sense I have the strongest dependence. Not to mention a fierce family loyalty, even if she'd deny harboring such bourgeoise sentiments if you challenged her. It's been years since Belle moved away from Atlanta, and memories of her establishment are no longer as acute. Then there is the fact that our money, directly or indirectly, supports many of the families whose opinion matters in this city."
"I wouldn't depend so much on Rosemary, what with a daughter yet to be married," Scarlett said. "And Charlotte needs as the help she can …" she trailed off. "Well! I don't mean to be unkind, for she's a good girl, for all that she's as flighty as she is plain, and you know I'm fond of her. But you'll have to admit she doesn't take like Rose does, for all that Rose never seems to give herself any trouble!"
"An apt observation, but I doubt such considerations will influence Rosemary. If anything, she may see Thad as a potential suitor for Charlotte. In Texas, he has carved out a secure niche for himself in society. Not to mention considerable wealth."
Scarlett brightened visibly. "I hadn't thought of that! It's about time he got over what happened years ago, and starts looking around for a wife. Charlotte would answer very well, and she is even starting to take Rose's advice about dress and hair. When it comes to fashion, there's no one to match Rose, even if she can be slightly overbearing at times. That girl takes after you," she finished, imperfectly hiding her adoration of both husband and daughter.
"Yes, Rose has a sharp eye both for color and form, and I've no doubt she will turn out Charlotte in a more flattering style. "
"Flattering? Form-fitting you mean, Rhett Butler." She had finished with her face, and was adding a few white blossoms to her hair. Suddenly she giggled. "Remember that green ball dress that Rose pointed out would suit Charlotte? The one we saw at the dance at the Stevensons'? I thought Rosemary would faint on the spot!"
"But she sent Charlotte over here tonight to let Rose dress her," her husband replied, with an amused gleam in his eyes. "As I said, Rosemary has good sense. But perhaps you should check on them, in case Rose's fashion sense overrides her propriety."
On the bench in front of the vanity mirror sat three young women, as different in coloring as they were in temperament. The eldest, fully dressed in an embroidered crape dress of matronly hues, had thick, russet brown hair and an expression of sweetness, and lack of worldliness, somewhat at odds with her status as a wife of almost a years' standing. As was her habit, she regarded the two younger girls with fond appreciation, but did not contribute much to the conversation, preferring instead to listen, and to observe.
Ella Kennedy Butler had married Chase Thornton barely a year after their arrival in Charleston, with much encouragement from their respective mothers, both of whom had privately despaired of ever finding a match for their shy, socially awkward child. The match, it was universally agreed, had turned out very well, with the young couple dividing their time between the Thornton household and the Butlers', and showing no sign of wanting to strike out on their own. Their elders, deeming it inadvisable that either of them should attempt to head a household, were silently relieved.
Next to her in age, still in her undergarments, was a blonde girl of perhaps twenty years, whose angular features and large nose were her burden in life, and the despair of her mother's. Charlotte Thornton was Ella's sister-in-law, and Rosemary's only daughter, and she had now entered her third season without attracting so much as a single proposal - despite an ample dowry, excellent connections and a will to make herself agreeable to almost any eligible bachelor in their circle.
The third girl, the youngest, was perhaps the most interesting. She was of that light, fragile beauty pleasing even to the most fastidious of tastes, with curls so dark they glistened liquid black in the firelight, eyes the color of cornflowers and a face so delicate it inspired painters to reach for their easels and poets for their ink pens. Blessed with her father's discerning eye for lines and fabric, she dressed herself with flawless style, as evidenced by the deceptively simple white tulle ball gown she had laid out on the bed. But despite her indisputable loveliness, she was free of the personal vanity that had plagued the early years of her mother's career, having found her exterior throughout much of her childhood to be a hindrance rather than an asset. Those few that took the trouble to look beyond the surface found a wry sense of irony, and an artist's love for creating beauty both in people and her surroundings. The irony, no longer an overflow valve for her bitterness, she hoarded as her private gift for the select few. Her fashion-sense, however, belonged to the world, and it was on its business that she was currently employed.
Rose had watched her cousin search amongst several garments the maid had pulled out for her, and settle on a pale green gown of crêpe de chine that she attempted to separate from the others.
"No, not that dress, Charlotte," Rose exclaimed, hopping from the bench to remove the offending garment from the bed, and laying it to the side. "No one with a figure like yours should wear sleeves that end half-way between the shoulder and the elbow. Can't you see it creates a line for the eye that draws too much attention to your bust? A V-neck will give you ample cleavage, but you don't want to look top-heavy, what with the broad shoulders and slim hips you have. Wear this one – it has a three-quarter sleeve, no puff at the top, and a bit more fabric in the back, which will emphasize your hips, and draw attention to your narrow waist."
She held up the garment to demonstrate its features. "As much as I hated those oversized bustles we had to drag around in the 80s, it did make life easier for those of us with no hips to speak of. With the current mode, we must improvise, and I foresee a focus on sleeves and shoulders that will be difficult for the large-busted. Don't misunderstand me, I'm thrilled you're taking what I said about displaying your figure to heart, Charlotte. But it isn't enough to just emphasize your best features. What you want is to create an overall impression of balance and harmony."
Charlotte wrinkled her nose. "If you weren't a lady, you could make your living at any of the fine dress shops on King Street. I've never known anyone to go on and on about those things like you do!" But she grabbed the dress Rose had indicated, and pulled it over her head clumsily with the help of the young black maid. Once the fabric had been smoothed into place and she had studied her reflection critically, she nodded. "I hate to say you're right, but I think I see what you mean. It does look more ….balanced."
Cherry, their maid, concurred cheerfully. "That it does, Miss Charlotte. And if you'll let me Ah'll braid your hair like Miss Rose showed me last time, close to the side of your face like twin sea shells. Ah thought it was very becomin'."
"But it isn't fashionable," Charlotte protested. "Nobody wears their hair in braids anymore. Everyone else at the ball will be wearing their hair in curls tied at the back. I'll be laughed at."
"Fashion is all good and well in its place," Rose replied, firmly. "But fashion unbecoming to your type is worse than no fashion at all, and the upswept curls that are en vogue this year simply don't work with the shape of your head. Your cheekbones are pretty, and the braids by your ears help make your face less long. And we tried a loose bun before, but you toss your head about so much it always comes undone. When Cherry is finished, I'll apply some charcoal to your outer lashes, and the outer corner of your eye. That will also help widen your face." Having resolved the matter to her satisfaction, and hearing no further protests, she gave her cousin an encouraging pat on the shoulder, before finally turning to her own dress.
It was at that moment that her mother walked in. At the age of forty-six, Scarlett O'Hara Butler was still a very attractive woman, and not few in number were the gentlemen who pointed out how easy it was to see where 'little Rose' had inherited her beauty. Her eyes swept over the charming trio, and fastened on her youngest daughter.
"Rose, love, you are still not dressed! We're going to be late. Cherry, leave Miss Charlotte's hair and help Rose into her gown first." Cherry jumped to obey her, while Charlotte made a little moue with her mouth. When the task had been accomplished, she regarded her daughter with imperfectly disguised maternal pride.
"You look lovely, Rose, even though I don't know how you knew that this tulle dress, which seemed like nothing in the shop window, would become you so well. If only your father would get over his aversion to letting you wear blue, for I swear that would be even better! But never mind, this one will do very nicely." A reminiscent smile graced her lips. "You'll be the Belle of the Ball, my love, just like I was at your age!"
Maturity, and marital happiness, had made her mother more sympathetic to the plights of others, but had added very little real discernment to her character, so she missed the sardonic light in Rose's eye, and the almost imperceptible twist to the corner of the little mouth.
"Yes," that damsel replied softly, "It would be rather embarrassing if he tore off my dress like he did at Wade's wedding when I was eight. I don't think I'll ever get over the shock of suddenly finding myself in my undergarments in front of all those people. Shunning blue seems like a small price to pay." Catching the stricken look spreading over her mother's countenance, she caught herself, and added quickly, "Don't trouble yourself, Mother, that's all in the past. You know Daddy and I get along famously now. How do you like this dress for Charlotte?"
Scarlett allowed herself to be diverted, and agreed with her daughter that the dress in question was indeed most flattering to her cousin. Cherry had finished with the seashell braids, and Scarlett watched Rose apply first blush, then charcoal to the older girl's face.
"There," Rose said, with satisfaction. "Always put more blush high on the cheekbone than on the apple of your cheek, Charlotte. And use this silk scarf, it will add a light and airy feel to the entire outfit. No, only the small diamond necklace, not the large ruby pendant. Remember you don't want anything to draw attention to the length of your face."
"Your daughter is a Slave driver, Aunt Scarlett," muttered Charlotte, unhappy but compliant. Once Cherry had fastened the clasp of the necklace, she rose to examine herself in the oval, floor-length mirror. The final picture was not displeasing, and had she stood by anyone else, charitable tongues might even have called her handsome. Charlotte was as aware of the discrepancy as anyone, and only her genuine fondness for Rose prevented bitterness and envy from clouding her pleasure. She sighed. "As a Christmas gift to all unmarried girls you might consider disposing of yourself in wedlock as quickly as possible, Rose. How can any of us expect to attract a gentleman while they still hold out hope of succeeding with you?"
The word wedlock jogged her aunt's memory, who suddenly recalled to mind her earlier conversation with her husband about a potential suitor for Charlotte. "Oh, no, not yet! We're only a few months into her first Season, and not every superior gentleman has had a chance to offer for her. Nor would I dream of letting Rose marry so young. She has plenty of time to make up her mind." She paused, trying to gather her train of thought. "Ah, yes! Did you know Cousin Thad is coming to stay with us for Christmas?"
She spoke to the room at large, but kept her expressive eyes trained only on her youngest daughter. Rose, who had been in the process of threading a silver ribbon through her hair, knocked a brush off the dresser with a sharp motion of her right elbow. "Oh, how clumsy I am," she muttered, bending down low on the bench to retrieve it, her thick hair flying down to cover her face. But when she straightened, and her small visage reemerged from the curls, there was nothing in her expression to feed even the most discerning mother's suspicions. "How nice," she said merely. "I was sure he'd forgotten all about us. It's been over two years since we left Galveston, and he hasn't been by once."
"I'm sure he's been busy," admonished her kindly elder sister.
Charlotte's blue eyes sparkled with interest. "Oh! What exciting news! An unmarried young man coming to visit? To your house? And he will stay over Christmas? How amusing it will be!"
"Not so young," smirked Rose. "I think he must be thirty-four, or thereabouts. Probably suffering from rheumatism and creaking bones. And you don't want him to offer for you, Charlotte. Besides being quite ineligible, he's got a dreadful temper, and still carries a torch for a girl from his past."
"But what does he look like?" Charlotte asked, keeping her mind firmly trained on the essentials.
"Oh, he's very handsome," said Ella quickly. "And I don't know why you say he has a bad temper, Rose! Remember how kind he was to Wade, and how polite he always was to us when we were growing up! Even when he wasn't speaking to father, he always made a point of seeing us when he could."
Charlotte clapped her hands together. "Handsome, is he? I shall be happy to see him, then."
"Suit yourself," shrugged Rose. "And open a window, Cherry. I don't care how cold it is. The stuffiness in this room is becoming excruciating."
Ella, who had a fear of drafts, opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again when she caught the mutinous light in her sister's eyes. "Rose was born by the sea," she said by the way of an explanation to their cousin. "When we still shared a room, she would make me keep the window open all night, no matter how cold it was. I had to have an extra blanket on most nights. How happy I was to learn Chase preferred warmth just like I do!"
After taking in a deep breath of the fresh air, Rose said more gently, "I have no doubt you and Chase are famously suited for each other. Mother …..your dress is fine, but do allow a curl to fall around your cheek, like that. It softens your jaw-line." Scarlett, who was used to her daughter's ways, stood patiently still while Rose coaxed a small strand of hair out of its bun.
Rose then took a final look around, eying her family members critically one last time. Then she nodded. "We are ready, now."
Downstairs, they found Rose's father, Ella's husband, and Charlotte's parents already assembled in the drawing room. Rosemary Thornton turned when they entered, and gave an audible gasp when she saw her daughter.
"I am all astonishment, my dearest Rose! Scarlett, I will have my daughter dress here for the rest of the Season. I declare - she looks almost pretty." It was fortunate that Charlotte, hardened by years of insults to her appearance, took no offense. "Rose, you look like an angel," her aunt continued. "It remains a mystery how you could produce child with such good taste, Scarlett. However," she continued magnanimously, "I must say that green frock becomes you very well indeed. Shall we go?"
Chase shook his head. "Can you believe mother?" he laughed, displaying the infallible good temper that distinguished the younger members of his family. "Abuses us all like thugs! If it isn't Charlotte's looks, it's my social skills, or lack thereof." Like many people of shy temperament, he was as at ease with his intimates as he was tongue-tied around strangers.
Rose, casting about for someone to share the irony of the moment, involuntarily caught her father's gaze. Her small mouth twisted slightly, and she caught the sardonic gleam in his eyes. Suddenly, the evening seemed brighter.
With all the ladies assembled, their menfolk, who had been sharing a cigar and brandy while they waited, took their arms to escort them into the carriages.
As the horses trotted down the gas-lit streets, it was impossible to miss the many damaged buildings that had resulted from the savage earthquake that had decimated the city five years ago and killed, it was said, almost two thousand people. Poverty still reigned in many quarters, and the stranglehold of the recession had barely eased over the last few decades. However, the pleasure parties were still as lavish, and the champagne still as abundant, as it had been even during the height of the war. Charleston rightly prided itself on its social life, and the Society of St. Cecilia, which had started out as an endeavor to promote musical arts, once again hosted three annual débutante balls at Hibernion hall. But though arguably the most prestigious, its balls counted for only a few of the many gaieties the city's social season offered to its elite.
Tonight, the carriages that had been dispensed from Charleston's fashionable districts were headed toward the Bromford Mansion, one of the few residences that could still boast an undamaged private ballroom. It was built in the charming Jeffersonian style of a happier age, where the luxury of closing up a room for most of the year was more commonplace, if not expected. But the war, and the recession, had left their mark even on the most fortunate - the chairs were now rented for the evening, as was the red carpet that had been rolled out - and several families, including the Butlers, had sent boxes full of glassware several days before the ball to be used by the hostess at the reception.
Under the light of the many chandeliers of the opulent, spacious ballroom, such minor details were forgotten. They had been escorted through several adjacent drawing rooms, and a servant had stood by to take their coats, revealing the beauty of the ladies' gowns, and the elegance of the gentlemen's evening suits.
Their hostess, Mrs. Cordelia Bromford, met them in the company of her husband and eldest daughter. "So delighted to see Rose," she chirped, with real warmth, for the success of the evening was now ensured. "And you look uncommonly well tonight, Charlotte," she added, with what she believed to be affability. "We will have quite a large crowd! Serena has the dance cards, and will bring them by shortly."
Mrs. Bromford, like several others of the fashionable hostesses, filled the dance-cards of the débutantes in advance of the ball, guided by principles only known to herself, and the select others whom she consulted.
"I wonder who they'll pair us with," whispered Charlotte, with barely suppressed excitement.
Rose shrugged her small shoulders. "I'm sure I won't be able to avoid Anthony Stratton. I've started to suspect him of bribing people to give him my last dance. It's happened too often to be the product of chance. As for the rest – one man is as good as another, as long as they don't tread on your feet." Only her father, perhaps, would have been able to catch the lie, and he was thankfully not within earshot.
In those few minutes she had to gather herself, before both the eligible and ineligible members of Charleston's bachelors would descend on her, her gaze briefly swept around the room. Her older sister, never fond of dancing, seemed relieved that matrimony permitted her to stand and chat with the other married ladies. Her mother, on the other hand, seemed as eager to dance as any débutante, pulling at her husband's sleeve with impatience.
Her uncle Charles, a gentleman of sedate habits, was standing in the back of the room with other gentlemen of similar persuasion. Rose tried to remember if she had ever seen him dance, but failed to recall an occasion. His mind was as inflexible as his feet, and although he was neither unintelligent, nor uninformed, he had a dogged sense of propriety, and an unwillingness to step outside what he had always thought, that took the place of both shortcomings. His sister Rosemary, whose mind and habits were not as sedentary, also rarely ventured onto the floor. She could be found standing with a group of matrons, the crème of the Ton, agreeably engaged in eying the young ladies with a critical manner.
Wade and his wife were not in attendance, having welcomed their latest child into their family only a few weeks before.
"Rose," called the young man who had found an excuse to beat a path to her side faster than his rivals. "We're together for the second dance! I begged for the first, but Mrs. Bromford has given it to StJohn of course, damned be his impudence for making the most of his home turf. And you simply must come to Mother's reception next week. She's hired a soprano to sing, and I know how much you enjoy music."
She murmured the appropriate response, but her mind remained curiously preoccupied by the news her mother had given them. She was nonetheless soon surrounded by a group of his peers, all good cheer and joviality, doing their best to engage her attention. Several young women joined the group as well, partially for the company of the gentlemen, and partially for Rose's own sake- she was well-liked by the other girls, despite being a favorite with the gentlemen, and always had great patience for questions about attire, and the latest models from Paris.
The dance separated Charlotte and herself for the next hour, and Rose found it unusually difficult to focus on the figures.
"Your head is in the clouds today, my lovely Rose," drawled her current partner, himself a scion of one of South Carolina's oldest families. "Dare I hope it is myself you are thinking of so intently?"
"I never think intently, if I can avoid it," she replied, with a charming mixture of archness and good humor. "Ideas are like horses - you must turn your back to them to attract their attention. But yes, I have been distracted. It is so stuffy here! Perhaps a glass of punch would revive me."
Having thus made him useful, she turned around - almost bumping into a tall blond gentleman she had never seen before. A quick upwards glance estimated him to be about Wade's age, with grey eyes and a pale handsomeness that ran somewhat contrary to the current fashion. His eyes widened at her beauty, and the initial annoyance was wiped from his face as if by magic.
"Hullu! I don't think we've met. Not that I would have, since I've been in town only since yesterday. And I mean, I'm sure we haven't met, because of course I would remember you." He smiled winningly. "Listen to me babbling. My tongue always trips in the presence of beauty, which I'm sure is why I'm still unmarried. I'm Beau Wilkes. Who did I have the pleasure of almost knocking over?"
His name tolled like an ominous bell from the past. "Rose Butler," she replied, with measured tone. "You are Ashley Wilkes' son."
"And you are Aunt Scarlett's daughter," he replied, with a wide grin. "I should have known at once, except it's been so long since I've seen her. Almost two decades - how that makes me feel old! How capital to run into you here. Is Aunt Scarlett around as well? I'd love to catch up." He smiled at her again. "Is my name on your dance card, by any chance?" When she shook her head, he laughed. "It figures. I'm sure they wouldn't give such a prize away to foreigners. Will you escort me to your mother, and come back and see me when you're on break? After having met you, I can't bear the thought of dancing with any other young lady."
"You will still need to dance with the girls whose cards you are on," she replied, gravely, but her eyes were laughing. He was charming in his own way, and she was fairly certain he knew it.
"Alas – you are right. But it what once seemed a pleasure, is now... a burden!"
She said no more, but pointed out her mother, who was still engaged on the dance-floor with her husband. Rose watched them whirl around the floor for a few moments, her keen sense of harmony pleased by her mother's light-footed stride, and her father's easy grace.
"You may wait for her here," she told her companion, who stared at her in mock despair when she told him she must now leave him.
"But …. I've only just gotten to know you! I'm not sure my heart can take your leaving me so soon. In fact, I can feel a faintness coming on as we speak. " He put his hand to his chest, and many an established actor would have envied him the dramatic flair, as well as the fair features.
She shook her head at him, a faint smile gracing her lips. Those most familiar with the Butler family history would have seen her father's crescents on her mother's brow
Only a moment later, she was lost in the crowd.