The person who opened the large, ornate oak door of the stately Charlestonean mansion was a small girl, not a liveried servant. The nondescript, middle-aged man who stood outside, sensibly clad in a warm coat to guard against the December air, had lived in the South for just long enough to be surprised.
"Hello", she said, eyeing him curiously. She was perhaps seven, or eight, and not tall for her age. Her wild curls were an impossibly vivid shade of red, setting off pea-green eyes and a milky skin. "Who're you?"
"Thomas". He cleared his throat, feeling some sort of explanation might be in order. "I was asked to come here by…Mr. Rhett Butler."
She smiled impishly, like a co-conspirator, and stuck out her hand in a friendly manner. "Leta Butler." She made a vague gesture, like an afterthought, for him to come inside.
"Leta"? It came out before he could stop it.
She ushered him inside, and gave a tinkly laugh. "I know! I was named after my grandmother. Her name's Scarlett. And they added Aimee because it means Beloved. And so it was Let-a. The end of one, and the beginning of the next one. " She grinned at his confused frown. "You can hang your coat ….there." There was a coat stand, made of sturdy metal. "And the servants will get your suitcase later", she added, hopefully. "Everyone's….busy. "
He had noted how still the house seemed. Not at all like a large, well off family preparing their house for a busy Christmas Season. Dimly lit, and silent.
She seemed to catch his look as she guided him into the downstairs salon, gesturing him to a silk-covered sofa with a subtle pattern of oriental birds. She sat across from him, and rested her chin on her hands, leaning in. "My aunt Ella is having a baby," she confided. "And ….well…. it's been going on for a long time".
That explained the silence. Most of the family and staff was probably in a different part of the house, offering what assistance they could.
"My mother is a doctor," the red-headed imp added, hopefully. "They called her to come because….well…they think Aunt Ella might have to be….cut." She shifted a little, clearly one that could not sit still for too long. "That's why we're here. We normally live in Texas, you see."
"Ah." The strange man named Thomas looked grave. "And…..your father"?
His face had revealed nothing, but there was a quick fleeting shadow over hers. "He…. hasn't been with us for a while. Mother said…..she asked him to move out last year."
He felt guilty for taking advantage of her youth and confidence, so he probed no further.
A servant finally materialized, bringing in a tray of tea, with some powdered scones. He partook gratefully. Leta watched him, but did not join in. She was clearly pondering how to enterain her visitor, now that he was here. "I could get Aunt Charlotte for you. Or RJ." She thought for a moment. "No, I guess they are busy. So are mother and grandmother. But if you wait here, I will see."
She was off in a flash, running lightly up the massive stair case in the hallway. Like a little fairy, grateful to be on the move.
About ten minutes later, she returned, one Rhett Butler in tow.
"Thomas". Rhett shook his hand, and admonished his granddaughter, who showed disquieting signs of wanting to linger, to go find Aunt Phoebe and help her put the children to bed. He waited before her slightly pouting face had vanished into the semi-darkness before turning to his guest.
"Thank you for coming."
The visitor didn't smile, because of course he had come. "You know I owe you…"
Rhett made a dismissive gesture. "This was a personal request. And one you could easily have refused." His eyes wandered to the man's left arm, covered by the long sleeve of his sensible, woven shirt. A muscle on his forearm twitched, as if in acknowledgment.
Thomas relented. He did owe this man…..everything. "I hear I come at a difficult time."
Rhett's face suddenly, briefly, showed his fatigue. "My eldest daughter, yes. A ….difficult delivery."
Thomas' face showed his sympathy.
"I had a room made ready." Rhett rang a bell, and a silver-haired, self-assured servant appeared, his calm grace at odds with his employer's seeming unease. Rhett nodded a greeting. "James. Thank you. If you would show our guest to the green guest room, and settle him in."
Thomas frowned. "Are you sure…."
Rhett smiled. "Yes. You will stay with us. And no matter how this ends, this Christmas we put all evil spirits of the past to rest."
What choice did Thomas have, but to comply?
Thomas took the time to freshen up, to change. His surroundings were flawless, the understated elegance of the Charleston upper class, but he took in very little of it. There was too much unrest, in this house, in his spirit. He thought he heard footsteps, a servant running, perhaps? Brining what, hot water, towels, comfort?
He tried not to hear, but his ears could not help straining. Every once and a while he was disconcerted by the muffled sounds, like someone in pain, that penetrated even the thick walls of the mansion. He was even more disconcerted by the periods of silence. Once he had finished changing, there was little for him to do, but wait.
A woman, elegantly dressed, had stopped by briefly.
"You are Thomas Whiting," she said. It was a statement, not a question. "I am Rosemary Butler. I must say, I find it very odd of my brother to ask you here, but he has always had his own notions, and for the most part they do answer, so I tend to indulge him." Her frown made clear that she was not sure indulging her brother on this had been as wise. However, she wasted no further time on her guest, having done the proper thing, and given him permission to stay. "My daughter is in labor, as I am sure you've heard, and we are all rather preoccupied, so I fear you won't have much company at dinner. Excepting, perhaps, my nephew Wade."
Thomas assured her he would be just fine on his own, feeling the tension in his chest mount through invisible fibers. Her nephew, Wade. After she left, he waited for about an hour before he was called to the small dining room, used mainly for family dinners, where an opulent meal had been prepared. He imagined the restlessness of the staff not immediately employed in the business of assisting in the delivery room, attempting to help in any way they could. As Rosemary Butler had predicted, there was only one other diner, and it was not one he particularly wished to see. He was surprised he recognized him so easily, but he supposed the circumstances of their meeting was not one one tended to forget., no matter how much time had passed.
The handsome young man looked up, and his own eyes darkened in immediate recognition, even after all these years. Years that had settled heavier on him than on Wade."YOU."
Thomas nodded. He sympathized with the other man's anger. He himself knew anger intimately. There'd been a time when he'd known nothing else. "I'm …afraid so."
Wade clenched his teeth, and his fist, half-rising in his chair. "What are YOU doing here?"
"I was asked to come," Thomas answered, somewhat apologetically. "By Mr Rhett Butler".
Wades anger stayed put on his handsome features, but now confusion was added. "WHY?'
Thomas lifted his shoulders ever so slightly, sliding into a chair, now that it seemed he was not to be slugged. "I believe it may have something to do with …..your sister. Rose."
Wade blinked. "My sister?"
Thomas nodded, not sure how much he was at liberty to disclose. "You may have to ask Mr Butler yourself, I'm afraid." He took a sip of the water, as if to steady himself, and added softly, "Thank you for not letting them shoot me. That day."
Wade's face darkened even more. "And then….. you got away."
Thomas nodded. "I …..understand. I believe. Justice wasn't served, you think. And even I agree. I've tried to make amends, as best I could. Working for the advancements and rights of colored people, from the legal side, as Mr. Rhett Butler wanted me to. We've had some successes and some setbacks. We work hard. But it is never enough. Not for taking….. a life."
Wade scowled. "We agree on that one thing." He pushed away the soup bowl, as if suddenly loosing his taste for food. "I still don't understand why my Father wanted you here."
Thomas lifted his hand again, in that same, soft, supplicating gesture. "I wish I knew. He told me very little about his plans. However, when we met briefly, earlier, he said something about putting all the ghosts to rest this Christmas."
"And you are one of them."
"So it seems."
They both finished their meal in silence, without doing it justice.
Rhett came down later, as Thomas was attempting to drink coffee in the salon. He looked even more tired than he had some hours earlier.
Thomas winced at the sight of his weary eyes. "How is…"?
Rhett sighed. "Rose said they will most likely have to operate. They have been getting everything ready. They tried to avoid it because…. Ella is weak, and the baby is early. She was not supposed to deliver for over a month."
Thomas did not know what to say, hoping his face conveyed his silent sympathy. "I am sorry. I did not mean to…."
Rhett roused himself. "No, no. You did what you were asked, and there is no good time for this, at any rate. But it must be done. It is the last ghost, and I learned to my detriment that they must all be extinguished, or they will haunt us all, and breed more in the dark".
They both sipped at their coffee in silence. There was the sudden, piercing wail, loud and echoing in the silence. Both men started.
In the dark dome above the city, the night had progressed, and the crisp evening had given way to a multitude of stars.
Thad Butler arrived at the darkest hour before dawn, standing in front of the dark oak door as he had done so many years ago, cold and drenched, and every bit as overwrought and uncertain.
He had considered getting a hotel room, freshening up, arriving in the morning, when he was perhaps less sleep-deprived and hopeless, but in the end, he had not been able to stay away. Not for a night, or even an hour. He had never been able to stay away.
He knocked. A pause, then the door swung open. He saw no one at first, then looked down.
"Leta". He blinked, thinking mechanically how much his daughter had grown in the nine month of his exile. "Why are you still up?"
"Aunt Ella is having her baby," Leta informed him, before throwing herself in his arms. He lifted her, hugging her tightly to him,. "NO ONE is asleep", she added, conversationally, as if she'd expected to see him tonight. As if he hadn't been gone from her life for almost a year.
He nodded, and cautiously, stepped inside, as if expecting at any moment to run into Rose, and be ordered to leave. But he was here because Rhett Butler had asked him to come.
He held on to that tiny sliver of hope.
"We are all waiting. Most of us are upstairs. One is …..here." She informed him, ushering him into the wide family room, dominated by a crackling fire and a large Christmas tree that seemed to have been decorated in a hurry. Leta clapped her hands, before calling over her shoulders, "Gotta tell Grandpa you're here, Daddy. He specifically said so." Hence her lack of surprise at his arrival, he supposed. His head turned to the other person in the room. Wade looked up, and smiled, rising in greeting. "Thad!" Then he paused. "Did Rose….?"
"Your father," Thad replied, briefly. He walked to the fireplace, warming his frozen hands.
Wade took his mud-splattered coat, thoughtfully brought him a glass of wine, and drew in a deep breath. he was a soldier's son. He had always been brave under fire. "Thomas Whiting is here. In this house." He gazed steadily at Thad as he spoke, but there was nothing to see. Only blankness. "You …don't seem surprised."
Thad ran his hand through his hair, in a gesture that seemed familiar. "It makes sense. I doubt it will do much good."
Wade scowled again. "I wish people would stop speaking in riddles. What does Thomas Whiting have to do with you, and Rose…"
Thad's blank look only seemed to increase. "Ghosts of the past", he said, with a calm that made Wade want to slap him. "You see, I ….lied to her. She would have taken anything else from me, but a lie."
Just like her father, Wade thought. I always knew she was too much like her father. "For god's sakes Thad. What happened?"
Thad swallowed, and it was almost a fully-formed sound in the stillness. He appeared resigned to his fate. "You think I didn't find him –Thomas- after he escaped from jail. And I let you think so. But….of course I did find him. Finding him was all I could think about, at the time. So I tracked him down. To a rented room in Chicago. Maybe two years later."
Wade drew a sharp breath, imagining that scene. "But…..he is alive."
Thad nodded, with some more of that inhumane mirth. "I didn't kill him, no. But ….what I did do ,was not …..pleasant. Revenge never is."
Wade shuddered, involuntarily. Then, it all clicked into place, all at Rhett had wanted Thomas here, and Thad. Why now.
"Yes.I ….finally told her. Last year. And …well. You see." He turned to the tree, his nerveless hand playing with a bright, delicate glass bauble. Wade feared he would crush it between those large hands. He moved to take it from him, and hung it back on the tree. "Don't cut yourself, Thad."
The ironical brows went up, a mocking imitation of Rhett at his worst. "Don't I always?"
Wade snorted. But he didn't speak. Waiting was another one of his virtues. It finally paid off.
"You were more right than you knew back then, Wade. Even though you were so ….young. It was not my place to deal out justice for Tasha. For many years I told myself I was weak for not killing him outright. Then, over time, I realized I was …..wrong to do what I did. That I'd been trying to cover my own guilt, my own failures, through revenge. That at the least, I should have told Rose what happened, at least, before we were wed. I told myself it was over, that it no longer mattered. It's too late now, of course."
Wade smiled suddenly, and now he spoke with sudden, unexpected warmth. "If my mother and father have taught me anything, is that it's never too late."
There were people now, starting to crowd at the bottom of the stairs. A bustle. Family, long time servants so close they were counted as family as well. All breathless, waiting, as if some unknown signal had been given. They started to fill the room. Wade, joined by Phoebe, a sleepy toddler in her arms. RJ, Ella's oldest; Perry, with Stella, his fiancée. Dan, who had hurried back from university, where he was studying biology with great interest. Charlotte and Hugh, and their four year old daughter. Gerry, who had taken over Scarlett's stores in Texas, but had still rushed to be by his older sister's side when called. Rosemary. James. Prissy. And far away in Texas, there were others, unable to travel, who still uneasily waited for news.
Thomas, joining them, stayed in the shadows, unsure what he was doing here, now of all times. He remained motionless until his eyes fell on Thad, who was also alone, and clearly ill at ease. A prisoner awaiting his sentence. Thomas felt a wave of guilt stronger than any remaining resentment. He moved his slight frame cautiously, until he stood beside him.
The two men stood motionless. Several lifetimes of pain between them. When Thomas spoke, it was only due to the murmur of excitement in the crowd that he was not overheard by anyone but Thad.
"I do forgive you, you know. Even though I have nothing to forgive."
Thad didn't move for a whole minute. Then he lifted his eyes and looked at him, briefly clasping his hand in a gesture that wasn't so much a healing, as it was an acknowledgement of a shared, hideous Grief. It was enough.
Somewhere far above, early birds started signing, signaling the approach of dawn.
Then, there was Rose, appearing at the top of the stairs, weary but radiant, a tiny bundle in her arm. Beside her walked her mother, queenly in her relief. They descended together, slowly, proudly, each a warrior in her own right. There were cheers. When they had reached the floor, Rose held up the baby, who was tiny, but perfect. "Noel", she said, simply, introducing the boy to the people she loved, who would love him. "He …will live. His mother will recover. She is resting comfortably."
A collective sound of breath being released. RJ, his face as one freed from an unbearable torment, asked to hold the baby. The brother he never thought he'd have. He dared smile, for the first time in days.
The first light of dawn broke, writing a teasing halo around the young man who had ceased to be a boy that long night.
Rhett held his Scarlett close, giving her his strength, while he, too, admired the baby.
Then he looked up, remembering, and he froze.
Rose, her arms free of her light burden, had turned, and seen Thomas. And then Thad.
Even the birds fell silent. Only the sun, undefeatable, continued its climb. And for Rose was as if the years fell away, and she was at the dance again, an overwrought young girl before her beloved, or maybe she was Scarlett, waiting, impatiently, under the trees of Tara for Rhett to arrive. Perhaps it didn't matter.
Thad had moved forward, his face ashen, and he looked down at her with a look in his eyes that would have made her weep, had she any tears left on this night of Joy. She lifted her chin. She had defeated death that night, twice, and he his shame. It was enough. She reached out, with both hands, and he grasped her, like sleepwalker. They stood as if frozen by a spell. As if there was no motion left.
It was Leta that saved them. "You're supposed to kiss her now, Daddy," she said, nonchalantly. They all laughed, as he pulled Rose to him, and complied.
His daughter looked outside of the large Bay windows. "See! It's morning!" she announced, as if it she were the very first person, announcing the very first morning of the World. And her hair shone like the sun and she sang, her sweet lilting voice rising up to the sky,
They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the East beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light.
The End. Thank you to all of those who waited, encouraged, criticized and enjoyed. It has been a long journey. For the characters, and for us. I may write some more at a later date about what happened with Charlotte and Hugh but I won't change the ending. For you see I believe we cannot escape the past, but we can overcome it.