Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara!
-- Ernest Dowson, "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae"
Rhett Butler made a habit of never truly being surprised if he could help it. This was the sole principle which had been drilled into him at West Point that had served him equally well in his checkered civilian life. Even when he had estranged himself from all decent society, which he was wont to do from time to time when it pleased him to do so, he still managed to glean all the latest gossip from the parlors of the dignified hovels of Atlanta where he was not being received, and often ahead of the parties concerned, because he did not scruple to treat with Yankees and other undesirables, or to stand drinks for anyone who would take them from him, with pleasing results. Of course, he guarded himself carefully to ensure that no one learned what subjects he genuinely cared about, but he generally contrived to discover what he wanted to know in spite of this.
Yet he did not have any reason for turning his horse abruptly onto Ivy Street, save perhaps the same reason that told him to raise conservatively with a pair of jacks but turn around and bet heavily on a straight draw. His thoughts were all concerning a certain resident of a certain house on Peachtree Street when he heard a familiar voice calling his name.
"Captain Butler! Oh, how good it is to see you in Atlanta again!"
Rhett reined in his big horse quickly as Melanie Wilkes flew out into the street to meet him, her soft brown eyes shining happily. Of course, it could be no one else; he knew of no other lady in all of the South who would be greeting him so cordially and with such evident sincerity.
"The pleasure is entirely mine, I assure you," he replied, gravely. "Atlanta was cold and empty when you were gone, you know, as Rome without her sacred guardians of the hearth tending the sacred flames."
Generally, whenever Rhett said something excessively pretty he meant precisely the opposite, but with Mrs. Wilkes he was always perfectly sincere. Melanie passed over the praise, as she always did, thinking that people were terribly kind to say such nice things to her but never that there was anything about her that might prompt them to say them.
"Oh yes, I missed Atlanta terribly!" she agreed. "Of course, Scarlett was so very kind to have Mr. Wilkes and me at Tara, but all the same, there's no place like-- Oh!"
Melanie broke off and wondered how she could ever be so careless. Poor Captain Butler had been so terribly abused by the people of his own home town of Charleston, even his own folks who ought to have known better, and here she was, in her own little house in her beloved childhood neighborhood with Mr. Wilkes and Beau and Scarlett and India and Aunt Pittypat and Uncle Henry all tucked safely nearby her, throwing her happiness in his face in the cruelest way.
For a moment she could not think of a single nice and soothing thing to say, but Rhett just smiled at her, so kindly and understandingly. How could people believe that he was wicked and ungentlemanlike?
"Mrs. Kennedy is very kind, isn't she?" he said.
"Indeed she is!" Melanie concurred warmly. "Why, she knew that I longed to be back in Atlanta again and so she planned everything all out so that we could move back once she offered Mr. Wilkes a partnership in her sawmill."
"Ah!" Rhett exclaimed softly, his face inscrutable. "So that is how it happened."
Melanie took advantage of his silence to change the subject, lowering her soft voice confidingly. "I never got a chance to thank you properly for what you did for us on the night when-- well, when Atlanta fell."
She wouldn't let Rhett say that oh, it was nothing, but went on: "I know what a sacrifice it must have been for you to stay with us when the Confederacy needed you at the eleventh hour, and oh! how brave it was of you to go to her in that darkest of hours!"
Rhett looked down at his own hands. "It was nothing," he said again, and Melanie felt that she understood him and was satisfied. Of course, no man liked to talk about war: really talk about it, not just put a brave face on it and tell cheerful stories for the ladies back at home. She would not linger on the subject, now that she had said what she had needed to say.
"Oh, but I mustn't keep you here!" she said instead, suddently conscious of where she was standing and how inconsiderate she was being. "Please do call on us soon, Captain Butler."
She glowed white-hot with a fierce pride in her home and her beloved kinfolk that transfigured her pale, drawn face and for a moment, Rhett was possessed of a mad impulse to go out and find Ashley Wilkes and shake him until he learned to properly appreciate what wife he had, or possibly died, whichever should happen to come first.
Of course, he did not do anything of the kind; he took his leave of Mrs. Wilkes with the same elaborate courtesy, promising that he would call at the little house on Ivy Street soon and often, and urged his horse onward. He thought of all the scathing things that he would have to say to Scarlett about her blatant violation of the terms of his loan by supporting and ensnaring Ashley Wilkes with the fruit of her sawmills, and this gave him a little grim pleasure.
Yes, he was very glad that he had run into Mrs. Wilkes before paying a call on Scarlett, because he liked having the upper hand and disliked being made a fool of. He thought back on the past few months that he had been away and found himself wishing that the world was really as beautiful and good as Melanie Wilkes saw it.