Summer slipped away almost imperceptibly that year, blending into a golden September so fine that for years afterward people remarked upon its beauty. Life bustled on apace as the stifling heat gradually relaxed its grip on the city and the humid days gave way at last to softer, cooling nights. As the month wore on, gentle rains became a feature of the afternoons, settling the dusty streets and nourishing the last of the late-blooming flowers still rioting bravely in sidewalk gardens. Atlanta had never looked more lovely.
Although a few of the damask roses still lifted defiant heads in the front garden of the Butler mansion, the bushes were nearly devoid of blooms now, having been denuded earlier in the summer to provide much of the floral display for little Bonnie's funeral. Pruned back too far, the bushes struggled to maintain the life they still held. And although the gardeners continued their diligent efforts, they went unnoticed by the ones to whom those efforts had once meant the most, for the small laughing girl who had delighted in the showy fragrant blossoms would never again dart between the bushes playing tag with her elder siblings; and her mother, who had cultivated those bushes especially for her youngest child's delight, had been the one to strip them of their bounty in the first frenzy of her grief.
Behind the forbidding walls of the great mansion, its mistress drifted through her days and nights alike in the grip of a bewildering apathy utterly at variance with her usual vigor. Nameless fears assailed her; and Scarlett, always the most pragmatic of people, suddenly found herself overwhelmed with an almost superstitious dread of the future. Disaster seemed to lurk just ahead, and a huge and horrible certainty that something else was about to befall her became her constant dark companion. The passage of ordinary time was scarcely noticeable to her, sequestered within the enormous dark house with its thick velvet portieres drawn against the incursion of light and life; in true deep mourning for the first time in her life, she felt no desire for society, no interest in leaving the house even if it had been acceptable for her to do so. The mills, sold months before, were no longer her concern; and the store muddled along without her oversight, Hugh Elsing struggling diligently to manage the entire enterprise in her absence. At least during Scarlett's convalescence two years before, Captain Butler had taken it upon himself to see to his wife's business affairs; but at present he was no more capable of doing so than was she, so Hugh was left to his own devices. The store struggled, but soldiered on, unremarked.
Once she had loved her elegant house and now it oppressed her. Where it had stood as a symbol of her accomplishments, now it seemed more a catalogue of her failures, of missed chances and abortive dreams. Scarlett wandered its halls by day and by night, looking very nearly as pinched and drawn as she had during the war; and though the servants went in silent fear of provoking her, in truth she scarcely noticed them or much of anything. Having bundled her two surviving children off to Tara just days after Bonnie's funeral, there was little that required her attention. She spent much of her time in her office, occasionally looking over the ledgers that were dropped off regularly for her perusal, but in truth she did little more than flip the pages idly as the figures swam before her burning eyes. She refused all callers, save Melanie, and after awhile the callers simply stopped coming by. Mammy, who feared for both her mistress and Cap'n Butler, took the extreme liberty of soliciting Dr. Meade's advice; he pronounced acute melancholia on Scarlett's part, and advised her that her husband was likely to drink himself to death without intervention on her part. Deeply skeptical, she merely nodded, wishing she knew a way to intervene with the swarthy stranger who occasionally appeared at the opposite end of her shining dinner table.
Unconfined by the demands of convention or the desires of an aching heart, Rhett was rarely in attendance; he disappeared for hours, sometimes days at a stretch, only occasionally arriving in time to take a strained and silent dinner with the pale apparition of his wife. If possible, he looked even worse than did Scarlett, and invoked even more fear in the baffled staff. His drinking was nearly constant now, to the point that he was rarely seen to be sober, and where once he had held his liquor well and become ever more sharp-tongued and sardonic with drink, he had deteriorated into a sullen, sodden drunk. Much of his time was spent in the rooms above the Girl of the Period Saloon, seeking liquid oblivion rather than the purchased affections of Belle's girls. When he bothered to return to his garish, cheerless house, it was invariably in the depth of the night when there was little chance of encountering anyone but his long-suffering valet. Pork had long grown accustomed to handling men incapacitated by drink, though Rhett was nearly double the size of Gerald O'Hara, and he attended the needs of the master of the house with quiet efficiency. Rhett had developed an aversion to his second-floor suite, the room in which Bonnie had lain in state after the accident, so Pork would make up a pallet in the butler's pantry at the rear of the house in the servants' wing and bear his employer to bed therein. None of the other servants remarked upon this, and it went unnoticed by Scarlett, who rarely ventured beyond her office when she even bothered to come downstairs.
In the aftermath of the furious words exchanged in the first extremity of their grief, Mr. And Mrs. Butler behaved as virtual strangers, interacting with the indifference of people passing in the halls of a hotel. Scarlett bitterly regretted the accusations she had flung at Rhett immediately following the accident, and desperately wished she knew a way to breach the chasm that had opened up between them. Had she been able to, she would have told him she held him blameless, that she too had been loathe to restrain or restrict their beautiful and high-spirited daughter, that she had been proud of Bonnie's horsemanship and touched by Rhett's devotion to the child. But apologies had never come easily to her, and apologizing to Rhett was nearly impossible even at the best of times; and words left unspoken became harder and harder to imagine, until at last it seemed almost unthinkable that she should ever be able to speak to her husband of anything deeper than her desire that he might pass her a utensil at the dining table. The blank black eyes he turned upon her so infrequently did not invite confidences, the arms held stiffly at his sides forbade the thought of comforting embraces; and the broad chest (now running to softness as muscle was occluded by the effects of drink) where once she had laid her head was surely off-limits to her now.