Here we are in November, which means it's time for National Novel Writing Month. This year I'm trying something different and I have a request -- if you think you know what I'm doing, don't mention it in the comments until it's all over, please! Let the story speak for itself.
Part One: The Family
The extravagance of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball was of such repute that few people remembered, if indeed they had ever known, that the purpose of the gala was not the strengthening of neighborly affections but the presentation of the Stillwater Fellowship. There was no occasion to let a good party go to waste: the scholarship, owing to certain restrictive clauses, had gone unawarded since time out of memory, but there were no such restrictions placed on the annual commemorative dinner, such that what had begun as a sober evening of scholastic reflection had mutated into the premiere social event of Iberville Parish.
In the aftermath of the War Between the States, John Spencer of Stillwater Plantation, Lousiana, had established the Stillwater Fellowship for the purpose of educating any deserving but impoverished young men who resided within the boundaries of the Spencer estate. The Stillwater Fellow was to be selected at the discretion of the head of the Spencer family, but the residency requirements were clearly written into the Fellowship Trust; John Spencer did not intend to go to expense educating white trash from Plaquemine or his neighbor’s freedmen. He was put to very little expense as it was. The post-war years were hard on the sugar plantation, and the portion of revenues allotted to the Trust were very small indeed. The select students were honored yearly at restrained Fellowship Balls and matriculated at John Spencer’s own alma mater, St. Mary’s College, Baton Rouge, where they generally proved a credit to Stillwater and the generosity of the Spencer family.
When American Cane leased the Stillwater sugarlands from Harold Spencer in the 1930s and installed the equipment to modernize production, the fortunes of the estate were at such a low that the suits at the sugar conglomerate thought little of guaranteeing a certain percentage of income from the land to the Stillwater Trust. The pool of available candidates was vastly reduced, anyhow: with the advent of the automobile most of the workers had moved closer to the amenities of town, and the old cabins on the plantation, a number of which had originally been housing for slaves, were demolished so that more cane could be planted. The few remaining cottages were updated for the convenience of those employees who still lived on the estate. From those cottages, few likely lads still qualified for the Fellowship, and the Spencers continued to host the Balls regardless of the current tenancy of the scholarship.
John Spencer, having witnessed the devastation of a Civil War, could not have imagined the bounty bestowed by a World War. American Cane wrangled a valuable contract from the government to supply wrapped sugar cubes for military rations. The boys returned from the front hungry, and with sweet memories of American Cane products, if nothing else, urged their wives and sweethearts to look for the signature green and pink package. When domestic sugar rationing ended, sales of sweetener soared, and with them the fortunes of Stillwater. The immense house, for years a patched and glowering shell, was gradually restored by Thomas Spencer to its antebellum splendor and the grand front rooms, some of the finest examples of southern architecture, were opened for tours. The Misses Spencer again took their places as the belles of the Stillwater Fellowship Balls.
However, World War II, though it strengthened the Fellowship financially, caused it to atrophy practically. The war drained the plantation’s supply of young men, and when those men returned, they did not return to Stillwater. The G.I. Bill provided them with mortgages for their own homes and sent them to college independent of Stillwater largesse. And so the Trust continued to grow. Without any Fellows to spend down the money, the Fellowship Balls evolved from simple affairs to ever more ostentatious and exclusive bashes.
As a result, when Richard Spencer named Rene Arceneaux the first Stillwater Fellow in more than six decades, there was general surprise — not because anyone doubted Rene’s obvious academic ability, or his residency on the property (who could miss the passel of noisy young Arceneauxs bursting out of the the small cottage behind the big house?) — but because hardly anyone remembered that the Fellowship existed to be given instead of merely celebrated.
Fortnightly Book, December 4
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