I'd wanted to get further than this before I posted, but things have been very chaotic here. This section is basically unedited; sorry, guys. 17,495/50,000.
Part Two: Winter Days
Melly’s sophomore year of high school faded into her junior year, and then her senior year. Her academic achievement had been adequate, but she felt no compulsion to further her education, and indeed there was plenty for her to do at Stillwater. Over the years she had taken on duties here and there: secretarial and research jobs for Esther, various tasks related to the care and training of Cheryl’s dogs, as well as household management tasks that Cheryl was too overwhelmed to accomplish, and sewing, always sewing. She had gone from altering gowns for the Fellowship Ball to sewing them herself , though she also took on lesser jobs such as repairing curtains and hemming pants. Cheryl often said that she didn’t know what she’d do without Melly, and as no one showed any signs of wanting her to leave, Melly was content. She nodded politely to John Spencer’s portrait when she passed it, and although he never said anything, she hoped that after four years of her presence at Stillwater, he had warmed up to her.
Her health had greatly improved. She would never be described as vigorous or dynamic, but the quiet rhythm of life at Stillwater seemed to suit her ideally. There was no medical consensus as to the source of Melly’s problems; some doctors opined that she’d merely had severe growing pains; some, that she had some undiagnosed allergy; some, that her condition had been psychosomatic. Melly didn’t care much. She could move about now, free from constraint and pain and worry, peaceful in mind and body.
Sophia was now engaged to the wealthy scion of an inland plantation, a gentleman named Chris Dalton, and they had moved into an apartment in Baton Rouge. Despite his relative youth, Chris was the the epitome of the “old boy”: a former high school football star, handsome, broad-chested, golden-haired, and dumb as the proverbial post. Though he didn’t have any pressing financial necessity to work, he amused himself by putting together real estate deals for builders looking to convert sugarcane land into planned communities. Chris was impressed by the general admiration of Sophia’s beauty; she was impressed by the general admiration for his land and money. They made a pretty picture sitting together in the parlor, combing through their bridal registry. The wedding was planned for next June and was to be the culmination of a year of increasingly extravagant parties. Melly had spent the better part of the summer and fall after her graduation sitting in the alcove or family room, working french knots and beading onto the panels of Sophia’s wedding dress.
Olivia was a junior at Tulane, studying American History and dabbling in photography. She came down often on the weekends, each time with a new friend from the photography club, and demanded that everyone sit for stark black-and-white photographs in the old rooms. Often she had urged Melly to sit for one of these sessions, but Melly refused every time, quietly but firmly. She hated having her picture taken, and even more did she hate seeing pictures of herself. Olivia had to content herself with detail shot of Melly’s intricately beaded fabric, and these were indeed some consolation, actually winning first place in a campus exhibit.
Malcolm had gone up to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, but the increasing strain of following a vocation to which it seemed he had no call had lead him to withdraw in his second year. The renunciation of a vocation toward which he had worked for the past six years left him at loose ends. He had moved back to Stillwater, and over the course of the next year began working with a group of citizens in town to set up a charter school for the least advantaged children of the community.
Most of the Spencer children had followed laudable, if not deeply original, paths, but Dick was the great source of contention. He too had moved back home, though under far less sympathetic circumstances than Malcolm. Until the Christmas holidays after Melly graduated from high school, he had been working at another start-up, this one run by a friend of his, who had offered him plenty of options in lieu of an extravagant salary. An ambitious fellow like Dick saw that as no obstacle to living the lifestyle of the successful entrepreneur, and with the aid of plastic he anticipated his eventual fortune. Perhaps even this would not have undone him, would it not have been for the events of the company Holiday Hullabaloo. Dick, who never attended a party without offering himself as its life, got perfectly plastered, made an egregious pass at the intern who’d unwisely agreed to accompany him to the event, and having been angrily and forcibly rejected, proceeded to operate his vehicle in his less-than-capacitated state. He had, of course, been pulled over. The evening’s reckoning had been justly severe: Dick had been fired for cause on grounds of sexual harassment, thus forfeiting his not-inconsiderable stock options shortly before the company made a wildly successful public debut; and Dick was charged with DUI and faced a fine, license suspension, and a possible sentence of up to six months.
Richard Spencer had been required to go to considerable trouble to to convince Dick to accept a plea bargain in order to have the charge reduced to “wet reckless”. After completing his community service, he had been required to move back home; Richard, worried that Dick would hurt himself or someone else, gave him two choices for leaving behind his wild set in Baton Rouge — either enter a treatment center or live at Stillwater. Dick naturally chose Stillwater.
“It’s just as well,” Richard told Malcolm. “I don’t think Dick has an issue with alcohol. I think he has an issue with impulse management.”
It didn’t take long for Dick to resettle from the city to the country, but he could not move away as easily from his debts. As the sugar harvest had been poor again last year due to bad weather, Richard struggled to come up with money to once again handle his son’s creditors.
And again, Esther Davis stepped in with another of her ideas. The big cottage was sitting empty; had been for years, barring some occasional visitors. Perhaps it was time to consider renting it out. Esther knew someone who knew someone who handled high-end rentals, advertised in carefully selected venues, and had good references and high standards and exclusive clientele. She had done some calculations on the back of an envelope — here she pulled out a spreadsheet that she and the accountant had prepared — and there was no question that the cottage could be profitable; they could certainly charge this much a month… Richard Spencer took the paper and perused it, then sat back and sighed. It seemed a necessity. Esther set gears in motion, and everyone waited for the response.
Esther’s agent was apparently the genuine article. He quickly secured a tenant who agreed to a six-month lease with an option to renew month by month. The affair was a coup for Esther: the prospective cottager was an artist from New York wanting a quiet atmospheric spot to work on her projects. She would move in at the beginning of February. Everything was set in readiness. Esther had electricians out to run central air through the cottage, and had the regular estate workmen sand and paint and polish until everything stood in readiness for the new occupant of the big cottage.