Happy Thanksgiving, two hours late! I'm so grateful for a loving family and for a supportive husband who lets me write all day on a major holiday. I'm grateful for being able to stand up -- at this point in November, my rear end aches from sitting in the hard Windsor chair at the desk for so long each night. And I'm grateful to anyone who put up anything of interest on the internet today, to distract me from writing. Thanks.
By the end of the day Melly was completely worn out, not so much by the physical demands of the visit as with keeping up with the shifting social dynamic. She had expected that Chris would be angry with Sophia and Ian, but whether Chris had chosen to overlook their behavior or whether Ian had jollied him back into a good humor by his compliments of the house and the estate, the three seemed to have adopted the collegial manner of business associates. Over lunch, Ian and Chris discussed the development plans for Hazelwood, using a great deal of technical terminology which Melly had trouble following, and Sophia, formerly so bored with all things Hazelwood, now weighed in as the future lady of the house to give advice and make suggestions. Every now and then Ian consulted Olivia’s aesthetic opinion of the grounds, and by the end of lunch he was advanced in her good graces. Somehow he even managed to arrange the seating on the way home so that he sat in the back of the M3 with her. Melly had to concede his skill; he was so utterly easy-going and adaptable that it was hard for anyone to withstand his charm offensive. He had the flexibility of a snake.
Rain threatened on the southern horizon as the group made their way to the cars, so Malcolm closed the top of the Morgan. Alys was very considerate of Melly’s health and wouldn’t hear of her sitting in the back.
“It has to be much more comfortable for you up front. I wish I’d known you weren’t feeling well, or I wouldn’t have let you give me the front seat on the way here. You should have said something.”
Melly murmured a dismissal as Alys climbed into the back seat.
“Melly is a model of fortitude,” said Malcolm, helping her into the car. “She’s stronger than most people would credit.”
“Yes, I’ve certainly noticed the lack of credit.”
Melly, embarrassed, looked at her hands, but Malcolm laughed and patted her shoulder affectionately as he closed the door.
The first raindrops struck the windshield as the Morgan turned onto the highway from Hazelwood’s sheltered drive. Dick felt no compunction to wait on the others on the return trip and had roared ahead. Malcolm was more content to linger on the long drive back, and neither of his passengers seemed opposed. For a time they rode in peaceful silence, listening to the splat of the fat drops on the taut cloth of the roof.
Alys was the first to break the silence. She leaned forward between the front seats so she could be heard.
“I’d like to apologize again for what I said earlier. I hadn’t known that you’d been in the seminary, or I wouldn’t have said anything.” She paused, but seemed to feel she needed to explain further. “I didn’t think anyone actually became a priest anymore.”
“And yet there are still priests and seminaries,” Malcolm pointed out.
“Oh, you know what I mean. I meant anyone I ever met.”
“Since you don’t know any priests, though, it is possible that you might not be the best judge of who and who doesn’t become one?”
“Perhaps.” She shrugged very prettily. “I only hear about the bad ones, I guess. My uncle has met a fair number over the years, and he says they’ve been invariably ignorant and rigid.
Malcolm raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t take it that you thought that all of your uncle’s opinions were entirely accurate.”
“No, I don’t. I suppose I shouldn’t have used him as an example. But it’s not as if he were the only one who says that sort of thing. I was under the impression that most people thought that organized religion in general was mainly for the uneducated or the prejudiced.”
“And it’s not at all possible that that could be an uneducated and prejudiced opinion?”
She flushed. “Well, when you put it that way… It’s not a topic I was ever encouraged to think about very much.”
“Many people aren’t. That was one of the reasons I wanted to become a priest.”
“You have a noble streak. In an earlier age you might have been a crusader.” Alys gave a slightly self-deprecating smile. “I know you won’t agree with me, but I have to say that I’m glad you’re not going to be a priest. I can see that it must very important to you, but to me it seems like a strange kind of waste.”
Melly could be silent no longer, though speaking in any way that could be construed as confrontational made her stomach feel cold. “Don’t you think, though, that Malcolm would have made the kind of priest you could admire? Wouldn’t having better men become priests make you respect priests more?”
Alys admitted it with good grace. “You’ve got me there, Melly. Yes, it probably would, and I hope for your sakes and the sake of general civility that fine men will boost the public opinion of priests. But I still won’t concede that Malcolm should spend his life and his talents working for little pay or recognition, and—,” with a ironic expression, “—no respect.”
“Ah, but that’s exactly what I will be doing,” he said. “Haven’t you heard? I’m going to be a high-school teacher.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with that. There are several large private schools in Baton Rouge, aren’t there? And quite a few of them Catholic schools as well, so you can prove me wrong on all counts.”
“I won’t be teaching in Baton Rouge. I’m helping to establish a local charter school. It’s only a mile and a half from Stillwater. I’ll take you down there sometime.”
“Well, school administration is a good start. With a couple of years of experience, you can move up to a bigger and more prestigious school. If you were ever interested in coming to New York, my uncle is on the board of a fairly exclusive school up there. I bet he’d be a good connection for you.”
Malcolm snorted. “Even though I’m a Catholic?”
“They’re pretty open-minded.”
Malcolm shook his head. “You’re very kind, but I don’t want to go to one of the bigger schools. I want to stay home and teach locally. I like this area, and I think the underprivileged kids here deserve as good an education as children whose parents can afford to send them to private schools. I don’t have any plans to leave.”
Alys shook her head. “I couldn’t stay tied to one area for the rest of my life. I’d feel trapped. It’s hard for me to settle down to do one thing when life has so much variety. I’ve never really felt like anywhere was home for me.”
Malcolm glanced at her quickly, then turned back to the road. “I’m sorry for you, then. It would be very wrenching for me to have to leave Stillwater.”
A quiet fell over the car as it splashed on through the rain. Melly wanted to observe Malcolm’s face to try and guess his thoughts, but she didn’t want Alys to catch her doing it. Peeking over at Alys, she saw she had no need to worry: Alys was openly studying Malcolm herself, watching the thoughtful set of his jaw and the way the light of the setting sun, breaking through the clouds, cast the shadows of the raindrops on this hands.
Presently Alys introduced some other topic, and she and Malcolm talked lightly all the rest of the drive. Melly gazed out the plastic side curtains of the Morgan as the car glided under the dripping moss hanging from the venerable oak trees, past their roots thrusting up through the red clay at the side of the road, and a fierce love of home tugged at her heart, pulling her back toward Stillwater.
They pulled into the drive of Stillwater just as the sun dipped below the tips of the sugarcane. Dick had arrived well before them, and he, Ian, and Olivia were sitting on the porch of the cottage, drinks already in hand. As the three latecomers climbed out of the Morgan, Ian called out, “Alys! Come over here! We’re talking about the time we got stuck in Oakland and couldn’t find a cab, and I never get the details right. You have to tell the story.”
Alys waved to Ian, but did not cross to the porch before saying to Malcolm, “Thanks for the ride, and for the deep conversation.” She nodded at Melly. “And thank you, Melly, for your fortitude and your good company.”
Malcolm didn’t follow her instantly, and Melly remained by his side, watching as Alys joined the group, settling in on the step next to Ian and breaking into a laugh as she started in on her story.
“She’s so full of life,” he said, with an undertone in his voice that made Melly brace herself to be understanding and cheerful. “I was impressed with how considerate she was toward you today. And I don’t think there’s any malice in her. She makes offensive statements without thinking because those opinions all she’s ever heard, but she’s not hard. She can hear a new point of view and immediately take it into account.” His eyes narrowed. “Of course, living with Carson Winters would bias anyone against what’s good and true — it’s a wonder she’s turned out as well as she has.”
“That may well be,” said Melly carefully, trying to talk through Alys’s character without driving Malcolm over to join her on the porch, “but at what point does someone move beyond her education and her background to start having her own views and convictions? Isn’t one of the marks of adulthood that a person is able to seek for what’s true on her own?”
“Yes, of course. But how can she know what’s true if no one ever represents truth to her?”
“Aren’t we all drawn to seek truth by the light of our conscience?”
“An ill-formed conscience can make that difficult.”
“I know, but at a certain point the formation of a person’s conscience becomes the responsibility of that person, regardless of the opinions of those around her.”
“Well, I’m not worried about you in that regard,” said Malcolm in an affectionately teasing tone. Melly smiled up at him, feeling the openness and ease of their friendship without the distraction of Alys Winter’s innocent face and complicated conscience.
They leaned peaceably against the hood of the car, watching the first stars appear in the rain-washed sky.
“‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight’,” quoted Melly.
“Must be some happy sailors out there, then.”
“I remember how we used to sit out on the balcony and you would tell me the names of the stars and the stories of the constellations.”
“We haven’t done that in a long time,” he said. “I miss it. That was such a peaceful time. One of the things I missed most at the seminary was the feeling of freedom I had in being able to settle down to something, and having the security of being rooted enough in the rhythm of the place and the different personalities in it that I could sense where everyone was, or would be at a certain time. I always knew when I was sitting up on the balcony with you that no one was going to suddenly decide to turn up and bother us. That was such a relief. It let me relax enough to concentrate on the sky.”
“I feel exactly the same way.”
“I know you do. That’s why it’s so easy to be with you.”
Melly gave a plaintive sigh. “I wish everything in life was as clear and focused as looking at the stars.”
“So do I.” He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, looking down at her with such a open and companionable warmth that she didn’t dare to meet the pressure of his hand. She felt a sudden wild hope rise in her that he would suggest they go stargazing right now. Perhaps he also felt the attraction of such an idea, because she could feel his eyes on her even after she had turned her own eyes away from his face in embarrassment. He was about to speak, to say—
“Hey! Malcolm!” This was Dick, bellowing from the porch. “What’s taking you so long? Get over here and help me remember what happened that time Dan Boudreaux snuck his granddad’s license and took it up to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and then he got carded on Bourbon Street and they gave him the senior discount.”
“I only ever heard about it from you,” Malcolm called back.
“Yeah, but you tell it better.”
Malcolm rolled his eyes, but he straightened up from slouching against the hood of the car next to Melly.
“Let’s go stargazing again some time soon,” he said, giving her hand a last fraternal squeeze. “I need that quiet time with you to have the moral support to deal with all of these nut cases.”
The others on the porch jostled and shifted positions to absorb him into the group. Melly remained by the car, looking again at the stars burning vividly against the crisp sky. The high cold clarity of the upper atmosphere seemed to contrast sharply with the hazy glow of the porch light, barely sufficient to illuminate the tangled web of murky relationships on the steps below.
Esther Davis was heading over to the big house from the direction of the cottages when she noticed Melly still wrapped in thought by the Morgan.
“Melly, what on earth are you doing standing around out here? They just told me how badly you were feeling at Hazelwood today — I thought you would have been in bed already. You need to go lay down right now. Can you imagine what a bad time this would be for you to have one of your attacks, what with the wedding dress needing to be finished and all? That would be exactly what Cheryl needs, more stress and worry while Richard’s out of the country. Come on, I’ll take you up.”
Melly sighed again and followed obediently without looking toward the increasingly silly group on the porch.