Later that evening, Melly sat in her little room, trying to work out in her mind what it was she found so alarming about the impending project. She thought of her quiet, reserved uncle and of his love for peace and order. She considered how she would feel if Stillwater were her house and someone had, without her permission, shot a movie in it and posted it for the world to see. She thought about Sophia playing Scarlett to Ian’s Rhett, and her brow furrowed with worry. Of course there was nothing wrong in itself with putting on a show — she still remembered when Richard and Cheryl had taken everyone to Baton Rouge to see Les Miserables when it had come through the River Center. She had cried from the moment the curtain went up, and had lived on dreams of the show for days afterwards. So why were Ian Winter and Sophia different from the actors playing Marius and Cosette? Those actors had been professional, for one thing. It was their job to kiss on stage — it wasn’t personal.
But even non-professional actors kissed on stage. Olivia had played Ado Annie in Oklahoma in high school, and she’d had to kiss a guy. That wasn’t strange, either. It wasn’t as if it were Olivia up there. She had been in character, and so had the guy who’d played Will Parker. She hadn’t even liked him — he was dating the girl who played Aunt Eller, and they hung all over each other backstage, according to Olivia. So, they had been in character, and had always rehearsed the kiss with a director and stage-manager and other actors around, in the appropriate place for rehearsing, which had been the theater. It wasn’t like they went around practicing kissing in someone’s home.
But people could put on plays at home. Malcolm had gone to Shakespeare readings in living rooms. He had read Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. She remembered him reading some of the speeches and the dialogue to her. That had not seemed odd, even when he was saying, “I do love nothing in the world so much as you.” She had liked to hear it, of course, but she knew it was not directed at her. Malcolm was acting out the speeches, but his dramatic reading was much like playing a game.
That was it. The plays she’d seen, the movies she’d watched, were like games from which the actors could walk away. And Ian and Sophia were playing such a deep game, without any oversight or direction, that Melly wondered if they would be able to walk away from it when the time came.
There was a knock on her door, and Malcolm called, “Melly? May I come in?”
Melly was instantly flustered. Malcolm in her room! She jumped off her bed and glanced wildly around. Was anything out of place? She fluffed her pillow and patted the quilt straight. Was she presentable? Dashing to her mirror, she quickly smoothed her hair and checked her teeth, and then, fearing that she’d made him wait too long, she stepped to the door, took a deep breath, and opened it as graciously as she could.
Malcolm had not had occasion to be in Melly’s room for some years. In essentials, it hadn’t changed much since then. She had opted this evening not to turn on the bare light bulb in the fan dropping from the ceiling medallion, instead preferring the warmer light of her lamps and the sconces over the fireplace, which had been wired for electricity around the same time as the fan was installed. Several worn carpets, again rescued from the attic, covered the boards of the cold floor. The faded velvet drapes were pulled shut against the coolness of the March night, and their lush texture and length gave the room a cozier atmosphere than its shabbiness warranted. His eye was caught by a sudden glow and shimmer from the curtains, and he stepped over to see what had caused it.
“Melly, did you bead the curtains?” he asked, half amused, half admiring.
She flushed. “I needed to practice on a heavy fabric. Mrs. Spencer said it was okay.”
He had to smile at her anxious face. “Melly, you don’t need anyone’s approval to make changes in your room. This is your space.” He looked at the walls. The plaster was still cracked and and the ornate moldings were in need of repair. The paint — doubtless old enough to be lead-based, though Malcolm couldn’t recall right now how that was dangerous — was peeling, though the walls had been brushed free of flakes as much as possible and several old pictures from the attic had been hung over the worst spots.
“We should have these walls repaired and painted. I’ll call the workmen after we get rid of the Spring Break crowd.”
“Can I…” Melly’s hazel eyes were bright with repressed anticipation. “May I pick the color?”
“Of course! Go to town. It’s your room.”
He sat in the wooden chair by her desk and looked about him. By rights the room should have felt stark and impoverished, yet Melly had put her own mark on it over the last four years. It was as neat and organized as Melly herself, but there was a certain exuberance and warmth that she rarely displayed in public. The quilt on her bed was pieced from squares on which she’d practiced various embroidery techniques. Her bookshelf was full to overflowing with volumes she’d collected or been given over the years, and in front of the tightly packed books, knickknacks and mementos stood guard. On every surface were framed photographs — various members of her family, the family all together in several attitudes and settings, Rene and Melly at the Stillwater Fellowship Ball, her parents in a cheap studio shot. The Spencers were well-represented as well, perhaps out of proportion to their regard for her. There were several of each family member. He glanced casually across them, looking to see which ones she had of him. Here he was at seminary, there he was with Dick, Sophia, and Olivia at some Christmas, and there was even a shot of him sitting on the spiral stairs in the light of the stained glass window. He remembered that one — Olivia had taken it when her craze for photography had first manifested. There was also one on her bedside table, and by shifting his position a little, he could see that it was a photo of himself and Rene at the last Ball, each wearing a tuxedo and raising a glass with glee.
Melly had seated herself on her bed and was regarding him in her characteristic way with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation.
“What do you think of this movie business, Melly?” Malcolm asked her, coming at once to the point.
Melly could have preferred to discuss any subject but that.
“I wish it wasn’t happening,” she said, with little animation. “It’s not a good idea, and nothing good will come of it.”
“I agree. Dick is too impulsive — he jumps on any stupid idea that enters his head. I don’t think there’s any way he can be talked down from this project.”
“What about your mother? Could she say anything to him?” Melly knew it was a ridiculous question even before she asked it.
“I wish she had any influence over Dick, but that ship sailed a long time ago, I think. I don’t think he would hear anything she’d have to say, even if she could be bothered to say it.”
“What do you plan to do?”
“Well,” he said slowly, “that’s why I want to talk to you. Everyone has been asking me to play Ashley in the scenes. Do you think I ought to?”
“No,” she answered promptly, then blushed at having spoken out so quickly.
“Well, I’m glad that you have such a definite answer,” he said, after waiting a moment for her to elaborate. “But could you give me some reasons?”
“I… I think that it would be a good example to the others, if you didn’t take part in something you thought wasn’t right.”
“And yet that’s not going to stop them from doing it.”
“No,” she said slowly, “but… but you can only be responsible for your own behavior.”
“That’s true. So what would I be doing? Playing Ashley? That’s fine so far as it goes. Ashley’s known for being a gentleman.”
“He’s known for being weak.”
Malcolm acknowledged this with a nod.
“There’s also the matter of them wanting to post the finished video on YouTube,” he said.
Melly felt on firmer ground with this.
“You can’t let them do that!” she exclaimed, surprising him with her intensity. “For one thing, what would your father think? His house on the internet for everyone to see, without his permission, and shown in a way that is almost designed to offend and hurt him! And Malcolm,” she rose in agitation and moved to the end of the bed to sit near him and make her point more emphatically, “you have to think about the effect it will have on starting the school. How will it be when you’re trying to start a school for a predominantly black group of students, and then someone finds out that a Gone With The Wind parody was shot at your house, with your brother playing Mammy — in blackface? It’s… it’s appalling! It can only damage your reputation, and embarrass your father.”
“You’re exactly right.” Malcolm leaned toward her urgently. “That’s the thing. I don’t have any influence over Dick and the rest of them right now, because I’m keeping aloof from the project. They only see me as trying to obstruct. They won’t listen if I tell them not to put it on the internet. But if I get involved, if I show good will by taking the part of Ashley, then I have a stake in the whole thing, and my vote carries more weight. Do you see what I mean?”
“Maybe,” said Melly, full of doubt. “But…”
“But Dick will feel like he’s won. You were so serious about not joining in that in reversing your decision, you might lose moral authority instead of gaining it.”
“I suppose it will be an exercise in humility to have Dick crow over me, though it’s not like Chris would be a better influence on the group.” He got up and paced over to the window by the fireplace, looking out toward the cottages. “And think of poor Alys Winter, having to play Chris’s wife!” He smiled at Melly, who looked grave on the bed. “You know you wouldn’t want to do it yourself.”
“I suppose anyone would rather play your wife than Chris’s,” Melly said without thinking.
“See! I thought you would agree with me there.”
“There, yes,” said Melly, alarmed, “but…”
“And she’s been so sweet to you — much nicer than Sophia and Olivia, that’s for sure. I hate to have her feel uncomfortable with Chris, especially when she’s a guest here.”
“She’s a paying guest,” said Melly almost sharply, rising and pacing to the other windows. She pushed aside the velvet curtain and looked out, pressing her forehead to the cool glass so he wouldn’t see her face. She had never had a disagreement with Malcolm before, had never known him to make less than admirable choices, and it was highly unsettling. Compounding her frustration was the thought that this new and eminently human side of him seemed to be evoked by Alys Winter. If it weren’t for her sake, would Malcolm even be thinking about appeasing Dick, of all people?
“Melly, I can tell you don’t like the idea.” Malcolm knit his brows. It was unusual enough for Melly to be at odds with him on any topic that he suddenly realized he had come here to ask her opinion only to hear her support his own. He left the window and crossed out from around the bed to where she stood at the tall window. “You know I respect your judgment. If you really think it’s so wrong…”
“Malcolm, I…” She could not look at him. It was difficult to disappoint him, and yet it was hard that this decision should be pushed on to her. But then, she reflected, how many times have I felt secure in a decision because he approved of it? She had always trusted him to help her make the right choices. Now her judgment must be correct for his sake. “I.. I can’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
He had grown so used to her approval that even this mild resistance gave her an air of unfamiliarity. He studied her as she stood at the window, turned half away from him. There was nothing different about her. She wasn’t wearing her hair differently, he didn’t think; it was still as long and straight and dark as always, and very thick. She was no taller than usual — well, a bit taller, actually; he must have been thinking of her as she’d been at fifteen, hunched and scrawny and ill. She wasn’t scrawny any more, and she didn’t seem sick; her face seemed to have a healthy glow right now. Actually, she looked rather nice. He wondered that he’d never seen it before. It was wrong of him to keep treating her like she was a little girl. He should consult with her instead of demanding validation.
“Can you think of a better idea?” he asked quietly.
“No,” she murmured, and her dark lashes seemed wet with tears. “I can’t, right now. But I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I, but the only way I can think of to rein Dick in is to join up with him and manage him from the inside.”
Melly was silent. Malcolm was resolved not to push her any more tonight; she looked tired and distraught. He squeezed her shoulder.
“Good night then, Melly. Get some rest. ‘Tomorrow is another day’, right?”
She gave him a quiet solemn look that stripped his jest of any humor and turned it against him as a reproach. He made a hasty exit.
Melly moved slowly to her bed and sat down. The tears she had been trying to restrain in Malcolm’s presence trickled down her cheeks unheeded. The spectacle of Malcolm trying to justify himself to her was disheartening, and she grieved for her friend and his abandoned ideals. If he, who was so strong, could yield so easily to temptation, how could there be any hope for her, weak as she was? What support could she count on if she were pressured to act as well by Dick or Sophia or, worse, Malcolm? She curled up miserably in bed and reached under her pillow for her rosary, clutching it as a lifeline and whispering her tearful Hail Marys with the pitiful cadence of a young child moaning for help.