Richard Spencer was called a generous man, and rightly so, for despite an introversion so severe it was often mistaken for severity, he had a kind and open heart. However, it was not this interior disposition which was praised, as few were intimate enough with him to know his gentler qualities. Rather, it was that for the past ten years, the dispersing of Stillwater funds and the planning of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball had been left to the redoubtable energies of Mrs. Spencer’s older sister, Esther Davis, whose charitable impulses were so ambitious that they could only be realized by using someone else’s money. Of course, Esther was a shrewd manager — she had to be; it was public knowledge that she had depended on the Spencers since she had lost most of her life’s savings in the late 90s when her ex-husband had bet, and lost, the farm on the dot-com boom. Although Esther had spent the intervening years in rectifying and then surpassing the original loss, she saw no reason why she should let her own private finances stand in the way of the good that could be achieved with a fortune like the Spencers. They had so much money, it was surely of little consequence to them if Esther used some of it to assist her charity cases.
The Arceneauxs were one of Esther’s prime charity cases, and on the whole she was pleased with her management of them. Esther and Cheryl had known Nanette Arceneaux’s family for years, and the older Cheryl and the younger Nanette, sharing a particular kind of languid temperament, were as fond of each other as women are when it takes no more energy to maintain a friendship than either feels like expending. In time, Cheryl married up to Stillwater; Nanette married down to Jean Arceneaux, a bad boy from Baton Rouge who had captivated her with his dog tags and sweet words and city ways. The wedding was six months after their first date, the birth of Rene followed six months later, and shortly thereafter Jean’s Marine unit was deployed. Jean was not meant for the dullness of life stateside. His leaves seemed only long enough to get Nanette pregnant again, and Raymond, Andre, Melusine, Marc, and Leonie, followed in regular succession. Cheryl Spencer kept up, in her easy way, with her old friend, and even went so far as to invite Nanette and her family to visit Stillwater.
“That goddamn Cajun,” Nanette said to Cheryl, as they sat sipping sweet tea and rocking on one of the house’s many back porches. “He say he want to stick out his twenty years and then get out with half-pay, but I tell you what, he going to come home and see all these crazy kids and say, ‘Goddamn, woman, you expect me to live in this madhouse?’”
“I know, “Cheryl agreed. “Richard is gone so often on his consulting trips to the other American Cane plantations, I really feel like I’m a widow. I just can’t get my kids to leave my poor little dogs alone, and it makes me so mad, sometimes I think I’m going to have get up out of my chair and swat them.”
Esther Davis also sipped sweet tea and surveyed the younger Arceneaux children roughhousing on, around, and under the tablecloths. She wasn’t sure but what she sympathized with Jean.
“Marc!” snapped Nanette, nudging the cloth aside with her knee. “You get off Melusine this instant. Why you want to torment that little girl? Leave her be.”
A tousled preschooler hurled himself out from beneath the tablecloth and charged off across the lawn laughing, easily avoiding his mother’s ineffectual grasp as he dashed toward the football game between the Spencer and Arceneaux boys. On the porch floor, a dark-haired child of perhaps five lay, breathing shallowly. Esther cast a sharp eye over her thin frame and pale face.
“That child is not well,” she said.
“Yeah, we been to the doctors, but they don’t know nothing,” Nanette sighed, settling back in her chair. “They want tests and more tests. They don’t know nothing. Maybe it’s Baton Rouge that’s bad for her. We got to get out of that city, but Jean, he don’t like living out here in the middle of nowhere. Rene! Come pick up Melly.”
A bright-eyed boy, perhaps nine or ten, immediately darted out from the football game. He gently lifted his sister and settled with her in a deep wicker chair. The girl wrapped her arms around his neck. She cast a shy glance at Cheryl Spencer, but when she saw Esther’s intent gaze she squeezed her eyes shut and buried her face in Rene’s shirt. He patted her gently and whispered soothingly in her ear, and her small frame relaxed in his arms, though she resolutely refused to look up again.
“I think it’s so sweet how they can just sit with each other,” said Cheryl, fanning herself. “Sophia and Olivia would hit their brothers as soon as look at them.” The young Spencer ladies, on the opposite side of the porch ignored their mother with a distain born of long practice and continued to paint their nails with the intensity that can only be mustered by girls of seven and nine.
Esther Davis listened with half an ear as Nanette complained about her work doing alterations at a bridal shop in Baton Rouge. She watched with half an eye as Rene carried Melly to a quiet grassy spot under a large oak where the little girl could chat at her brother away from the gaze of strangers. Here indeed was a project to be managed, if only the details could be worked out. There was the bigger cottage empty, producing no revenue. There was a family to be rescued from pollution of the big city. There was Richard Spencer’s reputation for generosity to be maintained, for left to himself, the man had no idea of how to make a good public effect with his money. There was a seamstress needing better work — here Esther had visions of Sophia, her favorite niece, sweeping down the grand staircase to the Stillwater Fellowship Ball in a fluffy creation designed just for her. The pretty child deserved nothing less.
Esther had her way, of course. The Spencer reputation for generosity was preserved and strengthened (and other inconvenient financial appeals from various worthy causes were firmly put off with reference to Stillwater’s own resident charity family). Cheryl was pleased to see her old friend settled comfortably at Stillwater, provided that she didn’t have put herself to any trouble over the matter, and that the boys would please leave her dogs in peace. Richard Spencer assented, in his distant way, to the arrangement, though he made it clear that this did not mean that the Arceneaux children were to consider themselves free to run all over the big house. The Spencer children, often away at boarding schools, had no interest in socializing with the younger inhabitants of the cottage, though Malcolm Spencer, the second son, was of a more amiable bent of mind than his siblings and made time to tutor Rene, two years his junior. Rene was a most rewarding pupil — he seemed to received the family’s entire share of genius (indeed, Esther Davis observed more than once that his brilliance was in direct proportion to the idiocy of the rest of the children). And so for several years Esther laid the groundwork for her next public-relations coup. The Stillwater Fellowship Ball was of course the highlight of the social year, but of late there had been been a certain staleness to the usual glamor. What a triumph it would be if she could produce the first Stillwater scholar since before World War II!
Again, Esther’s energy won the day. Richard Spencer deferred to her judgment in the case — the Trust was well-funded, and the boy deserving, and past question has been living on the Stillwater estate. Rene was popular in town, and his elevation to Stillwater Fellow ensured a glow of public admiration for Stillwater’s beneficience. And there was one other unforeseen but highly gratifying effect of the Fellowship: when Jean Arceneaux mustered out of the services a year or two after Rene had gone up to college, he removed his boisterous family to Baton Rouge. Nanette and her children had served their purpose for Stillwater, and hardly anyone was sorry to see them go. Esther Davis gave a final nod and began scrubbing the cottage the moment the much improved Melly carried the baby, Marie-Helene, out the door for the last time. Richard Spencer’s face relaxed as he contemplated the thought of his beautiful plantation once more peaceful and private. The vacancy of the cottage mattered as little as the occupancy to Dick, Sophia, and Olivia Spencer, each busy with college or jobs or impending engagements. Only Cheryl Spencer and Malcolm missed the energy of the young boys and the sight of the quiet Melly in rapt conversation with her adored brother Rene, and as Cheryl was engrossed in her pugs and Malcolm in his studies in the seminary, the Arceneauxs left no more mark on Stillwater than the scratches and scuffs on the wall of the empty cottage.