Richard Spencer was a man who loved the comforts of home — not just the amenities, but the ease, the quiet, the security that came from being in his own space. It was not that he did not like people; he did. But he was a homebody through and through, and was at his happiest on his beloved plantation, in his beloved house, behind his beloved desk in his beloved office, into which no one ever barged unannounced, except Esther Davis. He had not had to deal with Esther in his office for a month and a half, however; she was at Stillwater, and he was in the West Indies, touring sugar plantations on a consulting trip for American Cane. The islands were beautiful; the plantations managed as efficiently as local custom would allow. His business was essentially concluded, and though he was approved to stay up to three more weeks, until mid-April, he had no desire to swan around the islands running up his expense account. He was homesick, with a vengeance.
He had called Cheryl as soon as he was back in the States to tell her he was coming home early. She had accepted the news in her usual placid fashion.
“Oh, that’s great, honey. I’ll have to tell the kids when I see them, but the vet says Pugsy has to lose some weight, so I’ve just been exercising with her so much that I hardly have a minute to talk to anyone.”
Richard had never considered himself an effusive man, but as his plane touched down in Baton Rouge, he felt an unwonted swelling of his heart. He had been on many consulting trips before, some longer than this last one, but perhaps it was time to pare back on the traveling. He was going home to Stillwater, his Stillwater, and there he wanted to stay, private and peaceful. He wanted to spend pleasant evenings with his pretty Cheryl, with whom he’d never exchanged an angry word in almost thirty years of marriage. He anticipated a reformed Dick, an motivated Malcolm, a bridal Sophia, a diligent Olivia, and dared hope for an absent Esther. Of course he couldn’t count on the girls being at home right now, between work and school, but he’d have them down as soon as possible. And of course there was little Melly too, so quiet and sweet, so patient and so small. Why, he missed her too. What a joy it would be to see them all again! How good it was to be going home!
He traced the familiar route down River Road, eschewing the more direct inland highway. Even as dusk was settling in, he could recognize every curve and sweep of the road as if it were broad daylight. Each plantation house, each town, each field was like an old friend to him. Three miles upriver from the drive of Stillwater, he passed the great mansion of John Spencer’s antebellum rival. Though that plantation still farmed cane, the current owners had thrown in their economic lot with the tourism crowd, adding cottages and wedding chapels and a spa and God only knew what. Let them have it, he thought. Let them have their publicity and their website and their photo shoots and magazine spreads. Let them commercialize and cheapen the venerable name of their house. Let them sell it on key chains and prostitute it for location scouts. At least Stillwater was a still a gracious refuge. As long as he had charge of her, he would maintain her reputation and her mystique, for her own sake and the sake of his children. He knew that they too, underneath their sometimes callow exteriors, loved and honored their home as he did.
He had never been what might be termed an “involved” father. He had been distant, absorbed in many cares, when he should have been providing paternal guidance. Dick had disappointed him, but in coming home he was making a fresh start. Surely it was not too late for him to change, to mature. The others, thank goodness, seemed more tractable. Malcolm seemed to have found a new drive and direction in his teaching work. Sophia, his oldest girl, was about to be married to a man who adored her and could provide for her. Richard didn’t know Chris Dalton well, but their few brief meetings had been amicable, and of course everyone knew his mother, of the Hazelwood family. Maybe his slow style would settle Sophia. Olivia had grown from a bumbling, awkward child into a woman with a true passion for photography. Richard had kept one of her shots of Stillwater with him on his trip to meditate on when his homesickness became overwhelming.
No, he had not been a close father, but there were certain ideals and responsibilities he’d tried to instill in his children. As each of them had come of age, he had taken them out with him on a tour of the estate. They needed to understand the scope of the land, the geographical boundaries, how long it took to drive around the fields. He took them to see American Cane in action on the leased Stillwater land, so that they might understand the practicalities of cane cultivation and harvesting. He made them page through documents and photos and old accounts, to understand both the honor and the shame of the Spencer legacy at Stillwater. So many plantations had changed hands multiple times since the Civil War, but Spencers had always lived in the house John Spencer had commissioned. That house had been built on the backs of slaves, and though no reparation could alter that fact, Richard Spencer had devoted much time and money to making atonement for the innocent blood spilled on his land, crying to God for vengeance.
At the gate of Stillwater, he paused. The pediment of the roof loomed against the deepening twilight sky. The windows blazed with an usual array of light; he couldn’t remember when he’d last seen the house so illuminated. As he drove down the driveway, watching the homely glow flashing through the oaks lining the road, he was pleased to think that his family was excited to see him. Cheryl must have spoken to someone. They were expecting him, and he was so happy to be back with them.
Rounding the corner of the library wing to park in back, he noticed that the two cottages were also lit up. That meant that Esther and the tenants were at home and not in his house. Now he could truly relax. Here he was, home after seven weeks. Thank God!
In the basement, all was quiet, but in the family room stood a slim dark-haired lady holding a long gown to herself, her face soft with sorrowful contemplation. A forgotten line from Shakespeare rose to the surface of his memory: she looked “like Patience on a monument,/ Smiling at grief.” She had to be Melly, and yet how lovely she was. Richard was surprised by how she'd changed. He recalled her as the wan, sick girl who’d come to them four years ago, but she had grown up without him noticing. That was like children, growing and blossoming under your very nose.
“Hello, Melly,” he said. “You look sad. Where is everyone?”
He had startled her. She dropped the dress and looked at him as if seeing a ghost.
“Hello, Mr. Spencer,” she said, and her voice was sweet and soft.
And as quickly as movie mania had come upon Stillwater, it was gone. Melly had followed Richard Spencer up to the first floor. His quiet consternation at the chaos in the drawing room, and the muddled and guilty explanations from the parties in the drawing room, would have been amusing to a mind more formed for comedy than hers. As it was, she sank deeper into misery on hearing Richard politely express a desire to see the scenes that everyone had worked so hard on. This was the last request to which anyone wanted to accede, but there was nothing for it. Ian made his farewells and wished the family a very happy reunion, and everyone else trooped down to the family room with Richard. Olivia cued up the footage on her laptop.
“It isn’t edited, you understand,” she said in a last desperate appeal to her father. “It’s all… very rough.”
“Well, Rome wasn’t filmed in a day,” he said. “Here, come sit by me, and tell me about it.”
It was an awful time of reckoning, made the worse by Richard’s solemnity. João, who seemed utterly unaware of the tensions in the room, happily explained his directorial vision and provided behind-the-scenes commentary as the clips rolled on. The scenes had been placed in a kind of order, so that the exterior shots of Stillwater and the first straight scenes lulled Richard into a false sense of enjoyment. He even smiled at the wretched Malcolm as Ashley and Melanie spoke of love and Twelve Oaks. He listened patiently as Chris talked through his memory techniques. And then came Dick in blackface.
The rest of the evening was a blur to Melly, but to the younger Spencers it did not even have the comfort of seeming surreal. Each now saw the project through their father’s eyes. What had been so hysterical in concept was thuddingly awful in execution. Dick in blackface was not ironic any more; he was crass and pathetic and offensive. Sophia’s lusty Scarlett was an increasingly painful spectacle. There was nothing to fault in Malcolm’s conventional performance but the very fact of his participation in the whole.
At the end of the scenes the Spencers sat silent in the brightly lit basement. Melly was crying softly. Even João was subdued for a moment.
At last Richard spoke, not angrily. “I didn’t see Melly anywhere. Did she not have a role?”
“Melly wouldn’t take a role,” said Malcolm with bitter self-reproach . “She hated the entire thing from the start.”
“Well, I’m glad it’s over,” said Chris. “I was getting sick of the whole thing. I mean, why do we need all these shenanigans? Let’s just hang out, you know?”
“I think we can agree on that,” said Richard, standing. He surveyed the room of miserable faces.
“I would not prefer for this to be shown around,” he said, in measured tones of terrible mercy. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll say goodnight and go up to see your mother.”