City life seemed to agree with the Arceneauxs. Jean, who tended to fat when not maintaining military discipline, sat on the porch of the shotgun house nursing his aching back, collecting his half pay, and conducting his business with the neighbors, whether amicable or no, in the same bellow with which he addressed endearments and threats to his children. Nanette found work as a seamstress again. Rene flourished at college, and most of the children found that the pace and atmosphere, the smell and the heat and the noise of Baton Rouge suited them fine. Not everyone, however, had uprooted so successfully.
“Richard,” said Esther Davis, striding into that gentleman’s office, “I want to talk to you about Melly Arceneaux.”
The renowned architect who had designed Stillwater for John Spencer in the heady antebellum days had situated the master’s office facing west, with a pair of high arched velvet-draped windows which gazed toward the neighboring plantation to provide a goad for Spencerian ambition. That chamber, a paneled, leather-bound bastion of masculine authority among the elegant front showrooms of the house, had been handed over to Esther Davis for the running of the public side of the plantation: the tours, the madness of maintaining historical designations, and the oversight of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball. Richard Spencer, who feared neither his neighbor’s affluence nor suffered the troubled conscience of the slave owner, preferred to work in the clean simplicity of the housekeeper’s sitting room in the south wing, from whose windows, through a haze of grand oaks, he could overlook his own fields.
He also overlooked Esther's cottage, a far more pleasant prospect that the woman herself.
“Who?” he asked, inclining his head slightly in lieu of lifting his gaze from the business report on the computer.
“Melly Arceneaux. You remember Nanette’s oldest girl?”
Richard did not remember Nanette’s oldest girl. Stifling a sigh, he sat back in his chair, glancing out the window toward the cottages and mentally inventorying the multitudinous black-haired Arceneaux children in an effort to pick out the subject of discussion.
“The quiet one?” he said finally.
“Absolutely!” said Esther, settling herself into Richard’s leather arm chair, blocking his view. “The only quiet one. That girl is sick, Richard. You remember how poorly she was when the Arceneauxs were first here, and how well she could walk by the end. She’s been in Baton Rouge for a year, and it’s killing her. She’s almost too weak to walk, she can’t breathe, the doctors can’t figure out what it is. Maybe it’s MS or lupus or juvenile arthritis.” The unquestionable vigor which made Esther such a competent manager was also evident in her blessed ignorance of the gradations of ill health. “Nanette is at her wits’ end.”
Esther making grand claims on his checkbook was nothing new to Richard Spencer, but the thought of footing hospital bills for a child to whom he had never spoken, in a year when sugar futures were down, was enough to give him pause. He closed the lid of his laptop.
“I grieve for Nanette,” he said. “But what is it you would have me do, Esther? Doesn’t her husband have veteran benefits? What kind of medical expenses do you have in mind?”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that!” Esther was shocked that Richard should think she was making crass financial demands. “She needs to get out the city and come back to Stillwater. She needs fresh air and open space. Nanette thinks it would really be the best thing for her.”
“You want me to put a child of, what? Fourteen? Fifteen?—”
“—In the cottage by herself, for her health?”
Again Esther’s sensibilities were outraged. “Of course not. She needs supervision and some care. Oh, she’s not an invalid, just weak. She’ll be better in no time, and then she could even be useful. Remember how convenient it was to have Nanette here to sew for the girls. Melly can sew too, and it’s just the sort of work that won’t exhaust her.”
Richard raised his eyebrows. “I don’t bring sick children to my property to make them work for me. If she comes, she needs to be treated with the same respect as Sophia or Olivia. Which raises another point. When Melly was last here, she lived with her family. This would be different. She’d be alone. Is it going to be awkward to have her attending the local high school when my own daughters are at private schools? Will she feel left out if she’s not the Queen of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball? I have to draw distinctions, yet I wouldn’t want the girl to be unhappy.”
“No one expects you to raise another daughter!” Esther laughed as if the idea was too absurd even to contemplate. “Now don’t worry about it, Richard. Obviously this is my idea, and I’ll take care of all the arrangements. I won’t ask you to deal with any of the details. I’ve already spoken to Cheryl, and she thinks it’s a lovely plan.”
“Of course. You know how concerned she is about the Arceneauxs.”
Richard supposed that Esther thought it flattering to attribute to him vast powers of memory and observation. Cheryl was not notably soft-hearted, nor hard-hearted, nor generous, nor stingy, nor prone to concern over any cause besides those which affected her pugs. He sighed, this time audibly.
“You take care of it, then, Esther. By all means bring the girl down if she must come. But talk to her first. Make sure that she understands how life will be here. There’s no point in bringing her here to recuperate if she’s going to be miserable without her family.”
“How could anyone be miserable at Stillwater?” This disingenous question lingered longer than Esther’s retreating form, leaving Richard to meditate on the lot of men who lived at Stillwater with officious sisters-in-law. Perhaps having a sickly child in her cottage would be good for Esther; she certainly needed an object on which to lavish her abundant management skills.
“Poor girl,” he murmured, gazing southward toward his sugar fields before opening his laptop again.
Melly’s health seemed too delicate to let the matter rest, so within two weeks she found herself riding with Esther Davis down the winding road which blindly traced the curves of the Mississippi River behind the thick sloping guideline of the levee. Her worldly belongings, stowed in several flimsy cardboard boxes and laundry baskets, shifted and rustled against her walker in the trunk as Esther careened out of Baton Rouge. The ordeal of leaving her family had been mercifully quick; Esther’s fondness for Nanette’s family did not seem to soften her to Jean’s brash charms, and the chaos of the cramped Arceneaux house had deprived the good-byes of any sentimentality. Mama had kissed and hugged her while yelling at Leonie to stop Marc from teasing the baby. Daddy had said, “Nothing like some high living to make you well again, eh, cher?” and slapped her rump as she crept painfully past his chair on the porch. The boys had yelled their good-byes. They would not miss her. She was never lively, like Leonie, who could shout and run and boss with the best of them. Only Rene would be truly sorry she was gone. He had come over last night and used his college laptop to help her make an email address. He promised, as they sat in the corner of the ratty couch in the living room with their backs to the blaring TV, that he would write her faithfully and tell her the family news and about college. Daddy had joked that he would write to her too, when Mr. Spencer bought him a computer, and Mama had scolded, but Rene put his arm around her and told Daddy that he would buy computers for everyone when he was rich, but Melly wouldn’t have to write to him then because she was going to live with him in peace and quiet.
The memory of her brother brought tears to her eyes. She turned to the window and stared unseeing at the flat fertile land stretching away from the Mississippi, thick with sugar or suburban enclaves carved out from failed plantations. She wanted to enjoy this drive, to watch the road in anticipation of the great oaks that stood sentinel at the gates of Stillwater. But Miss Esther Davis was talking, talking, always talking about rules and gratitude and the Spencer family.
“I fixed up a room for you, in the back wing right behind the library — that will be a nice place for you to spend your time until you’re feeling well enough to go back to school. It’s on the ground floor so you won’t have to climb a lot of stairs. Of course we’ve got handicapped access outside; we have to have it for the tours. I give the tour every weekday at 11 AM, so the front rooms are off-limits at that time. In fact, they’re off-limits a good deal of the time. Some of the furniture is more than 150 years old, and the architectural detail is priceless. Naturally, the house is for living in, and the Spencers want you to be comfortable, but I need you to understand how good it is of them to let you live at Stillwater, and how responsible you need to be.” Here Esther laughed. “Thank God it’s you coming and not one of your brothers! We might as well take a bulldozer to the place as let one of them loose in the house.”
Melly shrunk in her seat.
“Running a plantation is a great deal of work, so Mr Spencer isn’t to be bothered by any fuss. Of course Mrs Spencer is an old friend of your mother’s, and she couldn’t be more pleased to have you in the house, but she’s got so much on her hands with her dogs. Do you like dogs? Even if you don’t, you’d best make Mrs Spencer think you do.”
“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t lie.”
Esther glanced in surprise at the small figure huddled in the passenger seat. “Who’s asking you to lie? Don’t tell me that a girl your age doesn’t know how to behave politely when you don’t like something.”
Melly’s lips trembled, but she said, “Yes, ma’am. I do like dogs, ma’am.”
“Well, then, what’s the problem?” Esther shook her head and left Melly to her silent tears.
At a certain curve of the Mississippi in Iberville Parish the western bank of the river is lined with numerous small pools, which shelter behind stands of trees from the ceaseless swell and drive of the vaster body of water. Although the years have pushed the riverbanks upward, the spot is still as recognizable as when John Spencer established his plantation there in 1837, buying almost seven thousand acres of prime sugarcane land. He named his estate Stillwater after the quiet ponds along his three-quarter-mile stretch of waterfront, and set a small army of slaves to the destroying labor of making him prosperous. He spent fourteen years amassing the fortune necessary to build a dwelling worthy of his estate. Finally, spurred on by a running feud with a rival planter three miles upstream, Spencer hired the man’s own architect to build him a house which would at last make his enemy retire in confusion.
He succeeded. Stillwater was a restrained riot of a mansion, a melange of sober Neo-Classical columns and pediments, wooden back porches and stone front pavements, and vertigris iron grillwork balconies under legions of windows. Wings sprouted from three sides in asymmetric confusion. The front of the house, facing north toward the river, was marked by a single marble staircase rising to a two-story porch. Four massive stone pillars, topped with Corinthian capitals carved from single trunks of cypress, soared to support the vast Grecian temple of a roof. Identical pillars graced the west wing in a salute to the upstream rival; a semicircular turret swelled in graceful incongruity from the east. The stairs and library wing extended to the south. A block of kitchen, servants’ quarters, and back staircases was stuck on to the southeast corner of the house. All the disparate elements were unified by a facade of pink stone. The whole edifice floated more than a dozen feet off the ground, rising like the Acropolis over the plateau of the the great arched basements.
If John Spencer had spared no architectural element for the exterior of his house, he could do no less for the appointment of the interior. Fine Italian artisans had been imported to adorn the walls of the great rooms with bas-relief pillars and complex delicate moldings. The chandeliers, draped with webs of crystal pendants, hung from plaster medallions. Pairs of columns divided the drawing room from the parlor, the front hall from the central hall, the central hall from the stair hall. John Spencer’s rival had bought hand-painted doorknobs for every room of the house; John would install knobs of silver, with keyhole covers to match. Would his rival go to the expense of fifty rooms? John would have seventy-five. The money was of no consequence; if Cotton was King, Sugar was his sweet Queen. The materials cost a small fortune, but the labor was free — John had 150 slaves to build his Gentleman's Seat.
The fantastic grandeur of the place left few unmoved, whether to delight or to horror. It was a world unto itself, outlasting the shame of its construction and the ravages of war and the desperation of drought. Melly Arceneaux had loved it since her first encounter at five years of age, and though she winced at the pain of leaving the comfortable familiarity of her family, she felt as if she were, in some sense, coming home.