Already with the late nights. 6,746/50,000.
Esther parked behind the house in the staff lot. Melly had often seen the back of Stillwater from the Arceneauxs’ cottage, and now she numbered the familiar windows and doors, wondering if one of these would lead to her room. Esther pulled Melly’s walker from the trun, stacked the boxes precariously atop the packed laundry basket, and led the way to the elevator in the southeast basement, near the old kitchens.
“This is part of our handicapped access,” she said. “We had to take out the servants’ staircase to put it in, and getting the permits was a nightmare. It goes all the way to the second floor, not that you’ll need to go up that far.”
The elevator stopped in a back hall on the first floor.
“Over here are the new kitchens and Mr Spencer’s office,” said Esther, jerking her head to the left. “You shouldn’t disturb him unless it’s an emergency, but then, he travels a good deal. No, that door goes to the dining room. We won’t go through that way right now; you’ll see it tonight. Let’s go down the gallery; it runs outside the dining room to the stairs hall. To the left of the stairs is the library wing, and your room is just behind that.”
Melly, tired and confused, pushed heavily on her walker as she slogged behind Esther. Despite her love of the Stillwater property and the unique aesthetics of the exterior, she had never been inside the house itself, and the joy of anticipation had dissolved in the wearing reality of wending her way through the maze of corridors. The matted gallery down which she now passed was a long enclosed porch bounded on one side by the deep-sashed, high-linteled windows of the dining room and on the other by windows so wide they seemed to be multipaned walls of glass which overlooked the cottages and the fields. Melly paused for moment to allow the interior aspect to conform to her memory of the four large exterior windows above the basement. What was next? The wide door at the end of the gallery opened into the stairs hall which had no windows or doors to the back. She leaned against a fluted white column on her right and tried to orient herself. As Esther set the basket on the stairs to readjust her grip, Melly peeped past the column, one of a pair that framed the rear of the grand hall, to catch her first glimpse of the glamor of Stillwater.
Along the grand central corridor, vast white doors, some hinged, some pocketed, stood temptingly ajar to reveal stripes of sunlight and shadow against ivory pilastered walls. Streaming into the hall itself, the sunlight caught and tangled in the high pendants of the chandeliers, sparkling from the delicate plaster of the moldings and studding the heavy elegant paper of the walls with prismatic stars which tumbled down to dance in the patina of the floorboards and drown in the rich plush of the carpets. Further down the hall, a second set of columns, a larger carpet, a more heavily crystallized chandelier exalted the entrance hall. There, more forty feet opposite Melly, the silver knob of the massive front door gleamed temptingly in its setting of deep wood. She edged around the column and stepped into the hall…
“Come on, Melly!” Esther’s crisp voice broke through the hazy spell of the mote-speckled passage. “You’ll have time enough to see the front rooms. I’ll take you on the tour if you want.”
Melly turned back toward the spiral staircase. The sinuous honeyed wood of the bannister and treads were bathed in rectangles of red and blue light pouring through a window set halfway up the stairs. A longing seized her to press her nose to the colored glass and look out over the rose-tinted grounds, but the thought of the climbing the steep spiral made her body ache. Esther waited a bit impatiently as Melly passed reluctantly away from the light and the double doors beneath the stairs. She knew these from the outside too, on the west side of the house — she could see the curved wall with a wrought-iron balcony between the west wing and the south wing, with the stained glass window directly above the French doors.
Two more doors, less ornate than the others but still with molding piled high, stood against the far wall of the stair hall, the right one nestled temptingly under the high plastered undercurve of the stairs, but Esther opened the left onto yet another hall. Melly looked in to see a plain service passage. Bare wood floor, two tall transomed doors on the left, a plain paneled one at the end, and a screened exterior door to the right opening to steps down to the yard. Melly knew that staircase; this wing stood at a right angle from the great windows of the dining room gallery.
The door at the end of the hall was the bathroom door; the last door on the left was Melly’s room. The old plaster gave evidence of the room being in long disuse, but it was spacious and well-lit, furnished with disparate array of oddments from the attics. Two large arched windows opposite the door cast the afternoon sun across the carpets and bed. Yet another door suggested a passage to the other room in the hall. A small window tucked between the wall and the fireplace looked across the sugarcane fields. Melly knew that window from outside. She closed her eyes and envisioned the house from the back, finding the chimney flanked by only one window, at the back of the south wing serviced by the exterior stairs she’d seen in the hall.
“Well, here you are!” Esther thumped Melly’s belongings on the floor. “Mr and Mrs Spencer usually eat dinner in the kitchen, but they wanted to welcome you tonight with a formal meal in the dining room. I know you’re tired, so you rest up now and I’ll come and fetch you when it’s time to eat.”
At the thought of company dinner in the formal dining room, Melly’s weariness returned to her. She sat on the bed and nudged her walker slightly away with her toe. Esther looked at her watch and stepped to the door.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked, hand on the knob.
To her surprise, Melly heard herself asking, “How many doors are in this house?”
Esther hesitated. “Well, there are… there must be…” She calculated for a moment, and then slipped into the confident patter of a tour guide improvising. “Well, there are seventy-five rooms in the house, but some of them have no doors, and some have more than one. The library here,” indicating the door to the other room, “has four doors, one opening here, one in the hall, one in the stair hall, and one to the balcony. Most of the doors have the silver knobs; look, yours does.”
The tarnished knob glinted as Esther closed the door. Melly lay in bed and stared at the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling medallion, glad to be in a remote corner of the house far from the press of seventy-four surrounding rooms. The sound of fading footsteps in the hall was a new sensation for Melly — imagine a house where people walked normally down a hall instead of charging like elephants, and a house so quiet that you could hear those steps die away! She turned her head to ponder the door that lead to the library. She could go through that door into the library and come out the door under the stairs. Did anyone use the library? Would she be allowed to pass through it?
“If this were my house,” she told the library door, “I’d never walk in the back halls. I’d go right through the middle of the big rooms and dance in the sunbeams.”
For those members of the party inclined to find new social interactions burdensome, the dinner in the big dining room was an awkward affair. Melly, already seated at the big table with Esther, struggled to her feet as Mr and Mrs Spencer entered the room.
“No, don’t stand up on our account,” ordered Richard, who hated to see the girl overexert herself, and Melly, quashed, obeyed. Her dejected attitude touched Richard — she had only been trying to be polite, of course; there had been no need to crush the girl right off. He gave her a formal handshake, a gesture from which they both naturally shrank, and being a man who loathed talking down to children, spoke such grave words of welcome that she was uncertain whether she should be ashamed of being such a burden to him or of being so ungrateful so immediately.
Cheryl Spencer sat herself next to Melly and squeezed her hand as the plates were set before them.
“Honey, you look all worn out. You’d better eat something. It’s that trip from Baton Rouge. I hate riding all that way — Lord, the dogs bark the whole time. Pugsy hates the car, don’t you, baby?”
Pugsy paced through his appointed turns and settled comfortably in Cheryl’s lap. He raised his wrinkled face to Melly and gave her a civil snuff, and she managed a small smile in return.
“Look at that! He likes you already. Pugsy has a sixth sense about people — he just knows who he likes. Here, give him a bite to eat and see what he does.”
Melly took the piece of biscuit Mrs Spencer handed her and timidly offered it to the dog. He snuffed again and solemly licked it from her fingers. Melly smiled again and scratched the small ugly head. Mrs Spencer uttered shrill cries of delight at how instantly Pugsy had taken to Melly and foretold great friendship. Melly was going to have to come outside sometime and have a good romp with the dogs; nothing could be more healthy.
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs Spencer,” said Esther in the pointed way adults so often use when trying to emphasize modes of address in front of youngsters, “but Melly’s not quite ready to run around with the dogs just yet. The first thing is to get her rested up.”
“Yes,” said Mr Spencer, nodding to Melly. “Are you settling in well? How do you like your room?”
“Oh, it’s so nice, sir,” Melly replied softly. “It’s big and quiet, and the bed is soft.”
“I hope you won’t have to spend too long laying in bed. Do you like to read?”
“Yes, sir. That is, I don’t read too fast, sir, but I’m sure I’ll find something to read in the library, if I’m allowed.”
“Of course. Someone will run you across books every day if you like.”
“I don’t mind getting them myself.”
“But you’ll wear yourself out walking from the cottage.”
“Oh no, sir,” said Melly, not understanding him. “Miss Davis said it was only in the next room. But I didn’t open the door yet to see. I didn’t know if I was allowed.”
There was a brief silence.
“Yes,” Richard said levelly, to Esther, “that room is certainly closer to the library than the cottage is.”
Esther met his gaze with untroubled eyes.
“Now you surely didn’t expect me to put her up in the cottage, Richard?”
“The phrase, ‘I’ll take care of everything’ comes to mind.”
“And I have!” Esther protested. “You know my spare room is upstairs, and it would just be cruel to make her walk up all those steps. This house is all set up for easy access, what with the elevator. The only real option was that back room behind the library. I knew no one would mind; it’s been empty for ages.”
“Precisely,” said Richard. “It’s a very old, unimproved room.”
“Goodness, you talk as if it didn’t even have electricity! It’s really quite charming. I’ve made it as comfortable as Melly could want.”
Richard turned back to Melly, who was now quivering with the realization that somehow, her presence was amiss.
“Can you be comfortable there?” he asked her seriously.
“Yes sir,” she whispered. “I like it very much.”
And again he had upset her. “Then you must stay in it, of course. We are happy to have you living with us, Melly. I hope you will ask for anything you need.”
Melly was exhausted, and when dessert was brought in, she begged with brimming eyes to be excused. Esther Davis led her back to her room, satisfied with her day’s work. Richard Spencer watched their slow progress with concern. Cheryl put Pugsy out of her lap, and he toddled along by Melly, keeping pace with her walker.
“What do you think of that?” she asked Richard. “Pugsy’s guiding her back to her room. What a good dog!”
Shut in her room, tucked in her bed, Melly spent that night as she was to spend many more nights, crying herself to sleep.