As the summer progressed Melly began to feel more at home at Stillwater. Her faint spells grew less frequent, and though she still tired easily, she found she was able to travel her usual paths through the house without her walker, though she still took the elevator instead of the stairs. She began to understand the big house and to know which rooms were behind the deeply recessed doorways. She could stand almost anywhere in the house and close her eyes and name the rooms above, around, and below her. Several times she had followed Esther’s tour group through the downstairs rooms, so that now, as she passed through them by herself, she could quote bits and pieces of Esther’s spiel: “Stillwater was constructed over the course of five years… Completed in 1857… Largest house not only along the River, even bigger than our fair neighbor upstream” (most of tourists were either coming from or heading to a viewing of this rival plantation house)… “The exterior is mostly in the Greek Revival style, but we see the marriage of Greek Revival and Italianate styles here in the parlor, in the delicate curling plasterwork of the capitals on the columns and pilasters, and in the the geometry of the dentil moldings…”
She was starting to be able to name the Spencer ancestors gracing the the walls. She had stood face to face with old John Spencer, enthroned over the drawing room fireplace, gazing out across the room, through the pocket doors, at the portrait of his good lady hanging over the fireplace of the parlor, and wondered if she would have ever been let into this drawing room while that proud gentleman was alive.
She was also learning to understand, or at least to live with, the Spencer family. She could never be entirely comfortable with Dick’s unpredictable zaniness or Sophia’s self-absorbed confidence, and she tried to do as little as possible to draw Esther’s attention, but Olivia was usually good-humored, if oblivious, and had said that she was counting on Melly to alter her dress for the Stillwater Fellowship Ball. Cheryl Spencer was always benign in her attentions or neglect, and she grew to depend on Melly’s attention to her constant and unvaried stories about her dogs with an expectation that bordered on affection. Melly, in her turn, liked the quiet evenings when the others were out and she could sew while keeping company with Cheryl, who demanded little from her and did nothing to discomfit her.
Her main friend, however, was Malcolm. He stood in Rene’s stead, offering her consolation and advice, and his kindness to her was informed by a charity which was either absent or deeply suppressed in the others. Knowing how worried she was about starting at the local high school in the fall when she’d missed so many days of classes over the past year because of sickness, he began to tutor her as he had done for Rene. Although she had fallen behind on most subjects, and had been poorly instructed in others, Malcolm could see that she had a willingness to learn and a fair amount of the common sense that comes to those who’ve had to struggle in life.
“Too bad Sophia has never had any trouble walking,” he observed one humid afternoon toward the end of the summer as he and Melly sat out swatting mosquitos on the levee, to which she had walked unaided, if slowly. “It might have done her personality a world of good.”
He had spoken lightly, but she did not respond in kind.
“You shouldn’t say that about your own sister,” she said, with a unexpected firmness. “I wouldn’t wish my weak legs on anyone, let alone someone I loved. You ought to want Sophia to become good and kind without having to be in pain first.” She lifted her damp hair of the back of her neck and leaned her head on her knees.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, for your sake if not Sophia’s. Of course I don’t want her to suffer. But do you think it’s possible for people to form the habit of being good without ever having to practice being good even in difficult circumstances?”
“Wouldn’t it be better if they could?” asked Melly. “Wouldn’t it be better to be good because you wanted to, because you knew that it was the right thing to do, instead of only because you thought that if you weren’t you might get in trouble?”
“It depends on what you mean by better,” said Malcolm. “I’m sure it would be better if our wills were always inclined to do good. But obviously they aren’t. Maybe there are some people who have a natural inclination for choosing the good. Certainly there are many people like you, who have to endure suffering that isn’t related at all to anything they’ve done, good or bad, though they can still choose how they respond to that suffering. But there can also be a kind of maturity and a certain self-knowledge that comes from having really learned something, even the hard way, as opposed to just following an instinct.”
“Now you sound like a teacher.”
Malcolm gave a wry shrug. “O felix culpa.”
“What does that mean?”
“O happy fault. Let’s go back; it’s too hot out here.” He stood up and assisted Melly to her feet.
“How can a fault be happy?”
“Well, okay. Take Sophia, for example. No, don’t frown at me. I’m not being frivolous,” he said as they followed the path down the levee away from the muggy oppression of the river. “You’ve seen for yourself that she isn’t inclined to kind or gentle behavior toward her fellow man — or woman either. All her life she’s always gotten what she wanted, and when what she wants hasn’t come easily to her, she’s learned to achieve her own ends by manipulation or wheedling. She’s faced precious little suffering in her life, except that of having her will temporarily thwarted. What will make her want to be good when she doesn’t have to, or choose the good when she’s faced with a hard choice? What but seeing the consequence of her faults? That’s a form of suffering.”
They crossed River Road and achieved the welcome shade of the border of oaks along the drive. Melly thought for a moment, regarding the strange incongruity of Stillwater’s pink Grecian facade rising out of the flat lawn almost a hundred yards ahead.
“She might fall in love with a good man.”
“Well, perhaps.” Malcolm was fraternally dubious. “But would a good man fall in love with her?”
The massive front door was only accessible by a flight of marble steps and was usually kept locked, so Malcolm held the little gate in the left fence open for Melly and they passed under the trees opposite the west portico. Crossing behind the library wing to the back of the house, they entered through the basement door to the elevator. In the stairs hall, rather than going on through the service corridor to her own room, Melly paused by one of the columns at the rear of the great hall and looked up at the staircase, drenched in red and blue light from the window.
“I’ve always wanted to go up and look out the colored glass,” she confided, “and today I feel like I could make it up the stairs.”
“Try it, then.”
Malcolm followed close behind Melly as she climbed slowly and carefully up the broad, steeply winding stairs until they reached the large curved window. Melly sat on a step near the low sash and held out her hands in the tinted light, studying the strange monochromatic contours and shadows. Malcolm stood on a lower stair and leaned his forehead against a pane.
“I used to love trying the different panes and seeing the whole world change color.”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. They gazed over the placid blue grounds of Stillwater. A bed of purple flowers nodded gently in the breeze. The turquoise oaks under which they had just walked cast deep marine shadows on teal grass. Melly strained to see the azure sugarcane fields behind the house, stretched under a bleached sky.
“You look like you’re underwater,” Malcolm remarked, and was surprised to see her laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, really. It’s just that being underwater fits with my name.”
“Your name? Why is that?”
“Melusine was the name of a ancient mermaid.” Her voice took on a slightly formal cadence of one reciting a fairytale. “She swam free in the water, and her legs were never heavy. One day, however, she came up through a fountain in human form and met a man and married him, and through her magic built him a wonderful palace. But she made him promise never to look at her when she was in her bath. But his curiosity consumed him and he peered through the keyhole to see what she was hiding from him, and discovered that she had a fishtail instead of legs. Because he’d broken his promise, she had to leave him and go back to her river, but she still watches over her family and cries because she misses them.” She turned away to look with brimming eyes through a red pane of glass, and her black hair shone amber in the light. “Rene told me that story.”
“How did Rene like his first year of college?” asked Malcolm hastily, hoping to forestall an outburst of tears.
“Oh, he did so well!” She turned back to him, tears forestalled (to his great relief), ready to pour out praise of Rene to anyone who would listen. “He loved his classes, and his professors think he’s brilliant. He told me that he’s going to go to grad school and write books and become a famous philosopher.” She spoke in the reverent voice of one for whose family this vast and noble pilgrimage into higher education was a rarity. Malcolm was touched. His own family, plantation owners and descendants of generations of college men, had not supported his own particular studies with such respect.
“At least he’s sure of himself.” Malcolm had not meant to speak this thought, and he regretted his words when he saw Melly’s puzzled expression. Turning the conversation back to Rene, he asked, “You miss him a lot?”
“Yes, all the time. He says that we’re like twins. We understand each other. He tells me, ‘Melusine, one day you’ll go to college too, and you and I, we’ll pull this family kicking and screaming out of ignorance and sloth, you see if we don’t.”
She paused, flushed, embarrassed about having spoken so freely about her family and its flaws. But Malcolm was not Esther, who stood ever ready to condemn the Arceneauxs for being Cajun trash. Instead, he asked, “So will you follow in Rene’s footsteps then and go to college and become famous too?”
“Oh, no,” she said, so emphatically that Malcolm turned in surprise from contemplating the blue grounds to stare at her. In his world, No had never been an acceptable answer to the question of college.
“Why not?” he asked.
She floundered for words. “College… it means going away. You have to go out where people stare and smirk if you say something clumsy; you have to talk in front of strangers; you have to be quick and sharp. It’s like…” She seized on a simile. “It’s like the Christians and the lions. Rene loves it, but I like to be at home, where it’s warm and safe and quiet.”
“It can be hard,” Malcolm conceded, almost in spite of himself. “But these things — talking in front of strangers, not minding the stares — they can be learned. You just have to find what’s familiar in a situation and hold on to it, tight. If you keep pushing past the ache for things that are lovely and familiar, it becomes a hidden treasure inside you that gives you strength.”
Melly looked at him with wide hazel eyes. “Do you not like being with strangers?”
Malcolm was quiet for long enough that Melly thought he would refuse to answer. Then, he sighed.“Yes. Sometimes I hate having to meet new people and make a good impression.”
“But aren’t you going to a priest? A priest can’t just stay at home. He has to go wherever he’s sent.”
“I am going to be a priest,” he said heavily. “At least, I think so. And you’re right — a priest does have to leave home and go wherever he’s assigned by his bishop. But it is hard,” he said quietly, turning again through the red glass. “So hard that I pray every day for the strength. Stillwater is my home, and I think that no one loves it as much as I do.”
“I love it,” said Melly, fiercely.
“Do you?” asked Malcolm. The vehemence of her declaration seemed out of proportion to the little glass-stained figure pressing her nose to the window. “Why?”
“It’s always been my home too, as long as I can remember, though I didn’t live in the big house until now. I guess couldn’t just leave it like my family did. This is where I can walk.”
“Well, Miss Melusine, I guess you and I are kindred spirits then. They say that blood is thicker than water, but we have Stillwater in our veins.”
Her face glowed. “Rene loves Stillwater too. He told me so.”
“Then he’s as good as a brother to me,” said Malcolm cheerfully, “and that makes you as good as a sister.”
Someone yanked the dining room bell to summon the family for dinner. Melly jumped. As the sounds of various people moving about the house drifted through the stairwell — Sophia, on the phone, opening the door of her room; Dick bursting up from the basement, laughing loudly Olivia’s angry reaction to a joke he’d told; Esther explaining to a patient Richard some tedious detail of plantation business — the light died out of her eyes, and she seemed to shrink and fade. Malcolm extended his hand to help her up from the stair.
“Come on, little sis, let’s go sit with the lions.”
That fall, Rene traveled down to be feted at the Stillwater Fellowship Ball. As the Stillwater Fellow, he took his appointed place at the head of the table next to Sophia, who, following the tradition for the eldest daughter of the house, was the Queen of the Ball, but all through the night he kept looking down the table to catch his sister’s eye and make the most outrageous faces at her. During the dancing, although she protested, he whisked her around the floor until she was laughing and breathless. Finally he ejected an indignant couple from the alcove and settled Melly there with a glass of water.
“Well, sister, and how are you?” he asked, fanning her with a program he pulled from his pocket.
“I think it will be your fault if I can’t walk tomorrow.” Melly couldn’t put any force into scolding Rene. He put his arm around her as they rested on the settee.
“You seem like you’re getting around just fine. Stillwater must be good for your health.”
“I think it is. But I’m glad to see you.”
“I’m glad to see you looking so well. I’d been worrying that you were studying too hard at school — your emails have improved so much that I can finally read them.”
Melly looked anxiously at him, but he grinned at her and squeezed her shoulder.
“Malcolm gave me a book called The Elements of Style and sat next to me while I wrote to you and pointed out the rules in the book when I made mistakes.”
“Good for him!” Rene craned his neck to see Malcolm leading Olivia around the dance floor. “He doesn’t look very happy these days. Of course, living with this family would drive anyone nuts. I don’t know how you stand it.”
“I didn’t stand anywhere else.”
“What should I tell them at home when they ask how you’re doing?”
Melly leaned her head on his shoulder. “Tell them I’m healthy here, but that every day, I miss them.”
“And when will you come home?”
“I don’t know. When the Spencers throw me out of Stillwater, I guess. I would stay here forever if I could.”
“Then I’d better dance with you now,” cried Rene, and whisked back onto the floor.
END OF PART ONE
END OF PART ONE