At brunch on Sunday afternoon, the group gathered for one last meeting. Olivia and João were heading back to Tulane shortly, and Sophia and Chris were also packed. So, it seemed, was Ian Winter. Over sausage biscuits and eggs, he explained his plans to Chris, João, and Dick, while Sophia nudged her fruit salad around her bowl in a desultory fashion.
“Some friends and I had been kicking around ideas for a film, a period piece, and,” here he lowered his voice so as not to disturb the peace of Richard Spencer, at the head of the table, “even with the… minor setback, I really feel like our little project here kicked off some valuable trains of thought. So never fear, I’ll be back soon…”
Perhaps only Melly noticed Sophia’s eager glance flit towards Ian’s face, and saw her lean ever so slightly toward him as if in anticipation.
“…sometime in the summer, probably after the wedding. You guys are going to be too busy around here to show me a good time; I’d just be under foot.”
Dick vehemently denied that he would be losing any time or energy to wedding mania, and Ian was giving Chris a good-natured ribbing. Sophia was motionless for a moment, then set her face into a supreme indolence. She lounged against Chris as he tried to keep up his end of the banter, and when Ian directed some light comment toward her, she murmured lazily, her fingertip tracing provocative little circles on Chris’s arm.
“Ian never stays in one place long,” said Alys to Malcolm, with a shrug. “He always has to be trying new things. Uncle Jerk has three houses in New York, and Ian is so spoiled that he can take his pick of them.”
“It will be quiet for you here without him.”
“It will be quiet for everyone, soon, when your sisters go back to Baton Rouge. Anyway, a little calm will be good for Stillwater; I don’t know how you can bear all the excitement out here with your wild school meetings and the sugarcane throwing loud weekend parties outside your window.”
Malcolm smiled. “We manage to contain ourselves, but I’m not answerable for the sugarcane.”
“I’m going to join the exodus too, just for a week or two. I have to schedule a trip to the West Coast for this jewelry commission, and perhaps it might be convenient for the family if I left right before the wedding so that the cottage can be used for out of town guests”
Sophia’s heart may have been oppressed, but Melly’s was lightened. Both Winters gone for a time! Even the impending chaos of the wedding could not alarm her now. That was chaos for a purpose, and it would all be over soon. Everything would go back to the way it had been before.
Her joy showed on her face, and Richard noticed it.
“You’re looking particularly cheery today, Melly. What’s the occasion?”
Although she was flustered as usual by unexpected direct questions, today she felt equal to them, especially when they were so kindly phrased.
“I’m just happy you’re home, Mr. Spencer.”
He beamed at her. “I feel the same way myself.”
Richard was happy to be home, but in his state of heightened awareness, he could not help noticing that Sophia was not content. Perhaps it was merely the early onset of pre-wedding jitters, but she seemed in a highly volatile state where Chris was concerned, one moment snatching his attention in seductive ways, the next pushing him away in seeming disgust. Chris seemed oblivious to her vagaries. Richard found this a source of concern. Either he was used to Sophia behaving this way, which spoke very poorly of her, or he didn’t notice it, which spoke poorly of him. Richard found the former idea too distasteful to contemplate, and as the attitude of all seemed to reflect a consensus that Chris was rather unexceptional intellectually, he found it easier to think of the flaws of his potential son-in-law than of his daughter.
With this in mind, he called Sophia into his office after the brunch and gently tried to sound her on the subject.
“I’ve been away for so long I haven’t been able to help much with all the wedding fuss,” he said. “How are things going?”
“It’s all fine. Aunt Esther has everything under control, and Melly’s basically done with the dress.”
“You don’t seem very excited.”
Sophia shrugged. “I don’t see anything to get worked up over.”
“How is Chris handling everything?”
“Oh, Chris.” Her voice was full of the most exquisite scorn. “He’s not involved much. Wedding planning really isn’t any of his concern.”
“I thought he had been doing a lot of repair work on Hazelwood so that you could live there.”
“Oh, Hazelwood.” Again the scorn, conveyed this time by a slight toss of her head. “Yeah, he’s been out there a lot, if you want to call that ‘wedding planning’.”
“Planning for life after the wedding is just as important as planning for the ceremony.”
A memory, long-forgotten, now sprung up in Richard’s mind: Sophia as a little girl, perhaps four or five, all skinny arms and legs, her chestnut hair messy and falling out her ponytail, running and laughing with her brothers in the back yard as he arrived home. Then she had screamed, “Daddy!” and hurled herself at him (he almost winced as he remembered how narrowly her head had missed slamming into his groin). She had been a wild, vivacious little girl at that age, often petulant, but never cold. Now the hardness about her mouth and eyes troubled him.
“Sophia,” he began slowly, “I know that weddings can be stressful, especially one as large as you’ve been planning, but this should also be a time of happiness for you. I’m sorry that I didn’t have the chance to get to know Chris well before you two got engaged, and I wish I’d been able to see more of you both since then, but from what I’ve seen of him this weekend, I want to ask you honestly: do you truly think that he’s the right man for you? He seems to be very happy with you, but you… I wonder if you are feeling a bit trapped?”
“Trapped? How do you mean?” Sophia, fidgeting with her fingernails, did not meet his eyes.
“I just wonder if perhaps you and Chris got engaged too quickly, without really getting to know one another.”
“I don’t even know why you’d say that.” She moved restlessly over to the window and looked out past the cottages and the carriage house to the endless field of sugarcane beyond.
“I’ve been noticing you two since I came home. He’s… he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, is he? You don’t seem to have a lot of patience with him, and no wonder, but you have to consider that you’re going to commit to loving and honoring him for the rest of your life. You can’t love and honor someone you can’t even respect. Maybe you feel like the whole wedding process has grown so big that it’s sweeping you along, but you know that your mother and I would support you if you felt like the wedding needed to be postponed or even called off.”
There was no answer from Sophia at the window.
“Your mother and I only want you to be happy.”
For the first time in the course of the conversation, Sophia turned to look at him. She had the face of his little girl again, soft and appealing. It seemed as if she would speak, but she was interrupted by voices calling her name. Chris was loading luggage into his car with the help of Ian Winter, and they had caught sight of her at the window. She watched them for a moment, responding to Chris’s hallooing and Ian’s casual wave with a small wave of her own. When she faced Richard again, both softness and hardness were replaced by a new impassivity.
“You’re very sweet, Dad, but there isn’t anything to worry about. Chris may not say brilliant things, but he is good and safe, and I’ve never thought of breaking the engagement. You haven’t even been home for twenty-four hours yet. You’re only seeing the wedding stress, and anyway, you did break up our movie fun.” Her eyes flickered for a moment. “My feelings for Chris are the same as they’ve ever been.”
“If you are sure…”
“I am sure. I know what I’m doing, and I’m going to marry Chris.”
Sophia’s words did not project any great smoldering passion, but perhaps she had seen and was prepared to live with Chris’s flaws. It was true that he was “safe”, though that hardly seemed to be the most complimentary thing she could say about her fiance. But she was an adult, standing before him insisting that she was ready to make this marriage work. Perhaps she had moved past her first infatuation and was seeing the relationship on a more mature level.
“I’m glad that you are committed to making things work out with Chris. But remember, you aren’t married yet. You still have time to change your mind.
“It sounds like you have more wedding jitters than I do, Dad,” she said, smiling obliquely. Richard, swallowing his misgivings, had to admit that she was at least approaching her marriage with her eyes open.
The wedding was one of the loveliest of the season; everyone said so to Cheryl Spencer in the weeks that followed. Sophia had walked down the aisle as a queen approaching an alliance of state, the radiance of her dress reflecting a maidenly glow on her face. The groom had conducted himself with a slow deliberation which many had called dignified. All the organizational skill at Esther Davis’s command had been poured into making the reception a triumph, and many a society mother despaired of the high bar that Stillwater had set for elegant nuptials. Buoyed by the good wishes of their family and the envy of their peers, the happy couple jetted off for an extended honeymoon amid Antigua’s charms, and life at Stillwater settled once more into a quiet routine.