Nothing could have been more gratifying to Ian than Melly’s reception of his first advances. He had the easy ambition of the naturally successful, and the restless soul of one whom the heavens have showered only with the lesser gifts: talent, beauty, and wealth. The work of his hand always prospered, which is why he never turned his hand to any one venture for very long. Everything fell right into his lap, including women. He had grown bored of facile flirtations with the sort of supremely gorgeous and selfish woman embodied so lushly by Sophia. There was no challenge in it, except the level of virtuosity with which he navigated the tired formulas of seduction.
Melly posed a fresh and delightful puzzle. She had confounded his expectations marvelously. His initial approach had been in the spirit of benevolent amusement. Here was this young girl, overlooked, sickly, not unattractive but clearly not used to notice. He would bring a ray of sunshine into her dreary life. As he lavished his attentions on her, she would be first incredulous, then grateful, then smitten. A secret glow would illuminate her face when he came near. He would awaken her, and when he left she would be wistfully sadder and wiser….
But the flesh and blood Melly had not followed the pretty path sketched for her fantasy self. She was not grateful. She had not glowed. He had not brought joy to her drear existence. Rather, she was cold, then hot. There was no hint of sexual tension when she lashed out at him. It was… it was almost as if she had really been angry at him. The undeniable implication of her whole demeanor had been that if she never saw him again, she would genuinely satisfied. So unexpected, so novel was this development that Ian had no ready counter. He had been outmaneuvered by a little slip of a girl with no experience and no expectations. His stay with Alys had just been indefinitely extended.
“Who would have guessed that Audrey Hepburn has a temper?” Ian leaned on the counter of the cottage kitchen, nursing a cold beer, watching lazily as Alys chopped salad ingredients for dinner with a tad more force than necessary. “I was on my best behavior, just as you advised, and without any warning she bit my head off. Believe it or not, she grew two inches taller.”
“Maybe you’re just not used to girls who find you resistible,” said Alys shortly. She was envying Melly her unaffected state. Despite the afternoon’s easy smiles and casual laughs, there had been an uncomfortably serious undercurrent of tension between Malcolm and Alys, a tension that Alys found unfamiliar and frustrating. He was entirely too sincere — sincere about this teaching scheme, sincere about being noble and poor, sincere about her. Most disturbing of all, he was all too adept at stripping away her protective layers of irony, and she hadn’t yet decided what was underneath.
“Girls resist me all the time,” Ian said, grinning. “That’s part of the fun.”
“How many girls have ever said ‘no’ to you?”
“Lots. What, you mean permanently?” He pondered. “None?”
“That’s your problem. You always get what you want, with no more effort than you want to put into it.”
“Sounds like someone’s not getting what she wants right now.”
“Oh, shut up.” Alys shoved the salad bowl at him. “Go put this on the table.”
“I don’t see why you’re so down on the good professor,” said Ian, snagging a crouton. “I have nothing but pity for him. Sure, he’s devoting himself to a low-prestige, non-lucrative career which will tie him to a nothing town for the next thirty years. But for all that, his life will be incomplete until he has you to make him economical yet delicious salads every night.”
To her horror, Alys found herself on the verge of making an earnest retort. She considered one response and then another, discarding each as insufficiently detached. Her silence extended long enough to draw Ian’s scrutiny.
“You have the oddest look on your face,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Alys forced herself to scoff. “I was just thinking how blank you’d look, Ian, if your menu was limited to salad every night.”
“My needs are simple,” he protested. “A loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a jug of wine, and thou.”
“Thou being the variable.”
“Change is good for the soul.”
“”I’m delighted to hear that the state of your soul is ever something you take into consideration.”
“Your sisterly concern warms the cockles of my heart.” He pitched one of the croutons at her, which she dodged with a small shriek, and they settled down to a mealtime blessedly free from the necessity of pondering weighty matters of love or ethics.
Ian was a cunning strategist, and after his first rebuff he had retrenched to spend some time observing Melly’s character, trying to spot any aspect of her personality which might give him an opening. She should have been a light and easy diversion for an experienced and urbane operator such as he was. There was no natural coldness in her — indeed, she craved love with all the intensity that can be mustered by a girl of twenty — and her introversion did not make her proof against the kind of gentle attention she so rarely received. Already he had revamped his approach to be quieter, less aggressive, and more responsive to her mood, and he could see results of a sort. Good manners are so often the most potent aphrodisiac, and Ian had that natural instinct for reading and responding to the moods of others which is sometimes mistaken for genuine consideration.
Even Melly would have been hard-pressed to resist the charms of a polite and soft-spoken Ian had she not been fortified against all comers by her love for Malcolm (and it was love; she had to admit that to herself as she watched him grow closer to Alys), and against Ian himself in particular by her keen moral discernment. It was impossible for her to forget his flirtation with Sophia, with all its attendant unattractive revelations about his character. His pleasant, quiet behavior now was less irritating to her than his banter and flattery, and it was certainly easier on her nerves, but he would not merit her trust. She knew that a man’s character did not change overnight — excepting perhaps St. Paul, but Ian displayed no signs of having been knocked off a horse.
As the days passed in seeming impasse — nothing he could do could crack the solemn little nut — Ian found himself developing a strange new respect for Melly’s fortitude. She had an apparently infallible BS detector. To elicit even the least reaction from her he had to abandon his usual arsenal of banter and witticisms and irony, and even so he could not break through her reserve unless he exposed a vein of honesty. As much as he enjoyed Melly as challenge, he began to be intrigued by Melly as person. He had seen various facets of her personality — her patience, her shyness, her talent, her tenacity, her temper — but now he was beginning to see the appealing whole. But in the end, it was not through his own power that he first made Melly smile. It was entirely due to her brother.
In a turn of affairs entirely unforeseen by Esther Davis, the August date of this year’s Stillwater Fellowship Ball fell at such a time as to allow Reńe Arceneaux to spend a whole week visiting with Melly. This happy coincidence was particularly irritating to Esther — not because she objected strenuously to Reńe, nor even to Melly’s transformative delight at the news, but because she had not specifically arranged it and so received no credit. No one thanked her for her thoughtfulness; no one praised her clever scheduling. Of course Reńe, as the current Stillwater Fellow, had to attend the ball, and it was only courtesy to ask him to stay the night. But then he had actually called Richard Spencer and invited himself to stay the week leading up to the ball, and Richard, instead of frowning on such a faux pas, seemed pleased by his initiative. This left Esther at a disadvantage: Richard, by allowing Reńe this extended visit, was obviously making an implicit criticism of Esther for not inviting him for the whole week in the first place.
Stung by this apparent snub, Esther redoubled her efforts for the success of the ball. A relentless stream of designers and contractors, caterers and cleaners, made the first floor of Stillwater uninhabitable for the Stillwater residents. Even Richard’s office was not isolated enough to shield him from the chaos. Standing behind the house, out away from the hubbub of the construction of a platform for the orchestra, he sighed as he faced the fields of sugarcane which both kept up his home and financed the madness that was driving him from it. Perhaps, just perhaps, one day he could find the legal loophole that would allow him to shut down the whole Fellowship. It was of course a pleasure to him to forward Reńe Arceneaux’s studies, but in the absence of any qualified candidate now or for the foreseeable future, the ball was a yearly source of stress and frustration. Of course, there was no absolute requirement to hold a ball in the absence of a Stillwater Fellow, and this was Reńe’s last year on the scholarship. But there was no possibility of reining in the social one-upsmanship while Esther was around to promote the Stillwater brand. For a moment he allowed himself to daydream: Esther winning the lottery and building a villa in Italy; Esther hauled off to prison on some charge — a minor charge, and it would be a nice white-collar prison with lots of comforts; Esther taking the veil in a remote mountain convent.
The first-floor door to the stair hall opened, and Melly stepped out and down the stairs to the yard. She and Richard exchanged guilty smiles; both of them were neglecting plenty of work to escape the tyranny of the ball preparations.
“I was just going to take my walk,” she said.
“I’ll go with you, if I may.”
“I’d like that.” And, looking at her happy face, Richard felt the genuine sentiment behind the pleasantry.
They strolled amiably along the west side of the house, keeping in the shade of the oaks lining the driveway. The moist heat rose up and smote them, and the mosquitos buzzed lazily in the afternoon calm, but these little inconveniences were incapable of making a dent in Melly’s cheer. She bounced along, vibrating joyfully with each step.
“Well, Melly, are you excited about Rene coming?” Richard asked indulgently, seeing that she was absolutely bursting to talk about it.
“Oh, I can’t wait until he’s here!” The dam burst, and flood of words poured forth. “Mr. Spencer, do you remember when Reńe did the class project where he built the model of Stillwater, and you let him measure the old jail cell in the basement, and then he found an old key hidden behind a loose brick in the wall, and locked himself in to see if it worked?”
“Yes, and the key stuck in the lock and we had to remove the old door from the hinges to get him out.”
“And Mama was so angry. She made him go apologize again after it was all over.”
“And he wrote it up in a poem and read it out loud, and Esther thought he was making fun.”
“Oh! I’d forgotten that!”
Melly was almost effusive in her ecstasy. She and Reńe had seldom spent more than one or two days together at a time since she’d come to Stillwater, and the thought of a whole week together was rapturous. She moved through the day in a golden glow, bestowing smiles and stories of Reńe on all who crossed her path, and was met with general benevolence. A talkative Melly was an almost irresistible novelty, and Richard was even inclined to think more charitably of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball for making it possible.
Up at the top of the driveway, Richard picked up the mail and they turned to head back, when they were hailed by a figure across the road, atop the levee. It was Ian. They waited as he jogged up to them, camera slung around his neck.
“I was taking a few pictures of the house, and it seems like you get the best view of it from up there,” he said, falling into an easy pace beside Melly. “There’s something wonderful about the the proportions of the house — it’s entirely asymmetrical with that semi-circular projection and the kitchens on one side, and the big wing on the other, and yet somehow it still has the purity of line of a Grecian temple. I keep an online photo album of images and places that inspire me, and I’m going to put Stillwater at the top of the list.”
“Is that like a blog?” asked Richard, who knew as much of the social side of the internet as did his fathers before him.
“No, not at all,” Ian said quickly, and with commendable gravity. “This is private. Sometimes when I’m working I hit a creative block, and then I sit and meditate — or try to, anyway — and look at my album to remind myself what beauty really is. I don’t want to share it with the public. Having everyone else looking at my inspiration would cheapen it.” He glanced sidewise at Melly, and said in an undertone, “I think I understand better now what’s meant to be shared and what’s meant to be kept sacred.”
Melly, who doubted that he had any understanding of what was meant to be kept sacred, inclined her head slightly. She would not Ian Winter dampen her spirits. Reńe was coming. Everything else was insignificant. When Reńe came, they would go throw stones into the vast muddy depths of the Mississippi, just like they used to do, and they would have long talks by the cane fields, and he would tell her all about the philosophical conferences he’d attended and the book he wanted to write and the crazy ideas percolating in his brain. He was really the best brother. Raymond and Andre were okay, and Marc had always been a little pest, but Reńe used to take good care of her when she was so sick, and carry her around when she couldn’t walk, and they could talk about anything…
Gradually it dawned on her that the sound she was hearing was her own voice running on and on, and that all of this was being drawn out of her by Ian’s skillful and sympathetic questioning. She flushed in annoyance and immediately clammed up, steeling herself against the teasing to come. But Ian, in his chameleonic fashion, became a man of the world and talked business and respectful politics with Richard Spencer. He made intelligent observations about the sugar industry and the export market and carefully avoided glancing at Melly to see if she was paying attention to him.
When they turned past the library wing into the back yard, Ian said casually to both of them, “I’m sure Reńe would enjoy having another look at the cottage where he grew up, and Alys and I would like to show our appreciation for all the wonderful hospitality you’ve showed us. I hope you’ll all come to dinner at the cottage while Reńe is here. I’d like to be better acquainted with this paragon of brothers.”
Richard accepted the offer on behalf of everyone. Ian thanked him and strolled off toward the cottage, again with no glance at Melly. Inwardly, she seethed at having to give up one of her precious evenings with Reńe, but she had to respect Ian’s handling of the situation. If he’d asked her, she would have said no, unmistakably if not emphatically. But Mr. Spencer, who knew no harm of Ian, thought it a pleasant and deferential request and so had accepted easily. And Ian had predicted the reactions of each and had carefully calculated the tone and phrasing of the invitation to appeal to Mr. Spencer. And of course if he accepted, Melly would have to come, too.
“The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light,” she sighed to herself as she headed up to her room to rest a bit and to recount the days until Reńe would arrive.