Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Stillwater - 29

The first 3/4 of this is my lost section, rewritten.


At last the blessed day dawned, clear and glorious. Melly’s anticipation was honed to a keen edge. She wanted to be constantly watching, the first one to spot the very instant that Rene entered the Stillwater grounds, but she had to devote at least a modicum of energy to avoiding Esther’s Fellowship Ball frenzy. That lady’s gimlet eye was ready to pierce through the veneer of industry to expose the core of idleness beneath, and Melly was finally caught out in the reception room, hovering near the tall front windows dusting the shutters for the fifth time. 

“Melly, leave those shutters be. Y’all are going to wear me to a frazzle today,” Esther sighed irritably. 

“But I’m looking out for Rene,” Melly made so bold as to say.

 “Well, he won’t be here for at least another hour.” She thumbed through the sheaf of papers in her hand. “Where do you think I found Richard earlier? Lounging around the gallery, reading the newspaper! Anyone would think the Ball wasn’t on Saturday, the way you all sit around.”

“He could be early.”

“Oh my stars and garters, Melly! He’ll get here whether you’re at the window or not. A watched pot never boils.” Esther thrust one of the papers at her. “Here, I need Richard’s signature on this. Go make yourself useful.”

It was no great hardship to be sent somewhere Esther was not, but Richard’s office faced the cane fields instead of the road. Melly bit back a sharp reply — she would not be angry, not today, not when Rene was coming — and marched down the hall and to the left, through the gallery to the housekeeping wing, her pace increasing until she slammed through Richard’s door with more force than she’d intended.

Richard started guiltily at the sudden intrusion, then, seeing it was Melly, relaxed and withdrew a rumpled newspaper from under his desk.

“You look like you’ve had a pleasant chat with Esther.”

“I only wanted to watch for Rene out the front window.” Melly handed him the paper. “She wants you to sign this.”

Pen poised to sign, he glanced over the document. Then, as he read more carefully, the nib migrated up mark one particular line Richard was studying with interest.

“Esther certainly has allotted a great deal of money to Alys Winter for ‘sundry Ball expenses’,” he observed mildly.

“Oh, that’s probably for the crown.”

“The what?”

“The crown. For the Queen. Alys is making a new one.”

“Is she? What’s wrong with the old one?”

Melly, looking out of the window to see if Rene’s car had pulled around back, shrugged. The crown commission had been an open secret for weeks. “Nothing, really. Esther just didn’t think it would suit her.” 

“I don’t see why she needs my authorization when she’s taken the decision right out of my hands.” Richard could have added several choice variations on this theme, but after a sympathetic glance over the small figure opposite him nearly quivering with pent-up indignation and excitement, he changed the topic. 

“I tell you what,” he said. “If I were you, I’d sneak up the elevator here and go sit out on the balcony. There’s no way Esther will go outside and see you, and you’ll have a clear view down to the road. If it weren’t for the levee, you could see all the way to the river. I never understood why John Spencer didn’t build some kind of lookout in the attic or up on the roof, like those widow’s walks you see up in Maine. Of course, it would look completely out of place architecturally, but he seems like the sort of fellow who wanted to keep an eye on everything.”

“When the house was built you could see the river from the balcony.”

Richard stared at her. “How do you know?”

“John Spencer said so in his journals. The levee was only three feet high then — he could see all the way down to his landing.”

“You pass the time reading John Spencer’s journals?” asked Richard. On an ordinary day Melly might have detected criticism in his tone of pure astonishment, but today she was too consumed by expectations of Rene to be troubled by non-existent nuances.

“I had to read them last year when Esther set me to doing research for the historical certification renewal. Did you ever look at them?”

“No,” he confessed.

 “They’re interesting. Anyway, the levees weren’t built up to their current height until after 1882, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did a big survey of the river.”

“But John Spencer couldn’t have written about that in his journal. He died in… in…”

“1869. Esther talks about it in the tour.”

“And you have the tour memorized?”

“Just about.” She was edging out of the door, eager to be out on the balcony. “I hope you can enjoy your paper in peace.”

It was ridiculous to be gaping at an empty doorway, so Richard Spencer unfurled the newsprint and settled back to read. After a moment, though, he sighed and tossed it on the desk, then strode down to Esther’s office to find the glass-fronted bookcases holding John Spencer’s journals.

Upstairs, Melly tugged at the sash of the wide hall window and threw it open to the wrought iron balcony. As she rested a hand on each side of the window frame, she felt imbued with Stillwater’s own grace and endurance. Richard had been right. The balcony was the ideal vantage point for her: commanding a clear prospect down the manicured lawn to River Road yet shielded from the scrutiny of the world by the four massive weathered columns of the porch.  Out past the watched road, the levee loomed like a green bulwark against the massive brown waterway beyond. She stood in John Spencer’s place and gazed with his eyes down to the river and the long-demolished landing to survey the sugar from the plantation refineries being loaded on the barges headed up to Baton Rouge or down to New Orleans. Standing on the sill, at the center of the concentric protection of levee, road, columns, and walls, she felt herself to be at the beating heart of Stillwater. 

A small red car, resembling nothing so much as a pregnant skateboard, swerved into the driveway and disappeared noisily beneath the great oaks lining the driveway. Melly dove back into the house and yanked the window closed, charged down the fifty feet of carpet in the wide hall, whirled down the spiral staircase all the way to the basement, and burst out the doors at the foot of the stairs. She was just in time to catch Rene’s wave as the sticker-plastered tail of his car vanished around the side of the library wing toward the back of the house. She chased down the gravel road to where he’d parked in front of the carriage house and hurled herself at him, talking, laughing, and crying, as he tried to emerge from the tight vehicle. 

‘Hold up, p’tite, let me at least get down from the car,” he exclaimed, laughing. He had filled out a bit, broadened a bit since she’d last seen him, and, most amazingly, grown a mustache. Melly, in a confusion of happiness and embarrassment, wondering how she too had changed over the past five years, wanted to bury her head on his shoulder to avoid scrutiny, but her older brother had no such shyness.

Rene Arceneaux, like his sister, had the standard Arceneaux allotment of dark hair and hazel eyes, and, like his sister, could be charitably described as less than tall, but otherwise they were complementary rather than similar. Where she was slight, he was wiry; where her hair was smooth, his was uncontrollable, standing on end from the sheer force of his personality. Where Melly was shy and anxious, he was confidence itself. Taciturnity was anathema to him, placidity unknown. His loves were intense and his scorns fierce and his friends multitudinous. The party did not start until Rene arrived, and when he left, it followed him willingly. If you were tired of Rene Arceneaux, you were indeed tired of life.

“Look at you, p’tite,” he said, holding her at an arm’s length and shaking her gently. “You got roses in your cheeks. This place is good for you. Hell, you must be more than halfway Spencer by now. Come on, let’s head up to the house and we’ll make them remember what it is to have a couple of Arceneauxs around the place.”

“They’ll remember as soon as read your bumper stickers,” she teased. “Oh, no, not another learning opportunity? Aren’t you embarrassed to stick all your opinions up on your car? I can’t even see any paint on the hatch.”

“Keeps me humble.” He surveyed his old stomping grounds with a proprietary eye. “Lord, what did old lady Davis do to the cottage? It looks almost fit for human habitation.”

“She rents it out to some rich folk from New York City.”

Rene snorted. “Go to bed! Only a damn fool from New York City would pay to stay down here for the summer.”

“Two damn fools,” muttered Melly, and then laughed at Rene’s boldness rubbing off on her.

As they headed toward the house, Malcolm emerged to greet them. He too had been looking forward to Rene’s visit, but he would never have denied Melly privacy for her first euphoric moment of reunion with her beloved brother. Now he met up with them near the car and shook Rene’s hand heartily. Rene was absolutely delighted to see his one-time tutor.

“Malcolm, hey! Where you at, podna?” he demanded, pounding that gentleman on the back. Few people would ever have described Malcolm Spencer as effusive or demonstrative, but within moments he was exchanging thump for thump and quip for quip with Rene. Melly’s eyes glowed and her heart swelled at this wonderful display of camaraderie between the two men she loved most.

“You’re staying up in the room next to mine,” Malcolm informed Rene, who could not have been more pleased at this customary arrangement. “Here, let me get your bags.” He paused in the act of opening the trunk for a moment to pay obeisance to the sheer number of slogans and quip.

Si hoc legere scis nimium eruditiones habes,” he read, and snickered. “My dad will be pleased to know he’s getting his money’s worth on you.”

“This place pays for my education,” Rene answered. “I figure I ought to show it a good time.” He wrapped his arm around Melly and pulled her close, and she nestled happily against him as they went into the big house. With him, she was proof against any test Stillwater might send her way.

That afternoon, Esther stopped in the yard to contemplate the unsightly abomination that Rene had claimed as his vehicle. He would have to move it before the Ball, there were no two ways about that. He could put it in the carriage house next to the Morgan. The two cars would look absolutely ridiculous together, but no one would be looking in the carriage house on Saturday. Shaking her head, she read the stickers under her breath.

Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool.” 

Annoyed with herself for having snickered at one of Rene’s silly jokes, she stalked toward her own cottage, resolved to get that ugly car out the yard before anyone else saw it.


JP said...

A small red car, resembling nothing so much as a pregnant skateboard, ...

I love it. :)

mrsdarwin said...

JP, everyone knows that car. I've known three in my time. :)

entropy said...

JP stole my comment!

Good job, Mrs.D.

Skywalker said...

I think my Dad used to call that kind of car a motorized roller skate.

Yea for the return of Stillwater!

Enbrethiliel said...


I have no idea what kind of car that is, but if that line was one of your darlings, Mrs. Darwin, I'm glad you didn't kill it. =)

Otepoti said...

"You can't make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious." I often admit to being an ingenious fool.

I must, also, admit to having a problem with Stillwater, since its riches are (surely?) built on slavery, and this seems much less excusable than the riches of Manderley, Brideshead Castle and Mansfield Park, all of whose accumulation of good things must similarly have been built on exploitation just as egregious, if less institutionalized.

So,wanting Brideshead and its ilk to thrive as a living repository of art, culture and history seems a more moral proposition than for its southern ante-bellum counterpart, however irrational that seems.

Thank God for the treasures of the Church, in which one can take unalloyed pleasure.

Er, did someone else hash this issue out earlier and better?

I love the story, though.


Kate said...

Otepoti -

Having visited several of the plantation houses along River Road, and talked with the owners and caretakers, I'd say that there is something wonderful in beauty being retained while what is ugly ebbs away generation by generation.

On the other hand, there is a fascinating book published about my favorite plantation home. It's a memoir written in 1936 by the daughter and inheritor of the plantation, and she felt much as you do and was glad to leave it behind.