I was hoping to get through the entire ball tonight, but it's kinda late and I'm falling over.
Say what one might about Esther Davis — and plenty was said — there was no denying that she was a woman of boundless drive, unfailing vigor, and immediate action. She had been the social face of Stillwater for almost twenty years; she had invested her own time and talent (though none of her own treasure) in ramming the Stillwater Fellowship Ball up through the stately echelons of River Road society galas and charity affairs, and now Richard’s sudden and unaccountable selection of Melly as the Stillwater Queen had been a real blow to her ambitions. But even in this hour of crisis, she was not idle. Already she was spinning the story, trying on one narrative after another to see which one reflected best on the Ball, and, by extension, her. The insult implicit in being passed over for the Queenship was not lost on her. Her sense of resentment poured fuel on her already active nature. By Friday night Esther had already run several searches through employment databases in Baton Rouge, searching for an opening that might suit Melly’s meager talents. It was high time the child learned to strike out on her own. Surely she was suited for something. It was unseemly to have her lounging around Stillwater, a big girl like her who ought to be working.
She found herself saying as much to Ian Winter early Saturday morning. Ian, just finishing a run, had encountered Esther at the top of the drive as she collected the mail, and as the two of them walked down the long gravel road toward the house, the conversation had somehow turned toward Melly. Ian was a sympathetic listener, attentive and deferential, so different from that tiresome sort of man who is convinced that the highest aim of conversation is to solve a woman’s problem and be done with it. He did not put forth solutions. He forbore from giving his opinion. His encouragement was discreet and his questions subtle, and Esther allowed herself to be expansive. Of course they all loved Melly! There was no question of tossing her out. But it was time for her to stretch her wings — they were really doing her a disservice by not insisting on that. Anyone with her sweet and pliant temperament ought to do well at any number of things: perhaps she could go as an au pair or do housekeeping or dog-sit. Esther did not deny that Melly could sew quite well; maybe she could do alterations like her mother. There was really more scope in Baton Rouge for her than down at Stillwater with its limited opportunities. How could there be any future for her here?
“Really, though, I don’t know why I bother,” she sighed as they turned behind the house and headed toward their cottages. “Richard’s treated her better than her own father has, so you’d think he’d have some interest in not letting her languish away here, but just between us I think he’d rather have her here than Sophia or Olivia — if you can imagine!”
Ian murmured. He could imagine.
Catering vans and florists’ delivery cars maneuvered around each other in the back parking lot as Esther and Ian crossed toward the cottages. The bustle boosted Esther’s spirits. The chaos of the Ball had begun, and she would be needed to sort the tangled and calm the agitated. Melly could be managed later — she would keep. Bidding a brief farewell to Ian, Esther girded her loins and strode off into the fray to impose order on the confused.
To society, the Stillwater Fellowship Ball was a banquet of delights, an infinite variety which age could not wither nor custom stale. Every detail was lovingly planned and handled by Esther to create the luxurious impression of Stillwater's glamorous past without the little awkwardnesses of the days of yore: the heat, the smells, the chamber pots, the slaves. She had almost the whole of the Stillwater Trust at her disposal, and with the assurance of one spending someone else's wealth, she demanded the highest quality for anything that might reflect on her.
As a result, the Ball now ranked in the highest tier of society affairs along the River. Just to be invited was an honor, but to actually ascend the sixteen steps to the porch and pass between the immense pillars was to find oneself transported to another, more gracious time. Tall boots, vests, cravats, crinolines, trim waists, and decolleté -- all were on grand display against the formal beauty of Stillwater, in a drama underscored by the small orchestra tucked around the grand piano in the parlor. Quieter scenes were played by couples on the porticos or in the gallery, in the peaceful reception room or on the secluded balcony outside the library. Everywhere was a profusion of flora: potted palms lining the hall, great vases of blossoms on the consoles, flowers on every surface and in every lapel. Trays of hors d'oeuvres surrounded a massive centerpiece on the sideboard in the dining room, offering a banquet of delights for all the senses. Specially trained waiters, costumed in sober contrast to the guests, hovered over this garden of paradise, proffering tempting tidbits or delivering drinks.
And the dancing! Professionals were on hand to teach the figures and sets, but the long-timers knew the old dances by heart. The slim elegance of the gentlemen complimented the more sweeping beauty of the ladies as they waltzed around the floor. The swirling skirts covered a multitude of flawed stepwork, giving even the most awkward dancer the illusion of floating effortlessly.
For the guests, the Ball was an evening of pure bliss. For the residents of Stillwater, the enjoyment of the evening was intermingled with the agony of preparations, a weeks-long saga authored by Esther. Richard tried grimly to concentrate on sugar futures through the hubbub of strange workers invading his house. Malcolm would gladly have abolished the whole project. Pugsy went off his feed, alarming Cheryl. But Melly, being the only resident that Esther could order around directly, bore the brunt of every remembered task and odd job not worth hiring out and emergency situation. She was a willing worker, and as desirous that all should redound to the glory of Stillwater as anyone was, but she did harbor a faint hope that perhaps her role as the Queen of the ball might relieve her of some of Esther's less reasonable demands.
Around noon, Malcolm Spencer walked slowly from the cottages to the big house, stirring up little puffs of dust as he kicked at the dry gravel. Under the blazing August sun, he was buffeted by waves of humidity rising hotly from the ground and pouring off the river. His shirt stuck to his back as he opened the basement door and shut it with a savage gentleness. For a moment he stood blinded in the sudden dimness of the house, able to hear but not see the entire cast of Ball supernumeraries on lunch break in the big family room.
Upstairs, the main house was suspended in a hush of anticipation. Passing through the gallery, he peered down the quiet length of the pilastered hallway. A small and solitary Melly was on her hands and knees before the front door, pushing a big towel around the inlaid floor.
“Melly, what’s going on?”
She sat back on her heels and pushed her hair off her glistening forehead with the back of her wrist as he strode down the hall.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Someone bumped one of the big vases and it fell off the table and broke, and Esther needed someone to take care of it right away. I think I’ve got all the glass in this pile, but be careful anyway.”
Malcolm was irritated. “And she couldn’t do it herself?” He seized another towel from the pile by Melly and buffed at the streaks of water left from Melly’s first pass.
“Oh, she has so much going on today. I don’t mind, really.”
“Queen for the day, indeed.”
They worked in silence, drying and restoring, the tinkle of swept glass echoing in the vast hall. Malcolm swabbed vehemently while Melly’s towel made small but thorough passes across the the floor. It was warm work, despite the blast of the industrial-strength air conditioning through cleverly-masked ducts.
“I talked to Alys this morning,” said Malcolm at last, taking a gloomy swipe at a square of parquet.
Her head bowed intently over her work, Melly did not answer right away, but when Malcolm did not elaborate, she said, “You don’t sound as thrilled as usual.”
“She’s been invited to go back to stay with friends in New York,” he said. “Her lease on the cottage is month to month now, so there’s nothing to tie her here, it seems, except the novelty of dancing at the Stillwater Ball with a sap who prefers teaching to sugar millions.”
“Did she say that?” Melly glanced up in surprise. She wanted to take some consolation in the thought of the Winters' departure, but at the moment it was hard to be pleased about something that made her friend so miserable.
“I don’t know,” said Malcolm wearily. “I can’t make heads or tails of her today. You know how hard it can be to have a serious conversation with her, though God knows I’ve tried. Sometimes I wonder, not if she’s shallow, because I know I've seen flashes of her true self underneath all her teasing and sarcasm, but whether years of living with her uncle have hardened her so much that she can't let me peel away enough layers to reach her heart. Right now I can't even tell if she even cares that I'm trying.” He sighed morosely. "Sometimes I wonder if it would have been easier to stay in the seminary."
"You didn't think so at the time."
"No, you're right. It grew more and more difficult, and I left." He sat on the edge of the thick hall carpet and nudged his towel around a pile of shards on the gleaming wood floor. "Now things are difficult with Alys, but I don't want to run away again."
"You didn't run away." When he was talking to her like this, confidentially, like he used to do in the old days, she felt freer to express herself. Now her eyes flashed indignant hazel fire to hear him accuse himself so unjustly. She joined him on the carpet, tossing her towel toward the pile. "Don't you remember how unhappy you were at the seminary, and how heavy your spirits were? I do. You... you were like someone lost on the wrong path without a light. So you thought and prayed about it, and made the hard decision to leave because that you knew that leaving was the right thing for you to do. That's not running away, and you know it. You're just feeling sorry for yourself now."
Melly was a bit shocked by her own boldness, but to her surprise he laughed and patted her hand resting on the carpet. She sat still and straight, absorbing the warmth of his fingers and willing herself not to make any motion that might shake him off.
"You're right again. On all counts. Whatever happens with Alys -- probably nothing; I don't want to keep up false hopes -- I know that I wasn't supposed to be a priest. And I'll never forget how much I leaned on your support then, and how much I count on it now. There's no one whose judgment I trust more than yours."
"What about Alys's?"
For a moment he studied her, hidden behind a curtain of hair. She couldn't look at him, couldn't think of anything beside the gentle pressure of his hand covering hers.
"You never can hear yourself being complimented, can you?" he said, a slight indefinable edge in his voice. "You'd always rather be out of the spotlight, hiding away where no one can appreciate you. Well, you'll be in the spotlight tonight, Queen Melusine, so you might as well start getting used to it now, because I am very serious about being grateful for all you've done for me, and I think you deserve to know that."
As he leaned toward her for emphasis, Melly gave a sharp cry. Jerking her hand up from where he had pressed it into the carpet, she turned it over to see blood welling around a needle of glass protruding from her palm. Malcolm seized the hand and examined it, and for a moment they both stared as the slight sliver of glass glowed ruby red. The sound of Melly's quickened breathing made him look up, and at the glimpse of her white face and pale lips he pulled her up and rushed her through the dining room. Arm around her shoulders, he almost dragged her to the kitchen and sat her in a chair.
"Head between your knees, Melly; you're going to be all right." He had staved off many of her fainting spells over the years and knew the routine, but now, as he rummaged through the first aid kit for the tweezers, he was struck not by her pallor, but by a low growling sound. He fixed her with a stern eye.
"Melly, have you eaten anything today?"
"N...no," she confessed, a bit of color springing back into her cheeks. "I came into the kitchen this morning, and everything was so busy, and Esther needed me to take care a few things right away..."
Malcolm, guiltily reflecting that his morning would have been more profitably spent in the big house protecting Melly from Esther's monomania, muttered a few choice opinions of Esther as he tried to extract the sliver instead of driving it deeper into the palm. It was a more complicated process than it ought to have been, and Melly lay back in the chair with eyes and lips pressed tight. As Malcolm bandaged up her hand, he laid out the schedule for the rest of the afternoon.
"I'm giving you the rest of the day off, Melly. Do not let Esther give you any more jobs; she can take it up with me if that gives her trouble. In fact, don't even let her see you. Eat something, and then go lay down. If you don't rest up now, you'll be in no shape to dance tonight, especially not the way René flings his partners around."
Melly thought, as she listened to him making her a sandwich and pouring out a glass of milk, that she could probably last all night, and well beyond, on his words and the memory of his hand on hers.