I am sorry it's been so long between installments, but it hasn't been for want of work -- I've spent five nights out of the last week writing later than 3 am, and a few past 4 am. This story weighs on me. I feel guilty if I write anything except Stillwater. It makes me tired.
Careful readers will note that Pugsy's gender keeps changing. Tonight he's a boy.
Gasping for breath, Melly stood and surveyed herself in her mirror. She had managed to fasten up her corset herself — good thing she’d found one in the attic which tied in front — and by dint of some ingenious wiggling had squirmed into her dress without undoing too much of back lacing, but the effort had left her winded. Her injured right hand, cramped from the careful and unaccustomed work of applying eye liner, throbbed dully to the beat of her pounding pulse. But none of these little aches and pains could trouble her tonight, because tonight she was beautiful.
Her reflection was tinted in shades of ivory and ebony, lit by the sheen of opals at her ears and the golden cross around her neck. Ivory was for the subtle stripes of silk dress, slightly deepened with age to the shade of antique paper; ebony was for the dark unraveling braid that framed her face, a temporary measure to keep her hair out of the way during the dressing struggles. Now that she’d gotten the gown on, she wasn’t quite sure how she would manage to reach back to fix her hair, much less tighten and tie the laces behind her shoulders, with the limited mobility afforded by the close little sleeves of lace, but now was a time for admiring, not worrying. Alys had been right about one thing, at least: her shoulders, emerging from the wide neckline, were pretty. And the drape of the flowing skirts meant that no one would even notice that she was wearing another attic find, a scuffed pair of white leather boots that had been part of the ball costume of a ten-year-old Olivia. She held the loosened bodice tight behind her back, smoothed the fitted waist and twirled around; the broad skirt rustling and flaring over framework of hoops gave her the illusion of floating in a cloud of papyrus. The alabaster dress might have made her appear almost a study in marble except that the exercise with her costume had left her flushed — not a sticky flush either, but a healthy, virtuous glow that contrasted nicely with the creamy coolness of skin and silk. Was this what it meant to be queen? she wondered. To be lovely, regardless of the battles one fought? To be lovelier for having fought them?
A knock on the door shook her out of her philosophical reverie. The jolt was complete when she discovered Cheryl, holding the unresisting Pugsy, in the hall. In the five years Melly had lived at Stillwater, never once had she known Cheryl to venture down the library wing or out of her predictable routine. Perhaps something was wrong. Perhaps Esther had complained about Melly’s absence all afternoon, and now they had decided that she shouldn’t be queen after all, and Cheryl had come to break the bad news to her because Malcolm was too furious at Esther to even talk to anyone…
“My goodness, it’s hot in here!” Cheryl bustled into the room and deposited Pugsy on Melly’s pillow. “You shouldn’t keep all your windows open, honey, or you’ll get all sweaty before the ball even starts, and Esther will fuss about the utilities.”
“But… but they’re always open,” Melly said anxiously, standing in the gust of cooler air sweeping in from the hall. It was unfair that she should be scolded merely for having her windows open, tonight of all nights. “Esther knows that.”
Cheryl, dismissing Esther from thought and conversation, pulled the chair over to the mirror and gave it an inviting pat.
“Now you just sit down, honey. I thought maybe you could use some help with your hair, so I’m going to fix it up for you. Sophia always had a lady out to do her hair, don’t you remember?”
Startled, Melly allowed herself to be set in front of the mirror. She wanted to protest, to explain that she hadn’t really been planning anything fancy, but as Cheryl’s gentle fingers unplaited the messy braid, the unexpected touch was so relaxing that all her demurrals faded away and she was suddenly swept back into childhood, to being wedged between her mother’s knees as Nanette Arceneaux fretted over the tangles and cajoled her squirming daughter into standing still. It had seemed torture at the time, but now the memory was sweet. At Stillwater there was no lack of benignity, but touch was rare; Melly could not remember the last time someone had stroked her hair. Tension drained from her and left her blissfully limp as Cheryl ran the brush over her scalp.
“Now, let’s see,” Cheryl was busily sorting through hairpins on Melly’s dresser. “I’ll just braid it and pin it up in a big bun. I used to do that sometimes when my hair was long.”
“I was just going to put it all in a snood,” Melly murmured, but without firm conviction. Eyes closed, she let Cheryl work unopposed, making little non-committal noises at the pauses in the pleasantly unchallenging monologue kept up by that lady. It had been a good decade since Cheryl had pinned up anyone’s hair, and she was finding Melly’s smooth fine hair to be trickier to handle than Sophia or Olivia’s coarser waves, but she persevered gamely, poking a small arsenal of bobby pins into the mass of coiled braid and exclaiming when they popped right back out at her. Finally Melly felt the cool metal of the tiara being settled into place.
“Well, I think that’s about right,” Cheryl sighed at last, overwhelmed with her burst of industry. “Pugsy, what do you think?”
The dog lifted his wrinkled head ever so slightly and snuffed wearily before flopping back onto the pillow.
“He says you look so pretty!” his delighted mistress interpreted. “Well, I think you’re about ready for the ball now, except that your laces came undone.” And with a few tugs, the unreachable back strings were securely tied and tucked in and the bodice lay snug and smooth.
Melly opened her eyes and regarded herself in the mirror. The heavy bun was already slipping down onto her neck and strands were working loose, but despite the increasingly untidy mass, she caught her breath at the sight of the shimmering opals and silver gleaming against the rich velvety backdrop of her hair.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed, her eyes radiant. As she turned her head to see the side, a hairpin shot out and flew into the corner of the room.
“Well, you just look too pretty,” said Cheryl, assessing her handiwork with critical satisfaction. “Won’t we be so proud to see you coming down those stairs tonight? Richard will have to lend me his handkerchief, I just know it. You better put some hairspray on it. I have to go back up because it’s just too warm in here for poor Pugsy.”
She squeezed Melly’s shoulders and, unexpectedly, dropped a kiss on the top of her head before gathering up Pugsy for the arduous journey upstairs. Melly sat in a euphoric daze, shedding hairpins on the carpet. Regardless of the less-than-professional results of Cheryl’s venture into hairdressing, the affectionate kindness of her intention soaked into Melly like a tonic. She reached up and removed the tiara, slowly so as not to strain her sleeves, and plucked the pins out of the now formless quantity of hair. However, she couldn’t bring herself to undo Cheryl’s braid. Picking up the snood, she wound the braid up and settled the thick twists into the black net. With a careful application of the comb, she was able to smooth the rest of her hair enough to anchor the snood neatly into place. And once again the tiara seemed to slip naturally into position, poised in regal perfection.
The only thing left to do was to pull on a pair of long ivory gloves borrowed from the attic stash (more to hide the ridiculous bandaid on her right hand than out of any sense of historical completeness), clasp the opal bracelet over her wrist, and then open the door. That was all she needed to do this moment: turn the door knob and go out. There was no point in hesitating. She would go out and meet the others in the drawing room. And they would look at her and think she was showing off, all fancy, as if she thought she was so beautiful. Or they would wonder, “Can’t she do better than that?” Worse yet, they would know that she couldn’t, that this already was her best on display, to stand or to fall in front of everyone. There was no private reserve to draw strength from, no hidden consciousness of knowing that she could improve if she really wanted to. It was such a naked feeling that Melly wanted to cover her dress under a shawl or a robe. Instead, she took the step to the door and clutched John Spencer’s silver door knob. Tonight wasn’t about her. It was about Stillwater.
“If you can’t even walk out of your room to see people who love you, how will you ever go down the stairs tonight in front of all those strangers?” she asked herself out loud, and pulled the door open to face the bustle without.
John Spencer’s portrait, presiding over the large fireplace in the front wall of the drawing room, cast a sternly satisfied eye over the grand rooms in which the Stillwater family was assembling against the arrival of the guests. Tonight all doors were flung wide open, lending the triumphant Spencer a clear view of Stillwater in readiness for another Fellowship Ball. Only the silver knobs of the white paneled pocket doors separating the drawing room and parlor were visible now against the walls. Most of the furniture and all the carpets had been carried down to the basements, creating one vast white pilastered ballroom with two voluminous crystal chandeliers, the gleaming wood of the bare floors reflecting back the numerous rainbows thrown by the tiers of prisms and pendants. Elegant little chairs lined the long east and west walls for the convenience of spectators and dancers without a partner; the curtained alcove in the drawing room offered a tempting vantage point for those who desired more privacy. More comfortable arm chairs, upholstered in an invitingly rich golden brocade, were placed against the drawing room fireplace wall for those who preferred a more sedentary evening’s enjoyment. Away across the room, matching chairs in burgundy were nestled under the gracious protection of John Spencer’s wife Lavinia, enthroned opposite him above the parlor fireplace between the the twin doors to the dining room.
John’s less tranquil descendant, Richard, fidgeted uncomfortably underneath his ancestor’s portrait. This was the beginning of the evening’s agony: to be trussed up in a replica of Robert E. Lee’s uniform, an outfit of such constricting heavy gray elegance that Richard privately wondered if, between the fussy gold braids and button, the complicated red sash and the tall boots, part of that worthy’s military genius lay in his ability to get dressed every morning. The suit seemed designed more for elegant standing than any sort of real-life activity such as combatting northern aggression or reading the paper with one’s feet up. Richard was attempting to do the latter, not so much to catch up on the news as to provide a corrective to the excessive industry of Esther Davis and her legion of servitors. Richard wasn’t sure how many people Esther had hired for the ball, but it seemed like too many; he’d been tripping over them all day.
The staff too were suitably period in their quiet suits or simple dresses and aprons, but costumes were as far as Esther’s commitment to authenticity went: the help might be wearing what their historical counterparts wore, but unlike their historical counterparts, none of them were black. No one was to be given offense by unfortunate allusions to the ‘peculiar institution’ on which Stillwater was founded; the wrongs of past generations would not be perpetuated in this age of racial blindness. This effectively cut a good portion of the local economy out of lucrative temporary employment, but she had always found that it was less expensive to hire and train unemployed actors out of Baton Rouge anyway.
Now she was following her crews around, directing the final preparations and redoing perfectly acceptable arrangements to her own more detailed specifications. Her officiousness irked Richard. Couldn’t she see how her micromanagement was grating on her employees? And why would she wear a red dress at her age? He didn’t care who might call her a “well-preserved woman”; it was just silly for anyone with short highlighted hair and such an artificial tan to think that a low-cut ball gown and a feather headdress would give her the air of a genuine belle.
In marked but unintentional contrast to her sister, Cheryl sat decorously next to him, matronly and elegant and placid in her dove silk and lace shawl, established in the chair she would likely occupy for most of the evening. He took her hand and bestowed on it an affectionate kiss, and she gave him a serene smile in return.
“Esther is certainly in rare form tonight,” Richard murmured to her. “I don’t know how she can move around so quickly in that ridiculous get-up.”
Cheryl cast an equable glance on the brazen display of assertiveness. “That dress doesn’t require a corset.”
Across the hall in the reception room, Malcolm and Rene were leaning against the bar, shouting to be heard over the last rehearsals of the band. For the occasion, Rene, his hair and mustaches oiled into brilliantine black curls, had scrounged up a Zouave outfit, complete with baggy blue-striped pantaloons, spats, and a red tasseled fez. This exotic martial splendor shone against the formality of Malcolm’s somber black tailcoat and white tie, which were themselves chosen in deliberate opposition to the tradition of wearing military costume to the ball. With the marvelous ability of the young to shrug off the discomforts of fashion, the pair were fortifying themselves with pre-ball highballs.
A slender porcelain figure drifted down the long hall amidst the clamor and laid a hesitant gloved hand on a pillar outside the doorway, her eyes fixed on the gentlemen at the bar. She could not remain unnoticed long; Rene gave a whoop and pulled her into the room, swinging her around in their well-rehearsed steps for opening the ball and exclaiming while Malcolm grinned his approval at their laughter. Richard, observing unnoticed in the drawing room, rose to his feet and swallowed hard against the sudden lump in his throat. It seemed only yesterday that little Melly had been creeping around the house, bent and terrified, and now she was all swan-like and grown up, with an ethereal loveliness that was the more striking for being so different from his own daughters’ more robust pulchritude.
“Doesn’t Melly look nice tonight?” Cheryl asked complacently. “I braided her hair, you know.”
“She ought to look nice,” snapped the passing Esther, pausing in the completion of her last-minute checklist to cast a harried glance at Melly’s tiara. “Everything she’s wearing has come to her through the generosity of Stillwater. It would be a shame and disgrace if she couldn’t look nice tonight in honor of everything we’ve done for her over the years. It’s not as if she had to work for her living, goodness knows, though what she’ll do when it comes to that I don’t know — I keep telling you that she’s not a child anymore.”
“No, she’s not,” said Richard thoughtfully, ignoring Esther’s sour tone.
And suddenly the guests were upon them, wresting hoop skirts out of SUVs and town cars, awkwardly adjusting gloves and sashes and, in some instances, swords before making the pilgrimage up the great stairs of Stillwater. Esther snapped into hostess mode, pushing her clipboard onto one of the staff and organizing Richard and the jittery Melly into a receiving line.
“Do we have to greet everyone?” she whispered to him.
“It’s a necessary evil,” Richard commiserated quietly with Melly, as the wide door swung open to let in both the first guests and a blast of evening humidity. “But we can slip away and leave Esther to it after a while.”
“Mrs Slaughter! How’ve y’all been?” Esther was gushing to a dowager in a violet moire sacque and cap of crocheted lace. “Let me present you to Melusine Arceneaux, this year’s queen!”
In years past Melly had escorted Mrs Slaughter to her chair and brought her refreshments; now she curtsied and nodded and smiled as Mrs Slaughter exclaimed over how pretty she was and how much older she looked.
A parade of graceful belles and gray uniformed officers passed before her, and she repeated her little ritual of the curtsy, nod, and murmur with little variations depending on whether her gown was complimented or the house praised or the weather deprecated. Many people recognized her and actually seemed pleased to acknowledge her as queen of the ball. Her first agitation began to settle, although she longed to stand hidden in one of the front windows with Rene, listening to him pass commentary on every costume and attitude. After a while the receiving line eased up, and Richard shepherded her through the noisy room, shielding her from Esther’s social machinations as he spoke to the most important guests. Being queen meant talking to a great many people who made a great deal of vacuous pleasantries. Melly clung tightly to his elbow and smiled and curtsied again and made polite replies to all questions, scarcely knowing what she said.
She was just casting a envious eye toward Rene, who was having some kind of uproarious conversation with a few of the musicians, when she felt herself being lifted off Richard’s arm by a gallant golden-haired man dressed, incongruously, in Union blue. Richard’s eyes crinkled with suppressed mirth as his interlocutor, an opinionated bearded gentleman in full Confederate cavalry regalia who in civilian life was the president of a bank in Baton Rouge, cast a practiced eye over the starred shoulder strap insignia and double-breasted frock coat with its triple sets of three buttons.
“We do not often have the honor of seeing General Sherman in these parts, sir,” said the bearded man, bowing coldly.
“I beg your pardon, sir; I’m only marching through,” said Ian courteously. To Richard, he asked, “May I see Miss Arceneaux to a seat? Perhaps she would like to sit down for a moment before the festivities begin.”
Richard nodded his approval, to Melly’s dismay, only mentioning that she should be ready to make her grand entrance in about half an hour. She searched the room anxiously; if Ian was here then so was Alys, and maybe she and Malcolm were patching up their morning’s conflict, standing close together in the crowded room as Alys smiled up at him and shrugged her bare shoulders innocently…
“I seem to be attracting a lot of attention tonight,” Ian said as he maneuvered her toward one of the comfortable red chairs under Lavinia Spencer’s portrait. “Is it something I wore?”
“I’m sure everyone will respect your patriotic northern sentiments even if they make a fuss over your blue coat.”
“I didn’t pick it out myself!” he protested, the very picture of injured innocence. “Alys found it for me. I think she liked the buttons. That’s sisterly affection for you: she’s ruined my chances of dancing with any Confederate belles.”
Melly, whose ancestors had spent the Civil War fishing on Bayou Carencro, inclined her head regally.
“But you look very charming tonight, your majesty.” There was an undercurrent of genuine admiration in his voice that alarmed Melly; she would have preferred his mockery to his praise. “You must be the jewel of the south tonight.”
His glance flicked over her earrings, and though he said nothing more, she knew he recognized them as his gift to Alys. She was disgusted with herself for ever having given in to Alys’s importuning. It was too late now to slip back to her room and take off the earrings and bracelet. She wondered for a fleeting moment if Rene or Malcolm would consent to keep them in his pocket for her. Of course, she wouldn’t ask that of them; not only would it be rude to shuck off Alys’s present in the middle of the ball, but how could she ask someone to hold such expensive jewelry for her? Her ears and conscience burned with the weight of the obligation, and she braced herself for his insinuating comments. Ian had already switched tacks, however, and was making such pleasant and innocent conversation about the ball that it was almost impossible to ignore him politely. He was asking about the order of the ball, about her role as queen, listening so attentively to her answers and asking such leading questions that she found herself explaining how she would make a grand entrance down the spiral staircase, how she and Rene would lead the first waltz, how the dancing sets were organized. By the time he had settled her in a chair and gone in search of a cup of punch, she found, to her chagrin, that she had somehow agreed to give him the second dance.
Apparently there was to be no reprieve from Winters. As soon as Ian had disappeared, Alys perched next to her with the enforced elegance of one whose posture is managed by a tight corset. Her wide eyes, deepening the ice-blue of her gown, shone with all the concentrated demure charm of her pretty white lace gloves and the upswept golden curls spilling onto her shoulders and the light sprinkling of freckles the August sun had brought out on her nose. An intricate lattice of diamonds wove its way down her throat to shimmer enticingly over the plunging lace of her neckline. As she smoothed and adjusted the taffeta of her gown, her jeweled heels appeared for a moment before the layers of skirt settled and hid them from view. Melly sighed inaudibly and tucked her own booted feet deeper under her hoops.
“You look fabulous, Melly, just like the ghost of Stillwater Past.” The white lace hand gave the ivory-gloved one a playful squeeze; Melly forced herself not to wince visibly at the pressure on her sore palm. “Isn’t it crazy in here? Esther’s going to have to cut her guest list next year, I think. These huge skirts are a trend I could get behind, though; the hoops guarantee you almost five feet of personal space no matter how crowded it gets.” Alys’s voice was blithe, but as she spoke she was surreptitiously scanning the crowd, looking, Melly assumed, for Malcolm. The behavior was unmistakable; Melly had been doing the same thing herself and recognized the signs.
Malcolm was not in evidence, however, and finally Alys seemed to realize that she’d let conversation lag for just a beat too long.
‘How do you like Ian’s get-up?” she asked brightly . “I know the other men are wearing all these sashes and things, but I really liked the minimalist look of that coat. Too bad it’s a Union uniform, but I think that after all these years no one will hold it against him.”
“I know it won’t bother Rene, at least,” Melly said cautiously, afraid to make a sweeping pronouncement of acceptance on the part of the room at large.
Alys squirmed and tried to sit back.
“How do you do it?” she asked Melly, shifting in her chair. “You make wearing these clothes look effortless. I know you’re supposed to suffer to be beautiful, but I’m about ready to pull a Sophia and lose the corset.”
Several reactions to this strange allusion simmered in Melly’s breast: an instinctive irritation with Alys’s constant need to devolve into flippancy; surprise that Alys would associate Sophia with lack of corsetry, and a sudden appalled certainty that not only had Ian and Alys had discussed his Gone With The Wind flirtation with Sophia while he was still carrying it on, but that Alys couldn’t imagine anyone having principled objections to the matter. Certainly, it didn’t seem to occur to her that Melly might disapprove.
Even these vexations couldn’t prevent her from automatically giving a helpful answer to Alys’s essentially rhetorical question. “It helps to sit as still as possible. That way at least you can breathe a bit easier.”
“But I want to breathe a lot easier.”
Memories of the years of sitting still in order to breathe tightened Melly’s chest. “At least the corset comes off at the end of the night. Sometimes you have to take what consolation you can get.”
“What I’m not taking any consolation in,” said Alys, in faux distress, “is that your pretty cross is putting our opals to shame. I don’t mind, of course, but Ian will be so disconsolate. Why didn’t you tell me that you had such a nice piece? ”
“I didn’t, then,” said Melly, hoping that Ian would be so disconsolate he would leave her alone for the rest of the night. “Malcolm didn’t give it to me until afterward.”
“Malcolm buying jewelry! I like that — it shows he’s got a touch of noblesse oblige about him. Maybe there’s some hope for him after all.”
Melly could not countenance Alys venting her pent-up feelings by mocking Malcolm, and she quickly explained how upset she had been to think she’d lost Rene’s cross, and how generous Malcolm had been to as a surprise for her for the ball, and how he had insisted that she had to wear both the cross and the Alys’s opals because Alys’s offer had been so kind. There! she thought. Let her laugh about that!
But Alys did not laugh. The sharp brilliance in her expression had evanesced, leaving a strange and appealing softness.
“Did he really?” she asked, and now she spoke with an unaccustomed sincerity. “That sounds exactly like him. To be honest, I think he’s the only admirable man I’ve ever met. I… I have a lot of respect for him.”
Again she surveyed the room, looking for Malcolm. This time she didn’t have long to look; he was just emerging out of the social whirl toward them. Both the ladies rose to meet him, but though he smiled warmly at Alys, it was Melly he sought out.
“Esther’s making noises about getting started,” he warned her. Her palms, under her gloves, suddenly felt clammy. “Come on, it’s time to get in position upstairs.”
“By myself?” Alarm twisted her stomach.
“Well, Dad said he would wait with you…”
“No!” Melly gasped. “He’s supposed to be downstairs! That’s how it always is!” She was a traditionalist, but her protest had less to do with established ritual than that the thought of receiving no more encouragement than a firm handshake from the reserved Richard before facing the terrors of the mass scrutiny.
“That’s what I told him, too,” Malcolm assured her. “I told him you’d be counting on seeing him in his usual place.”
“I… can’t do it alone. I won’t know when to come down.” Both Malcolm and Melly knew how well sound carried up the stairs, but any silly stalling tactic was worth the few seconds’ reprieve it brought her.
“You won’t be alone. I’ll be right up there beside you, and I’ll make sure you get down at the right time.”
“I can help!” said Alys eagerly. “Let me come too. I can… I don’t know, fix her dress and arrange her crown and things.”
Any other time Malcolm would have been thrilled to get an offer like this from Alys, but he knew that right now, nothing would be less helpful to Melly’s advanced state of agitation than to be calmed down in front of spectators.
“Somehow I just can’t picture you as a ladies’ maid,” he said facetiously. “Right now I think we’re going to need you most at the bottom of the stairs, for moral support.” He raised a conspiratorial eyebrow at her as he steered the rigid monarch toward the elevator hall and her rendezvous with her public.
Alys stood and watched the black and ivory figures moving away from her. Self-analysis was a new task to her, and it took her a moment to find a description for the sting that even this gentlest of rebuffs had inflicted on her newly tender emotions: the odd ache reminded her of a puppy she had once held as a volunteer at a shelter. When she left the end of the day, the little creature’s body had almost vibrated with wistful sadness that she should have taken it up and then abandoned it. That had been her first and last foray into the sentimental world of animal rescue.
When Ian returned at last with the cup of punch intended for Melly, she appropriated it and insisted that he escort her to her post of moral support. As the ice-blue gown and Union blue uniform settled near the curving newel, converging with Richard and Cheryl and Rene, a brilliant laugh floated up through the stairwell.
In the elevator, Melly chattered at a frantic pace, clutching Malcolm’s arm with nervous fingers.
“I wish Sophia were here. Or Olivia. It really should have been Olivia. She waited for so many years and now I’m stealing her turn…”
“Neither Olivia nor Sophia could have answered that question about Stillwater. You won your crown fair and square. Of course you’re the rightful Stillwater Queen.” He stepped out of the elevator and offered his hand to her. She remained against the back wall.
“No, I’m not! You can’t make someone a queen just by calling them one.”
“In this case you can.”
He tugged her out of the service hall, and into the corridor that led across the back of the house to open at the junction of the main hall and the landing. Esther’s formal welcome speech, drifting back to them, grew louder as Melly, propelled by Malcolm, cast desperate glances at the attic door, the linen closet door, the hall door, the bedroom doors, any door that might hide her away from the coming ordeal.
“We’ve created a fairy-tale ending for Rene Arceneaux’s last year on the Stillwater Fellowship!” Esther had settled on a dreams-come-true angle for Melly’s queenship, and was spinning a neat yarn of Melly’s devotion to her brother and her unswerving advocacy for him at Stillwater. Melly was horrified to think that the full party below was going to think that she considered herself an “amanuensis”.
“You come down with me,” she begged Malcolm, clinging to one of the fluted pillars between the hall and the landing. “I can’t walk down in front of everyone by myself. They’ll all look at me.”
“Shh! Of course they will,” said Malcolm with easy patience, gently prying Melly’s hands from the column. “You’re beautiful. No one wants to look at my ugly mug.”
“But they want to see you.”
Esther was in full oratory bloom now. “Seeing how intertwined the Arceneaux family has been with our life at Stillwater, we felt that this was the year to give full ceremonial expression to the academic and social enrichment these young people have brought to our lives…”
Across the landing, Melly could see the large stained glass window in the arc of the semicircular staircase, at this time of the evening normally a soft black, lit unnaturally in flood of the outdoor spotlights. Each movement closer to the bannister revealed another ominous downward step of the spiral. The presence of the masses below her feet, invisible past the curve of the stairs, oppressed her.
“No one wants to see me,” she insisted. “They don’t know me!”
“They know you’re the queen. All you have to do is be queenly.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” hissed Melly in rising hysteria, backing along the railing away from the head of the stairs.
“Melly.” Malcolm grasped her firmly by the forearms and gave her a gentle shake. “Do not start crying. If you calm down this second, you’ll have nice pink cheeks and bright eyes. If you cry, you will make your eyes and nose all red, and Rene will be embarrassed.”
Melly almost laughed a bit in spite of herself. Nothing could embarrass Rene.
“If you look scared, everyone will be scared for you. You have to set the tone of the ball.” Malcolm was guiding her into position. Below, Esther was coming mercifully, inexorably to the end of her welcoming spiel.
“Everyone wants you to do well, Melly. I want you to do well. Can you do that for me?”
He adjusted her tiara and gently smoothed back her hair from her anxious upturned face, then nudged up the corner of her mouth with his thumb.
“Smile a little, okay?” He held her face and brushed a light kiss on her forehead.
“Okay,” she whispered, leaning into him for the blissful second before Esther’s voice, raised in signal, called out, “I present to you this year’s Stillwater Fellowship Queen: Miss Melusine Arceneaux!”
“Walk deliberately, keep your hand on the bannister, smile,” Malcolm whispered, stepping away. He squeezed her left hand — her good hand — and she let her fingers linger in his as she took her first step. Carefully she descended, willing her right hand to rest lightly on the bannister, the heavy hoops of her skirt swaying in unnerving rhythm against the balusters. The hall below burst into applause as all heads craned to see her past the bend in the staircase; she glanced back at Malcolm, who gave her an encouraging grin and motioned her to keep going. She swallowed her choking terror and concentrated on placing each foot precisely on the tread below. Everyone wanted her to do well. Richard and Cheryl wanted her to do well. Malcolm wanted her to do well. She would not disappoint them.
The window glowed before her like a beacon. Melly longed to stop and soak in the familiar comfort of the place, but she had to keep moving through the swath of colored light; as she rounded the curve of the stair she brushed her gloved hand along the glass and watched it turn red and blue and red again. Now the last stairs, leading directly into the swelling ovation of the guests packed into the stair hall, spilling out into the gallery and the main hall and the ballrooms beyond: she focused on Rene and his mustache waiting for her where the bannister curled, on keeping her steps even, on smiling gently. And then Rene stepped up amid the crescendo of cheers, slid his arm around her as they faced the room together, and gave her an encouraging swat on the hoops over her bottom.
She had done it. She was downstairs, and once again her head was comfortably below everyone else’s. Somewhere music was playing. Rene drew her across the hall and into the ballroom for the opening waltz.
There was no time to breathe; the second major labor was upon her. He bowed, she curtsied, and they were off to more applause. Melly was desperately smiling and counting “One-two-three, one-two-three…,” under her breath when Rene started laughing.
“What’s the point, cher?” he asked. “No one can see your feet anyway under all those drawers you got on. Just follow my lead and we’ll show them how it’s done.”
No one could enjoy himself on the dance floor more than Rene, especially when he was one drink lubricated. Melly leaned back into his arm and let him whisk her around. Strangely enough, she found that once she started to relax, her feet (Olivia’s old boots notwithstanding) naturally achieved the easy rhythm of the waltz.
The Spencers and the Winters had migrated with the crowd to watch the dancing.
“We all know Melly’s really an angel, but tonight she looked the part, floating like that down the stairs,” Alys remarked to Richard and Cheryl. “You must be so proud.”
“I am, for her sake,” Richard murmured.
“She is pretty tonight,” Cheryl agreed, handing Richard’s handkerchief back to him. “Of course, I braided her hair.”
Standing just far enough down the stairs to see into the ballroom, Malcolm watched the handsome dark-haired couple twirl across the floor in 3/4 time. Rene’s laugh resounded over the orchestra, kindling echoing laughter and good cheer in all who heard him. From his quiet vantage point, Malcolm could tell that even Melly was under Rene’s spell. The brightness in her eyes now was not fear but exhilaration. The memory of her scared, white face earlier made him grin fondly, and he unconsciously ran the tip of a finger over the thumb which had touched her cheek and first coaxed her to smile.