Once her formal duties accomplished, the rest of the ball was one hazy sigh of relief for Melly. Even her waltz with Ian was unobjectionable — almost frustratingly so. Melly wanted him to be objectionable, to give incontrovertible proof of his bad intentions to everyone. Instead, he was scrupulously chivalrous, paying simple compliments and drawing her no closer than a chaste arm’s-length. He wanted to talk about her and she had no interest in talking to him; they found neutral ground in discussing her brother. There was always lots to say about Rene and Ian could say it well. He could already spin anecdotes out of a week’s acquaintance. Melly was relieved that he carried the burden of conversation and gratified to hear him sing Rene’s praises, but still she thought she could probably throw him farther than she could trust him.
Otherwise, there was nothing left but to enjoy herself, and to her surprise, she did. Popularity was a new and heady drug. To be the center of attention without being reproached or teased or questioned, indeed to be admired by everyone, was very pleasant, if overwhelming. When she felt like dancing, she found that she was in high demand. When she needed to sit down (as she did frequently, to catch her breath), one of the good armchairs was instantly vacated. Plates of fruit and cheese and petit fours appeared at her elbow if she merely looked toward the dining room. She wondered if she ought to be ashamed of taking advantage of everyone’s generosity this way. Surely everyone would see right through her and know that she was only playing a part.
She said as much to Malcolm.
“Everyone’s playing a part tonight, Melly,” he said with a smile, but his eyes followed Alys around the room.
Malcolm was not enjoying his evening as much as she was hers, and although her heart ached for any unhappiness of his, a small hidden corner of it also rejoiced that Alys should be so obstinately animated tonight. Miss Winter was in rare form: teasing, laughing, elusive, unsatisfying and unsatisfied. Malcolm had not been able to pin her down to any serious topic; she had not been able to mock him out of his aspirations. There were plenty of gentlemen at the ball who were willing to play a bright game of words with Alys, though. Malcolm could only count on one female in the room to match his mood.
“Are you free, Melly?” he asked, with a smile that didn’t quite disguise his discouragement. “I think I’ll have that dance now. It will be a relief to spend three minutes with someone who doesn’t want to make stupid conversation. No one else in this room understands the value of peace and quiet.”
Peace and quiet she could give him, especially as the gentle lighting and the soft lullaby of the orchestra and the sedate step of the dance brought all of her bodily weariness to the fore. Nothing could be more natural than for her to lay her head on his shoulder as they traced stately figure-eights around the ball room, and of course he was so used to supporting her in moments of weakness that he thought nothing of holding her close. A blissful sense of solitude engulfed Melly. If she closed her eyes, the cacophony of the ball dimmed to a comforting hum as she concentrated on listening to Malcolm’s silence: the rustling of his coat against her ear, the reliable rhythm of his breathing, the deeper beating of his heart. She tried to match her breathing to his, but by the end of the dance, her fatigue coupled with the restraints of the uncomfortable corset made it difficult for her to take more than shallow gasps. Even before the last measures of the waltz, Malcolm was leading her to her chair.
“I think your night of dancing might be over, Melly,” he said. “You seem like you’re barely able to stand up anymore.”
This was no hardship for Melly, especially because she’d seen Ian approaching in hopes of claiming the next dance. Somehow she hadn’t found the right words to turn him down earlier, and now she could hear, to her annoyance, that her relief at having an easy excuse coupled with her natural diffidence made her refusal sound more regretful than she’d intended. Why couldn’t she just tell him no and go away? It wasn’t as if she wanted him to come back, but somehow, she couldn’t seem to find strong decisive words. Why was it so hard to be forceful? For a moment she wished she could be endowed with a bit of Sophia’s easy confidence. She had never had any trouble turning down invitations to dance at the balls; the floors had been strewn with her rejected suitors. But then of course, Melly had no idea how Sophia would have turned Ian down; that, apparently, was something she’d never done.
Melly wasn’t the only one sitting. Many dancers were now content to stay on the sidelines and watch the energetic few left on the floor. Richard and Cheryl had already made their farewells and gone upstairs. Now Rene materialized out of the crowd and drew up one of the little chairs next to Melly’s comfortable seat.
“Look at you, pauvre petite, all worn out already!” he teased, seizing her hand and chafing it vigorously. “Come on, what you need is one more dance with me!”
She protested, laughing, and he turned to Malcolm and Ian, both standing idle near her chair.
“All right, it’s too soon to close up shop, y’all,” he said, fixing the gentlemen with a stern eye. “If you won’t dance, you better drink. Melusine, what’ll you have?”
“Just water, please.”
“Malcolm, you coming?”
“Only to get Melly her water,” Malcolm said with mock solemnity. “I’ve already gone too many rounds with you tonight, Rene.”
Rene appealed to Ian. “You going to let me drink alone, bro? That’s harsh even for a Yankee bastard like Sherman.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Ian.
And drink they did. Over the decorous conversations and the music, snatches of banter and hoots of laughter could be heard from the bar as golden-haired Sherman and the wiry Zouave rebuilt the Union one glass at a time. Ian and Rene in full performance mode were a spectacle not to be missed, and few missed it — one gentleman, whose gray-swathed girth seemed to encompass the entire army of Northern Virginia, even tossed the riotous pair a hefty tip and later congratulated Esther on the entertainment.
“Best floor show I ever saw, ma’am,” he proclaimed. “Whatever you’re paying these boys, they’re worth every penny.”
Esther smiled brilliantly and made vivacious conversation to keep from grinding her teeth.
As the evening wore on even the orchestra had a hard time competing with Rene’s increasingly expansive diatribes when the topic swung around to Carson Winter.
“And then there’s his damn trolleyology,” he argued, pounding the bar and sending a few nice old dames fluttering out of the room, clucking indignantly at Ian’s wink. “All right, he’s got Desmond Tutu and President Obama and Bono on his trolley, and it’s going to hit Julian Assange giving a talk to three hundred school children on the tracks. But if I flip the switch to re-rout the trolley I destroy George Washington’s brain in a vat!”
“George Washington?” Ian was taken aback. “You found George Washington in one of Uncle Carson’s books? That’s kinda traditional for him.”
“I put him in there,” said Rene. “Or maybe it’s Martin Luther King or Gandhi or the Surgeon General… Who cares? It don’t matter much since we’re just making shit up anyway.”
“Boys will be boys,” Alys said to Esther as they peered round the potted palms flanking the reception room entry to check up on the amiable pair holding court.
“Perhaps, but I wish they’d take it some place else,” Esther snapped. The ball, now winding down, had been a vast success (better than last year; everyone said so) but the bitterness of the lost queenship had given her evening’s triumph a sour edge. Now the unpredictability of Ian and Rene at the bar gave her the tight uneasy feeling of a situation about to slip out of her control — a figurative headache exacerbating a literal one.
“But the free alcohol is here,” Alys said, with a smile and a shrug of her pretty shoulders. She felt no need to be her brother’s keeper, particularly when he was keeping himself just fine. “Ian never gets drunk. I only hope Rene can keep up with him.”
Esther was about to issue a cutting retort, but prudence suggested that perhaps it was better to make a scapegoat of someone who wasn’t a paying guest. “I just don’t remember Rene being so boisterous in past years. Why can’t Melly keep him under control? She’s the Stillwater Queen, after all.”
“If only Sophia were here,” Alys said, with a gravely malicious courtesy. “How we all miss her!”
Rene was off to the races now and Ian was along for the ride, leaving in their wake a double line of shot glasses snaking across the glossy wood of the bar.
“But here’s the catch — the guy in the wheelchair had a brain injury, so he can’t fear death! I can throw him at the switch, and even as he’s flying toward the ground he’s thinking about his crawfish boil next Friday, calm as can be!”
“Hey, a crawfish boil sounds relaxing to me,” Ian said.
“You think so, cap? You ever seen Cajuns at a crawfish boil? That’s how he got his brain injury.”
Melly, who had crept over to join Alys behind the palms as soon as Esther had departed, remembered a crawfish boil she’d been to when she was little. Mounds of vivid scarlet crawfish boiled up with Tony Chachere’s seasoning were piled high above her head on tables covered in newsprint. Nestled in among the hundreds of feelers and claws and thousand of legs and the bulging black eyes were cut ears of corn, new potatoes, onions, andouille sausages, halved lemons, and here and there a stiff little flag of a bay leaf rising defiantly from the steaming heaps. Melly had been jostled and hustled by cousins, aunts, uncles, and assorted good-timers to the edge of the table, where she stood, pressed by the laughing, shouting, drinking crowd, eye to eye with a big horrible crawfish. Shifting as best she could, she bumped up against her uncle Earl as she reached for a potato.
“You know the etiquette at a crawfish boil, yeah, pichouette?” he asked her, his eyes twinkling.
With a swift elbow, he shoved her aside and grabbed her potato first.
Now Melly wanted to laugh at the memory, but her fatigue and her corset didn’t seem to want her to do much more than snort gently. Alys turned to look at her.
“I thought you were supposed to be sitting down, milady,” she said. Melly flushed guiltily and felt the familiar unreasonable compulsion to offer an earnest explanation where none was expected.
“I wanted to see what Rene was doing. He sounds like he’s having such a good time.” She wasn’t worried about Rene at the bar; he was never drunk.
“And here I thought you might possibly have wondered where Ian had gotten to.”
A fear, until now only a nagging and murky apprehension, suddenly crystallized in Melly’s mind. Although Alys had frustrated Malcolm with her constant teasing, she had generally been kindly, almost familial, to Melly. She wasn’t teasing with these constant references to Ian; it seemed that she honestly intended to pay a compliment by insinuating that Melly had attracted his attention. The alarming implications of this needed to be worked out more fully when Melly had a quiet moment to think, but as mendacity was not among Alys’s character quirks, it was unlikely that she would try to ingratiate herself by lying about her brother’s affections. Alys thought that Ian liked Melly, and Alys knew her brother about as well as anyone did.
The boys, the only occupants left at the bar, had grown more boisterous with time and fine liquor, and Melly realized that she’d missed some key development. Ian was chortling and slapping a gleeful Rene on the back. The two were in that happy stage of inebriation in which genius and fellowship were magnified.
“I’d love to see you say that to his face!” Ian howled. “No one says that sort of thing to his face. It’d be good for him. It’d be good for me.”
“I’d say it to his face right now!” Rene declared, his formerly lacquered curls now crackling with belligerent energy . “You get me to New York, and I will smite him a philosophical blow with my jawbone of righteousness.”
Several waves of speculation washed across Ian’s expression.
“So if I get you to NY, you’d say it to his face?”
“I’d say it to his face with bows on it!”
“But if I got you to New York, would you say it?” Ian insisted. “Just like you’re saying it now?”
“I speak now with drunken eloquence, cap, but yeah, the phrasing would be similar. I will buy you a case of the best damn bourbon you can name if I don’t say it.”
Ian was triumphant.
“All right. Let’s go. Tonight. Right now.”
There was a pause. Rene passed his hand over his mustache and observed his companion.
“You want to drive to New York tonight?”
“Driving is for suckers, pal. Sports like you and me fly the friendly skies.”
“Okay.” Rene was willing to play along. “You got tickets?”
“Tickets, nothing.” Ian sat with professorial dignity on a stool and elaborately ticked off his points on his fingers. “One, I got a buddy Jim. Two, Jim’s got a private jet. Three, he flew it down to New Orleans this week and hopped a boat out to his oil platform. Four, he said to me, he said, ‘Hey, you wanna fly home sometime this week? The jet’s just parked here and I gotta pay the pilot regardless.’ Five, I’m gonna call up his assistant right now, and we’re Going to New York Tonight.” He prodded Rene in the chest for emphasis.
Rene was almost taken aback.
“Damn, bro, you don’t kid around.”
“Sure.” With a wave, Ian dismissed all kidders . “I just gotta give the pilot a few hours’ notice, roust him out of whatever low rent strip club he’s hanging out at, and we’re good.”
“All right, pull out your phone. I want to see you call this guy.”
“All right, I’m gonna do it.”
“I won’t believe it ’til I see it, bro.”
“I’m calling Jim’s assistant now.”
Melly had been so absorbed in these unexpected developments that a touch on her shoulder made her jump. Malcolm, finally relieved of some of his social duties as son of the house, was right behind her, observing the scene with a weary gravity.
“I get this sinking feeling that I’m two seconds too late to stop something ill-advised,” he said, sighing.
‘On the contrary,” said Alys. “You’re just in time for the grand finale.”
The three of them still hovered conspiratorially behind the palms as Ian took a couple of swipes and jabs at his phone and managed to speak in a remarkably clear and not-exactly-seductive voice.
“Hey Maggie, this is Ian Winter. How are you? Well, I’m all right, too, now that I’m talking to you. Listen, is Jim’s plane still parked down in New Orleans? I’m taking him up on his offer to borrow it for a run up to New York. Yeah, I’m thinking tonight. What time is it? All right, how about 2:30? That gives us a couple hours to sober up, get down there. What for? I got a Cajun philosopher here I’m gonna turn loose on my uncle. I shit you not. Carson won’t know what hurricane hit him. Thanks, babe, you’re the best. What kinda flowers you like? Anything you want — I’ll buy ‘em in New York, after all.”
He hung up and shook his phone at Rene’s mustache.
“We’re flying on a private jet, man. Bring the pocket knife and the booze!”
Rene punched his arm and hurled delighted imprecations at his head. The musicians, packing up their instruments, burst into applause.
“You’re leaving us so soon, gentlemen?” Malcolm asked, stepping from behind the palm. Now seemed like a good time to get involved. “I hope you’re not planning to drive to the airport.”
“We’ll be stone cold sober by the time we need to leave,” said Ian.
“You’ll be stone cold sober in a taxi,” Malcolm corrected.
“All the way to New Orleans?” Finally, Rene was scandalized. “What are we, made of moolah?”
“One of you is.”
“If you drove us, you could come along,” Ian offered. “The city that never sleeps! You know you wanna go.”
“I want to go to bed,” said Malcolm. “But I won’t have you two getting killed on my watch. Your sisters would hate me for life, and I can’t have that. You’re flying free; take the expense out of your airfare budget, boys.”
And then the ball was over, and the gentlemen were gone, and the house was quiet. Melly remembered staying up to see Rene off, despite everyone’s insistence that she get to bed right away. She remembered Malcolm and Alys’s strained parting. She remembered the familiar blast of moist air from her open bedroom windows after the cool of the ball. She could not remember how she got her dress off, exactly, but it involved a great deal of exhausting contortions and possibly a ripped seam. But at last the dress was draped over her chair and the corset neatly folded, and now that she was free from the constraints of the ball and could pore over her memories in the comfort and privacy of her own bed, Melly thought that she’d never spent a more wonderful evening.
And Poe Said...
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