5773/50,000, slightly ahead of schedule.
Richard Spencer sat in his office, staring blindly out the window overlooking the vast emerald field of sugarcane ripening for next month’s harvesting. He had not been prepared for the onslaught of Ian’s enthusiastic plan, and his thoughts refused to muster neatly into efficient ranks. First Rene, then Melly: Ian certainly knew how to provide for his friends. There was nothing wrong with this seamstress job for Melly. It was a promising opportunity for her, better than anything Esther had proposed, and one that took advantage of her impressive sewing skills. There was nothing underhanded about the offer, either. Ian had an actual working production company with industry creditability, the job was his to give, and he had the budget to make Melly independent, which was more than Richard could do for her. Ian had asked for Richard’s help in persuading Melly that this was the right step for her. She didn’t believe in herself. She was scared to take the leap. She needed the support of trusted friends. Ian had expected to find her here already in the office, discussing the prospect with Richard. Surely Richard, who had spent his life in business, could help her see that this was a chance not to be missed, that it could only lead to good things and wider horizons and a real career?
Richard had admitted as much to Ian, and had promised to talk to Melly and lay out the pros and cons of the job. He acknowledged the rightness of Ian’s arguments in the current silence of the office, and he was irritated with himself that his gut response was to reject the whole idea out of hand as ludicrous and entirely unfeasible. Of course this was the right step for Melly. Anyone ought to be delighted to have such a good chance land in her lap, especially in this job market. There was no reason for him to feel so empty at the thought of Melly not at Stillwater but up north in a big city — in New York, the most northern of northern cities. Shy Melly, who hated unfamiliarity, who was terrified of leaving home. Of course she was terrified! What opportunities had he given her to stretch herself over the past five years? Esther was right. He still sheltered Melly like a child instead of encouraging her to face the hard decisions of maturity. Even now, he realized he was waiting for her to come to him, to ask his advice, to depend on him to make this big decision for her.
He forced down his selfish desire to keep their quiet, cozy life at Stillwater intact — Melly, Cheryl, himself, and often Malcolm, living in perfect harmony together — and went with a heavy heart to persuade Melly to do the right thing against his better judgment.
It seemed to Melly that she was to be spared nothing that day; even the retreat of her bedroom was not inviolate. Why did people have to knock all day when every little sound ricocheted around her skull? Talking to Ian had sucked most of the energy out of her body, and what little was left was being sweated out of her.
“Come in,” she said, not bothering to get up and open the door. It creaked open, and to her surprise, there was Richard, a great believer in privacy, who had never set foot in her room or even in the back corridor in all Melly’s five years in the house.
“Hello, Melly,” he said. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, but I wondered if I could come in and talk to you.”
“Yes, of course,” she said automatically, though she knew why he was there and would rather have sucked lemons than be required to give reasonable answers at this moment.
Richard took a step into the room and turned to close the door, but was arrested by the heat.
“My goodness, Melly, it’s too hot in here,” he said. “Let’s shut the windows and put on the air conditioner.”
She raised her head a fraction of an inch from her pillow, then let it flop back down, too tired to be evasive. “I don’t have one.”
“What, is it broken? How long is it going to take to be repaired?” He glanced toward the windows, then looked more carefully at them. “Where does it usually go?”
“It doesn’t go anywhere.”
Richard paused on his way to the window. “What do you mean? I know this room never had ductwork for the central air, but surely you’ve had an air conditioner in here all this time.”
“No.” Melly shrugged with the fatalism of one accustomed to the lowest place.
Though Richard’s eyes were turned toward her, his focus had shifted to some cold and distant place.
“Esther told me that she had taken care of everything,” he said quietly, speaking past Melly. “Those were her words: ‘I’ll take care of everything.’ And I did not arrange anything personally because I believed that our definitions of ‘everything’ were similar enough to cover all the bases, and because it was her project, and because I trusted her.”
And now he was angry. He had flattered himself that he’d been helping Melly, but instead he’d housed a sick girl for five years in a sweltering room. He had never paid enough attention to the outside of the library wing to notice that there was no air conditioner in her window, because it was inconceivable that he, Richard Spencer, business owner, manager, head of household, father, could be so negligent. What the hell had Esther been thinking? What the hell had he been thinking? It couldn’t possibly be worse for Melly to be providing for herself in New York than to be left to the tender mercies of life at Stillwater.
“Well, Melly,” he said, placing himself in a chair in the corner of the room and trying to smile, “this is a good job offer you’re wanting to turn down.”
The leaden lump of Melly’s courage sunk lower under the weight of Richard’s suddenly hard features. She shrank from losing his approval, of being friendless and alone in the house again. If he was already upset with her, how could she possibly explain why she couldn’t take Ian’s job offer? And if Richard was against her, would Malcolm understand? She thought he would, she hoped he would, and the thought of leaving him was so painful as to bolster her resolve never to go to New York City and never to have any more to do with Ian Winter if she could possibly help it.
“I don’t think Ian really means it,” she said.
“Means it?” said Richard. “He’s overflowing with meaning it. I’ve never seen anyone so eager to get started on a project.”
“He’s eager now.“ Melly could grant that. “But I don’t think he’ll stay that way when he sees that I can’t do what he wants.”
“Of course you can do it. You have a lot of talent, and this job is perfect for you.”
“But I’m not perfect for it.”
“Life isn’t perfect. People fail sometimes. That’s a risk that adults take. But it’s wrong not even to try. Don’t dismiss this out of hand. It’s a tough job market out there, Melly. People are fighting for every available position, and even so, I know how hard it is to find good people. Believe me, as an employer, I would be ecstatic to have a such a good candidate. You’re a hard worker, everyone knows that. You get things done. You don’t complain. I don’t know anything about needlework, but Ian seems to, and he tells me that you do some of the finest work he’s seen. Don’t you enjoy sewing?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Then you’re lucky. Not many people get to work at a job they love. Most workers just slog along, doing what they can to make ends meet or bring in a few extra dollars. You have a chance to get paid for doing what you love.”
“I don’t care about the money.”
“Don’t you? That’s easy to say when you don’t support yourself.” Richard hadn’t intended to be so harsh, but he seemed to be standing outside himself dismayed at the sound of his own voice, cringing as his criticism sliced into Melly’s fragile defenses to sever her ties to home. “What about the day when you’re out on your own? What happens when you want to move on from Stillwater?”
“I don’t want to move on. I don’t want to go to New York. I want to stay here, where I belong.”
Richard’s resolve nearly broke at the sight of Melly hunched in a ball of misery, picking her tissue to shreds. He wanted to relent, to tell her that everything would be fine and that he would take care of her like a daughter forever, but the oppressive heat of the room reminded him how ineffectual he’d been at that up to now.
“What is there here for you at Stillwater, Melly? Ian can give you chances I can’t. Look, I’ve done all that I can for Rene, but in one week Ian has managed to surpass me.”
“No!” Melly said as emphatically as she could with a clogged nose. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Richard turned away to brush a fly off the window screen. “This job is better than anything I could find for you here. I’d be delighted to have this chance for my own children, and I’m ashamed to say that most of them aren’t responsible enough or talented enough to even get this kind of offer. Dick is two steps away from jail and Sophia too self-absorbed to work with others and Malcolm too hesitant to take any risk and Olivia too lazy to try.”
For a moment the jagged silence was broken only by Melly snuffling into a fresh tissue. Richard steeled himself for the next round, willing himself to wring some ambition out of her.
“Ian said you’d promised to think about it, so think about it now. Take this job. It suits you. It pays well. It has upward mobility. It’s creative. It won’t push you beyond what your body can handle. And Ian respects you.”
Melly struggled to piece together enough words in her heavy head to say anything, let alone debate Richard’s authority. “I don’t think he respects anything. I don’t… I don’t like him.”
“Does that matter?” Richard was relentlessly rational. “He doesn’t want to be your best friend. He wants to give you a job. Most people don’t like their bosses. I think the suits at American Cane are morons personally, but I can’t deny that they know the sugar business inside and out. The question is, do you trust Ian when it comes to movies and costumes?"
Melly squirmed and hesitated. She knew she was sounding silly and immature, and she longed to make Richard understand her reservations about Ian. If only he was his usual kindly self, she might have been able to stammer through her suspicions of Ian’s motivations. But she couldn’t read his new cold remote manner, and since most of her evidence against Ian also involved tattling on Sophia to a father who’d just confessed his own sense of failure, that line of explanation seemed closed to her. She nudged as close to the truth as her embarrassment would allow. “I don’t trust him at all. I can’t… He makes me uncomfortable. He’s just fooling around. Tomorrow it probably won’t even matter to him.”
“You know that? You can read his mind?” Richard was no monster, and normally Melly’s admission that Ian made her uncomfortable would have raised all kinds of red flags, as a father and a gentleman and an annual attendee of the American Cane mandatory sexual harassment sensitivity class, but her breakneck mumbling was barely audible. He could only understand that she thought Ian was having some kind of joke on her. “You really think he’s concocted a scam movie project on your account?”
“No. Not exactly.”
He paced across the small room. “I wouldn’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do, Melly. You’re an adult now. If you don’t want to work for Ian, that’s fine. You must have reasons which seem convincing to you. But you need to remember that your decisions have consequences that affect more people than just yourself. You’ll need to make some clear explanation to Ian, because he seems to think that you were on the verge of accepting. You’ll need to be able to express a bit more clearly to him than to me why he’s wrong about you and about himself. And you shouldn’t be at all surprised if people think you’re acting irresponsibly. This is a lot of good fortune to be turned down so quickly on a whim, against reason, against advice, and I can think of a few people who’ll be a good deal less than sympathetic about it.”
A choking sound cut him off. He turned to the bed to see Melly, her strength finally worn down with heat and sickness and sorrow, heaving great wretched sobs into her quilt as if it were a handkerchief.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to say after a moment. “I’m sorry. Maybe I’m just being stupid. I wish I could make myself believe that any of this would be the right choice for me. I wish I could be happy and grateful and make you proud and make Stillwater proud.”
This outpouring of misery finally softened Richard’s unhappy heart. Sick of himself and his detestable mission, he sat on the side of the bed and smoothed her hair with awkward strokes.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said at last. “I spoke too strongly, especially today when you’re sick. I am proud of you, Melly, and if I pushed you too hard just now it’s because I know you’re capable of more than you believe you are.”
Her shoulders shook more violently.
“Hush now. Hush now. It’ll be okay. If you don’t like the job, you don’t have to take it. We won’t even discuss it any more.”
As he opened the door to leave, he could just discern, from within the depths of the quilt, a muffled “thank you”.
After her initial tearful whirlwind had blown itself out, Melly tried to gather up the tumbled pieces of the day. She was such a tangled mass of emotions and motivations that sorting herself out was a knotty challenge. She knew what she didn’t want. She didn’t want Richard to be angry at her. She didn’t want to leave Stillwater. She didn’t want to work for Ian, that was for sure; she didn’t want to be anywhere near him and his slick words and his strange unwarranted confidence. She certainly didn’t want to hear Alys talk about Malcolm. She didn’t want Malcolm to be infatuated with Alys anymore. She didn’t want Esther to scold and boss and dominate her anymore.
All these things she didn’t want out of life. She was always avoiding, always deferring and hiding and staving off conflict, always trying to fade into the background enough to escape comment. No wonder Richard was surprised that she wouldn’t even consider a job with Ian, beyond the fact that she’d made a complete hash of trying to tell him about Ian’s character. He’d never seen her resisting anyone’s plans for her before.
What did she want?
This was even more difficult to unravel. She grabbed at ideas floating through her mind: Grace. Fortitude. Malcolm. Stillwater. Permanence. Love. Success and happiness for Rene. Ian had put this last within reach, and she would be grateful to him for that, even if he was completely unprincipled and manipulative in every other respect. She didn’t think she could achieve the rest of her deepest desires by relying solely on her own feeble efforts and she doubted that she could magically make herself more assertive — she had read somewhere that in a relationship, it was a mistake to try to force the other person to grow a new personality, and she thought that probably applied to making changes to herself as well — but maybe knowing what she did want in life would brace her mind as much as Stillwater itself had braced her body.
She settled back down on her hot pillow. As her fingers closed on the familiar beads underneath it she realized that her cry had cleared her head enough that she could breathe again.
Richard stood in the red and blue light of the stair hall and looked up at the stained glass window. He’d seen Melly sitting there many times over the years. Before he had assumed she just loved the light. Now he realized that often she must have been escaping from her oven of a room, trying to find any quiet cool spot to rest. Five years, and she’d never said anything, too meek to criticize, too cowed to speak up for herself against what had seemed to be more design than oversight.
She had never said anything to him, and he took it as a judgment on himself. How forbidding must he seem! How cold and miserly! That any child should find him so inaccessible or any member of his household be so unwilling to confide in him! Were there other things he had missed over the years, conflicts and dramas playing out under his nose while he was off on his lofty heights, oblivious to life below?
Into this reverie strode Esther in high dudgeon, pushing through the swinging door from the gallery. She pulled up short at the odd sight of Richard in apparent meditation in the middle of the stair hall.
“Well, I didn’t think I’d find you here, but I’m glad. I need to talk to you. I just ran into Ian…”
“Did you?” said Richard, turning to eye her with malevolent deliberation. “Why don’t you tell me all about it in your office?”
Esther launched into her diatribe as she settled herself at her desk. Richard was appalled to realize that had just made a number of her same arguments to Melly not moments ago, and he listened with increasing disgust as she recited her catalogue of indignation. She could read between the lines of Ian’s optimism. Melly was riding an awfully high horse to think she could turn down job offers left and right. Who on earth did she think she was? Of course there was no question of letting Melly refuse this, but if she was going to be so independent about everything, maybe it was time she had a little taste of the real world. Let her go back to her family and see how it was to have to support herself on some low-level dead-end bottom-feeding job, and maybe she’d think better of rejecting the generosity of friends. She’d had it too easy, living comfortably on the largess of Stillwater all these years…
“Rather like you, actually,” said Richard.
Esther stared. “What?”
“You live comfortably here, don’t you? Rent-free, expense-free, and with a generous salary, which is more than Melly’s ever had.”
“I work here! My job is to manage the estate and the Fellowship…"
“Manage, yes, With very little oversight or accountability. A pretty comfortable life, wouldn’t you say? Not much of the “real world” about it, do you think?”
Esther drew herself up. “If you have issues with my work, let’s schedule a meeting to discuss it, but right now we’re talking about Melly…”
“No, we’re not. We’re not talking about Melly now or ever more. She’s actually no longer any concern of yours. She lives here by my permission, not yours, and she’s not answerable to you for anything she does.” Richard leaned across her desk and stared hard into Esther’s frozen face. “Do you want to manage? Then manage. If the estate and the Fellowship are so little work that you need to interfere in Melly’s life as well, perhaps your job needs rethinking. Run the historical society fuss. Run the Fellowship fund. But in my house you don’t run Melly, and you don’t tell me what do with her. Leave her future alone. Assuming there’s any planning that she can’t do for herself, I’ll do it, not you. Do I make myself clear?”
Esther emitted a croak that might have been a yes and Richard, done with the interview, left her sitting speechless in what remained of the security of her office.