Behind on word count, alas, but these extended periods at the computer are making my legs and ankles swell up in a less than pretty fashion.
Later that afternoon, Melly heard one more knock on her door, and there was Richard again, struggling with a hefty box.
“The workmen can’t make it out here until next week to run the ductwork into this room, so here’s a window unit to keep things livable until then.”
“You didn’t have to get an air conditioner for one week!” said Melly.
“Well, it’s here now, so I hope you’ll use it,” said Richard as he cut open the box.
Melly reflected as she lay listening to the sounds of installation. Here was Richard putting in her air conditioner himself when there was so much work to be done with the harvest fast approaching, and here she was stuck in bed, doing nothing. Admittedly, she was sick, but she was on the road to recovery, and if one of her goals was to stay here at Stillwater, she needed to make sure that there was a reason for her to be there. But what could she do? Sure, she could hem a pair of trousers or alter a dress or sew couture ball gowns, but what good was that to the business of the place? Perhaps Esther was right: Melly was simply a child around the place. She didn’t pull her weight. She wasn’t useful.
Well, she’d better be ready to counter Esther’s disgust when she heard about Melly turning down Ian’s offer. She’d better have a strategy. She’d… she’d learn the sugar business! She would be Richard’s right hand woman, ready with the facts and figures and the futures and the weather report. And she’d be free, so that was pretty useful for the budget. All this would mean that she’d need to improve her imperfect — okay, non-existent — knowledge of sugar production, but that work too would prove that she was serious about her role at Stillwater. Finally she’d earn her keep and be acknowledged as a full member of the household.
Richard broke into her reverie as he was leaving to say, “By the way, I’ve told Esther that this job offer has nothing to do with her, and that she doesn’t have any say about it. If she brings it up to you, feel free to tell her to mind her own business.”
Alone, in the new and delicious cool of her transformed room, Melly wept fresh tears of gratitude and vowed that she would make sure that no one (with the exception of Esther, maybe) would have any reason to regret that she’d stayed at Stillwater.
When Malcolm came home from the school that evening, Richard met him at the door to give him an account of the day’s happenings before he could hear the angry version from Esther, the confident version from Ian, or the snuffly version from Melly. Malcolm agreed fully that there was probably no less congenial place for Melly to live than New York City, but to Richard’s surprise he thought there was a lot more merit in the suggestion than either Richard or Melly would have allowed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It might do Melly some good to be off on her own.”
“You want her to leave?”
“No, I don’t. But she doesn’t seem to believe that she’s capable of much or that she can stand on her own two feet, and maybe that’s the result of being treated for years as the youngest and weakest here.”
“Melly is as adamant as I’ve ever seen her be about anything that she can’t do this job and that Ian is just making fun of her by making the offer.”
“Ian’s problem is that he’s too enthusiastic about any project he’s starting. He dives right in thinking that his personality is a drug and everyone he meets is an addict. You can get away with that approach with Rene, because goodness knows he’s a bit like that himself, but it’s never going to work with Melly. You can’t expect to win her over by springing your jack-in-the-box surprise plans on her. Maybe if Ian had started leading up to the idea of working in New York six months ago he would have gotten somewhere this afternoon. ”
“But she’s more than ready to go along with any Rene proposes.”
“Well, of course. She’s known him for twenty years. And maybe twenty years from now Ian will be able to bulldoze Melly into any project he likes, but not unless he can pull it back a bit now. I really can’t see her ever accepting, but if he’s so convinced that his project can’t do without her, he might do better if he could convince her that’s he’s really serious not just about this offer, but about life in general. I could step over to the cottage and mention it to him.”
Malcolm failed in the main object of his visit, which was to catch a glimpse of Alys — she didn’t come downstairs at all — but he found Ian a willing audience, ready to hear any advice about the best approach to Melly. He was all the more urgent because it was beginning to look like he would need to get back to New York sooner rather than later to start the whole process, which he explained it in great and technical detail, rolling. Malcolm, who didn’t understand half of the steps involved and was finding the suspense of Alys’s non-appearance wreaking havoc on his ability to pay attention to the account of what a sausage factory the modern cinematic process had turned into, suggested that they go over to sit and have a beer at the big house. Ian, who had his own hopes of seeing the beloved, was game.
In the family room they found Richard, Cheryl, and, to Ian’s delight, the recovering Melly. It was a peaceful scene: Richard, off in a corner, was indulging in a spy novel and every so often casting bemused glances at Melly struggling diligently to absorb the information in the latest issue of The Sweet Spot, the industry publication of American Cane. Cheryl, tucked in a recliner, was reading her bible, her lips silently moving with the rhythms of King James’s English, so familiar from her childhood. She looked up when Ian complimented the intensity of her attention.
“I’m not much of a reader,” she admitted. “I’d always rather listen to a book. I just get more out of it that way. Pugsy and I are listening now to Chicken Soup for the Doggy Soul. Sometimes I ask Melly to read to me, but she’s not feeling up to it tonight.”
“I’d be happy to read it to you,” said Ian. “Where would you like me to start?”
Cheryl flipped through the pages and handed him her bible. “This is my favorite.”
Ian scanned down the page, sat up straight, and began to read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”
Melly had intended to pay no attention to this revolting turn toward piety, but she had forgotten that Ian was a trained actor and that when he chose to exert himself, he could make his voice a thing of beauty. The passage was one she’d read aloud herself, but never with such skill or power. As determined as she was to ignore him, the pages of sugar production tables lay abandoned in her lap as Ian gave life to the elegant poetry of the evangelist. She was rapt, held in thrall by the fascination of Word and voice mingling in a tide of creative energy, drawing fresh meaning and nuances from phrases she’d thought she’d known by heart.
Ian read four chapters, then laid the bible down and smiled at Melly, who instantly turned away, the spell broken. Cheryl dabbed at her eyes.
“That was just wonderful, honey,” she declared. “You sound like you were raised up on good preaching. Did you ever read at church?”
“I haven’t, no,” said Ian. “But it all sounds almost familiar. I guess it’s hard not to know bits and pieces of the Bible if you have any kind of education. I’d heard about water turning into wine before, but I never knew where the reference came from.”
“You’d never read that chapter before?” asked Malcolm.
“No, that was a cold reading. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever read the bible in my life. It’s very Zen — I like it.”
“Well, you sounded like you’d practiced it for years. You should try reading it again.”
“Maybe I will from now on,” said Ian, glancing toward Melly. “But I can’t imagine sticking with it for long. I would read it as long as it seemed beautiful or inspiring or cultural, or as long as I could get some shock value out of it, because I guarantee none of my friends in New York have held a bible in their hot little hands, but then one day I’d realize that all that poetry was telling me that I was living a bad life and needed to change my ways, and I’d bail and let it gather dust on my shelf. Or not gather dust, if it had a pretty cover.”
A skeptical murmur was heard behind the raised pages of The Sweet Spot.
“What?” said Ian, leaning over the back of the couch to look over Melly’s shoulder at the glossy four-color process graphs and charts.
“Nothing,” she said, sorry to have been so obvious about paying attention to anything Ian said tonight.
“You can’t just say nothing. You think I’m wrong about something, and you’re over here scoffing at me, and I want to know why.”
“No you don’t,” said Melly, bending over her pages. “It seems more like you want to tease and joke than have a serious discussion of anything.”
“There you’re wrong. I want very much to know why you disapprove of me and how I can change that.” He whisked the magazine from her hands.
Melly sighed. “It’s really nothing. Please give that back. I’m reading it.”
“But you weren’t reading a moment ago. You were listening, and objecting. Why? Because I was being flip about the bible?”
“Because I said I’d let it get dusty? It is against your religion to let the bible get dusty? I’m asking seriously.”
“Because,” she said, stung at last to criticism, “I thought that it was the first time I’d heard you say anything so self-aware.”
With that she clammed up, apparently consumed with the greatest interest in last year’s sugar yield. Ian would have been glad to tease more out of her, but after another moment of his questions she picked up her magazine and bid everyone good night.
Malcolm, the only one who’d been sitting near enough to hear the low tones of the discussion, raised his eyebrows and wondered when he’d ever heard Melly stand up for herself like that. Perhaps going away wouldn’t be so bad for her after all, but Ian would need a good deal of persistence if he was going convince the disinterested Melly of that. Still, Ian must have been firm in his convictions about her fitness; although Malcolm was a great admirer of Melly’s many good qualities, he himself wouldn’t have given a second interview to a candidate so clearly averse to the job.
Ian’s aims were deeper than Malcolm knew, but he wasn’t discouraged in the least by Melly’s manner. How boring, how ordinary it would be if she gave in all at once! But she was anything but ordinary. She was exquisite, and he meant to have her. Ian’s appetites had always been more passionate than sensitive, and as he’d always had good luck in stirring up echoing passion in women before, it was almost impossible for him to imagine that he could not make Melly love him whether she wanted to or not. Indeed, her resistance gave his pursuit the frisson of novelty. And now he was in a race against time before he needed to get back to New York. Although he sighed at the thought of leaving her, even for the short time before she’d surely be joining him, he began counting out the days left for seduction.
It was a stretch to say that Richard had put the fear of God into Esther — indeed, their religious conceptions were different enough that they wouldn’t have agreed on what the “fear of God” was, anyway — but she did follow his instructions to the letter: she stopped talking to Melly. She did not actually ignore Melly’s existence, but she was haughty and coldly deferential and withdrew in a pointed fashion whenever Melly entered a room. Melly didn’t mind in the least: this was a small price to pay for the benefit of not having to listen to Esther’s scolding. She rather wished Esther would have given her the silent treatment years ago. Richard kept an eye on them both, and was increasingly satisfied by what he saw.