Tomorrow or the next day I'll post an afterward, with discussion of the Oh-So-Secret Source, but I've been writing this for two years, and the past 10 hours, and now I am going to bed.
Now began a time of comfort for the years the locust had eaten.
Richard was the first to mark the change. Malcolm flew up to Dallas for a whirlwind visit on Sunday, the day after the successful, if scaled-down, Christmas Fete at Stillwater. The last time his parents had seen him was at Thanksgiving, right after Sophia’s scandal broke over them. Two weeks ago he had been gaunt and stooped with care. Now a weight had been lifted from his soul. He smiled and joked with Dick without the slightest hint of pedantry. He did not merely tolerate his mother; he respected her. To Richard he gave the greatest balm a father can have: that of seeing his children truly happy. This was the first solace.
A graveness clung to Malcolm as he told Richard about his trip to New York, but it was a graveness of reflection, not of mourning. And he was full of the news of the week: how Melly had appeared like an angel and given the house tour from memory; how Melly had sorted through Esther’s documents and seemed to know exactly what they all meant; how Melly had managed the caterer and the florist and the chair rentals, and had managed to come in under Esther’s budget. Leonie featured in these stories too. Leonie had been indefatigable, and could accomplish through innate management skill and sheer force of personality what Melly could through years of understudying Esther. But for the most part it was Melly. Melly and Leonie had taken over their family’s old cottage. Someone at the Fete had asked Melly about the Stillwater Fellowship, and she had said, firmly, that the Fellowship was vacant. Melly had bought a car with her scholarship money; now he could finally finish teaching her to drive. Richard delighted to hear Melly this and Melly that, and he delighted in the miracle, only now sinking in, of Esther gone for good and Melly home for good. This was the second solace.
Dick, who had sunk into a melancholy, unrelieved even by the news that he might be able to quit Dallas by Christmas, could feel the warmth that Malcolm brought from Stillwater, and he wanted to draw it to himself. He tried a small jest, remarkable only for its lack of vulgarity, and was overcome by how merrily it was received. Richard saw the two of them, laughing together as brothers should laugh: this was the third solace.
There would still be sorrows in store, of course. Chris Dalton moved on, even to the extent of inviting the Spencers to his wedding to Hazelwood’s first female groundskeeper, but Sophia resolutely refused contact with her family. She seemed eager to shut out any reminders of her great humiliation at the hands of the American public, and that exclusion extended to those who did not love her as well as her Aunt Esther did: her father and mother, her brothers and sister. Richard could occasionally get news of her through Esther’s lawyer, but Sophia seemed to feel that the main way to obliterate the indignity of the past was to cut every tie that bound you to it.
That evening, Malcolm was back at Stillwater, almost drunk with exhaustion. It was an unseasonably warm evening, and he and Melly sat in the dim gallery with the windows open to the breeze and the cloud-filtered moonlight and the rustle of the still-leafy branches of the live oaks. Nature was in a muggy state of expectation; Melly was fit to burst. She had barely spoken to Malcolm all week, except on business; the zaniness of the Fete prep had allowed for very little private or personal conversation. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, had been a mess of logistics and re-direction; Saturday had been the Fete itself; Sunday he was gone to Dallas first thing, and he had said nothing to her about Alys all week, except that he’d been to New York last weekend. Malcolm was not naturally reserved, and he wasn’t a good secret-keeper, but his unusual pitch of spirits combined with no news one way or the other alarmed Melly. He must have worked it out with Alys, and he didn’t want to tell her yet. Maybe they’d gotten engaged. Why would he hide his engagement? She beat off various speculations until she was almost mad. But on Sunday night they sat in a sympathy of fatigue, and looked out over the stubble of the cane fields, and Malcolm told her how he had broken with Alys.
Melly listened unobtrusively, letting him pour out his conflicting feelings of disillusionment and pity and relief and guilt at feeling relieved. She ached for his weariness of body and soul. After being buoyed through a hectic week by his initial relief at Melly’s homecoming, Malcolm was crashing hard. Reality was sinking in: Alys was gone, Alys on whom his hopes and dreams and desires had been fixed for the better part of a year. His dogged trek down the wrong path was over, and now he was free to choose rightly. But the freedom wasn’t the same as the choice. Alys’s last barb had hit its mark and left him unsure of his way forward. He wasn’t even sure any more that he should be going forward.
“I nearly went back to her,” he said. “Maybe if I’d just tried harder, if I’d given it one more shot, I could have broken through her walls. But what if she’s right? Maybe I did make a mistake in leaving the seminary, and this is how I have to learn the hard way.”
“No,” Melly soothed. “Don’t start second-guessing yourself tonight. It’s late, you’re tired, everything looks bleak. You need to give yourself some time.”
“Time! That’s all I’ve done, is take my time, and in the end I was still deceived. But you knew about Alys right away, didn’t you? And you always knew about Ian too. How are you always right about everything, Melly?” he cried, his voice thick through his hands covering his face. “Tell me what I should do next. I don’t know any more.”
Melly sat very still next to him, her own breath catching in the sudden hush of the night. She yearned to comfort him, to stroke his hair or his neck. Every nerve in her body resonated with a new, daring conviction that at this moment Malcolm was hers for the taking. There was no obstacle between them any more. Alys had occupied his heart, but now she was gone, and it was swept clean, empty and unsecured, ready for her to march in and take possession. He was too vulnerable to reject her. All she had to do was reach out her hand and he would fall into her arms. That was what she had wanted for so long, wasn’t it? It was hers if she could just make her move.
A fresh rush of wind pushed the clouds past the moon, flooding silver light through the tall paned windows and casting a lattice of crossed shadows over Malcolm’s back. Her move. What a cold and predatory sound those words had, a manipulative, calculating, reboundish sound. Was this how she was going to prove her undying love for him? His friendship with her had been founded on kindness, right back to the day he’d helped her down the attic stairs. What kindness was she about to perform here, forcing this intimacy when he was too battered with grief to resist? Sure, she could justify herself with pretty fantasies about the future of such a relationship — and chances were that it would work out just fine; she and Malcolm were well-suited to one another; there was no reason that they shouldn’t be happy together — but even these seemingly harmless scriptings were another way of treating Malcolm as a figure to be controlled and posed. In reality, in the present, she knew that no matter the odds of future success, she must not start a life together with Malcolm in this way, with this action.
She set her eyes straight ahead to avoid being tempted by the appealingly vulnerable droop of his shoulders, and with an effort that wrenched her heart, she stood up and closed the windows against the first hard flecks of rain.
“How can I know your vocation if you don’t?” she said to the writhing branches outside. “And you wouldn’t really want me to make that decision for you, in the end.”
Then she did turn to him and hold out her hands.
“Come and eat something,” she said briskly. “You never had dinner, and everything looks hopeless when you’re hungry.”
He sighed, but he let her pull him up. “How appallingly practical you are. Food never healed a broken heart.”
She marched him down the hall double-time to escape the temptation to patch up his broken heart right then. “You, sir, have obviously never been to a Cajun family party.”
Dick was indeed back for Christmas, and the occasion inspired some rearrangement of the house. Despite the convenience of the elevator , it was deemed most practical to put him on the first floor, in the old housekeeper’s rooms behind the kitchen, which had been Richard’s office. This meant that Richard finally moved back into the owner’s office that Esther had inhabited for so long, and all Esther’s things were moved down the back hall into Melly’s old bedroom behind the library.
“And that’s fitting,” said Richard, “because Esther’s job will go to Melly and no one else.”
The absence of Esther Davis marked an epoch in Richard’s life. At his darkest moment, the suffocating burden of her ambition, a burden which he had willingly taken on years ago to spare himself the hassle of managing his own legacy, was lifted off his back. And in a brilliant stroke of grace the house had not just been emptied of the management, but was filled once again with his legacy: his natural children and the children of his charity. At dinnertime he looked down the table and saw sons and daughters once more, the brothers living for once in a kind of harmony, and the sisters bringing fresh life to the place. Richard had not thought that he could be more pleased to have Melly home, but her sister showed off whole new facets of her. Leonie took after Rene’s side of the family, of course, but not being Melly’s older brother, she didn’t command quite the same puppy-dog devotion as he did. It was a revelation to hear Melly bantering with Leonie, but then, Leonie was a catalyst for revelations. Melly was a smooth blue pond, still and deep; Leonie was the whole damn Mississippi. She busted up Dick, and challenged Cheryl, and they respected her. She debated with Richard as if she didn’t find him the least bit forbidding, and the novelty of this made him wonder when he had taught his natural daughters to be so unnaturally reserved in his presence. Melly had been a quiet steady light in the house all these years, but Richard was beginning to think that they also could have benefitted all around from Leonie’s bluntness.
Richard had reason to rejoice not just in Melly and Leonie, but in the third child of his charity, Rene. Ever resourceful, he had seized the opportunity of Carson Winter’s morning show scandal to send the producers a video of himself in full Rene mode refuting Winter’s claims about marriage. The producers, knowing when they had good entertainment on their hands, aired it, launching Rene into internet fame. He started his own blog and Youtube channel, and NPR did a feature on his most-viewed episode, “Pillow Talk: From The Symposium to Sartre and Simone Beauvoir”. A book deal followed, and Richard was amazed and gratified to find, when he opened the cover of the autographed copy Rene sent him, that the book was dedicated “To Richard Spencer and the Stillwater Fellowship, for being the first to pay me to philosophize elsewhere.” And of course, Melly’s renunciation of the Fellowship was not the death knell for the scholarship. Richard made the obvious next choice of a non-Spencer Stillwater resident and sent Leonie up to St. Mary’s College in the fall, where she studied Business Administration with a minor in Experimental Psychology, or, as she described it, “messing with people’s heads”.
Richard could never quite dismiss the feeling that he’d failed his oldest daughter, but he did have the happiness of seeing Dick and Olivia growing closer to their family again. Suffering had taught Dick patience, and it had taught him introspection, and in the process of healing he built both his physical and his spiritual strength. He began to be dependable and trustworthy, and could refrain from making the first obnoxious comment that passed through his mind. No amount of mental rejuvenation, however, could change him from being Dick, or quash his fondness for gross-out comedies, or always suppress his instinct to tell, at the least provocation, a salacious joke.
Olivia always felt that Joao Acevedo had saved her from being drawn too far into Ian’s dangerous charms, and Joao, in his turn, always claimed that Ian had chosen the least attractive of the sisters. Despite the bumpiness of their impulsive beginnings, their life in Brazil was happy enough. She’d had little enough in her life to prepare her for the accelerated maturity demanded by an unexpected pregnancy, but she was lucky enough, she liked to say, that her child had the best father, and now the best country, in the world. Joao’s aunts and cousins and sisters gave her a crash course in the care and feeding of babies, and she had all the support which the baby’s doting American grandmother could buy. And when tiny Barbara made her grand entrance, she surprised her mother by the fierce protective love she inspired with the first gleam of her black eye, and she surpassed even Cheryl’s proud expectations for the adorability of her very own grandbaby.
Ian Winter came to despise every reminder of the notoriety which his morning show fiasco won for him. Each tawdry attention reflected the cheapening of his brand: interview offers from the National Enquirer, an invitation to appear on The Bachelor, any number of propositions from thrill seekers and social whores. He could afford to separate himself for a time from the scene of his humiliation, though he didn’t choose to go so far as Tibet, and during this retreat he spent many bitter hours replaying the moments that led to the loss of Melly.
Even he could immediately understand how she would be repelled by a man who’d occasioned a divorce, but as he began to take steps backward, each incident seemed to have been preventable if he had rejected the step before: he would not have fled with Sophia if they had not been caught on the morning show, but they would not have been caught if they had not gone in the first place, but they would not have gone if they hadn’t been so fucking crazy, but would not have been so fucking crazy if he had not tried to put her in her place at that party he should never have attended. And the chain did not stop there. He began to see that each action in his life had been a decision point, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and that each poor decision on his part had led to a gradually coarsening judgment. How far back could he trace this? To his uncle’s influence? But as he examined each link in the chain of his life, he could see past the influence of Carson Winter to times when he’d followed his uncle’s example against the faint internal warnings of… of conscience, maybe. How would it have affected him to have done what he knew to be right rather that what was expedient, or fun, or gratifying, or easy?
What if, for example, he had not tried to seduce Melly? Would she have respected him enough to be friends? But then, she had always mistrusted him because of the way he’d flirted with the engaged Sophia. But what if, from the moment he’d come to Stillwater, he had always made the choice that she would approve of? It was harder to stay honest tracing an imaginary chain forward than tracing an actual chain back, but he made a serious attempt. What if he had not pursued Sophia in New York? What if he had kept to his plan of winning Melly’s approval? What if he had won her love? What if he had married her? What if he had continued day after day influenced by her goodness? Through the rents that pierced the haziness of this hypothetical future, Ian could catch glimpses and snatches of a strange, luminous existence, one in which he did not live primarily for himself, one in which goodness was to be sought and achieved with the intensity that he’d reserved for pursuing his curiosities, his pleasures, his ultimately unfulfilling schemes. This existence, this new way of happiness, attracted Ian more than a little. It frightened him too by its contrast to his own life so far, and it repulsed him with the increasingly persistent demand that his life would need to turn in a radical way to approach it. But Melly had impressed a desire for this happiness on his soul, and from this point on every road he followed seemed to twist him around and force him to confront it from new and startling angles.
Like her brother, Alys was haunted by the idea that there was a whole way of life that hovered just beyond every idea of relationship she’d ever had, a way somehow marked by Malcolm Spencer’s repressive religious attitudes. Her Park Slope friends had plenty of experience in helping a girl to get over her heartache, but Malcolm’s language of giving and receiving and begging and not using began to take hold in her brain and forced her to reevaluate her every action and interaction, day after day after day. By that time she had grown so weary of her own vanity, her own ambitions, her own friends and loves and disappointments that she was ready to be open to the next instance of true kindness she encountered, to try and make sense of Malcolm’s model of love. But it was long before she could forgive him for rejecting her, and longer still before she could realize that she had never been rejected.
Malcolm had not rejected Alys. He knew that she did not understand him, and he knew that he could not marry her, but he did not reject her. He cradled her memory in his heart, and felt and treasured its sting. But love that is not constantly nourished turns, not to coldness, but to indifference, and even a well-tended memory fades to sepia in time. Malcolm’s memory of Alys was suspended by a single strand of sentiment, with no similarity of mind, spirit, heart, or culture to bind it tighter. As the lure of Alys grew weaker and weaker, there was no way, and no reason, for him for him to resist the very attractive, very compatible, very real presence of Melly.
Every love is unique, but Malcolm Spencer falling in love was a Malcolm afflicted with a profound lack of originality. His thoughts were a perfect phrasebook of the sincerest cliches. It was incredible, but he didn’t even know when he first knew. It made so much sense, he wondered that he’d never thought of her before. They had been friends for so long. They had always been close. He could tell her anything. She was good and sweet and amazing and wonderful, and absolutely gorgeous. Why hadn’t he noticed this before? Had she always looked like this? Why had he thought that Alys was more beautiful than Melly? Blue eyes were all right in their way, if you liked that sort of thing, but only hazel eyes were worthy of being Melly’s eyes, etc. Malcolm had never been a hasty man in matters of the heart, but all the groundwork of loving Melly had been in place for years. Once the idea took hold, there was no obstacle to check its rapid progress. Indeed, all he wanted was the most natural moment to tell her every wonderful thing about herself and to present his case as clearly and persuasively as he could.
When that moment did present itself, Melly was sitting in her favorite place, on the spiral staircase leaning on the sill of the stained-glass window, her chin cupped in her hand. The red and blue light illuminated her hair and her cheeks as she gazed out, wrapped in the mystery of her thoughts. Malcolm, stumbling upon this perfect moment unprepared, steeled his spirit. This was the conversation he had never been able to have with Alys. But surely it couldn’t be so hard to talk to Melly. It never had been, before. He would go up, and sit next to her, and just lay the whole thing out.
She turned her head to him as he stood hesitating with his hand on the bannister and his foot on the first step, and she smiled at him, a clear open welcoming smile that transfigured her face beyond mere beauty into loveliness. He found himself halfway to her before he realized that he had not worked out what exactly he was going to say. At the far side of the window he halted and looked through a red pane, searching for just the right language to clothe his love. It was crucial to tell her everything, to persuade her of how right it was that they should be together, how wonderfully suited they were to one another, how perfect she was, how little he deserved her but how impossible it was not to speak. This was a good time, a reasonable time, a prudent time to speak. His every future happiness depended on his having the strength to speak.
She was there beside him, quiet and all-consuming, and he took a deep breath and prepared to declare himself.
“Melly,” he said, but somehow the melty little flecks of color in her eyes, green and golden and brown, stole away of all his eloquence.
“Melly,” he whispered. And her face was suddenly alight with hope, and her smile could no longer hide the whole delightful and astonishing truth, and she reached out her hand and touched his.
And though the reader may be assured that at a later time every word was exchanged that needed to be exchanged, for once Malcolm Spencer found that no words were necessary.
In the fall, John Spencer’s portrait presided over the drawing room as it had done for many a Stillwater Ball over the years, and Lavinia Spencer’s calm face looked out once more over a man in formal dress sweeping a lady in a gown across the dance floor. But this event was too select to be a Ball, and too joyful to be a society affair. It was a blessed convergence of genealogy, the moment when Mr and Mrs Spencer watched from the walls and Mr and Mrs Spencer sat together in little gilt chairs with a black-eyed baby snuggled between them as Mr and Mrs Spencer waltzed for the first time. It was the strengthening of the main house for one more generation, the foundation of a house yet to be built, and the gracious, extravagant, unmerited recompense for the old sinner’s one act of charity.