49. The Usual High Cost of Blood and Treasure

Soundtrack and Video: Adam Ant, “Shakin’ All Over,” Live 2011

Once breakfast is over, there are further delights in store for Tereus. This is the day when he and Marcus go through a ritual where Tereus pretends to have an independent opinion about estate matters, and to ratify or veto Marcus’s decisions. Every week Tereus resolves to apply himself to the questions raised, to consider the options carefully, and to exercise his own judgment. Like his attempts to seduce his wife, this resolve quickly dies in a welter of boredom, ambiguity and frustration.

Marcus has set up an office separate from the library, since the latter is reserved for Tereus’ use. The Shelawns employ two agents, both Arahir cousins: Red-headed, bespectacled, moist, pimple-studded. Tereus can’t tell them apart and has never learned their names, so he thinks of them as Thing 1 and Thing 2. He and Marcus sit in a small, windowless room while one of the Things presents a range of options for farm equipment maintenance. As always, Tereus marvels that this ugly, smart, plodding creature shares genetic material with Lavinia. She must have been the postman’s daughter. At the end of the presentation, he concurs with Marcus’s tentative conclusion, though he feels the whole fucking thing could be settled in five minutes by going to the barn and looking at the harrow or bailer or whatever hay-processing implement is in question.

Marcus politely invites him to sit in on the next round of meetings. Tereus says, No, he thinks he’ll ride out and look at the fencing. He doesn’t say that he’ll avoid the barn, because if he sees actual haying equipment, he’ll be grief-stricken over how they just wasted two hours of their lives.

A groom has Copenhagen saddled and bridled, thank fucking God. As he mounts up and rides off, Tereus parses this week’s episode of Estate Management Theater.

No one who spends a few moments with Marcus and Tereus would deny that Tereus is more intellectually gifted than his son. He rose quickly through the ranks because he could assimilate and master details, and come to a decision quickly. He has a thorough understanding of everything that bears on military operations: weather and climate, geography, culture, language, manufacturing processes, the source and supply of raw materials and recruits. During his time in the Army, he sought information tirelessly, poring over the quartermaster’s accounts, quizzing vendors who supplied uniforms and ammunition. If he was seated at dinner next to the mother of a junior officer, he would charm her and come away with an intimate perspective on her son’s abilities, attitudes, aspirations and shortcomings. Somehow, he built this mass of detail into a working model of the military situation, which allowed him to make swift, accurate decisions. He was accustomed to receiving immediate feedback — victory or defeat, at a cost that was sustainable or excessive — and moving on to the next engagement.

The timeline of the estate is much longer: Crops thrive or fail, interest accrues in various accounts, capital purchases depreciate and can be replaced on a prioritized schedule. Marcus’ intellect and temperament are suited to estate management. He’s calm, patient and dutiful, and willing to revisit tiresome questions repeatedly. Naturally, Tereus experiences his approach as slow and plodding. Marcus isn’t indecisive, but he spends weeks considering decisions that Tereus would make immediately, and ponders factors that Tereus would dismiss as inconsequential.

Tereus could probably run the estate successfully alone, but he can’t share its management with Marcus. In the early months of Tereus’s retirement, when an issue would surface, Marcus would order one of his agents to research it and provide a report so that he and Tereus could debate it in the comfort of the estate office. Tereus would ride out to take a look, make a decision on the spot, and dictate orders to whichever hapless agent he managed to drag along. Without quite meaning to, Tereus countermanded existing orders, disrupted schedules and priorities, undermined Marcus’s authority, divided the staff, and nearly drove his reserved and tactful son off the estate in despair. After an unpleasant confrontation over roof repairs, Tereus realized that their management styles were incompatible, and that he would have to push Marcus out or step back.

He decided to step back. By that time, Marcus had been managing the estate profitably for years. He’d put together a staff and processes that suited him. Tereus privately doubted his own ability to maintain interest in the estate’s dreary legal and political challenges. He didn’t want to push Marcus into the kind of idle, destructive life he led as a young man. Marcus wouldn’t fill his time as Tereus did, with a downward spiral of debauchery and criminal violence. He would marry a suitable young woman, start filling his nursery, and either seek a diplomatic posting or move to Australia and make an independent fortune that he could manage however he liked. On the whole, however, Tereus preferred to have him focus his energies on the fortune he’ll inherit, in the city that will be his home.

Tereus acted generously, and did it silently, without discussing his conclusions with Marcus or anyone else. He’s regretted it ever since. When he favored Marcus’ claims over his own, he was forgetting that Marcus is well-equipped to deal with idleness and boredom. If anyone’s going to raise hell and cause scandal, it’s Tereus. Indeed, viewed objectively his career has been a string of crimes and scandals interrupted by successful military campaigns. He’s learned nothing with age. He wants to fight and fuck and get drunk as much as he ever did. Without absorbing and meaningful work, he spends every hour of every day trying not to fuck shit up out of sheer boredom.

Tereus rides hard for more than an hour, and these thoughts occupy him much of the way. He notices little of the countryside, and reaches no fresh conclusion. He’s reminded of a ritual exchange he and his staff developed and refined during his last campaign.

It started, as so many things did, at the end of a long night of drinking. Tullius suddenly delivered a long, slurred, urgent account of how Athens won the Peloponnesian wars, only to collapse politically and economically under the weight of endless military campaigns.

When Tullius finally fell silent, Tereus asked, “Tullius, is there an action for me here?”

Tullius shook his head, drained his glass, and said, “It’s just a fucking pity and a waste, that’s all.”

“Thank you for your contribution,” said Tereus, his usual sweet tenor blurred with drink, “I shall consider it carefully, and go on to make war as we always have, at the usual high cost of blood and treasure.”  As they poured out the next round, Tereus added, “Lock up that man’s copy of Thucydides — he’s in no fucking condition to read military history.”

Over time, the exchange took on a life of its own, and was repeated with variations every time they received an irrelevant, naive or pointless briefing. As midday approaches and he returns home for lunch, Tereus asks himself, Is there an action for me here? No? Then I  shall continue to live as I always have, at the usual high cost of blood and treasure.

When he reaches the stables, he shouts for a groom and gets no response. He feels a surge of irritation — he pays half-a-dozen grooms and a coachman, any one of whom should be able to rub Copenhagen down and stable him. After a time, he shrugs, dismounts, prepares to stable the horse himself. He’s done it in the field countless times.

He finds the grooming tools without difficulty — at least the stables are clean and well-organized — then removes Copenhagen’s tack, rubs him down, brushes him from nose to tail and mane to hooves. He sees a half-dozen little signs that Copenhagen’s not getting enough exercise. His coat is shiny and he’s well-muscled, but he’s restless and too high in flesh. Tereus will have to talk to James about which of the grooms can be trusted to exercise him. Despite this, it satisfies him to care for his charger. It’s a pleasure to reacquaint himself with every little mark and peculiarity; he’s reminded of how perfectly the horse suits him. Copenhagen lashes out at strangers, but he’s always obeyed Tereus seamlessly. On even the longest days, he’s never reached the bottom of Copenhagen’s endurance.

He stables Copenhagen, feeds him. He’s not in the habit of talking to his mounts, but he does spend extra time with him, stroking his nose and shining chestnut flanks.

He takes the saddle and bridle to the tack room. It is curious that the stables should be empty at midday. He’ll have to look into that. He has to go to the very back wall to stow the saddle and hang up the bridle. As he does, he hears a scuttling, and sees a tiny figure moving.

Tereus has no word for Fabius. It’s too painful to think of him by name, or as his son, or even as a boy or child. To Tereus, Fabius is a creature — a disgusting and pathetic one.

This — creature — has been rousted from its corner of the tack room, and is slipping along the wall. Perversely, Tereus retreats to block the door. The creature slides back into its corner. Tereus forces himself to look at it, tells himself, “You bred this thing. You made it. It’s yours.” He feels real pain and disgust. Marcus is soft, dull, an accountant with Shelawn coloring and height. But this thing….

It is tiny: Short, thin, awkward, pale, perpetually startled and afraid. Now that it’s back in its corner, it turns its face to the wall, presses its forehead against the wood planks. It’s waiting for him to leave, eyes squeezed shut, pretending he can’t see it. Its skinny limbs are contorted with some emotion — fear? hatred? — and he can see its ribs heaving and its throat working. Tereus knows it doesn’t speak or understand others. He’s been told that. If it were a horse, he would know how to calm it.

He’s revolted by this uncanny, barely elvish thing. Its mother at least had some dignity. How old is it? Five years? Six? That seems impossible. It’s not just that it doesn’t listen or speak — it doesn’t know how to sit or stand or move properly.

As he looks at this creature, his son, Tereus feels the full weight of his curse. It can’t be sent to boarding school or apprenticed or hired out. It can’t be expected to leave. He had hoped initially that it would die with the wet nurse, or at the orphanage, or even here. He’s always expected to get word that it has. Looking at it, he realizes that though it’s not a normal child — not at all — it’s physically healthy. In the natural course of things, it will grow to adulthood on the estate.

The estate runs smoothly with no effort from Tereus. His wife is a vain, shallow beauty. His son is quietly competent, and avoids him at every opportunity. News arrives from the battlefield of victories won without him. No one has dared to accuse him to his face, but the surrounding gentry have withdrawn to a safe distance. All outward, formal relationships are intact, but he and his family are essentially friendless and isolated. It will be difficult for Marcus to marry respectably. This — thing — is not going anywhere. It lives here. It’s his for life, and elvish lives are measured in centuries.

Tereus turns, leaves the stables, walks back through the gardens, into the house. Lunch will be served within the hour. He will sit at the head of the table and eat it in the presence of his wife and heir and servants. There’s no one to rage at. He’s never cried in his life, and he won’t start now. He’s numb, choked.

The cost has not changed. He wonders how long he can continue to pay it.

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