11. Foreshocks

Tereus wakes gradually. The light seems wrong. It’s afternoon or evening, or a storm has rolled in and obscured the sun. He feels so fucking miserably ill that it takes him a moment to appreciate that he’s not in jail, and though the skin is broken on the knuckles of both hands, he’s not covered in his own blood or anyone else’s.

He pisses, takes a shit, and pukes unenthusiastically, to little effect. This reminds him that he hasn’t contrived to choke on his own vomit. Good. Apparently his servants aren’t entirely useless. 

He smokes a cigarette, which feels both horrible and necessary, and starts to think that perhaps he’d better have some coffee. He rings for his valet, who brings him hot water and soap. He cleans up, and still feels vile. Why not? The dirt is on the inside.

It’s almost teatime. He considers going down, but lacks the effrontery to face Valeria and Lucius, if they should be there. By breakfast tomorrow, he’ll be able to act as if nothing happened. And perhaps nothing has.

He smokes another cigarette.

He’s pretty sure he hurt Lavinia somehow — knocked her around or forced himself on her. He’s left marks on three previous occasions; this has a similar feel. For now, physical illness far outweighs shame and remorse. That will change.

He’d forgotten how it feels to be so very badly hung over. There’s no question of dressing and starting his day, whatever that might mean. Eating is unthinkable. He can’t read, or even pursue a coherent train of thought. It’s like he’s three days into a bad case of influenza. He can’t relieve his misery; he just has to tolerate it somehow. This helplessness feels beneficial, calming. It precludes remorse about what he’s done to others. His energies are focused on recovering from the injury he’s done to himself.

His valet returns to retrieve the coffee urn, and informs him that their noble houseguests left shortly before noon. Cleanup from the ball is largely complete, and the servants are enjoying their scheduled half-day off. His wife, brother and sister-in-law are walking about the grounds; dinner will be served in an hour.

The prospect of an hour in the company of food, family and footmen is unendurable, so Tereus excuses himself with a note. 

It’s strange, really. He knows he lost his temper last night. At least, that’s how it feels. Nothing else could account for the serenity underlying his physical misery. It seems that nothing has changed. After a strong earthquake, there’s a period of relief, then one thinks, The building’s still standing. No one is dead. Was that just a foreshock?

He drinks a glass or two of gin — distasteful, but necessary — and sinks into oblivion soon thereafter.

His valet wakes him early the following morning.

“Sir, Lady Sieia is missing. No one has seen her since the night of the ball.”

It takes Tereus a moment to realize the man is talking about his 12-year-old daughter. He wisely brought coffee along with the news. Tereus sits up to drink it. It’s an hour or two after daybreak. “What happened?”

“She didn’t eat her breakfast in the schoolroom. No one thought much of that, but when her governess tried to find her to begin lessons, she noticed that her bed wasn’t slept in last night.”

“Very well. Bring the governess up in 15 minutes. Does Lady Shelawn know?”

“No. Her governess spoke to me, and it seemed best to determine the facts first.”

Tereus questions the servants one by one. Once he strips away their speculation and justifications, the story is simple: Her nurse brought Lady Sieia dinner in the schoolroom the night of the ball. She spent some time in Lavinia’s dressing room late that night, apparently in fulfillment of a promise to see her mother’s dress and jewels. The chambermaid tidied her room yesterday morning, and it hasn’t been touched since. None of her clothes or toys are missing. No one can say when she left, or why. 

Through all of these interviews, Lavinia has remained in her bedchamber, presumably asleep. It is still quite early. Tereus summons the butler, instructs him to form search parties. He wakens Lavinia and delivers the news, allows her to whimper about it for awhile, then leaves her in the care of her dresser. By this time, Lucius and Valeria have come down for breakfast. He asks Valeria to bear her sister company while the search goes on.

The two brothers sit in the library, and take occasional reports from the butler. At one point Lucius asks, “Aren’t you worried?”

“Not tremendously,” says Tereus. “She’s 12, and in the schoolroom. She’s too old to fall in a pond and drown, and too young to elope or book passage on a ship. If she were 15, I’d be very worried indeed. She was in a passion for some reason, and ran away, just like you and I used to do.”

“I’d forgotten about that.”

“Really? I thought of it immediately. A boy would have done it sooner. She’ll be found hiding in a park or square, chilled and feeding a pigeon a piece of bread she filched from the kitchen.”

Lucius looks at his brother thoughtfully. He’s right, of course. It’s just strange that a man who’s capable of erupting into Vesuvian rage over a dirty wineglass would regard the loss of his daughter with equanimity.

She’s found halfway through the day, hiding in Green Park, just like Tereus predicted. He lectures the nurse and governess sternly, saying, “Once children get it into their heads to run away, it can easily become a habit. You need to know where Lady Sieia is at all times. What provisions do you have for half-days and holidays?”

“She’s a good girl, and knows to play in the schoolroom,” says Nurse. “If she needs anything, she’ll ask one of the footmen.” She glances up slyly to see if she’s given offense.

“Fabius, eh?” She nods. “He found her and brought her home, didn’t he? It’s all very touching, but it won’t do. He’s not paid to watch her. He probably spends his half-days smoking in the alley and screwing scullery maids. In the future, you will leave her in the care of a female servant, and notify her mother and the housekeeper who is responsible for her whereabouts.”

The mild crisis is resolved. Shelawn House has not collapsed like the House of Usher. Soon thereafter, Lucius is offered a position that’s disappointing, but not positively insulting; his mentor advises him to take it. He and Valeria find lodgings nearby, and settle into quiet domesticity.

In April, the main temblor hits.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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