|From The Mysteries of Udolpho|
“I brought food,” Simon said and lowered to his haunches to peer into the darkness.
His uncle’s mass shifted; one hand beckoned. Simon lowered a tray holding a plate of chicken and a glass of wine to the floor. Louis leaned forward, hands scrambling, the bitten fingernails catching at the tray’s edge. The large, placid face, an acreage of stringy hair and uncombed beard, caught the light and retreated. Simon nudged the plate and glass closer with immaculately kept nails.
As his uncle disintegrated, Simon’s grooming habits grew more stringent. In the last year, Simon had adopted black clothes of clean, elegant lines; he kept his hair trimmed, shorter than was fashionable. Few people criticized, especially since his black, polished boots gave him even more height.
From his dark corner, Louis said, “I told you to get her gone.”
“You could always leave.”
“My house!” Louis snarled. “Where’s my solicitor?”
“I sent a message—”
“Liar. She would never let me sign the house away from you anyway.”
Doors banged in his uncle’s face; stairs bucked beneath him until they turned back on themselves; walls shifted too close, blocking his way. Hannah couldn’t bring the house down; Simon was sure she would have already if she could. Nor could she stop his uncle from escaping—a sudden flight through a window, for instance.
Except Hannah also spoke to Louis: unending whispers in the dark, unintelligible to Simon’s ears. She wouldn’t speak to Simon. For three weeks, he’d begged her to respond until he had no voice. As soon as he could speak again, he started over. She never replied.
His uncle heard her all the time. She'd lulled him with innuendo and lewd remarks, Simon guessed from his uncle’s initial complaisance. Meeting Simon in the hall or on the stairs, he would wink and say, “Oh my, I do like your latest trick, boy.”
Simon didn’t know when the talk turned to a litany of his uncle’s failures, weaknesses, and offenses. The first few times, his uncle would have shrugged and chuckled; he took pleasure in his own vices. At some point, he must have flinched, and then she had him.
Yet the man stayed, as if he could outlast her, as if his fundamental character, his lack of moral conscience, was strong enough to stave off her condemnations.
Knowing his uncle’s latest sins, Simon said, “You should never have blackmailed the Wheraly sisters into . . . amusing you.”
“They got to enjoy their trinkets and baubles a little longer.”
“She doesn’t like women being humiliated.”
“I’ll humiliate her!” Louis screeched, not at Simon.
The room filled with murmuring sound, as elusive as smoke to Simon’s ears. It seemed to press the walls, expand them. Louis’s screeches faded to whimpers. Simon left the room, leaned his hands on the banister that overlooked the hall, and breathed deep.
“Leave him be,” he said, knowing she heard him (he felt her attentiveness). “He’s a non-entity, a debaucher of limited talent and access. What does he matter?”
She obviously didn’t agree. She obviously took personally his uncle’s sickening treatment of vulnerable beings.
“Why don’t you punish me?” Simon said.
A gust of air ruffled his hair. Simon was Louis’s heir: heir to his fortune, heir to his house. Perhaps, in the end, Hannah was protecting herself.
* * *
Louis Fulks died four days later. The house was quiet—if one ignored the pulsing tension in the walls—when the doctor came to see the body. He was an Academy doctor. No one else would come.
The doctor stood over the body, shivering in his overcoat.
“Yes, yes. Old age. He drank, didn’t he?” he said rapidly and escaped to the outside stoop. “You plan to hold a funeral in Kingston?”
“No. There’s a family vault outside Tuorme,” near the Lucorey border.
The doctor nodded, unsurprised. “I’ll send a cart to convey the corpse to—”
“Manderley & Sons. I’ll send instructions with the driver.”
The doctor nodded and strode away, gulping in lungs of fresh air. Simon closed the door and mounted both sets of stairs to the solarium.
“Hannah? Please? He’s gone now.”
And still, she wouldn’t respond.
He disposed of his uncle’s corpse, paying Manderley & Sons to transport and inter the body. He assumed they followed through; they were a respectable firm with a good reputation. Truthfully, Simon didn’t care if they dumped the body in the swamp to the south of Kingston. He never verified the interment.
He hired cleaners, a butler, and a cook who came in once a day. The butler lived in although Simon suspected he spent most nights abroad. Simon didn’t care. He understood what his uncle hadn’t: the appearance of respectability kept questioners at bay.
Not everyone took the hint.
* * *
“You’ve got a visitor,” his butler told him off-handedly.
He stood in the solarium’s doorless doorway and watched Simon organize jars of ingredients. He didn’t step into the room; he knew better. He waited until Simon came out before he moved forward to help Simon slide his arms into his coat sleeves.
“Who is it?”
“Somebody from the palace, I think.”
“You should get their names.”
“Maybe I will next time.”
An overdressed courtier with a vaguely familiar face—Timonson, Simon thought—hovered just inside the outside door, teetering on heeled boots.
Simon sighed and nodded. Palace sycophants always insisted on using his title.
“The palace invites you to the Summer Ball in two days time. The king hopes you will not allow mourning—” Timonson looked uncertainly from the butler in normal black to Simon in usual black. “—to prevent your attendance.”
“I am not a regular guest at the king’s banquets.”
“As the new head of your house—”
Simon shook his head. He was his uncle’s financial heir, not the heir to his title; Simon’s title came through his father. But the title was Lucorian in origin, and Roesia’s royals were mindlessly parochial, a fault that the ministers deplored.
Simon never tried to explain. Explanations would lead to shameful confessions. I lived nine years of my life in a den of iniquity for monetary gain.
And for Hannah.
* * *
“I’ll hire a carriage,” Simon told his butler after he accepted the red, fluttering invitation, and Timonson minced away. “You should make the arrangements.”
“You don’t want to walk?”
“I’d end up in a ditch.” On nights when the palace threw extravaganzas—nearly every week now—fancy carriages flooded the streets of Palisades, each one pressing for a better position: reach the Palace, the royal gaze, sooner than another; achieve access to privilege more rapidly.
No real power was involved in these grabs for royal approval. More and more government functions were leaving the palace, adopted and carried out by groups of ministers. The royal family—the king, queen, and numerous cousins—was a closed system of backstabbing and social competition.
The members of that system still exercised social pressure. Simon didn’t want any of them to gaze at him, his house, too closely. The easiest way to avoid attention was to inhabit the woodwork—there but not there. Not a rebel. Not a sycophant. Just furniture.
Something Hannah might understand.