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Corcitura, Chapter 1, Beggars at the Gate

“Call me Penniless!”
       Oh, yes, Eric, that’s lovely. And what are you going to say next? Which way to the Pequod?
       I flung Moby Dick aside. Obviously, there was nothing between the covers of that book that I could lift and modify to suit my purposes. Maybe if I’d read more than the first five pages, I’d feel differently, but that kind of logic was neither here nor there.
       Time for round two. I grabbed one of the other novels I’d strewn across my bed. I hoped I’d have better luck with this one.
       “A grand tour won’t be a grand tour unless we’ve got gobs of money to spend.” Hmm…a bit patronizing, that. Thanks for nothing, Louisa, I thought, tossing Little Women across the room. This filching of famous first lines had seemed like a fabulous idea when I’d thought of it two hours ago, but I could see that it was getting me nowhere fast.
       Deflated, I reached for the last novel, my final hope for inspiration. Ah, yes, here we were. Jane wouldn’t let me down. I could never go wrong with her. “Ahem…It is a truth youthfully acknowledged that a young lad in possession of little to no fortune should want infinitely more than the lot he’s got. I know I’ve never given either of you any particular reason to trust me with even five quid, but let’s put that unfortunate past history behind us, shall we? After all, you must spend a little to reap great rewards, right? Well, that being said, Mother, Roddy…how about you extend to me those three hundred pounds?”
       Botheration! Not even plagiarizing Jane Austen was going to get me what I was after. That tack was all wrong. Roddy was like clay; he needed to be pummeled till I got him into the right shape—the giving shape, which would take some work, since he’d always treated me more like a poor relation to be tolerated than a stepson.
       I swung the mirror back up and straightened my necktie, then thought better of it and mussed the cloth till it hung at a suitably dissolute angle. There was no need to look modish when I was about to go begging. I was deluding myself if I thought this was going to be easy. Even after practicing for months, the approach was still lacking, and I’d run out of ideas. I had no idea how we were going to convince our parents to give us the money, yet we had already gone too far to quit now.
       Seven months ago, Stefan Ratliff, my closest friend since childhood, had hit upon the scheme of using a grand tour as a cover for our own exploits. Educational pursuits were fine for the average man, but we two saw this as an opportunity to indulge in as many extravagances as possible as we tramped from one capital of Europe to the next. It would be a final lark before we said farewell to youth and became men of the world that fall, at which time Stefan and I would both become inmates at Oxford.
       Only now did I realize that Stefan had somehow passed the baton to me without my knowing it, putting the onus on me to prove the soundness of this venture to our parents. I was the one who had to do the coaxing. I was the one who would be offered up as the proverbial sacrificial lamb. Imagine having to tell Roddy that this grand tour was the best idea since the Reform Act of 1867. No wonder Stefan balked. Still, it was a rum trick if there ever was one. I’d make sure to get back at Stefan soon, once we were underway and far from home, of course. There’d be no sense in murdering him outright, not with all the scandal it would cause in the papers. I’d wait till we reached Paris, then do away with him in the Tuileries Gardens and blame the murder on the ghost of Robespierre.
       So cheered, I sat down on the edge of the bed and mulled over my misfortune. I wasn’t as preoccupied with getting my parents’ consent to travel abroad as I was with convincing them to lend me capital. Money had always been my chief problem.
       My association with Roderick Caldwell had begun ten years ago when my mother, Laura, took it into her head to marry the man. What possessed her to make such a hash of our lives, I will never know, but there was no denying that Old Roddy was well loved and loved just as ardently in return, where Mother was concerned at least. The picture of connubial bliss would have summed them up nicely. Roddy was a fine catch and Mother was the belle of her set, although a widow, but he was willing to overlook this trifling detail. If you were to poll the citizenry, the results would show that Sir Roderick Caldwell was an upstanding citizen, a model husband, and adored by all.
       Quite a lot of rot, that, but it wasn’t for the “fly in the ointment,” namely me, to say at the time. I was only eight years old and my job was to be neither seen nor heard, except when I was trotted out on special occasions to do my stepfather credit.
       There were times throughout the last decade when I had often wondered if Charles Dickens had used Roddy as the model for Ebenezer Scrooge, but I suppose, if I were pressed to admit it, that I was being too hard on the old man. He was generous to a fault with his own causes, but when it came to me, he suffered from what one might call extreme tightfistedness. Yet Roddy was by no means suffering from want. There was the house in Mayfair I shared with Mother and him, for instance, that was certainly not a hovel, and then there was his little villa in the South of France, not to mention the pension in Corfu, though he claimed that really was more of a business investment. Ha ha, it is to laugh.
       Still, none of this mattered when The Stepson reared his head. I remember once asking Roddy for tuppence to buy some Turkish Delight and receiving instead a lecture on the wastefulness of the English youth in today’s modern world. Not quite what the average school-age boy wants to hear when he asks Papa for some lolly to buy a sweetie.
       Things hadn’t changed much over the last few years. Though Roddy grew a shred fonder of me, he kept my allowance to a rather bare minimum, based on his opinion that I was a wastrel and would most assuredly spend his “hard earned” wealth on drink and depravity. I suppose he was still sore about the tuppence incident. His was an entirely baseless surmise, mind you, but, since he was Mother’s and my only means of survival, I was forced to bite my lip and keep trudging through life on two bob a week.
       Try as we might, though, the prospect of embarking on a grand tour was something Stefan and I were unwilling to give up without exhausting every option. Today was already the twelfth of June, and the time was ripe for us to seize our chance, carpe diem and all that palaver. We could no longer afford to keep putting the scheme off. I knew that if we were to have any hope at all of setting out before month’s end, we would have to act this very night, which was why we were planning to wine and dine The Older Set (on Stefan’s allowance, of course) that evening at the Café Royal.
       After the second course, I would rise from my seat, raise my glass in toast, and spout forth a torrent of arguments so convincing that by the time I had ceased and earned a round of thunderous applause, Roddy would fall to his knees and beg me to take the money off his hands. Maybe I was putting a little too much faith in my oratorical skills, but one must be optimistic. Besides, if I ever hoped to make it to those hallowed halls of Parliament one day, I could hope for no better person to practice on than the one-man Inquisition that was Roderick Caldwell. Compared to my stepfather, Torquemada was a cream puff.
       The clock on the landing read a quarter to eleven by the time I made my way downstairs. I was mentally re-rehearsing my arguments for the thousandth time and was so absorbed in my thoughts that I didn’t realize Stefan and our parents had already gathered until I was nearly halfway into the drawing room.
       I glanced at Stefan. He looked like a lit Roman Candle, his shock of red hair swept up into a Brutus style that had died out of fashion more than sixty years ago. I had a mad urge to grab the fireplace poker and jab him in the ribs. Anything to get him to show some emotion. His face was unreadable, so that I wasn’t sure if we were winning or had already been soundly defeated. The fact that he was avoiding my eyes didn’t do anything to calm my nerves, either.
       All four of our parents were silent. Mr. Ratliff was leaning over his tented fingers. Mrs. Ratliff idly stirred her tea. Mother sat up much too straight in her chair, and Roddy, well, Roddy was worst of all. He was standing with his back to the hearth. His eyebrows were raised, his eyes fixed on a water stain on the ceiling. I knew that look. And I knew what would happen if I didn’t do something to keep him from travelling down that moral highroad he was so fond of traversing.
       So I did the only natural thing. I started blubbering like an imbecile. “I, for one, think it would be a grave error in judgment to deny us this opportunity. Lord knows we are mature enough!” I piped up, my voice sounding like the squeal of a baby who has just been tipped out of its pram. “Think of the good this journey would do myself and Stefan. Why, we would come back practically self-sufficient men of the world, ready to take London by storm!”
       All their faces still wore that vacant expression, although Mrs. Ratliff’s showed the most signs of life. She’d always liked me, I thought, so I ran to her first, divested her of her teacup, and shoved my hands into hers. “After all, we are the future of England, and let it never be said that the British were not magnanimous when it came to expanding the cultural and educational horizons of their youth.”
       Nothing had gone according to plan, but I was certain I had presented my points well…or as well as could be expected, given the circumstances. To my horror, Mrs. Ratliff began to laugh. It started out as a little melodious chuckle, one I had grown accustomed to hearing over the years, then burgeoned into something very near a guffaw. I looked around the room and saw that not only did Mr. Ratliff and my mother share in her mirth, but wonder of wonders, Roddy was laughing, too! This was indeed a day for firsts.
       “Mrs. Ratliff, I…”
       “Eric, you fool, please. Less is more.” The relief in Stefan’s voice made me suddenly hopeful. My brow furrowed in confusion as I looked at him, for he began to laugh, too. Why the devil was he laughing if all our plans had crumbled around our ears? I knew then that we had won, but our victory had been attained through no efforts of my own. Rather, it had been secured before I had even entered the room. And I had been a complete and utter fool to worry.
       “Oh, Eric, dear,” Mrs. Ratliff said, patting my hand. “I think this idea of a grand tour is marvelous. And I am so pleased that you and Stefan will be expanding your tour to include Romania, my homeland.”
       “Don’t forget Austria-Hungary, Mother,” Stefan chimed in, giving me a wink. This little extension of his was news to me. I began to wonder what else Stefan had promised our parents in order to get his way.
       “Of course, my love. Eric,” she said, rising.
       “Ye…Yes, Mrs. Ratliff?” I responded, rather groggily. I was still stunned by the sudden turn of events.
       “Your parents and Mr. Ratliff and I have been conferring, and we all believe that you and Stefan would benefit greatly from this grand tour. We will make all the necessary preparations for the two of you to set out on the twenty-first of this month.”
       I stared at the woman, and it would not be a falsehood to say that I gaped, for this news was beyond wonderful. How long I stood in this manner I cannot say, but when my mother brought me back to consciousness, it seemed as though I had been gone for at least half the day.
       “Close your mouth, you fool,” she whispered in my ear. I did as told and presently found that she had placed a small blue envelope in my hands. “This is from Roderick,” she said, looking intently at the little parcel, “please try to spend it responsibly. Lord knows it’s probably the most you’ll ever get out of the old skinflint.”
       She motioned for me to put the envelope away in my waistcoat pocket, then returned to her seat. But I couldn’t resist the urge to see just how generous Papa Caldwell had been. I slid my fingers beneath the lip and pulled out a stack of bills, which, after a quick, discreet count, I realized totaled four hundred pounds! It was an exorbitant sum. Obviously, that blasted pension must have been a much more profitable investment than I had given Roddy credit for.
       I fingered the bills, counting them again to be sure. My heart pounded faster as I ticked them off one by one, but I had not been mistaken.
       This generosity was beyond anything I had ever dared to hope for. I was not even expecting a hundred quid from the old blister and had resigned myself to being the “poor relation” of our duo, living off Stefan’s wealth for the duration of the tour, but old Roddy had come through in the end in a way I never thought possible. Gone was my resentment over the Turkish Delight. Nothing could mar my opinion of him in that beatific moment, not even the thought that he might be giving me such a large sum of money in the hopes that I would be suspected of robbing the Bank of England and end up getting locked away in some foreign jail. No, I would not countenance such evil notions. Roddy had changed—he was human after all.
       I stuffed the bills back into the envelope and looked upon Roddy in open adoration. Such unaccustomed attention from his stepson must have made the old coot uncomfortable, for he began to fidget and look behind him as if he thought my adoring gaze was meant for the clock above the mantelpiece.
       “My dear, dear father,” I said, clasping my hands about his. What was the world coming to? Not twenty minutes before I had been lamenting ever crossing paths with this gentleman of sterling character. Eric Bradburry, you’ve been a fool. I continued to shake Roddy heartily, all the while chuntering on about his generosity in a stream of words that I’m certain made absolutely no sense to his ears, much less my own.
       “All right, all right,” he said, extricating himself from my hold. “That’s enough of that. It is my sincere hope that you will use this money wisely and not waste it on frivolity.”
       “You need have no fear of that, Roderick,” I replied, in what I hoped was a sincere, man-of-the-world tone of voice.
       A chuckle from Stefan’s corner brought me to my senses. I cocked an eyebrow at my coconspirator. And that’s when I heard Roddy clear his throat.
       Oh, Lord. I knew that sound did not bode well for us. He must have uncovered a flaw, a chink in the armor. One word from him and our entire scheme would be shot to Hades.
       Ever since his brilliant success that morning, I had come to think of Stefan as a second Wellington at Waterloo, so it was unfathomable to me to even entertain the notion that he had not taken into consideration every objection my stepfather could possibly make. I was puzzling over just what these objections might be, when Roddy began to speak.
       “There is one thing that gives me pause, though. The absence of guides. Now, I could arrange…”
       “Oh, of course we will have guides, Mr. Caldwell!”
       Guides?! Since when had Stefan arranged for us to have guides?! Another shock like this and I would have to be taken to hospital. He knew full well we intended to take up with whatever local cicerone we could find, and that only when necessary. After all, going it alone was half the adventure, until the language barrier made guides a must. In truth, though, I doubted we would need the guides. My smattering of languages, not to mention my trusty Baedeker travel guide, would see us through France and Italy just fine, and Stefan’s native knowledge of Romanian would allow us to journey through the Eastern European countries as easily as if we had been locals. I was about to protest this plan, until I caught the warning glance Stefan shot my way.
       “Yes,” he continued, turning his attention to Roddy. “I took it upon myself to contact Father’s associates in each country, and they assured me that we will have guides waiting at our beck and call the minute we set foot on foreign soil. There is no need to worry about anything.”
       The speech was a little too confident and a trifle cloying, but it served its purpose.
       “Well, then,” Roddy said. He looked at my mother in bewilderment, then seemed to realize the futility of objecting any further. His shoulders sagged a bit, but he recovered himself before anyone else had a chance to notice this momentary display of defeat. “I suppose all that is left to say is Godspeed.”
       “Godspeed!” Stefan and I answered simultaneously. If our smiles could have been any broader at that moment, I believe our faces would have split in two. I slapped Stefan on the back, still unable to believe we had won.
       “How in the world did you pull it off?” I asked. “And since when did we decide to go to Eastern Europe?”
       He nodded toward the doorway and motioned for me to be silent until our parents had left the room.
       “That, my dear boy,” he replied, his eyes gleaming in triumph, “was the key. You know money was never a problem, my parents being millionaires and all. The real trouble was convincing them it was a sound venture. And that’s where good old Eastern Europe came in. I knew my mother would be absolutely giddy if she knew we were going to visit the country where she and I were both born. So I just happened to mention that we were thinking about stopping over in Romania for a day or two. And there you have it. Simple, really, don’t you think?”
       It must have been my day to gape like an idiot, for that was what I was reduced to once more. I stared at Stefan, his face triumphant, then burst out laughing.
       “Bravo, lad, bravo! A stroke of genius! Now, if I may make a suggestion? Let’s stop standing here congratulating ourselves and start packing for this grand tour!” And with that, I shoved him into the hallway and left him to his own devices. I still had a lot to work out before I could relax. I’d never been as cavalier as Stefan about life changing events. My head was still spinning from everything that had happened. It was so impossible to believe we had succeeded. But as I began taking the clothes out of my wardrobe, the truth finally sunk in.
       In nine more days, Stefan and I would set out on the grandest adventure of our lives.

*

On the twenty-first of June, Stefan and I stood on the deck of the Erinyes, the ship that would guide us away from Dover and across the Channel. Our parents were somewhere down on the quay amongst the throng who had gathered to see us off. I peered down into the crowd, searching for their familiar faces, but all I could distinguish were dozens of arms waving handkerchiefs and flags.
       Stefan was about ready to burst from anticipation. He had given up looking for our parents long ago and was instead gazing across the opposite side of the ship toward where the coast of France was waiting to meet us. I smiled as I looked at him. I knew what he was feeling. It was a giddy sensation, setting out on your own for the first time. Here we were, Eric Bradburry and Stefan Ratliff, two intrepid young Englishmen ready for whatever life had in store.
       “Finally free. And about time, too.”
       “Sorry?” I asked.
       “I thought we’d never get away from them.”
       “That’s not like you,” I said. He’d looked nothing like his usual, jovial self when he’d said that.
       “Maybe it is and you just never knew it.”
       “What an odd thing to say,” I ended up saying to his back, since he’d turned and seemed to have forgotten I was there. Bother Stefan; he was being enigmatic again. He’d been acting like this a lot lately. I didn’t know why, but it unnerved me. Still, there was nothing I could do about it, and frankly, I didn’t want to. I was too excited to care about his changeable moods at that moment.
       A thundering blare erupted from the smokestack above us. I leaned over the rail and saw the gangplank being drawn up. My heart thudded against my chest. Now it was my turn to feel as though I would burst.
       “This is it!” I shouted above the din to no one in particular. “Paris awaits!”

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