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Lingua Franca

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I suppose the traditional advice when travelling is that it is always advantageous to travel light. Lord Byron, however, was not a man with a taste for tradition. (Or advice.)

"I must apologize, Hobhouse," he shouted at me from the part of the dock nearest the side of the boat. "I had no idea I'd packed so many valises!"

I leaned against the barrel I had been resting on for the last twenty minutes and watched Byron resume haranguing his servants as they unloaded our seemingly endless supply of luggage, piece by piece, onto Portuguese soil. He was right to apologize to me, as most of the suitcases were his, but I did feel a twinge of shame as I counted the tenth bag of mine to leave the boat. Our plans for a tour of the continent were lengthy ones--I would accompany Byron through the Mediterranean for at least a year, while he would continue on to Turkey afterwards. Still, there is only so much utility in being overburdened with baggage at the beginning of a journey, as so many things can happen in the interval between a trip's beginning and its end. Our port of entry was particularly dingy, and I felt it didn't bode well for the rest of our journey if we attracted unnecessary attention from the natives by flaunting our ample supply of goods.

Byron hobbled over to where I was lounging. He seemed weary, but in good spirits, despite the current setback.

"So, dear Hobhouse, I hear you intend to keep a travel diary. Going to record all our adventures and conquests together, are you?"

I sighed.

"You know I keep a journal anyway, as it tends to prove helpful for my writing. And much as I enjoy your company, I do intend to get a book out of my experiences on the continent. Travel literature is quite popular these days."

"Perhaps I can get a book out of it too," he exclaimed, and gave me a rough clap on the back. "Or at least some poems. You should let me take a look at your journal occasionally, for reference's sake."

"I am writing this for myself, not for you. It isn't normal for men to share their diaries with one another."

"It is if they are planning on publishing their contents later."

(I had to admit, he had a point.)

"If you need a written record of your travels so much," I said, "why don't you keep a journal yourself?"

He laughed.

"Hobby-O, I have more important things to be doing with my nights than spending them recounting the events of my days."

"You say that as if my nights are uniformly uneventful," I retorted.

"Compared to mine, they are. Where is that team of horses I'd requested? Where's Fletcher?"

Byron had dispatched his valet on this errand upon our disembarkation, which had been nearly an hour ago, but Fletcher was nowhere in sight, and no horses seemed to be forthcoming either. I was struck with a sudden horror that perhaps there were no horses in the town at all, and we would be stuck making our self-directed pilgrimage entirely on donkeys.

-------------

My fears were not entirely unfounded, for when Fletcher finally did return later in the afternoon, he came bearing a team of mangy grey creatures of indeterminate parentage; it was impossible to tell whether they were very ill-kept mules or very misshapen horses. Our bags were loaded onto a cart, and we headed out onto the dusty road towards the town where we were intending to spend our first night. My friend and I headed the caravan, riding alongside each other on the nicest-looking of the borrowed beasts, and the rest of the retinue followed in our wake. By this point, the sun was already setting--another ill omen!--and I felt it prudent to voice my fears.

"They say, Byron, that both Spain and Portugal are absolutely crawling with highwaymen. We Englishmen must make a conspicuous target. The native population certainly doesn't seem to have anything worth stealing, from what little we've seen of them so far."

My friend seemed nonplussed.

"Let them come after us, if they wish."

"I hear they are heavily armed," I continued.

"I am prepared for that," he replied, and lifted his coat lapel just high enough for the silver-plated handle of a duelling pistol to flash in the fading sunlight.

I wondered whether he would actually have the nerve to shoot a criminal, if it came to that, but my thoughts were interrupted before I reached a conclusion. Byron had stopped his horse, holding back the rest of the caravan. He was staring skyward, his arms outstretched.

"Hobhouse," he cried. "Look at this magnificent sunset! How I wish I could capture this sky, and take it back to England in lieu of the great grey dullness that covers us most days. If the whole sky couldn't be transported, at least this sun."

I looked up at the sky as well. It was a rather bright pink and orange, with some moderately interesting clouds, but nothing that I thought couldn't be replicated in some part of Cornwall on a decent day.

"It is the same sky here as there," I said. "And the same sun. Sol lucet omnibus."

"Your Petronius quotations do no good here," scoffed Byron. "This is still the same sun that has in ages past been worshipped as a god by ancient admirers and artisans."

"People have worshipped a great many stupid things."

"My religious sense is as underdeveloped as your own, but that is no reason to not appreciate beauty. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, you know."

"Your misuse of the words of Virgil borders on tragedy."

" The real tragedy is that your aesthetic faculties are dulled from disuse."

"Even if they were dulled--which they aren't!--a sunset in itself is not a noteworthy or memorable occurrence, no matter what colour the sky typically is where one views it."

--------------

It was late when we arrived at an inn, and I bid everyone else good night as I locked myself into my bedroom in an attempt to get some writing done. Byron had decided to go for a midnight swim, and the servants had decided to sit around downstairs and drink, but I had more compelling duties. I stared at the blank pages of my notebook, preemptively weary at the thought of keeping a travel diary for the entirety of our journey. If Byron expected to take notes for his own writing off of the fruits of my hard work, I thought, the least I could do would be to make him work a little in return. If he's got such a taste for Classical literature, he surely wouldn't mind me writing the journal in Latin.

The thought of making him work for his reward excited me enough that I hadn't considered the difficulty of the task, and whatever joy I had had at the outset soon dissipated as I struggled to remember which declensions certain nouns were.

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I rose late in the morning the next day, but didn't bother to knock at the door to Byron's room, knowing he has always loathed the prospect of rising before noon. (Of course, I was unsure how late he had arrived back last night, or even if he had made it back.) As I headed down the hallway towards the stairs to the main floor, I heard the click of doorknob turning behind me, and I watched a fair young woman in a loose-hanging gown emerge from the room I hadn't bothered checking. (I suppose it was for the best that I hadn't bothered seeing if he was awake, although when he had managed to sneak her in there was anyone's guess.) Her eyes met mine, and she stood there, suddenly timid, and staring at her bare feet.

"I won't tell anyone anything," I said.

She covered her reddening face in her hands and ran past me down the stairs and out the door. I doubled back to check the room she had left, and was surprised to find it empty. (Empty of human life, at least; I was certain the entire building was infested with something, but had not yet decided on what.) I shut the door to Byron's room and walked outside the inn to look around at the town in which we had passed the night. It had been dark when we arrived, and that had been fortunate for it, for daylight revealed no pleasantries, just the dinginess of small shanties collapsing from within, and the flea-ridden masses walking the streets without. I strolled past a good many monastic fellows begging on the streets, and a good many starving townsfolk were approaching and giving them coins that surely could've been better spent buying food for themselves or their children. Similar grim sights beset me everywhere I looked, and after only a couple hours of wandering, I found myself heading back to the inn, craving the company and habits of other Englishmen. Perhaps Byron would even have returned, I thought to myself.

I didn't see him anywhere when I had arrived back at the inn, and decided to sit downstairs at one of the empty tables near the window. Perhaps I could even get more writing done if I had some time to myself.

Of course, I didn't have long to wait for Byron to make an appearance, though.

"Look who I found," he announced, as he strode through the doorway into the inn, with a couple strangers in tow behind him.

He had returned accompanied by a round-faced Franciscan friar and a rather bedraggled peasant boy who, despite being clothed entirely in filthy rags, wore a very fine belt, with a pair of pistols on it. (I was moderately alarmed by this last fact, but after seeing enough of the peasantry in the morning, I was no longer surprised by it.)

"I found this monk at a monastery--"

"Generally a good place to find them," I quipped.

"-and ran into this other fellow begging for money on the way back, and so I thought they might provide good company for this evening's dinner."

(I suppose he would think it good fun to want to eat with the locals, wouldn't he? I suppose he also thought it good fun to seek out a monastic community mere hours after having presumably debauched some local girl.)

"What, pray tell, are we supposed to talk about with them? Not religion, I hope. You'll lose all desire to emancipate the Papists back home once you engage one of them in conversation here. Not that I hold that against either of you," I said, with a nervous glance towards the two newcomers.

The two men stared back with glazed-over expressions that wouldn't be out of place on a rotting haddock at a fishmonger's.

"Byron, do either of these two speak a word of English?"

"Not a word."

"I can speak easier in their presence now, knowing they cannot understand any of it, but I still ask you, why on earth would you invite them over here? Surely the monk has his monastery to live in, and that disgusting urchin has some sort of hole to crawl back into at day's end?"

"I said that they couldn't speak English," Byron said with a grin, "but the brother and I have discovered we have other languages in common between us. Frater, ubi vinum est?"

At this, the monk's blank stare immediately dissipated, and he grinned as he produced a large bottle of wine from somewhere beneath his scapular, presenting it to his new friend.

"Vinum est donum," proclaimed the Franciscan, with very questionable pronunciation, as he brought out a bag full of small goblets and began pouring drinks for everyone.

I shot a disgusted glance at Byron, but he still seemed distressingly pleased at the overall proceedings.

"Look, Hobhouse, we understand each other," he said as he accepted a goblet and took a first sip of wine.

"I'm amazed," I said, for I really was. "I don't know which of you has the worse Latin."

"Alcohol is a somewhat universal language, if not quite the universal language."

"Do I want to know what the universal language is?"

He cocked his eyebrows suggestively, and I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes at his conversation returning to a subject of perennial interest. The friar handed me a goblet and I took a greedy swig, knowing I would need to begin drinking now to make it through the rest of the evening.

"I should have guessed," I continued. "Intercourse, you mean."

"Why John, what a convenient pun!"

I hadn't even noticed the pun, but he was beaming, so I decided to play along.

" I take it you will be conversing in as many dialects as possible, I assume."

"Now you've gone from punning to simple bad taste."

"I have the feeling you will be very communicative--"

"Don't use that word," he grunted. "Communicability reminds one of diseases!"

"Right. Well, you may encounter individuals who are communicative in that regard as well. I fear that of the many things that are universal in this world, most of them are unpleasant ."

"If your Latin is so much better than mine, my learned companion, would you mind keeping an eye on these two for a moment while I went to my room for a change of clothes? You could make your own attempts at conversation."

I relented, and agreed to watch over the two of them, but I resolved to say nothing to either of them until Byron came back. The monk was still smiling, the youth was still sullen, and I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing to occupy their time. I took another drink from my goblet and found it was already empty, and gestured to the monk with a bottle-pouring motion. He rushed to refill my drink, and I accepted that alcohol was perhaps a more universal mode of communication than I had expected.

I heard footsteps approaching and was about to breathe a sigh of relief, until Byron came back into view and I caught sight of what he was now wearing. He had put on a full-length robe and cowl, not dissimilar to that worn by his recently-acquired companion, though his was a stunning violet and the real monk's was brown.

I had seen Byron dressed this way before, at parties, when we had all been attired in a similar fashion and having a bit of fun, but I'd no idea he had the gall to wear it in public, in this company, in this country.

"What are you doing?!" I hissed.

"I told the monk that I had some monastic experience of my own, being an abbot. Actually, you should change into your own robes now while you have the chance."

"I didn't bring them with me! I wouldn't bring them with me! I don't know why you did!"

"Nostalgia for the old times."

"WE LAST WORE THOSE A COUPLE MONTHS AGO!"

"It's still a past era of our lives. This may be our last chance to play."

"Play at what, Byron? Play at what? The Portuguese Inquisition still exists; who knows what they may be willing to do to a heretical foreigner posing as a monk!"

He didn't bother responding, as his attention turned back to the two Portuguese, who now appeared somewhat distressed and confused. (I suppose I had been shouting a bit. If there had been any other travelers staying in this inn, they likely would've been disturbed as well.)

"I think we can make some progress yet in communication," said Byron, with what I can only describe as a demoniac glint in his eye.

He got the attention of the monk, pointed at his head, and gave it a tap with his finger. "Calvaria," he said.

The friar nodded and said "sim", which I suspect means "yes" in Portuguese.

Byron then lifted his goblet of wine. "Calix."

The friar tilted his head as if questioning that assertion, but soon shrugged and nodded again. I assumed that the hesitation meant some theological issue was at stake here, but given the general tenor of behaviour amongst continental monks, I imagine a shrug is about as much response as can be elicited from them.

(The peasant youth simply stared at the proceedings as they unfolded, his level of comprehension of them unknown to us all.)

Byron got up from the table and went over to a suitcase of his that hadn't yet been moved up to his room. He began rummaging around in it, and I was suddenly struck by a horrible sense of dread.

This dread was immediately justified, as Byron headed back to the table with half of a human skull in one hand.

"I cannot believe you brought that here too," I hissed at him. I should've shouted at him again, even louder than before; it might at least have frightened the monk away before he had the chance to get offended by what he was about to see.

"You're overreacting," Byron snapped back, before holding aloft the skull for all to see. "Ecce! Calvaria est calix!"

He poured the contents of his goblet into the top of the skull, before putting the skull to his lips. He offered me a drink from the skull, and for as much as I was angry at him, I couldn't resist the offered cup. He offered it to the youth, who accepted as well, and then he made his way to the monk, who at this point appeared sheet-white.

"Bibimus, frater?"

The poor monk slowly set his normal drinking vessel on the table and, with trembling hands, clasped the skull.

-----------

I suppose it was reassuring to know that we were all equally depraved in this regard, though I suspected as the night wore on, Byron would still manage to find a way to prove himself more depraved than most. This occurred a half-hour or so later, when, all of us having toped quite a bit by this point, the inevitable topic started creeping its way back into the conversation. A series of veiled references to the works of Petronius had passed unnoticed, monks being ignorant of such things, but the moment Lord Byron elaborated on the meaning of the words "plenum et optabilem coitum", our Franciscan immediately rose from his chair and began wobbling towards the door. The peasant boy and I watched as Byron pursued him out to the streets, where a very garbled conversation occurred, followed by a final, loud "NO" from the monk. Byron walked back in, looking very dejected indeed, and slumped back into his seat before taking another drink from his skull chalice.

"Should I send this other fellow on his way?" I asked, gesturing towards the youth.

"He can stay," mumbled Byron. "He hasn't understood a word of anything that's happened all night, and yet he has followed me here and stayed regardless."

"I am sure he understood the loud 'no' being shouted outside just now."

Byron winced.

"Perhaps a no is more universally understood than a yes. But I don't know how to ask this fellow if he wants to stay and drink."

"Only to stay and drink?"

"Well..."

"You'll get lice if you let him into your bed."

"Weren't you at one point saying our rooms were all already infested?"

We looked at each other, then looked at the boy, and Byron let out a massive sigh in admission of defeat.

"I'll send him back on his way home, if that's what you want."

"It is."

"Hobhouse, you are always doing your damndest to keep me from having any fun."

"I am merely trying to do what is prudent. He is armed, remember?"

Judging by the way Byron's eyes widened, he seemed to have forgotten. We deemed it prudent to continue drinking for a while longer until we were reasonably sure the ruffian was tipsy enough that we could steer him out the door without incident. We gave him one of our two remaining bottles of wine in a last bid to ensure his good graces, and he smiled and waved as he ambled down the street towards the outskirts of the city.

"Do you think he'll be all right," asked Byron.

"He'll be fine," I replied. "And you'd better stop acting like I deprived you of whatever grand evening you had planned for yourself."

He glowered at me as he sat back down at the other end of the table.

"Believe me," I said. "We have only been travelling for a couple of days, out of a trip you intend to take for a couple of years. We'll be off to a new city tomorrow. I am sure you will find something to entertain you."

"I know that you're right, for once, but I'm still disappointed in the way the evening went."

"You're still dressed like a fake monk, you know. That might've been where the evening started to go wrong."

This snapped him out of his sulk.

"We'd better have one last ritual then, before I retire the costume. Pass me that skull, Hobhouse. We still have one last bottle of wine to get through by the end of the night."