In the profoundly epistolary age in which our story takes place, it was usual for parents to send their boys to school with letters that mingled advice, admonishment and logistics. Over dinner that first night, some of the older boys read their parents’ letters aloud to ribald laughter. This one’s mother hopes he’ll guard against chills; that one’s father implores him to pay more mind to his Greek and Latin, and to avoid becoming entangled with the sort of grasping harpy that he so clearly favors; the same pleasures can be had at a much more moderate price.
Neither Claudius nor Tereus volunteers the contents of their letters from home. Later, when they return to their cramped den, Tereus asks idly, “What did your parents say?”
“It was my mother, actually. There’s a good deal about how I’m a shining prince, and they’re excited for me to begin what’s sure to be a brilliant career. I must listen to my tutor, take good care of my underclothes and linens, and remember the sacrifices they made to send me here by not running into debt.”
Tereus nods. “She sounds like a sensible woman. Nothing about lightskirts?”
“No. My uncle gave me a lecture when he dropped me off at the harbor.” He doesn’t mention his mother’s real worry, briefly expressed at the end. “Claudius, you are a good boy, and I know you won’t break my heart by falling into your father’s error.” His father is a dutiful, quiet man with a tendency to disappear for days at a time, only to be found naked and confused in gin shops and boarding houses, alone or tended by some wicked boy. Claudius sets the thought aside, asks, “What did your father write?”
Tereus produces the letter with a flourish. “It’s short. I’ll read it to you.”
You’ll receive your allowance quarterly. It should more than satisfy your legitimate wants, and a reasonable number of illegitimate ones. You’re not a fool, so I expect that these few instructions will be obeyed. All I ask is that you exercise enough control over your vices to receive the education necessary to a gentleman. I think you know that if you run into debt, enrage your tutor past bearing, or get sent down, I will beat you within an inch of your miserable life. As long as you don’t choke on your own vomit, marry a lightskirt or rape a nun, you should do very well.
Your affectionate father,
Agamemnon Aegisthus Shelawn
“I made that part about affection, but it’s implied, don’t you think? Oh, and there’s this tender postscript:”
P.S. I know very well that opium is freely available in the village. If you stick a needle in your arm, I will disown you entirely.
Tereus glances up. “He doesn’t say anything about smoking it, so apparently that’s permitted. Poor fellow. He can’t threaten to disinherit me, since the fortune is entailed.”
Claudius is silent for a long moment. Finally he says, “There’s opium in the village?”
“He would know,” says Tereus. “And, indeed, I don’t plan to shoot it up. He did, and it took six months, a surgeon and an army of servants to break the habit.”
Claudius asks, “Is he always like that?”
Tereus considers. “Yes. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant creature, but it’s sound advice, and I intend to follow much of it. I’ll take care not to choke on my own vomit; I don’t plan to offer marriage to anyone; I’m not attracted to nuns. As for thrashing me, he does it out of ill-temper and habit. We both know I don’t give a shit. I’ll continue to defy my tutor and rack up debts; I’ve never done anything else, and see no reason to change. I’d rather be here than there, so I won’t get sent down.” He gives a brilliant smile, then adds, “That bit about opium is good to know. He should have told me where to go, but perhaps he’s concerned it’s changed since his day.”
Claudius finds the contrast between Tereus’s angelic features and his casual depravity jarring. He feels almost sick. Though they’ve just met, he’s eager to think well of Tereus — to worship him, really.