Count Oskar

V

By Michael Arram

Gus stood rooted in surprise for so long that he almost lost sight of Oskar and James in the evening crowd of people ambling slowly along the promenade. Then he began his pursuit. It was not very skilfully done, but at least his quarry was unaware it was being followed. Eventually the two men sat on a bench, allowing a weary Gus to slump behind a convenient pergola and observe them.

James was talking fast and fluently, which was something Gus had never seen before, any more than he had seen Oskar pensive and silent. He had no idea what they were talking about, but there was no doubt it was a matter of some urgency and seriousness. Gus wondered what was going on. Why would Bob's valet be in conference with a fashionable Ruritanian aristocrat? Surely to God, he thought, they could not be arranging a sexual liaison. It beggared belief. Of course, what did Gus know about such things. There were attractive young women, he was well aware, who somehow were compulsively attracted to old and unattractive men. But those men were usually at least wealthy. Back home in Haddesley, for instance, Mrs Farquhar of Iveagh Cottage had buried two older husbands in the past fourteen years. She was currently in pursuit of the Anglican rector, who had told Gus he had a clear recollection of the bonfires burning to celebrate the victory at Waterloo. The idea of sophisticated and aristocratic Oskar engaging in an affair with an ancient manservant caused Gus to give a nervous giggle.

The only suggestion Gus's imagination had to offer was that Oskar required information about either Bob or him, and he was bribing James to provide it. But why would he need such information? True, Bobby was a peer of the realm, and quite a wealthy one. He was also well-connected, although the days when English lords were automatically men of power in their own land were passing. Blackmail? Kidnap? There was no logical reason why Oskar would be involved in either of those crimes.

He was still puzzling over the possibilities when the two men got up from their bench, shook hands with a certain solemnity, and left in different directions. Since James was heading towards the railway station, it was Oskar whom Gus determined on following.

Oskar stopped at the strip of garden outside the casino, where he lit a cigarette and stood contemplating the gathering evening for quite some time. He seemed in no hurry, so it was fair to assume that he was staying in the town. Gus was hard put to find a similar sang froid as he sat on a bench and tried to look inconspicuous while keeping the Ruritanian in sight. When Oskar moved it was not into the casino but to the hotel next door. He disappeared inside, leaving Gus the problem of whether to follow him. Curiously, Gus had no desire simply to walk up and say hello. Oskar was here where he said he would not be, and in some sort of liaison with Bob's servant. There could be no simple or innocent explanation of this.

In the end, Gus had to go and retain a room at the König von Bayern. He needed a wash, and then he was hungry. By the time he had satisfied both needs, he decided to go up to the Hotel Casino and ask at reception for Oskar, to establish if the count was at least lodging under his own name. Gus was not at all surprised when the desk clerk dismissed him impatiently with the assurance that no such person was registered at the establishment. He simply waved Gus away when asked if anyone of Ruritanian nationality was staying there.

Gus pondered. His acquaintance with Oskar had been brief, but Gus was a young man of some perception where his neighbour was concerned. He had learned a few things about Oskar, one of which was that the man would not stay on his own for any length of time if he had a choice. Gus decided to make his way into the foyer, where there were chairs, sofas and large potted plants. He took up a paper, and sat in an armchair under a palm. A waiter brought him a creamy coffee. An hour later he had begun to think he had best call it a day, and cut his losses, when Oskar von Tarlenheim appeared from outside. Rather than coming in alone, he was accompanied by several other men with whom he was engaged in animated conversation. The group passed into the grand salon of the casino without pausing at the cashier's kiosk.

Gus emerged from behind his newspaper. Now he had another quandary. Should he enter the salon or not? If he did, his fresh face would draw attention, which he was well aware would defeat his object. He was still debating with himself a half hour later when Oskar's companions emerged, without the count. As Gus was hesitating whether to follow them, a familiar voice said in English in his ear, 'Dear August, what an unexpected pleasure.'

***

Oskar's grin was positively splitting his face. It was as if this was a huge joke, and he could hardly restrain himself from laughing out loud.

'Go on. It was when I was talking to Mr Antrobus on the promenade that you saw me, yes?'

Antrobus? Oh yes, that was James's surname. Gus did not see what Oskar had to laugh at. 'Now look here von Tarlenheim,' he began in a distinctly annoyed tone of voice. 'I don't know what your game is, but I think it's about time you gave me some straight answers.'

Oskar threw himself into a chair, and really did laugh outright. 'My game! Oh you English! So forthright. Are you going to horsewhip me? I only ask because there are some quite nice boys at the Sophienbad who enjoy that sort of...'

'Oh shut up, Oskar!' Gus hissed. 'You're up to something, and though I may be no genius, I can still cry rotten fish when I smell it.'

'Pardon?'

'It's a saying.'

'Ah... metaphorical English, so difficult for us foreigners. Look, dear old fellow, I would love to say there was a simple and straightforward answer, but there isn't. I'm not going to pretend there is nothing going on, but believe me when I say no harm is intended, either to your friend Robert or to yourself. It is quite the opposite in Lord Burlesdon's case, I should say.'

'What is your connection with his valet?'

'Oh, quite an old one, dear fellow. You might even say James Antrobus is a valued family friend.'

'Then who in God's name is he?'

'Mr Antrobus is no more or less than he appears. He was the confidential valet of Lord Burlesdon's uncle for several years. For a time after that, he took service with my family prior to my father's death. Then he decided to retire back to England. You see, it really is simple. However, what complicated the situation was that Lord Burlesdon's mother knew James was there, and prevailed on him to accompany your friend on his travels. It's lucky for us he did, very lucky indeed. For Mr Antrobus is a man of no small talents in the physical and investigative line, and he knows Ruritania better than he knows Northamptonshire. It appears his talents are suddenly very necessary.'

'Why is that?'

'I'm sorry, dear August, I am in no position to tell you. Any explanation must be given to Lord Burlesdon, a point indeed which Mr Antrobus and I were discussing when you observed us.'

'And why the lies about going to Paris?'

'That was for my brother's benefit, rather than yours. I need no questions from my family at this time.'

'Is Bobby in danger?'

Oskar's face went suddenly solemn, and for the first time something cold gripped Gus's spine and his neck prickled. 'Oh yes,' Oskar replied, 'and not just he, but everyone near him. Now, that is all the explanation I am giving, at least for now. I would therefore ask you to - toddle off, is that what you say? Yes? Toddle off to bed, dear August, and I will hope to see you and your friend the earl sometime soon. If we can get him away from the delightful Kitzi Kálnoky for long enough, that is.'

Gus was feeling very frustrated. 'Oskar, this is just not... satisfactory!'

Oskar looked at him with curiosity. 'Why do you say that, dear August?'

Gus gave a frustrated gesture. 'This infernal mystery. These hints. What do you gain by it? What do we gain by it?'

'It is not my secret to tell, August. So I can say no more. I have telegraphed Mr Antrobus about what you observed this evening; he will know what to say tomorrow. You just have to make sure that Lord Burlesdon is ready to hear it. Now good night, dear friend, until tomorrow.'

Gus grumbled to himself, but could not resist the conclusion that he was dealing with an iron resolve he could not bend. He left for his hotel, and the next morning took an early train to Carlsbad. He arrived at the Goldener Schild in time to find Bob still in bed, after a late night.

'Good morning, sir,' said James, as he encountered Gus in the corridor. His gaze for once was not even, nor was his voice.

Gus had little time for niceties. 'I saw you and Count Oskar at Marienbad yesterday evening. I want to know what you were talking about.'

'I'm afraid, sir, that I can only discuss the subject with his lordship.'

'And when do you propose to do that?'

'Why sir, I imagine it will be today, after you have unburdened yourself of your suspicions to Lord Burlesdon.'

'That's all you have to say?'

'Yes, sir.'

Gus knocked on Bob's door. A stirring and groaning from the other side gave him permission to enter. Bob was struggling to sit up.

'Are you alright, Bobby?'

'Like death. I tried to match Stefan Kálnoky in the drinking of schnapps. It was a serious mistake! Something seems to have crawled inside my mouth and died.'

'I'm sorry, Bobby. I'll get black coffee sent up. You'll need it.'

There was a tone in Gus's voice that penetrated the alcoholic fog still clouding Bob's mind. He stared at his friend and struggled to focus. 'What is it, old Gussie?'

Gus took a deep breath and began his story. There was a long silence after he finished. He had no illusions about his own intellectual capacities, and had always, in his modesty, tended to exalt his friend's. Bob justified that faith by apparently taking in all the details without requiring any repetition.

Bob eventually gave a shake of his head and began, half to himself, 'The Rassendyll family has a great deal of faith in James Antrobus. Father held him in very high esteem and would have had him as butler at Burlesdon, had James not been too attached to Ruritania and Uncle Rudolf's memory. Mother once said there was far more to the man than met the eye, but that is all I know about him. And she also said there were things James knew that would be better left untold. I always thought she meant that Uncle Rudolf had been a bad boy in the past, and had a whole closet full of dancing skeletons. I wonder if that's what this affair is all about, some bird Uncle Rudolf let loose long ago which is coming home to roost.'

'What do you know about your uncle?'

'Oh, he was a grand chap, they say, though I don't remember him. I was only three the year he died. He took a commission in the Grenadier Guards - he was a tall, strapping fellow - and fought in the Crimea. He was wounded at Alma, and it was after he had recuperated that he took off on his travels. He came back a changed man from his first tour of Germany in 1854, father said. After that he mooned around the continent for years, which was when he took James into his service. I think James began his career as a confidential servant in Lord Topham's mission to Strelsau back in the late forties. By the time he met my uncle he was a Cook's courier in Basel, and is supposed to have rescued my uncle from an attack by garrotters on the streets of Munich in 1858.

'It was in the summer of 1862 that my uncle made the mistake of going to Ruritania: always a place of bad luck for our family, y'know. He got caught up in the anarchist plot against King Rudolf V and was murdered under strange circumstances in the forest of Zenda, south of the capital. His body was mutilated and burned. The king himself was assassinated not long afterwards. Although our family's misfortunes were overlooked in the tumult of the times, there were circumstances in my uncle's death that were never explained. Father was privy to a lot more than was generally known, I believe, and I rather think he would have told me one day. Unfortunately, he died while I was still too young, and mother knew very little more than general rumour.

'James stayed in Ruritania and was for a while a confidential servant to the famous Prince Franz of Tarlenheim, your friend Oskar's father. I believe there was also some talk that he acted as English secretary to Queen Flavia for a short time, which tends to hold him up as a man who was trusted by the great and good.'

Gus sat silent briefly before saying, 'That's reassuring so far as it goes. But don't you feel annoyed that your valet is playing some infernal political game of plot and conspiracy while he's supposed to be starching your shirts and booking your theatre tickets?'

'Well, I'm not sure, Gussie. You think he might want a bonus payment?'

'You aren't taking this very seriously, y'know.'

Bob laughed. 'James doesn't worry me as much as your Count Oskar. I know him hardly at all, and what little I do know alarms me. I take it this means you wish me to question James?'

'I rather think he wants to be questioned.'

'Very well then. Ring the bell, and let us hear what we shall hear.'

***

James had regained his perfect composure by the time he appeared. He nodded at both young men and stood waiting attentively.

'Do take a seat James. I think we may dispense with formality.'

'Thank you, my lord.' James paused before sitting down. 'May I say, sir, that I do regret the subterfuge of the past few days. I am very glad, for you uncle's sake, that I can now be more open. I have been constrained to keep things from you which it were much better had been said some time ago. Your father's decision and his early death...'

'I understand. Would I be correct if I were to suppose that what you have to tell us concerns my late uncle Rudolf?'

James inclined his head. 'In part, certainly, but there are more recent events which need to be mentioned.'

'Then off you go.'

'Yes, sir. I'm sure you are aware of your uncle's unhappy experiences in Ruritania. What you will not know - and I think only four living persons do know - is quite how unusual his experiences were.

'The defining coincidence in all of it was the resemblance between your uncle and his namesake, King Rudolf V of Ruritania. It was altogether remarkable. Have you seen pictures of your uncle?'

'Why yes. There is no portrait, but I have somewhere a daguerreotype taken before he embarked for the Crimea. He had luxuriant hair and impressive whiskers in those days. He was also a redhead, my mother said.'

'Yes sir. I don't suppose you have seen a portrait of King Rudolf at the same period? No? Take it from me that the resemblance was uncanny. Not perhaps surprising as they were cousins, yet uncanny nonetheless. Except for the king being close-shaven, it would have been difficult for anyone to tell them apart, especially for Ruritanians. The king had been absent from his homeland for several years before the death of his father, the unpopular Rudolf IV. The people were more familiar with his half-brother, Duke Michael, who had gained acceptance by taking up the liberal cause. You may remember that Rudolf IV had brutally suppressed the popular rising of 1848 in Strelsau, and the common people and intellectuals expected Rudolf V to be just like his father. But he wasn't. He had left Ruritania precisely to escape the oppressive atmosphere his father had created in the country.

'This made the succession in 1854 all the more fraught. The young King Rudolf inherited a very shaky throne. His advisers were adroit men, however. They spread the rumour that the new king was to marry his first cousin, Princess Flavia, daughter of the old king's brother, the late duke of Mittenheim. Now she was already a very beloved figure in those days: beautiful and kindly, appealing to men for the first quality and to women for the second. She would provide the sympathy for the Elphbergs that Rudolf V then lacked. The king and the princess personally loathed each other, as it happened, but they were of royal blood and knew what their duty demanded.

'Into this dangerous situation in the summer of 1854 walked Rudolf Rassendyll, poor man, all unsuspecting, as a simple tourist. On the eve of the coronation he fatefully met the king in the woods near the royal hunting lodge in the forest of Zenda. The king's entourage were amazed at the resemblance, though the king himself was amused. The end result was an invitation for your uncle to dine with the king. Franz von Tarlenheim, the king's equerry that day, told me once that what he could remember of the dinner was very jolly, but he slid under the table well before the end. The next morning he arose with a bad headache to find the king still unconscious, senseless from drugged wine slipped to him by agents of Duke Michael.'

Bob intervened at that point. 'So it was Count Franz von Tarlenheim who was your source for all this?'

'Some of it. Your uncle was in general a reticent man, but he added many details. Where was I? Ah yes. The king was unconscious and unable to meet the train that was to take him to his coronation. The head of his household, the marshal of the court, Colonel Erwin Sapt, was the man who came up with the dramatic solution. He sobered up Rudolf Rassendyll, and represented to him that if he shaved his whiskers and trimmed his hair, he would be the living image of the king then still slumped over the table in front of them. When your uncle very reasonably baulked at this suggestion, Sapt explained that if the king did not appear in a matter of hours, he would never be crowned. Instead, a rising amongst the radicals and a sympathetic section of the aristocracy would make Michael king in his place.'

Gus noticed how James's entire demeanour was subtly changing as he lectured them. The silence of years was being broken, and the words were coming out of him in a growing tide. He was beginning to talk with the hypnotic confidence of a born teacher, or even an orator on a stage. There was no doubting the authority of his account while he was talking.

'The audacious scheme to substitute your uncle for the king was carried off to brilliant effect. I have to say, sir, that your uncle proved himself no ordinary man that day. The prince-count of Tarlenheim told me he truly seemed the king, and faced down even Duke Michael in the cathedral. The duke was stunned to find his plot had misfired, and was utterly bemused when the king appeared to scotch his chance.'

Bob looked stunned, and stuttered, 'But this means...'

'Yes sir. It was not Rudolf Elphberg who was crowned Rudolf V of Ruritania, but Rudolf Rassendyll.'

'My God!'

A moment of silence followed before James resumed his story. 'Of course, if it had ended there, no harm and much good would have been done. Unfortunately, the affair became increasingly complicated. The real king, in his drugged state, had been concealed in the cellar of the hunting lodge awaiting the return of Sapt, Count Franz and your uncle. But while affairs were unrolling in Strelsau, they were unravelling in Zenda. The duke's lieutenant, a dissolute nobleman called Hentzau, who played with radical and anarchist politics, had been alerted by an agent at the lodge. He killed the keeper, searched the building, found the king and took him off to prison in the nearby royal château, of which Duke Michael had custody at the time. The plot of the king's friends was laid bare, of course, at least to the duke, yet he had no way of making use of it. Although he had the real king, the royalists had a very convincing substitute in your uncle. For the duke to allege that the king in Strelsau was a fake would have been to confess his own conspiracy. So there were several weeks in which your uncle ruled as king in Strelsau. That was when the real damage was done.'

'What do you mean? Did he make some bad decisions?'

'No, I am not talking of a political mistake, I'm referring to a personal one. Your uncle met the Princess Flavia and not only fell in love with her, but made her - all unwilling on both sides - fall in love with him too.'

Gus gave a sigh. 'Oh heavens, but she was promised to the real king.' He had fallen deeply into the story.

'Yes indeed, sir. And it was from this very human error that much political tragedy came about, though it merely seemed a personal tragedy at the time.'

Gus intervened again. 'But how did the real king escape from Duke Michael and Hentzau?'

'A bold scheme was put on foot. Sapt and Tarlenheim deployed a squadron from the count's own regiment to assault the château, while your uncle swam the castle moat alone to try to get to the king and defend him until the soldiers broke in. It was chaotic. Sympathisers inside the château were supposed to open the gates to the royalists, but there was an unexpected outbreak of dissension amongst the duke's men. Michael himself was killed by the brute Hentzau, putting the whole place in an uproar. Nonetheless, your uncle got to the king and protected him, even though Hentzau came fast upon him, desiring to kill the king and your uncle both. Despite being wounded, your uncle was able to hold Hentzau off until help arrived. Hentzau escaped but at least the king - sick and confused - was released.

'By then the damage had been done. The princess knew who it was she had fallen in love with, and the horrible barren fate in store for her. She was constrained to marry a man she could not love, who looked exactly like the man she really did love and who could never be hers.'

Gus was enthralled. What a story! 'But that was not the end of things was it,' he observed.

'No indeed, sir, the worst was yet to come. The mistake that Mr Rassendyll made was to keep in contact with Queen Flavia through an intermediary, no less than Fritz, the prince-count of Tarlenheim. She annually sent a letter and a red rose to her true love.'

Bob frowned. 'I can see why that was an error, on several levels. It cannot have helped her marriage.'

'It was common knowledge that the king never fully recovered his health after the dreadful events of the summer of 1854. He also lost his former abundant self-confidence. Yet he accomplished much in his reign. With Flavia as queen, the dynasty regained its popularity. What's more, the king re-established parliament and reformed the military. On every level except the personal his reign was a success. But deep down he knew he was not loved by his wife, and that soured everything for him.'

Bob was still frowning. 'It also explains the roaming restless life that Uncle Rudolf led. Poor man. He saved a kingdom, met the great love of his life and then lost her. No wonder existence afterwards held little savour for him. So tell me, James, how did my uncle die, for I think you know the answer to that question, do you not?'

***

Gus and Bob sat looking at a silent James for some minutes. He had retreated briefly within himself while gathering his thoughts for the final part of his story. Finally, he stirred and said, 'Gentlemen, the following events I actually witnessed myself. I entered your uncle's service in Munich in 1858. I rejoiced at the chance. He was a very fine person, one to be admired by other men as much as by ladies. I've never met his like. He really seemed to be a king travelling incognito. It was as if the consecration he had undergone in the cathedral of Strelsau had truly set him apart from other men.

'I soon discovered the connection between my master and the queen of Ruritania. I was somewhat flattered to be taken into the confidence of such a man as he was. We usually went to Dresden for the annual exchange of letters, but in that fateful October of 1862 he changed the site to Wintenberg on the border of Ruritania and Bohemia. It was there that the prince-count was assaulted by a gang of roughs and only barely escaped through the intervention of some passing carters. The gang took the letter and their leader was revealed to be that vile fellow Hentzau.

'The count of Hentzau, Rupert, was the last of a notable dynasty, all men of outstanding talents, but matching them with the most violent passions. They say that the pendulum of virtue swung within that house in every generation, and in the case of Count Rupert you saw it reach the end of the swing by producing someone of devilish cunning, conscienceless violence and yet bizarrely innocent and youthful looks. All his talents turned to evil. He had been exiled from Ruritania after the events of eight years before, but he longed to return and recover his estates. Quite impossible of course. He had murdered a royal duke.

'However, he had learned through his spies of the queen's foolishness and intended to take advantage of it in his desperation. Once he had the letter, his aim was to see the king and reveal to him the falsity of his wife. It would of course destroy what was left of the royal marriage, but all Hentzau cared about was reinstatement, which he hoped to secure in this vile way.

'Then his plans went astray. Although he succeeded through one of his cousins in gaining access to the king at that same forest lodge where the previous plot had matured, the king would not listen, and indeed thought he was about to be attacked. There was a violent tussle, during which the king, his huntsman and dog were all killed. Hentzau made off to Strelsau, intending now to blackmail or expose the queen.

'Sapt, Tarlenheim and I found the appalling scene at Zenda. There was only one thing to be done. We concealed the bodies, and Mr Rassendyll pursued Hentzau into Ruritania Unfortunately, he was identified as the king in the streets of the city, and was obliged to continue the masquerade. He went to the queen at the palace and used the breathing space to track down and eventually corner Hentzau, whom he killed with his own hand.'

'Good grief!' Bob exclaimed. 'What a man he was. I wish I'd have known him.'

'You would not have been disappointed, sir,' James said in a low and fervent voice. 'Unfortunately, his own death followed on soon after. Sapt had ordered the burning of the lodge with the bodies inside. He had given it out that Rassendyll, the king's friend and cousin, had died in the fire. He was determined, you see, that your uncle should now reign in Strelsau as king. It was fate, he said. Mr Rassendyll was tempted, I know. However, he was a man of great honour, and I believe that in the end he would have refused to live a lie. Then the chance was taken from him. As he walked in the garden of the royal palace, one of Hentzau's anarchist associates, a Swiss called Bauer, pistolled him to death. The guards did for Bauer, but your uncle died in the queen's arms not long afterwards.'

Bob's eyes had kindled. 'Then it is my uncle who lies in the tomb of Rudolf V in the cathedral of Strelsau! Good God!'

James nodded. 'He lived, died and was buried as the king among men that he was. The charred body of the last Elphberg king actually lies under your uncle's name in the small cemetery of the Anglican church of St Edward the Confessor on Klimentgasse in Strelsau. You might visit it, sir. Your father commissioned an elaborate tombstone from Sir George Gilbert Scott. I would especially ask you to look at the Latin inscription. His lordship composed it himself.'

Bob gave the valet a close look. 'You assume we are going to Strelsau?'

'Oh yes sir, Queen Flavia has commanded it. I have booked the tickets for tomorrow.'

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