Gus and Bob stared at James. It was Gus who spoke first. 'The queen of Ruritania has ordered Bob to meet her in Strelsau?'
James came close to an expression that might have been called a smile. 'Perhaps not ordered, but she wishes it, and the wishes of a queen...'
Bob shook his head. 'She uses - forgive me, James - a domestic servant to pass on her messages?'
'No offence taken, sir. But no, there is also this.' He produced a sealed envelope. Before handing it over he continued, 'Sir, there is another story yet to be told before you quite understand the present circumstances. A man - a good man - lost his life so that this letter, and the object which accompanied it, might reach you.'
The two young men stared at him. Bob reached out for the letter. It was addressed in English: 'To the Right Honourable Robert Rudolf Henry, Earl of Burlesdon, Viscount Lowestoft and Baron Rassendyll, of Burlesdon House, co. Norfolk, Great Britain, by the hand of Mr James Antrobus.' A heavy green seal was fixed over the flap. It showed the arms of Ruritania under a royal crown, and around the rim the legend ran : SECRETVM FLAVIÆ P. CONST.QUE REGINÆ RVRIT. Never had Gus seen a more intimidating envelope. It reminded him of the letters his mother used to send him at school.
Bob broke the seal and extracted several thick sheets of paper. He spread them out on the table. Before reading them he looked up at James. 'How do you know what is in this letter?'
'I don't sir, but it came with another cover which had instructions to me from her majesty.'
Bob returned to the letter and motioned Gus to sit next to him. The letter was in English. They read what a large and firm female hand had written:
Strelsau. The Palace. August 18th 1880.
My dear cousin,
I am sorry to have to introduce myself to you in this way. Were there more time, it might have been done in more conventional terms, but that is now impossible. Mr Antrobus is to convey this to you with some verbal explanations concerning the events that associated your family with my kingdom, and the story - long concealed - of how your uncle lived and died as king. You may place the fullest confidence in Mr Antrobus, a man in whom I have often reposed trust and never have been disappointed. He was also trusted implicitly by my late and beloved Rudolf, your uncle. I would ask that you attend very carefully to all he has to say.
I have learned from physicians what my body itself is telling me, that I have now only a brief space of life left to me. It will be no longer than two months and probably less, which leaves me little time to do what I can concerning the future state of my kingdom. In the normal course of events, the succession to the throne would be a straightforward matter; the natural heir is my first cousin, the duke of Thuringia. I have nothing against the man as a man, but there are several reasons why his succession would be undesirable and very dangerous for Ruritania. As king, he would draw my land into a close and hazardous association with our German neighbours. Moreover, his religion is a harsh form of Calvinist faith which is alien to my people and will ensure he is never a popular ruler. He and his Thuringian advisers would take us away from our traditional Catholic allegiance, and the position of neutrality that we occupy between the Austrian and Prussian empires. He would treat my concern for the ancient Rothenian culture of my people with disdain, and I know enough of his limitations to predict that he would try to further the German section of the populace against the majority. He would do so not from malice, but from sheer lack of imagination and a nervous desire to foster allies he could trust. In short, he could do nothing other than harm the peace of Europe and the civil tranquillity of Ruritania.
Dear cousin, I fear very much for the future, but I would not trouble you with the things that keep me awake at night, if it were not that there is an alternative. You are yourself an Elphberg, and I am sure you know why I can say that. Had your great-grandfather not been illegitimate, you would have had a better right to sit on the throne of Ruritania than I do. But there is also this, dear cousin. Your uncle was rightfully crowned king in the cathedral of Strelsau, and he died as what he was: Rudolf V, king of Ruritania. It may be a legalistic point, but on my death you yourself become king of Ruritania by succession. It might even be argued that your father should have succeeded by right of ascension in 1862 - not, of course, that we could have explained why to the people in those disturbed times.
Although no one knows what may occur once I am dead, I do pray and hope that either you or one of your family will one day rule as sovereign in Strelsau, as your uncle once did to such credit, even though very few know of it. There is more that I would wish to tell you of this matter, but I can only do so in person. Thus I ask that, on receipt of this brief, you make all haste to come to me in Strelsau. As a token of hope, and of how seriously I mean to be taken, I have conveyed by a trusted messenger a talisman that I ask you to keep, preserve and take as a pledge for the future.
Your loving cousin,
Bob re-read the letter and then stared up at James. 'She mentions a package and a trusted messenger who was supposed to pass on a talisman to me. What does she mean by that?'
Gus leaped in with his own particular concern. 'And where does Count Oskar come into all this?'
James frowned. 'The queen's packet was carried last week from Strelsau to Vienna by train, by the hand of her almoner, Monsignor Piotr Ignacij. I don't know how, but his mission was detected and he was pursued by German agents. Their operatives are everywhere in Strelsau, and it is said that Prince Bismarck is investing vast sums of money in the Thuringian succession. Those agents cornered Fr Piotr in the Saint-Marxer Friedhof that Friday, and attempted to take the package from him. Fr Piotr resisted and was shot while trying to reach me at the appointed rendezvous. There was nothing I could do, though I sent one of his murderers to hell at least. The other ran off and escaped me. I took the bag carrying the package and I have it here now. Would you like to see it, sir?'
'In a moment. Answer me this. How did the queen communicate with you?'
'Through Count Oskar and his friends. He is a loyal servant of her majesty and is in on the secret. He tried to telegraph me in England, but we had already left, luckily as it turned out. Then he contacted me after we reached Switzerland. He was waiting to meet me in Vienna, where he informed me of the meeting place. The rest you know.'
'Then why was it not all organised through the count?
'There was no reason why you should trust him. I at least had a claim of loyalty on the Rassendyll family.'
'Then let us see this package.'
James left the room and returned with a thick woollen sack that he placed on the table. He loosened the neck and drew out a baize-covered box of curious shape, rather like an outsized pillbox with rounded edges. He handed it to his employer.
Bob looked at Gus. 'It's quite heavy,' he observed, twisting a catch at the top which allowed him to loosen the lid. It opened and he stared inside, his eyes wide.
Gus peered over and his breath caught in his throat when he recognised the object. There, glittering and twinkling in the light, was the Tassilisner Kron, the ancient crown of Ruritania.
'What in God's name do I do with it?' exclaimed Bob when he had finally recovered his equilibrium.
Gus giggled, 'Put it on your head?'
Bob looked at James. 'Why did she do this?'
'I think because she is the queen, and she wished you to know that she is in sober earnest about what she says. She has put the soul of her kingdom into your hands. She has designated you as her heir.'
'But there are parliaments, councils of state and constitutions. There must be ways to do this openly.'
'Ways, sir, certainly, but no time.'
'Why did the queen leave this so late?'
'Who can say. Perhaps she may tell you herself.'
'Why does she think I may even be interested in falling in with her plans?'
'That at least I can tell you, sir. You are a Rassendyll and an Elphberg.' The man paused and looked keenly at Bob. 'Don't tell me that your heart is not racing at the idea of being king of Ruritania.'
Bob pondered in silence. What did he think of this? He could not deny he was intrigued and, yes, excited. The world had suddenly opened up around him, and it was a wide and challenging place. Eventually he murmured, 'Then I suppose we must go to the queen and discover what she has to say.' He turned to Gus. 'You had better get yourself back home, Gussie. This is not your affair.'
Gus was stunned. 'What? You can't be serious, Bobby! You need me. Certainly I'm coming. You need an equerry, no royal pretender can do without one; it wouldn't be decent.'
But in his heart, Gus knew that it was more than a sense of adventure that made him wish to accompany his friend. He wanted to know more and see more of Oskar von Tarlenheim. He could not bear to be packed off back to Suffolk. God! Would this obsession consume him?
Bob looked at Gus uncertainly, clearly searching for reasons not to let him go. 'I don't know, Gussie. This looks all too dangerous to me.'
'But I know everything you know, and you need someone to talk to. It'll give you perspective, keep your feet on the ground, old fellow.'
Bob gave him a quirky look. 'On your own head be it, then.' He grinned. 'Oh, Gussie, I'd rather you were here, but what if those maniacs with guns who killed the priest start shooting at us? I've no right to ask you to follow me into that sort of danger.'
'Then don't ask. I'll just tag along anyway. And speaking of dashing off to Ruritania, how are you going to explain your disappearance to the Kálnokys?' Gus deliberately did not mention Kitzi by name. It seemed indelicate to allude to his friend's burgeoning love affair.
Bob's mouth tightened. There was clearly a conflict going on between his feelings, his sense of adventure, and his growing awareness of duty. Adventure and duty won out. 'I'll think of something to say. They'll be here for another week before moving to their Hungarian estate. I'll see if they're willing to invite me for a stay. The painting of Kitzi still needs a lot of work. I can ask them to take it with them so I can finish it while I'm there. I'm happy with the face at least, and that's the hard bit. Come and have a look, Gussie.'
They left James waiting patiently. This was the first time Gus had been offered a glimpse of Kitzi's portrait. He followed Bob into the second bedroom, where the canvas was angled to catch the afternoon sunlight through the window. Gus gasped. The face was Kitzi to the life. The honesty of his friend's artistic eye had even captured the hint of wilful determination in the cast of her mouth and the poise of her chin. The area immediately around the face had been blocked in with dark colours, but the rest of the picture was mostly indicated by schematic charcoal lines.
'Bobby... I don't know what to say. It's quite exquisite!'
Bob smiled. 'Thank you, Gussie. That means a lot.'
'You have got to finish it.'
'Oh, I will. You can be sure of that.'
'It ought to get into the Royal Academy summer show.'
'I don't know if I should. I was thinking of giving it to Kitzi as a gift.'
'Then it'll be a very generous gift.'
Gus hesitated. 'Bobby, are you sure it's wise to answer the queen's summons?'
'For my uncle's sake, I really have little choice. I think I know what my father would have said, too. He venerated Queen Flavia. She awarded the confiscated Hentzau estate to him. I believe I now understand why she did it. It puzzled the world in general, but I see that she wanted to tie the Rassendylls to Ruritania, and perhaps give us some foundation for any political ambitions we might have. Now I come to think of it, a need to visit our estate in Ruritania might well be the excuse I want for our sudden decamping from Carlsbad. I had better get things moving.'
'Then to Strelsau it is, Bobby. What time's the train, James?'
'I took the liberty of buying you tickets too, Mr Underwood.'
The feeling of being under observation began growing on Gus and Bob the moment they took their farewell of the Goldener Schild. As the fiacre rumbled across the Franz Josefs bridge and up to the station, Gus kept peering back. All he could see was the dogcart with James and their bags following at a distance, yet both young men somehow felt the weight of eyes upon them. The feeling intensified during their wait for the train.
The Ranstadt express from Prague arrived on time. The two friends found their first-class compartment, while James and two porters manoeuvred their trunks and bags on to the guard's van. The Tassilisner Kron was in Bob's trunk, and James would sit with it throughout the two-hour journey.
The express arrived and departed in great clouds of steam. It was only half an hour to the Ruritanian frontier, and Gus's excitement rose with every passing mile. The Bohemian hills gave way to the Glottenberger massif as the train wound its way into the valley of the Radeln without halting at the Ruritanian border. The suburbs of a large town soon began flowing past the windows, ochre houses with red-tiled roofs. The spires of two great churches loomed over the station, the cathedral and the Vitalenkloster, the oldest abbey in Ruritania, the national shrine where the icon known as the Black Virgin was preserved.
Gus looked eagerly out the windows down on to the platform. Everywhere were unfamiliar green railway uniforms and policemen in black with Prussian leather jäger-style shakos. Somehow it was quite different from Bohemia, but it was difficult immediately to pin down how. Perhaps it was the many hanging baskets of red geraniums, and banks of flowers at the end of the platform. There also seemed to be a national costume of sorts: some women wore long embroidered aprons and white caps, while the men with them wore hats in the Tyrolean style with a sheaf of eagle feathers on the right side. Although it might have been Gus's imagination, there seemed to him to be rather more black-cassocked clergy around than in Austria.
Bob was less eager for his first sight of the land of his ancestors. His leave-taking from Kitzi had not gone well. She had made little effort to mask her displeasure. 'After all, Gussie,' he had said, 'there we were going along all passionate, and I cut and run. It must have looked like cold feet, despite all I could say. And the more I went on about pressing family business, the more artificial my excuses seemed.'
'So no exchange of love tokens?'
'I was lucky to escape undamaged.'
'Never mind, Bobby. You'll get a chance to make it up.' Privately, Gus thought his friend was too tolerant of Kitzi's tantrums, but who was he to criticise? He had to believe there were compensations for Bob unknown to him. So he quietly sympathised with Bob's abstraction and low spirits while keeping his opinions to himself.
James had already organised porters to transfer their baggage on to the Strelsau train. He was walking close behind the men as they trundled the trunks down the platform. Gus wondered at the incongruity of it all, especially the idea that one of the most precious symbols of the history and nationhood of the Rothenian people was in Bob's battered school trunk on a wheelbarrow trundling through the heart of this provincial railway station. He still felt the weight of eyes, and half believed he saw the gaze of several men linger rather too long on him and Bob. Were they friends or enemies; were they those 'people' Oskar was supposed to have, or German agents? Whether or not, the two young men kept careful watch on their baggage piled up on the correct platform for the noon express to the capital, while they sat in the station restaurant having coffee and a light luncheon. James lounged on a bench eyeing the trunks, no doubt with his hand on the heavy revolver in his coat pocket, Gus thought.
As they sat awaiting the arrival of the express, Gus asked what the plans were when they got to Strelsau.
'I believe the queen will have someone waiting to meet us, but of course we aren't in communication with the palace. James said that Count Oskar will have telegraphed ahead, but we won't hear of any reply. Perhaps her agents are already waiting for us. Maybe they are shadowing us now. We just have to travel on in faith.'
The express drew up as they talked and they made their way on to the platform. James nodded when they passed, and moved to get the porters to load the baggage, tipping them in Austrian kreuzer. They would have to change money when they got into Strelsau. The train pulled out punctually, and they watched the towns, villages and countryside of Ruritania slide past them.
The journey took them south down the wide valley of the Radeln to ancient Glottenburg, the second oldest Rothenian city and the heart of a duchy ruled by a rival dynasty until less than a century ago. Gus's recent and unaccustomed reading allowed him to impart these nuggets to Bob, who looked at him strangely when he did so. The route then turned west through the hilly and wooded watershed between the valleys of the Radeln and Arndt, until it reached the great river Starel at Kesarstein Junction. The express was delayed there for half an hour to await the train from Linz, before beginning the final stage upriver to Strelsau.
By that time, Bob was noticeably more excited. He joined Gus in craning to get his first sight of the towers of Strelsau when they reached the city's outer margins. As the train swung westwards towards the König Rudolfs Bahnhof, they caught a magnificent view of the hill of the Altstadt, the three great spires of the cathedral dramatic on the skyline. Just south of it, the Waclawkloster indicated the heart of old Ruritania, where once had stood the palace, fortress and house-church of Duke Tassilo. Medieval half-timbered houses climbed up the hill in twisted lanes, like urban ivy. Then the train turned north into the station approach and the sight was obscured by lines of tall tenements, workshops and many-windowed warehouses.
'So this is Strelsau,' marvelled Gus when the train began slowing down at the platform, its brakes squealing, their wooden blocks giving off a strong smell of burning. 'It means "the fort on the Starel" in Old Rothenian. In the ninth century, Tassilo established the first bishop of the Rothenians here next to the ancient hall of his fathers. The Neustadt where we are is west of the river, and was created by Duke Rudolf III in the sixteenth century, the same duke who founded the university. And what are you laughing at, Bobby?'
'You, Gussie, you old stiff. You sound like a tour guide.'
'Just thought you'd be interested. You might end up ruling this city one day.'
'Let's not get ahead of ourselves. See anyone promising on the platform?'
'No one. There are too many people.'
'Whoever it is will be waiting at the barrier probably.'
They climbed down on to the platform, and walked back to where James was organising the unloading of the trunks. He nodded to them and indicated that they should move ahead of him to the barrier. A couple of policemen were standing at the gate to their platform along with several uniformed porters, but there was no one who seemed to be looking for them.
'I feel neglected,' frowned Gus.
'You'd better engage a fiacre, James,' sighed Bob.
'Yes, my lord. Where would you like to go?'
'What's a good, central hotel?'
'The Englischer Hof and the König Heinrich II are both used by English travellers, sir. They're on or near the Rudolfs Platz, which is the city's central square.'
'The König Heinrich II it had better be; the Englischer Hof might be a bit obvious a place for us to go. Do you see anyone you recognise, James?'
'Not a one, sir.'
'What do you make of this?'
'I have to confess it does not look promising. The queen's illness has advanced rapidly, and it was mentioned in yesterday's papers in Carlsbad. I rather fear her ability to control events is passing out of her hands. I suggest we get to the hotel, sir. From there I have contacts who will be able to inform us better.'
'Then let's go.'
The carriage took them briskly through the southern suburbs along the boulevard of the Königstrasse. Far down along it they saw the white frontage of the royal palace. Nearer at hand, it was a wide, tree-lined avenue fronted with tall buildings in the Second Empire style up until it reached the bar in the Lines, the eighteenth-century fortifications of the Neustadt. Beyond the Lines, as the avenue reached the Rudolfs Platz, the houses became older, with handsome, baroque gabled fronts.
Traffic became heavier as their carriage trotted out on to the wide spaces of the Rudolfs Platz. It was an impressive city square, still in those days with many of the original sixteenth century brick fronts, at least at the palace end, where the Salvatorskirk towered up above the west front of the square. At the southern end, however, there had already been much new building of six- or seven-storey commercial premises. One of these was the König Heinrich II, a double-fronted hotel in the Parisian style, with uniformed doormen and porters clustering around the revolving doors of the entrance. It was very proud of its electrical lighting and elevator, judging by the advertisements outside.
Barefoot city urchins stood at the wheels to guard the clothes of the arriving guests from mud and dust, in the hopes of a few coins. They had to put up with Austrian kreuzer.
When their luggage had been stacked in the foyer, Bob went to take rooms for them. 'Gussie, we'd better have a double with bathroom. I'd feel safer if we weren't separated at this time. What do you think, James?'
'I quite agree, sir. Now, if you don't mind, I shall organise the trunks and the unpacking and then lose no time in searching out some old friends. I suggest you handle the money changing at the Anglo-Austrian bank, which you will find on Strelsau's own Graben. It exits the square from the southwest corner, parallel to the Königstrasse. You have an hour before the bank closes.'
They took their leave of James, who hoped to have something to report after dinner. Their business at the bank was done quickly, and they left with wallets full of banknotes in Ruritanian krone, their pockets jingling with bronze pfennigs.
'A krone is worth forty-eight pfennigs, and since a Ruritanian pfennig is worth the same as an English penny, a krone is four shillings. So it's five krone to the pound... got it, Gussie?'
'I'd better try to remember that. Austrian florins are ten to the pound, so the krone is worth more. I don't want to throw away what little money I've got left.'
'Oh stuff, Gussie. I'll bail you out for now. Don't get all Caledonian on me.'
'Let's take a stroll on the big square.' Gus was grateful for the generosity of his friend, but there was something deep within his stolid Underwood soul which did not like to be 'beholden' to people. As a result, he did not feel comfortable. However, he soon cheered up strolling arm-in-arm with his friend along the west side of the Rudolfs Platz, under the double avenue of lime trees with which it had been planted. He pointed out the great central fountain erected by King Ferdinand in memory of his mother, Margaret of Tuscany, which would have looked more at home in a Roman piazza.
When they came to the northern or palace end of the square, they surveyed the huge equestrian statue of Henry the Lion, in breastplate and full-bottomed wig, a marshal's baton in his hand, and janissaries being trampled under his horse's hooves. It towered up atop a fifteen-foot granite plinth, on which was inscribed: HENRICUS REX : PATER PATRIÆ : DEFENSOR ECCLESIÆ. The king had his back to the palace and faced south towards Trieste, where in 1692 as a prince aged only seventeen he had broken the Turkish siege.
'You know, Gussie,' Bob mused, 'it's absurd, but I do feel at home here. Maybe it's something in the air, or maybe it's being surrounded by all these Elphbergs. For whatever reason, there's something in me which responds to the place.'
They stopped off at the Flaviener Hof below the cliff-like limestone walls of the baroque Salvatorskirk to try the café's rich and famous chocolate-coffee drink. As they sat out at a pavement table sipping their cups, they were startled to see a dragoon regiment and two batteries of horse artillery clatter and rumble past on the cobbles of the square, heading north. Strelseners paused and stared, while children ran alongside the column. Clearly this was not an everyday occurrence. They finished their drinks and returned to the hotel, where they took a table for dinner. Retiring afterwards to the lounge for cigarettes and brandy, they found James hovering in the foyer.
'Any news?' Bob asked.
'Quite a bit, my lord. The most pressing thing is that this morning the army was partly mobilised and the German frontier was closed. The court gazette says that Duke Leopold of Thuringia's expected visit next week has been cancelled. No explanation was given. Friends of mine who are privy to these sorts of things have heard rumours of arrests here and in the northern cities as German agents and known Thuringian sympathisers have been rounded up. Apparently, the queen has finally located the enemies who engineered Fr Piotr's death. She has moved, and it's hardly surprising there was no one to meet us at the station. There is a coup of some sort under way, and we are in the very thick of it, sir.'
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]