Count Oskar

VII

By Michael Arram

Bob and Gus were poring over a copy of the Ruritanischer Tagblatt in their hotel room early the next morning.

'Of course it's subtly censored. Ruritania may have a parliament, and the press is theoretically free, but an editor who knows what's good for him won't get on the wrong side of the court or the chancellor. Look. No word of the queen's illness, and the troop movements of the past few days are described as summer military exercises in Merz and Ober Husbrau.'

Gus went over to the window. The square seemed busy, with people walking about under the young lime trees below the hotel. Street vendors were active up and down the pavements. Across the treetops, beyond the fountain and the distant statue of Henry the Lion, the royal banner, a red lion on yellow, was flapping lazily over the palace roof. Here they were, and at the opposite end of the square was the dying queen. How did they get to bridge the space between them?

As if in answer, a knock at the door announced a hotel page who handed Gus a note, and gracefully took a six-pfennig tip for his trouble. It was addressed to 'Herr Graf von Burlesdon', so Gus passed it over to him.

Bob frowned for a moment before his face brightened. 'You'd better ring for James, old lad. Our contact with the palace has arrived and wishes to see us in the lobby.'

James appeared rapidly. Bob queried, 'Do you know a Colonel Bernenstein?'

For perhaps the second time in their acquaintance, James gave something approximating a smile. 'Oh yes sir. He was Lieutenant Bernenstein when I first met him, a very loyal and capable officer who distinguished himself in the days of the anarchist conspiracy against Rudolf V. I believe he commands the Guard Fusiliers of Modenheim nowadays. He was very close to the late Colonel Sapt, and had some connection with military intelligence a few years ago. He would be just the man to be trusted by the queen with a delicate mission.'

'Then you had better go and ask him up, James.'

Colonel Bernenstein was a tall and active man in his forties. He had grey hair, a black moustache, and a frank, open face. He shook hands all round, with an especially warm grip for James. 'Mr Antrobus, a very real pleasure to see you once again. It must be five years.'

'A pleasure to see you too, sir.'

'A pleasure also, Lord Burlesdon, and this must be Mr Underwood. Yes? Very good. I hope it will be convenient for you to accompany me to the palace. I have a carriage waiting outside. Her majesty is very keen to see you.'

They took the new-fangled Otis elevator down to the lobby. As they were approaching the door, Gus found himself buttonholed in French by a hirsute and familiar face.

'Cher monsieur Auguste. How are you, my dear fellow? How strange to find you in Strelsau. And who are your friends?'

Gus was obliged to stop and introduce monsieur de Blowitz to Bob and the colonel.

'Ah, milord Burlesdon, I have heard so much about you.'

'Oh really?' Bob was taken somewhat aback. 'I can't imagine why.'

'My dear milord, your name is mentioned in all sorts of places and by all sorts of people. Perhaps you are here to visit your estates in Hentzau?' The journalist gave a smug smile. He clearly loved to show off the extent of his knowledge.

'What brings you to Strelsau yourself, monsieur de Blowitz?' Gus parried.

'Oh, I think I told you when we met in Vienna that interesting days were ahead for Ruritania. I have merely come to prove the truth of my prediction. Please do not let me detain you, sir. Good day, milord, colonel.'

Bernenstein stared after the florid journalist with bemusement. He shrugged and led the way out to the square.

The open carriage carried no marks indicating it had anything to do with the palace. The driver was in a simple black jacket, silk hat and white stock. James climbed up behind, and they were off. A brisk trot brought them up to the north side of the Rudolfs Platz, where they rumbled on past the palace and the walls of the Hofgarten behind it before finally turning in under the arch of the Reitschule. Beyond, the road wound down through the Volksgarten to the river below.

The carriage drew up in the yard and they disembarked. The colonel led them under the trees skirting the palace garden and in through a side door of the west wing. Stairs brought them on to a gallery overlooking an internal courtyard.

'Mr Underwood and Mr Antrobus,' the colonel remarked in a low voice, 'I have no instructions about you, so I must ask you to remain here until we come back. My lord, if you will accompany me, the queen is waiting in her private rooms.'

James took a window seat and composed himself, while Gus began slowly pacing the gallery. A half hour passed. A footman arrived with coffee, which he laid out on a small table, then bowed and departed. Sipping his cup, Gus wandered up and down examining the portraits. This particular gallery had a collection of paintings of Elphberg children. Gus was fascinated by a double portrait of Flavia as a young princess about ten years old, in a white dress with a green sash, standing in front of a teenaged Rudolf V, whose hand was on his future queen's shoulder. The two red-headed children stared fixedly ahead, giving the distinct impression they wanted to be anywhere else than together.

A further hour passed. Gus was beginning to doze off when the door opened, and Bob reappeared with the colonel. Bob looked dazed and gave a vague nod at Gus's greeting.

'The carriage will convey you back to your hotel, gentlemen. I believe her majesty is expecting Lord Burlesdon tomorrow at the same time. I will take my leave at this point. Werner will escort you to the Reitschule.'

Bob was silent as they walked back through the gardens, and Gus did not want to break in on his reverie. When the carriage rattled out of the yard, Bob finally smiled across at Gus. 'That was a facer, and no mistake. What a grand lady! Still very beautiful despite her age and illness, quite amazing really.'

'So what did she have to say... if you can share it, of course. I don't wish to pry.'

'Oh, don't worry about that, Gussie. I know I can trust you. The queen told me all about my uncle and what a great chap he was, the stuff we already knew. But she went on to say that he was a true Elphberg, as am I. Ruritania will only prosper with an Elphberg on the throne, she asserted, and she was appointing me the trustee for its future. It's difficult to describe her eager, persuasive voice. It quite thrills you.

'She confessed her illness had taken her by surprise, so she knew any plan she made with regard to me was likely to be a desperate one. That is why she sent me the crown. It was to assure me that this was no whim of a sick woman, but a serious plan for the future of the realm.'

Gus intervened. 'Oh dear. I had hoped she wanted it back. It's too worrying to have it in our luggage. We daren't even put it in the hotel safe.'

'I am to keep it for now, she says. If I was worried, I was to be assured we were being watched over.'

'That's comforting, I suppose. So what is her plan?'

'There's to be a meeting of the Staatsrath, the Council of State, in two days' time, on Friday. She will review the possibilities with the Council, and propose her own solution.'

'Which is?'

'That I be named her heir as being in the true Elphberg line.'

'Will they stick at that?'

'I have no idea. But she says most of the main people here are hostile to the Thuringian succession, and would look seriously at any alternative. The nobility are supposed to be for the Elphbergs to a man.'

'It sounds as if she wants to present the world with a fait accompli.'

'She is a decisive and determined lady. You can tell the illness has her in its claws, but she showed no sign of discomfort or any confusion of mind in the time I was with her.'

'How do you feel about all this?'

'Stunned, to say the least. The idea of being King Robert of Ruritania is bizarre beyond the bounds of absurdity. Yet I am an Elphberg, and I am here in Strelsau. It is for me to grasp the opportunity or not, I would suppose. I could walk away, but when I think of my father and my uncle, I can't do it. When I touched that crown...'

'Yes?'

Bob looked pensive. Eventually he continued, 'It was as if it belonged to me, as if it was right that I place it on my head, as it had been on my uncle's. If it had felt wrong, I would be on the train to Ostend now. But it felt right.'

Gus stared at his friend, at the lowered brow and straight gaze. Suddenly he realised there was a lot more to Bobby Burlesdon than he had ever got round to discovering.

The carriage lurched to a stop in front of the hotel, where the doorman unfolded the steps.

***

Gus decided he was not going to spend another evening in a hotel. Bob might have been trapped by affairs of state, but he was not. He had his own concerns to see to, and one of those was a pair of mesmerising green-blue eyes in a preternaturally handsome face. Oskar von Tarlenheim was in this city, he believed, and he could not stop himself from pursuing the man. Was it love? Oskar certainly had not encouraged him in thinking there was any interest on his part. So it must be obsession. But recognising the fact gave him no freedom from it.

Gus had an early dinner, picked up his walking stick and strode out on to the streets of Strelsau. Turning south on Strelsau's Graben, he took the first right and followed the map three blocks along the Osragasse. The quiet street opened into the cobbled Raathaus Platz, where the elaborate posts of gaslights stalked along in serried lines. Opposite him was the looming mass of the Raathaus of the Neustadt, with its massive, castellated brick tower. The square was empty apart from a line of cabs, waiting in hopes of business from evening revellers.

The building he was looking for was the Tarlenheim palace, its great rusticated frontage making up most of the square's north side. It was stuccoed and painted a startling green. A large flag hung from a pole over the central arch, white with a red lion rampant upon a field of roses. It appeared the family was in residence.

Gus walked boldly under the arch and into the inner courtyard. Broad steps led up to a great double-leafed door with the Tarlenheim arms sculpted above it. The bell-pull brought a footman, who discreetly sized up Gus before obligingly taking his card. No, Count Oskar was not currently in the city, but Count Hugo Maria was at home to him, if he would be pleased to follow.

With a most unaristocratic grin on his face, Hugo stood waiting in a reception room opening off the rather grand marble entrance hall that Gus thought made Haddesley Hall look like a farmhouse. The youngest Tarlenheim was wearing a wide-collared shirt, knitted pullover and loose trousers. Wisps of hair hanging over his damaged eye gave him a quite boyish appearance. He wrung Gus's hand enthusiastically. 'Dear August, how fine to meet you here in Strelsau. Of course, I knew you were coming.'

Gus was bemused. 'How on earth did you know that?'

Hugo laughed, looking very much like his brother when he did so, Gus thought. 'It was clear that you were fascinated by Oskar, as so many other men and women are. It was therefore easy to predict that you would find a reason to come here. You were going to Carlsbad when we met in Vienna. It is not far from Carlsbad to the Ruritanian frontier, and so here you are.'

'That's impressive reasoning.'

'Yes, and quite spurious.' Hugo laughed again. 'In reality, I noticed that your friend the earl was mentioned in the Strelsener Amtsblatt this morning as a new arrival in the city... you are staying at the König Heinrich II, is that not right? The reporters make up the list from the police registrations. So where the earl is, I assume you are too, as his friend and companion.'

'Oh! Very observant. Did your servant say Oskar is not in town?'

'He was going to Paris from Vienna. I assume he's still there, if he was telling the truth. He usually does, but I have known him to mislead deliberately. We have not heard from him for over a week. Would you like a drink of some sort? It cannot be alcoholic, I'm afraid. Mother would have me flogged. Chocolate is very nice at this time of day.'

Gus was amused by the gushing good humour of this young aristocrat. Something in himself seemed to answer Hugo's intelligence and vivacity, and although there was not the sort of attraction to Hugo as there was in the case of his brother, they still had a very enjoyable couple of hours.

They talked a lot about Oskar, of course. It was pretty clear that Hugo was extremely fond of him, even while well aware of his brother's proclivities. He also seemed to understand why Gus was interested in Oskar, and not to mind in the least.

'Hugo?' Gus eventually asked. 'When did you know Oskar was more interested in men than women?'

Hugo laughed. 'He was always unconventional. When he was fifteen, I was walking in the shrubbery at Festenburg and surprised him and one of the young gardeners in what I can only call a compromising position. He didn't even blush. He just laughed, and they went back to doing what they were doing. I simply walked off. Oskar joined me later to explain it all, though I was only ten. I don't think he has a conscience or a sense of propriety.'

'You don't approve?'

'I love my brother dearly, but he is unwise to live so nonchalantly. He likes to think pleasure has no consequences for him or for others. You must understand that you'll never touch Oskar's heart. He is a sad sinner in the matter of lust. He craves bodily satisfaction, and will take it where he least expects consequences. How did you know he was like that?'

'It was when he told me that he frequented bath houses in Vienna.'

'There you are then. What sort of men does he meet with there?'

'Office workers, labourers, artisans. I see what you mean, Hugo.'

'Take care, August. Don't try to be like him. You may admire him, but you are not he. You have a warm heart.'

'I don't think Oskar is cold-hearted.'

'I express myself poorly. I mean that your heart can be touched easily, while Oskar's is well under his control.'

'You are a wise man for someone our age.'

'Maybe when the senses are impaired, there is compensation elsewhere. My father said I may see poorly in the body, but not in the mind. So listen to me when I tell you to be careful of Oskar. He doesn't always see what he is doing to people, and his sharp edges can cut, though he may not wish to harm you.'

Hugo urged Gus to join him the next morning, and Gus said he would. He knew Bob was going to the palace again, and he wasn't needed.

After leaving the Tarlenheim palace, Gus did not go directly back to his hotel. He had been disturbed by Hugo's premature wisdom on the subject of his elder brother. Though Gus recognised the truth of what Hugo said, part of him wanted to defy those words. His way led him past a large public bath at the crossing of the Osragasse with the Postgasse. Stopping outside the building, he took off his hat. It was nine o'clock and the Königensbad was still lit up. He noticed a sign advertised men's and women's baths, which his libido thought was promising. Two young men came out as he stood there, and one of them eyed him in a way he was becoming familiar with. For a moment, Gus hesitated on the brink of plunging into Oskar's world, but then the strong grip of his Underwood common sense pulled him back. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets, and walked on through the night-time streets of Strelsau.

***

Gus was out and about very early on Thursday morning. He made a brief breakfast with a preoccupied Bob and left the hotel straight afterwards. He had dressed lightly for the hot day, with open collar, cravat and loose grey trousers. He was admitted at once to the palace, where Hugo Maria came tumbling down the great staircase to meet him, heedlessly leaping the last three steps. He wrung Gus's hand and took his arm in that intimate male Ruritanian way that Oskar had shown in the Belvedere Gardens in Vienna.

'Now, August, have you expectations for today? No? Then we must go out and see the city. I think you are interested in my land, and you seem to know rather more about it than the usual English tourist. So let us expand your knowledge of it even further.'

'Hugo!' called a female voice from down the corridor.

'Mama!' Hugo paused. A very well-dressed, stocky woman in her fifties had come out of a side room. 'Mama, may I introduce my friend August Under-vood, son of Sir Under-vood of Haddesley in England, an old family of Suffolk. August, this is my mother Helga Maria, the dowager princess of Tarlenheim.'

Gus made a proper bow. Hugo's mother seemed a friendly if decided woman. 'Hugo dear, you know you must be at the Spa for your treatment at one. Dr Weiss is particularly expecting you after you missed the last course. Mr Under-vood, how do you do? I'm sorry to talk across you. My youngest son does need to be kept in order.'

Gus made some neutral remarks, and was led away by Hugo as soon as decently possible. They took to the street, Hugo with a battered tweed hat tilted back on his head. He had none of the dressiness of Oskar, yet still somehow managed to look stylish. Gus realised with a start that he had long stopped noticing the boy's dead and discoloured eye.

'We shall walk, I think. Now where shall we start? Ah yes. The Raathaus tower has 365 steps, which we will now climb. I hope you are in good condition. It is quite a height.'

They stood on the tower's battlements enjoying the light breeze blowing above the roofs of Strelsau, while Hugo began orienting Gus. 'Now the Altstadt you can see easily from here. In Rothenian it is the Staramesten. It is the core of the city, and indeed of Ruritania. Archaeologists from Berlin dug up the garden of the Erbischoffspalacz last year, and I carried buckets of earth for them. They found traces of the embankments of the original Slavic fort on the heights. There was Roman pottery too. Professor Busch's theory is that Rothenians took over an existing iron-age fort in the early 700s, under the legendary Ruric perhaps.'

'Who was this Ruric?'

'The father of our race, of course, which is why we are called Ruritanians by some. But old documents call us Rotani, Rotenisker, or Rothenians. If you believe the early genealogies, Ruric was Tassilo's several-times-great grandfather. If you believe medieval legends, he was one of the descendants of Priam of Troy who fled the sack of the city and roamed the northern wastes till they found a homeland in the Starel valley. If you believe students of comparative religion, then he was a hero-god whose name was preserved by oral tradition. Which is why the ducal family of Tassilo was called the Ruritanides. This name became important when the Elphbergs inherited the duchy in the fifteenth century. Duke Rudolf I did not like to rule so obviously Slavic a land as Rothenia, so he commissioned a national history which stressed the Trojan myth and "revived" what he claimed was the original name of "Ruritania", though in fact it had previously been applied only to the ducal family.'

'Do I understand from this that you don't favour the name Ruritania?'

Hugo smiled. 'Is it so obvious? I think the name obscures the fact that we are principally a Slavic people. It collaborates with the ruling class's former wish to seem Germanic, even though the aristocracy is mostly Rothenian. I trace my lineage to one of Tassilo's counts, Ansagadis of Terlenehem, which is as Slavic a name as you can find. I also have Waclaws, Mareks, Jerzys and Serges in my ancestry.'

Gus pondered a while on what Hugo had said. 'What do Ruritanian Germans think about this Rothenian revival?'

'Ah, August. That's the thing, is it not? Our cities have large German populations, and Germans live in some numbers in the agricultural population of the provinces of Mittenheim, on the Bavarian border and in our area of the Tyrol. There is certainly some resentment at the challenge to their old cultural dominance. But the queen and the aristocracy lead in all this, and her majesty in particular has shown the way. She is patron of the Rothenian League, which her late husband founded with my father, that sponsors Rothenian education in the schools and has opened a new Rothenian language university at Ranstadt. She founded the Flavia chairs of Rothenian literature and history at the Rudolf University here in Strelsau. Being Rothenian is now the fashion, because the queen favours it.'

'I've noticed that German is spoken a lot in Strelsau. In fact, I don't think I've heard any Rothenian yet.'

Hugo gave his ready laugh. 'Oh, people here are very sensitive about what language to use in conversation. Rothenians have a gift for sizing up a person's linguistic allegiance, and since you are a foreigner, they would naturally use German to communicate with you. Any educated Rothenian is bilingual, because children were taught entirely in German until only two decades ago. But it is changing now. If you go to the northern cities of Modenheim or Ebersfeld in my own country of Husbrau, you will hear Rothenian everywhere. Sooner or later it will be the same in Strelsau. The city is growing fast, largely due to Rothenian peasants migrating in from the countryside. Go to the new suburbs of Sudmesten here, and you will hear little German.'

'Doesn't it worry you that there might one day be trouble between Germans and Rothenians if the Germans feel threatened in their own country?'

Hugo's smile was suddenly gone and he eyed Gus solemnly. 'There you have put your finger on it,' he eventually replied. 'As long as an Elphberg sits on the throne, there is little to worry about. Though German in origin, the Elphbergs have been loved by Rothenian and German alike. The crown of Tassilo and the Catholic faith have always united the country.'

'But what happens when the last of the Elphbergs dies?'

'I see you have been studying our country more than is usual amongst foreigners. It is impressive, August. Yes, that has been now for many years a cause of worry to Rothenians. For when the queen dies, a new king will come who is German and a Protestant. Of course, it would have been easier if the queen had remarried. She was a young widow. She could have married a Catholic prince and maybe produced heirs. Some criticised her for that, though not as many as you might think. All knew the love she had for her Rudolf. To expect her to love again, even for the sake of her kingdom, would have been asking too much. True Ruritanians do not condemn her for that.'

Gus wondered if the use of that phrase 'her Rudolf' indicated that Hugo knew who was really buried in the tomb of Rudolf V of Ruritania.

'Now, August, this is all very well, but we have to introduce you properly to the queen of cities. To do that we need to stride out. Let us go to the Altstadt, where I shall show you the heart of our kingdom and we can greet Duke Tassilo, Henry the Lion and all the Rudolfs. Allons-y!'

It was a glorious day. The weather was sunny and breezy, with a hint of autumn in the air, and Hugo's company was exhilarating. He did not use his intellect to daunt Gus, who soon fell into the same sort of easy relationship with Hugo that he so valued with Bob. Indeed, it was as if he had known the Ruritanian for years. It was a different interaction than he had known with Oskar, as he soon realised. Oskar was seductive, alarming and amusing; Hugo was frank, intelligent and witty. Gus's formidable common sense was swift to point out to him which was the more worthwhile relationship, although his heart quickly trumped that by pointing out the thrill and frisson he got from being near Oskar.

The day ended all too soon for Gus and indeed for Hugo. 'Oh dear, August. I have to go home to face Mama. You should have reminded me about Dr Weiss!'

'Oh my God! It was the Spa at one, wasn't it? I was enjoying myself so much, I completely forgot.'

'It's not your fault, August. But I am glad you had a good time. I will be confined to my room on bread and water tonight. But maybe tomorrow...'

Gus beamed at his new friend. 'There's nothing I would like more.'

He was still smiling faintly when he arrived in the hotel foyer, to be confronted by a familiar and unwelcome face. 'Mr Ashburnam,' he muttered in a tight greeting. It was the first secretary of the Vienna embassy.

'Mr Underwood,' was the equally chilly response. 'Would you be so good as to remain here with me in the foyer? Lord Burlesdon is engaged at the moment with Sir Anthony Wilmslow, the ambassador to Ruritania. I would doubt that they wish to be interrupted.'

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