Count Oskar

XII

By Michael Arram

The Ostbahnhof of Strelsau was cleared of travellers and full of soldiers when the three-carriage special from Hentzau came to a stop in a great cloud of steam. The general staff was taking no chances, and in the temporary vacuum of power following the queen's death, was in a position to arrange things its own way.

Oskar met them at the station, full of suppressed energy. Boarding the train while arrangements were being made for Bob's reception, Oskar was unusually formal and sombre in black frock coat and full mourning, his silk hat wrapped in black crepe which trailed down his back.'This little show of pomp has been arranged by the army, the only functioning part of the nation at the moment. That will change sometime tomorrow. The Lower Chamber and the government are dissolved immediately on the sovereign's death, but not the Reichsräthe. There is no chancellor and there will be no elections until the new king is proclaimed, so power now technically rests with the Prince of Ostberg as president of the Upper House.'

'Do we know what he will do with it?' Bob asked.

'Rudolf and the other peers will put pressure on him to convene a Council of Regency as a substitute government while the succession crisis lasts. He will do this, not so much because he supports the Rassendyll claim but because it avoids making a difficult decision for a while. That is fine for us. We can use the time to secure the Church's verdict and accustom the country to the idea that there is another candidate besides Duke Leopold.'

'It sounds straightforward, suspiciously so.'

'You are right to be suspicious. The Concert of Europe will already be preparing its response, and London and Berlin are in an unholy alliance in favour of the Thuringians. My feeling is that there will be a congress declared in which the powers will attempt to impose their own candidate. They may move faster than we might like. Prince Bismarck has had all the time he needs to prepare his response. Austria-Hungary alone will support you, sir. We know nothing of what Italy and France may do, but they are not obvious allies. Russia may be persuadable after the anti-Slav propaganda that came from Berlin. Our minister in St Petersburg is making representations to the government of Prince Gortchakov.'

Bob disembarked on to the platform to a lot of curious stares. There had been some confusion about how to acknowledge a man who might conceivably be the king, but who had no constitutional position at the moment. In the end it was decided that a small honour guard would be allowed to offer a salute, but its standard would stay erect rather than being dropped as it would have been to a head of state. Similarly, a line regiment of dragoons, not a guard regiment, was to provide the escort into the city. Amongst the people they passed along the way, black was the predominant colour of dress, in a sign of national mourning that would continue for a month from the date of the queen's death. The lugubrious, well-spaced tolling of the city's bells filled the air with melancholy. Gus saw tear-streaked faces amongst the onlookers, and was much moved.

Bob, Gus and Oskar were taken to the Tarlenheim palace, where a curious crowd had already gathered before their carriage rolled under the arch from the Raathaus Platz. It didn't disperse; indeed, the presence of army sentries and a line of police encouraged it to stay. The security measures made the place look as though things might well be happening in this part of the Neustadt. The city was rippling with rumour.

Prince Rudolf and his brother Franz were waiting when Bob got down from the carriage. Both men took off their hats to him. That, more than anything else, brought home to Gus the daunting nature of the claim his friend was making. He had to admit that Bob carried it off rather well. The group moved up to the first-floor library, where seats were set out in group for a council meeting. Several other men were present, among whom Gus recognised General von Tirkenau. The others were apparently sympathetic members of the Reichsräthe and ministries. A round of handshaking greeted Bob, who was placed in the central arm chair. Gus took a wall seat with Oskar and the general's aide-de-camp.

After bowing to Bob, the prince opened the meeting by outlining the situation following the queen's death early that morning. A pre-emptive attempt had immediately been made by the chancellor to have Leopold of Thuringia proclaimed king in the traditional site: the open air pulpit of the abbey of St Waclaw, in the Altstadt, where the bull erecting Ruritania into a kingdom had been read in 1644 by the papal legate. But General von Tirkenau had already had the Erchbischoffsplatz closed by troops. The mayor of the Altstadt and the chancellor, having no warrant from the Staatsrath to proceed, were turned away. The chancellor then defiantly read the proclamation from the steps of the Raathaus of the Altstadt, to an audience comprising only a crossing sweeper and a street salesman. He went home to his breakfast in a fury.

The queen had issued a final testament the day before she died. The prince turned to Bob.'It nominates you, sir, as her general heir in all things pertaining to her kingdom and estate.'He paused.'It also forbids the burial of her body until the question of a successor is decided by the people of Ruritania.'

Bob nodded.'As the queen's heir, I must ask what is to be done with her body in the meantime.'

'It has been embalmed and dressed in her royal robes. It will publicly lie in state in the Raathaus of the Neustadt for a week or so, and then be placed in a sealed coffin in the Chapel Royal until burial is allowed. Mass will be said for her soul three times daily wherever her body rests. A new tomb is already being prepared in the cathedral so she may lie beside her husband as she desired. The ledger stone and sculpture she commissioned for it were delivered three years ago. She also desired that the king's present tombstone in the cathedral should be placed in the Hofgarten at the place where he fell to the assassin's bullet.'

'That seems very well,' decided Bob.'And what is to be done about the government of the country in the meantime?'

'The president of the Reichsräthe has convened a Council of Regency which will govern the country until the new king is proclaimed.'

'So far so good, then.'

'Yes sir, but now the awkward questions. Prince Ostberg has already carried a vote that Duke Leopold of Thuringia may enter the country if he so wishes, and it is suggested that he take up residence at the royal château of Zenda. I had rather that had not been allowed, but the Concert of Europe must be appeased. No doubt he will bring his suite with him, including that black villain, his nephew. Albert is in fact doubtless already in hiding somewhere within the country, but there is at least this: If he joins his uncle, we will know exactly where he is.'

'What is the news from the German capital?'

'Prince Bismarck will organise a Congress. I imagine the telegraph wires are already humming between London and Berlin. We have to hope that one of the powers tries to stall the proceedings. If it does, we must attempt to use the delay to present a fait accompli.'

One of the dark-suited, white-haired men coughed.'Excuse me. Lord Burlesdon, my name is Wenzel, I am chef de bureau at the foreign ministry. I don't think we can expect any delay.' He nodded towards Oskar.'Our sources in Vienna tell us the British Foreign Office and the German Foreign Ministry have already activated a secret accord brokered some time ago by Prince Henry of Reuss. All the powers except Russia have agreed on a minor congress on the Ruritanian succession question, to be held at Strasbourg. Although the French have now refused to attend because of the choice of site, we expect a request daily for a Ruritanian delegation to be sent to witness the deliberations.'

There was a stir and a murmur around the room. Bob said, 'I assume this means we can only expect a fortnight's grace.'

Prince Rudolf sighed.'Then it is all down to the Church. What news do we have there?'

Wenzel sighed in turn.'I have heard unofficially from the nuncio. The pope's illness means that the corridors of power in the Lateran palace are clogged with manoeuvrings in the Curia for the succession.'

The prince raised his eyes to heaven.'Is the pope dying?'

'No, but it is the way with the Curia. It does not take much to set the factions against each other. Of course, the well-being of Catholic Ruritania is now forgotten. The cardinal Secretary of State said only two days ago that this was not a matter for the pontiff but for the Ruritanian hierarchy.'

'And this means …?' asked Bob.

'That the decision will be thrown back on Cardinal Archbishop Windischgratz, or delegated to a council of our bishops to settle.'

The prince's eyes narrowed.'Have we heard from the cardinal?'

'Yes, he is at last on the move. The queen's death has brought him down from Lake Maritz to be present at a requiem mass for her soul in the cathedral tomorrow.'

'Then I shall be there too,' Bob stated firmly.

'A good decision, sir,' agreed the prince.'It is not only decorous, but it will also point out to the people that there is a pious Catholic king available for election to the throne. The Thuringians would never be seen even dead in a mass, and could not take communion even if they did appear. It distances them from the soul of Ruritania.'

There was a silence before Bob summed up.'I see then, gentlemen, that we are adrift on a sea of events and what happens in the next two weeks will be critical. But tell me this: If I should be accepted as the rightful successor by the Council of Regency, what might the Congress do?'

'We cannot know, sir,' said the prince.'The backing of the Church for your legitimacy might possibly cause the Congress simply to accept your succession. On the other hand, and I have to say this, the rights of the Thuringians might be taken as the war cry for a German invasion. Then only Austria-Hungary and Russia could save us. There is danger in what we do.'

'So there is.' Bob rose, obliging the whole room to stand.'Thank you, gentlemen. I clearly have a lot of thinking to do. I appreciate all your efforts so far. We shall see where we are at the end of next week.'

The gathering bowed towards Bob and filed out, some talking and some looking solemn.

Gus stayed behind. He sensed, indeed scented, Oskar at his side.

'How are you, August?I was worried about you and your dreadful bruises.'

Gus gave him a little kick, causing his friend to laugh.'What an unsympathetic brute you are, Oskar. How are you is more to the point.'

'Very busy, of course. This is what I was born for, you know. I have been Rudolf's right-hand man for the first time in my life. He has confessed that he finally sees a point in my existence. We were not always the best of friends, as I would do nothing that he told me after father died, and he thinks I was mother's favourite. Wrong, of course. It is Hugo that mother fusses over. But now Rudolf and I are working together and are friends, and that is an improvement.'

'How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity,' quoted Gus.

'Psalm 132, verse 1,' Oskar promptly observed, with a straight face.

'What?'Gus was taken aback.

'I had a thorough Jesuit education in the college at Modenheim, dear August. It left several legacies, one being a taste for other boys, and another being that I memorised all the office psalms in Latin and German. Now, August, will you run away with me for a while?I think we both need some escape.'

Gus looked speculatively at Oskar, who gave him a bland look back.'What do you have in mind?'The mischief sparkled back at him in those bright green eyes.'Will I survive this?'

'Oh yes … probably. I will meet you in the hall after lunch. Until then, I must look at last night's police reports.'

***

The September afternoon had become misty as a fog rolled up the Starel valley and laid itself over the city. It was cold and clammy on the streets. Heavy drops of condensation were falling fitfully from the tree branches and eaves. Gus and Oskar had left the Rudolfs Platz and taken the Gildenfahrbsweg that cut across the grid of the Neustadt. Gus knew that it, and the Modenheimstrasse that exited opposite it, were parts of the original Roman road that had once crossed the plateau above the Starel on which the Neustadt had been laid out. Gildenfahrbsweg, or 'the Wejg' as the Rothenian population of the city called it, was a narrow road, and a shabby one too, the further it got from the Rudolfs Platz. The eaves of the sixteenth-century houses lining it crept together over their heads.

Oskar said, his mouth steaming, 'It is a wonder this road survived the fire which burned down most of the southeast quarter last century. As a result, the properties here are undesirable and the people that live in them equally so. But there is one interesting place I want you to see. I go there from time to time, but not as Oskar von Tarlenheim of course. And you must be Mr John Smith from England this afternoon.'

Gus was suspicious.'What is this place?'

'Oh, you will see. You may not like it, but it will widen your education. It was to educate yourself that you travelled this summer in Europe, yes?'

'I don't think my mother had quite your idea of education in mind when she let me go.'

Gus was thinking of the packet of unopened letters from Lady Underwood that had caught up with him that morning in Strelsau. James had arrived with the bundle from the post office, wearing a very straight face.

'Is this anything like the Sophienbad, Oskar?'

His friend shook his head.'Here we are.'

They were standing before a narrow brick house on the Wejg. It had not been painted in many years, the windows were all shuttered though it was daytime, and the door was closed against the world. Grass was growing out of the gutters.

Oskar rapped on a small, barred hatch in the door. After some time it slid back and a female voice asked a question in Rothenian. When Oskar replied in the same language, the door opened. Oskar went in with every appearance of coolness. Gus followed nervously.

A slovenly-looking maid in a grey dress offered to take their coats. Before handing his coat to her, Gus removed his wallet surreptitiously and slipped it into his trouser pocket. He was rather glad he had changed into older clothes before he came. Oskar, however, was sharp as a pin in one of his suits, black of course because of the national mourning, but with a very luxuriant purple orchid in the buttonhole. He seemed to belong to a different universe from the grimy corridor in which they stood. The dinginess was enhanced by the dim gas jets already lit in the house. Rickety stairs led upwards, and Oskar ascended them, inviting Gus to follow.

A certain amount of noise was coming from a back room. When they entered, Gus was more than a little taken aback. The room was well lit and fairly comfortably fitted out, with carpets and potted plants. Several young men and one older one were sitting around sipping glasses of wine or beer. More than a hint of cigar smoke hung in the air.

What took Gus aback was the attitude of some of the men. Two of them, close to his age, were entwined on a sofa, and clearly had just been kissing. The older man had a fresh-faced youth on his knee, with his hand in a surprising place on the young man's anatomy.

Everyone turned as Oskar and Gus entered. Oskar opened his arms with a big grin on his face.'Friends of the Ganymede Club!It is I, your pattern and king!'

There were hoots of derisory laughter. The boy got up, sidled over to Oskar, drew close and gave him a little peck on the lips.

'Marek. You have missed me?'

The boy coyly nodded.'So good to see you, Jerzy.' Looking over Oskar's shoulder – without much friendliness, Gus thought – he added, 'Who's this?'

'This is a guest. Everyone, say hello to an Englishman. This is John.'

The announcement got immediate interest. The half-dozen men turned directly to Gus, who suddenly wished he were many miles away.

Oskar continued, 'Now I know you want to get next to him, but he's mine. Talk but don't touch.'

Oskar bounced on to the sofa between the previous partners, took them both round the shoulder, and began chatting animatedly. The boy Marek, giving Gus a poisonous look, went to sulk in another corner, where he lit a cigarette and murmured petulantly to another man in Rothenian.

The older man, on the other hand, came smiling over and introduced himself affably as Woydek. He gave Gus a firm hand clasp, and if Gus noticed himself being appraised in a way that men do not normally use with each other, he was too politic to resent it.

'And so you are English, and it is not just Jerzy's joke?'

Gus confirmed it.

'You speak good German, young fellow.'

'So … er, this is a club?'

'Of a sort, and I think you know what sort. They do call it le vice anglais.'

Gus blushed and said he thought he did.'Do you have to pay a subscription?'

Woydek laughed at his naïvety.'No, not in that way. We come here to escape and to meet. To sleep with a man is difficult in the world outside, but not here.'

Gus looked across at Oskar and surprised a smouldering look coming towards him from his friend's green eyes. Suddenly he knew why he was there. His heart missed several beats. Breathing constricted, he tried making conversation with Woydek. After he was introduced to the others and found them affable and urbane, he began to relax. He noticed that Marek had disappeared somewhere with the man he had fled to.

Then he saw Oskar stand and hold out a hand to him. He took it to pull himself up, only to be rooted to the ground as Oskar kissed him firmly on the lips. He was too amazed to respond. Oskar whispered, 'You need to practice, Johnnie.'

An instant later he was being tugged through a side door where steps could be seen leading up to somewhere. Gus had a dawning idea it might be to paradise.

***

Gus woke in a small and clean bedroom of the Ganymede. The feel of warm, silky skin against his own recalled him to reality. His nose was full of Oskar's fragrance and the man's thick blond hair was in his face. Oskar's thigh was caressing his groin and his arms were round Gus's flanks. Those blue-green eyes were watching him through the wisps of his fringe.

'How do you feel, August?' smiled his lover.

'As though I were on a pinnacle of one of the Alps, and angels sounding silver trumpets were standing on the others.'

Oskar's smile became a grin. They kissed for a long time.'Who says the bourgeois English mind wallows in the mire of its own mundanity?'

'Er … probably you.'

'D'you know, you may be right. You may not have been the most experienced lover I have taken to bed, August … no, I will call you Gussie now, like your good friend Bob does. You may, as I say, not have been the most experienced lover in my bed, but you are certainly the most beautiful and enthusiastic. You English, so unexpected.'

'Thank you … may I say now, while I can, that I …'

Oskar closed Gus's mouth with his hand.'No, never say that, my Gussie. It is bad luck between men. If you don't know now why that is, you soon will.'

Gus was too tired and blissful to argue with Oskar. He just clasped him and drifted off again. When he awoke, his lover was dressing beside the bed.

'Get up, sleepyhead, the world awaits you.'

'Oh, damnation!'

'Come on, Gussie, be a brick and all that sort of thing.' Oskar tried to counterfeit the upper-class English drawl without much success.

Gus leapt out of bed and tried to wrestle Oskar back in with him, but Oskar wasn't easily caught. Also he was ruthless.

'I give up!I give up!Just don't squeeze!You have my teeth on edge,' pleaded Gus.

'You look so sexy, leblen.'

'Leblen?'

Oskar smiled.'Rothenian. I believe you'd say "darling".'

Gus laughed like a boy.'I think I may like your language.'

'Oh, do you propose to learn it?'

'Perhaps I may.'

'That's good. Now get a move on. They will be missing us from the palace.'

They dressed and went downstairs. Woydek was talking to the boy Marek. Marek gave a sour look at both Gus and Oskar, and stuck his tongue out at Gus.

After saying farewell to Woydek, they went out once again into the fog. Gus asked Oskar whether he had slept with Marek.

'Of course. He is a lively little eel between the sheets, and always ready to oblige in every possible way.'

'Is he a … prostitute?'

'That concerns you?'

'Well . . . yes it does. It's tragic that men and women have to resort to sex to make a living.'

'I would agree with you, of course, in general terms. Marek, however, is paid to be the club's page and servant, while Woydek is the concierge. Marek goes with men because he wants to, not because he is paid to. Men do give him tips of course. Would that be immoral?'

'Er … I don't know.'

'Perhaps you might give it some thought.'Gus got the impression that he had been put down by a rather cleverer man than he was, and for a while he resented it. They walked unspeaking back up the Wejg through the grey city fog, lit by the dim pink aureoles of gas lamps.

Eventually Gus broke the silence.'Oskar?'

'Yes, Gussie?'

'Isn't there a risk with the way things are going that Jerzy of the Club Ganymede may be recognised as Count Oskar von Tarlenheim?'

'Yes there is in the present state of affairs. Before this crisis I lived an anonymous life. But the club is a little selective with its membership, and we are all inclined towards other men. To expose me would be to expose themselves.'

'But what if, say, Marek were to turn police informer?'

Oskar frowned.'Then I would be in serious trouble. Sodomy is a capital offence in the Ruritanian criminal code. There is certainly the possibility of blackmail or turning police evidence. But though they of the Ganymede know I am a man of wealth, till lately I have not been in the public eye. I really do not think I am in danger there. You did not like Marek, did you?'

'He stuck his tongue out at me.'

Oskar laughed heartily.'He is a child satyr. There are quite a few homosexual men who are like him, flighty and waspish. He has a good heart, though, take it from me. It is just that you are too handsome and he sees you as a rival for my affections.'

Gus brought the conversation back to the point.'With enemies all round us at this time, wouldn't it be a good idea to keep away from places like the Ganymede?'

'Yes, I am sure you are right. But you wouldn't have missed this afternoon for anything, would you?'

Gus gave a secret smile.'No. I would have walked through fire just for five minutes of what we were doing. I've never know anyone like you, Oskar.'

'That is because I am unique.'

'Then I am the luckiest man in the world.'

Oskar startled Gus, by grabbing his hand and stopping him in the shrouded street. Gus would have sworn that there was a glitter of tears in his eyes.'Gussie, that really was one of the nicest things that any man has said to me, especially coming from whom it did.'

Gus could think of nothing to say, and they walked on silently till they found themselves under the bright lamps of the Raathaus Platz.

Arriving at the Tarlenheim palace in plenty of time for dinner, they went to change. No one had remarked on their absence, and Gus found it very hard to adjust between the everyday world of his friends and the mirror image of it at the Ganymede.

The odd feelings his afternoon of passion had given him were compounded by the events of the evening. There was a full table in the grand dining room, and amongst the guests, sitting opposite Princess Helga, was Sissi Kismar, with her parents on either side of her. Hugo, who had arrived in Strelsau during the day, had insinuated himself across from Gus with little concern for precedence.

'Something is up, isn't it Hugo?'Gus smiled.

'Yes, indeed. But wait till after the arrival of the dessert.'

As the dessert wines were being poured and the flambées prepared, Prince Rudolf stood and tapped the side of his glass.'Dear friends, though storm clouds are gathered over our country and our future is obscure, yet there are one or two bright spots in the darkness. The brightest of them is the fact that our adored little brother Hugo has laid claim to his own future. Put simply, he wishes to marry the delightful girl who has been his best of friends since they were children. He lacks a year of full age, but I as his guardian have no hesitation in giving our family's hearty approval.'

The table beamed with delight and all rose to toast the couple. Sissi was demure and smiling, Hugo proud and beaming.

Gus felt very happy for his friend, yet his delight was tinged with bitterness. He had opened the packet of letters from his mother before dinner, and found there a decided opinion that he should be at home in Suffolk making plans to settle down. As part of that process, he would be expected to find a 'suitable girl'. His father had suggested that, if nothing else appealed, he should take over the management of the estate and pig farms. How he might square such an existence with the circle of his illicit – indeed illegal – love and the dangers of Strelsau was more than Gus could see. He wanted nothing of Suffolk and everything of Ruritania. His life had been set alight since he left England. The thought of going back was like the idea of being buried alive under a cairn of mossy stones.

When all had settled down, Gus leaned across to Hugo and asked him when the big day was planned.'Obviously there can be no marriages at court until the queen is buried and mourning finished. But it will not be long after.'His mild smile was unchanged as he added, 'I wish at least to see my bride on our wedding day, and if we leave it for more than a few months, I never shall.'

'What?'

'Yes, the maculation, as they call it, progresses. My blindness cannot long be delayed.'

Gus's mouth hung open with shock.'My God! Oh Hugo!'

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