Count Oskar

XV

By Michael Arram

Oskar was not at Festenburg when Gus and Berthe arrived back at the great house. Franz was waiting, however, and Gus had to give his first military debriefing. To his astonishment, he found himself obliged to salute, stand at ease and deliver a coherent report to a seated superior officer. He was not certain he liked it. It was taking things all too seriously.

Franz was playing with a paper knife as he listened. 'That's interesting, very interesting, August. I don't doubt you were right to leave the forged letter without looking back. We must assume he took it. Very well, then, Oskar's plan has begun its course. I hope to God he has not been too clever for once. The boy has always liked to show off. One day it will be the death of him. Thank you, in any case. You did as good a job as we could have hoped for.'

Gus wasn't quite sure about that last remark. It almost sounded as though the words '...from a civilian,' had been intended to conclude it.

'Sir,' asked Gus, congratulating himself for getting into the spirit of things, 'what happens next?'

'Why, Oskar will come back and all hell will break loose, as is usual where my brother is concerned. To be truthful, August, I have no idea what will happen, but I believe my part in it is almost done, while yours is yet to play out. I think that's it. Dismissed.'

Gus snapped off the best salute he could manage and tried to march out without falling over his feet. Once outside the colonel's office, he realised he had nothing to do but wait, so he headed off towards his guest room. On the way, he enquired of a Tarlenheim servant whether James was in the house. Apparently he was not.

Gus took off his uniform jacket, laid it on his bed and looked at it. How in God's name had he got drafted? He had played soldiers as any boy would. Unlike his brother Lawrence, however, he had never wanted to do more than play. Now here he was, and he had blithely accepted the smart uniform without thinking of the consequences. At least it was only a temporary commission – or, he caught himself, he hoped it was. Gus realised he had not checked the small print.

In an act of defiance, he changed back into civilian clothes, and felt a palpable sense of relief. He strolled the galleries of the great house, and then the terraces outside, watching the carp in the ornamental moats. High grey clouds had covered the sky and it had become much cooler. Summer had passed and Gus noticed quite a few leaves had turned. He remembered the mist and falling leaves that had welcomed him back to Oxford the past three years. He almost regretted he was not going back.

What was to become of him now? Estate manager for father in Suffolk? That he could not stomach. Then why not Oskar's bed partner and associate in the world of espionage and high politics? He could feel the excitement welling up in him at the prospect. He had left the slow brown streams of his English life and fallen into a rushing Alpine torrent that was carrying him far and fast from the waters of his source. He was not the man he had been at the beginning of summer. Life would never be the same again.

As he was moodily leaning on the balustrade of a terrace at the rear of the house, watching wild deer and feral cattle graze the park under the forest eaves, Gus felt a breath on the back of his neck and the thrill of a familiar fragrance in his nose. 'Oskar!'

'Very stealthy, was I not, darling Gussie?'

'You were. You are formidable, you know that.'

'So I like to believe. It is the midday, our tasks are done for the moment, so I think it is time for recreation. Yes?'

'There's nothing I would like better. Come to my room.'

Lying on the bed in Oskar's embrace, Gus found tears running down his face. When he heard Oskar's breathing change, he realized his lover was asleep. He turned gently to admire the flawless face, the pale lashes and eyebrows, boyishly perfect. Oskar was a thing of beauty, utterly deadly, and Gus loved him – chiefly because he was everything Gus was not and never could be. But he had no idea if Oskar felt the same thing for him. Gus knew his history, that Oskar took sex where he found it and used his body to gain his ends over others. But he also half suspected and half hoped there was something new to Oskar in their affair, something the Ruritanian had not experienced before. He even wondered if Oskar might be a little frightened by it, though he seemed frightened of nothing else. Or was Gus fooling himself? He was rudderless in the mountain torrent his life had become.

***

The lowering sun was behind them as Gus and Oskar rode down into the Starel basin along the straight road from Zenda that took them towards Strelsau. Their uniforms ensured they were not delayed at the Lines. It was dark when their horses drew up, chests heaving, in the courtyard of the Tarlenheim palace in the Raathaus Platz.

Gus patted Berthe affectionately as he dismounted. 'Back again,' he commented, 'and now I can see Bobby at last, and tell him what's been going on.'

'Yes, by all means see Robert, but don't take too long. James was already here this morning and would have told him most of it. We have to be at the Osten Tor by nine. Better get a hot coffee and some food inside you first, though. It will be a long night, with maybe another to follow.'

'What is the plan, Oskar?'

The mischief danced in his eyes. 'If I told you, you would not enjoy it half so much, sweet Gussie of mine.'

Bob was pacing the gallery on the first floor when Gus found him. With no hesitation, they clasped and hugged both hard and long. Then Bob pushed his friend back and gave him a smiling survey. 'Dear Gussie, you do look military. How are you? Such things you have been doing: fighting rebels, saving princes, secret missions.' He paused, troubled. 'I wish they would let me out of this gilded prison. My uncle would have been up and doing, like you.'

'But no one knew who he was, Bobby. You are going to be king, so they treat you as king-to-be, and kings don't ride out nowadays with guns and swords.'

'If I get to be king, I swear I'll make you a colonel.'

'I'm not that sure I like the military life, though I do appreciate the offer. Is there any news from Burlesdon?'

'Mother is very distraught, you know. Not that she is against my claiming the throne, but the fate of my uncle weighs on her. She knows Ruritania is not a safe place, and never has been. She had rather I were home – I am the only son and heir, don't forget.'

'So was Alexander the Great!'

Bob laughed. 'Oh for heaven's sake, Gussie. Bobby the modern Napoleon, who do you think I am?'

'I think you are my friend and one of the best men I know.'

Bob blushed and muttered, 'Stuff!'

They looked at each other solemnly for a minute. At last Bob sighed. 'I really hate it that you are going into these dangers for my sake, while I just sit here.'

Gus dropped his head a little. 'I'm afraid it's not as pure as that, Bobby. Oskar has far too much influence over me.'

'How is it going?'

'I think it would be in the full-blown-romance stage if I could only be more confident about Oskar. He is so very ... enigmatic. You suppose you know where you are with him one moment, and the next he has slipped away from you. I have no idea about him, but as for me, I love him more than I thought it was possible to love anyone. But who it is I love, I really don't know.'

Bob took his hand. 'Poor Gussie. Life is not going to be simple for you, is it?'

'No it isn't. But at least it's thrilling. Now I must be off. I shall see you for breakfast ... if I survive.'

Gus took a memory of Bob's mournful gaze out into the courtyard with him. Oskar was already waiting, and standing alongside him was another figure, a short man muffled in a heavy coat, hat pulled down low over his eyes.

'Are we walking?' Gus asked.

'Yes we are,' replied Oskar. 'I think you know monsieur de Blowitz?'

'Good heavens! Bon soir, monsieur! Quelle bonne découverte!'

The journalist rubbed his mitten-encased hands. 'You notice, do you not, monsieur Auguste, that no physical danger intimidates me from the pursuit of truth!'

'It is most impressive, monsieur. I hope you have more idea of where we are going than I do.'

'Some idea perhaps.' He turned to Oskar, done up like Gus in peaked cap, knee boots and greatcoat. 'I suppose we must be going, my lord.'

'Donc. Allons!'

They wound their way to the Rudolfs Platz, empty but for the odd stroller and the ever-present police. They took the exit on to Domstrasse, the wide boulevard that led down to the bridge across the river to the Altstadt. The Domstrasse turned slightly to the north where it began its descent to the Starel. At the foot of the hill, before the bridge, was the massive structure of the Osten Tor, a relic of the medieval fortress which had once closed the bridge to the Altstadt. The fortress had been mostly cleared away when the Neustadt was built, but the keep remained. The tower reared up tall above the houses, rather like the Bastille once had in Paris. Also like the Bastille, it had a sombre history as a political prison, which had led to an attempt to demolish it when Strelsau had expelled the king's troops in 1848. But still it stood.

Another ancient function of the Osten Tor was as a royal treasury. Here had once been stored the king's wealth, his archives and his regalia. Oskar led his companions into the tower from the Domstrasse through a low gate and down some steps below the road level. They could hear the black waters of the Starel gurgling quite close, rushing as they passed the great piers of the Neue Brücke. Gas lamps on the bridge parapet were reflected in the water. The medieval door, studded with great rusty nails, stood open.

'Very secure, isn't it?' Gus observed, though in a whisper.

No one answered him. They entered a narrow corridor lit only by a candle, with a door at the other end leading to a spiral staircase. A tall, muffled figure awaited them, holding up a dark lantern. The stairs to which he silently took them wound round the inside of one of the four corner turrets of the tower and deposited them in an upper hall, set out as a museum or antiquary's cabinet. Candlelight gleamed off the glass of a few standing display cases, but it was not sufficient to illuminate their contents. Several heavy iron chests were placed against the walls, and it was to the largest of these that the dark figure led them.

Their guide placed his lantern on the ground and unwrapped the grey muffler to reveal a fresh-faced, smiling young man. Gus wondered if this was another of Oskar's lovers, and was surprised to feel for a moment a sharp pang, which he had to admit could only be jealousy.

As they shook hands, Oskar introduced Lieutenant Merics of the Life Guard, his words echoing in the tall space of the hall. 'The lieutenant was particularly close to our late queen. He is from a loyal family of Ober Husbrau, and may be trusted absolutely in what will be done here tonight or tomorrow night.'

'Oskar,' growled Gus, running out of patience with Oskar's love of mystery, 'what exactly is going on here tonight or possibly tomorrow.'

Oskar caught the hint of impatience and gave a small grin. 'I suppose you've been teased enough, August, so this is the explanation. The forged letter from Father Hollar which you took to Zenda and passed on to the Thuringians contained a number of pieces of vital information for the German party. It gave a breakdown of our forces in the Husbrau region and the capital. I have to confess it was somewhat inaccurate, and indeed if the German general staff use it to plan an incursion into Ruritania in the next week or two, they will find themselves heavily embarrassed. But there was also in the letter a daring proposal which Father Hollar was supposedly offering his patron, the duke of Thuringia.

'The not-so-good father said he had the means to convey the crown jewels of Ruritania to the duke, if some assistance could be sent from Zenda to help him. Prince Albert will know very well the importance of such a coup. The crown of Tassilo is the soul of the Rothenian people, its entire history in one artefact. It rested on the head of Tassilo himself, of Waclaw II, of Duchess Osra, of Henry the Lion and all the Rudolfs. No one could truly be monarch of Ruritania without it. The people venerate it as a national relic almost as holy as the Black Virgin of Glottenberg.

'The letter invites the duke to send a secret mission to the capital to meet Hollar's allies at the Osten Tor. After penetrating the treasury, they will help carry off the crown and as much else of the regalia as they can manage. Once they have the treasure in their power, they will declare that loyal Ruritanians had smuggled the crown out to them as a symbol of assent to the Thuringian accession. Such a coup would stun the Rassendyll party and upset the orderly judgement of the succession. It might precipitate the violence we are trying hard to avoid.'

Gus's eyes widened as Oskar's plot was revealed. He switched to English. 'So when the Thuringian agents arrive, they will be caught in the act, and hugely embarrassed.'

'Indeed.'

'And monsieur de Blowitz?'

'... will be here as the dauntless reporter he is, watching and recording the drama as it unfolds, and witnessing how ruthless and underhanded the Thuringians are. Amusing, yes? It will be all over the Times in a day and the papers of Europe will print it the day after.'

'Have you any idea whether they have taken the bait?'

Oskar shrugged. 'There we have the great uncertainty. It is a scheme far too bold for Duke Leopold, but his brother and nephew are less cautious men, particularly Prince Albert. If he is given his rein, I have no doubt the German agents will be sent. Hollar gave them instructions as to how to evade the night watch on the Lines, and the way will be deliberately kept clear tonight and tomorrow.'

'So what is your plan?'

'We shall conceal ourselves patiently and await what happens. Lieutenant Merics is armed with the passwords Hollar supposedly sent to Zenda, and will admit the Thuringian agents. They will set about breaking open the chests and cabinets containing the regalia. When the moment is right, they will be surprised by an inrush of guards and monsieur de Blowitz with a sharp pencil and notepad. Then the interrogation and the confessions will follow, and so on. Do you understand?'

'I do, and admire your deviousness endlessly.'

'You are too kind.'

'But there is one thing.'

'And what is that?'

'The crown of Tassilo is missing. It has disappeared, you told me yourself. So what happens when its box is found empty?'

'I imagine the Thuringians will have an even more difficult time explaining what they did with it, and their inability to produce it will be a further accusation in their faces. Now, Gussie, if you observe that small door in the corner, it leads to a former garderobe turret, where there is adequate room for concealment. Follow me, my dearest.'

Shepherding de Blowitz, they disappeared through the door into a long gallery, where round apertures for several toilets, set in a stone bench, revealed the waters of the Starel oily and black below. Several soldiers were already in place, trying to get comfortable. The chimes of nine o'clock reached them from the cathedral on the hill opposite as they too settled in.

Ten o'clock and eleven o'clock chimed in turn. All they could do was huddle in the increasingly chilly room and wait. Several dozed, others had low murmured conversations. De Blowitz at least had a hip flask, and pleased the soldiers enormously by offering it around. He also had a pocketful of boiled sweets which were almost as welcome. Clearly he well knew the art of loitering.

It was as the single bell for one in the morning rang down from the cathedral steeple that a rattle of hooves came faintly up from the street. The sleeping city was otherwise silent and, with the present security on the Lines, such a sound could only be suspicious. The waiting men fell silent, trying to catch any and every noise. The thud of the outside door below made them jump. There followed the rustle and tramp of several men climbing the spiral stair and entering the hall outside.

The intruders got to work. From the evidence of their actions, they seemed calm and unhurried. Gus had expected them to smash the display cases, but far from it, they seem to have unscrewed the hinges and taken them apart. The chink of cold chisels on iron revealed they were patiently at work on the locked chests.

The men in the garderobe turret were getting steadily more tense, and Gus was wondering how long Oskar was going to wait. It was when the clang of an iron lid to the stone floor rang out from next door, startling many echoes, that Oskar moved. His pistol drawn, he led the charge into the treasury.

'Stand in the name of the Council!' he roared in a surprisingly clear and carrying voice. 'Put down what you are carrying! You are under arrest!'

Four intruders stood rigid. As rifles were levelled at them, they dropped their tools and placed their hands on their heads, all save one. Looking venomous yet strangely collected, Prince Albert of Thuringia threw the sceptre of Ruritania to the stone floor with a clatter.

***

'Excellent picture, don't you think?' Oskar was scrutinising the Illustrated London News, where a rather imaginative woodcut showed the 'Sensational Arrest of Albert of Thuringia in the Osten Tor of Strelsau.' It had followed hard on the heels of the lurid Times report that de Blowitz had wired to every capital in Europe.

Oskar looked closer. 'Is that fellow supposed to be me, pointing with the pistol? Wrong colour hair and I don't have a moustache.'

Gus leaned over the back of Oskar's chair and commented, 'Rather a good picture of Prince Albert, though.'

'It hasn't quite caught his expression, I think. It was more as though he had sucked a lemon syringed with strychnine.'

'Hardly surprising, considering how his promising political career has suddenly taken a serious reverse. Of course I know you thought it would have been nice to keep him and break his hands, finger by finger, until he told us all his associates' names. Still, it somehow seemed more exquisite to put Albert on a train to Berlin, to be solemnly sacked by Prince Bismarck and exiled to Heligoland for the duration of the crisis.'

In spite of his light words, however, Gus was not laughing. Something preyed on his mind. 'What he hissed at you as you marched him down the stairs.'

'Yes?'

'If I remember, it was something along the lines of, "I shall have satisfaction for this, you debauched, degenerate sodomite!" You went white.'

'I thought he had just been carried away by the anger of the moment and I made allowances for him.'

'Please, Oskar, be serious.'

'Very well then. It seems my preferences are known to my enemies. That is bad. But should they make accusations in a public place, in this country I may have satisfaction myself at the point of a sword. That would take a bold man.'

Gus was not reassured, but had to be content. The uproar over the arrest at the Osten Tor had run from one end of Europe to the other. The foolish audacity of Prince Albert's decision to lead the raid on the capital in person had stunned even Oskar. It was difficult to account for, but thinking about Bob's forced confinement, Gus guessed that Albert might have found his stay at Zenda even more burdensome than that. The forged message from Hollar would have appealed to his reckless and impatient nature. It had been given out to the constable of Zenda that the prince had contracted a chill and was confined to his room on the island. But he and three associates had swum the moat, obtained horses and ridden to the capital. There they had followed the directions Oskar had fed them, and the inevitable catastrophe had followed.

Duke Leopold was still at Zenda, but with a reduced household. His brother, Prince William Henry, had left for the German court, looking to make interest that his son be allowed to return from his North Sea exile.

Another positive result of the scandal at the Osten Tor was that monsieur de Blowitz had become very friendly towards Bob's claim to the throne. The reporter had begun a loud crusade through the pages of the Times against the British government's support for the Congress of Strasbourg.

Oskar was feeling particularly full of himself that morning. His brother the prince had finally moved the Reichsräthe to demand a date from the cardinal when he would adjudicate the Rassendyll claim, and it seemed that the convocation would meet and deliberate some days before the powers gathered at Strasbourg.

'Things are coming together rather well, Gussie, far better than we had any right to hope. Now another thing. Today is the last day of the lying-in-state of Queen Flavia at the Raathaus across the square. We have been active, but not reflective, and I have not had a chance yet to express my grief for that greatest of ladies. Will you accompany me?'

'Of course I will.'

'We will wear uniform as men who were and still are in her service.'

A long queue tailed through the serried lampposts of the Raathaus Platz up to the great door below the Raathaus tower. The line of people waiting to take the last glimpse of their queen passed through the door into the great hall, where mounds of flowers and the flickering of many hundreds of candles could be seen.

Oskar and Gus marched briskly past the Strelseners and under the building's portico. Entering through a side door, they found themselves at the foot of the closed coffin on its high catafalque. Six members of the Life Guard in silver helmets and white uniforms, hands on swords, stood still and solemn at its corners and sides. The crowd shuffled slowly past, several amongst them in silent tears. Gus contemplated the sombre scene. Immediately in front of him was an altar with six tall tapers illuminating a gospel book open upon it. Several monks and nuns were at prayer.

Oskar tugged at Gus's sleeve and drew him to a side room. 'Now, Gussie, my brothers will be here in some minutes, as also will Lord Burlesdon. We are going to take one of the last watches round the body, and we would like you to join us.'

Gus's eyes filled as he nodded mutely. Ten minutes later, Prince Rudolf in frock coat led in his brothers Franz and Hugo Maria. Bob followed. They all shook hands. When the hour struck, they were waiting in the hall as the Life Guards sheathed swords and filed out. Gus took a corner post, drew his sword, put it at rest under his hands and dropped his head in an attitude of mourning. Silent tears dripped on to his gloves as he paid tribute to the great queen who had once kissed his forehead and blessed him.

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