Count Oskar

XVI

By Michael Arram

The disappearance of the Tassilisner Kron was the major news of the next few days. Many had noticed that it had not been placed on the coffin of the dead queen, as was customary. Instead, a modern silver and diamond crown had taken its place. Anti-German papers blamed the Thuringians, asserting that Prince Albert had managed to smuggle the crown out of the Osten Tor before he was apprehended. Other theories ranged from simple theft to divine intervention, to prevent either a German or an English succession, depending on who was talking.

The warden of the Osten Tor was obliged to resign, which made Bob feel so guilty that he tried to put indirect pressure on the Council to find the man a new job. He had no luck.

'You can save his job if you really want, Bobby.'

'Oh yes, and how exactly?'

'Cough up. Tell the Council that the late queen gave the crown to you to keep as a pledge. I don't imagine there'll be too much fuss made. They'll just be glad to get it back, won't they?'

'And the queen's vision? What about that? She told me I was to keep the crown and her coronation ring safe.'

'Come on, Bobby, she was very sick when she told you that. Maybe she was hallucinating.'

Bobby frowned, though not at Gus. Eventually he said, 'I don't think it's that at all. I think she had a glimpse of something real. Besides, she was ten times the monarch I could ever be. So I'll trust her judgement. I'm sure she knew what she was on about. No more devil's advocate, Gussie. I have a conscience to do that for me. But I will do something for the poor warden if ever I can.'

Gus murmured a sort of assent and approval of his friend's good nature. But he really could not understand why Bobby should make such a song and dance about it.

Later that day he was stopped in the gallery of the palace by Franz von Tarlenheim. 'August, we are going back to Festenburg, Oskar and I. The reserves stationed in the park have been sent home, and my responsibilities are over for the time being.'

'Oh good. Does that mean the situation has improved?'

'A little. The stuffing has been knocked out of the Thuringian cause, and although the Mittenheimers may be unhappy, the rebels have been made to look ridiculous. The tension has subsided. General Lamic can manage the problem well enough with his regulars now.'

'How long will you be gone.'

'Just a few days. We rather hoped you would come down with us. Hugo is staying here and he can keep Lord Burlesdon company.'

'I wouldn't like to go for too long, you understand, but I suppose a couple of days wouldn't be amiss.'

'Good. Because Oskar and I intend to show you a rare sight.'

'Yes?'

'Indeed. A boar hunt. How about that?'

***

'This is the Ahespeift, what you call in English the boar spear, I think.' Gus hefted the long spear with a great crossbar at the back of its blade. Count Franz continued, 'The bar at the back is very necessary. The fierce brutes will hurl themselves at you and, although impaled, will still keep coming. The bar stops them getting any closer than you would like. Even so, one will sometimes snap the spear in its body, and then you might be in real trouble.'

'Foxes are far less troublesome.' Gus had always been a keen member of the Haddesley and East Suffolk Hunt when he was home. His father had been master on several occasions, and the baying and snuffling of the pack around the Hall had been part of his youth.

Franz laughed a little derisively. 'The boar is a noble beast, the quarry of kings. He is noble because he is a dangerous foe. A boar can kill or mutilate you. Who could say that of the poor dog fox?'

'Do you hunt boar with spears then?'

'They did in Ruritania until barely a generation ago, but these days only the hunt servants carry them. The hunters are armed with rifles like this bolt-action Winchester. A powerful weapon, and it needs to be. The enraged boar sometimes requires several shots before it is fully convinced it is dead.'

'And dogs?'

'Oh yes. The province of Merz is famous for its breed of boar hound. Here, look at this.' Franz held up a harness of studded leather plates, straps and buckles trailing. 'This is a set of armour for our dogs. It is as well for them to wear it, since the boar is more than a match for even the largest dog.'

'We are in for an exciting day tomorrow, I should guess.'

'Certainly. I shall be turning in early and I advise you to do so too, once you have finished that glass of port. How about you, Oskar?'

'Oh, I am savouring this cigar. Good night, brother.'

As soon as Franz had disappeared, Gus grinned and placed himself in Oskar's lap, taking his cigar from him and seeking the warmth and wetness of his mouth, which had a pungent tang to it. They caressed and embraced, keeping alert for every sound in the corridor outside.

'Bed?' Gus finally murmured.

'Follow me up in twenty minutes. You know where I am, three doors down from you on the third-floor corridor. I shall leave it ajar so there is no mistake.'

The first hint of dawn was in the sky when Gus crept back to his room, nightshirt bundled up in his arms, feeling very like the boy Augustus leaving Naismith's study after a night of rough adolescent coupling.

A servant rapped on his door and brought in a jug of hot water less than two hours later. He yawned, stretched and plunged his head in the cold-water basin. He felt full of life and happiness, every sinew atingle. He washed away the sweat and stains of the night's passion and quickly shaved. His old tweed suit hung waiting for him.

A large breakfast was laid out in the morning room, rich with the scent of bacon and fresh bread. Several guests were present and greeted him. Outside there was a thick, grey dew on the grass, and a ground mist curling through the woods among the tree trunks. The sun was pale and still low. Through the windows Gus saw hunt servants in the Tarlenheim green and gold holding seven or eight heavy black dogs on leashes. Unlike the foxhounds of England, they did not swarm around but snuffled the ground with their heavy muzzles, growling at each other.

The hunt started off on foot. Some of the hunt servants carried the heavy rifles, while others led the way with the dogs and those formidable spears. The chief huntsman set a steady pace through the trees. Trails led off in every direction, and the dogs snuffled around at each crossing.

After half an hour, the party came to a wide, muddy hole in the ground. Oskar prodded Gus. 'This is one of their wallows. Look! Fresh boar dung!' He seemed quite excited.

A dog bayed further ahead. The hunters cursed; apparently one of the pack had not been properly muzzled. They stopped for a while, smoking and making subdued conversation, until the huntsman appeared and reported to Count Franz. After a moment's deliberation, they turned off in a new direction. Gus was thoroughly lost by then in the endless forest through which they were tramping.

Ahead, sky appeared though a large opening in the trees. All of a sudden everyone stopped. Gus found a Winchester being handed to him, and the hunt party moved forward to the bushes at the edge of the clearing. Gus checked his bolt and readied himself. A hundred yards away, a herd of wild swine was rooting under a beech tree, the striped piglets clustering round their mothers. A great boar, the patriarch of the herd, was on watch, and his head was already up.

The dogs were loosed. They bounded silently towards the herd, which scattered instantly. The dogs gathered snarling around the boar, one at a time feinting to get close, while separating him from his mates. The hunt servants levelled their spears. The dogs snapped and circled. The great boar was getting ready for his final charge through the circle.

All eyes were intent on the drama when a second, younger boar hurled himself amongst the dogs, sending two yelping and screaming. The spearmen closed on him, but the great boar had now gathered for his charge. He ran directly on Gus and the line of the hunt party. The detonation of a nearby gun set Gus's ear ringing. Another went off further down the line. The boar came on, its red eyes fixed on Gus, who levelled his rifle, his Underwood blood and instincts in control now. One shot between the eyes took the boar down. He thought it was his bullet that killed it, although two other rifles had gone off at nearly the same time.

Gus looked around. The second boar was down too, pierced by several spears, and everyone was congratulating each other. Franz clapped Gus on the shoulder. 'Very much as cool as I expected, August. Well done indeed. Oskar, you missed.'

Gus was surprised by a new petulant expression on his lover's face. 'Not at all,' Oskar insisted. 'I'm sure I struck him in the shoulder.' What was this? Was it the needling by his brother that Oskar did not like, or - Gus did not like to believe it - that he had come second to Gus in a competition of skill?

This uncomfortable thought stayed with Gus as they tramped on through the woods, looking for other wandering herds. Oskar did not walk with him.

By ways unknown to Gus, the party came upon a lane where two dogcarts from Festenburg had arrived with lunch hampers. Oskar sat silent next to Gus as they ate the pies and sandwiches provided.

Eventually, he indicated one of the huntsmen, a very handsome young man, blonde and clean shaven. 'That is Lucas. Fine specimen, is he not?'

'Very handsome.'

'Yes, and insatiable. I took him first when he was fifteen and I was seventeen. He quite wore me out.'

Gus was stunned. 'Why are you telling me this?'

Oskar cocked an eyebrow. 'He is beautiful. Without clothes even more so, long legs and slim torso. I could look at him for hours, but looking is not at all what he is interested in. I thought that after the hunt we could all three meet, and between the two of us …'

Gus could not believe what he was hearing. 'Excuse me?'

'Come along, Gussie, you are not naïve. It will be a dream of heaven to be together with him. We two can teach you things you'd never have thought possible.'

Shock, shame and anger flared in Gus. He desperately struggled to contain the feelings his blazing red face betrayed. He said with deliberation, 'I don't think so, Oskar.'

Oskar stared coldly at Gus. 'Come along, Gussie, you don't want to be - what d'you call it? Miss-ish? Is that right? The things we've done already, I'd have thought you would be ready to try more.'

An empty chasm opened in Gus's stomach. He swallowed hard. He was finding it difficult to contradict Oskar, and was appalled at quite how much ascendancy the man had obtained over him.

'No, Oskar, I can't do it. I want you - all the time - but only you.'

Oskar's face became impenetrable. He was silent for some minutes. 'Very well. Of course, I would never dream of forcing you into anything, not for a moment. We shall speak no more of it.'

The afternoon was miserable for Gus, and his lover did nothing to improve matters. Oskar made no effort to converse, and it was only as they got into a line of dogcarts and returned wearily to the hall that he exchanged a few commonplace remarks with Gus. They parted to dress for dinner.

During the meal, Oskar seemed his usual cheerful self, talking loudly and hilariously about the day's hunting, and comparing it with other hunts that had been mounted from Festenburg and Zenda. Gus sat more or less mute, happy to be ignored. He ate little and felt sick.

After dinner, Gus took only one glass of port before joining the ladies. He cheered up as he listened to some accomplished harp playing by the daughter of one of the guests, and made light conversation in French with others, who pronounced him charming. The harpist indeed was more than a little interested in him, and they were sitting close together laughing when Oskar came in with the other men. Gus felt a cold glance sweep him like a draught of winter air. What have I done now? Gus asked himself.

Oskar sat at the other end of the room, letting Gus know he was being ignored. In the end, he could not stand it any longer and rose to take his leave of the assembly. He said a particular farewell to Count Franz, his host.

'You are off tomorrow early, August?'

'Yes sir.'

'The trap will take you to the station at eight if you wish. A safe journey. No doubt Oskar and I will see you in the capital in a day or two. The convocation will meet after mass on Sunday, it appears, in the archbishop's palace.'

And with that news and a simple nod of farewell from Oskar, Gus went up to bed. He slept poorly. At one point in the night he was almost ready to run down the corridor to Oskar's room and beg forgiveness, but feared he might not find Oskar alone. That was a thought he could not bear.

No one came to keep Gus company while he ate breakfast. No one came to say farewell to him as he followed his portmanteau out to the trap that was to take him to the station. It was a thoroughly wretched man who was driven down the hill from Festenburg.

***

'So the love affair is over?' asked Bob.

'I don't know, honestly,' Gus replied. 'He was cold and distant last night. I have no idea what was going through his mind.' After noticing Gus's abstraction, Bob had obtained a full report of his stay at Festenburg, although the more salacious details as to why he and Oskar had apparently fallen out were carefully ignored. Gus valued the sympathy the more, as he knew Bob had troubles of his own.

'I'm sure it's just a tiff, dear Gussie. He'll come around. He's just not quite the example of male perfection you believed he was.'

'I hope you're right. It's upset me more than I thought possible.'

Bob smiled. 'Then I imagine it's because you truly love him.'

Gus could not stop himself from hugging Bob, who accepted the gesture with good grace. 'And you, what about Kitzi?'

'Ah. There has been some difficulty in that quarter. She wishes to be here with me in Strelsau. It seems suddenly to have occurred to her that marriage to me would make her queen of Ruritania, not just countess of Burlesdon. But heavens! Good friends though we are, I had never come to the point of asking her hand. It would be most improper of her to come to Streslau. When I tried to explain this at length to her in a letter, she received it very much the wrong way. What a temper! Apparently she is going to take the matter to her male relations, who will know how to deal with such a man as I.'

'Oh heavens! It sounds like she has a horsewhipping planned. What did you say?'

'I said it would be best to consult her father, who would, I was sure, give her sound advice about what she was proposing.'

'When was that?'

'Three days ago, and there has been nothing since.'

'Oh dear me. It appears your affairs are now as involved as mine.'

'What a pair of dolts we are in matters of romance, eh?'

Gus nodded regretfully. His heart was lighter now he had talked things through with his oldest and most faithful friend. They were sitting in the library of the Tarlenheim palace over a coffee. After some minutes of silence, Gus asked what news there was about the convocation.

'It took us by surprise, rather. The cardinal informed Prince Ostberg yesterday that the case for the legitimisation of the Rassendyll family would be heard on Sunday afternoon before the bishops of the province of Strelsau assembled in the consistory court of the archiepiscopal palace. The prince was to appoint a proctor to argue the case. Everyone thought the cardinal would try to stall and stall, but it may be that the Osten Tor scandal has emboldened him to stand against the congress - which, incidentally, meets at Strasbourg the same day.'

'Who is to be the proctor?'

'Prince Ostberg had originally decided on an old professor, the dean of the Chapel Royal, name of Hollar. But the dean has apparently disappeared, possibly left the country. So now it is to be the professor of ecclesiastical history at the Rudolfs Universität.'

'Is he any good?'

'As good as any. He has written a study of the Church and bastardy. He will be assisted by a squad of canon lawyers.'

'And who puts the other side of the case?'

'The cardinal's own judge delegate.'

'So now we come to the crunch, do we?'

'I believe this is it. Make or break.'

'Thank God. Sorry, Bobby, but home suddenly seems more attractive than it has done for months. I want this settled. Do you feel the same?'

'You're tired Gussie, just tired. No, I don't feel like that at all. I've been given a job to do, and I won't leave Ruritania till I've finished it.'

'I would hug my mother if she came to take me home this minute, and leave Strelsau holding her hand.'

'Poor Gussie, you are really unhappy.'

'What a difference one sunset makes.'

'I say! Let's go out. I'm fed up to the back teeth of sitting in this upholstered gaol. You need to get out and about too, just to distract you. I've seen barely anything of this city. So get your hat, stick and coat. We could have lunch somewhere nice, see the sights and then dinner. It's quite a pleasant day, too.'

'What would Captain Antonin say?'

'I ain't going to tell him. I'll just leave a message with one of the servants saying I've gone out and will be back after dinner.'

'And the police bodyguard?'

'Oh, I think he needs an afternoon off.'

Gus and Bob enjoyed the unhurried anonymity of a stroll across to the Rudolfs Platz. The great square was quite busy that Thursday as they made their way up to the Flaviener Hof, the famous inn by the Salvatorskirk. A short wait gained them a table, and they had a very fine lunch, lingering over their wine till quite late in the afternoon. The host, Herr Druisburg, was very attentive. He had to be, he said. Foreign visitors were in short supply in Strelsau in the current climate.

'Of course there was a surge of visitors from the country during the lying-in-state of her late majesty, but it was sadly disrupted by the raiding of those Mittenheimer rebels.'

'So you will be looking for a quick settlement of the succession question, Herr Druisburg?'

'Very much so.'

'Does it matter to you which way it is settled?'

The old man laughed. 'Not really. Frau Duisburg says she would far rather a handsome young English prince than a frowsty old German general. But what do women understand of such things? A businessman knows that trade with Germany might be easier with a German king.'

'Had you rather an Elphberg?'

'There is that, of course. It means a lot even to us German Ruritanians, but old Leopold's mother was an Elphberg after all. Half an Elphberg is better than none.'

'Leopold is not of the faith.'

'Ah, but his money is as good as anyone else's.'

Leaving the tavern, Bob gave his friend a quirky look. 'That's a rather different outlook on the succession than has been presented to me in the past.'

Gus laughed. 'Businessmen think that politics just get in the way of making money. It's not the way most people look at it, those who care for more than just the coins in their pockets.'

They strolled north up the square, past the palace and down to the river through the tree-lined walks of the Volksgarten. Nannies were walking with perambulators, and children were spinning hoops along the paths, but there was no music playing in the bandstand because of the period of national mourning. They stopped at the Café Rive Droit, ordered cake and coffee, and watched through the window as the slow, brown waters of the Starel drifted past, its surface flecked with willow leaves. It was a day of autumnal sunshine, misty and slightly humid.

Following their coffee, Bob and Gus wandered across the Botanical Gardens, founded by King Henry II, who had been something of a natural philosopher in his day and had very much admired George III's Kew Gardens. An aviary in the guise of a Chinese temple was one of many of the late king's follies scattered along the hillside garden walks. Bob leaned on his stick and surveyed a statue of Henry depicted in civilian garb, seated with book in hand, allegorical female figures of Science, Botany and Nature at his feet.

They picked up a copy of the Ruritanischer Tagblatt on their way to dinner in Ribaud's, the celebrated restaurant in the Neue Platz at the end of the Graben. Gus idly turned the pages as they sat waiting. A small article in the police reports caught his eye.

HOUSE OF ILL FAME

Police from the Neustadt battalion entered Gildenfahrbsweg 244 following reports of immoral behaviour on the premises. Several males were held for questioning. Two men, M. Rustak (17) and W.W. Hantz (42), were allegedly taken in an act of buggery and detained in the gaol of the Raathaus for trial.

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