Count Oskar

XVIII

By Michael Arram

'Steady there, sir. Perfect.' With a pleasant smile, Marek showed Gus his shaved face in a mirror.

'My heavens, Marek, what an excellent shave. Where did you learn to do that?'

'My father, sir. It's all in the stropping of the blade. A brute he may be, but he is an accomplished barber. He draws teeth, too. Do you need any help in that department?'

Gus laughed.

Marek had a hot towel ready to wrap round his face, then patted some cologne on his jowls.

'My God. I must pay you a salary someday.'

'I'm keeping an account, sir. Now your hair. It needs some attention. I might be so bold as to say that, when you wake up, you look like you've been dragged backwards through a hedge, but I'm learning tact.'

Marek was turning out to be a treasure, and even James had plainly got quite fond of the boy in just two days. He was naturally cheerful, always eager to please and had some useful accomplishments for a confidential valet, of which barbering was just one. James had said, when Marek was not around, 'He'll do sir, he will certainly do. The social graces may not come naturally to him, but he listens and is very bright. He polished silver for three hours last night with the old butler, and was still joking at the end of it. His only problem is other men... but of course you knew that, sir.'

Gus admitted he did.

It was the Sunday of the convocation. Gus was going to attend mass with the delegates and then watch the opening of the proceedings. 'You'd better take the rest of the day off, Marek. I think we'll be over in the Altstadt till late in the evening.'

'Thank you, sir. There're some friends I want to find and share my luck with.' Gus had just received a draft on his allowance and had passed on to Marek a ten krone note in lieu of a proper salary.

Gus dressed in the clothes James laid out, had Marek brush his coat, and went down to breakfast feeling more of a gentleman than he ever had before.

***

'The case on which the argument rests,' lectured Professor Nodheyev, the procurator, 'is that of the English family of Beaufort. Descended from an illicit union of Duke John of Lancaster with a woman he later married, the Beauforts were legitimated as an act of favour by King Henry VI and his bishops. This is critical for the present case, for it was on the argument of their legitimated blood that the House of Tudor took the throne of England.'

The judge-delegate stood in his turn. 'Eminence and excellencies, those facts are indeed correct, as far as they go, but my learned colleague has glossed over certain other facts. Firstly, the woman on whom the family Beaufort was engendered did in the end lawfully marry the duke, yet there was no question that her earlier children by him were bastards. Secondly, when they were legitimated, the Beauforts were specifically excluded from the succession by act of Parliament.'

'This is true, but my friend fails to note the key point. An illegitimate line has once already been legitimated with the permission of the church. Bastardy can be washed clean by an act of a metropolitan consistory, and when it is, it has been held to restore the rights of legitimacy to that line. Let us therefore look at the manner in which an Elphberg child became earl of Burlesdon in England.'

The procurator went on for an hour detailing the circumstances behind Rudolf III's impregnation of the countess of Burlesdon. None of the evidence was contested, being well known to all present. He concluded, 'The house of Rassendyll-Elphberg is an honourable line, excellencies, rather more so than the line of the Beauforts and certainly worthy to have its rights of seniority within the succession restored.'

The judge-delegate rose and began a long historical and theological explanation of the Church's view of bastardy and how it had been reached, with citations from the Fathers and many medieval theologians. By the time he finished, the light was fading in the sky visible through the high Gothic windows of the consistory court.

The cardinal sat high on his throne under the arms of his see. Next to him, slightly lower, sat the other Ruritanian archbishop, under the arms of the see and province of Glottenburg. The remaining bishops sat on either side of them.

The archbishops, both old men, seemed to be dozing at times. Gus certainly was, obscure in his place at the back of the hall. He could see Bob in a raised chair to the left, the princes of Tarlenheim and Ostberg behind him.

When the judge-delegate concluded, a rustle ran through the room. The cardinal whispered to a chaplain at his elbow. With that, the consistory was adjourned till the next day at ten.

Gus made his way to the group around Bob. Prince Rudolf was talking in optimistic terms about the day's proceedings. The nuncio too was smiling and chatting amiably with Professor Nodheyev. Gus caught Bob's eye and joined him as he made his way towards the door, his party following on behind.

Gus mused, 'The odds seem stacked now against the Thuringians. Duke Leopold has no advocate in the court.'

'The nuncio would not allow it, because the Thuringian claims are irrelevant to the point being tried - whether I can be legitimated as an Elphberg. The nuncio said that what follows from this decision in terms of the succession is for other tribunals to work out.'

'It all seems a bit like special pleading to me.'

'Me too. Not that I feel sorry for cousin Leopold.'

'Any news from Strasbourg?'

'The Ruritanian delegation arrived this morning and was refused the right to speak. They were told they were there to witness the deliberations and hear the terms of the settlement.'

'How long will the congress go on?'

'The Germans are pushing for a statement by Tuesday, but between them, the Russians and Austrians can delay it. The British seem to have cooled in their enthusiasm since the Osten Tor incident. Their royal family was badly embarrassed.'

'So it's a race between the cardinal and the congress. Who will win?'

'Who can know. Still, I feel something ominous growing in the air.'

'Trouble?'

'Just superstition, Gussie. It's all going far too well. Something is obliged to go wrong. It's the way of things.'

***

At dinner, which was a packed and formal affair, Gus was aware of Oskar's intense stare, though when he tried to catch his eye, Oskar was somehow looking elsewhere. The nuncio and Prince Ostberg were present. It seemed clear to Gus that they had concluded the consistory would go their way, and were neither of them keeping their distance from the English claimant.

Gus caught sight of Marek among the Tarlenheim servants, weaving about carrying plates and dishes with a certain grace. He was intent and focussed on the job, a different Marek from any other so far revealed.

Gus was opposite a lady aristocrat he did not know. He had not caught her name, so it was a very awkward conversation, especially since her husband sat aloof, staring at the food on his plate and devoting himself to the wine. The woman jabbered on about friends of hers at court he was clearly supposed to know. The feeling of being in the wrong place kept growing on Gus, as it had begun to do on that day at Festenburg when Oskar and he had fallen out. It was all he could do not to leap up and ask James to book a passage home for him. He no longer found Ruritania exciting.

After the women departed, Gus found Hugo had settled next to him. 'Are you alright, August? You don't look like yourself - disconsolate may be the word.'

'I was terminally bored by my dinner companions, that's all. Now here you are cheering me up.' He smiled at his friend. 'What is more to the point, how are you? You are having real trouble reading, I see.'

Hugh nodded. 'Yes, there are times when the world is a blur, though at other times I get by. You and Oskar seem to have fallen out, even a blind man can see that.'

'Yes, I suppose it is obvious.'

'What happened?'

'A difference of opinion about fidelity.'

'I'm sorry, August, I thought you might be good for him. I don't enquire into his romances, but I know he has too many partners. I had hoped he might be more settled with you. You are far different from his usual type.'

'How's that?'

'Without being too detailed, I think he likes stupid and physical men. He prefers to sleep with those he can despise.'

'That is... an odd conclusion.'

'Isn't it. But I believe that deep down Oskar does not like himself at all, for which I blame the Jesuits of Modenheim. He does not think he is worth the love of a decent person, and so does not look for it. But you are more than a decent man, you are a good and brave one. With you he was very different.'

'But why did it not last?'

'I cannot say. But I imagine the feelings you inspired in him and the comparison between you two in his head made him feel even worse about himself.'

Gus was silent. There was something convincing in Hugo's logic. What had precipitated the break? Oskar's attempt to entice him into a night of sordid and uncaring sex. Why did Oskar do it? Maybe to prove to himself that Gus was no different from him. But the crisis came when Gus refused point blank. Oskar had measured himself against a man whose integrity could not be compromised, and all his self-loathing overwhelmed him. So Oskar could no longer bear to be near Gus. It made sense, yet it left Gus feeling even more desolate, for Oskar was not a worthless man. He was brave, idealistic, far cleverer than Gus and a great patriot. But what could be done?

Hugo excused himself as he said the cigar smoke was bad for his eye, and Gus was on the point of leaving the room with him when his arm was caught by Oskar and he was steered to the open windows.

Gus looked at him curiously. Finally Oskar said, 'Gussie... I would like to keep calling you Gussie if I may.'

Gus nodded, full of curiosity as to what as coming.

'There are things I must say, and I want you to listen. The first is that I hate you more than words can tell.'

'What!' Gus spoke so loud that heads turned in his direction.

Oskar gave a hesitant smile. 'You made me feel worthless and vile when you turned me down at Festenburg.'

'Worthless! Vile! Oskar you are neither of those things. You are gallant and dauntless, and far more intelligent than I.'

'So naturally I hate you. You made me feel small and oh so very unhappy.'

'Unhappy?'

'Gussie, I upset you for no good purpose. Yet I wanted so much to be your friend. Everything I do always ends up going wrong.'

'Well, I don't hate you.'

'But you are annoyed at me.'

'Perhaps, but only because you seemed bent on destroying our... relationship, such as it was.'

Oskar gave him a level gaze. 'Gussie, I don't want to lose you. Forgive me. I am a fool and don't know what I want most of the time, but I am sure of one thing now. I do want to be with you, more than I have with anyone else. This is a new thing for me. Please understand I'm begging, and I never have begged another man before.'

Gus's treacherous heart almost leapt out of his chest. Any feelings of resentment were swamped at once by a surge of desire for this untouchable man, who was now throwing himself at Gus's feet. But there was one thing more he wanted. 'That means you love me?'

Oskar spoke the words deliberately and slowly, looking him full in the eyes. 'I love you, Augustus Underwood of England. I, who have loved no one else, love you.' He paused, and the genuine Oskar bubbled up again. With a faint look of self-disgust he added, 'So, it is true that love makes clichés of us all.'

***

'Good morning, gentlemen!' remarked Marek cheerily.

Gus grabbed for the bedclothes that had fallen off in the night. Both he and Oskar were showing rather more of themselves than he was happy with.

Oskar sat up yawning. 'I told you the boy would be a useless servant. Marek, have you ever heard of knocking?'

'Of course sir, but Mr Antrobus said someone had to get you two up. I've been sitting outside your room since early morning to stop anyone walking in on you.'

Gus smiled. 'You are a good fellow, Marek. Never mind what Oskar says.'

Marek had brought in a silk robe for Oskar and was collecting his clothes, folding them neatly. 'I'll take these along to your room, excellency. The coast is clear if you want to go now.'

Oskar ruffled his hair. 'I didn't mean it, you sly boy.'

'I know that, sir. I will wait outside.'

Oskar turned to Gus. 'I only want to say, if I have not yet said it enough, but I do...'

It was Gus's turn to close Oskar's mouth with his hand. 'I believe you. Now get on with you. We have another day of boredom in the consistory to look forward to. But I know what I will be thinking about all day.'

'And I also.' Then he was gone.

An hour later, Gus walked into the court again and took the same seat he had before. It fell to the procurator that day to explain how Church had created a climate where children of unmarried parents lost their rights to succession. Against the odds, Gus became caught up in what Professor Nodheyev was saying. He found himself wishing that Nodheyev had been his professor in Oxford, rather than the boring old clergyman who had reduced him to tears of frustration and tedium with his lectures relentlessly unpicking the details of the English constitution. They had made the man a bishop, he'd heard, and gave thanks for it on behalf of future generations of students.

The Church under the eleventh-century popes had developed ambitions to control the sexual behaviour of its people. It wanted no married clergymen, it wanted no marriage between cousins, and in particular, it wanted men and women to have only one sexual partner at a time.

'Christian marriage, eminence and excellencies, is only half as old as Christianity. There was a time, the chronicles tell us, when marriage was a family arrangement reached between the parents of the couple. It involved the exchange of lands between families, and had no requirement that sexual fidelity should follow between the partners. Rich men might have official wives, but also sexual partners more suited to their tastes. To change this, canon law pronounced that children of unions outside marriage were unlawful and could claim no rights in the parental estate. They were bastards, and must be considered shameful.'

Nodheyev surveyed his audience over his spectacles. 'In pursuit of the Gospel view that a man should cleave only to one woman, the Church committed the terrible sin of damning children for the incontinence of their parents. It created a category of third-class people, condemned to poverty and disgrace for no sin of their own. Of all the things for which Mother Church needs to repent, this is the greatest and most often forgotten.

'We can do something here and now to reverse this injustice in our own kingdom. In our nation's need, there is no justice in maintaining the old injustice of bastardy. It has been reversed in other lands and so has sanctioned a new line of great monarchs. It is within the power of this court to do the same in Ruritania.'

The judge-delegate then stood and recited in great detail the canons and councils which had established the status of illegitimacy in offspring. Gus soon drifted off into the erotic memories of the previous night, and the beauty of Oskar's impassioned face above him in the dim light of his room. He returned again and again to the warm fact that a man such as Oskar had surrendered fully to him, and he marvelled at it.

At one point, Gus drifted off, to be jerked awake by chairs scraping and people moving about. It was three o'clock and there had been no break for lunch. Now the cardinal had adjourned the consistory until the summation the next day.

A group formed around Bob to discuss the day's deliberations. Gus picked up the view being maintained by Hugo, that although Professor Nodheyev had been erudite and illuminating, his standpoint was far too radical to appeal to the archbishops. 'It would have been better to stick to the Beaufort argument alone. These are old men to whom ideas of precedent are everything. To criticise the canons of the councils down the centuries would unsettle them, especially since they probably have not read them and yet have accepted them blindly as their moral guides.'

Most people, however, seemed to think the judge-delegate had been ineffective and hesitant. He had clearly lost the archbishops, and Glottenburg had slept through half his evidence.

Prince Rudolf led Bob out to his carriage, while Oskar took Gus by the arm and sought a fiacre. 'We can have an early dinner at Ribaud's. There is much to talk about.'

They left Ribaud's late, and in the hours they were there, Gus drank in the story of Oskar's entire life, spilled out over the candles and wineglasses. He had committed to someone else at last, and he wanted Gus to know everything about himself. What a life it had been! Oskar told it well, with humour and honesty, yet when he revealed his inner feelings he did so with unbearable pathos. Tears ran down Gus's face as often as laughter convulsed it.

They must have drunk a large amount of wine, but such was his absorption in Oskar's story that Gus hardly felt the effects. On the walk back to the palace, they stopped at the Ferdinand fountain in the Rudolfs Platz to watch the waters gushing down past nereids and tritons.

'What will we do when this is all over, Oskar? When Bobby is king, or not, and everything is settled one way or another.'

'Do you wish to go back to England?'

'Only if you come with me.'

Oskar laughed. 'I have heard such things of London, perhaps I may. Trains running underground in tunnels, the Crystal Palace, the Kensington museums, and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. I think I might like it.'

'We have a house in the country near London, at Winchmore Hill. We might live there for a while. But of course I could not stay. The life we will lead would raise eyebrows and indeed the interest of the police.'

'It is not that safe here, either. But there are Greece and Italy, where things are easier. I would love to swim in the blue waters of the Aegean with you, and lie on white sands in the sun, like the Greek heroes of old.'

'My Achilles.'

'Does that make you Patroclus? I hope not. He was a foolish boy and you are anything but foolish. I had put you down more as the Ajax type.'

'And you are more like Odysseus, wily and intrepid.'

A message was waiting for Gus when he returned to the Tarlenheim palace. Bobby wanted to see him. He sent for Marek, who appeared in a very good mood.

'You and his excellency seem very close, sir. I've never seen him happier.'

'Don't pry, Marek. Can you go and see if Lord Burlesdon will receive me?'

Gus took a chair opposite his friend, who was still meditatively sucking at his post-prandial cigar. 'So you and Count Oskar...?'

'Differences are resolved and all is well. He loves me.'

Bob smiled. 'I'm glad. You were miserable there for a while.'

'Any news from Strasbourg?'

'Nothing hopeful. Prince Henry of Reuss, the German chief delegate, has called for the immediate acceptance by the Ruritanians of the rightful candidate to the throne, and he doesn't mean me. The other delegations will respond tomorrow.'

'Will we get the decision of the consistory tomorrow?'

'No one is sure. It is a summation, which, from what the nuncio tells me, is only a statement of both cases. A quick decision would go against the cardinal's known character. Most people seem to think he will drag it out until a statement from Strasbourg makes some reaction inevitable.'

'Which way will the old man jump?'

'He has a choice between a German protestant king and an English catholic king with a claim to be called an Elphberg, if he so decides. Who can tell? He is pretty close-mouthed after all. One troubling thing has emerged, though.'

'What's that?'

'In 1848, he was a senior priest in Kerstein, a large town in Mittenheim. The story is that he was not unsympathetic to the Black Riders, and sheltered quite a number of them from the troops of Rudolf IV.'

'Maybe he was just being a humanitarian.'

'Perhaps. But we may be underestimating his Germanism.'

'That would not be enough, surely. A German protestant king would close the court to the hierarchy. The cardinal would lose any influence he had. How could there be a coronation of a protestant in a Catholic cathedral? And he's not just any sort of protestant. Leopold is a hard-bitten Calvinist. Sacraments mean nothing to him.' Gus looked across at his friend. 'So you think it still is all up in the air?'

'I do.' Bob looked down at his shoes and thrust his hands deep in his pockets. 'The thing is, Gussie, it's time now to consider what we will do if the congress and the cardinal are too much for us.'

'What do you mean?'

'Obviously I will have to leave the country for the time being, indeed maybe for good and all. But I still will have interests here, not least the Hentzau estate and that precious object concealed there. Then there are the friends I have acquired, men who have made a real commitment to me. I can't just let them go like that.'

'Bobby, that's all very well, but I can't see how you could do much for them after everything's over. I rather doubt the Thuringians will institute a reign of terror once they are in power. This is a country where law and order rule, the constitution is firm, and royal power is by no means absolute. The people of Hentzau survived without you for years, and I imagine they will do so again. What do you have in mind?'

'What the queen said to me. If I get chased out of Ruritania, I still have a duty to its people... my people. I have to find a way to keep her vision alive.'

'Honestly, Bobby, I'm sure you're right. But think about this later if you must.'

Bob gave him a half smile and said good night. Gus went off to bed and the waiting arms of his lover. Marek, sitting patiently on a chair outside his door, murmured a good night to him as he went in.

***

Oskar and Gus sat innocently at breakfast that Tuesday morning. If their eyes kept catching and they kept smiling softly down at their marmalade and toast, they managed to be discrete about it.

The morning papers made their appearance and were circulated amongst the Tarlenheims and their guests. Gus was reading the report on the deliberations at Strasbourg when he caught an intake of breath from Prince Rudolf next to him at the table. Glancing up, he saw the prince was irritated about something.

'Would you look at this, Osku!'. He passed over the paper, the radical Strelsener Deutscheszeitung.

Oskar read a page intently, then raised a pale eyebrow into his fringe. 'That should nettle his eminence if he reads it.'

Gus was stirred. 'What is it?'

'It claims to reveal secret bribes of English gold that have been paid into the bank account of the archdiocese of Strelsau on behalf of Lord Burlesdon.'

'What!' cried Bobby.

'Who wrote this nonsense?' Hugo exclaimed from the other end of the table.

Oskar went back to the story. 'It's anonymous, but that usually means it's by the editor.'

'Who is ...'

'Hartmut Hoffnung, a Mittenheimer as it happens, though he has lived in Strelsau for many years. Now I wonder what has got him going. It's very circumstantial, dates and sums laid out in a table even. You must be very wealthy, Robert. My word, you have salvaged the finances of the Church in Strelsau. Ah yes! That is why the story will bite hard. Everybody knows the cardinal is hopeless with accounts and the diocese is in real trouble. Very clever of someone to let this firecracker off. It has all the hallmarks of Albert of Thuringia, if I did not know he was currently walking the beaches of Heligoland in the North Sea fog.'

'Do we know that he is?'

'I presume so. But this is a little device he may have planted some time ago. I wonder if indeed it is German rather than English gold that has been in operation here.'

'No one will take it seriously, surely,' bridled Gus.

Rudolf snorted. 'People believe what they want, and the more conspiratorial it sounds, the more they like it.'

'Will the cardinal be aware of it?'

'I imagine complimentary copies have been sent to his palace. Dear me, this is quite the sort of thing that will annoy and upset him. If nothing else, Windischgratz is an honourable man. He is a nobleman as well as a priest, and his honour means a lot to him. Yes, someone knew what they were doing when they planted this story.'

There was indeed a stir amongst the hierarchy at the consistory court. Prince Ostberg had already been summoned to an interview with the cardinal, which delayed the opening of the proceedings by an hour. When the cardinal finally appeared, a secretary first read out a statement on his behalf utterly refuting the allegations that had appeared in the press that morning.

'Utter refutation is not going to satisfy anyone,' whispered Oskar to Gus. 'Only the full publication of the diocesan books will quiet the rumours, but I imagine they're in such a mess that it will not be possible. Rudolf is right. Someone really knew what they were doing when they concocted this story.'

The cardinal eventually began his summation, but it was observed how hesitant he was, losing the thread of his logic on more than one occasion. In the end, nobody was exactly sure what he had said and where his thinking was taking him, although as Oskar said, that was nothing unusual in Cardinal Windischgratz.

The meeting was adjourned till Wednesday afternoon. It was not clear what precisely would happen then.

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