Count Oskar

XXI

By Michael Arram

Gus was aghast. 'What in God's name have you done?' he hissed, as they walked into the palace to find Franz.

Oskar smiled as though he had no care in the world. 'I've found a solution to the problem of Prince Albert. If he kills me, the world will be no worse off. If I kill him, then the world and Ruritania will be a better place by far.'

'But if you kill a royal prince, your head will be forfeit.'

'I had thought of that, of course. But my death is neither here nor there. Really it is not, other than it might make you unhappy, dearest Gussie.'

Gus's voice broke. 'Unhappy! It would destroy me!'

They stopped in the empty corridor they were following. Oskar had a gentle look in his eyes, a look Gus had never seen there before. 'How ironic, is it not, that I find someone who cares for me and whom I care for, right at the point in my life when I must seriously consider ending it. God has to have his little joke.'

'There must be some way out of this.'

'Gussie, there is not. Even Englishmen must know the code of the duel. The only way out is if I accept the name of sodomite and he accepts the name of murderer. I am a sodomite and he is a murderer, but we are both hypocritical enough not to want to be called that in society. So we must fight and one of us must die.'

'I cannot accept this.'

'There is no choice or I will be dishonoured. That I cannot accept, nor will you if you love me.'

The two men walked on in silence until they found their way to the grand staircase of the central block of the palace. Franz was descending with Rudolf as Oskar and Gus appeared. Oskar called his brothers over and described what had happened in the garden with a remarkable degree of coolness.

Franz gave his brother a grim look. 'So your past has caught up with you.'

'And his too.'

Rudolf stared at Oskar. 'You sleep with men?'

'Indeed I do.'

Rudolf's gaze switched to Gus, who saw the calculation being made. 'You are my brother's lover?'

Gus flushed unwillingly, but he met the prince's eyes steadily. 'Yes, I sleep with Oskar. We have been lovers for some months.'

Rudolf switched back to Oskar. 'And the Englishman is not the first, is he?'

'Not by a long way, no.'

'And you knew?' he looked at Franz.

Franz responded impatiently, 'Of course. Oskar is a little notorious in some circles, and I go into them at times. Why make a fuss about it? He is still our Osku, the mad one in our family.'

'But it's...'

'Never mind what the church says. Oskar is our brother, yes? And do you not love our brother?'

'Yes. Yes of course I do.'

'Then come to terms with what he is.' Franz turned to Oskar and began making technical arrangements for the duel. Gus was excluded, but he was sure of one thing. He would be with Oskar on the lawns of Bila Palacz the next day at dawn.

Unable and unwilling to talk to Rudolf, he turned on his heel and walked briskly out of the palace and down the Rudolfs Platz, taking but ten minutes to reach the Tarlenheim palace. He sprinted up the stairs and located Hugo and Sissi in the upper gallery, where she was reading to her husband.

They looked up startled as he entered, a fixed and wild look on his face. 'August, what is it?' Sissi cried.

He threw himself into a chair and hurled his military cap down. In disjointed sentences he told them what had happened, suddenly aware that he was sobbing between them. Sissi sat next to him on the chair's arm and he felt her take his shoulder in a way that he thought mothers might do to their children, though his mother never had.

While he was speaking, Hugo began pacing the gallery, more agitated at every turn. When Gus finally ran out of words and was wiping his face, Hugo could contain himself no longer. 'This is madness and so typical of Osku. He asks no one's advice and goes blazing away like some hero in a boy's story. It's dreadful. Yes, of course he might cut down Albert, but even if he does he will not escape the consequences and his ultimate end is likely to be the same as if he died in the duel. But he is such a patriot. He throws himself between his beloved nation and the monster who would destroy it. How can we stop this?'

Gus sighed. 'I don't know that we can, not without consequences so grim for Osku's sense of honour that he would rather have died.'

'Why would Prince Albert allow himself to be so provoked?' asked Sissi.

'Had you seen his eyes you would not need to ask that question. He hates Osku beyond reason. I do not think the man is entirely sane, and Oskar's continued existence in the world is more than he can stand. Oskar deliberately provoked him, too. It was a plan. They both want this.'

Hugo shook his head. 'Albert had a record as a duellist when he was a student. He fought at least three.'

'Oskar has fought at least one.'

Hugo looked surprised. 'Really? I had no idea. When was this?'

'There was talk of it in Vienna, how he challenged a German lieutenant who had insulted Slavs. It was said there that his opponent was injured but not killed. Oskar at least has challenged full-grown men and professional soldiers. Albert has only fought terrified boys.'

Hugo stared. 'I knew nothing of that. So much of Oskar's life is a mystery to me. And now I have to explain all this as best as I can to our mother. She is arriving today at the Ostbergs', where she stays with the old princess. They are close friends.'

***

It was an ominous day in other ways. That afternoon the air became close and sticky. Dark clouds grew in the west, filling the rooms of the palace with gloom. The first lightning flickered across the horizon as Oskar and Franz returned home. Distant growls of thunder quickly became titanic concussions overhead, bringing with them vast deluges of rain that swept the Raathaus Platz and buffeted anyone foolish enough to be out in the weather. The gas lamps were turned on in the palace though it was still a few hours from sunset. Gus stared out moodily at the storm, and saw what he thought was lightning springing up from the hills around the city and piercing the clouds. This was worse than any storm he had experienced in England.

For a while, the storm subsided into steady rain, which pooled and spread across the square outside. With the fall of darkness, however, the wind rose again to a huge shriek, and another cataclysmic thunderclap deafened the city and shook its windows.

In the meantime, Gus had sought out Oskar, who was sitting moodily in his private rooms, staring at the rain-lashed windows. He pulled Gus into his lap and they sat together quietly.

'I like this, Osku. We've had so few quiet moments.'

Gus felt a kiss on his cheek. 'My life has been lived at such a pace. Maybe it had been better had I been more like Hugo. But I am just not a thinker. I have to be doing something. You will sleep with me tonight?'

'Of course. Where else would I be? Though I thought Rudolf would want me out of his house after the scene at the royal palace.'

'Franz talked sense into him. He is a fine man, my brother. He will second me well tomorrow. We meet in the gallery tonight for some arms practice, but I will come and get you at bedtime. We must be up early.'

'May I come with you to Bila Palacz?'

'I would not prevent you. Why should I? Think of those ancient Greek lovers who fought together in the battle line. We are comrades in arms as much as bed partners.'

'You have fought duels before?'

'Two. I killed neither man. I take no delight in killing, though I have sent men to meet their maker before now, as you well know.'

'Should you not see your mother?'

'Oh! She is in the city?'

'At the Ostbergs'.'

'You are right. I will go soon. I must seek her blessing.'

There seemed little more to say. Oskar kissed him for a long time, and then they separated. Gus headed once more to the front reception room to stare down into the dark, rain-swept square where the storm was rising again. He caught sight of a man in an overcoat, coming from the northeast corner of the square, who was trying desperately to keep his feet against the wind that was taking him and blowing him about. He seemed disoriented and Gus wondered if he had had a fall. Then Gus recognised him. It was Hugo and he was in difficulties.

Gus ran down the stairs and out into the storm without his coat. The wind whipped at him as he emerged into the full blast of the gale. It was a real struggle to make his way to Hugo, now clinging on to a lamppost. A huge thunderclap went off above them as he reached his friend and caught him round the shoulder.

'Hugo! Are you alright!' he shouted, the wind tearing the words away from him.

Hugo shook his head. Gus took him under the arms and manhandled him towards the palace arch. Although it was just as difficult with the wind behind them as it was struggling into it, eventually he got them to the welcoming shelter of the palace doorway. He placed Hugo on a seat and looked closely at his friend. Hugo's hair was awash with rain, dark and plastered to his skull. There was something odd about his expression, and then with horror Gus realised what it was. The eyes registered nothing. He was looking into the face of a blind man.

***

After Hugo had been handed over to Sissi, Gus sat with them as they talked quietly together. They had known this was coming and they faced it calmly, remarkably so. Gus appeared to feel the tragedy more than they did.

It seemed that Hugo had found his way to the Ostberg palace, which in normal circumstances was a mere five minutes' walk away across the Lindenstrasse. He had seen his mother and told her the latest news, but when he tried to return home, he found the storm had redoubled. A great flash of lightning that lit up the Lindenstrasse as he was crossing was the last thing he saw, or ever would see. He knew he had gone blind. There was no one to help him out in the storm, so he had to grope his way along walls and into the spaces of the Raathaus Platz. There he had wandered confused, bumping into lampposts till Gus had rescued him.

This second event cast an even deeper gloom over the Tarlenheim palace. Marek brought up a tea to Gus in his room.

'Are you alright, Marek?'

'I don't like this weather, sir. We call it a Hellequin storm, here in Ruritania.'

'I've never heard that before. What does it mean?'

'I don't really know, sir. But it's supposed to be bad luck.'

'Storms usually are. Have you heard about Count Oskar?'

Marek flinched. 'Yes sir. I have been in the chapel praying with some of the Tarlenheim servants. They'll be keeping a vigil all night, they said. I might join them later.'

Gus was intrigued at the insight into yet another side of his eccentric servant's character. So Marek was a pious boy too. He would never have guessed. Perhaps Marek would appreciate Sundays off.

Gus paced the lower gallery, endlessly looking down into the cobbled courtyard below. The storm finally subsided around nine, and became just a steady rain. It was then that Oskar came up behind him and tugged him silently to his room. They undressed and sought each other under the covers. They had no thoughts of active coupling but lay a long while embracing. They talked of ordinary things, childhood memories, things of beauty they had seen, and also of love and what it meant to them.

They drifted off to sleep. Gus's dreams were vivid, haunted by the sound of rushing wind and galloping horses. He jerked wide awake. It was still dark. His ears were full of a rumble and clang, which he thought he recognised as the noise of the closing of the courtyard gates. He rose and groped for a robe. He found Oskar's and wrapped it around himself, enjoying the familiar fragrance with which it was soaked. Oskar slept on, hair in his eyes, smiling gently in the light from the one candle they had left burning.

Gus walked out on to the upper gallery. The clouds had broken and a full moon was navigating its way across the sky above the roofs of Strelsau. A large black coach could just be glimpsed waiting in the courtyard. Six great black horses were standing already harnessed to it, though there was no groom to be seen. They stamped and stirred as Gus watched. There was a curious dream-like nature to the scene. The fitful moonlight and the strangely slow movements of the horses in the gloom perhaps accounted for it. For some minutes he watched for someone to come out, but feeling the cold, he returned to bed.

The palace was stirring before dawn. Oskar prodded Gus awake as he was dressing. He was in his major's uniform, and Gus's staff officer's gear was laid out for him. They finished, dressed silently and quite openly left Oskar's bedroom together, heading down to the morning room. All Oskar's brothers were there, Franz in his uniform as colonel of infantry.

Gus sat next to Hugo, who was staring fixedly ahead, his hands searching for the coffee in front of him. 'Good morning, Hugo.'

Hugo smiled. 'I don't suppose you slept any better than the rest of us.'

'Actually I slept well. The gale had died down. Oh! I meant to ask you. Marek told me last night that yesterday's was a "Hellequin storm". What does that mean?'

Hugo frowned. 'It's an old wives' tale. They frighten children by saying that the damned ride the earth in a hunt, with demon dogs, on certain wild nights. Then God help anyone wandering the dark lanes on their own.'

'I was woken up some time early in the morning by the arrival of a coach.'

Hugo's frown deepened. 'I did not know that anyone arrived in the night.'

'I looked out to make sure. It was a big black coach, six horses.'

Hugo first looked bewildered and then alarmed. 'That cannot be right, August. However, I am not in a good position to know for sure.'

Oskar and Franz were by now ready to move. Oskar embraced Rudolf and Hugo, kissed them on the cheek and received Rudolf's blessing, standing head bowed in front of the prince. Rudolf kissed him on the forehead and the party left. A closed green Tarlenheim carriage was waiting for them in the courtyard, where the black coach had been during the night.

The four horses rattled them through the pre-dawn streets at a brisk pace, sending up a spray from the many standing puddles left after the storm. Once on Lindenstrasse, they bowled along till they came to the Lines, where their uniforms got them a quick nod through the barrier. South of the boulevard was the great park of a former royal palace, burned down in the rising of 1848. The carriage pulled into a turning place, and the three men alighted. Franz had a case containing the rapiers. A gentleman in a frock coat was already waiting in the dim light, a surgeon to attend the wounded.

Franz led the way along a wide path that took them through a long belt of woodland. All was dripping wet from yesterday's storm, though the cloud was now high and thin. Prince Albert, his second and a witness were already waiting in a clearing. The prince was in his shirtsleeves, making passes with his rapier at his second.

Albert looked over at the Tarlenheims. He suggested affably that the count take time to warm up. Oskar removed his jacket, which he pressed on Gus. After some minutes fencing lightly with Franz, Oskar announced himself ready. A spun coin gave Franz the duty of refereeing the bout. He stood between his brother and the prince with his sabre touching their blades. Gus's palms were sweating and his heart beating fit to burst. Then, with a clatter, Franz struck both blades apart and withdrew.

Gus marvelled at the quality of this fencing. The blades flickered and slid together almost faster than his eye could follow. The duellists moved slowly, all the action in their wrists. It was a while before Gus could discern any difference between them, but it finally became clear to his sinking heart that the prince's greater height gave him an advantage, and he seemed surer on his feet. Oskar had made the mistake of wearing lighter shoes on the wet grass.

Still they fought. Oskar had a slight and unmoving smile on his handsome face. Gus had never seen a braver and more beautiful sight as he moved gracefully and athletically across the grass. After ten minutes he noticed that Oskar's tactics had become more aggressive and the prince was giving way before him gradually. Twice his sword penetrated Albert's defence, and he withdrew before the counterattack could touch him. It was on the third such attack that Oskar slipped and lost his balance. He was pierced through and through by Prince Albert's sword before Gus was even aware of it.

Franz leapt between the combatants, raising his sabre to bar any further attack. The surgeon stepped quickly to Oskar's side. Gus joined him.

Oskar glanced down at himself, surprised. 'Well,' he murmured, 'red was never my favourite colour.'

Gus looked at the surgeon, who shook his head saying, 'An internal artery has been nicked, I fear. It will be but moments.'

Oskar stared up at Gus, who cradled his lover's head in his arms. Oskar's lips were already taking on a bluish tinge as he struggled to speak. 'My dearest, I think this may be farewell for a while. There is a packet in my coat for you... I loved you, you know.' He smiled, and the last articulate words he said were, 'It was the thing in life I was most proud of.' After some moments a trickle of blood emerged from a corner of his mouth, and soon his face took on the stillness of death.

***

Gus looked out through the window of the cell he was occupying in the military prison on Liebgardgasse. It presented a view across the Starel to the Altstadt, with the towering spires of the cathedral crisp in the autumn air. Troops had arrived to arrest Franz and him just after Oskar died. It seemed that Prince Albert had hopes they might be charged as traitors to the realm and conspirators against the second in line to the throne. Perhaps in Thuringia they might have been, but the apparatus of the duel revealed the prince's complicity in the encounter and his manoeuvring was ineffectual.

Franz and Gus had been taken to the military prison next to the Life Guard barracks. The general commanding the Strelsau garrison had been summoned and had immediately released Franz after only a few enquiries. Gus was to be detained until he had made a full statement to the examining magistrate. When Herr Jurgen arrived, he told Gus there would be no charges. However, Gus was still in the cell, and to him it was as good a place to be as any, for Oskar was dead. Yet the door had not been locked, and neither sword nor pistol had been taken from him.

A voice woke him from his introspection. 'Captain Under-vood?'

Gus focussed on a frock-coated gentleman carrying a leather document case who had appeared quietly at his shoulder. Indicating that Gus should sit down at the table, the magistrate drew the story out of him with a number of brisk questions. Despite the grief, Gus's mind remained remarkably clear.

Finally, the man completed his notes and told Gus he was free to go. 'Though I would advise you, sir, not to take a route through the Rudolfs Platz. The people are gathering and it looks ugly. They are trying to move troops up from the Arsenal, but their loyalty is questionable.'

The significance of his words passed Gus by, for a black tide of misery had drowned his heart and mind. He rose and made his way down to the prison gate and on to Liebgardgasse. A short walk took him into the Volksgarten, which was strangely empty. He paced the gravel paths without much caring where they took him.

He realised he was still carrying the coat Oskar had given him before the duel. Checking the pockets, he discovered there was indeed an envelope addressed to 'Gussie'. He opened it and found a letter dated the previous day. With blurred eyes he read Oskar's last message to him. It was not long.

Dearest Gussie mine,

I rather hope you will never read this, but there is always a chance you may, and in the present circumstances quite a good chance. You know what I want to tell you, for I think I convinced you in the end that I did love you, and because of that fact you changed my life forever. That is all there is to say. I could talk of my sorrow that we are parted, but you are a man of faith as I am. We will meet again. 'The grave's a fine and private place,' as one of your national poets wrote, 'but none I think do there embrace.' Yet in heaven they do, and perhaps in purgatory too, where I may be for some time first.

I could tell you not to live in regrets. Our brief affair was never too promising, although I like to think we would have found a home in some villa on Capri or a Greek island and there lived as lovers ought. But such things are not for this world, where there are happy interludes, not happy endings. So I set my hopes on God's mercy and another, better world beyond this. What parting gift can I give? My tears and my prayers, of course. Besides those, I have left something else within this packet that will always remind you of sleeping beside me.

May God bless you. May he keep you safe. May he bring you home to me one day in a place beyond human foolishness.

Osku.

Gus looked and found several phials of a pink attar bundled together. He removed a stopper. It was Oskar's distinctive fragrance and called up such grim feelings of loss that Gus buried his head in Oskar's coat and wept. His muffled sobs shook his body for a good quarter of an hour. He was blind and deaf to the fact that the park was empty and the great city around him silent, though it was a weekday. It was only when the distant but unmistakable crackle of a volley of musketry reached his ears that he was recalled to the world.

He stood, his eyes red and his face streaked with tears. Not only was there musketry, there was now the sullen roar of a mass of angry humanity. Gus began striding back up the hill, wiping his face with a handkerchief as he went. When he came to the corner of the Reitschule, he found it full of guardsmen blocking the road. A company was moving up Brückestrasse alongside the palace towards the Rudolfs Platz. The noise of the mob was louder here.

Gus saluted a young guards officer standing nervously at the head of his company. 'What is going on here, lieutenant?'

He got a brisk salute back. 'Sir, I'm not sure. I was told to maintain the Reitschule exit clear. The rest of my regiment is trying to keep the mob from getting past the side of the palace. Did you hear that volley?'

'Yes, I did.'

'I think they were discouraging people from advancing by shooting over their heads. This is bad, sir. The city garrison has refused to leave its barracks and, apart from the Life Guards, we're the only ones between the king and a hangman's rope.'

'What's got them so roused?'

'Why sir, had you not heard? That bastard Albert has murdered the count of Tarlenheim and the city is in revolt! They say it's the beginning of a purge of the late queen's friends. They say all sorts of things, like the speaking of Rothenian will be banned.'

The lieutenant was on the verge of panic, so much was clear, but Gus liked him for sticking to his duty. 'Where is your captain?'

'He's inside, sir. Helping to organise the flight. The king won't leave. Apparently he won't go without his butterfly collection. He may be a Thuringian, but he's a brave old chap. The rest of them are eager enough to be off. They say Albert is already on the way to the frontier.'

'Stay at your post, lieutenant. I'll go in to see what can be seen. Oh... and hold on to this uniform jacket for me. Don't lose it, as you value your commission.'

Gus penetrated the Reitschule and found a squadron of Life Guards - beautiful in white, gold and silver - drawn up around four of the royal carriages. Servants were milling about tying on boxes and trunks. General von Tirkenau was in control and there was still order. Gus went over and saluted him.

The cool-headed old man smiled. 'Well, Captain Under-vood. They have finally let you go. I signed your release two hours ago.'

'What's happening, sir?'

'I'm trying to winkle the king out of his castle, of course. He needs to get himself off to Zenda for a few days and let the Strelsau mob settle down. Now, young man, you are still attached to the general staff, so you can take a message for me up to Captain Antonin in the palace. Should the king refuse to leave, Antonin is to secure him by any means possible, even violence, and bring him to me with a bag over his head if he has to.'

Gus saluted and obeyed the general without question, striding into the Hofgarten and heading for the palace. He was met before he reached it by a small group of Thuringian refugees heading his way. The crown prince and his wife were amongst them. Gus saluted deferentially, although they ignored him in their hurry to depart. Hastening on, he headed up the stairs into the central block. As he went, he loosened his pistol in its holster. So when he met a man running down towards him it was the work of but a moment to remove the gun and point it directly in the other's face.

'Man, are you mad?' cried Prince Albert.

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