'I had been told your highness had left the capital,' Gus said coolly. His feelings were anything but cool.
The prince had recognised him. 'Killing me will do you no good.'
Gus had been too surprised by the apparition of Oskar's killer to have thought what he might do, but Albert's mind worked faster. Kill him? Gus supposed he might, and might even get away with the deed. He wondered whether General von Tirkenau had sent him up to the palace hoping that he would meet Albert and attempt it.
'Please take a seat, and keep your hands up,' Gus said, indicating with his pistol a ledge in the stair well. The prince edged towards it keeping his eye on Gus.
'Oskar wanted to kill you. He said that it was the only way to ensure the future peace and unity of his land. But you killed him.'
'It was a fair fight. You saw it.'
'Indeed I did. Oskar took his chance, and failed. But now I am in a position to reverse the situation. You killed my lover. How do you think I feel about you?'
Albert had gone white. Gus was internally marvelling at the way his bruised and battered mind was functioning, despite the mortal wound to his soul. But what was he going to do?
The man in front of him was irredeemable. No words could penetrate his selfishness and pride. He lived for power and control. He was a thief and a conscienceless murderer whom no court could ever touch. The only punishment that would come to him was what Gus might inflict on him, here, now, on this staircase in a besieged palace.
The moral debate played out in Gus's head. Kill this man and endless miseries might never occur. But who was he to take the power of life and death to himself? Who was he to wrench aside the processes of history? He did not have the wisdom to anticipate what new and possibly worse things his intervention might cause. Nor did he have Oskar's blithe assurance not to care.
Finally he spoke. 'Albert, you are less than a man. You are an animal possessed by animal lusts. I can't despise an animal for being what it is. I can't kill in cold blood either. You must take your chances. You won't turn me into a murderer. Now run.'
Albert looked as though he was planning a retort, but instead he stood and warily ran down the stairs, disappearing at speed round the corner. Gus took the other direction. He found on the main first floor corridor a guardsman who directed him to Captain Antonin, who was with the king in his private office.
Gus found the door open. The king was staring out on the Rudolfs Platz, which was a roaring sea of faces. From where he stood, Gus could see that police and mounted life guards were attempting to keep the crowds back from the palace railings, but were being driven back on the gates.
The king was tugging on his whiskers, looking simultaneously stubborn and indecisive. Gus went up to Captain Antonin and delivered his message. As he did, the king turned and asked, 'Who is that? What are you saying?'
Gus delivered his best salute. 'Your majesty. General von Tirkenau's orders. You are to accompany myself and Captain Antonin to the Reitschule yard peacefully, or we are to take you at gunpoint. The guards will not be able to protect you here for much longer.'
There was an outcry from his remaining Thuringian staff. Captain Antonin was at the end of his considerable tether. 'Sir, it is time to go. It is matter of minutes before the mob is through the gates. Unless you propose to end your short reign defending your palace with a sword, you must accompany me now.' Both he and Gus drew their pistols to reinforce the point.
The king frowned. 'Very well, There are times when every good soldier must obey orders, and I think that this may be one of them. Ernst! Ludwig! Bring the confidential correspondence.'
How ironic, thought Gus. Here am I, who worked so hard for the Rassendyll succession, guarding the back of Bob's successful rival. The king was hustled through the Hofgarten, where he found the court ready to depart and General von Tirkenau still very much in control of events.
Gus was recovering Oskar's coat from the guard lieutenant, when with a rumble and clatter, the squadron of life guards led by Antonin escorted the royal carriages out of the yard and down in the direction of the Heinrichsbrücke. Gus caught sight of a sullen Prince Albert in the corner of his father's coach.
'Now then August,' said the general coming up behind him, 'we have a palace to defend. Take command of this company and take up positions on the palace's main staircase. I will not have Queen Flavia's home disturbed by rioters. Hold the stairs as long as you can. You may be glad to know I have a plan.' The old man laughed.
So Gus took up his first and last military command without even knowing what orders to give. Instead he told the lieutenant to give them, which was done efficiently with the aid of the sergeants. His one hundred guardsmen formed column and moved at quick march through the Hofgarten. They filed up through the chapel to take position on the first floor landing of the grand red-carpeted stairs that led up from the central entry arch of the palace. They took shelter behind balustrades and the rather inadequate furniture.
Gus and his lieutenant peered down from the windows. The police and life guards had been driven from the railings and the crowd was forcing the gate as he watched. Gus turned and addressed the men. He felt curiously inspired. He felt as though he was possessed by another soul, Oskar's maybe. Also, he admitted, the thought of death with a pistol in his belt and a sword in his hand was not unattractive at that moment. That way lay peace.
'Soldiers!' he shouted above the crowd's roar. 'You were the guards of Queen Flavia. This is her palace and the ancient home of the Elphbergs whom you once swore to serve. We will make a stand here. But fire no shot on your fellow countrymen, unless you hear me give the order.' He turned to the lieutenant. 'Make sure the sergeants and corporals keep the mens' fingers off their triggers.'
Gus took a solitary stand at the first landing as, with a cheer, the crowd forced the gates. Running figures were soon swarming towards the glazed doors leading to the palace stairs. Gus saw many young men's faces press against them and hurl them back. The glass panels shattered. The ground floor filled, as many more men pressed in behind them. But then they caught sight of Gus, alone, hands on hips on the stairs above.
Whether he knew it or not, Augustus Underwood of Haddesley Hall, co. Suffolk, was an imposing figure at that moment. His uniform and weapons were not what made him imposing, it was the air he gave of a man who cared nothing for fear and danger, and indeed welcomed it.
As the crowd paused and murmured, Gus shouted out, his clear voice assisted by the acoustics of the great stairwell in which he stood.
'The king and the murdering prince, his nephew, are gone!'
Instead of pushing forward, the crowd halted and listened.
'There is nothing for you in this palace. Leave it now! This was the house of our beloved Elphbergs, of our great queen. You have no call to be here.'
'How do we know it's true!' shouted a voice from among the crowd.
'You have all you need in my word as an officer of Queen Flavia. One to whom she gave the order of Henry the Lion.' Gus had put it on with his uniform that morning.
This seemed to impress the crowd, which resisted the pressure from others trying to push in from outside. There was a brief period of stand off, and then the more irresolute were overcome by the less scrupulous behind them. 'Soldiers!' shouted an unmoving Gus. An ominous series of clicks reached the crowd as rifles were cocked on the stairs above. The crowd hesitated again and now several began to try to push their way back through the press.
It was as things hung in the balance that a new surge of noise came from the crowd outside. There was a rattle of distant musketry and the sound of men shouting. This was too much for the crowd in the stairwell. The pressure on them from outside eased and they began retreating as fast as they could.
Gus sprang back to the exterior windows. He could see large blocks of soldiers in Ruritanian blue surging into the east side of the square: reinforcements had finally arrived from the Arsenal. They had fixed bayonets and their steady pace was slowly driving the mob across the square and out of its many western exits. General von Tirkenau could be seen above them on horseback. The crisis was over.
Gus smiled at the lieutenant. He gave his last order to him, to secure the palace. He took Oskar's jacket from the sergeant who had carried it, and hugging it to himself, he left the building, determined never to be a soldier again.
Gus dreaded his return to the Tarlenheim Palace, but it was unavoidable. He could see that the shutters were drawn across the windows, and the family flag was at half mast over the main gate. A diamond-shaped painted board, a funeral hatchment, had already been fixed above the entrance of the inner courtyard.
Gus knew where he had to go as soon as he entered the house. He found the chapel full of kneeling figures in black, and the altar flickering with candles. With tears starting in his eyes he saw before the altar the lidless coffin, a processional cross at its head. Oskar lay within, not in a shroud but dressed in his dragoon uniform. In death, his blonde good looks made him ethereally beautiful. He looked to be in a deep sleep and the peace in his face was a cold sort of comfort to Gus.
Gus knelt at one of the seats. He saw Oskar's brothers and mother in the family pews, and many other noblemen and noblewomen were present. A persistent and gentle sobbing came from the servants gathered in the gallery above. Dominicans from the neighbouring convent filed in and began an office for the dead. Gus stayed on his knees throughout. After the office, the family began to leave. Sissi passed by with Hugo on one arm, and she took Gus's arm as she passed and guided him out as if he also were a blind man.
Sissi took them both into a back parlour, asking for tea to be sent in. Gus felt no hunger though he had not eaten that day, but he found he was thirsty. They sat silently together for a while, until Sissi asked Gus to describe for them Oskar's last moments and words. He found that he could. He was still holding his dead lover's jacket compulsively, and now at last he put it down. So he talked his friends through his trauma, and added the story of his meeting with Prince Albert in the palace. He did not mention his encounter with the Strelsau mob.
Hugo had sat silent, but at last he spoke. 'You should not mourn for him too long, August. Miss him, yes. Cry for him too. But he died sword in hand fighting tyranny. There was no better death than that for the sort of man he was.'
'Oh Hugo,' said Gus. 'But there were so many unsuspected Oskars, and I was just beginning to discover them, some that many of his friends would hardly think possible. I can't believe I will ever lose the regrets I have now. I would give up the rest of my life for just a few more weeks with him.' The blank finality of his lover's death was not something he could even yet bear to contemplate.
They sat quietly for a while. The tea arrived and Sissi poured the cups. They asked about the disturbances in the city, and Gus told him all he knew, though nothing about his part in the dispersal of the mob.
Hugo nodded. 'So the king is back in Zenda. I hope he finds better advice than he did before. Rudolf said that he was relying on the crown prince, a man of no sense and understanding. Perhaps William Henry's day is done for now.'
Gus nodded mutely. He had no interest in politics at the moment. He was suddenly overwhelmingly tired. He told his friends that he needed to lie down, and they smiled and let him go.
He found his way to his own room and was glad that Oskar had never slept there with him. A dark huddled figure was on a chair outside the door. He raised his tear-stained face, and Gus's heart went out to the desolation he saw there, for here at last was someone whom he knew felt exactly as he did. He held out his arms and Marek hurled himself into them, sobbing.
Gus all but carried the young man inside his room and sat him on the bed. He took off their boots and his military accoutrements. He laid himself down besides Marek in shirt sleeves. Lying together, Gus behind and enveloping Marek, they eventually fell asleep.
Gus sat silent and alone in the corner of the churchyard at Tarlenheim. The funeral was done. The great family vault was closed again and Count Oskar von Tarlenheim slept with his ancestors. Dark and veiled figures were picking their ways back through the gravestones to their carriages. It was cold and last night there had been the first hard frost of the autumn of the year.
James came towards him and doffed his hat. There had been a change in their relationship. The amused tolerance which had first marked their relations on James's part had become something not far off reverence. The story of Gus's defence of the royal palace against the mob had spread. Tomacz Hirth had already been commissioned to paint a version of it to hang in the parliament building, and Gus had seen himself portrayed in the Illustrated London News inaccurately defying the Strelsau mob with a pistol. In fact he had stood unarmed.
'The carriage is ready, sir. Count Hugo Maria and the lady countess are waiting.'
'Templerstadt it is then, James. But only for a few days.'
'I need to go back to England for a while, to get some sort of perspective.'
'I understand, sir. And young Marek?'
'He can come with me.'
'Good, sir. The boy remains very distressed. He's better with you, and travel will take his mind off the count's death. I will head over to Modenheim, book the rail tickets and wire ahead for a passage on the Hamburg steamer. Will that suit?'
'That will do very well. I will be back, James. We still have business in this land. You will look after Hentzau in the meantime?'
'Certainly sir. I will be getting married. Frau Bermann has consented to becomes Mrs Antrobus. But we will wait for you to return. I believe she wishes you to give her away at the altar.'
Gus smiled, a rare event recently, and expressed his delight.
The reception room at Templerstadt was as beautiful as ever, with the autumn sunshine streaming through the diamond-paned glass of the tall Gothic windows. A bright wood fire was crackling in the wide hearth and the three friends were sitting together with coffees. Two dogs were sleeping at Hugo's feet and Sissi was sitting next to him, holding his hand.
'Sissi said you are finding your way around the house unassisted.'
'Yes. It has been a struggle, and my shins are showing the marks, but I'm memorising the spaces in the house and I was able to make my way to the water closet from our bedroom quite unaided two days ago.'
'The big advantage for us is that Hugo can navigate around the bedroom on his own in the pitch dark without stubbing a toe. Very useful at times.'
Something appeared to strike Hugo at that point. 'I remember you said a strange thing the morning after that dreadful storm, about seeing a black coach in the courtyard in the moonlight.'
'Yes, I did.'
'Was it a large, old-fashioned coach?'
'It was certainly big and square built, though it was hard to see details.'
Gus looked intrigued. 'What is it, Hugo?'
'Only this. No carriage arrived at the house that night.'
'But I saw and heard it, and its six horses too!'
'I don't doubt you saw something, and it is something that not many have seen, or - I have to say - would want to see.'
'What on earth are you hinting at?'
'It is this. For many generations the death of a Tarlenheim has been heralded by the appearance of a black coach in the courtyard of our Strelsau palace. It makes no difference if the gates are closed or opened, it can be heard rumbling into the yard. But the only people who actually see it are the beloved partners of the one who is to die, the husband or wife. My mother saw it six years ago, the night my father died. She described it as you did, and she said it had no groom or driver, but stood waiting, the horses stamping.' Hugo groped for Gus's hand, and held it hard. 'It would seem that the very world of the spirits acknowledges the truth of the love between you and my brother.'
'So this is England, sir?'
'This is indeed England, Marek. You seem unimpressed.'
'It's a bit... muddy.'
'This is the Thames estuary. It gets better. We should be in the Pool of London in less than two hours, and then you will see the Tower and St Paul's Cathedral.'
Marek was indeed impressed by the forests of masts of Thames barges moored from buoys in the fairway or unloading at the wharves of Wapping and Bermondsey. Steam launches were everywhere, and cargo steamers were anchored in lines down the river. The wealth of empire was unloading around them. The great port teamed with the peoples of several continents.
Two porters took their luggage in barrows from St Katharine's dock to the line of cabs, and soon they were trotting through the din and crowds of the greatest city in the modern world. Marek was all eyes. Gus had found him a delight to travel with, and the boy's depression had been gradually lifting since they had taken the Frankfurt express from Modenheim. He had never before left Ruritania.
No 305 Park Lane was not perhaps as imposing as the Tarlenheim palace in Strelsau, but it was certainly a handsome enough building to earn Marek's approval. Bobby Burlesdon was grinning from ear to ear when he emerged to greet Gus from the drawing room, and when he enclosed his friend in a long and warm embrace, some of the pain in his heart was squeezed away and did not return. Marek was packed off with a footman to quarters in the garret. He looked scared; he had only a few words of English.
Gus was sent up to wash and change out of his travelling clothes. When he came down again he and Bob went to the library. Here they lit their cigarettes and sipped coffees.
Gus once again repeated the events of Oskar's last day to his solicitous friend, who got up and walked around at some points, he was so moved. 'I know I did not trust the man, Gussie, or like him as much as he deserved. But he was a brave heart and a great patriot. I hope they put up a statue to him. Such a man needs a memorial.'
'He was a great man, perhaps the greatest I will ever meet. But in the end the thing that astonished most was to find how loving a heart all the acting concealed - and was meant to conceal.'
'Tell me about King Leopold.'
'He is staying for the time being at Zenda, though the capital is quiet again. The riots did some good. Prince Albert is now too notorious as the killer of a Tarlenheim to be allowed to remain in the kingdom, and he has been packed off with an allowance and told to amuse himself in Biarritz or Nice, but not to come near Ruritania. Prince William Henry has been in effect exiled back to Germany, although he is called Prince Regent of Thuringia and supposedly governs the duchy for his brother.
'The king has appointed a new council of Rothenian nobles and he even included a bishop, as a reassurance to his people. He now has a Rothenian secretary, and is being made to understand that a king must represent his people, not just be a hat rack for a crown. When he's learned that lesson, he may be safe to let back in Strelsau. The elections happen next week, a pity I never got around to registering as a voter in Hentzau. Never mind.'
'And the crown of Tassilo...?'
'Rests safe at Hentzau where we put it, in trust for the future.'
'Will you go back, to be its keeper, and my agent in Ruritania?'
'Of course. No fear of that. After Oskar died, all I wanted was to get out and go away from the pain. But I realised once I had left Ruritania the pain was being carried with me, that as far as Ruritania was concerned, I had fallen in love with the place itself, and I can never be free of it. Indeed the pain of my loss may not be so severe there.'
'This is important to me, Gussie. I need to have an agent in Ruritania, someone to keep the hopes of an Elphberg succession alive. You will do well. You have the respect of the nation. Heavens, they're putting a picture of you in the parliament building! You are a man with whom the nobility will associate, and whose integrity will rally the cause. I intend to visit the kingdom as a private citizen in a year or two. I won't be a stranger there and there is no statute excluding me from its borders. Then I will reside at Hentzau and fly the Rassendyll flag from the gatehouse.
'All is not lost with the Elphberg cause, I think. From what you say, every day the Thuringians are in power makes me a more attractive prospect. When the order in Europe is changed and Bismarck is fallen, then maybe it will be the time once more to raise the red lion on gold in Strelsau.
'I am off to Austria again in the new year. I had such a sweet letter from Kitzi, and I think I am now going to finish that portrait. After that, I may start another one. Of her and our children perhaps. What d'you think of that, eh?'
Gus laughed. 'I think that you could do no better. Kitzi will be as good a countess as she would have been as bad a queen.'
'Yes, I suppose she would have been the sort of queen who shrieks "off with his head!" But as a wife and mother she cannot be bettered. All she was thinking about when I left Ruritania was my disappointment, not her disappointed hopes. No, she has been tried in the furnace as gold is tried. I can trust her now.'
The two friends spent that fresh November day walking Oxford Street and Westminster. They returned with an appetite and ate well. It was over cigars that Bob asked the butler for Marek to be sent up from the kitchens.
'Marek Rustak,' he said.
'Yes, excellency?' said the boy, looking nervous.
'I have heard that you are an honest man, and a faithful servant of the Elphbergs.'
'That is certainly kind of you to say, excellency.'
'Then go across with Mr Haines, the butler, to my workroom in the mews and bring the canvas you find covered in a green cloth. But do not uncover it.'
Marek bowed and disappeared. Gus looked curiously at his friend through the cigar smoke. The canvas arrived and Bob set up an easel where the firelight and candlight would show the picture to best effect.
'Now the pair of you, sit there together on the sofa. Yes, Marek, I know you are a servant, but just this once it's more important that you are a good-hearted man and a Ruritanian.
'Gussie, I began working on this picture when the tragic news reached me from Strelsau. I think it quite inspired me, and without any feeling of hurry the canvas was complete two days ago. One hesitates to say a work of art is ever finished, but by some sport of fate I think this one uncannily perfect.'
Bob pulled away the cloth and revealed a half-length portrait of Oskar, in one of his more colourful outfits. Both Gus and Marek sat thunderstruck.
'How did you do it?' Gus gasped,
'I had two of his Sarony portrait cards, of course. But I had my memories of his face and look, and his was a face that no artist could forget. I painted it for you, Gussie.'
It was perfect. The colouring and expression were uniquely Oskar's. The mysterious and ironic smile was there, but behind it Bob's talent had caught the thing that Gus finally realised had made his lover so very beautiful. Hiding underneath the smile was a capacity and a wish to love. It was the love that Gus had finally liberated and fulfilled, and which now waited for him until they were reunited in eternity.
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