The Heart of Oskar Prinz

XI

By Michael Arram

Will and Fritz walked almost to Terlenehem, but Fritz was reluctant to go into the town, and walked Will back along the river bank to his home. They chattered merrily. Fritz's English was remarkably good for a ten-year-old, and they swopped words for things, particularly trees and plants. Will's vocabulary was swelling like corn in summer. None of it was dropping out of his memory, either. His brain had decided that acquiring Rothenian was its top priority. Will had read that this could happen, but he was astonished to find he had the capacity for it. There was every chance he could be fluent in a few weeks.

'This was where the old castle was,' Fritz said sadly. They looked at a field full of low ruins on a terrace above the river. 'The Red Army used it for target practice for their tanks. But they didn't blow it all up.' He led Will up a lane and, choked a bit by trees and ivy he showed Will the remains of a handsome stable block, the courtyard still clear, except for a rusted and collapsing wagon. Will noticed an old stable clock, the green copper hands frozen at four thirty, and the heraldry. He pointed to the carven arms above a tall arch: a lion on a field strewn with roses, the shield encircled by the imperial order of the Golden Fleece. 'Is that the arms of Tarlenheim?'

'Yes,' Fritz said, 'You can see the date 1866, and the letters F III C, that stands for Count Francis the Third. I'm named after him.'

'Really?'

'Yes. Fritz is short for Francis.'

'I didn't know that. Are there a lot of boys called Francis in Terlenehem?'

'Only me,' Fritz said, looking puzzled at the question for some reason.

They walked on up the lane and came again to the cottage. Fritz called out on the path. When they got inside they found Helge and Oskar poring over a ledger and a pile of letters, Oskar was chewing the end of a pen and looking preoccupied. He smiled at Will, 'We'll be a little bit longer, Will. Maybe you and Fritz can go and sit out the back.'

They went out to look at the chickens in the back yard, and Fritz fed them, while Will looked for eggs. He found a few and put them in a dish. They found Fritz's favourite tree and they climbed it together. Oskar had knocked convenient nails in at intervals, and Will was able to climb up to a high platform that Oskar had built for him, as Fritz proudly said. The view was excellent down the river valley to Terlenehem, and Fritz pointed out the church, the mairie and the tower of the fire station. He had a small telescope up there, and they amused themselves as Fritz pointed out his schoolfriends' houses. It was a delightful afternoon, sitting up there in the cool air among the rustling leaves and the gentle sway of the upper branches, apart, that is, from the persistence of the local wasps. Will was regretful when Helge called them down for tea.

It was a wonderful sleepy evening, with Helge sewing on a table by a standing lamp, Fritz doing his homework, and Oskar and Will listening to the radio and reading. Again, there was no TV in the Prinz household. Oskar said in passing that his parents had not approved of television, but they had not missed it as children, apart from the cartoons. Fritz went to bed at what would have been a stunningly early time for one of his pupils in Whithampsted, although Will reflected that perhaps country kids might be different, even in England.

With Fritz in bed, they sat out in the cool and dark under the verandah, sipping wine and watching disturbingly large moths flitting past; Will almost fell off his chair when an owl swooped down and snatched one. Helge was very interested as to how they had met, and very disturbed when she heard an edited version of the story. She did not like big cities, and worried about Oskar all the time, she said. Will privately agreed that she had good reason to worry.

When they went to bed, Will was very touched when she gave them a formal Rothenian blessing and kissed both of them on the forehead, Oskar and then Will. They undressed in silence. Oskar looked disgruntled. 'I feel like we should be in pyjamas,' he complained.

'I think we should behave ourselves tonight,' Will said. They kept their underpants on and hugged chastely till they fell asleep in each other's arms.

There was no breakfast when they woke, only coffee, as Oskar had to admit. 'We eat after church,' he complained, 'we have to keep fast till after mass; it's a... bugger.' He used the English word he had picked up off Will. Will laughed, but his stomach did not laugh with him.

They walked into town, and joined the large numbers attending the nine thirty mass. The celebrant was a Jesuit from the college at Modnehem, a young and intense priest. Will found little problem in following the liturgy and managed a lot of the responses, but he excelled himself in the hymns, all of which were to settings he recognised from his English experience. He stunned his neighbours by harmonising a Rothenian hymn set to the Ode to Joy. He quite enjoyed himself, but heard Oskar complaining that he was giving him ear ache. Fritz too gave him a quirky look, although Helge was smiling. Will did not communicate, as he knew that the Catholic church regarded him as a schismatic; Helge pursed her lips when he explained this. Oskar did communicate, however; scared to cross his sister on her home ground.

As the congregation spilled out of church, Helge was caught up in a group of young women while Oskar was shaking hands with some old friends. Will noticed at that point how deferential people seemed to the handsome brother and sister. Will and Fritz stood around and looked at the graves, Fritz was intrigued at his explanation of the symbolism. They went roaming up the rows. Fritz pointed in a matter of fact way to a structure in the corner of the churchyard. 'That's where mum and dad are.' Will's heart almost broke as the orphaned boy gave the tomb such a wistful look.

They wandered over. Will was impressed at the quality of the workmanship when they reached it. It was also bigger than it appeared at a distance. He recognised it as in fact a vault chapel, rather than a simple hypogeum. It was the entrance to an underground complex that looked like it was of some size. He got to the Classical pediment at the entrance. A wreath of fresh flowers was fixed to the wrought iron gates. He looked above the arch for some clue as to how it was that Oskar's parents had ended up in such a major monument. He found it, and indeed found more than his head was willing to accept at short notice. He saw the carving of a familiar coat of arms, a lion on a field of roses, and the single word TARLENHEIM. He stood silent for a moment, and let the historian in him take over.

'Fritz,' he asked, 'was Count Francis the Third your great-great grandfather, or your great grandfather?'

The boy thought about it for a moment, 'Actually I think he was my great-great-great grandfather... yes that's right. Daddy was Francis the Fifth, if they'd ever let him be count.'

'And Oskar?'

'Oh, he's Oskar the Third, and he is the count of Tarlenheim.'

Will and Fritz walked silently back to the dispersing congregation. Will's world had just done a complete belly flop. Terry had been right. Oskar had certainly kept the big one back, but on the other hand, he thought, he had done nothing to stop him finding out what was, it seemed, an open secret in his group of friends. Tomas had talked of his 'background', and they had ribbed Oskar about his rural lack of sophistication, ironically, as he now realised. No, he was meant to find the secret out. That was why he was brought here. Oskar just did not want to tell him himself. He thought he could see why. It would have sounded like the bizarre fantasies of an unbalanced street gay. But here at Terlenehem there was no doubting it.

Oskar was leaving through the church gate as they caught up with him. He passed two ancient women in black sacking dresses as he went. Oskar looked round at Will just as one of the women took his hand and kissed it. Oskar turned back and laid his hand gently on the old woman's head as she let it go, and said some formal Rothenian words. The other lady went through the same ritual. As Oskar had turned back to the ladies Will finally realised what he had seen in Count Francis's face that he had recognised. It was the image of Oskar.

Will said little as they walked back to the cottage. Oskar too was silent, but Will caught the odd glance being thrown at him. Helge had gone on ahead with Fritz. At last Oskar took his hand and stopped him in the road. Will looked him full in the face and acknowledged something in it that he had only half comprehended before. This was not just a handsome face, it was a noble one. And whatever the circumstances to which its owner was reduced, the nobility was still there, perhaps more of a burden for him as a result.

'So my love, I think now at last you know me,' he said in English.

Will resisted the temptation to say something flippant, 'Oh Oskar,' he ended up saying, 'What can I say?'

'Say you love me again, my Will.'

'I love you, Oskar. But Oskar Prinz? Why not Oskar zu Terlenehem?'

'We had to give up the name under Horvath. Grandfather took the surname as a sort of defiance, not that they could object. But I am a prince, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire as it happens, a dignity that was awarded to the Field Marshal my ancestor by Josef II, the emperor, my cousin. So Oskar Prinz is a true name, and good enough for these latter days in Rothenia. I am the original Student Prinz! Good, eh!' He laughed in the old way, and there was no resisting his merriment. Oskar kissed him in the empty road, and Will took and kissed his hand.

'Don't I get a blessing?' Will smiled.

'Always, every day, when I wake up beside you, I bless you Willemu.' Will believed him and it gave him a shiver.

'My prince.'

'Your prince for ever, English boy.'

'Do I make a good serf?'

'We can work on it.'

'Do they call you "My Lord" or something like that?'

'In modern Rothenia all titles are officially abolished, but when people want to recall the old days, they are supposed to call me "Serene Highness", cool huh?'

'Cool is not the word I would use... scary or weird sounds more appropriate.'

Oskar stopped smiling and said, 'There is a reason you must know all this, my Will. And it's not just that I really do want you to know me as well as Tomaszu and my other good friends. But I cannot tell you here and now. Yet I will soon, I promise. Then you will need to be a loyal knight in my service.'

'This is so very weird, Oskar.'

'I know, but we will talk later, I promise.'

An early lunch was well under way when they got back to the cottage: the last refuge of the noble and princely house of Tarlenheim, but at least it was a happy one. There was a lot of quiet merriment round the dinner, and Oskar sat at the head of his table, making the kitchen chair look like a throne of an affable king. So much about his lover now made sense to Will, the odd moments of formality and dignity, the unselfconscious courage, even the wild humour, had its roots in the fact that Oskar was no common man, and, like princes did, he constructed life on different principles from the rest of us. But he reflected momentarily on what he had recently told his Year 10 GCSE group, that princes were dangerous men because their morality was not ours.

They left late in the afternoon on the train for Strelzen, Helge and Fritz waving from the platform. They waved to them out of the train window until they were out of sight.

Oskar took a seat in the near empty carriage with a pleased look on his face, 'Helge thought you were wonderful. She didn't say it – she wouldn't – but short of a marriageable and fertile girl, you're the next best thing as far as she's concerned.'

'Gee thanks.'

'Don't mention it. I knew it would go well. So back to Strelzen, and another week at the National Library.'

'This week we start listing and assessing the secondary works, and you're going to have to do most of that. How's your speed reading?'

'We'll see. You'll get better too. Your progress in Rothenian is amazing. Are you even aware that you're not talking English now?'

'Er, no,' said Will, 'I'd forgotten.'

'If only we could get your accent better, you say the letters "a" and "e" very oddly.'

'Oh well, practice will make perfect.'

'No doubt.'

Will thought for a moment, 'Does Hendrik know your background?'

'No, none of them at Falkefilm have any idea, which is the way it needs to stay.'

'I agree with you. Excuse me, my love, but I have to ask you again. How could a descendant of the Tarlenheims get involved with the likes of Hendrik?'

'A courageous question to ask of me, Englishman,' said Oskar with more than hint of formal frostiness in his voice. But his face cleared soon enough, and he said soberly. 'Would it be enough, Will, to say that there was a pressing reason, and that one day soon you will know it?'

'If you say so, Your Serene Highness, I am content.'

'Hmm, so Will, you can do dignity too, I see.'

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