Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

This is a historical romance set in the world of nineteenth-century Ruritania. It is not principally a gay love story, though there is a small element of that in it. Principally it's about love and devotion of all sorts. It's also about sacrifice. I had great fun writing this story, never having tried my hand at historical fiction before. Sorry if I get too hung up on detail in it, but I'm just a beginner at this. Big thanks to all those trusty readers who allowed themselves to be exploited with great forbearance while I wrote it - Rob, Terry, James and Eldon, you are as heroic as Gus. What warmer praise can I give?

'I wonder when in the world you're going to do something, Augustus,' said his mother.

'I'm sorry, Mother?' Gus's egg spoon froze on its journey towards his mouth.

'Gus dear, do put down that spoon.' He complied, as was always wise where his mother was concerned. 'Here we are now at the beginning of August, you have been home for over a month, and I see no sign that you are intending to do anything at all about your future. We will be travelling up to your cousin's in Yorkshire in less than a fortnight. What will he make of you?'

Gus had no real answer to that question. He might of course have responded that he gave not a damn what his cousin thought of him, but in present company it would have been like suggesting to the queen that it really was time she got over her loss of the dear prince consort.

The fact was that Gus had been born under the disability of a complete lack of ambition. He had no abiding interests or enthusiasms, just a sunny disposition. He had no troubling principles to make him uncomfortable about it either. His only real motivation was a desire to be amiable and at ease, something his mother seemed to have decided to make difficult.

Mother was Lady Catherine Underwood, daughter of the sixth earl of Carlisle and perhaps a little too conscious of it. Her Howard father and one of her Howard brothers had been knights of the Garter and members of the cabinet. But Gus concentrated in himself the bucolic inheritance of the Underwoods, rural baronets of the eastern division of Suffolk since the time of James II. The first baronet had attained his dignity by being a persistent Catholic recusant, which was enough to land him the appointment of Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk and a baronetcy in that troubled reign. It was the only distinction his family had ever achieved in several centuries, and it could hardly be said that he had either earned it or even particularly wanted it. The first baronet was rewarded for his willingness to oblige Catholic James with a brief spell in the Tower, until Dutch William realised he was harmless. The Underwoods had made a point of keeping their heads down politically ever since.

Now Lady Catherine was agitating for Gus to take up some sort of profession. But this was not the Underwood tradition. As Catholics, they had found English universities, the law and the forces closed to them till the previous generation, though no Underwood had ever been heard to resent it. A great uncle had gone to Stonyhurst and attained a doctorate of sacred scripture at Tournai, but that was the previous summit of the family's educational attainments. The reverend doctor died still young as a Jesuit mission priest in Paraguay, which the Underwoods took as a lesson for the rest of them.

Then Lady Catherine had brought her Howard aspirations into the family. She wished to stiffen their backs, to make them worthy of the connection she had contributed, and also - never stated, of course, not even in her head - to justify to herself the choice she had made in her husband. So Sir Philip had been badgered into the offices of High Sheriff of Middlesex and Colonel of the East Suffolk Yeomanry. His eldest son Lewis was rising in the diplomatic corps, and the next son Lawrence was a lieutenant in a fashionable cavalry regiment. None of the Underwood boys had been allowed to follow the ancestral educational path to Ushaw or Ampleforth. They had been sent to endure the harsh academic education offered by Medwardine in Shropshire, a school run firmly on the principles of Dr Arnold, and then frogmarched to Oxford. Gus's degree had been a fair reward for his lack of enthusiasm for study.

Gus reflected that he could not tell his mother that his whole Underwood inheritance was rebelling at her expectations of public service and self-improvement. So he ventured, 'Mother, I had considered taking some time to travel abroad. Bob Rassendyll wants me to join him in Switzerland at the end of August, and he's very keen to move on to the Tyrol and Carinthia. He's got thoughts of setting up for an artist.'

Mother's eyebrows knit. 'Lord Burlesdon may take all the time he wishes to ponder a future, and a picture-painting earl may suit the Rassendylls well enough. It will not, however, suit the Underwoods of Haddesley Hall.'

'Well, Mother, as someone said of younger sons, "Our state is of all stations for gentlemen the most miserable". I know I have to set up in some line of life so as not to disgrace the family name in rags, though I do need time to think how to do it.'

'I suppose your father has had a word about your allowance.'

'Yes, Mother.'

'It will not sustain a long period gallivanting about the Alps.'

'I'm not sure that one gallivants in mountains, Mother. Far too dangerous, especially near glaciers.' But Gus took that as qualified permission to accompany his friend Bob.

The two had been close since the lower forms at Medwardine, when Bob had been known as Lord Lowestoft. They had both been Catholics in an Anglican school, though the Burlesdons were recent converts. Bob had inherited the earldom prematurely on his father's death three years before. Gus liked to think of himself as having been helpful to his friend in the dark months after the funeral. He had worn the black crepe band on his Eton jacket sleeve as long as Bob had. They had also been gentlemen commoners at the same Oxford college, but Bob at least had distinguished himself in the schools.

And so in the first days of August 1880, Gus found himself alone in London. He had spent the night at Harlesden Lodge, the Underwoods' house on their small Middlesex estate near Winchmore Hill. Enduring miseries with his baggage, he had taken a morning train to Moorgate Street. He had shied away from the adventure of the underground railway; it was a very hot day and the Metropolitan Line would have been a Hades of steam, heat and coal smuts. Instead, he took a cab to Park Lane. It was a fetid drive through the crowded streets. The jam in Oxford Street was such that he nearly got out and walked, leaving the cabbie to bring along the trunks after him, but he did not trust the man any more than he trusted his own knowledge of the city.

No 305, the Burlesdons' town house, had a pedimented brick-and-stucco front, noble and imposing. The Rassendylls were an old Norfolk family, barons since Richard II's reign. They had come by the earldom and a grant of some waterlogged fields out of the manor of Kensington as repayment for a loan to James I. At the time, it was thought the king had got the better of the deal. In the subsequent 150 years, however, the westward expansion of London had made the Burlesdons fabulously rich in freehold rents as the tide of squares and streets had spread across Green Park and on to their property.

The bell-pull summoned a footman in a tail coat to the door. Gus presented his card, the first time in his life he had used such an object. He had taken some time with printers in Ipswich to agree on the design, for in matters of taste, he could be finicky. It was in the Morris style, with an underdressed young lady contemplating the name: 'AUGUSTUS FINCHAM CLIVE UNDERWOOD, Esq. of Haddesley Hall, co. Suffolk and Harlesden Lodge, co. Middx.'

The footman returned. 'His Lordship will see you now, sir.'



They shook hands with a grin. Bob was in a light-grey morning suit, quite elegant, with cravat and pin. It made Gus's country tweeds look very frowsty. The young earl laughed when he saw Gus's look. 'It's alright, old fellow, I've been out to see grandmother in Hampstead. I daren't appear in any less than full fig. How are you?'

'I'm as you see me, Bobby, hot, flustered and lost in the heart of London. I say, isn't this prime! Here we are both free of study and mothers and ready for a fine adventure, off on a miniature grand tour without benefit of a tutor. Have a cigarette.'

'Not in these clothes, Gus. Where are your people?'

'With the Howard cousins in Yorkshire for the shooting, apart from Philip, who's yachting near Kiel.'

'And mine are down in Burlesdon Hall, fanning themselves to keep cool I have no doubt. Damned hot, ain't it?'

'And the smells, Bobby! Wouldn't you rather come out and stay at Winchmore Hill with me?'

'It's only for two days, and we get the Antwerp steamer from St Katharine's Dock on Friday. Besides, we can see the town.'

'But what's to see, Bobby?'

Bobby laughed. 'There is the Opéra Comique - where the Pirates of Penzance is still playing - Regents Park, y'know, the British Museum, river steamers, all sorts of joys.'

They strolled into a drawing room, and Bob rang for a servant. The same footman appeared. 'How about a tea, Gus? Nothing like it in hot weather.'

'So my grandmother said. I was never convinced by her, either.'

The servant bowed and left.

'Only a skeleton staff here, I'm afraid,' commented Bobby. 'The rest are with Mama down in Norfolk. Don't get your hopes up about dinner, dear fellow. They'll be disappointed. Now we do have one chap from here who is going with us. He's a bit ancient, though not quite a Methuselah, but he's an old hand in Continental travel. He used to be my poor uncle's valet, and Uncle Rudolf was a great traveller. James even worked abroad for a while attached to some foreign royalty. So I thought it best he should accompany us.'

'Is he something of a stick, then?'

'No, he's quietly spoken. The soul of discretion. Just too serious for my liking. But heavens, Gus, you'll balance that up, you cheery soul you. I can't see him depressing your spirits.'

Piotr Ignacij was fighting a losing battle against the swelling sense of elation that had taken possession of soul and body. He said a brief prayer against worldly pride, but even as he looked down, his eyes caught the purple silk of his new cassock and his heart beat faster. He looked up, and the soaring Gothic vault of the Waclawkloster brought him back to some sense of his personal insignificance. Architecture could suppress human pride: an interesting discovery.

The abbot himself had kindly consented to read the brief of his appointment, as there was no monsignor of the same rank available from the cardinal's household. In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti. Nos Leo divina miseratione papa servus servorum Dei cognoscens devotionem et eruditionem dilecti nostri in Christo Petri Ignatii presbiteri diocesis Strelsensis vicarii capituli ecclesiae cathedralis Ss Andreae et Vitalis et eleemosinarii fidelis nostrae filiae piissimae et constantissimae Ruritanensis reginae....

The abbot finished with a faint smile of satisfaction. Except for the externals, Piotr was now a protonotary apostolic ad instar, a monsignor, a prelate of the Roman Catholic church. Escorted by two subdeacons, he moved in front of the nuncio's throne and knelt. First the gold ring was placed on the fourth finger of his right hand; then the rochet was blessed and placed over his head, and the purple mantelletta fastened over his shoulders. The nuncio was even good enough to lean over and kiss his cheek when he was fully vested. He was helped to his feet and took his seat quietly amongst the assistant clergy as the nuncio gave his sermon. Piotr heard scarcely a word of it.

'Well there you are, right reverend monsignor,' exclaimed the nuncio when Piotr entered the vestry after mass to change into his new 'abito piano'.

'Your excellency is too kind. I know to whom I owe this great honour.'

'Dear Piotr, you still have your ring on.'

'Ah.... sorry, excellency. A whole set of new rules I must master.'

'Of course, the queen herself brought your name to the attention of the Holy See. I merely wrote in support.'

'Then her majesty was too kind.'

'You have been a great support to her in these latter years, dear fellow. Then there was your success as chairman of the Rothenian Schools League. She has asked particularly that you should celebrate mass in pontificals in the Chapel Royal this Sunday.'

'A great privilege, excellency.'

'The first of many which may yet befall you, I have no doubt. I hope you can join me for lunch at the nunciature.'

It was not an invitation that could be turned down, though Piotr was worldly enough to know that there was an ulterior motive. There always was with Archbishop Andrássy.

Piotr was not wrong. He had lived amongst the great of the earth for several years now as almoner to the court of Her Most Pious and Steadfast Majesty, Flavia, Queen of Ruritania. He knew how to say little in conversation, and draw much from what little was said. He also knew that information was a market, and to gain one also had to lay out.

As the soup was being taken away, the nuncio asked inconsequentially, 'And how is her majesty's health?'

'She seems well, excellency. She is a credit to her age and sex in that respect. She rides daily in the park at Bila Palacz with her equerry, and allows no state business to interfere with her recreation. She was at Carlsbad for a week last month. I believe she took the waters.'

'That is good. We all know how much depends on her majesty's health.'

'Certainly, your excellency.'

'And I do count on you, monsignor, to keep me - and through me, his holiness - advised as to how her majesty fares.' The slight stress on the title made sure that Piotr was reminded that he was under an obligation to the archbishop.

'You may count on me to respect the interests of Mother Church, excellency.'

'I believe I do, dear Piotr.'

The nunciature lay in the New City, amongst the embassies in the tree-lined avenues immediately north of the royal palace, overlooking the river. So it was a short walk for Piotr to reach the palace stable entrance. The guard on the gate by the Winter Riding School saluted him. He was plainly a cleric of consequence in his black cassock and skullcap, both trimmed with amaranth, and his purple silk sash and ferraiolo. He had not always received such an acknowledgement in his previous plain black garb. Still, when he could divorce his mind from these externals, it kept circling back to one question: Why had the archbishop asked about the queen's health?

Gus and Bob early on resolved that they had to find a way to evade James the valet. Bobby settled on the idea that they should walk from Lucerne by way of the cantons of Schwyz and St Gallen to cross into Austria at Feldkirch. Every day, James would ride ahead in a hired trap or dogcart to secure lodgings for the end of that stage, while the young men walked carrying only rucksacks with rolled-up raincoats strapped to the top.

The weather remained very hot as they toiled up great hills, pausing now and again to survey the gulfs of air below them and the high white peaks rising above. The mosquitoes were a trial on the lower slopes. But, mosquitoes or not, it wasn't too hard a struggle for the most part. Bobby acquired a heavy alpenstock and Tyrolean hat. He would stop to make sketches or talk to the huntsmen, fishermen and shepherds they encountered. With his fluent German, he seemed to have no trouble with the Schweizer dialect.

Gus had to work a bit harder at it. Fortunately, he'd had the benefit of a German nanny till he was eight and tuition for several years after that, and was confident he would improve quickly. 'How is it your German is so good, Bobby?' he asked on their second day's tramping.

'My father had me taught by a tutor from the time I was still quite young. We spent two summers in Baden. We have an estate in Ruritania, you know, where they speak High Dutch not unlike the way they speak it here.'

'Ruritania? What's it like?'

'Can't say. I have yet to visit the place. The estate was a gift to father from the queen, who is something of a friend of the family. She was one of my godmothers, though of course it was only by proxy. But I still have the rather fine silver-gilt tankard she sent on my christening. It's engraved with the royal arms. Father thought that speaking German would be a useful thing to know if ever I went there. I suppose I must do so one of these days.'

It was a glorious afternoon as they crossed the frontier and descended into the deep valley of the Ill. A patrol of Tyrolean jäger, led by a cheerful young lieutenant with a sprig of green in his shako, had given their papers a cursory inspection at the pass. He had insisted they take a nip of schnapps from his hip flask.

'Very friendly, wasn't he?' smiled Gus as they descended the Arlberg.

'Oh, the Austrians are in general. At least once they think you have sechzen Ahnen.'


'It's a medieval idea that you were only truly noble if your ancestors, all the way back to your sixteen great-great-grandparents, had coats of arms.'

'And is that the case with you?'

'Probably not, few English peers can claim so much. Though I'd imagine it probably is true for you, Gussie, you Old Catholics being so clannish and all. These Austrians on the other hand are desperately inbred. They're all cousins. But since I'm a "milord", I imagine our young jäger lieutenant assumed that both you and I had the highest breeding.'

'So, being a drooling Catholic cretin, I should fit in here, d'you think, Bobby?'

'Oh, absolutely. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was built by the likes of you.'

They found James's dogcart already waiting outside a comfortable gasthaus in the town. They had no complaints about the man's ability to find good food and clean beds.

'It's that he makes me feel so very naïve and ingenuous, Gussie, just like that vile man in David Copperfield. What was his name?'

'I know the feller.... Littimer, Steerforth's valet. Copperfield said that every time he encountered Littimer, he felt the man to be a walking reproach: "You are very young, sir; you are exceedingly young".'

For the next few days, whenever James left their presence, Gus would adopt a straight face and say, 'You are very young, sir,' and Bob would intone in response, 'You are exceedingly young.' But they were sufficiently in awe of James to make sure their sniggering could not be heard.

James's age was difficult to assess, although he must have been somewhere around sixty. He was however remarkably spry and his hair showed little touch of grey as yet. It would have been unthinkable to either young man even to consider the possibility that he dyed it. His skin was very pale and his face was as free of expression as a mandarin's. Just like a mandarin, James was remorselessly and endlessly correct. He always wore a dark suit and bowler, and his neat black moustache was waxed at the corners.

'Where do you intend to go tomorrow, my lord?' James asked that night.

Bob raised an eyebrow at Gus. They had discussed this earlier on the road. 'We've decided to spend a week or two in Vienna, James.' Bob bit off the almost automatic reflex to ask James if he thought that was alright.

'There is a diligence along the post road as far as Innsbruck, my lord, though it is a whole day's journey. From there we can take a train to the capital. I shall book the carriage tickets this evening, sir. If I might suggest the Pension Liebermann in the Inner City as being reasonable and comfortable, as well as amenable for anywhere you might wish to go?'

'As you suggest.'

'I shall telegraph ahead. Good night, my lord. Good night, Mr Underwood.'

There was a pause while his steps receded. 'You are very young, sir,' murmured Gus with a smile.

'You are exceedingly young.'

The Pension Liebermann was a fine old baroque townhouse just off the Hohe Markt, though a little too close to the cathedral unless you liked the irregular clang of the carillon and the ominous toll of the passing bell. But it was very picturesque and obviously catered for the sort of traveller who would be offended to be called bourgeois. The shops, cafés and restaurants of the Graben were only minutes away.

As James unpacked their valises, he produced a packet of sealed letters. 'My lord,' he enquired, 'will you be taking these letters of introduction around tomorrow? If so, it would perhaps be best to hire a carriage from a livery stable for the day, rather than take a two-horse fiacre from a stand. The Viennese tend to notice these things and treat you accordingly, sir.'

'What do we have there, James?'

'For Vienna, sir, your mother secured a letter from the Foreign Secretary for Count Julius Andrássy, and one for Sir Henry Elliot, the British Ambassador. It would seem unlikely that either is in the city at this time of year.'

But though the ambassador had indeed returned to Britain, the count was in Vienna. So the next day, late enough in the morning for it to be a civilised visiting hour, the two young men rolled up to the count's house on the Maximilianstrasse near the Opera in a rather smart carriage. They had both dressed appropriately in grey frock coats. When Bob sent in his card, they were informed with surprising and flattering promptness that the great statesman was at home. Gus was overwhelmed to meet a man of such European celebrity. They were ushered into his first-floor reception room, dominated by a portrait of the emperor as king of Hungary.

The count was standing by the fireplace, and turned as they entered. 'Asseyez-vous, mon cher milor,' he greeted them with a kind smile, 'veuillez agréer mes meilleurs salutations à votre arrivée en Vienne.' Even in his late fifties, the count was a striking figure, still preserving the Byronic good looks that went with his romantic past.

In the same language, Bobby introduced Gus, and expressed rather gracefully his sensibility of the count's welcome, together with his thanks for his excellency's taking time out of his busy day to see a couple of passing visitors in the city.

With a smile, the count switched to passable English, explaining that he had picked up the language during his exile in London in the 1850s. 'I had the good fortune to meet your father and uncle in those carefree days. They were splendid men, and it was a tragedy that they should have both died still relatively young.'

'My uncle Rudolf, excellency? When did you meet him?'

The count's fine dark eyes twinkled. 'Your father I met at your house in Park Lane in the season of 1852, I think it was. But it was I believe in 1854, in the year of the coronation of Rudolf V of Ruritania, that I met your uncle. It was at Baden, where he said he was recuperating from a bad fall. A very singular man, I thought. I had been at the coronation in Strelsau only a month before, and I was astonished at the likeness between your uncle and the new king. In fact, I thought for some moments that it was Rudolf of Ruritania himself travelling abroad incognito under the name of the Count Elphberg, as he often did before he succeeded his father. Had it been the king, however, he would have been at the gaming tables in company, while your uncle was reading Goethe alone with a very melancholy expression on his face.'

Bobby gave a tight smile. 'Your excellency will be well aware of the reason for the resemblance.'

Count Andrássy gave a very knowing laugh. 'It is a story not unknown in the chanceries of Europe.'

Gus however did not know the reason, and intruded into the conversation at that point. Bobby smiled and the count nodded. 'It's like this, Gussie. The fifth earl of Burlesdon, James Rassendyll, was a Whig peer at the court of George II. In the winter of 1733, the then crown prince of Ruritania, Rudolf, visited the English court incognito, calling himself the Count Elphberg. The prince certainly livened things up in London, and he had a liaison with the earl's wife. As a result, there was a duel in Kensington Gardens and the prince was wounded. He left the country under a cloud. The earl survived the duel unmarked, yet he sickened and died within months from a chill he had supposedly contracted that freezing morning they fought. Then, only two months after the earl died, his widow gave birth to a baby boy who had colouring and features very like those of the crown prince and not at all like James Rassendyll.'

'Oh! Then you're saying that the Rassendylls are in fact illegitimate Elphbergs. I say, how grand.'

'Not illegitimate, Gussie. The dying earl accepted the child as his heir, even though he knew the boy was not his son. We are legitimate Rassendylls in English law.'

The count laughed. 'But secret Elphbergs in lineage, is that not so?'

'Yes, and the Elphberg red hair and narrow nose reappear with troubling regularity in our portrait gallery. The Elphbergs themselves don't help. Rudolf III's son, King Ferdinand, was pleased to call my great-great grandfather his "très cher frère" when he came to England and stayed for the shooting at Burlesdon in 1798. We have the king's picture in the gallery. I'll show it to you when next you're down. It's side by side with that of the sixth earl, and there's no doubting that they truly were brothers. And when the present queen sent me my christening tankard, it was engraved, "To my beloved cousin, Robert Rassendyll".'

'Does milord intend to travel on into Ruritania after his stay in our city?' asked the count.

'That was not our plan, no.'

'A pity. It would be well to see the land of your unofficial ancestors. I could give you a letter of introduction to the nuncio in Strelsau, my younger brother, the archbishop of Famagusta. Ah well, I am glad to have met you, milord, for the sake of your uncle, who played a fascinating hand of piquet. Another strange thing about him. Did you know he died in Ruritania only a few days before Rudolf V in 1862? It left me with several unanswered questions. But I must not keep you.'

He rang a bell on his desk, and a liveried usher appeared. 'Good day, milord. Mr Underwood, a pleasure. I am having a reception and ball on Tuesday night. Please do come, both of you, Miroslaw here will give you an invitation. The British ambassador will be returned by then. I'm sure he will be pleased to see you.'

'Is that Mitzi?'

'No, that's Sissi.'

'So, is that Mitzi?'

'She's Kitzi.'

'I give up. Are they sisters? They look so alike.' Gus was having difficulty with the names of the young Viennese ladies with whom they went whirling round the ballroom of the Andrássy residence.

'All these girls look so alike. They're all wide across the cheekbones, and they have these plumes and bustles.'

'And so tall.'

'Hmff. I told you not to stop growing when you were sixteen, but you wouldn't listen, Gussie.'

'I got tired of it. Well, it's Mitzi Karolyi that I have next on my card, so you'd better help me out on this one, or her brother will be meeting me with sabres in the Kaisermühlen woods at dawn.'

'I wouldn't want to get on her wrong side. Her father's their ambassador in London, a neighbour of mine on Park Lane, y'know, almost family. That's the waltz done. Applaud now, Gussie. Wait a moment: there, she's Mitzi.'


'Would I lie? They'll go off into the Comtessen-Zimmer and gossip about us for the next ten minutes. You'll have to catch her when she comes out again for the polka.'

'The Comtessen what?'

'It's a room set aside for young girls to squeal in, talk about the boys and run down the married women. It's a liberal Viennese custom with the design of preserving our eardrums and modesty. Don't you feel your ears burning?'

They sipped at a schnitt, a small glass of pale beer, and exchanged bows with other gentlemen and their ladies until the opening bars of the polka brought a mass of girls spilling out of their lair. Mitzi focussed on Gus with a smile. He made his bow and the si charmant Monsieur Underwood spun the young countess Karolyi out on to the floor with genuine delight.

These Viennese lived the dance, they did not just love it. Gus felt himself responding by dancing better than ever he had done before. It was dizzying and exhilarating. Men in evening dress or braided Hungarian pelisses and breeches, united with beautiful women in nodding plumes and décolleté dresses, ebbed and flowed under the chandeliers while the orchestra played. As far as Gus was concerned, this could go on for weeks. He could not believe it when Mitzi told him that this was as nothing to the dances when the court was in residence.

After relinquishing his lively partner and bowing over her hand, Gus found he was engaged to her cousin Mimi Radziwils for the following two dances. 'My dear sir,' Mimi said in French, 'you must understand that we see too few of your compatriots in Vienna. An Englishman must always cause interest. Americans of course would be even more exotic, but they seem to venture no further than Paris, eastward travel going against their nature.'

Gus Underwood was finding his first exposure to self-confident women in society overwhelming. Dark flashing eyes, sophistication and open flirtation in speech and body were more than he was prepared for. He had lived amongst boys at home, at school and university. Girls were a great mystery - apart from his stiff Howard cousins, whom he regarded as intimidating and unfriendly. He was struggling to take in the nuances and work out what were the temptations on offer. How far did Viennese girls go in their dalliance? How far could he safely respond? Bob Rassendyll seemed to have little trouble with it all, perhaps because he at least had several sisters.

They ended the evening holding a sheaf of cards and invitations, with a particular insistence that they should walk with Mimi Radziwils and Kitzi Kálnoky in the Volksgarten the following afternoon. They undertook to engage a landau in which to pick the girls up. They left the party on foot, light-headed and far too voluble, the narrow streets of the old city ringing with their merriment as they rolled home. They were met at the pension door by James's sobering stare.

'Good morning Father Piotr,' murmured Rosa, the kitchen maid.

'Hush, Rosa,' smiled Katerina, the under pastry cook. 'We call the father monsignor now, don't we, sir?'

'Yes, my dears,' Piotr replied, 'unless of course you want to upset the Holy Father in Rome, bless him. He made such a point of it, and I've had to buy all these new clothes too.'

There was a ripple of laughter amongst the pleasant girls gathered in the scullery yard for a few minutes of peace between the end of breakfast and the preparation of lunch. They were mostly of native peasant extraction, and they and the rest of the servants got on well with Piotr, for they knew that he was one of them and never gave himself airs.

He chatted amiably with them for a while. It was partly because Piotr genuinely enjoyed their company, and partly because servants knew everything that went on in the palace, and sooner or later would tell you about it.

Sooner rather than later they did tell him something he could add to the various other rumours that were reaching him. Her majesty's appetite had sadly ebbed over the past few weeks. 'And this morning, sir, she sent back her breakfast untouched. Now that has not happened since those unhappy days just after the late king was murdered, may his soul rest in paradise.'

Piotr blessed the girls and moved on into the palace towards his small cubbyhole beneath the Chapel Royal, in a row of undercroft offices allotted to the pensioner, the chaplain-in-ordinary, the dean of the chapel and the sacrist. They were all theoretically under the authority of the arch-chaplain and confessor, but the arch-chaplain was the bishop of Luchau, who resided in his diocese. The palace clergy therefore formed a reasonably cheerful and autonomous chapter of friends. As a result, there were some confusions as to where authority lay. Nonetheless, they all agreed that the dean, a hearty old priest who had been a professor in the Charles University at Prague, was their unofficial spokesman if they needed one.

Only one of Piotr's colleagues was in his office, the dean. He was puffing away at a Bavarian pipe, and had filled the interior of his room with a blue haze.

'Good morning, monsignor.'

'Good morning, dean. It is you behind that cloud, is it?'

'It is I, dear boy. Thinking deeply about the mystery of salvation, on which I must deliver a lecture in the theology school next Monday.'

'And smoke helps?'

'Certainly, dear boy. God speaks out of wind, fire and burning bushes. I am in a manner of speaking putting myself in His place, trying to comprehend the divine purposes.'

'Did any of our fellows accompany her majesty to Carlsbad last month?'

'I believe the chaplain did.'

'Did he say anything about the stay there?'

'Anything out of the ordinary, you mean?' The old gentleman laughed.

'A man who would frame a pun would pick a pocket, so they say, dean. Why do you think I would want to know that?'

'Because you're clearly fishing, Piotr. What have you heard?'

'I have heard a rumour that her majesty's health is not all that could be hoped. I was wondering if anything was said about her treatment at Carlsbad.'

The dean looked at Piotr with an air of calculation. Finally his bulk shifted. 'Nothing was said as such. But it was observed that she spent a lot of time with her friend the Duchess of Argyll, and the duchess was travelling in company with Sir George Reilly, one of the physicians to the Queen of Great Britain.'

'And did they consult?'

'Not to my knowledge. Are you thinking it was no coincidence that they met?'

'How can I say? It is mere speculation.' But in his heart, Piotr suspected there might well be substance to the rumours that were gathering shape at the court of Ruritania.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead