Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

'You won't laugh?' Bob Burlesdon asked shyly.

'Me? Oh come off it, Bobby. When have I ever been a mocker and a Pharisee, or whatever?'

'Very well, then. It's only a charcoal sketch, mind.' Bob opened his leather folio and extracted a sheet of heavy paper.

Gus stared at it in silence so long that Bob began to fidget with nerves. 'Well?'

'It's... completely brilliant. Like Millais or one of those sorts of chaps. It's Kitzi to the life. How long did it take you?'

Bob was relieved and extremely pleased. 'Oh, most of an afternoon. She sat in the summer house at the Kálnoky residence, and apart from her irritating little sister we were left in peace.'

'No chaperone?'

'Gus? The very thought! We were perfectly respectable.'

'Hmph. Perhaps you fool Stefan, but you don't fool me.'

Bob went coy. 'There might have been a kiss or two. Oh Gus, I think this may possibly be it. I adore the girl. She's from a very noble family, y'know. Her uncle is ambassador to France. There can be no objection on any score.'

'Apart from the fact that you've only known her a week or so.'

'Time will soon correct that.'

'But you have to be back in England in a few more weeks, as I do too.'

'First I have to paint her portrait properly, in oils. I'm off down to the Kohlmarkt tomorrow, where there is an art supplier. The problem is, she and her family are going to Carlsbad on Tuesday.'

'So you're thinking of following her into Bohemia?'

'Well, yes. Why not? It will get that officious ambassador and his minions out of our hair too. And they can't complain we're going near Ruritania. Any reason to stay here?'

Gus thought there were several very good reasons. His growing friendship with Oskar von Tarlenheim was one. Another was the half promise he'd made himself to visit the Sophienbad on Tuesday, in hopes of seeing Anton, and maybe more.

He sighed. 'Does it have to be Tuesday, Bobby dearest?'

'Well yes. It does. I have promised we will meet the Kálnokys on Wednesday on the Alte Weise for lunch.'

'Then I suppose we'll have to go.'

'Bless you, Gussie. I must be a dreadful bore at the moment. Now I suppose we had better get off to mass at the cathedral. Where's James?'

'He muttered that he was going to Anglican mattins at Christ Church. Odd. I had not taken him for a religious man.'

The great church of St Stephen was packed for a pontifical mass. The familiarity of the Latin rite was a great comfort to Gus, because it allowed him to reassume his schoolboy piety while he sank into meditation, punctuated by the customary genuflections and signings. At the general prayers from the lectern, he heartily joined in the intercessions for the imperial and royal family. At the commemoration of the dead, he noticed the bishop and altar party moving to a side chapel where a coffin had been laid out under a red damask pall, surrounded by high tapers. The coffin was sprinkled while they prayed for the soul of Peter Ignatius, priest and protonotary apostolic, lately murdered in this city by persons unknown.

As they were leaving, Gus found his sleeve being tugged. There in his best Sunday clothes was Anton. He did not look like a gentleman, for all his efforts, which caused Bob to raise an eyebrow when Anton greeted Gus in German.

'Give me a moment, Bobby,' Gus said in English before turning to Anton. It was silly being angry with the boy.

'How are you, August? Are you coming on Tuesday? Who's your friend?' The questions tumbled out.

'Hullo, Anton. I didn't expect to see you here, though I don't know why not. Look, I'm glad to see you... really. I hated it when I thought I wouldn't be able to say goodbye. I'll be leaving the city on Tuesday for Carlsbad, and I don't know when I'll be back.'

'Oh! Oh, I'm so very sorry.' The boy looked quite dashed, which told Gus that Anton had certainly fallen into something like love with him, just as Oskar had predicted. 'And you won't be back? Not ever?'

'Not ever is a long time, Anton. But I don't know when.'

'Ah... but maybe one day, yes?'

'Maybe one day.' Gus felt an illogical desire to hug and kiss Anton right there as the worshippers flooded past them. They looked at each other, and then without another word, Gus left.

Bob was waiting for him outside. They walked on in silence until finally Gus decided an explanation was due. 'Bobby, I have a thing to say. We've been friends a long time, haven't we?'

'For years without count.'

'I don't want lies between us, even if the truth may make you think less of me. But that Anton, he and I... Do you remember Naismith at school?'

'He was in the sixth when we were in the third.'

'When we fagged for the sixth, he and I went to bed together.'

'Ah... er, Westenra wanted me to do it, too, but I wouldn't.'

'Really? You didn't say. But Naismith and I did, and I liked it. We did it a few times. So when I went down to the baths, and there was Anton, I didn't resist the temptation.'

'Oh. Well then. You don't want to do it with me, do you?'

'No. I don't think of you that way at all. Any more than I do my brothers. Disappointed?'

'A bit,' pouted Bobby, laughing at the look on Gus's face. 'No, you ass, I didn't mean it. I'm sorry for you, Gussie dear, I really am. I don't think it'll bring you happiness in life, poor soul.'

'That I know.'

'But I'm still your friend, and I always will be, even unto the magistrates court where you will one day end up no doubt for soliciting in public lavatories.'

'What a future you have sketched out for me, dear fellow.'

'Look Gussie... if there's ever anything I can do for you, I will, just as you've been so kind and tolerant with Kitzi and me.'

'I shall bear it in mind,' Gus replied, and arm in arm, they walked together back to the Pension Liebermann. Strangely, Gus had the idea that after his confession they were closer friends than ever.

'Carlsbad, your lordship?'

'Yes, James, Carlsbad, and we have to be there on Tuesday evening. Is there a problem of some sort?'

James looked less unflappable than he ever had before. 'No... not at all, sir. I will arrange the tickets. I can wire the Goldener Schild on the Neue Wiese. It's where I stayed once with your uncle. It was very acceptable.'

'Then Zum Goldener Schild it is. Is it close to the Hôtel de Russie?'

'Virtually next door, sir.'

'Then it couldn't be more perfect.'

James walked off, unable to cloak his puzzlement, leaving Bob beaming. As soon as he was gone, Bob said, 'One in the eye for that old stiff. He wasn't expecting us to decamp like this. So what do you want to do today, Gussie?'

'I thought I might hang around a pissoir or two.'

'Tsk. Don't joke about such things. Oh... it clicks! Oskar von Tarlenheim!'


'Are you and he...?'

'No, we most definitely are not.'

Bob looked sly. 'But you'd like to, wouldn't you?'

'I might. Is this your revenge for my prurient curiosity about you and Kitzi?'

'Possibly. But I must be away to the Kálnokys' house. I have to make some more sketches. It will be a full-length portrait, I think.'

'Meanwhile, I'm trotting off to Oskar's. He said to come by after mass.'

The walk did Gus some good. He was still flustered over the accidental encounter with Anton. In fact, he was possessed by a certain guilt about the German lad. It was foolish really. You could not create an affair from one casual encounter, however exciting and erotic it had been - and those sweaty moments as their bodies had slid off one another and meshed had been very erotic indeed.

His mind played out scenarios. He would offer Anton a job as his valet, and they would carry on a passionate illicit affair. Oh yes? sneered his common sense, which in the empire of his soul was a very powerful entity. And what would you pay him with? How could two lovers keep up a proper master-servant relationship?

Then again, he imagined returning to Vienna, picking up their forbidden liaison and enjoying passionate interludes in hotel rooms and in the bathhouse. Maybe they would run away and live in a remote cottage in the country, far from censure. And what would you live on? asked his reason. How would you explain it to mother?

Whichever way he played it, any relationship with Anton would be doomed. Gus's common sense had the upper hand by the time he got to the Tarlenheimgasse, and he was letting his fantasies go. This was all the easier as the excitement of seeing Oskar rose in him.

He was admitted promptly, and the sound of voices from the reception room to his left told him that Oskar had other guests. Three men rose when he entered.

'Aha! Auguste!' Oskar greeted him with a smile. 'Let me introduce a very old friend, Monsieur de Blowitz. Henri, this is Auguste Underwood of England.'

De Blowitz was a very odd-looking man, short and stout, his head large and bald, with huge side whiskers and a moustache obscuring his pouchy face. But his eyes were bright and calculating and his manner perfectly self-possessed. Gus thought he recognised the name.

'Good day to you, sir, surely I know you?'

De Blowitz removed a cigar from his mouth, and gave a very warm and rather pleased smile. 'No doubt you have read my work,' he replied in French.

Oskar jumped in. 'Henri is the Paris correspondent of the London Times.'

'Then I do know you, sir. It is indeed an honour.' So this was one of the great journalists of his age: the confidant of kings, prime ministers and princes, the man who had penetrated the secrecy of the Congress of Berlin and printed its terms in London at the same moment it was being signed in Germany.

'And this is my younger brother, Hugo Maria, whom I have mentioned.'

Gus shook the hand of the young man. Hugo was a couple of years younger than Gus. He was slighter than Oskar, and his left eye was clearly useless, the eyeball discoloured and shrunken. Gus wondered that he did not wear a patch over it. The other eye was bright and green, like his brother's.

Oskar continued, 'They're both here for much the same reason.'

'Which is?'

'The death of that priest at the St-Marxer Friedhof on Friday evening. It has caused no end of fuss, as well as being a very shocking thing in itself.'

'Yes,' de Blowitz interjected. 'It was not just that he was a monsignor of the church, he was attached to the court of Ruritania as a member of the queen's own household. Rumour, or at least one rumour, has it that he was on a confidential mission to the emperor-king. And when Colonel Flawitz, the chief of police in Strelsau, and General von Tirkenau, the marshal of the household, are sent by the queen herself to investigate the circumstances of the man's death, those rumours gain a measure of confirmation. Though I was staying on at Bad Ischl after the meeting of the emperors William and Franz Josef, I could not resist coming up to Vienna to investigate a little myself.'

'Did you know the priest, Oskar?' asked Gus.

'Yes I did, as it happens. Father Piotr was a protégé and friend of my late dear father's; he was born on one of our estates. He was very much involved in educational reform in Ruritania, which brought him to her majesty's notice. He was destined for quite a distinguished career, had he been spared. Such a gentle man, I will miss him. Hugo Maria is here to represent the queen in the cortège which will take the poor man's remains back home.'

Hugo Maria stirred. 'Yes, the good father prepared me for confirmation when I was ten. We had a common interest in Justin's Epitome. His murder was a very brutal, indeed sacrilegious, crime that has caused more than a little outrage in our country. There will be a big funeral in St Vitalis's cathedral.'

Oskar leaned forward. 'Who was the other dead man?'

De Blowitz tapped his cigar ash in a tray placed before him. 'The Vienna police have identified him as a Saxon named Karl Blauer, who in Vienna called himself Hector Malinski. A man with an unsavoury reputation, he served a spell in prison in Hannover for a murderous assault on a Jewish businessman. He had criminal connections here and was well known to the police.'

Oskar grinned. 'You let no grass grow under your feet, Henri.'

De Blowitz waved his hand airily. 'It is just a matter of knowing whom to ask, dear boy. The real mystery is how he happened to end up dead beside the priest. There is no possibility that the priest died fighting back against a gang and somehow managed himself to kill Blauer. Father Piotr certainly was not armed, though Blauer apparently was. Blauer must have been part of a gang, but why did they turn on him?'

Gus was gripped. 'Maybe the priest was with another man, who did fight back and drove off the attackers even though they had killed Father Piotr.'

De Blowitz nodded. 'Perhaps, but the trail of blood reveals that the priest was shot some two hundred metres from the Mozart cenotaph and ran in that direction to escape his pursuers. That would surely mean he was on his own. It is a very great mystery, which of course will be tantalising to my readers.'

'Whatever sells papers is good news, eh Henri?' teased Oskar with his deceptively innocent smile.

The irony was not missed. 'You may dispute the ethics of my profession, Oskar dear boy, but not its utility. We mobilise the police where they need to be urged on, we unveil the deceits of the powerful, and we bring forward the interests of the weak. I think that in itself justifies the work of the journalist. Myself I rejoice in the name.'

He puffed out a great cloud of tobacco smoke, sprinkling ash down the front of his coat. 'Now, Oskar dear, I know things get back to you, so please don't hold out on me if they do. I have to meet my secretary at the city morgue, to see what the coroner has to say. So this is farewell... for now. I have a feeling, however, that we will meet again soon, perhaps in Strelsau. They say there may be interesting times ahead in Ruritania over the next few months.'

De Blowitz stood, took up his silk hat, bowed his farewells and left. Gus did not know what to make of it all. He stared at the Tarlenheim brothers.

Oskar was smiling to himself. 'August, perhaps you would join Hugo Maria and me for lunch?' He rang a bell and a footman appeared to assure him that the meal was ready. It was a rich boar stew with apricots, apparently a traditional Ruritanian dish. Although it was rather too heavy a meal for Gus, he valiantly managed to work through it, enjoying at least the bottle of red Vöslauer that was served with the meat.

Hugo Maria had retreated into what seemed to be his customary silence, but Oskar was as usual full of himself. He continued in French for his brother's benefit. Hugo Maria's understanding of conversational English was far from perfect.

'What an old charlatan that de Blowitz is. Journalism for him is being close to the rich and famous. Ideals! Pfah! It's fame he loves, and what with luck, and with his supreme and unapologetic nosiness, he has found it.

'He will tell you, with very little invitation, a whole pack of fibs about himself. How he is descended from a race of Bohemian aristocrats whose seat was the castle of Blowsky near Pilsen; how he was kidnapped by gypsies as a boy; how he travelled the roads of eastern Europe for years as a youthful adventurer; how he retrieved his family's ruined fortunes by his pen. All stuff and nonsense. His real name is Oppen, from a Jewish family established at Ranstadt in the Ruritanian province of Glottenburg, just across the frontier from Bohemia. The family dealt in old clothes and pawnbroking. The young Téodor Oppen, as he then was, migrated to France in his twenties and fell into a career in Marseilles as a schoolteacher, writer, and failed businessman. He dabbled in royalist politics and took up journalism during the last years of the Second Empire. That was where he found his true métier. He had a talent for being in the right place at the right time, and charming the right people. But to be fair, as baby Hugo insists I must be, Henri is pretty fearless on the track of a story.'

'So how do you know what he keeps so secret?' Gus asked.

Hugo Maria leaped in. 'Aha, Auguste! My dear brother can be as superior as he likes, but he and De Blowitz share what he is pleased to call the quality of "supreme and unapologetic nosiness". They're two of a kind. It's why they get on so well.'

'That really is offensive, Hugo!'

Hugo Maria simply laughed. 'The fact is that our father had some dealings with the Oppens as a young lieutenant when his regiment was stationed at Ranstadt, and never forgot the family. So when young Téodor emerged as an international journalist in the early days of the Second Republic, father was able to tell us the truth about him. Then Oskar himself gave De Blowitz his most considerable coup, did you not, brother?'

'Yes, I suppose I did. Though it was pure impishness on my part, and dislike for the Germans. I think I mentioned I was an attaché in the Ruritanian delegation to the Congress of Berlin two years ago. De Blowitz was there, and very much in disfavour with Bismarck over earlier revelations that had caused the prince much embarrassment. The word went out that De Blowitz was to be shunned by all the delegates.

'Just before the congress began I met him in Paris. We got to talking about his frustration that none of the delegates could be seen talking to him without being observed, and the fact that German agents would have him continually under their eyes. So I suggested a solution. I would provide a daily resumé of the congress's proceedings and smuggle it to De Blowitz. It was a tricky thing to do unobserved, but we had similar hats, if not precisely of the same size. What I suggested was that I conceal my notes in the hat lining and dine daily at the Kaiserhof, where he was staying. At the end of the meal, with no communication between us in word or sign, I would leave my hat for him to pick up and he would take it with the notes inside. I would take his hat, and we would exchange them again the next day. Very simple and foolproof. We swapped hats for days. Thus he was able to stun the world and infuriate Bismarck with his accurate daily reports of the previous day's deliberations.

'De Blowitz was careful to be seen talking to many of the delegates. He got little out of them, but by giving him the appearance of having several sources, it diffused suspicion. Bismarck was so annoyed. I remember him sitting next to me one day - for I think he did suspect me or one of our delegation - and lifting the baize cloth while saying, "I am looking to see if Blowitz is not underneath." De Blowitz's career was made after that, especially since I managed to get a copy of the final memorandum to him, before he left for London on the pretext of being frustrated by the increased security. It is reckoned the greatest feat of modern journalism.'

Gus let out an appreciative whistle. 'And you got nothing in return?'

Oskar grinned. 'I annoyed the German Chancellor...'

'... and caused the mischief you so much enjoy,' added Hugo Maria.

'What a loyal brother you are, baby Hugo. What will my friend Auguste think.'

'I imagine Auguste has already had plenty of opportunities to observe you at work.'

'But not for much longer,' Gus said regretfully. 'Bob and I are moving to Carlsbad on Tuesday. Bob's affairs with Kitzi Kálnoky are prospering, and the family are taking the waters, so we must go too, of course.'

Oskar looked impenetrable, but expressed his polite regrets that their acquaintance was to be so short. Perhaps they might meet again. How long were Auguste and Robert to be in Carlsbad?

Gus had no idea.

'Then Oskar is to be on his own once more, for I will be leaving with the coffin of poor Father Piotr tomorrow. How sad.' Hugo Maria shrugged. 'Would you be able to return with me, Osku?'

'Osku?' queried Gus.

Hugo replied, 'Oskar is a Rothenian name, and Osku is the diminutive for it in our language. Father brought us up speaking Rothenian as much as German.'

Oskar shook his head. 'I have business which will keep me here for several more days. Afterwards, I half promised I would join Andreas Lutowicz in a perfectly innocent trip to Paris that involves no casinos, stage shows, absinthe drinking or any other form of dissolute behaviour, so you may reassure maman about that.' He winked at Gus.

Gus chatted with the Tarlenheim brothers through coffee, following which he was given a tour of the house and garden by Hugo Maria. Oskar said that Hugo had a far better knowledge of history and art than he did. He claimed his own opinions were only worthwhile on clothes, horses, guns and dogs.

Hugo Maria was indeed a very good guide. He recognised that Gus was no great intellectual, and had more mercy on him than had the Capuchin friar in the Kaisergruft. He only told Gus colourful anecdotes of the old days, and ancient gossip of the noble families of Ruritania, Bavaria and Austria. Hugo had his brother's talent for intimacy. The two of them had become very much at ease with each other by the time they met up again with Oskar, even though Hugo was the sort of clever young man who had made Gus uncomfortable and even a little hostile at school and university.

Gus spent the afternoon happily at the Tarlenheim palace, and was flattered to be solicited by the brothers to stay on for dinner. He declined with regret, and was even more regretful after he returned to the hotel and found out from James that Bob had been engaged for dinner and then the theatre with the Kálnokys.

Gus breathed in the Bohemian mountain air with more than a little relish. He had been born and brought up in the Suffolk flatlands. The hills of Shropshire around his school had appealed to him from the first, and he had enjoyed the rambles up to the Long Mynd as a sixth former. But the deep, wooded valleys of the Tepel and Eger in which Carlsbad lay were a different order of scenery altogether. There was a pine-laden zest to the air that did more for him than the mineral waters of the Sprudel, of which he had drunk a glass at Kitzi's insistence and had barely kept down his lunch.

'There,' she had said, 'you are better. You have taken the waters.'

'Urggh,' Gus had replied. 'I think the waters nearly dragged me down with them. It would be more appropriate to say they took me.'

Gus was not perhaps the most sensitive of young men, but he was aware of a certain edginess in his relationship with Kitzi Kálnoky. She clearly wanted to monopolise Bob, which was only natural, but she seemed to think Gus had the same intention. He had to face what looked very like her jealousy over the time that Bob and he spent together. She would therefore be a little sharp in her attitude to him. Bob of course noticed nothing, being absorbed in his work on her portrait. He had set up his easel and brushes in a second bedroom that he had taken in their hotel, and came out, smelling of turpentine and oil, only for meals and the evening's entertainment. When he remembered, Bob was apologetic about ignoring Gus. Kitzi really had no cause to be jealous.

So Gus again found himself making his own entertainment, which for the past three days had meant vigorous walks to the local beauty spots and hilltop panoramas. He had no Oskar or Anton to distract him in Carlsbad, and he freely admitted to himself that he was no reader.

But desperation had driven him on that particular Friday to the lengths of seeking cultural enlightenment. The Carlsbad Kurhaus was hosting a touring exposition that had caused a sensation at the Budapest International Exhibition earlier in the summer. Called 'Lands of the Slavs', it explained the legendary origins of the Slavic peoples. 'This latest example of pan-Slavism explains through myth, art and legend the unity of Slavic cultures,' said the Bohemischer Tageszeitung. 'It exposes the cultural imperialism that would have it that the Slav was a primitive pagan and barbarian, fit only to be conquered and assimilated. The richness of Slavic culture and the roots of pan-Slavic identity stand revealed.'

What intrigued Gus was that there was a Ruritanian room, as well as a Sarmatian room, a Bohemian room and a Hungarian room. He was still sufficiently fascinated by Oskar to want to know more about the count's background, especially that part of it which stirred him enough to challenge a German lieutenant to a duel.

Gus queued up to buy his ticket and programme behind a party of young English ladies. They were being escorted by an Anglican clergyman, to whom they had apparently been entrusted by their parents for a summer of amusement and instruction. Two of the young ladies, judging by their bold-eyed surveys of Gus, might have had different ideas of amusement than the reverend gentleman. Gus raised his hat and smiled broadly at them; they covered their mouths as they glanced at one another.

The exposition was as tedious as Gus had feared, at least until he got to the Ruritanian room. There he found a huge and dramatic painting in the Art Nouveau style confronting him as he walked in. It depicted mailed and moustachioed mounted warriors breasting a foaming river, led by a giant of a man with a mace and a black fur cloak thrown over his shoulder, and human heads dangled from his saddle. Gus checked the catalogue: Ruric the Rothenian Fords the Starel by Tomacz Hirth. Apparently Hirth was also responsible for the vast historical murals in the new buildings of the Reichsräthe, or House of Lords, in Strelsau. At the back of his mind, Gus could hear Oskar's light laughter and the amused comments about this man-mountain who was the founder of his nation. It would probably have been along the lines of '... his poor horse, these artists never think such things through.'

Gus browsed amongst collections of early Ruritanian glass jewellery, a few corroded axe heads, and the rich contents of several eighth-century tombs from the provinces of Ober- and Neder-Husbrau. A number of gospel-books and psalters from the ancient abbeys of Ranstadt and Ebersfeld represented the eleventh-century Ruritanian school of illumination. A great genealogical scroll hanging near the exit showed the descent of the house of Ruric from its legendary founder down to the last Rothenian duke, Waclaw III, whose daughter Osra carried the duchy into the house of Elphberg in 1445.

Immediately in front of the scroll, a glittering object encased in glass on a pillar caught Gus's attention. Den Tassilisner Kron, the 'Crown of Tassilo', a neatly typed card announced, explaining that this was a reproduction of the ancient crown of Ruritania. Gus checked the catalogue. The basis of the crown was the circlet given to Duke Tassilo of the Rothenians in 965 by the Emperor Otto the Great, along with a sword and several relics. Gus was invited to observe the twelve enamelled panels showing the kings of the Old Testament, which still made up the basic circlet, though set now in gold and pearls. High points of fleur-de-lis with sapphires had been added in the thirteenth century, and the circlet had been closed with four imperial arches of gold, diamonds and pearls on the elevation of Ruritania from a duchy to a kingdom by Pope Innocent X in 1644. The original of the crown was one of the oldest now extant in Europe and had been used in the installation or coronation of every Ruritanian ruler since the tenth century.

Gus wandered out of the exposition and down the stairs of the Kurhaus. Amazingly, he had been stirred to take an interest in Ruritanian history. He could not immediately say why, but he rather suspected he was finding in it a connection with Oskar, whom he freely confessed to himself he was missing. It was like an ache in the back of his mind.

He wandered out into the sunlight and along the embankment of the Tepel, which rushed and tumbled in its impatience to join the Eger. He crossed the river and walked upstream till he came to the Neue Weise, where there were he found a number of bookshops. There, for the first time in his life, Gus bought some books: a current English-language Baedeker for Ruritania, Bavaria and the Tyrol, together with a thick history of the kingdom of Ruritania in German. He sat down at an open-air table outside Pupp's café-salon, ordered a tea and began reading.

Saturday was James's day off, and he disappeared early to whatever place and activity it was that he enjoyed. Bob and Gus had speculated that it was probably opium smoking, judging by his pallor and hooded eyes. They could not like the man. Gus, in his newly sensitive state, had begun to think James might be concealing something. Small or large, he must have secrets. Perhaps he was robbing Bob behind his back by selling his handkerchiefs and socks. Bob was always claiming he could find neither in his room.

Gus had breakfast with Bob on the Graben. 'So how's the portrait going, Bobby? May I have a look?'

Bob shook his head. 'I wouldn't dare let anyone see it at this stage of the game. But it's coming on fast, faster than any other oil painting I've attempted. I think that's a sign.'

'A sign of what?'

Bob blushed. 'Oh, I mean the muse is with me, dear fellow, that's all.'

'So I won't see you today.' Gus tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice.

'I'm sorry to be a bore.'

'Don't think about it Bobby. There's a lovely little pissoir I've found near the Sprudel-colonnade, where you get a very nice class of customer.'

Bob snorted into his coffee. 'Don't joke about such things. What are you really going to do?'

'I've been doing all the local walks around the town, so I thought I'd have a serious tramp today, right out to Marienbad. I'll take a rucksack and change of clothes. It must be a twenty-mile hike, so I'll return tomorrow. I don't fancy walking back on strange roads through the dark, and I have no idea what the late trains are like.'

Bob looked a little guilty. 'I seem to be driving you away, Gussie.'

'Oh Bobby, don't be like that. I envy you Kitzi. She's pretty, lively and funny, and as different from a limp English rose as you can possibly find. It's important that you should get to know her and have a good time. Do not under any circumstance mind me. Now pass me another one of those rather tempting wafers.'

Gus set off for Marienbad, rucksack on back and battered tweed hat on head, swinging a stout stick he had cut from a hedge the day before. A well-maintained and busy road took him along the valley of the Tepel out of town. He strode briskly along, stopping at a small inn for a simple lunch, and reached his destination quite early in the evening despite the rugged terrain. Marienbad was a miniature version of Carlsbad, though the crowds were less and the surrounding hills more precipitous.

After an early dinner on the promenade, Gus looked around for a hotel. He was just about to decide on the König von Bayern, when two men walking along the riverbank caused him to stop dead. Against all reason, he recognised both of them. There was no mistaking Oskar von Tarlenheim, in a well-cut white suit and jaunty straw hat. The other man was James.

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