Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

Gus was not at all pleased with the tone Ashburnham had adopted, but now was not the time to resent it. Taking a seat, he stared coolly at the diplomat. 'What's going on, Mr Ashburnham?'

'I'm not really at liberty to discuss it.'


'I beg your pardon?' A red flush appeared on Ashburnham's sour face.

'I said it was nonsense. You know damned well what's going on here, and you also know that I know as much about it as you do.'

The diplomat gave a cold nod. 'I think there may be more to this affair than you are actually aware of, Mr Underwood. However, I have no intention of comparing notes with you about it.'

'You think we're meddling, don't you.'

'My opinion on the matter is irrelevant. I am here to represent the views of Her Britannic Majesty's government.'

What a pompous ass, sneered Gus to himself. Then he began wondering how the diplomatic service knew where they were and what they were doing. Someone had clearly been following their movements from Vienna. Ashburnham might have been full of himself, but that did not mean he was inefficient at his job. It also occurred to Gus that Ashburnham had targeted Bob very early on in Vienna, well before the significance of events in Ruritania had been explained to them. Bob had been watched for quite some while, if only from a distance.

Suddenly Gus had a troubling vision of himself and Bob on a political chess board as giant figures loomed above them, moving them around or blocking their progress in a vast and incomprehensible game. Who were these shadowy figures that were so interested in them, and especially in Bob? Gus knew about the queen, but there were others who had different plans for them, hostile ones, he had no doubt.

He sat for twenty minutes in the hotel lobby, as Ashburnham paced up and down. There was no further attempt at conversation. The other man's sudden stiffening alerted Gus that the interview upstairs had ended. Her Britannic Majesty's ambassador to the court of Ruritania emerged from the elevator as a page folded back the brass gate with a metallic crash. Sir Anthony was what Gus's rapidly widening experience led him to expect: a smooth, impenetrable and affable gentleman. He shook hands pleasantly and apologised for detaining Gus, but said nothing to any real effect. He disappeared with Ashburnham in tow.

Gus made his way back to their room, where he found Bob sitting in a chair, frowning. Bob looked up and smiled as Gus came in. 'How was your day with Count Hugo?'

'Rather good, actually. I had the grand tour of Strelsau, and it was absolutely fascinating.'

Bob looked sly. 'Are you sure the fascination did not rest more with the guide?'

Gus grimaced. 'Hugo's not that way inclined. I'll admit to finding him attractive, despite the disfigurement, but it's his mind that interests me more than his body. I believe I may be maturing, wouldn't you say? So are you going to tell me what happened up here while I was out?'

'I was just thinking about dinner, when a note came up that the ambassador was in the hotel, and would I be pleased to receive him. Well I wasn't pleased, but I had no real choice. He was here to make a few things clear to me, he said. Apparently, it is well understood at the Foreign Office that I am a candidate for the throne of Ruritania, and they don't like it one little bit.'

'Did he say why?'

'Oh, he hedged around, talking about the interests of the Empire and the current state of relations with the Germans. But when Sir Anthony began to be more open and specific, I was left with a pretty clear idea that the concerns of Buckingham Palace were what had brought him down on me. Leopold of Thuringia was the cousin of the late, lamented Albert the Good, as they insist on calling the old prig. It would suit the interests of the British Empire if another member of the family acquired a European throne. Also, of course, the crown princess of Germany is the daughter of Albert and Victoria.'

'What was his advice then?'

'Get back to England and stop meddling in affairs of state. Naturally he couldn't say it outright, but he thought I was in over my head. He insisted there are real dangers in messing about in such a volatile place as Strelsau. The swine could not resist implying that a loyal subject of the Crown was bound in honour to respect his sovereign's wishes. That touched me hard, Gussie. It made me seem not just selfish and grasping, but dishonourable.'

'No wonder you resented him.'

'He was doing his job, I suppose. And the worst thing is that he made me wonder what in God's name we actually are doing here. Do I really want to be king of Ruritania? Wouldn't I rather live out my days at Burlesdon, prodding cows with a stick and looking at horses' teeth? Wasn't that what I was born to do?'

Gus knew his friend well enough to answer truthfully. 'It's not what your heart is saying, is it Bobby? And I'll bet, when you're with Queen Flavia, very different thoughts and ambitions fill your head. You are a Rassendyll after all. If it comes down to honour, old fellow, there is the obligation on you to your family, your uncle's memory, and your duty to... yes, to your people. You are a Ruritanian too, Bobby; count of Hentzau and all that. Which gives me an idea. You have this council meeting tomorrow, why not retire afterwards to the house at Hentzau and inspect your estates? The ambassador would look foolish if he objected, and I have a feeling you'd be safer there than in Strelsau. How far from the capital is it?'

'Fifty miles or so, and there is a railway service up the Arndt valley. It's not a bad idea, Gussie. I'll see what Queen Flavia says.'

'Aren't you feeling trapped in this hotel?'

Bob looked closely at his friend. 'You know, Gussie, you have changed these past weeks. You seem to have developed this gift for reading my mind. You're getting sensitive.'

Gus laughed. 'It's my newly discovered effeminacy. It has its side effects apparently.'

'Effeminate! Why do you call yourself that?'

'Dear Bobby, that is what they call people like me, effeminates.'

'I don't like the word, it's not you at all, Gussie.'

'Thank you for the vote of confidence in my masculinity. Shall we go out and see the city in the evening?'

'Is it safe?'

'Probably not, but we can be back before the sun sets. What's more, we had better tell James before we go.'

They walked up and down the Graben, both of them surreptitiously and uselessly scanning the crowds still filling the wide market-street. They could have been followed with ease and undetected in such a crowd.

They paused to watch the famous mechanical clock at the Fenizenkirk strike the half hour, then headed back up the street. As they returned to the Rudolfs Platz, Bob suddenly said, 'I know where I want to go.'

'Where's that?'

'Klimentgasse, to the churchyard where my uncle was supposedly buried. I want to see the memorial my father put up. Do you know the way?'

Gus did. He had pored over the Baedeker's map of Strelsau, and had noticed the Anglican church. 'I think you go along Osragasse here, turn down Postgasse, and then turn right before you get to the Lines. It's a dogleg street, and the church faces on to Postgasse.'

They followed Gus's route, and soon came across the church. Built in English neo-Gothic style, it had a small western tower that would have done credit to a Berkshire village, but looked a little strange in Strelsau. It could not have been older than twenty years. Its graveyard bordered it on the western and southern sides. It was well tended and boasted some very handsome English yews planted for shade.

Gus and Bob examined the ranks of gravestones of English and American diplomats and travellers who had met their ends under foreign skies. Gus quirkily observed that since rather a lot of them had come to the famous Spa at Strelsau for their health, they weren't much of an advertisement for the Spa's efficacy.

Bob laughed, or rather sniggered, and then caught his breath. 'That must be it, Gussie!'

A tall Gothic column towered up in the corner of the graveyard. It carried the arms of the Rassendyll family, a stag with a heart caught in its antlers. Both young men surveyed it. A Latin epitaph ran down the side:

D.M. Viator respice. Hic iacent cineres Rudolfi R. Rex olim inter homines, iam requiescet in pectore regis coeli. Reciperet mercedem aptum meritis suis. Hoc monumentum a consanguineo eius Roberto comite de Burlesdon in Anglia erectum est.

Bob snorted. 'Well that's pretty explicit, if you know the truth. I would never have believed Father could have been so subtle: "Here lies the dust of Rudolf R. Once a king amongst men, he now rests in the bosom of the king of Heaven. May he attain the reward to which his merits entitled him. This monument was erected by his relative Robert, earl of Burlesdon in England." He told no lie, but on the other hand, no one would suspect which Rudolf was actually buried here.'

Gus smiled. 'The eulogy for the late Rudolf V is pretty ambiguous too. "May he attain the reward to which his merits entitled him." That's hardly unqualified praise, is it?'

'Well, the real king was a jealous, insecure man who was pretty unpleasant to his wife, so I doubt my father would have liked him. Father thought that every woman deserved to be treated as if she were a queen. He was very chivalrous, and devoted to Queen Flavia.'

Sauntering back through the churchyard, they made their way out on to Postgasse and strolled slowly back to the hotel.

'What's going to happen tomorrow, Bobby?'

'The queen is going to introduce me to the Staatsrath, and express her wish that it adopt her desire to have me as heir to the throne. Then we'll find out exactly how much influence she has, and how far her wishes count with the political leaders of her kingdom.'

'Who are the big players on the council?'

'There's the chancellor, of course, and the foreign minister. Then there's the cardinal archbishop, the chief of general staff and several leading aristocrats: the prince of Ostberg, the count of Kesarstein-Vinodol and the baron of Olmusch.'

'Any idea which way they will jump?'

'The politicians are unpredictable, but the queen thinks that the nuncio has talked the cardinal around. Archbishop Andrássy is desperate for a Catholic monarchy to continue, what with the present problems the Holy Father is having. Ostberg is difficult to pin down, but Kesarstein is an out and out loyalist to the Elphbergs. Olmusch is a cadet of the house of Tarlenheim, and it is believed that he will follow Prince Rudolf, the head of the dynasty, who is firmly in favour of my candidature.'

'And the army?'

'The general staff is unhappy about having a German prince as king. The generals don't think that Leopold could be trusted with any Ruritanian military secrets. They foresee the plans of the border fortresses being passed on to Berlin.'

'I make that a majority for Bobby, then.'

'So it might seem.'

When Gus awoke the next morning, Bob was already up and dressed. Seeing Gus's head emerge from under the sheets, Bob asked his friend to join him at the window. Their fourth-floor room looked out across the Rudolfs Platz. Gus stood there in his night shirt, yawning, and it was a while before what was different registered with him. Blue uniforms were all over the great square. Platoons of troops were at rest on every corner, and a squadron of dragoons could be seen picketed at King Ferdinand's fountain. Civilian passers-by were looking on with curiosity, and forming groups of their own to discuss what this might mean.

A knock on their door brought the morning's Ruritanischer Tagblatt. Bob unfolded it and stared at the headlines. 'Well, that accounts for it.'

Gus took the paper. PALACE ANNOUNCES QUEEN'S ILLNESS, it blared. The story was pretty full, mentioning the advanced stage of the queen's cancer, and implying that her death could not be long postponed. The first medical bulletin, signed by the court physicians, was reproduced in large type. There were reports from correspondents in Vienna and Berlin on foreign reaction.

Gus concluded that the growing number of accounts in papers abroad in recent days about the queen's mortal illness had finally persuaded the Ruritanian press to break the story. At the bottom of the broadsheet was a call from the cardinal archbishop and the nuncio for the faithful of Ruritania to unite in prayer for the queen's health and the state of her soul. Special services of the rosary were advertised at the cathedral and in the main city churches.

Another thing was different that morning. An army officer and two policemen had taken up station in the corridor outside their room. When Bob emerged, the men snapped to attention and the officer saluted. 'Excellency, my name is Captain Antonin. I am to conduct you to the palace, and her majesty has assigned me to act as your escort while you are in the capital.'

Bob smiled, and offered the captain his hand. 'Now why would I need an escort, captain?'

'I think, sir, you may find the city in a disturbed state at the moment. It will be my duty to assure your safety at all times.'

'Very well.' Bob turned to his friend. 'You'd better go and get some breakfast, Gussie my lad. I don't know when I shall be back, but it's not likely to be in time for lunch. Be careful, old fellow. Things seem to be taking a turn for the dramatic.'

Gus watched as Bob and the captain walked out of the hotel and entered a waiting landau, which this time bore the royal arms and was driven by palace coachmen. When the coach appeared, a large crowd had gathered, standing around looking on curiously and speculating about what was happening. Gus heard all sorts of theories voiced, including that Bob was a Thuringian prince or an imperial envoy from Berlin or Vienna. It was clear that Strelsau was on edge and that every sort of rumour was beginning to bloom.

The Café Breithut in the Graben was also bubbling with more than hot coffee. Groups of Strelseners were poring over the papers, and there was much murmured discussion. Gus was sitting alone at his table, waiting for his breakfast rolls to appear, when his attention was distracted by a company of jäger marching at light-infantry pace up the street, their mounted captain and lieutenant trotting at their head. Children ran along behind laughing, but the onlookers on the pavement were anything but cheerful.

As Gus turned away from the sight, he was startled by the appearance of a bulky figure in a grey frock coat, who removed his hat and asked if he might sit down. 'Monsieur de Blowitz, do please join me. I was rather hoping I might run into you.'

The journalist smiled, seemingly a little flattered. 'Not everybody is glad to see me monsieur Auguste. May I order some coffee? Thank you.'

They looked guardedly at each other in silence for a brief while. It was de Blowitz who spoke first. 'It seems, monsieur, that you are a man of secrets.'

'How so?'

'I should perhaps have realised that Count Oskar would not have been entertaining you out of simple courtesy. That young man is very acute, almost as sharp as I am.'

Gus smiled. 'It was friendship for the count on my part that brought me to his house.'

'If you say so. But it seems nonetheless that you are in the centre of great events, you and your good friend, milord of Burlesdon.' He wagged a fat finger at Gus. 'Now, do not deny it. My sources tell me that milord wishes to exchange his coronet for the crown of Tassilo.'

'And what sources would they be, monsieur?'

'A wise journalist keeps his sources to himself. But the word comes from several mouths. I hear that the Council of State meets this morning to consider his claims.'

'Really? And what will it say, monsieur?'

Ah, who can know? But the fact that the queen wishes to sideline the Thuringians is going to cause much disturbance. There are all sorts of people who were looking towards King Leopold with some hope.'

'People such as...?'

'Pah! I would have thought it obvious... the British government for one. I doubt very much if your Mr Gladstone would be happy were milord Burlesdon to be crowned king of Ruritania.'

From this remark, it seemed likely to Gus that Jack Ashburnham had been the one providing the Times's correspondent with at least some of his information.

'I don't pretend to understand much about high politics, monsieur.'

De Blowitz tutted. 'My dear Auguste, I do not believe you are so naïve. Quite the opposite indeed.'

Gus gave a tight smile. One can be too clever, he realised. From a chain of coincidences, de Blowitz's imagination was turning Gus into some sort of swashbuckling political adventurer. What would Lady Catherine, his mother, say to that? 'You are at liberty to believe what you wish, monsieur,' Gus hedged. 'I am not able to add to the stock of knowledge your sources have provided you with. They seem to have kept you well-enough informed as it is.'

De Blowitz favoured Gus with a long and considering look, followed by a rather Gallic shrug. 'Perhaps, perhaps. But if there is anything you might wish to say to me, or discuss with me, I am always available. You will find me at the Goldne Gans on Herrengasse. No doubt we will see each other again soon. I expect to be here for several days more.'

As Gus came through the morning-room door, Hugo folded up his paper before standing to shake hands in the formal Ruritanian way. 'Please join me, dear August. Mama is very unhappy with me, I'm afraid, and I'm sorry to say she blames you. The carriage is summoned to take me to Dr Weiss at eleven. Do you wish to come with me? I think actually you might enjoy the Spa. You can look around while I am with the doctor.'

'And for what is Dr Weiss treating you, Hugo?' Gus hoped he was not being indelicate.

'Oh, it is my remaining eye. There are some... problems. Spots get in the way of my sight sometimes. I am on a dreadful diet and must have my eye washed with solutions. It is doing some good.'

Gus looked at the cheerful boy and felt suddenly troubled. 'How well do you see?'

'I can read for a while, but then my eye gets tired. It is probably better if I don't read, but what is the point of having sight still if you don't use it?'

That use of the word 'still' struck a chill in Gus. The boy knows he's going blind, it said, although his spirits seemed entirely unaffected by the dreadful prospect. Of course, it was a prospect he had been living with all his life.

They drank a coffee while waiting for the carriage to be announced. Gus had to ask, 'You've been reading the news, what do you think is going to happen?'

'Nothing good, I'm afraid. It is something we have been waiting for with apprehension for a long time now in Ruritania.'

'No one seems to have any hopes of the Thuringian family.'

Hugo nodded. 'Duke Leopold is a mediocrity, who Oskar says will just be a cipher for cleverer men to use. I believe the trouble will come as those men fight over who will control him.'

'Will they be Ruritanians or others, those clever men?'

'Who can say? Not I, certainly.'

Gus thought a moment. 'And what if there were an alternative?'

'I beg your pardon?'

'An alternative. What if there were another candidate?'

'Such as who?'

'Well... Lord Burlesdon.'

Hugo stared. 'Are you serious? Oh, I see. Yes, the blood of Rudolf III runs in the veins of the Rassendylls, doesn't it. But that is neither here nor there. They are illegitimate, and there is not the slightest chance that a line begotten in adultery would ever be acceptable in this country.'

'Even if the alternative is the Thuringians?'

'Canon law is quite firm on the subject, and Ruritanians are obedient to the Church.'

Gus pondered on that problem. He supposed the Council of State must have considered the illegitimacy difficulty.

When the carriage was ready, they headed west out of the Lines and along the great urban boulevard of Lindenstrasse. They passed the new parliament buildings, the university and then cut through the beautiful park of Bila Palacz, all that was left of the famous White Palace which was burned by the Strelsau mob in 1848. After a mile the broad street left the city behind and shrank to a highway between long lines of trees. As the land rose, Gus could see they were heading towards a hilltop complex in a landscaped setting.

'This is the Spa, August,' announced Hugo. 'These buildings are the People's Palace, surrounded by the Spagarten. But the Spa proper is below the hilltop, where the hot mineral springs boil up from the ground. Dr Weiss has his hydrotherapy clinic at the back of the public pools. I thought we might go there afterwards, and return home on the omnibus. Would that be alright with you?'


'I shall not be more than a half hour with the doctor. Perhaps you might walk the Spagarten in the meantime. The views over the city are quite fine on a clear day like today.'

So Gus joined the strolling groups of Strelsener bourgeoisie circling the flower gardens, and admired the prospect over the city to the east, where the Altstadt rose on the opposite bluffs of the Starel valley. The forest of church towers reminded him of the view of London seen from Highgate Hill.

He was relaxing on a bench when Hugo found him and sat down companionably. After a while, Hugo suggested they go into the Spa. 'Oh! But I should warn you that there is nudity there. Would you rather not walk unclothed? They do not offer robes, only towels.'

Gus admitted that he'd had some recent experience of baths. Hugo laughed and said he had heard that some baths were meeting places for men who liked other men. Gus flushed red with embarrassment. The boy had too much acuity at times.

He also had no physical shyness at all. He stripped in the locker room and waited, arms crossed, for Gus to join him in the Adamic state. Gus could only admire what Hugo had revealed, a lithe and well-proportioned body which stirred his libido more than a little, especially as Hugo physically resembled his brother both in colouring and in features.

They walked through the Spa, towels over shoulders, to the medicinal pool. It was in a handsome domed chamber, with a hot spring welling up in the centre. Hugo led Gus to one of the tiled ledges where they could soak in the warm mineral-rich water, lying top to tail.

'How was your appointment with Dr Weiss?'

'The usual. Keep soaking the eye, stay in a dark room at the height of noon.'

Gus's heart went out to his new friend. 'Hugo, aren't you worried about the deterioration of your sight?'

Hugo smiled sadly. 'Of course, but there is not much that can be done. I go through the motions with Dr Weiss for mama's sake, rather than my own. She sends me to doctors and has novenas said, but it is truly in God's hands how long my sight will hold out. I will just enjoy it for as long as I can.'

'And when it's gone?'

'Then I must find a new way to live.'

'You are a very special man, Hugo.'

'That is a kind thought, but I don't think so. I hope you are not feeling sorry for me.'

'Er... a bit, I suppose. But I'm more in awe of the courage with which you face life.'

Hugo gave a little frown. 'I'd rather you neither felt sorry for me, nor were in awe of me. I am only what you see. But you are kind, August.'

They moved under the douche and washed the Spa waters off their skin. They then went into the dry-heat rooms and from there took the plunge. Hugo said they might as well have the shampoo treatment, that is, a massage and oil rub. It was two invigorated young men who resumed their clothes and took the omnibus for the Rudolfs Platz.

They eventually arrived back at the great square well after four. Hugo pressed Gus to stay for dinner, but Gus felt he had to get back to Bob and find out what had happened at the Staatsrath. So he and Hugo separated at the steps of the König Heinrich II, promising to meet again as soon as possible.

James was waiting just within the foyer, obviously on the lookout for him. James's countenance was as immobile as ever, but he seemed anxious. 'I'm glad you're back, sir. Although his lordship is still at the palace, he has sent word that he will be leaving for Hentzau this evening.'

'By train?'

'No sir. The queen thinks we should go in a closed carriage under escort.'

'Oh dear. I had rather hoped for some more days in Strelsau.'

'I also, sir.'

Bob finally returned at seven. Gus in the meantime sent an apologetic note to Hugo, explaining that he would be leaving the city for some time but hoped they could see each other again soon.

When Bob proposed they go out for dinner, Captain Antonin looked concerned and shook his head. 'I'm sorry, excellency, but in the present state of the city, and in view of the council meeting today, I think it would be unwise. Perhaps the manager will send up a meal?'

So dinner was sent up, well enough but not as hot as they would have liked. James served.

While they ate, Bob told the story of his day. 'The queen looked poorly this morning, pale and gripping the arms of her chair. But she doggedly pursued the council's business. I was given a seat in the room, and everyone there was eyeing me curiously. When they got to the business of the succession, the queen tapped the table and announced simply that she did not expect to be attending many more sessions of the council. Therefore, she wanted to begin moves to assure the succession away from Leopold of Thuringia.'

'How did they react?'

'They sat rigid, either through surprise or because they had already learned what the queen intended and didn't want to give anything away. She went through the reasons why the Thuringian succession represented a potential disaster for Ruritania, just as we've already discussed. Then she introduced me and recited my claims.'

'How did they greet that news?'

'No great enthusiasm, I'm afraid, though General von Tirkenau nodded at me. He was a close friend of old Sapt, I hear. Very formidable whiskers. So the queen went round the table and asked for opinions. The first was the cardinal, Archbishop Windischgratz. He seems to be a bit of a politician. He explained the objections to the succession on the grounds of the illegitimacy of the Rassendylls, and the Church's position on this. Then he observed that the Holy See had in the past allowed the legitimisation of certain lines, when those lines had transmitted the royal succession. He mentioned the Beauforts in fifteenth-century England as an example. He added, however, that such things took a great deal of time and time was what they had little of. But he did not say it could not be done.'

James coughed and added deferentially, 'The cardinal is of course a German Ruritanian, sir, and more inclined to the Thuringians, but he has the nuncio breathing down his neck.'

'Yes, he gave the impression that he was hedging. Which is a pity, as it was obvious the councillors would have liked a more positive signal from the Church about how legitimate my succession might be. The two generals, however, made it clear the army was not happy about a Thuringian on the throne, even though Duke Leopold is himself a general. Still, only Baron Franz of Olmutz came out openly for me.'

'So how did the queen react?'

'She suddenly looked very tired. If legitimacy was the objection, she announced, the nuncio had told her that the Holy See would be happy to hear representations on the subject, and that he and the cardinal were willing to travel to the Vatican to discuss the matter personally with the pope. The cardinal looked surprised at this, I have to say. It may have been news to him.

'The chancellor was shifty and evasive. The foreign minister, Matthias Morieht, was the most openly hostile. It's difficult to know why, though I got the impression it was mostly because he is a naturally contrary man. He unfortunately had an alternative suggestion. He wanted the decision to be given to a Council of Regency, with representatives of the two houses of parliament involved.'

Gus coughed apologetically. 'That sounds actually like quite a reasonable suggestion.'

Bob shrugged. 'To an Englishman perhaps, but I think that Morieht's intention was to ensure no decision was made while the queen still lived. After her death, the Council of Regency would be the arbiters of succession, allowing the unscrupulous to profit from the power-broking. I think Morieht might just have that in mind.'

'So what happened?'

'I'm afraid it went to a compromise. The nuncio will leave for Rome tomorrow, and if he can get a decision from the Curia, the Staatsrath will meet again in the light of whatever that is.'

'So it's a race between the Angel of Death and St Peter,' observed Gus.

'Gussie, that is a grim thing to say.'

'And we're being taken out of the way and kept safe until the question of legitimacy is decided.'

'It seems so.'

'Sounds more like house arrest than a trip to the country.'

'Indeed it does, Mr Underwood,' agreed James unhappily.

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