Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

The Rudolfs Platz was much the same as when Gus had last looked down on it. He was once again in the Hotel König Heinrich II, though in his own room now, not sharing with Bob Burlesdon, who was still at Hentzau. Gus checked himself in the mirror. There was still some yellow-green discolouration where the fists of his interrogator had battered his face, and scattered cuts had scabbed across his cheek. His torso looked worse, he knew. He moved stiffly, but at least on his own legs. His sturdy Underwood body was recovering fast, a credit to his hard-riding ancestors.

There came a knock on his door. When he answered, it opened and Oskar entered. They smiled at each other. One consequence of their wild ride had been a very welcome change in the temperature of their relationship. He had heard Oskar say in those desperate moments as they fled that he found Gus attractive. Though there was no chance of any consummation of that desire in Gus's present condition, the promise of it sparkled between them. Oskar checked his watch, and in English asked, 'Are you ready then, brave boy?'

'As I will ever be.'

'Then come along. Would you rather walk up the square?'

'I think so, I'm loosening up a lot and my legs are fine... no longer wobbling.'

They took the elevator and strode arm in arm out on to the great city square. There was little sign that this was the capital of a nation in crisis. Only the greater-than-usual number of uniforms about, and a picket of mounted police stationed at the Ferdinand fountain, belied the calm.

When they reached the palace gate, the police guards waved them through. Gus looked up at the grand Classical frontage as they passed across the court and under the great western arch. Within were a courtyard and a wide staircase that took them up to the gallery of Rudolf III, where hung the dynastic portraits of the Elphbergs from Duke Rudolf II to King Rudolf V, the man whom Bob's uncle had impersonated. They were kept waiting for nearly half an hour, so Gus took his time inspecting the paintings. Oskar was pretty much useless at identifying who was who, though he had a stream of amusing comments to make about their physical features and dress sense.

Eventually a servant coughed, then ushered them through the further door into a smaller corridor. At the end door, two Life Guard officers were posted. A black-cassocked clergyman was sitting there reading what Gus imagined was a devotional book, and looked up at them with curiosity as the guards stood aside.

It was the queen's bedroom they entered. The drapes were partly drawn. The mingled smells of the sickroom reminded Gus very much of the last days of his grandmother in her room at Haddesley. It made him uneasy. The queen was sitting up in bed, although clearly she was unlikely to leave it again. The remnants of her great beauty could be glimpsed, but only in the manner of the last days of a blown rose. She was pale and her nose had become sharp and drawn. Yet her eyes were still alert and bright.

Gus spontaneously knelt at her bedside, took her hand and kissed it. She smiled and spoke in excellent English. 'So you are the brave English boy who saved Prince Rudolf of Tarlenheim and suffered torments rather than betray me.' Gus remained kneeling and mute. 'Up you get, dear boy. Up you get.'

Oskar also had knelt, and he too leaned over to kiss her hand. 'Dear Oskar, you have been as enterprising as ever. The generals tell me you have been a thorn in the side of the rebels, as much as their own.'

Gus's sideways glance at his kneeling friend as he rose revealed a passionate and fierce look to Oskar's face. Whatever his faults, this man was if nothing else an unwavering servant of his queen.

Flavia indicated two seats at the foot of her bed. She might have been tired, but she was not showing it. 'I wanted you here, you two boys, because of your grave news. The rising has been contained in Mittenheim, but serious damage has been done. And now our true enemy is revealed, no less than Albert of Thuringia, the duke's nephew. He seems to be a worthy inheritor of the sins and violence of his dynasty, a Mephistopheles scripted by Milton: urbane, cultured and thoroughly evil.

'On one level, it should be no surprise; he is Bismarck's confidential agent. The sly devil always gave me the impression that he regarded the post as a boring sinecure, but he seems nonetheless to have been the power behind the chancellor's Ruritanian policy. So we now know what the Germans want and how far they will go to get it. My poor country.

'But, as well as this, Albert has indicated to us how little store he sets by the unity of my kingdom. If ever he takes power, he will happily use the German minority to oppress the majority. There is little justice and morality in him. He is a practitioner of the grim and conscienceless art of Real Politik.'

She paused, and meditated a while. 'I have little time left, maybe no more than a few days now. The politicians have won and the Staatsrath will not meet again in my reign. Archbishop Andrássy has been unable to secure any decisive opinion from Rome. So Robert Rassendyll's succession is now beyond my power to influence. If only I had moved years ago.'

There was another pause. 'Do you believe in the ability of dreams to foretell, either of you? I see you don't, Augustus.' Her smile transformed her briefly back to the dignified and beautiful girl she once had been. 'I had a dream two nights ago. I was on the heights of the Altstadt, and great storm clouds were pressing low on the city. In the brilliant flashes of lightning, I could see that a foreign army was in the streets, burning, looting and murdering. I was powerless and so alone. Then I was aware that I was not indeed alone, for a strong and warm hand had taken mine. "Lean on me," said a voice. "The weight is mine, as also is the promise." It seemed to be my beloved Rudolf, and I felt safe once again, the way he had made me feel before he died. But I think it might not have been he, but another and far greater man who took the ring from my finger and smiled. I knelt and he removed the crown of Tassilo from my head. 'Where you are going, all women are queens and all men are kings. But I keep these for his line. Fear not.'

She paused, tears in her eyes. Her voice, lower now, said, 'I believe it was a promise, and since the promise is all I have left, I will trust in it. Augustus and Oskar, I ask you to convey this message to my cousin Robert. He is to persevere in his claim for my throne. Should he fail, then he must pass the claim on to his children and they to theirs. He must keep the crown of Tassilo safe but never take it out of Ruritania. There will come a day when it may help him or his heirs. It must never come into the hands of the Thuringians. And here also, take my ring. This he must always wear. It is a token of the union between him and his kingdom, and he must pass it on also to his children.'

The effort was finally exhausting her. It was a while before she spoke again. When she did, she smiled slightly. 'Now for you two handsome and brave boys, there is just this.' She indicated two morocco cases amongst the medicine glasses on a side table. 'They are for you two true knights, a slight token of my thanks for your efforts so far, and those to come that I will not see. Now kneel for my blessing.'

Awed at the solemnity of the moment, Gus knelt close to the bed alongside Oskar, disregarding the pain from his injuries. The queen stretched out her hand and said some words in a language that Gus did not know, but recognised as Rothenian. Then Oskar got up and received the queen's kiss on his forehead, and Gus followed him. With tears in his eyes he murmured, 'God bless your majesty.' And as he left the chamber of death, he knew he had found the purpose in life which had eluded him till that moment.

Oskar and Gus sat outside the Strelsener Taverne on the sharp corner where Gildenfahrbsweg exited the Rudolfs Platz. Oskar was sipping meditatively at a glass of Tokay, watching the tiny bubbles rise to the top. Gus was mute, reliving the scene at the queen's bedside, more moved than he could find words to describe. They had been there now for twenty minutes, saying very little. The ring the queen had given Gus was safe in his waistcoat. Finally, he removed the leather case from his pocket. He clicked open the lid, and was surprised to find a ribbon and an order of chivalry inside.

'My dear August,' smiled Oskar, 'allow me to congratulate you on receiving the order of Henry the Lion in the first class. I wonder if I got it too? By heavens, so I did. Father would have been pleased, if not also surprised.'

Gus stirred himself. 'That was a generous gesture.'

'More so than you know. It is a decoration reserved for high-ranking soldiers and those of exceptional bravery in action. Wear that around generals and they will get quite sick of you.'

'I don't suppose I will ever wear it much.'

'But you did earn it, my friend. The citation is quite specific on the subject as you can see – oh, you can't, it's in Rothenian. Ah well, take it from me that if you could read it you'd get a head as swelled as mine.'

'Don't be silly, Oskar you idiot.'

Oskar laughed. 'You seem to have lost your awe of me. You are growing up, dear fellow.'

'Perhaps it's about time I did. Now, what are we to do about all this?'

'I think we must pack up and take the next train to Hentzau Junction. The queen's business really must not be delayed.'

'Then let's be on our way. I've got to talk to Bobby for all sorts of reasons.'

'Yes indeed, Lord Burlesdon has rather more to think about than we do, poor man. But first I must go out to the ministry of the interior. A friend of mine needs to issue us with some letters.'

'What do you mean?'

'The queen will be dead within the week, requiescat in paradiso. After that, all sorts of strange things are likely to happen, and we will require some pretty high-powered documents if we are to go about unhindered. I will be surprised if we find getting past the Lines possible today without a police interrogation. The whole city knows it's only a matter of a few days before the chaos of a disputed succession begins, and the rising in Mittenheim has made the tension even worse.'

Gus returned to his hotel to pack a bag. Oskar soon sent up for him, and they took a cab to the Sudbahnhof. As Oskar had expected, there was a queue of traffic at the Lines, where police were checking papers. The cabbie apologised for the delay, saying it had begun that morning. When they glimpsed the seal on Oskar's packet, however, the officers saluted and waved the cab through. The driver looked back at them, thoroughly impressed.

There were more police at the station, at the barriers and walking the platforms. 'What trouble are they expecting, Oskar?' Gus wanted to know.

'Any and every sort. The population of Strelsau can be restive in times of trouble, and I imagine they are looking for known agitators.'

The train for Hentzau Junction left late and was slow, but they caught sight of the distant towers of the castle above them by five o'clock. All the cabs had gone before they could reach the stand. Fortunately, there was an old omnibus that toiled up the hill. They boarded it, sitting outside rather than risking the stale and fetid air within. They disembarked in the town square and walked slowly up to the castle gate. The garrison was still in place, and Captain Antonin's sentry saluted them as they arrived. They found James pacing the courtyard within, smoking a cigarette, which he promptly dropped when he saw them. Gus thought he looked guilty at being caught out in so ordinary a pleasure.

'Good evening, James.'

'Sir. Your lordship.' He had regained his air of unflappability.

'Is Lord Burlesdon about?'

'He is, sir, and he will be glad to see you.'

They followed him into the domestic range, where he ushered them into the lighter of the two drawing rooms. Bob was looking worried when they first caught sight of him. Gus thought the enforced inactivity of the past week could not have been good for him. But he leapt up and shook their hands enthusiastically as soon as they appeared. He sat them down and ordered drinks to be brought in immediately. When James reappeared with a tray, Bob asked him to stay.

'Now tell me what's been going on. The papers are full of the German rising in Mittenheim. Although the reports are heavily censored, I could tell there's been trouble elsewhere too. What d'you know?'

Gus and Oskar settled in and talked for the best part of an hour. They gave him a full account of the events, their suspicions and their guesswork. Oskar revealed rather more this time than he had told Gus earlier.

'It is not just the Mittenheimers who are Thuringian dupes. Prince Albert has been secretly active here for years. He has been receiving information at a high level. How else could he have known my brother's movements so accurately? He had, and still has, a spy in the heart of the queen's household, the one who found out about Father Piotr's mission despite all the queen's precautions. I and my colleagues have only been able to identify and arrest the foot soldiers of these men. So when the worst happens and her majesty dies, we can expect a great deal more trouble.'

Bob looked pensive. His face looked even more severe when Gus finished telling him about the queen's message and her bleak vision of the future. 'Then we must start planning for that future. We have the crown here, and we may assume no one as yet knows we do. What's more, considering the information that vile torturer wanted from poor Gussie, it seems they think only letters reached us in Vienna. They don't know everything.'

James coughed. 'May I say, sir, that I believe this castle is as good a place as any to secure the crown for the present. In our enforced idleness I have been exploring its nooks and crannies, several of which would be suitable places where it could be concealed without too much work and would stay concealed. It's within easy travelling distance of the capital if it's needed. Hentzau's such a place that a treasure hidden here would not need a garrison to protect it.'

Bob nodded. 'Then we shall consider that idea with some care.'

Gus added, 'May I give you the queen's ring, Bobby? I don't feel comfortable carrying it.' Gus produced it and unwrapped it from the silk handkerchief in which he had protected it.

Bob took it and turned it in his hand. It was of heavy gold, with a wide bezel in which was enclosed a blue semi-precious stone delicately carved with the royal arms. 'It will only go on my little finger,' he sighed. 'But I'll get it altered to fit. It is her coronation ring, I think.'

'Yes it is,' agreed Oskar.

'Sir,' he continued, 'the next few days are going to be critical for the success or failure of your bid for the throne. The Thuringians have made their play. We know better now their aims and who is masterminding them. Prince Albert must be working with his uncle's knowledge, I don't doubt, though how much the duke knows of the details is less clear. I'm certain the prince has had a chance to put together a group of supporters within the present government. The foreign minister is in his pocket, and maybe the chancellor as well. Politicians are not always honourable men. They keep their options open. I suspect there is a party in the Reichsräthe, too, which has been talked into his camp. So far we cannot match that, but I am confident the army may yet be persuadable. What's more, if my brother Rudolf gets busy, we can at least match their party in the Reichsräthe. The Church, of course, would definitely welcome a Catholic succession. But sir, I alone can get this begun, and there is little enough time to do it.'

'There is a train to the capital in an hour, sir,' James stated.

'Good. I would like to take Mr Antrobus if I may.' He smiled. 'Not that I wish to dispense with dear August's company, but Mr Antrobus still has many useful contacts within the palace and the city.'

'Yes sir,' agreed James, 'and I think they may be got to tell me a story, too.'

Bob nodded. 'Then off you go, but do attempt to keep in touch.'

'We shall try, sir.' Oskar nodded to James, and they abruptly walked out, leaving Bob looking at Gus.

Gus smiled. 'I think you may actually have a chance, Bobby.'

'Why's that?'

'Oskar called you "sir".' Gus got up and went to search out Oskar in the hall.

'I'm sorry to lose your company, August, you know that,' sighed the count.

'Yes, I do.'

They stared at each other hesitantly for a moment. Suddenly Oskar removed his cap and, almost before Gus was aware of it, kissed him on both cheeks. That maddening fragrance of the count's was still there and as potent as ever.

'Take care of yourself, you madman.'

Oskar looked at him seriously. 'For you, I will. We shall meet in a few days, I hope.'

'And then what?'

'Time will tell, perhaps.'

Gus watched after him as Oskar and James took to a pair of horses. A groom from amongst Captain Antonin's garrison followed them to return with their mounts from the station.

The next few days were a serious trial to both Bob and Gus.

'I don't know how you managed to sit here with James for over a week.'

'Captain Antonin was very good. We played cards and – rather more ominously – he gave me sword and small-arms exercise. Otherwise, he whiles away the hours planning a defence of the castle, and devising plans to thwart any sort of assault. He's quite obsessive. He expects a lot of his twelve troopers and one sergeant.'

'You must be restless, Bobby.'

'Yes I am, but James said it was a king's part to assign tasks and to await the result.'

'So you pace the battlements and look at the smoke in the distance.'

'Basically, yes. Not fair, is it?'

'No, your majesty.'

'None of that!'

'Well maybe, Bobby, but there are enough people in this country who want you to be king that it is a real possibility. And what then, eh?'

'I'll try to act the part as well as my Uncle Rudolf did.'

The bulletins on the queen's health were uninformative, though they were plainly preparing the people for the worst. Masses for the state of her soul were already being said in great numbers in the churches, not just in Strelsau, but in all the major cities. The army had moved into Mittenheim, and had secured its cities of Ebersfeld and Mittenheim, putting down riots with some severity it seemed.

But the papers could not disguise the fact that insurgents were still active in the countryside. There was concern about the reaction to this in the German empire, and statements had been made in Berlin regretting the violence of the Rothenian troops. Bismarck was ruthlessly pursuing the line Prince Albert must have laid down, depicting the rebellion in Ruritania as a rising of oppressed Germans against their Slav overlords. Ominously, the British government had taken a similar line.

'That's really nasty,' Bob growled. 'It's also untrue. Colonel Bernenstein, who's now military governor of Ebersfeld, is a German, and Captain Antonin says that all the regiments in the army are mixed. They give orders in German too. It looks like Bismarck is trying to clear the way for a military intervention.'

'Fortunately, the Austrians have taken a more supportive line. The statement here sort of hints that they believe the insurgents are funded by the Germans.'

'Well they are. The Austrians seem to know what's what at least.'

The end of the week was enlivened by the appearance of Hugo Maria at Hentzau.

'August! Lord Burlesdon!' he cried as he met them in the hall. 'Oskar said I should come over and tell you what is happening. He even lent me some money for the train fare, what a kind brother!' He looked around. 'Gloomy old place isn't it?'

'Not so gloomy now, Hugo,' rejoined Gus with sincere warmth.

Hugo laughed. 'But I have to confess I do have another motive. Do you know of the family Wismar? No? They are amongst the lesser nobility of the province. They have a house not too far from here, in which there is the beautiful and intelligent Elizabeth. We have been friends since we were children, and we have an... arrangement.'

Gus laughed in his turn. 'Arrangement?'

'Oh you know. She and I have agreed that, when it's right, we will marry. In the current circumstances, I have been thinking that the time really has come when we should announce our engagement to an increasingly preoccupied world. Would you mind terribly if I called her over for a conference?'

Bob smiled. 'No indeed, it would liven things up no end to have a pretty girl here, even if just for dinner. How far away does she live?'

'Just three miles, so she will come by carriage. If I may take the liberty of sending her a message, she can be here in a couple of hours.'

'Of course you may, Hugo. Write it out and I'll ask one of Captain Antonin's troopers to take it to her.

'Now then, what is the news?'

'Oskar has been working with our brother Rudolf and General von Tirkenau to secure support in the Reichsräthe and the general staff. The army has been outraged by the aspersions cast on it in Germany, and most of the regiments are no longer amenable to a Thuringian succession. Although there are still a few undecided ones, I think you have the army's backing.'

'That's good to hear, but if I am to be king, it cannot be by military coup. I'll have no part of that.'

'I understand. That is why the delicate negotiations in the Reichsräthe are the key to it all. Rudolf thinks he has a majority now on our side, enough certainly to prevent the automatic proclamation of Duke Leopold on the queen's death.'

Bob nodded. 'But not enough to secure my proclamation?'

Hugo shook his head. 'The problem is the Church. The nuncio is still in Rome, working hard for you as we know. He has the support of the Austrian cardinals at least. But there is no papal declaration as yet on your claims. If we had that, there is no doubt the upper and lower chambers would fall in line behind you. Cardinal Windischgratz has disappeared to his summer residence by Lake Maritz, and cannot be reached. He is in retreat and praying for the well-being of queen and nation, it is said.'

'And the queen?'

'They say she is lapsing into unconsciousness a lot of the time. The bishops and the politicians are around her bed all day long, and discreet preparations for her funeral are already under way at the cathedral. Tomorrow is to be a day of public prayer throughout the kingdom.'

'Poor woman.' Everyone looked solemn for a moment.

But then Hugo smiled again. 'I have some good news for you, August. Your bay horse wandered into the stable yard at Tarlenheim a few days ago, and will be brought back down to Hentzau as soon as possible.'

'Is Berthe unhurt?'

'She has what looks like a graze from a carbine bullet, but otherwise she is fully recovered.'

'Thank God for that. I hope she has forgiven me what I put her through.'

The three young men discussed things for a further hour without being in any way happier. Hugo in the end said he had to go prepare himself for the arrival of Sissi Wismar, which reminded Gus of something he should have asked Bob about earlier.

'Have you been in touch with Kitzi Kálnoky?'

'I write to her almost daily.'

'Any replies?'

Bob gave him an old-fashioned look. 'Several.'

'Don't mean to pry.'

'No, of course!'

'How is she?'

'Fine. No, really. Her uncle has apparently explained to her what is going on. She is Hungarian, don't forget, and finds what I'm doing terribly gallant and romantic. She has been very supportive.'

Gus was genuinely pleased. 'That's a relief at least. She seemed annoyed when we left so abruptly. I'm glad she has some idea of what's in the air.'

Sissi Wismar was a revelation to Gus when she descended from her carriage. She was dark of hair, lithe and very handsome, but her most attractive feature was the great good humour of her face. She was in a trim hat and a tight blue dress that revealed a boyish figure; she did not wear one of those absurd and inconvenient bustles. Hugo Maria and she seemed a perfect couple. There was no shyness when they greeted one another, rather a warm embrace and a loving kiss. They stood hand in hand. Gus was faintly envious when he saw Hugo with his fiancée, although he smiled and shook her hand warmly when they were introduced.

'So you are Hugo's new English friend. He talks about you a lot when he writes. It is a great pleasure to meet you.'

Bob welcomed them inside and had an ample tea laid out. There was constant laughter around the table, for Hugo and Sissi had a charming habit of capping each other's jokes almost as if they were a music-hall act. That they were both ferociously learned was also evident, though they did not flaunt in Bob's and Gus's faces. She had collaborated with Hugo in the publication of his much-admired Latin translations, and they were working now on an edition of Sallust.

It was a good meal, and in due course an excellent dinner followed. Sissi and Hugo seemed to cause the tensions of the moment to melt away. They had a way of working the conversation between them so that everyone felt included and everyone felt clever. Sissi played Schubert admirably on the piano with Hugo turning the pages for her almost out of instinct. She returned home late that night, and as a concession to the anxiety of the times, two of Captain Antonin's troopers rode alongside her.

It was two days later that a despatch rider was observed galloping at speed up the hill from the town. The young cavalry officer vaulted from his horse as he drew up at the gate in a scatter of gravel, leaving the sentry to grapple for the reins. He burst in on an astonished Captain Antonin and Bob Rassendyll. Saluting, he presented a sealed paper to the captain.

Antonin broke the seal and read the message before looking up with a sombre face. 'May I express my regrets, sir, at the death of your cousin the queen. She passed from this life to eternal glory at dawn this morning. The general staff commands that I escort you to Hentzau station, where a special train will collect you to take you to the capital.'

Bob and Gus packed swiftly and anxiously. They dressed in full mourning. As their carriage rattled down through the town square, church bells began slowly tolling. White-faced people were in the streets talking intensely, and not a few alarmed and concerned glances were turned to the carriage as it drove on to the station.

Meanwhile, the crown of Tassilo rested concealed in an inaccessible place within the castle that Bob was leaving behind him.

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