Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

The cardinal-archbishop of Strelsau had adopted purple silk mourning robes, and his cappa magna flowed sombrely down from his marble canopied throne at the north of the cathedral's high altar. The mass was being celebrated by the archbishop of Glottenburg, robed in black vestments and white mitre, who presided from a seat on the south side. The twelve other Ruritanian bishops, in plain black, were ranked behind the celebrant. A host of priests sat in turn behind the bishops. Clouds of incense rolled across the sanctuary, while tapers burned in their hundreds.

Scaffolders had been hard at work to hang vast lengths of funereal crepe from vault to floor all round the great church, which now looked rather like a gigantic black tent. The massive framework of the hearse had already been raised before the high altar, awaiting the queen's coffin to rest under it for her funeral mass. It towered up forty feet and bristled with burning candles.

Gus contemplated the gloomy magnificence of the sight from the south transept. He had a good view of Cardinal Windischgratz as the great man meditated on the text of the sermon. The cardinal was at this point in his early eighties, a florid man with a heavy face and rich, well-tended white hair on which was set his red skullcap. He was of the Catholic German nobility from the province of Merz, and his notorious indecisiveness was either tactical genius or congenital timidity, depending on whose opinion you asked. He was, however, the key to the succession to the throne of Ruritania.

That morning he had finally published the text of the bull the nuncio had obtained from the Curia: Ex Romanorum Pontificum indulgentia. It asserted that the case of the Elphberg succession was a matter for the metropolitan archbishop and his colleagues within his province, to whom Rome customarily referred such cases. The nuncio had rolled his eyes at this evasion, but told the Council they had to make the best of it. He had now turned all his Magyar energy on his fellow bishops, and the Ruritanian hierarchy was already looking harassed as it sat on benches in the sanctuary.

When they stood for the Credo, Gus looked at Bob Burlesdon's back, straight and proud before him. Where did his friend get the dignity of bearing he had revealed these past days? Gus thought back to the boy he had known in school. He remembered one day when Bob had found him cowering among bushes on the grounds, tears streaking his face, being hunted by a pack of fourth-form bullies. Bob had talked him out of hiding, dried his tears, and together they had gone to face his tormentors. They had been knocked about bloodily, but he and Bob had done enough damage to the older boys to be left alone thereafter.

Today Bob was revealing a different order of courage. Perhaps there was something to the business of royal blood. The Rassendylls were Elphbergs, who had inherited the blood of the legendary Ruric. Gus recalled the canvas of Hirth's Ruric the Rothenian Fords the Starel he had seen at Carlsbad. He wondered if Bob had inherited that strain of savagery too.

After the congregation rose from its knees following the pontifical blessing, a knot of men formed around Bob. Prince Ostberg had already assigned him an armed plain-clothes police bodyguard. Captain Antonin had taken on the role of aide-de-camp. Herr Wenzel from the foreign ministry had become the liaison between Bob and the Council. Gus thought that he himself played the part of equerry and court jester. Introductions to several public figures were being made by Wenzel, as Gus yawned and waited. He caught the captain's eye and they smiled at each other.

Eventually Bob and his small entourage made their way up the central aisle of the emptying church. Many eyes followed them with curiosity as they departed. Gus had already worked out the meaning of the Rothenian words den fuerst Angliske, which he sometimes heard whispered when Bob passed by.

At the great west doors, which spilled almost unbearable light into the gloom of the shrouded interior, a large and portly figure was waiting for one last and critical introduction.

'Eminence,' said Wenzel, 'may I introduce the English count of Burlesdon?'

Bob bowed over the cardinal's hand and kissed his ring of office. The cardinal's face was inscrutable, but in a rumbling basso he pronounced, 'My blessing on you, milord Burlesdon. I am glad you were here today for mass. The death of your cousin the queen was a severe loss to the world, not just to this land.'

Bob nodded. 'She was a great lady, eminence. My acquaintance with her was sadly brief, but brief though it was, it has left me with a sense of deep personal loss. I can well imagine what every true-hearted Ruritanian is feeling now.'

The cardinal inclined his head, clearly supposing all had been said that was necessary to say, but Bob had one last question. 'Eminence, could I ask when it is you propose to put into effect the terms of the bull from Rome?'

Cardinal Windischgratz shot a narrow look at Bob from under his bushy eyebrows, hesitating in his answer. Yes, thought Gus, the man is indecisive, it's not just policy. Finally he replied, 'I will be consulting with my fellow bishops over the next few days, my lord. As soon as we are agreed on procedure, we will move to decide the case.'

That ended the conversation. Bob bowed again, and walked out into the light of day.

Oskar was loitering in the entrance hall of the Tarlenheim palace when they returned from the cathedral. His eyes met Gus's and invited him to follow. As Bob and his ad hoc staff moved upstairs to one of the reception rooms to discuss the cardinal, Oskar took Gus's arm and led him in the direction of his own room.

Gus was intrigued to be inside Oskar's private domain for the first time. The room, which looked down on the Raathaus Platz, was heavily draped with Morris fabrics, and English Pre-Raphaelite prints decorated the walls. A canvas on an easel depicted Lancelot running wild in the forest, and Bob, when told of it later, rather fancied it might have been an original Burne-Jones. There was a hint of incense in the air, together with more than a hint of that special private fragrance of Oskar's that so intrigued Gus.

Gus looked at Oskar, whose face seemed to give permission, so he moved for a kiss. Some minutes later, as Gus recovered his breath, Oskar pulled him down on a sofa spread with brocade and smiled at him. 'That was not why I asked you here.'


'Yes, isn't it? Later perhaps. No, what I wanted to talk about was a common acquaintance, Albert the Not-so-Good, prince of Thuringia.'

Gus frowned. 'Has he turned up?'

'My agents in Mittenheim are very few and my information is sparse. I imagine he might be there, though I cannot say for sure. But he will be in Zenda tomorrow when his uncle, the duke, arrives.'

'What are you up to, Oskar?'

'Seeking news and trying to anticipate our enemy. He is still dangerous, but do you know, with James's help I think I may have discovered his chief agent in the royal palace. A little late, alas, but I am a tidy sort of person, as you may have noticed. I despise loose ends.'

'What are you going to do?'

'I? No. It is what are we going to do, Gussie.'


'Oh yes. You and I make a good partnership is so many ways. I have not forgotten your bravery and endurance when the Riders captured you. You will be helping me. Oh, and have you heard the big news?'

'What's that?'

'The marshal of the household was making his inventory of the coronation regalia at the Osten Tor, and the crown of Tassilo is missing.'

'Oh yes?'

'You have not heard of the crown?'

'I think I may have.'

'It is the heart of our nation, used by every Rothenian ruler for nearly a thousand years. It is a huge scandal. It is not in the press yet, but once people hear about it, the nation will be stunned. God knows what the superstitious will make of it.'

'Who is suspected?'

Oskar looked hard at Gus. 'Who said it was a theft?'

'What else might it be?'

'Incompetence? A Thuringian conspiracy perhaps? All the more reason to go visiting at the palace this afternoon.'

'Incompetence or conspiracy, the consequence of either would still be theft. So, what is it that we are going to do?'

'Confront this agent, a fellow everyone took for a friend, and whom everyone trusted. We will talk more of it later. Now, we need to get you properly dressed for this afternoon's expedition. I have a costume which will match mine.' Oskar removed a hanger from behind a screen. 'Now, please change.'

'It's a military uniform.'

'Yes. Uniforms are the best way to make Gussie inconspicuous. Everyone sees the soldier and not the man. Do you want me to turn my back? You may keep your drawers on, my handsome boy, if you really must.' Oskar's glance was sultry.

Gus rolled his eyes, but complied. Oskar watched him intently and, when Gus had finished, walked around him adjusting straps and belts. He also took the peaked cap and tilted it slightly. The end result was a Gus transformed. He looked Germanic and raffish, a brisk and athletic young lieutenant. Gus admired himself in Oskar's dressing mirror, twitching the cap round to the best advantage.

'You are really enjoying the dressing up. Just as in Vienna when we went to pay our respects to the archduke. Do you remember?'

'That was the day I knew I loved you, Oskar.'

'Now! Naughty boy. Absit omen. I told you never to say that!'

'But why? You're the only...'

Oskar looked cross. 'And I am the man who will break your heart too, you impossible Englishman. It always happens. Promise me you will behave?'

'Yes, I promise,' Gus sighed. He somehow thought that falling in love should be more straightforward than Oskar was making it.

Oskar hung a greatcoat over Gus's shoulders, and told him to wait while he changed too. 'Now my young lieutenant of dragoons, you and I are going outside to impress the civilians.'

Gus attempted a salute, which seemed to lack something. Oskar shook his head in disbelief. He led them down the backstairs, startling a chambermaid as they exited a side door on to a small lane that led to the Lindenstrasse.

Gus quite enjoyed swaggering along the boulevard with his friend. He did not feel English at all. Oskar was in the uniform of a major of horse artillery. Dragoon and artillery officers were sufficiently numerous and undistinguished to draw little attention, he explained.

'And how are we to get into the palace?' Gus asked.

'Friends, influence and the authority of the Council through my brother. Besides, the queen still lies in the Raathaus, and the household is disbanded. The palace is like an out-of-season hotel at the moment, believe me.'

They strolled the back streets to the west of the palace, coming out opposite the Reitschule. Guards occupied the boxes on either side of the entrance, while a policeman paced idly up and down. Oskar walked up to the man, casually saluted and presented a paper. The policeman looked at it, not very closely, before making a shift of a salute of his own and indicating that they should pass. Then he returned to staring at the passing drays and omnibuses.

Oskar and Gus walked in, making their way through the great arch and the stable yards beyond. A further arch took them into the Hofgarten, the palace grounds. Across the lawns and through the trees loomed the white walls of the palace itself.

'Now that,' announced Oskar, pointing at the great central mass, 'is where we are going.'

'The Chapel Royal?'

'The very place.'

'And is the man we are going to confront in there?'

'I believe he is. He is rarely elsewhere.'

'So who is he?'

'A friend of Father Piotr's, quite a remarkable man in his way, and a scholar of international reputation. It finally occurred to me that I should do some serious research into the backgrounds of the palace staff, to see if they might give me a clue as to who was the chief Thuringian agent. I was quite stunned in the end to discover that the dean, Professor Wilhelm Hollar, had a whole range of interesting connections. Before his appointment here he was professor of theology at the Charles University in Prague, but even more interesting, prior to that he was a lecturer at Dresden, where he taught divinity to the young Prince Albert of Thuringia.'

'Oh... and you think...?'

'That's precisely what I do think, especially as, when I followed up my research, it turned out that Duke Leopold was one of the professor's sponsors on the recommendation to the queen as dean of the chapel some years ago.'

'It might be coincidence.'

'I suppose it might, but the Thuringian family are given to an austere form of Calvinism. So what on earth are they doing meddling in Catholic appointments?'

'You believe that Dean Hollar was introduced into the palace as a Thuringian agent? But he's a priest!'

'The Medici popes were priests too. But you wouldn't drink what they offered you in banquets if you had any sense. Consider it, my Gussie. The man was perfectly placed to pick up palace gossip, steal papers and observe the queen. But there was something that made him even more useful.'

'What's that?'

'One of the dean's principal duties is to act as confessor to the palace staff, clerical and lay alike.'

'No, surely not. No priest would deliberately dare to violate the seal of the confessional. It would mean eternal damnation!'

'You would think so, wouldn't you? Come, Gussie. It is time to test how deep a sink of iniquity this man represents.'

Oskar led Gus along the paths of the Hofgarten. As they drew closer to the palace, Gus noticed that the national tricolour of red, black and white now flapping over the roofs stood at half mast.

A door to one side of a buttress led into the basement offices below the chapel, which was above, on the ground floor of the palace.

'You know this place well,' Gus observed as Oskar led them confidently inside.

'Franz and I played here very often when we were children.'

A long corridor opened in front of them. A large Gothic window lit it up from the north end. There were doors with titles painted on them: Elemosinarius, Pietantiarius, Sacrista, and eventually Decanus, where a strong smell of tobacco hung in the air. Oskar took off his gloves and rapped hard on the door.

A scrape came from inside as a chair was moved. A muffled permission to enter could be heard.

A grey-bearded man, bulky and wrapped in a black cassock, leaned back in his chair and stared at the two army officers who had stepped into his refuge. The atmosphere was blue with pipe smoke, and the dean's cassock was speckled with ash.

Oskar removed his cap and Gus followed suit. 'Who are you?' the dean asked.

'You are Wilhelm Hollar, priest?' Oskar inquired coldly.

'I am. What is the meaning...'

'You know me, I think. I carry a warrant from the Council of Regency for your arrest. Stand up, please.'

The pipe clattered to the floor. 'This is absurd. You cannot do this. I am a priest, the civil power has no jurisdiction here. The cardinal will hear of this.'

'The cardinal will hear a good deal about you and your activities soon enough, I would imagine. Now, please stand. The lieutenant here will escort you outside while I search your room.'

The dean blustered, but the pallor of his face betrayed the fear possessing his mind. Gus ushered him out, and asked him to sit on a chair in the corridor. The man hunched there with Gus watching impassively, his hand on his revolver. Scraping and banging came from inside the office. Hollar said nothing for the twenty minutes they waited.

Eventually the door opened and Oskar summoned them back inside. He sat down behind the desk, and told the priest to take the chair opposite him. Gus stood close at Hollar's shoulder, acting the part Oskar clearly wanted him to play.

Oskar stared at the man for a while. 'Now, Father Hollar, perhaps you can tell me of the connection between yourself and Albert of Thuringia.'

'There is no con...,' the priest began, but Oskar cut him off with the wave of a hand.

'The truth now. You hardly think I would have asked if I had not known the answer.'

'Then you know he was one of my students at Dresden, one of my many students.'

'You saw a lot of him?'

'In the lecture halls, yes. But we were hardly of the same social class.'

'He was a distinguished student?'

'A good enough mind, I believe. He threw himself into student life in the city.'

'So I hear. He fought three duels in his years at the university. How did he survive those without expulsion, I wonder?'

'I have no idea what you are insinuating.'

'While the prince was at Dresden, you were not just a lecturer, were you?'

'I had other posts.'

'One being procurator of students, the officer whose duty it was to investigate offences against the university statutes. One killing and two woundings led to three acquittals while you held that post. You were very sympathetic to him, were you not?'

'The cases were judged according to their merits. Duelling is not illegal in Saxony, any more than it is here.'

'It is not, however, approved of within the university, is it?'

Hollar sat sullenly. Oskar picked up a book. 'This copy of Renan's Life of Christ you have here. The inscription reads Ad Guillelmum de suo Alberto. A very friendly acknowledgement if it was a gift from the prince.'

'There are not a few Alberts in the world.'

'And this... do you think I do not recognise a cipher book?'

'Simply a hobby.'

Oskar was silent for a while. Eventually he commented, 'The late Father Piotr Ignacij was another good friend of yours, I believe.'

'He was, yes.'

'You were very upset at his death in Vienna, I imagine.'

'I was, of course.'

'When did you last see him?'

Hollar looked sharply at Oskar. 'It may have been sometime a week before he died.'

'My sources tell me you and he met on Monday, the day after he attended vespers with the queen at the cathedral.'

Hollar stared. 'Your sources?'

Oskar did not reply to his observation. 'What happened between you and the good Father Piotr that Monday?'

'That would have been our usual appointment for sacramental confession.'

'And in that confession, did Father Piotr mention concerns he had about a mission he had been given to accomplish for the queen in Vienna?'

'You cannot seriously expect me to answer such a question?'

'Why not? You've already discussed it with other Thuringian agents in Strelsau.'

'How dare you. You...!' Hollar abruptly stood, causing Gus to thrust him back down into the chair.

'It can only have been you who informed Prince Albert of the mission, Hollar. No one else knew. Lieutenant Mericz brought the package from the queen to Father Piotr, but he had no idea what was in it, or where it was to go. Four people alone knew of his mission: the queen, the agent in Vienna, yourself and Almighty God. Only you could have told.'

'You cannot prove this.'

'I think I have. How many other secrets of the confessional have leaked into Thuringian ears, eh? When Eduard Wohl, the queen's German secretary, killed himself last year, was it because his liaison with prostitutes was being used to apply pressure to him? Have you no conscience at all, man? Have you no fear for your soul? Your offences here will come before a greater and more final tribunal than any human court.'

'I will say nothing.'

'Allow me to differ. You will say quite a lot before my friends have finished with you. And you might bear in mind that the very least of the pains they inflict will be as nothing compared to the torments awaiting you in hell.'

Hollar went pale and his eyes rolled. 'I am a priest!'

'Perhaps you might have done well to remember that earlier. What made you do it? Some sordid hope of advancement?

Hollar looked around wildly. Then he fixed his bloodshot eyes on Oskar. 'I won't be lectured by some vile sodomite on virtue. Were I in hell, you would be in the circles below me. Don't think your perversions are unknown. One at least of your catamites came in tears to my confessional, begging for God's forgiveness.'

Oskar looked momentarily shocked. Then his face closed down. 'You will come with us,' he ordered.

They levered Hollar out of his chair. Oskar produced a set of handcuffs, which he applied to the priest's wrists. They escorted him up through the palace this time. Passing servants stared as Hollar was led by two officers along the corridors, up long flights of stairs and on to the second floor of the main palace. Oskar knocked at an anonymous door and pushed Hollar inside to stand before a desk where two men sat.

One looked up. 'This is the traitor, Hollar?'

'This is he,' confirmed Oskar.

'Thank you then, you may leave him to us.'

Oskar turned and took Gus out, guiding him down a corridor to sit on a banquette. Gus was only then aware that he was trembling with shock and soaked with perspiration.

'Oskar... I... There are no words for such a creature. The most solemn sacrament of the church means nothing to him. What could possess a man to sink that deep?'

Oskar shrugged. 'A perverted sense of friendship with the great, hopes of furtherance after the Thuringian succession. He is clearly a covert atheist. Not unusual with theologians, I hear. The sacraments mean nothing to him as God has no existence in his eyes.'

'Even so... the betrayal of trust ...'

'... was appalling and unforgivable, as even a right-minded atheist would say.'

'What will happen to him?'

'He will be taken to the fortress of Kaleczyk and questioned, thoroughly. No one will see him go, and it will be a while, God willing, before Prince Albert knows his chief agent is taken. There will be time enough to extract many useful names from him. His only hope of seeing daylight again will be if the Thuringians succeed to the throne, and I wonder even then if Albert would let him out. Hollar is living testimony to the debased methods he has used.'

'And now it seems that your enemies know you are homosexual.'

'That is troubling too.'

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