Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

As soon as Bob and Gus returned from Ribaud's, Gus went back out to the Raathaus Platz again. What he thought he would do, he did not know. Why indeed he should do anything at all was a puzzle to him. Nonetheless, some sense of fellow-feeling and duty to Oskar impelled him to seek out the two imprisoned men from the Ganymede Club.

Sergeant Neuberger, Bob's day police guard, was going off duty and was happy to accompany Gus to the gaol. He raised an eyebrow when informed which prisoners Gus wished to see, but asked no questions. The gaol doors stayed open till nine, and some discrete exchange of currency orchestrated by the sergeant got Gus immediate access to the cells.

The ancient brick cellars below the Raathaus were at least dry, but hardly comfortable. There was a reek of human waste in the close air. Gus found Marek and Woydek in the same cell, the bars open to the corridor. Marek was woeful, his face bruised. He wore only a shirt, the buttons torn away, and a loose pair of trousers. He was barefoot and dirty. Woydek was on his pallet, his knees drawn up to his chest, but at least he was fully dressed. They looked up at the jingle of keys.

Marek recognised Gus instantly and leaped up to the bars, his face puzzled. 'It's you, Jerzy's Englishman. Did he send you?'

'No, Marek. He does not know you are here or what happened at the Ganymede Club. But never fear, I will tell him.'

'Will he do something for us? I know he is a powerful man, a nobleman.' The boy was trembling.

'I don't know. I hope so. But it won't be easy.'

'So why did you come?'

'To see if I can do something for you.'

Marek looked at him wonderingly. 'But why? I was not nice to you.'

'Because... Jerzy said you had a good heart.' Gus paused and added, 'Your tongue works fine, too.'

Despite the circumstances, Marek gave a giggle. 'Sorry,' he said contritely, and Gus liked him a lot more.

Gus asked Woydek, 'What will happen next?'

'Tomorrow we will be called before the examining magistrate, who will commit us for trial when he reviews the evidence. Then we will be sent out to the fortress of Kaleczyk in chains to await what little mercy we can expect.'

'I'm sure Jerzy will try to help.' Two despairing faces looked at him mutely. 'In the meantime, take this money. It may be useful to bribe the guards to give you some proper clothes, Marek. Where are they, incidentally?'

Marek blushed. 'I had only a shirt on when they broke in. As I tried to get out the window, they grabbed the shirt and ripped it off. I fell naked into the back lane, and they hauled me like that out to the street. They threw these rags into the wagon after me.'

Woydek counted the money, a grateful expression on his face. 'This will help a lot, sir. Thank you.'

Gus offered his hand, which they shook. 'What I can do, I will. Believe me.' He left.

Gus was up early on Friday morning. He was delighted to find Hugo Maria in the breakfast room, and hurried him off with a cup of coffee and a pastry into a small parlour.

'Hugo, there's a problem involving Oskar. This is very confidential, you understand. There is - was - an... establishment in the Neustadt he frequented, a place where men met other men.'

'Oh yes?' Hugo's curiosity was piqued.

'It was raided by the police, who arrested two of Oskar's associates and possibly employees - I'm not sure which - and locked them in cells of the Raathaus to await interrogation by the examining magistrate. I don't think they know Oskar's real identity, but it might not do if certain people began asking questions of these underlings about their patron. Especially not at this critical time.'

Hugo stared. 'I think I see what you mean. Oh heavens. Oskar's passions have begun to get more inconvenient the further he gets into the limelight of public life.'

'What can we do?'

'I must think. I cannot tell Rudolf. He knows nothing of Oskar's sexual preferences. Franz may have his suspicions, but I dare not confirm them. Using contacts in the ministries would be a dangerous business, questions would be asked. Ah! I think I have it.'

Hugo rang a bell and wrote a note, squinting as he scribbled on the pad. A footman arrived. 'Here, Wladislaw. I need you to take this around to Herr Jurgen's chambers in Postgasse, and bring him back here without delay. Accept no excuses.'

The lawyer Jurgen arrived promptly. He listened to Hugo's guarded explanation of the situation and posed no further questions, being far too discrete to ask how it was that the Tarlenheims were interested in the fate of two alleged sodomites. Hugo did his best to hint that certain affairs of state were involved.

'What can be done?' Hugo asked.

'The law is very vague on the subject of sodomy. There are few convictions due to the difficulty of obtaining evidence and the harshness of the punishment. It is a capital crime. Usually those accused are convicted on the lesser charge of gross indecency.'

'What penalty does that involve?'

'It really depends on the magistrate. You wish me to take this case?'

'Yes, Herr Jurgen, and I ask you to do what you can to have those unfortunates released.'

Jurgen bowed and said he would go immediately to interview them. Following that he would call on the magistrate.

At midday, Gus and Hugo took their seats on the public benches of the examining magistrate's court. Herr Jurgen in a black robe had taken a seat opposite the magistrate. They seemed well acquainted and were chatting amiably as the two accused were brought in.

Gus saw that his money had done some good. Marek was soberly dressed in a black suit and clean white shirt, though it had no collar. He looked around fearfully but brightened at the sight of Gus on the benches.

The magistrate spread out his papers before scrutinising the two men over his spectacles. 'You are Marek Rustak?'

'Yes sir.'

'Your age?'

'Seventeen, sir.'

'Where are your parents?'

'They live in Hofbau, sir. I left home last year to take service in the city.'

'I see.' The magistrate went on to interrogate Woydek, who answered in a low, frightened voice.

A police officer gave his evidence. His platoon had broken into the house and found several men associating, two - Rustak and Hantz - in a very compromising position in a back room.

Jurgen asked whether the other men were unclothed. The officer said no. Were those other men detained? No. How about the boy Rustak? The officer said he was wearing only a shirt and squatting on top of Hantz.

'And what were they doing, officer?'

'I think you can imagine, sir.'.

'I'm afraid I do not have that sort of imagination, officer. Perhaps you can help me.'

The policeman flushed almost purple. 'The younger man was receiving the older man's... member into him, sir.'

'And you saw this?'

'Well ... no, not as such. It was sort of implied by their position.'

'I see.' Jurgen thanked him and asked him to step down.

The magistrate asked for further evidence but there was none. It appeared the police had not expected the charges to be challenged. Jurgen summed up the defence succinctly. For sodomy to be proved, penetration had to be witnessed. The charge must be dismissed. Similarly, the charge of gross indecency could only be levied against those who had deliberately exposed their sexual anatomy. The police said that had not been done until they themselves pulled the boy Rustak's clothes off during his panicky run from the house.

The magistrate pursed his lips, rapped his gavel and dismissed the charges.

'I love the law!' whispered Hugo. 'Utterly logical and utterly imbecilic.'

'Thank you, sir. Thank you so very much.' Hugo and Gus were finding it difficult to get away from Marek and Woydek. The older man was wringing their hands with tears in his eyes.

'Where will you go now, Mr Hantz?' Hugo asked.

'My sister needs help with her shop in the Altstadt. At least it will be employment, although nowhere near as pleasant as the Ganymede Club.'

'By the way, who owned the club premises, Woydek?'

'Oh that was Mr Jerzy, of course. He rented it by the quarter. It will be seized for rent arrears I imagine. Thank you again, sir. I'll be off now. Goodbye.'

Hugo shook hands once more with Marek and made his excuses to Gus. He left them, taking a route that would not obviously lead to the Tarlenheim palace.

'Sir,' pleaded Marek. 'What about me?'

'You're free, Marek. You may go home to Hofbau.'

'But sir, I left home because I couldn't stand my father's beatings anymore. I can't go back.'

'Oh.' Gus was stymied. He had no intention of picking up any waifs, and certainly not one like this dissolute boy. 'Can't you find another position?'

'I have no money, sir. Nowhere to live. Nothing.' There were tears in his eyes, and with a degree of panic Gus felt his heart melting. Then he remembered something. Marek knew all sorts of inconvenient facts about his former employer. Would it not be wise to keep him close? The logic in that argument made his compassion for Marek seem less weak. He could not let Marek loose on the world, or at least not without keeping some sort of tab on him.

'Jerzy might help, surely.'

Marek looked sour. 'Mr Jerzy is interested in only one thing, you know that.'

'I'm afraid you're right.' Gus heaved a secret sigh.

Then it all came out in a rush. 'But you're not like him, sir. You care for people. You're kind and generous and I know you could be a far better master to me than Jerzy ever was. I'll work for nothing sir, just a bed and roof. I'll keep your clothes and polish your boots, and if you like I'll join you in bed, but only if you like.'

Gus had to smile. 'Marek, I mean no offence, but I need no bed-warmer.' He paused and dithered. 'But how can I trust you?'

Marek hesitated too, and then plunged on. 'I know who Mr Jerzy really is, sir. A card fell out of his pocket when I was hanging his jacket. He is the count of Tarlenheim, the Lord Oskar. That was his brother in the court. I'm not stupid. I listen to people and I read the papers.'

'Yet you did not use that name when you were in prison.'

'Of course not. Jerzy, I mean Lord Oskar, saved me from the streets and he was nice to me when we slept together. I would never drag him down, just because I was in trouble.'

While Marek stared hopelessly at him, Gus continued to ponder. All at once his resolve snapped. 'Marek, it seems that I need a servant who is intelligent and discrete. Could you be that man?'

'Oh yes sir!'

'I know what you are like with other men. Could you suppress your needs and just seem normal? Or at least as normal as you can be?'

'Oh yes sir, though I do need...'

'Yes, I know that, but do it someplace where no one will know.'

'Oh sir, of course. There's a spot behind the Guards barracks...'

'I do not need to know that. Well then, it appears I have acquired my first servant.'

'Oh thank you, sir. Thank you so much.'

'Let's go and get you some proper collars for that shirt, and a tie and some other decent clothing. Better still, let's go to the palace and explain it all to Mr Antrobus. He will know what to do.'

James gave off a definite air of amusement when he surveyed the urchin whom Gus had taken on, though to all appearances his face was as straight as ever. 'Well, young man, what experience have you had?'

Marek passed his first test by not making a joke about his experiences in the Club Ganymede, though it had clearly crossed his mind. 'I was a page in a boarding house, sir.'

James nodded. 'You don't call me sir, young man, you call me Mr Antrobus. Now, Mr Underwood, do you want him in a plain dark suit, in livery or both?'

'I don't think I could afford livery for him. Just get him properly suited.'

'He'll need an apron for polishing and at least a striped waistcoat if he's to answer the door for you and wait on table. He'll need to learn the skills of clothing maintenance, too. What have you done in that line, Marek?'

'Er... not much, though I did polish shoes for the guests and carry up coal and hot water.'

Hmm... there's a lot more to valetting than that. You come along with me and we'll get you kitted out to match your new station.'

The oddly assorted pair of servants disappeared down into the cellars of the Tarlenheim palace, Gus looking after them with a bemused air.

Gus was reading the Ruritanischer Tagblatt in the drawing room of the palace that afternoon when, without warning, a pair of hands was placed over his eyes. The scent was the giveaway.

'Don't be an ass, Oskar,' he complained testily in English.

Oskar let him go and came around to his front, sitting moodily on the opposite armchair. There was a definite moué of resentment about his wide mouth. 'When did you get to be such a grouch, Gussie?'

Something had clearly gone out of their relationship. Gus's heart did not thrill to the man's presence as it had only a couple of days before.

Gus rattled his paper to straighten it. 'If you'd had the sort of day that I did today, you would not be as carefree as you obviously are.'

It seemed that Gus's sterling Underwood morality had finally asserted itself. He had judged his friend and found him wanting, although somewhere under the weight of his stern new insight his heart had cracked, if not broken.

He continued, telling Oskar of the raid on Gildenfahrbsweg 244, the arrest of Marek and Woydek and his own efforts to have them released. When Oskar simply sat there frowning without interrupting, Gus could not decide if he was shocked or not.

'So between us - myself, Hugo and Herr Jurgen - we got them free,' he finished.

Oskar stood up and paced the room. 'You did well. Very well. You might of course have let them alone and consigned them to hard labour in Kaleczyk for ten years, but I would not have, and I am glad you did not. Shake my hand.' Gus reached up to receive a warm clasp before being pulled into Oskar's arms. 'Gussie, I am so sorry for what happened at Festenburg. I am, as you rightly say, an ass. But remember what I told you. Between man and man there should be no talk of love, for this is what happens. It always happens - foolish arguments, the struggle for dominance, and harsh words.'

Gus was no longer willing to accept Oskar's wisdom uncontested. 'No, Oskar, that is just you. I'm quite sure that between some men it might be different and better. But yes, that is the way with you, I have to agree.'

They separated. Oskar stood by the window, looking moodily down on the Raathaus Platz.

Gus, casting aside the paper, resumed his chair. With a sense of the mischievous he did not know he possessed, he asked Oskar to ring for a servant. He sat smiling to himself while he awaited the brisk tap which heralded the opening of the door.

Marek piped up as he came into the room, 'Yes sir, what can I...' He ground to a halt, his mouth hanging open.

Oskar stared at Marek, in footman's gear that James had borrowed. 'In God's name, you lascivious imp, what are you doing in my home?'

Marek adopted a surly, defiant look. 'Mr Underwood is my new employer... excellency.'

Gus was impressed at the venom Marek packed into that last, deferential word.

Oskar turned his stare on Gus. 'Are you completely out of your mind? Why did you not give him a hundred krone and pack him off to Hofbau?'

Gus could not help smiling. He answered in English, which Marek did not understand, 'Use your head, Oskar. He knows far too much about you, and me too for that matter. We need to keep him close.'

'But... but... as a servant? He'll steal your watch and empty your wallet!'

'Who was it told me he had a good heart?'

Oskar slumped into a chair and shook his head. Marek gave Oskar a sidelong and disdainful glance. 'Was there anything, sir?' he asked Gus.

'No, Marek, I just wanted to give Count Oskar a heart seizure, and you have answered admirably.'

Marek grinned. 'Always happy to be of service, sir.' He departed with a deliberate little flounce in his walk.

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