Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

On the Saturday of Hugo and Sissi's wedding, the abbey of Medeln was a lot less austere and empty than Gus remembered it. White and gold flowers were everywhere in the church, and great garlands of greenery hung between the arches. Gus sat behind the extended Tarlenheim family, close enough to see and enjoy the smiles and happiness of the bridal couple. He was deeply moved at how alight with joy was Sissi's face when Hugo raised her veil to kiss her, as they were pronounced man and wife by the bishop of Modenheim.

After communion, the carriages moved off through crowds of onlookers and children to the house at Templerstadt, where the couple were to live. The wedding breakfast seemed to last all day, with speeches, toasts and dancing. Gus finally caught up with Hugo as he was looking on and clapping at children performing a country dance to the music of a fiddle and a tabor.

'No need to ask how you are feeling, Hugo.'

'No need at all, dear friend.'

'So you have seen your bride at your wedding.'

'Indeed,' he smiled, 'and I will see a lot more of her tonight before we sleep.'

Gus was startled. He had forgotten that his intellectual friend was a man of passion too.

Hugo continued, 'I have done extensive research through the classics as to how men and women mate, and I think I now have both a Latin and a Greek word for every eventuality, which will be most useful with Sissi.' He laughed at Gus's expression. 'My brothers have been very helpful with all sorts of advice... Oskar less so, it has to be admitted.'

'Will you be staying at Templerstadt after the wedding?'

'Yes, our honeymoon is to be here. We had no real desire to travel around, as newlyweds seem to want to do more and more nowadays. We have our new life to set up, our books to arrange and our work to continue.'

Sissi joined them at that point. 'And we will be very happy to see visitors, especially English estate managers who can help us as we flounder about attempting to be landlords. Neither of us is much use as a farmer, for all that we know the Georgics off by heart. Hugo did read a thirteenth-century treatise on Husbandry once, but we rather fear agriculture may have moved on since then.'

Gus said he imagined it had. Then, arm in arm between the couple, he accompanied them as they strolled back into the house.

It was late in the evening when Oskar found Gus in a corner of the large hall that served as drawing room and reception room, talking over the events of the past few months with the bishop. The gentleman was telling Gus how much the hierarchy had resented the decision the cardinal had forced on them. He had changed his mind three times during their conclave, and his final position was not shared by the majority of his colleagues. 'You must understand, however, that they could hardly stand in open defiance of the wishes of such a powerful man as he.'

The bishop was most impressed at what he had heard of Lord Burlesdon's conduct. 'He proved himself to be the man who should be king, in the exact moment when he relinquished his claim. Very sad.'

Oskar finally managed to extract Gus from the conversation and took him out to the rear lawn, where Chinese lanterns were glowing in the cool autumn night. They lit cigarettes, and watched the smoke ascend into the still air. Eventually Oskar commented, 'Somehow I must make Prince Albert pay for his sins, Gussie.'

Gus smiled in the darkness. 'I have every confidence you can do just that... Osku.'

A flash of teeth revealed his lover's own ready smile. 'Osku! I like it. So you are learning my language then?'

Gus laughed out loud. 'I've begun. It helps no end when dealing with the local population at Hentzau... or Hentzen as we Rothenians call it. Marek is helping, at least with the dirty words.'

'Why am I not surprised?'

'How can you make Albert pay for his crimes? He is now a royal highness and a prince of Ruritania.'

'Such men are not above the law in this land,' growled Oskar.

'But that is not the only problem. You've convinced me of his guilt, but then I know the man and his works. Magistrates and juries are not going to be too impressed with a box of biscuits as principal evidence for the prosecution.'

Oskar pondered silently for a while, before sighing a little resignedly, it seemed to Gus. 'Then we must give it some more thought.'

'Are you ready for bed?' Gus asked hopefully.

'First we have to see baby Hugo into his. It is the custom here in Ruritania.'

A burst of laughter and music from the house warned them that something was about to happen. When they found their way back indoors, the hall was full of men; the women had disappeared. Hugo, barefoot and in shirtsleeves, with a garland of flowers in his golden hair, was being manhandled towards the door to the stairs, a traditional bagpiper going before him.

'Quite the phallic touch, that,' chuckled Oskar. Bursts of laughter from some very blunt sexual innuendoes preceded Hugo as he was propelled reluctantly up the stairs. Everybody followed on and, at the head of the staircase, the procession was ambushed by young women who hurled masses of flower petals like multicoloured snow over the ascending males. 'And this is a primitive fertility rite. It will require all day tomorrow to clear it up.'

Hugo was taken through to the master bedroom, in which Sissi was already waiting, an identical garland on her head. The men quickly removed all but Hugo's shirt, to much laughter on their part and blushing on his. Then they placed him next to his wife in the bed, where the couple sat smiling shyly at each other. Prince Rudolf stood forward as all went quiet. He spoke some words in Rothenian, bowed to the couple, and everyone left without another word.

The guests returned downstairs to drink a stirrup cup before they departed. The house soon emptied.

Oskar sat on a sofa next to Gus. 'Of course, in the old days, the party went on all night, and the newlyweds would be serenaded with drunken songs from outside their window as they attempted to fulfil their marriage vows to be fruitful and multiply. Very off-putting, I call it. We are much more civilised nowadays.'

A thought struck Gus. 'Would you get married, Osku?'

Oskar stared at him. 'What brings that up? You mean, with the intention of having children?'

'Well, yes, I suppose I do.'

'It has occurred to me, but the idea of sex with a woman is not one that excites me, even though I did sample female delights when I was a boy. I would be a terrible husband and it would hardly be fair to some poor lady to be joined to me. Why do you ask?'

'I feel the pressure of my mother's expectations reaching me even here, although they chime in with something in my own mind.'

'Ah yes, I know, the desire to be respectable and safe, and not to be looked at askance. You are young, Gussie, younger than I, and it is hard I know. The love we have, dearest boy, is not the one our society sanctions, and I can see no way it ever will. So we must live in the shadows and under suspicion if we choose to act upon our desires.'

'You make it seem so easy, Osku.'

'Do I? I suppose in my case it is easier. People think of me as devil-may-care, an adventurer, and little consider what sorts of desires and passions lie behind my hunter's mask. I am an event rather than a person. But that is not you, brave man though you are. You grew in different soil and under different rains. I have no advice, Gussie dearest. You are as alien to me as I am to you. But I know I love you, and maybe that is all I need to say.'

'It's saying a lot. Now, will you join me in my guest room, or will I join you?'

'I think my bed may be bigger, and we need space to play, we men. Come to me in a half hour or so, when things have settled.'

At breakfast the next morning, Gus sat down to his coffee with Franz, who for once was out of uniform. He twitched yesterday's paper straight, and looked over the top of it. 'So August, are you missing Robert?'

'Very much. Fortunately, I'll be taking some leave back in England early next year, and I shall be staying with him at Burlesdon.'

'You are feeling lonely perhaps?'

'A little. But I have good friends here in Husbrau, and of course the remarkable Mr Antrobus is always at hand.'

'Yes, he is indeed a remarkable man. My father had very great respect for him. I somehow he would return to Ruritania one day.'

'Any particular reason?'

Franz laughed. 'There was a girl... woman rather.'

'You can't be serious! James Antrobus?'

'What's so odd about it? Mr Antrobus is very much a man. The lady in question was once assistant housekeeper for us in Strelsau. I believe they were on the point of getting engaged when he left father's employment, it must have been eight years ago.'

'What happened to her?'

'She moved on to be housekeeper at the Ostberg palace.'

'Was she running away from him?'

'I really don't know, but I think James was upset. It may have been her decision to leave the Tarlenheim household that persuaded him to go elsewhere, and finally back to England. The man does have a heart, you know.'

'Unlucky in love, who would have thought it of James? But it does explain one or two things. Maybe that's why he's so solemn all the time.'

'It might be so. Keep your eye on him. If he buys new gloves and starts wearing flowers in his buttonhole, you will know what he's up to!'

Gus laughed and said he would.

Hugo came in at that point to cheers from around the table. He blushed again, and sat between his brother and Gus. Franz ruffled his hair. 'So, a good night, little brother?'

'I never thought it would be like that. All the poetry makes a new sort of sense now. My darling Sissi is an angel of sensuality. The passion that lies beneath the bluestocking, eh?'

'You didn't sleep much, then?'

'No, hardly at all. But I feel absolutely at ease with myself and the world. I'm going to take her up this coffee, and maybe I shall be back down after lunchtime.'

Franz and Gus exchanged looks and laughed.

Gus was to leave that afternoon and was delighted that Oskar would accompany him to Henztau. 'My days of public employment are over, at least for the time being. I have resigned from my department of the foreign ministry. I will not serve a Thuringian king. No doubt soon enough Leopold's cronies will discover the part I played in their discomfort, so I might need to move to Vienna for a space, for my health.'

'You think Leopold will seek some revenge?'

'No, not he. But his brother and nephew are not pleasant customers. They are back in Ruritania now. Sooner or later they will find ways to taint our national life. The king's powers are limited here. He cannot appoint ministers or influence national elections. Yet still the court has much weight in the upper house and the king has a say in government policy. There is also the matter of patronage, especially in the army and the civil service, and the royal estates are very considerable. I expect Prince Albert will soon start finding ways to get his hands on the levers of power.'

Gus frowned. 'You make it sound as though you believe you are in danger.'

Oskar shrugged. 'He is an old-fashioned Teuton, like the medieval robber barons who infested the Rhine valley: remorseless and violent men who butchered their peasants and spent the rest of the time composing poetry and reading Cicero. They held serious and long-term grudges, did those men.'

Gus was chilled by what Oskar had intended to be a light comment. He found himself worrying more and more about his lover, which was odd since he supposed the time of danger was now past. Perhaps it was just part of the feeling of reaction.

But his heart was a lot lighter when he and Oskar took to the road, Gus once more on his faithful Berthe. They ambled through the autumn countryside, the leaves now brown, gold and red. Their rain capes were needed against the gusty showers that had set in from the west, beating down on their backs. They spent the night at Strelfurt, and moved on at dawn across the mountains and down into the forest of Hentzau.

It was early in the evening, through a rainstorm, when they reached the formidable castle that Gus could not get used to calling home. They had to stable, rub down and feed their mounts themselves. James and Marek were nowhere to be found. Frau Bermann, the cook, was however on hand, so Gus and Oskar ate handsomely.

They were enjoying a port when James and Marek returned from the market at Kesarstein, where James had been investigating the importation of English Hereford cattle. Marek had gone along for the ride, or rather, because James would not trust him alone in the castle.

To his credit as a manservant, Marek was disturbed that he had not been on hand to receive Gus and his guest. He rushed off to see to bags, clothes and bedding, but not before saying with his usual smirk, 'I don't suppose I need get the guest bedroom ready, sir?' He ran off laughing as Oskar's boot pursued him into the corridor.

'I told you, Gussie, he is a useless servant.'

'He has his compensations as well as his difficulties. I've never met a more devoted valet.'

'It's because he's in love with you, Gussie. Remember Anton in Vienna? The same applies here.'

'But he's sleeping with a villager.'

'Don't confuse the two things... no, he loves you alright. Fortunately, he thinks you are unattainable. Never encourage him.'

James was listening as he cleared the table. 'I'm afraid you're right, excellency. You are his favourite subject of conversation, Mr Underwood.'

'Oh... oh dear. I had better be careful then. But he'll grow out of it.'

'We can but hope,' said Oskar. 'Now, my dear, I am off to see if this castle has such a new-fangled thing as a bath.'

When he had gone, Gus asked, 'What news, James?'

'The talk at Kesarstein was that the king has agreed to an inauguration ceremony in Strelsau in a fortnight's time, during election week. It won't be in a church. There was a suggestion about using the Raathaus of the Altstadt, but it is shabby and run down, not like its grand counterpart in the Neustadt. Others were saying that the throne room of the royal palace would be more suitable.'

'What are they saying about the disappearance of the Tassilisner Kron?'

'There was an article in the Strelsener Deutscheszeitung blaming Lord Burlesdon and a cabal of noblemen, and saying he carried off in his luggage to England. The Ruritanischer Tagblatt still persists in pointing the finger at Prince Albert. Strange that the gutter rag is closer to the truth. The king has ordered a thorough search of the Osten Tor and all the royal residences, although nothing will be found, of course.

'I have to say that the late queen made a shrewd calculation in giving the object to his lordship. Its disappearance casts a dark cloud over the accession of the new dynasty, and now it is lost, it is already becoming the stuff of potent legend. The judge-delegate for the province of Streslau has been forced to investigate the vision of an old lady who lives opposite the Osten Tor. She claims that on the night of the queen's death she saw the Virgin Mary in the sky above the tower receiving her majesty, who was wearing the crown of Tassilo, and taking both queen and crown up into heaven.'

Gus smiled. 'Now that is not unexpected. There will be forests of candles and pious widows kneeling in the Domstrasse.'

James raised an eyebrow at Gus's scepticism. 'That may or may not be the case, sir. But the bishop of Luchau is raising the matter of the queen's sanctity. There have already been several claims that she has cured children. One supposedly occurred during the lying-in-state, when a crippled boy who had never walked before struggled to his feet from the bath chair in which he was being pushed. Whatever your beliefs, sir - and you know that I am a Protestant of the Church of England - this is potent stuff, especially in a land like Ruritania. It cannot but damage the Thuringians. Some are even saying that the crown will not appear again until a rightful Elphberg king sits on the throne in Strelsau.'

Gus looked more than a little pleased. 'Then God bless her late majesty, for the game is by no means over. She has given us a foundation of legend on which to build a new claim to the throne.'

Gus enjoyed an idyllic week with Oskar, who had decided to settle at Hentzau for a while. 'I have no home of my own, dear Gussie. I live in my brother's houses for the most part. The tenement in Gildenfahrbsweg was the only place I ever owned, and that was in a lease in someone else's name. But here, somehow, I do feel at home. I wonder why? It is a bit of a hole, when all is said and done.'

They rode in the forest, inspected the domain and went fishing one warm afternoon in a trout stream, where Gus showed Oskar how to cast. Gus could only regret that there was no shooting to be had on the domain. Oskar even attempted to be interested in the administration of the Hentzau estate, though his glazed eyes did not fool Gus. Oskar discarded his flamboyant and colourful wardrobe in favour of country jackets, open-neck shirts, and sometimes even a scruffy leather overcoat that made him look like a gamekeeper.

It was the overcoat that might have saved his life. Friday night was dark without a moon. Oskar and Gus had been down in the town to patronise the Schwarz Bär, Hentzau's celebrated beer garden, where Gus had taken care to become a frequent customer as a way to improve relations between the castle and the town. Gus had further invested in it by occasionally standing rounds for the locals. He was following the example of his father there, for Sir Philip had been a regular at the Underwood Arms in Haddesley, especially during harvest time.

The two friends made their way, slightly weaving, back to the gates of the castle park. At the pillars of the entrance they stood and leaned against the stone. Gus stared up at the stars wheeling across the sky overhead, hard, blue and somehow cruel that night. It made Gus uncomfortable. He was turning to suggest to Oskar that they move along, when he saw a small, dark figure speeding towards them out of the forest, a man running crouched low down. Oskar saw the movement too and caught his breath.

The man was being pursued. Several riders came crashing through the brushwood and the dull thud of their horses' hooves rolled up the hill towards him.

Gus recognised the runner. 'Marek!' he shouted. 'Up here!'

The boy was certainly a sprinter. He leaped a wrecked paling and was up amongst them before the riders had reached the bottom of the hill.

'Run! Run, sirs!' he was crying as his chest heaved. 'They've come for you!' He collapsed in Gus's arms. Gus shouted to Oskar to make for the castle, threw Marek over his shoulder and ran powerfully towards the gate.

Oskar however had different ideas. One rider was in advance of the others, waving a sabre. Oskar coolly picked up one of the small oak branches littering the park, danced in close to the horse, took the downward swipe of the blade on his leather coat and smashed the end of the branch into the rider's face. The rider screeched and rolled over the back of the saddle to the ground.

Gus heard Oskar's delighted boyish laugh as he turned to flee for the castle gate. Gus dumped Marek through the open wicket and waited for Oskar. The other riders were close behind as he leapt through the gap in the door and Gus slammed the wicket closed. Oskar's chest was heaving, but he was alight with laughter.

'You maniac!' cried Gus.

'No time for your disapproval, Gussie mine. We have a castle to defend! Rouse James and break open the gun cabinet!'

Gus ran to the domestic block, shouting for James. The maids appeared out of the buttery door, looking scared, and James came behind them in his shirt sleeves. 'What is it, sir?'

'Riders in Hentzau Forest! Get the guns!' Within minutes they were spilling out into the courtyard again with armfuls of shotguns and rifles. Oskar was peering over the battlemented wall-walk that surrounded the courtyard. Hentzau was a true castle, still faithful to its medieval construction, and could easily be closed up so there was no easy way in.

A shot rang from outside and Gus saw a momentary spark as the bullet struck the merlon of the battlement next to Oskar's head. Reckless as he might have been, Oskar still sprang back. 'We seem to be under siege, dear fellows. Send Marek up with some rifles and shells.'

Gus could see in the light of the courtyard lamps that Marek was trembling. Gus asked him whether he had fired a gun before. 'I've never even seen a gun, Mr Gus!' was the reply.

Gus laughed in reaction. 'Then point this end away from you when you fire, little Mareczku.'

Marek muttered something but took the rifles and shell boxes up the stairs to Oskar. Gus could hear him talking gently to the boy.

James had disappeared briefly. When he returned he reported, 'All the lower windows are secure, sir. The postern was on the latch, so I assume Marek had been out on one of his trysts to meet Hans. He prefers not to use the front gate on such occasions, sir. It may be symbolic.' And for the first time Gus heard James give a brief snort of laughter. Clearly, like Oskar, James Antrobus thrived on danger.

Oskar ran down the steps, leaving a bemused Marek clutching a rifle and keeping his head down. 'There are a couple of dozen of the brigands. They have dismounted and I believe they mean to storm the castle if they can. This is a rather excessive way for Prince Albert to wipe out the disgrace I put him to, though I suspect he would be quite happy to see you dead too, Gussie.'

Gus wondered at first if the prince had found out about the crown and was trying to seize it, but realized he could not have. This was something personal between him and Oskar. 'How can they get in?'

'At a guess, they will take the side of the curtain wall which was modified in the eighteenth century to accommodate artillery. The wall is rougher and lower and can be scaled, since we have too few to mount an effective defence. Indeed, the approach to that wall can't be commanded by gunfire from the walls as there is no parapet.'

James chuckled. 'However, excellency, that side does have cannon.'

'They've been disused for half a century, James!' protested Oskar.

Gus chuckled too. 'Captain Antonin and his troop were here for weeks, Oskar. To keep them busy, the captain got his men to repair the slides in the embrasures and drill out the touchholes. They even fired off a few blanks for fun and to startle the castle's crows. The guns are dry in these casemates, away from the weather. Powder and fuses are close at hand, since the captain felt a few salvoes might be called for in honour of Bob's coronation, if that ever happened.'

'By heavens,' cried Oskar. 'Are you suggesting using the artillery? Well, well. What a surprise they will have!'

Captain Antonin's men had left the seven artillery pieces clean and ready to run out on their well-oiled slides. A slow match was still in place on a ledge. James dashed back into the hall and returned with the lit match. In the meantime, Oskar had charged the touchholes and was already ramming home a ball into the second cannon.

Gus sprinted back up to the battlements where Marek continued to cradle his gun and peer hesitantly over the wall. Gus craned up too, though he could see little in the moonless dark. He had an idea. He took the rifle from Marek and placed his hat on the stock. He raised it into nearest embrasure and waved it around. Several shots rang out, and a ricochet whined past him. He saw what he hoped for: the pattern of discharges. They were all gathered to his right along the wall where the artillery was deployed. He sent Marek down to give that information to Oskar and James.

Within a minute, there was an almighty detonation and a flare of smoke and flame. A ball screamed through the trees outside the castle, smashing branches and trunks in its path. For a moment, Gus saw more than a dozen white faces in the undergrowth, frozen in horror. He leaned up over the battlement and started firing into the bushes where he thought the attackers were.

A second cannon fired and a third soon after. There was no doubt now that, in the light of the discharges, he could make out men running, some struggling to mount their panicking horses. It was a total rout.

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