Count Oskar


By Michael Arram

Police commandant Ebersdorf and his men stood bemused in the castle courtyard. The shots from the hill had gone unheard in the town below, but not the artillery discharges. Hentzau was in turmoil, its entire police force of ten men investigating - or at least staring at - the disturbance.

The commandant made a gesture of futility. 'Who could have done it?'

'They were Riders from Mittenheim, I would guess,' stated Gus.

'What would they be doing all the way over here? We have robbers in Ruritania, of course, but not gangs like that, or at least not since the middle ages.'

'Did your men find any casualties or apprehend anyone?' Oskar demanded.

'No, a torchlight search of the woods produced nothing. We will need morning light to be sure. Are you absolutely certain the gang was as big as you say? It was dark. It's easy to make a mistake. Could it have been a gang of poachers Herr Under-vood antagonised?'

Oskar raised his eyebrows. 'Perhaps a search in daylight might help. But in the meantime, we would be grateful for a couple of your armed men to watch the castle.'

'Of course. I will take a shift myself.' The commandant went off to organise his men.

Oskar and Gus went indoors, to be greeted by a hot punch that James had waiting for them. He had already cleaned the guns and replaced them in the cabinet. 'Do you think they've gone, my lord? he asked.'

'I imagine so.' Oskar looked around. 'Where's Marek?'

'He's being comforted by Frau Bermann. He was very upset by the shots and the attack.'

Oskar nodded. 'Nevertheless, we need to talk to the boy.'

They found Marek wrapped in a blanket in the kitchen, cradling a mug of cocoa while the cook held him about the shoulders. He was pale and had been crying.

Oskar and Gus sat on either side of him, and he looked apprehensively from one to another. Oskar gently took his shoulder. 'Now then, Marek, we need to know something. Where were you coming from when you shot out of the woods with the Riders behind you?'

Marek took a sip of the hot drink before he answered. 'Hans and I meet sometimes in the old barn in the domain woods, excellency... well, you know why. I met him today at sunset and we had a long session in the hay, it went on and on, what a man.' He looked unfocussed for a bit, then pulled himself back together again. 'He left, and I dropped off ... well, he had tired me out. He is insatiable, sir. When I woke up, I heard voices in the dark outside the barn. I was frightened and turned down the lamp before getting dressed as quick as I could.

'I was thinking of creeping down the ladder when a group of men in long coats came in. They had a storm lantern which they turned up high and hung on a hook. One of them unfolded a map and started pointing here and there. "Total surprise!" he said. "The troops are long gone. We will be in and out before anyone knows we're here. Leave no survivors, either. This must look like the work of a brigand gang grown bold in the civil disturbances."

'I was terrified, sir. I had to get out of there, so I climbed through a broken window and down on to a water butt. Then I sneaked off through the trees, but the horsemen came up behind me, and just as I got to the edge of the woods they saw me. So I ran for my life and you saved me, Mr Underwood, sir.'

Gus smiled. 'No, dear little Mareczku, you saved us.'

There were tears in Marek's eyes. 'Oh sir,' he whispered.

Oskar looked a little impatient. 'Well, we all saved each other perhaps. Whatever the case, did you pick up any clues about the men while you were watching them? Names? Places? Anything?'

Marek took another sip of cocoa. 'Not really, sir. The ones I saw in the barn were all dressed alike, in long dark coats. They did not seem like soldiers though. They only spoke German.'

Gus nodded. 'Sounds like a squad of Mittenheimer Riders deployed by their former leader.'

'Dear me, they are very serious about wanting to kill me, are they not?' Oskar looked strangely pleased by the idea.

Gus patted Marek on the shoulder. 'You need to get to bed, young man. You'll feel better in the morning. Take the day off.'

Gathering the blanket round himself, Marek disappeared up to his quarters.

Oskar and Gus stared at each other in silence for a while. Gus was the first to speak. 'Maybe the time has come for your trip to Vienna, Osku.'

'I don't think so, Gussie. Tonight's adventure makes me believe that Prince Albert is not going to be put off from killing me just by distance. I must devise another strategy.'

A telegram to the provincial governor of Neder Husbrau brought several squadrons of cavalry the next day from the garrison at Kesarstein into Hentzau forest. One dead body was found, the man whom Oskar had struck from his horse in the park. His neck had been broken by the fall. The police were attempting to identify him. No other bodies were found in the park or the forest, apart from a horse decapitated by one of the cannon balls. The cavalry were able to trail the riders only as far as the Murranberg Pass, where they had split into smaller groups and disappeared westward by various routes.

The story made the papers, which treated it mostly as a warning about the troubled state of the country. The Strelsener Deutscheszeitung argued that it demonstrated the need for more Prussian forms of policing in Ruritania. The rest took the Hentzau incident as evidence that it had been foolish to abandon Lord Burlesdon, since the country was very restless and clearly had not accepted the Thuringian succession.

With very little else to do the next week, Gus went about his normal business. He consulted with James on the security of the crown, and they went to inspect its hiding place one day when Oskar was out riding. Bob had never given his permission to tell Oskar the secret so, though it hurt a little, Gus had kept it to himself.

'That's quite a piece of craftsmanship, James.'

'Why thank you, sir.'

'And not at all obvious, even though it is actually right there in plain sight.'

'My very thoughts, sir.'

'What's your opinion of this business between Prince Albert and Oskar?'

'My feeling is that the prince is a very dangerous man. He reminds me of Black Rupert here. There was a limb of Satan and no mistake: handsome, charming when he was in the right mood, conscienceless and utterly selfish. The difference between them is that Rupert was out for his own pleasure and devilment. Prince Albert is much more vicious, for he wants power over others and will let nothing come between him and it. Nor is he the forgiving type if you thwart him.'

'What should the count do?'

'It appears the prince will stop at nothing to avenge himself on Count Oskar, sir. It seems likely that one of them must prevail and the other be destroyed, like a pair of eagles I saw once battling in the sky over the Murranberg. One eventually fell to the ground, a tattered bundle of feathers.'

'You do not comfort me.'

James bowed, looking serious. Comfort had not been his intention.

Oskar announced that he proposed being present at the coronation of King Leopold at Strelsau. 'My brothers will all be there, and I certainly do not plan to hide away in a castle as if that damned man Albert had me under siege.'

Gus felt he should be urging him to caution at that point, but by then he knew Oskar well enough not to insult him with such words. He simply announced that if Oskar was going, so was he. He received a smile as acknowledgement.

Oskar decided to resume military garb and suggested that Gus take up his staff officer's uniform again. 'The point is, Gussie, this way we will at least be armed openly with pistol and sword. It gives us a chance to fight back, and may deter routine assaults. It will also provide us with a measure of anonymity, as a uniform does.'

Gus agreed, though the reasoning alarmed him. They were driven down to the station at Hentzau Junction looking rather Germanic and dashing. They took first-class seats while Marek, who was accompanying them, travelled third class. James was to stay at the castle, a little reluctantly.

The train brought them into the König Rudolfs Bahnhof. That Friday was the first really cold day of autumn, and the fur collars on their military greatcoats were turned up. The day had begun bright and crisp, but was now turning hazy. The sun was a pale disk in a yellow sky. Marek ran to engage a fiacre and, with a porter to help him, loaded the luggage into the back. Then he got up on the box beside the driver.

Gus was happy to be trotting through the streets of Strelsau. The charms of this city of limestone towers and copper domes were growing upon him. It was a pleasure to alight in the courtyard of the Tarlenheim palace and see the servants smiling in welcome, though one or two of them looked askance at Marek, he noticed.

They found the Tarlenheim brothers in the reception room. Sissi was there also, hand in hand with Hugo. Gus was greeted with warm handshakes and a hug from Sissi. He settled next to the young married couple.

'So how is it going, my dears?'

Hugo laughed. 'I think you know. If we were in love before we married, we are now consumed utterly by it.'

Sissi smiled. 'We've even started finishing each other's sentences. It must be really annoying...'

'... for our friends.'

'Stop it, Hugo!'

Gus laughed in his turn. 'It's a delight to see you both. How are things out at Templerstadt?'

Hugo shrugged. 'It's a lovely house, of course, though we are having trouble with servants. I'm afraid we don't seem to have the hang of organising both ourselves and them. In fact, they mostly act as though they are the ones in charge there. The consumption of wine in the butler's pantry is beginning to alarm me. But the poor man is apparently ill a lot of the time.'

Sissi, who had her hand on Gus's arm, whispered into his ear, 'That's because he's usually drunk.'

Hugo looked sheepish. 'How do you manage your people so effortlessly?'

'It's because I have James. Would you like to borrow him for a few weeks?'

'It's tempting, August, very tempting. We will talk about it later perhaps.'

Gus smiled. 'What are the arrangements for Leopold's inauguration?'

'The king arrived at the palace this morning from Zenda. The required salute was fired, and the new royal banner - the yellow and black stripes of Thuringia quartered with the Elphberg lion - was raised over the palace. Sissi went to look, I could not be bothered.'

'What is the state of your sight, Hugo?'

'It has been stable for several weeks, almost as though it had reached a plateau before the final plunge into darkness. I am therefore enjoying everything I see, especially my delight, my Sissi. I am storing up every image of her I can - some frankly pornographic!'

'Hush, Hugo. What will August think of us?'

Gus laughed. 'Nothing bad, believe me. What compromise have they worked out for tomorrow?'

Hugo shrugged. 'It's a most anodyne ceremony. There was a horrible fuss because the king refused to take the coronation oath, citing the passage in the Epistle to James which says, "Above all, my friends, do not use oaths." They had two professors and a bishop trying to tell him that the coronation oath was a promise, the statement of an ideal, not an oath as scripture meant it. But he would have none of it. They were Catholics, offspring of the whore of Babylon. What would they know about the true meaning of scripture?

'The result is a ghastly secular ceremony of pompous processions, with a simple handing-over of the symbols of office by the nobility. The Church of course is excluded, apart from the nuncio, who is for the moment still dean of the diplomatic corps. Rudolf will present the sceptre. I think the king will crown himself, like that horrible man Bonaparte did when he made himself emperor of the French. Are you planning to come along to have your sensibilities offended?'

'I don't think I have an invitation, Hugo. I'm not too unhappy about that. I shall look for a place among the spear-carriers.'

Hugo nodded. 'There is a reception at the palace tonight to mark the king's arrival. I am not going, you may take my ticket.'

'I will go if Oskar does. I feel I should be there to guard his back.'

'Very wise. Describe the siege of Hentzau for us.'

Gus spent the next twenty minutes telling them the story. When they were joined by the rest of the party, Oskar added his contribution and inimitable perspective.

After they had finished, Prince Rudolf looked gloomy. 'This does not augur well for the new reign, though I have to say that Leopold sent quite a mild reply to the loyal address of the Reichsräthe on his accession. He said he wished to rule in the spirit of the constitutional reforms of Rudolf V, which had made Ruritania admired across Europe.'

'Ah yes,' added Franz, 'but he said nothing of the cultural reforms which Flavia sponsored. She was the main force behind the new Rothenian schools and universities. Without royal support and patronage, the money will go elsewhere, you can be sure.'

'We must see what happens tonight,' cautioned the prince. 'Apparently he will be making a few remarks to the assembly.'

'Have you met him, highness?' asked Gus.

'Yes, August, on a couple of occasions when he visited Queen Flavia's court. He is in his early sixties now, though he was an old-looking man when I first saw him ten years ago. Despite having no sense of humour, he certainly has a quiet sort of dignity. They say he has little depth of intellect; all he claims to be is just a straightforward soldier.'

Oskar added, 'He was not a particularly able one either. He commanded the only German force that was defeated by the Austrians in the Sadowa campaign.'

Franz laughed. 'That is not quite true, Oskar. Firstly, it was not he but General Bonin who was defeated at Trautenau in '66. Leopold was second-in-command that day, and rallied his own division to remove it from danger. There is no doubt that he is a brave man. I look forward to meeting him, and will not damn him just because he is not an Elphberg.'

'That's fair,' agreed Sissi. 'He is also not his nephew, whom we know to be a very wicked man.'

'Yes,' reflected Oskar gloomily, 'and has it occurred to you that one day in the future, once his uncle and father are dead, that very wicked man will become king of Ruritania?'

'I never cease thinking about it,' sighed Prince Rudolf.

Gus was fitted out with court dress from the capacious wardrobes of the Tarlenheims. He sat with Oskar and Franz in their carriage as it joined the queue slowly moving up the Rudolfs Platz towards the royal palace. The nobility and society of Strelsau were out in force that evening.

They alighted from the carriage in the turning space in the forecourt and joined the colourful crowd streaming up into the west wing, where the ballrooms were. The Tarlenheims greeted many of their fellow guests, and even Gus found several acquaintances to acknowledge, including Herr Wenzel from the foreign ministry.

They were announced when they entered the grand ballroom, which was already looking full. The gallery around the top of the colonnade was also well populated. Oskar took two glasses of white wine from a circulating tray and gave one to Gus, before moving them to the side of the room where they could observe the king's arrival.

King Leopold was nothing if not punctual, as befitted a military man. The chamberlain's staff struck the floor and the king was announced. The room bowed and curtsied low. As he rose, Gus got a good look at Leopold. He had large white mutton-chop whiskers and his right eye carried a monocle. He was in the uniform of a colonel of the Ruritanian Life Guards, so tailors had been busy equipping him for his new role. He was of average height and the only expression on his face was a certain tired doggedness, as if he was not happy performing these functions but knew that duty demanded it of him.

At the king's shoulder was a dark-haired, florid man, his younger brother, the now Crown Prince William Henry. There was a suite of staff officers and ladies behind the royal brothers, amongst whom Gus saw the unmistakable features of Prince Albert, dressed like the rest of the men in Prussian blue. There was of course no reason why they should not have been in Thuringian uniform, except that it left an impression of tactlessness.

Oskar was smiling to himself. An avenue had opened up between the king and the red-carpeted dais where one chair only stood waiting. The king was a widower, so Ruritania had no queen, although the crown princess was walking with her son Albert.

As the king passed unsmiling through the press, he nodded to left and right. He stopped on several occasions to acknowledge particular individuals. Prince Rudolf was one of those who merited a special greeting. Gus was close enough to hear the words 'delighted', 'acquaintance' and 'loyal family.' Rudolf answered with a stream of easy words and bowed the king on his way.

Leopold's brief pause brought Prince Albert level with Oskar. Gus never loved Oskar more than when he smiled pleasantly at the prince over the rim of his wine glass and winked. Albert looked away coldly.

Eventually the king reached the dais and mounted the throne. His family and household took their places on either side. Gus thought them a singularly unattractive bunch, but then he was willing to admit his prejudice.

A courtier in a light-blue German dragoon uniform handed a piece of paper to the king, who stood up, adjusted his monocle and began speaking in a rather weak voice which Gus had to strain to hear.

'Highnesses, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, we appreciate very much your welcome to Ruritania here tonight. We have been coming among you now for many years, and expected no less warmth than we have experienced previously in this land. We thank you on behalf of ourself and our family. Our reign may not have begun in a straightforward way, perhaps, but we hope that any unhappiness associated with it will soon be forgotten now we are accepted by one and all as rightful king.'

He paused and looked down his long nose at the assembly. 'There will be no feelings of annoyance on our part towards any among you who entertained the claims of the English usurper Burlesdon out of feelings of misguided loyalty to the late queen. Be assured.'

The king made a pale attempt at a smile and sat down in a sudden silence. He clearly believed he had made a gesture of magnanimity. The lack of applause from the assembly took his household aback. But the people were standing rigid. In one sentence he had insulted not just them, but both the popular English pretender and their beloved and saintly queen.

Oskar breathed in Gus's ear, 'Well that's a promising sample of Thuringian tact.'

Eventually, the crown prince ended the silence by signalling for the concert orchestra to commence playing. Doors were rolled back to reveal buffet tables, towards which the assembly streamed with relief. People filled their plates and slowly broke up into conversational groupings. The Thuringians stayed huddled round the dais.

'Of course,' muttered Herr Wenzel to Gus, 'you have to put it down to his household advisers. The words expressed more their frustration with the succession than the king's own feelings, you may be sure. If I were to put money on it, I would say that last passage was added at the crown prince's suggestion. He is a forthright fellow, with no tact at all. Now, tell me about that raid on Hentzau, my dear Mr Under-vood.'

Franz had secured a group of Thuringian and Ruritanian officers in a corner, and when Wenzel let him go, Gus sidled over to join them. He was introduced around the group, and found the three Thuringians to be gentlemanly and affable.

He asked a captain if he had any hopes of preferment in Ruritania. The man smiled. 'Soldiers always have hopes of preferment, my dear sir. The army of Thuringia has never been a very large establishment: four line regiments, one of artillery, and two of dragoons. The only promotion is into the Guards Brigade, and for officers that goes largely by the importance of one's family. We thought the union with Germany might loosen things up, but you cannot transfer into the Prussian or Bavarian establishments with any ease. No Thuringians outside the ducal family will ever be generals.'

'So you think a transfer into the Ruritanian army may be possible?'

'It is a big army, twelve times the size of ours. They even have field marshals.' He laughed. 'Maybe one day I will have a marshal's baton in my hand.'

Gus wished him well with his ambitions. He saw Oskar talking to a group of female admirers, and moved across the floor to join them. They were quite as willing to admire Gus, who found himself busily flirting alongside Oskar in ways he had never dreamed himself capable of.

'Good, Gussie,' Oskar approved in a quiet moment. 'The ladies here expect it. We will make a Rothenian of you yet.'

The evening passed pleasantly enough, though it became uncomfortably warm after a while from the blaze of candles on the huge hanging chandeliers and from the press of bodies. Gus was relieved when the chamberlain's staff again struck on the floor. The doors opened and an avenue from the dais cleared.

The king rose and all turned towards him. He made his way out slowly, stopping at the door and turning, suddenly hesitant. Gus looked from side to side. People were evidently expecting something. But the king turned around again and left, his suite following him. A low murmur of indignation succeeded his disappearance.

Gus turned to Oskar. 'What just happened?'

'You might rather ask, what did not just happen.'

'Pardon me?'

'The king must bless his people on leaving them, it is an ancient tradition in our land. Hosts bless their guests. Lords bless their tenants. Fathers bless their children. But most of all, the king blesses his people. Oh, we weren't expecting it in Rothenian, as the late queen used to do it, but German would have served as well. But he said nothing!'

Gus looked around and saw expressions of concern, annoyance and even anger on the faces of the guests. King Leopold had just hurt and insulted his people mortally, without even knowing he had done so.

Hugo snorted when at breakfast the next morning Oskar and Gus recited the king's gaffe. 'It's his Calvinism. He won't take oaths and he won't bless people. In this case, it's because he associates the act of blessing with the Catholic priesthood and papism. Silly man. He may be well disposed, but he has not the flexibility a king requires. He cannot just be a private citizen with a conscience. A king is father to his people.'

Oskar agreed. 'We have just had a glimpse of the future. Ruritania has acquired for the first time a ruling family with no sympathy for its people and its traditions. The king has always united our people, but this one does not see it and cannot do it. We will have hard times ahead.'

Rudolf sighed. 'It's worse than that. He's begun filling the household offices. He's ignored the traditional families and instead chosen Germans from Mittenheim and Merz. As expected, he has not had the vision to look wider than his own blinkered needs. He feels safer with German speakers, and he lacks the wit to realise that the household has to represent the nation. He has even appointed Thuringians as his secretaries, and left the post of Rothenian secretary unfilled.'

Hugo pondered this news. 'I wonder if that will affect the elections. The freeholders who make up the bulk of voters read the papers and are mostly Rothenians. They will probably vote for candidates who distance themselves from the court. Things will become polarised in a way they were not before. The late queen's policies were acceptable to all the parties. But what the court is doing now is soliciting only the support of those who identify themselves as German.'

Rudolf agreed. 'Over the next few years, there will be a realignment of parties along new lines, you may be sure. The court's policies can only appeal to a minority, so there will be a new division between crown and country. The king and his government are going to be at loggerheads. It's a new world, and not a nice one.'

Gus piped up, 'Well, I've decided to press on with my efforts to acquire Rothenian.'

Oskar laughed. 'Good for you, Gussie. We'll make a real Rothenian of you yet.'

Hugo too gave Gus an enthusiastic smile, though it quickly saddened. 'I suppose today's little ceremony at the palace won't go any better than yesterday's.'

'We can but hope. It happens at midday, does it not?'

A few hours later, Gus found a place in the antechamber to the throne room, while Oskar went inside with Franz. All three were in uniform. Rudolf, on the other hand, was in a laced blue velvet coat and white breeches. Gus saw him process past with ten other noblemen, carrying items of the regalia on cushions. Last of them was Prince Ostberg bearing the crown - not Tassilo's crown, of course, but a modern substitute in gold, pearls and diamonds, handsome but not historic. The king brought up the rear in a marshal's uniform, with an ermine mantle supported by six pages.

Gus could hear something of the ceremony from where he stood. It sounded wordy and pompous, without any of the transcendent dignity of a coronation service in a great church. There was no music, either, apart from a raucous fanfare when the king placed the crown on his head. The procession then returned and made its way to the coronation banquet in the palace's hall.

Gus wandered instead into the chapel royal. There had already been changes. Tapers, images and crosses were gone, as was the altar. The Catholic establishment had been dismissed. The king seemed to be planning on turning the noble structure into a preaching box.

Gus sat on a pew and meditated. He stayed there for quite a while in the silence of the abandoned chapel, feeling as forsaken as his surroundings looked. The queen's death seemed more tragic now than ever. He would have loved to know the old Ruritania better than was now possible.

A stirring in the grounds below outside the stained glass windows announced the end of the banquet. Gus found a staircase that led down into the garden and stood on the grass, blinking in the afternoon light. He saw Oskar coming along the path and walked to greet him, but Oskar was looking over Gus's shoulder.

Gus turned. Coming up behind him was the tall figure of Prince Albert, accompanied by a Thuringian equerry. Gus paused to let Oskar catch up with him.

Oskar and the prince stopped and eyed each other. 'Is this your catamite, my lord?' asked the prince, giving Gus a disdainful look.

Oskar smiled pleasantly. 'My dear prince, you seem to be accusing me of the crime of sodomy.'

Albert looked hard at him. 'I do believe I am. Perhaps you wish to make it a matter of honour?'

'First, highness, let me say that, in the kingdom of the damned, a homosexual man guilty of no more than loving another will stand far higher than the cowardly murderer of an unarmed priest.'

Albert flushed bright red. 'You pox-ridden degenerate! You will regret those words. I will wash them away in your blood!'

'I am at your highness's pleasure, tomorrow in the woods of Bila Palacz at dawn. Is this your second? My brother Franz will be mine.'

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