Bob and Gus rode out that Saturday afternoon in a dashing landau. James, who had insisted on accompanying them in his stubbornly humble way, was seated on the box beside the coachman. The air was hot and heavy with the promise of rain or worse in the gloom gathering on the horizon. But the installation of two smart and pretty Viennese girls in the carriage countered the threatening weather. The young men rode merrily – and not a little smugly – with their guests through the streets of Vienna to the gardens of the Hofburg, where they handed the girls down.
Bob took Kitzi Kálnoky on his arm, and Gus took Mimi Károlyi. The girls raised their parasols and the group set off, chattering in French with various degrees of facility. They passed under the trees towards the monument to the Emperor Franz, where the band of an infantry regiment was playing marches. They stood listening for some minutes. Gus was amused at the sprightly figure of the director, who was conducting while smiling over his shoulder at the hundreds of Viennese behind him. Gus hoped he would not fall off his rostrum.
‘Mon cher Auguste,’ cooed Mimi, ‘come to the Volksgarten next Thursday evening, and you will hear the famous Strauss orchestra which Herr Ziehrer now leads.’
Gus pondered. Was that an invitation? ‘Ma chère Marie,’ he replied, ‘I think you would need to be here to make it a truly worthwhile experience.’
That was daring, Gus thought. Am I about to get slapped down? But no, the lady flashed her white teeth and gave a little laugh. What an unsuspected flirt I am inside, he decided.
They walked on towards the Burg, and as they reached the palace terrace, swift steps sounded on the gravel behind them. The girls turned and gave delighted squeals.
‘Dear one, we did not know you were in town!’
A tall and striking young man had caught up with them. The gentlemen doffed their hats. The newcomer, perhaps a couple of years Gus’s and Bob’s senior, rested one gloved hand on a Malacca walking stick while holding his white Homburg in the other.
Gus stared. That this Oskar was a handsome fellow was only part of his attractiveness. He was dressed in a stylish suit of light blue, with a delicate orchid in his buttonhole. He had deep blue-green eyes and broad cheekbones, and his fair hair hung low in his eyes in a thick boyish fringe.
His smile, however, was his main attraction. It was knowing, open and quite fearless. This was a man who would say or do anything, the smile said; and would do it precisely as he pleased. It was even a little scary, the smile, but at least there was the reassurance that, whatever its owner did, he would do with without malice.
Mimi was talking, as Gus suddenly registered: ‘… Robert and Auguste, may I present Oskar von Tarlenheim, the most delicious social gadfly in our city. Oskar, this is Robert, the Count of Burlesdon in England, and his good friend, Augustus Underwood, of Suffolk. We met at Count Andrássy’s reception, and because they’re good boys, we’re showing them Vienna.’
Bob replied, with his usual frank handshake, ‘Herr von Tarlenheim, a real pleasure. You are Viennese?’
Kitzi squealed, ‘No, no! Oskar is a count! A count in Tarlenheim!’
The count bowed at Mitzi and smiled, then gave Bob a brief appraising glance. ‘I am not Viennese, milord, though I am quite often here. While my family is Ruritanian, we have a connection with the Empire going back over a century. My great-great-grandfather was Field Marshal Franz von Tarlenheim. He served the Emperor Ferdinand, who made him a prince of the Empire. It’s all rather complicated. Our principal seats are in Ruritania, yet we still maintain the old man’s house here in the Tarlenheimgasse. But you will find if you’re here long enough that the Austrian haut monde is a very international one. It happens, for instance, that the prince d’Aremberg, a Belgian, serves the Hapsburg emperor, while his brother is in the service of the Hohenzollern emperor. That is why there are no state secrets in Vienna.’
Gus stirred. ‘You are count in Tarlenheim? What does that mean?’
Count Oskar swept Gus with his eyes and gave a slight chuckle. ‘It means that I am a younger son of the house. The count of Tarlenheim and current prince is my elder brother Rudolf, and I am count only by courtesy.’ Oskar’s eyes again flashed across Gus with something of appraisal in them. Gus felt slightly intimidated and as a result moved to assert himself a little more.
‘Ah well,’ he observed with a broad smile, ‘you are luckier than I, count. All I get from being a younger son of the Underwoods is the courtesy of an education and a small allowance.’
The count gave a slight bow to acknowledge the remark and then turned to the girls, putting himself between them, and inviting the Englishmen to take their disengaged arms. And in this way, they walked slowly up and down the terrace, the girls making a lively chatter about common acquaintances. They stopped from time to time to greet other friends, make further introductions and then talk about them as soon as they had turned away. From what Gus heard, Oskar seemed to have as lively a taste for spicy gossip as Kitzi and Mimi.
In the end, he began to find the count a little tiresome and was glad when Bob suggested after half an hour that they drive out to the Prater. They tipped hats and returned to their landau. The count accompanied them and stood bare-headed, a very striking figure, the sun golden on his bright hair, as the carriage drove off. Perhaps that was why James was giving the Ruritanian such a concentrated stare from the box as they pulled away.
Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus
Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus.
Father Piotr, white mitre on head and silk gloves and ring on hand, turned and gave his prelatical blessing to the kneeling congregation from the high altar of Henry the Lion’s palace chapel. One head, covered by a lace mantilla and bowed in unaffected humility, was that of her majesty the queen, on her prie-dieu immediately below him.
Father Andreas, who had been his deacon, stepped forward, spread his hands and dismissed the people:
Ite, missa est.
The procession formed, and Piotr followed the sanctuary party the length of the Chapel Royal. He smiled and dismissed them under the gallery, his colleagues in the chapel clapping him on the back or shaking his hand. An acolyte took his mitre, and he turned to face the queen. Palace staff and courtiers alike would keep their seats until she had left.
As the queen approached, Piotr gave the short bow customary in his country. When the queen took his hand, he scanned her face for any signs of the rumoured illness. For a woman in her mid-fifties, however, she looked well enough. She was perhaps a little drawn, but that was nothing new. She wore a sober, dark-green dress with long sleeves. It was the colour that had best matched her red hair before she turned grey. Now it merely emphasized her pallor. She wore no jewellery this Sunday, other than her wedding ring and the inevitable locket around her neck, which Piotr knew contained a miniature of her late husband, Rudolf V, dead now some eighteen years.
‘Dear Piotr,’ she greeted him with a smile, ‘you looked ever so prelatical. I hardly recognised you.’
‘I am so glad, your majesty. That means you were just seeing the celebrant, not the man. All the better to contemplate the mysteries, I hope you’ll agree.’
‘I don’t know whether it is appropriate to congratulate a priest on the way he celebrates mass, but I thought you did it very well.’
‘No celebration is perfect, ma’am, but this was without any embarrassing faults on my part at least.’
‘I am hearing sung vespers in the cathedral at seven this evening, Piotr. I would be grateful if you would join me in my carriage.’
By the time the queen, the court and the domestic staff had left the chapel, it only remained for Piotr to unvest and join the dean for coffee in his room. As usual, the dean was surrounded by curling tobacco smoke, blue and dense. Piotr’s nose shut down as soon as he entered the room.
‘Shall I open a window, dear Wilhelm? It is a rather hot day.’
‘Hah! You want me to catch my death of a chill? No, the atmosphere I have created here suits me. Tobacco smoke enhances the mental processes, suppresses mephitic sickliness of the constitution. My mental health depends on a closed window.’
‘You will become a kipper.’
‘Then I will outlive you, Piotr. Kippers last forever.’
‘Hmph. Wilhelm, tell me about the succession question.’
The old man cocked an eyebrow. ‘You are getting ahead of yourself, Piotr. Her majesty seemed perfectly well when I saw her entering her carriage this morning.’
‘It’s curiosity sparked by all this speculation, now do tell me.’
‘Very well, then. It is reasonably straightforward. As you will know, the late king her husband died at the hands of an anarchist in 1862, leaving her the last of the Elphbergs, for they were the only surviving Elphberg grandchildren of King Henry II. There are no children of the marriage, and there was never any possibility she would marry again. There is an heir apparent, however. He derives from the marriage of the queen’s great aunt, Maria Clemencia, to Ernst Albert IV, duke of Thuringia in Germany; in other words, the heir is her majesty’s cousin, Duke Leopold.
‘He is not a man of any considerable parts by all accounts. He is known now only for his passion for collecting butterflies, though he was a soldier in his youth. But he is extraordinarily well connected: a close cousin to the royal families of England, Belgium, Saxony and Bulgaria, and on top of that, his aunt married an uncle of the present German emperor.’
‘You say heir apparent, not heir presumptive, Wilhelm.’
‘Our queen has nominated no heir. There is no act of succession, so in theory any succession would be at the invitation of a Council of Regency and Parliament. This might not be straightforward. You know the arguments against a Thuringian succession, Piotr.’
Piotr did. The Thuringians were stubborn Calvinists, whereas Ruritania was a pillar of the Catholic Church. There would be little enthusiasm for a king who did not share the fervent faith of the people. Ruritania remained a staunch ally of the pope, and had had no diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Italy since the Italians had seized Rome and the last fragments of the Papal States ten years before. Many Ruritanian households had on their walls imaginative prints showing the pope imprisoned in a bare cell by the Italian king, depicted like St Peter in Nero’s dungeon before his martyrdom.
The dean continued, ‘Then there is the question of our homeland’s relationship with our Austrian and German neighbours. If Leopold of Thuringia succeeded, we would have as king a man who was also a prince of the new German Reich, who carried the sceptre at the coronation of the emperor and who was a major general in the German army that invaded Bohemia in 1866 and defeated the Austrians at Sadowa.’
‘Are there no other candidates for the throne?’
‘None, I am afraid. The dukes of Mittenheim once had a claim by marriage, but the Congress of Vienna added Mittenheim to Ruritania, and the ducal family died out in 1844 in any case.’
‘A protestant king would make changes in the Chapel Royal, do you think?’
‘I would be very surprised if he did not. So were I you, Piotr, I would pray fervently for the health of our queen.’
‘May she live forever.’
Gus and Bob had decided to make a cultural outing on Wednesday, and had got up early to take a light breakfast of rolls and coffee in a smart café in the Kohlmarkt. It was sunny again, though rain had fallen in the night, and the sky was clear and blue. Gus sighed and stretched. He had fallen deeply in love with Vienna and its pace of life, which so suited his own native disposition. He smiled at the aproned waiter who arrived with more milky coffee. The waiter smiled back.
Catching his mood, Bob laughed. ‘They have a word for it. It’s called being gemütlich.’
‘And what does that mean?’
‘It’s not translatable, but “cosy”, “comfy” and “relaxed” sum it up. It’s the Austrian gift to the world.’
They took a further half hour over breakfast, watching the city flow past the windows. Leaving a fifty-kreuzer tip for the waiter, they made their way through the bustling commercial streets of the city to the Stephans-platz. An enquiry of a sweeper and a small tip gained them the information that they should take an omnibus carrying the destination Südbahnhof. They waited under the south walls of the great cathedral until the correct carriage came along, then paid the standard fare to the conductor, who was perched on the back step, and settled into an inside seat. The horse-drawn vehicle took them at a leisurely pace south across the Ring and the little river Wien to where rose the white buildings of the Belvedere.
‘So you are still keen on painting, Bobby?’
‘Oh yes. I know you and everybody else think I’m mad, but I really do believe I can make a go of this. I’ve been sketching and drawing since I was little. You’ve seen my folders of Switzerland. What did you think?’
‘I thought they were very good, talented even,’ admitted Gus.
‘Well, I’ve been reading Ruskin and taking lessons at the Notting Hill Mechanics Institute when I’m in town. I do so want to do it. Please don’t be discouraging like the others.’
Gus smiled at his friend affectionately. ‘Of course not, Bobby.’
They got down from the carriage and entered the grand pavilion of the Lower Belvedere. Gus spent the next hour browsing antiquities, coins and armour, while Bob, notebook in hand, crossed the gardens to the upper pavilion and immersed himself in one of the world’s great art collections. Gus exhausted the attractions of the place long before his friend had. He sought out an abstracted Bobby, excused himself and said he had decided to walk the gardens for a while.
Out once more in the sunlight, as he was gazing across at the spires of the city, a voice came from behind him. ‘Ach, the English fellow, yes?’
Gus turned and found himself looking again in the knowing and smiling face of Oskar von Tarlenheim. ‘Oh, hullo,’ he said, trying his best to be his usual cheery self, but not at all pleased at having to make the effort.
The count was dressed this morning in an elegant white linen jacket, with a white satin cravat at his neck and a perfect red carnation in his buttonhole. His trousers were pale striped and his shoes a most unusual polychrome of black and white. Once more he was the picture of sophisticated charm. Gus decided that the count was very much a studied performance, and rather despised him for it.
‘Good morning. Is it Augustus Under-vood?’
‘Yes it is, and good morning to you too, count. Er … do you often come here?’
‘It is a fine place for a … constitutional, do you say in English?’
‘I think we do.’
‘And your friend, the earl. Is he elsewhere, with those delicious young damsels, Mimi and Kitzi, perhaps?’
‘Not the word? Perhaps I read too much Shakespeare and Walter Scott.’
Oskar looked so comical that Gus had to laugh, and then the count laughed, looking very mischievous and boyish. He took Gus’s arm. This was not the English custom with mere acquaintances, but Gus went along with it as Oskar walked him down and back up the avenue.
‘Your friend the earl, you did not say how you had lost him.’
‘He’s not lost, count. He’s in the Upper Belvedere, deeply into Van Dyck and Titian. Bobby studies art, y’know. He’s got rooms full of it at his house in Norfolk.’
The Ruritanian digested this for a while, so Gus pursued his own question. ‘You didn’t say why you were walking in this part of town, sir.’
‘Oh, call me Oskar, everyone does.’
‘Then you may call me Gus.’
‘Thank you, but I think I will call you August, I cannot quite say “Gus” with any ease. The reason I am here is that the Tarlenheimgasse, where my family’s house lies, is over there, beyond the Botanical Gardens.’ He pointed with his stick. ‘A less quiet neighbourhood since the Field Marshal’s day. A railway runs along the bottom of my road, clickety-clack all day long. I think my brother plans to sell the place one day soon.
‘And you, August. Are you interested in art?’
‘Not especially. I don’t have many interests really.’ For some reason he could never account for later, Gus began confiding in Oskar. He talked of his lack of intellectual interests and total want of ambition.
The count listened perfectly contentedly, with just the odd interjection. ‘So, August, it is the fact that your friend has his ambitions that tugs you along, like a feather in the wind of his passage, yes?’
‘There may be some truth in that. But I’m comfortable with Bobby. We’re such old friends. We never argue about anything, and he’s more like a brother to me than my real brothers are.’
‘That’s good. No, really. I think myself that being comfortable with friends is the summit of what life can offer. I have no doubt that my dear good brother might say much the same of me as you have said of yourself. Well. Here we are at end of the gardens. Down there, across the Gürtel is the station, where there is quite a fine café Aux Chemins de Fer. Will you take a tea with me?’
So arm in arm they crossed the wide roadway. Gus was getting comfortable with his companion, who now seemed warm and sympathetic, quite unlike the gossipy, silly dandy of Saturday. Also there was a fragrance that hung around him, which had seduced Gus’s nose. It was all he could do not to sniff deeply to get the full benefit of it.
The great station was echoing with crowds and the hoot and chuff of locomotives. This was the Staatsbahnhof, the point of departure for Budapest, the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire. A collection of all the peoples of the vast, multiracial Hapsburg Empire swarmed under the iron-vaulted roof. Livening up the sober bourgeois of Vienna was a mixture of Hungarians and Croats in national dress, gabardined Jews in outlandish hats, Orthodox priests, and fat Turks with their veiled wives.
Oskar led Gus to a large café built against the western wall of the station with an outlook on a small area of trees and gardens. They took a table that had a view in the other direction, showing the mass of drifting people on the platforms. Tea and cake arrived and Oskar refused to let Gus pay. He seemed well known to the waiters, who smiled and were accommodating. He had quite a way with servants, a talent for being intimate while at the same time never surrendering his social high ground. He drew heads, too, wherever he went. Gus felt rather privileged to be sitting with this unusual man.
Oskar smiled as he saw Gus drinking in the scene. ‘Quite a sight, is it not? I come here often just to stare. We idle men must find interesting places to be idle in, is it not so?’
‘How often are you in Vienna, Oskar?’
‘Quite frequently. It is the big city, you know. Though I prefer Paris, Vienna is cheaper for me as we still maintain the old house. I have many friends here, of course, and there are all sorts of things to observe. Strelsau – that is the capital city of my homeland – she is but a village compared to this imperial city. Nice enough, but so dull. We have a house there of course in the Neustadt, the New City or Nuevemesten …’
‘Nuevemesten? What language is that?’
‘That is a word in Rothenian, the native language of Ruritania. She is a complicated country is my motherland.’
‘I thought it was just another German state.’
Oskar stared. ‘May you be forgiven. No, that is not so. Ruritania is a funny place, my dear August. Over three-quarters of my people, including most of the aristocracy, are of Slavic extraction, Rothenisker or Rothenians we call ourselves. Many Germans migrated into our cities in the old days, and indeed the Elphbergs, our rulers, are Germans of Swabian origin. Up even until the present day, German is the dominant language. It is spoken by all the upper levels of society, even if they are of Slavic descent. We Tarlenheims are a case in point. There have been counts of Tarlenheim since the tenth century, and we had Slavic names until nearly the end of the middle ages. Slowly, though, German colonised the court, the nobility and the university, and we Tarlenheims took to German also.’
‘And where do you live in Ruritania?’
‘Our old ancestral castle was in Tarlenheim itself, though the fortress was long ago destroyed. It was replaced by a very pleasant château, built down by the riverside, below the original site. But our principal residence is Festenburg, a very big house near the royal estate of Zenda. That is where my brother Rudolf lives, as do my other brothers, and I do also when I am at home.’
‘Strelsau sounds quaint.’
‘Quaint … what does that mean?’
‘Charming, pretty, ancient.’
Oskar’s face lost its smile. ‘I suppose it is all those things, yet Strelsau is not like Vienna. It is not gemütlich … you know that word?’
‘Bobby tried to explain it to me.’
‘Strelsau is a place of passion as well as beauty, August. Conspiracy is second nature to the Ruritanian, and there are tensions …’ Oskar shook his head. ‘But tell me how you met your friend Robert.’
‘Oh, we met at school. We were both new boarders when we were eleven, and in the same dormitory. We just hit it off. We laugh at the same things, like the same games.’
Oskar gave him an intent look, which Gus could not interpret. ‘You are close then.’
‘I suppose so. Like brothers, really.’
‘Well, perhaps your good brother may be wondering where you are by now. I have taken up far too much of your time. Come, let us return to the Belvedere.’
They rose and pushed through the door on to the platform. It was as they were leaving through a tall arch on to the station forecourt that a hatless young man tugged Oskar’s sleeve. He was about Gus’s age, though slight in build, a dark-haired lad with an attractive urchin face. He had on a dark suit and a collarless shirt, quite clean, but he was obviously not from Oskar’s social level or anywhere near it.
‘Oskar! Hot day, yes?’ he cried in German with a broad and somehow meaningful smile.
Oskar smiled back. ‘Now Anton, dear boy. You’re not going to bother me, are you?’
‘Not at all, but when will you be at the Sophienbad? We miss you, y’know.’
‘I don’t doubt it. Maybe not this trip, but who knows, you may see me if this weather continues.’
‘Till then, Oskar.’ The boy walked off with a backward glance at Gus.
‘Who was that?’ Gus could not resist asking.
Oskar smiled. ‘Just an acquaintance. We frequent the same swimming baths. They are quite classless institutions in Vienna.’
Somehow, Gus realised that he had not heard the whole story. Oskar was becoming more fascinating by the moment, his merry green eyes, wit and ready smile making him quite the most interesting man Gus had ever met. His distaste for the count’s affectations was already quite gone. As they reached the Upper Belvedere, Oskar tipped his straw hat to Gus, who responded in the same way. He wondered how he might continue the acquaintance, but could find no pretext. When he realised that Oskar had no intention of arranging another meeting, he felt strangely dashed, almost snubbed. But he smiled his goodbye, and watched the Ruritanian walk off briskly, stick under his arm.
Father Piotr had the privilege of accompanying the queen in her own landau, along with two ladies-in-waiting. The carriage bowled along under the trees of the eastern avenue of the great Rudolfs Platz that lay in front of the palace. A detachment of the Guard Cuirassiers trotted jingling ahead and behind them. Mounted police cantered before them to each corner to clear the road. As the carriage passed, men on the pavements doffed their hats and women bobbed, while children ran along the fringes of the watching crowd. Occasionally cries of ‘God bless your majesty!’ reached their ears. The queen was loved by her people.
At the Domstrasse, the landau turned and headed towards the towering mass of the cathedral, looming above the climbing houses of the Altstadt. The cathedral’s provost was waiting at the west door for their arrival. He bowed and kissed his sovereign’s hand. The organ and a choir of voices were already filling the great vaulted space with music as the queen was ushered to her accustomed stall. She signalled Piotr to sit beside her while she followed the evening devotion.
Piotr was still a titular member of the chapter of the cathedral of Ss Andrew and Vitalis of Strelsau, so he joined in the antiphons, responses and psalmody with the resident canons and vicars. The liturgical grandeur of the cathedral eclipsed that of the Chapel Royal and Piotr savoured it. For all that the royal household brought a priest into the centre of ecclesiastical and secular politics in Ruritania, there was a price to pay. Piotr had enjoyed his years in the chapter as vicar, before the bishop of Luchau had recommended him to the queen as an intelligent and accomplished priest, with an interest in educational reform.
When the candles had been ceremonially extinguished and the clergy left singing the Nunc Dimittis, the queen remained seated. After some minutes she gave her particularly sweet smile, and invited Piotr to walk with her around the cathedral ambulatory. They proceeded in silence, the ladies-in-waiting and the captain of the guard awaiting them at the crossing, talking quietly.
Eventually the queen stopped in the north choir aisle where Piotr had guessed she would: at a great limestone obelisk, carved in relief with a bust of the late King Rudolf. Underneath the portrait were chiselled the simple words:
Qui in hac civitate nuper regnavit
In corde ipsius in aeternum regnat
Piotr translated in his head: ‘To Rudolf, who reigned lately in this city and reigns forever in her heart – Queen Flavia’. It had been eighteen years since the king’s assassination, and still this beautiful woman, his widow, mourned. It had been one of the great royal romances of modern times.
The queen spent some minutes in earnest contemplation of her late husband’s tomb. Then she turned to Piotr. ‘I often wonder how it would have been if we had continued together, and the fatal shot had not taken him from me. There would have been children, I am sure, and a future for Ruritania. Instead, there is only desperate uncertainty for the people and the end of our royal house. I have not served our country well.’
Piotr hastened to disagree with his sovereign. He begged her remember the firm establishment of a representative parliament, the educational reforms, the opening of Rothenian schools, the great revival and flourishing of native Slavic culture, the seat for Ruritanian ministers at the great European statesmen’s congresses. All had been carried out under her patronage and urging.
‘Nonetheless, Piotr, it may well vanish like a frost at dawn. Once poor dear Fritz von Tarlenheim died, a bleakness took hold of my heart.’ She turned to look him full in the face. ‘And now I am dying.’ When Piotr gasped, the queen held up her hand. ‘Say nothing. I need no consolations. My soul at least is ready to leave. What is to keep me? My beloved Rudolf awaits. It is a cancer of the womb. It grows fast and will consume me within a few months. There is no operation and no possible treatment. I have seen the doctors, they shake their heads, and the better of them say there is no hope. No hope for me, but some at least for my people. This is why you must do something for me, Piotr. I trust your intelligence and I know your loyalty is to me, not to the cardinal or the nuncio, is that not right?’
Piotr fell to his knees and kissed the queen’s hand. She smiled down at him. ‘I knew it, dear Piotr. Now listen. This is what you must do. And you will begin tomorrow.’