After lunch on Thursday, Gus and Bob were picked up at the Pension Liebermann by Kitzi Kálnoky and her half-brother Istvan in their carriage. Kitzi had really taken to Bob, and was determined to show him the sights of the city. She had a dazzling smile, a fine bearing and an infectious laugh. There was also a certain air of decision about the young Hungarian that reminded Gus of his own mother, a woman whom Bob had always professed to admire. Gus had assumed that it was Bob’s little joke. Now he was not so sure. The resemblance made Gus cautious of Kitzi, because he kept imagining her as a younger version of Lady Underwood and expected her to threaten him momentarily with the loss of his allowance.
Istvan, on the other hand, was a pleasant young man whose native disposition matched nicely with Gus’s. They were both cheerful souls, keener on a joke than a lecture.
The first stop was the church of the Capuchins. They alighted in the Neue Markt, and the Kálnoky servant went in to find the Father Treasurer of the priory. After introductions had been made, they were directed to a small, aged and bent friar who ushered them down to the imperial vault, the Kaisergruft.
Although the day was hot in the city streets above, a damp chill hung around the several vaults crammed with a variety of corroding metal sarcophagi. Staring fixedly at the roof, the friar began an interminable lecture on the coffins, naming the contents of each one along with the relevant dates. Gus rather fancied that the entire being of this strange little man was focussed on giving his address, their presence and response being a matter of indifference to him. So Gus was introduced to well over a hundred deceased members of the Hapsburg dynasty, from newborn babies to doddering emperors. He did enjoy the overblown heraldry and the death symbols such as the skulls wearing imperial crowns, which particularly intrigued him. When the friar finally stopped his droning, he stared blankly at the ten-florin banknote that Bob pushed into his hand for the work of the convent.
‘Of course you know,’ commented Istvan as they emerged, ‘that’s just half the show. All their guts and hearts were cut out for embalming and are in urns in the vault below the cathedral.’
‘Burial is the only thing the Hapsburgs do by halves then,’ observed Gus to Bobby, who chuckled in relief at still being able to laugh and enjoy the sunlight in the square.
‘Where next, dear Kitzi?’ Bob wanted to know.
‘The cathedral catacombs are much admired.’
Bob looked at Gus and shrugged. It seemed that the Viennese had a distinctly morbid side to them when it came to tourism. So they roamed through underground corridors and vaults crammed with macabre arrangements of skulls and bones.
Bob finally said, as they emerged once more into daylight, ‘Kitzi dearest, when you come to London, I must show you Highgate Cemetery. It really is a hoot.’
Kitzi favoured Bob with a solemn face, which informed him that he had crossed the line and his irony had been detected. He spent the next half hour flattering her and agreeing with her every observation, until a more contented look came over her face. ‘After all,’ observed Gus, ‘she did give up her day to shepherd a pair of stupid foreigners around her city.’
It was as they were walking the Graben, and stopping at every second shop front for Kitzi’s benefit, that Gus remembered the day before and asked Istvan if he knew Oskar von Tarlenheim. Istvan laughed. ‘Everyone in Vienna knows Oskar, which is most remarkable. Although quite a young man still, he makes an impact wherever he goes. The girls all sigh over him, and he is very keen on them, at least to talk. But he has never set one of his elegant hats at any of them. They say there is a woman in Strelsau to whom he is deeply attached. They say all sorts of things about him, really. You know he fought his first sabre duel when he was only eighteen?’
‘A German lieutenant in a guard regiment made some drunken comments about the animal-like stupidity of the Slavs, and Von Tarlenheim struck him. There was no withdrawal, so they met in the woods at Kaisermühlen. The lieutenant was run through the gut, but I believe he unexpectedly survived. People forget that the Ruritanians aren’t Germans, though you never would guess it about most of them.’
‘You said that was his first duel. Have there been others?’
‘I believe so, though I could not say how many. He has a temper, does Oskar von Tarlenheim.’
‘What do you know about his family?’
‘Quite a bit, since my father and Oskar’s father were friends. His father, Prince Franz III, or Fritz as he preferred to be called in the Austrian way, was a very great man at the court of Queen Flavia. Indeed, he was her high chamberlain for many years. The Tarlenheims are very wealthy, and they are imperial princes too. The first Franz von Tarlenheim was field marshal lieutenant of the Empire in the last century. He led our armies into Metz at one point. Oskar was Fritz’s third son, if I remember rightly. His eldest brother is the present count-prince, Rudolf, named after his father’s great friend, King Rudolf V. Then there’s Franz, Oskar and Hugo Maria, if I have it right. Old Fritz died two years ago, and my father went to the funeral, which was quite an event. They say the queen was distraught, and not ashamed to show it.’
Gus brooded on the latest insight into the character of Oskar von Tarlenheim – fop, aesthete, gentleman and firebrand – who seemed to Gus like a character dreamed up by a novelist. He was more fascinated by the Ruritanian than ever.
Lost in introspection, Gus followed his three friends as they wandered under the arcaded Aziendaht and bought Italian ices.
When Gus and Bob returned to the pension, James was waiting for them at the door. ‘Excuse me, sir, but there has been a letter delivered from the embassy. I thought you might wish to make a prompt reply. The ambassador has returned to Vienna, I believe.’
‘Yes,’ sighed Bob, ‘and I have no doubt that my mother bent his ear while he was in England.’ He reached for the envelope of thick paper, stamped with the royal arms. He stood gazing at the contents, and then handed it over to Gus.
HM Embassy, Metternichgasse, Vienna, 19th August 1880.
Dear Lord Burlesdon,
I had the pleasure of a visit from Lady Burlesdon while I was staying with the Winchelseas at Broughton House. She acquainted me with the fact that you were currently in Vienna, and naturally I was happy to accommodate her request that I take notice of you while you are in the city. I would be most grateful if you could find some time to visit tomorrow. I am having a small reception at the embassy at six, and yourself and your travelling companion, Mr Augustus Underwood, would be most welcome.
I am your lordship’s most humble servant,
The Rt Hon H.G. Elliot, GCB
HM Ambassador and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of His Imperial and Apostolic Majesty.
Bob smiled. ‘Well, he says it’s only a small reception, so we might be able to get to the theatre afterwards. James, you had best take a reply over straight away.’
‘Certainly, your lordship.’
Bob gave a sideways look at Gus as James took away the sealed note. ‘I am beginning to feel as though the world has caught up with me again.’
‘Yes, Bobby. It’s as if my mother were lurking round every lamppost.’
‘I heard a story once about the American pioneer, Daniel Boone. He would reach a new plot of virgin land in the wilderness, clear some fields and build a cabin. But the minute he saw the spiral of blue smoke from another cabin, he would abandon his plot and head off into the empty wilderness once more until he was sure he was clear of the human race.’
‘Does this mean you’re ready to head off into social pastures new, Bobby?’
‘I wonder what Munich is like at this time of year … or Budapest, or St Wolfgang …’ Bob’s eyes became distant.
Now why, Gus asked himself, did he not suggest Strelsau?
The fiacre rattled them south once more across the Ring, this time taking them around the corner on to the Rennweg, still busy with late afternoon traffic. They turned left at the palace and trotted up to the embassy buildings, whose clean white stone reflected the warm evening sunlight. The carriage bounced echoes from the arched passage that led into the stable yard, where a porter was waiting to hand them down.
Bob paid the driver and they entered the embassy. The rather fine new drawing rooms were quite full. They stood hesitantly in the door until a youngish man came up and introduced himself: ‘Hugh Frazer, second secretary. I say, you must be Augustus Underwood.’
Gus raised his eyebrows. ‘Yes … but I don’t think we’ve met, have we?’
‘I was at the embassy in Copenhagen for a few months with your brother Lewis. You look rather alike, you know.’
‘So I’ve heard. May I introduce Lord Burlesdon, my particular friend?’
Frazer shook hands and took them up to a large group around the fireplace. Space was made and introductions to the ambassador followed.
‘It is a pleasure to meet you, my lord,’ Sir Henry said. ‘How long a visit do you propose to make in Vienna.’
‘Oh, we’re just passing through, Gus and I. We are travelling wherever the wind blows us, really, like dandelion seeds – and probably just about as welcome. I expect we’ll be moving on after the weekend.’
‘Ah. Well, when your plans are decided, perhaps you can let me know. I’ll be happy to write introductions.’
‘You’re too kind, your excellency.’
‘Not at all. Now, Jack Ashburnham, the first secretary, was around here somewhere. He was particular about wanting an introduction. There he is. Jack!’
A tall, sallow man in his thirties appeared in the group. Following formal introductions, Ashburnham engaged Bob in conversation with a brusqueness that bordered on the officious. Gus was quickly edged out of things, so he gallantly talked to Lady Elliot and her daughter, who was something of a blue stocking, as it appeared, and prosed interminably about the campaign to award degrees in the women’s colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. She lost interest in Gus when he confessed that he did not know if he could vote at convocation on the issue. He ended up chatting with the chaplain of the Anglican church attached to the embassy, who became very uncomfortable when Gus admitted to being a papist. Gus was just realising that this must be far and away the least interesting evening he had ever spent in his life, when to his infinite relief Bob appeared at his elbow.
‘I hope you’re ready to get out of here, Gussie.’
‘With heart and soul, Bobby.’
‘What a boring tick that Ashburnham is,’ Bob complained as they made their way quickly to the front door, where a porter secured a cab for them.
‘Why do you say that? Is he a tuft hunter?’
‘I think he’s an earl’s son himself, so no. All he wanted to do was give me what he called a briefing on the situation in Ruritania.’
‘Don’t forget I’m count of Hentzau there, though I’ve never seen the place. He assumed we were heading to Strelsau after Vienna.’
‘I didn’t think that was our plan.’
‘It isn’t. I’m sure my mother would have a fit if I were to go there without her permission.’
‘So what did he say?’
‘He more or less implied – damn him – that I should not consider crossing the frontier without the consent of HM Government, and that it was a very sensitive time in Anglo-Ruritanian relations. I might very much compromise them, apparently, were I to enter Ruritania at this time.’
‘God knows, dear Gussie, God knows. From what he was implying, there may be a revolution about to break out: Jacobins, guillotines in the market places, heads on spikes, that sort of thing.’
‘Oskar didn’t say anything about it … besides, I can’t imagine a man like him not wishing to be in the thick of the barricades if they were put up in Strelsau.’
‘When did you talk to monsieur de Tarlenheim?’
For some reason, Gus blushed. He explained the meeting he’d had with Oskar the day before in the Belvedere Gardens, and the tea at the station café. Bob looked at him in a puzzled fashion, and for the life of him, Gus could not explain to himself why he had not shared the story before with his best friend.
A fiacre stopped to pick them up and lurched over as they climbed into the seats. Bob directed the driver to the Josephstadt Theatre, where they might just have time to catch the curtain of a farce. They clopped briskly through the distinguished streets of the fashionable 3rd District until Gus unexpectedly called out for the driver to halt. They stopped with a lurch.
‘Look Bobby, it’s the Tarlenheimgasse. Driver, which is the Tarlenheim residence?’
The driver indicated with his whip a broad-fronted Classical mansion, with the princely arms sculpted above the front door.
Bob looked impatient. ‘Do you want to send our cards in, Gussie? He won’t be there.’
‘I know that. I just wanted to see the place,’ he apologised, though he was thinking that this was a new piece to the puzzle that was Oskar von Tarlenheim.
Father Piotr nervously fingered the packet deep inside his coat. He had been doing this off and on now for twenty minutes. The express for Vienna was delayed, and standing on the platform of the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof that Friday morning, he felt exposed. He knew he was conspicuous muffled in a thick dark coat, with his round clerical hat pulled down over his eyes, on a hot summer day. He believed he was particularly at risk because he guessed that whatever was in the packet was not intended to fall into any hands other than those to which it was directed. The queen had told him nothing about its contents, only that it must not leave his possession for a moment until he reached his contact in Vienna and handed it over.
A porter stopped by. ‘It will be another fifteen minutes yet, father. I would take a seat in the waiting room.’
‘Thank you my son,’ Piotr replied, smiling back at the man. The porter cheerfully picked up his valise and carried it for him into the tiled room, where Piotr took a seat on a bench with a good view of the large, loudly ticking clock.
Piotr had woken at five that morning. He had said the office of matins in his room, awaiting the knock, which had come on his door precisely at six. The messenger had been Lieutenant Mericz, one of the queen’s military aides, a cheerful young nobleman from the province of Ober-husbrau, where unquestioning loyalty to the House of Elphberg was still the fashion. Without a word, but with a broad smile, he had saluted the priest and offered him a wrapped box, which proved to be of surprising weight for its size. Then he had turned and left.
Piotr had debated whether to place the packet in his valise, but felt that the secrecy of the mission required him to keep the object next to his breast. He could do that only by wearing his winter coat, which had a deep internal pocket, and swept the ground almost as low as his cassock.
The door behind him swung open and shut on itself. A couple of workmen sat down on the side bench and began conversing in low voices, doffing their caps when they noticed the priest. Several others also entered. His nervousness made Piotr take note of them: a man in a pince-nez who perhaps was a lawyer, a young soldier in a fatigue cap, an elderly woman with a crammed basket. A stir outside and shouts down the platform preceded the clank and hiss of the arriving express.
The porter pushed open the door, crying, ‘Luchau, Rechtenberg, Linz, Wien! Let me take that father. Which class? Second? This way, sir.’ He found a seat for Piotr in a compartment in which two others were already sitting. The priest recognised the man in the pince-nez from the waiting room. The other was a respectable-looking housewife in a grey dress. Piotr gave the porter a thirty-pfennig piece and settled into the corner furthest from the window.
With a billow of smoke and a scream of metal, the Vienna express jerked into motion, shrilly blowing its whistle as it gathered way and emerged into the sunlight beyond the station. The southern suburbs of Strelsau began to speed past the windows.
‘Excuse me, father,’ said the man with the pince-nez, ‘but would you mind if I lit my pipe?’
Piotr shook his head, but the woman opposite him looked annoyed and suggested he open the window. The man took up a Strelzener-Zeitung and buried himself in it, avoiding the need to look at the disapproving face of his neighbour. Blue smoke curled up from behind the broadsheet.
‘And where are you travelling to, father?’ the woman asked in Rothenian.
‘Vienna, my dear.’ He smiled in wonder at the impeccable instinct Ruritanians seemed to have as to whether you were a Rothenian Slav or a German.
‘Is it to see family, sir?’
‘No, my dear. I am a member of the fraternity of St Philip Neri. I’m to say mass this Sunday at the Vienna Oratory.’ Piotr speculated on what these little white lies were doing to the extent of his stay in Purgatory. He also wondered why he was bothering to lie at all. How likely was it that he was being observed and followed in any case?
The woman began an extended history of the relations between herself and her sister, who lived in Luchau, and whom she was visiting. Suddenly she exclaimed, ‘Oh, look father! It’s Kesarstein. We must be over half the way there.’
The towering mass of the castle on the hill, blue in the distance yet still enormous, loomed like the house of a giant above the valley of the Starel through which the express was racing, trailing a white plume of steam behind it. The tracks ran alongside the riverbank for many miles. The Starel, the great river of Ruritania, became broader and slower at the confluence with its tributary, the Arndt. Because it was navigable from that point down to the Danube, lines of barges drawn by steam launches began to appear on its placid waters.
The guard passed through the train shouting ‘Luchau! Luchau! Ten-minute stop!’ The platform of Luchau’s station was crowded as the express drew up. The compartment was quickly filled by four new travellers, and the string racks above the seats where Piotr’s valise rested were now sagging with baggage.
The express pulled out and headed south for the long haul up into the Rothenian Tyrol. A helper engine had been coupled to the head of the train to provide the extra power needed for climbing the steep gradient up into the foothills of the eastern Alps. A few minutes later they were winding amongst deep valleys and approaching the two-mile Waltherberg tunnel. The guard lit the gas jets along the corridor outside.
With a shriek the express tore into the tunnel. All went black except for the dim pinkish light coming from the corridor. The roar of the train was reflected back into the compartment. The gentleman with the paper folded it up in the gloom and composed himself for the wait till the train emerged on the other side of the pass.
Then with a flicker the lights in the corridor unexpectedly died, and pitch black descended. There were curses from Piotr’s fellow travellers, followed by several voices saying, ‘Sorry, father.’
The sound of the train in the tunnel seemed to get louder. One man could be heard getting up, presumably intending to grope blindly for the compartment door. A man – was it the same one? – tripped over Piotr’s feet. The door banged. People could be heard calling for the guard, and a woman was crying further down the carriage. After an eternity, the train shot out into daylight, its whistle shrieking. Everyone blinked and stared. Four men were now in the compartment. A man standing in the corridor was one of their former companions, while the sixth was nowhere to be seen.
Piotr automatically looked up to be sure his valise was in its place. His heart lurched. It seemed to be gone. His heart raced, and he forced himself to check once more. Of course he could be mistaken. Other bags could have fallen across it through the motion of the train. Something warned him not to get up and hunt for it, however.
Piotr took a deep breath and said ten Hail Marys. He contemplated the possibility that his mission was known and that he was being pursued. It seemed unlikely, yet perhaps he was underestimating what a sink of rumour and plot the Ruritanian court was, even under the rule of Flavia. He thought back to the missing man, who had got on at Luchau. He remembered the man had been German (one knew such things) and fairly young, with blond hair and light whiskers. Piotr had some memory that the man had been with another, the dark man sitting in the window seat opposite, now studiously looking out on the passing mountain scenery.
They chuffed their way in a great circuit down into the wide alpine valley where Rechtenberg lay. As the train crossed a high viaduct, Piotr saw the city opposite, with its many onion-domed church towers and the long, low promontory above them on which was built the fortress. A huge national tricolour billowed red, white and black over the ramparts.
The guard came back. ‘Rechtenberg! Rechtenberg! Twenty minutes stop! Yes, madam, I am sorry about the tunnel. The gas pipe had become dislodged. It does happen.’
At the station, the compartment emptied as passengers sought out coffee and pies from the vendors who swarmed the platform. Piotr kept his seat and forced himself to concentrate on reading the midday office. He was sure his valise was not where he had left it. When whistles blew along platform the compartment refilled, and the blond young man with a moustache reappeared. He sat opposite the man Piotr reckoned was his associate. They gave the appearance that they were not travelling together.
The stage of the journey to the Austrian frontier was untroubled. The train shuddered to a stop at the border, where customs officers began checking their papers. It appeared that a random baggage check had been ordered, and the occupants of their carriage were required to take out their bags down to the track side. As he expected, Piotr’s valise was not where he had left it on the rack. It seemed pointless to make a fuss about it. He disembarked with the others. The Austrians checked all items thoroughly, made chalk marks on each case and asked everyone to retrieve their baggage and return to their seats. When everyone else had taken theirs, Piotr was startled to see his valise lying where the others had covered it. Without a word, he picked it up and placed it back on the overhead rack. Had someone taken it by mistake?
It was late in the afternoon when the express reached the suburbs of Vienna, the spire of St Stephen’s tall in the distance. The train pulled up in a great billow of steam at the Westbahnhof.
Piotr silently took down his case, wondering what on earth was going to happen next. He only knew he had to meet his contact at seven that evening. With nothing better to do, he decided to hire a cab. He asked the driver to take him to any reasonable boarding house in the vicinity of the station. Satisfied with the cabbie’s choice, he filled out a police registration card and left his tiresome coat in the room. He was now dressed in just a plain dark suit and rabbi. He put the queen’s package in the emptied valise and went out into the street once more. He did not think he was being covertly observed, but who was he to say?
Another cab dropped him at the Aspang station, from which he made his way down a canal towpath with the great Italianate mass of the Arsenal looming up on his right. This corner of the city was desolate, and it made him feel apprehensive. He idled along beside the stagnant water, surreptitiously looked for anyone following him, but he was quite alone. Even the ducks on the canal were ignoring him.
Although it was by then six-thirty, he knew the St-Marxer Friedhof, the St Mark’s cemetery, would still be open for an hour or two. In fact, several people were coming out of the tall, pedimented gateway as he reached it. The uniformed janitor tipped his hat when Piotr went in. Long rows of headstones stretched away on every side, shaded by young trees.
With half an hour to kill, he began to roam the avenues and examine the sculpture. It seemed a distinctly uncomfortable thing to be doing that warm summer evening, and it added to the bleak solemnity of his errand. He wished he were back in Strelsau.
He finally moved towards the appointed meeting place. As he passed two men in heavy mourning contemplating a fresh grave, he took off his hat and wished them a good day.
The taller of them turned and said, with perfect self-possession, ‘Thank you father. Now if you will be so good, please give me that case of yours.’
The man took off his crepe-wrapped hat and revealed a youthful, blond face with a light moustache. It was the young man from the train. He had produced a pocket pistol, which he levelled at Piotr’s head.
‘I do believe you understood me. Karl, take it from him.’
Piotr was a man of peace, so resistance was not an option. Flight, however, was. He turned and ran. The crack of the pistol pursued him and he felt a blow to his side that caused him to stagger. Still he ran, oblivious to everything other than the need to justify the queen’s trust in him. At the next turn he knew there would be assistance. He was awaited, and his contact was a man of formidable abilities. But it became borne in on him that he could not keep up the pace. His legs were like rubber and metallic-tasting blood was filling his mouth. Yet still he ran.
There at last was the Mozart cenotaph. Where was his man? Piotr staggered, tripped and pitched forward, holding the valise under him as he fell. The steps of his pursuers approached. Head buzzing, Piotr rolled and saw the man called Karl reach down to seize the valise. As he did so, a sharp report echoed across the cemetery. Karl’s head jerked back and he fell alongside Piotr, stone dead. The other pursuer hesitated only an instant before dashing off through the trees.
Piotr shifted on his back, aware now that he was in some pain from the wound in his side and that breathing had become very difficult. The evening sky was pink above him. He could see the pale moon through the branches of the trees. He blinked, aware that his sight was failing as his life ebbed. His breathing had become shallow, and the buzzing in his ears was louder. Knowing he had but a few moments left, he struggled to cross himself while silently reciting the act of contrition. As a face loomed dimly above him, he reached the litany of the saints: ‘Sancte Vitalis Strelsensis ora pro me. Sancta Fenicia Tarlenheimensis ora pro me …’ He paused and faintly smiled, recalling the appropriate saint for his last prayer in this world. ‘Sancte Thoma Cantuarensis ora pro me.’ And so smiling he died without a word.
The pale, stricken face of the man above him stared aghast into the priest’s fixed and sightless eyes. Without hesitation, the man took up the blood-stained valise, pocketed his revolver, and left in haste.
Gus and Bob had consented to attend a soirée given by the Kitzi’s parents that evening. Bob was getting very friendly indeed with her, and was planning to spend all afternoon with her and Istvan. Gus, believing that one chaperon was enough, decided to absent himself. It was hot and he thought the Sophienbad would be a pleasant place to pass the time. He wanted to ask James how to get there, but remembered that James had requested the afternoon and evening off. They were happy to agree. ‘To be fair, Gussie, he’s been a brick,’ said Bob. ‘We may not like him much, but you can’t fault him for dedication to duty.’
The lady at the Pension Liebermann’s desk was happy to give Gus directions. He found the Marxergasse eventually, and looked up at the big Moorish-style building with some nervousness. Although Gus, like every Underwood before him, had learned to swim a little in the lake at Haddesley Hall, he had never been to a public bath. He squared his shoulders. The chalked notice outside said in German: ‘Friday. Men only afternoon and evening.’
A burly man in a wooden kiosk took his two florins for the full ticket while giving him a look-over. ‘Have you been here before?’ he asked with a want of courtesy Gus had yet to experience in Vienna. Gus remembered what Oskar had said about these institutions being classless. This one seemed not just classless, but positively democratic.
When Gus shook his head, the doorman indicated a pile of white towels embroidered in green with the name of the bath. ‘You take two towels and slippers. I suggest you spend some time in the vapour room, to open up the pores. A douche or a cold bath you will then find refreshing. Sherbert and tea are served in the palm room. You may leave your clothes through there. An attendant keeps the door, and will give you a number for your locker.
Gus thanked him and wandered through a great arch that would have done credit to the kingdom of Granada in its heyday. A strange set of smells assailed his nose: a slight hint of chlorine and a humid dampness that wrapped itself around him in an odd and uncomfortable way. As two portly and naked older men passed him by casually, towels over their shoulders, Gus realised he would be leaving everything he wore in the locker. He flushed red, but it was too late now to retreat with honour. He pulled off his drawers, and quickly wrapped a towel round his middle, throwing the other round his shoulders. The attendant took the pile of his clothes without so much as a hint of a smile, and gave him a numbered wooden disk on an elastic band, which he wrapped round his wrist.
Gus followed the signs through dark, tiled passages into the vapour room. Steam billowed past him as he entered. Quite a large number of men were there on the various slabs and benches, contributing an acrid smell of male sweat to the thick air. Gus retreated to a corner. Under the cover of the steam he discarded the towels and lay naked on a cool marble bench, one towel bunched under his lank hair. After a while the heat took possession of him, and he began to quite relish the feel as it sweated the city dirt from his pores. He half dozed in the feeling of lassitude that crept over him. Every now and then someone got up and left through a further arched door, and he knew his time had come to go when the sweat kept on trickling into his eyes and blinding him.
So Gus found his way into a large echoing pool with an iron-girdered roof. He had got a little more used to public nudity, and was less bothered now. He followed other men taking the plunge into the cold pool, and could not stop himself whooping as he surfaced, tingling and shocked with the feeling of purification. His heart was racing. What a sensation! This was fine. He must do it again.
A grinning, dark young man was watching him from the side, as he dangled his feet in the water. Gus recognised him and swam over, hauling himself up out of the water on to his elbows while leaving his lower body submerged. ‘You’re Anton.’
‘Yes, that’s right. You were with Oskar yesterday at the station. I didn’t realise then, but you are English.’
Gus was beginning to see what Oskar had meant. Class consciousness was pretty much a futile exercise when you were naked with other naked men, and Anton seemed pleasant enough.
‘This is really good. I’ve never taken a Turkish bath before.’
‘Oh! But this is a Russian bath, with the steam. Turkish baths are hot and dry, and they have massages. So you’ve never been in a place like the Sophienbad?’ Anton looked surprised and then a little guarded.
‘You seem to come here a lot.’
‘Yes. Some friends and I meet here on men’s nights. I’m not from Vienna, but from a village near Salzburg. When I came here a year ago, they told me this was a good place to meet other young men, and it’s true. We sometimes go afterwards to the Volks-Prater across the bridge, or to a beer cellar.’ Anton gave Gus a dazzling smile. ‘You’re very welcome to join us, you know.’
Gus returned the smile, stirred by a feeling that had not visited him for some while. It was one that belonged to his school days, to that time when the sixth-form boys chose fags from his year. George Naismith, an athletic sixth former, had chosen him, and Gus had followed the older boy with doglike devotion for a whole year. Naismith had looked at him like that when they were alone in his study before lights out. Gus flushed as he began to speculate on the nature of the club of young men which met at the Sophienbad on men’s evenings.
‘I’m going back for another session in the vapour room,’ Gus announced.
Anton asked if he would mind having company. Gus was too affable to repulse anyone, so he concealed his nervousness and they walked back into the heat and steam. Gus found his corner and sat up on the bench with his arms around his knees. He did not want to be encouraging to the sort of man he believed Anton to be, yet at the same time he knew there was an attraction. Anton sat on the same bench, feet on the floor. Gus admired his lean frame and the dark hair plastered over his chest and belly, while trying not to allow his gaze to stray further downward.
‘So do you have a girlfriend, Gus?’
‘Er no … no girlfriend.’ Damn. I should have lied, Gus thought. Change the subject. ‘What do you know about Oskar?’
‘I thought he was your friend?’
‘I’ve only known him a couple of days. I would hardly call him a friend.’
‘I can’t claim to have known him for much longer. I first met him here six months ago. There was a group of us, some of whom had met him before. He comes to Vienna two or three times a year, they say. Usually in winter or spring. At any rate he was here, the centre of all the merriment. He is a very funny man, and quite kind I think. He was very kind to me in any case …’ Anton blushed rather prettily and shifted on his seat. Gus thought he could work out the nature of the kindness. Anton looked up. ‘The city can be very lonely, Gus. Kindness is rare and very welcome when it is found.’
Gus was moved by the boy’s confession and woeful look, and, leaning forward, he took Anton’s hand unthinkingly, for he was above all a warm-hearted young man. Anton squeezed his hand back and held it for a moment. Alarmed, Gus felt his manhood stir.
He covered up by crossing his ankles strategically. ‘So er … what job do you do, Anton?’
Anton dropped his eyes. ‘It’s not the custom here to talk about our day jobs. We come here to escape them. But I will tell you, Gus. I am a lading clerk in the Donau shipping company. And you?’
‘No job, Anton. I live on my parents’ allowance.’
‘They are rich then?’
‘Not if you listen to my mother.’
Anton laughed. ‘It has been good to talk with you, Gus. I think you are a friend, yes?’
Gus wondered precisely what the word ‘freund’ meant in the context of the Sophienbad, but he nodded. ‘It has been good to talk with you too.’
‘I would be very happy to … help you relax, you know. If you felt inclined. There is a place here in the baths where we go, the old changing booths. I would like it. I would like it very much. I don’t go with just anyone, and … I don’t do it for money.’
Well, thought Gus, that was frank. He remembered a night at Medwardine School when he was fourteen and had been asked by Naismith to sneak into the older boy’s study after lights-out, and how Gus had returned to his own room after midnight, his pyjamas bundled up in his arms. He took Anton’s hand, uncrossed his legs and their mutual urgency was obvious to them both. He followed Anton through an unregarded side door, feeling nervous and excited.
Gus reached their hotel after midnight, more than a little tipsy. Anton and he had gone on to Dreher’s famous beer garden on the high street of the Landstrasse, and stayed drinking till late. Gus had become strangely intimate with this young man who was in fact almost a complete stranger. Some of Anton’s Sophienbad friends had appeared later. Gus was amiable enough through the effects of the drink not to resent their intrusion, and the evening became noisier as they filled a long table under the vines. Gus struggled with the volume and rapidity of their German, but he understood quite clearly that some pretty crude double-entendres were being directed at him and Anton. Anton’s scarlet face told its tale.
Eventually they staggered off together, stopping to part ways on the Opernring at the statue of Goethe. Anton said he wished he did not live in lodgings. Gus smiled his regrets. Then there was the awkwardness about a further meeting. Anton seemed eager, but Gus did not know how he could meet Anton at any level other than the Sophienbad. So he promised to try to be there at the next men’s evening, on Tuesday. Gus handed Anton one of his cards. Anton gave a weak smile and said he would keep it as a memento. They shook hands and parted, probably for good, as both of them realised even through the fog of beer.
Gus slept deeply and awoke with a dull ache between his ears. University had acquainted him with the effects of large quantities of alcohol, so he usually avoided the temptation. His pocket watch on a side stand told him it was past nine. He took off his nightshirt, buried his head in the cold water of the basin and grabbed at a towel. He needed a bath, but he needed breakfast even more. He dressed quickly, taking the fresh shirt and drawers which James had laid out, and tapped on Bob’s door. No answer. He asked Frau Liebermann at the desk for James and was told that he and milord had left half an hour earlier for the market hall on Stübenbastei. So Gus ordered some pastries and coffee for breakfast, resenting the price, three times that of the cafés.
‘Morning, Gussie,’ Bob greeted him breezily a few minutes later, as he sat down next to Gus and bit into one of his pastries.
‘Well you’re chipper this morning, Bobby. May I ask why?’
‘I just had a good evening.’
‘And the trip to the market?’
‘I was arranging for a delivery.’
Gus laughed. He could guess well enough. Bob’s affairs were prospering with the countess Katalin Maria Gyulia Kálnoky, so much was obvious. He felt a brief pang. He was beginning to realise that romantic affairs in his own life were not ever going to be straightforward. But one thing he knew he was going to do that very day, at least. There was a mystery he intended to fathom, and now he felt bold enough to do it.
‘Bobby, what plans have you got today?’
‘I was thinking of looking at the art collection in the Hofburg. Why?’
‘I want to visit the Tarlenheimgasse.’
‘Oh. You want to see the mysterious Count Oskar. He has you fascinated, Gussie my boy.’
‘Doesn’t he intrigue you too?’
‘Not hugely. But go on if you wish. James will take a note around, I’m sure. Now where has he gone?’
Gus asked at the desk, and Frau Liebermann sent down for James. He appeared, looking paler than ever.
‘Mr Underwood, sir?’
‘Morning, James. Could you be so kind as to have this card and note sent round to Count Oskar at the Tarlenheim Palace?’
‘Certainly sir. I’ll take it myself.’
‘Oh there’s no need. But here’s a florin for a cab.’
‘Not at all, Mr Underwood. I could do with the walk, sir.’ Gus suddenly registered that James looked rather weary, and felt a little bit of a conscience about him. The man was getting old.
‘If there’s an answer, I’ll be in the Café Pfob on the Graben. They have English papers.’
Gus was there an hour later when James came in and removed his bowler. Gus put down his week-old Saturday Review, where he had been reading the bad news from Afghanistan.
‘The count says he will be at home at eleven, sir.’
‘Thank you, James.’
Gus returned to the hotel and chose a light, two-piece grey suit to wear with a thin cravat. Frau Liebermann found him a white carnation for his buttonhole, fixed it for him, and smiled as she brushed at his jacket. ‘Very handsome, Herr Under-vood.’
Gus grinned. She plainly thought he was off on the same mission as Bobby. Then his grin dried up … precisely what was he in search of today?
Like James, Gus decided to walk to the Tarlenheimgasse. Approaching eleven o’clock, he found himself at the palace and rang the bell-pull. A footman in bright green admitted him and took his card, asking him to step into the hall. It was very grand, with doors leading to reception rooms on either hand, and a fine double staircase ascending to the next floor. Directly facing the front entrance, where the stairs split, was an equestrian portrait of a bewigged general in a steel breastplate and laced hat: Field Marshal Prince von Tarlenheim, no doubt. Roman statuary stood around the hall, staring at Gus with blank eyes.
‘My dear August, how delightful.’ Oskar appeared in shirt and braces, swathed in a Chinese silk powder gown. He held the door of a reception room open. ‘Waclaw, bring some coffee in. Would coffee be alright? Good.’
Oskar gave his boyish smile as he settled into an armchair. ‘Have you seen the morning papers? Dreadful thing. A priest and another man have been found shot dead in the St-Marxer Friedhof. What is the world coming to? The police suspect anarchists or Italian agents. I imagine there will be a round-up of ice-cream vendors.’
Gus momentarily found himself at a loss under the quizzical gaze of those enigmatic green eyes. He mumbled something about his shock, and then abruptly said, ‘I was at the Sophienbad yesterday.’
Oskar’s smile remained, but his eyes took on a more focussed look. ‘I believe it was an all-men’s evening.’
‘Yes it was. I met Anton again.’
‘Ah yes. A pretty enough boy, though a trifle clinging, I found. I take it that you and he …?’
Oskar’s smile became a confidential smirk. ‘Then I was not wrong about you, dear August. I am pleased.’
‘I find that I call out a reaction from a certain sort of man. There’s no mistaking it, and you were all eyes that day we met, August. You kept looking after me too.’ He laughed, got up, leaned over Gus and gave him a lingering kiss on the cheek. His glorious fragrance seduced Gus’s nose, as it was no doubt meant to. After Oskar straightened he added, ‘So now we know as much about each other as we need to know, and more than the world in general does, yes? I hope you will stay for lunch.’
There seemed little more to say about the Sophienbad and Anton. And strangely, Gus found himself chatting away and laughing with this fascinating man, just as he had at the Café aux Chemins de fer.
Once again they ended up talking about Ruritania. Gus asked Oskar about Queen Flavia.
‘You have come to the right person. For I was her page of honour on several occasions as a boy with my elder brother Franz. We resemble each other and we no doubt looked rather charming hauling her train around at the opening of Parliament in Strelsau.’
‘I have no doubt you did.’
‘Oh yes, I have always been pretty. Wait a moment. Here is a portrait card my mother had of Franz, myself and Hugo Maria, the baby of us. Rudolf was away at military school by then. There, what do you think?’
Three blond boys of around twelve, eleven and seven looked wonderingly at the camera out of a posed, sepia world.
‘I can see which is you, dear Oskar. Hugo Maria is the youngest then, but there is something odd about his eyes.’
‘Yes, sadly he went blind in one eye when he was very small. The other still gives cause for concern. But he is twenty now, and a very great scholar. He studies Classics at the Rudolfer Universität. He matriculated at only sixteen. He has already translated Martial and Juvenal into Rothenian editions.’
‘But Queen Flavia?’
‘Oh yes, I was drifting, as is my custom. She is of course a very beautiful lady still, and very great. My father was devoted to her, and she was most supportive of his plans to extend Rothenian education throughout the country. She was patron of his Rothenian League. She has also set up chairs of Rothenian literature and history at the Rudolfer Universität. The people love her, and not just the Slavs. The Germans too admire her. It is striking the way her beauty and courage unite the nation.’
‘And when she dies?’
‘There is no Elphberg heir, and the alternatives are not encouraging. Rumour has it that the succession has been promised to Leopold of Thuringia. Not a bad man, by all accounts, but not one to appeal to my people, Germans or Rothenians alike. He comes from an unsavoury line. They say his grandfather murdered his grandmother in very strange circumstances at one of their Saxon castles, and the blood sickness runs in the family. You know that he and the prince consort of Great Britain were first cousins, so the prince of Wales and he are close relatives. Therefore, I imagine it will be your loyal duty to argue for a Thuringian succession.’
Gus laughed and said he had no axe to grind on the subject. He wished Queen Flavia a long and prosperous life.
‘Amen,’ said Oskar, with a fervour that quite took Gus by surprise. Oskar’s smile reappeared. ‘Now, my dear. I don’t want to lose your company today. I have not many friends who know me as fully as you do. And it is especially enjoyable to relax with a good-looking man who loves other men.’ He held up his hand. ‘That is not a leading remark, dear August. I think perhaps young Anton is more your type. A pity he is only a workman.’
Gus was a little irked by the degree of indifference to his social inferiors that Oskar was displaying. ‘I believe he’s a shipping clerk.’
‘Ah yes. He may have told me. He is the sort that wishes to share his soul as much as his body … you will learn this, August. When you do, you will know that Anton is the most dangerous sort of liaison to make. He can be hurt in the emotions, and that makes him unpredictable. I hope you did not share too much of yourself with him. He may fancy he is in love with you.’
That troubled Gus. He recognised in his own experience of Anton more than a little of what Oskar was saying. Perhaps he should try to be as Olympian as Oskar, but Gus knew that, for better or worse, he did not have such a capacity in him.
Lunch was served. There were a surprising number of servants involved. They all seemed to be Ruritanians, too, as Oskar imparted his instructions and requests in what Gus imagined to be Rothenian. After lunch, which was the best meal Gus had eaten so far in Vienna, Oskar gave a quirky look and asked if he fancied a little adventure. Gus was not quite sure he trusted Oskar in the matter of adventures.
‘Now,’ asked Oskar, ‘have you a tailcoat? No? Ah well. You are much of a size with my brothers Hugo and Franz, perhaps a little broader in the shoulder than Hugo. We keep clothes here. Let us go up and try them on.’
Franz’s jacket and black waistcoat and Hugo’s breeches and black silk stockings fitted Gus well. He looked very elegant in the borrowed outfit, and wondered what Oskar had in mind that called for such style. Oskar seemed engagingly pleased with the result, like a boy planning an elaborate practical joke. He disappeared for a bit, and when he returned was dressed even more elegantly. He wore white breeches and stockings, a blue velvet coat laced in gold and a court sword belted around his waist.
‘Aha!’ cried Gus. ‘I think I know what you have planned.’
‘Do you now, clever English boy?’ Oskar took his arm and they descended the stairs. Two footmen in the Tarlenheim livery of green and gold were by the door. ‘The court is at Ischl at the moment, but the Archduke Karl Ludwig, his imperial and royal majesty’s brother, holds a levée today at the Schönbrunn Palace. I promised Rudolf I would be there to represent him, and it is a wonderfully aesthetic experience in any case. Our carriage awaits.’
The archduke was a thin old man with whiskers and a long, waxed moustache. He wore the white uniform of an imperial field marshal, with the insignia of the order of the Golden Fleece. He sat on his brother’s throne under its great canopy, the imposing figures of halberdier guards lining the steps.
The chamberlain cried, ‘Monsieur August Under-vood, le fils de Sir Under-vood d’ Addesley dans le royaume de Grand-Bretagne.’ Gus tried not to smile as he made a court bow for the first time in his life. The archduke nodded benignly, and Gus had been presented at an imperial court. He moved off to the side of the great throne chamber. ‘Oskar-Maxim-Georges-Borromée-Serge, comte en Tarlenheim, vice-gerent de s’altesse sérene le prince de Tarlenheim,’ proclaimed the chamberlain, and Oskar, cocked hat under his arm, made his bow and joined Gus, surreptitiously nudging him in the ribs and grinning behind a hand.
The principal purpose of the levée was to receive credentials from consular officials, and today the new British consul-general in Budapest was to be received amongst others.
‘Mr Underwood,’ said a familiar dry voice. ‘I did not expect to see you here.’
Gus turned and recognised the Hon John Ashburnham, the first secretary, whom he introduced to Oskar.
‘You are well known by reputation, count,’ commented the diplomat. ‘What is your connection with Mr Underwood?’
‘He is of course a friend of the earl of Burlesdon, who is, as you might know, a family friend of the Tarlenheims. I thought today’s pomp and ceremony would amuse August. Are you amused, dear fellow?’
‘There,’ Oskar smirked, ‘August is amused, and the state ceremony has been worthwhile.’
Ashburnham looked faintly suspicious as to whether he was being sent up. A definite humour deficiency, thought Gus, which seemed to go with a lack of social sensitivity. ‘I was talking to Lord Burlesdon about his plans for the rest of his stay on the continent,’ he persisted. ‘I believe he said he was thinking of going to Munich.’
Gus shrugged. ‘There may have been a change of plan. I have a feeling the earl is considering staying here for a bit longer now.’ He was not going to tell Ashburnham why. Let common gossip fill him in on that one.
‘Oh. Then I had better tell his excellency. Ah. He is engaged with that gentleman.’ They all looked across at where Sir Henry Elliot was talking in a relaxed way to another youngish man in the same court dress as Oskar. He was quite tall, fair of complexion with a light blond moustache.
Oskar took Gus by the arm and guided him across the floor to join the ambassador. The great man seemed happy enough to see Gus, and not at all surprised to find him in present company. A true diplomat, thought Gus.
‘Mr Underwood, and the count von Tarlenheim too, if I make no mistake. A pleasure to see you both. I wonder if you know his highness here?’
Oskar bowed. ‘I had the pleasure of his highness’s acquaintance in Berlin two years ago. We were both attachés to our respective missions.’ The strange highness bowed, and Oskar went on, ‘May I introduce Mr Augustus Under-vood of England? August, this is his highness, Prince Albert of Thuringia, nephew to the duke, Prince Leopold.’ Both men bowed, Gus rather deeper and for longer, as was appropriate when meeting a prince of a quasi-royal dynasty, even if it was now swallowed in the greater German Empire.
Upon returning to the vertical, he gave the man a close look. Albert very much resembled his cousin and namesake, the late prince consort of Queen Victoria. He had the same slightly receding hairline and light, curling whiskers. There was the same air of utter self-confidence too.
The prince addressed Oskar in rather good English. ‘I was hoping to make your acquaintance again, count. For obvious reasons, I would wish to extend and improve my personal knowledge of the nobility of Ruritania, and the house of Tarlenheim stands at its head, as all know. I would be most happy one day to meet your eldest brother, the prince, if it could be arranged. So far I have only visited Strelsau once, as a young boy, when I accompanied my father to the funeral of the late King Rudolf. Naturally it was not the sort of occasion when one could do much visiting; we were after all in deep mourning at the time. Somehow opportunities to return have been lacking. I hope to put that right fairly soon.’
Oskar bowed. ‘It is exactly my own wish too, sir.’ He spoke with a sober seriousness that Gus had never seen before. This was another Oskar to add to Gus’s collection: the courtier and diplomat, radiating complete self-control. How many Oskars are there, he asked himself, and which is the real one? He wondered if his new friend’s sexual proclivities had made concealment so habitual that the real Oskar could no longer be reached. He thought it very sad if that was the case. As not much more than a boy, Gus valued frankness most of all in his friends.
The prince turned to Gus with an affable air. ‘Mr Underwood, a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Would I be right in assuming that you are of the Underwoods of Haddesley Hall in Suffolk?’ Gus bowed his acknowledgement. ‘Your family is known to me. I am often in England, and I believe I met your mother, Lady Catherine, at Osborne House four years ago when I was visiting the court of her majesty and yachting at Cowes with Prince Bertie.’
‘Indeed yes, your highness.’ Gus was very impressed with the prince’s recall. ‘My mother was a lady-in-waiting around that time. I was of course still in school. If I may ask, what brings you to Vienna, sir?’
‘You may certainly ask, Mr Underwood. It is a mixture of private and public business. I was at the meeting of the two emperors at Ischl ten days ago, and travelled onwards once it was over. Vienna remains the best place in Central Europe for shopping, and, believe it or not, even princes like to shop sometimes.’ He smiled modestly, even a little sadly, and Gus rather took to him as a result. ‘As for the public business, I do actually have worldly employment as confidential secretary to Prince Bismarck, the imperial chancellor. It even brings me a salary, too.’ The smile became even more quirky. Prince Albert had clearly been in England long enough to embrace self-deprecatory humour.
A roll of drums cut off communication for a moment, and in the silence that followed, the archduke proceeded to invest a number of people with minor orders and decorations. Polite applause followed the ceremony, and then the new members of the diplomatic corps were introduced by its dean, the papal nuncio, a Franciscan cardinal in grey silk robes and a red skullcap. This task done, the archduke rose, circulated for a while talking only with the army officers present, and departed.
Oskar took Gus by the arm and they left together in his coach. At the palace, Gus reclaimed his clothes before thanking Oskar sincerely for another fascinating afternoon. This time Oskar smiled and said that he must return the next day, after morning mass. Apparently, Oskar had a religious dimension too. Gus left the Tarlenheim palace elated and delighted. This Viennese excursion was working out far better than he had dared hope.