On returning to the Tarlenheim palace, Gus made his excuses to Oskar and found his way back to his own room. He carefully took off the borrowed uniform, no longer feeling any of its glamour. He went next door, ran a deep bath and soaked in it for a long while. He still felt dirty when he emerged. For the first time in his life, Gus had come into contact with genuine evil, and he felt contaminated. He had met a man to whom friendship and the solemn oaths of ordination meant less than nothing, for whom his own advantage was everything.
Dressing in a loose-collared shirt and gray flannels, he threw a pullover about his shoulders and stalked moodily down to the main rooms on the palace’s first floor. He really wanted to talk things over with Bob, but his friend was elsewhere. There were very few others around, and for some reason he had no desire to tell Oskar what he was thinking. He knew there was so much about which they did not think alike.
He wandered into the library. There, working on a notebook, was Sissi Wismar, wearing a blue silk dress, her hair drawn tightly back into a bun. She smiled very prettily when Gus entered and, in perfect English, invited him to sit down.
‘Thank you for your good wishes on our engagement, dear Augustus. Hugo and I do so hope you will be here for the wedding.’
‘It will take giants armed with spiked clubs to keep me away.’
Sissi gave a delightful laugh. She was one of those intelligent and warm women with whom Gus felt instantly comfortable. ‘There are other things than giants with clubs which seem determined to put obstacles between us and the altar. This dreadful constitutional mess. How will it be resolved?’
‘Hopefully without violence.’
‘Indeed,’ she agreed earnestly.
‘What do you think about it all, Sissi?’
‘I? It is the most alarming thing that has happened in my homeland in my lifetime. Although my parents and grandparents can remember troubled times in Ruritania, this is new to me. I think I understand now how Pacific islanders feel when their sleepy, tree-covered mountain erupts into a volcano.’
‘And who do you think should be king, Bobby or Duke Leopold?’
‘Since he is your friend, Lord Burlesdon of course. No, I am serious. He is a fine and upright man, with great dignity for one so young. I’d much rather it were he than that German duke, who seems a silly fellow.’
Gus agreed with her wholeheartedly. Then he felt he had to say, ‘Sissi, I’m so upset because Hugo is losing his sight.’
Sissi put her hand on his arm and squeezed. ‘You are such a good-hearted man, Augustus. But it is not a tragedy. We have known all our lives that the time would come, and have included it in our plans. We have long been working together on our translations of the Latin classics into Rothenian. We can do it very well whether Hugo has sight or is blind, for it is his enormous memory and gift for languages on which the project rests. He will finish his degree and we will finish our project. He has other schemes too.’
‘There is a French form of reading available for blind people, where your fingertips pick up raised patterns and interpret them as letters. You have heard of it? Yes? Hugo has been learning it for some time. He rather likes the idea of producing Rothenian books in this script and opening a school to teach it to blind children. Our country does not do enough for the blind.’
‘You must be very proud of Hugo.’
Sissi smiled warmly. ‘I have loved him from the first moment I saw him. We were only ten, I think. It was a family wedding at Strelfurt and the Tarlenheims were present: Fritz, the old prince, and all the boys. Everyone was on edge. I was so nervous I went and hid under a bridge in the grounds. I heard a fall of pebbles, and this bright, sweet face appeared upside down over the parapet. “May I come and hide too?” he asked. He was so comical I laughed. He had brought all sorts of food from the tables, and a bottle of lemonade he had found somewhere. We had a royal banquet down there by the water. He did not tell me who he was, he was just a funny, sweet boy. And when we went back together to the table, Mama said, “Oh, I’m so pleased you made friends with Count Hugo Maria!” I nearly fainted!’
Gus chuckled. ‘He is thoroughly unassuming and natural, so much so that I stopped noticing his dead eye within ten minutes of meeting him.’
‘I also. It is the way with him.’
‘Where will you be living after you marry?’
‘Hugo is quite well off, you know. There is a Ruritanian custom by which the youngest son inherits the maternal dowry. So his mother has made over to him her estate at Templerstadt, near Medeln Abbey. You will have to come and stay with us for ever so long.’
‘I would be happy to live with you two as long as you were willing to put up with me, but I rather think my family might object. Besides, I have yet to find a way to support myself.’
‘I’m sure something will turn up, it usually does.’
‘That’s a sound philosophy, and it works for me as much as for Mr Micawber.’
They chatted on about Sissi’s current work, her love of Christina Rossetti’s poetry and her hopes one day to see women admitted to the Rudolfer Universität. When Gus finally took his leave, his heart felt somewhat lighter. If there were men like Wilhelm Hollar in the world, there were also people like Hugo von Tarlenheim and Elizabeth Wismar.
Oskar kept trying to catch Gus’s eye across the dinner table, although his intention was not immediately obvious. After the ladies had withdrawn and the port began to circulate, talk turned to the latest news.
‘The duke arrived at Zenda this morning with his staff,’ Prince Rudolf announced.
‘Does it include Prince Albert?’ Oskar asked.
His brother shrugged. ‘I have no list of his suite. They all arrived in a closed train, and were ferried directly from the station to the château. The 5th Neder Husbrau Infantry Regiment is bivouacked in the forest, while the 4th Brigade under General Lamic is deployed along the Ebrendt valley cutting off any access to Mittenheim. If Prince Albert has joined his uncle at Zenda, he won’t be able to rejoin his allies in Mittenheim with any ease.’
Bob asked at that point, ‘What is the news from Mittenheim?’
The prince replied, ‘The region has simmered down. Maybe Albert has abandoned the Riders, and if so the quality of their surviving leadership is not impressive. They are attacking isolated detachments of the army, but the cities and towns are under control once more.’
Talk moved on to the views and statements of various political leaders, as reported in the press. The Austrian foreign minister had expressed an opinion that it would be best if the Ruritanians managed the succession by themselves, although he did not refuse to go to Strasbourg. The British delegation under Lord Salisbury had already been announced. St Petersburg remained silent.
Once the cigars had been lit up, Oskar fixed Gus with his gaze, jerked his head, and obliged Gus to make apologies and leave the gathering.
‘So what is it, Oskar?’ Gus asked as he closed the heavy mahogany door behind him.
‘Ah, so you finally realised I was eager to talk to you. We leave first thing tomorrow, you and I. We are going prince-hunting. James Antrobus is coming too.’
‘Does Bob know?’
‘James explained it to him. Perhaps you should say your farewells to your friend. I suppose there is a chance you may not return.’
‘A joke. No, it’s that we must be up early. Do you know what that means?’
Oskar laughed. ‘It means you must sleep with me, my Gussie, so as to make sure we are awake together. I will leave my door on the latch and be waiting. Do not be more than an hour. There is a lot I wish to do with you before we sleep.’
‘Well, that’s frank at least.’
‘There is also this.’ Oskar handed Gus a folded square of paper.
‘What is it?’
‘The Council of Regency commissions Augustus Underwood as captain in the Corps of Engineers and appoints him as aide to the General Staff.’
Gus stared at his lover. ‘Are you daft? Why?’
‘We are going to dangerous places, and it will be as well for you to have some official standing. I’m afraid I don’t have the proper uniform, but we have enough bits and pieces of militaria to make Gussie look reasonably convincing as a staff officer. Aides are laws unto themselves in the matter of equipment in any case, especially engineers. Now, say goodbye to Bobby and come and join me in bed … quickly!’
It was a passionate night, and the dawn found Gus still flat out. Oskar was in no mood to pamper his lover, however. A basin of cold water over Gus’s head sent him yelping from their bed.
‘Oskar that was …’ A kiss stopped his lips.
‘… necessary,’ Oskar finished. ‘Your uniform is over there. James will have breakfast in a basket, and the horses are in the courtyard.’
‘Berthe!’ cried Gus, when he saw his mount. She snuffled over his face, clearly having forgiven him for their last adventure. James was already mounted. He wore his usual black suit, with a prim black bowler on his head.
‘Very smart you look, if I may say so, Mr Underwood sir.’ There was something resembling a smile on his face. James was apparently full of high spirits, rather like a glass of frozen champagne, thought Gus.
They cantered through the empty city streets and out along the Lindenstrasse. A platoon of infantry and several police were at the Lindenstrasse bar on the Lines. Gus noticed for the first time that the grass-grown redoubt to the north of the bar had its artillery pieces run out. The army was clearly preparing for all eventualities. Strelsau was being put in defence.
Their papers were inspected thoroughly by the officer of the guard, and Oskar and Gus exchanged salutes with him as they rode out of the Neustadt. They began a steady mile-eating pace, adjusted to the capacities of Berthe and James’s mount. They passed on up out of the Starel basin and took the southwest route to the Tarlenheim house of Festenburg, which they intended to reach by evening. Despite several watering and resting stops, they saw the great house rising above the forest of Zenda on its hilltop well before the end of the afternoon.
‘Tell me about Festenburg, Oskar,’ Gus asked.
Oskar looked blank. ‘It’s a big house and we’ve owned it for ages. The roof leaks dreadfully. What more is there to know?’
James intruded. ‘If I may, sir. The house and estate came into the possession of the Tarlenheims something over a century ago. Its previous owner forfeited it when he hatched a conspiracy against Rudolf III, who was addicted to the dice. The count of Festenburg manoeuvred the king into staking his losses against the château and forest of Zenda, and won the throw. But when the count got to Zenda, he found the great Princess Osra, the king’s sister, in residence. She was bitterly angry and offered the count of Festenburg the chance to stake Zenda against her hand in marriage. They threw, but she caught the count cheating on the roll. After a struggle, he took her prisoner. Then, rather than have his crime come to light, the count raised his flag in rebellion against the king.
‘The affair ended strangely, for of all people, the bishop of Modenheim was in the neighbourhood and talked his way into Festenburg. He was a member of the house of Hentzau, was Bishop Frederick, and as passionate as the rest of them. Seeing the princess under threat, he seized up a sword, fought the count and hurled his dead body into the moat.’
‘A genuine Hentzau then,’ laughed Oskar.
‘You may say so, sir. But you are beholden to the reverend gentleman nonetheless. For when King Rudolf III confiscated Festenburg and the bishop refused it as a gift, the king gave the old castle to the Marshal von Tarlenheim, your ancestor. It was he and his son who built the present house.’
‘Well there you are, Gussie. A fine story, and better than I could tell it.’
Gus thanked James, and stared up at the impressive frontage of the great house. It was said the field marshal had built it with profits from the pillaging of Alsace. Long rows of windows set in classical order on the south front looked down on the valley. Rich sculpture adorned the pediments of the east and west wings. A low dome was set over the central pavilion.
The park below the house was an armed camp. As they cantered up the long drive, sentries challenged them and brought them to a halt.
Oskar looked round. ‘These seem to be army reserve troops from the province of Merz. My dear brother Franz has been at work. He always loved playing soldiers, and there indeed he is.’
A field officer rode up, his staff behind him. When they approached, Oskar threw his cap in the air, and bellowed, ‘Fritzku!’
The colonel reined in, grinning all over his face, which bore a marked resemblance to Oskar’s, although rather more rugged, Gus said to himself loyally. ‘What storm wind brings you home to Festenburg, brother?’
‘Something I need to discuss with you, Fritz. How many troops have you got here?’
‘Three reserve line battalions, and a few cannon. You can’t have them. You were always borrowing my toys and never giving them back.’
‘Whose command are you under?’
‘General Lamic. We are here as second echelon to hold the river, if he has to advance into Mittenheim. Do you have despatches?’
‘No, none at all. I take it you are living up in the house.’
Count Franz looked stern. ‘What sort of commander would refuse to share his men’s bivouac? No, I am under canvas too … though I do have meals sent down.’
‘Then I hope you don’t mind if I use my rooms up there. You remember Captain Under-vood, whom you met the other day and who is now attached to the General Staff. And this is Mr Antrobus, another Englishman who is deeply involved in our present national woes and was once in the service of our father.’
After exchanging salutes with Fritz, Gus joined the staff for the ride up the hill to the great house of Festenburg. Oskar rode alongside his brother and was explaining something earnestly as they went.
Gus was given a room somewhere in the labyrinth of the west wing. He retained James with him after James had unpacked his case so that he could be sure of retracing his route to the reception rooms which Franz was using as his temporary headquarters. James knew Festenburg intimately from his time in the service of Oskar’s father.
He found Oskar still continuing the conversation with his brother, who was looking steadily more serious. They both glanced at Gus when he entered, and there was something about their expressions which Gus did not quite like.
Franz came around his desk, shook Gus’s hand and invited him to sit.
‘My brother and I have been talking about the situation since that Hollar creature was arrested. We both doubt the Thuringians know anything about it as yet, and Oskar believes that gives us an unrivalled opportunity.’
Gus had an ominous feeling. ‘It sounds dangerous.’
Oskar smiled. ‘It needn’t be.’ He produced a book. ‘I found Hollar’s cipher. He was working on a message when we arrested him. When I got to translate it, it was a revealing list of troop movements through Strelsau, as well as notes on the city garrison. It seems Prince Albert expects that, in the end, it will come down to invasion and war.’
Franz added, ‘In some ways that is good. It appears he does not think his uncle will be accepted by the nation. So an invasion may be their principal hope now.’
‘Good for Bobby,’ mused Gus, ‘though not so good for his kingdom.’
‘It has given me an idea, and quite a good one if I do say so,’ laughed Oskar. ‘But we must move soon.’
Gus looked a question, and Oskar gave one of his broadest and most enigmatic smiles. ‘Gussie, you and I must go to look up some old friends of ours. Yours is the most troubling mission, though I don’t think you will be in any danger. Franz will help you look more like an aide to the general staff. You do look a trifle eccentric at the moment, even for an engineer. And then you will take despatches to Zenda.’
‘Yes, where the Thuringians are, and Prince Albert amongst them. The general staff and the Council are in regular communication with Duke Leopold, and the despatch rider will also carry under a separate cover to Albert a coded message from his friend the dean of the royal chapel. You will be the despatch rider, and when you have delivered the bag for the duke, you will find a way to get the secret messages to the Prince of Darkness.’
Gus stared. ‘But Albert knows me.’
Oskar looked impatient. ‘You won’t go anywhere near him. These things are managed through third parties.’
Gus was only slightly reassured. ‘And what will the secret message say?’
‘It is probably best you do not know that. After all, the despatch rider would not be aware of the contents of his bag, would he?’
‘Where is the bag?’
‘It should be here sometime early in the night. It gives me a few hours to counterfeit a suitably tantalising letter that will draw our prey, I hope.’
Franz added, ‘Come along with me, August, and I will kit you out correctly. I shall also give you some close instruction about the road to Zenda, and what to do when you get there.’
So Franz led the way upstairs to Gus’s bedroom, where a commissary officer had laid out numerous items of military dress. Gus already had the required trousers and boots, but he had to exchange his green jacket for a dark blue one with red plastrons and gold lace. He was fitted with a gold cartridge belt and staff aiguilettes. The blue forage cap needed to be worked on by a sergeant from the commissary till it had the proper braid and piping.
‘Very smart and very official, captain,’ decided Franz. ‘Exactly what they will expect. Now come with me and we will look at the maps.’
Following the briefing, Gus headed back to his room. He sat a while pondering his mission, and then dozed.
A knocking on his door awoke him. It was James come to summon him to receive his despatches.
Oskar was waiting for him, saddlebags in hand. ‘Now, Gussie, here are the despatches. They are to be delivered direct to the constable of Zenda, Colonel Franck. But there is also this.’ He produced a thin folded envelope. ‘Put this somewhere about yourself, the cartridge box will do. Once you have delivered your bag to the colonel, you must find a way to get to the Thuringian mission and have this handed on to Prince Albert. It should not be too difficult, since he will be expecting a communication from Hollar. The only problem is that we do not know how it was to be accomplished.’
Gus sighed. ‘Not very helpful that last comment.’
Oskar shrugged. ‘I think the Thuringians will have everyone who comes to Zenda under scrutiny. Just loiter, Gussie, loiter.’
It was past midnight when Gus left Festenburg. Bivouac fires still gleamed in the park, and sentries paced the perimeter. He was challenged three times before he reached the Zenda road. Fortunately, a full moon sailing above the trees sent plenty of light down on to the road, as the forest eaves were cut back fifty yards from either edge in an old device to discourage robbers and ambushes. Berthe, edgier than she ever had been under him, was not reassured. Horses do not like night riding, and he should have remembered that. He urged her to a canter, the pace appropriate for a staff officer with despatches.
It was ten miles from Festenburg to Zenda. Gus had his greatcoat buttoned up to ward off the chill. He passed only one other group of soldiers, a detachment of the 5th regiment blocking the road on the edge of the royal estate. It cleared out of his way when he shouted ‘Despatches!’ and held up his saddlebag.
There were still plenty of lights showing in the royal château as Gus rode up the long gravel drive. He was first stopped halfway to the terrace by a patrol from a guard regiment. He had to provide papers, which were scrutinised under a dark lantern by the lieutenant in charge. Waved on, he dismounted at the steps to the entrance, where a major of the guards was on duty. They saluted. Gus had taken lessons from Franz. He remembered to click his heels.
‘Your name, captain?’
‘That is not a Ruritanian name.’
‘It is English … my mother was Ruritanian.’ As he spoke the white lie he almost smiled at what Lady Catherine might say to it.
‘Ah … that would account for the fact I don’t know you. You have had a long journey.’
‘I left Strelsau this afternoon. A quite uneventful trip and a good mount. It was almost a pleasure.’
‘No doubt. Have you done this journey before?’
‘Then leave your mare with the groom there. Take the despatch to Colonel Franck’s office. His adjutant is waiting and will give you a receipt. Turn right when you enter the central pavilion, third door to the left on the lower corridor. There is a guard posted outside. You can’t miss it. The adjutant will tell you what arrangements have been made for your mess. Good night, captain.’
Gus relinquished Berthe to a soldier, whom she gratefully followed round to the stables.
The château of Zenda had an imposing classical frontage facing on to broad lawns, with gravel rides and fountains. Three pavilions rose centrally and at either end, connected by broad ranges of state and domestic rooms. The more modern part of the château was the front, added by King Ferdinand early in the century. Behind it lay a broad moat, almost a lake, where the original medieval keep built by the first Elphbergs still rose. It was a fairy-tale group of towers, almost ethereal in the moonlight, as though painted in a medieval book of hours. The island-castle was connected to the terrace of the modern château by a stone span, closed at the keep gate by a drawbridge.
Gus entered the palace by the main door. He followed the directions to the adjutant’s office, knocked and went in. The adjutant clearly expected him and had the receipt ready to hand when Gus delivered his saddlebag. Invited to sit, Gus smiled and accepted a drink of schnapps.
After a few routine exchanges about the journey, Gus asked about the Thuringians.
The adjutant had a lot to say. ‘They are occupying the keep, surprisingly. Look over there in the morning and you’ll see the standard of Thuringia flapping over it. Presumptuous I call it. He may be a German prince, but he has no standing in Ruritania, where he should not flaunt his heraldry.’
‘Are all the Thuringians there?’
‘Yes, Duke Leopold, his brother Prince William Henry and the nephew, Albert.’
‘I’ve met Prince Albert, a personable sort of fellow I thought.’
The adjutant made a face. ‘Like a mink is personable, silky smooth with a mouth full of sharp teeth and a treacherous temper.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Ask Colonel Franck. The constable has been the target of complaint after complaint. Prince Albert insisted that the unit of Thuringian guardsmen they brought retain their arms and mount guard on the island – that’s why they’re out there. It’s insulting to the constable. Security in this palace is his business, and it implies no Ruritanian can be trusted with His Thuringian Highness’s back. Then there was a furious tirade over a group of Mittenheimer nobles who wanted to wait on the duke. The Council of Regency was perfectly plain that there should be no association between the Thuringian mission and Ruritanian groups.’
‘Do they get out much?’
‘They’re not under house arrest, of course. They stroll around pretty freely, the princes, their officers and the equerries they brought. Their staff messes in the hall with us. They may go riding in the forest if they choose, although the perimeter of the royal estate is closed by our men.’
‘Yes, I met them.’
‘I hope they weren’t too edgy. The Riders have got us all nervous. We thought they were going to make it across the Ebrendt at one point and attack Zenda, but Colonel von Tarlenheim at Festenburg had mobilised the local reserves and ambushed them while they were burning barns up the valley. He drove them straight back into Mittenheim and held them till General Lamic came up with the regular troops.’
‘A great man, Colonel von Tarlenheim.’
‘He certainly is. As good a man as his father. That was a brave gentleman. Now, captain, I think you’d appreciate a warm bed before reveille. My servant is outside and will take you to the room the staff officers use – don’t worry, the sheets have been changed!’ The adjutant laughed and clapped Gus on the back as he left. Gus was rather enjoying his masquerade by now.
Before retiring, Gus went out on to the rear terrace to admire the view of the old castle in the moonlight. The stars were very bright above him. One or two lights shone in the mass of masonry opposite. He could see Thuringian guardsmen stationed at the gate, the moon glinting on their Prussian-style helmets. He smiled when it occurred to him that Bobby could very well paint the scene with credit. He smoked a cigarette while watching the widening ripples in the moat where fish were rising. Then he went to bed.
Gus awoke early and took a while to remember where he was. When a trumpet call summoned the garrison, he washed and dressed quickly before following a servant down into the basement where the officers messed. It was a handsome breakfast of ham, eggs and sausage, though Gus was disappointed that no toast was on offer, just rough rye bread.
He sat alone at a table and glanced surreptitiously around. Three Thuringian officers entered at that moment. They took some food, and one, casting round the room, made for Gus.
‘Hallo. You are new here. Did you come in last night with despatches?’
‘Yes, I did. Just in from Strelsau.’ Gus tried to put an accent on the name of the capital.
The Thuringian regarded him inscrutably. ‘How is the city?’
‘Oh, quiet. Expectant really.’ He looked the stranger full in the face. ‘I was stationed at the palace, and heard mass there yesterday morning.’
The Thuringian became tense. ‘Ah … who was the celebrant?’
‘The dean, Father Hollar.’
‘Had you met the good father before?’
‘I know him. I believe he has friends here at Zenda.’
‘Oh, a man like Father Hollar has friends everywhere.’
‘Is that so? If you know of a particular friend of his in the castle, maybe you can pass on a message.’ Gus withdrew Oskar’s letter from an inner pocket and surreptitiously laid it next to his plate.
‘I will be sure to,’ agreed the Thuringian.
‘God’s sake!’ exclaimed Gus loudly. ‘Beer for breakfast, I can’t abide that. I will see if I can find coffee in the adjutant’s office. Good morning to you.’ He stood up and, leaving the letter by the side of his plate, walked away without a backward glance.
Mission accomplished, he hoped.