THE HEART OF OSKAR PRINZ
Will and Fritz walked almost to Terlenehem, but the boy was reluctant to go into the town. Instead, he guided Will back along the river bank to his home, the two of them chattering merrily all the while. Fritz’s English was remarkably good for a twelve-year-old, and they swopped words for things such as trees and plants.
Will’s vocabulary was swelling like corn in summer. None of it was dropping out of his memory, either. His brain seemed to have decided that acquiring Rothenian was its top priority. Will had read that this could happen, but he was astonished to find he had the capacity for it. There was every chance he could be fluent in a few weeks.
‘This was where the old castle was,’ Fritz said sadly. They stared at a field full of low ruins on a terrace above the river. ‘The Red Army had their tanks use it for target practice. But they didn’t blow it all up.’
Fritz led Will up a lane and showed him the remains of a handsome stable block, choked a bit by trees and ivy, the courtyard still clear except for a rusted and collapsing wagon. Will noticed an old stable clock, its green copper hands frozen at four-thirty, and the heraldry of the sculpture. He pointed to the carven arms above a tall arch: a lion on a field strewn with roses, the shield encircled by the imperial order of the Golden Fleece. ‘Is that the arms of Tarlenheim?’
‘Yes,’ Fritz said. ‘You can see the date 1866 and the letters F III C, which stand for Count Franz the Third. I’m named after him.’
‘Yes. Fritz is short for Franz.’
‘I didn’t know that. Are there a lot of boys called Franz in Terlenehem?’
‘Only me,’ Fritz said, looking puzzled at the question for some reason.
They walked on up the lane and came again to the cottage, where they found Helge and Oskar poring over a ledger and a pile of letters. Oskar was chewing the end of a pen, a preoccupied expression on his face.
He smiled at them. ‘We’ll be a little bit longer. Maybe you can go and sit out the back until we've finished.’
They went to look at the chickens in the back yard. Fritz fed them, while Will collected a few eggs and put them in a dish. Fritz pointed out his favourite tree, which they climbed together. Oskar had knocked convenient nails in at intervals, allowing Will to reach the high platform that was Fritz’s eyrie. His brother had built it for him, as the boy proudly said.
The view down the river valley to Terlenehem was excellent, and Fritz pointed out the church, the starostnjia (or municipal offices) and the tower of the fire station. He set up a small telescope, with which they amused themselves by training it on his school friends’ houses. It was a delightful afternoon, sitting high in the cool air among the rustling leaves, lulled by the gentle sway of the upper branches. Nothing detracted from Will’s sense of wellbeing, not even the persistence of the local wasps, and he was regretful when Helge called them down for tea.
* * *
They enjoyed a wonderful sleepy evening, Helge sewing on a table by a standing lamp, Fritz doing his homework, Oskar and Will listening to the radio and reading. Again, there was no TV in the Prinz household. Oskar said in passing that his parents had not approved of television, but he had not missed it as a child, apart from the cartoons. Fritz went to bed at what would have been a stunningly early time for a boy in Whithampsted, although Will reflected that perhaps country kids might be different, even in England.
With Fritz in bed, the others sat out in the cool dark of the veranda, sipping wine and watching disturbingly large moths flit past. Will almost fell off his chair when an owl swooped down and snatched one. Helge was extremely interested in how they had met, and very distressed when she heard an edited version of the story. She did not like big cities, and worried about Oskar all the time, she said. Will privately agreed that she had good reason to be concerned.
At bedtime, Will was touched when she gave them a formal Rothenian blessing and kissed both of them on the forehead, first Oskar then Will. They undressed in silence, Oskar looking disgruntled. ‘I feel we should be in pyjamas,’ he complained.
‘I think we should behave ourselves tonight,’ Will agreed. They kept their underpants on and hugged chastely till they fell asleep in each other’s arms.
There was no breakfast when they woke, only coffee. ‘We don’t eat until church is over,’ Oskar grouched. ‘We have to keep fast till after mass; it’s a … bugger.’ He used the English word he had picked up from his lover. Will laughed, but his stomach did not laugh with him.
They walked into town, where they joined the large numbers attending the nine-thirty mass. The celebrant was an intense young Jesuit from the college at Modenehem. Will found little problem in following the liturgy and managed a lot of the responses. He excelled himself in the hymns, all of which were to settings he recognised from his English experience. He stunned his neighbours by harmonising a Rothenian hymn set to the Ode to Joy. He quite enjoyed himself until he heard Oskar complaining about getting an earache. Fritz too gave him a quirky look, but Helge smiled at him in approval.
Will did not communicate, knowing the Catholic Church regarded him as a schismatic. Helge pursed her lips when he explained this. Oskar did communicate, however, scared to cross his sister on her home ground.
As the congregation spilled out of church, Helge was caught up in a group of young women while Oskar shook hands with some old friends. Will noticed at that point how deferential people seemed to the handsome brother and sister.
Will and Fritz stood around and looked at the graves. Fritz was intrigued when the symbolism was explained to him. They went roaming up the rows till they came to a structure in the corner of the churchyard. Pointing to it in a matter-of-fact way, Fritz explained, ‘That’s where mum and dad are.’ Will’s heart almost broke as the orphaned boy gave the tomb such a wistful look.
Studying the structure, Will was impressed at the quality of the workmanship. It was bigger than it appeared at a distance. He recognised it as more than a simple hypogeum, or vault chapel. It was the entrance to an underground complex that appeared to be of some size.
On the Classical pediment at the entrance, he discovered a wreath of fresh flowers fixed to the wrought-iron gates. He looked above the arch for some clue as to how it was that Oskar’s parents had ended up in such a major monument. He found it and indeed found more than his head was willing to accept at short notice. He saw the carving of a familiar coat of arms, a lion on a field of roses, and the single word TARLENHEIM. He stood silent for a moment before letting the historian in him take over.
‘Fritz,’ he asked, ‘was Count Franz the Third your great-great grandfather, or your great grandfather?’
The boy thought about it for a moment. ‘I think he was my grandfather … er, three times great … yes, that’s right. Tatta – my dad – was Franz the Fifth, if they’d ever let him be count and prince.’
‘Oh, he’s Oskar the Third, and he is the prince of Tarlenheim.’
* * *
Will and Fritz walked silently back to the dispersing congregation. Will’s world had just done a complete belly-flop. Terry had been right. Oskar had certainly kept the big one back. On the other hand, he had done nothing to stop Will from finding out what was, it seemed, an open secret among his group of friends. Tomas had spoken of his ‘background’, and they had ribbed Oskar about his rural lack of sophistication, ironically, as Will now realised.
No, he was meant to find the secret out. That was why he had been brought here. Oskar just did not want to reveal it himself. Will thought he could see why. It would have sounded like the bizarre fantasies of an unbalanced street gay, whereas at Terlenehem there was no doubting it.
Oskar was leaving through the church gate as they caught up with him. Passing two ancient women in black sacking dresses, he looked round at Will just as one of the women took his hand and kissed it. After she let it go, Oskar turned back, laid his hand gently on her head and pronounced some formal Rothenian words. The other lady went through the same ritual. Watching the interaction, Will finally realised what he had seen in the face of Franz III in Strelzen cathedral that looked familiar. It was the image of Oskar.
Will said little on the way back to the cottage. Oskar too was silent, although Will caught the odd glance being thrown at him. Helge had gone on ahead with Fritz. At last Oskar took his hand and stopped him in the road. Will looked him full in the face and acknowledged something in it that he had only half comprehended before. This was not just a handsome visage, it was a noble one. And whatever the circumstances to which its owner was reduced, the nobility was still there, perhaps more of a burden for Oskar as a result.
‘So, my love, I think now at last you know me,’ he said in English.
Will resisted the temptation to make a flippant reply. ‘Oh Oskar, ‘what can I say?’
‘Tell me again that you love me, my Will.’
‘I love you, Oskar. But Oskar Prinz? Why not Oskar zu Terlenehem?’
‘We had to give up the name under Horvath. After all, Oskar-Franz-Serge-Marie-Josef-Maximilien, ninth hereditary prince-count of Tarlenheim, count of Fürstenburg, not to mention landgrave of Klethgau, is – when all is said and done – something of a mouthful.
‘Grandfather took the surname Prinz as a sort of defiance, not that they could object. But I am a prince, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire as it happens, a dignity awarded to the Field Marshal my ancestor by Josef II, the emperor, my distant cousin. So Oskar Prinz is a true name, and good enough for these latter days in Rothenia. I am the original Student Prinz! Good, eh!’ He laughed in the old way, and there was no resisting his merriment. Oskar kissed him in the empty road, and Will took and kissed his hand.
Will smiled. ‘Don’t I get a blessing?’
‘Always, every day, when I wake up beside you, I bless you, Willemju.’
Will believed him and it gave him a shiver. ‘My prince.’
‘Your prince forever, English boy.’
‘Do I make a good serf?’
‘We can work on it.’
‘Do they call you “My Lord” or something like that?’
‘In modern Rothenia all titles are officially abolished, but when people want to recall the old days, they are supposed to call me “Durchlaucht” ... you would say, I think, “Serene Highness”. Cool, huh?’
‘Cool is not the word I would use … scary or weird sounds more appropriate.’
Oskar stopped smiling and said, ‘There is a reason you must know all this, my Will. And it’s not just that I really do want you to know me as well as Tomasczu and my other good friends. I cannot tell you here and now, yet I will soon, I promise. Then you will need to be a loyal knight in my service.’
‘This is so very … strange, Oskar.’
‘I understand, but I assure you we will talk later.’
An early lunch was well under way when they got back to the cottage, the last refuge of the princely house of Tarlenheim, and clearly a happy one. There was a lot of quiet merriment round the dinner. Oskar sat at the head of his table, making the kitchen chair look like the throne of an affable king.
So much about his lover now made sense to Will: the odd moments of formality and dignity, the unselfconscious courage, even the wild humour. All had their roots in the fact that Oskar was no common man and, as princes did, constructed life on principles different from ordinary people. Will reflected momentarily on what he had recently told his Year 10 GCSE group, that princes were dangerous because their morality was not that of the common man.
* * *
They left late in the afternoon on the train for Strelzen, Helge and Fritz waving from the platform. They waved back from the train window until they were out of sight.
Oskar, a pleased look on his face, took a seat in the near-empty carriage. ‘Helge thought you were wonderful. She didn’t say it – she wouldn’t – but short of a marriageable and fertile girl, you are the next best thing as far as she is concerned.’
‘Don’t mention it. I knew it would go well. So back to Strelzen and another week at the National Library.’
‘This week we start listing and assessing the secondary works, and you’re going to have to do most of that. How’s your speed reading?’
‘We’ll see. You’ll get better too. Your progress in Rothenian is amazing. Are you even aware that you’re not talking English now?’
‘Er, no,’ Will murmured, ‘I’d forgotten.’
‘If only we could get your accent better. You say the letters “a” and “e” very oddly.’
‘Oh well, practice will make perfect.’
Will thought for a moment. ‘Does Hendrik know your background?’
‘No, none of them at Falkefilm have any idea, which is the way it needs to stay.’
‘I agree with you. Excuse me, my love, but I have to ask you again: How could a descendant of the Tarlenheims get involved with the likes of Hendrik?’
‘A courageous question to ask of me, Englishman,’ growled Oskar with more than a hint of formal frostiness in his voice. But his face soon cleared, and he added soberly, ‘Would it be enough, Will, to tell you that there was a pressing reason, which one day soon you will know?’
‘If you say so, Your Serene Highness, I am content.’
‘Hmm. So Will, you can do dignity too, I see.’