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Authors: Antal Szerb

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Oliver VII

BOOK: Oliver VII
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ANTAL SZERB

OLIVER VII

Translated from the Hungarian by
Len Rix

P
USHKIN
P
RESS
LONDON
OLIVER VII

S
ANDOVAL THE PAINTER
had tactfully left the young couple to themselves—the word ‘young’ being used here in a rather specialised sense. The dancer certainly was young. Officially seventeen, she could not in truth have been much older. Count Antas, however, was more like sixty, at the very least.

The Chateau Madrid coffee house, on whose terrace they were sitting, was the supremely fashionable place to be seen in in early spring, with its pavilion under the celebrated hundred-year-old plane trees beside the little lake in the park that began where the city ended. Given the small number of these open air coffee houses in the state of Alturia during those years before the war, you might have expected to have to fight for a seat. However, at the Chateau Madrid the breeze was included in the bill. With a cup of coffee costing three Alturian taller, the clientele consisted solely of the social elite and the demi-monde. On this particular day, with the steadily
worsening
financial crisis, it was less than full.

In front of the Count rose a tall stack of side plates, one for every drink he had imbibed. The Count drank himself into a stupor most evenings, but, not being a man of narrow
principles
, he had no objection to drinking in the afternoon as well. In fact, he had probably been at it that morning too—it was hard to say quite when he had begun: normally he would have known better than to appear before so large a gathering in the company of a little dancing girl of such dubious reputation. (In those years before the war women still had such things.) Luckily the trellised bower they were in offered a shield from prying eyes.

“My gazelle!” he murmured amorously. The little dancer acknowledged this compliment with a guarded smile.

“My antelope!” he continued, developing his theme. He sensed the need for yet another animal, but could think of nothing better than a pelican.

At that precise moment Sandoval burst in, with an anxious face.

“Your Excellency! … ”

“My boy,” the Count began, in a voice that verged on a hiss. He did not welcome intrusion. But Sandoval cut him short.

“Count,” he insisted, “Her Ladyship is here, with her companion.”

Antas clapped the monocle to his eye and stared around. It was beyond question. Slowly, terrifyingly, like a fully rigged old-style frigate, his wife was negotiating the entrance.

“I’m done for!” he stammered, his eyes darting hither and thither, as if some unexpected source of assistance might come sailing through the air.

“We can still get away,” whispered Sandoval. “We can nip out through the kitchen and straight into the car. Come on, Count, be quick … and try to look like someone completely different.”

“And the bill?” demanded the grandee, a gentleman through and through.

Sandoval tossed a fifty taller note onto the table.

“We must go. Quickly!”

They dashed out of the bower, Antas with averted face. Almost immediately he collided with a waiter balancing a tray in his hand. The crash of broken crockery brought all eyes to bear upon them. Antas began to apologise, but Sandoval seized him and led him, at a speed scarcely to be credited, through the kitchen, out onto the street and into the car, losing the girl somewhere along the way.

“You don’t think she saw me?” the Count asked, slamming the door shut behind them.

“I’m afraid it’s quite certain she did. When Your Excellency knocked the waiter over everyone—including the Countess—turned to look. So far as I could make out, in my state of agitation, she was shaking her parasol at you.”

Antas slumped back into the seat.

“That’s it. I’m dead,” he whimpered.

Sandoval meanwhile had started the engine and swerved out onto the main road leading to the city. There had been no time to send for the driver, and they left him to his fate.

“If I might make a suggestion … ” said Sandoval,
breaking
the horrified silence.

“I’m listening,” the Count whispered, in the tones of a man whose life was about to expire.

“The fact that Your Excellency met Her Ladyship is not something we can do anything about. But time is always a great healer.”

“What do you mean?”

“For example, if Your Excellency were to disappear for a few days—a week, shall we say? During that time her rage would subside, and she would start to worry, not being able to imagine where you might be … and it would give me time to think up some story or other to put a plausible front on what happened … ”

“How could I disappear, my boy? Me, the Royal Chief Steward? How could you think that? Such a prominent public figure!”

“True, true. Just let me think for a moment … I have it! I’ll take Your Excellency to the country mansion of a friend of mine, up in the Lidarini Mountains. It’s utterly remote. The post takes a week to get there. Trenmor, my friend, is abroad at the moment, but the staff know me well—they’ll obey me without question—and you’ll be completely safe
up there, where no bird flies. Even if you wanted to, you wouldn’t be able to leave until I came for you with the car.”

“Good, good, my boy. Take me wherever you wish. Just don’t let me see my wife, and above all, don’t let her see me! And make sure you never get married.”

The car turned round and set off in the opposite direction, away from the city. Soon the Count was fast asleep. He woke again only when they reached the mansion. There Sandoval handed him over to the household staff and took his leave, promising to return once the skies over the marital home had cleared. Antas thanked him profusely for his services, and Sandoval hurried back to the capital.

 

It was late evening when he arrived in Lara. There were far fewer people than usual on the streets, but he noticed a lot of
soldiers
. The storm that had overtaken his car on the road had now died down, but dark clouds continued to race across the sky.

“It’s the same up there,” he thought, studying them with his painter’s eye. “The sky is as restless as I am. Well, not many artists get the chance to play a role in major historical events. Perhaps only Rubens … ”

The car squealed to a halt outside a large, unlit building and he leapt out. “The Barrel-makers Joint Stock Trading
Company
,” proclaimed a rather tasteless sign.

“Even the notices in this country need a revolution,” he
muttered
to himself.

He applied his weight to a bell.

A narrow section of the vast door opened, and someone peered out cautiously.

“The barrels from Docasillades,” he announced, with
significant
emphasis.

“Come in—we’re checking the staves,” a voice replied, and Sandoval entered.

“Good evening, Partan,” he said to the doorman, who was wearing a leather coat and bandolier. “The eighteenth?”

“Upstairs in the balancing room.”

He made his way rapidly up the poorly lit stairwell and arrived at a door. In gold lettering on a black plaque he read the word ‘Accounts’. Inside, a group of about ten men were sitting on benches around the walls. They were oddly dressed, with the sort of intense faces you see only in times of historic upheaval. “Who are they? And what might they be in civilian life?” he wondered. The majority had strange bulges in their clothing, caused by ill-concealed pistols. They seemed to know who he was and simply stared at him without
interest
. A young man got up from a table at the far end of the room and came rapidly over to him.

“Well, at least you got here, Sandoval. We’ve been waiting a long time. Come this way.”

Sandoval followed him into the next room.

It was small and almost completely empty apart from an oddly shaped telephone—one of the stages along the secret line. Beside it sat two men, smoking.

The first, with his black suit, gold-rimmed spectacles and impossibly narrow face, was Dr Delorme. Sandoval knew him well, and went across to him. The other man he had never seen before. He was extremely tall, with an austere, intelligent face; his hair, which was unusually straight for an Alturian, was slicked down flat against his head.

“Sandoval,” Delorme introduced him to the stranger.

The man clicked his heels, held out his hand, but did not give his name. Then he drew back into a dimly lit corner of the room.

“Well?” asked Delorme.

“I spent fifty taller,” Sandoval replied. “I paid the bill at the Chateau Madrid.”

It amused him to see how much it disconcerted Delorme that he should begin with this trivial demand. Delorme was obviously struggling to conceal his nervous excitement.

“Of course. Here you are.” He handed over a fifty taller note.

“And now, if you would be so kind as to give us your report.”

“No,” thought Sandoval, “you could never make him forget his manners. He’s not what you’d imagine, for a rabid demagogue.”

And he recounted his tale. As he spoke, the stranger drew closer to him, studying him intently.

“Splendid, really splendid!” remarked Delorme. “Only an artist could have accomplished that. I particularly like the way you timed the Countess’ arrival.”

“It was very simple. I sent her an anonymous letter saying that if she wished to expose her husband she should come to the Chateau Madrid at six. I know how jealous she is.”

Delorme turned to the stranger.

“This place in the country where they’ve taken him is manned by our people, masquerading as household staff. If necessary, they’ll detain him by force. But it won’t be needed. Fear of his wife will be much more effective.”

“Thank you, Sandoval,” said the stranger, and again offered his hand.

“Glad to be of service. Might I ask one favour in return? I don’t like being a blind instrument. If there’s no special
reason
why you can’t, would you explain why it was necessary to get that pious idiot out of the capital?”

“Why?” the stranger replied. “Because it’s his job as Chief Steward to select the regiment responsible for guarding the
palace the following day. Since he won’t be there tomorrow, I shall have to choose it myself.”

Sandoval glanced quizzically at Delorme.

“The gentleman you are speaking with is Major
Mawiras-Tendal
, His Highness’ principal aide-de-camp.”

Sandoval bowed, rather maladroitly. What he had heard astonished him. The King’s aide-de-camp and close friend was involved in this business? How very widespread the discontent must be …

It had barely touched him personally. As a mere painter he understood little of the economic problems that had
produced
it. The King himself was a kind and intelligent man, extremely sympathetic in Sandoval’s opinion. It was only his loathing of petty-bourgeois complacency that had brought him into Delorme’s camp. That, and the love of
gambling
, and of the unexpected—in a word, the desire to live dangerously.

“And the day after tomorrow,” the Major continued, “the Twelfth Regiment is on guard at the palace. It’s the one
regiment
in which we can count on every man. Do you follow me?”

“So, then. The day after tomorrow?”

“The day after tomorrow.”

The Major shook hands and left. Sandoval stood staring after him, speechless.

“Well, well. He too?”

“He especially. He’s closer than anyone to the Nameless Captain.”

“Extraordinary.”

“Don’t forget that Mawiras-Tendal is the grandson of the great revolutionary hero after whom every street in Alturia is named.”

“Blood being thicker than water … ”

“So it seems. Sometimes these truisms turn out to be true. Life holds no greater surprise.”

“Have you any orders for me, for tomorrow?”

“My orders? I must ask just one thing of you. I’d be very glad if you would take yourself off to Algarthe and call on the Duke. You’re the only one of our people they’ll allow in, now that he’s kept under such close guard. They know you as his portrait painter, and the thing is, no one will take you seriously. That’s why you are so priceless to us.”

“I must resist this notion of pricelessness. I can be paid at any time … ”

“I know,” Delorme replied with a smile. “And I am sure you’ve had little cause to complain so far. I was thinking of pricelessness in the moral sense. So, then, Algarthe … ”—and he stroked his forehead wearily. He seemed to be having difficulty focusing his thoughts. Then he continued:

“My God, I’m so tired. After we’ve brought this
revolution
off I shall retire for a fortnight to that sanatorium for journalists. If only I don’t have to become Prime Minister! Anyway, as I said, Algarthe … have a word with the Duke. You know how to talk to him. Try to knock some sense into him. Prepare him for what’s coming. If it comes completely out of the blue, he’s so frail it could affect him badly. It could even kill him, and then we’re right back where we started. Send me a report on his condition afterwards. And now, God go with you. I’ve got a whole series of reports to get through tonight. About the navy, the universities, the winegrowers’ association, the market traders … we’re carrying the whole country on our backs. God be with you. And please, spare me the password, and can we do without with the secret handshake? I’m tired.”

 

The situation in Alturia was as follows. Simon II, father of the present king, Oliver VII, had been an outstanding ruler, and the country had suffered in consequence ever since. He modernised the army uniform, established elementary schools, introduced telephones, public ablutions and much else besides, and all this benevolent activity had exhausted the state finances. Besides, as we all know from our
geography
books, the Alturian people are of a somewhat dreamy nature, fanciful and poetically inclined.

Along with the throne, Oliver inherited a chaotic
financial
situation. A man of true Alturian blood, he shared the dreamy nature of his people and showed little aptitude for fiscal matters. It seems too that he was unfortunate in his choice of advisers, who grew steadily richer as the public purse grew lean. To pay the state representatives on the first of each month the Finance Minister had at times to resort to near-farcical expedients, such as doling out their entire salaries and expenses in copper coins from the toll on the capital’s Chain Bridge. Malicious tongues even claimed that it was his masked men who carried out that daring break-in at the Lara branch of Barclays Bank.

BOOK: Oliver VII
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