Friday, 9 July 2010

Ursula and the Baron

“Such a charming town,” Paul Ehrgeiziger remarked to his companion as they strolled along the promenade.

“Isn’t it?” Lady Amelia sighed, clinging to his arm as she gazed out over the lake. “The air here is so very refreshing.”

The summer season was getting into its stride. Bolschen thronged with the wealthy and merely well-to-do, come to take the air and sample the restorative waters of the spa. The promenade made a gay and colorful picture as folks took constitutional walks and the chance to show off their finery.

Paul felt better than he’d done for many months. Indeed, years, he thought. The wound suffered in the messy naval engagement on the river had healed and troubled him no more. He glanced at Lady Amelia and met her warm smile with one of his own. And with a charming companion to help me forget all my previous woes! What could be finer?

“There is a particularly beautiful young lady,” Amelia remarked, gesturing along the promenade with a discrete tilt of her head. “Yet I wonder why she walks unaccompanied?”

Paul glanced in the direction Amelia indicated. His heart lurched. Only long habit and experience in the school of espionage saved him from stumbling in shock. Dear God! Ursula!

The young woman wore a rich day dress in dark green, trimmed with lace and fine silk, along with a matching be-ribboned straw hat with a broad brim. A lacy parasol twirled in her hands in an insouciant manner as she strolled toward them. Paul saw she had him fixed firmly in her gaze.

“It appears she’s coming this way,” Amelia murmured. “Do you know her?” The undertones in her voice spoke of doubt and suspicion.

Paul cleared his throat. “I have that honor. She is the Grafin Ursula von Hetzenberg-Pfalb, niece of the Grand Duke.”

“The Grafin!” Amelia exclaimed. “I’ve heard much about her. Is she truly as… reckless as they say?”

Bold would be a better description, my dear,” he said softly, for Ursula had closed the distance between them. Paul bowed and Amelia curtseyed. “My dear Grafin, it is a pleasure to see you again.”

“It’s good to see you, Herr Baron,” Ursula replied.

“Allow me to present Lady Amelia Davenport, an English friend of mine, visiting this town for the waters.”

The women exchanged courteous nods. “Charmed, I’m sure,” Ursula murmured. “Herr Baron, I trust I see you recovered from your wound?”

“Fully so, Excellency. The spa waters are most restorative.” He smiled, although the pain in his heart still fluttered. “I must congratulate you on your wedding. Is your husband here with you?”

“Thank you, and no; Horatio is elsewhere, on duty.”

Paul sighed inwardly. Leading his devilish gunboats against my nation, no doubt.

“I wish to consult you on a matter of some delicacy, Herr Baron,” Ursula went on, glancing at Amelia. “It concerns two friends of mine.”

Paul blinked in surprise. Lady Amelia cast a curious glance at him. “I shall walk a little further, to the bandstand on the point, and leave you to your discussion in peace.”

“Thank you, Lady Amelia,” Ursula said. “I hope not to trouble the Baron very long.”

As Amelia strolled away, Ursula turned to Paul. “I won’t beat around the bush, Herr Baron. The future happiness of my friends may well depend on your advice.”

He spread his hands. “I am your servant, madam. Command me.”

Ursula extracted two documents from a fold in her dress. “You remember Mary Amadeus, of course.

“That’s a rhetorical question,” Paul smiled. “How could anyone forget her?”

Ursula chuckled then grew serious. “Quite! She and my cousin Philip are very much in love.”

“Ah.” Paul pursed his lips. “I see.”

“You know the kind of problems that would create. Neither of them wished to follow the traditional route of Mary becoming Philip’s mistress. I sought to remedy the situation with some legal advice from Professor Knappenberger.” She passed Paul a letter. “This is what came in return.”

Paul scanned the writing then examined it in closer detail. “There seems little doubt here. Your friend and your cousin cannot marry.”

“I think there’s plenty of doubt, Herr Baron”

“Professor Knappenberger’s legal acumen was known throughout Europe. If he stated a point, is there not reason to think he would be right in his judgment?”

“Normally, yes. In this case, no,” Ursula said crisply. “Please cast your eye over this.” She handed Paul the second document.

He examined it and furrowed his brow. “This is a deed to land near your capital?”

“The content isn’t important,” Ursula said, waving a hand. “What’s relevant is the fact it’s the most recent authenticated document I could find written by Professor Knappenberger before he left the Duchy.”

Paul looked closely at it then re-examined the letter. After a minute he nodded. Amid the tangle of emotions he felt professional curiosity rising once more. “Hmm! This letter’s a forgery. Clever, subtle work, but a forgery nevertheless.” He looked up and gazed at her for a long moment. “This implies Professor Knappenberger’s legal opinion was other than stated here.”

Ursula sighed. “That’s my opinion also. Someone is attempting to prevent my friends from marrying; but who, and why?”

Paul handed back the documents. “There is a war on between my nation and yours. I’m of the opinion the mysterious someone is seeking to cause disharmony at the highest levels in your government for the purpose of impeding Hetzenberg’s prosecution of the war.”

Ursula stared at him, and he felt struck anew by the pangs of unrequited love. Beyond her in the middle distance he could see Lady Amelia strolling near the bandstand. Every now and then her gaze would come his way. He sighed heavily.

“It’s a pretty low, underhanded scheme to enact, don’t you think?” Ursula said.

“Did not Shakespeare say all’s fair in love and war?”

“No, that quote is from John Lyly’s work Euphues.” Ursula said distantly as she appeared to be thinking hard. “He was a slightly earlier playwright than Shakespeare. He said the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” Paul blinked. “I shall have to present this evidence to my uncle the Grand Duke,” Ursula went on. “If nothing else it’ll cast doubt and uncertainty over any ban against Mary and Philip marrying.”

“I think I recognize the hand of the forger,” Paul said slowly.

Ursula cocked her head. “You do?”

“I believe so. It’s a man by the name of Bartolomeo Gundaker, a freelance agent for hire to the courts of Europe.”

“I don’t know him.”

“Few do. He’s a low-level wretch with a propensity for murder.” Paul grimaced with distaste. “All that can be said in his favor is that he’s good at what he does.”

“Forgive me for saying so, Herr Baron, but would Dunkeldorf-Pfühl not employ its own agents for espionage work?”

“In the normal course of things, yes.” Paul frowned. “I’m inclined to believe the murder of Professor Knappenberger and the forgery were commissioned by someone operating outside the normal bounds of my bureau.”

“Would you look into the matter for me?” Paul looked at her askance. Ursula all but batted her eyelashes. “I would consider it an immense favor, for the sake of my friends’ happiness.”

He opened his mouth to reply when a distant commotion drew their attention. An excited buzz flowed along the promenade, moving as fast as feet would carry it as people dashed from one group to another. “Why, what’s amiss?” Ursula exclaimed.

“There’s been a battle!” someone gasped, running along the promenade. “The enemy attacked the gunboat base at Lehmangraz!”

“Oh schieße! Horatio’s there!” Ursula cried.

“Go, Ursula!” Paul said urgently, touching her arm. Even in the midst of the crisis he felt a tingle at just touching her so. “I shall find out what I can. You have my word. Now go find your husband!”

Ursula lifted her skirts and hurried away, all but running back the way she’d come. Lady Amelia walked up to him. “Paul? I heard there’s been a battle?”

“Yes. It seems forces from Dunkeldorf-Pfühl attacked the Hetzenberg naval base, and the Grafin’s husband may have been involved.”

She laid a consoling hand on his arm. “It must be so very difficult, living in the midst of a nation with whom yours is at war.”

He laid his hand over Amelia’s and gave her a wan smile. “You have no idea,” he said, casting a glance at Ursula’s retreating figure.


abdul666 said...

Really excellent! Looking eagerly forward to enjoy the future developments (well, perhaps more about Bartolomeo Gundaker than Paul's heart problems, but it's purely personal!).


Bluebear Jeff said...

Ah, an interesting twist . . . I look forward to the next installment.

-- Jeff

David said...

Yes, very immersive and enjoyable - poor Paul! Haven't we all been there as teenagers?

Look forward to seeing how it all develops - Ursula certainly knows how to stir things up. :-)



Fitz-Badger said...

So true! Those fair maidens who could get us to do them a favor or help them out, even when we knew there was no hope of requited love.

Excellent writing indeed! :)

A J said...

Thank you, gentlemen! Yes, I think we've all been there where pretty girls are concerned... ;)

Ken said...

First rate narrative, sir. First rate.