Monday, April 23, 2012
Chapter 9: A Royal Farewell
Interview with Roxy Smothers, 1973:
It was about noon when things were sorted out enough for them to take us to meet Broni. There must be something about the military mindset that insists upon having a period of mayhem and destruction followed by a nice tidy-up.
Broni’s headquarters was about a half mile back from the bridge, very well hidden in a woods. Typical. After all the trouble I’d had over the past couple of days, I looked forward to giving the rat a big piece of my mind for all the trouble he caused me.
But when I saw him, I was shocked. He had traded his usual Saville Row suit for a uniform that was now crumped and dirty and there was even bloodstains on it. A nurse was wrapping his arm in a bandage and then I noticed his staff car was bullet holed.
He looked like he hadn’t slept in days but with a look of such determination on his face that I had only seen when he was after a chorus girl. I have to admit, he did look extremely handsome that day, almost heroic.
Some flunky was giving a briefing, so they didn’t let us interrupt.
“Of the three enemy army groups identified in the attack, Army Group GrauNord has made the greatest advances. We have confirmed that Tarlinsk has fallen. Enemy armored columns are advancing very rapidly southward towards Zenda and eastward to the capital. We have had no contact with the HQ group of Army Tarlinsk since the first hour of the war and that Army Tarlinsk has effectively ceased to exist.
“The forest fires in the border woods and stiff resistance by national guard units have slowed the advance of Army Group GruaSud but elements have advanced into the gap between Army Zenda and Army Plaviks. We have only intermittent contact with Army Plaviks but it appears it is being pushed southward, away from Army Zenda. Reports of unit whereabouts are confused and contradictory.
“We still are in contact with Army Zenda. They have held off most of the attacks of Army Group GruaMittel. Per your orders, General Hulka is attempting to pull his troops out through the narrowing gap between the two main enemy axes of attack.
“Hcentzov Province in the southwest is still secure. The Mountain Division has reported small probing attacks that have been fended off easily. The road to Freedonia is open.
“Unfortunately, Freedonia has declared its neutrality. As a result, the British Ambassador reports that it is unlikely that any substantial assistance can be sent to us from our Western Allies at any time soon.
“Finally, our intelligence agents in the Socialist Republic of Transbalkania have identified at least 12 divisions forming on our eastern border. In addition to the Soviet advisers already in the country, several aircraft squadrons have arriving in Transbalkania. Comrade Stalin has made a speech today in which he announced his concern for the safety of the Vlox and Scyth minorities in eastern Ruritania. We can expect an attack from this quarter with 48 to 72 hours.”
Broni sat silently for a moment, the staff looking at him in anticipation. That was when he noticed me, “Weww Woxy, here at the end to gwoat at my pwedicament.”
“Hardly Broni, after all my friends and I have tried to help. Look at the help we’ve brought you: that big tank and militia men.”
“Oh yes, you’ve tuwned my national guawd into the bawwawinas. Which wouwd be gweat if we awe attacked by the Bolshoi!”
Call me a sap and a sucker for a pretty face but I didn’t have the heart to fight with him then. I asked if there was anything we could do to help.
“Weww, actuawwy, thewe is. As you have heawd, the waw is lost, almost befowe it stawted. Thanks fow hewping with that by the way. Ouw onwy hope is to get as many of ouw twoops out of the countwy as we can. We awe going to faww back to what I call the Fweedonian Wedoubt…
“The Freedonian Redoubt?”
Yes, Yes, Wedoubt, its wike a fowtwess! We’ww use the bowdew of ouw neutraw fwiend to secuwe ouw fwanks whiwe we ouw fowces can escape.
“That’s your plan? Cut and run?”
“No, we wiww escape to cawwy on the fight fwom Fwance or Bwitain. He that fights and wuns away wiww wive to fight anothew day.”
“What do you want me to do then?”
“An awmy in exiwe needs symbows of its wegitimacy. I know you have stowen the Woyal Wegawia..”
“Who said we stole it.”
“Stop with the pwetense. I know you stowe the jewews. We have the Zoya-shaped piece of gwass you cut out of the window of the Gwey Towew on the night you stowe them. It doesn’t mattew! Keep all of the othew Cwown Jewews. I just want you to get the Wegawia out of the countwy. They awe symbows the peopwe can wawwy wound.”
“Rally round, I think,” offered von Schnitzel. “I didn’t know we would need subtitles for this.”
“One othew thing. Thewe is an even gweatew symbow. One that wouwd give the peopwe even mowe inspiwation.”
“And that would be?”
“My fathew, the King. He has wefused to weave, pwans on fighting to the death. If you can convince him to get out, get to Engwand, that wouwd be a huge sewvice to Wuwitania. He is the wiving embodiment of the Nation.”
"Whatsa so hard widda getting de old man to-a come wid us?" Chicolini asked, as he slapped a black jack into his palm.
“Oh he can be quite stubbown and he has a whowe wegiment of Wawoons guawding him. He will take some convincing like fwom a favowite daughtew-in-waw… hewped
by ouw watest, pwettiest waw hewo and swimsuit modew. Zoya, I award you promotion to the rank of, what are you now? Lieutenant Colonel? Good lord, I knew I shouwd have taken those seaws away fwom Auntie Wuwa. Awwight, you awe now a fuww Cowonel and I awawd you with the Owdew of the Atvawa, the highest decowation in the nation. Now both of you go and get the king out!”
Call me a sap but when he looked at me I just melted. After all I had fallen for the guy once before and here he was being all noble and brave and asking, sincerely asking, me to help him.
“Oh, hell, you big lug. I guess we can get your dad to safety. But I won’t let you off the hook for a penny of the alimony you owe me.
He kissed my hand, and I actually think he was genuinely grateful.
Then he turned to his staff and began issuing orders.
“Send to Hulka, he is to continue his breakout, moving southeast to Hcentzov. Who is in command of Army Plaviks now?
“That would be General Goldshteyn.”
“Gowdsteyn, eh? Weww, he shouwd be weww motivated. He is to bwing what twoops he can to Hcentzov as weww. We shaww howd hewe today to wawwy as many as we can and then we shaww go to Hcentzov. That is whewe we wiww make ouw stand untiw the King can join us.”
Now I should mention that the city of Hcentzov, a little university town, is more popularly known at Hentzau in the west from that dreadful Anthony Hope novel that made up so many lies about Ruritania that he was condemned to impalement in abstensia. The natives pronounce it as it they are suffering from an advanced case of typhus and are bringing up bits of lung. I think Hcentzov actually means something like “Place where sick men hack up Luggies.”
A messenger came up to us at this point, but instead of it being for Broni, to everyone’s surprise, he handed it to me.
It was from the Post Master General to “Roxy Smothers and friends” asking me to come to the capital as soon as possible to meet with him on a matter upon which the fate of the entire world rests.”
Wow, I thought, this guy is more melodramatic than Hummingbird.
Broni shrugged when I showed him the message, saying wryly, “Faw be it fwom me to countewmand my Supewiow. You might be abwe to kiww two biwds with one stone. Save the King and the wowld all at once. Wucky you."
Broni kept the big tank, believing the slow-moving behemoth would be better in the front lines than used to sneak his father out of the capital quietly. He also kept our militiamen, who were now grandiloquently called the Ktorevitsa National Guard Battalion (Ballet Capable).
At least he gave us transport back to the capital or at least let us use his bullet riddled staff car. Chicolini drove despite Hummingbird and Tura nearly coming to blows over who was the better driver in their own minds.
As it turned out, we would have been better off walking the seventy miles or so to Strelzov. It took the better part of two days to get to Streltzov, what with the constant stream of refugees fleeing eastward and clogging the roads for miles. Added to this was the periodic strafing German aircraft. The Kraut maniacs didn’t spare anyone, neither old or young or Academy Award nominees. Chicolini managed to keep us safe for the most part but his quick maneuvers and runs over rough ground did the old staff car no good. It finally gave up the ghost about 2 miles outside the capital so we had to walk the final way in.
I was shocked by what a few days of war had done to the quaint old city. The big glass roof on the Vlad and Wendy Train Station was shattered and the yards were filled with wrecked trains. It broke my heart to see the wonderful cafes and caberets on the Zagloba Prospekt all shuttered up with many burned ruins.
The War Ministry made arrangements for us to stay at the Hotel Metropol, the best in the country. It seemed untouched by the constant air attacks. Even with the war and near misses, the linens were still spotless and the staff punctilious as ever. It was the first hot bath I had had in days.
Neither the king nor the Post Master General could see us the next day so we had to wait at the hotel or more properly in the air raid shelter in the hotel basement. This was quite as bad as it sounds since the basement was richly appointed and had an excellent wine cellar. Enjoying vintage champagne and caviar is the only way to make it through a war.
So it wasn’t until the afternoon of the 8th that I was able to get in to see the King. I dragged Zoya and von Schnitzel along with me.
The Palace had taken a couple of bombs but was not too badly hit. The old place was surrounded by barbwire and sandbags and grim Walloon guardsmen in full combat gear. At first we weren’t allowed in until I made an issue of it with guard commander. He finally showed us into what King Ruprikt called his “Wumpus Woom.” It originally the palace library founded by a seventeenth century alchemist and containing the knowledge of the Ages. Of course none of the Radziwill’s could be bothered to look at such boring stuff. Ruprikt had changed the room into a sort of gymnasium and recreation room.
The guard captain warned us that the King was exercising, getting in fighting trim for when the Huns came over city walls. With Ruprikit of course, we weren’t ever sure if he used that as a nickname for the Germans or really expected Attila and his horsemen to come leaping into his den.
In any event, we arrived just as a large man was being brought out on a stretcher. The captain noted that this was the Ruritanian Army boxing champ.
“Now it probably a good time to see the king. He’s always happiest after he’s broken someone’s jaw.”
We entered and saw that soldiers were loading the books from the shelves into large crates, to take them to a place of hiding no doubt. Great clouds of dust surrounded them as they shifted the books that had been unused for centuries. In the midst of the library was a large, makeshift boxing ring. The King was there in an old fashion boxing outfit, muscular and fit even at nearly eighty. He had a similar large older man in a head-lock and was banging the other man’s head into the turnbuckle. When he saw us, the King released the other man who fell to the floor. It was then that I say the other man was in clerical garb. I recognized him as High Bobo Frnko IX, head of the Ruritanian Greco-Roman Catholic Church.
“Wook Bobo, we have guests and woof woof what a pwetty paiw. The othew giwl is nice-wooking too.”
“Oh, Papa-in-law, you are such a flatterer,” I gushed in my best ingénue voice. “We came because we are worried about you. The Germans are coming and they will be looking for you. My friends and I want to get you to safety.”
“A Wadziwiww nevew shiwks dangew. Dangew is ouw middwe name. Just aftew Wadiswas. I think…Wet me check my passpowt. But who awe youw fwiends? Awe they as pwetty as this nice young wady? You know, she wouwd wook wovewy in swimsuit? But who is that guy?”
Bobo spoke from the floor, “I think he looks like a gypsy.”
“I am not a gypsy, I am German-Amer..” von Schnitzel tried to explain.
“A Gewman! A Gewman! Shoot him guawds! Shoot him!"
“No,” I cried. “He’s a friend, come to warn you of the danger.”
“You are in grave danger. They plan to send assassins…”
“The gypsies are known to be excellent assassins.”
“Shut up, Bobo,” I yelled at the prelate.
“If you die, the nation will have lost its greatest leader in the time of its greatest need. Come with us to Hcentzov and carry on the fight to win your nation back.”
“Weawwy? I don’t know. I must asked Gigi what she thinks.”
Of course, Queen Gigi had been dead for nearly twenty years, killed in the Great War, a fact that Ruprikt forgot on a surprisingly regular basis. Well maybe not so surprising. But it did give me a great idea.
“Why, Your Majesty. The Queen has already left for Hcentzov, you’d have to go there to ask her.”
“Hcentzov, you say? Is she sneaking awound with that fewwow with the moustache again? I’ww show hew.”
Bobo Frnko decided to speak up, “Majesty, Queen Gigi has been dea…”
“Quick, Your Majesty,” I yelled, pointing at the Bobo, “there’s an assassin! Put him in a headlock!
The King grabbed the old priest by the head and the cleric was unconscious in a few minutes.
“Weww, this has been a most wefweshing mowning. But you wiww excuse me but I have to pack for me jouwney to Hcentzov. I have to find my dawwing Gigi. I can’t wemembew why exactwy but find hew I shaww!”
He looked down at the prostrate pontiff, “Come Bobo, no wowwygagging, we awe going on a twip!”
Excerpt from The Sun’s Also Shiny, The Great American Novel, by Ernest Hummingbird:
The Writer went to the Post Office. With him were the Professor and the Annoying Musicians. He didn’t worry much but he did worry now. They were going to meet with Post Master General.
The Post Office was in a grim and foreboding tower located at the southern edge of the city. The small suburban shops and homes seemed to shrink from its foreboding presence. The building was guarded by several men in brown uniforms, heavily armed men. They were mature but not old and they had the air of the experience about them. The Writer felt they were almost his equals. But not quite.
The guards showed them in to a small Spartan office. The Post Master was behind a small plain desk. He was thin and ascetic, about sixty but his eyes were far older, for he had seen too much Death and Evil in his life for them not to be old. The Writer supposed that his eyes would be the same when he reached that age. But he would still be better-looking.
The Post Master got right to the heart of the matter.
“I must apologize for not reaching you sooner. You see most of my agents have been incapacitated, mostly in trying to apprehend you and your friends.”
The Writer attempted an apology, it was uncomfortable for him.
“Oh no, my dear Writer friend. I should apologize for underestimating you and your friends. You have been far more destructive than the Axis.”
“In any event, my lack of personnel forced me to hire the brigand Hozzenka and I see she has found you. So things have worked out in the end.”
“What did you want to see us about?”
“Quite simple really, it is about that small cup that the Professor carries with him. By the way, Professor, I have been in touch with your superiors in London and they have agreed, now that we are allies, for you to provide all the assistance you can. Unfortunately, one agent is not the equivalent of a British battle fleet but we shall try to make do.”
The Writer looked at the Professor with a raised eyebrow. So the Professor was a British agent. That explained quite a lot. Of course, he had known deep down that the Professor wasn’t what he seemed, was probably a spy, or didn't like girls. The Writer was a good judge of character. And of alcohol. Lots and Lots of alcohol, all different kinds. From a fine Bordeaux to cheap bourbon. Any kind of alcohol….
The Professor and the Post Master were staring at him.
“We asked you if you would be willing to help in this mission.”
“Of course, I’ll be glad to help in this most noble venture, turning back the tide of darkness and evil to bring the world to the light of a new morning with the promise of justice for all men.”
The Professor shook his head, “You have no idea what we’ve been talking about do you?”
“That absolutely correct Professor. I have not but I am the perfect man for the job.”
The Post Master sighed, “Well we don’t have much of a choice. Here it is in nutshell…And stop drinking while I am speaking! Where did you get that little umbrella anyway!...Excuse me, a year ago, one of our of our teams of agents in Tibet uncovered a Nazi mission to find the secret of the ancient portals to the Otherworld, thinking they would be able to summons supernatural powers to aid them in the conquest of the world. The Nazis had found the secret to opening the portals of the ancient Kurgans. These were a lost people who had worshiped evil gods of enormous power. They were destroyed four thousand years ago and their civilization, except for a few scattered artifacts, vanished from the face of the earth. The cup that the Professor has been carrying has been one of those artifacts, a key, in fact, to open one of these portals. This portal is located here in Ruritania in the ancient forest of Charnobog. With that key, they would be able to open this gate and summon demons that they could control for their evil plans. Fortunately, they do not have this key, you do. But they still may be able to open the portal."
“And if they do?”
“Without the key to control them, these demons will run amok, destroying our civilization in the same way in which they destroyed the Kurgans. We want you to take the cup to the University of Hcentzov, which is not far from the forest of Chernobog. At the University is a great genius, Doctor Tesla. He’s been there for years as something of a recluse, claiming he talks to aliens from beyond Jupiter. He may know of a way to use the key, the Cup of the Kurgans to stop them.”
“Unstoppable demons from Hell and you’re asking me to stop them with the help of a madman?” The Writer asked.
“Why, that plan sounds…perfect.”