It began with a letter arriving most unexpectedly from Rudolf, my form and messmate, who I had last heard of undertaking some hush hush expedition to the North West frontier on behalf of HMG.
He was now apparently stationed in Ruritania, one of those Eastern European Duchies scattered along the Danube and sandwiched between the great powers of Austro Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans on one side, and the bandit ridden strife pits of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Transylvania.
Rudolf invited a number of our messmates and myself from the Royal Rifles to join him at his home in the forests near Strelsau where the hunting apparently is unparalleled, the wine rich and plentiful, the ladies warm and beautiful, and where a gentleman with a leaning towards adventure might find satisfaction whilst providing a service to his homeland.
I obtained leave of absence and packing the Purdy as well as ordering a copious hamper from Fortnum’s I prepared to depart, my itinerary suggested by a delightful young lady at Mr Thomas Cooke’s agency. In fact the summons to Horseguards was an unexpected irritation as the preparations for the journey became more fraught.
The growler deposited me on the Parade and accepting the salutes of the immaculately turned out guard I was escorted to the office of Colonel Marmaduke Blackadder where I was surprised to renew my acquaintance with Messrs Chard and Bromhead, the heroes of Rorke's Drift whose capital amongst the military establishment had waned as quickly as their popularity in the gutter press had risen with their award of the VC. Brave and competent soldiers both, they were viewed with jealousy and disdain by many of the military hierarchy, as these men were reminders of a mismanaged and incompetent chapter of our military saga. Both had received promotions and then been quietly turned out to graze in dead end logistical roles.
Blackadder explained that we had been selected to undertake an unofficial task on behalf of the Crown, he was unable to provide details but it involved Rassendyll, a threat to the stability of the Empire and was likely to be somewhat perilous. If we agreed to undertake the mission we would receive a further briefing from a member of HMG.
An exchange of glances was all that was required to obtain the agreement of my companions and after a chota peg and a round of warmly shaken hands our trio was led down two flights of stairs and a series of tile lined tunnels which ran beneath the rumbling rolling stock of the Circle Line that could be heard overhead. Eventually we reached the polished brass folding gate of an electric lift which raised us into the plush velvet interior of a marble floored gallery, where a footman in the unmistakable livery of the exclusive Diogenes Club beckoned us forward.
|Diogenes Club in later days|
We entered a library, the walls resplendent in rich walnut, golden brass, and deep hued Moroccan leather. Gathered around the cool marble of an Adam fireplace stood four gentlemen. Two I recognised immediately; Dr John Watson was an old India hand invalided from the army after a wound gained on the Frontier; while Phineas Fogg was a gentleman of apparently independent means who had gained a short lived notoriety for an incident filled around the World Adventure, undertaken as a wager after overindulgence in Messrs Dowes' especial reserve.
A tall thin gentleman, quietly smoking a distinctive pipe I took to be Watson’s renowned companion, the consulting detective Mr Sherlock Holmes. The fourth was a slight, and immaculately turned out young cove. His waxed mustachios were as sharp as a razor, but seemed somehow out of place on his fresh young face. He looked to be scarcely out of school, and his dress and carriage marked him as continental, French perhaps. He was introduced as Monsieur Hercule Poirot.
Shortly the footman returned and ushered us through to luncheon. At the head of the table was seated a large, heavily built man whose pasty complexion and heavy jowls created an impression of indolence, if it were not for the piercing alertness alive in the man’s eyes. He did not rise to greet us but welcomed us each by name. Holmes returned his welcome with a short comment which christened our host as Mycroft, and questioned him on family matters, indicating that the two men were in fact brothers. Two further gentlemen joined our company, named as Mr Herbert Wells, and Monsieur Jules Verne, apparently members of the Diogenes. The meal was extraordinarily good topped off by fine Cuban cigars and a golden Armagnac, and as our bowls were charged for the second time the friendly discourse was interrupted by the tapping of cigar cutter to crystal as our host raised himself in his chair and addressed us.
“Gentlemen, the erosion of Ottoman power in the Balkans has created a political vacuum that the great powers are rushing to fill, creating a powder keg which if ignited will unleash a cataclysm that may change the World for every and disturb the continuation of Britain’s trading activities and the stability of the Pax Britannica. This corrupt and scarce civilised woodshed of the continent is then emerging as an area vital to the interests of the Empire. That said, if agencies of the Crown were to overtly engage within the region there would be an immediate and cataclysmic escalation of great power politics that might even lead to World War. So our engagement must be more subtle, and largely unreported. Hence gentlemen your invitation to meet here today.”
“News has reached us of an approaching crisis in the region. A series of political assassinations, kidnappings and the bombing of political targets has destabilised the TransDanube region in recent months. The armies of Austro Hungary and Russia have been placed on alert, and Ottoman forces are gathering at Erde. Greek , Croatian,and Serbian Nationalist militarist clubs openly parade through the streets of Balkan towns. Italian occupation forces in Bosnia, Ragusa and Montenegro have begun offensive actions against Nationalist opposition groups. And beneath it all we are gaining limited intelligence of an organisation known as The Pantheon, which seems to be organising and coordinating the activities of at least some of the revolutionary groups.”
“In Ruritania King Rudolph continues to act as though independent of the rest of the region. He is autocratic, to the point of pigheadedness, and revels in the trappings of wealth and power, while the people suffer high taxes and an increasing burden of lawlessness and brigandry especially in the mountainous border country. The personal tastes of the King are shall we say distasteful to many members of the court, and he seems to have put aside his fiancé the Princess Flavia and shares his leisure time with a male companion.
In the neighbouring Duchy of Maltovia the few experienced military officers are working hard to modernise the armed forces in the face of political, commercial and military aggression from the Duchy of Lovitzna where Prussian military missions are increasingly seen in the garrison towns. Prussian influence is also clear in the entourage of Prince Michael von Heim, brother to King Rudolph whose military secretary Count Rupert , commands his own regiment based at the castle of Zenda.
“It is in the east however that the rumours are most rife. The lands of the Romanov family, cousins of the Russian Tsar, straddle the Danube and the mountain ranges of the Carpathians and are settled by the descendants of many races including Saxons, Tartars and Cossacks for generations this racial and religious diversity has led to internecine warfare of the cruellest and most extreme kind. Now however a wave of nationalism, a craving for the power of the ancient Dacian kingdom that challenged for so long the might of Rome has swept the region. Traditional enemies Moldovan, Wallach, Bulgar all are uniting under the Eagle banner of the Drakules. The Romanovs are under intense pressure and have petitioned the Tsar for support. As you can appreciate gentlemen the situation is unstable to say the least, and Rassendyll requires our most urgent support.”
Please allow me to hand over at this point to Herbert who will explain a further matter of no little interest and perhaps of importance. Mr Wells, pressed his eyeglasses to his head, nodded towards our host, took a deep breath and began.
“We are most interested in the activities of a Wallachian Count , a frequent visitor to the Ruritanian court, who seems to be involved in the Dacian revivalist movement, and also rumoured to have links with the Pantheon Organisation. Details are very vague, and in fact remarkably confusing. Count Alucard has been a prominent participant in European society circles for many years, very many years, too many for a man of his apparent age and vitality. Strangely there is no record of any heirs being born to the Alucard family and yet the male lineage is strong and virile.”
“A member of the Alucard line fought in the Imperial army at Blenheim, an Alucard was the friend of Peter the Great, Alucard appears on the roll call of the Austrian forces of Maria Theresa, and also accompanied Napoleons troops to Moscow in 1812, the only member of his regiment to survive the retreat. He then fought in Spain against the Carlists, and led expeditions along the great rivers of Africa seeking lost arcane knowledge. Returning to the Balkans the family lands have grown and prospered, and it has been noted that a number of prominent landowners in debt to Alucard have mysteriously passed away leaving their property in his hands. Strangely all evidence indicates that the success of the Alucard line in the last century has been the result of the actions of a single man, the current Count Alucard.”
“Most recently we have received a rumour that the disgraced genius, Baron Frankenstein has been seen in Alucard’s company and that the fortress of Wolfenberg is now a centre for macabre research. We are aware that Frankenstein was engaged in developing military flame weapons designing body armour for the Prussian army, though this was of course prior to the unfortunate revelations regarding his research into reanimation of the dead and the artificially obtained prolonging of human life which led to his public disgrace and withdrawal from polite society.”
“It would be of great interest to the British scientific community if we were able to discover the basis of the research being undertaken by the Baron in the course of your activities. Gentlemen I must urge caution in your dealings with Alucard. His kinsman Vlad Teppes is thought to be an agent in the service of a great European monarchy, and it may be that Alucard is also serving the same power.”
At this point Monsieur Verne added, “it is also clear that Alucard has invested a fortune in exploring and obtaining previously hidden secrets of the occult, and there are many reports, too many to be ignored, that he is heavily involved in the cult of the undead vampire that permeates the mythology of the region. Consequently I have secured for you the papers of a colleague from Dublin University, Mr Bram Stoker. He has recorded the details of the vampire legend and I suggest that you familiarise yourself with this information during your journey. Gentlemen, I see you suppressing your smiles, so very English, however I assure you that if you are to survive this adventure you cannot prepare too fastidiously. The legends and mythology of the region are as important to the Balkan people as are the politics!”
|Mr Stoker of Dublin|
The silence that followed this statement was broken by the quiet voice of Sherlock Holmes, “in my own experience gentlemen , William Shakespeare was indeed correct and “There are more things in heaven and earth,” .....”Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
In the days following our briefing I was engaged in a whirlwind of activity. It had been agreed that I would accompany Mr Wells and Monsieur Poirot on a private yacht from Deptford to Calais, and there take train to Paris, and from there travel by stages to Munich, Passau, Prague, Vienna and then Budapest, where I would join a Cooke's Tour party on a Danube steamer departing to Belgrade and Timisoara thence to Strelsau the Ruritanian Capital.
|The Tour Party|
Amongst my various purchases in those hectic few days was a pair of Webley revolvers for myself, and a Mauser pistol with detachable rifle stock for my man, and a protective jacket for each of us. Also having studies the papers of Mr Stoker I obtained a number of herbs, religious objects and an amount of sterling silver not that I felt any would be required.
With my affairs in order, and my travel documentation complete I await the arrival of a regimental cart for my baggage, and my carriage to Deptford and the start of my Ruritanian adventure.