Last year for Midsummer, I wrote a little post describing just how we celebrate this the shortest night of the year up here in Scandinavia. Tonight, I am sitting in the late twilight watching the antics of the swifts, and I am preoccupied with the ghost of a long-gone man – or rather his death. You see, tomorrow on June 20 it is 204 years since the death of Axel von Fersen.
“Axel who?” some of you may ask. Other will shrug and think I should get over it – the dude’s been dead two centuries. I suppose it is the manner of his death that preys on me – such an undeserved ending to a magnificent life. I’m not sure Axel would have used the adjective magnificent to describe his life; after all, he never married, he never had children. It seems his heart died with Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and while the man did not remain celibate for the rest of his life, he never expressed an interest for a long-term relationship.
We will never know how intimate Axel and Marie Antoinette truly were. I hope, for their sake, that there were days and moments of joy and utter bliss.
I am not the only one sending a thought or two Axel’s way today, and should you want to read more about this reputedly extremely handsome, vibrantly intelligent and generally very swoon-worthy man, why not visit Mme Gilfurt’s salon?
But now, without any further ado I give you my short story, The Funerals of a Prince. Requisceat in Pace, Axel von Fersen!
Axel von Fersen thanked the barber and dried his face before going over to select his waistcoat for the day. Not the red one, nor the one in pale yellow silk embroidered with rosebuds, but maybe the French one, grey with peonies in black and silver? His valet extended a black, simple waistcoat.
“I’m not in mourning,” Axel said, shaking his head.
“The country is,” the valet said with an edge to his voice.
The man should be reprimanded for his effrontery, but Axel chose not to – after all, Henrik had been with him for decades.
He fingered the grey waistcoat, thrown back to 1784 and a magnificent evening in Versailles. “Pour mon beau Suedois” the label had said on the package containing the garment. He raised the cloth to his nose and sniffed, imagining he could feel the scent of the peonies in her basket – large, heavy flowers in white and pink. Fool, he chided himself, if anything this smelled of dust and dry wood. But he had made his choice, and a few moments later he was standing before the mirror admiring his appearance.
“You’re a vain old goat,” he told his mirrored image as he tugged the embroidered sleeves of his black coat into place. He twirled and threw a look out the window, concluding that while the day had dawned bright, there would be rain later on – the cloud banks to the east promised as much.
Some moments later he entered the dining room. The polished walnut table, the silverware and fine French crystal threw sparkling reflections to dance on the light wallpaper, patterned with a discreet fleur-de-lis. As always, he stopped at the portrait that hung opposite his customary seat. Her blue eyes smiled at him and he smiled back, touched his fingers to her painted lips and turned to greet his sister.
“You should marry,” Sofia said, giving the portrait an irritated look.
“I don’t want to.” This topic was most tedious, with Sofia harping on about the joys of married life. He had his own conceptions of domestic bliss, a heady couple of months at the Petit Trianon back in the seventeen-eighties.
“What about children?”
He shrugged; the only woman he had wanted to have children with had been unattainable. Sofia exhaled but seemed to recognise the futility of further discussing this subject. Instead she sat back and inspected him.
“Most elegant,” she said.
Axel raised a brow. When was he not elegant?
“And sober,” she added, eyeing the grey waistcoat with a slight frown.
“Of course sober, this is a day of great sorrow for the nation.” But not for him or for the others who like him had protested at the election of a foreigner – and a Danish prince, no less – as heir to the Swedish throne. He grinned.
“It’s not funny! For days, men have been roaming Stockholm’s streets, screaming that you poisoned him.”
“But I didn’t, he died of a seizure.” Axel shoved away his plate. He no longer felt hungry.
“Maybe you shouldn’t go,” Sofia said, looking worried.
“I have no choice. As Marshal of the Realm it is I that must receive the Crown Prince’s body and lead the funerary procession.”
Sofia pursed her lips. “I don’t like it.”
He leaned forward to clasp her hand. “It will blow over. And maybe this time the king will do what is right and name his grandnephew as heir.”
“Axel…” Sofia sighed. “You know I agree with you – of course Prince Gustav should be heir – but to broach the subject again …”
“I must,” he said.
She rolled her eyes, making him laugh.
As he made to leave she rose and came over to kiss his cheek. “Be careful,” she said.
“I always am,” he replied before kissing her in return.
“This is not wise,” General Isaac Silfversparre said. “You would do best to return home – or ride south.”
“I can’t. It’s my duty to escort the body.” But Axel wasn’t looking forward to it, not when even in this secluded yard he could hear the mob baying his name.
Axel waved him silent. “A rabble, Isaac.” He studied the six white horses that were to draw his gilded carriage and nodded his approval. The dark red harnesses were spotless, the horses had been groomed to a shine, and the lackeys that were to walk three to a side by the carriage were as resplendent in their white outfits as were the horses.
“A drunk, dangerous rabble,” Isaac protested. “A rabble that screams their prince has been murdered – by you.”
Axel shook his head. “To hide would be tantamount to admitting there’s truth in these ludicrous accusations. Besides, you and your men will see me safe.”
With Isaac at his heels he inspected the procession, starting with the simple cart on which rested the prince’s coffin. Dirty and mud spattered after the long haul from southern Sweden, it made Axel frown.
“Why hasn’t it been properly cleaned?” he asked. The contrast to his carriage was glaring, even more so given the winded appearance of the eight black horses that were to pull it.
“No time,” one of the officers said. “We got in very late last night.”
For some moments Axel considered whether to delay the proceedings and give the hearse an overhaul. He settled for yelling for some grooms and setting them to work on the horses.
“I still think it’s unwise,” Isaac said once the whole procession was lined up. He nodded at the ceremonial staff Axel was carrying. “At least go armed.”
“Not part of the protocol,” Axel said. He undid the ribbon that tied back his grey hair and arranged it to lie loose around his head. “I hate wearing it like this – it makes me look old.”
“Protocol,” Isaac said with a crooked smile before opening the door of the carriage for him.
He should have stayed at home – or at least gone armed. His carriage jerked forward one foot at the time, and all around were screaming, angry people that called him murderer and worse. This must have been what it had been like for her, that October day in 1793 when she was carted through the Parisian crowds. In a simple white dress, her hair hacked off, she had still retained her dignity, sitting immobile while people hurled eggs and rotten foodstuffs, screamed obscenities at her. He shook himself; not at all the same. Any moment now they’d reach the church and the soldiers would disperse the rabble.
They were well into the older parts of town, the street made narrower by the tall houses that lined it on both sides. Shops had been closed, most of the windows at the lower levels were shuttered and the teeming mass of people closed like a sea around the procession. The gilded carriage lurched to a stop. Axel cringed when yet another windowpane was broken by a flying stone. A hailstorm of stones, and with some surprise he registered he’d been hit, was bleeding from the head.
“My lord!” The door was yanked open, and a man Axel recognised as Sergeant Bartholin took hold of him. “This way, my lord.”
“I can’t, I must …”
“They’ll kill you!” the sergeant roared, pulling at him. They tumbled out of the carriage, and there was Isaac Silfversparre.
“Run!” Isaac screamed. Run? How, when surrounded by so many people with fingers tearing at his coat, his adornments? A doorway and Axel rushed for it, with Isaac on one side and the sergeant on the other.
Axel winced when he cracked his forehead against the door lintel. They were in a stuffy taproom, the dark beamed ceiling so low the whole space was suffused in permanent dusk, no matter the small windows that gave on the street. The room was full of men, most of them merchants given their well-cut if somewhat sober garments.
Pipe smoke stung Axel’s eyes, there was a smell of overcooked cabbage, and the table in front of him was sticky with spilled beer. At present, Axel didn’t care, sliding down to sit on the offered stool. He gulped air and leaned back against the wall. He was too old for this. His pulse raced through his head, his breathing loud and irregular.
Axel wiped at his face and stared down at his bloodied hand. “The body, the prince …”
“It’s you they want,” Isaac said, handing him a glass of schnapps. In general, Axel disliked the burning, oily taste of this liquor, but today it sent welcome warmth through his system.
“More,” he croaked, holding out the empty glass.
Axel closed his eyes, trying to regain some sort of control. From the street came angry howls, and to Axel’s dismay he couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the sound.
“Courage,” he whispered. But he was having problems finding it, incapable of suppressing the tremors that rushed through him as the rabble outside chanted his name. He groped for the locket he always carried on his person and lifted it to his lips. “Give me strength, ma reine.” She swam before him, young and carefree, and he smiled at this faded image from his youth. It helped; he squared his shoulders and adjusted his clothes as well as he could what with the damage done to them.
The bellow had Isaac leaping to his feet, dragging Axel to stand behind him.
“Murderer!” someone yelled, and a bottle came flying through the room.
“I’m no …” Axel began, but Isaac was already shoving him towards the door, while the sergeant took up position before them, sword drawn. Instinctively, Axel dropped his hand to where his sword should have been. He gave Isaac a faint smile.
“I should have listened to your advice.”
“You should,” Isaac nodded. “But we can talk about that later.”
Axel hung back at the door. From behind came the grating sound of steel on steel, irate voices screaming his name. Outside, the crowd heaved and surged.
“No choice,” Isaac said. “If we stay here…” As if on cue, the sergeant shrieked.
Out through the door and into the press of men, with Isaac dragging Axel along in his wake.
“Don’t let go,” Isaac yelled over his shoulder. “Hold on to me.”
Easy to say, very difficult to do. Hands closed on Axel’s arms, they pulled and tugged.
“Unhand me!” Axel bellowed, and for some seconds the crowd complied, enough that Axel should be able to keep his grip on Isaac. A blow to his head made him reel, there was a ripping sound when his coat was torn off, and still Axel held on, one hand raised to shield his head, the other welded to Isaac’s belt.
He howled when the stout stick came down on his forearm. Again, and he could no longer hold on.
“Axel!” Isaac screamed.
Axel couldn’t reply, air driven out of him by a savage blow to his side.
“Make for the square,” Axel heard Isaac yell. “The troops there will help you.”
The square. A mere hundred yards away, an interminable distance filled with men that kicked and hit him, spat him in the face. Axel fought back, he bit and scratched. When he punched a lout in the gut he created a gap, enough for him to break free and run for the far end of the square where the Royal Lifeguards were standing in formation.
“To me!” he yelled, and one of the soldiers moved towards him but a sharp command had him shuffling back in line. What? No, this was not right, this was … Axel elbowed one of his assailants and screamed for help.
He yelled himself hoarse, yet the soldiers stood like rocks as the rabble attacked him, scourged him, yanked off tufts of his hair. Die like this? How was a man to meet his end with dignity and courage while being torn apart by a raging horde? God in heaven, but it hurt when cudgels rained blows on his back and unprotected head. He screamed. Hands lifted him high, carrying him like a trophy. Had she been as frightened, that last day? Had it been fear, not courage, that had his beloved sitting like a statue while the dancing, singing crowd jeered, chanting that soon the Austrian bitch would die?
He was thrown to the ground, grunting with the impact. A booted heel on his hand, and he called for his mother when the bones in his fingers were pulverised. He crawled, the crowd cheered.
Here at last came help. Two officers shouldered their way through the crowd and helped him up. He couldn’t quite stand, one leg folding beneath him for a couple of paces. His precious waistcoat was in tatters and there was a rip down his breeches that revealed too much of his thigh.
“Thank you,” he said, clinging to an arm. His head was ringing, so he didn’t fully follow what was being said, catching no more than the odd word. Accuse him of murder?
“What?” he said, blinking his eyes clear of blood and tears.
“A ruse,” the officer holding him mumbled. “We will see you safe, my lord. Just walk with us to the court house.”
Axel relaxed. It was over, he wouldn’t die, not today, not like this. And next time he saw that dratted Carl – pardon, His Majesty the King – he’d demand an explanation. No man but the king himself could have stopped the troops from interceding.
They were almost at the court house when someone yelled that why wait for a trial, why not kill the murderer now? A responding howl rose from the mob, shrivelling Axel’s guts. He gripped the officer’s arm and held on for dear life, but to no avail. He lost his hold, fell face first onto the cobbles. They dragged him backwards, the skin on his face tore on the uneven ground. Up, get up! He regained his feet, ducked a blow and retaliated with such force the man collapsed like a pricked pig’s bladder.
“Death to the murderer!” someone yelled.
“Death! Death!” the crowd cheered.
“No! Please, I …” The punch filled his mouth with blood and teeth. He couldn’t see properly. Mon Dieu! He fell to his knees. The gold chain round his neck broke. His locket … He groped, closed his whole hand around it, curling together as booted feet struck his back, his head.
“Marie Antoinette,” he whispered when they flipped him over. Her smiling face hovered above him. A savage kick to his genitals brought him back to the brutal present. He jerked with pain. How long had this gone on? There was a sickening crunch, an unbearable weight on his chest. I die… the thought fluttered through his brain. With a rattle the air from his crushed ribcage was expelled through his bloodied mouth. His hand flew open and the locket rolled away.
This story was first written for the HNS Short Story competition in 2012 and I was very honoured when it won third place. It has been published together with the other shortlisted stories in The Beggar at the Gate and other stories, published by HNS. For those of you who enjoy a good short story in various historical settings, this may be just the book for you!