Courage jusqu’a la mort.
He is standing by the window, looking down at the crowds below. A floorboard below my feet squeaks and he whirls, hand dropping to where he would normally have his sword.
“Who are you?” he says, looking rather taken aback.
“A friend,” I say.
He swivels back to look at the mob. ” A friend? Well, I can do with one or two of those.” He is impeccably dressed, all of it in sombre black – this is a day of mourning as the Swedish Crown prince is to be buried. Actually, let me rephrase that; the Swedish Marshal of the Realm, count Axel von Fersen, probably started out the day looking impeccable. Now his coat is torn, the fine dark wool of his breeches is decorated with smears and his white silk stockings are smudged.
He fingers his cravat and frowns out at the loud rabble.
“Sauvages,” he says, and then follows a long harangue in French.
“They think …”
“Think? Pah! These peasants don’t think, they just listen! How can anything believe I had anything to do with the Crown Prince’s death? I was here in Stockholm, leagues from where he died.”
“Not always a hindrance,” I remind him. The city is alive with rumours that the Marshal has poisoned the rather stout but otherwise seemingly healthy Crown prince.
He turns to look at me, two tired eyes meeting mine. “I didn’t do it. I still think the rightful heir to the throne is Prince Gustav of Vasa, but never have I contemplated a deed as foul and dishonourable as murder. Jamais! Besides, the man died falling off his horse, non?”
“Absolutely, I agree. From below comes the rather disturbing sound of someone bashing at the door. He fled here when the crowd succeeded in pulling him out of his carriage, but I fear the reprieve will be shortlived. “Maybe you should …” I wave my hand towards the back of the house. “You know, slip away over the roofs or such.”
“What? Axel von Fersen sneak off like a shadow in the night? I think not.” He straightens up and in a shaft of June sunlight I finally get to see his features. Strong bones with a decisive chin and prominent cheekbones, thick dark brows, a sensual mouth and a most aristocratic nose – well, he would have one of those, wouldn’t he? All in all, a beautiful man, even with his wig askew, even with his face shadowed by fear. And no wonder, given the mob. Any moment now they’ll come rushing through the door and then … I gulp.Yet another crashing sound and someone cheers, through the window I can see the Royal Life Guards standing in formation, but they seem disinclined to stop the enraged, howling crowd of people from battering the door down.
Beside me, Axel mutters a soft “courage” and raises a small object to his lips. A medallion of sorts on a golden chain, and when I look closer I see it’s decorated with a muted depiction of Marie Antoinette. He slips it back inside his shirt.
“Is it true then?” I say, touched by how his hand lingers over his heart as if holding the medallion to it.
“Is what true?”
“That you and she … well, you know.”
He looks down his nose at me. “No, I don’t know.”
“That you were lovers.”
He breaks out in a radiant smile, and for a couple of heartbeats I see him as he must have been when a young man in Paris. There’s a rending sound at the door, the smile disappears.
“I loved her. She loved me. Ca suffit, non?” He adjusts his cravat and smooths down his coat, squaring his shoulders as he faces the breaking door.
“Non, ma chere. I will say no more. Some things a man carries with him to his grave.”
The door crashes open. men swarm into the room, grabbing at my newfound friend. He struggles, he yells, but he is overwhelmed and dragged outside. There is a loud, jubilant roar from the assembled people. The Marshal is attacked on all sides, and all the while the damned soldiers just stand there, watching as the poor man is more or less torn to pieces. Someone protests. officers move into the fray and Axel von Fersen is unhanded, helped to stand. There is very little left of his finery, his wig is gone, hie is bloodied and bruised. He raises his face. For an instant his eyes meet mine and he bows before he’s lead away to the nearby court house. The rabble surround him.
I am still there when ten minutes later he is dragged back into the open, and this time no one intercedes. One single man against a raging mob of hundreds, an unarmed man fighting for his life. It’s unbearable to watch. I rush down teh stairs and grab hold of the closest soldier.
“Do something! Don’t let them … oh my God!” They’ve got him on the ground, they’re kicking him, stomping on him. “Do something,” I beg.
“I can’t,” the soldier whispers in a voice full of tears. “We’re under orders not to help him.”
All we can do, the weeping soldier and I, is watch. It takes a long time for a man to die of blows and kicks. Even from where I’m standing I hear the dull crack of his ribs when a man jumps up and down on him. I think it is with great relief he expels his last breath of air. I turn to the side and throw up.