Read by Tony Bell
It was only when Princess Nadya arrived at the Palace that Count Albrecht Schmarkov realised he probably needed to revise his strategy. He took the business card he had prepared for the evening from his breast pocket and re-read it to himself:
“To the Fortunate Lady On Whom This Card Has Been Bestowed: Major-General Count Albrecht Schmarkov has, with the issuance of this card, notified you that he has been somewhat taken by your charms and would be most desirous that you seek to arrange an audience, at a time of his convenience, so that the extent of the liaison can be ascertained.”
It had not occurred to the Count before this moment that such a message – so obviously perfect for the countesses and actresses of St. Petersburg – may not be quite the means to win the hand in marriage of a Princess. Such a union would lift the Count to the highest level in Russian society, a standing he so clearly deserved. But now, doubts started to undermine what had been yet another of his unquestionably brilliant plans. For the announcement that had heralded the Princess’ arrival at her first ever social function had clearly stated that Her Royal Highness Princess Nadya was twelve years old.
Not having any children to whom he was prepared to pay the slightest attention, the Count was only now struck by the fact that he had literally no idea quite what being twelve years old meant. For a start – could they speak at that age?
“Hey, you – boy!” the Count shouted at one of the youngest looking servants hovering at the edge of the grand Ballroom. The child ran over, eagerly bowing to his superior. “Now answer this for me, boy. How old are you?”
“Eleven, sir,” the child timidly replied.
Good. They could talk.
“And do you understand what I mean when I use the following words … Princess? Proposal? Blunderbuss?”
“Why yes sir! – a Blunderbuss is …”
The Count waved at the servant angrily. “Don’t take me for a fool, Boy – I didn’t ask you to tell me what those words mean, just that you understood them. Now run along and get me paper and a writing implement before I thrash you for impertinence.”
When the nervous child brought the Count what he had demanded, Albrecht scowled his appreciation and began slowly working on a new card with which to introduce himself.
“To the Princess
You are a pretty girl.
I own seven horses.”
He then attempted to draw one of his horses, but his years on mounted military parades had sadly not furnished him with the skills to visually recreate one. Realizing that what he had drawn resembled more a long-faced five-legged, spider the Count consoled himself with the thought that under-thirteens were unlikely to know quite what horses looked like anyway.
“My dear Albrecht, why have you drawn such an adorable little octopus?” The Lady Maleva Melanovich had sidled up on the concentrating Count, an impressive feat for a woman who doubled in size with every expiring husband. “Is that to impress the Princess?”
The Count’s face oozed an awkward smile.
“If so, I should inform you that you would not be alone in seeking to catch the eye of the young lady. If you look over there, you will see the famous writer Baron Boris Bulkarkov. He’s astonishingly clever – he once spent a whole morning living as a peasant in the Urals to gain a complete understanding of their simple yet noble ways.”
“I am well aware of the Baron Bulkarkov,” the Count snapped, “That cur once wrote a short story with a character he claimed was a thinly disguised version of me. Fortunately he disguised me as a vain, pompous imbecile, so who could have noticed?” The Count stroked his moustache as he eyed his pen-wielding nemesis – just a small bug-eyed man with a ridiculously large beard. Ha! He did not feel threatened by such competition, for all the Baron’s exploits among the serfs. He himself had once ordered a family of peasants to be exiled to Siberia for not sufficiently “ooh-ing” at his war stories.
Usefully the invitation to this social event had come with an appendix of all those present, so Lady Melanovich proceeded to reel off the names of all the preening princes who were his competition. Albrecht felt that none of them possessed his sophisticated style and intelligent wit. Plus his army sword was much bigger than any of theirs.
He couldn’t help but feel somewhat troubled, though, that the young Princess’s evident charms – a wealthy father near death and an estate half the size of (the?) Ukraine – had clearly attracted such a multitude of suitors. If he were to make his move, better it be done soon.
As he moved towards the Princess, he saw that the Baron had got there first. Bulkarkov had the girl fixed in an intense stare as he intoned “Noble Princess, have you ever eaten bread made from wheat you have harvested with your own hands?”
“My dearest Princess,” the Count interrupted loudly, “I refuse to believe that so beautiful a lady as yourself would ever need to even raise a hand or knife for the purposes of, say, cutting a slice of bread for her own lunchtime, maybe, or dinner time or perhaps a light snack, er …”
The Count’s mind began to panic as the sentence ran on – where was he going with this?
“… such as bread with honey. And milk. And er … Would you like a picture of an octopus?”
The Count reached into his breast pocket only to feel no card. Seeking to thrust his hand deeper into his jacket, he ended up swinging his body round a full ninety degrees. This strange contortion resulted in his ceremonial scabbard spinning round and whacking a passing waiter, sending the items on his tray crashing to the ground.
Such chaos was all too much for the young Princess who was swept away by a phalanx of aunts, leaving the Count entangled in his own jacket as an enraged Bulkarkov swore terrible revenge. It was Lady Melanovich, though, who saved him from further social awkwardness by grabbing his arm and whisking him away to a quiet corner of the palace.
“My dear Albrecht, that could possibly have gone better. We had best avoid the Baron. I think he is preparing to challenge you a duel of some kind. It may please you to know that my sources have told me that the Princess has retired to a quiet drawing room on the East Wing, overlooking the garden. A man who could make his way there would be able to better present himself to the young lady, free from all these rivals.”
This news emboldened the Count. As he had learnt several times on the battlefield, should a General see a contingent of his men slaughtered on the frontline, he should not give up but bravely persevere, sending ever more infantry to tackle the enemy.
So it was that Count Albrecht found himself sneaking through the palace gardens towards the drawing room on the East Wing of the palace. There he saw the doors wide open to let in the cool summer breeze. Perfect, thought the Count. Brushing a few twigs from his moustache, he stood up straight and marched into the drawing room.
Only to be confronted by a giant Black Bear finishing off what was left of the Princess.
The creature took a look at the Count, then at its meal. Then back at the Count.
“This looks bad, doesn’t it?” the Bear said.
The Count was gripped by a violent and angry emotion. His heart pumped with the power of a firing cannon, his whole body now animated with an energy he had never felt before in his life.
“Why you …” he began … “Why you beautiful creature! You wonderful goddess of an animal!”
Albrecht felt swept along with a totally new kind of madness. For many years he had coldly admired the ornate depictions of bear in heraldry, or been amused by the bear-skin rugs decorating a hunting lodge. But this was all that and so much more. This was an actual living, breathing, ravishing realisation of that animal.
The bear tilted its head quizzically, “Come again?”
“Oh don’t be coy – you beautiful bear. You foresty temptress. Run away with me – Tonight. I must have you!” As he spoke, the Count became aware that he was divesting himself of his martial trappings. His sword, his medals. What need did he have of such things when he now had love?
By this point, the animal had assessed the situation. Its keen predator’s mind had calculated that unless this Count could be convinced to help it, this whole eating-of-a-princess business might end badly for it. Moreover, this was a Count. A bear could do worse.
“Wait,” began the beast, placing a large blood-stained paw tenderly on the Count’s shoulder. “Keep those trappings of rank and status. We will need a plan to get me out of this fix and make ourselves respectable.”
So that was how Major-General Count Albrecht Schmarkov ended up marrying a bear. While the engagement raised some eyebrows, the Orthodox priest reassured them that as long as the bear was not French, homosexual or Jewish then in the eyes of God it wasn’t a problem. And the bear decided to keep quiet on the fact that two-thirds of the assurances it gave wasn’t strictly true. Although nothing could be proved, the disappearance of Princess Nadya was widely blamed on the Baron Bulkarkov. Lady Melanova herself was to swear in court that she had advised the notoriously peasant-friendly Baron to sneak into the drawing room. Those who felt moved by the Lady’s tearful despair at having unwittingly aided such a fiend were happy to learn that she had subsequently found love, and another husband, in the Princess’s (nearly dead) wealthy father.
Forced by the accusations to live in exile, the Baron has devoted himself to completing his great Russian novel. It is currently thirty-three volumes and counting. The Count is not coming out well in it at all.
(c) Alan Graham, 2013
Alan Graham studied "Creative Writing" and "Economics" at UEA and is still unsure which discipline relies on make-believe the most. He currently lives and works in London.
Tony Bell received an Evening Standard Award nomination for A Man for All Seasons and has performed all over the world with award-winning all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, playing leading clowns and fools including Bottom, Feste, Autolycus and Tranio. TV includes Coronation Street, Holby City, Midsomer Murders, EastEnders & The Bill. He is also a radio and voiceover artist.