||What I didn't tell Sheila
by Josef Skvorcki
"No, I wasn't hallucinating. I offered to buy the king another drink and he accepted without hesitation."
When I arrived at the Savoy Hotel in Kitchener just before noon the next day, the manager was off on another business trip, and the only physical trace of his presence was a photograph over the bar with a shiny brass plaque below it bearing the legend: DUSAN TRCKA, MANAGER, WELCOMES YOU AT THE SAVOY.
Trcka might well have been an aristocrat. As ar as I could tell from the photograph, which had been amply retouched and airbrushed, he had proud features and a prominent, aquiline nose, slightly oversized but all the more aristocratic for that. The hair around his temples was a fashionable silver grey and, like Herman, he appeared to be about 50. Thus my sister had had at least two reasons for being attracted to him. The photo, in full colour, revealed that the master of the Savoy had the same steely-grey eyes as the keeper of the Old English Pub. His smile was the wide, confident grin of optimistic businessmen everywhere, displaying a magnificent set of teeth. It was impossible to tell whether they were the work of God or of man.
I sat down at a small table in the dimly lit bar and ordered a double Glenfiddich on the rocks. The bartender may well have concluded that I was a lush, for it was scarcely noon. I had a brief vision of sitting with Sheila in far more agreeable climes, somewhere on the Cote du Soleil, where the aura of guilt and shame that still clings to daytime drinking here would be left far behind.
After a few minutes had gone by and my eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom, I realized I wasn't alone. Two tables away, over a glass of sherry, sat another early drinker, an elderly man dressed in a neatly cut but slightly old-fashioned suit that looked as though it had been made to measure in Savile Row just after the First World War. In his lapel, like the prime minister, he wore a fresh red rose.
At first, I paid little attention to him because I was still studying the photograph of the grinning aristocrat, as though the gaudy colours and expert retouching could have yielded up some awful secret about my little sister and her unfortunate attraction to older men. Once, when I had asked her about it in anger, she retorted that older men know all about life, whereas wimps like me could give her nothing but bad advice. Her response outraged me, but recently I'd begun to understand more of what was behind her cliched insults. My sister had a powerful desire to know and grasp life at some deeper level than the superficial understanding offered by her peers. The way she chose to attain this knowledge was wrong, perhaps, and in the end it may have been what destroyed her. Essentially, however, that was all she wanted -- to know life. How could she possibly have learned anything worth knowing from this grinning toothpaste ad?
"Sir?" a grave tail gloomy voice beside me said.
I turned around. It was the man with the rose in his lapel. I stared at him more closely. If anyone looked like a nobleman around here, this old gentleman did. He had a distinctively English air about him, like someone out of a Punch cartoon, with a little grey moustache wader his nose and a real gold pincenez perched on top of it. His eyes were full of baleful self-absorption, like a basset hound's. The only thing out of place was his hands: they were large and gnarled, as though he had worked with them all his life.
"Do you know his excellency?" he asked. It sounded like a question from beyond the grave.
"Do you mean Tr - that man in the picture?" I replied.
He nodded. "Count Trcka."
He nodded again and with a thick forger that might have been crippled with the gout, he pointed to something standing next to the vodka bottles behind the bar. "His coat of arms," he announced.
I got up and walked over to the bar to take a closer look.. Sure enough, it was a plaque displaying a coat of arms with some creature - it could have been a hoot-owl - balancing what looked like a soccer ball on its head. There was a bar dividing the shield in half diagonally and a golden crown in the upper corner with points like a sheriff's star.
"His excellency is executive secretary of our heraldic society," said the old gentleman.
I came back, sat down and looked with interest at this strange creature. He was just crossing his legs, and as he did so I caught sight of a pair of genuine spats. The crease in his trousers was razor-sharp.
"Allow me to introduce myself," he said, holding out his hand ceremoniously. "I am Rupert, King of Bohemia."
The sensation I experienced can only be described as "mystical." Since taking over Jirina's portfolio, I had grown used to meeting an unusual number of Czechs, some of whom made impossible claims about themselves, emboldened, no doubt, by the virtual impossibility of ever checking up on them. This was the first time I had ever met anyone who claimed royalty.
I braced myself for another Czech yarn by draining my glass; this brought the underworked bartender to my side almost at once. "The same, sir?" he asked, and then looked at the old gentleman's glass. "And for you, your majesty?"
No, I wasn't hallucinating. I offered to buy the king a drink and he accepted without hesitation. He dipped his moustache in a fresh glass of sherry and, wiping it off with a finger that bore a huge signet ring with a two-tailed lion on it, he said, "You must certainly think I'm mad."
"Of course not, of course not," I said, too eagerly.
"Ah, but you do," he replied. "'That's understandable. A Czech king in Canada does not sound very plausible, I agree. But that's not the whole of it. At the present time, I am also the rightful pretender to the Grand Duchy of Canada. Are you familiar at all with Canadian history?"
"Well," I said uneasily. "I took a couple of courses at university."
"What do they know at university?" said the old man with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I'll tell you some real history. This land was originally called Prince Rupert's Land. Do you know who Prince Rupert was?"
It had never occurred to me to ask. I had always thought of him as a piece of territory, like Mr. Baffin. Unlike my sister, I had never been interested much in royalty.
"Prince Rupert was the legal and rightful heir to the Czech throne. He was born in Prague but he had to flee the country with his father at the age of one when the Austrian Hapsburgs usurped the Czech kingdom after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. Rupert's father was Fredrick Falcky, the last of the legitimate Czech kings."
This was the second time in two days that the Hapsburgs had come up in conversation. It had obviously been an important dynasty.
"Historians have established," the old man went on, punctuating his monologue with noisy sips of sherry, "that Prince Rupert never completely forgot the Czech he learned from his nanny. His mother, Elizabeth Stuart, was the daughter of James I and therefore his royal Britannic majesty, as compensation for Prince Rupert's lost kingdom of Bohemia, granted him a fiefdom which turned out to be a new territory discovered not long before on the other side of the Atlantic Ooean. This territory was owned by the Hudson's Bay Company, of which Prince Rupert was a founding member, and that land is now part of the Dominion of Canada. They called it Prince Rupert's Land, after the prince. That is the legal basis of my claim both to this continent arid to the title I bear."
The bar man did his job well and the room began to fill up with fog while the old man droned on in what was unmistakably a flat, mid-Ontario honk. With each new Glenfiddich, his story became more and more outrageous and afterwards I was able to recall only its crude outlines. It seems that Count Trcka had been the first to put the king on the trail of his ancestors. Trcka had told him that it was a tradition in the Bohemian royal family to call first-born sons by the old-fashioned name of Rupert. The man who claimed to be king was a retired farmer from Orangeville. Trcka had agreed to help him trace his ancestry if he would join the heraldic society and pay the necessary research fee; the king, a widower whose sons had both emigrated to western Australia, agreed, and after a great deal of research that included several trips to Europe by the executive secretary, the Orangeville farmer was presented with a regal set of roots. Trcka had discovered that according to an ancient medieval custom, the monarch's family name contained an anagram, or rebus, which proved his claim to the throne of Bohemia. The core of the rebus was the German word von, but since the last two rightful kings of Bohemia had in fact been German, the chief of the heraldic society deemed there to be nothing wrong in this.
"And what is your surname, your majesty?" I asked, talking in the general direction of the rose.
"Novack. We've been in this country for three generations."
When his name was read backwards, the rebus was revealed: kcavon. Trcka had explained to the king that the letters k.c.a. represented a corruption of the Czech initials c.a.k., which stood for Caesar and King, a form of address used since the fourteenth century for Czech rulers. The von simply indicated that the noble ancestry of the last rex Bohemorum originated in the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. That, combined with the Christian name Rupert, which was a tradition in the Novack family...
During an interval, when the king had gone to the washroom and the waiter had left the bar for a moment, I left enough money on the table to cover the bill - both mine and the sovereign's - and walked behind the bar. I took Trcka's picture off the wall, slipped it into my attached case and strode quickly, if none too steadily, out of the hotel.
The glare and the heat of the day engulfed me like a tropical sea but I made it to the car and drove carefully back to the 401, stopping on the way at a small truck stop for a strong coffee and a hamburger. I also made a phone call to Sheila and asked her to check on something for me. While I was waiting for the woman to bring my order, I tried to force my mind, numbed by alcohol and still buzzing with the absurd monarch's hypnotic tale, into some semblance of rational activity.
I concluded that the tipsy divertimento with the unfortunate farmer from Orangeville had not been entirely a waste of time. In the first place, it put Trcka, whoever he was, in a dubious light. It was clear to me that long before Mr. Novack was ever restored to his throne, he would have been plucked clean of the assets he had accumulated over a lifetime of hard work.. More to the point, however, I also learned that this heraldic society, of which Trcka was executive secretary, was supposed to have had its regular monthly meeting in the Savoy Hotel on the very night Heather had been killed. About three o'clock that same afternoon, the king was advised by telephone that the meeting had been cancelled because Count Trcka had been called away from Kitchener on urgent family business.
This fitted perfectly into the hypothesis that was beginning to emerge in my mind.