Previously on The Ringstetten Saga:
In late autumn the same year, a detachment shows up near the estate. The rittmeister (captain) who leads the unit is searching for the highwaymen of those woods, a wild ragtag band known as the Värmland Wolves. Surprised by a thunderstorm, the soldiers take refuge at Vänersvik for the night. That evening, the Finnish rittmeister has a conversation with Krister's parents, as our young hero eavesdrops from behind the door. According to the rittmeister, Krister is meant to be a military officer. There is a vacant ensign slot in the garrison of a Karelian fortress, across the country, right at the Swedish-Russian border. The Count and Countess decide to send the other son of theirs to the army, for, according to the rittmeister, "he may become a general if he plays his cards right". And because Kristian is the heir and the other two are spares.
It is thus decided that Krister should be an officer: his dream is finally come true. But insecurity seizes him as well: maybe he will never become a general or a war hero?
So young Krister spends the night awake, much to the surprise of the rittmeister upon finding the boy unconscious in the room he once shared with his twin brother. Our future officer does not even listen to his parents' words of farewell nor feel their kisses, and he falls asleep on horseback, riding behind the rittmeister, as the golden birch leaves fall onto the soldiers' uniforms.
And thus, Krister finally makes it to his first assignment! The military complex surrounded by two concentric star-shaped ramparts with their respective moats (and the many menacing cannons) makes a deep impression in the heart of our young ensign. He asks the guards for the way to the officers' residence, and on the way, he discovers the outpost has got a forge, a bakery, a tavern, and even farm animals like sheep and chickens. All of this business is obviously militarized.
The newcomer is hazed by his fellow officers to take the Commandant's wife by the boobs (the Ramsays, the Commandant's family, living apart from the subaltern officers, are seen as "invisible and powerful gods"). Luckily for Krister, Lady Ramsay's maidservant happens to be taking a stroll in the courtyard and flirting with the officer on duty. Krister rushes forth and grabs the maid. Then, he lies to the other officers about his alleged "success".
A new life begins for Krister von Ringstetten: a life of drilling on the fields and in the woods with his company (training in marksmanship, riding, climbing...). Sometimes, he happens to be on guard duty. But the evenings that he is not on duty, returning thirsty and weary at dusk, he frequents the outpost tavern with his fellow officers. A nice glass of brandy (let it be Cognac) and a deck of cards, and sometimes party until midnight!
It seems that Cupid has either forgotten Krister or realized that the young officer is queer. The Ramsays' twin daughters, Anne-Marie and Marianne, are already betrothed each to an officer of the garrison. And he doesn't take to anyone of them (in spite of their good looks).
Years follow years: the young officer exerts himself by day, and at night he sometimes stands guard in a sentry box (in starry calm, thunderstorm, or snowfall), drinking in the tavern (when he isn't on duty) in the evenings, making good friends in the other subaltern officers. This is routine, though exciting. Such is the life of a military officer in times of peace. The excitement in it all, coupled with his sunny mood, make Krister come of age, though without renouncing to pleasure.
Most of the garrison's officers, including both Colonel Ramsay and our young ensign, support the Hat Party, which defends the need of a Swedish Empire along the Baltic coast (the dream shattered at Poltava), and thus, revenge against Russia for the defeat at the start of the century. The absolutism that follows Gustavus III's velvet revolution, in spite of dissolving the parties, doesn't change the opinion of the local officer class.
The uniform, however, goes through a couple of changes: the tricorn is replaced with a black top hat or "storm hat", and officers have to wear a white kerchief, a sign of loyalty to the new king, tied around the left arm.
Rarely, routine is broken by an unexpected event: a promotion, a demotion, a reassignment that takes a new officer into the outpost or an old friend away, even a rain of frogs takes place in springtime, one day after Krister is made a lieutenant! The most important thing is that peace has lasted for about a decade since young Ringstetten arrived.
One day in early summer 1788, the region is shaken by a rumour that armed Cossacks have crossed the border from Russia into Sweden. Which can only mean W-A-R. The officers that formerly belonged to the Hat Party feel that their prayers for national greatness have been heard.
The leader of the Russian Army is the ruler of the empire herself, a clever Prussian who successfully dethroned her weak-willed consort. Catherine the Great should not be underestimated for being a woman: the Czarina has got decades of experience in statesmanship and warfare. Compared to her, Gustavus III is a newbie (both as a ruler and as a commander).
In such startling circumstances, Lieutenant Krister von Ringstetten is reassigned to another regiment. On the frontline. A dream come true, won't it be?
He is rather impatient upon arriving in camp: meeting the sergeant, a born and raised Karelian, the child musicians, and the colonel's cutesy teenage daughter, a red-haired and freckled perky camp follower... wait a second! Is history repeating itself? And does Charlotte Vandeer actually have a crush on Krister? It seems so. Anyway, he starts viewing the redhead as an annoying stalker... for she follows the young lieutenant like a newly-hatched duckling! She sleeps by his side at the campfire, which gives the colonel an idea: Why can't she marry you? Krister can't say that he's queer, or that she is too young to think of such things (Charlotte is three or four years younger than Liselotte!). He actually loves her... as a friend or a little sister, somewhat to her chagrin.
And he is impatient for his baptism of fire to come, though he finds battle something not that romantic during the first confrontation he takes part in: gunshots echoing across the plains, the scent of blood and gunpowder, glimpses of running, riding, or falling blue and green coats (of friends and enemies, respectively) through the gunsmoke... The Russian ranks cross paths with the Swedes, and the wounded, once hit, scream in agony. The warmth of July days increases, gradually turning into heat. Karelia, a peaceful frontier region, has become Hell on Earth.
During a battle, our young lieutenant falls off his wounded steed. Luckily, he lands on soft ground (on a slain Cossack), but he has no time to react when he feels a glowing object enter his back. He is so startled that he gets instantly dizzy, and then everything turns black before his eyes.
The last he can hear are the survivors of his company, among which the sergeant is not counted:
"Lieutenant! Answer, please!"
"He's still breathing! Come on, let's get him out of here!"
When Krister comes to in a field hospital, his torso wrapped in bandages, he can't comprehend how lucky he has been to have survived. Both the regimental surgeon and Charlotte, who helps the surgeons tend to the wounded, are standing by his sickbed. The lieutenant's mind is initially clouded, but, after some time, he is completely conscious, and he puts two and two together.
The red-haired girl lays something in his hand: a bloodstained chunk of lead, the size of a hazelnut. Krister makes the right guess: it's the bullet that hit him. Somewhat later, while bloodletting, the surgeon explains: "You're ostensibly lucky, Herr Lieutenant! That bullet was a fine one: right on the left shoulder blade! And the marksman was far enough for the bullet not to have plunged deeper! Otherwise, Herr Lieutenant, you wouldn't be here at all!"
These words won't only fill Krister with relief, but also with worry.
At the start of his convalescence, he is impatient to return to the field, but his attitude undergoes a significant change. The lieutenant's wound takes a fortnight to heal, his system being young and resilient. But, while Sweden and Russia fight each other in the outside world, two worldviews dramatically confront each other within him. One of them, from innocent childhood, shows only the bright side of war: the Breitenfelds and Lechs and Lützens of the Memoirs, and those of his many roleplays. The other worldview, more recent, displays an inferno where thousands of young lives are discarded: warfare as a dark board game, meant for important people like kings and czarinas, played with expendable human pieces, and with a prize as absurd as being able to move the line that tells the opponent's lands from one's own.
In the end, the latter view of war is the one to emerge victorious: being a subaltern officer, Krister is, after all, just a piece of middling rank, neither high nor low, in a nonsensical game of war.
Before he can be discharged from the field hospital, yet having fully recovered, he takes his uniform and flees the camp on a short and warm summer night full of stars. Fireflies circle around him, like stars that have flown too close to the Earth. Frogs are heard croaking, and crickets are heard chirping.
At the crack of dawn, he notices an abandoned farm on a hilltop: it will prove a nice resting place on his ramblings. Krister doesn't regret having deserted: rather than that, he's full of confidence.
Inside the farmhouse, he meets dozens of young men dressed like him: in plumed "storm hats" and blue coats with white arm-kerchiefs and epaulets, with short swords and pistols. These Swedish officers, among which Krister recognizes a few comrades from the fortress where he was garrisoned during peacetime, haven't deserted: they're on leave and will soon return to their respective regiments.
All of them share the young lieutenant's view of war as nonsense, and they have written and signed a letter in French, adressed to Her Imperial Majesty Catherine II Sophia Dorothea, Autocrat of All Russias... The message: to reconcile and restore peace to both realms in the name of Gustavus III, King of Sweden. They've even forged the King's handwriting to make it look more convincing!
They couldn't have come up with a better idea!
The farmstead's name is Anjala. The date is the thirteenth of August 1788.
The quill and ink are brought forth one last time, and soon a final signature is written confidently, without the slightest twinge of doubt: Lieutenant Krister von Ringstetten.
Some of the peacemakers leave to give the Czarina the letter, while most of the others return each one to his regiment. Krister, the odd one out, is left alone, to live the errant and wild life of an outcast (he lied to the others, telling them he was still in the ranks, not to be punished).
He lives on berries, mushrooms, and water, sometimes begging before a rectory or a tavern, sleeping in caves and abandoned crofts, sometimes in rectories. Upon seeing Swedish soldiers, he is naturally afraid of being punished for his crimes. Should he encounter the Russian military, he could be taken prisoner or sent to the firing squad, which Krister considers a better fate than being punished by his own.
One stormy autumn evening, he seeks refuge in a village inn, outside which he sees a dazzling baroque carriage fit for an important person, such as a Russian general or the Czarina herself.
The guests are mostly Swedish soldiers, but there is a person who attracts everyone's attention: an outspoken gentleman in his thirties, dressed in a finely powdered wig, a pink brocade overcoat, a cream-coloured waistcoat, bright green breeches, and buckled low shoes. Who's he?
"Not an actor", Krister thinks. "Actors travel in troupes". The landlady gives a clue: she boasts of her good luck to get to serve His Majesty! Thus, the stranger is Gustavus III! What a shocking surprise! Could chance have arranged for the paths of the King and young Ringstetten to cross?
Anyway, Krister asks for a strong drink to warm him from within. The landlady, feeling sorry, offers him a draught of potato brandy. Down the lieutenant's throat it goes, at one fell swoop. Just what he needed after wandering in the cold autumn storm: it feels like swallowing a little flame! And, being generally sober, the effect strikes like lightning: the liquor warms his blood, turning his cheeks rosy and making his eyes glitter. Finally, the effect of brandy even clouds his mind, and he begins to stagger. In such a state, King Gustavus takes the young officer by the hand and leads him upstairs. Both men enter the same bedroom, though one of them is too intoxicated to find out. A valet takes the lieutenant's uniform off, to subsequently undress the ruler. Krister is getting more and more nervous, until he finally tells Gustavus the whole truth under the influence:
"Do as you please with me! Once I was Lieutenant Krister Axel von Ringstetten... Now I am but a miserable sinner! After being wounded, I thought that warfare was nonsensical, and thus, I fled the war front! I have even signed the Anjala officers' letter of peace! Please have me court-martialled, so I may be either banished from this land or imprisoned for a lifetime, if not sentenced to the firing squad! My fate is in your royal hands!"
His Majesty replies with a Cheshire Cat grin, embracing the young officer and taking off the bandages from his torso. The wound on the left side of Krister's back has become a little round scar.
Both men go to sleep together, in the same bed: the officer's head resting on the ruler's chest, so Krister can get to hear Gustavus's frantic heartbeat and his steady breathing. They tickle each other under the cover for a while before falling asleep.
The next morning, Lieutenant von Ringstetten wakes up in a cold sweat, pale as his shirt, with a pulsating pain both in the head and in the rear. During his and his liege lord's levée (courtesy of the same valet who had arranged their evening couchée), he remembers having confessed his crime to the most important person in the Kingdom of Sweden. The officer, filled with guilt and regret, explains this to the ruler. Krister expects, obviously, a court martial and a severe punishment to accept. But, to his surprise, Gustavus III takes him by the hands and replies, with that Cheshire Cat grin-like smile of his:
"Pas de craindre, mon garçon! (Fear not, my lad!) Should I ever dare to punish such a gentleman? You've given me the best soirée in a lifetime, so why should you ever be court-martialled? Thus I pardon you, Lieutenant Krister Axel von Ringstetten! Vous êtes pardonné!"
The young officer didn't see that coming: a royal pardon, instead of a court martial! And besides, His Majesty reunites Krister with his regiment, for the lieutenant to read a few letters from his loved ones. One from a certain estate in Värmland, the other from a bourgeois household on the outskirts of Uppsala.
The latter is, obviously, his ailing brother Kristian's will. He wishes to be buried in the Ringstetten estate garden in Värmland, he has appointed his twin brother Krister (who survived the war, as he has stated in a letter sent to Kristian during his convalescence, before desertion) his heir, consoled his own parents in another previous letter, and there is even an arrangement of a levirate marriage between the widowed Erika and the still unmarried Krister. The young bridegroom is somewhat startled, and he doubts what to do for a while: he's queer, like his liege lord, yet he feels sorry for the plight of Erika and her daughters. And thus, he decides to return to Vänersvik. With Krister comes Charlotte, now a ward of the State and completely orphaned after her father's death on the battlefield. Peace has been signed. And Sweden has proved not to be a fallen empire by winning the war!
The young girl is somewhat jealous of her beloved's betrothed, which may have devastating consequences...
The promise has nevertheless to be fulfilled. A modest gentleman, his daughter, and her twin children soon arrive at Vänersvik, all dressed in black and having travelled in a black-draped carriage with the lifeless form of a young scholar across a cold, snowy landscape. At the funeral, in a French garden covered in a blanket of snow, they encounter a young man with Kristian's exact appearance, dressed in an officer's uniform. The next day, as Karl Johan returns to Uppsala, Erika and the twins stay on the estate and prepare a second wedding while getting to know Krister. He has become a reserved and cold veteran, at first indifferent to Erika yet compelled to marry her, but soon he feels sorry for her and opens up to his new relatives, though he is at first reluctant to make love and produce an heir, as Linnéa and Tradescantia gradually start to accept him. They even get to visit Miss Ulrika on Honeysuckle Farm, where the young girls will go to school together with peasant children, to bring the elite closer to the common people. And so will the expected male heir: Krister has finally yielded to his duty, and Erika has a bun in the oven!
As for Charlotte, she reacts coolly to the appearance of a young wife for her Krister and two foster sisters for herself. The redhead is five or six years older than Erika's daughters... and there will be a fourth child in November: a little Gustav or Sophia (the Ringstettens' hopes of a male heir are high once more!). But is her coolness for real?