This is the second story in the Crown of Tassilo series. The stories chronicle the history of the fictional country of Rothenia (a development of Anthony Hope’s Ruritania) from 1880 to the present day. This second story deals with the period on either side of the First World War, and the character of Maxim Elphberg-Rassendyll, the younger son of Robert Rassendyll, who featured in the first volume as the unsuccessful claimant to the throne of Ruritania. The story moves on thirty years to the much-dreaded accession of King Albert and its violent consequences. We also pick up once again the story of Gus Underwood, now approaching fifty, the hero of Count Oskar, who features prominently in this story as he will also in the third of the series, The Unnatural Archeologist. It has to be said that Count Oskar himself is not entirely absent from the story.
This story owes much to the editing skills and advice of Rob, Terry, James and Eldon. My deepest thanks to them as ever.
MAXIM ELPHBERG - I
‘I think I can claim to be a man who has lived in the world, wouldn’t you agree, Maria?’
Maria giggled, an annoying habit for which she had to be forgiven, being only fourteen.
Maxim gave his sister a cool look and took another drag on his cigarette, poised in its mother-of-pearl holder.
She subsided. ‘Yes, Max. You are a man who has, er … lived in the world.’
‘Thank you, little Maus, so when I tell you that whatever you do is likely to have long-term consequences, you’ll realise that there is some experience lying behind my words.’
Lady Maria Rassendyll surveyed her brother. She was forcing herself to be serious. Maxim was, after all, nine years her senior and deserved to be treated with caution, especially as Christmas was approaching. Elder brothers could be very generous to little sisters – something Maria had long realised – and should not lightly be antagonised.
Maxim continued, watching as he did the blue smoke ascend from the glowing tip of his black Turkish cigarette. ‘So where did you find this pamphlet, little Maus?’
‘Oh, it was round the house. I think it was in the back parlour amongst last weekend’s reviews.’
‘And did you read it?’
‘Well, I glanced at it, Max. But really, it wasn’t that well written.’
Max stared at the pale-green folded sheet. He began reading with deliberation: Man is afraid of women. He proves it every day. History proves it for him – the history of politics, the history of industry, the history of social life. An examination of men's attitude towards the women's movement shows evidence of fear at every turn. Yes, it is quite true. Man is afraid of women because he has oppressed her. Like every oppressor there is always for him the fear that the end may come, and rebellion sweep away the yoke he has imposed. And alongside of it the dread of such vengeful retaliation as corresponds to the oppressor's tyranny.
Max looked at the front of the pamphlet. ‘This is by one of those violent suffragist women, Maus. I’m surprised at you. Mama would be very distressed to see you reading such nonsense. “Vengeful retaliation,” my eye! I wouldn’t give a farthing for the chance of any female rebellion that came into contact with Mama! She stood up in the carriage in Regent Street and used her umbrella to beat that woman over the head, the one who was deliberately breaking shop windows. She had a point too. How does the smashing of property further any cause?’
Maria smiled innocently. ‘It furthers the cause of glaziers and carpenters.’
‘Now you are being facetious, my Maus. These … what do they call ‘em … suffragettes lost the argument as soon as they began to use violence. They could have done nothing more to distance themselves from women’s true nature and lose feminine sympathy.’
A small red spot appeared on each of Maria’s cheeks. ‘I think they want to be called “suffragists”, Max, and I don’t think Mrs Billington is one of that sort of agitator. In any case, she’s not talking about violence, only about how men fear women.’
Maxim surveyed his sister. ‘So you did read it then.’
Maria began to look defiant. ‘Kate gave it to me and said I should.’
Her brother let out a sigh. ‘Kate. I suppose that explains everything. She no doubt got the blessed thing from her friend Antonia.’
Maria kept her peace. It was never too wise to allude directly to Antonia Underwood in the Rassendyll household. In her brief stay at No 305 Park Lane, Antonia had caused all sorts of distress. Before things could get quite out of hand, the dowager countess their mother had suggested to her, with a forcefulness beyond the realm of politeness, that she perhaps should make an extended visit to her relatives at Winchmore Hill.
Antonia had since remained with her cousins in Middlesex, but her stay in Park Lane had nonetheless earned her allies in the Rassendyll household as much as enemies. She had been sent by her father to London to experience the social season and be presented at court. To begin with, the dowager countess had been quite happy to preside over this rite of passage for an attractive young lady of good family. Antonia’s father had heavy claims on the Rassendylls, and the countess would never have dismissed her from the house except under the most extreme provocation.
The provocation had been extreme. The Rassendyll household was strongly and conventionally Catholic, while Antonia was a vociferous free thinker with an unhealthy interest in spiritualism. The Rassendyll daughters had been brought up to regard the London season and a good marriage as the summit of their duty to their family.
Antonia, on the other hand, corresponded with Lily Braun and Clara Zetkin. She subscribed to The Social Revolutionist. The dreadful words ‘free love’ had been heard on her lips in the drawing room when marriage had been under discussion. Antonia smoked cigarettes and bathed nude in Hampstead Ponds. She talked of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen. She had enrolled as a student in the London School of Economics. Her membership of the Women’s Social and Political Union was in fact a minor item in the blood-red catalogue of her domestic sins. There were even redder and unsuspected ones, not the least of which was the passionate three-month affair she and Maxim had shared. But that was something neither of them mentioned at Park Lane.
Yet Antonia Underwood had made friends in the Rassendyll camp. Maria and her eldest sister Kate had been delighted at Antonia’s freshness and her defiance of convention. Their brother, the tenth earl of Burlesdon, had been heard to differ with Mama on her hasty expulsion of Antonia from Park Lane.
The Hon. Maxim Rassendyll was more difficult to classify as friend or foe. To begin with, he had been as welcoming to their guest as had his sisters. Then had come the love affair, and the disillusionment that followed its inevitable and disastrous end. Maxim had not resented so much Antonia’s lack of conventional morality, or even her termination of their relationship with such bruising suddenness. He was not a conventional sort of man himself. It was just that he thought the desire to shock for its own sake to be puerile, and found he could not pardon Antonia of that offence.
So Maxim gave a quirky look at his littlest sister, who picked up the fact that he was not really angry at her. She smirked, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and tripped off, still holding the pamphlet.
Maxim, on the other hand, put down his cigarette and spent the next ten minutes wondering what it was precisely that he felt about Antonia Underwood. Then he rang for a servant, and asked for a cab to be called.
His family understood that the Hon. Maxim Rassendyll had a form of employment. If asked, they would say he was something in one of the committees of the War Office. It was known, however, that he did not in fact have an office in Whitehall. If he had to be located, he could be reached at rooms he somehow possessed in a set of chambers in the Middle Temple.
That morning the cab took him neither to Whitehall nor to the Temple. He alighted in Pall Mall at the Army and Navy Club. He was expected. A gloomy older man in a frock coat shook his hand and orchestrated his signing in. He was led to the library where tea was waiting in a silver pot.
Little was said beyond common form until Maxim’s companion was sitting nursing a cup, the vapour from the brown liquid curling up in front of his face. Finally he said, in a precise Edinburgh accent, ‘I think it is time you were off on your travels again, Rassendyll.’
Maxim smiled. ‘Is it the German situation, Macpherson?’
‘Everything is the German situation in one way or another. Now they are building dreadnoughts and acquiring colonies, they have become a direct challenge to the Empire. It is deliberate and it is alarming.’
‘Also it is nonsensical.’ Maxim scowled. ‘Never were two peoples more natural allies than the German and British Empires. Yet here we are wasting our substance in a pointless rivalry.’
‘Exactly. But the way of the world is that their emperor is a man for domination, and he wishes to use his power to dominate not just Europe but the world. Let us not go through it all again, my boy. It is our task to deal with things as they are, not say how we would want them to be.’ Macpherson paused and took a sip of tea. ‘I think you may be gone for quite a while this time.’
‘Where is it to be?’
‘After the invasion scare, the committee has decided that the time has come to invest in a long-term programme. We are to be called the Secret Service.’ He rolled the words out with some relish. ‘Naval Intelligence has taken responsibility for the empire itself. But our people are looking at the fringes of Germany. The Section de Renseignement won’t want us trampling around Alsace and Lorraine. On the other hand, the Slavic lands are a wide-open door. Bohemia and Moravia are natural places for us to start work, now that Austria-Hungary is so firmly tied into their Triple Alliance. There are movements for independence which will be good recruiting grounds. And of course a perfect place to centre our efforts is in Ruritania, a neutral power between Germany and Austria, and sufficiently Slavic to have sympathies with the minorities in both empires. You are just the man for the job, being yourself half Hungarian.’
‘Ruritania?’ Maxim became alert.
Macpherson noticed the change. ‘You have some connection with the place?’
‘I certainly do. My brother has estates there, and you must know the story of my father.’
Macpherson nodded. ‘Now you mention it, yes. He almost became king, did he not?’
Maxim smiled. ‘What a difference had he done so, for both our sakes. My brother would be king and I would be a royal highness. Ruritania would be more friendly to ourselves and the French too, but that old fox Bismarck managed to outmanoeuvre the Elphberg-Rassendyll party, so instead the poor Ruritanians have Germans on the throne.’
‘That will add a certain spice to your work, Rassendyll, and perhaps danger too. German Intelligence must be well established in Strelsau, which will put you at something of a disadvantage.’
‘Hmmm … but maybe I have the means to counter that.’
Macpherson cocked a sandy eyebrow at the younger man. Maxim looked blandly back at the quizzical stare, and simply smiled. Finally the Scotsman pursed his lips and said, ‘I hear the king is not too healthy at the moment … the king of Ruritania, I mean.’
‘Cousin William Henry has long had a history of heart trouble. His past three years as king cannot have added to his tranquillity.’
‘When do you think you can leave?’
‘There’s nothing keeping me here. Within the fortnight I would say. What funds are available?’
‘There will be a telegraph transfer made into the Anglo-Austrian Bank in Strelsau as soon as you open an account. It will be very handsome, such is the alarm currently being inspired in the papers by fear of Germany. Needless to say, I will be keeping a sharp eye on your expenditures.’
Maxim laughed. ‘Och, you Caledonian you, Macpherson. I would expect little less. Are we staying for lunch? I hear the beef Wellington is good enough for Apsley House.’
Winchmore Hill station on a Saturday afternoon in early November was more or less empty. No cabs were standing in the rank opposite, and Maxim did not know the omnibus routes, so he walked up to the Green and then out along Church Hill. The pavements were full of drifted leaves, wet after a night of rain. Parties of boys were hurling sticks up into the chestnut trees, hoping to dislodge the last of the conkers, or else were kicking up mounds of leaves.
The houses along the road grew grander and more secluded the further Maxim walked. Finally he reached Harlesdon Lodge, a stuccoed Regency villa with a drive and a screen of mature oak trees between road and house. Maxim knew it was all that was left of the former Underwood estate north of Grovelands. It had been mostly sold off to developers and the railway for a huge profit in the past generation. The house itself had been made over to Philip Underwood, brother of the present baronet, who himself continued to reside at the family seat in Suffolk. Here also at present was living Antonia Underwood, Philip’s cousin.
Maxim rang the bell and sent in his card. A maid invited him into the small but elegant entrance hall, with its stair dividing and leading up to the first floor.
Philip, a married man in his late twenties, came out of a reception room with gratifying promptness and had Maxim’s hat and coat taken in charge by the maid. ‘I’m sorry Antonia isn’t here, my dear Rassendyll. She went in to Aldwych this morning to teach an extension class at the School of Economics, and I don’t know when she will be returning. It’s a dreadful bore that you have had a long journey for nothing. But it’s nice to see an old family friend. Come in and have a tea or something. We may even be able to find muffins around somewhere.’
Maxim settled amiably on a sofa between Philip and his wife, and caught up with the latest Underwood gossip. The families remained close from the long friendship between Philip’s uncle Augustus and Maxim’s late father. Augustus Underwood had been for nearly thirty years the Rassendyll family’s agent in Ruritania, managing their estates and local interests. Antonia was Augustus’s daughter, and Maxim was offering himself as courier for any messages and parcels that needed taking abroad to her father.
Five o’clock came, and still no Antonia. Declining an offer of dinner, Maxim took his leave of the Underwoods of Harlesdon and went out into the darkening streets of Winchmore Hill. He was still wondering absently why he had made this long journey at all when he recognised the slim and upright female figure coming along the street towards him from the direction of the station. A slight prickle at his neck and an extra pulse in his heart promptly betrayed to him the real reason for his pilgrimage.
He took off his hat as she drew level. ‘Miss Underwood.’
‘Don’t be a prig, Max dear,’ Antonia rejoined tartly. ‘All this hat-doffing is so medieval and would-be chivalric. It presumes I am a delicate china doll and not a woman. You simper and smirk and tell me by doing it that we are not equal, not even members of the same race.’
‘A pleasure as ever, Antonia.’ Maxim smiled faintly.
‘And now you imply that I am not your equal in breeding as I have only contempt for the empty airs and graces of polite society. When will you ever open your mouth without insulting me mortally, Max?’
‘It seems very difficult to avoid it, Toni.’
‘At least you’re still in a good humour with me, despite everything.’ Touchy though her words were, Antonia was actually smiling back at him.
‘I’m leaving on a posting to Strelsau in a few days, Toni. I came out to see if you have any messages you want me to take to your father. I shall go out to Hentzau as soon as I get there. It will be no trouble.’
‘That’s kind, Max. Just take my love. I write to him every week, you know.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘How long will you be abroad this time?’
‘Hard to say. At least two years, though I will be back on leave from time to time.’
‘Then I expect I shall be more likely to see you in Rothenia than here.’
‘Ah yes … Rothenia. You call your mother’s land that, don’t you, not the Germanic Ruritania.’
Antonia bridled. ‘Rothenia is its true name, the people’s name. Ruritania is a Germanic fiction, invented by an alien aristocracy to oppress the ancient Slavic culture of our land.’
‘I shall bear that in mind, Toni, and sneer at any Germanic oppressor I meet.’ Antonia stiffened, as Maxim could see even in the twilight. He went on, ‘Spare me, Toni. I was not patronising you. It is so difficult to have a joke with you, since you perceive humour as a way of belittling yourself and your good causes. It was not always this way between us.’
‘There’s no point in visiting that all over again.’ Antonia sighed, a little defensively he thought.
‘No, I was not planning to. Till we meet again in Strelsau then.’
‘We call it Strelzen. Goodbye, Max.’
With that unsatisfactory leave-taking, Maxim resumed his hat and walked off down to the station. Had he turned round, he would have seen Antonia watching him go till he was out of sight. It was as well for his peace of mind that he stayed wrapped in his disappointment, and kept his eyes on the road in front of him.