MAXIM ELPHBERG - III
On the morning of Stefansfest, Maxim took his coffee in the castle’s reception room. It was brought in by Marek, the butler.
‘There you are, sir. Will that be all?’
‘Just wait a moment, Marek.’
‘I wonder if you could tell me about the man in that picture.’
The Rothenian’s face looked simultaneously deferential and cautious. ‘You mean Count Oskar, sir.’
‘Yes, Oskar von Tarlenheim.’
‘What do you want to know, sir?’
‘Why is his portrait here?’
‘He was a very close friend of Mr Underwood’s, and also your father’s. The manner of his death was tragic.’ Marek’s expression had become somewhat withdrawn and had lost all the tinge of amusement that seemed often to linger there.
‘You knew him too, Marek.’
‘Yes sir. I was a runaway boy from Hofbau on the streets of Strelsau in the year ’79, and Count Oskar found me employment in a … in a club he was involved with.’
Maxim was intrigued. It did not take much to see that there was a story here. ‘How old were you then, Marek?’
‘Sixteen, sir. Seventeen when Mr Underwood took me on as his valet. I have been with him ever since, for the past twelve years as butler and steward to the Rassendyll estate here.’
‘Tell me about Count Oskar.’
Marek looked puzzled. ‘He was brave and very handsome, sir. Not the sort of man you meet every day. I think he was quite fearless. He loved this country and the House of Elphberg.’
‘He was a soldier?’
‘Not as such, though I think he had some connection with the General Staff through the Foreign Ministry.’
‘How did he and Mr Underwood meet?’
‘It was all wrapped up in the succession crisis after the old queen died, sir. But I think … yes, I’m sure that the count and Mr Underwood first met in Vienna. You really ought to ask him, sir.’
‘I will. Then they only knew each other a few months.’
‘If you say so, sir.’
‘For so short an acquaintance, they seem to have been very close.’
Marek was looking guarded now. ‘It was a time of danger and very great excitement, sir. We seemed to move in an avalanche of events. Every day was vivid and lived to the fullest. We were all young, too, and the affections of the young are so very passionate.’
Maxim nodded, and thanked Marek, who gave him an inscrutable look before leaving. Maxim knew a lot about male friendships, having survived a public-school education. He was inclined to wonder quite how close a relationship Gus and the late count had enjoyed. ‘A suo Augusto,’ said the memorial, ‘from his own Augustus.’ A remarkably affectionate dedication to a man whom Gus had known only a few months. Maxim filed the information away.
The shooting party began arriving around eleven, in carriages both horse-drawn and horseless. All the members were local landowners and friends of Gus’s, who was in his element, joking with them and shaking hands. The beaters were assembling under the head forester. After glasses of hot punch had been handed around by Marek and a maid with trays, the party set off, guns broken over their shoulders, heading east to an area of heathland between the castle and the forest. It was a fine afternoon for sport, the sun bright and the day cool. The Hentzenheide, as it was called, was well stocked with game, and it was clear that Gus Underwood had no better idea of a good time than to offer a generous day’s sport to his neighbours.
While they took a break over their sandwiches, Gus fanned himself with his Rothenian hat, adorned with two eagle feathers. ‘It may not be Haddesley Moor, where I was brought up to shoot back in Suffolk, my dear Max. But my brother Lewis was out here last year and he confessed that it was quite as good as. I trained up the keepers in the English way of doing things, and it answers pretty well.’
Maxim smiled and surreptitiously scanned this jolly, red-faced estate manager, trying to see behind the years the romantic, love-struck boy he must once have been. It was not easy to credit Gus with a doomed passion for a dashing and handsome Ruritanian aristocrat.
It took two wagons to carry back the hecatomb of birds the shooters had downed among them. Gus and Maxim walked slowly along the sandy track over the heath, two of the dogs snuffling alongside. Other groups trailed behind them. Cars and carriages were loaded up and they waved their guests goodbye before retiring to the comfort of the castle’s reception room – or lounge, as Maxim called it, despite Gus’s wincing at the modernity of the term.
Whether it was the day’s exercise in the open air or the cosiness of the room, Maxim had a strange fancy that evening. He drifted off and dreamed he was a small boy again, playing with his toy soldiers at his father’s feet on the carpet of the family drawing room at Burlesdon House. The feeling of comfort and safety he had known then was common to many boys, as common as for the men they later became to regret its loss.
He jerked awake to find Gus smiling at him. In that moment he realised what drew him to the older man. Augustus Underwood had tricks of speech, a tone of voice and a manner of bearing that had been quietly reminding Maxim of his father for days now. It was a disturbing discovery. The man, though only an acquaintance, yet stirred in him deep feelings of both familiarity and loss.
‘Tell me about Count Oskar,’ Maxim finally found the courage to ask. ‘Why do I have one of his names?’
Gus’s smile did not leave his face, though it became wistful. ‘I rather hoped you might ask that. Your father decided to name you Maxim after Oskar. He would not call you Oskar, as that was too much a Tarlenheim name, but Maxim served well enough as a remembrance.
‘Oskar was a principal player in the great game of state we engaged in during the year ’80 to try to get your father crowned king of Ruritania. We might have pulled it off, too, had the Catholic hierarchy been less spineless and the British government less subservient to Bismarck’s wishes.
‘Oskar was in the centre of it all. But everything he did was for the late queen, not for himself. It was he who was behind the scandal of the Osten Tor. Have you heard of that? It was when Prince Albert of Thuringia and some of his men were enticed into attempting to seize the regalia of Ruritania from the treasury. They were arrested and Prince Albert was disgraced. That was Oskar’s greatest triumph and also the cause of his death.
‘Albert knew his enemy and was determined to destroy Oskar. He is a ruthless and vengeful man. His first attempt was to assassinate Oskar here at Hentzau.’
‘Good grief! Here? It seems hard to believe.’
‘Now maybe, but those were disturbed times, Max. The German regions of the country were in insurrection and Prince Albert was deeply implicated with a rebel group called the Riders of Mittenheim. The month after your father left the country and Leopold was proclaimed king, a party of Riders attacked the castle with the aim of taking and killing Oskar. They failed, of course.’
‘My father told me none of this.’
‘Yes, well, much as he respected Oskar and was deeply grateful to him, they were never what you might call great friends. It was for my sake really that Bobby loved Oskar.’ The older man eyed the younger one under his thick eyebrows. Maxim, aware that there was more Gus could have said but would rather leave unstated, decided not to press him on the subject.
‘How did you escape the attack?’
‘Ah. Opposite the house here you’ll see that a part of the curtain wall has been renewed and rebuilt. It was a section of the fortifications which had been adapted for artillery in the eighteenth century. The old casemates were still occupied by muzzle-loading guns in 1880. I only removed them two years ago so as to restore the medieval look of the castle. It was on that side that the Riders tried to get in, where the walls were lowest. Oskar and James Antrobus loaded and ran out the guns, then blasted the Riders who stood outside preparing their assault. Only one assailant was killed, the rest lost their enthusiasm for the fight and ran away.’
‘And who is James Antrobus?’
‘James? Now that would be a long story. He was a former valet of your great uncle Rudolf’s. He helped me manage the castle and estate here for a long time. He died twelve years ago now, and Marek took over from him as butler and steward. His widow still lives in the town, Frau Antrobus, our former cook.’
‘I take it that Prince Albert eventually caught up with Oskar.’
‘Yes, in the end he did. It was on the day of King Leopold’s investiture at the palace in Strelsau. Albert provoked Oskar to a duel. They met in the woods of Bila Palacz the next morning, and the prince was too good for my … for Oskar. He ran him through and Oskar died on the grass, his head in my hands.’
Gus abruptly stood and paced the room, coming back to lean on the fireplace and stare at the flames. There was a solemn silence that Maxim did not know how to break.
Eventually Gus straightened and turned around with a sad sort of smile on his face. ‘You would hardly believe that a stolid squire’s son from Suffolk as I am could live such moments, but this is Ruritania. There is something in the air here, I sometimes think. Passions run higher, black is darker and white is more pure.
‘I had best finish my story. Albert may have removed his enemy, but Oskar had his revenge from the grave. News that a Thuringian prince had murdered a member of Ruritania’s greatest family spread through the city. It did not take much to bring the mob onto the streets, and the people stormed the palace. The king and the royal family only barely escaped to Zenda, and it took all of General von Tirkenau’s guile and authority to persuade the army to suppress the rising. Albert was exiled from the kingdom and did not return till after King Leopold died. The king had not been too old to learn, and he picked better advisers after the crisis was over. That was Oskar’s victory. That was the reason your father owed so much to him and called you Maxim – as a token for the future, he said.
‘And now, my boy, perhaps you can answer some of my questions.’
‘Such as, sir?’
‘What is it that has brought you to Strelsau at this time?’
Maxim was ready for this. It was the story he had agreed on with Macpherson and the committee before leaving London. ‘I have obtained employment from the Bank of England as a commercial intelligencer.’
Gus raised his eyebrows. ‘As a what?’
Maxim smiled slightly. ‘The Bank is trying to increase its knowledge of the European and American markets. There is a world economy now, sir. The Bank sees itself as having a central place in the world of finance as the fiscal brain of the only world power, and brains are only as good as the information they absorb. So I am one of a number of men sent out to gather intelligence and report on the economies and markets of the world. My background made me a natural choice to send to Austria-Hungary, Switzerland and Ruritania. Family connections mean that Strelsau is the best place to base myself, so here I am.’
‘My word! How the world is changing. Your mother told me when last she wrote that you were with the War Office.’
Maxim’s smile became tighter. ‘I have taken long-term unpaid leave from Whitehall, to see if this new employment suits me better.’ Maxim was usually a facile and undetectable liar, but the resonances of his father that he had picked up from Gus Underwood threw him out of his usual imperturbability. It might have been his imagination, but he rather thought Gus did not look entirely convinced by his story.
‘And you will live in Strelsau?’
‘Yes. As I told you, I have taken an apartment on Festungstrasse West.’
‘The Fourth District, as they call it nowadays. Very fashionable. Well, I must say that I am glad a Rassendyll is in residence in Strelsau, especially now.’
‘There is a persistent rumour that King William Henry will not last out the winter, and a period of political turbulence will be good for the Elphberg cause.’
‘Surely you see that the time is coming when your father’s ambition to restore the throne of Ruritania to the Elphberg dynasty will be more achievable? Prince Albert will be the sort of king who can be counted upon to make mistakes. Believe me, I know him all too well.’
Maxim caught the troubling glint of obsession in the man’s eye. Gus Underwood had an agenda. The sad thing for him was that it was no longer an agenda shared by the Rassendyll family. Julius, tenth earl of Burlesdon, was – and Maxim was not inclined to go easy on his brother – an old woman. He was fussy, indecisive and unadventurous. Surely his father must have told Gus what manner of man his heir had grown into, a man not at all fitted for Ruritanian conspiracy and high politics.
Yet there was something in what Gus was saying which was of deep interest to Maxim Rassendyll the intelligence agent. If Albert of Ruritania proved to be the sort of king who would raise opposition to himself in his realm, then he might end up creating just the sort of Rothenian unrest that Maxim could exploit in Britain’s interest. Of course, he could say nothing of this to Gus Underwood. They did not think alike, so much was obvious. Gus had become a Rothenian caught up in Rothenian concerns, while Maxim, despite his mixed ancestry, was a Briton through and through.
The two men did not talk politics much over the next few days. They went riding, and Gus showed Maxim the estate improvements he had carried out over the years. He had a lot to be proud of. The Hentzau dairy herd, famous throughout Central Europe, earned lucrative breeding fees. The castle domain had been consolidated and expanded, the mills all rebuilt. The latest machinery had been imported, and indeed Gus had set up a sideline in the manufacture of petrol-driven tractors in partnership with local engineers. Their business was expanding so rapidly that they were building a factory at Eisendorf, a small town further up the river.
Maxim reflected that Julius would be wise to learn from what Gus had done with imagination and hard work in Hentzau, where estate profits were ten times what they had been twenty years before. Maxim knew that Julius did not have their father’s knack for selecting intelligent and enterprising agents and taking their advice. The Burlesdon estate was being let out on long leases, and most of the Rassendyll money now was being drawn from the rents of the Kensington estate. It left his family vulnerable to changes in the tax regime, such as those being threatened by the Liberal government. There might come a time when the revenue they drew from Ruritania meant all the difference to the Rassendylls.
Maxim enjoyed himself at Hentzau, and was happy to stay on for a while. He felt at home. He was pleased to accept Gus’s invitation to accompany him to visit friends over New Year. ‘It’s an annual visit I make to Hugo von Tarlenheim and his wife Sissi at their house at Templerstadt. There’s a certain element of business in it, too. I have been supervising their estate steward for many years now. To be honest, Hugo and Sissi are not the most worldly of people, and had I not stepped in they would have ruined themselves long ago. But I installed Woytek, one of my farm managers, at Templerstadt and between us we have turned the place around.’
Hentzau Castle had an automobile, a Mercedes 35 horsepower, which was not Gus’s favourite machine though he was enthusiastic enough about steam-powered and petrol-driven tractors. But Maxim was happy to take the wheel and drive them through the forest, up over the Murranberg Pass – despite the danger of icy roads – and across Neder Husbrau. The weather remained mild. The car behaved impeccably, often reaching twenty miles an hour on a downward slope. As the Mercedes slowed to putter across Strelfurt bridge, Gus reflected that his first journey between Hentzau and Templerstadt had taken him two days on horseback. As it was, they reached the Tarlenheims’ house before the sun went down. This was a great relief to Maxim, who had no desire to try the adventure of night-time driving on dark and unknown country roads.
Templerstadt was a medieval house built around a courtyard. It had a gatehouse, a fine domestic range and even a chapel. With a certain finesse, Maxim navigated the car through the echoing arch of the gatehouse and into the courtyard, where the noise brought the household to the windows.
As Maxim and Gus alighted, an attractive middle-aged lady wrapped Gus in her arms and kissed him. ‘And who is this, August?’
‘This is Bobby’s son, Maxim.’
‘Ah, you have your mother’s looks. Welcome to our house, Maxim Rassendyll.’
Maxim noticed Rothenian formality in that greeting, so he gave a small bow and expressed his appreciation for their generous hospitality in letting him stay. He was ushered indoors and into a fine reception room off the hall passage.
A bearded gentleman, who must have been Hugo von Tarlenheim, was sitting in an armchair by the fire. He stood and Maxim went to shake his hand, but drew back when he remembered that Gus had told him the count was blind. Instead, he greeted the man and waited for him to put out his hand before shaking it. Four young people were also in the room, and Maxim was introduced to Oskar Franz, Helga, Welf and Henry.
The Tarlenheims of Templerstadt were a relaxed and pleasant family. Gus was treated like a favourite uncle, indeed they called him ‘Uncle August’. Maxim’s parentage and connections made him an automatic family friend.
Oskar Franz, the eldest son of the family, was Maxim’s own age. He had something of the blond looks of his late uncle and namesake. When he took Maxim out to show off his dogs, they talked for a long while. Oskar Franz had entered the well-known law firm of Jurgen and Halberstadt in Strelsau as an advocate. He had offices in Postgasse.
‘Hah!’ smiled Maxim. ‘Another resident of the fashionable Fourth District. I am over on Festungstrasse.’
‘Then we must get together for lunch sometime. Do you know the Café Jednorosecz on Stracenzstrasse?’
‘Very good. I meet up with friends there some evenings. We can be quite amusing and lively for lawyers. We are reluctant to grow out of being students, as is universal I think.’
The two men exchanged cards.
The younger boys were more reticent. Welf was eighteen and in his first year of studies in Classics at the Rudolfer Universität. Henry was only twelve, quite a charming boy but keen only on winding up his sister Helga.
Helga von Tarlenheim was two years younger than Maxim, a slender, light-haired woman. She sat close to her father, with whom she seemed to have a particularly close bond. She took full part in the conversation and had a delightful sense of humour, although it was tested hard by her annoying little brother.
Dinner was not a formal affair, and Maxim found it very enjoyable. Ideas and jokes ran around the table; he had never met such a lively and amusing family. Most of the funnier remarks came down from Count Hugo and the countess, who between them had the deftness and wit to contain their riotous offspring. It was a very happy home that made Maxim felt almost envious. Although his childhood had been pleasant enough, he had resented the long terms at public school. The summers with his family had been too short, his brother too much older than he and his sisters too much younger.
At the conclusion of the meal, the women did not leave. Everyone moved to the drawing room, where Helga played Schubert on the piano and then accompanied young Henry when he sang Rothenian country songs beautifully in his strong treble. After going out to smoke cigars with Oskar Franz on the rear terrace, Maxim retired to bed rather pleased with the world.
He awoke late on New Year’s Eve. ‘We call New Year Brischkesfest in Rothenian.’ Helga informed him over his kedgeree. She had been out walking the dogs before breaking her fast.
‘Really? What does that mean?’
Helga blushed. ‘Oh … er, when little babies get their … you know, the Jewish thing.’
Maxim tried not to laugh. ‘You mean it’s the feast of the Circumcision.’
‘Yes.’ Helga was now bright red.
‘Tell me, Helga,’ Maxim hurried to defuse her embarrassment. ‘How do you get on with Antonia Underwood?’
The woman sobered up, and took on a cautious air that told Maxim most of what he needed to know. ‘Toni and I spent a lot of our childhood together. Her mother died from complications in giving birth to her, as I’m sure you know, Mr Rassendyll.’
‘Max, please call me Max. Our families are long acquainted.’
‘Father invited Toni to spend a lot of time here, as he told Uncle August that she would never be fit for society if she did not get out of the masculine environment of Hentzau Castle.’
‘That was a doomed scheme then.’
Helga gave a small laugh. ‘Yes, Toni is a new sort of woman, and she was the same even as a child, assertive and questioning. But she could always twist father round her finger.’
Maxim was getting the impression that Helga von Tarlenheim did not remember Toni Underwood in an entirely favourable way. ‘Were you friends?’
‘Oh heavens, yes. A lot of the time anyway. I think we drifted apart as we got older, and she more rebellious. I do not disagree with a lot of what she says, as it happens, but I do not believe that confrontation is always the right way to get what you want. And now she is in prison in London, and on hunger strike. Poor Uncle August is beside himself.’
‘Really? He seemed to me to be resigned to the consequences of his daughter’s militancy, rather than alarmed.’
‘I heard him talking to father last night. I think he plans to go on to Modenheim tomorrow and then take the train to Hamburg. I believe he has had some disturbing news about her condition.’
‘Oh! I had better ask him about his plans in that case. I had expected to go back to Hentzau with him, but it looks as though I will be going home to Strelsau instead.’
‘Please don’t say I said anything.’
‘I shall be the soul of discretion, Helga.’
When Maxim tackled the subject with Gus later that morning, it did indeed appear that he felt he must cross over to England to find out about his daughter’s condition. He would be going on the day after the New Year celebration.
‘But I tell you what, Max. Take the confounded machine with you to Strelsau. Marek would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than use it to get himself anywhere. You seem to like it, however. No, hang on to it till I return. I’ll pick it up from you in Strelsau. I’m likely to come back that way.’
So when Maxim left Templerstadt two days later, with his new friend Oskar Franz sitting bundled up warmly beside him, it was south towards the city of Hofbau that they headed, not eastward back to Hentzau. They motored along the Starel valley from Hofbau and came down into Strelsau over the Spa hills. With smiles and handshakes, they said farewell to each other at Oskar Franz’s apartment in Osragasse. Maxim then drove around to a former livery stable that was renting out loose boxes as garage accommodation, and booked space for the Mercedes for a month.