MAXIM ELPHBERG - IV
Harsh weather descended on Ruritania not long after Maxim returned to Streslau, leaving him little chance to motor round its cobbled streets and dodge its electric trams. Snow and ice blanketed the city for weeks at a time, and it was not till the beginning of February that anything like normal mobility became possible.
He made the most of the limited possibilities he had, however. The Pan-Slavic Socialist Congress met in Strelsau despite the freeze. Socialists of varying tinges of redness spent three days shivering in committees and denouncing capitalism with steaming breath in the meeting rooms of the city’s poorly heated Universalist Hall, behind the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof in the suburb of Sudmesten.
Freddy von Eschenbach introduced Maxim to the delegates from Poland and Hungary, though the Czechs, whom he very much wanted to meet, had been defeated by the weather. There had been a rumour that Rosa Luxemburg might make an appearance, but it turned out that she was under detention in Berlin.
Maxim was not too disappointed at the poor turnout; he handed round his card and made himself known as a fellow-traveller. Max-Stefan Kálnoky was very welcome as an informed radical who had useful contacts within the halls of the capitalist conspiracy for the suppression of the proletariat.
Maxim’s most important meeting in those days – as it later transpired – did not happen in the Universalist Hall, but in the art nouveau elegance of the Café Jednorosecz. He was not by any means a reluctant intelligence agent, but he did value friendships that were innocent of subtexts. He knew he was using Freddy, and that there could be no confiding in him. There were even times when he despised himself for it. But his friendship with Oskar Franz von Tarlenheim had no agenda other than mutual affection and family history. So Friday evenings at the Café Jednorosecz were times to look forward to.
Osku, as he learned to call Oskar Franz in the intimate Rothenian way, had a number of jolly and amusing friends. They were young advocates for the most part, with a fund of scandalous stories from their legal practices, as well as an informed outlook on their world.
One Friday at the end of January, Maxim arrived at the café and joined the usual table to find himself opposite a bespectacled man in his late thirties whom he did not recognise. ‘Max, this is our former professor Marcus Tildemann. Marcus, this is our English friend Max Kálnoky.’
Osku had agreed that the name of Rassendyll was best kept quiet amongst his friends, as it would bring up inconvenient memories of 1880. So Maxim’s alter ego was current in the Jednorosecz circle too.
Professor Tildemann regarded Max with some interest. ‘Kálnoky? Are you part Hungarian?’
‘Yes, the Count Kálnoky is my uncle. Tell me, professor, in what branch of law did you attempt to instruct these young gentlemen?’
Tildemann smiled. ‘Property law is my field.’
One of Osku’s friends laughed and declared, ‘He was even able to make it interesting!’
Osku agreed. ‘Conveyancing has never seemed so much fun as it did then. I almost feel betrayed, professor. You duped me into the law under false pretences.’
Tildemann spread his arms, one of his lecture-room gestures maybe. ‘Law is an important discipline, you young fellows. You have to work at it, and not just for the financial rewards. Remember what I said. Law is the bastion of freedom and the foundation of our sense of nation. You have to believe in the law as being more than a way to decide tenure and prosecute criminals …’
‘… and collect fat fees,’ interjected a plump advocate called Schmidt.
‘Lawyers must see more in the law than loopholes and precedents. Behind the words is the spirit of the law.’
Max looked closely at the small, sallow man sitting across the table. ‘You are a legal idealist.’
‘We exist. Abraham Lincoln was the greatest of us, a man of sense and a man of law.’
‘The professor has his picture on his wall at the Law School, with a quotation under it … I can’t remember what it is.’
Tildemann smiled. ‘Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbours to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.’
Max was intrigued. ‘Lincoln may have been a lawyer, but I seem to remember that he said some things rather hostile to the bourgeois mentality. These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people. I think that was one of his.’
‘Yes, he said that as a young man in 1837, with all the recklessness of a political tyro. Later he said, Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. He was a man who saw both sides. He looked beyond words to what lies behind them.’
‘Yet law is the rich man’s weapon to oppress the poor.’
‘I would dispute that. I do not say it cannot happen, but in a free society the law is the poor man’s shield against those who would persecute him. That is why in the Law School in Strelsau we teach moral philosophy alongside law. We want lawyers in this land who know that their profession is the guarantee of liberty.’
Maxim rather took to this unusual law professor, despite a certain seriousness to his outlook on life which Maxim did not generally find attractive. Professor Tildemann was not so far gone in his profession that he was only interested in the use he could make of people. He was an interesting study in his own right. It was only at the end of the evening that Maxim picked up the information that the professor was standing as the Social Democrat representative for the Third District in the parliamentary elections the following year.
As Osku was walking back with him along Stracenzstrasse, Maxim asked why Tildemann was standing for parliament in the Third District, the least salubrious area of the Neustadt. Osku smiled and replied that Tildemann had been holding a legal clinic for the poor in the area of slum tenements that disgraced the southeastern corner of the city. Osku and his friends offered their own free time there on a rota basis, as did others of their former classmates.
As soon as he was back in Strelsau after his seasonal holidays, Maxim had begun trying to get to grips with the enormity of the task the Secret Service expected of him. He thought the situation in Ruritania looked stable enough, despite what Gus Underwood believed. Its very stability and political freedom made it a useful base for intelligence activities. It was not just that it was perfectly placed between the German and Austrian empires. Because of the liberality of the country’s press and assembly laws, it was a gathering place for the socialist movements from all parts of Eastern Europe. These were the people who interested him very much for their opposition to their home governments. Their disenchantment could easily be turned into information and intelligence.
Maxim realised he needed to find agents to manage his networks, and it was not an easy thing to do. There were several characters he had encountered in his travels and meetings who might have been of use to him, men whose allegiance could be bought and for whom morality was not an obstacle to whatever he might ask. Although he knew he would eventually have to recruit such men, he hated the necessity. Despite his pragmatism, Maxim was a gentleman and a patriot. He needed men more like himself to begin to harvest the ample field of conspiracy and intrigue he had uncovered in Central Europe.
His reports to Macpherson and the committee had been well received, but no further agents had been promised from London. So it was up to Maxim to find auxiliaries he could trust and confide in. Unexpectedly, this happened in February, with the return of Gus Underwood to Ruritania.
Antonia’s hunger strike in prison had been pushed through nearly to the bitter end. It was only the reluctance of the government to have an activist of her notoriety become a martyr for her cause in Holloway that persuaded the Home Secretary to release her – emaciated and all but crippled – to her father. The government no doubt hoped she would obligingly die outside state custody. But Gus, knowing her life was in the balance, had already organised doctors and a bed in a private sanatorium. By the end of February she was walking again. She was strong enough for the trip home, yet still too weak to resist her father’s insistence that she needed time in Ruritania to recover.
It happened that Antonia had picked up a follower during her stay in London. Her cousin Paul, of the Winchmore Hill Underwoods, had been smitten with her long before her arrest, and had insisted on helping his uncle take her home. In the last weekend of February, when Maxim went out to Hentzau in the Mercedes to visit the Underwoods, he found quite a house party gathered there in Antonia’s honour.
Oskar Franz got a lift to Hentzau with Maxim. He said it was because he knew his sister Helga had been there for a week already in the capacity of a nurse. But Osku’s eagerness intrigued Maxim, who guessed that the first object of the young man’s visit was not to see his sister. Maxim quite accepted that he himself had by no means been the first victim of Antonia’s fire and freedom, and he now suspected she had also cut a swathe through Templerstadt.
He wondered how far Antonia had let things go with Osku. She was promiscuous, he knew. Maxim had enjoyed three months of quite exhausting passion with her before realising that she was also sleeping with one of her tutors at the London School of Economics. When he confronted her with his knowledge, he had been roundly abused for his bourgeois morality, which sought to make property of her. Now it seemed to him that Osku must have been another of his predecessors, perhaps one of her first sexual partners when they were teenagers at Templerstadt.
Paul Underwood was the latest of Antonia’s conquests. Maxim recognised all the signs. Paul showed the dog-like devotion and frustration that an affair between a sensitive man and a woman like Antonia could create. He was handsome, rather more so than Maxim and Oskar Franz. This led Maxim to wonder uncharitably whether Antonia’s advance towards her thirties was making younger, prettier men more attractive to her, a demonstration to herself that her sexuality and looks were still as potent as ever. He took it for granted that she and Paul had been having sex when she had been in Winchmore Hill before her arrest. Antonia’s relationships always progressed rapidly to the physical. Protracted courtship was another thing she found utterly bourgeois.
Before the weekend was over, Maxim’s deduction was confirmed by the woman herself. He found out by the simple expedient of asking her. She rarely dissembled.
‘Toni, you really are too obvious. Even your father must have noticed.’
‘I ask my father nothing about his affairs and he keeps silent about mine.’
That snippet threw Maxim off the trail momentarily. ‘Your father has affairs?’
Antonia sniffed. ‘He goes regularly to Vienna, and it isn’t for the cream cakes.’
‘Oh! Well. He is old enough to know his own business, I suppose. But this thing with Paul Underwood, it’s unfair on the boy.’
‘Boy? He’s only two years younger than you. I certainly wasn’t the first woman he had slept with, either.’
‘I am not making judgements here – fairly pointless with you in any case – but as usual you do not choose to see how badly you treat men. For all your scorn towards the male of the species – and in my case it may not have been entirely misplaced – even you must see that there are men who are devoted, monogamous types, looking for a soul mate. By some sick irony, you seem to attract them like wasps to an open jam jar. Paul Underwood is that type. He is deluding himself with the absurd idea that you and he will one day walk down the aisle in some suburban Catholic church in North London.’
‘If this is more jealousy on your part …’
‘Toni darling, much though I loved our time together, I was already too jaded for jealousy by the time I fell into bed with you.’
She bridled. ‘There was no accident about it, I wanted you there.’
‘The point is this: you do Paul no favours allowing him to tag along after you here. Send him home. You can usually dismiss admirers without much of a conscience. Is there anything different about this one?’
‘Really, Maxim Stefan, you are becoming a dreadful bore, and I am tired. You make no allowances for what I’ve been through.’ She would say no more on the subject.
Maxim admitted to himself that Antonia was not just using her condition as an excuse. An appeal to feminine weakness would have stuck in her throat as she made it. He was distressed to see how gaunt she was still, and how slowly she moved. Gus told him her muscle tissue was wasted and for two weeks she had needed a stick to move about. The doctors had been forced to use galvanic shocks to motivate her muscles. There was something about her eyes, too, that made them look hooded and sunken, more than ever like the eyes of an indomitable fanatic.
When he was away from Antonia, Paul Underwood was good company. He was the sort of man Maxim liked, uncomplicated and easy to talk to, a man of simple but deep passions. All the male Underwoods were like that, whether it was slaughtering game birds or pursuing unsuitable women. Maxim rather feared Antonia had underestimated her cousin’s determination that there was something real in their relationship – oddly so, as Paul resembled her own father in many ways. You would have thought she’d have learned to recognise the type.
‘When are you going back, Paul?’ Maxim asked.
‘To England? Oh … er, not too soon. I told Ma and Pa that I was going to hang around Hentzau for a while. I want to see how Uncle Gus manages the place. Everyone says what a cracking land agent he is, made your lot a fortune out of Ruritania, they say, and he ain’t done too badly for himself either.’
Maxim smiled a little at Paul’s shifty explanation of his continuing stay at Hentzau. ‘You think your uncle’s looking for an apprentice? He’s not fifty yet.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, but it stands to reason he must be thinking about a successor, however healthy he is. He don’t get any younger, Max.’
‘Have you talked to him about it?’
‘No, but then he’s too caught up with Toni’s problems at the moment. I’ll get round to it when the anxiety’s over.’
Maxim wished him well, and watched with detachment while the inevitable happened. As Antonia appeared to get stronger in both mind and body in the week after she returned home, Maxim saw her irritation growing with Paul’s continual solicitude. Finally, she flared up at him. ‘For God’s sake, Paul. If you hang around me with one more damned cushion, I’ll smother you with it! I am not an invalid, and you are not my nurse.’
Paul’s hurt was obvious on his face, and that irritated Antonia all the more. ‘Take your hangdog expression out of my sight!’ she commanded. ‘Your unrealistic expectations of me are the last thing I need to deal with at the moment!’
Maxim saw a sparkle of tears in the man’s eyes as he made an inarticulate excuse and then rapidly left the lounge.
Antonia rounded on Maxim. ‘There! Are you happy now?’
‘Leave me out of it, Toni.’ He got up leisurely and walked out of the room. His conscience at least was clear.
He eventually found Paul on the green terrace outside the castle gate, hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets and shoulders hunched. His handsome face was unhappy.
Maxim surprised himself by the amount of genuine sympathy he felt for his friend. Had he been as distressed when Toni dismissed him? He liked to think she had not hurt him quite so badly, but he was probably fooling himself. He’d had little dignity left when she finished with him.
Maxim said the thing he wished someone had told him at the time. ‘She does not really care for you, Paul. You had best get used to the idea.’ Paul Underwood glared at him. ‘There,’ Maxim continued, ‘now you’re angry. That’s good, even if it’s only anger at me.’
‘What’s your game, Max?’
‘Believe me, Paul, I have no agenda. You must realise that you are not the first man Toni has put in your position.’
A suspicion crossed Paul’s face. ‘What, you?’
‘Yes, I. I and others. You must have known something about Toni’s past.’
Paul scowled. ‘My sister tried to tell me some scandals, but you know girls. Even the nicest of them likes gossip, the more harmful the better.’
‘She won’t be tied down by anyone, Paul. Her freedom from romantic ties is part of how she has defined herself. She is a new woman. If she ever allowed herself to fall into a long-term relationship with a man, she would feel as though she had betrayed her sisterhood and the rights of women. I sometimes think that, for her, freedom for women is the freedom to behave as badly as men do.’
Paul’s hands thrust even deeper into his pockets. He said he didn’t want to talk about it, and walked away.
The social temperature in the house plummeted. Maxim thought rather less of Paul for the way the young man dealt with his romantic snub from Toni. He became moody and, on occasion, sullen. Yet still he mooned around Hentzau, hoping for a change of heart from her. She in turn found him increasingly tiresome, and was not well enough to conceal her petulance and exasperation with her suitor and cousin.
A couple of days later, Maxim encountered Marek supervising the maids as they polished and buffed the mirror-like hall table.
‘Oh Mr Rassendyll, sir. I was wondering if you were heading back to Strelsau soon.’
‘Oh, excellent. I was also wondering if you would be so good as to take young Mr Underwood with you.’
‘Yes, sir. If he stays here another day I may kill him.’
Maxim stared at Marek. He had no experience of Rothenian servants, especially head servants like Marek, so he had no idea whether such forwardness should be treated as impertinence. But he rather suspected that Marek was presuming on his position.
Completely unabashed, Marek continued. ‘You see, Mr Rassendyll sir, when Miss Underwood was a motherless baby, it had to be I who arranged for her to be taken care of. Poor Mr Underwood was well meaning but hopeless. Once she was wet-nursed, it was I who found nannies and helped look after her, bought her clothes, listened to her problems. It was not that Mr Underwood was indifferent, not at all, just that he was a busy man and hardly the sort a young girl could sympathise with – though I don’t mean to suggest in any way that father and daughter were not close. He just does not altogether understand her, sir. That’s the truth of it.’
‘I don’t really …’
‘The thing is, sir, that I still feel she’s my responsibility. Mr Paul Underwood is bothering her. She is far sicker than she lets on. He makes her fret and she won’t get better without more peace than she’s being allowed. So please, sir, get him away from here. His uncle won’t say a thing to him. It would seem inhospitable, and he would never want to be that.’
Marek finished and looked expectantly at Maxim, who felt cornered by the confidences he had just been burdened with. ‘Marek, I recognise the truth in what you’re saying. I’m not sure what I can do, but I will try. Mr von Tarlenheim and I will be heading back tomorrow …’
‘Yes and he’s another problem …’ Marek blurted.
‘I really don’t want to discuss that. As I said, I shall suggest that young Mr Underwood come with us. Will that do?’ he added lamely.
Marek nodded and thanked him for listening, before going back to supervising the maids. Maxim was left wondering who really ran the castle of Hentzau.
But the time had clearly come for Paul Underwood to move on. Maxim could sense Antonia’s remarks becoming more venomous as her exasperation with Paul grew.
Maxim sat that afternoon in company with Helga, an increasing resort of his. She was so sympathetic and easy to talk to that he was finding in her a much-needed oasis of calm in his present life. She welcomed his company too, he could tell. Still, against all his inclinations, he kept their conversation friendly and resisted his urge to move into closer intimacy with this quiet, intelligent woman. In his current circumstances, romantic attachments would have been ill advised, but when he looked into her clear, grey-blue eyes, there were moments when he wished he could let his caution go hang.
They were discussing Antonia. ‘Marek says she is sicker than she lets on.’
‘I’m afraid he knows what he’s talking about. The doctors warned that there could be damage to her internal organs, and I think they’re right. There’s a yellowish tinge to her eyes I don’t like. She is still very weak. Toni won’t give in to it, but she takes out her pain and frustration on everyone around her.’
‘I’m used to it. She never fails to apologise afterwards. She’s always felt sorry for me.’
‘Sorry for you?’
Helga laughed. ‘I just don’t measure up to her ideal of what a woman should be. But I don’t like the way she behaves, though I admire her for her independence. She hurts too many people, and when she hurts those …’ She blushed.
‘You were going to say?’
‘Oh … nothing.’
‘Helga, I know she and your brother Oskar were once lovers.’
Helga was by then scarlet. ‘She was so cruel to him! He was such an open and affectionate boy, everything a young man should be, a perfect lover in fact. Yet she teased, taunted and rejected him.’
‘She likes to feel her power over men.’
‘And she misuses it. I think I’ve said enough about this. But do try and take poor Paul away from her. He can do no good here.’
Oskar Franz said much the same when Maxim encountered him smoking a cigarette in the courtyard. ‘While we were driving up from Strelsau, I was hoping her recent experiences might have changed her, but she is worse now than she’s ever been. If I still needed a reminder why my affair with her was bad news, seeing her the ways she is here is it.’
‘You are over her then, Osku?’
‘She remains an attractive woman, clever, free with herself, and amusing when she wants to be, yet she will give nothing back to any man who gives himself to her. You know that.’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘So take young Mr Underwood away from the source of the danger. Do him a favour.’
Paul Underwood was in the end more than willing to join Maxim and Osku on the car ride back to Strelsau. Paul, like his uncle, was a man who preferred action to mooning around. Maxim suspected he had been learning to hate what Antonia was doing to him, even if he was still devoted to the sort of woman he imagined her to be. He was certainly more cheerful once they were on the road.
Maxim put Paul up in his apartment on Festungstrasse. To celebrate their freedom from Antonia’s influence, Maxim proposed dinner at Ribaud’s on the Neue Platz. They took the tram along Stracenzstrasse, Maxim amusing his guest with an account of the capital’s café society. They hopped off as the tram clanged and screeched its way into the square, and made their way over to the line of boxed trees that marked the restaurant’s pavement area. Maxim had been resident in the Fourth District long enough to become known to the maître d’hôtel. A discrete consideration got them a table in the smaller of the restaurant’s rooms. They were in fact under the portrait of Hercule Ribaud, Louis XVIII’s former cook, who had opened Strelsau’s most famous restaurant in 1833.
Ribaud’s served meals in the French way, with a lengthy pause between courses and time in between to drink good wine. As Maxim had calculated, Paul was on his way to drunkenness before the end of the meat course. Maxim listened to it all come out. He had expected increasingly emotional maunderings about Antonia, and was not disappointed. But one hopeful sign was that Paul could be distracted. He clearly despised himself for having fallen into an idle life financed by his father’s allowance. He admitted that his obsession with his cousin had been in part because she distracted him from his internal self-accusations.
‘You see, Max old feller, I never found anything I really wanted to do. We Underwoods are well enough off – not on the scale of you Rassendylls, of course – but I didn’t have to work once I left Oxford. So a bit of travel, the hunt, weekends at the club in London, it was an easy life to fall into. Turns out it was a Slough of Despond, though.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Idleness, old feller. It’s not good for you, makes you think too much.’
Maxim marvelled. ‘Think too much … that’s an interesting way of putting it. And Antonia …?’
Paul frowned. ‘She has enough direction and dynamism for a dozen people. She tugged me along in her wake. Full of surprises, that woman. You never knew what was coming next. Blasting all those judges with a firemen’s hose. I laughed so much when I heard, I nearly burst a blood vessel. Wish she’d told me she was going to do it. I would have gone along and helped. But you see what I mean?’
Maxim did. ‘So what do you want from her?’
‘I really don’t know. You wouldn’t believe the things she says about marriage. But I’d live with her in sin. I wouldn’t care what Ma and Pa said. He could cut me off without a penny for all I care.’
‘You still think you have a chance there?’
Paul looked morose, and took his time about replying. ‘I don’t know, Max. She’s not like any other woman I’ve met. I love her, I really do. But I feel, I rather think …’
‘… that she does not love you?’
‘In a nutshell, old feller.’
‘You really ought to join the French Foreign Legion, you know. I believe it is traditional in these sorts of cases.’
Paul gave a sad little laugh. ‘Does Ruritania have a Foreign Legion? It would be nice if Toni could see me marching through Strelsau being flogged by sadistic sergeants out of frustrated love for her.’
Maxim found that self-deprecatory comment encouraging. He continued, ‘From what you say, going home to Winchmore Hill would not really help you much. You would just brood, with nothing to help you get over your cousin. You need something to take your mind off her.’
Paul looked at Maxim over the rim of his fourth glass of Erlauer. ‘Well, Max, I am certainly open to suggestions.’
Maxim decided that now might perhaps be the time to commit himself. So far as he could read it, Paul seemed to be a man with no ties and a deep dissatisfaction with his life – in other words, a man who might very well fit Maxim’s needs. ‘Maybe I can help you.’
‘Do you know what I’m doing here?’
‘Uncle Gus said you’re something in finance, an agent for the Bank of England in Central Europe. You go by your mother’s name here, is that right?’
‘Yes, that’s the name I use and the story I tell people. But there’s more to it.’
Paul’s attention was focussing on Maxim’s words, that was clear. His bleary eye had sharpened.
Maxim took a deep breath. Here goes. ‘Paul, I’m in Strelsau working for the War Office, not the Bank. My job is intelligence. The War Office, the Admiralty and the Foreign Office have got together over the German problem. I’m here to gather intelligence on the German military and foreign policy, not commercial data for the Bank.’
Paul stared, and it was a while before he responded. ‘Why are you telling me this, Max?’
‘I’ve been here four months now. I need at least one extra pair of British hands to get my network up and running. I want you to join up and help me.’
‘You’re a spy!’
‘No. It’s not as dramatic as that. My business is information. It’s not cloaks, masks and daggers, Paul. It’s more like being a journalist. It’s just that I don’t publish my findings, and there is a slight chance I might get arrested, tried and executed. Enough of a chance to put a little zest in what is otherwise quite a humdrum activity, when all is said and done.’
‘You want me to be a spy too!’
‘You might be good at it. The Empire needs someone like you. A few years’ work setting up an intelligence network here in Central Europe will do more ultimate good than twenty dreadnoughts. Think of that Paul, you could outgun a dreadnought!’
A silence fell. Paul settled back in his chair, looking at Maxim as if he were a stranger. Maxim let the silence stretch onwards.
Finally Paul downed in one gulp the half glass of red wine he still had. A broad grin spread across his handsome face. ‘What sort of salary do spies earn, Max?’