MAXIM ELPHBERG - V
Maxim spent the best part of that spring of 1909 putting his embryo network into commission. He had a lot of money to play around with, deposited in the Anglo-Austrian Bank in Strelsau. Macpherson authorised a salary to be remitted directly to Paul Underwood.
Deciding he would need an office to work from, Maxim rented space on the fifth floor of the Leuwen Pasacz, one of the impressive commercial blocks newly built at the palace end of the Rudolfs Platz. In a growing trend in Strelsau, it was not given a name in German. It was an arcade-like structure based on the traditional Rothenian ‘pasacz’ design, running back from its frontage on the great square, with – in this case – two internal rows of elegant cafés and clothing shops. Ten-foot-tall stone lions, which would have looked at home in ancient Assyria, guarded the pasacz entrance and towered over the uniformed doormen.
The brass plate in the elevator lobby said in English and Rothenian that Suite 3 on the fifth floor was the office of Strelsener Commercial Intelligence Ltd. Maxim hesitated initially as to whether some reference should be made to the Bank of England. He finally reflected that people who visited his offices should not be given the impression he had any official link with the British government, even at one remove through its bank.
On a fine day in early March, he stood at his office window looking down on the upper end of the Rudolfs Platz, watching the red trams clatter past on the opposite side of the square, and early shoppers peer through the plate-glass shop fronts. Motor hackney cabs in black-and-yellow livery were lined up outside the Salvatorskirk further towards the palace. Strelsau was a city being transformed by the twentieth century. Maxim felt poised on the edge of a new world, in more ways than one. He realised that everything needed for his enterprise in espionage was in place; it was time to deliver the goods to the War Office.
‘Morning, Max.’ Paul had come in behind him. It had been four weeks since they had begun working together, and on the whole it had been a good decision. Paul was conscientious and clearly felt their job to be an important enterprise for king and country. He might not have been the sort of agent who could move easily in the radical society of Freddy von Eschenbach, as Maxim could, but he had found a niche. He turned out to be a conservative Catholic and a freemason. He had joined the Strelsau lodge on a recommendation and had made useful connections with local business and industry leaders. Because his uncle’s name was also a passport into society, Paul was attending functions at a higher level than Maxim cared for – musical soirées, charity balls, and even dinners at the Ostberg and Tarlenheim palaces. In fact, Paul was noticeably bleary-eyed that morning following a late night at an event Prince Franz of Tarlenheim had sponsored in aid of the new Rothenian university being planned for the city of Hofbau.
Paul was an enthusiast for organising, an Underwood trait he had in abundance. He had been sketching out a network of offices for Strelsener Commercial Intelligence Ltd across Central Europe, in Vienna, Prague, Basel and Dresden. The idea was to station operatives to collect intelligence of a distinctly non-commercial type, and monitor disaffected political groups. The day before, he and Maxim had even begun debating potential candidates to staff the Prague and Dresden offices.
The problem for Maxim was that he was not entirely confident he had the right people as yet. He was therefore reining in Paul’s expansion plans, arguing that they needed first to set the Strelsau operation on a firm footing.
Paul seemed to be recovering from his affair with Antonia. The Underwood common sense which he had inherited was reasserting itself as the passion ebbed. All the activity was helping. There were days now when he was even cheerful.
He clearly loved Ruritania as much as his uncle did, too. The previous week, Gus had come up to the big city on business and stayed in Paul’s new apartment in Sudmesten. Maxim rather thought that Gus’s real reason to be in the capital was to check on his nephew, but he kept that suspicion to himself.
‘Have you seen the papers this morning?’ Paul asked.
‘No. Anything new?’
‘The king is about on his last legs, they say.’
‘They’ve been saying that since Christmas.’
‘This time they seem to have reason. The prince was telling me last night that King Leopold’s mausoleum at Zenda has been opened and builders are at work preparing a new tomb in one of the apses.’
Maxim gestured out of the window to the square. ‘There doesn’t seem to be much concern amongst his people.’
‘Uncle Gus was saying that people hardly know their king. The only ones who get to see him are the members of the Council of State, which meets in his dressing room. He’s in a wheelchair when he moves around. No surprise that the people have no feeling for him. He’s not an Elphberg, after all.’
‘Has your uncle been talking to you about his obsession with an Elphberg restoration?’
‘Well, yes. It’s a bit thrilling, you know, what your father and he did back in ’80. And that Count Oskar, duels in the woods in Bila Palacz and so on. Come on, Max old feller, you’d be Your Royal Highness if Uncle Gus had his way!’
‘I like your uncle a lot, Paul, I really do, but on this question he is just not reliable. He’s a romantic and it’s a bit sad, really. He just won’t let it go.’
Paul looked offended. ‘Don’t pity him, Max, he’s too fine an old fellow for that. Have you been to the Parliament building?’
‘Toni said there’s a big picture of him there as a young man, younger than us, defending the palace from the mob single handed during the rising of 1880, the day Count Oskar was murdered.’
‘He’s a national hero here. He has the Order of Henry the Lion.’
Maxim was taken aback. ‘I had no idea. He doesn’t exactly sound off about it.’
‘He’s a very modest man.’
‘Of course. I didn’t mean to imply anything else, Paul. Well, well.’ Maxim filed this information away for future reference. He was not sure what to make of it just then.
They were disturbed at that opportune moment by a sharp tap on the outer door. Paul opened it to find a tall man in a grey overcoat standing there, hat in hand. Their visitor said in English, ‘Is this where Mr Kálnoky is to be found? The name is Steele.’
Maxim moved forward. ‘Come in, colonel, this is unexpected.’ He ushered the British military attaché into the inner office, while Paul got on with something else. ‘I’m more than a little surprised to see you here, Steele.’
The colonel nodded. He did not look especially happy to be in Maxim’s lair. ‘Sir Andrew suggested I make a visit now, before your operation was open for business. He said we should coordinate to make sure we don’t overlap in our efforts.’
‘That’s certainly sensible. Forgive me, colonel, but I feel you had rather we were not talking at all.’
Steele frowned. ‘We both work for the War Office, Rassendyll. I don’t make it practice to query our masters’ orders. But I do not see how you can achieve anything in Central Europe that our military attachés are not already doing. I have perfectly reliable intelligence of the state of the Ruritanian military, its dispositions and its plans. I can even get some information from friends here as to what the German army is up to in the border provinces.’
‘Yes, I know that,’ Maxim replied. ‘I am not here to compete with you, Steele. I see my task as something different. You have a network of friends and contacts who bring you valuable intelligence. But I will look for ways of going out and seeking intelligence we would not otherwise have, actively recruiting agents in the heart of the Austrian and German empires.’
Steele sighed. ‘Rather as I thought. I have to tell you, Rassendyll, that you’re not the first to try that route, with little success. Such agents are brittle and unreliable creatures.’
‘Maybe,’ admitted Maxim, ‘but I think these are new days, and new sorts of agents can be found; men of greater utility.’
‘Hah! Yes. Radicals and anarchists. Dangerous allies, Rassendyll. They may help you in the short term, but they will turn on you in the end, mark my words.’
Maxim shook his head. He was getting nowhere, so he decided to try a different tack. ‘Colonel, there is one area of common danger where I’m sure we can help each other. I have every reason to believe that our opposite numbers in the German empire are active in Ruritania. What do you know about the state of the German and Austrian secret services in Strelsau?’
Steele shot a look at Maxim from under his eyebrows. ‘The German attaché here is Kappenburg, a colonel of engineers when he’s back home. He’s quite a young man for such a rank. He’s bright and has good contacts. We meet from time to time in diplomatic functions. He’s a pleasant-enough fellow, quite the gentleman in fact. I imagine he does much as I do, with the advantage that there are some figures in the Ruritanian army sympathetic to the German empire who feed him information, much as Rothenian Slavs are inclined to favour myself and the French.’
‘But it’s not just Kappenburg, is it.’
‘No, I would imagine not, though I have no certain knowledge of that. The Germans know quite how strategic a place Ruritania is in Central Europe. Since the alliance with Austria, there is no longer any rival to their efforts here. They worry about the rising Slav sentiment on their borders, and how the Rothenian resurgence will affect the Czech and Moravian independence movements. The assassination two years ago in Strelsau of Merczek, the Galician activist, was supposed to be the doing of the German department IIIB, as they call it. The assassin was later shot dead by the Strelsau police, and investigation proved he had links with Berlin, though nothing you could pin down.’
‘Thank you, that’s very helpful.’
‘Take care, Rassendyll. Counterintelligence is a treacherous business. If you go hunting spies, you may find you’re the one being hunted in the end. Also …’
‘Well, you should be aware that the Rothenians are not and never have been fools. They know very well that their country is becoming a haven for all sorts of extremists and agents, and they don’t like it much. I know they have their own people. Someone tipped off the Strelsau police about Merczek’s assassin, and it wasn’t I or the Germans. There are more than just two players in the game here.’
For all his irritation with Steele, this was the most useful conversation Maxim had enjoyed since his arrival in Strelsau. So he thanked the attaché with sufficient warmth and sincerity to soften Steele’s wooden face. He even promised to let the colonel know of any useful leads that came to his notice.
Maxim went back to staring out on to Rudolfs Platz, wondering this time what secret enemies the peaceful city was harbouring.
At eight the next Saturday, Maxim woke to the slow toll of bells rolling across the city roofs. The deep tenor bell of the cathedral had begun the sequence, and those of the other churches were taking their time from it. He sat up and went to the window. Pale faces were peering out of other windows all along Festungstrasse. Everyone knew what it meant. The short reign of William Henry of Ruritania was over, and he lay dead in the château of Zenda.
For Maxim, this was more than just a solemn moment in a nation’s history. The man was his not-too-distant cousin, whose newly vacant throne Maxim knew should properly have belonged to his side of the family. All unbidden, he felt a fierce flush of resentment that another of the Thuringian intruders would be proclaimed king today in Strelsau. Fortunately, the shower he’d had fitted in his modernistic bathroom served to cool his rancour somewhat.
Suddenly eager to be out and doing something, he threw on an overcoat and hat, clattered down the stairs and hurried into the street. Spying a news vendor nearby, he picked up an early edition of the Ruritanischer Tagblatt printed that day with a heavy black border. He stood on the sidewalk reading the bulletin from the palace, which stated that the king had died at two in the morning, his family around his bedside. There was to be the traditional month of national mourning, though no masses for his soul: the Thuringians were Protestant kings of a Catholic nation. The government had resigned and elections would be called to coincide with the end of the mourning period. Until then, executive power was vested in the president of the upper house, the Reichsräthe.
Maxim knew enough about Ruritanian history and customs to make his way across the Neustadt and up to the cathedral to join a large crowd gathering there. Preparations had already been completed in the Erchbischofsplatz, the square at the summit of the Altstadt set between the west front of the cathedral, the archbishop’s palace and the abbey of St Wenceslas. Above the gate of the abbey precinct on the south side of the square was a balcony, in fact a medieval open-air pulpit, from which in 1644 Duke Rudolf VI of Rothenia had been proclaimed first king of Ruritania by the reading of a papal bull.
A squadron of mounted Life Guards were lined in front of the abbey, the morning sun bright on their silver helmets. A trumpeter stood at the end of the troop of horsemen. At length a group of dignitaries filed on to the balcony, among them the cardinal archbishop, the general commanding the Strelsau district, a chief herald, the mayor of the Altstadt and the outgoing chancellor. When the trumpeter sounded a flourish, all the men present removed their hats, although Maxim had to fight down a reflex to keep his on. It was the herald who unrolled a scroll and pronounced that Albert of Thuringia was now the most pious and steadfast king of Ruritania and duke of Mittenheim. As all responded to the acclamation ‘Long lebst den kung’, cried out for the first time in history in Rothenian, the boom and concussion of the opening gun of the royal salute reached them from Bila Palacz.
Suddenly a rattle followed by an appalling crash at the cathedral end of the square caused the crowd to stir and turn. Maxim pushed forward. Fragments of sculpted limestone lay on the cobbles below the west front, where he saw a decapitated crowned head staring sightlessly up at him. The statue of Duke Tassilo had tumbled 150 feet from the western gable to shatter on the ground. Fortunately, no one was injured by its fall.
When Augustus Underwood turned up in Strelsau the next day asking to speak with him, Maxim was not at all surprised. They met in his apartment. Gus said he admired the décor, then moved on to business.
‘Is there any chance your brother the earl could be prevailed on to come to Strelsau?’
Maxim frowned. ‘None whatsoever. Gus, he can’t even speak German, let alone Rothenian. Julius complains when he is obliged to go up to London for the season. Mama and the girls occupy the Park Lane house now. He just wants to live quietly on the Burlesdon estate. He shoots a bit, quarrels with the local hunt, and makes bad decisions about the tenants. That’s his life. Julius may have the Elphberg colouring, but there’s nothing else Rothenian about him.’
Gus sighed. ‘Just our luck that the wrong son is the eldest. Bobby would have been so disappointed. We had hopes of Albert’s succession, you know. Had he been alive, your father would have used the occasion to revive the Rassendyll claim.’
‘Albert is a pretty dreadful piece of work. He has done murder with his own hand on more than one occasion.’
‘I thought the death of Oskar von Tarlenheim was in a duel. I don’t approve of duels, but as these things are understood, it was surely a fair fight.’
Gus gave Maxim a considering look. ‘Max, Albert fought earlier duels which were unequal enough for me to call them murder. He has no conscience. He killed in cold blood at least one man, a very good man, in Vienna in 1880. He would have killed me, too, if I had not been lucky.’
Maxim stared at Gus. There was clearly a far deeper story here than he had realised. He was on the point of asking for more detail when Gus shrugged and continued. ‘But this is by the by. The Rassendyll claim will go by default for the moment, but it will not be long before the rule of King Albert brings it back to the fore in people’s minds. Just being packed off into obscurity for the best part of the past thirty years doesn’t mean the man has changed at all.’
‘If that’s the case, Gus, all you have to do then is wait.’ Maxim was thinking that a malevolent king who caused civil discord in this central European state might help his own mission as much as feed Gus Underwood’s hopes.
‘I don’t relish what he might do to this country. I’ve learned to love it, and my daughter was born here.’
Maxim used that as a cue to ask how Antonia was doing. Apparently she was sufficiently recovered so Helga could return home to Templerstadt. She had even felt strong enough to go riding the day before.
Gus took his leave not long afterwards, saying he had meetings to attend.
Maxim went into his office, where he found Paul hard at work filing stories from the variety of newspapers they took. With a pang of irritation, Maxim reflected that he was not yet doing much more than what Colonel Steele called intelligence work: keeping his ears open at social functions and collating information readily available in print. But he had at last been able to make a move into new territory. He had a meeting at the Königen Flavia across the square.
Maxim told Paul he would be gone for an hour or two. As he left the pasacz he saw that mounted police were clearing the central way of the Rudolfs Platz, even stopping the trams from entering. The reason was soon apparent. A squadron of Life Guards trotted up the square, followed by an open carriage bearing the new king on his formal entry to Strelsau.
Albert was garbed in full-dress uniform, a shako on his head. Two military aides sat opposite him. He doffed his hat to the crowd when the carriage turned past the equestrian statue of Henry the Lion. In reply, the good-natured Strelseners removed their own hats or curtsied as their king drove by. One or two even cheered.
Standing outside the Königen Flavia, Maxim had quite a close view of his cousin. King Albert was in his mid-fifties, his moustache and side whiskers grey. He smiled affably, which Maxim thought odd in a man who had just witnessed his father’s death. Maxim stared after the carriage until the royal standard broke over the palace as a sign that the king was in his capital.
Expecting the restaurant to be crowded, Maxim had taken the precaution of booking a table. His guest was awaiting him and stood to shake his hand. ‘Herr Kálnoky, a pleasure as ever.’
‘Do call me Max, Herr Goch. Thank you for coming. I gather you have something of interest to show me.’
His guest made a deprecatory gesture, and Maxim did not need much perception to see that the man was delighted, even excited, to be meeting him. Dieter Goch had been a real find. An acquaintance of Freddy von Eschenbach’s, he had joined a cell of Silesian and Bohemian socialists who had settled in Streslau a year before Maxim arrived. They were helping to organise the socialist International, which was to be held the next year in Strelsau.
Of them all, Maxim was most interested in Goch, who worked as a clerk in the German mission, the offices attached to the embassy. Though it was true his was not a sensitive area, he was still able to offer information on embassy personnel and politics, and was quite happy to use it as a means of eking out his small salary. Because his family was Hanoverian in origin, he had a romantic attachment to the dispossessed house of Brunswick. It gave him an antipathy to Prussians which counterbalanced any conscience he might have had about providing intelligence to Maxim, whom he preferred to believe was an Austrian agent.
Goch’s plump hand pushed a folder across the table through the plates and wine glasses.
‘What’s this?’ asked Maxim.
‘Something that came my way yesterday. There may be more of it soon. Look at it and see what you think.’
Maxim opened the folder and found several carbon copies of typed sheets. Although at first sight he supposed they were routine memos, his eyes widened when he saw whose office they had come from: Colonel Kappenburg, the military attaché. They were directed to a variety of destinations, but the most significant addressee was a chief secretary in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.
Maxim looked up sharply, and found a smile on Goch’s round face. ‘The next-door office has been given to Colonel Kappenburg’s typist. She is a pleasant girl, but far too often out of her office to chat with her friends. She has this system where she lays out her paper sheets and carbons ready to pick up and feed into her typewriter. She never notices that I add an extra sheet and carbon to each neat pile when she is out. I just remove the extras from her tray when she leaves again. If ever she did notice, she would simply think she had miscounted her sheets.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘So what’s this worth to you, Max?’
Maxim did not dissemble. ‘More than anything you have shared with me so far.’ He opened his pocketbook and drew out a sizeable sum in Ruritanian krone. Goch’s eyes glittered when he saw the small sheaf of notes. Maxim continued, ‘Give me material of this quality every week, and you will have a similar sum. But do be careful, Goch.’
‘Oh, I will be, believe me.’ The cash disappeared from sight almost as soon as Maxim laid it down on the white tablecloth.
Back in the office above the Leuwen Pasacz, Maxim and a very excited Paul pored over the letters and memos. Paul had opened his Statesman’s Year Book for 1908 and was checking the identity of the people named in the typescripts. ‘Why’re they not in code, Max?’
Max had wondered that himself. He had come to the conclusion that these letters were meant for the embassy bag, and therefore did not need coding, as a telegram would.
Paul nodded at this explanation. ‘I say, Max. This is the real thing, ain’t it? You’ve hit the bullseye here, old feller. We’re spies!’
‘It’s a start at least.’ He took Colonel Kappenburg’s letters with him into his inner office. It would be too much to expect them to reveal anything out of the ordinary. Yet, routine though they were, they betrayed the concerns of German intelligence – or at least the German embassy – in Ruritania.
It seemed that Kappenburg was passing on information from someone he called S.A. Whoever he was, S.A. was certainly highly placed in Ruritania and well connected in the German empire. It was all Maxim could do to stop himself from writing off his own memo to Macpherson in London.
Maxim watched with some interest as the preparations for the funeral of King William Henry gathered pace under his office window. The king’s body was drawn slowly through the city on a gun carriage in a long and solemn procession. Dismounted Life Guard officers walked on either side of the draped coffin. King Albert and the kaiser himself, both in the uniforms of Ruritanian field marshals, followed as chief mourners. Between them walked the queen dowager, swathed in a black veil that reached almost to the ground. The city seemed full of muffled drums and tolling bells. Maxim felt sombre despite himself.
The king’s body was placed in the Chapel Royal for the night, and then moved by carriage to the Raadhaus of the Neustadt for the lying-in-state. Quite a decent crowd of Strelseners filed past it.
The Strelsau papers revived the story about the disappearance of the ancient crown of Tassilo, the great national symbol of Rothenia which still appeared on its banknotes and postage stamps. It was discovered to be missing on the death of Queen Flavia, the last Elphberg, in the tumultuous year 1880. No search had ever found a trace of it. The religious and superstitious believed its disappearance to be a sign, though of what was open to much disagreement. In its absence, a modern diadem was placed on the late king’s coffin.
The crowned heads of Europe gathered for the funeral of one of their own. Strelsau’s hotels were filled as the retinues of three emperors, one king-emperor and twelve ruling kings arrived one after another at the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof. The household regiments were run ragged providing honour guards and escorts.
A telegram from England three days before the funeral took Maxim aback. The earl his brother had received an express invitation, as both a cousin of the house of Thuringia and count of Hentzau. What really surprised Maxim was that Julius was actually going to come. Since the city was so full, Maxim offered his guest room for his brother’s use.
‘Very … modern,’ decided the earl as he took off his hat on entering the apartment.
‘Why thank you, Julius.’ Maxim smiled. His brother had long since stopped annoying him with his conservatism and narrow-mindedness. ‘How was the trip?’
‘Uncomfortable. Really, there should be more English spoken in the world. Shout as loudly as you like and Johnny foreigner still don’t understand you. My valet has a little French so we muddled through, just about. Thank you for finding a place around the corner for him to sleep. Now, I would love a cup of tea.’
Julius found a functional modernist chair and perched uneasily on it. He clearly expected it to collapse and was surprised when it took his weight comfortably. He bounced a little on it.
Maxim surveyed his brother. He had thickened round the waist and his red hair was thinning at the temples. He looked older than his twenty-seven years, well on the way to premature middle age, in fact.
After interrogating Julius as to the sort of tea he would like, Maxim went off to prepare it, wondering as he did so at the unlikely fate that had made this man heir to the Rassendyll claim to the throne of Ruritania. Their father lived in his memory as a charismatic, courageous and thoroughly decent man, and he could well believe the tales Gus Underwood had told him of Robert’s attempt to succeed Queen Flavia. Comparing Julius to their father was like comparing a lop-eared rabbit to a lion.
Julius sipped at his tea fastidiously and looked around the apartment with a faint air of suspicion.
‘So what do you make of our ancestral land, Julius?’
‘Oh come along, Maxim. We’re English … or at least as English as most of the English aristocracy. I don’t pop across to Normandy and think … hullo, this is where my ancestors came from with William the Conqueror. I was always convinced that sending you off to Hungary all those times to Uncle Stefan’s was a bad thing. It made you confused.’
Maxim changed the subject rapidly. ‘How’s Philippa?’ His brother had married a daughter of the Marquess of Bute.
‘Very well, thank you.’
‘And little James?’ James Rudolf Mountstuart Rassendyll was the two-year-old Lord Lowestoft, the future eleventh earl.
‘Toddling around everywhere, it’s all his nanny can do to keep up with him.’
Enquiries about his sisters and mother took up another quarter of an hour. Desultory silence followed. Julius was not an intellectually curious man and had little conversation, even of the most banal sort. Maxim endured an hour of this and then suggested dinner on Stracenzstrasse, Ribauds being more or less inaccessible unless one was a sovereign ruler of a European state.
Julius picked at his meal, a spicy Rothenian casserole. ‘Rather rich,’ was his verdict. Maxim entertained his brother with observations about Rothenian life and Strelsau. The earl seemed to listen most of the time.
As they were finishing a raspberry sorbet, Julius pulled out a folded letter and squinted at it. It was pure affectation. His eyesight was perfect. ‘Max, the marshal of the court says I’m to be at a reception at the palace tomorrow evening. Since Philippa stayed at Burlesdon House, I suppose it would be as well if you came with me. You do know the lingo and the politics of this place.’
Maxim nodded. Although he ought to keep his head down in Strelsau, it was too tempting to refuse a glimpse of the court of King Albert.
Gus Underwood arrived the next morning and took a lot of the pressure off Maxim. He besieged and harassed Julius with building plans and account books, spread out like a line of fortifications across Maxim’s dining-room table.
Maxim took himself off to the Leuwen Pasacz and spent the day looking over Dieter Goch’s latest memoranda. They focussed on someone called ‘S.M.’ now, not ‘S.A.’ It appeared that this ‘S.M’ had become more interesting to Colonel Kappenburg, and that negotiations between them were under way involving the exchange of information at a high level.
It was desperately intriguing but frustrating. Maxim was getting glimpses of what must be the summit of the German intelligence network. He considered putting pressure on Goch to find out who this man could be, only to reject the idea out of hand. Goch was too precious a source to risk in such a reckless way.
Maxim was still puzzling over this when he went to his bedroom to dress. While he was fixing his white tie, Julius appeared with something in his hand.
‘Max my boy, I had this ring from father before he died. He told me it was once Queen Flavia’s. I’m not a man for rings and chains, so you being here in Strelsau, I thought it might suit you better.’
Maxim thanked his brother and tried on the ring. Although it had been adapted for a man’s finger, the superbly carved bezel was still large on his hand. He stared at the object. Somehow it made his heart pulse. He clasped his hand tightly.
The palace was lit with flambeaux when the motor cab deposited the brothers at the old Reitschule to the rear of the Hofgarten. They joined the crowd moving through the trees to the back of the palace. Footmen and chamberlains directed them upwards to the Chapel Royal, draped from ceiling to floor with black cloth. The line of guests fell silent as they passed the late king’s coffin, six guards officers posted around the tall catafalque. Maxim made a pause to pay his respects to this cousin of his whom he had never met. Then he took his brother’s arm and they joined the surge into the palace’s ballroom.
Maxim spotted the British ambassador with some relief. Sir Andrew, obviously on the lookout for Julius, introduced himself to the earl with a smile and engaged him in small talk with all the skill of a talented diplomat. Maxim gratefully receded into the background. Except for the ambassador, he recognised no one apart from Colonel Steele, magnificent in the red and gold full-dress uniform of an infantry regiment, gold-spiked blue helmet under his arm. The two of them studiously ignored each other.
Maxim found a glass of white wine and cast his eyes around. The German diplomatic corps was recognisable by the size of its delegation as much as by the uniforms. He guessed Colonel Kappenburg was probably the young field officer talking to a civilian diplomat in court dress. He seemed a good humoured and intelligent man.
A roll of drums and the opening of a set of doors extinguished the chatter. The principal guests appeared, each announced in French as the international nature of the gathering demanded. It was as sa altesse le prince Guillaume de Luxembourg was succeeded by sa plus fidèle majesté, le roi Emanuel du Portugal, that the penny dropped in Maxim’s head. The ‘S.A.’ in Goch’s correspondence was ‘His Highness’, who was now ‘S.M’, or ‘His Majesty’, because Prince Albert had become king.
Maxim’s heart leaped into his mouth and his head swam. The memoranda were records of Colonel Kappenburg’s meetings with the king of Ruritania! Goch had given Maxim a keyhole through which to spy on the conversations between the king and the German Foreign Ministry, devastatingly compromising to both parties. If only Gus Underwood knew.
Last came King Albert, leaning on the good arm of the German emperor. They did seem genuinely friendly. Maxim caught the expression on the face of the former Ruritanian chancellor as the two monarchs entered. He did not seem too happy about his king’s cosiness with their powerful and dangerous neighbour.
It was an instructive evening watching the crowned heads of Europe circulate and chat amongst themselves in one of their periodic gatherings. Maxim and the lesser mortals were kept at a distance from the royal end of the hall, but at one point King Albert and his queen progressed through the room to receive the bows and curtseys of his subjects and guests. He singled out Julius for a brief, smiling conversation, which seemed very diplomatic in a king Gus had described as little less than a psychopath.
When Maxim caught up with his brother, the earl appeared quite touched by their exchange. ‘He said our father’s behaviour in the year ’80 had taught him to admire his cousin of Burlesdon as a man, and he wished to extend the hand of friendship to us as well. That was nice, I thought. Very kingly.’
Julius that evening was full of his meeting with Albert. As the brothers sipped their hot chocolates before bed, Maxim introduced Gus Underwood’s obsession with the Rassendyll claim to Ruritania.
Julius became further animated, and more articulate than Maxim could ever remember. ‘It’s all pipe dreams, Max. Father was a grand chap, but a romantic, like all those artists. He fell into strange company back then, and it’s just as well the thing worked out the way it did. Poor old Underwood is simply living in the past, hanging on to the dreams of youth. It’s a different world now. I hope he’s not infected you with this silliness.’
‘Good heavens, no. As you say, this is the twentieth century. People have different ideas and aspirations.’
‘I mean, what would Underwood have me do? I can’t lead an insurrection or challenge the man to single combat in the what-do-you-call-it, Rudolfs Platz.’
Maxim smiled. ‘I don’t think that’s his plan, so far as he has one.’
‘Well, whatever it is, you can sign me out of it.’
They parted for bed, for once in agreement with each other.
The next day was the funeral of King William Henry, which took place at the Chapel Royal, not at the cathedral. It was a simple Protestant ceremony, more notable for secular pomp than religious feeling. Maxim had a seat in the gallery, though his brother was down in the chapel itself.
Following the commendation, the coffin was carried out on the shoulders of guard officers and placed on a gun carriage. The procession moved off slowly through the crowded streets, behind a military band with muffled drums. The regiment of foot guards preceded the cortège, while behind it rode the emperors, kings, princes, and finally the three cavalry regiments of the guards. At the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof, the coffin was placed on the royal train to be borne to Zenda, where it would be laid to rest in the mausoleum built in the palace grounds for the late king’s elder brother.
Maxim waited until the sombre procession had passed out of the palace before going to his office. He stood at his usual window, watching the crowd disperse. City workmen were already busy taking down black hangings from the lamp posts, while others cleared up the horse dung which was the inevitable consequence of such a cavalcade. The sand laid along the route made it easier for them.
He was struck by the contrast between the solemn and timeless pomp of monarchy and the turbulent pace of change of his day and age. He was ever more convinced that the era of kingdoms and emperors was passing. The future seemed to lie elsewhere, though hopefully not with the proletarian paradise his socialist friends idealised as the predetermined end of human history. Modernity, which was his idol, seemed to be leaving such scenes and parades behind it. Why then, he wondered, had he been quite so moved by the whole experience of the exequies for such a royal nonentity? He needed to think about that.
Maxim met Julius outside Ribauds, where they had the best meal Strelsau could offer. Julius even gave the restaurant some mild praise. Over coffee they discussed the earl’s plans, for it seemed that, much against his inclinations, he was going to visit Hentzau. Gus Underwood had been adamant that it was ‘expected of him,’ the only argument known to shift Julius. He was to be given a tour of the growing tractor and motor works at Eisendorf, and meet the significant agents in his various interests around Hentzau.
Maxim was intrigued at quite how widespread those interests now were. Gus had been reticent about his investments for the Rassendyll estate in Ruritania, but it appeared from what Julius let slip that they were far more extensive than he had thought. A lot of the expanding suburb of Sudmesten was being built on empty fields Gus had bought speculatively twenty years ago in partnership with their father. It also appeared that the Rassendyll estate had developed much of Starel Heights. Gus must be a very wealthy man in his own right, Maxim concluded. There were hints besides of ventures in Austria and Bohemia that Rassendyll money was resting in. Maxim wondered if he might be able to use those connections in his own work.
It was late when they left Ribauds and walked out on to Neue Platz. They strolled up Stracenzstrasse, not saying much. It was as they were passing the crossing of Marxergasse and Klimentgasse that a party of men came up behind them. Maxim was jostled into a wall, crying out in protest. Two of the men seized him and struck him in the face. He struggled. In the lamplight, he could see a further struggle around his brother. He shouted at the top of his voice, lashing out with a boot as several blows rained down on him. He found himself on the cold pavement being heavily kicked in the side.
When the blows suddenly stopped, he staggered to his feet and walked blindly a few steps until he tripped over another body. He fell again, coming face to face with his brother, whose dead eyes stared up at him fixedly. A wire garrotte was embedded deeply into the earl’s bloody neck. To Maxim’s horror, it seemed that the head had been all but severed.