MAXIM ELPHBERG - VI
‘Here, take this Max.’ Paul Underwood pushed a stiff whisky into his unresisting fingers. He bolted it mechanically, then doubled over in a coughing fit.
‘’Scuse me … I’ve got to …’ Maxim lunged for the toilet. Five minutes later he came back wiping his mouth.
Paul had just hung up the telephone. ‘I got through to Hentzau and spoke with Marek, who has sent out for Uncle Gus. He’ll be here on the first train tomorrow. It’s too late for today.’
A sharp rap on the apartment door took Paul off for a moment. He returned with two police officers, the senior of whom introduced himself as Major Bucek.
‘May I express my regrets at your brother’s death, Mr Rassendyll. This is a terrible tragedy, and for it to happen to the king’s guest in our city. If there is anything …’
‘Thank you, major.’ Maxim was coming back into focus. ‘What you can do most for me is tell me how it happened and who did it.’
‘His excellency your brother was professionally garrotted, so much is clear. The method of murder is well enough known across the frontiers, though not here. There has been a rash of such attacks in Nuremberg and Munich. The same method of tightening the wire swiftly with a wooden rod was used there. A gang must have been attracted to Strelsau by the influx of visitors, though this was their only known attack here to date.’
‘What was stolen from my brother?’
‘Nothing, so far as can be ascertained. His pocket book and watch were still on him. Your resistance may have unnerved the gang, we think, and they ran off at the approach of another group along Klimentgasse – city workmen, in fact, who raised the alarm.’ The major hesitated. ‘There was nothing you could have done, sir. As soon as the wire was around his neck, your brother was a dead man. It would have been very quick.’
‘What are the chances of catching this gang?’
‘The stations and border posts are all under close surveillance. There is no possibility they could have got out of the country yet. It’s unlikely they realized how well known their victim was. We’ll get them, sir. The Strelsau underworld will very happily hand them over to us when the size of the reward is known.’
‘Oh yes, sir. The king himself put up a sum of ten thousand krone for information leading to the capture of the gang.’
‘That was very generous of his majesty.’
‘The commandant heard the king was white with fury when he learned that your brother had been murdered on the very day of his father’s funeral. He has had the earl’s body taken to the Salvatorskirk and laid out in the proper Catholic way. I believe there will be a mass for the dead every day the earl lies there. The British ambassador has been in communication with your Foreign Office. The lady countess was in London and has been informed by Queen Alexandra in person. King Edward of course is still here in the city, and I am to tell you he intends to call on you tomorrow morning to offer his sympathies.’
Maxim took a deep breath. ‘That’s very kind … you have all been very kind. Is there anything else you need to know?’
‘Not at the moment sir. I will make sure any news gets to you as soon as possible. We have your telephone number.’ The two officers bowed their way out of the apartment.
Maxim went over to the window. What was he to think of this tragedy? He knew what Gus Underwood would say: this was King Albert’s doing. But if it were, the king was going to extraordinary lengths to act the innocent.
The phone rang. Though he loathed the instrument, Gus had overcome his distaste in order to offer help and comfort to Maxim. Whatever suspicions he had, he kept them to himself for the time being.
Gus was in Festungstrasse by nine the next morning. The ambassador arrived not long afterwards, and shook Gus’s hand warmly. ‘Mr Underwood, a real pleasure, though a mixed one in the present circumstances. I have long wanted to meet a man I have heard so much about. But I suppose we had best do our duty to the departed before anything else.’
Gus murmured a few words and took Maxim’s arm when they left the apartment. He said nothing more, but stayed close to Maxim as they rode in the ambassador’s Daimler to the Salvatorskirk.
The tall, baroque city church was full of flowers, their scent mixed with that of the incense used in the last Sunday mass. The great organ was playing a subdued voluntary. Julius’s body was before the high altar, a black pall laid over the coffin, which was surrounded by tall candles. A priest ushered the three men into one of the stalls in the choir, then returned vested following a procession of Franciscans who were to sing the office with him. It was a solemn and appropriate requiem.
A large number of well-dressed men in the congregation continually attracted Maxim’s attention. At the conclusion of the mass, a score of them came up to offer condolences. A handsome old gentleman in a general’s undress uniform introduced himself as Count Bernenstein, who was there to represent the king. But he said pointedly that he was a friend of Maxim’s father’s, which was his principal reason for being present. The princes of Tarlenheim and Ostberg were also there, together with a number of other aristocrats whose names Maxim failed to catch. It was quite an impressive collection of Rothenian dignitaries, including several ministers and senior clergy. They kept calling Maxim ‘excellency,’ apparently making the incorrect deduction that he was his brother’s heir. He felt too drained by the shock of it all to correct them.
As Gus, Paul and he began leaving the church, Maxim mentioned their mistake. Gus pulled him to a halt as they were reaching the south door and said, ‘There was no mistake.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Max, dear boy, this is Rothenia. They know perfectly well that poor Julius has a son who is now the eleventh earl, but little James is not count of Hentzau.’
‘Rothenian law and custom dictate that titles and estates pass by courtesy to the next eldest brother until the boy heir reaches the age of twenty-one. Prior to such time, you are the count of Hentzau. Even after James inherits the estate, you will still retain the title of count. That’s the Rothenian way.’
‘Holy Mary! Are you sure?’
‘Perfectly sure, and there is one other thing, too.’
‘I am not going to like this, am I.’
‘No … well, maybe not. Those men were there to say goodbye to a man who, had things worked out differently, would have been king of Ruritania.’
‘Yes, I realise …’
‘And they were also there to meet the man who is now the pretender to the crown of Ruritania.’
Maxim was struck dumb. Gus continued, ‘The throne of Ruritania always passes to the next adult heir and never to a child. While you live, James can never be king of Ruritania, because the crown of Tassilo is yours by right.’
Somehow, the fact that Maxim might claim to be king of Ruritania helped him a lot over the next few days. He felt bizarrely equal to the man in front of him when he shook the hand of King Edward VII later that morning. He was touched that the king had come to Festungstrasse, especially as Edward was clearly not a well man. He knew Maxim, for he had come to Burlesdon from Sandringham on several occasions when Maxim was a boy.
‘Rassendyll, dear boy, what can I say?’ Maxim noticed again the guttural Germanic accent the king always retained.
‘It’s good of you to come, your majesty.’
‘Cousin Albert – hah! – well he’s your cousin too, isn’t he? Cousin Albert says he’ll have every house in the city searched if that’s what’s necessary to find the gang responsible for this atrocity. You’ll take my sympathies to Lady Burlesdon? Poor little lad, what’s his name?’
‘James. Yes. Carnell told me that the customs of this place mean you’ve come by an estate here now.’
‘Not the way you’d have preferred it to happen, I’ll be bound. Still, it’s an ill wind… I had better go. My train leaves at noon. Remember, condolences to the widow.’
‘Yes sir. Thank you for your kindness.’
‘Not at all.’
Maxim bowed the king and his secretary out. Paul looked very gratified. ‘Fine old fellow, ain’t he. Lot shorter than I had thought. But what can you tell from a picture on a stamp, eh?’
Paul went out to shut the office in Leuwen Pasacz for a fortnight. Maxim had decided he would accompany his brother’s body back to England and attend the funeral, so he was taking a vacation from espionage work. Besides, his cherished scheme was looking frail. Since he was now count of Hentzau, he had to wonder whether he could continue to operate in the shadows as he had calculated. It had been difficult enough for the Hon. Maxim Rassendyll to get into the role of an intelligence agent. How much more so it would be for his excellency, the count of Hentzau, pretender to the throne of Ruritania.
When Paul returned, Maxim asked, ‘What do you think about all this, Paul my lad?’
‘About the murder, you mean? Dreadful tragedy. Wherever he is now, your poor brother must be thinking his suspicions of foreign travel were pretty much justified. Sorry. That came out as insensitive.’
Maxim smiled and reassured Paul. ‘Your uncle thinks it was no accident … at least, he hasn’t said it, but I know he thinks it.’
‘Uncle Gus does have bees in his bonnet, and King Albert is one of them, I know. But what if he’s right?’
‘If he’s right, I had best get out of Strelsau. I’ll be the next target on Albert’s list. But I just can’t credit it. You and I know the real dangers in modern Europe aren’t psychopathic kings with a medieval sense of what’s right and wrong, but the rise in international socialism and unrestrained Prussian militarism. It’s those dangers which have brought us to Ruritania. We’re the front line in our nation’s defences against them.’
Yes, damn it, complained Maxim to himself. That’s why I began this mission, and the need to complete it is still there. All this business about Hentzau and the crown is just an unwelcome distraction.
There was this to it, though. If Gus Underwood was right, he now had the resources of his family estate in Ruritania to help him, and he was beginning to think they were considerable.
Maxim stayed a fortnight in England. It was not a pleasant visit. Between his mother and his sister-in-law, he had a very hard time of it. He was now the guardian of the child-earl his nephew, so there was much legal business to be transacted in Lincoln’s Inn. Lady Philippa did not understand why it was that her son was not also count of Hentzau, and her insistence that there must be some mistake passed into the realm of the offensive. It implied that Maxim was somehow cheating the boy of his rights.
Maxim sighed and left the explanations to the lawyers. But at least in the meantime he could reverse a lot of Julius’s mismanagement that Gus Underwood pointed out to him. Gus had come along to Britain too, permitting them to have several conferences at Maxim’s club about the Burlesdon estate. Maxim sacked Julius’s agents and employed Gus’s London nominees instead. Before he left, he signed papers for a major commercial development on Rassendyll land north of Green Park. Gus assured him that it would more than make good Julius’s mistakes in assigning leases.
Maxim also got to see Macpherson in London. ‘You know that Steele at the embassy is against the Secret Service’s involvement in Central Europe.’
‘Yes. But that’s just Steele. He’s more Foreign Office than War Office; they go native, do military attachés. Things are getting more pressing, especially in Ruritania. The new king and the kaiser are hand in hand, and from what you say, Albert will be a direct conduit to Berlin for any sensitive information that Ruritanian agents unearth. He has access to all government papers and no doubt will abuse the privilege. I don’t like the implications for the balance of power, either. Ruritania has just become an informal fourth member of the Triple Alliance. Your mission is more important then ever, Rassendyll – or should I say, my lord?’
‘News gets round, I see.’
‘Oh yes. Congratulations on your luck, though it’s not perhaps the way you would have liked to become a peer.’
Maxim and Macpherson talked all afternoon about the situation, and particularly how to handle Dieter Goch. It energised Maxim. By the time they’d had their last cup of tea, he had regained focus. He knew what he would be doing when he went back to Ruritania, and it would not be living the life of a country gentleman, nor would it be acting the part of a king-in-waiting.
But as it happened, the first thing he did when he arrived in Streslau was something he had not expected. Elections had been called, with Marcus Tildeman standing as parliamentary representative for the Third District. An excited Osku dragged Maxim down to the dilapidated and vacant shop just off Gildenfahrbsweg which was Tildeman’s headquarters. Maxim was happy enough to help, since it took his mind off his family troubles.
Professor Tildeman beamed when Maxim picked up a bundle of pamphlets and went out with Osku and Paul to leaflet Königstrasse. Rothenians were very keen to discuss politics, and it turned out to be a demanding afternoon as the three young men tried to explain socialism to the midday shoppers between the Rudolfs Platz and Festungstrasse South.
‘But I don’t think I am a socialist!’ Maxim complained.
‘You believe that everybody should have a fair shot at life, don’t you?’ Osku grinned.
‘And don’t you agree that people should be treated with respect, whatever their income?’
‘You’re almost there, then.’
‘But I don’t believe the pre-determined end of human history is an egalitarian commonwealth, or that the State should have a monopoly of the means of production.’
‘Ah, that’s the count of Hentzau talking now.’
‘Stop patronising me, Osku!’
Oskar Franz laughed.
That night there was a rally for the SDPR, the Social Democratic Party of Rothenia, in a parish hall at the corner of Gildenfahrbsweg and Fleischergasse. Maxim sat at the back of the crowded room. The weather was damp and the smell of musty clothes and humanity in that enclosed space was not pleasant. The platform was occupied by a large number of party functionaries, with speech succeeding speech. Maxim drifted off.
Suddenly he jerked awake as his unconscious mind registered a change in the mood around him. Marcus Tildemann had taken the rostrum. People were paying attention to the professor as they had not done to his predecessors. He was not quoting writers his listeners knew nothing of, nor was he using words they did not understand. He spoke directly to each individual, because – unlike Freddy Tilly von Eschenbach, for instance – Tildemann genuinely liked the people he wished to serve. Freddy and many of his cell, on the other hand, considered ‘the people’ to be a theoretical group which existed only to be told what they wanted.
Tildemann talked to the people of the Third District about their lives, why they were hard, and how they could be better. He explained about the work of his legal clinic, about the abysmal health care and the dreadful squalor of the slums in which most of them lived. He described how their lives could be improved, and would be if he were elected. He made no jokes, nor did he quote Engels. He spoke with the passion of a direct and honest man, in the Rothenian that was their first language. Cheers and applause went on for ten minutes after he finished.
‘Did you get all that?’ asked Osku.
‘Most of it. My Rothenian’s coming along these days. It’s a heavily Germanised language.’
‘Don’t let Rothenians hear you say that. Voting’s on Sunday. I hope you’ve registered.’
‘I’m a British citizen.’
‘Who happens to be the count of Hentzau.’
‘I’m never going to hear the end of that, am I.’
He spent the rest of a very enjoyable evening with his lawyer friends at the Café Jednorosecz. Marcus Tildemann made his excuses. Apparently he got severe migraines after giving important speeches.
Sunday came and the priests of the Third District all but led their flocks in procession to the polling booths to vote for the SDPR. Socialist or not, Tildemann had the Church’s endorsement.
Maxim and his friends attended the vote counting in the Raathaus of the Neustadt. The results from the Third District were announced just before midnight, when Professor Tildemann became its MP by a landslide. Maxim hosted a small party in his apartment, at which Professor and Frau Tildemann made a smiling appearance to great acclaim at one in the morning, on their way to their home in a street by the university.
Maxim and Paul had reopened the office in Leuwen Pasacz, where they were planning the next stage of their work. The first thing they did when they arrived that Monday morning was to look over the parliamentary results.
‘There seems to be a definite lurch towards the left, wouldn’t you say?’
Paul grunted. ‘All these small parties with a string of initials. I can’t hold what they stand for in my head. But the SDPR did well in Strelsau and Hofbau, that’s for sure. These conservative German parties in Merz, the Tirolen and Mittenheim, they counterbalance the left wing. Who’re the CDP and CDLP people that are so strong in the Husbrau regions?’
‘Those are the Christian Democrats, who’ve split into liberal and conservative wings. They’re the farmers’ parties. Both are pretty right wing, really.’
‘I just did a total here in pencil. If you put them together, they’re the biggest group. Doesn’t that mean they get to nominate the chancellor to the king?’
‘Yes. But they have to agree who it is, first.’
‘How long before they come to an agreement?’
‘It might take weeks.’
They went on to the question of Dieter Goch, and Maxim described the discussions he’d had with Macpherson in London. ‘He’s the best source any of us have found so far. I get the impression that the Admiralty people are envious. We have to be careful how we handle this. They’ll be hoping that we mess this whole business up.
‘So far as I can see, Albert was playing a careful game with the Germans while he was crown prince. He was passing on information he’d gleaned from a variety of people with whom he had been into contact, but not handing on any documents. Now he’s king it might either stop altogether or increase in scope. He gets to see all the papers of the government, and that includes the intelligence reports from Ruritanian embassies and their own shadowy secret service. The problem for Albert and Kappenburg is how they get to communicate. It has to be through an intermediary, surely.’
Paul shrugged. ‘We’ll have to wait for whatever Herr Goch provides next. I expect Kappenburg is keen to show off to his masters in Berlin. It can’t be long in coming. By the way, Uncle Gus will be in town a bit later. I think he’s expecting to see you at your flat.’
Maxim cursed silently in his head. Gus seemed unable to let him alone at the moment. Nonetheless, Maxim was affable when the older man arrived at his door in midafternoon. He had the kettle already boiling for tea.
‘I must say, you look after yourself well, Maxim.’
‘Oh well, Herr Zelekin the concierge found me a very good cleaner, his sister-in-law as it happens. She keeps the rooms habitable and manages my laundry. I’m very well taken care of. I can cook enough to get by.’
‘Most unusual for an earl’s son.’
‘I refused to live in college after my first year in Oxford. I took a house off Banbury Road with a friend. Mama was horrified. But I was not Julius, I knew I would have to look after myself in the end. Butlers and footmen were his future, not mine. Oxford seemed a good time to start being independent. And look, I can make tea and boil an egg. There is nothing beyond my capabilities!’
Gus chuckled. He had brought a document case, which he unloaded on the dining room table. ‘More signatures, I’m afraid. This is the end of the probate process, so far as Hentzau is concerned. And here is a statement of probate, after the Ruritanian duty is paid on the estate.’
Maxim glanced at the columns and figures, then looked again. ‘Good heavens!’
Gus gave a little smile. ‘These have been good years. The period when I was your father’s executor gave me all the freedom I needed to make the investments which were likely to yield a return. It’s a delight to hand the estate over to you, Maxim, it’s in very good order.
‘Of course, the Ruritanian – I should say Central European – estate always had to be administered separately. This was just as well when your late brother was earl and count. I had to make some capital transfers to cover the losses he was incurring, but most of the profits I kept back for investment, with the result you see.’
Maxim let out his breath. ‘The Hentzau estate is worth far more than the Burlesdon one, I would guess.’
Gus looked modest. ‘It was not always so, but yes. The development of suburban Strelsau was an opportunity too good to miss. James Antrobus and I bought up pasture and derelict farmland south of the station during the depression years of the early eighties. Then we took a large amount of land north of the river when the archdiocese defaulted on a mortgage. They were bargain opportunities in both cases.’
‘By this account you seem to have developed a lot of the Seventh and Ninth Districts. This is tremendously impressive, Gus. Maybe the Hentzau estate was always going to be a money maker once it was in order, but it was no small matter to spot the right opportunities. Tell me about the Vienna interests.’
‘I developed that portfolio with the prince of Tarlenheim, who was looking for capital to convert his town house and park into new developments in a very expensive and fashionable area of the city. That led to other opportunities with an astute Austrian speculator who was keen to capitalise some very imaginative projects.’
‘Railways, urban properties, mills, vehicle factories, farming equipment, shipping … it goes on and on. Gus, the estate must be worth ten million pounds at least.’
‘Probably twice that … and it’s yours, Max, for the next nineteen years. I’m sure you’ll keep it in good order for little James.’
‘That certainly is my intention, but you say the profits at least are mine till then.’
‘That’s the way it goes, and though you can’t alienate any of the property, the issues and rents go into your own account. You have to make it work for you, that’s all.’
‘I hope you don’t think that I’m going to give up my own work in the meantime.’
‘Oh heavens no, not unless you want to replace me as general manager and do it yourself.’
‘No, that is certainly not my plan. This may now be my empire, but I’m very happy for you to be its shogun. Just you carry on, Gus, you’re a marvel.’
‘And now another subject, Max.’
Maxim caught the solemn look on Gus’s face. He guessed what was coming next.
‘You are the rightful king of Ruritania.’
Maxim frowned. ‘Theoretically, yes. But heavens, Gus, you can’t expect me to walk up the Rudolfs Platz with a drawn pistol and seize the throne.’
‘No, of course not, Max. Put it this way if it suits you better: you are the trustee for the Elphberg dynasty. It may not be you who takes the throne. It may be little James if you have no children. Just promise me you won’t be like Julius and ignore your father’s wishes.’
Maxim stiffened. ‘That is not a fair thing to say. I am not indifferent to my family’s claims – look, this is the ring that Julius received from father. It was Queen Flavia’s. Julius gave it to me because he was not comfortable wearing it. I think my brother knew he was not the stuff kings were made of. Maybe in time I will be tested and not found wanting. Meanwhile, I will wear the ring in memory of poor Julius.’
Gus cleared his throat. ‘You know that Julius’s death was no random street killing.’
Maxim frowned. ‘The police believe it was the work of a known German gang, even down to the method of killing. They don’t think it was a political assassination, least of all one carried out by their king’s orders.’
Gus got up and walked around. ‘Max, the king is perfectly capable of organising such a killing. He has used underworld connections before now. It was just too convenient for him to have Julius in Strelsau and within his reach. He wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass.’
Maxim recognised the grip of the idée fixe on Gus’s mind. He wondered whether Count Oskar’s killing had unhinged Gus a little, so that his unconscious mind had erected Albert of Thuringia into the source of all the unhappiness in his life. What could you say to such a man? He tried. ‘Answer me this then, Gus. He had the two brothers at his mercy on the streets of Strelsau, how come he let me go? It would have been in his interest that we should both fall victim to the assassins, yet Julius died and I escaped.’
‘I can’t account for that, but you said they were interrupted by a passing group of men.’
‘The killers would have had as much time as they needed to do to me what they did to Julius. Your theory about the king’s involvement makes no sense to me.’
Gus was nettled, and Maxim felt a little sorry that he had to disagree with such a manifestly good man. Gus gave a turn of the head and a little shrug. ‘He will have been behind it, you may be sure. But I see there’s no convincing you. You’ll learn one day, and I hope it’s not too painful a process for you when it happens. Ruritania is not Great Britain, Max, you are forgetting that. Things happen here that could never happen in Penge or Reading.’
Maxim and Paul dedicated the best part of the early summer to collecting information in their separate spheres. Maxim spent a fortnight in Bohemia, meeting academics his socialist friends had put him in touch with. By the end of the first week he had a very good idea of the organisation and structure of the Czech separatist party in Prague, and had found a lecturer in the sociology department of the Charles University who was willing to take a retainer to write reports for him on its activities and on relations between the movement and the Austrian state police.
Freddy von Eschenbach was at a loose end and was happy to board a train to meet him in a restaurant next to the Tynkirche. They discussed the frailties of the dual monarchy till the sky became dark and the lamps were lit on the outside tables. Their voices were slurring with the effects of the crisp Bohemian beer they had been drinking with enthusiasm and appreciation.
It was not just the alcohol that made Maxim feel very well disposed towards Freddy. His friend was the sort of man he liked: enthusiastic and a little naïve, but also amusing. But Maxim’s mission in Strelsau did not allow space for friendships, as he had long realised.
When he returned to Ruritania, Maxim was ready to have his first meeting with Goch for quite a while. They met again in the Königen Flavia, taking their usual table in a discrete corner, away from the windows.
‘So what do you have for me, Dieter?’
The German was pleased with himself. ‘Nearly a case full of memoranda, some of which I’m sure will be worth a great deal to you.’
Goch began feeding him the waxy sheets, and slowly Maxim’s attention became absorbed. There was a lot about ‘S.M.’, though it was not immediately apparent what was its significance. But at least it looked important and very suggestive. It also confirmed that King Albert was not cutting his links with German intelligence; far from it, traffic between them was increasing.
Maxim smiled as he handed over most of the contents of his wallet to Goch at the end of their meal. He barely listened to Goch’s account of rivalries and gossip within the German mission.
He spent the evening poring over the enigmatic correspondence. Cigarette followed whisky followed cigarette. His head was buzzing. By midnight Maxim believed he had it worked out. Albert was proposing to pass on significant information to the German general staff, no less than the briefings of his own war ministry on the current dispositions of the allied nations. There would be a meeting in Vienna at which the king’s confidential secretary would hand over a dossier to the chief of German intelligence’s Strelsau bureau. The date, place and time were all there.
Maxim was stunned. This was a coup beyond his imagining. In one swoop he could link the king of Ruritania to the German foreign ministry as a conduit of highly compromising material, while identifying his faceless adversary, the head of the German office in Strelsau. It was in his power to go even further. It just depended on how ruthless he wished to be. This was the question that now vexed him. What would he not do for king and country?
He was still wondering about that as he sat behind his desk at the Leuwen Pasacz the next day. Gripped with a most unaccustomed doubt, he would have welcomed Macpherson’s stern appearance at his office door. He heard Paul whistling as he came along the corridor and decided that, if anyone was to risk the Vienna mission, it had to be he alone. With that he made up his mind; to Vienna he would go.
The trip into Austria via Rechtenberg and Linz was uneventful. It was his nerves that made Maxim imagine he was being watched. He still could not decide how he would exploit the information that had fallen into his lap. However, he had a small revolver in his inner pocket, and if decisive action was needed, he had the means to execute it.
He joined the throng at Vienna’s Westbahnhof in the queue for a motor taxi. The rattling journey through the busy and dusty city streets brought him into some sort of focus. He found rooms in a small, inconspicuous guest house in the Leopoldstadt, across the canal, and applied himself to his notes about the impending meeting between Germany’s intelligence supremo in Strelsau and Baron Zentenburg, King Albert’s confidential secretary.
The meeting was to be the following day, a Saturday. The two men were to arrive at three at a tea room called Perrins, near the Rotunda in the Prater, and take a reserved table in a corner. This was hopeful for Maxim. It was a warm day, and the shady Haupt-Allee was thronged with afternoon promenaders. Officers and their ladies were riding along the sand track. Maxim had dressed for the occasion in linen jacket and straw boater. He leaned on a walking stick and contemplated the distant view of the new Ferris wheel as it turned above the trees.
As three o’clock approached, Maxim was already seated in the corner of the tea house, watching the door. Two men came in, more or less together. Maxim recognised the baron from his brief excursion into the Ruritanian court at the time of Albert’s succession. He stared intently above the menu at the other. So this was the chief of German intelligence, his opposite number in Strelsau. He seemed a rather colourless and unmemorable fellow, which, as Maxim reflected, was probably a desirable quality in such a man.
The baron had placed a leather attaché case on the table. The two men talked quietly as they ordered their tea and cakes. Maxim was still in two minds as to how to deal with the situation. He only knew he had to have that case, which he imagined would leave the tea house with the German. The two men chatted politely for half an hour, stood and shook hands. Then the baron walked out, leaving his case on the table. The German finished his tea, picked up the case and left in his turn.
The time had come for decisive action. The German was ahead of him, making for Praterstrasse and the city, as it seemed. He passed under some trees and into a shrub-lined alley. This was the moment. Maxim picked up his pace and placed a hand on his revolver. Heart pounding, but feeling strangely cool, he came up quickly behind the man, shoved the barrel into his back and hooked an arm around his neck.
‘I have a gun,’ he hissed. ‘And I want that case.’
He snatched the case from the unresisting hands of the man and turned to run. But he found he could not. Austrian police had closed the end of the alley, and they too had guns drawn. He turned back to the anonymous man, who shrugged and smiled. He took the case from Maxim’s hands and walked off without a backward glance. Maxim dropped his gun, and raised his hands.