MAXIM ELPHBERG - VII
Trapped, trapped, trapped. The words pulsed through Maxim’s head as he was handcuffed and bundled through the gathering crowd of curious Viennese. The police were not gentle when they pushed him into a horse-drawn cart, flinging him winded on to the straw-covered floor. Even so, his head remained strangely clear, despite the humiliation and danger of his present situation.
Who had betrayed him? The Germans had to have known of his plans in Vienna, and had tipped off their Austrian colleagues, so much was for sure. That pointed to Goch’s being a double agent. Although Goch might have been duped, it seemed much more probable that he had been deliberately feeding Maxim contaminated intelligence to pass on to London. But how had they recognised Maxim as a British agent? How had they known where to find him?
Questions and speculations ran wildly through his mind as the motion of the cart on the cobbles of the uneven Vienna streets rolled him across the floor. Snatches of everyday conversation drifted in through the barred openings whenever the cart slowed at crossings. The pressing question for Maxim was where they were taking him. His blood ran cold at the thought that he might be handed over directly to German intelligence. He had heard of the way prisoners in Spandau were treated. He would be made to talk, he knew. He also knew that it would be a painful process, before what was left of him was handed over to the executioner. The Austrians, on the other hand, had no motive to question him as thoroughly as the Germans would – or at least he hoped not.
The cart drew up with a lurch that sent him thumping against its back wall. The door opened and two officers hauled him out, their hands under his armpits. He was in a small courtyard between high walls pierced with black windows. He was frogmarched up steps, though a door and down a long echoing passage lined with cells. One was opened and Maxim unceremoniously thrown inside to sprawl groaning on the floor. He struggled painfully to his knees and then to his feet, which was not easy with hands cuffed behind his back.
The cell contained a narrow bed, a sink, two chairs and a table. He sat at the table and waited. Somehow, he knew he would soon be under interrogation, so he was not surprised when steps approached and the door opened to admit two uniformed officers and a man in a black suit.
‘Has he been searched?’ the man asked. When heads shook, Maxim was uncuffed and stripped. The search was thorough and very humiliating. His clothes were not returned. With an aching heart, he saw the coronation ring of Queen Flavia disappear into a guard’s pocket. He was cuffed again to the chair and hunched there shivering, very aware that he needed the toilet. The man in the suit smoked a cigarette and simply sat looking at him for quite a while. Maxim had already resolved to say nothing unprompted.
Eventually the man stubbed out his cigarette before asking Maxim his name.
‘You are an Austrian subject?’
‘My father was.’
‘You are of the Kálnoky family of Köröspatak?’
‘I think you know, Mr Kálnoky, if that indeed is your name. We will get back to it in good time. What is your nationality?’
‘Indeed. So, Mr Kálnoky, you were arrested in the Prater in the act of committing a felony.’
Maxim looked at the man. He could not resist observing, ‘You have not charged me.’
‘We will get around to that. Did you know the man you assaulted?’
‘Why did you snatch his case?’
‘It looked valuable.’
‘I think we both understand that you are not a thief, Mr Kálnoky.’
Maxim did not reply.
His interrogator lit another cigarette, and again there was a long pause while he sat silent staring at Maxim. At length he said, ‘You will tell me everything eventually, you know. Then I will hand you over to some friends, and you will tell them too.’
‘May I have my clothes back?’
‘Certainly.’ He nodded to the officers. They uncuffed Maxim, but as he began to stand, they knocked him to the ground and began kicking his naked body. He curled into a ball, trying to protect his vulnerable areas. The assault was carefully carried out. They wanted to inflict pain, and they seemed to have some skill in judging quite how to do it.
They finished, not even breathing heavily, as Maxim noticed. The man knelt down by his bruised body. ‘You will tell me everything,’ he said quietly in Maxim’s ear. He straightened and left, the officers following him out. Groaning, Maxim crawled to the bed and laboriously climbed up on to the blankets. His clothes were strewn across it. He fell into unconsciousness.
When he awoke, it was the pressure on his bladder that was his first concern. He staggered to his feet, swayed, and headed for the sink to relieve himself. Then he slowly dressed, a frustrating process because his limbs did not want to bend in the usual way.
He checked what he could see of himself. His chest, flanks and legs were a mass of red welts and bruises. He was tender all over, but especially between his legs, where several brutal kicks had been deliberately placed.
He was oppressed by the pain and the humiliation, but most of all by a sense of his own stupidity. Without being aware of it, like a man walking carelessly on tidal sands, he had been fatally caught out by his own folly. He had all the self-belief of his Elphberg ancestors, and had forgotten how easily it could turn into blind arrogance. He had underestimated his rivals, who had played him for the fool he was, so easily duped by his overweening desire for an intelligence coup to show off at the War Office, to prove himself.
But what had he really been trying to prove? Was it the fact that the Rassendylls were so notoriously un-British that had propelled him into hyper-patriotism? Was that what had led him into this? Maxim wondered about Julius. Had he too felt the sense of mixed blood and divided loyalties? Perhaps that was why he had become such a caricature of a bucolic English earl.
Who actually was Maxim Stefan Rassendyll? When he had put on the name of Kálnoky, he had to admit he’d enjoyed the sense of otherness it invested him with. He had assumed it was because he was enjoying the role of spy, but maybe it answered a different need, to be something other than an English gentleman, a product of Medwardine and Oxford.
Then there was Strelsau. The city of his Elphberg ancestors had taken possession of him as soon as he had got off the train at the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof. He felt more at home on the Rudolfs Platz than he had ever done on Park Lane. With a guilty start, he realized this was what Gus Underwood had been telling him for months, and he had not listened.
Well, now it was too late. There would be no rescue. The British government would deny all knowledge of a Max-Stefan Kálnoky, and there was nothing his friends could do. Although Paul knew where Maxim was heading, whom could he contact when eventually he realised that something had gone wrong? Maxim had withheld the details of Macpherson and the secret service committee from his friend, as it had seemed to be a necessary precaution. Now it meant that Whitehall would not be alerted to his disappearance until the German and Austrian governments chose to embarrass the British with his capture. And what about Paul himself? He might well be in danger waiting patiently and exposed in the office in Leuwen Pasacz.
Despite the fear and the pain, Maxim sank once more into sleep. He woke to the rattle of the door, which shot a spurt of fear through him. The anonymous man in the black suit had returned, together with his silent guards in uniform.
‘Take a seat, Mr Kálnoky.’ He lit a cigarette. Maxim looked more carefully at the man. He was in his fifties, his skin leathery and his teeth stained brown with tobacco. His hair was receding, though still dark. His hooded eyes looked straight back into Maxim’s.
‘I should have introduced myself. My name is Majorossy, and I work for the foreign ministry here, though not in the diplomatic branch, as you may have worked out.
‘And now we know who at least I am, let’s get back to you. I want to begin with the two gentlemen you were following in the Volks Prater. Who did you think they were?’
‘As I said, I am just a casual thief …’
Majorossy nodded, and a crashing blow hit Maxim in the side of his head. He saw stars and tasted blood in his mouth.
‘This is no place for humour, Mr Kálnoky … or can I call you Max?’
‘You can go and …’
Another blow followed, and another. Tears ran down Maxim’s cheeks as he took shuddering breaths to deal with the pain. Majorossy watched him, almost bored, it seemed. There was a long pause as he lit another cigarette.
‘You may as well tell us, Max. You will eventually, you know.’
Maxim said thickly, ‘One was the Baron Zentenburg, the other was the German head of intelligence in Strelsau.’
Majorossy smiled. ‘There, you see how easy that was? And now the next question. What was in the case?’
‘I have no idea.’ Maxim winced in preparation for the inevitable blow, but none came. A sharp glance from Majorossy restrained the officer.
‘That may be true, but I believe you do have some idea, or why would you have attempted to steal it? So what did you think was in the case?’
Maxim sat quite for a moment, then – knowing the consequences – said defiantly, ‘Why didn’t your German friends tell you that?’
The consequences were that Maxim woke up from a state of unconsciousness an indeterminate time later, with one eye closed and aching in every limb. He lay quietly. As far as he could recall, he had said nothing at all in the rest of the interview with Majorossy, and that gave him some cold satisfaction. But he knew it was only a delaying action. He would be brought to talk eventually, and when they had stripped him of everything of value he could tell them, he would be handed over, battered and damaged, to the will of the German intelligence services.
From the light through the outside vents of his cell, it had seemed to be late morning when he awoke. He had no other way to judge, his watch having been taken with the rest of his possessions. After a while the distant tinny clang of a church clock confirmed that it was midday. Maxim sat on his bed, his knees drawn up to his chin. He reckoned it must now be Monday.
The clock chimes told him he’d sat there for over three hours before shuffling steps outside his room caused his heart to leap into his mouth. He sternly rebuked his bodily cowardice, and for a moment, the first in his life, told himself that such emotions were unworthy of an Elphberg and a king. Wretched, bloodied and dirty in a prison cell, Maxim suddenly felt himself to be nonetheless more than just a man, alone and imprisoned. With an unnatural internal serenity, he stood with a straight back to meet his questioners.
Four men entered this time. One of the guards was carrying an extra seat. When Maxim turned to look at this new addition to his tormentors, his serenity left him. It was Frederick Tilly von Eschenbach.
Freddy smiled at him pleasantly. ‘Take a seat, Max, there’s a good chap.’
‘You … what are you …?’
‘Do I sense the dawning realisation in an otherwise bewildered mind?’
‘Yes, I. Dieter Goch was one of my men. Rather good at acting the greedy and underpaid functionary with a grudge, don’t you think? Though I have to say, I believe my performance outdid his. Ineffectual Freddy, the saloon-bar socialist. Someone you could become friendly with but never take too seriously. Now your performance, dear Max … really, I can’t recommend the stage as your next career. Too intense, too direct. You were just too obviously out for leads and information, you could only ever be Max Kálnoky, though I don’t believe that’s your real name, is it? Still, we will know fairly soon what it is, I think.’
Majorossy was looking faintly amused at the denouement of Freddy von Eschenbach’s entrapment of Maxim. ‘Do you want to stay and watch?’
Freddy gave the man a cold glance. ‘I think not.’ He turned to Maxim. ‘I’m truly sorry it had to come to this, Max. You are after all a gentleman, but you must by now have realised that, when the likes of you and me enter the field of espionage, our innate decency will not survive.’
Freddy gave a rueful smile. ‘It’s the sacrifice we make for kaiser and Reich, or king and country in your case. Don’t even think of holding out like a hero. I’ve heard of some rare men who haven’t been broken by Mr Majorossy and his methods, though he doesn’t like to refer to them. But you see, I have had your offices in the Leuwen Pasacz under observation for a week or two now, and your associate will crack, even if you don’t, once we have a chance to put the questions to him in a place where we won’t be interrupted.’
Maxim gasped in horror. ‘You can’t … you’d never get away with it. He’ll be missed. I’ll be missed.’
‘People disappear, Max. It happens all the time. Yes, no doubt his nearest and dearest will miss him, and there will be questions and enquiries, but he’ll still be missing at the end of the day, and people don’t go on looking for ever.’ Freddy got up, nodded at Max and Majorossy and strolled out of the room.
Maxim felt sick. This was the bitter dregs of his idiot scheme to be a spy. It was not just his life he had ruined, but that of his innocent friend as well.
Majorossy smiled. ‘Now Mr Kálnoky …’
Maxim was still holding out by Wednesday, though only through sheer bloody-mindedness. By then the ache to confess all was causing his resolve to collapse. Majorossy seemed to sense this and began feeding him specious arguments as to why it was morally defensible to reveal all about British intelligence on Central Europe. Specious they may have been, but just to think of them made the act of betrayal vaguely respectable.
Majorossy was sucking on one of his endless cigarettes when he put Flavia’s ring on the table and asked, ‘What is this trinket?’
‘It’s a family heirloom.’
‘Quite a family you belong to. Those are the royal arms of Ruritania.’ Majorossy gave a dry laugh. Then he said consideringly, ‘I think your name actually is Max.’
Maxim looked up, not caring to deny it. ‘How do you know?’
‘You react to it as if it is part of you. False names don’t quite get that reaction. The name is such an important part of us and the one we grow up with, more so. You are no Kálnoky, I’m sure. What is your family name?’
Before he could stop himself, Maxim blurted out, ‘Elphberg’.
The look of frustrated anger on Majorossy’s face told him that he could not have made a more fortunate error. Of course he paid for it in blood, but he was still laughing weakly when they left the cell ten minutes later.
As he lay on the narrow bed staring at the cracked ceiling, Maxim contemplated suicide. He had no belt or shoelaces; they had taken his shoes, for that matter. Although he supposed he could make a rope of sorts from the blanket and his clothes, the act of self-asphyxiation would not be easy. Besides, his cell was checked through an eyehole every ten minutes. He laboriously climbed off the bed and staggered to the sink. Not finding a plug, he wadded a torn strip of his handkerchief which allowed the bowl to fill. He plunged his battered head into the cold water. For a moment he wondered if he could drown himself that way, but, desperate as he was, he could not even begin to do it.
He pulled his head out of the water and shook it. Suddenly he heard steps outside once again, which struck him as odd. Always before, his tormentors had allowed him several hours between sessions, to make their resumption all the more dreaded.
The door opened slowly to reveal two army officers. What was this? ‘You are Max-Stefan Kálnoky?’ one asked.
Maxim nodded. ‘Then you will come with us.’
‘Who are you?’
‘That is no concern of yours. Please come this way.’
Maxim moved slowly out into the corridor. ‘I have no shoes.’
‘That cannot be helped,’ said the other officer. ‘It is a short walk.’
So Maxim, handcuffed once again, stumbled barefoot along with the men. They passed through a guard room, where he noticed one of his torturers staring at him as he went by. Then they were out in the blinding light of a June morning.
A closed carriage was waiting, and he was thrust up into it. An officer took the seat beside him. Maxim saw that several mounted police were acting as escort. As soon as the door closed behind him, his cuffs were removed.
The carriage smelled of leather. Maxim was all too conscious that it would soon smell of him as well, since his hygiene had deteriorated rapidly in prison. But he sank against the soft seat when the carriage lurched forward. Where was he going? Was this the handover to the Germans? Why was Freddy von Eschenbach not there?
The journey was not short, and Maxim was able to work out that they were heading south across the Ring and out towards Schönbrunn. He nodded off at one point, only to be jerked awake as the carriage stopped. The door opened, and he was handed out into the midday heat. Sharp stones under his bare feet caused him to hobble as he was escorted up to the front door of a white-painted villa.
The door opened and he was more or less carried inside. A strange man in a frock coat was waiting in the hall. The officers saluted. The man came forward looking concerned. ‘Your excellency, you really are a mess!’ He snapped his fingers. ‘Wenzel! Will you see to our guest?’
‘Who are you?’ Maxim murmured.
‘My name is Anton Dönitz. Other explanations can wait. Wenzel, take his excellency to the Blue Room and see to his needs. We may require a doctor, though that creature Majorossy is adept at causing pain without permanent damage. Off with you, now.’
So Maxim was ushered away by a valet, who ran him a bath, trimmed his hair and shaved him carefully, before applying a stinging lotion to the many abrasions on his face and upper body. Still aching but feeling vaguely human, Maxim was dressed in a dark, well-fitting suit and taken laboriously downstairs again. This time he was led into a large, luxuriously furnished study lined with books. Dönitz, who was sitting behind a rampart of a desk, rose to greet him.
Maxim surveyed the older man. He must have been in his late forties, but he preserved his dark good looks. He was slim and quick, moving with a certain grace as he shook Maxim’s hand. Dönitz indicated that Maxim should sit down in the chair opposite him. As he did so, Maxim looked above the fireplace and was astonished to see a copy of his father’s portrait of Count Oskar.
He looked back at Dönitz. His mind had begun working again, though it was producing few answers as yet. ‘I know you.’
‘I would be surprised did you not.’
‘You are the state minister of the interior in Austria, the Baron Dönitz.’
‘That is indeed who I am.’
‘And you know who I am.’
‘Of course, though we have not met. I knew your father, and you have something of the look of him. A very great man. I would have come to his funeral had it been possible.’
‘You have his portrait of Count Oskar? Is it a copy?’
‘No. He painted another for me, just like the one he did for Augustus Underwood.’
Maxim digested all this. It looked as if he was about to have a lot of questions answered for him. ‘Why did you have me brought here?’
‘My dear fellow, you would not have wanted to stay where you were, would you?’ He laughed. ‘As soon as General Bernenstein alerted me from Strelsau on Tuesday, I knew you had fallen into the hands of some very dangerous men. Since the chief of police answers to me, it was easy enough to find where our operatives were holding you. They have no premises of their own. It did not take long and obviously you would be wherever Majorossy was. Once I had him, I had you. A quick signature and you were transferred to the Josefstadt prison – or that at least is what the chief of police believes. I’m afraid Max-Stefan Kálnoky has disappeared into the Byzantine intricacies of the Austrian penal system. Someone called Kálnoky will be transferred from Josefstadt to an obscure prison in Bosnia tomorrow, and then there will be hell to pay, especially from our German friends. But Kálnoky will never be found again. I believe he may commit suicide on Saturday; tragic in such a young man, don’t you think?’
‘Why are you doing this for me?’
Dönitz gave him an impenetrable look. ‘For friendship – that and for the house of Elphberg. You have many friends, excellency, far more than I guess you realise.’
‘You know Gus Underwood?’
Dönitz nodded. ‘Oh yes, August and I are very old friends. We first met in another age, in this city nearly thirty years ago. I was just a shipping clerk in those days, no more than a lonely boy on the streets of Vienna.’
‘But you knew Count Oskar too.’
Dönitz frowned. ‘Come with me.’ He rose and led Maxim into a very elegant lounge, its French windows open to attract the cool air from the gardens. Along one wall was a great canvas. ‘This copy was painted for me by Hirth, who executed the original for the parliament buildings in Strelsau.’
Maxim looked at the epic scene. A handsome young man in a blue and red uniform, peaked cap set back on his head and hands on hips, was standing alone on the wide staircase of the palace in Strelsau. He was defying a great mob that clamoured to enter. His pose conveyed audacity and utter confidence, which made the mob cower before him. It was the young Gus Underwood.
‘That was August as I knew him first. Such a noble and kindly man, selflessly courageous and completely unaware of the impact of his looks.’ Dönitz half turned towards Maxim. With perfect composure he said, ‘I loved him then, and I love him now still. You must be aware of the sort of relationship he had with Count Oskar von Tarlenheim?’
‘Yes, I guessed,’
‘I too was one of Oskar’s lovers, though I did not know his real identity then. There was a circle in Vienna, and Oskar introduced August into it. Then I truly knew what love was. It was a short and doomed affair, alas. August soon left Vienna, but I never forgot him or what I felt for him. Does that answer your question?
‘August has the right to ask anything of me, and I was delighted when at last he did. It was a request easy enough to answer. I and many of the government here are not enthusiastic about this suicidal pact with the Germans, which will be the death of anything good the Hapsburg Empire has stood for. If I can frustrate German influence here in Vienna, I will do so.’
‘Do you see Gus often?’
Dönitz smiled. ‘Yes, I do. He came looking for me the year after Oskar was killed, and we resumed our … relationship, much to my delight. In fact, it made my fortune. August had thrown himself into the work of the Hentzau estate, which was beginning to make money again. But he wanted to invest the profits away from land, very wisely, as agriculture is prone to episodes of depression. At the time, I was a lading clerk on the Donau-Danube line. I picked up a lot of commercial intelligence in that job, including information that a stretch of railway was to be built to connect the main Balkan lines at the Iron Gates in conjunction with the new Danube canals. August took a risk and bought a large shareholding in the venture with his own money and money he borrowed. You must know how that landmark development transformed the economy of southeastern Europe. The profits were enormous, and continue to be. August gave me a very respectable commission, and we went into partnership. We now control the company between us.
‘It was the most exciting period of my life. There were so many opportunities in the eighties and nineties if you knew where to look and had the capital. After five years, I was able to begin my own ventures, and in those days there seemed little I could do wrong. From a penniless clerk I became a multi-millionaire in ten years. My connections brought me into politics and my wealth into society. And so, thirty years later, here I am a baron and a minister in his imperial and royal majesty’s state government.’
‘And you still see Gus.’
Dönitz laughed. ‘Yes, I still see my August. He visits at least once a month. I imagine you realise we are more than friends. He has not always been happy with the way we are, I know. There was a while when he decided that maybe he should be married. He met a young woman – Elena, her name was, a very beautiful girl – but it ended painfully. She died in childbirth with Antonia. You know her?’
It was Maxim’s turn to smile. ‘Yes, I know her.’
The baron gave him an amused and sharp look, which hinted that Antonia’s history was no secret to him. ‘So of course I am aware of who you are. I share August’s hopes and dreams about the restoration of the Elphberg monarchy. That man Albert of Thuringia is my mortal enemy, as the killer of Oskar von Tarlenheim. But more than that, he is a danger to the peace of Europe, for his friendship with Kaiser Wilhelm imperils the balance of power here. You see, excellency, you have perhaps more powerful friends than you might have suspected.’
This statement gave Maxim pause for thought. ‘I need to know more about how Gus Underwood and General Bernenstein discovered that I had been arrested in Vienna.’
‘Bernenstein is a fine fellow, and chief of the general staff. There is no man more loyal to the Elphbergs. He also controls the Ruritanian secret service, which he has staffed with men loyal to himself rather than to the Thuringians. You must be aware that the Ruritanians have invested a lot in intelligence work; they have to, as their kingdom is so exposed. The moment you arrived in Strelsau, agents were deployed to monitor and protect you. There was great concern when you came into the orbit of the man calling himself Frederick Tilly von Eschenbach.’
‘He is known to you?’
‘He was a Saxon called Klassen, though his family was originally from the Merz district of Ruritania. He was the heart of German intelligence in Strelsau, and Bernenstein tells me that his influence was considerable in Berlin. His death will cause quite a disturbance.’
‘Yes. I had him shot this morning as he crossed the border at Rechtenberg. A regrettable overreaction, of course. The lieutenant will be severely disciplined.’
Maxim gaped. ‘Why did he have to die?’
‘He knew you, sir. He could not go back to Strelsau. Sooner or later he would have met you as the count of Hentzau, and that would have been too revealing of your background. No, he had to die and it was better done by a trigger-happy Austrian jäger looking for smugglers, than happen in Strelsau. A gun will be found on his body along with other suspicious objects. There will be questions that will make the German government cautious about following up his death.’
‘And Majorossy? What about Goch?’
‘I left Goch to Bernenstein. He was a cheerfully corrupt man, and he has already been compromised by Ruritanian operatives. Details will be leaked to the German embassy, which will arrest him for recall to Berlin. Majorossy is a more difficult case. He is an astute man, and very well protected. How much did you reveal of yourself under questioning?’
‘My name. He thinks when I told him it was Elphberg that I was taunting him. You see the results in these fresher bruises on my face.’
‘Hmm. Then perhaps we need to be subtle here. I believe a promotion may be in order. We can remove him to the southern end of the empire – a great advantage of the size of our king-emperor’s domains – where he can become station chief in Herzegovina and worry about Croatian separatists. That should soon make him forget you.’
‘You did not explain how my arrest in Vienna became known.’
‘Did I not? As I said, Ruritanian intelligence kept you under fitful observation. Your departure from Strelsau was unfortunately missed by them, but not that of the man Klassen or Baron Zentenburg. August Underwood also had an anxious call from his nephew about your disappearance. As soon as August knew you were missing he contacted the general, who put things together. They telephoned me yesterday and I soon got to the bottom of what was going on. Now here you are, a brand plucked from the burning.’
‘But I didn’t tell Paul Underwood where I was going!’
‘My dear fellow, I have to disappoint you in the boy. He was working as much for his uncle as for King Edward. August persuaded him that it was just as important for him to spy on you as to conduct espionage in the interests of the British Empire. I believe he copied the file you had from Goch, and he and his uncle worked out what had happened.’
Maxim sat silent, while the baron looked at him kindly. Eventually Dönitz suggested a late lunch, at which point Maxim discovered quite how hungry he was.
Maxim stayed the night in Dönitz’s villa near the imperial palace. He slept well, to his own surprise, though he awoke stiff and aching. A haberdasher was called out from the city to provide him with sufficient clothes and shoes for the time being.
On Thursday afternoon, a cab drew up outside and Gus Underwood emerged, carrying a Gladstone bag. He met Maxim in the hall, dropped his bag and embraced the younger man. There were tears on his cheeks as they separated. ‘Max. For a while I thought I had lost you. Thank God you’re safe.’ He looked over Maxim’s face. ‘They have messed you about, haven’t they? But bruises heal. You’ll be right as rain in a week.’
Gus looked around to find Anton smiling from his study door. ‘Anton, my dear, how can I thank you?’
Anton came up and embraced Gus in turn, with a warmth that left Maxim embarrassed. Anton murmured a few words in Gus’s ear. They separated with a smile and Anton led them both into the garden lounge.
Maxim indicated the canvas depicting the defence of the palace in Strelsau. ‘You must tell me about that particular incident one day, Gus.’
The older man actually blushed. ‘There really is not much to tell. Old von Tirkenau told me I had to defend the palace from the mob and gave me a company of guardsmen to do it. It was the day my Oskar was killed, so I was quite happy to stand there and be cut down by the rioters. I never expected them to mistake indifference to death for supreme self-confidence. That was all there was to it – that and the general’s bringing up troops from the Strelsau Arsenal to scare the mob into dispersing.’
Maxim smiled and said he imagined there was a great deal more to it than that.
Anton indicated seats and rang for tea. Despite the traumatic events of the past week, Maxim found himself making polite enquiries about Hentzau, Marek and, of course, Antonia. She had left for London once more, it appeared.
Eventually the banal conversation faltered. Maxim felt obliged to say, ‘You may tell me I told you so, Gus. You’ve earned the right.’
Gus looked at him with a mixture of sadness and affection. ‘Dearest boy, I would never do that. You had to find your own way. Does this mean that you’re changing your mind about the Elphberg claim.’
‘When I was imprisoned, it was the fact that I was an Elphberg rather than a Rassendyll that gave me what dignity and strength I could retain. It’s real to me at last, Gus. And I believe you, it was that swine Albert who had my brother killed.’
‘Then you realise why he did not have you killed alongside Julius that night in Strelsau.’
‘Yes, it was simply so Freddy von Eschenbach could do it for him in Vienna and damage the British Empire while he was at it. He is a devious bastard.’
‘And he sits on your throne, Max. I take it you want to change that now.’
‘If I can, I will. That creature is not worthy to sit in the palace of Strelsau, my family’s house. I know now why you stood on those stairs with death at their foot. It was for Queen Flavia, wasn’t it.’
‘My word, Max. You are growing fast. Yes, you’re right, it was for her I did it. That place was the home of the Elphbergs, and I had been sworn by her to their service. She kissed my forehead and blessed me, Max, before she died. I stood guard at her coffin with my Oskar. She was a great queen, the greatest monarch of her dynasty … the greatest so far.’ There were tears again in his eyes as he smiled at Maxim.
‘Tell me what to do, Gus.’
‘Come back to Rothenia – I will not call it Ruritania as the Germans do – come back and live as count of Hentzau. There are dark days ahead for our land, and you can help. It has already begun. I left the capital in an uproar, and your voice will be needed to calm it.’
‘What has happened?’
‘Albert of Thuringia has already found a way to get his hands on the levers of power.’
Anton Dönitz stirred in his turn. ‘Sir, if you are going back to your homeland, you will need this.’ He stood and offered Maxim Queen Flavia’s ring. He smiled. ‘I had my men recover it from your captors. It seemed an important detail.’