MAXIM ELPHBERG - VIII
Maxim and Gus took their leave from Anton on Friday. The minister seemed a little disgruntled that Gus was leaving so soon. ‘Dear August, the poor boy’s face makes him look as though he’s been in a prize fight. Give him at least till the weekend to lose the discolouration.’
But Gus was adamant. A motor taxi took them into the city to catch the Strelsau express. Gus just smiled when Maxim asked if they were under observation.
The journey passed without incident, though Maxim did indeed get many strange looks from his fellow passengers. One elderly lady was so sympathetic she pressed a packet of boiled sweets on Maxim.
After Linz, they found themselves alone in their first-class compartment. ‘Where are we going once we’re back in … Rothenia?’ Maxim asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘Somewhere quiet, somewhere I can think for a while.’
‘Just my own thoughts too. How does Templerstadt sound?’
‘It sounds very good. It sounds like an oasis of serenity in a fevered desert. Is Count Hugo expecting us?’
‘I sent him a telegram from Vienna.’ Gus laughed. ‘You’re beginning to read my mind – just like your father did.’
‘And you remind me of him so much, Gus. Your voice, your manner of expression, even the way you walk.’
‘We were friends from the moment we met at school. We never said so much as a cross word to each other in twenty-five years. He would have been so proud of you, Max.’
A silence fell in their compartment. Maxim reflected on what he had learned in Vienna. His life had changed direction. He had gone to Austria as a would-be British secret agent, caught up in British concerns. Now he was returning to Rothenia as the claimant to its throne, as the man who wished to be its king.
Eventually the silence began to weigh on him. ‘Tell me what Albert is up to, Gus.’
Gus smiled and suggested they had better wait till they got to Templerstadt. There they would find friends who could give them the full picture.
Templerstadt. The very name was like warm spring air on the face after a hard winter. Maxim’s mind became full of that happy home he had experienced briefly in the first days of this fateful year of 1909. But if there was one thing that urged itself most on him, it was the memory of a gentle and amused face that personified for him the peace and warmth of Templerstadt. It was the face which had lightened his darkest moments while he was in his prison cell. For once Maxim knew what he wanted to do with himself. He had entered the empty wilderness of despair and, looking up, had seen a guiding light that would lead him to a better life: a vivacious and intelligent partner to share it with.
Just to be in Strelsau was a tonic for Maxim, who found he was a happy man as the taxi drove them to Festungstrasse. Gus sat on the bed while Maxim packed his valise.
‘Do I have to give up my apartment, Gus?’
Gus shrugged. ‘Not if you don’t want to, Max. But it would be better now to put aside the identity of Max-Stefan Kálnoky, don’t you think? The late Freddy von Eschenbach knew you as the occupant of this flat, and it would be wise to move on from it now.’
Maxim looked around his rooms with regret. This was the first home he could call his own, and he had developed a great affection for it. It was a short walk from his haunts in the Fourth District and from the tree-lined avenues of Bila Palacz. He would miss the place, yet he was beginning to recognise that his own instincts could easily lead him astray. He was also in no position to resist the advice of the man opposite him.
‘I suppose you’re right, Gus. What sort of residence should Maxim Elphberg-Rassendyll, count of Hentzau, occupy in Strelsau?’
Gus smiled. ‘Since you ask, I have one or two ideas we can talk about later. As for the flat, you might want to put it out for lease, Max. There’s no need to sell it. It’s very attractive what you’ve done with it.’
Maxim nodded. ‘I’ll think about it. Now, before we get the Mercedes out and head for Templerstadt, tell me what King Albert has done.’
Gus agreed, although not without a coffee first. They sat across the table in Maxim’s tile-and-glass kitchen.
‘The king still theoretically has quite a bit of power left, according to Rudolf V’s 1856 constitution, especially in the matter of choosing the government. After the elections last month, the biggest party in the Lower House was the Christian Democrats. Unfortunately, they’re no more than a coalition of conservative farming interests which, with the prospect of real power, has fallen apart and cannot raise a majority. So with no prospect of agreement likely, King Albert has exercised his rights and invited Klaus Oexle, the head of one of the German conservative parties, to become chancellor and form a minority government.’
‘That sounds constitutional enough.’
‘Yes, unfortunately it is. But Oexle is not a good choice of chancellor. He is a Mittenheimer, and rumour has it he went out with the Black Riders in the civil unrest of 1880. Since Albert of Thuringia was behind those Riders, we can be pretty sure that Oexle will act as his henchman. What’s worse, the more conservative Christian Democrats have said they will work with his government, rather than let the more liberal elements in parliament bring political business to a halt.’
‘Ah. So we can look forward to a reactionary, German-dominated parliament which will follow the king’s agenda.’
‘That’s about the size of it.’
‘What can we do?’
‘As it happens, quite a bit. It’s time the Elphberg interest began to show its hand in Rothenia.’ Gus looked hard at Maxim across the table. ‘Sir, your friends have long known this moment would come, and we have planned for it.’
Maxim nodded, rather uneasy that a man such as this was calling him ‘sir’.
The Mercedes puttered up the hill to Templerstadt on a glorious June afternoon. As the car hauled its weight towards the lodge, young Henry von Tarlenheim, laughing and hallooing, cantered alongside them. His fine chestnut mare easily matched the speed of the automobile.
When they pulled to a stop with a lurch outside the front door, Sissi and Hugo, alerted by the noise, were waiting for them. Close behind them came Henry, who leapt from his horse with ease and grace. ‘Uncle August!’ he yelled, hurling himself into Gus’s arms.
Gus hugged him back and ruffled the boy’s hair. ‘Why no school, rostjac?’
‘It’s Corpus Christi, uncle! It was first communion down in the abbey this morning for the little ones. We have the rest of the day free!’
Maxim in the meantime was receiving a more sedate welcome from the count and countess.
‘We have a few friends assembled, Maxim,’ Hugo announced. ‘I was so glad when the telegram arrived from Vienna to say you were safe. Do come in, you must be tired after such a long journey.’
Maxim followed them inside, a little excited for several reasons, but mostly because he knew he would soon be seeing Helga von Tarlenheim. It was a meeting which he was determined would mark a new start to his life in Rothenia, at least on the personal level. He flattered himself that the woman had been more than friendly to him when they had been together earlier. There was a partiality there which he thought he could turn into something more.
As it happened, the first guest he met in the hall was Paul Underwood. They clasped hands. Paul looked more than a little apprehensive. But Maxim smiled. ‘So I had two double agents working alongside me.’
Paul gave a nervous laugh. ‘I’m sorry, Max, but Uncle Gus said it was important for someone to keep an eye on you. Not I mean that you couldn’t take care of yourself, old feller, but uncle is such a tremendous chap, and not the sort you can turn down when he asks you to do something. I say, you’re not still angry with me, are you?’
Maxim laughed out loud. ‘Of course not. If you hadn’t done it, I’d be on my way to Spandau prison under escort by now. No, you saved my life, Paul. You have my thanks.’
‘So what about the enterprise now, Max? Are you going to shut up shop at the Leuwen Pasacz?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Something tells me I’ll know better by the time the sun goes down today.’
They walked into the reception room where there was quite a crowd of people. Maxim recognised the princes of Tarlenheim and Ostberg and Count Bernenstein, but there were several more people who looked like politicians, as well as one bishop.
As he entered, all turned and bowed to him. Maxim’s heart was in his mouth. For the first time, the awesome nature of the ambition he had embraced struck him hard. A room full of national leaders was treating him as a man of royal blood. It gave his claims a hard-edged reality; they were no longer theoretical.
Maxim circulated, with Sissi von Tarlenheim making the introductions and Gus Underwood at his shoulder. He was given a glass of cold punch and invited into the dining room, where the table filled with expectant faces. Count Hugo took the end of the table and acted as chairman.
‘May I first say, excellency, how glad we are that you escaped the snares of the German intelligence service in Vienna. I cannot go into details here, as you know, but I think you may be glad at least to learn how many friends you have, and how much influence they can bring to bear. It is today’s business to take counsel with you as to what we should do, with what weight we have in Rothenian society, to frustrate the ambitions of this evil man whom fate has made our king.’
Maxim thanked the smiling assembly.
The first to speak was Bernenstein. ‘We have shown our hand to some extent in the way we extricated his excellency from Vienna. There will at least be no witnesses to how it was done. The man calling himself von Eschenbach lies dead in the mortuary at Rechtenberg. As no one will claim his body, it will disappear into a pauper’s grave.’
Maxim broke in at that point. ‘No, that shall not be.’
‘He is to receive a proper burial. Never mind that he plotted to ruin and kill me, he was in his way an honest servant of his own king and country. If no one else can acknowledge that, at least his enemies can.’
A murmur of surprise ran round the table. Maxim looked up to see Gus Underwood looking strangely at him, but he smiled and nodded when he caught Maxim’s eye.
The general nodded. ‘I will see to it, sir. The manner of Eschenbach’s death and your escape will reveal to King Albert that powerful forces within his kingdom are aligned against him. Not only that, but they are actively working in the interest of the rival he planned to remove. This will I hope give him pause to consider; it may perhaps even give him cause for fear.’
A politician called Horowicz, who had introduced himself as a former chancellor, spoke up. ‘Now is the time to give him even more to think about. He has managed to compromise the Lower House, but the Reichsräthe is a different matter.’
‘Yes indeed,’ added Bernenstein. ‘Which is why we have prepared this.’
Prince Ostberg, the same who supported Maxim’s father in the tumult of 1880, produced a document. ‘Excellency, this lacks only your signature.’
‘What is it?’
‘It is the statement asserting that you wish to be naturalised as a subject of the king of Ruritania. I realise that you may require time to consider this, but we ask you to sign it. Once naturalised, you will legally be able to take the seat of the counts of Hentzau in the Reichsräthe. In the Upper House, you will emerge in the national mind as the man you are: the Elphberg claimant to the throne of your ancestors, the son of the man favoured by our late and beloved Queen Flavia, whose will was thwarted by the powers of Europe.’
‘I see I appear as Maxim Stefan Elphberg here.’
‘That, sir, is who you are.’
‘I shall sign it.’
‘You may wish for time …’
Maxim smiled. ‘I spent days in a police cell in Vienna thinking of nothing else but what I was and what I should have wanted out of life. These facial bruises concentrated my mind wonderfully. This is what I desire, to be king of Rothenia of the Elphberg line. I take the name with pride.’ Maxim took the certificate and signed it with a flourish. The table rose and applauded.
When the room had settled once more, Maxim asked, ‘What support does the Thuringian really have in our country?’ He put a slight emphasis on the word ‘our’ that elicited more smiles from the group.
Horowicz cleared his throat. ‘He can count on the support of the German separatist parties in Mittenheim and the Tirolen, but they barely muster ten members between them, and they are not united. Besides, many Ruritanian Germans – most perhaps – are as loyal to the house of Elphberg as any Rothenian Slav. It does not do to equate German racial background with automatic sympathy for the Thuringians. General Bernenstein here is a case in point. Albert has, however, compromised the leadership of the CDP, and they are now tied into his interests by their decision to support Oexle as chancellor. Yet how sympathetic will they be to his aims?’
‘What are his aims?’ asked the bishop.
‘I think I am able to answer that,’ Maxim volunteered. ‘He wishes Rothenia to become a fourth partner in the alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. He has received much favour from the German emperor over the years – and much money too when he was younger. He wishes now to repay his imperial master.’
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ agreed the prince of Tarlenheim, Count Hugo’s nephew, an intense and fiercely bright young man. ‘The king is, in his way, a fascinating study, rather like a caged reptile. The man lacks any sense of personal morality, other than an idea of how a king should be seen to be. He would not openly do anything which would demean the kingship he possesses, yet at the same time in private he is craven and conciliating towards greater and more powerful men. And of course we know there is little he will not do, however evil, if he feels threatened.’
Maxim nodded. ‘I believe at this present time he is feeling very much threatened. As the general said, we have revealed our hand. It took power and influence to extricate me from Vienna, and King Albert will know it. He must guess that the Elphbergs still have many friends in Rothenia who are mobilising against him. Do you think that will make him rash or cautious?’
Count Hugo said, ‘The man has played a long waiting game to overcome the reverses inflicted on him in the year eighty. Yes, he will be cautious. He’s older and more cunning than the Machiavellian prince we first encountered the year the queen died. He will test us out and try to build up his own power. He has many advantages, too: the glamour of kingship, the huge personal wealth of the royal domain, a faction of loyal German Ruritanians, the friendship of Germany and Austria, and a complete lack of scruple, of course.’
General Bernenstein added, ‘Don’t forget the powers of patronage he retains, particularly in the military. Time is on his side. I’m very conscious that I am old enough to have seen Rudolf V crowned. I hold my present post until I resign it, but I have no control over whom the king appoints to follow me. You may well guess what sort of lapdog that man will be.’
Hugo gave a little laugh. ‘But you will live to be a hundred, Conrad! Or at least I hope you can arrange it so!’
Bernenstein growled, ‘Don’t expect fate to be on our side. What I can do for the Elphbergs I will do while I can. But I am planning for a time soon when our intelligence services will be in other – and perhaps unfriendly – hands. There are two senior general-officer appointments to be made at the moment, which will be the king’s first chance to make his mark on the establishment. Watch carefully what he does. Those actions will be the first straws in the wind.’
Hugo nodded. ‘You are of course right, Conrad. There are also the diplomatic corps and the heads of the civil service in his gift. He is supposed to take the advice of the government before making appointments, but that is only a custom.’
The bishop of Luchau, a portly and amiable cleric, observed with a smile, ‘At least as a protestant he has given up the right to nominate to senior church appointments.’
Bernenstein guffawed. ‘Hah! So we can count on the Church to be on our side when the chips are down. Yes, a regiment of cassocks on the streets of Strelsau will be useful, though I had rather Cossacks in the event of a coup d’état.’
Maxim gave that remark some thought. ‘Do you suppose it will come to that, general?’
‘Yes. Yes, I do. Sooner or later the man will force a crisis. Look around us. I am an old man, so naturally I am suspicious of the new and hostile world I see outside our borders. Empires building huge fleets of steel, vast populations mobilised against each other. Why, they say the Germans are constructing flying ships to take warfare into the air above us! In such a world of fear and confrontation, a man like Albert of Thuringia will find many opportunities to tighten his grip on this nation.’
There was something in the solemn tone of the old general’s voice which made everyone look down at the table. Maxim could not suppress a shudder at such a bleak vision of his new country's future.
Once the carriages and cars had left, Count Hugo took Maxim’s arm and walked him into the reception room. In summer it was a gorgeous place, with the casement windows open and the scented evening air wafting in from the garden. Odd as it seemed to be led by a blind man, Maxim said to himself that there was probably a metaphor representing his life somewhere in the act.
‘It was a fine thing you said in the meeting,’ Hugo said as he took his usual seat.
‘What thing was that?’
‘About giving that young German agent a proper burial.’
‘It seemed the right thing to me.’
‘Yes, which was why it was so fine. Bernenstein told me it was just the sort of gesture King Rudolf would have made.’
‘Yes, Bernenstein was very attached to him, idolised him, in fact. Maxim, did your father tell you about your great-uncle?’
‘Rudolf Rassendyll? Yes he did. He told Julius and me together, one day when I was thirteen and Julius was seventeen, just after we came back from boarding school. It was the summer before Queen Victoria died. Father said we had to know why it was that the Rassendylls were so closely tied into the fortunes of Ruritania, and why he had become so involved in the place.’
‘So you know that your great-uncle was crowned and died as king in Strelsau.’
‘Yes. Did you know him, sir?’
‘I? No, though my father idolised him as much as Bernenstein. That’s why it was good of you to say what you did about the German, Eschenbach. People notice such things. That one remark convinced the whole room, if it needed convincing, that you were a proper man to be their king.’
‘Oh. Good. It just slipped out, Hugo. It was not premeditated.’
‘I didn’t think so for a moment. Now tell me, Max, how do you feel?’
‘No, really. Poor August was tortured badly by the Riders of Mittenheim when he was a young man, quite as badly as you have been. He didn’t talk about it, but he was marked by the experience. For a long time afterwards, he seemed to me to be struggling to contain a very deep anger at what was done to his defenceless body.’
‘I’m just trying to heal the bruises as quickly as I can.’
‘There are bruises of other sorts than physical.’
‘I don’t doubt you are right, sir. But just being here in your home helps with the healing. I will be alright, I’m sure. After all, four days of torture in a prison cell can’t compare with five years at a public school.’
Hugo gave a light laugh. ‘Just remember that I am happy to talk if you need it.’
‘I will, sir.’ Maxim changed the subject as quickly as he decently could. ‘Tell me. What do you think I should do about living in Strelsau?’
‘About a suitable residence for the count of Hentzau? You should buy a town house, I suppose. You won’t want anything on the scale of the Tarlenheim and Ostberg palaces, but there are a number of houses in the Second District that would be adequate. That’s where the court aristocracy has settled in the past. If you bought there, it would send a message.’
‘Good. Thank you, sir. I’ll think about it. Er … is Helga around anywhere?’ Maxim blushed. Somehow, there was nothing he could do to stop that from being a leading question.
Count Hugo gave a very knowing look for a blind man, but simply said his daughter would be in one of the drawing rooms.
Maxim took his leave and headed for the front drawing room, which he remembered was where Helga liked to sit. As he reached the door, which was ajar, a burst of laughter reached him. He glimpsed two people seated almost in a cameo. Paul Underwood had taken Helga’s hand, while she was looking at him with a mixture of amusement and something else. Maxim rather fancied that something else was tenderness. The two had become more than friends, he had no doubt. He turned away. The day had suddenly turned duller and colder, or so it seemed to him.
Maxim was mostly silent on the long drive from Templerstadt to Hentzau. Gus was surprised that their stay at the Tarlenheims had been rather more brief than they had at first planned. He was not at all fooled by Maxim’s stumbling explanation that the best tonic for him was work, and getting to grips with being count of Hentzau. Gus let him alone, being old enough to recognise that something had seriously upset him. The shuffling manner of the young man’s farewell to Templerstadt gave Gus half a suspicion what it was.
When they stopped for lunch at Strelsfurt, Maxim pulled himself together a little and attempted conversation over their Rothenian casserole, though his heart was not in his social duty. Gus observed that he had been expecting Paul to accompany them. When Maxim replied with a bleak look that he believed Paul still had business in Templerstadt, Gus decided he had got to the bottom of Maxim’s discomfort.
The sun was not far above the horizon when they reached the small town of Hentzau, drawing a roiling cloud of dust after them on the dry road. Maxim was glad to be at his journey’s end. The bright sun in his eyes made driving difficult, even with the green-tinted goggles he was wearing.
Besides, he was emotionally exhausted. The stress of imprisonment, the elation of escape and the disappointment of his hopes in Helga von Tarlenheim had taken their toll. His mind had begun playing scenes of pain and humiliation over and over again. He felt the agony of fist and boot on his abused body. Time and again he saw the gentle loving smile on Helga’s face as she looked up at Paul Underwood. Maxim was a man who just wanted to disappear into himself for a while. Here at Hentzau, his home now, he planned to do exactly that.
‘Fishing!’ exclaimed Gus. ‘You want to go angling? Now? We’ve only been back ten minutes.’
‘Do you have rods?’
‘Yes, of course we have rods.’ Gus ran his hands through his hair. ‘What are you grinning at, Marek?’
Marek was not easily daunted. ‘It’s my naturally friendly expression, sir. Shall I get the rods?’
‘Yes … yes, of course. Put them in the entrance hall for his excellency. Myself, I am going for a bath. Send a tea into the parlour in an hour.’ Marek bowed his acquiescence.
It was a jewel of an afternoon. The air was warm but stirred gently by a soft breeze that caused the leaves on the trees to lift and fall. Insects buzzed as they rode the golden air, while small clouds of midges gathered in the shafts of sunlight in the dark under the oak woods to the east of the castle.
Maxim walked in his shirtsleeves down the woodland path to the mill and the stream that fed the waterwheel.
The Hentzau estate was not good fishing country, but Marek had told him of the best places to be had. Apparently quite sizeable bream and tench were to be found in the slow waters of the millstream. It did not matter much to Maxim whether this was true. He needed peace, and the most peaceful times in his young life had been when he was angling with his father on the Burlesdon estate. He felt also that it was a way to be close to his father again.
He set up his rod on the bank and cast a makeshift fly, not caring if any fish took it. He balanced his rod on a forked tree trunk and lay back on the cool grass. The dark waters rolled past him, small currents turning and dimpling the surface, across which pond skaters slid.
Against all odds, a feeling of peace did come and take possession of him. His mind drifted, a boyhood feeling of happy serenity cancelling out the brutalities and disappointments that had recently been inflicted on him.
Maxim supposed he drowsed. In his half-waking state, he was lying on the stream’s bank, sitting beside a young man whom he seemed to know. The man had been swimming. His skin was beaded with moisture and he was wearing only a wet pair of drawers. His long blond hair hung damply across his face. They were talking of Rothenia.
‘What would you give up for our land, Max my dear? Service to its people demands all you have.’
Maxim looked up at the man’s solemn, handsome face. ‘What more can you give up than your life?’
The man looked down to trace his finger in the dust before shaking his head. ‘I wish that were true. But the sacrifice can be more bitter yet. It demanded of me that I turn my back on love and happiness too.’
‘And was it worthwhile?’
‘That is for you to decide, young Maxim. I think maybe you are beginning to understand what is involved. So many have gone before you on the path you will take. Remember us when it gets hard … as it will.’
Maxim suddenly realised whose face it was he was looking up at. ‘But you are loved, you are loved still!’ As he sat up, he knew he was alone, yet the memory of the face as it faded, smiling gently, stayed with him. Hentzau had ghosts, he realised. He sat staring at the sliding surface of the stream for well over an hour before returning to the castle without a catch.
When he got back, he found Gus in the parlour with the Strelsau newspapers. He should dress for dinner, he was informed, after first having a bath. Maxim, still in a pensive mood, did as he was told.
The two men sat silent for a long time over dinner. The food at Hentzau was traditionally Rothenian, which meant there were many game dishes and casseroles. The cook was very competent, however, so the meals avoided the heaviness Maxim had encountered in some of the lesser restaurants of Strelsau’s Fourth District. He did not at least feel obliged to hurry to get the meal over with.
He was not so wrapped up in himself that he did not find time to wonder at Gus’s very uncharacteristic quiet. Although the older man was by no means a chatterbox, he was rarely at a loss for words and always ready to talk. Not that night, apparently.
It was as they were finishing their third glass of the castle’s fine Tokay that Gus cleared his throat. ‘Max, there was a thing your father said I was to tell you when either you or Julius was ready.’
Maxim looked up. The words had penetrated the cloud of his internal miseries. ‘Me or Julius?’
Gus smiled. ‘Your father loved Julius, but was not blind to his faults. In his letters he often came back to discussing the merits of promoting you as the Elphberg candidate over your brother. But it would not have done. You know now how traditional Rothenian society is. Yet now Julius is dead, and you have come to realise the issues involved here in a way your brother never could. So the time is come for me to do as your father asked.’
Gus put down his napkin and invited Maxim to come through to the back drawing room for a port. Maxim was intrigued. Normally the room was not used. It was one of the castle’s least attractive chambers: dark, with only a narrow window out on to a side courtyard. Maxim knew the servants did not like to be there. They said it was unnaturally cold and that objects moved around in it of their own accord. The maids dusted it in pairs, never alone. But principally they did not like it because it housed the portrait of Black Ruprecht, the last of the original line of Hentzau. Maxim for his part did not like it simply because it was a badly ventilated place for smoking in.
As they entered, Maxim looked at the portrait of the notorious libertine and murderer, who was dressed in a hussar uniform from the middle of the last century. The artist had been very skilled, catching his subject’s personal beauty together with that which marred it: a carelessness of eye and a curl of the lips which hinted at a total want of any scruple or morality. Maxim was struck by a certain resemblance, at least in the expression, to that of Freddy von Eschenbach. How could he have missed in Freddy what it hinted at?
Gus told him to take a seat, though he himself remained standing. He jammed his hands deep in his trousers, a bad habit he had. Gus said he did it to defy the memory of his domineering mother, who spent most of his childhood telling him to get them out of his pockets.
‘Max, I’ve brought you in here for a reason. You know a good deal of what your father and I got up to in 1880, but not everything. Queen Flavia started it all with her summoning of Bobby – your father, I mean – to Strelsau. You know what happened after that: the defiance of the Congress of Europe, the rebellion in Mittenheim and the riots in Strelsau. But I want to go back to the beginning.
‘The queen sent two things to us in Vienna by a special courier, her personal chaplain. One was a letter explaining her intentions. The other thing was a token, a pledge for her vision of the future. The courier was murdered by Prince Albert and his confederates in Vienna, but James Antrobus got to him before the body could be rifled, and brought the letter and the … object to us. It’s time now to hand that secret on to you.’
Gus went over to the southern side of the room, opposite the portrait of Black Ruprecht. The wall was covered from floor to ceiling with elaborately carved panelling from another age. That side of the room was gloomy, as it was blocked off from the meagre light of the single window by a chimney piece. Gus worked away at a section of the carving. There was a click and the grating sound of something sliding.
Gus looked over his shoulder and smiled. ‘James Antrobus was quite a craftsman in his way. He spent a fortnight carving the panel and getting this door installed. He put in springs as well, so it’s quite the magician’s box. Here, come and see.’
Maxim went to Gus’s shoulder and peered into the dark corner. A section of carved panelling had slid aside to reveal a black hole behind it. Gus pulled out a box from inside and placed it on the room’s central table. The box was oval in shape, like a large morocco jewelcase, with brass fittings. It seemed specially made for whatever it contained. Maxim was deeply intrigued.
Gus was not smiling. ‘Here, you open it by this catch, Max. Go ahead. This is your property, and it is time you knew it.’
Maxim fiddled with the metal latch on one side. There was a click. He found he could then swing up the top half of the box like a lid. He did so, and stared wide-eyed at what lay within.
‘Gus!’ he gasped. ‘Is this...?
‘Indeed it is. It’s the Crown of Tassilo!’