MAXIM ELPHBERG - IX
It took quite a while for Maxim’s tongue to reconnect with his brain. When it did, all it could come out with was the fatuous remark, ‘This is really the Crown of Tassilo?’
Gus understood, and smiled. ‘This is it: the crown which has sat on the head of every ruler of Rothenia – apart, that is, from the Thuringians. Queen Flavia made sure of that.’
‘Why did she …?’
‘Bobby and I were stumped by the same question, believe me. There we were, hauling around one of the great treasures of antiquity from hotel room to hotel room, wondering why on earth she had done it. But eventually, after she died, we realised. Without this crown, no one can truly be said to rule the hearts of the Rothenians, even if they sit on the throne in the palace of Strelsau. You see it in the way people here talk about the Thuringians as if they were some sort of tiresome interlude before something better comes along. They clearly have no grip on the minds of the populace.
‘Queen Flavia knew the way her subjects thought. The fact that the crown vanished when she died made her passing more than just the end of a reign; it was the end of old Ruritania. Rothenians think in symbols. The disappearance at that point of one of the greatest of their national treasures brought home to them what they were losing, as nothing else could have done.’
Maxim was only half listening. He picked up the heavy circlet and marvelled at the way it crystallised the history of a dynasty and a people. The core of the crown was made up of an ancient coronet embellished with twelve enamel-covered gold plaques. The enamel was a deep and quite beautiful blue, inset with depictions of the good kings of the Old Testament, amongst whom Maxim recognised Melchizedek, David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah, each identified by a jumble of Romanesque letters. This was obviously the crown the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III had conferred on Duke Tassilo of the Rothenians over nine hundred years before. At some time in the thirteenth century, when a later duke had ordered the circlet refashioned, goldsmiths had skilfully developed twelve fleur-de-lis as high points, arching up over the original circlet.
Maxim moved the crown around in his hands. He could see where the first royal Rudolf had inserted four bars to close the coronet and make it a crown fit for a king. Pearls chased up the bars to the jewelled central orb and cross that now topped the diadem.
It was not just its antiquity that made this object beautiful. Talented craftsmen had altered it several times but had preserved its unity, a distinctive and glorious sermon on how history can make and shape a people.
Maxim was entranced to be holding the crown. He suddenly realised that Gus was still speaking. ‘… and if you listen to the old ladies at the eight o’clock mass in the Salvatorskirk, they’ll tell you that on the night the queen died, people saw her soul ascending to heaven accompanied by angels bearing the crown of Tassilo from the world with her. Mythology, Max – it’s so powerful in this country.’
‘May I put it on?’ Maxim asked with a nervous laugh.
‘It belongs to you, Max, both as the Elphberg heir and by the terms of Queen Flavia’s will. But somehow, I think it better that you don’t put it on your head. Not that I’m superstitious, you understand, it’s just that I believe it would be best to do it in the proper place and at the proper time.’
‘I understand. In the cathedral with my people looking on … did I just say “my people”?’
‘Yes you did. You seem to be getting a hold on the king business at last.’
‘No doubt we will soon be talking in the first person plural!’
Gus laughed. ‘You need to consider what you will do with the crown, now you know about it.’
‘I think it ought to stay here, Gus. It’s been safe in this room for nearly thirty years, so it might as well go back in the wall and be looked after by the ghost of Black Rupert. That was a cunning stroke.’
‘It was Marek’s idea. He spread it around the other servants.’
‘Marek knows about the crown?’
‘You can’t keep anything from him, and he saw the work James Antrobus was doing in here. Believe me when I say that Marek can be trusted absolutely. There is no more faithful man in your kingdom.’
‘Oh, I believe you. Well, into the hole it goes. And this is how the catch works?’
Maxim closed the door, amazed at the careful way the carved panel fitted neatly back on its spring. Then he looked closer at the panel. ‘Gus, was that carving always there?’
‘You noticed? Yes it was. James thought it was very appropriate.’
Maxim traced the carving with a finger. It was of a noble lion attacking and defeating a wyvern. ‘But the wyvern …?’
‘Yes, it’s the supporter of the arms of the dukes of Thuringia, and here it is being thrust down by the Elphberg lion. It could not have been more suitable.’
The week passed slowly, which was fine as far as Maxim was concerned. He did not need Gus’s urging to get on a horse and be seen around the estate. It was a relief to canter along the bridle paths of the forest and through the gorse bushes of the Hentzenheide. He stopped whenever he passed another traveller and exchanged a few friendly words, usually in his halting Rothenian.
On the Friday he held a dinner party for the local worthies: the town’s principal parish priest, the mayor, the police chief and several of Gus’s local business partners. Gus tutored him to give the formal blessings in Rothenian, which much pleased his guests, though the table talk with them and their ladies was mostly in German.
‘You’re a success, Max,’ beamed Gus as Marek and his staff cleared away.
‘Absolutely, excellency,’ Marek said as he passed by with an empty tureen. ‘All the ladies fell in love with you.’
‘Marek!’ warned Gus.
‘I know, I know …,’ smirked the steward over his shoulder as he passed out of the room.
Gus shrugged. ‘Don’t mind him, Max. But he is right, the handsome young count of Hentzau will attract the sympathy of every lady he comes into contact with, a major advantage over King Albert.’
Maxim shook his head. ‘Not every lady.’
Gus took him by the arm. ‘Tell me about it, Max. It’s Helga, isn’t it.’
Maxim nodded. ‘I think I noticed an interest there when we met before, at New Year, and then here when Antonia was sick. Damned fool that I was, I was still caught up in the espionage game. You know. A good spy cannot afford to have any close emotional ties, that sort of sophistry. But she’d been growing on me all the same, though I refused to admit it to myself until I was in that police cell.’
‘And then at Templerstadt, something happened?’
‘Yes. I found out that she had in the meantime fallen for … for another man. I just left it until too late. Another chance gone. Now I suppose I’ll be expected to make a marriage appropriate to my new station in life. Some suitable minor princess from Bulgaria or Bavaria or somewhere.’
‘I’m sorry, Max. Really. I wish I had some advice, but as you know, my own romantic life has been something of a disaster.’
They walked through to the drawing room and lit cigars. Maxim poured himself a whisky. As he exhaled a large cloud of acrid blue smoke, he suddenly found the courage to ask about Gus’s own affairs. Maxim was not prudish about homosexuality. He had been through a boys’ boarding school and knew very well what could happen between men. He’d been quite aware of older boys who had fixated on him for a while.
‘Gus, I know you had an affair with Count Oskar and I think you and Anton Dönitz have been lovers for many years. Am I right?’
‘Yes, perfectly correct.’ It seemed that Gus Underwood had no shyness about acknowledging his sexuality, so Maxim went further.
‘How was it that, being who you are, you married Antonia’s mother?’
Gus pursed his lips and Maxim began to think he had gone too far. But the man slowly answered, ‘It’s hard to escape other people’s expectations of you, Max. My parents wanted me to find an occupation for myself, and I did, here in Hentzau. I made a pretty good go of it too. But they were relentless that I should “settle down” properly.
‘I could have resisted the pressure, I suppose, but part of me wanted the conventional life too. You get tired of loneliness, and Anton – whom I do love dearly – was so far away. He understands, bless him, and he is my girl’s godfather. But when I met Elena, I fancied I could love her and make her happy. She was a sweet girl, and at least I never had a chance to disappoint her. She died two days after giving birth to Antonia, less than a year after we married. So since then I have been a widower, content with my lot. Does that answer your question?’
‘And Antonia? Does she know about your affairs with other men?’
‘No. I’m her father. Children simply don’t imagine that parents actually have a sex life, let alone one as baroque as mine. For her sake I am discrete.’
Maxim gave a chuckle. ‘And she thinks she’s the unconventional one in the Underwood family.’
‘Yes, it is a little ironic, isn’t it?’ Gus laughed, and Maxim felt he had just grown closer to the man who in so many ways was occupying the place a father might in his life.
‘Gus, may I say now what ought to have been said by my family to you long ago, how grateful we are to you, for what you have done.’
Gus blushed. ‘Oh, stuff. Bobby said everything that had to be said long ago. All the thanks I need is to see you on the throne of Rothenia and shout out with the crowd, “Long live the king!”’
‘May God grant your prayer.’
‘Amen to that.’
At the end of the week, Maxim was ready to face Strelsau again. He left for the capital on the Sunday-morning train, after mass at the Jakobskloster. Since he was now living as his excellency the count of Hentzau, his travel had to be arranged with a certain amount of subdued style. He was picked up from the abbey by a landau with a liveried coachman, and the stationmaster was on hand to usher him through the barrier and into the lonely grandeur of his first-class carriage. Marek, who was accompanying him, travelled in second class as an upper servant.
At the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof, Marek hailed a taxi. While they rode together through the light Sunday traffic, he suggested that perhaps Maxim should think of employing a valet now. ‘Not that I’m complaining about the pressure on me, excellency. But in a man of your position and means, it really is expected.’
‘Can I leave it to you, Marek?’
‘Certainly, sir. I shall put the word out amongst my contacts. I take it that your valet will need some special qualities. Sword and small-arms training might be desirable skills, don’t you think?’
‘Unfortunately, I have to agree with you. If he can speak English it would help too. How soon might you be able to find a suitable person?’
‘That really depends, sir.’
They went to Festungstrasse 445, which Marek immediately took charge of as an outpost of his growing domestic empire. ‘I do like what you’ve done here, excellency. So … modernistic. If I had left Mr Underwood to himself, Hentzau would have been all heavy drapes and clutter; such a Victorian he is.’
‘So are you Marek, at least chronologically.’
‘Some of us fight it, sir.’
‘You had best take the spare back room.’
‘Thank you sir. Will you be eating in?’
‘Umm … maybe not.’ Maxim reached for the ’phone to dial Oskar Franz’s number. The man himself answered and was delighted for them to get together at the Unicorn for a late dinner. ‘And it’s business too,’ added Maxim.
The Café Jednorosecz was quite full for a Sunday evening, but they nonetheless found a table in their usual section. Oskar gave Maxim an appraising look over his wine glass. ‘Mother said you looked a bit of a mess last weekend at Templerstadt. How did you damage yourself like that?’
‘It’s a long story, Osku. I think maybe the time has come to tell it, so sit back, this will take a while.’
An hour and a half later, Maxim finished the account of his adventures in espionage by taking a big gulp from his glass of Voslauer. Two courses had already come and gone. Oskar sat astonished. He had barely interrupted his friend other than to ask for explanations of English terms he did not understand.
‘So why are you telling me this now?’
‘Osku, you’ve been a good and honest friend. I’ve been uncomfortable keeping all this much of myself back from you, so I’m straightening the account between us.’
‘I think I understand that. And you aren’t going back to the spy business?’
‘No. As I was being beaten to a pulp in Vienna, it suddenly occurred to me that I may not necessarily have been good spy material. It was battered into my head that my duty to my family and to this country was far more pressing than to the security of Great Britain. I’ve finally given in to your father and to Gus Underwood by embracing my destiny. So forget the name Kálnoky and say hello to Maxim Elphberg-Rassendyll, count of Hentzau.’
‘What about Paul? He depends on the salary you were paying him. I suppose you know that he and my sister are getting very sweet on each other?’
‘It had come to my attention,’ Maxim replied dryly.
‘Because someone has to take over the British bureau here once I resign, maybe the committee will listen to my recommendation that it should be Paul.’
‘Fine, Max. But what if he ends up being beaten within an inch of his life by Austrian and German agents? My sister wouldn’t be too happy with that.’
‘Yes, I had thought of such a possibility. However, I now see I went about it the wrong way. I should have listened to Colonel Steele at the embassy. Intelligence gathering through newspapers and social occasions produces far more consistent and reliable material in the end than employing double agents. With his social connections in Rothenia, Paul can do that admirably. He’s steady and organised. He can talk to anyone and go most places.’
Oskar drained his glass, looking meditative. ‘And now you are going to join our Rothenian aristocracy.’
‘Yes, I shall be one of you.’
‘Don’t include me, Max. I may be the grandson of a prince and the son of a count, but I’m no more than one of old Jurgen’s struggling advocates. I have to make my own way in life.’
‘But you’re a Tarlenheim, and one day you will be lord – what do they call it in Rothenian, “Nachelnik”? – of Templerstadt.’
‘I hope that will be a long time in the future. I’m not anxious to step into father’s shoes.’
Maxim nodded. ‘I understand.’ There was a pause in the conversation before he eventually said, ‘This dinner also had a business purpose.’
‘So you said.’
‘Osku, I need a legal representative to organise the purchase of a house suitable for the count of Hentzau, somewhere in the Second District. Will you do it?’
Oskar grinned. ‘My rates are very unreasonable, old fellow. I’ll rob you blind.’
‘Well, I can afford it. And if someone is going to profiteer from my estate, I’d like it to be you.’
‘Then I’ll do it ruthlessly but with charm, Max old boy.’
‘Since you mention it, there are one or two vacant premises I know of which might do. By the way, didn’t the Hentzaus once have a town house in the Neustadt?’
‘So I believe. But Gus said it was put in pledge for debts by the last of them, along with a lot else of his properties. The house is now a private girls’ school.’
‘That would have amused wicked Count Rupert. He was rather keen on young girls, they say. Anyway, I’ll put a list together and send it round to Festungstrasse tomorrow afternoon. Will that suit?’
‘It will suit very well. Now let’s have another bottle of their Voslauer.’
‘Oh sir … it really is a tip, even if it is historic.’ Marek was not happy.
‘Look at it this way, Marek. I’ve got a huge amount of money to spend on it, and if you can’t do domestic miracles, I don’t know who can.’
‘Yes. I’m going to pay you a very large amount of money to renovate this ruin and turn it into a palace fit for a king-in-waiting.’
‘Hmm … well, now you mention it, I definitely do see some potential here, excellency. Let me go and find a pencil and some paper so I can show you what I mean.’
The Osraeum was a long-empty mansion in the heart of the Second District, directly west of the royal palace, with an outlook north over the tree-lined Gartengasse on to the Botanic Gardens, and thence across the river to the ascending gardens and villas of Starel Heights. From where he was standing in the dilapidated first-floor reception room, Maxim had a good view of the Rassendyll properties on the other side of the river, despite the dirt encrusting the tall windows.
The room was deep in dust and litter. One or two pieces of furniture, skimpily covered in dirty sheets, stood forlorn on the faded carpet. The Osraeum had been more or less unlived in since the death in 1854 of its last royal occupant, Duke Mikhel of Strelsau. It had subsequently been used as storage space for the royal estate, while some of the rooms had been grace-and-favour accommodation for superannuated royal servants. It had been built in 1744 for Osra, sister of King Rudolf III, and used as a townhouse for the dukes of Mittenheim until the extinction of the line. It was subsequently given by Rudolf IV to his younger son, but after Mikhel’s childless death, it had reverted to the crown. With no minor royals to occupy it thereafter, it had been abandoned.
Maxim had selected it from Osku’s list of six possible properties for the very good reason that the Osraeum had a past as a royal residence. It was a house in which Elphbergs had lived. For Maxim to occupy it was a declaration of intent to the Thuringian king whose palace was only a bowshot away. Everywhere Maxim looked he saw the Elphberg arms surmounted by royal crowns, in moulded plaster or carved into wood. He smiled at a certain feeling of rightness which possessed him.
If he had felt particularly regal, he knew that at the further end of the gallery was an anteroom and presence chamber where Princess Osra and Duke Mikhel had held their levées. The house had quite a history beyond Ruritania as well. The Emperor Napoleon had used it as his residence when French armies had briefly occupied Strelsau in 1807.
Oskar Franz wandered in, carrying a briefcase. He had begun wearing spectacles, which were actually making him look like a lawyer. Maxim called over, raising echoes in the coffered ceiling. ‘Osku! What if the crown estates office refuse to sell to the count of Hentzau?’
‘I can’t imagine why they would. They’ve been trying to get this white elephant off their hands for a generation.’
‘I can name you one reason why they might turn me down. King Albert wouldn’t want the Elphberg claimant in an Elphberg palace, would he?’
‘If it bothers you, I’ll handle the purchase through one of the Strelsau property companies Uncle August set up. Then it’ll be too late when they find out.’ Looking around he added, ‘Some routine maintenance has been done, you know. If you come up on the leads, you’ll find that the roof is still pretty sound, though the gutters and valleys will need replacing.’
‘I’ll take your word for it. I think maybe I’ll invite one or another of my sisters over to be the lady of the house. Kate has been out for a couple of seasons now in London, she’s got good German and she’s a friend of Antonia’s, so she knows a bit about Rothenia. A pity Antonia made a suffragette out of her. At least they don’t have that sort of nonsense here.’
Osku guffawed. ‘Don’t you believe it. Professor Tildemann is already on the case. He wants the right to vote extended to all property-tax payers, men or women.’
‘How is old Tildemann?’
‘He’s in his element. You should read the papers; they don’t like him at all. He’s always being reported as the reddest radical in parliament. It’s a bit unfair, really, as mostly he talks simple sense. His present campaign is for the government to help fund free hospitals in the industrial cities.
‘He’s not naïve, you know. His last speech was quite cunning. He said that the poor health and nutrition of the working populations in the cities meant that there was a shrinking pool of men able to meet the demands of military service. He got a couple of generals on his side, and the government’s wobbling on the issue. It’s bizarre. The government is deeply conservative but, because it’s so weak, Chancellor Oexle has to adopt socialist causes just to pull in SDPR votes.’
Maxim laughed. ‘God bless Tildemann. King Albert seems to have forgotten that weak governments have to find friends where they can. He thought that Oexle would be his puppet, but he’s finding that it’s not just he who can pull Oexle’s strings.’
‘You should go and talk to the professor, Max. I’m sure he’d be happy to meet the count of Hentzau.’
‘I wonder if he would not be more comfortable with Max Kálnoky.’
‘I don’t think he cares much if you have a title or not. But he will be interested in what you have to say about King Albert.’
Marek bustled in at that moment and began lecturing Maxim on his vision of how the Osraeum should be refurbished. His burst of enthusiasm was really quite engaging. They inspected the main rooms, with Marek jotting down notes about Maxim’s admittedly limited views while going on at great length about his own. So the afternoon passed. Leaving the side-door keys with Marek to get on with things, Osku dragged Maxim to his office in Postgasse, about fifteen minutes’ leisurely stroll away.
‘So how does one buy a palace, Osku?’ They were waiting to dodge the trams so they could cross Modenheimstrasse
‘The way one buys a house, Max. I shall write to the crown estates office saying that I have a potential buyer, and cite the name of one of your estate-holding companies, since you had rather not do it in person. I imagine they will be eager to close the deal pretty quickly. As for the price, I would expect them to be looking for maybe 750,000 krone, but I’ll try to knock them down on the grounds of the long-term deterioration of the property.’
Maxim gulped. ‘I can afford that?’
‘Oh yes, excellency. You can afford that and a hell of a lot more. But I have to be a good lawyer and advise you against the purchase on fiscal grounds. It’s a poor investment and the maintenance costs will be considerable and recurring. But then, you don’t want it for that sort of reason, do you.’
‘No. It’s a political statement. I want to get not just the king’s attention, but that of the city too. I visualise a rather exciting inaugural ball when Marek has had his way with the place.’
‘Ah well then, I have done my duty. On your own bank balance be it. Now tell me, Max. How do you see the next year or two going? You will be launching yourself on Strelsau like a modern-day count of Monte Cristo, and nearly as wealthy. I have only a vague idea of the fortune that Uncle August has amassed for the Elphberg cause, but from what I’ve seen, you could afford to put an army in the field and still have change left over for a few battleships to float on the Starel.’
‘It’s still up in the air. But I think my advisers see a way to frustrate the king’s schemes by means of the Reichsräthe. It’s dominated by the aristocracy, who have no sympathy for the Thuringians. I’m going to exert myself to build up a solid Elphberg party there and in the lower house.’
‘Not a simple task, I suspect. Politicians are difficult creatures to manage … There’s a gap, run for it!’ The two young men narrowly evaded death by the traffic of that busy artery.
‘Now here’s an idea for Professor Tildemann. He could introduce signals to stop traffic so that pedestrians can cross the road safely.’
Osku scoffed. ‘It would never work. Rothenians would ignore them. They drive with all the consideration of Attila the Hun. You must have noticed.’
‘They have these red and green signal lamps on British railways. I could see how it might work on street corners with electric lights, with a policeman standing by to operate them. Something has to be done, these roads are dangerous.’
Osku laughed. ‘Perhaps you were born to be a politician after all. Me, I just want a quiet life, not to bother anyone or be bothered by them.’
They sat over a table in Osku’s untidy office. Cluttered though it was, the young lawyer unerringly pulled out the required pieces of paper, and presented Maxim with a fountain pen to sign in the stipulated places.
‘So that’s your power of attorney for me to manage the purchase of the Osraeum. That one’s a letter of instruction to Uncle August to channel funds through the Starel Heights Development Company to finance it, and that’s a letter of authority to your bank to transfer the funds. Oh, yes. And most importantly, that’s my bill as your lawyer.’
Maxim signed. ‘Would you like to be the lawyer to the Hentzau estate?’
Osku widened his eyes. ‘It would be quite an opportunity. Are you serious?’
‘Hmm … best check it with Uncle August first. He may have his own ideas. He likes to use local firms in Husbrau for much of the routine business. He would have his reasons.’
‘I can make independent decisions, you know.’
‘I didn’t say you couldn’t. It’s just that …’
‘Of course I won’t do anything without consulting Gus.’
Somehow, the conversation had gone in an uncomfortable direction. Was Maxim count of Hentzau, or was he not? He respected Gus Underwood, venerated him even, but if he was to be a count, he must act like one.
Maxim made his way down the Brückestrasse to the Starel. He looked back westwards through the trees before the road dipped down to the river through the gardens. The Osraeum was now clad with scaffolding, as Marek’s great work got under way. The steward was harassed, close to overwhelmed and in seventh heaven.
Maxim knew he was being followed. Three hundred yards behind him, Paul Underwood was shadowing his progress. There was a point to the exercise, for Maxim was well aware that King Albert had not by any means finished with him. To have him murdered on the streets of Strelsau the way his brother had been was not at this time politically feasible. Albert had learned caution over the years. Yet he must want to monitor Maxim and watch his movements. Maxim had half suspected he was under observation on several occasions. Today, as he headed towards the British ambassador’s villa, he wanted to be quite sure he was not being spied on.
He stopped halfway across the Heinrichsbrücke and lit a cigarette, watching the green-brown waters of the Starel flow under him. Eventually Paul caught up with him.
‘Not a sign of your being followed, today at least.’
‘Good. Then we had better get up to Sir Andrew’s.’
The ambassador had his two visitors ushered into his study where he and Colonel Steele were waiting. He stood to greet Maxim. ‘Your excellency, a pleasure. Do take a seat.’ When they had settled, he continued, ‘I find myself in a very anomalous position with regard to you, my dear count. You have become a naturalised Ruritanian, but at the same time you are still nominally head of our intelligence bureau here. I take it this is something you wish to settle this morning.’
Maxim nodded. ‘I still think that Strelsau is a perfect base for British operations in Central Europe, but Colonel Steele may very well have been right about the nature of those operations.’
The colonel gave a faint smile. ‘My dear Rassendyll, I never doubted your good intentions.’
‘Yes, but intentions are no substitute for results. Mr Underwood here has a plan for the bureau which he would like to discuss with you both. As for me, you may take this as my formal withdrawal from the work of the Secret Service. However, I would recommend that you allow Mr Underwood to succeed me.’
Sir Andrew murmured his regrets over Maxim’s retirement, and then said, ‘Excellency, I would appreciate some moments of your time, while Colonel Steele and Mr Underwood go off into my dining room and have their technical discussion.’
The two took their leave and went out, leaving the ambassador and Maxim facing each other over his desk.
Sir Andrew began. ‘My dear Rassendyll – excuse me, but I feel more comfortable calling you that – I know you are no longer my responsibility, but there are one or two matters that concern us both which I must address.
‘Since we are alone here, let us assume that we are agreed what your intentions are in taking up your position here. We guess that you may sooner or later pursue your family’s claim to the throne, and the position of His Majesty’s government is, of course, entirely neutral on that …’
‘Yes, neutrality is all well and good, but it is very much in our interest that you succeed, and the position is more pressing than ever. Thanks to you, we know how closely King Albert is implicated in the ambitions of the German empire. Since anything you do to pursue your legitimate claims will help us and the French, I am to tell you on behalf of the Quay d’Orsay and Whitehall that we will assist you in whatever way we can.’
‘In whatever unattributable way, you mean.’
‘Of course. It will be in our interest also that Mr Underwood become bureau chief here, as he is attached to you. He will feed relevant intelligence to you and your party, and will convey any requests you might have to my masters in the Foreign Office.’
‘This is good news for the Elphberg cause here, and I thank you for it. But you said there was more than one issue you wanted to address.’
‘I did. It’s the problem of Miss Antonia Underwood.’
‘I am not her keeper, Sir Andrew.’
‘Yes, I understand, but it is generally known that you have a good deal of influence with her father.’
‘And he has absolutely no influence over her. What has she done now?’
‘She is to be deported from the United Kingdom as an alien with a criminal record.’
‘But she’s British, or at least her father is!’
‘She was born in this country, and Mr Underwood never registered her as a British subject. Indeed she has not asserted any right to nationality by paternity. Her passport is Ruritanian.’
‘For heaven’s sake! She is a student at the LSE!’
‘I believe her registration was suspended because of certain … moral irregularities.’
‘Oh. What do you suppose I can do?’
‘She has a link with the organisation of the socialist Second International, which is to be held here in Strelsau next year. You will understand that this makes Miss Underwood an associate of some of the most dangerous incendiaries in Europe. If she is not to end up in the Arsenal Prison, she may need to be protected from herself.’
‘I will bear it in mind.’
The ambassador thanked Maxim, and they shook hands. Maxim left word that he would meet Paul later at the Leuwen Pasacz offices.
As Maxim wandered past the palace and on to the Rudolfs Platz that hot July Monday, he paused to look at the busy square. The schools had already closed for the summer holidays and there were many families out shopping. Even in the short time Maxim had been living in Strelsau, the commercial area of the city had been spreading north from the Graben up towards the palace. A number of new department stores in the American style had opened on either side of the square, bringing a new intensity to the Rothenian retail trade. The city was bustling and prospering, and for some reason this pleased Maxim very much.
He was smiling up at the colossal statue of his ancestor, Henry the Lion, standing high on its granite plinth, when he was startled to be addressed by a small, bespectacled man. It took him a moment to recognise Professor Tildemann.
‘A fine day, excellency,’ said the MP.
Maxim took off his hat with a smile. ‘My dear professor, the very man I was thinking about.’
‘I am honoured. I was on my way down Gildenfahrbsweg, if you would like to talk. Perhaps we could get an ice and sit under the trees by the fountain.’
‘An excellent idea.’
They strolled companionably to a vendor and then took a bench next to the fountain. Children were throwing pennies into the water and enjoying the fine spray which the light breeze caused to drift into the square. It was cool under the lime trees.
‘I see that you have been very active in parliament, professor.’
‘I have been doing my best to bring to the attention of the government the problems of those bypassed by this new prosperity.’ He waved his hand generally to the busy scene around him.
‘With some success, I think. We all applauded how you extorted money from Chancellor Oexle for building free hospitals in Hofbau, the new town of Zenden and the capital.’
‘It was not much money and it benefits some of the most wretched people in our society.’
‘And then there were the Carnegie grants for new working-men’s institutes and libraries in the Third and Fifth Districts.’
‘It was not really my doing, there were a number of supporters of that scheme.’
‘You are still teaching in the Law School, Osku tells me.’
‘Not at the moment, since it is the summer vacation. Parliament too is in recess till September. And you sir, I did not realise quite what a distinguished young man I was dining with last year in the Stracenzstrasse. By heavens, you leafleted Königstrasse for me at the election! The count of Hentzau and an Elphberg too!’
‘I was glad to help, although I would be grateful if you kept that last piece of information to yourself.’
Tildemann gave one of his rare chuckles. ‘There is such a lot to be done. It is not easy to move people’s attitudes, and there are so many distracting issues.’
‘What did you have in mind?’
‘This language business. It really helps no one. There are far better uses of parliamentary time: the laws against union organisation, public health, extension of public education to children over thirteen … I could go on and on.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t …’
‘Oexle is attempting to push through a law to retain German as the language of street signs and general notices.’
‘Oh. The bilingual problem. Yes, I think I see your point. But there is a lot of heat being generated over it, isn’t there?’
‘Yes. Oexle and the conservatives seem to have found a totally unimportant issue to bluster and pose about, while actually doing very little. It will get ugly, you may be sure. Politics always does when there’s self-importance and prejudice at stake. But who will it help? No one.’
Maxim had his suspicions that the king was the one urging Oexle to push on with this contentious and divisive measure. He was not sure what Machiavellian purpose lay behind it, but he rather suspected that one was there.
‘Professor, I will be taking my seat in the new session of parliament, and I propose to be a working member of the Reichsräthe. I would welcome some further discussion of these issues if you have time.’
‘And is the heir of the Elphberg line going to embrace the socialist cause?’ Tildemann was on the verge of a grin now.
‘There have been stranger things in history, have there not?’
They chatted on about current politics for a while before they separated. There was a mixture of amiability and seriousness in both men, which they recognised in each other. Maxim quit the professor with an earnest invitation that he and his wife should attend the ball to open the refurbished Osraeum the next month.
When he got back to Festungstrasse 445, it was to find Marek waiting for him. ‘Oh sir, I’m glad you’re here. I have a valet for you.’
‘Yes. He’s fairly young, but for a young master that is best I always think – quite a looker too, though I don’t suppose you care much for that. He will be along for an interview in a half hour.’
‘What’s his background?’
‘Military, he’s quite well put together. He was in one of the guard regiments, and an officer’s servant. I have his references. His name is Zygner, Tomas Zygner. He says he speaks a little English, though I’m no judge of that.’
‘We’ll take a look at him then.’
Zygner turned up on time, wearing a dark suit and carrying his bowler hat in hand. He was a handsome blond of the Rothenian type, with broad cheekbones and blue-green eyes. Maxim could see all too easily how he would have appealed to Marek. Zygner was a bachelor whose ready smile and cheerful demeanour soon convinced Maxim that the young man might do very well. When questioned in English, he could more or less follow what was said to him. Maxim agreed to take him on for three months’ trial.
The new valet grinned and asked where he should put his valise. Marek was living now in a room at the Osraeum, so the flat’s small spare bedroom was free. Maxim came back from changing his clothes to find a tea waiting for him. Zygner was already in waistcoat and shirtsleeves, with the regulation blue apron of his profession.
As the man busied himself around the apartment, Maxim had a very good feeling about the service he was obtaining. However, he also determined that at the first opportunity, he would have Paul run a careful background check on Zygner and even follow his movements. Maxim’s experience with Freddy had taught him a lesson about the untrustworthiness of his instincts as well as his vulnerability.