MAXIM ELPHBERG - X
Maxim smiled into the face of the umpteenth guest to pass him at the head of the main staircase. He received their bows and curtseys, shook hands and passed them down the line to his sister Kate, who was rather enjoying being a countess by courtesy. In Ruritania, the dignity was conferred automatically on the daughter of a count.
The Osraeum was looking magnificent, or at least the public rooms were. Maxim knew there were a still a lot of places which Marek had yet to renovate, but the ballroom and state salons were impressive in their new drapes, carpets and gold leaf. Appropriate furniture had been found in sale houses and by commissioning dealers. The mansion, all wired for electricity, was blazing with light that September evening.
The gallery had been hung with a large number of portraits. Maxim had taken the canvases of royal Elphbergs from his own collection at Hentzau and had managed to borrow others from the prince of Tarlenheim. They deliberately enhanced the look of the Osraeum as a royal residence.
Marek, standing at the head of the stairs in full costume as steward of the household, was enjoying himself immensely. Maxim had unapologetically put all his servants in the olive green and gold Elphberg livery, unseen in Strelsau for a generation. It was a decision that many were remarking on. He had also ordered a massive stone cartouche carved and set above the front door, with the armorial shields of Rassendyll and Elphberg placed side by side, the crown of Tassilo surmounting both. Gus had been quite complimentary about his use of the available symbolism.
Maxim heard Gus murmur, ‘My God … he has come.’
A flurry around the door below heralded the arrival of the king and queen. Maxim watched the royal pair ascend his stairs with a rising pulse in his heart.
He had not met the queen before. Caroline of Greece was a pale, thin woman whose Danish origins were obvious in her colouring. Maxim bowed low over her hand when she reached the landing, and even lower as the king came level with him. He looked up to the face of the man he was quite convinced had solicited the murder of his brother.
King Albert was in evening dress, with the ribbon and chain of the order of the Rose, but also a collection of stars of German orders on the breast of his coat. He too knew how to use symbols.
He gave Maxim an amiable glance and said in his good English, ‘Well met, cousin. I believe this is our first encounter. We did not meet at the time of the inauguration, am I right?’
‘Perfectly correct, your majesty.’
The king looked around. ‘You seem to have spent a good deal of money restoring this old place.’
‘I think it may be a good investment, sir.’
‘I wouldn’t like to think what sort of return you expect from it. Are you going to rent out rooms to tourists?’
Maxim laughed with practised hypocrisy. ‘There are other returns than financial, sir.’
The king gave him a quizzical look before the royal party moved on, followed by equerries and ladies-in-waiting. In passing on to the landing, the king encountered Gus Underwood with Antonia on his arm. For such a socialist, Antonia swept a most accomplished curtsey. Albert gave a curt nod to her father, but said no word, and Gus made no bow.
‘So that’s the king,’ observed Kate. ‘Quite a pleasant old fellow, isn’t he?’
Obtaining the king’s permission, Maxim led off the dancing with his sister, and soon the great ballroom was full of rotating couples and nodding ostrich feathers. He had several dances, including one with the queen. She was quiet throughout, but could not otherwise be faulted as a partner.
While he circled the room, he was intrigued to see Antonia engaging the king in conversation. He amused himself with speculation as to what they might be discussing. The second time he passed them he was even more intrigued. Antonia was laughing behind a fan she was holding and the king was smiling down at her.
Returning the queen to her husband, he invited Antonia on to the floor. She shot a bright-eyed glance back at Albert, then melted into Maxim’s embrace with her usual grace and freedom.
‘So what on earth did you have to say to Albert of Thuringia?’
She laughed. ‘He’s an interesting man, Max. You’re not jealous, are you?’
‘Trust you to bring it down to that level. Not every man wants to go to bed with you.’
‘I can’t imagine why not.’
‘Also, he is not your father’s favourite person.’
‘Father is not objective on the subject of King Albert, and he has no right to dictate my opinions in any case.’
Maxim realised there was a good deal Antonia did not know about her father’s life before she was born.
‘What about your politics? Laughing with a king is very like a sheep sharing a joke with a wolf.’
‘Max, you really are jealous.’
Antonia was quiet for a moment, before saying, ‘I gather dear Helga finally has a suitor.’
‘So I hear.’
‘I rather thought you were interested in her.’
‘I? What gave you that idea?’
‘Something in the way you two were leaning together when you talked.
‘Max, I need somewhere to live in Strelsau. Being out in Hentzau is like living death. May I borrow your flat in Festungstrasse?’
Maxim said he saw no reason why not. ‘But your father will think it a bit off, Toni. You’ve only been back a month or so. He misses you, you know.’
‘Yes, I know. But I’m not his little girl any more. He can come and visit when he’s in town. Don’t be a bore. If I’m imprisoned in that castle much longer, I’ll scream. Marek Rustak used to liven it up, but he’s always here working for you on this pile. There are no local princes to climb up the ivy, trying to get into bed with me.’
When the dance finished, Maxim handed her on to the young count of Kesarstein, who seemed very keen to occupy his place. He watched the floor for a while before moving over to a group which included Oskar Franz and Professor Tildemann. He was welcomed with smiles and introductions. They were debating (in Rothenian) the street-sign measure. Maxim’s facility in the language had increased to the point where he had little difficulty in following what was being said, though Osku had told him his accent left a lot to be desired.
A stout, red-faced MP was declaiming, as if on a rostrum, ‘It’s the great issue of our time, mark my words. Rothenians cannot any longer be second class citizens in their own country. Most Germans would surely agree with this. Our languages should be equal within our borders.’
Tildemann smiled gently. ‘There is an issue here, to be sure. But is this the time to pursue it? I’ve never heard any Rothenian Strelsener complain that he cannot read the street signs because they’re in German. The point for me is that nearly a third of Rothenians in the capital can’t read at all. I would rather the money and effort were put into opening more elementary schools in the deprived parts of our cities.’
‘Marcus, dear fellow,’ exclaimed the orator, ‘you really don’t understand the national mind on this issue. Rothenia wants to reclaim its heritage, to assert itself in its own ancient capital.’
Oskar Franz looked grim. ‘Had you thought, my dear Bermann, that such actions could be made to look like creeping Slavicisation of what has always been a mixed culture? It would just confirm the suspicions of the separatists in Tirolen and Mittenheim. Would you have Rothenian signs in Germanic areas?’
‘Of course! If we all belong to one country …’
Osku snapped, ‘The point is that there are Germans who do not want to be in one country with Rothenians. Why give them material to justify their feelings of persecution and to infect others with it?’
Professor Tildemann adopted a pacific tone. ‘As I said, this may not yet be the time for such a measure. The SDPR will not adopt or support it.’
‘Hmmph,’ declared Bermann. ‘The Christian Democrats are the party of Rothenia. We know what’s expected of us.’ He stumped off.
Osku looked across at Maxim and raised his eyebrows. ‘Ass!’ he mouthed.
Maxim thought that, since some of the leading MPs were in this group, now might be as good a time as any to commence his active political career. He began in his halting Rothenian, ‘Gentlemen, I have an idea which I would like to share with you. I realise I am something of a recent citizen of this country, but it occurs to me that our position in modern Europe is exposed. These are precarious times. You will be aware of the recent convention held at The Hague …’
His audience nodded, looking interested.
Téodor Horowicz, who was one of the most visible Elphberg supporters in parliament, knew what was coming. He helped it along. ‘There was no Ruritanian representative there, unfortunately. A pity, as it discussed issues which are vital to our national interest.’
‘Precisely,’ agreed Maxim, right on cue. ‘I am particularly concerned with the status of Ruritania amongst the powers. It is not for me to give you gentlemen a history lesson of our land, but we have been very fortunate since the Napoleonic period in avoiding wars with other nations.’
‘There was the Austrian intervention on the side of Rudolf IV in 1849,’ chipped in an MP called Kreuzer, who had a background as an academic historian and liked you to know it.
‘True, but there have been no external wars since the conclusion of the struggle with Bavaria over Mittenheim in 1814. I think you will agree that we have done well out of this policy.’
Horowicz nodded vigorously. ‘Of course, the large size of our military establishment has helped. It put off the Prussians from marching through us to get at Austria in 1866. With our mountains and artillery fortresses, we are not an easy victim for any aggressor.’
Maxim continued, ‘One has to applaud the late King Leopold for his refusal to get involved in the alliance between Germany and Austria, which must have been difficult for him as a German prince as well as our king.’
Kreuzer agreed. ‘Though it has to be said, up until then our common interest with the Hapsburg Empire had given us some security in Central Europe.’
Maxim admitted this. ‘The point is now that those days are gone. We are here jammed between two empires united in a pact of mutual defence. Should they ever act on that pact, we will be in a difficult position. Rothenians naturally sympathise with their Slavic brothers in the Balkans and in the Russian empire. Germans with equal reason feel a bond with the surrounding empires. There will be pressure for us to take sides.’
‘What are you suggesting, sir?’ asked Horowicz.
‘It is time our nation asserted its right not to be involved in these aggressive alliances, to defend our right to non-alignment. Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland have declared their status as neutral nations in this new and dangerous Europe. We should do the same. We should ratify the Hague Conventions and declare ourselves a neutral power.’
A muted noise of approval ran around the group. A man Maxim did not recognise asked, ‘Why has this not already been done?’
Tildemann answered him. ‘The king has some voice in the foreign policy of the realm. He acts as guarantor of consistency in foreign affairs, and indeed he appoints all the principal ambassadors. King Leopold used his influence for the peaceful and even-handed conduct of Ruritanian policy, but in 1907, at the time of the last Hague Convention, King William Henry was ill and nothing was done. What do you suggest, excellency?’
‘I suggest that the question of ratification be brought up in the new session of the Reischsräthe, and a resolution passed. This will be handed down to the lower house and adopted as an act of parliament.’
‘But sir,’ objected Kreuzer, ‘won’t this infringe the royal prerogative? The king will strike it down.’
‘I think he might find it difficult to do so with a majority of both houses behind it … it would lead to a constitutional crisis. The king has no right to conduct foreign policy, only advise on it.’
‘Surely, the foreign minister can be left to get on with the ratification without it going to the king.’
‘Yes, normally he could, but we are in a situation of paralysis at the moment. The government is impotent without a majority and the ministry is pro-German.’
Tildemann looked pensive. ‘It seems that the course you suggest would precipitate a constitutional impasse, whichever way it was approached. If the government opposes it along with the king and is defeated, it will have to resign. That will lead to new elections.’
‘Don’t bet on it, Marcus,’ countered Horowicz. ‘Oexle loves being chancellor and the salary that goes with it, not to mention the patronage the post brings. He’d cling on to power even if he were defeated five times a day.’ He turned to Maxim. ‘Do you plan to open this issue in the Reischsräthe, sir?’
‘One has to talk about something in a maiden speech. It seems a good subject, don’t you agree?’
There was a chorus of approval. Several men chipped in with advice about public speaking and strategies. Maxim smiled and nodded, though he was a little disconcerted at the appraising glance he caught from Professor Tildemann’s eye.
Eventually Maxim circulated out once more among his guests. He was feeling very good about his first expedition into political society. He conversed with Strelsau’s elite and was charming, something he knew he did very well.
But there was one thing left to do, a thing which made him feel very nervous indeed. He caught Gus’s eye on him.
The older man was discretely signalling. ‘He’s ready to leave,’ he whispered when Maxim sidled up.
‘Then I’ll go and get prepared.’
Maxim headed through the throng up to the orchestra. On the way he caught Marek by the elbow and gave him the cue. The king was leaving.
A series of booms echoed through the ballroom as Marek struck the floor with his staff. Conversation faltered and people turned towards Maxim.
‘Highnesses, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. Their majesties.’
The orchestra struck up the national anthem. All stood stiffly, the soldiers present at attention. The king and queen too stood, arm in arm. As the stirring chords died away, the royal pair and their entourage headed toward the exit on to the landing. Everyone else stood quietly, as was the Rothenian custom. Part of that custom had once included the king or queen pausing at the door to deliver the traditional blessing on the people: the Kungliske-Pozechnen. But the Thuringian dynasty had dispensed with this.
As the king reached the door and was passing through in silence, Maxim’s clear voice rang out: Bozh zechne zu, men folk. En otchosciske zechnen pren men detchen. Bozh zechne voyje prubehn und pruchehn. (‘God bless you my people. A father’s blessing on his children. God bless your going out and coming in.’)
The king faltered momentarily in the doorway before continuing onward without a backward glance. A dead silence fell, in which rose a murmur of ‘Amen!’ from the guests. The Kungliske-Pozechnen had once again been pronounced in Ruritania, and by an Elphberg.
‘So that’s the king’s answer, do you think?’ Maxim was reading the Strelsener Amtsblatt over the breakfast table in the Osraeum’s domestic wing, the morning after the ball. The sun was bright on the palace garden and the windows were open. Kate was outside, feeding crumbs to the city pigeons, despite Maxim’s disapproval.
Gus looked up and grunted. ‘I imagine this would have been sent to the gazette a day or two ago. On the other hand, it certainly tells us what’s in his head.’
‘Do you know these two?’
‘Meyer and Messinger were both field officers in the Thuringian establishment, and Messinger was an attaché to the royal household under William Henry. It’s quite a jump for them.’
‘Both major-generals now, and Meyer appointed deputy chief of general staff. I wonder what Count Bernenstein thinks about it?’
‘You may guess. He said the appointments would be a straw in the wind. It appears the king is out to Germanise the general staff.’
‘Then our scheme is all the more necessary.’
Maxim carefully studied Gus’s face. ‘What’s up, old friend?’
Gus looked despondent for a while. ‘Antonia said you’d given her the loan of your apartment.’
‘She asked. I couldn’t say no. I could never say no to her. It’s a sad moral weakness. Are you worried, Gus?’
‘I’m always worried about her.’
Maxim felt sympathetic, but on the other hand, he knew that the woman in question could take very good care of herself.
At that moment Antonia, dressed in a long silk robe, joined them at the table. She kissed her father and took a seat, smiling across at Maxim. ‘I think I quite enjoy sleeping in palaces, Max. A maid woke me up and drew the curtains. A pity about the bathrooms.’
‘Marek has his priorities and renovating the sanitary arrangements comes later in his list. You have to admit, the state rooms looked wonderful. He had an army of workmen mobilised.’
‘General Marek!’ laughed Antonia, getting up and helping herself to a plateful of bacon and scrambled egg. She sat down again. ‘What were you two men up to last night with the poor dear king?’
Maxim raised his eyebrows. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You said the royal blessing in the king’s presence, Maxim. Don’t tell me it just slipped out. You had been practising, your accent was quite good.’
Maxim shrugged. ‘It’s my home. I am an Elphberg. There is no law that says that I cannot bless my guests.’
‘But not with that particular blessing.’
‘As I said, there is no law. Do you even think the king realised what I said? He knows no Rothenian.’
‘He realised, alright, even if he did not understand,’ Gus interjected. ‘Besides, there are people about him who can explain it.’
‘So what is it you two think you are doing?’ Antonia rejoined.
Maxim considered what he could say. ‘We are pursuing the same aims as my father did.’
‘You wish to be king? My word, Max, you’re more of a revolutionary than I am! Surely only a revolution will unseat King Albert.’ Antonia seemed deeply intrigued.
‘That’s not our plan. We’ll await our chances, and see what comes up.’
Antonia looked very sceptical, as well she might.
Maxim attempted to forestall further questions. ‘I’m ready to run you over to the apartment if you’d like.’
‘Oh. Give me an hour then. I need to chat with Kate. We have some catching up to do. She can help me with my hair. I’ll take the coffee with me.’
She went out in the garden. Maxim turned to her father. ‘Gus, how much does she know about you and your affairs?’
‘You know what I mean.’
Gus chuckled. ‘She doesn’t know much about what your father and I got up to back in 1880. She knows even less about Oskar von Tarlenheim, apart from some stories about him she picked up at Templerstadt. She knows Anton from his being her godfather. He has visited Hentzau, though a lot less in recent years.’
‘And your business interests?’
‘I think she realises we’re comfortably off, but she never asks about money. She genuinely is not interested. She puts what we have down to a generous salary from the Hentzau estate.’
‘But you’re far more than comfortably off.’
‘Yes, I suppose I am. But what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. She’s studying so hard to be a worthy member of the proletariat, it would just upset her to realise that she is in fact a daughter of capital. Besides, living as we do in someone else’s castle, it never occurred to her where we might otherwise have lived, and in what style.’
‘It certainly never occurred to her to offer to pay rent for my flat.’
‘There you are, you see. She thinks we lack the resources and doesn’t want to trouble me. I will of course pay whatever rent you want on her behalf.’
Maxim smiled and declined the offer. He also concluded that Gus had a stubborn and entirely understandable belief in his daughter’s better nature. Though Maxim adored Antonia in some of her moods, he had never deluded himself that she had a dutiful side to her personality.
As they motored that morning through the streets of Strelsau, rattling over tram lines and dodging oblivious pedestrians and horses, Maxim reflected on what it was about Antonia that set him alight. There was her passionate and completely shameless sexuality, of course. She had enslaved him as a graduate and part of him was enslaved still, despite the things she had said and done to him.
He gave a surreptitious glance at her beside him. The wind of their passage was whipping her unloosed hair, the speed clearly exciting her. She reached over to sound the horn for no other purpose than to enjoy the noise and people’s reactions. Maxim caught her scent and memories flooded back: darkened rooms and the satin of her skin as it slid on his, the arching of her body under him in passion. He swerved to narrowly avoid an unsuspecting pedestrian.
The apartment was clean and awaiting her. Tomas Zygner had spent a day bringing it up to his military standards of neatness.
Antonia stood in the middle of the lounge and looked over the trees to Bila Palacz. ‘I love this place, Max. Look how convenient you are for the parliament. What a view of the revolution I will have when it comes. You are serious about wanting to be king, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘It’s positively medieval, as ambitions go.’ She smiled into his face.
‘Not everything about the middle ages was negative, Toni.’
She spun around and danced a few steps. Maxim was entranced as ever by her grace. ‘I enjoyed last night. But there was one thing lacking to make it complete.’ Her smile became conspiratorial.
‘And what was that?’
‘I think you know.’ She was close now, and Maxim guessed what it was she wanted. He could not resist her, he never could. They did not even make it to the bedroom before they were naked and joined.
In bed later, as Antonia still slept after their hours of passion, Maxim wondered why she did this. For that matter, he wondered why he had surrendered so completely. He knew Paul Underwood had annoyed her by taking up so quickly with Helga. She appeared to see it as a challenge to her self-image as an irresistible and unforgettable temptress. Maxim blushed when he reflected on what her seduction said about her opinion of him.
But there was something more, he knew. He was beginning to suspect that closeness to power excited Antonia. He had seen it in her flirting with the king. He further suspected that his own performance last night had made him more attractive to her than Maxim, the civil servant of her Park Lane days.
He rose on his elbow and looked down. She was beautiful lying there. He concluded that he did not love her, but he loved her freedom and lack of inhibition. Although he had been no stranger to sex when they had first gone to bed, she had taught him far more than he had taught her. There were no limits when they coupled. The problem was that there were also no limits when it came to her behaviour outside bed.
Maxim got up quietly and gathered his clothes from where they were scattered across the lounge. Looking back through the bedroom door, he saw her grinning provocatively. ‘Men look so silly from behind when they’re squatting: the hair and the pendulous hang of you.’
‘We look even sillier from the front.’
‘Mmm yes … but what that appendage does! I can forgive it anything. Would you like to come back here and show me some more reasons to think well of your endowment?’
He quickly joined her on top of the sheets, and to his surprise, she was able eventually to bring him to climax once again. They showered together and dressed. It was now late in the afternoon.
‘Dinner?’ he suggested.
Their evening at a small bistro on Stracenzstrasse was delightful. Antonia was in her best mood: funny and observant, full of amusing stories and for once more a female than an ideologue. Maxim was in serious danger of falling once again under her spell.
He took an affectionate farewell of her in the doorway of Festungstrasse 445, leaving her with a set of keys.
He left the car on Festungstrasse and walked slowly home, keeping to the well-frequented streets. He would send a servant to collect the vehicle. He knew he was in as much danger as ever from Albert’s henchmen, and he respected Gus’s warnings.
He found Gus waiting up for him in the private drawing room of the Osraeum. ‘There you are! Kate’s already given up on you, but I had hoped to see you before you went to bed. We need to be off tomorrow, to Eisendorf.’
‘Eisendorf?’ The name was familiar to Maxim but he could not remember quite why.
‘You are a major investor in the factory.’
‘It’s ten miles up the river Arndt from the castle. The brothers Wendel make tractors there and we gave them the money to do it.’
‘And is it successful?’
‘It certainly is. Their motors and machines are much admired. Their exhibit at the Vienna agricultural show brought orders pouring in from Hungary and Transylvania. Decisions have to be made, and since you are now the count, it is you who have to make them.’
Maxim was a bit nettled about this change in his plans. He’d had some hopes of joining Antonia the next day to continue where they had left off, but of course he could not mention that to her father.
‘Why is my presence needed, Gus?’
‘You have to fund a branch line to the factory and the iron works, which will require a lot of your money.’
‘Oh. I see. What time do you want to start?’
‘Tomas is to call you at six and we’ll take a cab to the station for the 7.30 to Hentzau.’
‘We’ll be back in the evening?’
‘I wouldn’t count upon it, Max. We have to meet managers and surveyors from the Neder Husbrau line to discuss contracts for track-laying and decide on a route. At least there won’t be a problem with land purchase, as it can be built through your estates.’
Maxim cursed in his head, but there was no evading his fate. He wished Gus a good night, and told Tomas to arrange for a note to be taken around to Antonia in Festungstrasse in the morning. At first he thought it was the best he could do. Then he had second thoughts, wondering whether he should order a lot of flowers to be delivered with it.
Tomas registered his hesitation and waited patiently. Maxim sat down, wrote his note and sealed it. He gave it to Tomas with a fifty-florin note to buy a bouquet for Antonia. Afterwards he felt trite for having done it. He slept badly.
The brothers Wendel were in their early thirties. The way Gus had talked about them, Maxim had almost expected twins, but there were two years between them. They did look like brothers, however. They both had engine oil engrained into their toughened hands, as Maxim noticed when he shook them. They were quite shy around him, seeming to prefer talking with Gus. Maxim was more amused than offended.
The Eisendorf works were located on the outskirts of a large village. The Wendels’ old forge still stood at one corner of the site, but two large brick sheds now overshadowed it, as did the chimneys of a small ironworks. An even larger third shed was now under construction. Although Maxim found the noise within the sheds to be deafening, he attended carefully to accounts of the production process.
There were actually three processes. The chassis were produced in one shed, the motors in another. The melting shop provided the iron and steel to keep the other two going. Maxim admired the shining new tractors that were parked ready for delivery.
‘This is why we need the railway, lordship,’ explained the elder Wendel. ‘We have an excellent source of iron ore not far away, so one of our operations is mining it. However, the problem for us is getting the ore here, as well as shipping the final products out to market. At the moment, we are forced to put them on river barges, two at a time. With a spur line from Hentzau, we can begin to export much more quickly.’
‘Yes,’ added the other, ‘and we can open up new production lines.’
Gus nodded. ‘The lorries. There are no rivals outside Germany, and a whole production line is planned in the American style. But we need regular and bulk deliveries of parts from suppliers before we can get under way.’
‘I’m happy to go ahead if you are, Gus,’ Maxim concurred. ‘It all looks very promising to me.’ He was impressed by the energy of what he saw going on around him. He looked outside the fence of the industrial site. Rows of houses were being built between the village outskirts and the factory gates. It occurred to him that he was looking as much at the rapid birth of a new town as of an industry.
Walking behind the Wendels along the cinder paths of the site, Maxim observed, ‘It might be an idea for some money to be found to build other things here too: a school and maybe a waterworks.’
Gus looked at Maxim in surprise, before agreeing that might go down well. Eisendorf was part of the Hentzau estate after all. This left Maxim wondering how much influence Professor Tildemann was having on him.
They returned by carriage to Hentzau for the night, only to set off for Eisendorf again the following morning. This time it was for a long and exceedingly tedious meeting with the railway people. Maps were spread across tables in a local inn while the surveyors explained gradients and gauges. Then they took a turn into the village to see where a site was proposed for a railway station.
Maxim stirred himself at that point. ‘It’s too close to the village. With so much clanking all night long, nobody will get any sleep.’
They listened, nodded gravely and went on about additional costs and an embankment. But Maxim was unmovable. So new calculations were done on the spot, and the plans annotated.
A third day was now necessary for the approval of memoranda between the three parties. At least that could be done in the comfort of Hentzau, and a thankful Maxim signed his pieces of paper with a flourish.
They had departed Strelsau on Tuesday, and it was Saturday morning before Maxim returned to the capital, travelling alone. It was almost a relief to be an anonymous figure in the swarms of people surging through the König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof. Almost by reflex now, Maxim turned into a newsagent’s shop and, picking up a guide book, surreptitiously watched the crowds go by. No one paused in the mass of travellers and watched for him to exit. He gave it fifteen minutes before deciding he was not being followed.
He left the shop by the street door and found a cab, which deposited him at the Osraeum. Marek himself answered the main door. He had a multitude of points about the continuing refurbishment which he wanted to discuss with Maxim. He had reached the top floor now and was looking at the servants’ rooms under the leads. He was not happy with the heating. ‘Very cold in winter, sir. Summer will be like a branch of purgatory too. We need radiators for the winter and ventilators for the summer. Of course you know what this means?’
‘What does it mean, Marek?’
‘A new boiler!’
He seemed to require an expression of shock, which Maxim could not quite oblige. ‘A new boiler it is.’
‘But the expense!’
‘But you said it is inevitable.’
‘I had hoped you would argue.’
‘Well sir … to make my task more difficult and for me to feel hard done-by.’
‘Sorry I can’t oblige.’
‘I think you are extremely callous, excellency.’ Then he smiled in a way that made Maxim feel he liked the steward very much. For all Marek’s pert behaviour and oddities, Maxim had begun to realise the true worth of the man. They both laughed, and Maxim said how much he appreciated the other’s talents and loyalties.
‘Why thank you, sir. I have to say that you are a very different man from the one I had expected.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Miss Underwood tells me most things about her affairs. She always confided in me, from when she was very small. I got the impression you were very much the government officer, wrapped up in work and not much fun.’
‘Is that what she told you?’
‘That’s what she implied. But maybe she was not telling the whole truth, sir.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. At the time we were in London, I was probably all too obviously the Whitehall committee man. It’s Rothenia which seems to have set me free.’
‘This is a place that can do it to you, sir. Now, I had better get on. Thank you, sir.’
‘No, thank you, Marek.’
Maxim decided the time had come to get over to Festungstrasse and see how the land lay. The memory of his last encounter with Antonia burned in his mind.
He called for Tomas and had a cab ordered. In ten minutes he was driving across the Second District. By then it was mid-afternoon. The traffic along Festungstrasse was pretty heavy, though the pavements were empty. There were few shops on the ring road.
A closed black carriage was waiting outside Festungstrasse 445. He asked his cab to stop some doors down, got out and paid his fare, keeping his eyes on the other conveyance all the while. The coachman was in plain dress, and the carriage looked for all the world as if it might have belonged to a prosperous doctor. Perhaps that was why Maxim found it faintly menacing – or maybe it was because it reminded him of the police cart in Vienna.
For a reason he could not afterwards fully explain to himself, he melted into a doorway to watch. After about ten minutes, the door of his mansion block opened. A single tall figure emerged wearing a large overcoat and hat, despite the September weather being quite mild. The man paused as he reached the carriage door so the coachman could dismount to open it for him and unfold the step.
When the man took off his hat before climbing up, Maxim drew a sharp breath. It was unmistakably King Albert of Ruritania.