MAXIM ELPHBERG - XI
‘Are you alright, Max?’ The prince of Tarlenheim had noticed his abstraction. ‘You’re not nervous, are you?’
‘Er … no.’ Maxim pulled himself together. He could have been nervous, he supposed, he had every right. He looked around the lobby of the Reichsräthe, the chatting crowd of men dressed as he was, in frock coat and wing collar. Since it was the upper house, the coats were all tailored and well cut, their silk lapels immaculate. Through the pedimented doorway he could glimpse the debating chamber, with its horseshoe of red leather chairs and desks.
A priest in soutane and cotta, biretta in hand, passed between the uniformed porters, through the door and into the chamber. The crowd stirred and followed him. The peers of Ruritania took their seats, Maxim between the princes of Ostberg and Tarlenheim, his sponsors.
The deputy president opened proceedings, then called for morning prayer. As the priest intoned the intercessions, Maxim tried to keep his face blank when it came: Oremus pro rege nostro Alberto atque Carolina regina nostra. Dona eis valitudinem et sapientiam ad nos iuste gubernandum. He did not say amen.
With a rap of his gavel, the deputy president called out, ‘Maxim Stefan Elphberg-Rassendyll, count of Hentzau!’
Accompanied by the two princes, Maxim approached the clerk of the chamber, on whose desk lay a large Bible. The clerk rose and began reciting the oath required of new members. Maxim repeated it line by line, trying not to think of the man to whom he was pledging loyalty, but rather of the country that man represented. After bowing to the deputy president, he returned to his seat. The storm of applause from his peers that accompanied him made him believe he might be a popular addition to the chamber.
Prince Ostberg took the president’s chair and the debates commenced. Despite there being some fifty members present in the Reichsräthe, Maxim gradually found himself becoming comfortable. He listened attentively to the debates and procedures, which helped him avoid thinking about Antonia.
He had not seen her since their passionate encounter the previous week, just before he had caught the king at Festungstrasse in what he could only believe was an assignation. And in his apartment! Somehow that really offended him. He knew he had been used yet again by the woman. But the one who would be most seriously hurt by this, when it inevitably got out, would be Gus.
Was the king aware that Maxim had been his immediate predecessor in Antonia’s bed? Maxim rather suspected he might have learned of their history together, even though it was unlikely Albert could have known about last Saturday. Still, Maxim would not put it past Antonia to tell the man. She liked to boast to her latest slave of her many conquests.
What was she up to? He knew she perversely admired the great courtesans of the past. She had said some things about Mrs Keppel in Maxim’s hearing that hinted she did not disapprove of the woman and her relationship with Edward VII. Power was the aphrodisiac here, together with her perpetual need to push the envelope of what was acceptable.
This was one push too far, however. The gossip would inevitably make its way back to Gus. When kings took mistresses, the world found out very quickly. In this case, Albert of Thuringia had every interest in letting the word spread around. It would do him no harm with his subjects: the Ruritanians – German and Slav alike – were not a strait-laced people. But it would destroy Antonia’s father, whose sworn enemy the king was. The devious, devious bastard!
Maxim wrenched his mind back to the Reichsräthe debate. Currently, the discussion on public health in the new town of Zenda was winding down, and a committee was being nominated to receive a report. Maxim knew what was to come next. Holding hard to his hatred of the king, he rose when Prince Ostberg called out, ‘Our cousin of Hentzau!’
‘Cousins and peers of Ruritania!’ Maxim gave the traditional salutation, in which he had been coached, then with a quick glance at his notes began to speak. ‘In this my first address to our chamber, I choose a subject which should be close to hearts of us all: the security of our beloved nation and its people.’ He briefly summarised the international situation, well known to all present, before going on to consider in detail the advantages of the status of a neutral nation. His notes long forgotten, he became increasingly fluent and passionate as he spoke to a chamber gone silent and rapt. When he ended, his peers broke into shouts of approval and applause. Maxim realised that at last he had found his métier.
Prince Franz of Tarlenheim leapt to his feet and made the proposal to go into committee, which was passed without dissent. The subcommittee to prepare a resolution was promptly nominated, with a meeting set for the next day. There was a stir in the press gallery as reporters scurried to find a phone. Maxim permitted himself a smile. He and Prince Franz left the chamber arm-in-arm.
Maxim’s elation did not last long. After a working lunch in the parliament building, he had his car summoned and went down to meet it. His route took him past the Hirth canvas of The Defence of the Palace, where he paused to look up at the lonely, heroic English boy defying the Strelsau mob. How would that boy deal with such a squalid betrayal by his own daughter? Maxim had no idea. He did not presume to be able to read the mind of Augustus Underwood. Standing there, silk hat in hand, he belatedly realised there were men who knew Gus better than he. Then he saw his way clear.
‘No sir, that simply cannot be.’ Marek Rustak sat down abruptly on a sofa, as if his legs had been cut from under him.
‘I’m afraid it is. Look, my friend, I owe you the truth here. I have had an affair in the past with Toni.’
‘I knew that.’
‘We revived the embers the weekend before last in my apartment. When I returned home last Saturday, I went back to see where I was with Toni, and encountered the king leaving the apartment. Can you think of any innocent explanation as to why he would have been there?’
Marek shook his head. ‘They may not be sleeping together.’
‘Does that matter in the circumstances? She is entertaining him alone in her flat. It’s of no consequence what they’re doing behind closed doors. The fact that the door is closed on them is all people need to know. Marek, this is horrible!’
To his distress, he saw tears running down the steward’s face.
Marek wiped his eyes. ‘I’m sorry, sir. What can we do?’
‘For her? Absolutely nothing. A woman who could do what she has just done to her own father is beyond our help. How much does she know of the reasons for her father’s hatred of the king?’
Marek shook his head. ‘She knows that Mr Underwood and Count Oskar were friends, close friends. She knows that his death at Albert’s hand was the cause of her father’s distaste for the king. But sir, at home Mr Underwood never refers to the king at all. You and I may know how deep runs the hatred, but she may well not.’
‘Still, she has lived a lot at Templerstadt, and the children of that house were her friends.’
‘The boy Oskar Franz was more than a friend.’
‘Precisely. She’d have learned more there than her father would have told her. Does she know her father and the count were lovers?’
‘No. That she does not know, I am quite sure.’
‘Would it have made a difference if she had?’
When he saw the stricken look on the man’s face, he wished he had not mentioned it. Marek loved Antonia; he had been as good as a parent to her. But he loved his master more. ‘What can we do, sir?’
‘I was hoping you would have some ideas. How will Mr Underwood take it, do you think?’
‘It will break his heart, sir. He will go quiet and say very little, but he may never hold up his head again.’
‘I propose to tell him myself.’
‘Can you think of anyone else?’
‘There is the baron, of course, and Count Hugo Maria. They are closest to him. Sir, let me notify them. It will help if all his friends are around him. Really sir, of them all, Count Hugo would be best to break the news.’
‘Then please contact them. Telegrams to Vienna and Templerstadt, I think. Will you arrange that, Marek?’
The man found a handkerchief and blew his nose. ‘Yes, sir.’ He went to leave, and then paused. ‘Oh sir, the afternoon editions of the papers are on the table, I was bringing them in when you called me up.’
Maxim paced the reception room restlessly, staring down at the traffic passing along Gartengasse beyond the railings of the Osraeum. He wanted a sword in his hand, and Albert of Thuringia at the other end of it. At last he was truly beginning to hate the man, and think it would be better for the world if he were not in it.
He rang for a footman to bring up the papers, with which he soon shook off his abstraction as he read the parliamentary reports. While the Strelsener Deutscheszeitung was non-committal, there was no doubting the enthusiasm of the Ruritanischer Tagblatt. His speech was heavily reported. Despite his present cares, Maxim could not resist a pulse of pleasure at the way his oratory had been received. ‘The young count of Hentzau, in a maiden speech of unparalleled impact today …’; ‘Count Maxim of Hentzau lived up to the expectations his descent has fostered …’; ‘Compelling’; ‘Persuasive’; ‘Brilliant’.
It took a while before Maxim could tackle the rest of the paper. When he finally reached the society page of the Strelsener Deutscheszeitung, however, his self-satisfaction departed as swiftly as air from a deflating balloon. A paragraph caught his eye: It has come to our attention that a person of the Highest Standing at court has been linked with the beautiful Miss U***d, a lady of British extraction who resides at Hentzau. This writer was intrigued to hear the rumours with which the palace is awash. Miss U***d is well known in society in the capital, where it is hinted that the dalliance began at last week’s ball hosted by the count of Hentzau, a family friend. We eagerly await further reports.
The rumour had penetrated the press so quickly that Maxim had no doubt it had received an impulse from the palace itself. He found time and charity to sympathise with the queen. God alone knew what sort of life Albert of Thuringia led her.
Anton Dönitz arrived incognito in Strelsau the next morning. Maxim sent a carriage to collect him from the station.
‘I took the first train I could,’ he explained after shaking Maxim’s hand. ‘How is he?’
‘I don’t know, sir. He is at Hentzau. Count Hugo was driven over last night, and I think the fatal interview has happened. I’d like to take you across there myself if it’s alright with you.’
‘By all means, by all means. My poor August, it should never have been this way.’
Maxim was already packed. He took the baron in his trusty Mercedes, while Tomas Zygner drove behind them in the large Daimler with Marek. It would have been cruel to leave Marek behind, and there was only room for two in the Mercedes.
As the small convoy was leaving the suburbs of Strelsau behind, Dönitz commented on Maxim’s recent speech. ‘You will be complimented to hear it was noticed in Vienna’s morning papers, and if there, then also in Berlin.’
‘How do you think it will be received, sir?’
‘In Vienna? With some equanimity, I think. A neutral Ruritania is as useful to Austria-Hungary as one locked into an alliance, more useful in some ways.’
‘Ah … that’s a very different matter. I think it was expected in Wilhelmstrasse that Ruritania should come into an ever-closer embrace with the German Empire, eventually perhaps becoming a second Bavaria. I have no doubt that such hopes, which were being built on King Albert’s accession, now suddenly look less than attainable. I shall follow developments with interest.’
They motored on in silence, with no thought of stopping for lunch. Each hill brought closer the great tower of Kesarstein Castle, looming up improbably tall and blue on that crisp September morning, where the road turned north up the Arndt valley. It was two in the afternoon when they reached the fringes of the broad heathland of the Hentzenheide. Maxim felt no sense of joy at all on seeing his castle of Hentzau appear.
The cars crested the last rise and turned down through the little town before finally pulling up inside the castle gate. Marek was out of the Daimler like a shot from a gun, leaving Tomas to deal with the bags. When Maxim and Anton Dönitz reached the domestic range, Marek was nowhere to be seen. Maxim gave a maid orders for refreshments to be served in the breakfast room.
Marek returned as Maxim was divesting himself of his long duster. The steward took it from him, saying that Mr Underwood was in his study with Count Hugo and would be down soon.
‘How did he look?’ Maxim had to ask. Marek just shook his head.
Anton Dönitz did not wait for Gus to appear. He went up immediately and disappeared into the study.
Maxim was left to his own devices. Tomas had gone to prepare his room. Marek had taken up his regular domestic concerns to keep his mind occupied, as he said. Maxim sat alone in an armchair with a tea. For a while he studied his father’s portrait of Count Oskar, smiling eternally and enigmatically from the frame. Soon he dozed.
Someone speaking earnestly just outside the room caused him to jerk awake: ‘… you are loved, you are loved still.’
Maxim shook his head to clear it as the door opened. Anton Dönitz and Gus came in, the Austrian holding his friend tightly by the arm. Gus looked weary and some years older than when Maxim had last seen him. He did not smile at Maxim, for whom that was proof enough how badly the older man had been shaken.
Marek followed them in leading Count Hugo, and seated him next to the fireplace under his brother’s portrait. Maxim was intrigued in passing to see some remaining similarities in their faces, despite Hugo’s age. Anton and Gus took the sofa, Anton holding Gus’s hand and anxiously searching his face.
The baron looked across at Maxim. ‘I have been telling our hero here that there are times when running away is the best strategy. In this case, there is no one to fight and nothing that can be said. He needs a different view on things.’
Hugo agreed. ‘August, my dear friend, we can sit here and cry with you, if that’s what you want. But Anton is perfectly correct. You can grieve here with all the remembrances of her around you, and you will blame yourself and sink into a morass of sorrow out of which your friends cannot pluck you. Or you can grieve elsewhere, and try to get some perspective on what’s happened. It will be a harder but better way. Go with Anton. Do as he says for once.’
Gus sighed and asked where they suggested.
Anton replied, ‘We will go first to my villa at Bad Ischl, and after that some more serious travel, I think. I can borrow a yacht at Nice, or perhaps – yes, why not? – America. I have always wanted to see the great cities of the eastern seaboard. I have relatives in Milwaukee, I wonder if that is near New York.’
Maxim was impressed at the minister’s compassion for his friend. ‘How long are you able to stay away from your office, sir?’
Anton tightened his grip on Gus’s hand. ‘As long as necessary.’
Gus looked back at Anton with a devotion Maxim had never seen one man offer another. Strangely, it did not embarrass him at all. But as for there being nothing to say, Maxim did not agree. There were a lot of things to be said to Antonia, at least by him, and he was going to say them.
It was a sad house party at Hentzau, but at least it did not last long. Marek was to go with Gus, so he spent the evening packing and confiding instructions to Maxim about the works at the Osraeum.
Maxim found himself alone with Gus at breakfast. ‘I don’t suppose you slept much, Gus.’
‘Just dozed a little. Things were going round and round in my head. I kept on wondering if Antonia would have been a different person had I been a better father.’
‘Who says you were a bad father?’
‘You can’t help but accuse yourself. I never gave her much guidance, I’m afraid. I was too much wrapped up in the estate, that and my personal sorrows.’
‘Gus, did Count Oskar ever stay here with you?’
Gus blinked at him. ‘Odd you should ask that, but yes he did, for a week in the autumn of 1880.’
‘I dreamed of him last night, it was very vivid.’
‘Did you ever go swimming together when he was here? Sorry, that’s a strange question.’
‘No. Why do you ask?’
‘I had a dream about him the last time I was at Hentzau. It too was very vivid, as well as ominous. What was your dream about?
‘Not the usual one, where I clamber desperately after his disappearing form, impeded by all sorts of objects and persons. No, it was different. I was just lying in his arms, as we did in his bedroom at the Tarlenheim palace, and looking into those green eyes of his. Nothing was said, and nothing was done. It was just comforting, a drop of water on the tongue of a man in purgatory.’
Gus sighed and looked across at the portrait, and Maxim was distressed to see a tear creep down his friend’s cheek. He stood up and went to the window. Behind him, he heard Gus blow his nose and say, ‘You did well in the Reichsräthe, Max.’
‘Yes, and now the fun begins. The pity is you won’t be here to help and advise. King Albert has succeeded thus far.’
‘You have good advisers: Horowicz, Ostberg and the rest. And then there is yourself, Max. You are growing all the time, and more like your father every day. I have confidence that you are up to this. By the time I get back, I expect to see everything well on course.’
Gus and Anton set off for the station at midday on the first stage of their journey. Maxim gripped Gus by the shoulders before he left the castle, said the Pensk-Pozechnen and kissed his forehead. Gus embraced him, then headed for the carriage, Marek following behind.
Maxim had undertaken to return Hugo to Templerstadt, and so after an early lunch helped him into the Mercedes. Hugo was silent for quite a while. Eventually, as they were descending the Murranberg pass by the new graded road, he commented, ‘The sensation of speed in this vehicle is really quite exhilarating, Max.’
‘I would have thought it would be terrifying, as you can’t see where we’re going.’
‘I have to put my trust in you for that, but the wind on my face and the sensation of movement it brings is much enhanced by blindness.’
‘Tell me about your brother, Hugo.’
‘Which? I had three. Rudolf, the former prince, died four years ago. Franz is still alive and prospering as the general in charge of the Husbrau and Merz frontier. But it is Oskar you mean, is it not?’
‘Yes I do.’
‘What can I say? He was unique, a completely free spirit. Society and its conventions had no grip on him, and no one seemed ever to touch him – till he met August, that is. But he was a Tarlenheim and a patriot. He believed his death alone could help his country and preserve it from a Thuringian tyranny, so he went bravely to his end, deliberately leaving the one love of his life to do so. He is in heaven now.’
Maxim smiled quirkily to himself. ‘Some people – quite a few, in fact – would not agree with you about his destination.’
‘Then they are wrong. He embraced the way of Christ and gave himself that others might live freely. I lost my sight just before he died, and he lives in my head still the way he was then, so beautiful and merry. There are times when I know he is near. I catch his scent and his breath on my cheek. Does that sound superstitious to you?’
‘Had you asked me a month or two ago, I would have said yes. But I had what I think was a vision of him at Hentzau on my last visit. He seemed to have something to say to me.’
‘Tell me about it.’
Maxim briefly recounted the story of his dreamlike visitation.
‘Yes, he would have been interested in you. He was not a close friend of your father’s, but you he would have liked. There’s something of the adventurer in you.’
Maxim guffawed. ‘Not a very successful one, I’m afraid.’
‘Time will tell on that, I think.’
Templerstadt was its glorious self, and Maxim was welcomed into it as freely as ever. This time, though, he noticed something new. Perhaps it was a greater consideration for his position. When he decided to spend the rest of the week there, he was glad he had. He let Henry drive him in the Mercedes, bouncing round the paddock at the rear of the house laughing hilariously. Hugo and Sissi were often working in their joint study. Translating the Aeneid into Rothenian was their current project, and Welf sometimes doubled as his father’s amanuensis. Maxim was awed to discover that the young man had mastered fifteen ancient tongues and was working in his own time on the unresolved mystery of the Etruscan language.
Most of all, however, Maxim wanted to talk with Helga. She was very harsh in her verdict on Antonia’s conduct, unprecedentedly so for her. They sat together in the upstairs parlour with an outlook over the gardens to the rear of the house and the wooded hills beyond.
‘She was never very sensitive to the feelings of others, though she could be extravagantly kind when she wished. But this is utterly cavalier. She must know how her father detests the man, yet she willingly sought a liaison with him. I had a note this morning from my dear friend Elise Monnet, who is enjoying the season in the capital. She informs me it’s the talk of all the ballrooms in Strelsau. Toni accompanied the king to a performance of Die Meistersinger at the Rudolfinum two days ago, so it is quite out in the open.
‘But not many look at it as we do. They say King Albert has increased his popularity by taking such a ravishing mistress. People didn’t believe he had that much romance in him. No one sympathises much with the queen, of course. Such a colourless person. Miss Underwood, on the other hand, is all the rage.’
Maxim sighed. ‘I think it’s power in part. She adopted the socialist cause and feminism because she sympathises with the powerless, or at least so I thought. But her causes have brought her little, and she has found out as she has become older how power can be hers simply with a flash of her eyes in the right direction.’
‘No Max, I don’t believe it’s exactly that. She certainly finds power attractive, but what she likes even more is subjecting powerful men. Her feminism and socialism were designed to defy the males who control the social order. When she reduced such a man as you to her bidding, she was doing much the same. Now she has done it to a king.’
‘Or so she thinks,’ intervened Maxim. ‘I don’t believe Albert is a man easily manipulated or dominated.’
‘Much less so than you, dear Max. You are a kind and gentle man, for all your many intellectual and physical gifts. You like to be easy with people.’
‘Yes, well … let that be. But Albert is neither kind nor gentle. Sooner or later she will discover the grim side of the life of a courtesan.’
‘That is her choice. For myself, I wish never to see her again.’
‘Really, Helga? That is a harsh thing for you to say.’
‘It is her disrespect for her father that I will not countenance. She cannot love him to have done what she did. Such a great and good man ... Where is he now?’
‘The baron sent a telegram from Bad Ischl. He and Gus have decided to take a holiday from their troubles. They are embarking on a liner at Genoa next week to sail for America. They have hopes of taking the train right across the continent to San Francisco.’
‘My word, how I envy them! Then I don’t suppose they will be back for a month or two.’
‘And how do things progress between you and the other Underwood?’
‘Paul?’ She laughed. ‘He has asked father for my hand in marriage in the fullest Rothenian style. Mother thought it was quite charming. Naturally Father said yes.’
‘Oh dear, did you have any part in it?’
‘Of course! He wouldn’t have gone to father without asking me first. It’s just a formality.’
‘Yes, I knew that. When will the wedding be?’
‘In the new year, I expect. The celebrations will be here, with the service at the abbey down in the valley. We plan to travel to Paris, and then to England to visit his parents. We will return to live in Strelsau. Osku is looking for a house for us in the Fourth District.’
‘I’m overjoyed for you both.’
And Maxim found he genuinely was. He loved Helga and Paul, and the fact that they would be joined delighted him. His regrets that he was not in Paul’s place were still there, but he did not let them sour his satisfaction that the two would be together and happy.
‘Under-vood. You must give me lessons in how to say that name!’
Maxim arrived back at the Osraeum on Sunday. He found that Marek had made arrangements before he left, despite his distress. The senior footman had been promoted to butler, and Tomas Zygner had spent the past few days establishing his own authority over the new butler as confidential valet to his excellency. There was a certain tension in the air, domestically.
The building works were to continue, with Osku keeping a close eye on the contractors. Maxim had decided to formalise his previous offer and retain Osku as lawyer to the Hentzau estate. Since Gus would be away for quite a while, it made sense.
Maxim told Osku the news from Templerstadt over a late supper in the Café Jednorosecz. They also discussed – as men who knew her intimately – the gossip about Antonia.
‘I was seventeen when we first made love,’ Osku confessed.
‘Seventeen! My word. That would have been, what … 1902?’
‘Er … yes. She was fifteen at the time, and I wasn’t her first.’
‘Really! Then who …?’
‘She said she had lost her virginity to a servant boy in the kitchens at Hentzau.’
‘Mmm … I’m not sure I believe that.’
‘Anyway, I lost my virginity to her. We did it in the woods below the house. It was quite romantic, amongst the grass and flowers late one summer’s afternoon. We lay there in the sunshine for ages.’
‘She and I made love much more prosaically, in my bed in the house at Park Lane. It would have been three years ago, now. I was twenty-one and just down from Oxford. It lasted three months. I found out she was sleeping with one of her lecturers at the School of Economics at the same time.’ Somehow, Max found he did not want to mention the more recent sexual encounter he’d had with Antonia.
‘Oh dear,’ sympathised Osku. ‘We kept at it for two years, though only when she was staying at Templerstadt. God, it was joyous, I would live for those moments. She is so passionate and free with herself, more so than any woman I’ve slept with since.’
‘I don’t wish to pry, but is there any woman you are seeing now?’
Osku blushed a little. ‘I was introduced to the Maison de Venus. Have you heard of it?’
‘Er … no.’
‘The gentlemen students at the Law School and University use it. It’s a well-kept house on Gildenfahrbsweg. The girls are nice: young and very clean. They are regularly inspected.’
‘I take it that Professor Tildemann didn’t introduce you.’
‘God no! I’d die if he found out. Even worse, I’d shoot myself if father got to hear about it, especially as I took Welf there last month. The boy is too cerebral for his own good, but the girl he chose told me later there is a lot more to young Welf than you might suppose.’
Maxim couldn’t prevent a smirk. It seemed the present generation of Tarlenheim boys were as frank about their sexuality as their Uncle Oskar had been in his day.
Osku smiled back. ‘We could go afterwards if you’d like. I haven’t been there since they obliged Welf.’
‘No, I don’t think so. Let’s not give the papers anything else to talk about. I’d rather they concentrated on the king and Toni at the moment.’
‘What’s going on there, Max?’
‘It seems Toni has found something that excites her more than the dialectic between history and human progress. I wonder how she rationalises it to herself? I wonder if indeed she is actually enamoured of Albert? I know women do not think like men on these subjects. She loves the celebrity and notoriety, I have no doubt. She will be comparing herself with the great courtesans of the past and the present, revelling in the trappings of power with a king at her feet. Whatever the case, I will find out tomorrow if I can.’
‘She is my tenant in Festungstrasse 445, so I think I’ll go over and see how she is taking care of my property.’
The next morning, Maxim stood on the pavement outside his apartment feeling less keen on the meeting. He had selected his time carefully, as he knew Antonia rose around half past ten. He greeted Zelikin, the concierge, who answered the door.
‘Good morning, excellency.’
‘Good morning to you too, Herr Zelikin. Is Miss Underwood at home?’
Zelikin smiled conspiratorially. ‘A lot of people are asking me that question. I just tell them to leave their cards – but not you, your excellency. You can get blasé, you know, once you’ve opened the door to the king. I never ask for his card. Such a gentleman. He even asked after Frau Zelikin. Do please go up.’
Maxim took the stairs. When he knocked the door he was taken aback to have it answered by a maid. He gave his card, and there was a pause before he was allowed in.
‘A maid, Toni? I believe I heard you once say that there was no dignity in employing domestics, for the mistress or the servant.’
There was a marked air of defiance in Antonia. Maxim noticed the wealth of flower arrangements around the apartment: from her admirers, doubtless.
‘Have you come here to visit or to make cheap points, Max?’
‘Not just to visit. There are a few things I need to say to you.’ Somehow his nervousness was gone, now he knew there was to be open battle between Antonia and himself. ‘Your father has left the country. Do you appreciate why?’
Antonia flushed. ‘I am not going to arrange my life to suit a grudge which is thirty years old.’
‘You are … involved … with a man who is your father’s mortal enemy and my own.’
Antonia’s eyes glittered. ‘The man who killed my father’s … lover, the count whose picture is in our lounge.’
Maxim was startled. ‘So you know that much.’
‘Yes, Albert told me. How do you think I feel now about a father who kept that from me … that he is a homosexual? My poor mother.’
‘I don’t believe your father gave your mother any cause at all to regret their brief marriage. But that’s not the point.’
‘What is the point, Max? Is it that you have ambitions to be ruler of this place? Why in God’s name do you think I should support you in that? You’d happily plunge this country into civil war! Who’s the megalomaniac here, you or your rival, the lawful king you’d like to depose?’
Maxim caught his breath. This was not going the way he wanted, as was usual whenever he took on Antonia. He drew a deep breath. ‘The point is your father, I think. Don’t you owe him sufficient respect to consider his feelings about this?’
‘I am my own woman. I always have been and I always shall be. I will make up my own mind about my life and the people in it.’
‘Can’t you consider for a moment that your father might have had every reason for his animosity to the king, which might be nothing to do with Oskar von Tarlenheim?’
‘Albert tells it differently.’
‘And you would trust that man, with his reputation, over the father who has shown in so many ways he loves you?’
‘Apart from the fact that he would not tell me the most important fact about himself?’
Maxim flared. ‘The most important things about your father are that he is loyal, decent and brave …’
‘… but not honest.’
‘Oh for God’s sake, Toni! How can you not see what’s going on here!’
‘All I see is a more dangerous revolutionary than I ever could be, trying to justify the overthrow of a lawful government to gratify his own ambition!’
‘But the damned man is an evil, conscienceless murderer!’
‘No doubt Cromwell said exactly the same about Charles I.’ Antonia had adopted that air of superior morality and knowledge that always defeated Maxim, because it admitted no negotiation. He could only fall back on assertion and increasing anger, as he had learned in past arguments with her.
Strangling his rising fury, he became reserved. ‘Very well. It seems that as usual I have no arguments to shift you. You have made up your mind and, God help me, I know how unshakable that is. But God help us both if you don’t listen to me this once.’ They glared at each other for a few seconds, before Maxim turned on his heel and left. He did not slam the door, though he reflected he could have, as it belonged to him.
The subcommittee of the Reichsräthe reported on the neutrality resolution on Monday, and Maxim was in the crowded chamber to hear it. The press had been generally supportive, although the palace had been quiet. A form of words was put to the vote, and passed. By it, the peers of Ruritania resolved that their nation should declare itself a neutral power and ratify the Hague Convention. With a rap of the president’s gavel, the resolution was passed on to the lower chamber for its vote.
Maxim and several colleagues sat in the peers’ gallery of the chamber to hear the next day’s debate. Chancellor Oexle rose to begin the discussion. He spoke for a long time to an increasingly restive audience. He was evasive and eventually seemed to be suggesting that debate be postponed indefinitely until a commission had been formed and reported. There were, he said, complex constitutional issues which could not be ignored, but he was not specific as to what they were.
When the chancellor had finished, Horowicz rose to speak for the liberal wing of the Christian Democrats. The issue, he said, was a simple one, and not deserving of any commission. It was whether Ruritania should stand apart from the hazardous arms race between empires going on in the world outside, or leave itself open to being bullied into joining their dangerous alliances. Horowicz was brisk and to the point. He sat down to general applause from his party.
Many members leapt to their feet at that point. The Speaker of the Lower Chamber selected a conservative called Topolánek.
‘Oh dear,’ Prince Franz whispered next to Maxim.
‘He’s good, and he’s not on our side.’
The man had quite a way with words. Maxim was impressed, despite the fact that Topolánek was compromising their efforts. He was not afraid to refer to the 1856 constitution and the fact that the proposal from the Reichsräthe opened difficult issues. Foreign policy was the prerogative of the king, advised by the foreign minister. It might well be that the government had assumed most of the responsibility for the conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs, but that did not alter the fact that a parliamentary resolution dictating how both king and government should conduct their business was not foreseen in the constitution. If it was passed, Ruritania’s voice among the nations would become incoherent.
Maxim’s heart sank. There was little doubt that the conservative majority had been strongly influenced by Topolánek. The murmur of approval rising from the floor was like the ominous subdued roar of an incoming tide, which was going to swamp his hopes.
As his head sank, Maxim heard a new name called. ‘The member for Strelsau Third and Fifth Districts.’ Maxim’s head jerked up. Tildemann had not been expected to take part in this debate. He had expressed little interest so far in foreign affairs.
Tildemann commenced, his stooped and slight figure strangely charismatic. ‘Gentlemen, constitutions are essential documents for the good conduct of national affairs, yet they are only documents. As such, they must on occasion be interpreted. They are not scriptures to be placed beyond discussion. Those who framed our constitution in the days of Rudolf IV could not foresee every eventuality. They did not foresee the situation we now are in.
‘We have a government with no majority. It has not yet passed any significant measure through this house, and the few minor ones it has passed have only been those with the broadest appeal across the political divide. Our nation is rudderless, adrift in dangerous waters. Great empires threaten us, like tides sweeping us towards rocks. In such mortal peril, does it matter whose hand snatches the tiller? What does matter is that something be done, something that saves our people from involvement in the coming catastrophe.’
Tildemann straightened. His voice became more compelling and the chamber more intent on his words. ‘For catastrophe does indeed threaten this continent. Do you not sense it? The stockpiling of arms, the forging of hostile alliances, the mobilising of armies and navies, all tell us that grim war, perhaps the grimmest that humanity has yet known, is just on our horizon.
‘Do our people want to march with the empires towards a field of Armageddon? No, gentlemen, they do not. Yet if we go on as we are, we will be hauled on to that field of blood by one party or another. For what were we elected? To serve our people. Ignoring this resolution will only ease the slide into war. I say support it. Serve our masters. Make it clear to the world that Ruritania will be no party to the destruction of a continent!’
He sat down to a swell of murmurs and exclamations that the Speaker took quite some time to subdue. Several other members intervened, saying little to any purpose, but echoing either Topolánek or Tildemann in their own, less-effective ways. Finally Oexle stood again and expressed the view of the government that the resolution be rejected as a constitutional novelty which raised too many uncomfortable issues. He was, however, happy to nominate a commission to consider the neutrality issue and report in six months time.
The vote was called, and the chamber emptied. Maxim and his friends sat grimly awaiting the count. The Speaker eventually rose. ‘Against the resolution: 114. Abstentions: 33. For the resolution: 118. The resolution is carried.’ His last words were drowned by calls and cries. Reporters scurried from their gallery heading for phones and typewriters.
Maxim let out a deep breath. The great game was commenced.