MAXIM ELPHBERG - XII
Maxim began hosting regular gatherings at the Osraeum. There was a group of MPs that Horowicz had attracted, liberal Christian Democrats or mild Social Democrats for the most part. The younger peers from the Reichsräthe also attended regularly, especially Prinz Franz of Tarlenheim, who had become a friend. In addition, a number of politically engaged intellectuals could usually be found: university academics, columnists and writers. Soon the count of Hentzau’s salon became one of the principal centres of Ruritanian, or rather Rothenian, political life – Rothenian, because conversation was usually Slavic, when it was not French or English.
The meetings began as a way of monitoring the progress of parliament’s declaration of neutrality. The resolution was an unprecedented measure, whose eventual method of implementation was not at all clear. It required the government to ratify the Hague Convention, and for that to have any effect, the king had to sign it.
‘He won’t of course,’ growled Téodor Horowicz one evening over port.
‘I can see why you would think that, but is it worth his while forcing a constitutional crisis?’ wondered Maxim.
‘Actually, yes. If the king vetoes the measure, the only way it can get past him is if we change the constitution. There is no mandate for that in this parliament. This is not England, where the legislature has established an ascendancy over the monarch. We had no Glorious Revolution, not even an inglorious one as it happens.’
The room laughed. The Baron Olmusch, a friend of Maxim’s late father’s and member of the Tarlenheim family, puffed his cigar industriously. ‘You’ve done pretty well so far, my boy. When King Albert sends the resolution back unsigned, he will have declared to the whole world that he intends our country to align with the Germans against France and England. But the people of Ruritania don’t want such an alignment, so they will see that their king does not truly represent their interests. It will do him no favours. It will make people question his motives. That’s as much as we could have hoped for.’
Maxim frowned. ‘I had hoped for rather more. This country really is in the danger that Professor Tildemann said it was. Neutral status is the only chance of safety we have.’
Olmusch nodded. ‘Then let the papers make the point. The Ruritanischer Tagblatt can be counted on to pick up the torch, don’t fear.’
As it happened, the very next day the palace returned the neutrality resolution unsigned. The king declared that he did not think the small size of the majority in parliament sanctioned such a contentious move. He also declared that he considered it unconstitutional, as it was a policy measure passed against the opposition of the government.
The Ruritanischer Tagblatt might very well have made a big issue of the king’s veto, but Albert sidetracked it by another announcement.
Maxim was in Osku’s office in Postgasse when the news reached him. They were discussing Anton Dönitz’s first letter, which had reached them from New York that day. He and Gus were having a good time, it appeared. The sea air and the passage have done wonders. It was as though we left a lot of our anxieties to drown in the wake of the liner ploughing across the ocean. I will not say that August is carefree, yet he is more like the man I first met than he has seemed for quite a while. He laughed this morning in his old way as we visited the Singer Tower on Broadway; the tallest building in the world, we were told. I suggested we build an even taller Underwood Tower on Rudolphs Platz. The look on his face! We will go on to San Francisco, I think. Travel is doing him good. We hope to see Red Indians and prospectors as well as cowboys. It is very exciting. We are like boys again.
Osku smiled. ‘It’s good that those two old fellows are happy in each other. Somehow, I doubt they will be back until they have to. I don’t believe Uncle August will be running the estate for you for quite a while.’
Maxim was about to reply when the door opened and a clerk deposited the afternoon editions of the city papers on Osku’s desk. Osku gave a sharp intake of breath when he saw the headline: GENERAL STAFF DISMISSED.
‘My God!’ he exclaimed, snatching up a paper. He stared intently at the page. ‘Uncle Franz, Count Bernenstein – dismissed. Just like that!’
They were both standing now. ‘How can he do that?’
‘He’s commander-in-chief. He can do it, alright. It’s just that no one has ever done it before! What does it say here? The statement from the palace suggested that the military establishment should be adjusted to meet the challenges of a new and dangerous era in our national history. The king as commander-in-chief sees the need for a period of reform and reorganisation. He is grateful for the service of the members of the former general staff, but prefers to work with a new and more sympathetic body.
‘What a liar. All those sacked have strong Elphberg connections. Uncle Franz is one of the great European authorities on machine gunnery and light artillery! He is among the most determined modernisers in the armed forces.’
‘Has the king announced the replacements?’
‘Not yet. It won’t be easy to replace those men with any others of comparable talent and experience. He can fire his generals, but he can’t create new ones, just like that. The army won’t like it at all. I had better ring home and see what Father has to say. This is quite a blow to our party, and a calculated one too. We are dealing with a very clever man, Max. He is a moving target. He is not going to sit there and wait for us to take pot shots at him. As we have seen, he can shoot back too.’
Maxim reached for his coat and hat. ‘You ring your father, Osku. I will go looking for Count Bernenstein.’
Maxim’s car was waiting outside. He had taken more and more to being chauffeured round the city. As the nights drew in, his friends warned him that he was too exposed walking the city streets. His brother had died at the hands of assassins, and the king might well try the same tactic with him.
His driver took his card in at the Bernenstein house in Arsenalgasse. When told that the count was still at his office on Leibgardgasse and the countess was in the country, Maxim replied, ‘To Leibgardgasse then.’
The War Ministry building was next door to the Life Guard barracks that gave the road its name. It was a long, classically fronted building in the local limestone. Infantry in full-dress uniform were on guard at the central arch. Maxim left his car parked in the road and walked through the arch to the central courtyard. Army officers were everywhere. It was probably his imagination that they seemed to be gathered in small groups earnestly discussing something.
The adjutant in Count Bernenstein’s outer office ushered Maxim in as soon as he announced his identity. ‘I’m so glad you came, excellency.’ The old man extended a large hand and grasped his firmly.
‘So you are still here as yet.’
‘Yes, I have a day’s grace to sort out my effects. I must say I shall miss this room. It’s been my home for fifteen years now. The countess of course will be delighted. She thinks I spend too much time here anyway. She has plans, God help me.’
‘You seem very cheerful, sir.’
‘What’s to say? I’m in my seventies. Many would agree it really is time I went, especially some of my younger colleagues, who think I’ve been an obstacle to their progress up the military hierarchy.’ He indicated the portrait behind him. ‘They should count themselves lucky. Old Von Tirkenau stayed in office till he died at the age of eighty-five, right there in that armchair. I kept it as a memento mori.’
‘But General von Tarlenheim?’
‘Yes, now that is bad. He’s one of the finest military scientists and strategists in Europe, let alone Ruritania. There was no logic in dismissing him from the General Staff, only malice. He’s even been removed from his command of the Merz and Husbrau military district, and that worries me.’
‘King Albert will replace him with one of his new Thuringian generals, you may be sure. It’s the key province as far as the king is concerned, because it includes Mittenheim where all his support is concentrated.’
‘I feel partly to blame.’
‘Don’t you think that for a moment, young man. Franz and I are devoted servants of the Elphberg dynasty. We are soldiers and know what is expected of us, which sometimes is not pleasant to experience.’
‘There seems little doubt the king has identified you and the others as sympathetic to an Elphberg restoration. This has been a Thuringian coup within the military.’
‘In a sense, perhaps. But excellency, it was expected and planned for.’
‘We knew what might happen when Albert took the throne. Give us credit for being strategists.’ He laughed. ‘After all, we are – or were – the General Staff of our country. No, we knew this might happen, and now other safeguards will operate in our stead.’
Maxim pondered this information, and decided to pursue it at a later date. ‘What will General von Tarlenheim do now?’
‘Get rather bored at home, I fear. He mostly lived on his military salary and the annuity his father left him. The present prince, his nephew, lives down at Festenburg, the main family residence. The older house at Tarlenheim is Franz’s for life.’
An idea surfaced slowly at the back of Maxim’s mind, an idea that might meet both his and General von Tarlenheim’s needs. He took leave of Count Bernenstein with a cordial invitation to join his salon at the Osraeum, when the countess permitted.
Gus Underwood did not return to Ruritania after he reached San Francisco. Anton did come back six weeks later, stopping off in Strelsau on his way to Vienna.
‘I’ve had my holiday, the best in my life. But August needs longer. His mission and his duties have engaged him for three decades with little time to be himself. Now he is fifty years of age, and the moment has come at last for him to discover who he is as he explores the world. He booked a passage on a steamer to Tokyo. He said he wanted to visit the Far East. He may go to Shanghai after that, and then, who knows? The Philippines? Indochina? Singapore? It is a big world with much to see.’
‘Is he any happier?’
‘No, but he is finding distraction from the pain, at least. We have arranged that I will meet him in Paris next June. I think he will keep travelling until then. That’s as may be. My plan at least is to resign my office next year so I am ready for any decision he makes. I think – I hope – he will be prepared now for what I have wanted for so long, to settle down together somewhere. We are both wealthy men, and we can afford it, whether it is a villa on Capri or a castle in the Peloponnese.’
‘You don’t believe he will come back to Ruritania at all?’
‘I doubt it. I’m sorry, Maxim, but I’ve brought his formal resignation as your estate manager.’
Although Maxim had expected this, the extent of his distress at hearing it took him aback. He realised it reminded him all too much of his father’s premature death. He was gripped by a return of the pangs of loss he had endured then. Despite his regrets, he smiled and wished the minister well. Anton for his part gripped Maxim’s hand and said he could be sure of at least one good friend in the Austrian government.
Maxim did not take long to make his decision. He had originally been thinking that Osku might fill Gus’s shoes, but working with his friend had convinced him that would be an error. Osku was a first-class lawyer but lacked the imagination and breadth of interests to be an innovative entrepreneur, as Gus had been. So Maxim had been making further enquiries since his interview with Count Bernenstein.
One windy afternoon in early November, his Daimler, rain lashing its windows, turned up the drive of the handsome château of Tarlenheim. Tomas Zygner was at the wheel, and the dangerous driving conditions did not seem to perturb him in the least. The large car pulled up gently on the gravel sweep in front of the great house. A footman emerged in bright Tarlenheim green carrying an umbrella for Maxim’s benefit.
He was announced at the door of the study. Lieutenant-General the Count Franz in Tarlenheim was in civilian tweeds. He was a stout man in his mid-fifties, with that air of cheerful self-possession Maxim believed was characteristic of the best military officers.
‘My dear Hentzau, Hugo sent over to say you were eager to see me, and you arrive hot on the heels of his messenger. He really ought to use the phone – we are connected here – but Hugo is surprisingly conservative. All that studying of ancient Romans and Greeks, no doubt.’
‘Thank you for seeing me, excellency.’
‘Call me Franz, and I will call you Max, and then we can be proper friends.’ Franz called for drinks and indicated two comfortable chairs, one on either side of a crackling fire. The electric lights were on, as the afternoon was turning gloomy.
‘How are you finding premature retirement?’ Maxim asked.
‘Dreadful. Did you know the king replaced me with that ass, Messinger? A well-meaning ass, but nonetheless distinctly asinine. He will never understand the job. His memory is appalling, and his grip on the organisation of his division is minimal. I will be astonished if he can remember how many brigades he disposes of. He will lose at least one, and it will turn up many years from now garrisoning a forgotten fortress in the mountains of Merz.’ The general laughed, but Maxim could see the frustration that lay behind the amusement.
‘Count Bernenstein was telling me of your ideas about military supply in Ruritania.’
‘What, you mean internal provisioning? Yes, we’re far too dependent on imported parts and supplies. What’s more, the State Arsenal needs a major reform, though I could never get Bernenstein to listen to me.’
‘He did listen to you. He even showed me a plan he had drawn up, but which he could never get past King William Henry. Albert wasn’t interested either.’
‘Yes, well, we know why. His long-term plan is to integrate the Ruritanian military into the German empire. What he has already started with Messinger and Meyer can only continue.’
‘But it would be pretty obvious if every general and colonel in our army were a Thuringian, wouldn’t it?’
‘He wouldn’t need to do anything so crass. Generals create their own clienteles, and bad generals tend to promote their own docile favourites and friends rather than more challenging and competent officers. Meyer and Messinger are bad generals; they are going to be the poison in the system. King Albert is making the most of them. They are often at the palace, where Meyer has more influence than his superior, Tasicz, the new Chief of General Staff. It makes for paralysis and infighting in decision making, a culture of sycophancy amongst senior officers. The king knows this instinctively, and it is in his interest that the army fall apart.’
‘It must be dreadfully frustrating watching it happen.’
‘Yes it is. I have to take it out on my dear wife and the servants with a riding crop.’ He laughed.
‘Tell me, Franz, Count Bernenstein said there was a plan in the event of this happening. What did he mean?’
‘He didn’t tell you? Then perhaps I shouldn’t either. But so far as the intelligence service is concerned, he found ways of keeping it independent of the palace. In one of our late king’s last acts, when he was perhaps a little confused, William Henry signed the intelligence budget over to the Staatsrath, the Council of State.’
‘I see you have worked out why.’
‘Well yes, Prince Ostberg is chairman of the Council. So he has control of the secret service?’
‘Indeed, though it is disguised by subcommittees and illusory chains of command through the army.’
‘What about the army?’
‘Ah … perhaps I should keep quiet on that. I shall just say the name Voydek.’
‘Voydek? Who is he?’
‘I have no doubt you will find out.’
Maxim shrugged. He had more on his mind than penetrating Franz’s sense of mischievous fun.
‘Franz, I have a proposition for you. A man of your organisational capacities should not be vegetating on his country estate like this.’
Franz gave Maxim a calculating look, but said nothing.
Maxim continued. ‘What I propose is this: The Hentzau estate is without a business manager since Gus Underwood left. It is no small enterprise and it is a very diverse one. I have reason to think that it is now the largest single contributor to the Rothenian economy. I would like you to take it on, now Gus has resigned.’
‘What, I? Step into August’s shoes?’
‘Yes you, Franz. And if there is one thing that might convince you to do it, it is this. I intend to do something about Bernenstein’s concerns over our lack of an indigenous arms industry. There is a place called Eisendorf, a growing industrial town on my estates in the Arndt Valley. It’s already home to Rothenia’s biggest motor industry, run by the Wendel brothers. There is an iron works and a new rail connection. It’s the perfect place for that factory you wanted, and I can provide the capital necessary to set it up.’
‘My God! You want me to get this thing going?’ Franz looked deeply interested, After a moment’s thought he began musing out loud as his mind took fire with the idea. ‘There are French specialists, collaborators on my mitrailleuse project that ran into the ground for lack of funds.’
‘Er … machine gun, you would call it. We had some unusual ideas about feeding shells into the gun on a belt. Those fellows would jump at the chance to begin armaments production. My God!’ Franz’s eyes fixed on Maxim. ‘Damn me if I won’t do it!’
‘Are you sure? You haven’t asked me about the salary.’
Franz’s alert and decisive mind was already made up. ‘I’d pay you for a chance like this. The countess will be happy too, as Tarlenheim is not that far from Eisendorf. You can get the train to Strelsfurt, then motor over the Murranberg. She can live here rather than in the military cantonments she dislikes so much.
‘Now Maxim, are you sure you know what you’re doing offering me this job? I’m never short of ideas, and some you might find a little wild.’
‘That’s why I want you.’
Franz laughed. ‘Then you asked for it. As it happens, I have an idea about Lake Maritz. You know the middle classes are all building villas on the hills up there. The place needs somewhere for the working classes to go, a holiday resort accessible from cities like Strelsau and Hofbau. There’s a village on the lake side called Pietersberg …’
Franz talked for two hours and drew lots of diagrams. Maxim left with his mind reeling, but all the more convinced that he had got the right man for the job.
The king’s affair with Antonia Underwood did not peter out as Maxim had hoped it would, far from it. She was always seen by his side at those of his social engagements where the queen’s attendance was not necessary. Miss Underwood was the fashion now in Strelsau society. Hers was believed to be one of the few voices to which King Albert would listen, so her presence was solicited by every hostess with ambitions to preside over an influential salon.
When Maxim met Toni at such events, they were distantly cordial. It was noticed, however, that she never appeared at the Osraeum, and she and the handsome young Elphberg never danced. Gossip insisted that he and the king were rivals for her hand, a rumour with just about enough truth in it to make Maxim uncomfortable.
One day at the end of November an envelope arrived containing the key to his old flat on Festungstrasse. The note read: Dear Max. Thank you for the loan of your apartment. I have now moved across the river to Starel Heights where I have obtained a pretty little house at Tasselngasse 22. I am at home to my friends on Tuesday afternoons. Do come. Toni.
A phone call to Osku revealed that Tasselngasse 22 was one of Maxim’s own freehold properties and that it had been taken on a long lease by an agent of the crown estates. So the king had found a new home for his mistress, a fact Toni chose to conceal.
Maxim duly sent in his card the very next Tuesday. He was ushered by a perky, handsome teenage page into a beautifully furnished drawing room. It gave out on to a garden which was immaculately kept, even when deep in its winter sleep.
Although the room was quite full, Maxim’s entry drew a lot of attention. Toni came over to deliver a very public kiss and embrace. ‘Darling Max. So glad you could come.’
Maxim guessed that some sort of point was being made to the social world of Strelsau. He was tugged by the arm to sit next to her on her sofa, a colonel of a cavalry regiment being ousted to make space.
Maxim could not resist asking, ‘Have you heard from your father?’
But he was dealing now with a new Toni, an unflappable social lioness who heard only what she wanted to hear. ‘I had a postcard from Kyoto. It was quite a surprise that the Japanese produce postcards, but apparently they do. The word postcard does not really do it justice. It’s a gorgeous, hand-coloured view of Mount Fuji. I have it there on the mantelpiece. He sent it in a package with a beautiful silk kimono.’
‘Did he say where he is going next?’
‘The kingdom of Korea, I believe. My uncle Lewis is currently ambassador to China, and he asked father to go across and make some investigations for him into the current problems with Japan.’
‘That’s sounds exciting, and indeed more than a little perilous.’
‘He is still the Augustus Underwood who stood alone against the mob.’ She faltered and went a little quiet, enough to hint to Maxim that Toni was regretting the separation from her father. However, now was not the time to go on to the attack. His visit to her salon was a reconnaissance, not a raid.
‘How are you finding your new role in Ruritanian society?’
The fact that Antonia did not come back at him with a tart reminder saying they lived in Rothenia, not Ruritania, told Maxim how far she had shifted into the Thuringian camp. Rather, her reply was careless and quite inaccurate. ‘It’s not I that’s changed.’
How you delude yourself, mused Maxim, and with that thought came the realisation that her hold over him was quite broken. He felt no contempt for her, he simply no longer had any respect for a woman who indulged in such wilful self-deception.
They chatted about recent concerts they had seen and family affairs. After twenty minutes, he took his leave and allowed those dying to sit next to the si charmante madamoiselle Underwood their chance to compete for the vacant place beside her.
Maxim had to return to England for much of December and January. The affairs of his nephew, the infant earl of Burlesdon, needed his attention. At the same time, he wanted to be with his mother and sisters for the Christmas season. Also, a general election had been called and he decided to exercise the vote he still possessed as a freeholder of the borough of Kensington, even though he now had Ruritanian nationality.
Maxim’s sister Kate had returned with him, full of Strelsau and her experiences at the Osraeum. ‘Honestly, Maus,’ she enthused to her envious little sister, ‘it was like being royal. Of course in Strelsau we are countesses, not just Lady Kate or Lady Maria. And Max … well, he is quite the thing in Ruritania.’
‘Rothenia,’ Maxim insisted.
‘But everyone speaks German at your parties.’
Maria pouted. ‘It’s my turn next year, isn’t it Max?’
‘Yes, darling Maus,’ Maxim laughed. ‘If mother lets you, you may come to Strelsau at some time in the new year. Everyone will want to see another Elphberg countess. Kate made quite an impact, didn’t you?’
She blushed. Once the count of Kesarstein had got over his unattainable fascination with Antonia, he had fixed on Kate. Maxim didn’t like to say that the romantic enthusiasms of the count seemed to come and go like snow in April. The young man was handsome, dashing, and wore a hussar uniform with considerable style. Her head had been turned.
Maxim did not confine himself to family affairs while in England. The week after the general election, with his return to Strelsau booked and Tomas Zygner packing his trunks, Maxim took a cab to Whitehall and entered the Foreign Office.
With a minimum of fuss he was escorted up a set of back stairs by his friend Macpherson. A door was opened and he found himself in the presence of the foreign secretary.
Sir Edward Grey stood smiling, shook hands and indicated an armchair to Maxim. ‘My dear Rassendyll, thank you for making some time for me before you return.’
Maxim smiled and kept his silence.
‘I had an exchange of information with M. Pichon, the French foreign minister, before Christmas. Some of it concerned Ruritania and yourself. Our friends in the Deuxième Bureau have intercepted some correspondence that might interest you, and I was expressly asked to pass it on.’
‘That is very kind. The support of the British and French governments is much appreciated.’
Sir Edward laughed. ‘… and quite self-interested, as you know. But something is needed to offset the assistance King Albert is being given by my colleagues on Wilhelmstrasse.
‘Now these are copies of letters which were found in the possession of a certain Eva Margot in Lille. She was arrested with a cell of anarchists who were suspected of plotting the assassination of the German governor-general of Alsace. She is prominent under the name of Marguerite Storelli as a socialist agitator. She was an associate of Miss Antonia Underwood’s, the woman who was expelled from Britain last year and is now … attached to King Albert.’
Maxim frowned. ‘The delicacy is unnecessary, Sir Edward.’
‘Indeed. You may take these away with you. I imagine you have contacts in Strelsau who will find them useful.’
‘Thank you … can you summarise the contents?’
‘Briefly, Margot is being assured that Miss Underwood remains committed to the Tenth meeting of the Socialist International to be held in Strelsau in July. She discusses the resolutions to be adopted on the equality of women, which she is helping to draft. She also communicates with Margot concerning the current state of politics in your country, Rassendyll.
‘This is where it becomes interesting. She mentions “A”, whom I think we may easily identify with the king, and “M”, his political rival. She alludes to “A’s” recent successes in packing diplomatic, civil-service and military posts with his friends. She takes some credit for one or two of them herself: good socialists, she says. “A” apparently has claimed to have some sympathy with the people and their struggle against capital. You, my dear “M”, are stigmatised as a cat’s-paw of oppressive commercial and industrial interests.’
‘I am distraught.’
‘No doubt. I sympathise. The conclusion of her analysis is her own conviction that “A” intends to take some action in the coming year which will precipitate a crisis.’
‘Is there any more detail than that?’
‘No, I’m afraid not. But it rather looks as though your king is not intending to play the long game with Ruritania.’
‘As you say. And by the way, Miss Underwood is carrying his child.’
‘I think it’s just as well that Uncle August is far away in Mongolia.’ Maxim and Oskar Franz were occupying a corner of the hall at Templerstadt, nursing glasses of champagne and watching the wedding guests spin by them in a vigorous Rothenian country dance. It was the day of Paul and Helga’s marriage.
‘Osku, he’s in Korea.’
‘As you say. Geography is not my strong point. The little bastard will be born and weaned before he gets to hear about it.’
‘It will still be a shock. He will be the grandfather of that swine Albert’s child.’
‘What if it’s a boy?’
‘Dear God, don’t even think about it. Albert only has a girl otherwise. If he divorces Queen Caroline and seeks a second marriage with Antonia, then the child, if a boy, might be a contender for the throne of Ruritania. He might even attempt to have it legitimised without marriage. He’s not a Catholic, and our Church’s veto will not be an issue as it was with my father’s claim. Damn it, is this what he’s up to with the Oexle government? Keeping it limping along in the hopes that it will carry a resolution to recognise Antonia’s child as the Thuringian heir?’
‘No, that cannot be, Max. Toni could not have conceived the child much before November. Though I have no doubt that getting Toni pregnant was a deliberate ploy of his. It not only intensifies the humiliation of poor Uncle August, it may also open up a whole new political game for Albert. When is it expected?’
‘According to her own letter to the woman Margot, it will be in July. It’s the end of January now, and pretty soon it will be obvious to all that a little Thuringian is on the way.’
They looked across the hall. Antonia had come to the wedding, and was in the centre of an interested group of men on the other side of the hall. Maxim had looked closely at her when they had embraced. She certainly had the bright eyes and flush of an expectant mother. If you knew it, it was obvious enough.
‘So what’s to be done?’
‘We watch and wait. The French have told the British that they expect some sort of coup to occur in Rothenia this year. It may not be wrapped up with the birth of the child, but I rather suspect it will be. It could as easily be a girl as a boy, after all. We need more information, as well as an assessment of the intelligence which Ostberg’s office is collecting.’
Paul came dancing past with his Helga at that point. Looking in their laughing faces, Maxim felt a tide of deep melancholy sweep over him. His choices in life so far had brought him little personal happiness.
He sighed. ‘Suddenly I feel the need to get very drunk.’ Osku smiled and took him round the shoulder in the affectionate Rothenian way. With that simple gesture, as suddenly as it had come, Maxim’s melancholy left him. He had good friends at least, even if he did not have the love he suspected was always going to elude him.
Maxim and Osku were on their third beer and becoming a little unsteady as they leaned up against a wall, when Paul and Helga came up to them. Paul’s eyes were shining. He wrung Maxim’s hand. ‘That was so generous, Max!’ he exclaimed.
‘What can we say Max?’ Helga added.
‘You’ve just said it, the pair of you. Your happiness is all the thanks I need, and I had no use for Festungstrasse 445 any more. I’m glad you can use it, at least for now. As a wedding gift, it’s more useful than a set of bath towels. You may do what you like with the furniture … it’s not to everyone’s taste, I know. Your Uncle Gus wanted to burn it, Paul.’
Helga laughed. ‘We love it, dear Max. We will keep it and value it as much as the friend who gave it to us.’
The pair hugged Max and Osku, then were off again into the press of dancers.
The king’s plans moved along. The Strelsener Amtsblatt announced in February, once the pregnancy had become evident, that the king had graciously conferred the title of countess of Rechtenberg on Antonia Elena Underwood. Queen Caroline left soon afterwards with her daughter, Princess Victoria Matild, for an extended stay in Thuringia.
Countess Rechtenberg was seen less often in society, but her salon on Starel Heights remained a magnet for the politically ambitious. The king himself appeared there on several occasions.
Maxim concentrated his activity on the Reichsräthe and became more and more at home in the parliament buildings. Between him and Horowicz, the Oexle government failed to pass any significant measure and suffered defeat after defeat. Yet it would not resign and call for new elections.
One morning in May, he was descending the broad steps of the great portico when he encountered Professor Tildemann coming up. Maxim took off his hat respectfully and the professor stopped to talk.
‘Good morning excellency. I see you managed to stall the budget yet again in committee.’
‘Indeed yes, Marcus. I think a government without money must resign eventually, don’t you?’
‘You would think so, excellency. However, it depends on how the ministers see their jobs.’
‘Oexle and his friends draw their salaries, make appointments and occupy comfortable houses. They are not too concerned with the humiliation you visit on them. What happens to the government clerks and employees when their salaries remain unpaid is of no consequence to them.’
‘It won’t get to that … they have to resign.’
‘I would not be too sure. Furthermore, you seem to assume that it will be the government that is blamed for the paralysis in public affairs, rather than its opponents who make business impossible.’
‘But it must be obvious to them.’
‘I can assure you, the only thing obvious to ordinary people is that you and Oexle are playing politics with their livelihoods. Good day, excellency.’
The professor carried on into parliament, leaving Maxim behind him, winded. As Tomas Zygner drove him back to the Osraeum, Maxim worried about Tildemann’s words of caution. He was beginning to fear the professor was all too correct.
He called through the dividing window. ‘Tomas?’
‘Excellency?’ His valet’s head half turned.
‘Have you been following this business of the budget in parliament?’
‘Through the papers, yes sir.’
‘What do you make of the government’s failure?’
‘The chancellor doesn’t seem able to do much, sir. You’d think he would get frustrated and resign. But there he sits. It’s a bit stubborn of him, sir. I can’t really work out why there’s a problem, though. It’s not as if he wants to do anything objectionable. It’s just politics sir, pardon me for saying.’
Maxim got home in a pensive mood. After pacing up and down his study, he dashed off notes to Ostberg and Horowicz, asking for a meeting.
Horowicz was dismissive of Tildemann’s ideas. ‘Oexle’s government has to be made to look ineffective. Sooner or later, parliament will get sufficiently frustrated with its paralysis that it will pass a vote of no confidence, and elections will follow. Then we will see what can be done.’
Prince Ostberg was not quite so decided. ‘It’s a matter of balance, Max. There is parliament and there are the people. Oexle’s shambles of a government is a disaster for the country which must be removed. We’re trying to stop it damaging the people’s interest.’
Max frowned. ‘But in the meantime, ordinary people get hurt.’
Ostberg sighed. ‘As I said, it’s a matter of balance.’
‘I suppose you’re going to tell me that the breaking of eggs is all part of the process of making omelettes.’
Horowicz answered. ‘We have Albert and Oexle on the run, Max. A little patience, and the MPs will get frustrated enough to want to risk their seats in a new election rather than prolong the agony.’
Maxim was not convinced. The refusal of parliament to sanction a budget did not force Oexle to resign. He was willing to run the risk of brinkmanship, and there were too few Christian Democrats who would support the vote of no confidence that Horowicz introduced.
Since the government was technically bankrupt, all payments from the exchequer stopped. The papers did precisely what Tildemann had predicted. The opposition was blamed for the crisis, not the government. Most alarming for Maxim was the way the Strelsener Deutscheszeitung used the budget crisis. It started attacking the 1856 constitution for producing such weak governments. It made calls for the king, as guarantor of the constitution, to intervene and suspend parliament.
It was at least fortunate that Albert was out of the country just then. He had gone to London for the funeral of King Edward, and had accompanied the Kaiser back to Potsdam.
Maxim too had to be away from Ruritania at the same time. He was reluctant to do so, but had agreed he would join Anton and Gus in Paris when Gus returned from the Far East.
As Maxim was leaving his cab in the Place Vendôme, he encountered Gus coming out of the Hôtel Ritz. Telling Tomas to deal with the cab and the baggage, he embraced Gus in a way he never would have done in England.
He stood back and studied his old friend. Gus was thinner and his hair was whiter at the temples, but he looked surprisingly cheerful.
‘Is Anton here?’ Maxim asked.
‘Yes, he arrived yesterday. He is now a private citizen. He has retired from his ministerial post, and we are back where we were when we first met, two unattached boys out for fun.’
‘Apart, of course, from the fact that you are both very wealthy men.’
‘It’s a burden that I promise you we will carry lightly. Come into the garden café, we need to talk.’
Anton, looking very dapper and youthful, waved to them from his table. ‘Are you ready for lunch?’
They sat a long time discussing Gus’s travels. Maxim kept trying to catch Anton’s eye as they talked. Did Gus know about Toni’s pregnancy?
Eventually, over coffee, the talk returned to Ruritania and Antonia. Maxim glanced at Anton, who nodded. ‘Yes, August knows. His brother had heard in Peking and told him.’
Maxim looked back to Gus. All he could think of asking was, ‘How do you feel about it?’.
Gus shrugged in a rather Gallic way. ‘Although I was angry to begin with, I could hardly be surprised. It was bound to happen, once she and that man began associating. It makes no difference. I can only hope she is delivered safely of the child. But I am even less inclined to return home now.’
‘Yes,’ Anton intervened. ‘We are travelling down to the Mediterranean. I have bought a steam yacht which is waiting for us at Nice. We are going cruising down to the Greek islands, keeping an eye open for a place to settle, but in no hurry to find one, I think.’
Maxim smiled and said he was pleased for them.
‘But what about you, Max?’ asked Gus.
‘Things plod on in Strelsau. Unfortunately, at the moment I’m not too happy with the direction in which they are plodding. We had a strategy for bringing down the government and engineering new elections which would favour parliament’s liberal wing. But it hasn’t happened the way it should have. Now there are demonstrations in Hofbau and Zelden as the unpaid government workers protest. When I return, I’m going to insist that Horowicz pull back. We’ve made our point about the government’s ineffectuality. It’s not right that innocent people should suffer.’
Anton and Gus agreed. As they left the café, Maxim took up a paper from a table. The headline he glimpsed said it all: RORITANIE: LE ROI DISSOUT PARLEMENT. King Albert had moved, and Maxim was out of the country.