MAXIM ELPHBERG - XIII
Maxim departed from the Gare de l’Est the next morning, after taking a regretful leave of Gus and Anton the previous evening. Marek, who was there too, seemed to wish he was going with Maxim rather than with his master. He gave every impression that he thought Tomas Zygner was not up to the job of Maxim’s valet.
Maxim had been given a lot of advice as to what he should do when he got home. ‘It seems clear to me,’ Anton had told him, ‘that the king has a plan, and I think by now you know what it is. He has plotted to undermine the people’s faith in the constitution, and will be trying to replace it with the absolute rule he has in Thuringia, where there are neither a constitution, representation nor civil rights. You must stop him, Maxim, any way you can.’
Maxim watched the vineyards, fields and swelling hills of Champagne pass his carriage window, wondering just how he could do that.
The king had pushed the envelope of the constitution but had not yet broken it. In extreme circumstances, he could dismiss the government and dissolve parliament, but elections had to follow. So far this was what Maxim himself wanted. He could not, however, see the king stopping there. Albert was not planning to be the guardian of his nation’s civil liberty, but its assassin.
Maxim and Tomas changed trains at Nuremberg. It was late in the afternoon when the train for Strelsau approached the border at Mittenheim. Unexpectedly, it lurched to a halt at a small station on the Bavarian side of the frontier. There was sudden silence, a hiss of steam from the engine further up the track and a surge of chatter in the compartments. A detachment of soldiers in Bavarian light blue was drawn up outside while their officers boarded the train.
Maxim was peering through the window when a hand gripped his shoulder. It belonged to Tomas Zygner, who hissed urgently, ‘Sir, you must come with me now. Bring your bag.’
‘What is it, Tomas?’
‘Please, sir, there is not much time.’
Wondering at his own complaisance, Maxim followed Tomas into the corridor and down on to the track on the side of the train opposite the soldiers. Tomas briskly led him to shelter at the rear of a workmen’s hut. There were woods on the other side.
‘Tomas, I think I need an explanation.’
‘Yes, sir. The troops are here to arrest you, sir. The Ruritanian border has been sealed, and martial law declared in Zenden and Hofbau. The German government is doing its best to back Albert by taking you out of the running at this time, which would help him a lot. If you had stayed aboard, I rather fear you would have ended up in a prison cell in Ernsthof, perhaps never to be seen again.’
‘How do you know this?’ Maxim was suddenly aware that Tomas’s whole method of expression had changed.
‘When we stopped at Nuremberg, I was in touch with my colleagues to receive information and instructions.’
‘I’m a member of the intelligence bureau, sir. I was assigned to your protection last year.’
‘So you were not a simple guardsman before you became my valet.’
‘I was a guardsman, sir, though as you say, not a simple one. I was an under-lieutenant before I was seconded to the intelligence services.’
‘Is your name Zygner?’
‘No sir, it is Bernenstein.’
‘You mean … ?’
‘He is my grandfather, sir.’
‘Well I never! Weren’t you afraid one of my colleagues might recognize you and mention it to me?’
‘Not really, sir. Hardly anyone in Strelsau knows me, and I was always very careful to keep my head low. Besides, most people only see what they expect to see.’
Hmm, Maxim pondered ruefully to himself, Tomas is a much more subtle intelligence agent than I was. ‘So, what now, my friend?’
‘I think we must get away from this train. They know you are on it, though I doubt they know what you look like. They have to identify you from your papers. We are about five miles from the Mittenheim frontier. We need to cross into Ruritania and get you to the capital. Are you ready for a long walk, sir?’
‘Lead on, Tomas.’
They crept into the woodland beyond the station. A brisk walk brought them out on to a country road leading eastward. It was well into the summer now, so the sun was still quite high in the sky, throwing their shadows in front of them. Tomas cut sticks from a hedgerow, so at first sight they looked like ramblers. The road kept on towards the frontier.
They didn’t speak much, until Tomas let out an exclamation. ‘Ah yes! I know where we are. My family’s from Mittenheim, sir.’ He pointed to a hill. ‘Behind it is the valley of the little river Windenshoek, with a bridge and a small village at the border crossing. If we go north here where the road turns uphill, we’ll come to deep woodland which covers the upper part of the valley. We can wade the stream above the bridge.’
They followed his plan, managing to cross the Windenshoek dry shod by hopping from one flat rock to another. Once on the other side of the frontier, they breathed a bit easier.
Making their way down to the Ruritanian border post, painted red, black and white with the national tricolour flying above it, they observed few troops. On the Bavarian side, however, a whole company seemed to be deployed.
‘Will we be safe now?’
Tomas frowned. ‘I don’t know, sir. We need to get to the station at Mittenheim, and that’s twenty miles from here.’
‘I hope you’re not suggesting we walk.’
‘Oh no, sir.’ The young man laughed. ‘I wonder if we can hire a trap?’
They walked into the village. People seemed relaxed, and the detachment of troops guarding the border were clearly not on alert. The lieutenant in charge had heard nothing of the border’s being closed, though he said he knew the army had been called out in the disturbances in Hofbau. He obligingly recommended a local farmer who had a dogcart for hire, suggesting they stay the night there as the man also offered accommodation.
The next morning found them trotting through the flower-filled summer lanes of Ruritania. Maxim took the reins, as he had more experience of country life.
‘I’m very much a city boy,’ laughed Tomas. He had shed his persona as a valet, and assumed that of a pleasant young aristocrat and companion.
‘I don’t suppose you’ll be going back to the life of my valet, Tomas?’
‘Probably not, sir. But d’you know? I find it very difficult to call you Max. Isn’t that strange?’
‘Very odd indeed.’
It was late morning when they reached the small city of Mittenheim on its hill, at the very top of which stood the cathedral, its onion domes like those of the churches of Austria and Bavaria shining with gold leaf. They left the cart by arrangement at an inn outside the medieval walls and, after a light lunch, walked to the station. There they discovered more police on duty than one would normally expect.
At the news kiosk, Maxim was startled to find only the Strelsener Deutscheszeitung on sale. When he asked the proprietor, he was told that none of the other periodicals had appeared from the capital that morning.
Their papers were examined closely as they embarked on the express to Strelsau. The result was an encouraging level of deference on the part of the police and railway workers. The stationmaster himself promptly took Maxim’s bag to the train, then saluted him as he climbed up into the first-class carriage.
Taking a seat next to Maxim, Tomas grinned broadly, saying, ‘I got tired of travelling third class, believe me. Those bare wooden seats are a trial, and I felt silly carrying a cushion around with me all the time.’
The train jerked, then pulled off slowly towards Strelsau. There was only one stop, at Festenburg Junction, where both Tomas and Maxim pressed close to the window as the train drew up. A battalion of infantry was entraining on the opposite platform.
‘They’ll be going south to Zenden. That’s where the worst trouble is. Things seem to be getting no better.’
The König-Rudolfs-Bahnhof at Strelsau seemed unusually quiet, the cancellation of all trains to Germany undoubtedly explaining the lack of people on the concourse and platforms. Police swarmed at the barriers, although Maxim’s papers produced the usual effect: policemen stiffened to attention and saluted. The lieutenant on the gate even asked Maxim if he had any news of events. Maxim regretfully had to disappoint him.
Tomas pointed out a waiting car. He introduced the occupants, all young men. Their leader, a Captain Sachert, announced they were to take Maxim safely to the Osraeum, where they were detailed to help secure the house.
Maxim was rather relieved to be home. Before he even thought of contacting them, his associates began turning up as news of his return spread. A group of them stood together in the reception room, looking out on the gardens and the hill of Starel Heights rising across the river.
Prince Ostberg graciously acknowledged his mistake in pursuing their confrontation with Oexle’s government. ‘I should have listened. Yet again we have played into the king’s hand. Now Oexle has served his purpose and has been discarded. This is a different game. The king is having his moment of popularity and is using it to the full. He has no authority to order resumption of payments to salaried officials, yet he has done so, and he has been obeyed.
‘The Reichsräthe should have assumed power until the elections, once the parliament was dissolved. Unfortunately, on the day of the dissolution, the king called the civil servant heads to the palace and directed them to take instructions from his own privy council, not the Staatsrath. Once again he was obeyed. In effect, the constitution has been suspended, though he claims he will announce a new date for elections.
‘This morning, police acting under his orders closed the parliament buildings and also the printing shops of those newspapers which were unsympathetic to him. He claims he has closed the parliament to investigate corruption charges against the Oexle government. The newspapers were closed under alleged licence violations. This is becoming a political coup.’
Maxim brooded while the prince was describing the state of affairs. ‘If that is so, he needs to be assured of the army’s neutrality. What do we know of the attitude of the forces?’
General Bernenstein answered him. ‘The general staff has of course been compromised already. It will offer no concerted opposition. I saw General Tasicz yesterday. He just wrung his hands and said the civilians have to sort this crisis out. He was a soldier who obeyed orders. If the minister of war and the parliament could not give him instructions, he was duty bound to follow the king’s.’
‘What about the regiments?’
‘They too are doing what they are told. Troops moved into Hofbau and Zenden at the king’s command to quell the demonstrations. Fortunately, there were no shootings. The people were not violent, only fearful and confused.’
‘What will happen now?’
Ostberg shook his head. ‘Now the king will consolidate his position. He has suspended the constitution and set up his own machinery of government. I would guess he may spend a couple of months pretending this is only an emergency measure. There will be promises of elections, perpetually postponed, while he takes more and more power into his own hands.
‘As soon as he is confident of himself, he will move against you, excellency – you, us and everyone he can identify as an Elphberg supporter.’
Maxim turned from the window. His dark eyes glittered. ‘Then the time is come to resist. This may not be the best moment to do so; we are not strong and the people are not with us. Nonetheless, if our country is to keep its place amongst the free nations, this murdering tyrant must fall. We will move to Hentzau and gather our strength. It may be that, the next time I see Strelsau, I will be its king. Then again, I may be a prisoner brought to execution at the Arsenal.’
Bernenstein’s old eyes flashed under his white brows. ‘Long live the king! My God, how long I have waited to say that to an Elphberg, your majesty!’
It took a while for Maxim to realise that the remark had been addressed to him.
Maxim delayed his departure from the capital as long as he dared. The secret service had mobilised to deal with the crisis for which it had long prepared. It answered now only to Count Bernenstein. Armed agents watched the doors of the Osraeum, and created a guard room in the butler’s pantry. They were full of their own plans and were straining at the leash.
Tomas Bernenstein put it this way to Maxim that afternoon. ‘Sir, is this an insurgency or not? You have declared war on the Thuringian usurper. So let there be war!’
‘Then let no innocent parties suffer for it while they can be spared.’
Tomas grinned. ‘As you command.’
Maxim awoke that night when his bedroom windows rattled with a distant concussion. His bedroom faced the garden at the back of the Osraeum. He went to the window rubbing his eyes. Pulling back the drapes, he saw a red glow in the sky to the south of the Neustadt.
He returned to his bed to lie restless for a while before finally drifting off. He eventually awoke when the maid brought in his hot water. He felt as though he had not slept at all.
The breakfast room was empty when he entered. He rang for his butler and asked for Tomas to be called. The look on the man’s face at the mention of the former valet was an education. Tomas knocked on the door and gave the Rothenian bow as he came in.
Maxim was intrigued to hear the answer to the question he had in mind. ‘So what was it that you did, Tomas?’
‘I would have suggested you look in the paper, sir, but unfortunately there will be none. The print works of the Strelsener Deutscheszeitung burned down last night.’
‘And no one was hurt?’
‘No sir, though the firemen were a little singed. Apparently they suspect arson.’
‘How safe is it for me to cross the river today, Tomas?’
‘Although Captain Sachert says you must be escorted, sir, he didn’t say you couldn’t go out.’
‘In that case, have a car ready in an hour.’
‘Where will you be going, sir?’
The little house on Starel Heights was in its summer plumage. The garden had been filled with flowers. It was all too feminine an environment for Antonia, Maxim thought. His guards took up position around him as he ascended the drive. Once they saw him safely admitted to the house, they returned to the car.
A ring at the bell brought the same cheeky teenage page, who took a tip with Maxim’s card as if he believed it to be his right.
Antonia was lying on a sofa. She was in the final uncomfortable stages of her pregnancy, her swollen feet propped on a pillow. ‘I’m not getting up, Max.’
‘I didn’t expect you to. Poor Toni. Is it so bad?’
‘I can’t tell you. I was certain there was a reason to avoid pregnancy, and now I know what it was. My back aches, I am in a perpetual state of flatulence and that child is trying to kick its way out of me. It is a boy.’
‘You can’t know that.’
‘It kicks so much, it could be nothing else. The doctors say it is an old wives’ tale, but believe me, they’re not women. They know nothing.’
‘Where are all your admirers?’
‘Pregnancy drives men away, Max. They’re afraid I may want to talk about bodily processes. Women hate me, of course.’
Maxim abruptly introduced the subject he wanted to talk about. ‘I saw your father in Paris.’
Antonia looked up at him through her lashes. ‘How was he?’
‘Leaner, but in good spirits, I think. He’s not coming back to Ruritania.’
Antonia looked down. ‘A pity. It would have been nice to see him. I have not heard from him since he was in Peking. Where is he going?’
‘He and your godfather are embarking on a Mediterranean cruise just about now, I believe.’
‘Are they … happy?’
‘Yes, they are. Like two boys.’
‘I don’t know how you can be so blasé about men having romances with other men. It’s so unnatural.’
‘For a small moment there, Toni, I thought you would be quoting scripture at me.’ He smiled at the sour look on her face. ‘In England, when boys go to school, they quite often fall in love with other boys. Some grow out of it, some don’t. Some prefer it that way. Something that universal can’t be unnatural. God knows, I had my admirers at Medwardine. It was so much a part of my life that I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. It hurt no one then, and your father isn’t hurting anyone now.’
‘It seems so … wrong. I’m sorry, Max.’
‘I understand. Fancy your father being the unconventional one in the family after all.’
‘I’m glad you’re amused.’
‘Are you being cared for?’
‘Oh yes. The royal physician comes every other day. Albert has been away, of course, but he was here yesterday.’
‘Are you aware of what’s going on outside.’
Antonia looked shifty. ‘Albert said the country is falling apart, with the nobility trying to seize power over the heads of the elected parliament. He’s trying to preserve the constitution.’
‘An interesting view on things. I’m glad you’re as comfortable as can be expected. I am going down into the country soon. I doubt I’ll be back for the birth of the young … prince. I just wanted to give you my best wishes for a safe delivery, Toni.’
She seemed a little touched. Perhaps it was the pregnancy making her more emotional and less independent than was usual with her. He leaned over to kiss her, and straightened to find the king of Ruritania looking startled in the doorway.
Maxim collected himself first. He gave a profound bow. ‘My dear cousin.’
The king merely nodded, then addressed Antonia. ‘What is he doing here?’
She looked nettled, as well as a little nervous, which for Maxim was a new expression on her face. ‘He has seen my father in Paris, and came with news.’
Maxim found himself quite equal to this unexpected interview. ‘Of course, sir, you might not have expected to see me back in Strelsau again.’
Maxim was swept by a cold look. ‘What are you implying?’
‘Your friends in Wilhelmstrasse made a second attempt to take me out of the game. But I’m afraid they were no more successful than your late acquaintance, Frederick von Eschenbach, or Klassen, or whatever you want to call him.’
‘You are delusional.’
‘Oh, I don’t think so, Albert.’
‘Only my equal and friend may call me that, and you are neither.’
‘That is true. I know you for what you are, a murderer and a felon. You are certainly not my equal, and just as certainly not my friend.’ Suddenly something swelled in Maxim’s heart, the spirit of his Elphberg ancestors, he later thought. ‘Your days in this land are closely numbered, you German villain. I will drive you from the bounds of my kingdom, and the next time we meet, it will be when I call you to account for the lives you have blighted, the wrongs you have done!
‘Augustus Underwood once had you at his mercy and let you go, because he would not be a murderer for your sake. But I am the true king of this land, and death from my hand is justice, not murder.’
Something was revealed in Maxim in that place and at that time that caused even Albert of Thuringia to recoil. He reflexively groped in his pocket – for a weapon, Maxim assumed. He wondered if the king had brought guards with him, and if so, where they might be.
‘Good day, cousin. Till the next time. I look forward to it.’
He walked coolly out the door, although the back of his neck was prickling at the thought that Albert might have a pistol in his coat. As he emerged into the front garden, he saw what must have been the king’s car, a tall enclosed Benz machine, parked further along the road. There were two men in the front, a driver and a guard, he imagined. His own car was already ticking over and his men peering back, clearly as astonished as he was at their encounter with the king.
As Maxim climbed in, Sachert said, ‘Sir, the man is at our mercy here.’
‘No, captain, his guard will be armed too. How would it look for our cause if we were revealed as nothing better than assassins or kidnappers? That’s not the way to defeat Albert. He must be revealed for what he is before people will accept me as their true king. Drive back to the Osraeum. It’s time to move on, now I have openly declared myself.’
Hentzau felt for once like a castle. A squad of Bernenstein’s Boys, as Maxim began to call them in his head, played the part of a garrison. They openly carried rifles slung over their shoulders while they walked the walls and grounds. He asked Sachert what good they would be if a determined effort was made to seize him. The captain shook his head, saying the point was to anticipate the king’s move, not foil it. Maxim was not sure what to make of that remark. He noticed that several of the makeshift garrison were patrolling around the estate on horseback.
A number of Maxim’s advisers left the capital to join him. Prince Ostberg was the chief of them; Horowicz said he would stay on in Strelsau for as long as he could be useful there. Bernenstein and Franz von Tarlenheim were the most useful additions at that point. They formed an ad-hoc general staff, and were clearly enjoying themselves immensely. They had taken over Gus’s old study, covering a wall with a map of the country on which red lines and boxes marking the current dispositions of the army. They had long conversations about the likely attitude of the army’s field-officer corps when it came to a crisis.
‘And when is the crisis going to come?’ Maxim asked.
The two generals shrugged, saying that was politics and not war. A soldier would go out and take the war to the enemy. A politician had to wait for an opportunity to come and then take advantage of it.
On the first day of July 1910, Maxim’s opportunity came, although it was a while before he realised it. He was summoned down to his study for a call from the capital. It was Osku shouting down the phone.
‘Can you hear the bells, Max?’
‘All I can hear is you shouting, and it’s making my ears ring.’
Maxim did. He heard the tinny and distant sound of the church bells of Strelsau ringing out together, though it was a Friday. Then Osku’s excited voice was back. ‘She had the baby last night. It’s a healthy boy. They fired a royal salute in the park. Listen to this! The bulletin on the palace gate calls him the duke of Mittenheim and a royal highness … and you know what that means.’
Maxim did. It seemed the king was jumping the gun. He was all but demanding that the nation recognise his illegitimate male child as his heir. Maxim’s own father had failed to become king on the grounds of his illegitimate descent, Maxim realised very well that the king was demanding more of his people than they might be willing to give, even though he was not of their faith.
‘He was not announced as crown prince?’
‘So Albert’s not gone quite over the edge yet. There’s still a chance for him to draw back. What’s the boy’s name?’
‘Leopold Wilhelm Ernst Albert von Thuringen.’
‘That is a pity. I had hoped room could be found for Augustus in there too, but he’s going to be a proper little Thuringian. Is there any news about Antonia?’
‘The bulletin said Countess Rechtenberg was resting comfortably.’
‘Be back in touch when you hear any more, Osku. And thank you for ringing.’
Maxim walked out into the courtyard and through the main gate. He looked down into the picturesque little town of Hentzau, his own town, the towers of the abbey of St James and the parish church blue in morning sunlight. He recognised the mayor’s carriage coming up the castle approach. He met it by the lodge gate, taking off his hat politely.
‘Excellency, I’m so glad you’re here. Have you heard the news from the capital, about the king’s … son?’ The hesitation spoke volumes about how the news would be met in conservative and Catholic Rothenia, outside the capital and Mittenheim.
‘Yes, I had a phone call just now about it. How can I help you, Herr Jarom?’
‘The abbot and I are concerned as to how to mark it. If it were a legitimate prince then there would be no difficulty, of course, but this is … not to put too fine a point on it … er, the king’s bastard.’ He flushed red, for he knew the facts of Maxim’s ancestry.
‘I see your difficulty. Has the governor of Husbrau been in touch?’
‘No … we have had no guidance. Even had he commanded celebrations, I really don’t think we would have done what the capital is doing. It is rather shocking, and I am surprised at his eminence for permitting it.’
Maxim was trying not to smile. It looked as though Albert had failed to appreciate how the people in general would greet the news of his son’s birth.
‘I’m afraid the boy has been named duke of Mittenheim and royal highness.’
‘What? Oh, heavens! That just makes things worse … the duke of Mittenheim …’
‘… is a title usually given to the crown prince, yes.’
‘What shall I do, excellency?’
‘Nothing, is my advice, Herr Jarom. Do nothing.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right, it’s good to have your opinion, thank you. It’s just that it seems so disrespectful towards his majesty. I am surprised he has made such a performance over the birth of a natural child … it’s not the thing in our country, not even in the twentieth century. Duke of Mittenheim indeed … my goodness!’
And the mayor was off, leaving Maxim behind him, a small smile playing about his lips.
He went inside to seek out the two generals. He found them in their war room with Prince Ostberg. Tobacco smoke was already thick in the room.
‘It seems pretty clear to me,’ mused the prince. ‘He is going to declare the boy legitimate by proclamation. The Church will not agree, though that will be of no weight with him. A parliament might have been got to pass a resolution sanctioning his plan for the succession, but there is no parliament. At last he is making mistakes.’
‘And what will the people think?’
‘Outside Strelsau? They will not like it at all. They will remember that King Leopold only got the throne because your father was ruled ineligible by his ancestor’s illegitimacy. Now Leopold’s nephew wants his own illegitimate son to be king after him. I am surprised there were celebrations in the capital.’
Bernenstein interrupted. ‘Our people have reported that the police hauled out the cathedral bell captain and his son from their beds and ordered them to begin the carillon. The other towers followed, since they thought the cardinal archbishop had sanctioned it.’
Ostberg looked reflective. ‘Of course, in one way this will be helpful to you, sir. By doing all this, Albert has in effect declared that illegitimacy is no bar to the throne. Your claim is now much stronger than his, and he himself has recognised it. I imagine he has done it in expectation of your premature death.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Maxim. ‘That is exactly what he plans. It’s just a matter of how and when he tries to carry it out.’
There were several consequences of Prince Leopold’s birth. The first was that a number of MPs from the right wing of the Christian Democrat and the Catholic Workers parties arrived in a deputation accompanied by Horowicz. Ostberg and Maxim received them in the castle’s reception room.
Their leader addressed Maxim directly. ‘Sir, you will be aware that the king has declared his son to be legitimate, and so his heir, even though as yet he has not named the boy crown prince.’
Maxim nodded. ‘This is known to me, gentlemen. What do you want from me, however?’
‘Sir, your father of blessed memory was denied the throne, for all his evident suitability and for all the great queen Flavia’s pleas, because he was descended from a bastard Elphberg. The Thuringian king has just made nonsense of that decision of 1880. We are deeply concerned at this turn of events. That fool Oexle sold us down the river. Before things get even worse, we have come to pledge the support of our parties to you, sir.’
‘To me? In what way?’
‘Sir. You should be our king, not the Thuringian hypocrite. We are ready to propose his deposition.’
‘The problem, gentlemen, is that there is nowhere you can make your proposal. Parliament has been dissolved and I do not believe Albert intends for elections to be held until he is ready, which may be a long time in the future. Your proposal is welcome. I wish to be king. But the only way now to dispossess Albert is by armed rebellion. Are you ready to pledge yourselves to insurrection and civil war?’
The MPs looked uneasily at each other. That was one step too far, nor was Maxim going to push them into it. But the time had come for one revelation now, he was sure. He asked them to wait and took the side door to the back parlour. When he returned, he carried an object shrouded in a purple silk handkerchief. The gathering looked at him curiously.
‘Gentlemen, I have to thank you for your support. The time will soon come when you have a difficult decision to make. When it comes, I offer you this as a sign that you must make a stand for the house of Elphberg.’ Maxim removed the handkerchief to a collective gasp. There, glittering on the table, lay the Crown of Tassilo.
A long silence followed. Maxim was so hypnotised by the beauty of the crown of his kingdom that he missed the first rustle of movement. When he looked up, his heart leaped. As one, the men had fallen to their knees in front of him.
‘Long live the king,’ cried Prince Ostberg.
‘Long live Maxim, pious and steadfast king of Rothenia,’ chorused General Bernenstein.
‘Amen,’ echoed the MPs, with manifest earnestness.
‘He’s in too much of a hurry. He’s making bad mistakes.’ Maxim and the prince of Tarlenheim were riding slowly along the sandy paths of the Hentzenheide. The prince continued, ‘He must have been planning his takeover of power for years, and how he would deal with the political establishment. He played a clever opening game, very clever indeed. He ran rings around us, and nearly finished you off for good measure.
‘Then there was the affair with Antonia. Brilliant improvisation and a further slash at us. But recently, he’s improvising more and more as circumstances present him with opportunities. He’s impatient, becoming reckless. He seems to be convinced, like others of his sort, that Fate is working for him, and that he cannot put a foot wrong. But it’s misleading him.
‘This business of his son is exactly what I mean. He is intoxicated with the possibility of continuing his dynasty, despite the difficulties of the boy’s illegitimacy. So he pushes ahead regardless. Taking Antonia as his mistress did him no harm with the ordinary people and the middle classes. Rothenians like their monarch to be a little racy. They didn’t even mind a child turning up. It wouldn’t have been the first in our history by any means. But then he pushed it too far. The people are not fools. They remember your father, and how he was robbed of the crown by the cardinal’s scruples about bastardy. They are as Catholic now as they were then. They lost one good king because of the demands of their faith. Now the king they were saddled with tells them that the scruples which gained him the throne are meaningless to him.’
‘Is there any sign that he has realised his error?’
‘Hardly. He trusts no adviser other than the German foreign office. No one has any influence with him.’
‘Not even Antonia, poor woman. How is she?’
‘Doing very well, up and about. She was seen in her carriage in the Volksgarten the day before yesterday. The baby is being nursed, I gather … well what would you expect?’
He paused and added, ‘Now here’s an odd thing.’
‘Well, I don’t know if you’ve been following events other than the constitutional crisis, but the congress of the Second International is being allowed to go ahead in the capital.’
‘Is that some evidence of Antonia’s influence after all?’
‘I wonder. But in view of what I’ve just been saying, Max, you have to speculate as to whether there is some deeper game going on here.’
‘Is the capital restless?’
‘Not on the surface. When you talk to people, though, there is a lot of uneasiness. The Rothenian press is still being prevented from publishing on various specious grounds. The Strelsener Deutscheszeitung is back on the stalls, and more rabidly pro-German than ever. The people are sitting quietly, hoping for some sign or crisis which will tell them what is really going on. They don’t know what we know. They may remember the king has a shady past, but that was years ago. Now he’s almost an old man.’
They rode on over the heath in silence. It was a fresh July day, with small white clouds rushing across the deep blue sky, their shadows racing behind them over the pattern of hills and fields. Maxim had now been at Hentzau a fortnight, waiting for some new event of note that had not yet happened. Although martial law had been lifted in Zenden and Hofbau, there had still been no move to call elections. Everyone was watching and waiting.
At first, Maxim did the same. As his boredom grew, however, the astute politician in him awoke once more.
‘Franz, if anything is going to happen, it will happen in the capital.’
‘Yes, you’re right.’
‘I should be there, not here.’
‘No, sir. You should be here. The capital is full of German and Thuringian agents. You would be at great risk, and there is little you could do to influence events.’
‘There you are wrong. The political community, or what’s left of it, is in the capital. I need to rally them, to talk to the various party leaders, particularly Marcus Tildemann. I have to know what they’re thinking before the storm erupts. I must convince them there is an alternative in the house of Elphberg.’
Maxim spurred his horse on, cantering all the way back to the castle. Captain Sachert was not at all happy with Maxim’s plan, but neither of the generals was at Hentzau, and Maxim could not be denied. In the end, Sachert agreed that Maxim should take his beloved Mercedes, currently languishing in the castle barn, and travel unobtrusively with Tomas Bernenstein. He was also to promise not to go near the Osraeum, but to stay somewhere obscure.
Maxim rang up Osku and begged the use of his spare bed. Tomas would stay with his parents in the Sixth District. Swathed in long buff dusters and wearing goggles against the road grit, the two young men were anonymous figures as they motored across the Arsenalsbrücke and took the steep slope up into the warren of the Third District.
They found the usual traffic jam when they reached the multiple crossing point where König Heinrichstrasse met Gildenfahrbsweg. A dray had spilled its load and a long queue of motor and horse traffic tailed back down the hill.
‘Take the Fleichergasse turn when we get level with it,’ suggested Tomas. ‘You can join the Weg further south and get on to Festungstrasse, the traffic’s always lighter there.’
Maxim duly executed the required manoeuvre to join a slightly less sluggish queue that eventually brought them on to Gildenfahrbsweg. As the car reached Festungstrasse, they slowly passed the Humanist and Free Thinkers Institute, a very large modern brick pile, whose open doors were thronged. Great red banners were draped from the tall upper windows, proclaiming THE EIGHTH CONFERENCE OF THE SOCIALIST SECOND INTERNATIONAL in alternate Rothenian and German. Other banners called for an ‘International Women’s Day’. It all looked very festive and cheerful, with lots of delegates wearing red sashes, the women with red carnations in their straw hats.
Maxim pulled on to the broad spaces of Festungstrasse, then sped round the ring road to Lindenstrasse, where he dropped Tomas off to get a tram to his parents’ home. He himself turned east and found his way to Osragasse, where he parked outside Osku’s apartment. His friend was in and gave him a warm Rothenian hug as he emerged from the lift.
They sat in the breeze coming in above the city roofs through the apartment’s wide-flung windows, sipping drinks chilled by a French ice-making machine Osku had bought in his new prosperity. ‘Paul and Helga will be over in half an hour. I thought we’d go down to the Café Jednorosecz for old time’s sake. Helga loves city living after being stuck out in Templerstadt for so many years. She can’t get used to all the amenities and the availability of domestic staff.’
‘You know I’m supposed to be keeping under cover here, Osku.’
‘Yes, yes. But no one’s suggesting we go to Ribauds or anywhere on the Graben. Stracenzstrasse is for lawyers and the fashionable middle classes …’ he looked at his friend over the rim of the glass, ‘… for us and the king, of course.’
Maxim smiled. ‘News is spreading.’
‘The rumour is that the Crown of Tassilo has been seen again, and those of a superstitious turn of mind – which means most Rothenians – are saying it heralds the return of an Elphberg.’
‘The crisis is coming, Osku. When it does, I will not be backward in claiming my inheritance.’
‘As I thought. Well, I’m with you, Max old fellow, you know that. But I fully agree with you about the danger of the times. Why else would the true king of Rothenia be hiding out in my humble flat?’
‘Yes, there are dangers. A young man by the name of Tomas Bernenstein will be joining our table tonight. He’s my bodyguard. I was only allowed to come here if I brought him too. He’s a fine fellow, Count Bernenstein’s grandson, you’ll like him. I have hopes of marrying him off to one of my sisters. He would suit Kate down to the ground, once she’s got over the count of Kesarstein.’
Maxim reflected that it was business as usual – in the Fourth District, at least. The cafés were full and the talk as free and political as ever.
Paul arrived late with Helga to join their table. After the formal Rothenian greetings, Paul excused their delay. ‘The police and troops were putting up barriers in the Rudolphs Platz.’
‘What?’ Maxim was suddenly alert.
‘Word has got around that there is to be a demonstration tomorrow morning associated with the socialist congress; a march to present petitions to the palace.’
‘It’s supposed to be a delegation about women’s rights or something,’ added Helge.
‘Ha!’ chortled Osku. ‘Then Toni’s behind it! Trying to be an influential courtesan, I imagine.’
Tomas Bernenstein arrived at that point, and shook hands around the table. Osku looked at him sharply. ‘Good God! I know you. You’re the valet, Zygner!’
Maxim laughed. ‘Yes, that was who he pretended to be. He was also my guardian angel and saved me from arrest in Bavaria.’
His friends looked inquiringly at him, so he was obliged to spend a good part of the next hour describing his visit to Paris and adventurous return, about which he found he could be very funny. Tomas in turn was also quite amusing – indeed risqué – concerning life in the servants’ quarters of Parisian hotels.
It was a cheerful dinner, which much soothed Maxim’s recent discontent at his enforced isolation at Hentzau.
He and Osku left at about ten and headed home. As they went, Maxim noticed a lot of red posters pasted on lampposts and doors. He ripped one down in passing. When they had returned to the flat and Osku was brewing a tea, Maxim studied the handbill. It was in Rothenian:
PEOPLE OF STRELZEN
You have never in the past failed to
stand up for FREEDOM.
Our parliament is suspended.
Come to the Rodolferplaz tomorrow.
Let us ask our KING for elections!
Osku craned over for a look. ‘Does it say who issued it?’
‘No, it doesn’t. Although it looks like the work of the SDPR.’
‘It doesn’t mention Professor Tildemann.’
‘No, but it is printed on red paper. Do you know, I really don’t like the look of this. Tomorrow, the police are expecting a small procession of ladies who would prefer they ruled the world rather than men …’
‘… and they may have a point.’
‘Exactly. But someone is planning to ride piggyback on that event. This is no time for such a demonstration, however peaceful. It’s very worrying.’
‘We can’t do much about it tonight, old fellow. Tell me how you thought Helga was looking, because I have a feeling I may soon become an uncle for the first time in my life.’
Next morning, Maxim was up early, nursing a coffee, when Tomas arrived. Osku came from his bedroom in his nightshirt, scratching himself and yawning. ‘Are you going out at this ungodly hour? Where are my glasses? What hour is it anyway? My God! It is only seven. I am never up at seven.’
‘Sorry Osku, I have to see what’s going on. I’ll find you at your office for lunch.’
Maxim and Tomas took the short walk to the Rudolphs Platz. They breakfasted from a stall while observing what was taking place. At half past seven in the morning, very little was happening, although there was already a police presence. The red posters were everywhere.
At eight, Maxim led Tomas across the square to Leuwen Pasacz. The lift delivered them to his former office, and though Paul was not there, Maxim still had his key and let them in. They took up positions in the windows, enjoying the view across the square to the Salvatorskirk opposite. The church’s clock struck nine before a scratch in the lock of the door heralded Paul’s arrival.
He dropped his briefcase when he saw his office occupied. ‘For heaven’s sake! You might have warned me, Max!’
‘Apologies, old chap. But we needed a good view of today’s demonstration.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind. I was going to do the same myself. It’ll be good to have company. Hang on a second. I have a camera, since I thought it might be a good idea to have a pictorial record of whatever went on.’
They were sipping their second coffee before anything began happening. Paul pointed. ‘Look up there, on the northwestern corner where Brückestrasse opens into the square. Cavalry in green, it’s a squadron, no … a regiment of dragoons. They’re drawn up along the Hofgarten wall.’
Maxim squinted. ‘There’s some preparation going on: soldiers, as well as police.’
There was the distant echoing sound of a marching band. Paul craned out the open window and looked down through the trees opposite to the wide entry of the Graben, at the southwestern corner of the square. ‘I can see banners. It’s the demonstrators.’
It was quite a while before the trees allowed them a glimpse of what sort of demonstration the SDPR had managed to raise. Thousands of respectable black-suited men and flower-hatted women walked smiling into the square behind the band and lodge banners. Max glimpsed one or two children and many adolescent boys with the adults. It seemed that families were marching together. There were a few red sashes, but no red flags. Paul had set up his camera box and began taking exposures.
At the Ferdinands-Springbrunnen two hundred yards south of them, they could see Marcus Tildemann mount up on a makeshift rostrum erected in front of the fountain. Some ladies and gentlemen stood behind him. When he began speaking, Maxim was frustrated. He could catch the professor’s voice echoing back from the fronts of the buildings and see the silently attentive faces, but not make out what was being said. Ripples of applause punctuated the professor’s rhetoric, and when he finished there was a deep roar of appreciation. Other speakers followed.
The band struck up again with a rather jolly march. People formed up in an orderly column, arm in arm, with Tildemann and some ladies in the front rank. Promenading in almost a holiday fashion, the demonstrators proceeded slowly up the square.
Maxim pointed out to Paul a change in the police dispositions. A line of black uniforms had taken a position across the square in front of the statue of Henry the Lion. The column slowly converged on the police line and halted, opposite the Leuwen Pasacz directly below Maxim’s viewpoint. He noticed a lot of other faces in windows along the square. There was a sudden dead silence, in which Maxim heard the camera shutter next to him as Paul took another exposure.
A police captain spoke to Tildemann. Although Maxim could not make out what was said, the captain’s intention was obvious: The column was not to approach the palace. Tildemann’s reply, however, was clearly audible. ‘But why? We have the permission of the commandant. This is a peaceful petition! Let me see your warrant.’
The captain began blustering then, while the crowd behind Tildemann started crying out to be let through.
The police became increasingly agitated. One or two drew truncheons. Maxim could understand their nervousness. There was just one undisciplined line of them across the square to face down the thousands of Strelseners pressing up towards them. They, like Maxim, knew the volatility of the Strelsau mob.
The police were face to face with the crowd now, and what happened next was almost inevitable. Despite Tildeman’s outstretched and pacifying arms, a truncheon came up and struck at a demonstrator. Unfortunately, it hit a woman. Men leaped to wrestle with the policeman who had struck out. Sticks and fists flailed. Suddenly the police line broke, and the crowd pursued them up the square.
‘Oh God, no!’ gasped Maxim.
Dragoons trotted on to the square from the side streets, spreading into a line in front of the palace railings. Guardsmen in blue uniforms could be seen deploying behind them. The cavalrymen drew swords. Without warning, they surged towards the mob, which was now screaming and breaking. Swords flashed down and came up red.
Maxim turned, ashen-faced. ‘Tomas!’
‘You are armed?’
‘Then come with me, we must get to Tildemann.’
Maxim leaped for the door and, heart beating high, clattered down the stairs. When they ran out on to the square, the line of cavalry had already gone by, leaving huddled bundles of bodies to mark their passing. Maxim and Tomas raced down towards the great fountain. A group of boys were high amongst the sculpture. Others were throwing dislodged cobbles up to them, and they were pelting the milling dragoons with some accuracy. Maxim saw one soldier go down, and another ride at one of the boys, impaling him with his straight sword as he went past, heading straight for Maxim.
‘I understand, sire.’ A pistol crack went off loud next to Maxim and the cavalryman fell dead over the back of his horse, which bolted wildly up the square. The shot was missed in the noise of screaming and shattering glass.
‘There he is!’ Tildemann was with a group of cowering women and elderly men in a doorway.
‘Marcus!’ The professor looked over at Maxim astonished. ‘You will come with me, and quickly!’
‘But these poor people!’
‘Tomas, shoot the lock off that shop door!’
He obliged, then kicked the door in and pushed the people inside for shelter.
Maxim and Tomas each took an arm of the stricken politician, dragging him back up the square to the Leuwen Pasacz. They bundled him into the building, where Maxim told Tomas to take him upstairs to Paul.
He himself stood in the arch of the pasacz. ‘You!’ he ordered the gaping concierges. ‘Get towels and water, something that can be used as bandages. Move!’ They ran, to obey him, he hoped.
Two priests from the Salvatorskirk were already out in the square among the fallen, the sexton with them waving a white cloth. They were kneeling next to the scattered bodies, saying the last rites to the dead and dying, of whom there were all too many. But it was the living that concerned Maxim.
Guardsmen, looking as horrified as he was, were walking down the square, splashed now with dark puddles of blood. A captain stood stunned, his sword drooping at his side.
‘You, officer!’ Maxim called out, his Elphberg spirit now fully roused.
The young man looked up at him. Maxim gave him no chance to react. ‘Do you know me?’
The captain focussed. ‘Yes … excellency.’
‘Then get your men to help these poor people. Some are alive, and may stay so if you act. Find stretchers, man! Requisition cabs and get them to the infirmary. You may yet have a chance to repair some of the damage your men have done to your fellow citizens.’
Coming out of his nightmare, the captain snapped at sergeants, who in turn began bawling at the men. Some ran to the guards barracks, and within minutes the rescue was beginning.
Maxim stood next to the captain, as he supervised the work of mercy. ‘How did this happen? This was a peaceful petition.’
‘I don’t know, sir. General Meyer went in to the king at dawn. More troops were moved up, but no more than the one squad of police. It was almost as if they wanted this to get out of hand.’
Maxim looked over to the devastated officer next to him. He put his hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘They did, captain, believe me … they did.’