MAXIM ELPHBERG - XIV
Professor Tildemann sat mute on the sofa of Festungstrasse 445, nursing a cup of cocoa. Since Paul and Maxim had smuggled him through the back lanes of the Fourth District to Paul’s home, he had barely spoken. Maxim could imagine why. The huddled bodies of men, women and children that littered the Rudolphs Platz weighed on the man’s tender conscience.
It was by then afternoon, the streets as full of police as the Rudolphs Platz had been empty of them during the demonstration. It took little imagination to work out what would happen next. The liberal leaders of parliament would be rounded up and socialist organisations banned. Professor Tildemann was on the run.
Paul came off the phone. ‘Steele at the embassy told me that Horowicz and several others have been arrested – and listen to this, the police took them into custody before the demonstration in Rudolphs Platz. You need no more evidence that this was all planned.’
Maxim was almost trembling with suppressed rage. He was angry for his people. ‘Tomas?’
‘Which regiment of dragoons was responsible for the massacre?’
‘They were the 5th sir, the dragoons of Ebersfeld. I don’t know the name of their commander.’
‘I shall take great pleasure in breaking him, as soon as it is in my power.’
‘Sir, it is my duty to tell you that we must leave the capital, and get back to Hentzau. It is not safe here. You were seen and recognised, helping the people in the Rudolphs Platz. The police will be looking for you, too, once the palace hears you are in the city.’
‘Thank you, Tomas. We will move tonight, and I am open to suggestions as to how. The railways will be closed down and the roads out of the capital watched. Also, the professor here must come with us.’
Helga came up to Maxim as he stared out over the treetops to Bila Palacz and the parliament buildings beyond. She put her arm round his waist and her head on his shoulder. Despite the situation, he had to struggle hard not to find this arousing.
‘You’re in danger here, Max.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘It was a terrible thing you witnessed today, a horrible thing. But you did something that people will remember. You were their king today. Tomas said you were as though possessed by your ancestors. People took one look at your face and ran to obey you. And the righteous anger when you had him execute that trooper who killed the unarmed boy. It was Henry the Lion come again.’
‘Yes, well, even Henry the Lion would have had problems dealing with Albert of Thuringia and Toni Underwood.’
‘Stay under cover here, Max. I know you want to be out there doing things, but it’s too dangerous now.’
The danger became more obvious as the afternoon progressed. They watched squadrons of cavalry canter south along Festungstrasse. There was an acrid tang to the air; a building was burning not too far away. The telephone went dead while Steele at the embassy was telling Paul of columns of smoke rising over the Third and Fifth districts.
Osku came around not long after six. The streets of the Fourth District were empty, he reported, with shops and cafés closed. There were rumours that a mob had attempted to storm the Arsenal, and proclamations were posted declaring martial law in the capital. He’d had to avoid several patrols of soldiers enforcing a curfew.
‘You must go out of the city through Bila Palacz. If you can safely cross the ring road, you should be clear. I have a clerk who lives out on the Spastrasse. He has got you three horses, which will take you on your way. Go north to Strelsfurt and over the Murranberg. Don’t take the more direct route down the Starel. It won’t be dark till ten, so I suggest you start while it’s still light. Have a meal, then go.’
As they were eating, the windows rattled with several concussions. The men stood. Tomas called out, ‘That was artillery fire! What in God’s name is going on?’
Paul looked at Maxim. ‘Maybe you should take Professor Tildemann and try to get to the French or British embassy.’
‘No,’ Maxim replied. ‘I would need go through the heart of the city, and that would be a lot more reckless than the original plan.’
‘It’s time then. Have you got everything? Coats? Sandwiches? Small arms?’
Maxim could not stop a chuckle. ‘Bless you, my friends.’
Paul smiled before straightening his face. ‘Then do it properly, your majesty.’
Maxim pronounced the Kungliske-Pozechnen, and kissed their foreheads. Osku embarrassed him by grabbing his left hand and kissing Queen Flavia’s ring. ‘God save your majesty!’ he cried with a fervour that brought tears to Maxim’s eyes.
Then, with no more words, he, Tomas and Tildemann began their journey. As it transpired, the most difficult episode was crossing Festungstrasse. The street was broad and a cavalry picket had stationed itself on the corner with Stracenzstrasse. They edged further north and made a dash across the tram lines and into a side lane opposite when it seemed the soldiers’ attention was elsewhere.
An anxious march took them across the empty park and the university campus beyond. Posters were up proclaiming the closure of the university until further notice – hardly necessary, Maxim thought, as it was the vacation period. There were no soldiers to be seen.
The quiet garden suburb beyond was busier. People were on street corners, looking at the smoke of many fires rising above the city roofs and trees while talking in low, concerned voices.
As the road began to climb, the fugitives found the house they were looking for. The clerk, Schmidt, was waiting for them. He knelt and kissed Maxim’s left hand. ‘The horses are out the back, sire.’
Maxim suddenly realised, as he should have done long ago, that a new and in some ways lonelier life lay ahead of him as king. People distanced themselves from him. He would have few friends, however many were his admirers. But at least people saw him as king, and increasingly so, though he could not quite work out why. He must think about it.
They encountered a problem with Tildemann, who was coming round at last from the shock of what had transpired in the Rudolphs Platz. It appeared he had little experience with horses. It was difficult enough getting him on his mount, let alone keeping him there. Once he was reasonably secure, they placed him between them and took the road up to the Spa at a gentle pace, slowed by the steady incline as they rose out of the river basin.
They stopped at the Spa lodge gates to look back. The sun was now low behind them in the west. Black columns of smoke were rising in the still air over the city, with bright spots of flame visible in some places. It was a sombre sight.
Professor Tildemann audibly sighed. ‘I am not a man for these sorts of times … majesty,’ he complained. And when the professor said that, Maxim knew he might be king indeed.
The Elphberg party had rallied to Hentzau. A surprising number of MPs and peers had assembled in the town, much to the bewilderment of the citizens, who were used to being in a backwater, not in the full flood of national events.
When Maxim arrived back at the castle in the middle of the following day, he found a relieved Bernenstein and Tarlenheim in their general’s uniforms. Several other high-ranking army officers were smoking cigarettes with them in Gus’s study, their war room.
‘All chiefs, I’m afraid,’ smiled Franz, ‘and no Indians. Indians would be useful.’
‘I hope Tomas has been a good lad,’ Bernenstein laughed.
‘He gives every satisfaction.’
‘He related to us some interesting things about what you did in Strelsau.’ The old man was giving him a very considering look.
‘That’s as may be. Tell me about the current situation.’
Count Franz stood and went to the wall map. ‘We are not getting much information out of the capital. The phone lines have been deliberately cut. We do know that you got out just in time. Meyer’s division is now ringing the city, closing every road. It is as loyal to Albert of Thuringia as any, and is commanded by his creatures. There is also the Guards Division in the city, under a new promotion, Langen. He is a Mittenheimer, which might be significant or not. Bernenstein here is a Mittenheimer too, and there is no man more loyal to the Elphbergs.’
Maxim nodded. His contact with the officer and men of the guards in the Rudolphs Platz had given him to believe that some of them at least did not approve of what was going on.
Franz continued, ‘Hofbau and Zenden are quiet at the moment, but of course they are still heavily garrisoned. However, the Husbrau and Glottenberg provinces are very restless. There have been demonstrations against the suppression of parliament in many of the smaller cities. Our friends in the Christian Democrat party have turned against Albert with a vengeance, and those provinces are the Christian Democrat heartland.’
General Bernenstein stood. ‘King Albert has moved faster than we would have liked. He thinks that with his enemies in disarray he can manufacture a rising of the mob in Strelsau, crush them and claim that strong monarchy is what this country needs. If we do not challenge him now, and if he gets away with his deceit, he will turn next on us. Indeed, he already has. The arrest of Téodor Horowicz and the others is just the first step.’
‘So what do you suggest?’
‘Max … your majesty … it is time for you to claim your throne. None now will care about the fact that your ancestor was illegitimate. You are an Elphberg through and through, and a born king. I see your father in you, and I see Rudolf V in your every action and word. This is not the best time, weak and isolated here at Hentzau as we are. If we do not move now, though, it will be too late.’
‘Then how do we go about it?’
‘The princes of Ostberg and Tarlenheim will be here tomorrow, and we have others of the Reichsräthe in the town. We must put it to them.’
‘Tomorrow it is then. Gentlemen, I do not wish to be melodramatic, but I feel the need for prayer at this time. I shall go down to the Jakobskloster for the evening office.’
The generals nodded, saying that was the right thing to do.
Maxim sat in his family’s pew in the gallery above the nave. Candles burned in front of images of St James and the Virgin. The ancient church was not empty. Old ladies in black were huddled beneath him in the lower pews. A monk passed up into the choir as he looked.
Maxim meditated long and hard. Occasionally he passed into active prayer, only to sink back into an almost dreamlike state, in which time no longer seemed to have any meaning. While in this state, as he sat with his head buried in his hands, he became aware that he was not alone in the gallery. Although no creaking of wood or footstep betrayed the presence of another, a sweet and maddeningly familiar fragrance and a sense of warmth on his right side told him that someone was sitting close by.
He heard a young man’s voice ask, or seem to ask, ‘Are you ready to be king then, Maxim?’
‘I believe so,’ he replied between his hands. He did not choose to look up; he knew it would break the spell.
‘Then be a king and take your kingdom. Put your faith in your friends. They will not betray you, only your people will do that … yet you should think no less of them for it.’
‘What do you mean?’ He jerked upright, only to find himself alone, as he knew he had been all along.
When the office of vespers began below him he listened to it attentively. He rose during the Nunc Dimittis, saying to himself as he left, ‘According to thy word, Lord. According to thy word …’
A large proportion of the Reichsräthe was crowded into the castle hall. For good measure, Prince Ostberg had invited Tildemann and the leaders of the Christian Democrats to join them.
The prince stood to address the assembly. ‘Cousins and peers of Rothenia, we meet here as the body which has the constitutional right to govern our country. Now this right has been denied us by the man calling himself king, Albert of Thuringia. Do you agree that this is so?’
A strong chorus of ‘ayes’ came from the room.
‘And you, elected representatives of the people,’ he indicated the parliamentarians, ‘do you agree that this is so?’
Tildemann stood and spoke for his colleagues. ‘Highness, we agree. The 1856 constitution is unequivocal that executive power rests with the president of the Reichsräthe in the vacancy between parliaments. The king has usurped this power and breached the constitution awarded by Rudolf V.’
Ostberg resumed. ‘Then, my cousins, we are now sitting as a convention to decide on our nation’s behalf what to do in this crisis. Representations have been made to Albert of Thuringia that he has flouted the law of our land. He has ignored our demands, taking all power to himself under the pretext of a national emergency. He has arrested or attempted to arrest parliamentary leaders, making it clear that he wishes to rule as a tyrant.
‘In answer to his brutal provocation, we have a number of choices. We may submit to the yoke of this man, thereby losing our freedom. We may resist and force him to restore our liberties. Then there is the bold and dangerous choice: We may proclaim him deposed, and restore the Elphberg line, wrongfully deprived in 1880 against the wishes of Queen Flavia of beloved memory.’
A loud murmur rose.
‘Yes, yes!’ Ostberg cried. ‘I know what you are saying: it is a call to civil war. In 1880, with the German empire manipulating the Concert of Europe against us, we had to give way. We were denied the man who should have been our king, Robert Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll, the man whose son stands with us here today as count of Hentzau.
‘The dangers now are different. The Concert is no more. The empires and powers are split in two armed camps. Should we move against the Thuringian today, we will be faced with another kind of threat. Will the German kaiser move to reinstate his friend? We cannot be sure. If he did so, he might precipitate general war in Europe, for Britain, France and Russia would immediately move in our support. Is he ready for that?
‘Whichever course we elect will lead to dire consequences. If we accept the tyranny of Albert of Thuringia, we and our children after us will no longer know liberty. Resisting him is our only hope of recovering it. If in the end we must go down, frankly I would rather do so under the standard of the Elphberg lion. What say you?’
A rumble of assent filled the room. ‘Then, cousins, I propose we pass a declaration of deposition against the usurper Albert. I say we should proclaim the rightful king, Maxim Stefan Elphberg, by the grace of God, our most pious and steadfast sovereign lord.’
The room stood and applauded. Maxim was brought to the front of the assembly. He motioned them to sit. ‘Highnesses, excellencies, lords and gentlemen. My late father quit the kingdom rather than plunge this realm into war. But war now has already begun here, and I gladly take up his claim in the hope that I may restore peace. I accept your offer. Let the proclamation be made in whatever way we can, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Then I will nominate a Staatsrath to take counsel for the future, and how we can bring down the tyrant who occupies my throne.
‘In the meantime, lords and gentlemen, I bring before you as a sign the crown that Queen Flavia gave my father to be a token for this very day, the day when an Elphberg would again be proclaimed king.’ To general gasps, General Bernenstein brought in the Crown of Tassilo and laid it on the table. ‘Yes,’ continued Maxim, ‘it was kept here all the time, safe in the heart of our land. Now may it bring us good fortune!’
The room knelt, and one by one the peers kissed the king’s hand in token of their acceptance of his rule.
Maxim stood with Franz von Tarlenheim on the battlements of the castle gatehouse. The general was discontented. ‘A pity we haven’t got a battery of artillery to fire a royal salute, sire. I like to do things properly.’
‘Needs must, Franz. Look down in the marketplace – there’s quite a crowd, isn’t there?’
‘There’s the mayor reading the proclamation. He seems overwhelmed with the privilege – either that or he is terrified he will be first against the wall when Albert’s troops sack his town.’
‘Poor Herr Jarom, he was not meant for such times.’
Cheers echoed up the hill at the proclamation of the beginning of King Maxim’s reign. And it was of Rothenia, not Ruritania, that he was proclaimed king. The Reichsräthe had debated the nature of the title he should take, and had persuaded him that the Slavic name of the land would raise more support than the Germanic one, for it was in the Rothenian provinces that his following was most enthusiastic. It would also tell people that he was going to continue to support Queen Flavia’s policy of equal rights for Rothenians and Germans.
Franz smiled. ‘You really shouldn’t be doing this, you know.’
Maxim laughed. ‘Who better? It’s symbolic. I used to run the Rassendyll flag up the pole when I was living here with Gus, but now I have a better one!’
He pulled at the halyard. A gold and red banner sped up the pole, the standard of the house of Elphberg spreading and rippling in the sunlight and breeze. Maxim stood there and marvelled at his own temerity. For whatever reason – youth, defiance, or the spirit of his ancestors – it made his heart sing.
‘And now to business,’ he said to Franz.
The first meeting of King Maxim’s Staatsrath was distinguished by the fact that the king poured the tea for the two generals and the two princes it comprised. They sat in the front drawing room, where Maxim’s attention was constantly being drawn to the enigmatically smiling portrait of Count Oskar. In life and death, the man was fascinating. Maxim even wondered what sort of relationship he himself might have had with Oskar, had they ever met.
Count Bernenstein was explaining to the princes the disposition of the army. ‘Highnesses, there are five military districts. Strelsau with two divisions, including the Guards Division, which make up the 1st Corps; Merz and Ober Husbrau with four divisions, which are the 2nd and 3rd corps; Tirolen with three divisions, which form the 4th Corps and the Mountain Division; Glottenberg with the 5th Corps; and finally, the two divisions of Neder Husbrau, the neglected and faintly despised 6th Corps. There are also reserve battalions and regiments in all the districts, which can more than double the establishment in time of war.’
Prince Ostberg looked a little taken aback. ‘There would seem to be overwhelming force arrayed against us then, general.’
‘So it would appear at first sight, but much depends on their leadership. Generals Messinger and Meyer are Thuringian loyalists who dispose of three corps between them. But the generals commanding the other districts are Rothenians, so their loyalty to Albert should not necessarily be assumed. Lucic in command in Tirolen is difficult to read. He is intelligent and self-interested, likely to go where his instinct for self-preservation tells him to go. Sterlinger and Voydek in charge of the 5th and 6th corps are good friends of ours.’
Maxim’s ears pricked. ‘Voydek?’
Count Franz beamed. ‘You remembered, sire.’
‘You mentioned something about him last year. You were very mysterious.’
‘Then allow me to explain. Major General Alfons Voydek is a curiosity. He is remarkably young for a general, still only in his late thirties. He excelled in his year at the Staff College, and has a brilliant grasp of military history and theory. For all that he looks like a professor, he has extraordinary presence. He had command of a regiment by the time he was only twenty-seven. Bernenstein here promoted him as fast as he could.’
‘I did indeed. It made him unpopular, of course, but officers of his calibre come along only once in a century. He is impeccable in logistics, has a faultless memory, is fair to his men and beloved by them.’
‘And you say he is commanding the most notoriously useless corps in the army?’
The generals laughed. ‘Oh, it was, before he took command of it. Not any longer, believe me. The 6th Corps has been rebuilt from top to bottom. This was our plan, Franz’s and mine. When we thought how the future under King Albert was going to unroll, we decided that the 6th Corps would be our secret weapon if ever it came to a fight. So we gave it to Voydek with carte blanche to reorganise it, recruit and fire commanders, and train and re-equip it as he desired. It’s something of an experiment, really.’
‘Yes,’ added Count Franz. ‘He and Sterlinger are good friends, so a lot of what he has been doing has been extended to the 5th Corps too. By the way, sire. You remember you gave me the Eisendorf project to manage?’
‘I do. Are you about to tell me something I won’t like?’
‘I really don’t know, sire. It’s just that, when I called in Voydek on the development, he designed some of the production lines himself. His ideas are revolutionary, to say the least. What’s more, he has become quite a customer for us.’
‘You’re still being mysterious, Franz.’
‘A weakness. Do pardon me, majesty.’
‘Any news from the capital?’
‘Yes. Our agents have been in touch through a variety of means, though the telephone link is still severed. If Albert wanted a bloodbath, he has got it. The mob rose as it has not done in three decades. Barricades went up in the Third District and the tenements of the Fifth. Meyer deployed light artillery to clear the ones on König Heinrichstrasse, but as soon as his troops entered the warren of streets around the Weg, they were ambushed. There were heavy casualties on both sides. Fires have swept areas of the city, with nothing done to check them.’
Maxim sighed. ‘As usual, the people who will suffer most are those who suffer already.’
Franz continued, ‘The troops have had to withdraw from the rioting districts, and the fires still burn. The king refused to receive the archbishop when he requested a meeting to find ways to defuse the troubles. The Strelsener Deutscheszeitung is still publishing and its reports have been an education. It’s being given out free on the streets. It claims there is a socialist rising in progress that is attacking all rights of property. It talks of the Strelzen Commune, with poor Tildemann being portrayed as a revolutionary who led a violent assault on the palace.’
‘And do people believe such lies?’
Franz smiled. ‘No doubt some do, but your friend Paul Underwood and my people have been in touch with underground printers. The pictures Paul took of the massacre in the Rudolphs Platz are posted everywhere in the city. They go up quicker than the troops and police can take them down. They tell a different and quite incontrovertible story. And there is also this, sire.’
‘They show you ministering to your people, and name you as king.’
‘Then the civil war has begun.’
‘Yes, sire. I have started setting up our own command structure. I am in touch with Voydek and Sterlinger, who pledge their allegiance to you. They paraded their troops this morning, proclaimed you as king, and read out the Reichsräthe’s decree deposing Albert. Sire, the men cheered and gave the royal salute without any order. Artillery salutes have been fired in your honour at Glottenburg, Ranstadt and Modenheim. The Elphberg flag flies on every public building. You are king in more than theory. The governor of Neder Husbrau will be here this afternoon to offer his support. Unfortunately, he has been chased out of Strelsfurt by Thuringian troops, but it’s good to have his endorsement nonetheless.’
Maxim smiled. ‘And the bad news?’
‘Troops from Strelzen are moving on Hentzau. They will be here tomorrow.’
‘Ah! I knew it would not all be good. And what are your recommendations?’
Bernenstein grinned. ‘I have a general’s uniform that will fit you, sire. It is time to take up the leadership of your army and be the king people expect of an Elphberg.
‘As for military options, I’m afraid we have few. The governor will authorise the mobilisation of the army reserve in his province, but it will be perhaps two days before any battalions will assemble. We will have to evacuate you north towards Ranstadt and the protection of the 5th Corps.’
‘I am reluctant to go.’
‘I understand, sire, but there are no other options at present.’
At midday, however, another option presented itself. Maxim was summoned out of his study to meet a slight, youngish man in a uniform he had not seen before, a greenish-brown fatigue. A peaked and braided cap covered in the same cloth was tucked under his arm, and a general’s insignia glinted on shoulder strap and sleeve. He had sandy hair and keen blue eyes. ‘General Voydek,’ announced Franz.
The man fell quite unselfconsciously to his knees and kissed Maxim’s hand. ‘Your majesty, I was eager to greet you on the first day of your reign. So I came.’
‘Thank you, general … er, how did you get here?’
Voydek laughed as he stood up. ‘Sterlinger and I already had plans to commandeer the rail network, which we put into operation last night. It is being directed now by a command centre in Glottenburg. Speed is of the essence, sire, so I also gave orders to dynamite the rail junctions around the capital. Your intelligence people and my hussar scouts will have accomplished it by midday. No heavy guns and troops can now be moved anywhere in Rothenia except on our lines or slowly by road.’
Franz was guffawing. ‘You did not wait for authorisation, Alfons.’
‘Apologies, sir. But as I said …’
‘You did the right thing. You came down here by rail?’
‘Yes, sir. A brigade of infantry and an artillery regiment are following. They will take up positions around Hentzau to protect his majesty, as well as to gain time for the reserves to be mobilised. Also, sir, it would be best that our enemies not have a chance to seize Eisendorf at this time.’
‘What did I tell you, sire?’
Maxim smiled. ‘You did not say half enough.’
The king tried not to preen himself in uniform, but it was a lost cause. He rejoiced in the gold braid of an entirely unearned general’s uniform, bedecked with the stars of the orders of the Red Rose and Henry the Lion, which had been found for him.
He mounted a horse in the courtyard of Hentzau castle, alongside Count Franz. A detachment of General Voydek’s hussars waited patiently to escort him. Once Maxim was in the saddle, their officer raised his sword in salute, and then they were off through the gates. A company of the local reserve in blue coats was now garrisoning the castle, allowing Voydek’s regulars to be deployed further down the Arndt valley.
Maxim trotted his horse through the town, his escort jingling behind him. When people appeared to cheer him, he smiled and removed his plumed shako. It was good for local morale to be seen like this, while Thuringian troops were closing on the area.
Once beyond the town, he urged his horse to a brisk canter.
Voydek had set up his command post on the southern rim of the Hentzenheide. He had ordered a canvas tent erected over his map table, around which his brigadier and several field officers were gathered while adjutants took notes. A field-telephone system of Voydek’s invention was being laid. Everyone turned and saluted as Maxim approached.
‘Your majesty, the situation is thus,’ Voydek began in his didactic way. ‘A full division – the 3rd – is approaching up the valley and across the bluffs to our west. They are already in contact with our pickets ten miles from here. They will encounter a fortified post on the Murranberg here to halt any flanking move they may attempt. I have constructed lines along the rim of the Hentzenheide, which our men have had time to fortify despite the sandy nature of the soil. Although we are outnumbered three to one, I am confident the nature of our position will counterbalance the inferiority of our numbers.’
‘And who commands the 3rd Division?’
Franz answered, ‘It is Major-General Busch, sire, under Messinger as corps commander.’
‘Perhaps someone should ride out and seek a parley before it gets to fighting.’
Franz nodded. ‘With your permission, sire, I shall go.’ He cantered off with a detachment of hussars under a white flag.
In the meantime, Maxim rode with Voydek on an inspection tour of the lines. The men were in good heart, every company cheering him and their commander as they approached. The king gave each unit an increasingly practised talk on the freedoms for which they might be called upon to fight. The men listened, he could tell, but he could also tell they were Rothenians: It was the mystique of the Elphberg name that truly inspired them.
‘Tell me, general, how is it that your men do not wear the coloured uniforms of the rest of the army?’
‘It was the British, sir, who began equipping their troops with uniforms that merge into the landscape. Modern weaponry is so accurate that it is foolish to fight in lines and columns. Therefore, anything that makes a man less of a target is good. Our Austrian and French friends have yet to realise this, but, before he was sacked, General Bernenstein ordered the new uniforms for the 5th and 6th corps. Some military conservatives may deplore such innovation, but battlefields today are no places for peacocks.’
They rode on. At a crossroads near the Murranberg, they encountered several curious vehicles parked off the road, painted the same green-brown mixture as the soldiers’ uniforms. Maxim saw they were motor lorries protected by what appeared to be armour plate. Some sort of artillery piece was mounted atop each, on a turret like that of a warship.
‘What are these?’ he asked.
‘Ah … these are a new development out of the Eisendorf works and the Wendel motor shop. General von Tarlenheim designed them as a sort of mobile artillery, equipped with a light cannon and mounting two of his new mitrailleuses, with a swivelling field of fire. We have no idea how they will perform in action. There are some problems with the balance of armour and mobility, as well as issues to do with the vulnerability of their tyres, but we will see. The theory is at least sound.
‘Both General von Tarlenheim and I believe that in twentieth-century warfare there will be a new sort of conflict between the drag of firepower and the need for mobility. I seriously hope I do not have to conduct a practical experiment on our own compatriots to ascertain their effect.’
‘May God preserve us from that,’ Maxim agreed with fervour.
They returned for lunch at General Voydek’s command post. Maxim was not too impressed by the quality of military rations, but kept his view to himself. He took a seat under the tent as Voydek dealt with a stream of telephone messages and mounted despatches, all the time maintaining a running commentary on the progress of the situation.
It seemed that having encountered the patrols of the Elphberg troops, General Busch had halted and sent his cavalry to probe their position. After a few inconclusive duels with Voydek’s hussars, the Thuringian cavalry had withdrawn. It was at this point that Franz had reached the opposing lines under flag of truce, and been permitted to proceed.
The afternoon stretched on. Apparently, a lot of soldiering was down to waiting, which Maxim had failed to appreciate. He watched men smoking pipes, whittling away at pieces of wood, or writing letters. When he saw some of them playing cards, he almost wished he had the nerve to ask to join their hand. Instead, he concentrated on sitting in his camp chair and looking unperturbed – and possibly kingly, if only he knew the trick of it.
An adjutant with binoculars called across to his general. ‘Sir, cavalrymen approaching with a white flag. It’s General von Tarlenheim returning.’
Franz dismounted and saluted the king. ‘Sire, I regret to tell you I found General Busch resolute that our force should surrender, and give up the man calling himself King Maxim. He has perceived that he outnumbers us, which is alert of him, and believes we must surely retreat or be crushed. Either way, he is determined to risk battle with the odds so much in his favour. I refused the offer, of course. He …’
But what Franz was going to say next was lost in the howl of incoming shells, which burst three hundred yards to their rear. Voydek and his staff were perfectly unmoved by the fountaining spouts of sand nearby, though Maxim’s horse had to be seized and calmed. The tent flapped wildly in the shock wave before soldiers leaped to take it down.
‘Hmm, the sand is deadening the impact of the shells,’ observed Voydek. ‘They have only horse artillery too. Then I regret, sire, I must go ahead and kill some of your misguided subjects. May God forgive us what we do.’
‘Amen,’ chorused the staff officers.
Orders were snapped to the signallers, who muttered into the receivers, hands to their ears as more shells howled overhead, further to the north this time.
A new sound, a distant rumble, announced that the heavy field artillery on the slopes of the Murranberg had opened fire. Taking advantage of their elevation, together with Voydek’s system of communications, the Elphberg artillerymen very soon triangulated the positions of the 3rd Division. The ground shook and the air was filled with howling metal. The enemy artillery fire faltered and died away.
‘Sir, the Murranberg reports the enemy batteries destroyed. God help them, it was carnage.’
‘Order them to carpet their cavalry positions. I want their capacity to outflank us destroyed.’
More salvoes passed overhead. The artillery grumbled from the hill and acrid smoke began to drift down on the afternoon air.
Calls came from the signallers that the enemy infantry were advancing. Franz seized Maxim’s shoulder. ‘You may wish to draw your pistol, Max. I fear they may soon be upon us.’
Long blue lines became visible across the open fields, marching steadily up towards the Hentzenheide. Regimental flags fluttered above them. There must have been ten thousand men in motion, a human tide come to wash them away.
Voydek stared tensely at Tarlenheim. ‘Franz! God give me strength, this may be murder. I know some of these men.’
‘They fight for a tyrant, poor fools.’
‘Then I must unleash the devil on them. Creeping barrage!’
Suddenly the fields erupted in front of them as the practised gunners on the Murranberg laid a pattern of shells across the advancing lines. The lines came on through smoke and dust, so many men that the holes torn by exploding shells were soon filled again.
Voydek swept the line with his field glasses. Finally he was satisfied with something. ‘Signal all battalion commanders. Open fire at will!’
A new sound began to be heard through the thud and concussion of the artillery, a persistent hammering chatter. Maxim stared in horror. Men fell in the fields like corn before a scythe. Flags wavered, were raised, and fell again. Then they were abandoned. The 3rd Division broke and fled before the remorseless hail of the machine guns.
‘Cease fire!’ yelled Voydek. ‘For the love of Heaven, they run! Stop the butchery!’
Not one of Busch’s infantry came within even fifty yards of the Hentzenheide. The hussars rode across the field sweeping up demoralised and unresisting soldiers. Voydek, Franz, Maxim and their staff rode after them. It was total victory.
Busch had died, blown apart by a shell which killed most of his staff. A surviving brigadier offered his sword to Voydek, who refused it, saying, ‘Present it to your king and ask his pardon for what you did today.’
Maxim looked across the field of death, at the thousands of dead and dying young men.
‘Yes sire,’ commented Voydek sadly. ‘This is war.’
Maxim knew he was drunk, and was quite happy to get drunker. Franz von Tarlenheim was matching him with equal enthusiasm.
They were back at the castle. Voydek and his staff were still dealing with the consequences of the crushing victory at Hentzenheide. The rest of the Thuringian army had withdrawn down the Arndt, with the intention of falling back on the capital. An enterprising attempt by a cavalry brigade to strike at Hentzau through the Murranberg pass had been spectacularly frustrated by an encounter with Franz’s mitrailleuse wagons. The machine guns had driven them off in short order.
There would be no repeat of the attempt on Hentzau. Under Count Bernenstein’s command, the 5th and 6th corps were advancing in full strength down the Starel and Arndt valleys in parallel, closing on Strelzen. Strelsfurt, the regional capital of Neder Husbrau, had been occupied by his men and the governor restored. All of Rothenia north of the Starel had fallen to Maxim’s forces. He just wondered why he could not be happier about it.
Part of the reason was the number of bodies still being buried on the battlefield, so many that an entire battalion had to be detailed to do it. The Jakobskloster, the mairie and parish church of Hentzau were full of the wounded, being treated as well as the limited facilities would allow. Those that could stand the journey were being taken by train to the hospitals at Ranstadt and Glottenberg. Maxim had visited the wounded, though it had all but broken his heart. Still, if he was to heal his country, he had to be concerned as much for Rothenians on the other side as for his own party. Casualties among the Elphberg troops at Hentzenheide had been no more than a hundred.
‘Tell me again why we’re doing this, Franz.’
‘For freedom, majesty. That and to unseat the Thuringian monster who pollutes your throne.’
‘And all these deaths?’
Franz gave him a blurred look. ‘They were soldiers, sire. Death is always waiting to ambush us just around the next bend in the road.’
‘But so many, so young.’
‘It could have been you, Max, dead on your back in that bloody field. Remember that, if you wish to keep your sanity.’
Maxim drained his brandy, decided he didn’t want to get up for another, and promptly fell asleep in his chair. His dreams were not pleasant, his awakening when Franz shook his shoulder even less so.
‘Christ! My head!’
‘Uneasy the head that wears the crown, sire?’
‘Oh, shut up.’
‘I’m sorry. But General Lucic has arrived with a strong desire to kiss your hand.’
‘General commanding the Tirolen district. It seems the fox has decided that the Thuringians are a lost cause, which is good news for us. The impregnable fortress of Rechtenberg is now flying the Elphberg banner, and Austria can no longer intervene here.’
‘Get me a bucket of cold water to put my head in.’
‘There’s a bath ready for you, sire, and a fresh uniform. All we could find in your size belonged to a colonel of infantry.’
‘Where did you find it?’
‘The previous owner won’t need it any more.’
‘Oh for God’s sake! You’re dressing me in a dead man’s uniform?’
‘It’s quite clean. We took it from his baggage, not off his body. This is military life, Max. In war, soldiers get the items of equipment they need from prisoners, or even corpses.’
‘I swear I shall never wage a war again.’
‘Excellent resolution, majesty. Let’s just hope no one decides to wage war on you.’
Maxim grumbled, but recovered sufficient humanity in a hot bath to be gracious to Lieutenant-General Lucic, and hold a serious discussion about the loyalty of Tirolen province. He was also alert enough to avoid making any political promises to the general, saying that everything rested on new elections and a new government.
Once Lucic had left, Franz suggested it was time to move from Hentzau. A train would take them to Kesarstein, where General Voydek had established his headquarters. Maxim would be accompanied by his own newly-acquired staff, consisting of Tomas Bernenstein, who had resumed his guard lieutenant’s uniform and was acting as adjutant; Franz von Tarlenheim, who was chief of staff; and two captains General Bernenstein had detailed as ornamental aides.
So Maxim rode down from the castle and through his town, where the people cheered their young king with enthusiasm. He waved and smiled like a practised hypocrite.
General Voydek was occupying a requisitioned villa on a hill above Kesarstein Junction. A squadron of dragoons in the familiar khaki uniforms of his division were stationed at the entrance. When they saw Maxim approaching on horseback, they stiffened and flourished their swords in salute.
Maxim warmly shook Voydek’s hand on entering the command room. It was very busy. Signallers had a post in a corner, and were taking down and issuing despatches either by Morse or by telephone. Maps were spread over the floor.
‘Majesty, the situation is fluid. Both Sterlinger and I are pushing towards the capital, looking for the Thuringians’ forward positions. I know General Bernenstein has hopes of cutting off the city, but I doubt whether that is either feasible or desirable. We have four divisions besides the Mountain Division that Lucic is sending down from Tirolen by train.
‘Meyer, who is commander on their side, can dispose of five regular divisions, as well as two reserve divisions called up from Merz and Mittenheim. We had to leave our own reserves to help deter any possible German incursion into Ober Husbrau. At least we no longer have to worry about Lucic or the Austrians in our rear.
‘Our scouts are now in sight of the spires of the cathedral of Strelzen, and my forward batteries could reach the city if need be …’
‘No fire shall be opened on the capital!’
‘Of course not, sire. That is not our plan.’
‘It seems that your plan so far is not fixed.’
‘Let us say we are keeping several options open to fit whatever circumstances we encounter. That is all I can say. By the way, General Sterlinger’s corps has made a major coup. He sent a dragoon regiment to scout out the situation around Hofbau. When they approached, the Thuringian garrison ran up the Elphberg flag and surrendered. The people are jubilant in the streets.’
‘So the second city of Rothenia is ours.’
‘Yes, sire. General Messinger now has to decide whether to join Meyer in Strelzen or attempt to seize back the regional capital. I think he will withdraw. The garrison was a regular brigade which had no desire to fight for Albert of Thuringia. Messinger must worry about the loyalty of the rest of his troops.’
‘It looks promising.’
‘You are right, sire, at least until the German empire realises the danger in which Albert of Thuringia now lies. Then our troubles will really begin.’
Maxim smiled. ‘My dear Voydek, I have some belief that you even have plans to deal with an invasion from Germany.’
Voydek smiled enigmatically in return.
Maxim continued, ‘You have the rank of major-general, though you command a corps.’
‘Indeed, sire, it is my youth and inexperience.’
‘Yes, well, inexperience can no longer be alleged against you. Franz here has the insignia of your new rank of lieutenant-general, which no one would dare say you have not earned. My congratulations.’
Voydek, eyes sparkling, knelt to kiss the king’s hand to mark his promotion. Once again on his feet, he proposed, ‘Now, your majesty, let us organise things so you may receive your crown in the cathedral of Strelzen, and occupy your proper home in the Rudolphs Platz.’