MAXIM ELPHBERG - XV
‘You can even feel sorry for him,’ mused Tomas.
‘For Albert of Thuringia? Never!’ Maxim retorted.
He and his adjutant were guests at the medieval fortress of Kesarstein, which was flying the royal standard in Maxim’s honour. They had their feet propped on a low table in an upper room of the gigantic keep. If Maxim had gone to one of the narrow windows, he might have seen the three spires of the cathedral of St Vitalis in Strelzen, thirty miles away.
‘What I mean is this. Albert had his scheme to make Rothenia an absolute monarchy. It was pretty well thought out, too. He had all the good cards, and even managed to produce the son and heir that had eluded him. But what he had not counted on was Gus Underwood and his years of patient preparation. Then there was grandfather and his strategies and secret contingency plans.’
‘Yes, but most of all he underestimated the people. That was his biggest mistake. The Rothenians and Ruritanian Germans alike are a free people. He thought he could get the Germans to oppress their Rothenian neighbours, but he was wrong. It’s oppression by a tyrant they can’t stomach, and so they rallied to my standard.’
‘Any news from Germany?’
‘I think we’ve taken Wilhelmstrasse by surprise. The collapse of the Thuringian regime has happened in less than a week. I’m already king of over three quarters of the country. If Strelzen and Mittenheim fall soon, Berlin will be dealing with a fait accompli, and there will be no one to help. I think that’s the generals’ plan.’
‘But how to do it …’
‘My military advice wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on. All I’ve seen of war so far has convinced me that it’s not an occupation for me. I’ll never be able to cross the Hentzenheide again, not after what I saw there.’
‘I wonder what Albert will try?’
‘He’ll try to hang on for as long as he can.’ Maxim scowled. ‘I hope our friends in Strelzen are alright. There’s no word out of the city. Voydek says our scouts are trying to make contact with our agents inside, but it’s difficult as Albert’s troops have dug in around the suburbs.’
‘I suppose we need to get down to dinner, sire. I think this is the sort of establishment where roast ox is likely to be on the menu.’
It was indeed a long and heavy meal. It was punctuated, however, by a series of interruptions as couriers brought despatches which had to be handed directly to Maxim. He kept apologising to his host, the dowager countess, but still they came.
So he learned that an insurrection had broken out in the new industrial town of Zenden, as a result of which Albert’s troops had fallen back on the royal château of Zenda. The last open rail connection between the capital and Mittenheim was threatened, making King Albert’s position there even more untenable.
Less welcome news was that Festenburg, the home of the prince of Tarlenheim, had been attacked and set alight. What was especially worrying was that the perpetrators were said to be soldiers from Albert’s principality of Thuringia. So it seemed that some German troops had already crossed into Rothenia. Even though they were Albert’s, it would still have required the German High Command to sanction the move.
Maxim was woken in the night. Word had come from Voydek’s lines outside the capital that the king was urgently needed. Although it was but three in the morning, he clambered into his general’s uniform and joined Tomas in the courtyard, where they boarded a waiting Daimler with a military driver. Two of the mitrailleuse wagons were to accompany them as escort. They drove off into the dark at what speed they could manage.
A full moon swung over the Starel valley as they took the main highway along the river’s left bank. Dawn was in the sky behind them when the car slowed at a military checkpoint. The soldiers snapped to the salute as soon as they realised who was in the car. After passing through, Maxim noticed with a sinking heart that the western sky was also tinged with red. Strelzen was ablaze.
General Voydek was waiting outside his command post. He got in the car with Maxim and signalled the driver to move on.
‘Majesty, things have reached a crisis. Action is needed, but you alone can authorise it.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘To our forward lines, sire. Fires broke out in the city two hours ago. I sent scouts as far as they dared go. We lost two, but one crept on to the Altstadt and returned. He reported that the area around the station and parts of the Neustadt are burning. There is fighting in the streets. The people have risen against Albert, so you must decide whether we should press on now, while the enemy is engaged in the fighting within the city. Sire, you should know that heavy casualties cannot be avoided if we do this, for we will have to forego artillery support. Even then, there will be some destruction to the capital.’
The car pulled to a halt two miles from the Altstadt. Battalions of khaki-clad troops were marshalled and ready in the road. General Bernenstein was waiting.
‘The question, sire, is a simple one: yes or no?’
‘Then all I can say is, yes. But I will move with the troops. Is that understood?’
‘It would be unwise, sire, but I won’t gainsay a brave man. I have a horse here. Tomas will ride with you, as well as a section of cuirassiers.’
Signal rockets arced into the air and exploded with a loud report. Maxim’s escort awaited him. He mounted and took the road, trotting alongside an advancing column of infantry. On recognising him, the men showered him with many salutations and blessings, which he acknowledged by doffing his cap and nodding. He rode by three marching battalions and then was amongst a regiment of lancers.
The road rose, bringing the cathedral towers ever closer. When a burst of rifle fire came from ahead, Tomas put his hand on Maxim’s bridle and pulled him to a stop. His cuirassier escort unshipped their carbines, cantered forward and began taking random shots into some woodland ahead.
‘These will be their forward pickets. We’ll need to wait for the infantry to back us up.’
A column of khaki-clad regulars arrived and spread in lines across the field. Their officers drew swords and pistols. To the shriek of whistles, the skirmishers advanced towards a thicket of brush and trees, pausing for a shot as they went, then pushing on once more. It was as orderly as an exercise, except that occasionally a soldier fell to the ground and did not get up.
A mitrailleuse wagon rumbling along the road stopped to offer covering fire with its light cannon and machine guns. The soldiers immediately rose and charged, disappearing into the wood. The crackle of shots continued but became muted as the battle passed out of sight. Maxim spurred his mount on again to catch up with his escort. Tomas signalled them to move out.
Once through the trees, they came to the first houses of the Altstadt. The infantry had already vanished into the city. There was no more sound of rifle fire. What opposition there had been apparently had evaporated.
Maxim and his escort rode on and eventually found themselves among the medieval buildings of the old city. Not a soul was to be seen. The citizens were wisely keeping under cover. Now Maxim was under the east wall of the cathedral, which soared above him, its spires black against the early-morning sky. Finally he encountered an infantry officer, a captain, who saluted and reported that the hill had been cleared of Thuringian troops.
‘It was lightly defended, sir.’
Tomas frowned. ‘Odd, sire. It’s the most defensible position in the city. Perhaps they are going to make a stand on the bridges and at the Arsenal.’
Maxim trotted around the cathedral and clattered into Erzbischoffsplatz. A company of infantry was there before him, being offered drinks by smiling citizens, who little by little were leaving their houses to see what was going on. When the soldiers explained who the young man in the general’s uniform was, cheering began. Seeing the cardinal archbishop emerge from his palace, Maxim dismounted and knelt to kiss the old man’s hand.
The people cheered anew, mobbing Maxim as the cardinal blessed him. ‘The king! The Elphberg king!’ they shouted. ‘Long live King Maxim!’
More horses clattered into the square, a regiment of lancers with General Voydek at their head. The infantry cleared a way for Maxim and allowed him to remount.
He and Voydek rode out of the square to a vantage point on the brow of the hill. The city was spread below them, dense smoke covering the Third, Fourth and Fifth districts. Through the binoculars Tomas handed him, Maxim could see the Thuringian standard still flying over the palace and the Osten Tor. The Arsenal was wreathed in smoke as its cannon fired on unseen enemies, which Maxim guessed were his own troops advancing around the south flank of the Altstadt. To the north of the river, Starel Heights lay serene and apparently unaffected. He wondered where Antonia and her little prince might be.
Voydek called up his dispatch riders and sent off a sequence of notes to various commanders.
‘Sire, I shall bypass the Arsenal, and attempt the crossing at the Neuebrücke. I think that, with the distractions behind them in the Third District, the troops at the Osten Tor will put up less resistance. I wonder what the Guards Division is up to? Who exactly are we fighting here?’
Maxim had his own ideas. ‘General, I have a mission. I’m going to take a squadron of these lancers, if you can spare them, and ride along the bluffs to Starel Heights.’
Voydek looked at him curiously. ‘If you must, sire. The lancers won’t be much use in street fighting. Please promise me you are not going to risk yourself; a lot of people are sacrificing all they have today so that you may be king.’
‘I understand, Alfons. I shall avoid any danger. Tomas will take care of that.’
They jingled off, Maxim, Tomas and the lancer captain leading the squadron. Few people were about. He saw no soldiers in the upper slopes of Starel Heights, though he noticed the river bridges below him were barricaded and garrisoned. He made it safely to Tasselngasse and the little house that Antonia had occupied.
Drawing their pistols, he and Tomas dismounted and went to the door. No cheeky page boy answered Maxim’s rap this time. In fact, there was no answer at all. He nodded to Tomas, who charged down the door and splintered it from its jambs.
At first Maxim thought the house was empty, until he found Antonia unconscious in her lounge. She had bruises on her face and wrists.
‘Good God!’ Tomas exclaimed. ‘What’s been happening here?’
Maxim got water and sprinkled Antonia’s face. When she stirred, he supported her. ‘Toni? Can you hear me? Who did this?’
She struggled to see who it was as she focussed her eyes. ‘Max? Is it you?’
‘Yes, it is. Someone attacked you. Who was it?’
‘God! Where is little Leo?’
‘You’re here by yourself, Toni dear!’
She wailed, ‘My little boy! They took him!’
‘Who took him? Toni! Who took the prince?’
‘German officers came and said the king wanted his son with him. I said I would bring him, but they said I was not required. I struck one and then …’ She was distraught and in tears in a way that Maxim had never seen her before. He hugged and comforted her, while she clung to him desperately.
Eventually, Tomas hissed in his ear, ‘Majesty, we have to go. Do you wish to post a guard?’
‘She can’t be left, Tomas, at least not here, alone. Put her on my horse. I’ll mount up behind her. I know where she will be safe.’
So they carried her outside and placed her on Maxim’s stallion. He held her round her waist as they rode slowly through Starel Heights to Wenzelgasse and the residence of the British ambassador. They were challenged at the entrance to the drive by a party of Royal Marines. When Maxim answered in English and took off his cap, they saluted him.
Maxim dismounted, handed Antonia down and helped her up the drive. Sir Andrew was at the door. After Maxim explained the circumstances, she was given over to Lady Carnell.
As they stood looking down at the burning city, Sir Andrew said, ‘Max, I am so glad to see you alive and well. What’s happening?’
‘My troops are forcing the Neuebrücke at the moment. What can you tell me about the happenings here in the last week?’
‘The first rising was brutally suppressed. The Guards Division refused the work and returned to their barracks, so Albert brought troops in from Thuringia to do it. There were executions by firing squad in the Neue Platz. I sent away all non-essential embassy staff to Luchau, and when the murdering began, I brought the rest here for shelter. I know supplies are very short down there. That’s why the rioting has begun again. I think the Germans have got their hands full in the Neustadt, and your army may not encounter much resistance.
‘I say there! On the roof of the guards barracks! The Elphberg flag is flying! It appears the Guards Division has decided which king it wants to protect. They must be moving against the Thuringians!’
Maxim looked down. Distant gunfire rattled on the bridge below them. Ruritanian blue uniforms were swarming down Brückestrasse, forcing the soldiers in Prussian helmets to retreat towards the suburbs on the near side, firing as they went.
The ambassador smiled grimly. ‘May I congratulate your majesty on the recovery of your capital?’
‘Thank you, Sir Andrew. Take care of Countess Rechtenberg. I have an appointment in the city which I must keep.’
Maxim briefly pondered the possibilities before deciding to take the Heinrichsbrücke into the city. With a disapproving frown, Tomas sent the lancers ahead to avoid the king’s being fired on unawares by his own supporters.
At the bridge approach, the lancer captain came upon some cowed Thuringian soldiers whom he took prisoner. He ordered them to cross the bridge in front of his own men, hands on heads.
As Maxim reached the bridge, he was mobbed by cheering guardsmen who struggled to kiss his hand. The lancers pushed them back. Maxim found their colonel and asked him to get his men to form up and follow their king back into the city. So, with the lancers trotting ahead and the regiment of Guard Fusiliers marching behind, Maxim rode up the Brückestrasse to the Hofgarten.
Though the Thuringian standard still flew above it, the palace was unguarded. The Guard Fusiliers swiftly spread out and took possession of the grounds. Maxim trotted through the old Winter Riding School and the gardens till he came to the rear of the palace. He drew his pistol and, with Tomas at his side and a party of guards at his back, ascended the main stairs to explore the state rooms on the first floor. Apart from an occasional bewildered domestic, no one was to be seen. When questioned, the servants said that King Albert had not been in the palace for two days.
Maxim found the place shabby and run-down. He imagined it had not been properly maintained since Queen Flavia’s day, because the Thuringians had preferred to reside at Zenda. He took a private resolve to return to living at the modernised and handsome Osraeum as soon as he was able.
Looking out on the Rudolphs Platz through the tall windows of the state rooms, he remembered the last time he had been in the square. Albert still had to be made to pay for that massacre, but first he had to be found.
‘Find my royal standard and lower the Thuringian rag which flies over my palace.’
Tomas grinned and started shouting at the servants, who scurried off. They returned with a large, beautiful banner.
‘Sire, they say this is the standard which was draped over Queen Flavia’s coffin on her lying-in-state.’
‘Then there could be no more suitable way to announce the return of the Elphbergs to their ancient home. Have it up immediately!’
As Maxim and his escort rode out on to the Rudolphs Platz, he paused to look back and watch the great gold and red banner waving over the palace. For all the day’s tragedy, there was also consolation to be had.
The tragedy he had feared was evident at the southern end of the great square. The air became acrid with biting smoke. The shops on either side had been looted, their plate-glass windows smashed. Broken glass could be seen carpeting the Graben beyond the square.
Sitting astride his horse surveying the ruin of the city’s commercial heart, Maxim noticed khaki-clad soldiers start streaming out of the Domstrasse and Gildenfahrbsweg. Parties of Thuringian and Ruritanian prisoners were being herded before them. They were ordered to sit down along the southern side of the square.
Finally, Voydek and his staff emerged. He saluted the king and made his report. ‘The resistance is ended, sire, except for the Arsenal. We are besieging it, so if Albert is sheltered there, we’ll have him soon enough.’
‘I think he’s left the capital, Alfons.’
‘Then we will continue the pursuit. Count Bernenstein has ordered a general advance on Mittenheim and Ebersfeld. I would suggest you stay here, sire. This city needs its king now. There’s a lot of healing to be done. The sights to be seen in the Gildenfahrbsweg are heart-breaking.’
‘I’ll use the guards to keep order and fight the fires which are still smouldering.’
‘Then goodbye for now, majesty. There’s a long day’s labour still ahead of us.
Dealing with Major-General Langen was not like dealing with General Voydek. Voydek was direct and imaginative, Langen slow and obstructive. Maxim could see why Albert had promoted him to command the Guards Division. It would neutralise any danger of the guards acting as a political force. It had been Langen’s field officers who had raised the Elphberg flag and engaged the Thuringian garrison, while the general vacillated in his office.
Maxim did not feel able to remove Langen at that point. If he was going to be a constitutional monarch, he had to work within the structures already there. However, following yet another tedious lecture from the general on the impossibility of using his troops for civil relief efforts, Maxim had the idea of putting him in direct charge of the continuing siege of the Arsenal. After all, Langen only had to sit outside the fortifications and be shot at occasionally. Even he could do that.
Maxim then got Langen’s field officers to himself in the Osraeum, where he had taken up residence once again. He had also managed to find the mayor of the Neustadt and the police commandant.
The problems were appalling. Much of the Third District and parts of the Fifth were rubble and ashes. There were bodies lying unburied in the street. The water supply was polluted. Both gas and electricity were unavailable, while supplies of food were non-existent. People had not been able to get to their workplaces for days.
Maxim realised that everyone was looking at him to sort all this out. So he began issuing orders. Soldiers were sent to collect and identify the dead and take them to the churches. Others were to damp down the last fires and clear roads of rubble. Police were sent to locate the engineers who could restore services. Armed patrols were instituted in the commercial districts to prevent more looting. Banks were put under heavy guard. Church halls and schools were opened to house the homeless. Army engineers were sent out to help railway workmen repair the rail connections with the provinces.
The hardest problem was food. Maxim and the mayor devised a plan for contacting the nearby towns to invite traders to set up in a temporary market in the Rudolphs Platz.
Maxim also wondered whether to shift the seat of government to Hofbau for the time being, but soon realised that, although shattered, Strelzen was still the place people looked to as the centre of the realm. He had telegrams dispatched to summon the Reichsräthe to the capital from Hentzau. He needed their expertise and lawful authority.
In the meantime, he worried about the international situation. However, he did find some things to keep him cheerful. In quick succession that first afternoon, the ambassadors of France, Britain and Russia arrived at the Osraeum to present their credentials, thereby recognising Maxim as legitimate ruler of Rothenia. This might have been expected, but what was better, the Italian ambassador followed shortly after. The Triple Alliance had broken ranks.
Maxim went to bed late that night, and was awakened early. There was hot water for his shave, so it appeared the supply had been reconnected. The princes of Ostberg and Tarlenheim were waiting in his study, where he listened to the story of their night-time journey from Hentzau. Although the palace servants had obtained bread, the chamberlain confessed that milk was impossible, so the king and the princes had to be satisfied with a very basic sort of breakfast. It was as they were making the most of it that Count Liechtenstein, the Austrian ambassador, was announced. They stared at each other – this was unexpected to say the least.
Maxim stood to receive the man. Despite a bow that definitely acknowledged Maxim’s royal status, the ambassador avoided using the royal form of address.
‘Good morning to you too, excellency,’ replied Maxim. ‘It is a pleasure to welcome you. What can we do for you?’ He indicated a chair.
‘Sir, my government was in touch last night when the telegraph lines were restored.’
‘Yes, sir. May I say that I am a friend of the Baron Dönitz, a man who is still very influential with his imperial and royal majesty. Between ourselves, the baron has been quite busy in Vienna, to which he returned a few days ago. As a result of his efforts, I am commissioned to bring these proposals to you. I would urge you to consider them most carefully.
‘His imperial and royal majesty is prepared to offer recognition of your accession to the throne, though on certain conditions. Leaving aside the confirmation of existing postal and trade accords, they principally concern the fate of Albert of Thuringia. We would wish that he be released from custody if apprehended and given safe conduct to the German border.’
Maxim nodded. ‘I think we can agree on that.’
‘Secondly, there must be some compensation to the Thuringian dynasty for the loss of its claim to Ruritania.’
‘As you say, sir.’
‘Precisely what does his imperial and royal majesty’s government suggest?’
‘The duchy of Mittenheim has long been contested between the kingdom of Bavaria and … your realm. It has been the seat of several insurrections against rule from Strelsau. We suggest that the duchy might be better accommodated within the German empire, with Albert’s son recognised by you as hereditary duke.’
Ostberg and Tarlenheim looked astounded. Tarlenheim swore. Maxim stared. ‘Surely you do not expect us to take your suggestion seriously!’
The ambassador inclined his head. ‘Perhaps you would like some time to consider this?’
Maxim frowned. ‘My chamberlain will show you to the breakfast room, excellency. He will bring you a coffee – there is no milk, I’m afraid.’
As soon as the ambassador bowed himself out, Maxim threw himself into a chair. ‘Well my friends, what do you make of that?’
Ostberg twitched an eyebrow. ‘The Austrians are playing games here. Knowing that Albert has lost, they want to broker a peace before the German empire can act. They never wanted Albert’s family in power in Rothenia. It made our land an unofficial part of the Reich. This is one way to reverse the decision of 1880 and still look as though they are loyal allies of the Germans.’
Tarlenheim cursed. ‘The price he is asking is far too high. Mittenheim has been ours for well over a century, and belongs to the Elphbergs by hereditary right.’
Ostberg frowned. ‘Unfortunately we must negotiate and be seen to be reasonable. But to have Albert in Mittenheim is not reasonable, even with the face-saving device of his son as titular duke. There are loyal Mittenheimers who would be appalled, and see it as betrayal. Let’s have the ambassador back and see if there is room for manoeuvre.’
The ambassador nodded when told of the refusal. ‘Dönitz said it would not do, so he suggested this alternative. Would you offer an indemnity to the Thuringians for the loss of their income?’
‘That seems more reasonable. How big an indemnity?’
Ostberg sputtered at the size of the sum the ambassador suggested. Then he looked even more astounded when Maxim agreed. As soon as the ambassador had departed, Maxim held up his hand. ‘I will provide the money. It will strip the Hentzau estate of its capital, but it won’t cost the State a penny. Hopefully, I will be able to restore the deficit by the time my nephew inherits Hentzau.’
‘Why do you think Albert will agree to surrender his title?’
‘We can leave it up to generals Bernenstein, Sterlinger and Voydek to make sure he has little choice. The city of Ebersfeld surrendered with hardly a shot this morning, and the province of Merz with it. Our troops are taking up positions along the Saxon frontier. Albert and his Thuringians have been driven back on Mittenheim. Albert of Ruritania is in the last days of his reign, whether he likes it or not. I have no doubt the kaiser will continue to call him king, but I think Von Aerenthal at the Austrian foreign ministry knows more than we do.’
Tarlenheim looked bewildered. ‘Why do you say that, majesty?’
‘He would not go it alone like this, I’m sure, unless he knew something about relations between Albert and the kaiser. He must realise the Germans are vacillating in their support.’
Prince Ostberg nodded. ‘I’m sure you’re right, sire. I wonder if Albert’s treatment of his wife may be behind it. Kaiser Wilhelm is a very strait-laced man, and Queen Caroline is his cousin, a closer cousin than Albert is.’
Maxim continued, ‘There may be even more to it. Wilhelmstrasse had to have known what was going on here. They cannot have been too impressed with Albert’s recklessness. It was on show enough back in the last days of Queen Flavia, and they must have some inkling of the way the man bloodied his hands with murder in the past. Albert may be clever, but he is a poor judge of people. His impatience to have his way must have rung alarms in the German government. I think maybe Von Aerenthal in Vienna has been in touch with Wilhelmstrasse, and knows they have lost confidence in the Thuringian monarchy. The Germans only need a face-saving device to accept me as king, so let’s give it to them.’
Prince Franz was beginning to smile. ‘You really think we may have won?’
‘Yes, Franz, I believe perhaps we have won this round, though the fight is by no means done yet. There remain a lot of issues to resolve.’
The black Daimlers were waiting outside the Osraeum, their engines running. Maxim was pacing the entrance hall as Tomas and the servants loaded the baggage. He was grateful to be out of borrowed uniforms at last and back into the frock coats he had got used to wearing as a member of the Reichsräthe. He knew kings were expected to be soldiers, but Maxim, though personally brave, was a politician born.
A stir at the door and the sound of a female voice high in altercation with the guardsmen now stationed in the forecourt announced the arrival of Antonia. Maxim, to his immediate shame, had forgotten her problems in the many others that had fallen on his shoulders. He sent a footman to have the Countess Rechtenberg admitted.
Antonia looked different, and it was a while before Maxim could work out why. He took her by the arm and led her into a side room. When they were alone, she clung to him.
‘Toni, what are you doing?’
‘Max, that swine has my son. I want him back!’
Maxim sighed. ‘I know quite how much of a swine that man is. He had my brother killed. Much though I would like to put a sword between his ribs and think it just, I cannot. I have to get him out of my kingdom and start rebuilding it.’
‘Are you telling me that you will not help me?’
‘I’m saying that I cannot help you. It’s heartbreaking, but there is much more at issue than my brother and your son.’
She separated and looked at Maxim as though he were a stranger. ‘But it’s my child he has stolen.’
‘And his too. Toni, how can I go to Zenda and write in the custody of your son as a sub-clause in the peace settlement?’
‘You can insist.’
‘I will mention it. But I have no power. The boy may be out of the country by now.’
‘Then what am I to do?’
‘The German empire has courts. Your father will buy the best lawyers in the land and harass Albert unmercifully. In Germany he is not above the law, even with the friendship of the kaiser … a friendship I actually doubt he has any longer.’
‘Then take me with you to Zenda.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Shout and scream, and accuse the man to the whole world!’
‘Well, that should add to the excitement of the conference. I think you would be better occupied in going to find your father and making your apologies to him. He will be more help than a hundred kings, dukes and ambassadors.’
‘I’m sorry you cannot take this tragedy more seriously.’
Maxim finally saw what had changed about Antonia. There was a wild look of obsession in her eyes. He mentally shrugged. As a mother robbed of her child, she had every reason to be on the verge of breakdown.
‘I have to go, Toni. What I can do I will, but listen to me when I tell you to go to your father.’
He embraced her and left, striding out and into his car. Tomas took the front seat with the driver. The car pulled off, two others following, to speed out of town along the Lindenstrasse. Before they took the road up towards the Spa, however, Maxim ordered a diversion down Festungstrasse. The convoy pulled to a halt outside number 445, and Maxim entered.
‘My word, your excellency, I mean, your majesty! I never thought to see you here.’
‘How are you, and Frau Zelikin?’
‘Very troubled by these times, sir. Frau Zelikin was in the market today in the Rudolphs Platz, and they were selling meat at something unreasonable. But bread and vegetables are coming into the city at least. Do you want Herr and Frau Underwood?’
‘You have read my mind.’
‘I believe Frau Underwood is in.’
Maxim found Helga in total surprise at his appearance. ‘My word! Dearest Max!’
He smiled and she flung herself around his neck. ‘How are you two?’
‘It has been hard, very hard, but the king is slowly making things better, I’m glad to say.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard that he’s quite a ball of energy.’
Helga laughed. ‘Handsome, too. All the ladies are in love with him.’
‘Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the imperial German government. I have to go and reach some sort of settlement with it today, but I had to come see my friends first. Also, I have a favour to ask.’
Maxim explained the situation with Antonia. He saw the outrage in Helga’s eyes and knew he could leave her to find Antonia and offer what comfort she could. He took a tender leave and headed back to his car.
They reached the valley of the Ebrendt and the forest of Zenda at midday. A squadron of cavalry was waiting for them at Festenburg, where Maxim was to reside during the conference. The château of Zenda was visible in the valley below. Maxim knew the Thuringian banner was still raised over it. It flew now only at the château and in the duchy of Mittenheim beyond the river. His business that day was to make sure it would never fly over Rothenian soil again.
Maxim and Prince Franz made an inspection of the recent damage to Festenburg. They were accompanied by the prince’s uncle and namesake, Maxim’s chief-of-staff. A wing had been gutted by fire, some priceless art lost.
‘It was a petty stroke of Albert’s hatred for my family. A squad from the Thuringian garrison of Zenda were sent up to do what mischief they could. They retreated when my keepers began shooting at them from the forest. They were more bandits than soldiers.’
By the end of the afternoon, the Rothenian delegation was gathered in the library of Festenburg. It included the leaders of the Reichsräthe, generals Bernenstein and Von Tarlenheim, and the bishop of Luchau.
There was a long discussion about the terms proposed by the Austrians, and the shape of the German delegation. The State Secretary for Foreign Affairs was to be the chair of the opposing side. Albert himself was to be present, which led to some argument about how he was to be addressed. Maxim terminated it by saying that he was a king, and once a king he remained royal till he died. If he wished to be called King of Ruritania, that was fine as far as Maxim was concerned, since Ruritania was not a place that existed anymore.
Albert was indeed present when they reached the château of Zenda. A long table was laid in the centre of a ballroom, with ranks of chairs around it. The Thuringians present were limited to Albert, glowering at Maxim from a seat next to the German State Secretary, and the generals Meyer and Messinger, looking unhappy. They were outnumbered by the German members, all of them from their foreign office.
The Germans were plainly in charge of negotiation, and gave the Thuringians little chance to intervene and complicate matters. The Austrian proposal was brought forward and broadly accepted after a speech from each side, with Ostberg leading for the Rothenian delegation.
Then the hard work on the details began. The Thuringians presented a list of art works they wanted from their former palaces, or for which they required compensation. Maxim only allowed them those which had been commissioned and installed in the last thirty years. He gave a wintry smile when he saw the dissatisfaction on the Thuringian faces. None of Albert’s two predecessors had been in the least interested in art of any sort. Jewels and property belonging to the Thuringian family were readily conceded.
The Germans then moved on to the titles which the Thuringian family would claim, at which point Maxim annoyed them in a different way by showing absolutely no interest, except insofar as it concerned the baby Leopold. ‘The child may not be called duke of Mittenheim, which is within my kingdom. You may call him royal highness if you wish, or even prince of Ruritania, but not Mittenheim.’ He paused. ‘You have not mentioned his mother, the Countess Rechtenberg.’
The German head of delegation stole a swift look at Albert. ‘I have no instructions about her.’
‘Does the Thuringian delegation wish to request some pension or allowance for the former royal mistress? Does it wish her to have liberty to join her son in Ernsthof? Surely you must have some demands relating to the mother of the future duke of Thuringia.’
Silence greeted Maxim’s sarcasm. Only Albert did not look down. He merely looked bored. The man really is not entirely human, Maxim concluded.
Negotiations continued. Dates were set for delivery of the first indemnity payment, and for the handing over of Zenda and Mittenheim. At the end of the meeting, both sides rose and inclined their heads, though no one shook hands.
With Count Bernenstein, Maxim went out on to the grand terrace of the handsome château. ‘A beautiful place, Bernenstein,’ he observed.
‘Yes, sire. A place very important in the history of your family, as I’m sure you know. It was a castle of the Elphbergs even before they inherited Rothenia; it is the ancient home of your dynasty. Elphberg itself is a bit of a disappointment, just a ruined tower on a rock in the Rhineland.’
‘It will be good when Zenda is the home of the Elphbergs once again.’
Maxim paused and looked solemn. ‘General Bernenstein?’
‘You have fought the good fight and been as loyal a servant of the Elphbergs as any has ever been. I owe my crown to your steadfastness and your intelligence.’
‘Sire.’ The old man looked away.
‘And now I have to ask you to retire.’
‘I understand sire, there are new young men, very capable young men, who are ready to take over.’
‘And who would you recommend for the Chief of General Staff?’
‘Franz von Tarlenheim, of course.’
‘Then the post shall be his. I shall promote him to be full general.’
‘A good decision, sire.’
‘I think so. But I have one other promotion in mind.’
‘Ah yes, Sterlinger or Voydek.’
‘Actually no. Those two gentlemen are at the rank they should be, and I will put them in the places they ought to be. I shall appoint Voydek to the command of the Merz and Mittenheim districts, and Sterlinger to the Strelzen district – we use the Rothenian name from now on, not Strelsau. No, it’s you I’m thinking about. The last Marshal of Ruritania was old Stracenz, who defeated the Bavarians in 1814. Now it’s your turn. I have here your baton, Field Marshal Bernenstein.’
The old man knelt and kissed the king’s hand.
Maxim raised him with a laugh. ‘The uniform is spectacular. I was measured for mine yesterday. You’ll look good in it at the coronation.’
Maxim’s reign was formally proclaimed the next day in Strelzen, where he heard the concussions of the twenty-one gun salute booming from Bila Palacz. The cardinal-archbishop appeared with Prince Ostberg, who read out the proclamation on Erchbischoffsplatz to cheering crowds. The Church had discretely withdrawn its objection to Maxim’s inconvenient ancestry.
He held his second Staatsrath at the Osraeum, when he received the German and Austrian ambassadors. The German envoy even brought a personal note of congratulation from the kaiser, so it seemed there was not to be any grudge held against him at Potsdam.
Then the council got down to business. One of the first items was deeply amusing to Maxim. It was the nature and styles of his relatives.
‘Royal family, highness?’ Maxim laughed.
‘You have sisters, sire, and a nephew, not to mention a mother still living.’
‘I suppose I had not thought about that. Well, what do you suggest?’
‘You have to nominate an heir apparent. That can only be your nephew, the child earl of Burlesdon. He is a British subject, and we have to be circumspect here as his father was not royal. He cannot be crown prince or duke of Mittenheim, for only your son can be that.’
‘What do you propose?’
‘On such matters you alone can determine.’
‘Very well. Let him be count of Hentzau, as it is not a title I need any longer.’
‘And the form of address?’
‘I suppose “Your Excellency”, as I was. But my sisters … that’s a different matter, yes?’
‘Indeed. They share your status, and so may be royal highnesses and princesses of Rothenia.’
‘How little Maria will love that! My mother, then?’
‘She was married to the man who ought to have been our king but never was, so she cannot have royal status. I suggest some other mark of distinction. The title of Glottenberg is one the royal family has used.’
‘Excellent. Then let her be “Highness” and “Duchess of Glottenberg”; it will be one way their royal highnesses my sisters can be kept under control. What’s next?’
‘The Hague Convention, sire.’
‘With Albert out of the way, we can go ahead and declare our status as a neutral nation. We shall do so when we ratify the convention. Are there any problems with this?’
‘Not at all. The Austrians are very keen that we do so. They see it as helpful to themselves in case of war.’
‘Then we will proceed with its approval as soon as the new parliament is elected and a government formed. And now on to the reconstruction of the Third District.’
Maps were produced and pored over. Where large stretches of the decayed southeastern quarter of the Neustadt had been destroyed, troops and contractors were now engaged in clearing the sites. Since the city’s old rookeries and criminal districts had been in that area, all Maxim could do was propose that money be made available for rehousing the poor and dispossessed. Upon learning that landholding patterns in the district were complex and difficult to sort out, Maxim asked for the nomination of a commission to investigate and report. Ostberg undertook to push on with it.
The council broke for lunch, then continued into the late afternoon. Maxim invited the princes to have dinner with him and Tomas Bernenstein, now captain of the Life Guard as well as his adjutant. Discussion carried on into cigars and port, leaving Maxim satisfactorily exhausted by bedtime.
The next day was his first formal levée, the beginning of his new ceremonial life. He awarded decorations and honours, wore his uniform with great style, and was charming to all. The Osraeum was on the small side for such occasions, but he had decided the old palace was not a place he wished to inhabit until it could be thoroughly renovated. It might be some time before funds were available to undertake that work, because the indemnity to Albert of Thuringia had stripped him of his former wealth. It was the same excuse he’d made when a party of the Reichsräthe had respectfully asked him whether he had plans to marry.
A train took him the next morning to Mittenheim. It was going to be a difficult day. German troops had withdrawn the previous night, and the Thuringian banner had come down over the city. Everything had been done in good order, with General Voydek’s khaki-clad troops escorting the prisoners taken by his forces and at the Arsenal to the frontier. Then they had retired to barracks and left the streets to the civil police.
Maxim was determined not to enter the city like a conqueror, so he appeared off the train in his frock coat. The civic authorities made a good effort to be welcoming, though crowds were thin on the street as he rode in a carriage to the Raathaus.
The language issue was one which Maxim had to deal with on a number of occasions. Would street and town names change under the new language act? Would support be withdrawn for German-language schools and colleges? Would the learning of Rothenian be compulsory in Mittenheimer classrooms? He departed the city with the distinct impression that Albert of Thuringia had left him a mass of problems which he could do little about. He was going to be the constitutional monarch that Albert had never intended to be. The government and parliament were supposed to deal with these things – with his advice, of course.
As the Crown of Tassilo descended on to his head in the cathedral of Strelzen ten days later, Maxim’s mind was still engaged in trying to resolve the same problem. Tomorrow the first general election of his reign would be held. What parliament would he have to deal with? What calibre of men would hold the future of Rothenia in their hands?
END OF PART ONE