MAXIM ELPHBERG - XVI
It was a deceptively lazy July day on the lawns between the château of Zenda and the eaves of the great forest. A picnic was in progress that looked very like a summer idyll, yet there was little that was tranquil in the hearts of the participants.
King Maxim, pacing the grass with his friend and agent Oskar Franz von Tarlenheim, was commenting on the fact. ‘Poor Helga. It had to come. Paul is a patriotic man and has loyally done his duty here in Rothenia, but he has carried out his service sitting at a desk while his friends have been risking and losing their lives in Flanders.’
‘When is he to leave?’
‘Tomorrow. He will take the train to Rechtenberg and cross the frontier with papers we have provided. He will carry on first into Switzerland, then to France.’
‘What are his plans?’
‘He will go to London to make his last report before enlisting in the East Suffolk Yeomanry as an officer.’
‘Helga is being very brave. He won’t let her go with him. He wants her and his children to stay in safety in Rothenia.’ Maxim contemplated Helga, sitting on the grass, her two blond children hanging about her. It was a beautiful sight and affected him oddly.
Osku too looked depressed, but brightened at the sound of distant laughter. A slim young woman in a white dress, her hat in her hand, ran down a bank, a handsome man in pursuit. ‘Take care, Maus!’ shouted Maxim as she tumbled and rolled to the bottom, still laughing. HRH Princess Maria of Rothenia lay waiting for Major Tomas Bernenstein to pull her to her feet. They kissed as he got her upright. Their engagement had been announced the previous week.
Maxim had given his permission readily. Tomas was just the sort of steady, good-natured man who would complement Maria’s wilful and playful character. The Bernensteins were a family to which there could be no objection on the grounds of distinction and lineage, although Maxim would have to make Tomas count of somewhere. So that was the last of his sisters matched. His mother was very pleased. Katherine had married into the house of Wittelsbach, and was now resident at Nymphenburg. Helena had made a distinguished match with one of the minor Hapsburg archdukes, and was living in Hungary with Uncle Stefan while her husband was commanding a division against the Italians in the Trentino.
‘What about our other problem?’ Maxim asked Osku.
‘You mean the economy? The government? The social unrest?’
‘You’d better ask father.’
Maxim went to join Count Hugo, sitting hand in hand with his Sissi on a tartan blanket.
‘You know, Max, with the smells of summer round me and birdsong in the air, I really do feel like a man in a well-built house on an island in the Pacific in the middle of a great storm. War is on all our borders, and yet peace reigns in Rothenia. You were so wise to pledge our land to neutrality. The world has gone mad.’
‘The madness does not stop at our borders, Hugo. You know that.’
‘But the deaths of millions of young men, the clouds of poison gas, the atrocities and murders of civilians, we at least are spared that.’
‘Not entirely. You know that a Mittenheimer battalion has been formed within the Thuringian division in the German imperial army. It seems to find recruits. I can’t stop it happening, though I wish I could.’
‘There are always fools and romantics.’
‘It was the commander of the Thuringian division I wished to talk about.’
‘Ex-king Albert of Ruritania, yes. Fighting Russians for his kaiser in Galicia, I understand.’
‘Have you heard what Gus Underwood is going to do about his grandson?’
Hugo looked pensive. ‘He is proposing to go to Thuringia, though it is dangerous. He may be a Rothenian national now, yet he was born in England. If he ever came under suspicion, the German authorities would be ruthless with him.’
‘She is with him at the house Gus and Anton have built above Pietersberg, I think. She and her father still have not given up hope of gaining access to the boy through the courts. They were making a lot of progress till the outbreak of war. Then everything slowed down, however much money Gus brought to bear on the problem.’
‘So now he’s going to try personal pressure. Who looks after little Prince Leopold?’
‘There is a nanny at the palace, I imagine. I wonder what Queen Caroline thinks about it, let alone his half-sister the princess, what is her name? … Victoria Matild. She must be seventeen now.’ Hugo shook his head. ‘Albert’s domestic arrangements seem strange to me, and no one could accuse us Tarlenheims of being at all conventional.’
‘Hugo, the two of them must not be alone and unsupported when they go to Ernsthof. Thuringia is a dangerous place. Imagine a principality ruled by so debased a man as Albert, and how he would corrupt its life.’
‘What do you suggest, Max?’
‘We have intelligence agents in Thuringia, and your brother Franz will order them to keep watch over Gus and his daughter. Our consul there may be of some use too. But I would rather others went with them.’
‘Whom do you suggest?’
‘That was a question I was going to ask you, Hugo.’
The older man thought a while, then whispered in Sissi’s ear. She frowned and bit her lip. He answered, ‘There’s Welf. He’s twenty-seven now and has not settled down in life. Although we’re certain he would be a fine academic with his many linguistic gifts, there are no jobs of that sort in Rothenia. Until this cursèd war began, we had thought of sending him to the institutes in London or Berlin, where we have contacts. He spends time with Osku in the capital, or in his room on his various projects when he’s with us. But he is not settling to anything. At least Osku has his profession, and a lady friend at last. Maybe this mission will shake Welf out of his lassitude. The boy has capacities far beyond the academic, if only he can find himself.’
Maxim pondered this and what he knew of Welf, a shy, disengaged young man with a disturbingly close resemblance to his late uncle Oskar. ‘Can you think of a plausible way of sending him to Ernsthof?’
‘As a matter of fact I can. When the old duke of Thuringia, Ernst Albert IV, was a young man, he did the Grand Tour in style. He came back from Italy with a huge amount of ancient Tuscan sculpture, including a range of uncatalogued inscriptions. His cabinet is now in the Ernestinum, the museum and art gallery in the city, where I know the curator. I could write and introduce Welf. He could spend some time innocently studying there, while at the same time keeping an eye on Gus and Antonia and reporting back to us.’
Sissi intervened just then. ‘I hope you are not thinking of sending Welf into danger.’
Hugo gripped her hand. ‘Darling, Welf is a man and not a child. You would not have dreamed of saying that about Henry, and he is only twenty-one.’
‘But he is a lieutenant of hussars. He has embraced danger as a part of his life.’
‘Welf needs to find his way and maybe this is his chance.’
Maxim realized that a long-running discussion between the couple lay behind those remarks and moved the conversation on. ‘What did you think of Tildemann’s last speech in parliament?’
Welf von Tarlenheim blinked at his father as he removed his spectacles. ‘I’m sorry, sir?’
‘It’s the king’s service, Welf. His majesty has asked especially for you. You know the story of Antonia Underwood and her misfortunes. The king wishes to help, but cannot be seen openly to involve himself in the affairs of Thuringia. He needs agents there who know her, and he has asked that you be one of them.’
‘But sir …’
‘Welf, my dear, what are you doing with your life?’
‘You read and study, I know that. But you have no proposed publication of which I am aware, no book that you plan to write, no great project.’
‘There is the corpus of Etruscan inscriptions.’
‘Indeed there is. But have you looked for a publisher? It remains on cards in boxes. Do you correspond with other scholars? Jameson at the British Museum, for instance?’
‘The war has made communication very difficult.’
‘Welf, dear, it’s time you thought about what you would like to do in life.’
Welf sighed. He had known this talk would have to come at some time. It was true, he had been happy to coast along in life. Pottering around the edges of the great linguistic questions of his day had been sufficient to satisfy his intellectual ambitions. He had sunk into the warmth of the family home at Templerstadt where he was content. If he needed excitement of a different sort, he could travel to the capital, meet friends and end up in the arms of the amiable girls of the Maison de Venus. But even he had realised he was missing something in life. Perhaps his father was right. Perhaps he needed to put his head up above the rut into which he had fallen.
‘As you say, sir. Of course, if the king wants my service, I know my duty as a Tarlenheim.’
Count Hugo smiled. ‘Said like a true son of our house. There will be some danger in this, Welf. You will be going into a country engaged in a war to death with its neighbours. Although it won’t be your part to put yourself in harm’s way, even so, who can know what will happen in the strangeness and hysteria of these days. But you can take care of yourself. You manage gun and rapier as well as Henry.’
Hugo laughed. He knew the rivalry between his two younger sons. ‘You are to go to the king and your Uncle Franz for further information, and soon. You had best telephone your brother in Strelzen and warn him of your imminent arrival. The king will see you tomorrow afternoon at the Osraeum.’
Welf put down his book as the train from Modenheim ground to a stop in the middle of the tunnel which ran under the Spa hills to come out at Strelzen’s Westbahnhof. There was a moment of silence before the murmur of conversation from neighbouring compartments began. Sitting in the dim electric lamplight with only blackness outside the window, he stared at his reflection in the glass. The girls he slept with at the Maison de Venus always took off his glasses before they engaged in sex, then cooed at him about his good looks. He knew they didn’t do so just to rouse his passion. He had seen pictures of his Uncle Oskar, whom people said he looked very much like, apart from the spectacles. And if he looked like his uncle, then he was handsome. Striking in appearance though he ought to have been, however, he could never quite manage to overcome the effects of his scholar’s stoop and reclusive demeanour. His father had told him Oskar used to turn the heads of both men and women in the street, but somehow Welf never excited that sort of attention. It puzzled rather than annoyed him.
When the train finally jerked into motion once again, it delayed only a few minutes before emerging into daylight and the sidings outside the Westbahnhof. Welf took down his bags from the rack and went in search of a taxi. He had his own key to Osku’s apartment on Osragasse, where he made himself comfortable with a hot drink and got back to his book, a reconstruction of Hittite syntax which Welf found gripping.
Osku arrived rather later than anticipated, late enough in fact for Welf to have considered going out for a meal alone. The brothers embraced tightly, for they were and always had been very close.
‘Dinner?’ asked Osku.
‘You have no plans with Cecilie?’
‘She’s at her mother’s in Luchau.’ Cecilie was the young woman to whom Osku was on the verge of proposing marriage, as everybody knew, including the woman herself. The only obstacle was the last rampart of Osku’s long cherished bachelorhood, which was finally crumbling.
‘Then let’s do the Fourth District and … well, do you still go there?’
Osku laughed. ‘Yes. Cecilie and I are very chaste as lovers. She is preserving herself for the marriage bed. She has a personal devotion to her name saint, who was, as you know, a virgin as well as a musician. So when old Adam needs release, I’m down at the Maison as much as ever. Madame has brought in some new girls. You’ll like them. It must be two months since you were last in town.’
After a long dinner, the two brothers made their way down Gildenfahrbsweg. Somehow, despite the fire that had destroyed many of the older buildings in the area seven years before, the rebuilding had preserved the seedy ambience. The Maison de Venus was one of the older buildings to have survived, a solid construction in eighteenth-century brick. Rumour had it that soldiers and firemen had fought particularly hard to stop the fires of 1910 from reaching Gildenfahrbsweg 366.
Osku tapped the door and a flood of pink light spilled out on to the street as they were admitted by a muscular doorman.
‘Monsieurs Oskar et Welf! Bienvenue!’ Madame Celestine had moved from Paris to open her establishment in Strelzen at the turn of the century. Oskar Franz had been one of her earliest customers and her most regular since. Welf doubted that his brother would ever be able to give up the pleasures of the house, marriage or not. As for himself, it kept him sane. He reached for a glass of white wine on a side table.
Welf was nearly late the next morning for his twelve-o’clock appointment with the king. He was still bleary after a night of exhausting pleasures, not having slipped out of the Maison de Venus until seven, several hours after Osku had left. When he got back to Osragasse, he’d found his brother with coffee waiting. They had compared notes about their night with a frankness that Welf never extended to anyone else.
Reaching the Osraeum, Welf approached the police lieutenant on the main gate and introduced himself. He was expected and escorted across the forecourt, past the guards and through an inconspicuous side door. A passage and narrow stairs brought him to the office of the king’s private secretary. He had to wait only for a few minutes before Maxim himself appeared. The king shook his hand, placed an arm round his shoulder and ushered him in.
‘Now, Welf, take a seat there and let’s get down to business. I think your father and uncle must have explained much of what’s happening.’
Welf nodded. ‘I’m not to have open contact with the Underwoods, but to keep in touch in more secret ways with Uncle August. I am to channel to him any messages from our agents in Ernsthof. I also have to contact a Colonel Sachert, who is the head of our Thuringian bureau.’
‘He’s a good man, the best in his line in fact. He runs all our operations in Germany. ‘All our sources are telling us that things are beginning to come apart in the empire. That’s principally where your danger will lie, I fear. There are already labour strikes. The German economy is devastated by the appalling mortality of this modern form of warfare. People behave strangely in such times. We here in Rothenia are very much on an island of peace in a boiling ocean of hatred and fear. God save it does not swamp us.’
Welf had the undivided attention of his country’s head of state and was not going to waste the opportunity. ‘Sir, I would like to ask what you think of the present situation.’
Maxim smiled. ‘I think I know why you ask. We here in Rothenia have our problems too. There are all sorts of shortages in our cities caused by the disruption of trade. Our farmers are making huge profits exporting food to our neighbours, but that affects our own people, who are facing price rises at home as food is diverted abroad.
‘Then there is the industrial situation. Although our capitalists are forbidden from manufacturing war materials for export, still they try. They see our scrupulous neutrality not as a safeguard but as an obstacle to enormous profits. So they pump money into the political parties which they think will lift the controls. I have no sympathy with those people. My own factories and ironworks at Eisendorf would make me the richest man in Europe were I as greedy as they are. But the rise in our domestic industrial production has restored much of my fortune as it is, without having to make any such moral or ethical compromises.’
‘The country seems … restless, sir.’
‘Yes, Welf. To answer your question, you need only look at our government over the past four years. One compromised and talentless administration after another, all self-satisfied and complacent Christian Democrats in the pay of the industrialists and landed interests. They will not pass social measures that would help the dispossessed and poor, but would also lead to higher taxes for their supporters. They have no ability to guide our land through these dangerous times. If I did not regularly veto it, their legislation would put our neutral status in peril and open us to invasion.’
‘But sir, somehow it’s you who is always blamed and criticised.’
Maxim gave a lopsided smile. ‘How ironic, isn’t it? Because I try hard to work with our elected parliaments, however incompetent, I always seem to get blamed by the social reformers for the worst excesses of the government. Meanwhile, the moneyed interests behind it subject me to a constant battery of abuse in their publications. The job of the king is a hard one. Somehow I have to hold things together, because no one else can.’
‘Yes, sir.’ There was more Welf would have liked to ask, but he knew he had taken up enough of the king’s time.
‘You will be given a belt of gold coins when you leave here today. Gold is hard to come by in these difficult times, so a little of it goes a very long way. It will allow you to do much, I think, but most of it is for the use of Gus Underwood.’ Maxim stood, shook Welf’s hand and sent him off with a blessing that Welf much appreciated.
An elderly gentleman in a suit was awaiting Welf in the secretary’s office. He smiled and introduced himself as Herr Mommsen of the Strelsener Credit Bank. He held a leather case which he handed to Welf, along with a receipt to be signed for it. Welf took the small case and knew at once why it was so very heavy for its size.
By the time Welf returned to his brother’s flat, Osku had gone to his chambers. Welf opened the case to find a canvas belt sewn with many pockets, each containing two metal disks. Pulling one out, he found it to be a Ruritanian rose gold Flaviener. He admired the rich texture of the heavy coin, which took its name from the portrait bust of the late queen on the obverse. It had a face value of fifty krone, but Welf knew that in the present circumstances its real value was far greater. He buckled the belt on over his shirt, to try it on, and found it not too uncomfortable. He thought he could get used to it.
Welf spread his papers on Osku’s dining table. He had his Rothenian passport, letters of introduction from his old professors at the Rudolfer Universität and, most important, a typed and official letter from the Custodian of the Ernestinum, Dr Gasse, welcoming him by name for a period of study in that institution. He would leave the next day.
There were instructions he had received from his uncle Franz, the chief of general staff, which Welf had committed to memory. ‘Remember, Welf, you now know enough to hang a dozen men apart from yourself. I do not need to tell you to be discrete.’
Welf stood at the window and looked down into the street outside, gazing at the pedestrians and the occasional motor vehicle or carriage as they passed by. He realized he must get used to watching people a lot more carefully than he had done before. How did he feel about this mission? He did not feel fearful, he knew, but that might be a consequence of his inability to imagine the dangers.
A studious and withdrawn man, Welf was able to shut out the world for long periods while turning his attention towards his inner intellectual realm. There were times when he was happy to have little contact with the rest of the human race. This was why he was content when he was at Templerstadt. The warmth of his family home and his beloved parents saved him from the loneliness which might otherwise have welled up in him.
It was all very odd. Despite wanting human contact, he found that people – even friends – sooner or later cloyed on him. At such times, he would withdraw into himself for a period of peace and intellectual concentration, only to be driven back eventually as the cold of his voluntary isolation began to tell on him. The sex he had with Madame Celestine’s girls satisfied his bodily lusts. He could not bear the idea of a relationship with a woman which was more than occasional. You are selfish, he said to himself in his head, as he often did. You lack sympathy with your fellows. You have no humanity.
Thus Welf was not a happy man, and his parents knew it. His father’s response had been to push him into a world of affairs he could not ignore, and a reality he could not evade.
It had been ten years since Welf had travelled to Germany. The last time had been on a family trip to Dresden to visit relatives. He had been his father’s eyes on that occasion, observing the Hohenzollern empire at the height of its power. He remembered the bustle of Saxony, the many bright uniforms, and the sense of a great nation working together for a purpose.
The war had left its sombre mark on the country. Germany had lost its colour and its prosperity. Soldiers in drab uniforms and poorly fitting greatcoats were everywhere. People looked furtive and worried. Shops appeared empty.
After taking leave of his parents and obtaining their blessing in the Rothenian way, Welf had crossed the border at Modenheim, where German bureaucracy was on full display. The train had been run into a siding and all the passengers ordered off. There were long queues as each traveller was individually interrogated about their business beyond the frontier. Welf’s letter from the Ernestinum had been pored over, his papers scrutinised, his bag searched.
Fortunately, no one had seen the need to search his person. His uncle had told him that gold smuggling was an offence that would have put him behind bars with hard labour for ten years.
Once the train had got under way again, it was a short haul to Bayreuth. Then there was a long wait for the next train to Thuringia and Ernsthof. Welf settled into a station café, where the coffee was an astonishing price and the food scanty. But being Welf, he was able to block all this out and sink into an edition of an obscure Sumerian epic.
The arrival of the Ernsthof train took him by surprise, and he hastily gathered up his bags. He had booked a first-class carriage in the hopes of an empty compartment, but he was disappointed. A young woman travelling alone took the opposite seat at the window.
‘Good afternoon, fraulein.’ Welf had been brought up to be polite and, as a Rothenian, expected to engage in conversation on trains. He found it an irritating national characteristic.
The woman simply nodded and looked out the window. It was as the dark and forested Thuringian hills closed around the tracks that the door shot open and an army officer swayed inside, dumping himself on the bench next to the woman. His obvious intoxication was clear enough to Welf, and also to the woman, who shifted away from him.
The officer, a lieutenant, was determined to be sociable. He was not a particularly attractive specimen, stout and red-faced, a sign perhaps that the proud imperial army had dropped its standards under the pressure of a world war.
‘Good day, fraulein. Tell me, are you travelling far?’
She did not answer, but blushed and looked down. The officer flushed in turn, feeling himself snubbed no doubt. If Welf had been a different man, he would have thought to distract the lieutenant with conversation at that point, but he did not anticipate the man’s drunken persistence.
He rounded on her. ‘Are you a loyal subject of the emperor, woman?’
She shrank further away from him, and nodded mutely.
‘Then show some respect for the uniform of his army. Answer me! Where is your destination!’
‘Ernsthof,’ she murmured.
‘What is your purpose there!’
By then she was incoherent with distress.
Welf could not stop himself from intervening reasonably. ‘Sir, perhaps you might moderate your tone. You are upsetting the lady.’
The lieutenant glowered at him. ‘The devil with you!’
Welf was a Tarlenheim, and all the spirit of his noble ancestors surfaced in his next remark. ‘The emperor, I believe, takes pride in the fact that the officers of his army are gentlemen. You might ponder, sir, how he might regard your present behaviour.’
The officer swore and stood, swaying with more than the motion of the train. ‘Your papers. You are no German, I think, but some stinking foreign spy. Give me your goddamned papers now!’
But Welf was indeed no German, oppressed by the tyranny of an imperial bureaucracy, flinching at the sight of a uniform. ‘I don’t think so, lieutenant. Firstly because you have no warrant to ask, secondly because you are drunk, and thirdly …’
The officer lunged towards Welf, fiddling for his pistol at his belt. Welf easily evaded his grasp and kicked the legs from under the man, who fell heavily on the floor, winding himself as he came down on his back. Welf reached for the pistol, and the officer lay staring up into the barrel of his own gun.
‘You will pay for this, you swine. You have assaulted an imperial officer!’
‘But no gentleman, I think. Please shut your fat mouth. If I were a foreign spy, you would be in serious trouble now, don’t you think?’
The train lurched and shuddered to a halt at a signal. Welf had already realised that he was himself in serious trouble and was beginning his secret mission in just about the worst possible way. Seeing steam creeping up beyond the window of the outside carriage door, he suddenly knew what to do. He quickly threw the door open. ‘Stand, you oaf!’ he commanded. When the officer obliged, his hands up, Welf took him by the scruff.
‘What are you …?’
In that instant, the train lurched forward again. Welf placed a foot in the small of the man’s back and pushed him out on to the track side, where he tumbled down a low embankment and into some bushes. The train picked up speed, leaving the officer well behind. Welf wondered whether to throw the 9mm Luger out after him, but decided to pocket it instead. The cool head he had inherited from his warrior ancestors was ticking over the problem even as he closed the carriage door.
The woman was staring wide-eyed at Welf.
‘Are you alright?’ he asked.
‘What did you do? You will be arrested. Imprisoned!’
He looked at her. It registered that she was pretty enough, though there was a certain strength to her face that was emphasised by her clenched jaw.
Welf smiled pleasantly. His Tarlenheim blood was up, and he was, in his way, enjoying himself. ‘I suppose they must first catch me … now, are you alright?’
‘Yes, I am … thank you.’
‘Good. Tell me, are there any stops between here and Ernsthof?’
‘No, the train is an express to the city. Are you thinking the officer may be able to alert the police and have you arrested off the train?’
Welf smiled, rather impressed by the quickness of mind she was revealing. ‘That was in my thoughts, yes.’
She too now was smiling. ‘We will reach Ernsthof in twenty minutes. I doubt that drunken oaf will be able to get to a telephone in time to contact anyone in authority who can apprehend you, even if he knows whom to contact.’
Welf nodded. ‘Then I will take the risk. May I ask your name?’
‘It is Ulrica, but perhaps I should tell you nothing more about myself, any more than you should tell me who you are. I may be questioned, you know.’
‘My name is Welf.’
‘And you are a Ruritanian, I think.’
Welf was impressed. ‘How do you know that?’
‘It is in your accent and the nuances of your speech. A Ruritanian German sounds like an Austrian, but the intonation is less guttural.’
‘You are interested in language?’
‘Very much. I teach English and German literature at the Technical Institute in Ernsthof.’
‘Tell me about Ernsthof. I haven’t been there before.’
They talked in quite the Rothenian way for the rest of the journey. No police were waiting to arrest him at the barrier, where he helped Ulrica with her bag. He lifted his hat to her as she left, with a backward glance at him. He rather regretted the separation, which surprised him. He put it down to being alone in a strange city in dangerous times.
Welf had been recommended to put up in one of Ernsthof’s more modest hotels, but not informed how he would be contacted. He was just told that Rothenian agents would know he was there.
The Hotel Herzog Karl was a small establishment in the Hohe Markt, directly below the Furstenschloss, the impressive ducal castle on its hill in the centre of the small city. Welf looked out across the open square at the towers of the palace-fortress. He noticed the familiar banner of the Thuringians flapping lazily over the central keep. Albert still kept the quartering with the Elphberg arms, and still was addressed as king of Ruritania.
Since it was nearly evening, Welf decided on an early dinner, to be followed by a stroll along the river Itsch. He had been told of an elegant riverbank walk on the other side of the schloss. The meal was a poor one, though the cook had obviously done the best with what he had. Welf reflected that malnutrition was one of the dangers of his mission which Uncle Franz had not mentioned.
On returning from his walk, he was tempted to enter a beer cellar on the east of the Hohe Markt. He wished he had not as soon as he got through the doors, for it was full of men in uniform. But once there he could not retreat. He sat at a table and a waitress took his order. Relieved that the golden Thuringian beer at least still maintained its quality, he drank his glass gratefully.
Next to Welf was a table full of soldiers, recent recruits discussing their posting to the Eastern Front. Although he had his inevitable book out, he could not avoid hearing their opinions, which they were offering at full volume. He was startled to realise that they were in fact mostly his own countrymen, young Mittenheimers who had enlisted in the Thuringian division of the imperial army.
‘Here’s to King Albert!’ one shouted, and the rest cheered. ‘God grant we’ll march back into Strelsau with him one day!’
‘Down with the English Elphberg!’ another roared out. The few civilians around the bar counter looked over at the Mittenheimers with distaste. It seemed that enthusiasm for Albert was not a predominant emotion in his own homeland.
Welf did not stay after his first glass. One or two of the soldiers were eyeing him with drunken hostility, and he did not want to have two skirmishes with the German army in less than six hours.
The next day was a Friday, and he determined to introduce himself at the Ernestinum. He was there as a philologist and an antiquarian, so he needed to establish that identity without delay. He made his way across the Hohe Markt and down towards the river, where the splendid Classical bulk of the Ernestinum lay along the embankment of the Itsch. When the doors were opened at ten, he walked into the cool, echoing interior. A mahogany desk manned by a stern-looking matron barred his way. She briskly demanded his letter and examined it suspiciously, telling him to take a seat and wait. If he had also been told to touch nothing, he would not have been surprised.
At last a smiling Dr Gasse emerged to hasten over and wring Welf’s hand. ‘My dear Von Tarlenheim, welcome. It is a pleasure to meet you. I am a great admirer of your father’s work, and he tells me your skills in the Classical languages are quite as formidable as his own.’
‘He exaggerates, sir.’
‘We shall see. Come into my office and tell me of your background in ancient Tuscan. Clara, two coffees please.’ He turned smiling to Welf. ‘I have my own store, obtained from a friend in the archaeological museum at Constantinople. It’s Egyptian and very rich.’
Gasse was clearly delighted to have someone of Welf’s knowledge to talk to, and talk is what they did for the next two hours. Welf was completely in his element. Gasse was the sort of man he could get on with, focussed and academic. They concluded for a lunch break and would meet up in the cellars afterwards for a survey of the Ernestine inscriptions.
Welf had enjoyed himself so much in the museum that he had quite forgotten why he was in Ernsthof. It was as he emerged and looked up to the walls of the schloss towering over the Ernestinum’s roof that his mission came back to him. Standing on the broad steps, he had another reminder. The sound of muffled drums reached him from a military band preceding a line of horse-drawn hearses that approached up the embankment. He took off his hat while the grim procession of the dead passed below him on its way to interment. Moments later, walking back up to the market place, he stopped for a line of men in ragged, light-blue uniforms: half-starved French prisoners being marched to a work assignment. He was in the heart of an empire at war.
After lunch, it was back to the safer territory of academe. Welf was delighted to find a much bigger collection than he had been led to believe. He and Gasse laid them out on a table. ‘Do you think they all came from the same location?’ he asked.
‘It is difficult to say. Duke Ernst Albert bought them in bulk lots from antiquities dealers, who cared nothing for provenance. Why do you ask?’
‘It’s just that I think nearly half of them are not actually Etruscan but rather Rhaetian, a related language.’
‘You can tell that from looking at them … does this mean …?’
‘That I have an Etruscan wordlist? Yes.’
‘But no one has managed to read Etruscan!’ Dr Gasse looked astounded, while Welf glanced down modestly. ‘My word! Your father did not say half enough about you.’
The afternoon was spent identifying those tablets which were fragments of memorial plaques, while Welf explained how he had identified the meaning of key words which demonstrated family relationships. It was a matter of real regret when the Ernestinum’s closing bell rang. Welf took his leave of Dr Gasse for the weekend after gratefully accepting a dinner invitation for Sunday evening.
He spent Saturday working on his notes. On Sunday morning he found the Catholic church of St Ignatius Loyola and attended mass. Most Thuringians were Lutherans, but even so the church was full. News had reached the city of another Russian offensive in Galicia where the Thuringian division was fighting, and many casualties were feared.
Welf took communion. After he returned to his pew, a man slipped in to the seat next to him. As he knelt to pray, the man knelt beside him and whispered, ‘My dear Von Tarlenheim. I shall be waiting for you at the statue of Duke Karl III in the castle gardens at two.’ Then he got up, genuflected and left.
Welf wandered the town after mass. He took a light lunch in the sunlit garden of a tea house, where army officers were entertaining their sweethearts. Thankfully, he didn’t see his adversary from the train amongst them. He wondered idly how the man had accounted for his humiliation and the loss of his pistol.
At two he was on a bench on the terraces of the castle gardens by the statue of the seventeenth-century duke, who was dressed in the manner of Julius Caesar but with an incongruous full-bottomed wig. A tall, athletic man with a newspaper under his arm sat down next to him.
‘Good afternoon, Von Tarlenheim.’
‘Call me Moricz.’
‘Then I am Welf.’
The man nodded. ‘How was your journey to Ernsthof?’
‘Not as quiet as I would have liked.’ He gave the story of his encounter with the drunken officer and the lady.
Sachert was silent for some moments. ‘You certainly are a Tarlenheim. That was a story worthy of your uncle.’
‘Did you know him?’
‘No, he was dead long before I had anything to do with the intelligence bureau. But his adventures are legendary. He was more or less our bureau’s founder, you know.’
‘They say I look like him.’
‘I have heard that observation from others. But I doubt the resemblance is more than skin deep. He was a famous bon viveur and sexual adventurer. You seem altogether a more serious type of man.
‘Now, let us get down to business, dear fellow. Here you are, and how long do you think you may be able to stay safely?’
‘There may be as much as three months’ work, perhaps more.’
‘Good enough. By the end of that period, I would guess that whatever crisis the Underwoods precipitate will have happened.’
‘Where are they?’
‘They are already in residence. Mr Underwood has taken a villa for himself and his daughter in the suburb of Berthesheim. He has employed a team of lawyers, including advocates from Berlin as well as a local firm. The Countess Rechtenberg has been seen riding in the park of the suburban château of Saint-Hildegard.’
‘What do you have in mind for me?’
‘You must go and visit them regularly, and report back to me. I cannot approach them directly for obvious reasons.’
‘Do they know our agents are deployed here?’
‘Gus Underwood may guess. After all, it would only be sensible to have Rothenian intelligence in Ernsthof, both because of King Albert and the number of Ruritanian Germans who have rallied to Thuringia in the war.’
‘And the young prince, Leopold?’
‘He is above us in the schloss. He is taught by tutors and lives under the supervision of a nanny and governess.’
‘What about King Albert?’
‘He is currently commanding an army corps near Lemberg, we think. The collapse of the last Russian offensive has made the eastern front mobile, so it is difficult to say with certainty what he is doing. It is highly unlikely, however, that he will know yet that the Underwoods have entered his principality.’
‘What do the Underwoods think they can accomplish against a German prince and war leader at this time?’
‘Who knows? The woman is fixated on gaining access to her son. She has not seen him in seven years. One can appreciate the tragedy, and it has not made Albert any more popular here.’
‘I had already picked up the fact that he is not beloved by his people.’
Sachert nodded. ‘He has had ample time to demonstrate the sort of man he is. Thuringia got used to having a non-resident duke, once their dynasty inherited our land. Their duke’s return in disgrace seven years ago was a nasty shock. He is a harsh landlord and has suppressed all forms of free expression.’
‘Who rules in his absence?’
‘Count Wittenberg, one of his cronies.’
‘Are we to assist the Countess Rechtenberg?’
‘My instructions are quite clear. We are to observe and no more. But if she and her father get into trouble, we are to do our best to extract them.’
‘Then I shall leave my card as soon as I can. What is the Underwoods’ address?’
Sachert handed Welf a slip of paper and took his leave. They were to meet at the statue again in a fortnight’s time. Welf was to be advised if anything happened in the meantime. He was not to have any contact details for the colonel.
‘Do I need to ask why not?’
Sachert gave him a straight look, which somehow produced a chill in Welf on that warm afternoon. He would be sacrificed rather than allowed to compromise his nation’s security. He would be given no details he might reveal under interrogation.