MAXIM ELPHBERG - XVII
During the following week, Welf established a routine. He found the acceptable restaurants and drinking places in Ernsthof, learned the city’s geography, and worked hard in a nook that was made over to him in the basement of the Ernestinum.
On the Friday, he finished at noon, so he decided the moment had come to visit the Underwoods. He was fairly confident that Gus did not know he had been sent into Germany, rather than coming on his own initiative to further his studies.
The villa was set in its own grounds on the banks of the Itsch. It was a low, modern house, pleasantly built of stuccoed brick with a tiled roof, whose meticulously kept lawns running down to the river suggested that gardeners were employed. A black-uniformed maid answered the front door, taking his card. Gus himself returned to pull Welf in from the doorstep with a hearty handshake.
Uncle August had been a popular and constant visitor as the Tarlenheim boys grew up in Templerstadt. Of them all, it was Welf who had the warmest spot in the man’s affections. Welf realised that his close resemblance to his late uncle might have had something to do with it. His father had explained the relationship between Gus and Uncle Oskar one day when Welf was seventeen, after which Welf had been alert to any nuances in the older man’s behaviour. He had sometimes caught Gus staring at him. A boy of Welf’s looks might expect to be subject to advances from older men, and indeed he had experienced them on more than one occasion, but never from Gus. It was the resemblance to Oskar that sparked Gus’s interest, he knew, not sexual designs.
‘I’m sorry, Welf, but Toni’s not here at the moment. It’s wonderful to see you. I had no idea you were in Germany. What brings you here?’
‘Study, uncle. The usual thing.’
‘Just like your father. Still, this is not the best time to be in the empire. I knew you were a dogged scholar, but this really is dedication. Ernsthof is a pretty grim place at the moment.’
Welf shrugged. ‘There’s not much chance of taking my studies forward by getting to libraries and museums in France or Britain at the moment, so I have to make do with what’s on my doorstep.’
Gus urged a drink on him. They sat out on a paved area between the house and the lawns as Welf tried to explain his research to Gus. The older man kept a fixed look of concentration on his face, but the pattern of his questions soon revealed to Welf that he was not understanding half of what was said to him. Welf did not mind overmuch. He was used to receiving incomprehension from everyone in his family but his parents.
‘And how is the baron?’ he eventually asked.
‘Anton’s not too happy with me. We had just finished building his dream house on Lake Maretsku, near Pietersburg, or Piotreshrad as they call it nowadays, and then I was off on what he is pleased to call my “Children’s Crusade”. He was quite waspish with Antonia for all of ten minutes. But he is a kindly man and has rallied. He promises to be with us for a few days in a couple of weeks. He managed to reach us by a long-distance telephone call from home yesterday. He said he will bring coffee and tea, both of which are in short supply in Germany.’
‘I had noticed. So it is possible to reach home by phone from Germany.’
‘Yes, though it takes ten minutes to make the operator links from exchange to exchange. I rather fancy German officials listen in to the call, too.’
‘I must try it. And what of your crusade, uncle?’
Gus’s face clouded. ‘I wish I could say. German imperial law is not helpful. Since the parents were not married, the child should be illegitimate and thus in the care of the mother. In this case, however, the father has acknowledged his son and forcibly seized custody of him. This would not normally be tolerated, but since the alleged kidnap occurred in Strelzen, the courts will not take any account of it. Moreover, Albert moved heaven and earth to legitimise the boy, who is called royal highness and prince of Ruritania and Thuringia.
Welf’s curiosity was piqued. ‘How did he get the boy legitimised?’
Gus frowned. ‘Oh, it was some legal charlatanry. Thuringian succession law prefers male heirs, unless there is none left in the family. Albert does have one other male relative, a cousin, Duke Karl Ernst Günther von Thüringen-Heilsbrod, Prince of Thuringia – he’s now in his nineties and childless. He was persuaded to adopt the boy Leopold as his heir, and the decree of legitimation followed from the Thuringian Landtag, as ratified by the German Imperial Diet. And so little Leopold is now the legitimate heir to his father’s duchy.’
‘So how are you and Toni proceeding?’
‘All we can do now is try to assert the normal rights of a mother to have access to her child. Needless to say, we have experienced harassment and delays. Albert’s advocates have alleged all sorts of things against Antonia as an unsuitable parent. Unfortunately, her rather adventurous life before her liaison with Albert provides plenty of material for their dossiers. Albert’s absence on war service is another argument for them to go slow. The imperial courts will not harass a lieutenant-general on imperial service.’
‘It sounds like you’re wasting your time here.’
Gus sighed. ‘Maybe. But if you had to live with Antonia’s fretfulness, you would pursue any hope you could, believe me. It’s terrible to see what this business has done to her. She’s not the woman she was. She’s withdrawn and tearful one minute, angry the next.’
‘I noticed it when she was at Templerstadt for Christmas. She only stayed three days, and burst into tears when she was watching Helga with her two little ones. I thought she took her mind off it all by travel.’
‘She did before the war broke out. She would go off to Carlsbad or Nice between bouts in the law courts. The last time she was able to get away was to the United States in 1915. After that, it got too dangerous with the submarine warfare.’
‘Helga wondered if she had found any new man.’
Gus frowned. ‘Who can tell? I don’t ask. But somehow I don’t think so. She has changed so much. Her old recklessness about sexual liaisons did not survive her time as a royal mistress. She achieved a notoriety throughout Europe that seems now to intimidate men rather than attract them.’
‘So you are going to hang around Ernsthof till she gets tired of it and leaves.’
‘I’m afraid that’s about the size of it, Welf. Maybe something will turn up. Look at this, by the way.’ Gus produced a portrait card.
A solemn boy in a sailor suit stared at Welf out of a sepia world. The face was remarkably like his mother’s. ‘Is this Prince Leopold?’
‘HRH Leopold Wilhelm Ernst Albert, prince of Ruritania and Thuringia, my grandson. You can buy them in the shops here. Isn’t it tragic that his mother has to get her only picture of her son from a commercial postcard rack?’
Welf agreed. He was pressed to come to dinner the next day, an invitation he readily accepted. He was an agent sent to Ernsthof to gather information, and therefore needed to see Antonia.
The next morning, Welf took a late breakfast and looked out from his hotel window on to a hot July day in Ernsthof. The market square was full of stalls, and the city seemed quite cheerful for a change. After dressing casually in an open white shirt, he walked over to browse the stalls for books. He felt relaxed for the first time since entering Germany.
Soldiers on leave and their lady friends were promenading the castle gardens, so Welf decided to follow them. He strolled on the winding tarmac paths below the castle walls, enjoying the views across the city roofs and down the valley of the Itsch.
He found a bench in a shady corner of the gardens, just where a path opened abruptly before a wide gate in the castle walls, which seemed to lead in turn into a complex of palace buildings whose narrow windows peered across the city.
He had relaxed to the point of dozing when a suppressed exclamation caused him to jerk awake. A woman coming down the path from the castle had stumbled and twisted her ankle. He stood. ‘Ulrica?’
She looked up. ‘Oh! Herr Welf! It’s you. Excuse me, I’m in some pain here.’
Welf helped her to the bench. She looked up at him with a twisted smile. ‘I see the police did not catch up with you.’
It was not usual for him, but such was his mood that he gave a spontaneous and attractive laugh which, had he been able to see its effect on his face, would have explained much to him about the way his uncle had seduced the human race. It lit up his countenance as if an electric light were behind it and, unknown to him, set his companion’s pulse racing.
‘I seem to have escaped the consequences of my recklessness. Tell me, what are you doing up here?’
‘You are a gardener? I thought you taught literature.’
‘So I do. I have a pupil up there.’
‘What, in the ducal schloss?’
‘Yes. I teach English to the young prince.’
‘Good heavens!’ Welf’s mind raced. This was quite an opportunity. ‘That is interesting. How far do you have to walk?’
‘I need to get down to the tram. I live with my mother out in Neuhof at the end of the line.’
‘Let me take your bag, and you take my arm and I’ll support you along the path.’
They ambled slowly through the shrubbery, Ulrica happy to take advantage of his strength. ‘So, how long have you been working up there?’
‘A year now.’
‘Is the boy an apt pupil?’
‘Yes, he is quite fluent. I believe his father speaks English to him. My concern is to improve his idiom, so we read English adventure stories together and discuss them. It is Captains Courageous at the moment. The prince is quite enthusiastic over the challenging life of a rich American boy discovering all about hard work on a fishing boat.’
Welf smiled at her little pleasantry. He wondered how to take things further. All he could think of was to do something that did not come naturally to him. He would attempt to seduce her. He took a deep mental breath and began.
‘I’ve thought a lot about the journey we shared on the train from Bayreuth.’
She smiled up at him. ‘I also.’
‘I wish I had at least taken you for a drink afterwards.’ Suddenly, he was flustered. ‘Just to make sure you had got over the shock, you understand.’
‘Of course, I understand.’
‘Er … perhaps I could make up for that now. We’re nearly at the market place. I’m staying at the Herzog Karl. A tea would be nice.’
She smiled prettily again. ‘It would be a way of resting my ankle.’
So they strolled slowly through the crowded market and settled into the welcome cool of the hotel’s lounge, where fruit teas were offered. They chatted with some ease. It seemed Ulrica, whose name was Schmidt, was the only child of a widowed mother. She was glad of that in this present war, she said, when so many of her friends had lost brothers, uncles and fathers.
‘And you?’ she asked.
‘My name is Tarlenheim.’
‘What, like the princes?’
‘Franz is my first cousin. I come from the Templerstadt branch, quite common by comparison. One brother is an advocate, another a cavalry officer, and my sister is married to an Englishman.’
‘But you are unattached?’
‘Indeed. And yourself?’
‘There was a young man, a neighbour. We were engaged but he died at Soissons two years ago.’
‘I’m sorry. There is much tragedy in these days.’
They sat in silence for a while, Welf puzzling over the unfamiliar business of courting a woman. ‘I wonder if you have any time to yourself?’
‘Yes, some evenings.’
‘Good, because I gather there is a series of concerts at the Matthiaskirche in the old city, on an organ that Bach himself once played. There is one tomorrow evening.’
‘Is that an invitation?’ She looked very encouraging.
‘Indeed it is. Is that alright? Where might I pick you up?’
‘I can meet you at the church.’
‘Very good. Then at six it is.’
He helped her to the tram stop and assisted her to board, passing up her bag. She waved at him as the car moved off. Suddenly Welf was reminded of the last time they had parted and that odd reluctance he had felt. It was there again. Could it be …? No, surely not. No woman had ever touched him before. How could this one? There was nothing special about her. The girls at the Maison de Venus were rather more voluptuous and overtly seductive. He tried to puzzle it out. Was there was something about her slim body and the fine lines of her face which appealed? He shook his head.
That evening he took a cab out to the Underwoods’ villa. The driver was a woman, which was not uncommon, given the labour shortages of wartime. Welf had dressed formally and was glad of it, for he remembered that Gus always dressed for dinner.
They were sipping on aperitifs when Antonia entered. She clearly had not lost her sense of style. She was wearing the latest Parisian fashion, including a head band adorned with dyed feathers.
She gave him an affectionate kiss and took his hand. ‘Dear Welf, what a pleasure to find you here. It’s quite like old times, when we were all children together at Templerstadt.’
Welf forbore to mention that, when they were children, she had resolutely ignored him while making her play for Oskar Franz. The past was there to be reinvented by people like Antonia. He realised she was playing a new role, almost that of a tragic heroine. He did not doubt the tragedy was real, but once again he saw in her what he had noticed as a boy, a desire to adopt a role and live it out. Her clothing and jewellery mirrored that image: expensive, dark fabrics with hanging jet necklaces, the sign of a woman in mourning.
Welf had to confess it was the best dinner he had enjoyed since arriving in Ernsthof. Gus claimed that, if you were prepared to spend money, you could circumvent the rationing restrictions.
He had much to say about the current war situation. ‘The Russian army has collapsed, and is in full flight all along the front. Mutinies are breaking out here and there, and apparently St Petersburg is in the grip of revolutionaries. The war is over in the east.’
‘What of the tsar?’
‘The government has removed the imperial family into the country, it is said, where they are under virtual house arrest. There is some talk of exiling the tsar to Britain.’
Welf mused about the situation. ‘It seems to me, uncle, that this war is sweeping away all the familiar world I grew up in.’
‘Yes. The age of empires is passing.’
Antonia looked intense. ‘It was inevitable. Marx foresaw this. The bourgeoisie that raised the great commercial empires and set them to fight each other have overreached themselves. Their puppet kings are falling, and the conscript armies fight now for the people and for equality. A new age is opening as we look on; the age of the worker.’
Welf smiled. ‘But how odd it should be happening in Russia, of all places. That was hardly foretold.’
When Antonia looked as if she were about to retort, Gus stepped in. ‘The situation for the allies now appears grim. The armies in the east will soon be transferred to the western front, where the French and British will face a terrible onslaught.’
‘Yes,’ agreed Welf, ‘that is likely to happen, but we hear of the appearance in France of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers. They must redress the balance. Also, there are other demands on the Germans. Their Austrian allies are spread thinly and the Italians have fought them to a stalemate. The Austrians will want help breaking through into Venetia. Their advantage may be frittered away.’
‘The German victory in the east may have other consequences,’ Antonia added.
‘And they would be …?’ asked her father.
‘Albert may return to Ernsthof, and our advocates may be able to bring him to a settlement.’
Gus nodded. ‘Yes, that may indeed happen, but when he returns, other things may occur as well. He is not going to sit and let us take his son away, once he knows we are in the city.’
Antonia frowned. ‘It was never our intention to take Leo from him. I only want to see my boy from time to time. I will take up residence here in Ernsthof, which might make it easier for him.’
‘Believe me, that is not how Albert will see it. Nor will he baulk at any measure to stop it from happening, legal or not. He will not be denied, and he has no scruples. You surely must see that now!’
‘I do not give up easily either.’
Gus sighed. Welf realised the pair had been over this ground time and time again. He broke in on their internal reflections to offer what he thought was quite a lively account of his work in the Ernestinum’s basement. He missed the progressive glazing-over of his audience’s eyes. But Gus was a courteous man and tried to make appropriate noises, while Antonia was ready to use the excuse to sink into her own miseries.
The conversation moved on when even Welf noticed his listeners had lost the thread. He talked of the Tarlenheim family, giving the latest news of Paul Underwood, now in his regimental depot at Ipswich. Paul’s commander was his cousin Philip, another of Gus’s nephews. They’d had no news of his regiment’s destination.
Gus said he hoped it was Palestine rather than France – better cavalry country, he thought.
Welf left them at ten, having accepted an invitation for the next Saturday. He ended up walking the whole way back to his hotel. The trams had stopped running already, and there were no cabs.
Welf paced up and down outside the Matthiaskirche. Normally he would have been smoking a cigarette as he waited, but he had decided to give up tobacco when he arrived in Germany. The war had made it so expensive. He was puzzling about how to deal with his sudden onset of nerves. Why in any case was he nervous? Was it because a lot more than amusement was riding on this encounter with Ulrica?
He was tense when she finally arrived, a little late, around the corner of the church, but he gave his diffident smile and took her arm. He paid for them at the church door and took a programme. The music, which was solid and Germanic, was supposedly dedicated to contemporary works, although it patriotically avoided any of the many current French organ composers. Welf enjoyed it nonetheless. There was a large gathering of aficionados, so the interval lecture was pitched at quite a high technical level – higher than Welf was comfortable with.
At the end, he and Ulrica walked out quietly, Welf trying to work out what to do next. Did he just see her to the tram and say goodnight? A late-opening café on the square caught his eye. ‘Could I offer you a drink before you go home?’ he asked into the awkward silence.
‘Oh … yes,’ she answered.
Silence continued as they waited for a table. Welf was increasingly at a loss. You knew where you were with Madame Celestine’s girls. You were instantly into a world of sexual frankness and innuendo as soon as you had selected your partner for the night. Courtship was unnecessary, because both parties knew exactly why they were there. Talking happened afterwards, if at all, in the post-coital glow.
Here, Welf had to try to discern precisely what his partner intended and how far she would go. He simply did not have the mental equipment and experience to do so. He was lost and floundering.
‘Er … how is your mother?’
Ulrica looked curiously at him. ‘My mother?’
‘Yes, you live with her … I thought you said.’
‘Oh … she is fine, thank you for asking.’
‘And what did your father do?’
He got the same curious look. ‘He was a schoolteacher.’
‘He taught languages?’
The conversation faltered and died. Clearly Welf was doing something wrong, but he could not quite work out what. They fell silent till the Irish coffees arrived. Welf puzzled how to get a conversation going, without reference to Etruscan conjugations, Egyptian hieroglyphs or Assyrian cuneiform.
Finally he thought of a ploy. ‘Er … how do you get on with King Albert and Queen Caroline?’
She gave a little smile. ‘I’ve never met them. I was interviewed by Leo’s governess.’
‘That’s what they call the prince.’
‘Oh. Is he a good little boy?’
Ulrica gave a small shrug. ‘He is not like other children.’
‘He rarely leaves the castle, and he has no contact with others of his age.’
‘And his parents?’
‘I believe he sees his father when the king is home from service.’
‘But he must see the queen daily.’ Welf asked that question deliberately and ingenuously.
Ulrica gave a small smile. ‘I thought everyone knew that his mother was the former royal mistress. No, the queen wants nothing to do with him.’
‘Yes, but don’t feel too sorry for him. He has a sort of … how do I say it? Dignity is perhaps too strong a word, but a sad sort of self-possession. He is very polite, and very gentle. But a little too quiet. He rarely laughs, and I find that depressing. When he does smile, however, he has the sweetest expression.’
Welf nodded. ‘You like the boy a lot.’
Ulrica looked a little surprised, as though something had just struck her. ‘Yes, I suppose I do. I think about him often.’
‘Is he bright?’
‘He is quite gifted in several ways. He reads extremely well for his age, and early training has given him an advanced facility with languages. He speaks English and French with remarkable readiness.’
‘None at all to speak, though I suspect he can read it a little. He is very curious about his father’s former kingdom.’
‘Is he being educated in the classics?’
‘He has been given some grounding, though his tutor was conscripted two months ago and not replaced, since the king is away and has not agreed to it.’
With the conversation beginning to pick up at last, Welf silently blessed the existence of Prince Leopold. He sipped on his coffee for some moments. ‘An only child must feel some particular interest in children. I grew up with a younger brother, so I know at first hand what they’re like. You on the other hand …’
‘That’s very true. I have often felt isolated and envious of my friends who had smaller brothers and sisters. How did you get on with your little brother?’
Welf gave his rare and infectious laugh, and was encouraged by the response. He launched into the Tarlenheim family stories of the high points – or rather low points – of his relationship with Henry.
He quite charmed and amused Ulrica. ‘My word! You fought a sabre duel with him at the age of fifteen! How old was he?’
‘Wasn’t that a little unfair?’
‘He did not seem to think so, though he needed two hands to manage the sabre.’
‘It was a real sabre?’
‘Sharp enough to cut a cushion.’
‘To cut a cushion?’
‘An object that only the most razor sharp of blades can slice in midair.’
‘Good heavens! I had not realised. And neither of you was hurt?’
‘Miraculously no, though it was not for want of trying. My mother rarely gets angry, but she was incandescent when she caught us duelling in the hall. I was confined to my room for three days. I got off lightly.’
‘My books and notes were there, so it was not much of a punishment. Depriving me of them – now that would have been cruel!’
Finally Ulrica laughed out loud, and Welf began to gain confidence. He related his life in Templerstadt, quite charming his partner with the idyll of a Rothenian childhood.
‘And you did not go to school?’
‘My father and mother taught me languages and mathematics, and there are no better teachers available. A Jesuit from Modenheim was my tutor in history and theology. I was sent over to Tarlenheim to my uncle Franz for instruction in arms. I did not go amongst other young men for education until I was sent to the university in Strelzen.’
‘The way you describe it, your youth sounds a little sad.’
‘Do you think so? I suppose if I were of a sociable disposition that might be the case, but I was always something of a hermit.’
‘Even sadder.’ Welf caught a sparkle in her eyes that he hoped was not compassion. Now the ice was broken, they found themselves talking more readily. He told her about Strelzen, that magical city, a place which plainly fascinated her. She told him about her work in the technical college, and about the changes in Ernsthof since the war began.
They were taken by surprise when the waiter warned them of the café’s imminent closure. They noticed that they were the last customers.
Welf helped her on with her coat. The last tram was long gone, but he found her a rare and late-running cab. As he handed her in, he found her close up to him and, without a second thought, pressed his mouth on hers. When she kissed him back, they were joined for a long moment – long enough for him to realise that he had far more physical experience with women than she did with men. It was also long enough for him to feel her heart pounding in her chest.
As they broke off, she smiled hesitantly up at him, almost as if pleading with him not to disappoint her. He took her hand, lifted it to his lips, and she was in the cab. Without even a murmured good night, she was gone. It was only as the red tail lights disappeared down the hill that he realised he had neither her address nor her telephone number. Welf sighed. There was a lot he had to learn about being a Don Juan.
When Tuesday came, Welf was still trying to work out how to repair his gaffe. Should he hang around the castle gate? Besiege the technical institute? As it happened, he was disturbed in the dust of the Ernestinum’s basement at lunchtime by the formidable Carla, who brusquely announced that a lady was asking for him. The little leap his heart gave took him quite by surprise.
It was indeed Ulrica. Aware of Carla’s disapproving glare burning into his back, he took the offered hand and said, ‘Fraulein Schmidt, so pleased you could make it, to er … see the tablets.’
Carla intervened. ‘Dr Gasse has not given permission for a stranger to go downstairs.’
Welf turned and wasted a smile at her. ‘Indeed? That will be such a disappointment to Fraulein Schmidt, who has come here all the way from the technical institute.’
‘We are also closing for lunch.’
‘Then there is not a problem. We will be going out and can come back later.’ They left arm-in-arm, and bought lunch from a stall on the embankment. They took a bench and watched the river traffic on the Itsch.
‘I hope you don’t mind my searching you out at work.’
‘I’m so glad you did.’
‘When we didn’t arrange our next meeting, I thought perhaps you did not want to see me … and yet, it had been such a lovely evening.’
‘It was my fault, I was so caught up in those last moments, I simply was not thinking.’
‘Those last moments, before I got in the cab … I had never been kissed like that before. It was … I can’t think of the word.’
She was moving on to familiar territory for Welf. He smiled and closed with her. ‘Then let me remind you what it was like.’ He was surprised by a surge of passion that soon left him breathless.
Some minutes later, they broke apart. She gave a small and very happy smirk. ‘Arousing … that was the word!’
‘Don’t you have to return to work? It’s quite a way to the institute.’
‘I’m at the castle this afternoon. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons are Leo’s English lessons.’
‘Then let me walk you up there.’
So they strolled together in a silence quite different from the awkwardness of Sunday night. A boundary of some sort had been crossed. When they got to the castle gate, Welf noticed another difference. He was not that keen to let this woman walk away so he could get back to his cellar. He took her hand and held it, which seemed to help. She told him her address in Neuhof, and he gave her his hotel’s telephone number. They would meet again after work the following day for dinner. After they broke apart with considerable reluctance on both sides, she gave him one long, backward glance before disappearing through the arch.
The affair progressed rapidly. Despite his lack of emotional experience, it was evident even to Welf that Ulrica had developed strong feelings for him. But was he in love with her? He had never been in love before, so he had no way to gauge his own state. He certainly felt a lust for her, and a novel sort of hunger for her company.
The lust at least was familiar, but he was used to having it satisfied rapidly by obliging prostitutes. The need kept building up in him, and it was frustrating. How would she respond to his desires? By the weekend he was ready to risk all.
Before he did so, however, he had to keep some appointments. The first was dinner with the Underwoods. When the maid answered the door, he could hear several voices within. A dapper man in his fifties was sitting in the lounge with Gus and Antonia. Gus gave Welf a warm handshake and introduced Anton, the Baron Dönitz.
Welf took the man’s hand. They had met before, though not since Welf was a child. Then he noticed that the baron seemed taken aback, staring almost rigidly at his face.
‘You … you certainly are a Tarlenheim!’
‘Yes. Oh … I see, the resemblance to my uncle Oskar. People who knew him sometimes remark on it, especially as tonight when I am without my spectacles.’
Anton shook his head. ‘It is a very close resemblance physically, though once you speak it disappears. But my word! Excuse me, it was quite a shock.’
Welf looked at the beads of sweat that had appeared on the man’s forehead. He was not exaggerating about the shock. Then it struck Welf that Anton too had surely been one of his uncle’s lovers. Welf must have appeared like a ghost out of the baron’s Viennese youth. Throughout the rest of the evening he kept surprising Anton’s furtive stares at him.
Welf had no intention of sharing the information about little Leopold of Thuringia that he had accidentally obtained from Ulrica. He was alarmed by the thought of the reaction he would get from Antonia. The Underwoods themselves had little to report beyond the exchange of letters they’d had with their advocates in Berlin and Ernsthof.
Anton, on the other hand, had quite a lot to say. There had been bread riots in Hofbau again, as low-paid industrial workers made their displeasure known about further food-price rises. A march by agricultural workers to the Osraeum to petition the king had at least gone off quietly.
The baron also had some news from unspecified sources concerning King Albert. ‘He has been transferred to the western theatre of the war. His corps is to be removed from the occupation of White Russia and sent to the lines opposite Verdun. It is to be retrained and equipped for the winter campaign. You may expect the imminent return of Albert to Ernsthof.’
‘Do you think that may be a good thing?’ wondered Welf.
‘I shall confront the man!’ Antonia cried.
Gus shook his head. ‘That is why we employ lawyers, Toni. If Albert is returning here, I will be taking steps to make sure we are properly protected. You should know by now what sort of man we are dealing with. He personally killed Welf’s uncle, and had King Maxim’s brother assassinated. He will not hesitate to remove you too, if he considers you an obstacle to what he wants – which is sole access to his son and heir.’
Anton nodded. ‘Toni, you must listen to your father. He is perfectly correct. As soon as Albert is back in Thuringia and realises you are here too, your chances of meeting an abrupt and unexpected end increase. He may leave it to the courts, perhaps. But murder would be a much surer and cheaper conclusion. That is the way the monster’s mind works.’
Welf reflected that everyone who knew and loved Gus, from the king down to himself, expected some attempt to be made on Antonia’s life. How could she be so blind? Perhaps she really did not care for life any more, and was courting death. If that was the case, it said little for her ability to be a mother to the child she was seeking. Motherhood to Welf was the calm self-giving love he had experienced at Templerstadt.
He stayed late at the villa, promising to give Anton a tour of the Ernestinum collections as soon as it could be arranged with Dr Gasse. He noticed that Anton was rather more culturally alert than Gus. He thought even Clara at the desk might be impressed with an Austrian baron and millionaire, especially if he should turn out to be a donor.
Welf’s second appointment was more helpful. After church on Sunday, a dull and overcast late July day, he strolled up to the Schloss-garten and sat waiting at the statue of Karl III. The weather was turning, and rain could be expected soon. He must get an umbrella.
‘Good day, Welf. Anything to report?’
Welf began by describing his encounter with the Underwoods, and then moved on to the story of his developing romance with Ulrica Schmidt. Colonel Sachert gave a low whistle when Welf finished.
‘This is very interesting indeed – you Tarlenheims and your luck.’ He indulged in a chuckle. ‘It’s as well you’re here rather than your uncle. He would not have been in the least interested in Fraulein Schmidt.’
Welf was momentarily offended that his developing relationship with Ulrica was being seen only in the light of the access to the palace it gave them. He was a Rothenian nobleman, after all, and his honour meant a lot to him. But had he thought more about the particular reaction he had had to Sachert’s passing comment, he might have realised something about his own state of mind.
Sachert continued, ‘You must see what more she can tell us. The conditions in which the boy lives might be crucial.’
‘Why? You’re not thinking about answering kidnap with kidnap, are you? I thought this was all about protecting the Underwoods.’
Sachert gave him an enigmatic look. ‘All intelligence about the Thuringian princely household is vital. There may come a time soon when we need to know exactly how things are at the castle.’
Welf was immediately suspicious. Whatever intentions the king had had in sending Welf to Ernsthof, it seemed that his agents were playing their own game, with different rules. Or was he being too suspicious? Intelligence agents collected information. Maybe this was all it was.
‘How often will you be seeing Fraulein Schmidt?’
Welf decided to make a point. ‘As often as I can manage it.’
He got a considering look in return. ‘Good,’ was the eventual reply. ‘So Baron Dönitz believes that Albert will be soon back amongst his people? He has his own sources of information in the Austrian government. Since he is who he is, we can be sure he has good reason for his belief, and we may begin planning accordingly.’
‘What about protecting the Underwoods?’
‘That’s under consideration.’
‘How many agents do we have in Thuringia?’
‘You don’t need that knowledge.’
Welf supposed not. He got up and made his farewells, undertaking to meet Colonel Sachert in a fortnight’s time, but next time in a small suburban park near the Underwoods’ house.
Clara was indeed impressed with Baron Anton Dönitz. Welf was trying to analyse why. True, his clothes and demeanour marked him out as a wealthy man, used to associating with the powerful. But he managed to combine it with a certain unassuming gentleness that much impressed Welf. Clara even smiled up at Anton from her desk at one point, though Welf did not think it improved her appearance much.
After the introduction to Dr Gasse, Welf led Anton down to the cellars and showed him the long tables on which the tablets and plaques of the collection were laid out. Anton seemed genuinely interested. His comments were intelligent and perceptive. He had travelled in Tuscany and knew the places to which Welf was referring.
At eleven, Welf invited Anton to join Dr Gasse and himself in what had become their customary coffee break. Dr Gasse was charmed and impressed by their visitor who, without any name-dropping of which Welf was aware, somehow let Gasse understand that he was a man of some weight in the world.
When their coffee was done, Welf accompanied Anton out under the portico and into the cool, blustery weather that had now descended on the city. The river was running fuller and faster now. It had turned brown, a sign of heavy rain in the mountains that were its source.
A sudden curiosity spurred Welf. ‘Tell me about my uncle.’
Anton raised his eyebrows. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘What sort of man was he?’
‘He was all sorts of things. Gus will tell you that there were many Oskars, and he suited his personality to his company and purposes. I saw him only amongst the men who frequented the baths in Vienna in 1879 and 1880. There he was seductive, charming and … insatiable. I still remember every moment of the times we spent together.’
Welf blushed red. ‘Do I really look like him?’
‘When your face is relaxed and you don’t have your spectacles on, the resemblance is striking. You have his same half-smile, though at second glance it is not so amused and ironic. The voice too is very alike. But you are not he, and your every movement betrays it. He was the natural centre of any social group. One had no choice but to pay homage to him.’
Welf smiled. ‘But I am much more reclusive and shy, you were about to say.’
‘I meant no offence. You are your own man; a retiring scholar perhaps, but a gentleman. Oskar was a man focussed on one thing alone, service to his queen and motherland. For that cause he gave up everything he had, even his life. Yet he conquered in death. He was the greatest man I ever met, and I miss him every day … as does Gus.’
He paused and sighed. ‘It is an odd thing, but what links us inseparably is the shared memory of a man who was the lover of each of us. Yes, Gus and I love each other and know each other as well as or better than men know their wives. Yet for all our lives together since, it is to the memory of Oskar we both return.’
Welf had no comment to make. Such things were far beyond his experience. He said farewell to the baron, who walked off along the embankment.
Dinner with Ulrica the next day was another new experience for Welf. They fell at once into easy chat as they walked arm-in-arm from the Ernestinum to a small café she knew. The meal was more acceptable than most that Ernsthof was able to offer in those troubled times. For some reason, they talked of religion, Ulrica quizzing Welf about the Catholic practices that were alien to her. When there was no further reason to stay at the table, they held hands while making their way up to the Hohe Markt.
Dusk was gathering more quickly in those days as July passed into August. They found a dark corner and lost themselves in an embrace that went on long enough for Ulrica to become aware of Welf’s passion. When she caressed him sensually through his clothes, he groaned. He had to have her, and saw a hunger equal to his own in her eyes.
Once in his hotel room, his heart pounding, he stripped himself as rapidly as if he had been in the Maison de Venus. Ulrica was not even half undressed as he pressed himself on her. He took her like that on his bed, removing the rest of her clothes as they embraced and moved together. She told him it was her first intimacy with a man, so he did what he could to ease the experience for her. He could not but reflect how different – and how much more tender – an experience it was from any he had ever had on Gildenfahrbsweg.
As she lay next to him, stroking his body, she asked him if he ever did tuition in Latin and Greek. He looked at her curiously. Did she want to improve her knowledge of the classics?
‘Frau Altmann, the prince’s governess, has asked me to recommend someone from the technical institute to fill Leo’s vacant tutorship in classics. I wondered whether you would be interested. We could see more of each other.’