MAXIM ELPHBERG - XVIII
Welf held his hat in both hands while waiting in the entrance hall of the Furstenschloss of Ernsthof. He wanted to look like a penniless scholar down on his luck, not the young patrician and dilettante he was. He tried to adopt a beseeching demeanour, but was not too impressed with the result that peered back at him from a tall mirror opposite. He rather thought he looked constipated.
‘Herr Tarlenheim?’ He had dropped the aristocratic ‘von’. Frau Altmann was a woman in her forties, her iron grey hair gathered in a tight bun. She seemed quite a pleasant woman at first sight.
‘How do you do, Frau Altmann?’
‘Very well, thank you. Would you be so good as to follow me to the nursery wing?’ She led Welf into a passage winding along the castle walls. They emerged in a cramped stairwell that led up three flights to a narrow corridor with several doors leading off on the left. Through the right side were small windows looking out over the Itsch to the countryside beyond.
‘Please take a seat, Herr Tarlenheim. I have your reference from Dr Gasse. Very impressive. And you are a Ruritanian national?’
‘Yes. I’m eking out a grant studying at the Ernestinum. The possibility of tuition work will help me stay on longer.’
Frau Altmann nodded. ‘You graduated from the Rudolfer Universität in Strelsau.’
‘Yes, in the class of 1911. I registered for an aggregation two years ago, with the prospect of a doctorate under Professor Wahlberg. He is another of my references.’
‘I have heard of him. And your degree?’
‘Summa cum laude, first of my graduating class.’
She pursed her lips. ‘Do you have any experience of tutoring children?’
‘Only within my own family. I have a younger brother.’ Welf did not mention that any suggestion of his tutoring Henry would have been fought to the death.
‘I have to confess that – lack of teaching experience notwithstanding – your credentials are impressive. I do not choose to have the prince tutored by superannuated schoolmasters. My theory is that young, vital minds need to be nurtured by intellects at the peak of their physical and mental performance.’
‘May I ask how far his royal highness has advanced in the classics to date?’
‘His previous tutor gave him a fairly solid grounding in both Latin and Greek grammar. I imagine there will be material he will have cover again before he can regain what fluency he had. Perhaps you should meet him. His geography lesson is just about to end, then he has a break.’
It had been ten days since Welf had first slept with Ulrica, when she had mentioned the search for a suitable classics tutor for Prince Leopold. He had written to Frau Altmann the very next day. He had no time to consult Colonel Sachert about the wisdom of the move. He thought he knew what his Uncle Oskar would have done, despite – or rather because of – the dangers.
In the meantime, Welf had quit the hotel and taken a furnished apartment in the Neuhof, not too far from Ulrica. She joined him most evenings, and had slept several nights through with him. Her passion took Welf aback; it quite matched his own. She was perfectly ready to defy her mother’s disapproval.
‘Darling Welf,’ she had confided a week after their first sexual encounter. ‘I really don’t know where our affair is going, and I don’t care. Happiness in these bleak days is too rare a thing to sacrifice when you find it.’ Welf hugged her to him, strangely moved by her self-giving. She seemed to have little expectation relating to him. She made no plans for a future together. She was fixed in the moments they shared. Perhaps it was the war, or perhaps, he admitted, she read something in him. He did not like that last reflection.
Welf came back to the present to escape the discomfort of his conscience. Frau Altmann was checking the watch suspended on her blouse front. ‘Stand, if you please.’
She tapped the third door along the corridor and went in. After a woman came out carrying a set of books, Frau Altmann beckoned Welf to enter.
The boy prince, dressed in an Eton suit with a high collar, was sitting at a plain desk in a bay window looking out on the lawns within the castle’s interior. Welf delivered his Rothenian-style bow. The boy stood up and surveyed him solemnly. Welf knew not to initiate conversations with royalty.
‘You are from Ruritania, Herr Tarlenheim?’
‘Yes, your royal highness.’
‘I was born there.’
‘So I understand, sir.’
‘And are you related to the very noble house which carries that name?’
‘I don’t believe so, sir.’
‘You are to teach me Latin and Greek.’
‘If your governess approves, sir.’
‘It would be nice to talk to someone from Ruritania.’
‘Thank you, sir. May I say how good it is to meet a fellow Ruritanian in Ernsthof.’
The boy smiled, and Ulrica was right. It was an expression of particular sweetness, the mark of a lonely and dignified boy who appreciated any kindness and attention that came his way. It touched Welf, for he recognised something of himself in Prince Leopold.
Frau Altmann cleared her throat. ‘His royal highness has an hour to spare. Herr Tarlenheim, you may take the opportunity to ascertain how far his studies in the classics have progressed. I shall return in half an hour.’
‘May I sit, sir?’ Welf asked as the door closed.
He took a seat at the table opposite the prince, who squirmed back into his own, swinging his legs and resting his forearms in front of him.
‘Can you name the cases of Latin nouns for me, sir?’
The boy complied. He could also recite all five declensions and the active verb conjugations. He had been well taught. His Greek was not quite so good, but in the circumstances it was adequate. He was a biddable child, seemingly keen to learn. Although he had yet to undertake any serious reading of classical authors, Welf was confident of being able to introduce him to Caesar’s Gallic Wars fairly soon. Welf made notes about a plan of work.
A tap on the door heralded Frau Altmann’s return. Welf stood and shook the prince’s small proffered hand before taking his leave. He waited patiently in the corridor outside as the governess attended to the rest of the prince’s routine and a footman entered with his lunch on a tray.
When Frau Altmann emerged, she was smiling. ‘You have made a good impression, Herr Tarlenheim. To begin with, I would like you to tutor him three afternoons a week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. He has some ground to catch up, I believe.’
‘His royal highness is a boy of some capacities, I think.’
‘It seems that way to us. I would like you to produce for me a weekly teaching scheme to cover the period between now and Christmas. Today is Wednesday, so let us begin tomorrow, immediately after his English lesson with Fraulein Schmidt. I will summon someone to take you to the Stable Gate, which the tutors use to enter and leave the castle. You will be given a pass for the relevant days. The terms of remuneration are as we have agreed.’
After taking his departure, Welf wandered the Schloss-garten for a while. He was aware there was some danger to himself in taking up his strategy. It was conceivable he might be recognised. Though he had not moved much in high society in his native land, he was known amongst the aristocracy. Then there was his troubling resemblance to his uncle Oskar and indeed to several other Tarlenheims. He must keep out of King Albert’s path, that was for sure.
Welf had been taught Latin by his father in a characteristically whimsical way. He naturally tried to inject humour in his turn when he taught. Prince Leopold was currently grinning over an exercise in adjectival comparison which had him constructing the comparative and superlative of ‘pedagogus durus’ (hard-hearted teacher) and ‘alumnus piger’ (lazy pupil).
Welf had already started to regard these lessons at the palace not as a duty but as a pleasure. The boy was a delight to be with, and Welf had soon noticed how devoted to him were the palace staff. Leopold was charming, with a fund of quiet humour. He was also endlessly curious about his tutors and the world outside the castle walls.
Almost without realising it, Welf had begun chatting to the prince about his own boyhood, and the joys and sorrows of his life with his brothers and sister. When he set translation exercises for Leopold, ‘maleficus Henricus’ was the villain in some sentences, while ‘pulcher Helga’ was the beautiful heroine in others.
Although Leopold did not often laugh out loud, when he did so it was irresistible to Welf to laugh with him. Frau Altmann had given Welf a glowing smile when she met him at the door after one such outburst. She clearly approved of the new tutor.
‘Do you see much of your father, sir?’ Welf asked.
‘When he is home from the war. It has been five months since the last time. He brought me a Cossack’s fur hat.’
‘I am so glad my country has kept out of the war.’
‘Yes indeed, you Ruritanians are lucky in that way. I found Adela the maid crying on the stairs yesterday. She had three brothers, the last of whom was killed a week ago in Belgium. His name was Karl. I met him once when he was a page in the castle. He was sixteen then and liked to swim, I remember. I gave her a picture I drew of him.’
Welf gulped, not just at the tragedy but at the artless and sincere kindness of this lonely prince. His eyes momentarily stung. They went back to the Greek aorist tense.
Welf had met Colonel Sachert four days after commencing his new work. The colonel had listened impassively as Welf told his tale – omitting the romantic details of his and Ulrica’s liaison. Somehow he knew the colonel had divined them anyway. Sachert did not suggest Welf quit the post, though he did not seem very happy about it either.
‘The thing is, Von Tarlenheim, you are in a position where we have tried to place trained agents and failed. You are not trained, which worries me. You may not intend to put yourself in danger, but you will end up doing so nonetheless. Your manner stands against the bourgeois background you are claiming, and your face … well, it is not your friend. If ever Albert of Thuringia sees you, he will know you for a fox in his chicken run. There may be others of his household as well who knew your uncle in the old days.’
‘I shall keep my head down.’
‘You are a hostage to fortune. Gather what intelligence you can and then get clear of the place, is my advice. God knows what will happen to you if the Countess Rechtenberg ever finds out you are seeing her lost son more or less daily.’
Welf nodded guiltily to himself in the castle schoolroom. He knew he had a duty to Antonia which he was shirking. As he looked at her son scratching away with a pen, forming Greek letters with painstaking care, he wondered what he should do. Watch and wait, was the only answer that occurred.
Luckily, it seemed fate remained on his side. That very day there was a knock on the schoolroom door, and in came a pale but quite pretty teenage girl in a long white summer dress. The boy sprang up. ‘Vicky! You are back!’
The girl ran lightly over to Leopold and hugged him. He buried his head in her dress and then looked up grinning. Welf stood off to one side. This must be Princess Victoria Matild, Albert’s other child. For a princess dispossessed of a throne by an intruding illegitimate boy, she seemed remarkably sanguine about it. There was no doubting the affection with which she regarded her half-brother.
Soon they were chatting away freely, and Welf wondered if he should leave. Suddenly Frau Altmann bustled in, a disapproving look on her face. ‘Your royal highnesses may talk later. It is school time at the moment, and you are imposing on Herr Tarlenheim.’
The princess turned as if noticing Welf for the first time. ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but it has been two months since I have seen my brother, and I could not wait.’
Welf bowed, and murmured his complaisance. The princess left with Frau Altmann.
As the prince returned to his desk he commented, ‘Vicky has been at Potsdam with the empress. But she has come home, now that father is returning.’
‘The king is coming back?’
‘Yes, he will be here at the weekend.’
The repeated bangs of a royal salute echoing out from the castle woke Welf at ten on Saturday morning. He was sleeping alone. It took him a while to work out what was the importance of the twenty-one concussions his mind was counting. King Albert was back amongst his people. The city’s bells began ringing immediately afterwards.
The demonstrations of affection seemed over the top to Welf. Perhaps grenadiers would soon be rapping on people’s doors, thrusting Thuringian flags into their hands and ordering them into the streets at gunpoint to cheer their returning prince.
As it happened, his door buzzer rasped at him just when he was dozing off again. He laboured into a discarded nightshirt and staggered to his apartment door, yawning and resentful. Welf liked to lie in on Saturdays; it was one of the few indulgences he permitted himself.
His visitor was Colonel Sachert, who entered without invitation. ‘Good morning, Welf.’ He seemed amused about something. ‘Did you hear the cannon from the castle?’
‘Yes … and is it the ringing in my ears or are the city’s bells also at work?’
Sachert gave a small and rare laugh. ‘I thought I would come and see what you can tell me.’
Welf related the incident in the schoolroom on Thursday afternoon.
‘So he is back, and maybe for a while. The Thuringian elements of his army corps are also returning. The rest are in barracks across Saxony.’
Welf nodded and could not resist asking, ‘And whom do you share this information with?’
Sachert pursed his lips. ‘I pass all we learn back to the General Staff. It is up to your uncle Franz who sees it after that. But the rumour is that he spreads his intelligence to good effect. Both the French and the Austrians benefit.’
‘The Hohenzollerns do not trust their allies and are reticent about their own troop dispositions … so I understand. Perhaps it’s time you caught a chest infection and offered your apologies at the castle.’
‘What, hide out pretending to be sick until King Albert goes away again to war? He may be here for months!’
‘Certainly not. I am doing good work at the castle.’
‘Please explain that to me.’
Welf caught his breath, then ploughed on. ‘I was sent here to help Gus Underwood and to maintain contact with you. That was fine so far as it went, and I was happy enough to be your runner, Sachert. Now the chance has come for me to play a more active part. It may not be helping you, but the intelligence I’m collecting at the castle will very much help Gus, in due course.’
‘Get caught and you will not help anyone. You will embarrass your family at best and your country at worst.’
Welf’s temper did what it rarely did: it flared. ‘Look here, Sachert. I am not my uncle, as I am all too well aware. But I am a Tarlenheim, and no man of my house has ever walked away from what needed to be done, just because it contained an element of danger. I know what my father would say, and so be damned to you.’
Sachert stiffened and glared. Then after a moment he relaxed, and a quirky smile played around the corner of his mouth, behind his moustache. ‘Well, well. Maybe I forgot there was a Tarlenheim behind the scholar. Forgive me, Welf. I should not be hard on a brave man doing the duty his king has confided to him.’ He offered his hand and Welf took it. ‘Then do your duty, young man. But please remember you are very much on your own. I cannot be seen too often with or near you … I hope you understand.’
‘Yes, I do. But how may I contact you if anything critical comes up?’
‘I’m afraid I cannot risk giving you any contact details, and I do not have the manpower to keep you under surveillance. The best I can offer is that if you really want to see me, light seven candles in a line at the statue of St Fenice of Tarlenheim, your ancestress, in the church of St Ignatius Loyola after high mass on Sunday. One or another of our agents is bound to be in the church and will notice, because candles are so rarely lit to a Rothenian saint. Then I will come looking for you. Good luck, Welf.’ Sachert gave him a firm handshake and left him.
Welf leaned out the open window, listening to the bells clanging and clattering across the city’s roofs. He wondered how he could tutor Leopold while yet staying out of the way of the boy’s father.
But he needn’t have worried too much. His telephone rang on Monday evening with Frau Altmann on the line. It seemed the court was shifting to the royal family’s hunting lodge in the Black Mountains. It would return to Ernsthof after a fortnight, at which time he was to resume his duties. The issue was therefore in suspension.
Welf and Ulrica met on Tuesday afternoon and made a holiday of it, since with the court absent neither was teaching at the moment. The weather was hot and bright enough for Welf to hire a rowing boat. He sculled them down the Itsch some miles from the city, where the river wound between rich, flower-filled meadows. There were several small, wooded islands at the river bends. The young couple had a picnic on the miniature beach of one of the eyots. The look in Ulrica’s eyes soon tempted Welf to take her hand and lead her to the island’s interior, where they made love in the cool shade of a small clearing. After dozing off together in the warm afternoon air for an hour and more, they found their passion renewed. It was erotic and sensuous to swim naked following their second coupling.
Ulrica gazed fondly up at Welf as they embraced in the cool rushing water. ‘We could stay here in this Eden like a modern Adam and Eve.’
‘And leave the horrors of the present behind us. But the winter will come before long and the leaves will fall, and you and I will get very cold.’ Welf laughed.
Her eyes became a little fearful as she looked up into his. ‘I love you, Welf.’
‘I know, my darling.’ He could not reply in kind, but she apparently did not want him to. It seemed that they had an understanding which neither wished to articulate.
That Saturday, Welf had his usual engagement with the Underwoods. Anton had long gone back to Rothenia, leaving Gus and Antonia by themselves. Frankly, Welf admitted to himself, he had rather be alone with just Gus. He found Antonia difficult to deal with. But that day there were distractions with news from Strelzen.
‘Your brother has announced his engagement to his Cecilie,’ Gus informed him.
‘Oh, my word! The news has not yet reached me. How did you find out?’
‘I ran into Lobowicz, our consul here. He saw it published in a Strelzen gazette.’
‘When’s it to be?’
‘As soon as possible, no doubt,’ sniffed Antonia, a little cattily.
Though Cecilie was not a particular favourite of Welf’s, he felt obliged to defend his impending sister-in-law. ‘What’s that supposed to mean, Toni?’
‘Oh, just that men like Osku don’t come along every day: heir to Templerstadt and chief steward of the crown estates.’
‘I think they love each other, Toni.’
‘Well of course! Did I suggest anything else?’ The petulance was evident, and made Welf uncomfortable. What did he know about love after all? He had begun to fear that years of resorting to the Maison de Venus had eroded his capacity to give and receive such an emotion. It had infected him with cynicism about relationships and was currently blighting his feelings for Ulrica. He wished his brother well, but he fancied that Osku too had difficulties with the idea of settling down.
Antonia was restless that night, so she left the table to Gus and Welf after dinner. Gus lit up a cigar and asked the maid to open the French windows on to the lawn. Cool air sifted in, stirring the curtains and causing the blue smoke to curl lazily above the table. For a while, both men were content to sit there in silence with their glasses of port.
Welf was debating something with himself and eventually decided it was time. ‘Uncle August?’
‘Yes, Welf my dear?’
‘I’m not here just to read Etruscan inscriptions.’
‘No sir. The king and my father sent me to help keep an eye on you and Toni.’
‘Really?’ The man was watching Welf closely.
‘Yes sir. But it so happens I’ve been able to do more than just accept dinner invitations and watch out for signs of trouble.’
‘And what would that be?’
‘On the train here I met a woman …’ He told the story of his encounter with Ulrica and all that had occurred with her since, even including the fact that they were sharing a bed. ‘So you see, uncle, I have been meeting the boy and talking to him for weeks. In the end, I had to tell you at least, sir. So that you know.’
Gus’s cigar had been untouched and shedding ash on his dinner jacket for five minutes now. ‘Know what?’ he asked softly.
‘What a fine boy your grandson is, and how proud you can be of him.’
Welf noticed the dampness around Gus’s eyes.
‘Thank you, Welf.’ He got up to pace the room slowly, pausing to flick his cigar stub into the night, trailing red sparks. Finally he wanted to know, ‘Does he mention his mother?’
‘Not to me, sir. I can’t really ask either.’
‘No, of course not. It might distress him. Where is he now?’
‘With his father and the court in the Black Mountains.’
‘And you say he gets on with his sister?’
‘They seem devoted.’
‘Thank God the boy has someone to love and be loved by.’
‘Uncle, I have an idea to propose.’ Gus nodded to him to continue. ‘I might take the boy a letter from you … I would not suggest one from his mother. I do not trust her judgement.’
‘I understand. You count on me to be more measured in my approach to Leo, and not frighten him with passionate outpourings of disembodied devotion.’
‘Something like that.’
‘I will give the idea some thought. Thank you for sharing this with me, Welf. You are a good lad; you’ve justified your father’s faith in you.’
Welf poured himself another port, and began telling Gus every word and action of Leo’s he could recall. The older man leaned on his elbows, drinking it all in.
When the tale ended, he sat back in his chair. ‘For me, that’s made these months here in Germany worthwhile. I can go back home with some peace in my heart. I wish my daughter would too, but …’
‘What is it she wants, uncle?’
Gus shrugged. ‘I really don’t know. To hug her only child to her at the very least. Think of the motherhood Albert ripped from her. She had no more than a month or two to hold her boy in her arms. I suppose she must dream of having him sleeping at her side, playing in her garden, bringing her his cut finger … all the things she has been denied.’
‘Somehow, sir, I just can’t see Toni as that sort of woman.’
‘Don’t underestimate her, Welf. She is more than she sometimes seems. If her mother had lived, Toni would have been a different woman, I’m sure.’
He lit another cigar. ‘I shall think carefully about your offer. Now some good news. Marek Rustak is to come here from Pietersberg. He has finished training Anton’s staff to his own exacting standards, and now he is to do the same to this house too. We expect him tomorrow.’
Welf looked down at his glass and gave a small smile. He was not perhaps the greatest fan of Gus’s steward, whose incomprehensible archness had intimidated him as a boy. Welf had thought the man above himself and rather rude. He had never since revised his opinion, even though he knew something now about Marek’s past.
‘What about the lawyers, uncle? Have they had any success?
Gus breathed out a puff of blue smoke – rather symbolically, Welf thought. ‘The legal system in the empire is cumbersome. We began our case in the Ernsthof Amtsgericht, the local court, intending to sue for some form of joint custody. Such is Albert’s influence here, however, that the case was stalled again and again. The judges were very obstructive. We wasted a lot of time.
‘A month ago we moved the case to the regional court, where the judges are appointed by Berlin and are less amenable to Albert’s intimidation. Unfortunately, that has meant arguing the case all over again. A victory of sorts is that his lawyers have actually appeared this time and are doing their best to block us. My feeling is that any decision the judge makes will be subject to appeal to the Reichsgericht, the supreme court in Berlin. If it’s for us, Albert will appeal. If it’s against us, we will appeal. Then it will all begin again. It could be years.’
‘How depressing, uncle.’
‘Antonia won’t leave while there’s hope. She sits through the hearings and never misses them. While she’s here, I really can’t leave her, at least for long. But I have to go back to Anton soon. Although he’s been very good about all this, we miss each other sadly.’
They talked about home for a while, and the prospects of an early marriage for Oskar Franz. At last Welf excused himself, saying he was going to take advantage of the royal court’s absence to go back home to Rothenia for a week.
It almost seemed to Welf that colour returned to the world as the train crossed the German frontier into his homeland. The air tasted sweeter, too, and the people looked cheerful and happy. He blessed the wisdom of King Maxim which had kept the country out of the war.
He enjoyed a traditional lunch of beef stew at the Modenheim station restaurant while catching up on the papers, which he could not get in Germany. They did not make happy reading. The government was in crisis once again. The labour unions were agitating for price controls and restrictions on profiteering. There was the threat of strikes in the factories, coal fields and mines of Husbrau and Zenden. Having seen at firsthand what the war was doing to Germany, he found his compatriots’ complaints piffling.
Welf caught the local train to Tarlenheim and Strelsfurt and, finding no one waiting at the station, took a cab to the château. His aunt Sophie was delighted to see him. She made him stay for dinner with the promise that someone would drive him to Templerstadt afterwards.
It was dark when the car drew up outside his home. His father and mother were waiting to give him a joint embrace.
‘How long can you stay, Welf dearest?’ his mother asked.
‘Till after the weekend, but I must be back for Wednesday. I have a job.’
His father looked surprised. ‘A job? At the Ernestinum?’
‘No father, it’s a long story, so let’s go in and have a decent coffee – the stuff you get in Germany is so bitter and gritty.’
Welf told his tale, his mother and father holding hands as they listened to him. When he finished, there was a pause before Count Hugo said in a quiet voice, ‘My dear, you have not disappointed me. You have done everything you should have and more besides.’
Welf blushed red. He loved and honoured his father, and the praise was very welcome.
His mother had not failed to notice the part of his account which he had been vague about. ‘What will you do when you go back, Welf? This woman, Fraulein Schmidt, she seems to be attracted to you.’
Welf blushed again, a reaction his mother noticed all too easily. ‘Ulrica is a … good friend, we have been out together several times.’
His father laughed. ‘So both our elder boys are engaged in romances, though Osku is further ahead with his, as is perhaps appropriate. The marriage is to be celebrated at Medeln Abbey on 7 November. We sent you a letter, but it cannot have caught you up. The king is to be present and will be Osku’s best man.’
‘Is there any news about Paul?’
‘He is somewhere in a forward training camp in northern France with his regiment, which has been dismounted. He is to be sent to the front, so we understand.’
A silence succeeded that observation.
‘Helga is with the children in Strelzen still, in the apartment on Festungstrasse. When you go back, you should call in on her. She must be lonely.
‘Now, tell us more about little Prince Leopold. He seems an unlikely son for Albert to produce, but then, he is half an Underwood.’
Welf stayed with his parents until the Saturday. He found it difficult to settle down to his books and notes that would normally have occupied him. He wanted to be up and doing things; the mission to Ernsthof had unsettled him, as it was supposed to have done.
On the Friday afternoon, as hot and lazy an August day as could be imagined, Welf walked down from Templerstadt to the river meadows to cool off in the dark waters of the Taveln. Dressing again, he took the long walk along the river to Tarlenheim, where something drew him to the church. He entered and spent some time meditating in front of the statue of St Fenice, to whom he lit several candles. The fate of many friends was on his mind, and he was troubled.
A number of wall plaques recalling members of his family were set in the nave and chancel walls. He walked up to the high altar, in front of which lay the effigy of Count Jerzy Cerescu of Tarlenheim, in fifteenth-century armour, hands clasped in prayer. The old count had rebuilt the church after its destruction by invading Bohemian iconoclasts.
On the wall to the north of the altar was a handsome monument to Welf’s uncle, Count Oskar. The bust, sculpted in profile, had been a fascination for Welf ever since he was a boy. It was even more so now when he was living the sort of life Oskar had.
Leaving the cool of the church, Welf walked out into a wall of afternoon heat, insects buzzing round him. He tramped through the long grass towards the Tarlenheim mausoleum, a massive porticoed structure in the northwestern corner of the churchyard. A black tunnel plunged from the portico deep into the hill behind. He knew that passages led off to east and west, which were honeycombed with slots for the coffins of his dead family. He also knew that one of those stone cavities was awaiting him, a fate that had never particularly bothered him. He lived too much among the dead in any case. He gripped the rusty iron of the gate which closed the entrance. One day he would join Count Oskar inside.
He jumped as a sudden exhalation seemed to echo up the tunnel towards him. A breath of air caught his face. There was a faint scent about it, not unpleasant, like the attar the nuns of Medeln manufactured. He wondered if one of the coffins within had collapsed. When that sometimes happened, the result could be explosive, so the church sexton had told him, trying to make his flesh creep when he and Osku were boys playing in the churchyard.
On the long walk home afterwards, he thought deeply about the way his life was changing. He found he was not too unhappy about it.
* * *
Strelzen was as busy and handsome a city as ever. Rothenians just did not know how lucky they were. The streetlights were bright that Saturday night as the evening closed in after another hot day. The outside tables of the cafés in Stracenzstrasse were full, and the hubbub of conversation and laughter charmed his ears as he passed by. This was not a people mourning its lost sons and husbands, or weighed down by hunger. Yet they did not appreciate their good fortune.
As usual, Welf went to stay at his brother’s flat in Osragasse. He met Osku coming out the door of the block.
‘Welf! Brother! We almost missed each other. I just have to go round Cecilie’s. More arrangements for the marriage. I may be a while. Do you want to meet up later at Madame Celestine’s?’
‘You still go there?’
Osku shrugged. ‘It’s there, and I need what it provides.’
‘No, I don’t think so. Not tonight anyway. I shan’t wait up for you. I’ll catch up in the morning. But I must go and see Helga early.’
When Welf arrived at Festungstrasse 445, he found a large black car waiting outside, its driver dressed in a distinctive olive-green livery. A policeman was standing at the door to the block.
Apartment 6 was as bright and clean as ever, and Helga was not alone. ‘Your majesty?’
The king gripped Welf’s hand. ‘Good to see you, Welf. You have not disappointed expectations. Sachert’s reports have been most complimentary.’
‘Oh! I got the impression he wanted me to be put in a sack and posted home.’
King Maxim laughed. ‘He doesn’t like to encourage amateurs. No, he really thinks you are doing a good job. So tell me about life in the Furstenschloss of Ernsthof.’
Welf obliged, all the while glancing at the king, who appeared more worn than when Welf had last seen him. He looked like a man under stress.
Welf concluded by asking if the king was going to be Osku’s best man. ‘Indeed I am. He’s one of my oldest friends in Rothenia, it’s the least I can do.’
‘It will be a joyful day,’ Helga smiled. ‘Little Philip and Elizabeth are so very excited. Sissi knows it will be before Christmas, but since she always thinks Christmas will be next week, she is continually disappointed. They only want their daddy home safe and sound to make the holiday perfect.’
‘Paul is in northern France, I hear.’
‘Somewhere near Compiègne. He writes most days. He tells me how tedious it all is, marching and countermarching, rifle practice and drill.’
‘He is to go into the trenches?’
Helga bit her lip. ‘Yes. As soon as his men are trained for the front, they’ll be moved up.’
There seemed little more to say. Helga’s distress was evident in her unconscious gripping of the king’s hand.
‘Where are my nephew and niece anyway? I brought them some gifts from Germany.’
‘They are out in Bila Palacz with Millie, our maid. They’ll be back soon.’
‘I must go, Helga,’ interrupted the king.
‘Thank you for coming, Max. You know how much it means to me.’
‘It is my pleasure. It’s good to get out of the Osraeum, believe me. Now I must go and knock some politicians’ heads together. Too bad it’s a lost cause with the present generation. What I wouldn’t give to have Tildemann as chancellor. But until the suffrage is extended generally through the population, that will never happen.’
They stood as King Maxim left. ‘He is such a kind man, but so very lonely,’ sighed Helga. ‘He’ll sit there with little Pip on his knee and forget everything for an hour or two. He is also very delicate. He won’t come more than once a month, in case gossip starts about myself and him.
‘Now, Welf, tell me about Ulrica Schmidt. Mother has already been on the telephone …’
Oskar Franz appeared half an hour later, along with Pip and Sissi. It was quite a family party. They went out for lunch at Berwinckel’s ice cream parlour in the Graben. This was largely for the children’s benefit, but Welf said the place was special to him too, as the culmination of any visit to Strelzen when he was a boy. The shop was everything about the big city that he loved. Herr Berwinckel himself seemed unchanged, a fat Austrian German with waxed and curled moustaches, exactly the way Welf remembered from childhood.
Welf told his niece and nephew all about their cousin Prince Leopold. They listened to him open mouthed. ‘And he is my age?’ asked Philip. ‘Will I ever meet him? Does he play football? Has he lost any teeth yet?’
‘I really don’t know,’ admitted Welf. ‘But he speaks English as well as you do, Pip. And he reads Latin and Greek too, which you don’t.’
‘Mother says I don’t need to worry about that yet. Anyway, I am learning to play the piano. Can he play the piano?’
‘I don’t know that, either, though he does have a music tutor.’
‘I will send him a Christmas card,’ Sissi announced. ‘Is he coming to Uncle Osku’s wedding?’
It would be so good for Leopold to know he had relatives like these, Welf thought. But what could be done? The boy was in his father’s power and likely to stay there. He resolved in any case to take with him to Ernsthof photographs of his nephew and niece, just in case there was an opportunity to share them with Leopold.
Wednesday came, and all Welf’s relatives in Strelzen saw him off from the Königs-Rudolfs-Bahnhof. He had packets of coffee, tea and sugar stashed away in his luggage. He had concealed his money belt in his apartment in Ernsthof before returning to Rothenia. As it happened, there was no search of his bags at the frontier this time.
The moment the Bayreuth train pulled into the station at Ernsthof that evening, the gloom descended. On a siding opposite, Welf was startled to see a locomotive pulling cattle wagons packed with British prisoners of war, guarded by German troops on the track side. The prisoners, some of them with stained bandages around heads and limbs, looked out hopelessly through the planks. Were they in transit, or were they being unloaded at Ernsthof? Welf thought of Paul Underwood and became solemn. This was where his brother-in-law might end up.
At the Ernsthof city station, Welf was also surprised to find the concourse crowded. He pushed forward into the press of people being held back by something that was obstructing their exit from the station. He heard shouts from outside. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked a respectable-looking businessman next to him.
‘There’s a huge mob of factory workers heading towards the Staats-Versammlung. It’s a hunger march. They’re complaining about the new rationing. They’ll be gone past in a few minutes.’
Soon the crowd began moving off the concourse. As he queued patiently for the few cabs working the station, Welf wondered about what was happening. Demonstrations and protest assemblies had been forbidden by imperial edict, yet here in the heart of one of the empire’s most hard-line provinces, a protest march had just gone by him.
Trucks full of troops in steel helmets passed by soon after he emerged from the station. From what must have been quite a distance, he heard the sullen roar of an angry mass of humanity. Others in the queue looked nervously at each other.
A taxi finally turned into the forecourt, unloaded a passenger and put up a ‘Not for Hire’ sign. The driver shouted across to the queue, ‘You won’t get a taxi. The streets into the city are sealed. There’s fighting going on all across the Old City.’
Maxim looked around, shouldered his bags and headed doggedly down to the river embankment, using it to skirt the city centre. He took a rest on a bench with a view over to the Furstenschloss. Spirals of smoke were rising in the distance, and he could still hear the crowd. He could also hear the far-off pop, pop of gunfire. There were few people in the streets.
The lower bridge was open, and he was lucky enough to find a lonely cab in a rank on the right bank. When it got him to his building in Neuhof, he tipped the lady driver generously before hauling his heavy bags into the block and dumping them with relief inside his apartment.
Ulrica. How was she? That was his first thought. He picked up his telephone, but it was dead. Although his window didn’t give much of a view of the Old City, he could still see the columns of smoke. As he nursed a cup of black coffee while watching the street below, it began to dawn upon him that Albert’s days as duke of Thuringia might be numbered. Perhaps it would be Albert, rather than Gus Underwood, in need of protection.