MAXIM ELPHBERG - XIX
When the telephone lines were restored that night, Welf rang Ulrica’s home first. He got her mother, who was reluctant to let him talk to her daughter. After Ulrica had wrestled the receiver from her mother, her conversation with Welf was brief. Although they had heard about the disturbances in the city, they had not been affected. The prince’s lessons were supposed to begin tomorrow, but it did not seem that King Albert had returned as yet.
A call to the palace number simply returned a buzzing noise, so Welf had no way of checking when his presence would be required.
His call to the Underwoods’ number was answered by an unfamiliar voice. ‘Hullo, who it that?’
‘This is Mr Underwood’s valet. Who shall I say is calling?’
‘Marek? I didn’t recognise you. It’s Welf von Tarlenheim.’
‘Oh sir, I had no idea. You sound so grown up.’
‘Thank you, Marek. Can you pass me on to Mr Underwood?’
There was a pause. ‘Welf! I’m glad you’re back. Are you alright?’
‘Yes, just a bit tired from having to haul my bags most of the way from the station. We need to talk. Will you meet me at the Ernestinum tomorrow at lunchtime?’
‘And can you have that … letter we talked about?’
‘We need to discuss it, I think.’
Welf made a cup of the coffee he had brought from home. Savouring it, he stared out on the darkening city, where house and streetlights were coming on. He had some planning to do.
Dr Gasse was pleased to see him arrive the next day. They spent the morning reviewing the work he had completed and what he still had to do. They were deeply into an inscription that seemed to refer to the city of Veii, when Clara summoned him to his appointment with Gus.
They walked together up into the Hohe Markt. Since the weather was cloudy, they took an inside table at one of the few open cafés. The litter of yesterday’s riot was still everywhere. Some shop fronts were smashed and boarded, giving the square a derelict look.
‘Things are beginning to come apart in the empire, despite the victories in the east,’ Gus observed. ‘There is a huge allied onslaught being carried out in France, with the British pushing relentlessly against the German lines. The Germans cannot keep up this effort for much longer, what with the Americans arriving in force. Their newspapers disguise it, but there was trouble this summer in many of the big cities. Russia is falling into anarchy, and the Hapsburg empire is shaky, to say the least.
‘Antonia has been in touch with some of her old socialist friends lately. She says the factories are rife with discontent, and government attempts to appease the workers are having no effect. There are a group called Spartacists who are preaching a revolution just like the one that occurred in St Petersburg. This brooding disorder is taking her mind off her other troubles. She’s planning to go to Berlin to meet her old friend Miss Luxemburg. I’m encouraging her.’
‘Good heavens! If you had to live with her, you’d see what I mean. It’s nice to know that even civil insurrection can have a silver lining.’
‘And the letter …?’
‘I have spent days thinking about it, but as soon as I have a sheet of paper and a pen in front of me, my mind goes blank. I don’t know what to say.’
‘I’m sorry, uncle. If anything occurs, I’ll always be ready to take it to the boy, so long as I can stay in Thuringia.’
‘How long are you planning on being in Ernsthof?’
‘There is the question of Ulrica. I can’t leave till that’s resolved, so I suppose I may be here for a few months yet. Besides, the collection in the Ernestinum really is unique; it’s inspiring me to think of a book at last. Dr Gasse and I are getting quite enthusiastic. He says he can find a publisher.’
Gus smiled. They sat together for a good hour as Welf brought him up to date on family news. ‘Well that clinches it,’ Gus finally said. ‘It’s back to Rothenia for November, whether Toni likes it or not.’
‘Good!’ Welf agreed. ‘I think you’re needed there more than here.’
After they parted, Welf went back down to the Ernestinum, where he worked through the afternoon. When he emerged and looked back up to the castle, it was to see the Thuringian banner break out on the central tower, together with a puff of white smoke and a report as a cannon began the salute. King Albert had returned. There was no peal of bells on this occasion, however.
Welf woke the next Tuesday with Ulrica nestled into him. They had gone to the moving picture house to watch a film she had been recommended to see – a dramatisation of the Nibelungenlied. It was pretty dreadful, as it happened, and the amount of government propaganda shown before it was stultifying. Welf had struggled to his feet at the end for the national anthem. He noticed that a lot of Germans in the theatre were also making heavy weather of their patriotic duty.
Ulrica had gone along with his suggestion that they return to his apartment, and very soon they were entangled in bed. Welf was surprised at the depth of his desire for this slim woman’s body. He made love repeatedly to her, as libidinous as a teenager. She did not want to return home, but lay exhausted and content next to him.
‘Darling?’ He pushed her bare shoulder. She opened her eyes and smiled. Welf had made a decision. ‘You don’t need to leave. You may stay here with me.’
‘You mean …?’
‘I don’t want you to go. I’ve discovered that you make me happy. You take away my loneliness, Rica. I think about you all the time … is this love?’
She kissed him. ‘Yes, I believe so. I know I love you, Welf. You’re like no other man I ever met. The week you were gone was so empty.’
Welf smiled. His heart was telling him he was doing the right thing. ‘What will your mother say?’
‘She will say I am a harlot and a fool, the trollop of a foreigner.’
Welf contracted his handsome brow. ‘So that’s what you’ve been living with.’
‘Yes, that and worse. But knowing you wanted me made it worthwhile.’
One decision led to another. ‘Do you want to marry me?’
‘An odd way of putting it.’
‘Sorry. I’m hopeless at this sort of thing. Will you marry me, Rica?’
‘Thank you for asking, Welf dearest. Maybe we will one day. But not yet, not unless our precautions when we join bodies have been in vain. Now I’m certain you love me, that’s enough for me, forever.’
Welf gave a smile and pulled her to him. She rolled on top of his body, sinking on to him. They began the day in prolonged mutual ecstasy.
Although Welf had always thought of sexual lust as being a male characteristic, Ulrica was proving him wrong. He admired her body as she moved naked and graceful around his rooms. They coupled again in the bathroom as she laughingly distracted him while he was shaving. But at last, dressed and respectable, they were in the street.
They parted at the tram which would take her to the institute, agreeing she would pack her belongings while he was at the castle, then join him afterwards. He gave her a key, and left her with a kiss.
At two that afternoon, Welf presented himself at the Stable Gate and was admitted. He cooled his heels outside the schoolroom before entering as the geography tutor left. Prince Leopold was as usual at his desk. He looked up with a grin when Welf came through the door.
‘Herr Tarlenheim! It is good to see you.’ He hopped down and approached Welf, his hand outstretched in a frank and disarming gesture of welcome. Welf shook it and bowed over it.
‘I trust your royal highness is well?’
‘Thank you, yes. Though it was so boring at the lodge that I was quite glad to get back to my lessons.’
‘And is her royal highness your sister also well?’
The prince’s face clouded. ‘I think so.’
Welf picked up some trouble in the boy and swiftly moved on. ‘I believe, sir, we provided you with some exercises before you left for your holiday. Perhaps we can review them.’
Half an hour later, Welf completed marking the boy’s work and explaining his misconceptions. As usual, Leopold listened seriously and intelligently. It was at this time that they usually took a break and chatted. The boy had obviously been waiting for this moment.
‘Did you go home to Ruritania as you said you would, Herr Tarlenheim?’
‘Yes I did. My elder brother has announced he is to be married, and I also wanted to see my sister and her children.’
‘Oh, how old are they?’
‘Pip, the eldest, is your age, and Sissi is five.’
‘Pip? What a strange name.’
‘It’s short for Philip. His father is English.’
‘Oh! The boy is half my enemy!’
‘Actually, sir, he fancies himself more than half your friend.’
‘How nice. Did they ask about me?’
‘They did, and Pip drew you a picture which he asked me to give you, if there was a chance.’
Welf took out and unfolded a piece of paper on which Pip had drawn a picture of himself standing under a Rothenian flag waving at another boy under a Thuringian flag, his imagined picture of Prince Leopold – there was a crown on his head.
Leopold smiled his enchanting smile. ‘That is very good, and so friendly. I will put it up here. I will draw a picture for him, which I hope you will give to him when you see him next. It would be so nice to meet Pip. I don’t know many boys.’
The prince’s sadness was back again. Welf moved to introduce him to a scholar’s edition of the Gallic Wars. They began reading.
When Welf returned home it was to an apartment transformed. Although Ulrica had really done nothing at all to it, the mere fact that she was moving lightly around, straightening things and cleaning, made it a different place. His loneliness immediately began to ebb. He had finally found another human being whose presence did not distract and eventually irritate him. This was what his mother had always said might one day happen.
Ulrica prepared a meal and he washed up. His long bachelorhood had made him handier about the housework than many of his contemporaries. Afterwards they sat together while she looked at the photographs he had had brought with him from Rothenia.
‘And this is your family?’
‘Yes. I’m sixteen there …’
‘What a beautiful boy you were, but now you are such a handsome man.’
‘That’s Oskar Franz, my big brother, he was twenty then and in law school … that moustache did not survive the summer. That’s Henry, he’s twelve there. And the young lady is my beautiful sister, Helga.’
‘Your father … his eyes …’
‘Yes, he went blind well before we were born. He’s never seen us, yet I think he understands us better than most sighted men know their children.’
‘What is his name?’
‘Hugo Maria, and my mother is Elizabeth, though he calls her Sissi.’
‘Where was it taken?’
‘In the drawing room of Templerstadt, that’s our home.’
‘It’s very grand. You did not say what your father did.’
‘Oh, he is a great scholar, blind man or not. As for what he does, he is a landed gentleman, I suppose.’
Ulrica frowned. ‘Your father is not the prince?’
‘No, he is the prince’s uncle, he is Count Hugo Maria.’
‘And you would offer to marry me, a mere schoolteacher’s daughter? Your family is one of the richest and oldest in Europe.’
‘We’re only a cadet branch. The expectations are less.’
‘But they are real nonetheless.’
‘Rica, my parents are good people. They only want me happy in life, and I think they will see that you make me happy. Nothing else concerns them. I have told them about you, and they are delighted.’
She kissed him, and they snuggled contentedly together. After a while Welf commented, ‘Leo was unhappy today. I think there is something wrong about his sister.’
Ulrica looked at him. ‘Yes, Baroness Altmann and I have a tea together after my lesson. She told me that the king and his daughter have been arguing, and that he was very violent in his speech to her.’
‘What is it about?’
‘He wants her to marry the crown prince of Saxony, Frederick Augustus George. She will have none of it. She seems to have inherited her father’s willpower. But their arguments distress poor Leopold.’
‘Does he love his father?’
‘Respects him would be more accurate. The man is not very affectionate to his children. The queen and he are enemies, as everyone knows, and live in separate parts of the palace. It is not a happy family. It explains why the king is always with the army.’
‘They say some strange things about him.’
‘I have heard. He was certainly a dangerous man when he was younger. I have only seen him from a distance. The servants say he is brusque and can be savage. He is also unforgiving of faults.’
‘How about his people, how do they regard him?’
‘He is not loved, as you may have noticed. He has the local press censored, and he is a harsh landlord to his tenants. People are grateful that Thuringia is part of the empire, for otherwise he might have been as tyrannical as any of his ancestors. Even so, he has vendettas against certain people and groups. One or two men who opposed his plans have disappeared. He is a general in the kaiser’s army, however, and to contradict or criticise him is to attack the Reich.’
‘I heard a report that Leo’s mother is suing Albert for access to her son.’
‘Really! I had not heard. But then it’s not a story that would reach the press. She is a countess and a wealthy woman, I believe.’
‘Does Leo actually know anything about her?’
‘He knows he has a mother, and who she is. But she is not mentioned in his presence, and he never mentions her.’
It took Gus Underwood a whole month to come to the point of writing his letter. He came round to Welf’s apartment one evening. Welf had not yet introduced him to Ulrica, so he made a dinner engagement of it.
Gus was charming to her, and insisted on kissing her hand when introduced. They had succeeded in obtaining a joint of lamb for the dinner and Ulrica had done a fine job of dressing it. It was a jovial meal, with Gus in top form. He kept off the subject of Prince Leopold, however, until Ulrica was in the kitchen clearing up. Then he produced a white envelope from the inner pocket of his jacket and pushed it across the table to Welf.
‘So this is it?’
‘Indeed. It was quite a long letter in the end. The main problem was starting it.’
‘I won’t ask what you said. I will find a way of preparing the boy and delivering it, though it may not be easy. Don’t expect a quick response to this.’
Gus nodded his acquiescence. ‘I won’t be in Ernsthof for much longer. A couple of weeks and I am heading back across the frontier to Anton.’
Welf was surprised. ‘Really! What about Toni?’
‘She is more and more in Berlin with her old friends and associates. Since her case has been referred to the Supreme Court, she no longer needs to be in Thuringia. I’ve taken a villa for her in Wannsee, where she will set up her socialist salon, no doubt. She will be in danger there from the police and the intelligence services, but at least beyond Albert’s reach. It’s a strange sort of relief really.
‘Marek has decided he will go with her, which is generous of him, for he loathes Germany. Nonetheless, he says that if it reassures me, then he will do it. What about you, Welf?’
‘Me? When it comes to the point, I find I’m reluctant to leave this city, even in its wartime depression.’ He smiled in the direction of the kitchen, from which a gentle singing was coming. ‘Going back to Templerstadt would be like falling asleep again, and I don’t know if I could take Rica there, even though my parents would do their best to be welcoming. Then there is your grandson. I’m making good progress with his education. I wouldn’t want that disrupted.’
‘Bless you, Welf. I will be back here if necessary. I expect we will meet at Osku’s wedding in November.’
‘Yes indeed. The question is whether I will bring Rica or not.’
The next day was Thursday, and after a morning’s work at the Ernestinum, Welf walked up the hill. He was thoroughly bundled up in a mackintosh, hat low on his head against the equinoctial gales that were sweeping Thuringia. The letter Gus had given him was inside the briefcase he was carrying, and he was wondering how to broach the subject with the prince.
Leopold was in a restless mood; the weather was having its usual effect on children. At their break, Welf looked at the young boy chewing a pencil in front of him. If I were such a boy, he wondered, how would I want this subject introduced? Would I want it at all? The boy’s loneliness convinced him that he would.
‘Yes, Herr Tarlenheim?’
‘I posted your drawing to my nephew, Pip.’
Leopold smiled. ‘I am so glad.’
Welf said deliberately, ‘He will be delighted to hear from his cousin.’
The boy was quick. He looked up, his eyebrows raised in both query and surprise. ‘His cousin?’
Leopold stood. ‘How is that possible?’
‘His father and your mother are first cousins, and therefore you are Pip’s cousin too.’
‘Then who are you?’
‘My name is, as I said, Tarlenheim … von Tarlenheim. I am the grandson of Prince Francis III, and the son of Count Hugo Maria. My sister Helga married Paul Underwood.’
‘Then you know my mother.’
‘I do sir, and also your grandfather, Augustus Underwood. He has entrusted me with a letter to you. Do you wish to receive it?’
The boy stood still and pale, struggling with some emotion. Then without a word, he put out his hand. Welf pulled out the envelope from his inner pocket and gave it to the prince. It was addressed simply, ‘To Leopold’.
The boy went to the window and opened the envelope quickly, ripping it apart. Then he stood reading the two pages within, unconsciously moving his lips to the words. He finished it, and then read it again. He sat down.
‘It is a very kind letter, Herr Tarl … Herr von Tarlenheim. What sort of man is my grandfather?’
‘He is very kind and very brave. He has the order of Henry the Lion in the first class. There is a painting of him in the parliament in Strelzen. He is almost a father to King Maxim.’
‘He tells me that though he has never seen me, there has never been a day on which he did not think about me, or pray for me. Is he the sort of man who would lie to me?’
‘No sir. He is the most honest man I have ever met. I have here photographs of your grandfather, your cousins Pip and Sissi, and … your mother.’
The boy took them eagerly. ‘My mother is very beautiful, as I thought she would be. My grandfather looks very wise. Pip seems like a jolly boy.’
‘He is, sir. Always laughing. He loves being tickled.’
‘Tickled? No one has ever done that to me. May I keep these?’
‘That’s why I brought them, sir. Though, if you are willing to take my advice, you will keep them concealed.’
Leopold gave Welf a long and solemn look. ‘Did you take the post of tutor to be able to give me these?’
‘In part, sir.’
‘And will you be leaving me now?’ Welf was touched to see the boy’s lower lip tremble slightly.
‘No, sir. Not until we have made you properly proficient at Latin and Greek.’
A broad grin split Leopold’s face. ‘That is good. My education is very important, you know, and I would not have it suffer.’
Welf laughed. For the rest of the lesson, the importance of Leopold’s education notwithstanding, they talked about the Underwood family.
The next time they met was not until the Monday. Leopold had an envelope to give to Welf and pressed it into his hand with an earnest look. It was addressed in his neat handwriting ‘to my grandfather’.
Welf went straight to Bertesheim from the castle. Gus was at home. He seized the letter from Welf, looked at it, then carefully slit it open with a desk knife. He went over to the window and read it slowly, before turning round and offering it to Welf.
Dear Grandfather. Thank you very much for your letter. Herr von Tarlenheim gave me a photograph of you so I can imagine that we are face to face. I would like very much for us to meet properly one day, but I know father would not like it. We can write letters, though. Herr von Tarlenheim said he will bring others if I wish it, and I do wish it. Please write and tell me about my cousins Pip and Sissi and my other family. Please also give my love and respect to my mother. Say that I dearly wish we too may meet one day. Say I often dream of her. Your loving grandson, Leopold.
Welf stood and felt his eyes blur and smart. He was not a man given to tears, but the poignancy of this brief letter was too much even for his reserve. ‘She should have this,’ he commented.
‘Yes. I will take it to her in Berlin and explain the circumstances. I hope … I do hope it produces no outbreak on her part.’
‘I would think it might produce the opposite … she might find some comfort in it.’
‘Perhaps you’re right. Oh Welf, you have no idea what that piece of paper means to me.’
‘No sir, but I can guess. I will wait for you to compose a reply. Take as much time as you like.’
Welf stayed for a couple of drinks, and then went home, Gus’s second letter to Leopold in his inner pocket. He delivered it and took back a reply on Wednesday. So it went on, with letters exchanged every day or two. Gus would not let Antonia write directly to her son, but passed on her – no doubt filtered – outpourings. But he did include in his fourth letter a lock of her dark hair. Welf saw Leopold hold it to his nose before it disappeared into the pocket of the Norfolk jacket he was wearing.
The weeks passed, with Welf an unsuspected go-between at the castle. Gus continually postponed his return to Rothenia, now he had a channel of communication with his grandson.
There were few moments of apparent danger. One day late in September, however, as Welf left the castle by the Stable Gate, there was a stir when a line of large automobiles rumbled under the arch. The guards presented arms and stamped, and Welf along with everyone else in the vicinity removed his hat. King Albert was returning to his home.
Welf tried to angle his hat so his face was obscured, but he could not help catching the king’s eye as the car ran close by him. He rather feared that Albert had registered something odd, because in the seconds their eyes met, he thought he saw a startled look.
The next day was for Welf a school day with Leopold. He was very tense as he climbed through the gardens to the Stable Gate, but no police waited to apprehend him, and his lessons with the prince were untroubled. He breathed freely again.
As October passed and November approached, Welf had to make a decision about his return to Rothenia for his brother’s marriage. He found Baroness Altmann not too happy with his request. ‘A week! My dear Herr Tarlenheim, a week is a long time for the boy to be without teaching.’
‘I can leave exercises and notes.’
‘Even so, I do expect you to make the prince your priority.’
‘I understand, Baroness Altmann. But my family will wish me to be present. Fortunately, the marriage is on a Wednesday, so I can travel at the weekends and lose no more than five days.’
She sighed. ‘Very well then, but I trust that you do not expect to be paid for that week.’
‘Of course not, Baroness Altmann.’
‘Then please acquaint his royal highness with your absence, and what you propose to leave him as exercises.’
Leopold was disconsolate at the news. ‘Then I shall write a specially long letter to grandfather and another letter to my mother herself.’ The next day the two were duly delivered to Welf, who took leave of the prince, shaking his hand in the formal way the boy had about him, while wondering whether anyone ever hugged him.
The Underwoods were both at Bertesheim when Welf arrived that evening. He had come with Ulrica, who had already become a favourite with Gus. She had never met Antonia, however, and her nerves showed in her reluctance to engage in conversation. Gus looked surprised, for Ulrica chatted away freely when she was there with him and Welf.
Gus was a Victorian and expected the ladies to leave after dinner, so that he and Welf could smoke and drink in peace. Welf squeezed Ulrica’s hand as she left with Antonia, catching the look of social panic in her eyes. But it could not be helped.
Welf poured whiskies for himself and Gus, then handed over the letters. Gus took up the one for Antonia as if it were a stick of dynamite.
‘I supposed it would come one day. Although she is on to me all the time to get him to write to her, I had to let the boy come to the idea when he was ready. It seems he is. But is she? Ah well, I will give it to her once you have gone. You may hear the result all the way over in Neuhof.’
‘What does he say to you, Uncle August?’
Gus opened the envelope with a smile. He read the contents and then folded up the paper again. ‘He is not happy that you are leaving him for a week, Welf. He says he will miss you and the letters you bring. He talks of his studies in Latin as though he enjoys them.’
‘He is a boy talented beyond his years. He will make a fine classicist if he keeps up his progress.
‘Have you any news, uncle?’
‘About the legal case? Yes. The Supreme Court has reached a decision and ordered Albert to appear in person in Berlin to answer the charges of wilful disregard of Antonia’s rights of access to her child.’
‘My word! Things have come along!’
‘Yes they have. But now he will begin to play dirty. He will make allegations about her way of life and associates, even her mental state. I also imagine his lawyers will make something of Albert’s engagement in imperial service to delay the case further. But my people are confident they can deal with this. They have a mass of precedents, and the law code does give the court the power to allot custody to the mother in the case of unreasonable delay.’
‘Yes, but I imagine that the more dangerous things get for Albert, the more personally dangerous they get for you. It’s as well we’re all off home to Rothenia on Saturday.’
‘And you are taking Ulrica with you.’
‘It’s time she met mother and father.’
‘The affair is becoming very serious, I believe.’
‘Yes, uncle, this is it, I think. I can no longer imagine being without her. I would marry her tomorrow, but she will not say yes.’
‘I cannot see why.’
‘She seems to think I am immature for my age.’
Gus laughed. ‘Dearest Welf, you have grown up so much these past few months. You are not the man you were.’
‘I am less selfish, I think.’
‘Just undertaking this mission proved that. I wonder if it’s fear of your relatives which is making her so reluctant. But after this next week, she will either have adapted to the idea of being a Tarlenheim, or have run away screaming from you all.’
‘She is certainly nervous about having the right clothes. We are going directly to Strelzen on Friday to raid the Graben for something suitable for her. Helga will help. She will be staying with Helga and the children in Festungstrasse. It will be the best start for Ulrica with my family.’
Ulrica looked around the Graben as though it were a fairyland. Strelzen’s premier shopping street was bustling that Saturday afternoon as the city’s population was concluding its weekend shopping. The rich smells of chocolate and fresh bread were spilling out from the city’s famous patisseries. The shops were full and the people smiling and courteous. Whatever complaints they had about their government, Rothenians were still able to enjoy themselves and show that they did.
Ulrica clutched Welf’s arm as they slowly ambled the pavement. ‘There are things on sale here I have not seen in two or three years … oh! What beautiful hats!’ She was glued to a milliner’s shop front, where the latest Parisian fashions were on display. French haute couture still reached Rothenia.
‘Look at that woman’s hair!’
‘Stop pointing, Rica.’
She laughed. ‘Would you prefer mine bobbed the way hers is?’
‘I might. But we’re here to get you clothes. Where’s Helga? She said she’d meet us at the calendar clock.’
A great astronomical clock was set up at the Fenizenkirk, the church of St Fenice of Tarlenheim, halfway down the Graben towards Neue Platz. The clock had little figures of knights, dragons and moors which popped out on the hour and half hour, while a black-robed figure of Death struck bells.
‘Doesn’t it feel strange to pass under the walls of a church dedicated to a saint who was your direct ancestor?’
‘I never think about it … well, hardly ever. When I was a little boy, I used to pray to St Fenice whenever I had a stomach ache.’
‘Oh! Did she ever answer your prayers?’
‘Only to tell me to pull myself together and stop being a foolish child.’
‘No. But if she was like grandmama – as I always imagined she must be, because grandmama was the oldest woman I knew in our family – if she was like her, that’s exactly what she would have said.’
‘Your grandmama was the Princess Helga, the widow of Prince Franz III, is that right?’
‘Well done. You’ve been studying up on the Tarlenheim family tree.’
‘I have to. I’ll be meeting them all on Wednesday, from your cousin Franz IV to the present Count and Baron Olmusch von Tarlenheim. How many will be there?’
‘Oh, dozens. Enough blue blood to fill a vat. There’ll be all our relatives too, or at least the Rothenian ones. The Croys will be unavoidably detained in France, but I expect the rest, even the Austrians.’
Ulrica was not hiding her nerves very well. Welf smiled and hugged her arm tightly.
‘You will be fine, dear one. Just be yourself.’
She grumbled, ‘People always say that to reassure you. But myself is very much out of place in such a gathering … a petty bourgeois schoolteacher in high society with some of the oldest families in Europe – and the king will be there too!’
Helga appeared at that moment. Both women stopped to assess each other, as Welf had expected they would. He had already detected that his sister and his lover were rather similar women in some ways. Then there were smiles and warm handclasps. He was relieved.
Helga directed them into a large department store, where Welf rapidly lost interest while the women pored over fabrics and fashions. He found a seat and disappeared mentally into the Etruscan past, nodding and smiling absently when he was asked for approval. At the end of half an hour, the two women had passed from smiling to giggling at his masculine indifference to what was apparently one of the most important things in life.
Three shops later, as closing time approached, Welf had a stack of cardboard boxes to haul around, and a lighter wallet. He tipped a street urchin to help carry the boxes along Stracenzstrasse up to Helga’s apartment, where Ulrica was to stay.
Welf had the use of Osku’s flat in Osragasse. A sign was up outside the mansion block, advertising the flat for sale. Osku had bought a long lease from the Hentzau estate on a new villa on Starel Heights, which he had furnished expensively. Welf was thus thinking about buying Osku’s old place. He had spent enough time there to make it feel like home already. Of course, it needed redecoration after years of bachelor indifference, but it was convenient for the National Library and university, as well as for the shops and cafés of the Fourth District. Maybe he and Ulrica could one day start their married life there, if he could persuade her he was serious about his proposal. He mooched round the flat for an hour or two, daydreaming about how he would replace furnishings. Then it was time for dinner with Helga and his very excited nephew and niece.
Helga and Ulrica had clearly hit it off. When Welf arrived at Festungstrasse, he found Ulrica with Sissi on her knee, teaching the child some sort of girlish game involving a song and hand clapping. She glowed at him. This was going very well, better than he had hoped.
Dinner was lively. Helga was obviously delighted to have guests, who Welf imagined took her mind off her worries for Paul. Perhaps it was also nice for her to have adult company, much though she loved her children.
Sunday and Monday passed blissfully, though by Monday evening the tension was growing in Ulrica. They were both to stay at Templerstadt as family. The distant guests were mostly being put up by Uncle Franz at the château of Tarlenheim. Ulrica was quite silent on the train journey to Tarlenheim station, where a car picked them up and deposited them in the forecourt of Welf’s home.
‘Oh! It really is beautiful!’ Ulrica cried.
And it was. Though autumn was passing into winter, the house looked golden and warm in the late afternoon sunlight, with lights coming on inside. A very handsome young man in a khaki uniform and polished riding boots was on the shallow steps at the main door, banished there by his mother, who did not allow smoking inside the house.
‘Brother!’ For all their long history of bickering, the men embraced. Welf introduced Ulrica to his younger sibling. Henry kissed her hand and was as charming as any cavalry officer could be.
Flicking away his cigarette butt, Henry offered his arm and walked Ulrica indoors, Welf following. His mother met them with a tender embrace for Ulrica, who was moved to tears by the warmth of the reception. She was taken to be kissed by Count Hugo and then bustled away by the countess for a long and intimate stroll in the gardens.
‘A very attractive woman, Welf. I had come to the conclusion that your amorous feelings were being cast in vain at marble statues of Athene. Now it seems I was wrong. Are we to look forward to another wedding at the abbey soon?’
‘Who can tell? How is the service?’
Henry gave an affected yawn. ‘Garrison duty in Ebersfeld, reading in the newspapers how it is that real armies fight.’
‘I would have thought you’d rather not be involved in such a war as is being fought in Flanders and Alsace. To me it reads like mass murder rather than warfare. And the consequences for the German people are beyond appalling: endless tragedy, loss, grief, hunger and fear. All because that foolish kaiser of theirs wanted to play soldiers with Europe.’
Henry raised an eyebrow. ‘General Voydek would not be trapped into such futile strategies. The lectures he gave at the staff college were eye-openers. I heard him predict the stalemate of the trenches the year I became an officer cadet, the same day the British stopped the German advance at Mons. He also had answers to the trench problem. Retaining mobility was the key, he said. What’s more, he and Uncle Franz have been up to something. Two of our dragoon regiments were dismounted earlier this year and sent to Eisendorf for retraining. Myself, I am thinking of asking for assignment to the Flying Corps which General Sterlinger has formed at the airfield in Hofbau.’
‘I will leave it to the generals to debate it all. Personally, I believe the cost of modern war is too great for any possible benefit it might bring.’
‘What, would you have us throw up our hands and surrender then, if we were attacked? Rothenia must be convincing as a military power if it is to maintain its neutrality.’
‘Truce, Henry! Your military aggression has overcome me. I am a scholar and a man of peace.’ Welf grinned, and punched his brother’s arm. Henry punched back and when their mother and Ulrica returned they were still wrestling on the floor. Ulrica picked up Welf’s glasses, which had shot across the room, and stood looking down on him, shaking her head.
Welf had tutored Ulrica about the Tarlenheim dinner rituals. Count Hugo kept to the old ways, with an opening toast to the guests, and everyone formally dressed. Henry was superb in his gold-laced undress jacket. He sat by Ulrica and they laughed together through the dinner. Welf had a more sedate companion in Osku’s Cecilie, but she was at least interested in his scholarly endeavours.
At the end of the meal, Count Hugo stood and blessed his guests. The men stayed while the women retired to the drawing room. Welf poured a glass of port for his father and set it where it could be reached.
‘Thank you, Welf dear. Dr Gasse wrote to me full of enthusiasm for your studies with him. He thinks that a book is likely to come out of your visit, and that you both have started to write it.’
‘Yes, sir. Things have just clicked recently.’
Osku laughed. ‘It’s the influence of a good woman. She is very attractive, father, dark and slim.’
Henry, a little tipsier than he should have been, raised his glass. ‘To good women. May they be no better than they should be!’
‘Yes, dear,’ laughed his father, ‘and let that be your last drink of the evening. As a soldier, you should be in a fit state to greet your king and commander-in-chief tomorrow.’
‘What time is he expected, sir?’ asked Welf.
‘Midday. He is being driven up from Strelfurt, where he stays tonight with the governor.’
‘The cars will be dropping everyone off at the abbey at around two, and the wedding will be at three, is that right, Osku?’
‘Yes, father. And after that, let the party begin!’
They sat for a while, father and sons, recalling old family stories and weddings past. When the hall clock proclaimed midnight, they retired to their rooms.
Welf sat for some time at his old desk, making a stack of notebooks he would need to take back with him to Ernsthof. Then he looked out of his window. It was a chilly night with a promise of frost in the morning. He crawled into bed alone, wishing he was not. Ulrica had changed him.
Welf and Henry were at the abbey door. As the groomsmen, they were issuing programmes and directing the congregation. Henry was devastating in full dress hussar uniform: red breeches and jacket, and blue pellise, all liberally laced with gold and accented by gold cords and gilded belts. His sabre and sabretache hung at his side. He was more interested in chatting up the unattached women entering the abbey than assisting the rest of the guests. Welf shrugged. It was the story of their lives.
When Henry stiffened, Welf knew without looking that the king had come round the corner from the abbess’s lodgings, where he had been offered a tea. Medeln was a royal abbey, the king its patron. As he reached the door, the bells dutifully rang out to welcome the abbey’s advocate.
Henry saluted smartly and shook King Maxim’s hand. Then the king took the programmes out of Welf’s hand and shoved them into Henry’s. He grabbed Welf’s arm and led him off to one side, much to his surprise.
‘Welf, we haven’t much time. Sachert has been in touch from Germany. There will be one guest missing here today. Gus Underwood was arrested yesterday somewhere between Ernsthof and the frontier, and charged as an English spy. His daughter too has disappeared. We don’t know where she is. You must return to Ernsthof tomorrow, or as soon afterwards as you can. The time has come to do your duty. I’m counting on you.’
‘And the Baron Dönitz, where is he?’
‘I had him intercepted this morning and told what happened. He is on his way to Berlin to see what can be done there. You must go back to Germany posthaste. We badly need someone in the palace at Ernsthof, and you’re our only hope.’
‘Of course sir. I will go tomorrow.’
‘I know I can count on you, Welf.’ The king released Welf’s arm and went into the church, removing his silk hat as he passed the door.
Welf rejoined a curious Henry. His head buzzing with worry and doubt, he responded to Henry’s questions curtly. All he could think of through the wedding service was what might have happened to Gus, and how he might help. Knowing he would be going back into great danger his heart lurched as he looked across the aisle to where Ulrica was sitting. He had come so close to happiness, and now it was all trembling on the brink of a chasm.
When the congregation spilled out of the abbey after the bride and groom, and flower petals were cascading down on them, Welf took Ulrica’s arm. He tugged her to one side and kissed her long and passionately.
She looked at him bemused as he broke off and reached up to straighten her broad-brimmed hat. ‘Darling, I have to go back to Ernsthof tomorrow. I want you to stay here at Templerstadt.’
‘Why? What is it, Welf?’
‘I don’t have much time to explain. But my mission in Ernsthof and at the palace was not that of a scholar. I’m an agent of the king’s, and was sent to assist Mr Underwood in his attempts to gain access to Prince Leopold.’
‘That I guessed.’
‘Of course. As soon as I realised who “Uncle August” was, I knew you were at the palace for a purpose … and darling, I was so glad I had helped you, even though it was unwittingly. Leo needs the love of his mother and grandfather.’
Welf was stunned. ‘So you knew!’
‘What has happened?’
She nodded. ‘Then we go back together. The king will have two agents at the palace of Ernsthof.’
Welf stared into this amazing woman’s eyes. He sank to his knees. ‘Will you marry me, Ulrica Schmidt?’
‘Of course, you silly man. I love you so much.’
Hand in hand, they returned to the press of laughing and chattering guests. They sought out the countess his mother to share the news. They found her clasping Helga’s hands. Tears were on the cheeks of both women. Had they heard about Gus and Antonia?
Helga had a telegram crushed in her hand. She turned to Welf as he looked his question. ‘Paul has been reported missing in action in the fighting at Passchendaele.’