MAXIM ELPHBERG - XXI
Welf was driving, Ulrica beside him and Leo leaning over the front seatback between them. Ernsthof lay far behind them as they made their way on the country roads leading up into the Black Mountains. The afternoon was passing towards evening too early for Welf’s comfort. He did not like driving at night. They would need to stop soon to find a bed.
Leo had just begun talking about their escape. After Ulrica had joined them, they had sped down the road and across the west bridge over the Itsch. For a long time he had been quiet and unresponsive to her concerned enquiries as to how he was. Then suddenly the dam had burst, and now the boy was in full flood.
‘… and then we got on to the portrait gallery. Welf and I hurried along it but when we got to the far door, Brutus and father came out of the library door. Then …’ He faltered.
‘Yes? What then?’
Leo subsided. ‘Something very peculiar happened.’
‘Welf?’ she asked.
‘Tell me, Leo, what did you see when I turned to you in the door?’
The boy sucked his lower lip for a while. ‘It was as if it was you, but not you. You seemed just as kind as ever, but it was not … it was not you looking through your eyes. That’s what it seemed to me. It was scary.’
‘What happened, Welf?’
Welf sighed. ‘It was almost as if I had been taken over by something outside me. It was reckless and dangerous, whatever it was, and utterly fearless. It was not a part of me I recognised, that’s for sure, but it gave me the temerity to act the part of my uncle Oskar.
‘You see, Leo, everyone says I look like he did when he was my age. But you normally have to study my face hard to see the resemblance. It’s only people who knew Oskar well – like your grandfather – who do see it. But during those minutes in the gallery, I discovered the ability to counterfeit his words and his mannerisms and even, I think, his appearance. I was born long after my uncle died, but still I convinced and terrified your father, Leo. It was he who killed Count Oskar all those years ago in Bila Palacz in Strelzen. And there I was, apparently a dead man resurrected and ready to fight him again. I think his own fear overcame him. I wonder too if guilt didn’t play a part.’
Ulrica intervened. ‘And the man I thought I saw outside the institute, the man I thought was you?’
‘That incident has been plaguing me. But it seems that maybe someone or something was determined that Leo should escape the castle, and that nothing should stop it, including an accident that might have disabled you.’
Leo’s eyes were suddenly alight. ‘Oh! This is quite exciting. I have a guardian angel!’
Ulrica smiled at the boy. ‘I wouldn’t call whatever it was a guardian angel. It’s something that has a purpose of its own. It may be friendly, or it may not be.’
Leo nodded. ‘But I think it was friendly, don’t you?’
‘Yes I do, darling.’
Leo gave a private smile at the endearment Ulrica had used towards him. He bounced on to the back seat and drew up his knees to his chin, staring at the darkening world outside the car windows.
Welf kept casting anxious glances around. He had no doubt the pursuit was out after him and Leo. What their pursuers would not know, however, was that Ulrica had joined them. With her, they made a perfectly credible young family, for which Ulrica had used her contacts and two of Welf’s Flavieners to obtain some very convincing papers. Another point in their favour was that they were not heading towards Rothenia, but away from it, deep into the Black Mountains of Thuringia.
Lights appeared through the forest and the car entered a long village street. Although Welf had no clear idea where they were, he feared he would get seriously lost if they went any further. He pulled up outside an inn next to the church. The handbrake ratcheted up as they came to a stop. ‘Now, young Karl,’ he smiled over the seatback. ‘Who am I?’
‘My stepfather, Herr Adolf Sismar,’ Leo responded.
‘And who is this?’
‘My mama, Frau Schmidt.’
‘Excellent. Then hop out and let’s hope they have some beds for the night.’
The inn was small but clean and friendly. They made a good meal and then went up to the only bedroom on offer. Ulrica undressed the boy and washed him, kissing him as she brushed his hair. Leopold impulsively hugged and kissed her back. He changed into some striped pyjamas they had bought for him and popped into bed. He asked to kiss Welf too before he went to sleep, which he did very quickly.
The two young adults joined hands and admired the beauty and innocence of the sleeping boy. ‘What a fine lad,’ Welf whispered.
‘He is. I think, if I could be sure to have a child such as he is, I would be very happy to go through childbirth.’
‘Then it’s a deal, darling. But we must first get him to his real family. He has people who will love him for what he is, even if he does not know them yet.’ They changed for sleep and settled in the double bed on either side of the boy. Like he, they drifted off quickly.
Schloss Ebert was a white crown emerging from the dark pines on a distant hilltop. Welf could clearly see tall domestic blocks peppered with black window holes, and drum towers with conical roofs. Behind one of those windows or in one of those towers, Augustus Underwood was confined.
Leo was astride Welf’s shoulders as they surveyed the prison from five miles away. Welf reached up, picked him off and put him on the ground. ‘I think we need to get some sort of lunch. Can you check what the Baedeker says, Rica?’
Ulrica had settled on the car’s running board. Leo sat down next to her and read over her shoulder.
She looked up. ‘There is – or was – a teagarden in the village of Marienwald, a mile down the road. Perhaps they will have a telephone there so we can ring Herr Dinkelrode.’
Leo giggled. ‘What a silly name.’
Welf laughed too. ‘I believe the man who carries it has a keen sense of humour.’
‘Who is he?’ asked the boy.
Welf had no qualms about telling him. Leopold had proved his trustworthiness. ‘He is the chief agent of the Rothenian secret service in Germany, a very important man.’
‘How exciting! I will see a spy! Do you think he will help us save grandfather?’
‘That’s why he’s here. Our king has instructed him that he must do his best to get Uncle August out of the prison. He has a plan, I think.’
‘And are you a spy, Welf?’
‘No. The king just sent me to help if I could.’
‘I like your king. He is a good man and helps his friends.’
‘You don’t mind that he ousted your family from his throne?’
‘I don’t know much about what happened. But I do know a kingdom is not a toy to fight over. My father was not a good king, I am sure. Maybe he meant well, but I don’t know enough about what happened to say. I cannot miss what I never had.’
Welf nodded. Leopold seemed to be far more Underwood than Thuringian, which Welf found close to miraculous. Leopold had the same moral steadiness as both Paul and Augustus, even though he had not been raised by their side of the family.
The car pulled up in Marienwald. Welf left the other two inside while he went to investigate the teagarden. It turned out to be closed for the winter. Nothing daunted, he walked over to a small garage and filling station that occupied a shed next door. A loud halloo brought a man limping round the side, wiping his hands on an oily rag. He looked a question. After asking him to fill up the petrol tank, Welf inquired, ‘Is there a telephone in the village I can use?’
‘Certainly. I have one inside in my office. If you make a call, it will be two marks.’
‘That’s fine.’ Welf followed the pointing finger into the garage. Finding the wall phone, he dialled the number Colonel Sachert had given him. It rang a long time until answered by a female voice who announced that he had reached the Hotel Kommerziell. He asked for Herr Dinkelrode, but was told the gentleman was out, and not expected back till the evening. Welf left a message that Herr Sismar was trying to get in touch.
He paid the garage hand and they pulled off. Leo and Ulrica were now both in the back seat, poring over the Baedeker as the car bounced along the rural road towards Schloss Ebert. Finally Ulrica announced that there was a Hotel Kommerziell at Forstheim, two miles north of the prison. ‘It’s not highly rated, I’m afraid,’ she laughed.
‘We don’t have to stay there,’ Welf answered cheerfully.
The road took them round the base of the mountain on which the prison was built. Its great towers, rooted in granite, loomed over them. Leo put his head out of the window and squinted up at the schloss as they passed, shielding his eyes from the bright winter sun.
‘It is a very strong castle, I think,’ he observed, pulling his head back in.
They found the turn for Forstheim. A drive through a heavily forested valley, loud with a rushing river, brought them eventually to the town, which showed signs of having some industry. A large copper works with chimneys and the headgear of a mineshaft could be glimpsed above the houses. Workmen toiled up the hill towards it, and a siren sounded the end of a shift as Welf parked the car in a side street. A plume of steam suddenly appeared over a nearby roof when a railway engine hooted in an unseen siding close by.
They walked along the main street. Ulrica entered a corner shop to buy some toiletries and came out with two newspapers. She gave Welf a significant look over Leo’s head. He was walking between them, holding a hand each.
Settled into a café, she handed a paper to Welf. There on the front page were two posed photographs. King Albert in military uniform was set side by side with one of Leopold in a sailor suit. The headline read: ‘Abduction of Thuringian Prince.’ A quick scan of the article indicated that police were seeking the Countess Rechtenberg, the prince’s estranged mother, who was the chief suspect. The participation of Rothenian agents was also darkly hinted at.
Leo craned over to see, and grinned. He at least was enjoying himself. Welf gave him a considering look. It would be difficult to recognise the prince in the official photograph from this small working-class boy wearing a belted raincoat and short trousers, with a distinctly plebeian cap pulled over his head, hanging on the arm of a woman who seemed very like his mother. Welf dismissed his own fears, at least for the time being.
They had lunch and then wandered around for a while. Welf eventually suggested a respectable-looking guesthouse at the opposite end of the town from the copper works. The drive of the house had several cars parked in it, which suggested an establishment catering for more bourgeois guests than the Hotel Kommerziell.
After they unpacked, Leo stood in the window looking outside. School had ended and a couple of boys, sons of the proprietor, were playing ball in the front garden. Leo gazed wistfully down at them. Welf smiled and suggested he should go and ask if he might play too.
‘Really? Would they let me?’
‘You can only ask.’
After a moment’s hesitation, the boy ran out. Welf and Ulrica saw him shyly approached the other two boys, who appeared to be six and nine. There was a brief exchange, Leo grinned and then three of them were playing ball. Three hours later they were still outside, climbing trees this time. It was not until after five that Leo returned, face flushed, tired but very excited. He had fallen asleep on a chair by the time Welf went off to look for Colonel Sachert.
‘Good evening, Herr, er … Sismar.’
‘It’s my mother’s maiden name.’
‘And where is the boy?’
‘With Ulrica, Fraulein Schmidt.’
‘I would keep him under cover. The police are on alert all over Thuringia, Bavaria and Saxony.’
‘Yes, but they’re looking for a prince in the company of a countess, not a modest young family. We walked past a pair of local policemen and they looked right through us.’
‘Don’t be reckless, Welf. I had never before taken you for such.’
‘Nor I, but recent events are making me reassess that view of myself.’ His mind returned briefly to the clash of sabres in the portrait gallery of the Furstenschloss of Ernsthof, before re-engaging with his company. ‘How does the plot to free Augustus Underwood proceed?’
‘It will be tomorrow. Our internal collaborator is officer of the guard, and our bribe more than sufficed to persuade not just him, but two other Mittenheimer non-commissioned officers in the garrison.’
‘How will it be done?’
‘Our man will arrange for a riot to break out among the Allied prisoners of war – I didn’t ask to know how. Mr Underwood is kept on the other side of the schloss. While the place is in an uproar, he will be marched to a laundry van by two Mittenheimer guards and driven down here to Forstheim. They will hand him over to me and make their own dash to the Rothenian frontier in the vehicle, which they will steal.’
‘And the three of us? What will we do then?’
‘I will leave Mr Underwood with you. I have my own business to attend to. Strelzen is leaning heavily on me about the Countess Rechtenberg. I have to get to Berlin and try to pick up her trail. So you must manage the remainder of the flight yourselves, I’m afraid. Have you any ideas how you will do that?’
‘I have a car at least. As for the rest, I will talk to Ulrica and see what we can come up with. Thank you, colonel. I do appreciate what you have done.’
‘Best of luck then, Welf. If you are successful, I expect to meet you again. You are too good at this. You really are more like your late uncle than you appreciate.’
Welf gave a small and rueful laugh. ‘I think there are now people apart from yourself who might well agree with that last observation.’
The rendezvous point was set at a lay-by on the outskirts of Forstheim. Smoke and fumes from the industrial town could be seen up the valley to the north, but they were beyond the last of the houses. Conifer woods were all around them. It was a clear winter’s day, the sun quite bright although the air was nippy.
Leopold sat in the back of the car, bundled up in his coat, a woollen muffler tied tightly round his neck, gloves on his small hands. He was intensely nervous about the coming meeting, which was very important to him on so many levels. Colonel Sachert was outside with Ulrica and Welf, discussing their plans in a low voice.
At eleven-thirty by Welf’s frequently-consulted pocket watch, the drone of a motor van approaching from the direction of Schloss Ebert silenced them all. Leo climbed on his knees to look out the rear window. The van pulled up and the uniformed drivers jumped out. They opened the back to help down a handcuffed and bewildered-looking man. They removed the cuffs and threw them into the ferns.
Gus Underwood stood blinking and rubbing his wrists. Then he saw Welf. ‘Welf, my dear! Good God! What is this!’
Welf raced over and heartily embraced the old man, for indeed he now looked a good deal older than he was. ‘Uncle August! It is you! Oh thank God!’
The two Mittenheimer guards were talking to Sachert while they hastily threw off their uniforms and assumed civilian garb. They leapt back aboard and sped off up the Schloss Ebert road, the van swaying in the speed it took a corner.
Sachert came over to Gus and Welf. ‘I’m going now to catch the train. Mr Underwood, it’s not necessary for you to know who I am. Just let me say I wish you well. Young Tarlenheim here will fill in the details for you as you go. But the time is now come for you to get back home. Make no delay. You have no more than an hour before your absence is noticed and the alarm given at the prison. Godspeed to you all.’
The colonel strode away without a backward glance. Welf walked Gus over to the car. ‘Uncle, I have not had any chance to prepare you for this, but there is a young gentleman here who is desperate to meet his grandfather. This is Leo.’
Leopold had pushed open the car door and was standing on the gravel, looking up at Gus, who gazed down on the boy. For a moment they simply stared at each other, then Gus went down on his knees and gathered his grandson up. Welf heard a muffled sob. ‘My boy, my boy. I can’t believe this.’
Welf turned away and took Ulrica by the waist. They waited patiently till man and boy broke apart. Gus stood up, still holding Leo by the hand.
‘You have a lot of explaining to do, Welf dear.’
‘Yes, uncle, but not much time.’
‘He was so brave, grandfather,’ Leo piped up.
Welf motioned everyone into the car. ‘We’ll talk as we drive. Leo can tell you a lot of it.’
The car lurched off, Ulrica sitting next to Welf. Gus was in the back, hand in hand still with Leo, who gripped him tightly in return.
‘Which direction are you taking us?’ Gus asked.
‘We’re heading for the frontier with Rothenia, but indirectly. It would be pointless trying to cross the Saxon and Bavarian borders. They will be watched too closely now. I’m going to drive down into Austria instead and aim to get to Rechtenberg through the Tyrol.’
‘Hah!’ Gus exclaimed. ‘That reminds me of my travels with Bobby, Maxim’s father, when we were young, back in Queen Flavia’s days.’
‘The Austrians have no cause to keep the Rothenian frontier under surveillance, so that should be easier. The problem will be keeping out of trouble on the way south. It’s a very long drive.’
For quite a while Welf heard chatting behind him as Leo first took his grandfather through the escape from Ernsthof, then started relating the experiences of his young life. Gus too began telling Leo of his family, Underwoods past and present. At length their voices dropped as he spoke to the boy of his mother, Leo hanging on his every word.
They entered the kingdom of Bavaria and drove on past Bayreuth. Ulrica was navigating by a mixture of Baedeker pull-outs and small maps. Welf wanted to keep moving until they had put Thuringia some distance behind them. Only the exigencies of the fuel tank forced a stop at Pegnitz, and they did not stop again till the outskirts of Ingoldstadt. There they found a second-hand clothes shop and kitted Gus out in the appropriate wardrobe for a petty-bourgeois grandfather travelling with his family. He changed out of his old clothes in the back of the car, glad, he said, to get the smell of prison off him. They had no papers for him, however, and this was a major worry.
They took two rooms in a guest house in the northern suburb, outside the city’s fortifications. Mercifully, only Welf’s papers were inspected. He registered the rest as his family. When Leopold asked to sleep with his grandfather, they readily agreed. Welf knew from experience how good a way Gus had with youngsters. It seemed that Leo too had fallen under his gentle spell.
The next morning, they ate heartily and appreciatively. Gus was pleased to be in the part of Germany were people greeted each other with the phrase ‘Gruß Gott!’ as they did also in parts of Rothenia. ‘I’ve been away from home far too long, Welf. And what about Anton? Gone on a fool’s errand after Toni and Marek?’
‘At least you have your grandson back,’ Welf replied
‘Yes I do, and I know who to thank for it. You and Rica are angels, literally angels. I can never repay you, my dears.’
They crossed the Donau by a downstream bridge, not wishing to risk a check by police on the main city crossings. Then they motored on to Munich. Leopold was quite excited to be returning to the city. He had stayed with his father at the Residenz with King Ludwig and had many memories of the palace.
‘Unfortunately, your accommodation will be nowhere near as distinguished tonight,’ chuckled Welf.
‘I know,’ the boy laughed back. ‘But it will be fun just to be with grandfather.’ The two had been inventing games in the back of the car to make time pass quicker on the road.
Welf found himself wondering how Leopold would be treated when he reached Rothenia. There was no doubt he would be received properly as a royal prince – King Maxim could be trusted on that. But Leopold was a dynastic rival of the Elphbergs whose presence could cause problems within the country, as Welf knew very well.
Their luck ran out at the guest house they selected in Munich in a suburb across the Isar. The officious owner had his registration cards out in front of him and was determined that they be filled in fully. That meant producing their papers. ‘And the old gentleman? What about him?’
Welf stared at Ulrica, suddenly at a loss. He had thought they would just back out quickly when challenged, but suddenly that seemed a very suspicious thing to do. He hummed and hawed. ‘Well, er …’
Suddenly a young voice next to him piped up in a tone of exaggerated patience. ‘Come on, grandfather. What did you do with the papers? The papers? Grandad, you know we talked about this. We told you to keep them in that pocket there. Where did you put them?’
Gus instantly picked up the cue. ‘What?’ he began in a dazed voice. ‘Er … papers? No … can’t. What papers?’
Ulrica leaned over the desk and whispered so that everyone in the hall could hear. ‘We’re taking father to the sanatorium at St Wolfgang. He’s been like this since mother died. They say they can do wonders.’
She began searching Gus methodically, while he stood watching the ceiling vaguely. She turned to Welf and shrugged. ‘They’re not on him.’
‘I’ll, er … check the car.’
Ulrica looked at Gus with a fine imitation of suppressed annoyance. ‘Father dearest, you didn’t post them through a letter box again, did you?’
With a slight gleam in his eye Gus informed them, ‘I wrote to your mother, you know.’
Ulrica bent toward the clerk to confide loudly, ‘At least he recognises me today. Some days he thinks I’m my mother. Other days he just sits and weeps.’
The clerk had had enough. ‘Just fill in the details from memory. That’ll do.’
‘Thank you,’ Welf murmured, as Leo took his grandfather by the hand and led him to a chair, seating him with a fine air of solicitude.
‘You clever little demon,’ Welf complimented the grinning boy when they went upstairs with the cases.
‘This is fun, Welf. I want to be a spy too!’
The border crossing was the critical point in more ways than one. They had to take the car so as to maintain their front of a travelling bourgeois family. Yet they would need to account for themselves to the Austrian authorities.
Gus Underwood came to the fore there. He knew Austria well, and all the possible crossing points from Bavaria. He directed them to Bad Reichenall, where a small hotel asked them no questions at registration. Well before the winter dawn they set out in the car through a deep mountain valley towards Bischofsweisen. Before they reached the town, they took a turn around a snow capped-ridge. Country roads led them through valleys and woods until, with nothing to mark the transition at all, Gus announced they were in Austria.
‘Shouldn’t there be guards and troops?’ Ulrica wondered.
‘The Austrians were always lax, but as Anton will tell you, manpower is so short in the empire that they barely man the posts towards Germany. Why should they? The Germans too have better things to do with their soldiers. Now if it were Switzerland we were attempting, that would be a different matter. But it is Rothenia we are heading for, and here at least the police are not looking for us. I think we may breathe a little easier for a while. And now, Welf, we need to head to Bad Ischl, where Anton has a house still, and where I am known.’
It was a cheerful car which reached Anton’s splendid mountain lodge overlooking the imperial spa town. The clear air and crisp beauty of the scenery were exhilarating. The villa’s housekeeper came to the door, all smiles when she saw who was standing there. Gus offered apologies for the lack of notice but she brushed them aside, delighted to have him visit once more.
She bustled around, opening shutters and preparing drinks and a light meal. She promised something more substantial for the evening. She was utterly charmed by Leopold, introduced as Leo Underwood, Gus’s grandson.
The boy seemed rather taken with his new name. ‘I thought Karl Schmidt rather boring,’ he confessed.
They all sat in the lounge, with its magnificent panoramic views of the town below and the snow-burdened mountains above, while they made their plans. They would stay in Bad Ischl for a few days so Gus could obtain replacement papers from the Rothenian consulate in Salzburg.
Welf decided they needed information, which meant risking a long-distance telephone call to Templerstadt. The phone at Anton’s house was still connected, so after a twenty-minute negotiation between a variety of exchanges, together with a lot of clicking and buzzing, Welf found himself talking to his mother.
‘Don’t shriek like that!’ he complained at her first expression of surprise.
‘Where are you, Welf?’ was her second response.
‘Bad Ischl, at Baron Dönitz’s home.’
‘Thank God! You are out of Germany.’
‘But still some way to go. We hope to move on after the weekend.’
‘And the boy …?’
‘We have both him and Uncle August with us.’
‘Good heavens! You have them both! This is miraculous. Even your Uncle Oskar would have been proud!’
‘You don’t know the half of it.’
‘How is the boy?’
‘A delight. He’s like his grandfather must have been as a child: gentle, kind and considerate. But there is a sharp, intellectual edge to him that Uncle August has never had. How are Helga and the children?’
Moments of silence greeted that question. ‘It is not good, Welf. She grieves, but covers it as best she can for their sake. The authorities still cannot confirm Paul is dead, though his name has not been published as a prisoner by the Red Cross. As a result, there is yet this maddening reason to hope. I would almost welcome certain news of his death, terrible as it sounds to say that, so at least the grieving could begin.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it, mother. I will be with you soon, I hope. Love to father. Oh, and you must do one thing. We intend to cross the frontier on Monday at Rechtenberg. Can you contact Uncle Franz and make sure he knows? It would help to have the border patrols on the alert for us.’
‘I shall do.’ She gave the mother’s blessing down the phone line, which made Welf more than a little homesick. It was time for his adventuring to end.
It was also time to tell Gus the news about his nephew’s death. They walked out on to the terrace, where Gus stared down on the valley as Welf briefly told him all that was known.
Gus stood a while silent. Welf had expected more of a reaction, until he reflected that Gus remained very much an Englishman in certain ways. He realised the English could seem quite unemotional about some things.
‘Paul was a gallant man who did his duty to his king, both in Rothenia and in Flanders. It is tragic for Helga and the children to lose a husband and father. Nor will he see Pip and Sissi grow up. But in these dreadful days …’ Gus fell silent.
Welf left him to his meditations.
On Saturday Gus took the car to Salzburg, and decided to have Leopold go with him. Welf and Ulrica were not too happy about this, feeling they still had a responsibility towards the boy until he was delivered safely to Rothenia. On the other hand, Gus was the boy’s grandfather. Leo waved at them from the back window of the car as it disappeared down the hill.
The two young people spent a blissful day, free for the first time in a while to indulge their desire for each other. They made the most of their chance. It was as they were reaching their second climax that Ulrica held Welf inside her, scissoring him with her legs.
‘Why?’ he asked wonderingly afterwards.
‘I want that child of ours, and I’m ready for it. From now on we must do this for real, Welf. You want it too.’
‘Yes, I do,’ he admitted. Then he laughed. ‘There’s no guarantee that our child will be as sweet as Leo, though.’
‘But there’s a chance.’
‘I want a girl, anyway.’
She laughed and stretched beneath him, beautiful in her passionate abandon. ‘I’ll do my best for my husband.’
They spent the rest of the afternoon planning their wedding. Welf’s resolution in the face of this life-changing decision quite surprised him. It seemed he had come quicker to it than Osku, his partner in bachelorhood. But then, he had fallen in love with Ulrica, while he doubted Osku had been smitten by Cecilie. Osku had probably approached marriage as a lawyer, not a lover.
Gus and Leopold returned in time for dinner after what seemed to have been a wonderful day. ‘I could walk through the streets, and go into shops with grandfather, just like an ordinary boy. We fed pigeons and looked over the fortress. We went to the zoological gardens and the toy museum. A man even told me off for getting in his way!’ Strangely, it was that last event which most delighted Leo. For all of his young life he had experienced only deference from those around him.
Gus laughed, looking younger by the day. ‘What’s even better, I now have a set of additional papers for the child Leo Underwood, Rothenian citizen.’
‘Excellent,’ agreed Welf. ‘Then we will head for home on Monday with less to fear from the frontier.’
But the car would not start on Monday morning. When a motor mechanic was summoned, he could only shake his head. The pistons were the problem, apparently, and with the war shortages, finding replacement parts would be very difficult. It would be days before they could drive.
‘Then it’s the train, I’m afraid,’ sighed Welf. After he rang Templerstadt to advise of the change of plan, they packed and had a cart take them down to the station. The first Linz train was cancelled, which meant it was midafternoon before they finally left Bad Ischl. They were in a state of high frustration.
So it came about that they were sitting on the cold and windswept platform of Linz station amongst their cases and bags, waiting for a late train to Rechtenberg. At nine, dispirited and anxious, they climbed on board. It was the slow train, stopping at every country halt, and would not reach Rothenia till after midnight. Nonetheless, at last they were moving and getting closer to home.
Leopold was sleeping, cuddled into his grandfather. Ulrica too was dozing, her head on Welf’s shoulder. A movement in the corridor caused both men to look through the glass at the same instant. They dimly saw a tall figure muffled in a military greatcoat standing with his back to them, apparently gazing out at the flurries of steam rushing past the dark windows. He had no cap, and his thick hair was fluttering in the draught from an open window. Welf registered something familiar about the figure, then he looked across at Gus, who had gone rigid.
Gus carefully laid his sleeping grandson on the seat, then hastened to slide back the compartment door. The clatter of the train increased. Gus peered up and down the corridor. It was empty.
‘What did you think you saw, uncle?’
‘I thought it was a friend I have not seen for many years. One I had not expected to see for some while yet.’
‘You saw him too?’
‘Only a young soldier clearing the stuffiness of a train out of his head. But I’ve seen and heard some very odd things these past weeks. And I have suspected Oskar to be the source of them, yes.’
Gus returned to his seat. He leaned forward. ‘Tell me, then.’
Welf went over what he and Ulrica had experienced. ‘So you see, uncle, we’ve been convinced for some time that the late Oskar has had some interest, even involvement, in recent events. Why would he suddenly return like this?’
Gus pondered deeply. ‘It might be because he wishes to see either myself or Albert out of the world.’
‘I wonder. I suspect there are bigger issues, uncle. Not all is well in Rothenia. Tell me, if he had been Oskar and had turned and beckoned, what would you have felt and done?’
Gus shook his head. ‘Taken his hand and gone with him through the gate of death. Welf, I may be an old man now, but even so it does not take much for the flame of love to flare up from the ashes. And for all that ties me to the world – this child here, my daughter and Anton – still I would not be able to stop my heart leaping with desire for what I had with him, for so short a time.’
Welf was disturbed at what he heard. He did not really understand it, but then he was new to love and what it might do to a man’s heart. He suspended judgement.
The train rattled on through the night. It did not stop at the Rothenian frontier, and Leopold slept still as the train plunged into the Waltherberg tunnel. It was long past midnight when eventually it reached the cavernous spaces of the König-Rudolphs Bahnhof.
Leo was awake now and desperate for a sight of the country of which he was a royal prince. They were with the last passengers to spill on to the platform. There were no porters, so Gus and Welf heaved the bags to the barrier.
Police were checking the travellers’ papers with care. When their turn came, a policeman turned and signalled.
Two army officers came forward and saluted. One of them, a major, asked, ‘Is this his royal highness? His majesty requests you to stay with him tonight at the Osraeum. We have cars, if you will come this way.’
Three shiny vehicles in Elphberg green were waiting, army drivers at the wheel. Gus and Leopold were ushered to the lead car, Ulrica and Welf to the second. The officers took the last one. They motored through the sleeping city and turned into the palace forecourt. As Leopold emerged, the guards in their greatcoats presented arms, while the officer of the watch saluted. They were escorted into the entrance hall, Leopold hand in hand with his grandfather.
Footmen were waiting to carry their bags and show them to their rooms. Leopold took his leave of Ulrica and Welf with a reassumed formality. In this environment, he was a prince once again.
Welf and Ulrica slept in separate rooms. He woke early, washed and dressed, and was alone in the breakfast room when King Maxim entered. He stood until the king, with a warm smile, motioned him to sit.
‘Congratulations, Welf. Your mission has been accomplished in great style. Colonel Sachert has nothing but the highest praise for you. Now I suppose you will be wanting to get back to Templerstadt.
‘For a while, sir. But Ulrica and I will be getting married as soon as we can arrange it, and we will be living in Osku’s old place. Father has bought it for me.’
The king looked pleased. ‘That will delight your mother. She has two of you settled within a few months of each other. Do you have a job in mind?’
‘Er … well, no. I suppose I will go back to my studies, and Ulrica will try to get some language work.’
‘Is that what you want?’
‘It seems a bit shiftless when I put it like that. I ought to be earning, but who outside a university or museum wants a scholar of dead languages? We’re not badly off at Templerstadt, and father will continue my allowance, I suppose.’
‘I can offer you a post.’
‘I need a personal secretary, and I think you will do wonderfully well. It’s not the drudgery. That’s done by my office staff. The personal secretary keeps my outer office, he accompanies me and liaises with the staff in the private office. The salary is quite handsome, and there are side benefits.’
‘Such as, sir?’
‘Well, this to begin with.’ He produced a green morocco case.
Welf clicked it open. ‘Is this for me, sir?’
‘Yes, Welf, you’ve earned it. The order of Henry the Lion, in the second class.’
‘Thank you, your majesty. My parents will be so proud.’
The king laughed. ‘And your brother Henry will be so annoyed.’
‘A distinct possibility. I hope you will come to the wedding, sir.’
‘You may count on it. So, will you take the job?’
‘There’s nothing I’d like better, sir.’
The door opened again, and Prince Leopold entered, dressed now in a sailor suit and holding his grandfather’s hand. King Maxim stood as the boy bowed, and then went forward to take his hand. ‘Good morning, cousin. Welcome to the land of your birth.’
‘Good morning, your majesty, and thank you.’ They took their seats.
‘We have a lot of talking to do, I think. We need to decide who exactly you are.’ The boy looked up at his grandfather, puzzled. Maxim smiled. ‘What I mean is, there is the matter of your title, and who takes care of you.’
‘I don’t care about titles,’ the boy announced firmly. ‘And I want to live with my grandfather and my mama, if she will have me.’
The king sat back and folded his arms. ‘Other people do care about titles, young man. Your royal birth is not a matter you can ignore, as no one else will ignore it. There is also the question of your claim to the throne on which I sit.’
‘I don’t care for that, sir.’
‘You can say that now. But you may have a different view in some years’ time. I am not asking you to renounce your family’s claims. That must be your decision when you are old enough to make it. But in the meantime, you are here in Rothenia, and here you will stay, where you are safe and loved. You are a prince and will be treated as such. So you will be HRH Leopold Wilhelm Ernst Albert, prince of Rothenia and Thuringia, for that is what you are. You will also be duke of Ranstadt, an old title of our family. You must become colonel-in-chief of the Guard Dragoons – it’s such a pretty uniform – and accept the rank of brigadier general, even though you are only seven. You will be a knight of the Order of the Rose, as you have already proved what a noble young man you are. You will be in every way a member of the royal family. It’s such a small one, and we need you in it.’
The boy looked at his grandfather and then beamed at the king. ‘Where will I live, sir?’
‘With the count of Eisendorf.’
The smile was wiped off Leopold’s face. ‘Sir?’
‘Your grandfather, Augustus Clive Fincham Underwood, knight of the Rose and count of Eisendorf, a long overdue recognition for a great man.’ Now it was Gus’s turn to look astonished. The king continued, ‘And just think, Anton Dönitz will have to get used to following you in the order of precedence.’