MAXIM ELPHBERG - XXII
Welf von Tarleneheim zu Templerstadt adjusted his tie in one of the tall mirrors that lined the anteroom to the king’s private office. Today was going to be difficult. The king had summoned Chancellor Beck to the Osraeum, something unheard of. The mood in which he did it was also unusual: he was in a white fury.
Satisfied with his appearance, Welf went to the palace’s side entrance to wait for the chancellor, who wanted to avoid press notice for his visit. When the black car pulled up, Welf stepped forward to greet the man. Beck’s square, red face looked set and stubborn. This was not going to be a pleasant meeting.
King Maxim was standing at his office window, his face cold and expressionless. Welf ushered the chancellor inside before taking a deferential place near the door. The king had told him to remain in the room.
Maxim did not offer his hand after the chancellor had made the customary bow. Beck was disconcerted. The king was known to be unfailingly courteous, and his refusal to shake hands was unprecedented. Neither did he offer the chancellor a seat. The chancellor therefore had no choice but to stand, looking ill at ease.
‘May I remind you, Herr Beck, of something of which I thought I had convinced you last year? It is the matter of the franchise extension.’
‘I understand from this morning’s paper that your government has decided to drop the measure from this year’s parliamentary programme.’
While Beck shuffled his feet, the king continued. ‘I find it embarrassing that I must discover my government’s policies from reading newspapers. It is the decision itself, however, which most sticks in my throat.’
‘But sir …’
‘Oh, I’m perfectly sure you have your reasons, Beck. As much as I’m sure they are sordid. But I will repeat my arguments for you. Your party has kept power now for thirty years because the right to vote in our land is restricted by income and property. Well over half the men in Rothenia cannot vote, and none at all of the women. Although you do not see the injustice in this, I can assure you that the majority of your fellow citizens do, and they resent it bitterly.
‘Your party governs in the interest of the landed classes and the capitalists. You tax the rich lightly and offer no relief to the poor. Time and again, sensible and moderate measures of reform have been presented to parliament, some indeed pressed on you by the Reichsräthe. Even the peers of Rothenia are embarrassed by your indifference to the nation’s welfare.
‘The rich have only grown richer with the profits to be made from Rothenia’s position as a neutral power in a time of general war. I have become ashamed to be king of this land. But I am its king, and sworn to the service of all its people. These include the people pressed down into poverty while there is in fact abundant wealth to raise them up. They also include the men who risk their lives and livelihoods fighting to organise labour against the bullying of greedy factory owners. I cannot keep silent. This was your last chance, Beck. How much longer do you think they will accept being oppressed? As soon as the people know what you have done, you can expect a reaction much more dangerous than last year’s strikes and riots.’
King Maxim stood cold and furious staring down the chancellor. But Beck was not easily daunted. Welf reflected that the man lacked imagination and probably conscience. It was one reason he was still in power.
Chancellor Beck cleared his throat. ‘All I can say, sir, is what I have said before. These are dangerous times. Bolsheviks are running amok in Russia, and now Germany too. We cannot give ground to those who would overthrow the right to hold property in peace. This is the wrong time to show weakness. Your government expects the support of the army and police, sir.’
‘Beck, it is not I who is threatening you. Don’t you see that the poor are backed into a corner: disenfranchised, harassed and taxed to the limit? Yet they see their like beyond our borders stirring and moving. Soviets, communes, general strikes and insurrections are one way they can improve their lot, if they have nothing to lose.’
‘Sir, as long as the government keeps its nerve, things will not get out of hand here. Of course there has been hardship, but this war is coming to its end at last. With normal mercantile relations about to resume, our nation will regain its general prosperity. We have been untouched by war, and our factories have all the manpower they need.’
The king looked disgusted. ‘For whose benefit do you run Rothenia, Beck?’
The chancellor looked surprised at the comment. ‘The wealth of our industry trickles down to the whole populace. If Tildemann and his socialists were in power, they would make our industry uncompetitive. Pension insurance, intrusive regulations, minimum wages – these things have to be funded as taxes on the economy.’
‘So you deny long-overdue electoral reform just to keep Tildemann out of power.’
‘That is not the point. The constitution of 1856 has kept this nation stable and free while all around us chaos has broken out. Why endanger a system which has served us well?’
‘Because it stops Rothenia from being a true democracy? Because it perpetuates social injustice? I can think of a lot of reasons.’
‘I am surprised to hear your majesty argue this. Are you not famous as the proprietor of the factories and mills of Eisendorf?’
‘Where, I can assure you, my employees have health and unemployment insurance and at least a minimum wage. We still make money, and if we can, so can every business in this land. It is only greed, Beck. Your sponsors are men who will share nothing of the wealth they wring out of their employees as much as their customers.’
‘I really do not understand why you have summoned me here, sir.’
‘To try to talk sense into a head where now I perceive there is none.’ Maxim sighed. ‘You will regret very much what your government has done. What makes me sick to the stomach is that it is done in my name. Good day to you, Beck.’
The chancellor gave a curt bow and stalked out of the office, Welf following. When he returned, the king was sitting at his desk, his head in his hands. Welf stood by patiently, waiting to be noticed.
Eventually Maxim looked up and gave a wan smile. ‘That was a wasted effort, but I had to try … no, let me be honest, I had to vent some of my anger. Get a coffee sent up, will you, Welf? Have one sent up for yourself, too. How is Ulrica?’
‘Very pregnant and blaming me for it too.’
‘As I said, there is no justice. I’m sure she can’t be serious.’
‘She has mood swings I would never have thought her capable of before she conceived our child.’
‘I imagine that, once it’s born, she won’t have time for moods …’
‘… or sleep, or anything else.’
Welf bowed and went out to ring down for coffee. When he saw the message waiting in his in-tray, he read it and pursed his lips. Taking the coffee tray from the footman, he carried it in, giving the memorandum to Maxim while handing him his cup.
The king looked at it, then straightened. ‘Good God! So the Bolsheviks have murdered the tsar and all his family. A damnable ghastly deed. Ring over to the archbishop’s office. It would be proper to have masses said for the poor man. He did not deserve that.’
A footman closed the car door after Welf as he climbed in next to Maxim. He had a despatch box full of papers if the king wanted to work on the journey, but he rather thought that would not happen. He hoped not, as he tended towards car-sickness if he tried to read once they were in motion.
The car pulled away, another following with a military attaché and an armed plainclothes policeman. They drove along Gartengasse, past the back of the Hofgarten and then down Liebgardgasse. After crossing the river, they made their way towards Kesarstein.
Maxim was in a reflective mood. ‘This was the road I travelled to reach the city back in 1910. I was accompanied by some lancers and Voydek’s old armoured cars. Right at this spot we came under fire and they had to send in infantry to clear the route to the Altstadt.’
‘At least no one wants to shoot you today.’
‘Don’t be too sure, Welf. If someone took a potshot at me, it’d not be too hard to make a list of a dozen groups interested in assassinating me. You can put Chancellor Beck and his cronies at the top of it after this morning. Then there’re industrialists, bankers, socialists, Bolsheviks, Communists, Spartacists, freikorps, unionists, Mittenheimers … You know, one day I had hoped to unite this nation and I seem to have succeeded. They’re all united in a desire to dispose of me.’
‘It’s not that bad, sir.’
‘You’d be surprised. But today we can get away from it all for a little while.’
‘How long has it been since you were at Hentzau?’
‘More than two years. I miss the old place a lot, but at least it’s being put to good use.’
‘Uncle August seemed glad to get back when you offered it as a home for Prince Leopold and his mother.’
‘Gus lived there for over twenty years and he has so many friends in the town and the countryside around it. Besides, it’s only a short train ride from Anton’s house in Piotreshrad, so everybody’s happy.’
‘Even Countess Rechtenberg?’
‘Allow me to qualify what I said. She was certainly happy to have her son at last … and the boy, it was so affecting. Anton proved himself truly her godfather in Berlin, finding Marek and then her through him, telling her the news and getting her out before the police closed in. It was a much more exciting escape than yours, Welf. He bought a lorry and a cargo of beets, then smuggled her across the Saxon frontier in a hidden compartment under the floor.
‘Ah … that’s how it was done.’ Welf laughed. ‘Excuse me, sir, but knowing Toni, that really is quite amusing.’
The king too laughed, a rare occurrence lately. ‘She didn’t like it at all. She has too much regard for her own dignity, something I had not realised about her until recently. I don’t know why. It explains a lot about her, not least the sense of drama. She wants to be the star in her own personal theatricals.’
‘Is there room on stage for little Leo, too?’
‘I must not be unjust. She does love her son, and theatricals can be forgiven when a mother is reunited with her child after seven years’ separation. Gus says he had never seen her so genuinely affected. To see the boy in his mother’s arms after all those years… it brings tears to the eyes just thinking about it. He is so very special, so deserving of love.’
‘There have been demonstrations in Mittenheim to have that special boy made king instead of you. They call him Leopold II of Ruritania there.’
‘Those fickle Mittenheimers. Leo’s father is still alive and fighting the Allies in Alsace. But it seems that even they don’t want King Albert back.’
‘It was his own fault. The Mittenheimers who enlisted in his army corps were very badly treated, and the news of their privations filtered back with the deserters. Two thousand dead sons and brothers is an appalling price to pay for loyalty to the house of Thuringia.
‘The government would not listen to me. “Let them go,” Beck said. “They’re only troublemakers whom we should be glad to get rid of.” But they were Rothenians, and their appearance on the battlefields of the Eastern Front compromised our neutrality. What’s more, we had a duty to them. Yet Beck would not provide funds to repatriate them when they tried to leave Germany. It looked like Rothenian indifference to Ruritanian Germans, which provided more ammunition to the separatists.’
Welf shrugged. ‘It’s as well for Toni that Albert was recalled to duty. He was not going to give Leopold up to her. He had lawyers already briefed to start a custody battle in Strelzen in April. When the war’s over, I imagine he will be right back in court.’
‘No doubt, and this may surprise you, but I have some sympathy with the man. If he was wrong to steal the boy from his mother, it’s not justice to then steal Leo back and deny his father any sort of access.’
‘How could you trust such a man to keep to any covenant he made? If I were Toni and Gus, I would never let Leo out of my sight when he was nearby.’
‘All Albert’s choices have gone wrong. His wife has left him. His daughter has repudiated him and fled to relatives in Denmark. Thuringia is descending into chaos. Ernsthof has just declared itself a workers’ collective that has impounded his castle and estates, while the state government has collapsed.’
Welf nodded. ‘He certainly had a talent for making the wrong decisions. What will become of him?’
‘The question is whether we have a responsibility for him.’
Welf gaped. ‘Sir! You surely don’t mean that.’
‘He was a king of this land. His son is under my protection. Yes, I am serious.’
‘He can take care of himself, sir. It’s only been himself that he has cared about all his life … the damage he’s done, to my family amongst many others!’
‘Perhaps you might make that argument to young Leo.’
Welf was silenced. He retreated into his own thoughts, pondering the mystery of King Maxim. He had never met so principled a man. The problem was that he let principle triumph on every occasion, even over pragmatism. The man was suicidally ethical. You could not but respect him, and the people within his immediate circle venerated him. But the further commentators were from him, the less he was thought of. Cartoonists, even in the sympathetic Strelzen papers, gibbeted him remorselessly as a king who was unworldly and ineffectual.
Yet Maxim was anything but out of touch. Under his stewardship, the Rothenian military, intelligence service and diplomatic corps were amongst the most effective in Europe. He had a gift for spotting talent and using it. Maxim was a walking argument for absolute monarchy, but was an ardent constitutionalist – even where the constitution was, as in this case, outdated and objectionable.
They drove on in silence. After the turn up into the Arndt valley, Maxim asked for some of the papers in the despatch box. He worked fitfully until they were approaching the Hentzenheide. The driver, alert to his wishes, pulled over at the point where an imposing obelisk had been raised to commemorate the thousands killed in the great battle that had secured Maxim’s throne, eight years before. He had put it up at his own expense.
Maxim got out of the car. The afternoon had brought with it oppressive low clouds, which all too soon would give way to heavy raindrops. The air was still, the bird song strangely muted.
Maxim climbed up on to the terrace that lay at the base of the monolith. ‘This was where I stood, with Voydek and your uncle Franz, that fateful day. Albert’s troops came marching across those fields. Then the guns opened fire…’ He tailed off, caught up in his uncomfortable memories. ‘Rothenia too has had its tragedies these past years. But if I did nothing else, I saved this land from the fate Germany and Austria brought on themselves.’
‘Yes sir, and one day you’ll get the credit for your vision.’
‘It’s a new world now, Welf. Our neighbour Bohemia is in its last days as a Hapsburg province. When I met the envoy of the Czecho-Slovak National Council last week, I promised our recognition of their nation. In a month’s time, I will be visiting the Emperor Karl in Bad Ischl. He’s a decent man, to whom I shall be offering refuge for his family in Rothenia, if it’s needed. His armies are in retreat across the Balkans. The map is redrawing itself as we look. I sometimes fear we too will be swept away by the great tides washing across Central Europe.’
With these sombre reflections, they returned to the car and drove on to Hentzau.
‘Welf! Look at this! It’s a model aeroplane! And it flies … a little.’
‘How are you, sir?’
‘Well … Leo, if you must.’
The prince laughed. Eight months at Hentzau had made him brown of face and limbs, and more robust of frame. He had shed the formal sailor suits and Eton collars he had worn in Ernsthof, in favour of clothes more suitable for an active, carefree boy. He was dressed that day in sand-coloured shorts and an open white shirt. He wore leather sandals and no socks; he said he went barefoot a lot. Leopold of Thuringia looked more and more like an Underwood.
He took Welf all over the castle, then down to the stables to show off his pony. The boy was relaxed and happy. As soon as school had finished for the summer, he had been sent on a long holiday to Templerstadt to stay with Count Hugo and Countess Elizabeth. There he had finally met his cousin Pip, with whom he had sworn eternal brotherhood.
‘He is my greatest friend, besides being my cousin, you know. He will be coming here tomorrow. I made him a knight. He said I could because I am a royal prince and duke. Is that right?’
‘I think it might actually be correct, Leo. Though were I you, I would limit the number of titles you throw around, as it’s their rarity that makes them prized.’
In Hentzau, Leo had become part of a gang of town boys who had a fort in the castle woods. He wouldn’t show it to Welf as, he said, he was sworn to secrecy over its location.
‘These town lads, Leo, do they know who you are?’
‘I suppose, but really, we are all boys together, aren’t we? The leader of our gang is Hendrik Spirida, the policeman’s son. He’s ten. I’m his trusted lieutenant now that I’m eight.’
‘Then young Hendrik must be a young man of some capacities.’
‘He is my good friend.’
‘I’m glad to hear it. Princes ought to have friends just the way other people do. They make life worthwhile. How is your grandfather?’
Leo laughed. ‘He is my good friend too! We go fishing and riding a lot. He shows me all sorts of things he says I need to know. We went on the shoot when the grouse season opened. My ears are still ringing from the guns. I got to practice on a real breechloader. There is a boar hunt in September, and I am to accompany it.’
These were things which had never appealed particularly to Welf. Clearly, however, they did to Leopold, whose share in the Underwood inheritance apparently included the family’s addiction to field sports. ‘How’s your education getting along?’
‘Oh, I’m keeping up with Latin and Greek, at least I was until the school holidays began. I am being taught many subjects with the town boys in the Dominican school. I am studying advanced classics while the rest of my age group is at beginners’ level. I learn with the twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. Grandfather has employed special tutors, to keep me sharp, he says.’
‘And your mother?’
The boy gave a little smile. ‘My mama is often here. When she is, I sit with her and she strokes my hair and sings to me. It’s nice. She is so kind.’
Welf noted the different reactions that reference to Welf’s mother and grandfather evoked. Antonia was not looked upon as a particularly engaged mother; perhaps there was a nanny to do that sort of thing.
They walked slowly back into the castle, chatting with an ease that Welf found vaguely encouraging, considering that he might soon have a child of his own to bring up.
Welf took his leave of Leo and went to find the king, who was with Gus and Antonia in the front drawing room. The portrait of Count Oskar smiled serenely and enigmatically down on them all. Tea had been served, choreographed by Marek Rustak, whom Welf encountered just leaving.
‘Oh, good afternoon, young master Tarlenheim.’ The steward’s smile was as arch as ever.
‘And good afternoon to you too, Marek. Are you quite recovered after your adventure in Berlin?’
‘Not a place I would recommend, sir, particularly at this moment.’
‘Tell me, Marek. How did the baron locate you in such a big city?’
Marek looked innocent. ‘Oh sir, there are places to go in Berlin if you like a certain sort of … recreation. The city is famous for them, actually. Baron Dönitz is a man of the world, and he knew exactly where to find me. A very clever man, sir.’
‘Evidently. How do you get on with the prince?’
Marek gave what was for him an almost normal smile. ‘He’s a very straightforward young man, isn’t he, sir? “Marek Rustak,” he said to me, “you have a very odd way of talking.” I could only agree, sir. But it’s too late to change now!’ The man went off, laughing to himself.
Welf entered and was invited to pour a cup of tea and take a seat.
Antonia was enthusing about recent events in Thuringia. ‘It gives you hope that the people at last are willing and able to overthrow tyranny. Factory workers have taken control of the means of production. Collectives have seized direction of civic affairs. The police have refused to intervene. It’s a model for all Germany. The people of Thuringia have called for peace by negotiation with the Allies.’
Maxim put down his teacup. ‘The extraordinary circumstances in Germany at this point may make more such outbreaks likely to happen. I hope to God they don’t lead to civil war. If that occurs, it will spill over to neighbouring lands, you can be sure.’
‘Berlin is on the brink of revolution. If it had not been for the freeing of my Leopold, I would have stayed there. I long to see the red flag over the Brandenburg Gate, and the Potsdam palaces as museums.’
‘Toni, you worry me,’ objected her father. ‘You are not seriously thinking of returning to that city, after all that has happened, are you? They’d never let you past the frontier. They’d arrest you as soon as you were recognised. I think there are greater calls on you than the struggle of the proletariat. Your son needs you.’
Antonia rolled her eyes. ‘Of course, father, I have not forgotten my beautiful Leo. I am here for him, am I not? I haven’t taken myself off to Strelzen. I have been a dutiful mother to the boy, the mother he never had apart from that first month together.’
Maxim nodded. ‘He is a very fine lad who has had a lot of loneliness in his life. It has been wonderful to see how he has opened up and blossomed in the love and affection he has received since coming to Rothenia. Attempt to leave the country, Toni, and I will have you arrested. This castle is ringed with my agents to stop just such an eventuality. Take me seriously.’
Antonia stared at the king, not sure quite how seriously to take him. He reflected that, sometime in the past seven years, she had lost the lively humour she once possessed.
Welf murmured to Maxim that he was going to phone the palace office to check for any urgent messages. He also went up to the king’s bedroom to sort the papers. There was a particularly important briefing memorandum they had received from the General Staff concerning the present state of the German military and the current Allied offensive in Flanders. It included a detailed analysis from General Voydek’s office of the recent flood of intelligence from Sachert’s contacts within the War Ministry. Civil servants’ mouths were loosening as impending defeat and economic collapse made gold-backed foreign currencies, like the Rothenian krone, irresistible.
Voydek warned of the disintegration of the German armed forces within three months, following which civil anarchy might well ensue. He took it for granted that the Austro-Hungarian armies were already in a state of breakdown. As usual, the general sketched out a number of scenarios that might affect Rothenia. One or two of them were bleak indeed.
As Welf was laying these out on the desk, a dispatch from the Washington embassy caught his eye. Apparently, public health inspectors were warning that a virulent outbreak of influenza, which had appeared in army camps in Kansas earlier in the year, was likely to reappear once the cold weather recommenced. Its consequences for the general population were unknown.
Army Day in Strelzen was to be different that year. The General Staff was keen to exhibit its new technology, in part to emphasise to foreign military attachés how truly formidable was the Rothenian arsenal.
Maxim used the statue of Henry the Lion as his saluting base as usual. It was a way of showing off the royal family to the people in a neutral sort of way, allowing the real focus of the parade to fall on the soldiers and veterans.
Maxim also had something new for the people lined up along the Rudolfs Platz. A line of carriages appeared, the first holding the two refugee princesses, Katherine from Bavaria and the Archduchess Helena from Hungary, sent to Rothenia for safety by their concerned husbands. The second carriage bore Princess Maria and her husband, Count Tomas Bernenstein zu Orbeck, with their baby daughter. Behind these two came the carriage with the king’s mother, the duchess of Glottenberg, sitting with the princesses of Tarlenheim and Vidolon.
It was the fourth carriage which most interested the public. Prince Leopold, dressed in a miniature colonel’s uniform, a crested helmet on his lap, caused a huge surge of cheering along the Gartengasse, which was redoubled when his carriage reached the square. Grinning broadly and waving enthusiastically at the people alongside the way, he was accompanied by his cousin, Pip Underwood, wearing his Boy Scout’s gear, acting as Leo’s junior equerry for the day. Gus, the count of Eisendorf, sit sat opposite them in his old-fashioned frock coat, the red ribbon and star of the Rose on his chest.
Maxim, decked out in marshal’s uniform, smiled to himself as he mounted his stallion, the plumes of his helmet swaying around his head. A squadron of the Life Guard in white preceded him, and another came behind. He noticed a distinctly cooler greeting to him from this year’s crowd.
‘Ready to take the bullet for me, Voydek?’ he asked out of the corner of his mouth.
‘Always, sire,’ agreed the general, perfectly serious as ever, riding alongside and to the right of him. Franz von Tarlenheim, the chief of General Staff, was on his other side.
He dismounted at the saluting base, resigned his horse to a guardsman and took the stand. With a flourish of the massed bands, the parade commenced. It was led by the infantry regiments, then the cavalry following, a glorious sight in full dress. But this year, for the first time, a rumble and clanking announced the arrival of something unusual. Several squadrons of the new Armoured Corps drove their tanks up the square and past the stand, their commanders at rigid attention as the ponderous vehicles rolled on and away down Brückestrasse.
‘Well thank God none of them broke down,’ Maxim commented under his breath.
‘They’ve beaten the problem with the oil filters,’ Franz whispered back.
The veterans’ companies marched last, to the biggest cheers. But when they reached the stand, a buzz of consternation broke out as several of them unfurled a banner demanding pension reform. Generals Voydek and Tarlenheim were furious. Fortunately, the crowd’s attention was distracted by the loud fly-past of sixty fighters and twenty bombers from the Rothenian Air Corps, which caused everyone to look up. Welf’s eyes followed them as well. One of the aircraft was being piloted by his brother, Henry.
The guard cavalry regiments were waiting ready. The king and his staff remounted. Following the bands, the guardsmen trotted off the square, swords and helmets flashing in the sun. They rode along Gartengasse till they reached the Martzfeld, the eighteenth-century parade ground down by the river, where the thousands of troops gave the royal salute as cannons boomed over the city.
‘You’d better arrange for the veterans’ leaders to see me in the palace tomorrow,’ Maxim muttered to Welf when he took his seat in the carriage that would drive them back to the Osraeum.
At the reception afterwards, although Maxim circulated as affably as ever, Welf could tell he was on the lookout for something. Welf knew the king had many worries, but this seemed an anxiety different from the political.
He followed the king to the steps of the throne, where two boys were sitting, laughing at a private joke and eating ice cream.
‘Hullo, Leo – you too, Pip,’ Maxim greeted in English, which both boys spoke well enough.
They sprang up. ‘Hullo, sir,’ they chorused.
‘Where’s your mother, Pip?’
‘She was talking to Princess Maus, sir.’ His frank and freckled face was properly respectful, so he wasn’t trying to be cheeky.
‘I think she prefers Maria nowadays, Pip.’
‘Yes sir. They were in the room with the pictures.’
Leo nudged his cousin. ‘The gallery, twerp.’
‘What his highness says,’ Pip laughed and then launched himself on Leo, regardless of uniforms and the surroundings. The room was suddenly full of the howling of a prince being tickled remorselessly. Maxim left it to Welf to break the tussle up.
Maria and Helga were sitting side by side on a sofa, under a portrait of Rudolf IV, admiring the new baby. Elizabeth, Helga’s daughter, was looking on with curiosity. They stood when Maxim appeared.
He motioned them to sit. ‘How is my niece?’
His sister smiled. ‘Putting on weight, Max. I’m going to hand her over to nurse in a minute, after Helga has admired her.’
‘She’s beautiful,’ Helga cooed, looking happier than she had for a long time. ‘Who does she look like, Max?’
This was not the sort of question he was good at. ‘Umm … her mother?’
The women raised their eyebrows. ‘With those eyes, and that colouring … Max, you are hopeless,’ sighed his sister.
‘I certainly agree. I kiss babies. They cry. It seems to be a law of nature. Shall I kiss her?’
‘Yes, if you must, but don’t pinch her the way you did last time.’
‘It was an accident. There, I kissed her, she cried and I didn’t even touch her!’
Maria threw up her hands. Cradling the baby and shooing Elizabeth along with her, she bustled off in search of nurse.
Maxim gave a lopsided look at Helga who replied with her usual quiet smile. He invited her to walk with him and she took his arm.
‘It’s been nine months now since the news about Paul, Helga. How do you feel?’
She was silent for a while. ‘I know he won’t be back, Max. I know he’s dead. The children are aware they’ll never see their father again. We talk about him now as one who has gone. It is so hard; I’m sure you know.’
‘Yes I do. He was a good friend, the best I’ve ever had. He saved my life that time I was arrested in Vienna. I could do with him now, when friends seem fewer.’
‘You have plenty of friends, Max. Anyone who meets you, soon gets to respect you.’
‘But first they have to get to know me. It might be a bit time-consuming introducing myself personally to the whole nation, don’t you think?’
‘Don’t mock me, Max.’ She was rebuking him, but she gave a light laugh as she said it.
‘I’m sorry, Helga. That came out wrong.’
She took his hand and squeezed it. Somehow, he found in proximity to her a degree of calm, even though at the moment it was black-bordered with sadness.
Maxim knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to take her in his arms there and then, but he had no idea how she would accept his advances. Had she even understood how fully he had fallen for her those years ago when he had failed to respond to her interest? What asinine reason had he thought up? Oh yes, intelligence agents had no business making emotional ties. Fool that he was. Total idiot. And now look at him, a crowned ass.
Maxim had so few moments when he could simply be human. He had at least learned to seize his opportunities. ‘Helga, you must be lonely.’
‘Yes, except when the children are with me. They carry so much of Paul in them.’
Damn, that was bad, he thought. She’s hanging on to his memory. But he ploughed on. ‘You don’t need to be lonely.’
She stopped, pulling him to a halt as well. She looked troubled, which in turn troubled him, but he could not turn back. ‘Helga … I have always loved you. God knows I wasted opportunity after opportunity to tell you this, and it’s probably too late now. But I must make this clear to you so there is no mistake. I would go on my knees if I thought it would do any good. I have to know. Can you return those feelings?’
She was silent for more seconds than Maxim could be comfortable with. Eventually, she sighed. ‘It’s too early, Max … too soon. The way I feel now, I could not make a commitment to any man, even one like you. Don’t say anything more, please. Take me back to my children.’
So they walked out into the salon amongst the crowds of the reception. Maxim relinquished her arm, bowing to her as she walked off towards her son. He felt his world had ended.
Welf noticed the new sadness in Maxim the next day, after the veterans’ representatives had been ushered out. There seemed little to say to him. How can you start such a conversation with a king? You’re not supposed to initiate conversations with a king in any case. You wait till he speaks to you.
Depressed or not, Maxim still worked on the problems of his realm without any relaxation. One meeting succeeded another. He presided over a committee to do with the royal parks in the capital, met a delegation of schoolteachers, and spent a long time with the business managers of his investment portfolio. It was during the last meeting that Welf had an idea. Osku. Why had he not thought of his brother before?
He rang his brother’s house and talked Cecilie into inviting Ulrica and himself for dinner. He knew that Rica would not be too happy with this, not so much for the short notice but because she claimed that Cecilie gave her indigestion. ‘She is so bland, Welf. She sits in my stomach like a lump of dough, really.’
However, they turned up for dinner and Rica did her best to twitter along with the domestic trivia which was Cecilie’s main subject of conversation. Osku was his usual expansive self. He had put on quite a bit of weight lately, and his waistcoat was stretched tight across his abdomen as he lit up his postprandial cigar.
Cecilie sent Osku out once he started smoking. Welf went into the garden with him. By now the stars were open in the September night sky. It was still quite warm, however, as they stood at the wall looking down over the city lights. Clear in the evening air, the bells of the cathedral struck ten.
‘It’s a lovely house you have, Osku.’
‘It certainly is. It’s Cecilie’s delight, as you will have picked up.’ He laughed. ‘She works very hard making a comfortable home, bless her. She’s so pleased when I approve of some arrangement she’s made.’
Welf put to the back of his mind the question of what on earth his brother and sister-in-law ever found to talk about other than interior decorating. He briefly sketched out the problem with the king.
Osku nodded. ‘I might have expected it. Once Paul was dead, he was bound to think of her again.’
‘Our sister. Helga! Who else?’
‘I didn’t know. When did they …?’
‘It was when you were in university, the year he came to Rothenia. I think that, of the two, she preferred Maxim. Too bad he never made any move to encourage her. It was only afterwards, when Paul and she had fallen in love, that I got it out of him. He wanted to keep himself free of ties while he was working for the British government. His whole inclination was for Helga, but of course there was the complication with Toni too.’
‘You mean, he and Toni …?’
‘You really were a cloistered young scholar, weren’t you.’
‘Not so out of touch that I didn’t notice you and Toni were at it.’
‘That was never any great secret, on either side. Anyway, the problem with Max is a recurrence of his old affection for our sister, although in an even more acute form.’
‘What can we do about it?’
‘Absolutely nothing, I’m afraid. I imagine words have already been said which have closed that door for good. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, poor man.’
They stood a while longer smoking in the garden. Eventually, Osku complained of feeling a chill. Going back through the French windows, he gave catastrophic sneeze.
‘Gesundheit!’ his brother remarked absently.