MAXIM ELPHBERG - XXIII
Welf arrived at the palace at the customary seven o’clock the next morning. The king came into the office at eight, and Welf liked to have everything at his fingertips before the day began.
He was still shuffling papers when the phone rang. It was the mayor of the Neustadt, who wanted the king and was not willing to wait. Welf picked up the edge of something like panic in the other’s voice. He advised the mayor to come straight to the Osraeum, then moved several items out of the king’s diary in case it was a long meeting. The mayor had said he would bring Dr Leporov, the inspector of public health.
The two grim-looking men were waiting when Maxim arrived in the outer office. He did not himself look that cheery. Welf ushered the visitors in.
The mayor commenced, ‘Your majesty, thank you for seeing us. This really is not your concern, but we’re getting nowhere with the Ministry of Public Works and Health. We can’t get the minister to take things seriously.’
The king nodded. ‘It may not be my concern, but perhaps you can tell me what the problem is.’
Dr Leporov pulled a sheaf of papers from his attaché case. ‘An influenza infection has been steadily crossing Europe these past weeks. It may have begun in the United States, others say Spain, although no one is quite sure. It doesn’t really matter. It began its depredations in the military camps in France and spread across the lines and very quickly into the civilian populations of France and Germany.’
‘Influenza? Doesn’t it come around more or less every year?’
‘Yes sir, but this one is very different. The flu will normally affect the more vulnerable section of the population: children and the aged. This one affects equally the strongest, those in their twenties and thirties. It is also deadly.’
Maxim was leaning forward by now. ‘Precisely how deadly?’
‘This is the true worry. I have been in touch with my opposite number in Paris. He warns of substantial mortality. Maybe a third of the population is affected, and the rate of death within that third is far higher than usual with influenza. Mortality seems variable, but I have heard that in certain parts of Germany the entire adult population of some villages has been wiped out.’
‘My God! It is in Germany!’
‘Sir, it is already in Rothenia. We’re desperate. The government is suppressing the news because it is afraid of civil panic. It has taken no measures to deal with the expected influx of emergency cases.’
Maxim leaped to his feet and began pacing up and down the room, his usual resort when strongly agitated. ‘What can be done?’
‘A few things, sir, but it’s too late to attempt quarantine measures. There is no cure for influenza, other than dedicated nursing. This particular infection can rise to a terribly swift crisis. Death can follow within a couple of days of the first symptoms.’
‘What do you want done?’
‘The hospitals need to be put on alert and resources made available. Schools must be quickly closed and all public meetings cancelled. It would be wise to send as many troops home from barracks as is feasible; young men are particularly at risk, or have been so in Germany. Because influenza is spread by sneezing and coughing, gauze masks do some good. The public should be advised of this.’
‘There is no cure?’ Maxim repeated.
‘None, sir, though there have been some experiments in the United States which are rumoured to have produced positive results.’
‘Welf, get the minister on the phone.’
While he was waiting for the call, Maxim summoned his adjutant and began dictating orders. The military hospital on Leibgardgasse was alerted, and all military medical staff mobilised. All troops that could be spared were to be placed on home leave for as long as necessary. This was as much as his authority permitted.
The conversation with the minister was long and heated, but it finally had the desired result. Measures to stop mass gatherings were reluctantly agreed and schools across Rothenia would be ordered closed. Maxim himself called the editors of the main papers and persuaded them how urgent it was to inform the public.
As Welf was taking notes of the meeting between the king and the general staff, he remembered Osku’s complaints of ill health the previous night. A chill hand gripped his spine.
It was not until midday that Welf was able to ring Cecilie. ‘He didn’t go to work today,’ she reported. ‘He’s complaining of aching joints and a headache. He needs bed rest.’
‘Get the doctor,’ Welf insisted.
Cecilie picked up something from his voice. ‘Why? What do you think is the problem?’
‘I don’t know. But there’s a very bad sort of flu going the rounds. Get some medical advice as soon as you can.’
Then Welf rang home. ‘Darling, excuse the odd nature of the question, but how do you feel?’
‘Fine, apart from the fact that I have something the shape and weight of a bolster in front of me … that will be your child I’m talking about, Welf. Why do you ask?’
Welf told her, and a period of silence followed. ‘How dangerous do you think this epidemic may be?’
‘It has already killed hundreds of thousands across Europe and America. Now it has passed our frontiers. I was in contact with Osku last night and I fear he has it. I may be incubating it. Rica, I must sleep at the Osraeum tonight until I’m sure I’m not infected. I can’t spread it to you and our baby.’
She seemed too shocked to protest, but did make him promise to come home as soon as he was certain he could do so without danger.
He rang Templerstadt and shared his worries with his mother. She did not say anything, but he thought she would be heading to the capital as soon as she had hung up the phone.
The afternoon papers began arriving. As King Maxim had hoped, they broke the news that the Spanish flu had appeared in Rothenia. There was an unpleasant edge of panic in the writing, which Welf privately thought was justified.
Several dignitaries from the archdiocese of Strelzen arrived to see the king. Welf was thoroughly depressed by the discussion. The cardinal announced he was preparing his priests for an arduous and heartbreaking period of high mortality. He had every belief that the clergy would do their duty, and most probably pay the price in a higher-than-average death rate from ministering to the dying. The king wanted to discuss how to deal with the problem of mass graves and the likelihood that the long funeral masses beloved of Rothenians might have to be sacrificed through lack of manpower and time.
When the king finally left the office, Welf cleared his desk quickly. He knew where he had to go. He walked briskly down through the gardens to the Heinrichsbrücke. Starel Heights was quiet, quieter than it would normally be at this hour. Strelzen was already feeling like a city filled with fear.
Cecilie opened the door herself, looking distressed.
‘Where’s the maid?’ Welf asked.
‘She left. Her family are all ill, and she had to go, she said. Oh Welf! I’m on my own here!’
‘Not for long. Mother will arrive within an hour or two, I should think. How is he?’
‘The doctor came and said there was not much he could do, though he did promise to return with more medication for the pain. He told me Osku’s lungs were filling with fluid. All he could suggest was keeping him in a position which would help him breathe, but he’s in and out of consciousness.’
Welf went upstairs. Osku was raised on pillows, his face beaded with sweat and his breathing laboured. He gave occasional tearing coughs, which caused him to move about, yet his eyes remained closed.
Welf’s heart sank. He had read the reports and knew how the disease would progress. He was still sitting with his brother when the doctor reappeared.
Finding Osku awake, the doctor inspected him and tapped his chest. There was a murmured conversation. When he was done he came to Welf and said, ‘Now would be a good time to call a priest, while he is still lucid.’
‘Is there no hope?’
The man suddenly lost his professional calm to draw a shuddering breath. ‘Even the strong succumb to this virus. It’s turned to pneumonia. Get this tincture of opium down him if you can. It will relieve the pain somewhat.’
The priest came at the same time as Countess Elizabeth. They went upstairs together. Osku was able to give the correct responses, his mother, brother and wife around the bed with him. The priest left, promising to return if he could. He was back before midnight, looking very tired.
Welf, Elizabeth and Cecilie sat hand in hand through the endless night, listening to Osku gasping for air. He lapsed into unconsciousness as the cathedral clock struck the beginning of a new day, to slip away shortly after dawn with one last rattling breath. Welf got up and closed his brother’s staring eyes while the priest made the final commendation. Welf had just become the heir of Templerstadt, though he would have given all the estate and everything he owned for only one hour more with the brother he loved.
His son stared up into Welf’s eyes. Welf stared back with wonder. This fragile red scrap of life making tiny random movements is how we all begin, he told himself. With tears in his eyes, he looked over at Ulrica, dishevelled and exhausted but still smiling. It had been a long delivery.
‘Yes you can,’ she said.
‘Call him Oskar Franz.’
‘Thank you, darling. But I was thinking of Oskar Maxim Augustus.’
‘That’s good too. A very grand name for such a small child.’
The midwife bustled back in to remove the baby from his father’s arms and return him to his mother’s care. Welf got the distinct impression that his presence was no longer required, so he kissed Ulrica and headed for the phone.
It had been two months since Osku’s death. His brother was lying in the company of his ancestors in the mausoleum at Tarlenheim. The funeral had been a great trial, yet it might have been far worse had a lot of the family not turned up to offer what comfort they could. That same day there had been four other influenza fatalities to be buried following Osku’s funeral. Church bells had seemed to be tolling nonstop the first week of the epidemic. In Strelzen, the government ordered the funereal sound to be silenced.
Mortality had been high, though not as high as in the surrounding countries. It had hit the mature adult population hardest. There had been panic at Hentzau when both Pip and Leo contracted the flu, but both boys had made a normal recovery after the usual symptoms. Hendrik Spirida, however, would never lead Leo’s gang again, for he rested now under flowers in the churchyard of the Jakobskloster.
King Maxim had visited hospitals daily and sponsored welfare appeals. He had not spared any effort to rally the nation as it dealt with the epidemic. Welf was seriously concerned that Maxim was becoming careless of himself. Maybe deep down the king had seen contracting the influenza as one way to solve his problems, even if he didn’t put it to himself consciously. Or perhaps he had simply tried to lose himself in hard work to forget his depression over Osku’s death and Helga’s refusal.
One day in October, a week before Ulrica gave birth, the king summoned a Staatsrath to consider a document. He looked exhausted, with dark rings under his eyes. Welf picked up the concern of the councillors as they looked at Maxim.
But the king’s words were controlled and fluent. ‘My lords and gentlemen, in the present circumstances, when the future for each of us is so uncertain, I have been moved to nominate a successor. There are two possible male heirs: my nephew James Rassendyll, count of Hentzau and Burlesdon, son of my elder brother Julius; and my cousin, Prince Leopold of Thuringia, duke of Ranstadt, son of the former King Albert. According to our law of adult priority, neither child has an automatic right to succeed. The constitutional lawyers tell me that I may therefore nominate whichever male I choose from the existing lineage, until one of them reaches the age of twenty-one. I have thought long and hard about this, and have resolved to nominate Prince Leopold.’
There was a gasp around the table. Maxim held up his hand. ‘Yes, I realise my nephew is closer in the Elphberg line and three years older than Leopold, but I know him hardly at all. He has not been brought up to the rule of this country and is a stranger to the people. Leopold, on the other hand, is well known here and, despite being a Thuringian, is beloved by all with whom he has come into contact. He speaks the language of the people, yet he is of German lineage. Though not an Elphberg, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, he would unite this land more effectively than any other candidate. He therefore is to be my heir.’
The bishop of Luchau looked troubled. ‘Sir, there are other objections to the boy than that he is Thuringian.’
‘You refer to his birth.’
The bishop nodded. ‘I say nothing about the boy personally. He is known to be a fine young fellow. But his father was not married to his mother, so according to the law of the Church and this land, he may not succeed.’
Maxim had expected this argument. ‘There are two things to counter your argument. The first is that my line of the house of Elphberg originated in an adulterous liaison. Nonetheless, eight years ago, in a moment of political crisis, that fact was deliberately forgotten.’
‘But sir, the illegitimacy was far in the past, and there were precedents in canon law, as the then cardinal archbishop allowed at the time.’
Maxim frowned. ‘In doing so, the Church created a new precedent in Rothenia. Besides, the boy has not been brought up a Catholic. Indeed, his mother was excommunicated in 1906 for publicly mocking the sacrifice of the mass. Canon law is therefore on very tenuous grounds in his case, so secular considerations must prevail. Leopold was declared legitimate and in the line of succession to Thuringia by his father and the state council by proclamation in 1910. This was perfectly legal in German law.
‘Though that proclamation has no validity within our borders, it can be argued that Leopold is the undoubted heir to the Thuringian claim to our throne, should we choose to accept such a claim – and, under the circumstances in which we find ourselves, I am happy to do so.’
Maxim moved to a vote of the council. Only the bishop of Luchau hesitated, before slowly raising his hand. He was, after all, a pragmatic man.
The king took a pen and signed the instrument, MAXIM R. It was passed around the table for the rest of the council to add their signatures as witnesses.
‘I need hardly say, gentlemen, that my decision must not become public knowledge. This document has no validity unless or until I die or otherwise relinquish the throne. And it has no validity at all once James Rassendyll reaches the age of twenty-one. But for now, it expresses my wishes.’
When Maxim rose, Welf was disturbed to note that he needed to grip the edge of the table to steady himself. He rallied, however, and walked out of the room. Welf wondered whether he had caught the flu, although it seemed more likely that it was the emotional strain which was undermining his health.
Since that hour, Welf had not seen much improvement in the king, who he knew was sleeping very badly. Then Ulrica went into labour and for three days Welf had not been at the palace. Now, as his son had come into the world, he knew it was time to get back to work. He left Ulrica to the midwife and his mother.
He made his way along Osragasse and up the Rudolfs Platz. It was as he passed the Salvatorskirk that he was taken aback to hear the bells begin to ring. This was not the solemn tolling of the tenor bell for the passing of the dead, however. All the bells were moving in a carillon. Newspaper boys were spilling out on to the square, where Welf took a a copy of the Ruritanischer Tagblatt. In huge black headlines it proclaimed, ARMISTICE! WAR ENDS IN THE WEST! KAISER ABDICATES!
‘And so it is over.’ King Maxim was smiling faintly.
‘It lifts the heart, even though we were not one of the warring powers. And my son was born on the very day!’
‘You should call him Pacificus!’
‘I’ve called him Oskar Maxim, sir.’
The king stared at him for a moment before getting up and walking to the window. He blew his nose as he was looking out on the rear courtyard. Then he turned. ‘My dear Welf, you are a good friend as well as a fine private secretary.’
‘Thank you, sir. Now the war is over in the west, maybe you can do something about the problems in Rothenia. Our country needs to get back on its feet.’
‘Perhaps. If the world sends us no more distractions. Will you go and get the despatch boxes and briefings?’
Welf bowed out of the private office and began arranging the papers that had built up during his absence. One of his duties was to organise the priority of the business. It became pretty clear to him while he was sorting his desk what business the king would wish to deal with first.
‘It’s all happening so fast, sir: the naval mutiny, the kaiser fleeing to the Netherlands. Bavaria and Thuringia have declared themselves soviet republics. Berlin is in chaos.’
‘Don’t forget Poland and the Czecho-Slovak Republic. Good heavens, it’s like standing on an ice floe in a warm sea!’
Welf looked curiously at him. ‘What do you mean, sir?’
‘If you think these events are going to stop at our borders, you may well be mistaken. Revolution is as infectious as influenza, Welf.’
‘It’s not that bad in Rothenia, sir. The people have no cause to rise against you.’
‘We shall see. I’m not so confident. But we shall see.’
‘Where is Colonel Sachert?’
‘Somewhere in Berlin, though communication is difficult now. I wanted him in Dresden, which is closer to our borders. Trouble is likely to come from that direction. I’ve had General Sterlinger close the frontiers towards Bavaria and Saxony. Many members of the Bavarian and Wurtemberger royal families have arrived in Modenheim. I’m offering them Zenda as a temporary refuge. Some of the Hapsburgs have taken up residence in Rechtenberg. It’s as if the royalty of Europe is all on the move, like crowned gypsies.’
‘That reminds me of a certain other crowned head. Is there any intelligence on the whereabouts of King Albert?’
Maxim gave a small smile. ‘There is some. His headquarters was at Metz in October when one of his divisions – a Thuringian one – mutinied after the men finally got to hear what was happening back in Ernsthof. They deeply resented the way they had been kept in the dark and deceived. There was an assassination attempt, which he survived. He regained control of his corps, but with the final defeat his men stayed in camp and refused all orders. They elected commissars in place of their officers. Albert was last heard of a week ago when he left his headquarters with just a servant and an adjutant. He’s not been seen since. The rumour is that he was aiming to reach Switzerland.’
‘Do you think we’ve seen the last of him?’
Maxim shrugged. ‘He’s a refugee without friends. I hardly believe he can stir up trouble now. What we must do, however, is try to get some agenda for dealing with the new Europe. We need to find a copy of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and start to calculate how they are likely to affect the coming peace negotiations. We should talk to the British and the French about having observers there. They owe us that much, at least.’
A knock on the door heralded a footman with a message. Welf took it and read it, then passed it on to the king.
‘Send the count of Eisendorf up, Laszlo.’ The footman bowed and left. ‘Now I wonder what Gus wants. It would have to be important to bring him all the way from Hentzau.’
Gus walked in, bowed, and shook their hands. Maxim seated himself and directed Gus to an armchair, while Welf took his station at the king’s shoulder.
‘What can I do for you, Gus?’
‘Sir, I wouldn’t have bothered you, but Anton said it really is important to tell you this. Toni has left the country and returned to Berlin.’
‘What? Oh heavens! What is she up to now?’
‘It’s the call of revolution. Her friends Liebknecht and that Luxemburg woman have lured her back. She was in the city in time to hear the declaration of a republic and the extension of the vote to women. That’s what she has long dreamed of, and there it was, happening under her own eyes. She’s taken an apartment in Wilmersdorf, where Luxemburg is staying with her.’
Maxim covered his face. ‘Doesn’t Leo mean anything to her?’
‘Make no mistake, I don’t doubt he means very much to her, but she sees these days as the culmination of her life’s work. You know her and the idea of revolution, Max. She couldn’t keep away.’
‘How is Leo?’
‘Well enough, now he’s recovered from the flu, thank God. A little quieter since Pip is back home in Templerstadt, though I do miss their cheerfulness sorely. They were inseparable when they were with me. When they were seriously ill, they wanted to be in the same bed. It was so touching to see them holding hands and comforting each other with little murmurs. I was in tears most of the time. And say what you like about Toni, she was there mopping their brows and kissing them both while the fever peaked.’
‘I never doubted that she had a mother’s heart, Gus. What can I do?’
‘I know you have people in Germany, Max. I also know how good they are. I owe my freedom to them.’
‘I’m sorry, Gus. They can’t be used to protect Antonia, not now. She’s thrown herself into a pit of lions, and she is on her own. She has her rights as a Rothenian citizen to seek support from our embassy in Berlin, but that’s as far as it goes. Our intelligence agents have other concerns, the chief of them being the security of our own borders.’
Gus sighed. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Anton will not let me go to Berlin after her. He says Leo needs me, and he’s right. I can’t abandon the boy, even for his mother’s sake. But you can at least do one thing for me.’
‘You can keep me informed of anything that comes out of Berlin … good or bad.’
‘Yes, I can do that.’ Maxim ushered his old friend out and turned to Welf. ‘What do you make of such a business?’
‘No idea, sir. But when could anyone ever make sense of Antonia’s motives?’
The trouble began in Mittenheim, which was no real surprise to anyone at the Osraeum. It was actually half-expected. Even though Mittenheim was not an industrial area of Rothenia, it harboured generations of discontent with rule from Strelzen.
Once Mittenheim had been an independent German duchy ruled by its own dynasty with close family links to the Elphbergs. But its independence did not survive the Napoleonic wars. When Napoleon formed the Confederation of the Rhine, he awarded Mittenheim to his ally, Bavaria. As soon as Napoleon’s star began to wane, the Elphberg king – who had been mortally offended by the annexation – sent his army to invade and defeat Bavaria. The Congress of Vienna ratified his conquest.
Because the population was predominantly German, for most of the nineteenth century the duchy had wanted to be an autonomous part of some sort of greater Germany. The problem for Mittenheimers was that the only options were incorporation in Ruritania or Bavaria, and they did not like either possibility.
In 1848, when liberals declared against absolute monarchy all over Europe, Mittenheim revolted against Rudolf IV of Ruritania. Twelve months and much bloodshed were required to restore his rule there. In 1880, a second Mittenheimer rebellion helped destroy the chances of an Elphberg succession when the duchy rose in favour of the German Thuringians. A third rebellion was nearly as fatal to King Maxim’s chances in 1910.
Now the Mittenheimers were restless once more. Bavaria was in insurrection beyond the frontier, and revolutionaries were attempting to establish a Communist republic there. Further north, Thuringia had become a socialist commune. Bavarian and Thuringian incendiaries did not stop their activities at the Rothenian border.
The first demonstrations in the province of Mittenheim broke out at the end of November 1918. As fortune arranged it, Welf was in fact in the city at the time, meeting the governor during a fact-finding tour for the king.
The governor, a former artillery colonel and an ethnic German, was saying, ‘… the influenza epidemic seems to have hit Mittenheim harder than the rest of the country. Being more or less surrounded by Germany may have been part of it. But also there is the fact that so many more of the male population were directly affected by the war. It’s said the disease was brought into the country by Mittenheimers deserting from the kaiser’s army.’
At that moment his phone rang. Following a long, staccato conversation he slowly replaced the receiver before turning back to Welf. ‘You may have some trouble getting home. The local railway workers have walked out.’
‘Oh! Is it a local dispute?’
‘I’m afraid not. A body calling itself the Workers’ Coalition for Social Democracy has declared a general strike in the province.’
‘When did this group appear?’
‘I’d not heard of it before last week; these radical groups come and go. But this one seems to have established an ascendancy over the local unions and radicals. There is a large demonstration going on at this moment outside the local daily paper’s offices, which print workers have occupied.’
Welf frowned. ‘This outbreak seems to have taken people by surprise.’
‘In these overheated times, one can hardly be surprised at anything that happens. Insurrections have burst out all over Germany like volcanoes. My dear Von Tarlenheim, I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you. I need to meet the police commandant for the city and the local garrison commander. I rather fear there will be violence to contend with. I can have a car take you across the Ebrendt to pick up a train at Festenburg.’
‘Thank you, sir, but I’d much rather stay and observe events before I report back to his majesty.’
Welf left the governor in his office making some calls, and went outside to recover his coat and bag. It was as he was waiting for the governor on the first-floor landing of the mansion’s staircase that the large Venetian window in front of him burst into shards of sparkling glass, shattered by a volley of cobblestones. One stone, propelled by a heroic arm, smashed into the panelling above his head. Concerned faces emerged all along the corridor to his right.
Voices were shouting outside. He could not work out the words, but he rather imagined they were anti-Rothenian and anti-Maxim.
The governor walked out of his office, checking a revolver as he came. He nodded cheerfully at Welf. ‘My dear fellow, we seem to have a revolution on our hands.’
The governor stalked down the corridor, organising an evacuation of the office staff through a rear door. Then he took station with two nervous, armed policemen at the stair head. ‘You should go, Welf. This is likely to get unpleasant.’
The door burst in at that moment, shattered by a lamppost used as a battering ram. No flood of men followed it, however. Only one solitary figure entered, waving a white flag attached to a walking stick. Clearly the organisers were cautious about possible casualties.
‘I want to talk to Colonel Reuss!’ he shouted in German.
The governor called down, ‘You’re under arrest.’
The absurdity of the response caused the man to pause. ‘You can’t be serious.’
‘I’m the one with the gun; yes, I’m serious.’
Welf was in the meantime concentrating on the man. He was perhaps in his early thirties, dressed like a lawyer or an accountant. This was not a working-class Communist, but rather more like one of Antonia Underwood’s sort.
‘Well, be as serious as you want. I’m here to demand that you surrender this building and its keys to the commune of the people of Mittenheim.’
‘You’re a rebel and a traitor.’
The man flushed. ‘You are a running dog of capitalism and an instrument of bourgeois oppression. I’m proud to be a rebel against the heel of King Maxim. Rather that than a footman of a bloated and corrupt tyrant.’
Reuss gave a small smile. ‘My boy, you do at least have courage. Now run along while you can. King Maxim’s troops will soon be here.’
‘The garrison is with us. Surrender, or we will storm the place.’
Reuss looked shocked at the assertion about the troops. But he rallied. ‘You have till the count of twenty to leave through that door.’
The man glared up at them, dropped his flag and following a pause left.
Welf stared after him. ‘What now, colonel?’
‘I think it’s time you went, Welf. You have a wife and child who need you. My duty is to maintain the rule of King Maxim and the laws of Rothenia. Tell his majesty that to be a German in this land is not to be a traitor.’
‘He knows that, colonel. Now shake my hand as a faithful servant of the king. May God keep you.’
‘God save the king!’ Reuss turned to his two policemen. They were very young men, trying to be brave. ‘Now my lads, it’s time for you to earn your pay.’
Welf left by the same route as the office staff. When he reached the lane at the back of Government House, the muffled roar of the crowd came to him. He thought he heard as many as a dozen shots echoing inside the building. With that he took to his heels.
The twisting and empty streets of Mittenheim led him downward. When he got to the foot of the hill on which the small city was built, he found the bridge out of town blocked by a barricade. He stared. This revolt had evidently been carefully planned. Men were setting up sandbagged enclosures for machine-gun nests on either side of the bridge, commanding the road to Strelzen. Barricades of carts and vehicles closed off most of the approach to the bridge, and red flags were fluttering above them. The rebels were so heavily armed that Welf wondered how all this had been arranged. Despite seeing no sign of the city garrison, he spotted some men in military uniform. Had the troops indeed gone over to the revolutionaries?
He slipped unnoticed into a line of civilians queuing to cross the bridge. Seeing their papers being scrutinised, he suddenly found himself with a serious problem. His would identify him as a member of the king’s household.
Fortune aided Welf, however. As the queue shuffled forward, a drone filled the air, signalling a flight of Air Corps fighters coming in low over the city. The rebels on the bridge began firing up at them, while the civilians scattered in every direction. Taking instant advantage of the confusion, Welf ran across the pedestrian way with several others to leap down into a ditch on the far side.
He joined a group of people fleeing the city, amazed at how quickly some had decided to become refugees. He trudged alongside a Rothenian lawyer who had friends to stay with in a village a few miles down the Festenburg road. Welf introduced himself to the man, who said he had known Osku and regretted his death.
‘Why did you leave the city?’
‘This has been brewing since the outbreaks in Munich and Dresden. Behind it are generations of discontent, which turns all too easily to hatred. Speak Rothenian in public in Mittenheim and you can very soon find yourself being abused and – in some parts of the city – physically attacked.
‘Rumours run through this province like wildfire; the worst thing is that the people here will believe anything. So when they are told that the flu infection was deliberately started by the Americans to weaken and destroy the German people, they believe it. To them, poor King Maxim is a monster, out to destroy their language and their livelihoods, drive them from their homes.’
Welf reflected on all this. ‘When did the socialist agitation begin?’
‘The returning soldiers brought it, along with the influenza. There is certainly a cadre amongst the leaders which has come from Germany. They’re in close contact with Dresden and Ernsthof.’
‘It’s the centre of the agitation in southern Germany. It was the first of the states to be radicalised … not surprising considering the nature of its prince. Do you know anything about what happened to King Albert?’
‘He may be at Kassel with the new high command. There’s nowhere else he can go, unless it’s to Switzerland.’ Welf had seen the last reports from Colonel Sachert.
They walked on, the hill and spires of Mittenheim slowly shrinking behind them. When they reached the village, Welf followed his companion to the friend’s house – another lawyer as it happened. He was invited in to refresh himself. He stayed for a half hour to share the bad news from the city, before accepting the offer of a lift to the provincial border at the Ebrendt bridge.
When he got there, he thought the bridge looked more like the border of a nation. A captain and a company of Rothenian infantry had set up a command post, where the Rothenian tricolour was flapping from an improvised flagpole. The captain saluted after looking at Welf’s papers. He listened attentively to the news from Mittenheim. ‘So you think the garrison defected, sir?’
‘The rebels were deploying heavy armaments, and one or two of them were wearing army-issue steel helmets.’ The Rothenian army had adopted German-style helmets the previous year, though there was now a move to switch to a French or British pattern.
The captain nodded. ‘This is not going to be an easy campaign.’
Chancellor Beck’s response to the crisis was completely predictable. The armed forces were mobilised and ordered to crush the rebellion.
Generals Voydek and Von Tarlenheim were at the Osraeum as soon as the orders were issued from the War Ministry.
‘This is a mistake, sir, a huge mistake!’ Voydek insisted.
‘Indeed it is, gentlemen. But the orders come from the legally-constituted government of this country, which you are bound to obey.’
‘But you are the commander-in-chief, sir. You can block this.’
‘I’m afraid that is something I cannot do. The constitution allows me to appoint officers and propose reforms and other measures. I may even take the field at the head of my troops … although you know how disastrous that would be, dear friends. It is for the government, however, to determine the use of our army. The minister of war instructs the general staff in what needs to be achieved. The general staff devises ways to accomplish those goals. But I trust, gentlemen, you will do your best to carry out your orders in as humane a way as you can. How are you going to deal with the Mittenheim problem?’
Franz looked gloomy. ‘Welf was on the spot when it happened. He turned up at Festenburg yesterday, dusty and tired. He only narrowly escaped from the revolutionaries, and had some intelligence to pass on. He’s on his way back now. He thinks that much of the garrison went over to the rebels. The governor died defending the Rothenian flag, so the murdering has begun from their side, sir. Welf was told the rebels have received considerable support in weapons and manpower from across the borders. He said he believes they have wider ambitions than just Mittenheim.’
‘Please pass that information on to the government. Now tell me what it is you do propose to do.’
Voydek sighed. ‘We will do as we have been ordered. But this is civil war. In 1910 we were fighting soldiers. This time it will be civilians in arms. It can only get messy, and tragic too, I have no doubt. No one will come out of this well.
‘Sir, I urge you to make a public statement. Distance yourself from the government, so you can be an effective arbiter when the time comes.’
‘I’m sorry, Voydek, I will not be a king such as Albert was. I won’t set up alternative power structures to undermine the constitution.’
Franz growled his dissent. ‘Talk to Tildemann, sir. He may have some ideas.’
A telephone call brought the Social Democrat leader to the Osraeum the next morning. Welf was already back at his desk. Maxim met Tildemann at the door of the outer office, and ushered them both into his sanctuary. They sat in the armchairs grouped around the fireplace.
‘It’s been a while, Marcus.’
‘Yes sir. May I say how much I have admired what you have been doing, if only at a distance.’
‘I’ve been doing nothing.’
‘That’s where the heroism lies. I know what sort of man you are, and how you will have idea after idea marching through your brain. You will be full of good advice, and of course with Beck, advice, however intelligent, will be quite unwelcome. The fact that you have not yet brained the man with a paperweight is an act of supreme heroism. Sir, nature intended you to be a head of government, not a head of state.’
Welf was nodding to himself, with a sad little smile on his face.
Maxim too looked rueful. ‘So your solution is that I stand for election the next time round? I’m afraid I’m not that popular with the electorate, Marcus.’
‘It’s the nature of the press to seek to place blame. You’re a tempting target, sir, and you don’t fight back.’
Maxim held up his hand. ‘Let’s focus on the present crisis, Marcus. I want your opinion.’
Marcus Tildemann removed his pebble glasses and polished them as he gathered his thoughts. ‘I don’t have your sources of intelligence, sir, so my assessment may be defective. However, you must be aware how restless the whole country is.
‘The epidemic may not have hit us as hard as our neighbours, but it was tragic and unsettled people. The government was blamed for its failures in leadership and reaction, and you were tarred with the same brush as Beck. Nobody knew that what little was done was by your intervention. Only the people you visited in the hospitals knew of your devotion to duty, because the papers ignored your activities. You need a press secretary, sir.’
‘A member of your office who will liaise with the newspapers and make sure they get the stories you need them to hear.’
Maxim frowned. ‘That’s not a route I would go down. It smacks of conceit and boastfulness.’
Tildemann looked disappointed momentarily, before ploughing on. ‘Things are moving from the restless to the dangerous. Everyone is aware of what’s going on in neighbouring lands, especially Germany. Capitalists are in fear of Communist insurrection. The disenfranchised want their voice to be heard and their demands met. Their anxieties are converging towards an end result that can only be dangerous to those caught in the middle – like you, sir.
‘Our nation is splitting into mutually fearful camps, and now this Mittenheim sideshow is confirming everyone’s worst fears. To the capitalists, it looks like the revolution is beginning. To the proletariat, it looks like the first blow for freedom. To the Rothenians, it looks like an attempt to shatter the nation’s unity. To the Germans, it’s a response to Rothenian oppression. Myths are coiling up from the swamp of people’s fears like flammable gas, and one spark …’
Maxim put his head in his hands, then raised it. ‘Beck never does things by halves. There will be no spark. It will be more like a detonation of dynamite.’