MAXIM ELPHBERG - XXIV
‘God, Rica, it must be your turn!’
‘Shift yourself, Welf, your son wants you.’
‘How is it that he’s my son at times like this? Perhaps we should reconsider our decision about a nurse.’
Ulrica did not deign to reply to that last remark, just burrowed back down beneath the sheets.
It was early on a cold December morning. They had an arrangement by which Ulrica dealt with little Osku till two in the morning, after which the baby became Welf’s until he went to work. He wrapped himself in a thick woollen dressing gown, but still shivered. The clock said it was half past four. That was it for the night.
He put the nursery light on, reached down and picked up his crying son. Chubby and healthy-looking, Oskar Max had put on a good deal of weight since the birth. He stopped crying as soon as he felt his father’s arms around him. They went over to the window and gazed down on to an empty and dark Osragasse. As they watched, the milk cart came clopping slowly along the road.
‘Look, Osku! It’s breakfast on the way.’
His son stared at him, a sort of smile on his face – or perhaps it was wind. Welf rubbed his back. The boy’s eyes went unfocussed and he gave a burp, swaying in Welf’s arms. He still had not got complete control of his neck.
His son and heir looked at him intently but did not disagree with him. Cradling the baby, Welf took him to the living room and sat rocking in a chair for a while. The baby snuggled and drifted off again. Welf could have put him back down in his cot, but decided he liked holding the child. He stayed where he was, watching the sky grow brighter as he listened to his son’s light breathing against his chest, where he had gathered the boy into the warmth of his dressing gown.
This was a very different babyhood from his own upbringing in Templerstadt, surrounded by nurses and nannies. But he had been the son of Count Hugo and Countess Elizabeth. Little Oskar Max was the son of Welf von Tarlenheim and Ulrica Schmidt. Ulrica had her own ideas about motherhood, which did not involve a large support staff. So far, Welf was not too unhappy about things. He guessed he was getting better acquainted with his child than most men of his generation and background.
He nodded off himself, to awake a couple of hours later when Magda the maid arrived. Seeing little Osku still asleep, he carefully returned the baby to the cot before getting himself ready for work.
Ulrica was just emerging from the bedroom as he was straightening his tie in the hall mirror. They kissed briefly and she stopped him. ‘Is it today the army moves?’
‘Yes. I’m going across to Leibgardgasse, where the king will be monitoring progress with the general staff.’
‘I have a bad feeling about this.’
‘We all do, darling. The king senses it more than most.’
Welf found the olive-green cars of the royal motorcade already in the courtyard of the war ministry. He ran up the great marble stairs to the council room, with its tall windows looking out on to the gravelled expanse of Exerciser Platz. The many windows of the Guards barracks stared back across the parade ground at the ministry.
The king was seated at one end of the long polished table with General von Tarlenheim and two staff colonels. Large maps were spread out on the tabletop beyond them. Aides were manning a line of telephones along the wall. Maxim nodded at Welf, who made himself comfortable in the far corner of the room, taking notes.
Welf’s uncle Franz checked his pocket watch. ‘Voydek will have crossed the Ebrendt an hour ago. He’s sending a column of cavalry across a pontoon bridge the engineers have constructed overnight. They’ll spread out, screen the rest of the troop movements and paralyse the main roads of the province. His infantry with armoured support will follow behind the cavalry screen and surround the city in a pincer movement. It will be quick and hopefully painless. Mittenheim will be under siege before midday, if all goes well.’
The king nodded. ‘Better this way. That fool Beck wanted a direct assault on the city, which in the circumstances would have been a bloody massacre.’
Franz grimaced. ‘This way has dangers too, sire, political dangers. We can’t predict what sort of resistance we’ll meet. I don’t doubt there are diehard enthusiasts in Mittenheim who are ready to be martyrs. If the siege goes on for any length of time, I can see many possible problems emerging.’
The phone lines suddenly came alive. Some aides began delivering messages to the general while others placed coloured blocks on the map: blue for the loyalists and red for the rebels. Welf moved to the table and stood beside the king, watching the progress of the invasion with fascination.
Franz joined them. ‘We have the advantage of air observation. The Air Corps pilots are able to tell us where the rebel positions are, and we can quickly convey the information to Voydek by phone and radio telegraph. The red blocks are their forward positions between Mittenheim and the river Ebrendt. They have not pushed too far forward, as you can see. I think perhaps they have anticipated our strategy.’
In a burst of activity, aides slid some blue blocks around the edge of a red block. Franz nodded. ‘Strelicz, the general in charge of the cavalry brigades, has outflanked and cut off a garrisoned village on the main road to the city. The armour is moving up and will engage the rebels, who are in battalion strength. The infantry and the rest of the armour will outflank them and press on.’
Welf and the king retired to a side room and had a coffee, Maxim trying abstractedly to work on other, more mundane matters. At midday they were called back into the council room. The blue blocks had now approached the city of Mittenheim. The red block encountered on the road earlier was now besieged by blue.
‘What’s happened, Franz?’ asked the king.
‘The village of Volkstedt, which the cavalry isolated, is now surrounded. Rather than risk infantry casualties, Voydek has just sent in our new Torfinn traction tanks. It’s regrettable that we have to test their battle capabilities in this way. They are fast but well armoured and have the French pattern of movable turret-cannon. The enemy is armed with light artillery and heavy machine guns. They intended to make a stand there, it seems.’
Welf spoke up. ‘What will happen to the village?’ Volkstedt was where he had been offered temporary refuge on his escape from Mittenheim. It made him feel sick to think what a battle would do to that pleasant place.
‘I’m afraid it will soon be in the tragic state of those villages and towns of Flanders in the late war. I just hope the people have been evacuated. The tanks will tear through the houses and their cannon will blow any enemy positions apart.
After an hour, an aide came over to the table and, with some finality, removed the red block that had been placed on Volkstedt.
Franz looked up from his notes. ‘Volkstedt has been overrun. The rebels there fought to the death. But we have some prisoners. They’re being transported directly to the Arsenal here in Strelzen for questioning.’
‘Two tanks knocked out and their crews dead. A dozen infantry and twenty horse also dead, quite a few more wounded.’
‘How about the enemy’s casualties?’
‘God knows, but Voydek’s aide said that there was no surrender; hundreds, most likely.’
On his return to Osragasse from the war ministry, Welf found the Rudolfs Platz scattered with groups discussing the newspapers. The cafés at the square’s southeast corner were loud with politics. Welf knew enough about the people of Strelzen to realise what that meant. The temperature of his volatile city was rising.
By the time Welf reached home he had made his resolve. Ulrica was waiting for him with little Osku in her arms. After kissing his family, he sat them down and explained the situation.
‘So, darling, it is time for you to take little Osku to visit his grandparents in Templerstadt.’
He had expected her to argue, but she did not. Although she looked unhappy, she began to discuss packing. ‘How long will we be gone, Welf?’
‘Until after Christmas, probably the New Year too.’
‘What do you think is likely to happen?’
‘Rothenians can be mercurial. I wouldn’t put anything past them. I’ll get out to Templerstadt when I can. I’ll phone mother now.’
Welf was aware that Ulrica and his mother got on very well, which was a blessing in the circumstances. With all the arrangements made, he took a fond farewell of his wife and son at the Westbahnhof early the next morning. As he watched the train pull out, the knowledge that his family was safe seemed to clear the decks for an action he sensed was fast approaching. He felt somehow ready for any eventuality.
He caught a tram to the Rudolfs Platz, where he picked up a morning paper from one of the stalls under the walls of the Salvatorskirk. He deliberately selected the Strelsener Spiegel, a new campaigning tabloid at the far socialist end of the political spectrum.
The headline ran: MASSACRE IN MITTENHEIM. Pictures of ruined houses and unburied bodies were shocking enough, but most disturbing of all was the front-page call for a general strike: Workers of Rothenia! The Beck regime is out to crush dissent and our bid for freedom. The socialist cooperative of Mittenheim has stood up against the oppression of the CDP. Now it is against the wall with a bayonet at its belly! There will be no freedom while the capitalist lackey Beck and his royal puppet are in power. Reason, petitions and marches have done us no good. They take us for weaklings. Now is the time to stand, for it is our last chance. Strike for freedom! Overturn the tyranny of Maxim Elphberg!
‘Oh my God,’ murmured Welf.
There seemed to be more police on duty at the Osraeum, and the Gartengasse was sealed off at the palace end. Welf’s papers were thoroughly checked.
King Maxim was already in his office. He seemed not to have slept, though he was as neatly turned out as ever. Surprisingly, he even seemed vaguely cheerful.
‘Good morning, dear Welf.’
‘Sir, what’s happened?’
The king smiled and shrugged. ‘It looks like the end game has begun. A general strike started in Hofbau yesterday night. I expect it will spread to the capital today. As we predicted, countering the socialist rising in Mittenheim with violence has been interpreted as a move against the legitimate democratic aspirations of the rest of Rothenia. Never mind that the Mittenheimers are separatists in alliance with Red forces beyond our borders.’
‘And the army? What’s happening in Mittenheim?’
‘Voydek has cut off the city from any support. Ebersfeld too is occupied and under martial law. But I rather think that is now the sideshow. Indeed, so far as the socialist opposition is concerned, Mittenheim has been useful in drawing off the army’s strength from the rest of the country.’
‘You think we’re facing a general revolution?’
‘Yes, Welf. It’s just that Beck does not know it yet. His days are numbered.’
‘Sir, has it occurred to you that the strikers regard you and Beck as one and the same enemy?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid you’re right. I fear we face uncertain times ahead. That is why I have a particular job for you.’
Maxim produced a round box of brass and green morocco leather. ‘This is an object which must be conveyed out of the capital with all speed and discretion. A plain, unmarked car is waiting. Tomas Bernenstein will drive it, and only you two will go. Take the box to Hentzau and deliver it to the count of Eisendorf. He knows what it is and what to do with it. You, on the other hand, must forget that you ever made this trip and what you carried. Do you understand?’
‘Good. And Welf, it is not to be surrendered to anyone. You are to go armed, and it should only be taken from your dead hand.’
‘I understand, sire. I am a Tarlenheim.’
‘I know, my dear boy. I trust you completely in this.’
Welf knelt on the office floor. ‘A blessing, your majesty.’
He heard the words spoken kindly above him and felt the king’s hands resting lightly on his hair. Tears dropped on the carpet as his heart swelled with love for this noble man to whose service he was sworn. He was wiping his eyes as he rose.
‘One last thing, Welf.’
‘You are to tell your uncle August this: “He came to me last night and we talked.” Say those very words. Do you understand?’
Not trusting himself to speak, Welf nodded. He took the box, bowed and left.
Welf and Tomas drove in silence for the most part. They were too much caught up in their own thoughts.
As the car headed up the valley of the Arndt and entered the province of Husbrau, they relaxed a little. Whatever other part of the land failed the king, this was the heart of Elphberg support in Rothenia.
‘Where’s Maria now, Tomas?’
‘Max told me to send her off to Orbeck for the duration. She complained but she went. She knows something is coming, and it won’t be pleasant.’ Orbeck was the estate near Glottenburg with which the king had endowed his sister on her marriage.
‘Who’s at Hentzau?’
‘Only the count of Eisendorf, Prince Leopold and their household.’
Welf smiled. One advantage of this mission was that he would at least see his erstwhile pupil. ‘I suppose we’ll have to undergo trial by Marek, too.’
‘Ah, yes. The inimitable Marek. Somehow he always makes me feel as though I were ten years old.’
Welf grinned. It was not just he who thought that way. ‘Me too. Tomas, did you ever think that August and he …?’
‘Good heavens, no. Everyone is well aware that August and your late uncle were very much attached … I trust you know what I mean.’
‘Yes, of course. But he’s been with Baron Dönitz for so long now. It must be hard for the baron to know that a part of August will always be devoted to his predecessor.’
‘It’s different for them, I think. I’m not sure exactly how different, but something tells me that they find life as complicated as we do.’
They drove on up the broad valley of the Arndt. It was cold beneath the high, grey cloud cover, forcing both Tomas and Welf to bundle up in greatcoats and scarves. The verges were crisp with the hoary white frost that had formed in the night. With no ice on the road, however, their journey was uneventful.
Hentzau was much as it always had been. When they ascended the drive to the castle gate, Welf noted that the Elphberg banner flew over one tower and the yellow and black stripes of Thuringia, differenced with a white label for Prince Leopold, flew over the other: a nice little touch from Gus Underwood, thought Welf.
The car rumbled into the central courtyard and pulled up at the main door of the domestic range. A footman came out to usher them into the welcoming warmth of the house. There seemed more servants around than Welf remembered from his last visit, which he imagined to be Gus’s ideas of what was proper for the household of a royal prince.
‘Welf! Welf!’ A grinning Leo raced down the stairs and hugged him. Welf hugged back. The boy had become very physically affectionate since his escape from Ernsthof.
His grandfather emerged into the hall. ‘Your excellency,’ chorused both men.
‘I’ll never get used to that title,’ Gus smiled. ‘It was always addressed to Hugo and Oskar, never to me. Come in, both of you. I expect you had a cold drive, and some coffee or chocolate will warm you up, unless you wanted something stronger?’ They agreed that coffee would be fine.
Welf was carrying a leather case, which he placed carefully on the drawing room table. As he did so, he noticed Gus eyeing it.
The drinks were welcome. Leo sat on Gus’s lap – apparently his usual place of resort. They talked about friends and local events, but with Leo present, they kept off politics. Eventually Gus asked Leo to go out and get on with his school exercises. He did so reluctantly with a backward glance.
Once he had left, Welf opened the case and withdrew the box. ‘The king sent us with this, uncle. He said you would know what it is and why.’
Gus stood and sadly took it from Welf. He examined it and sighed. ‘Yes, I know what this is. I also know what its appearance here means.’
‘The king also sent a message. He told me to tell you this: “He came to me last night and we talked.” Do you know what he meant?’
‘He said no more?’
Gus suddenly went pale and sat down heavily, so abruptly that Welf moved towards him. He motioned Welf back. ‘How did the king look?’
Welf frowned. ‘Strangely cheerful in the circumstances.’
Gus nodded. ‘Then there is nothing more to say for the time being.’
Tomas intervened. ‘These are ominous hints, excellency.’
Gus stood and paced the room. ‘You two must get back to the king as soon as possible. He needs friends about him now. We’ll have a late lunch. I’ll send the car round to the stables to be filled up again with gasoline. You must be gone within the hour. Oh dear, poor Leo will be so disappointed.’
Prince Leopold was indeed disappointed, and was not much comforted when Gus said he thought Welf and Tomas would be returning soon. Welf was not left easy by that reflection either. He thought he could imagine what the circumstances of such a return might be.
It was already dark when they reached the outskirts of Strelzen. Welf had driven most of the way. It was immediately apparent that the general strike had hit the capital. The streets were dark, and candlelight glowed dimly behind the windows of the houses. The electricity workers had shut the power down.
They drove slowly to the Osraeum, which was as dark as the rest of the city. The Rudolfs Platz was scattered with groups of men, their faces pale in the beams of car headlights sweeping by them. Squads of police were stationed near the old palace and along Gartengasse.
Welf found the king still in his office. The general commanding the city garrison had come over from the Arsenal. Maxim signalled Welf to take a seat as he completed his discussions.
‘How are things, sir?’
‘The phones are still working, at least. Did you give Gus the box, and is all well at Hentzau?’
‘Yes, sir. The capital looks unsettled. Has the chancellor been in touch?’
‘Strangely, he is cutting me dead at the moment. I think he blames me for all this. He wanted the general to declare martial law and troops to take over the power station. The general came to me and I told him such a demand was unconstitutional. The guards are in their barracks and there they will stay unless and until violence breaks out.’
‘How long before you have to move against Beck, sir?’
Maxim directed a lowering look at Welf. ‘That will not happen. But I will at least no longer be offering him advice and support, since it’s a waste of my time. His problems are now his own. I don’t give him more than a week before he must resign and call elections.’
‘That surely must be a good thing?’
‘You would think so, Welf, and it may help. The present compromised electoral system is likely to produce another CDP government, but a significant shift to the left might defuse matters and open a way for reform. Tildemann thinks so, at least, and I trust his judgement.’
‘Then it will not be revolution.’
‘Hopefully not, but we are on a knife edge. There is no doubt of that. Now go home, Welf, and get some sleep. You look exhausted.’
‘If I may presume, your majesty, I would ask you to take your own advice.’
The next day was a Saturday. Some shops on the Graben opened, but they were heavily picketed. Police waded in with batons when the plate glass window of a department store was shattered by stones. The pickets were cleared and the street closed off. Few shoppers braved the sideways stares and hostility of the striking workers.
In the meantime, a large demonstration had moved up Königstrasse from the central station. Socialist activists set up a platform at the Ferdinands-Springbrunnen and the morning passed with long and passionate harangues against the government, the 1856 constitution and, of course, King Maxim. The crowd of tens of thousands seemed intent on staying all day.
The police looked on and did little more. The city commandant had taken the king’s advice and not the chancellor’s.
Welf was despatched during the afternoon to attempt to open communications with the chancellor’s office on Parlement Platz. He was deliberately kept waiting in the outer hall by an embarrassed civil servant, who brought him tea and biscuits at regular intervals as some sort of atonement for the rudeness to the king’s envoy.
After two hours, Welf was called over to a side office by a supercilious parliamentary secretary. When Welf coolly took a seat without asking the man’s permission, he was met by a look of intense dislike.
‘Herr von Tarlenheim, what can I do for you?’
‘The king would like to know the chancellor’s intentions in the present circumstances.’
‘His majesty is expecting Chancellor Beck’s resignation and is readying his response.’
‘Resignation! My dear man, the chancellor has no such intention.’
Welf raised an eyebrow in disbelief. ‘With a general strike in progress and a rebel province barely restrained from anarchy by our army, I cannot see that he has much choice if he wishes to restore peace.’
‘I think you will find the government has many options open to it. Not only that, it will not show weakness at such a time, with the right to hold property under threat across Europe. Weakness would lead to anarchy!’
‘The king believes the demand for reform is not unreasonable, and an election now would act as a referendum to indicate the nation’s thoughts and feelings on the subject.’
The man flared at Welf. ‘His majesty can go to the devil!’
Welf was perfectly cool. He stood and struck the man a backhanded blow across the face. His nose spurting blood, the man fell back astonished in his seat. Welf gave him a considering look. ‘Now, my dear sir, Bila Palacz is across the road, and I’m sure we can find swords or pistols close by. I am perfectly at your disposal.’
The man had his hand to his face. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Sir, are you a gentleman or a villain? You have insulted the king my master to my face. Clearly you must apologise or pay for it in your blood.’
‘God damn you, Tarlenheim, these are not the middle ages. Duels belong to another era. You can’t be …’
‘Oh, I’m deadly serious. A moment.’ He opened the door and called in the desk attendant who had provided him with tea. ‘This gentleman – I use the term loosely – has in my hearing cursed his majesty the king. I have called him out and it appears that he will not offer satisfaction. Do you find his actions in any way reasonable?’
The civil servant smiled. ‘I do not, sir. He must clearly offer satisfaction, and I will be very happy to second him.’
Welf smiled in his turn. ‘Good. Now, my dear sir, what do you have to say?’
Beck’s underling sat sweating and red-faced, his mouth hanging open. Welf looked expectantly at him. Eventually he faltered out, ‘Obviously … ah … if I said anything which might be construed as in any way insulting or … ah, objectionable … yes, objectionable, to a servant of the king’s, you must consider it to have been said in the heat of the moment. I … apologise.’
Welf’s smile broadened. ‘You will of course advise Chancellor Beck of the king’s requirement.’
‘Then I wish you good day.’
The king laughed at Welf’s account of his adventure until the tears came. ‘Still, Welf, I think we now see how we are regarded in the ministries. But what does Beck think he can do? All will no doubt be clearer tomorrow.’
On Sunday the crowds increased in the Rudolfs Platz. Welf did not bother going home. He had brought changes of clothing from the apartment in Osragasse.
The government posted proclamations banning public assemblies, which were ignored. The police chose to keep out of things, since the military was not going to back them up.
Maxim waited all day for the government’s resignation, but did so in vain. On Monday, Strelzen and all the other cities of Rothenia were paralysed. There were no trains, trams or buses. The postal workers and power workers failed to report to their jobs, and the shops stayed closed.
The middle classes became uneasy. The more liberal and energetic of them joined the workers and helped organise. The conservatives and reactionaries began counter-demonstrations, mobilising to run buses, deliver supplies and break the strikes.
The week dragged on. By Thursday, significant numbers of police had joined the demonstrators and the government’s hold on affairs had collapsed. Battles between the sides had begun in the large industrial cities of Hofbau and Zenden, though the capital remained as yet calm, if uneasy.
The minister of war arrived at the Osraeum late on Thursday afternoon. Welf ushered him into the king’s office. Marcus Tildemann was already there.
The minister looked darkly at the SDPR leader. Maxim gestured at Tildemann. ‘The professor is here in his capacity as a member of the Staatsrath. How can I help you, minister?’
‘Sir, it’s come to the point where the army has to be used to restore order. We can’t count on the police. It’s military intervention or anarchy.’
Tildemann’s normally serene face formed into something very like a scowl. ‘There is an alternative, though it’s getting late for it. Resign and call elections. That will defuse the general strike.’
‘What? And give the anarchists and Reds the victory? You’re mistaken if you think they’ll stop at that, Tildemann. Your majesty, the generals refuse to make a move without your order. The time has come to act!’
Maxim looked the man over coolly. ‘So you’ve tried ordering them without my consent?’
The minister shot him a furious look, but kept his peace.
‘I will not order the army to intervene. What I will do is dismiss Beck myself.’
‘What! That’s not constitutional!’
‘The lawyers can argue about it. Tell Beck he is dismissed, and I myself am calling the elections.’
The minister glared at Maxim, turned on his heel and stalked from the office. Welf saw him out and then returned.
The king was saying, ‘The only problem is how I’m to communicate this to the people. Suggestions, Marcus?’
‘That’s actually quite difficult, sir. The state print shop is closed and the newspapers aren’t publishing. The telephone system is down most of the time now. I’ll get my party members on it, however. We’ll pass the word, then maybe the editors will pick it up, the Ruritanischer Tagblatt is still sympathetic to you. But it may well be tomorrow before the good news spreads.’
‘I’ll leave it to you, Marcus. In the meantime, Welf will get in touch with the city police authorities. The problem will be the government. I may have to evict the ministers from Parlement Platz and the only way I can do that is by using the guards. It’ll look like a coup.’
‘Are the guards reliable?’
‘Yes, the status report from General Sterlinger says they are loyal. They may be sympathetic to the people, but they know me well enough to be aware that my sympathies run in the same direction.’
‘Would that all the people knew that. Sir, you had best leave Beck and his cronies in the ministry buildings for now. They are harmless if no one listens to them.’
Friday proved Marcus Tildemann wrong.
Welf woke early that morning. He dressed and went into the secretariat, where a lady typist was already at her desk. The palace staff had refused to strike. A simple breakfast was being laid out in the private dining room. Food was still getting through to the city, though not in great quantities.
The ringing phone pulled Welf back into the king’s outer office. It was the commandant of the Hofbau garrison, who was almost incoherent. Unfortunately, as Welf was persuading him to slow down, the line was cut off. Welf would have discounted the call had he not caught enough of it to be alarmed. It sounded to him as though the city was under attack. His first thought was that the revolutionary mob had turned on the military.
King Maxim arrived shortly, and Welf briefed him. Soon afterwards, General von Tarlenheim and several staff officers were announced. The general, breathing heavily, was looking unusually flustered. That in itself disturbed Welf more than anything else. He had never seen his uncle flustered before.
‘Take a seat, Franz. What on earth is going on?’
The general declined to sit. ‘It’s that devil Beck! The reactionary press has gone into action and declared that you have attempted a coup. Of itself that would not matter, as the elections might have sorted the truth out, but we underestimated him … my God, how we underestimated him!’
‘Sachert arrived in Strelzen late last night. He had news that Beck has been in secret negotiation with the German high command at Kassel. The German generals are organising what they call the Freikorps, volunteer counter-revolutionary battalions, very heavily armed. They’re letting them loose on the Reds throughout Germany and some are engaged in Poland. Beck made a deal with the Germans and last night counter-revolutionary mercenaries, even some armour, crossed the frontier to occupy Hofbau and most of the province of Merz. They claim to be in support of the legitimate elected government.’
Maxim looked strangely calm. ‘Our men?’
‘Overrun. They captured our airfield too. The Air Corps is out of it.’
Welf’s heart lurched. His brother Henry was stationed at Hofbau.
The king frowned. ‘Where’s Voydek?’
‘In a three-way battle with Reds and Freikorps around Mittenheim. There’s no solid news. Even he’s been wrong-footed, and I never thought I’d hear myself say that.’
‘He’s fled the city and gone to join the Freikorps, I would guess.’
Maxim looked cool. ‘Then he is a traitor. Welf, get Tildemann over here as soon as you can. Franz, I need some military options.’
Tildemann arrived, looking bewildered. Maxim sketched in the background for him. ‘Marcus, I’m appointing you chancellor of a government of national unity. I doubt it’s constitutional, but it’s the best we can do. Do you accept?’
The other had rallied, and nodded.
Maxim continued, ‘What can you do?’
Tildemann considered for a moment before replying. ‘I’ll form a ministry of sorts from the liberals, moderate socialists and loyal CDP – I don’t think Beck will have everyone’s support in his party by any means. Then I’ll address the people in the Rudolfs Platz. They were already gathering when I arrived there. May I use the balcony of the old palace? I’ll need loudspeakers set up.’
‘Thank you, Marcus. I knew I could count on you.’
The professor bowed and took his leave. His face was very bleak.
The general strike in Strelzen faltered and died that morning, as men turned up for work seeking news. The power came on all over the city and the trams began running. The police were back on the job and some shops were open. The Rudolfs Platz was a seething mass of people, pressing up to its north end in front of the royal palace, where Chancellor Tildemann would make his speech.
At midday, Tildemann and his leading supporters appeared on the balcony, which was draped with the national tricolour. There was no cheering, just a feeling that the great crowd was straining forward to hear what the man was going to say – or so it seemed to Welf, sitting in the room behind the balcony making notes on the king’s behalf. The square fell eerily silent.
Tildemann’s magnified voice echoed back from the buildings of the great square. ‘Citizens of Strelzen, we are at the crossroads of freedom. A long and weary road has brought us here: a road paved with disappointment and broken promises, haunted by the footpads of oppression who wished to steal what little liberty we had. Now they would murder our nation also. This must not be!
‘The man Beck has revealed himself as a foul traitor to our land and our king. He has allied with foreign invaders in a desperate bid to keep power for himself and his paymasters. If he succeeds, you may say farewell to the freedom won so hard by our forefathers.
‘Hofbau and Ebersfeld are gone, Merz and Mittenheim are occupied. Foreign troops march on Strelzen as I speak. Our army is reeling, but fights grimly on. Little stands between us here and their guns. Yet a road still lies open to us, a hard and dangerous road, but one which leads to a different place. If we resist these invaders and take our fate in our own hands, we can defeat them. We can build our nation anew.
‘Let all reservists report to the Arsenal. Take up your weapons and fight for liberty. They shall not take this city while a single free Rothenian stands. For freedom!’
And the cry, ‘For freedom!’ rolled up the square again and again. A tide of men began moving away towards the great military depot below the hill of the Altstadt.
Welf in the meantime walked quickly over to the war ministry. He found Maxim looking uncomfortable in uniform, occupying the minister’s office.
‘How did he do?’
‘As brilliant an orator as ever,’ Welf replied. ‘Reservists as old as sixty went trooping off down to the Arsenal at his call.’
‘The man’s a marvel.’
Franz and other senior officers entered at this point, bringing maps. Franz had regained his accustomed composure. He looked at the king. ‘We have the Guards division to throw between the enemy and the capital. Reservists are flocking to the flag, although it will be days before effective units can be formed and officered. I have ordered a further division up from Rechtenberg. That’s the only reserve we have. The troops in Husbrau and Ranstadt are already engaged with Freikorps mercenary units, and cannot be spared.’
‘What about Voydek and his corps?’
‘Gone, so far as we can tell. There has been no communication with the army in Mittenheim since last night. We must assume he was surrounded and swamped by the enemy. He had almost all of our armour with him. The Air Corps was destroyed on the ground.’
Maxim went over to the window. ‘What can be done to defend the capital?
‘The guards, engineers and reservists are already at work digging entrenchments along the Spa hills. We have heavy artillery at the Arsenal, though not enough gunners to man all the batteries.’
Welf suddenly had a question. ‘Who commands the enemy? This seems to be the work of an experienced general.’
Franz looked at his men and at the king. ‘Sachert had some intelligence to offer. He says that the high command delegated the task to the one German general who could head an invasion of our land with some pretence of legitimacy. The Freikorps are led by Lieutenant General, the King of Ruritania and Duke of Thuringia.’
In the pause succeeding that announcement, Welf became aware of the ministry’s windows rattling to the boom of distant concussions. He looked at his uncle, who nodded.
‘Yes, Welf, that is the sound of artillery. It is battle you hear.’
‘Are you sure about this, sir?’
‘God knows I can’t do much good militarily, but at least I can go and show my support for these men and their sacrifice.’
The king was getting into one of his cars. Welf was dubious as to his reception by the troops dug in beyond the Spa hills. He was also worried at the growl of artillery, louder now in the west.
‘I’m coming too, sir.’
Maxim smiled. ‘Very well, but keep out of trouble. You’re not a soldier, Welf, you’re a scholar.’
The car pulled off and, preceded by an armoured car, drove south on Wenzelgasse to Lindenstrasse, then along to the Spa. As the road began climbing the ridge, they heard much louder cannon fire behind them.
Tomas Bernenstein, back in uniform, looked through the car’s rear window. ‘That’s the heavy artillery which has been set up in Bila Palacz. The guards are calling down a barrage on the approaching enemy.’
‘How close is the enemy going to be now, Tomas?’
‘The 240mm heavy howitzers from the Arsenal have a range of thirty miles. Almost all the way to Hofbau.’
The first troops they encountered were reservists lining the road at the Spa lodge. They still wore the old blue Ruritanian uniforms, but they had been issued with steel helmets and gas masks. They stared curiously at Maxim as he left his car. The officers saluted, seeing the general’s uniform.
When the king walked along the line, stopping now and then to shake hands and make affable comments, Welf could not but notice that the men did not smile at him, but for the most part stood stiffly and replied abruptly. Maxim, however, was a politician born. Whatever signals he picked up, he did not let his apprehension show in his face.
They drove up over the Spa ridge and down into the rolling countryside beyond. Within a couple of miles, they came upon the Guards division digging in, where the reception was very different. The king’s appearance brought smiling soldiers around his car. Some units raised cheers, and his hand was wrung enthusiastically by officers and men alike.
General Sterlinger met Maxim at a forward post. He and his staff were scanning the countryside with binoculars. Pickets of the Guard Hussars were moving forward, looking to find the enemy. They wore khaki battledress, with steel helmets on their heads and rifles slung over their shoulders. Thick smoke curled up over a distant hill where the artillery from Strelzen was pounding an enemy position.
‘Sir, we’ve dug double lines of trenches, and are as ready as we can be. The line extends down to the Starel to our north. There is a fortified hill on the other side of the river which will be difficult to outflank. Now it seems …’
The general’s comment was lost in the howl of incoming shells from the west. Welf ducked as the earth spouted up in every direction, then fell rattling down on them all.
‘Time to move to the rear, your majesty.’
‘God be with you, Sterlinger.’
‘God save the king.’ The officers removed their helmets as Maxim returned to his car, to be taken with Tomas and Welf back to the Spa. Maxim refused to go any further, instead looking out at the rising columns of smoke to the west, and the white bursts of shells exploding in the sky above the hills. The artillery fire from the city behind them was continuous now, while the Freikorps howitzers were sending a plunging fire down on to the Rothenian trenches below them.
A deafening explosion to their right told where a stray shell had crashed into the abandoned Spa buildings. It was a while before Welf’s ears stopped ringing.
The day grew old. The sun was setting behind them before Maxim agreed to drive back to the city.
On their return, he instructed Welf that the time had come to box up his confidential papers and send them on to Hentzau. Others should be destroyed.
Groups of worried civilians stood around in the streets, listening to the sound of battle coming from beyond the western ridge. There was a red glow under the smoke clouds which had grown in the evening sky.
Welf slept fitfully that night, his dreams alarmingly vivid. He stood on the Altstadt, black war clouds streaming out of the west towards him. An enemy army was in the streets and the Neustadt was alight. He was not alone, he knew, but could not quite determine who his neighbour was. He awoke sweating.
The dull crump of artillery could still be heard. The battle for the city was continuing. Even in his bedroom high in the Osraeum, Welf could smell the whiff of cordite in the air. He washed and dressed quickly.
The city continued its uneasy pace outside the palace windows. Within, the building was alive with activity. Secretaries were boxing papers, and a bonfire was consuming many of them in the garden.
The king was up, cheerful and neatly dressed in the black suit he always found more comfortable than uniform. ‘Good morning, Welf.’
‘Did you sleep well, sir?’
‘I dozed a little on the office sofa. Things have been busy. The embassies are leaving for Rechtenberg, so they seem to have drawn a pessimistic conclusion of our chances. The trains to the east are still moving. Other people who can are leaving also.’
‘How is the military situation?’
‘We have lost contact with the army in Merz and Modenheim. Enemy cavalry patrols have been seen as far east as Strelfurt. The guards are under heavy attack all along the line, but the sixth division is now deploying behind them. Your uncle Franz believes the line will hold for the time being, though we are outnumbered. The enemy seem to have concluded that our troops aren’t going to capitulate, since they have requested talks.’
‘There will be a ceasefire from ten o’clock. We will meet their envoys at the Spa.’
‘I wonder what they will have to say.’