MAXIM ELPHBERG - XXV
The sudden silence of the guns in Bila Palacz and beyond the Spa Hills was eerie. Other sounds emerged, bird song and distant traffic.
‘Right on time,’ Welf observed, checking his watch.
‘Then off we go to meet Albert and his friends.’ For some reason, Maxim was jocular. Maybe it was the hope of a peaceful settlement, but somehow Welf thought there was more to it.
The palace cars deposited Maxim and his staff at the Spa buildings. The weather had brightened, though it had also got colder. Maxim had on a thick coat with an astrakhan collar. His silk hat was jammed tight on to his head. Chancellor Tildemann was bundled up warmly, a scarf across his face. The military men were in greatcoats.
Twenty minutes later, a detachment of Guard Dragoons approached from the west, escorting two cars flying Thuringian flags. Welf was intrigued to be meeting King Albert once more. He wondered if he would be recognised in the present circumstances. He resolved to keep in the background.
Albert was in his German general’s uniform, glittering with insignia and Prussian decorations. His staff were all Germans. With him were Beck and the former CDP foreign minister. No one offered to shake hands.
General von Tarlenheim ushered everyone into the abandoned Spa restaurant, where soldiers had clearly been at work. A coal fire was burning in the hearth and tea things had been laid out.
White-jacketed stewards took coats and served out the tea. There was no conversation between the parties. The Rothenians occupied one end of a table, the Germans the other.
Franz finally tapped the table, taking it upon himself to open proceedings. ‘Gentlemen, we have only a few hours to make some sort of arrangement. I would ask King Albert’s party to state their terms for an end to hostilities.’
Beck spoke up, glaring at Maxim. ‘Our terms are simple. The abdication of Maxim Elphberg and the restoration of the legally-elected CDP government.’
Franz raised an eyebrow. ‘If King Maxim stands down, who is to succeed him?’
‘Either King Albert will be restored, or he will act as regent for his son, King Leopold II.’
Tildemann joined in. ‘What assurances will you offer about proper constitutional rule and the reform of the franchise?’
Beck shrugged. ‘We will maintain the constitution of 1856. Too much has already been offered to the incendiaries and radicals … and look what has happened.’
Maxim stirred himself. ‘And if we reject these terms?’
Beck looked towards Albert. The Thuringian seemed very amused and added his own comments. ‘I think General von Tarlenheim will tell you that the situation for your army is deteriorating. You are outnumbered and we have yet to launch our main offensive. With the arrival of our tank squadron, you will find it very difficult to maintain your defence. It would be best to negotiate now, while you still have something to negotiate with.’
Maxim gave his rival a considering look. ‘Your concern for the lives of Rothenians is quite touching.’
Albert’s smile took on a more sarcastic edge. ‘Believe what you want, cousin. The sort of war through which I have just fought my way gives a man a distaste for slaughter. I’ve seen enough of it for several lifetimes.’
Maxim answered with a look of contempt. ‘And just think … you started learning that valuable lesson right here, when you put Strelzen’s Third District to the torch.’
Albert chose to let that comment pass.
Franz rapped the table once more. ‘We need a time for private discussion. Fifteen minutes, gentlemen.’
Maxim and his advisers took a side table. ‘What is the significance of the arrival of this tank squadron?’ asked the king.
Franz answered. ‘He means that he has a dozen or so of the German Großkampfwagen, large, land battle cruisers. They’re infuriatingly slow machines, but heavily armed, with a crew of twenty-seven. They will simply roll over our lines. We have nothing that will stop them, other than a lucky shot from a cannon, and perhaps not even that.’
‘Damn. Then it’s as serious as he implies.’
‘Yes it is. Sir, we have two courses of action open to us. We can capitulate on the terms they suggest …’
‘Never!’ Tildemann interjected.
‘… or we can pull back to Hentzau and gather reinforcements from Glottenburg and Tirolen for a counterattack.’
Maxim looked appalled. ‘That will mean abandoning Strelzen.’
‘There really is not much choice. The Thuringian is quite right. If the battle spills into the city, the place will suffer a lot more than it did in 1910.’
‘That is your considered advice?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, but yes, it is.’
Tildemann was shaking his head. ‘No! That would be a terrible betrayal of the people, of all those thousands of men who leaped to its defence with no thought for themselves.’
Franz countered. ‘A massacre of patriots helps no one – and it will be a massacre, once those machines begin rolling towards our trenches. So then they will be dead, and still Strelzen will fall to Albert’s troops.’
Maxim gave a tight smile. ‘Those who fight and run away … eh, Franz?’
‘That about sums it up.’
Maxim sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Franz, but I agree with Marcus. One of his American heroes said that the tree of liberty needs to be watered with the blood of patriots from time to time. I think that failing to fight for Strelzen would be far worse than retreating and losing it anyway. It would say we have nothing we thought worth fighting for. But we do. We fight for the freedom of our citizens to direct their affairs without bullying and corruption. So make your dispositions and prepare to resist.’
Maxim stood and returned to the table. He nodded at the delegation and said, ‘Gentlemen, we fight. Return to your troops. You may take the capital, but it will not be without heavy loss.’
‘You bloody fool, Elphberg,’ cursed Beck.
Maxim bowed. ‘Then so much the worse for this land. One way or another, it will be rid of me soon enough.’
Maxim strapped on his pistol belt, took out the Mauser and checked the magazine. ‘No, Welf. This is where your service to me ends. Go to Hentzau, tell Gus what’s happening and stay with little Leo.’
The king had resumed his uniform, and this time not for ceremonial reasons. He had just condemned a large part of the remainder of his army to death, and he felt he would be a villain if he didn’t stand with them. He would fight with the foot guards, as his ancestors had done before him. He strapped a steel helmet to his head and a sword to his thigh.
Reaching for Welf’s hand, he hesitated, then embraced his friend. ‘Now off with you. You have your instructions, and this is not the time to disobey them. If you hear certain news that I am dead, tell Gus he is to declare Leopold king, and he is himself to assume the post of regent of Rothenia. Our signallers are conveying those same instructions to the provincial governors and remaining garrison commanders.’
Maxim turned to Franz. ‘Now, dear old friend, here’s your last chance to make a soldier out of me.’
Franz nodded. ‘You are a brave man, sire. And to be sure, that’s the main thing. Very well. Tomas will take you down to Colonel Piotrehrad and you can fight with his staff. It will not be a long wait. Those plumes of dust over the hill there are the German tanks. Just our luck that the ground is hard and dry – perfect tank weather.’
Tomas von Bernenstein showed him something: a furled flag.
‘What’s this, Tomas?’
‘Sire, your forebears fought under this banner, and though these are the latter days when death is dealt out by remote machines, still there is a place for honour on the field.’ He unfurled the royal banner, golden as the sunlight and red as blood.
Maxim reached up to the flag and took a fold of it in his hands. ‘I may not have ruled this land as well as an Elphberg could, but damn it if I can’t die like the best of them. Gentlemen, God’s blessing on us all.’
King Maxim, Tomas and an escort of dismounted Life Guards headed down the ridge to find the foot guards’ position.
‘A great man, Welf.’ His uncle took him by the shoulder.
‘Greater than his people will ever know, and there’s the tragedy.’
‘It’s the times we live in. Now it’s your task to get going. You have your instructions. God save the king!’
Welf echoed the words. The same car that had brought the king’s uniform up from the Osraeum drove him back down into the city. As it turned on to Festungstrasse, the first detonations from the batteries in Bila Palacz shook the ground. Reservists were setting up sandbagged machine-gun posts on the street corners and looking uneasily to the west.
There was a stream of traffic heading out of the city when they got to König Heinrichstrasse. Cars, wagons and even people with handcarts were making their way to the safety of the surrounding villages. Grim-faced parents walked stolidly eastward clutching or carrying their children, all wrapped in coats and scarves against the winter. Across the Arsenal bridge, the refugee column stretched a mile already into the countryside.
Once the palace car was free of the crowd, the driver accelerated as far as he could. Exhausted and depressed, Welf sagged in the back. He dozed while the car ate up the miles on the high road to Hentzau, awaking only when they were approaching the Hentzenheide.
The peaceful winter landscape was a stark contrast to what Welf knew was happening west of Strelzen, where by now the king might be lying dead in a trench. The thought gave him a sharp pang of loss. And what of Strelzen itself? Were shells raining death on that beautiful city, which he so loved? And his family? Templerstadt was too close to the German border, well within range of raiding mercenaries. He had heard nothing for days.
Hentzau approached. Welf noticed Rothenian troops in the town. At a roadblock on the castle drive, a captain checked his papers, then saluted and waved him through.
Two eight-year-old boys were at the castle gate, playing guards. Pip and Leo presented arms with their wooden rifles as Welf stopped the car and got out. ‘Uncle Welf!’ shouted Pip the moment he saw who it was, before he and Leo hurled themselves at him.
‘Good heavens! What are you doing here? Are your mother and sister here too?’
‘Yes, uncle, and grandpapa and grandmama. We came over two days ago, when Henry arrived at Templerstadt.’
‘Henry’s here? Oh thank God!’ Welf had never imagined he could be so delighted to see his brother.
Leaving the car at the gate and telling the driver to bring in the baggage, Welf led the boys by the hand into the castle. There on the steps he discovered Ulrica and baby Osku. He let go the boys’ hands and raced to his wife and child. It was quite a while before he let them loose from his embrace, and by then a lot more people were around him.
Gus was beaming. ‘Come along in, Welf. I imagine you have news for us.’
They sat round the drawing room as coffee and breakfast were found for the traveller. Osku was cradled in his father’s arms. Ulrica sat next to him, her hand in his. Henry von Tarlenheim looked little the worse for wear, though he was out of uniform.
‘So what happened, Henry?’
His brother gave a relaxed chuckle. ‘I was in the city of Hofbau when the Freikorps arrived. They sent cavalry ahead and swept into the air base. There was not a thing anyone could do, the move was so unexpected. So all our planes and pilots were taken without a blow. It was a clever piece of strategy. Who’s their commander?’
‘It’s King Albert.’
‘What?’ came the chorus from Welf’s audience.
Gus frowned. ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’
Henry continued, ‘Say what you like about the old tyrant, he knows how to fight a war. Where was I? Oh yes, I was in a bar in Hofbau when all this screaming and what have you began outside. It was the CDP supporters, rioting in the city centre. They’d been getting steadily more and more aggressive and had engaged in pitched battles with the Communists. Once the Freikorps reached the city, the CDP started on their rivals with a vengeance. Blood was running down the gutters when I walked out of the bar on to the city square. There was nothing I could do. I wasn’t even in uniform. So I got out quick.
‘The Freikorps had already ringed Hofbau with checkpoints, while Beck’s thugs fought it out with the Communists. They weren’t letting people leave, but I got under the ring road through a drain and out into the country. It took me a full day to reach Templerstadt. I even had to swim the river as the bridges were all guarded.’
Countess Sissi patted her son on his knee. ‘He was a scarecrow when he arrived home. He persuaded us to leave, saying mercenaries were moving across Ober Husbrau towards Strelsfurt and we were in danger as known supporters of King Maxim. We made it to Strelfsurt, which is strongly held by our troops, and from there the trains were still operating across to Eisendorf and down to Hentzau. Dear August has given us refuge.’
Gus nodded. ‘I’m always glad to see good friends. Besides, Leo was delighted to have his best friend and cousin back here. But we must know what has been happening in the capital. We heard it’s under attack.’
Welf began his story, and watched the looks of concern being replaced with intense anxiety.
Helga got up when she heard Welf’s account of Maxim’s farewell. She left the room, her mother going out after her.
Count Hugo had Pip on his lap. ‘Now that, my boy, is how a king should act. Remember it.’
‘Do you think he’s alright, grandpapa?’
Gus likewise had a very troubled Leo sitting with him. Leo looked up at his grandfather. ‘I don’t want to be king, grandfather.’
‘No, Leo, why not?’
‘I don’t think I could be as brave as that. Besides, King Maxim would have to be dead, and I don’t want him to be.’
Gus hugged the boy close. ‘None of us want that, darling.’
Hentzau was presently the headquarters for Major-General Lamia, commander of the eighth division and a protégé of Voydek’s. He came calling on the castle as soon as he heard that Welf was there. ‘Any news of General Voydek?’
‘None. Everything went quiet the day the Freikorps crossed the frontier. My uncle Franz thought he must have been encircled in his own turn as he was besieging Mittenheim.’
The general frowned. ‘What was happening when you left the capital?’
Welf told what he knew.
‘His majesty is a brave man, and a true Elphberg. If he is to die, then at least he has died as a king should, at the head of his troops defending his realm.’
‘Have you heard any more?’ asked Welf.
‘There is still radiotelegraph communication with the war ministry, so the capital resists. But my signallers tell me that the radio traffic is all directed towards the corps headquarters at Strelsfurt or towards your uncle’s position beyond the Spa Hills, where the fight continues. I’m eager to march, but I’m here to hold the Murranberg and protect Eisendorf.
‘We’ve managed to scrape together two squadrons of our Torfinn Mark 4 tanks from vehicles in the workshops for service and those at the end of the assembly line. I’m sending them off to the capital today with makeshift crews in hopes they’ll do some good.’
‘That’s excellent news, general. They may get there in time to be of help.’
‘I think so. They’re formidable machines. A lot faster and more manoeuvrable than those German monsters King Albert has, but still packing a punch. Voydek’s designs, you know.’
‘The man was a genius.’
‘Was? My dear Tarlenheim, I’ve known Alfons Voydek for twenty years. If I’ve learned one thing about him in all that time, it is that you should never, ever underestimate him.’
The general took his leave, promising to send up any news to the castle as soon as he heard anything.
Welf paced the lounge a while, then picked up the phone. He dialled the local exchange, only to be told there were currently no through calls to the capital. The telephonist didn’t know why the lines were down.
Welf went out into the hall, where he ran into Henry, buttoning up his uniform jacket. ‘Where are you off to?’
‘I’m a pilot without an aircraft, Welf. But I was a cavalry officer before, so I’m reverting to one now. General Lamia’s given me a section of tanks to command.’
‘Have you ever even been in a tank?’
‘Not really, but the sergeant does all the hard work. I just tell him where to go. We’re dreadfully short of troops. So it’s a matter of needs must and the devil driving. The Torfinns are being loaded on the railway at Eisendorf this minute. I can pick up the train at Hentzau Junction where it’s stopping for water.’
‘May I come with you to the train?’
Henry gave a smile, not at all the brash and superior smirk that was Welf’s usual memory of him. It was a friend’s smile. ‘Come along then, brother. You can wave me off with a handkerchief.’
As they left the castle, Welf blurted out, ‘I thought you might be dead, Henry. And I found I couldn’t stomach the idea.’
‘It’s Osku’s death, Welf. You two were close, I know. It hit you hard.’
‘Yes, but what hit just as hard was the thought that I might lose you too – and Henry, I realised I barely knew you. Of course I knew the irritating and competitive brat you were …’
‘Why thank you.’
‘… but not the man you have grown into. I felt robbed.’
‘We’ll have time, Welf. I’m strangely optimistic about this business. The king, Tildemann, Uncle Franz, Voydek, they’re all special men. Something good will come out of this.’
They walked in silence to the station. Henry smoked a cigarette as they waited, talking about Templerstadt and the futures they would like.
‘So what will you do after all this, Welf?’
‘Once the country is settled, you mean? I would like to carry on my work for King Maxim.’
‘But you can’t be a secretary for ever. You have your own work.’
‘Which doesn’t pay a pfennig. No, it’s my business to earn a living for Rica and my own little Osku. I couldn’t go back to Templerstadt to live.’
‘You will one day.’
‘But that’s the future, and a long way in the future too, I hope. Perhaps I’ll finish my project with Dr Gasse at Ernsthof, and go for an academic position.’
‘Do that, Welf. I have a feeling that a very different Rothenia is our future.’
‘Why do you say so?’
‘I hear the soldiers talking. Most of them respect Maxim, who’s been good to the army and run it well. But they know the civilians think of him in the same light as that oaf Beck. The people sympathise with the socialists and Communists who promise them a new and more just world. The people want the vote and other things besides: pensions, some measure of health care, unions, and fair wages. They have no confidence that the king can help them. They want a republic.’
‘The name of Elphberg means nothing to them?’
‘To the nobility, maybe, and of course to the army, but the country in general has lost faith. Maxim didn’t stand up for them. He stood up for the constitution when he refused to rein in Beck and push for reforms.’
‘My God! Have they no idea of the things he did, what he had to put up with?’
‘Of course not. No one has ever told them that story.’
So the day came to a close without much further news. What little filtered to Hentzau was not encouraging. General Lamia dropped in at teatime with the news from his telegrapher that shells had hit the university and parliament as the Freikorps artillery tried to target the batteries in Bila Palacz.
‘Any news of the king?’ Gus asked.
‘None at all.’
Baron Dönitz arrived from Pietersburg before the winter night began. He encountered Welf as he entered the house.
‘Sir, how are you?’ Welf had always felt an affinity for Dönitz, though he couldn’t say why with any ease. It might have been because the man was withdrawn, as Welf was, but obviously highly intelligent. Perhaps it had been his kindness which had impressed Welf most as a boy. He had been one of the few adults Welf had been able to chat to with any ease. Welf remembered the baron for a man who always addressed him as an equal in conversation.
‘Glad to be here, Welf, thank you. I got back to Pietersburg from Prague only yesterday.’
‘I’m one of the commissioners to transfer imperial assets to the new Czecho-Slovak government. “An undertaker of empire,” is what your uncle August calls me.”
‘How is the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire affecting you, sir?’
‘Oh, August and I saw it coming some time ago. We transferred many of our assets and directorships to Switzerland and Strelzen. We still keep the controlling interest in the Iron Gates railway and canal. I have hopes that the new Hungarian government will manage to maintain stability.’
‘Are you back for long?’
‘Until the resolution of this mess. Welf, dearly as I love King Maxim, this crisis was avoidable. He should have moved against Beck months ago. There were enough scandals to use as justification. With the fall of Germany and Austria, international opinion would have been muted.’
‘I know all that sir. So did the king, and still he would not do it. He was not blind. He just dreaded being seen as no better than King Albert. He would not take any action unless it was sanctioned by the constitution.’
‘But in the end he had to dismiss Beck just the same.’
‘That’s being wise after the event, sir.’
‘I honour his scruples. I’ve never met so pure a political idealist; alas that politics is not a place for purity.’
‘Were there more Maxim Elphbergs, politics might be a calling fit for a gentleman.’
‘Don’t lose hope, Welf. You mustn’t forget your remarkable Professor Tildemann. Now there’s a man for you.’
Gus entered at that point. After greeting his friend with a warm embrace, he ushered Anton and Welf into the front drawing room, where they began considering the future. It seemed the baron had been recalled early to Rothenia by Gus to offer his opinion on possible outcomes.
‘Very well, August, let us assume the worst and that Maxim has died. His public instructions are for you to declare Leo king and assume the office of Regent of Rothenia. You will be justified in taking this step, and, once you do, you had best confirm Tildemann as interim chancellor and call elections.
‘Of course it all depends on the military situation. If the Freikorps occupy Strelzen, you may have to negotiate. But I think you may find the German mercenaries are anxious to leave and negotiation may be an option, especially if you still have an army in the field. The situation in the empire is fraught and Berlin is more and more disturbed. The German high command will want to pull out as soon as possible. It will not tolerate Albert’s ambition to take the throne; it has its own purposes. Also, the accession of Leopold II will defuse some of the problems in Mittenheim, where the Elphbergs are so unpopular.’
Gus sighed. ‘That’s a grim little scenario. It almost sounds as if you think Maxim’s death will solve the problem.’
‘I’m afraid it may. But there are other possibilities which you should consider. You may refuse the throne on Leo’s behalf. If you do, there is no one to urge the claims of James Rassendyll, the boy earl of Burlesdon, and no one else in a serious position to put up for a rival. With the throne vacant, it will then be up to the people and their delegates what sort of government they want. A republic will be a likely outcome, and with it will come a new constitution. A lot of the old complaints will be addressed.’
Welf asked, ‘What of the battles between the reactionaries and the Reds? They won’t be so easy to defuse.’
Anton shrugged. ‘They exist, but how powerful are they here? There isn’t the hatred and deprivation in Rothenia which fuels such factions elsewhere. I’m not saying it won’t be a problem, but the moderates just need a charismatic figure to unite around.’
‘Tildemann,’ stated Welf.
‘Yes, in whatever scenario you look at, it is Marcus Tildemann who is the future, not, I have to say, the monarchy.’
‘I won’t accept that,’ objected Gus. ‘When I think of Bobby Burlesdon, of Queen Flavia and young Maxim, I can’t stomach such defeatism. Their sacrifices and struggles made this nation a far better place, and I know – I have assurances – that the future of Rothenia lies with the house of Elphberg.’
Anton looked at Gus strangely. ‘So it may, dear fellow. But your … assurances do not include a timetable, do they? Fate is not a thing liable to human control. Rothenia has been favoured in having Maxim as king in the great crisis of the modern world. He has kept it safe from war and its political life a clear stream. It will reap great benefits from his integrity and wisdom.
‘But Fate is now done with him. His work is accomplished, and I think he knows this. There will be other days ahead and other crises, when an Elphberg may be needed and step forward, so I hope and trust. That will be for a future generation, however, not for us.’
Welf had to ask, ‘And what of the house of Thuringia, what of Leopold?’
‘I really have no idea. Since we have so high an opinion of Destiny in this little gathering, I would hazard a guess that our young man has a very interesting life ahead of him, with his own purposes to fulfil. I hope they bring him more happiness than Fate has arranged for our dear King Maxim.’
Silence followed that last observation, to be succeeded by the arrival of the rest of the family to take tea.
Welf sidled up to Helga, who was sitting with little Sissi. She gave him a hesitant smile. He looked closely and discovered a redness around her eyes which she had tried to hide. She had been crying.
‘How is fatherhood, Welf?’
‘Exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Little Osku has a way of taking over everything around him.’
‘Rica tells me you are a remarkable father, quite up to the most arduous of duties.’
‘I changed the boy’s nappy once. I almost died with the stench.’
‘It is wonderful that you want to take a full part in the baby’s upbringing. You are in a very small minority of Rothenian males.’
Welf pushed out a boat. ‘Did Paul change nappies?’
She gave a regretful smile. It seemed to be permissible now to talk of her late husband. ‘He would have done so had I asked. But I spared him, the poor man. He was so full of good nature, it would have been taking advantage.’
‘Pip is very like him.’
‘Yes he is. A fine, stalwart boy, full of energy and his father’s frankness. He is a great comfort to me.’
Welf looked straight at her. ‘He would benefit from a man in his life.’
She coloured. ‘Perhaps. There is only one man …’
‘I know. But you sent him on his way.’
‘Oh Welf, what can I say? It seemed so like betraying Paul to think of … him, in that way.’
‘He loves you, Helga. He always loved you, even before you met Paul. The two of you seem to have been dancing a complex waltz of misunderstanding.’
Tears were flowing on her cheeks again. ‘It may be too late now. He marched off to his death, and I fear that deep down he was anxious to die. When you were talking of him, I saw all his loneliness and desolation. There is nothing for him in this world but his duty, which is a cold and solemn comfort. I know I could have done something for him. I have lost two men to war, God help me.’
‘It may not be too late, Helga.’
‘But I sent him away. I hurt him, I know. He must hate me.’
‘He doesn’t hate you, darling. He never could. He’s not that sort of man.’
‘Then I shall pray to God for his safety, for a second chance.’
Welf awoke the next morning to the sound of bells. He shook his head to clear his ears. Rica stirred beside him, her skin warm against his. The baby was already awake in his cot.
‘My God, Rica … he’s smiling at me!’
‘No, honestly. It’s a real smile. It’s not wind.’ Despite the cold and his lack of clothes, Welf sprang out of bed and picked up his son. There was no doubt about it, the boy was on the verge of a chuckle. This was happiness indeed. He took Osku back into the warmth of their bed. Rica joined in marvelling at their son’s sudden satisfaction with life, before giving him further cause for it by putting him to her breast. Welf embraced her as she did so. This was family and fatherhood. His heart was utterly content.
Suddenly they sat up and stared at each other. ‘What are the bells ringing for? It’s Saturday.’
‘I really don’t know. But if they’re not tolling, it can’t be bad news. I’d better get myself dressed and find out.’ Welf found clean clothes in his travelling bag.
The castle was full of activity. Welf collared a passing maid. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Oh sir, there’s been a great victory!’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What about the king?’
‘I’ve not heard.’
Welf grimaced and headed down the stairs. Pip and Leo were already up and about, though still in their nightshirts, skipping around the hall.
‘Welf! Welf! Our army has beaten the Germans!’
‘Stop bouncing around, you two, and talk sense. How do you know?’
‘General Lamia was here only a quarter of an hour ago to talk to grandfather. He had a despatch from the king.’
‘The king is safe! Oh, thank God!’
‘Yes and it was Voydek! He won the battle!’
‘Good grief. And Tomas, what about him?’
They stopped hopping about for a moment and looked at each other. Pip answered, ‘We don’t know. But great-uncle Franz is safe.’
Welf strode towards the breakfast room. Anton and Gus were inside, talking earnestly. Gus turned round and smiled at Welf. ‘You’ve heard the news?’
‘Some of it. What’s happened?’
The guards and the Sixth Division took a dreadful pounding yesterday. They were driven back to the Spa, but they held the line and saved the capital. Then late in the afternoon the German attack slackened. Torfinn tanks appeared from the south and cut great swathes through the Germans, taking out their armour with some ease apparently. Our tanks were from Voydek’s corps. All sorts of lorries and vehicles followed after them carrying several regiments.’
‘So Voydek escaped annihilation in Mittenheim?’
‘It appears the Freikorps incursion did not take him entirely by surprise. He noticed unusual movements on the photographic air reconnaissance he had been using to monitor the city and its surroundings. When the Germans struck, he had already withdrawn to the south. His armour trapped the Freikorps and drove them bloodily back across the frontier. Then he took off his gloves and crushed the Red insurgents with a determined assault on the city. As soon as that was accomplished, he rushed his Torfinns and as many troops as he could pack into vehicles across the Ebrendt and hit King Albert’s army on its flank. The man is a modern Napoleon.’
‘What about Albert?’
‘Regrettably, he was almost as impressive. He sacrificed his armour and disengaged, withdrawing in good order across Merz. But he’s in retreat. Lamia tells me that Henry’s tank squadrons and the cavalry brigades from Strelfurt are pushing them hard. The Freikorps won’t stop now till they reach the frontier.’
‘Just make my day and tell me they captured that swine Beck.’
‘Ah … I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.’
‘The man should hang.’
Anton smiled. ‘Hanging would be too easy for him. The worst punishment for a politician is to be condemned to a life without access to power. And that will be his lot: a death in poverty in a place of exile.’
‘May God grant it,’ smiled Gus.
‘What about the king?’
Gus looked relieved. ‘He is unharmed, though Tomas took a bullet in the arm. Welf, the king led a charge on the Germans, sword in hand at the head of his guards! They say he was heroic, utterly careless of his life.’
Welf was more disturbed at this news than impressed. ‘Where is he now?’
‘In the capital. We’re all summoned there for a Te Deum in the cathedral tomorrow. You in particular are requested. You must take the car straight away. Don’t worry, I’ll have Rica and Osku safely back on Osragasse by this afternoon.’
‘Thank you, uncle August. This is a great day!’
‘Indeed it is.’
Then why, thought Welf to himself, do I feel so apprehensive.
Snowflakes began spinning down as the line of carriages headed out along Liebgardgasse. Welf thought about the blanket of white settling across the battlefield not five miles away, laying a mortuary sheet across the many as yet unburied bodies.
He was in the king’s carriage. Maxim sat opposite him in his marshal’s uniform, the plumes gathered round his helmet and a heavy cloak gathered round his body. ‘Well Franz, at least I now feel entitled to wear this.’
The general gave his tight smile. ‘No one will ever contest your bravery, sire.’
Maxim waved at the crowds lining the road, tightly swathed in winter coats, scarves and hats. For once they were making a decent show of enthusiasm for their king, with occasional shouts of ‘God save your majesty! Long live the Elphberg!’ Those were acclamations Welf had not heard at a public event for several years.
Behind the royal carriage came a landau bearing Prince Leopold and Princess Maria. Leo was at his charming best, delightedly waving at the crowds who cheered him back.
The escorting cavalry squadrons were not the usual Life Guards. The regiment had been heavily mauled on the battlefield, as all the guard regiments had been. It was a regiment of line dragoons from Strelfurt, wearing full battledress, which was providing the escort.
A third carriage, at Maxim’s insistence, was carrying Chancellor Tildemann, who was getting the biggest cheers of all. He sat there looking faintly embarrassed, though Mrs Tildemann seemed rather more pleased with the attention.
The procession climbed up the winding medieval streets of the Altstadt, the horses pulling against the incline and the carriages slowing. It was as they reached the summit and the king’s landau entered Erchbischofsplatz that a young man in a black suit stood out from the crowd. Levelling a pistol at Maxim, he shouted, ‘Death to the tyrant! Long live the proletariat!’
The scene played out in slow motion for Welf. He recognised the man immediately as the same revolutionary leader who had confronted Colonel Reuss in the besieged Government House of Mittenheim a month ago. He saw the mouths of the surrounding crowd open in shock.
Welf himself felt entirely calm. It was almost as if there was time for a dialogue to play out in his mind. Do it, a voice was saying, you alone can. He leapt on Maxim, coming into hard contact with the king just as he heard the crack of the pistol.
He pushed Maxim down on the leather seat. Steel rang above him as his uncle drew his sword and jumped from the carriage. There was another crack, followed by screams from the crowd.
The king was trying to struggle up, but Welf held on to him. ‘Let me go, Welf!’
Arms hauled him off the king, friendly arms belonging to the dragoon escort. He looked around.
Franz was grasping his right shoulder, where blood was welling through his fingers. Despite his injury, the general held his sword tip pressed unwaveringly against the neck of the would-be assassin lying at his feet. ‘I assume you wanted him alive, your majesty.’
Maxim straightened his helmet. ‘Thank you, Franz. Have him taken to Sachert at the war ministry. He’ll know what to do. For God’s sake, you men, get the general down to the military hospital. Use this carriage. I’ll walk from here … how are the others?’
Reassured, Maxim took Leopold’s hand and Maria’s arm, and, followed by Welf, entered the west door of the cathedral. He calmed the cardinal’s agitation so the service could commence.
‘Well, now we have something else to be grateful for,’ he murmured as he gave his helmet to Welf to hold.